Reaching home the next day, he raked out his stove and found the cash-box. It had not fallen to pieces as he had expected, and he doubled it up again with the ax before he flung it into the ash pail. Then he lighted the stove and set about getting supper, for it was late in the evening. After finishing the meal, he threw some fragments of potatoes and a rind of pork into the pail and took it up to carry it to the refuse heap, but stopped with a start when he left the house. It was getting dark, but two shadowy figures were riding up the trail and by the way they sat their horses he recognized them as police troopers. Putting down the pail, he waited until they dismounted near-by.
"You're too late for supper, Curtis," he said coolly. "I've just cleaned it up."
The corporal glanced at the pail and in the dim light noticed only the domestic refuse.
"I've had some," he answered. "I want a few minutes' talk." Then he motioned to his companion. "Hitch the horses, Stanton, and come in when you're ready."
They entered the house, followed presently by the trooper, and Wandle lighted his pipe. He felt more at ease with it in his hand and he suspected that he would need all his collectedness.
"Well," he said, "what's the trouble?"
"I suppose you know that Jernyngham's missing?"
"I heard that he was killed."
"Looks like it," said Curtis. "You know the muskeg where the creek spreads out, about fourteen miles north?"
"I don't; never been up so far."
Curtis noticed the prompt disclaimer.
"Anyway, Jernyngham rode there and was knocked out with something heavy that must have left him stunned, if it didn't make an end of him. He didn't ride away after it, though his horse went on. The point is that it was led."
"How do you know that?" Wandle asked.
"It's my business to know these things. Think we can't tell the difference between the tracks of a led horse and a ridden one? The only times two horses trot close together at an even distance is when one's rider has both bridles, or when they're yoked to a wagon pole. However, I've come to ask if you can throw any light on the matter? You and Jernyngham were partners, in a way, weren't you?"
"That's so. Now and then we bought implements and horses, or hired a tractor plow, between us. As a matter of fact, Jernyngham owed me about five hundred dollars. Anyhow, I'm as puzzled about the thing as you must be."
"Then you think we're puzzled?" Curtis said in a significant tone.
"It struck me as likely. You know there's not a rancher in the district who would hurt the man. He was easy to get on with."
"Did you know that he borrowed money on his holding and took it with him the night he disappeared?"
"I didn't," said Wandle, starting. "I'm not pleased to hear it now. I've a claim on the place and there are some pretty big storekeepers' bills to come in."
Curtis asked a few more questions before he took his leave. He passed near the ash pail as he went out and Stanton touched it with his foot, but they had mounted and reached the trail before either of them spoke.
"Well?" said Curtis.
"Nothing much to be learned from him; the fellow's about as sly and hard to get at as a coyote."
"A sure thing," Curtis agreed. "We'll keep an eye on him; I've a suspicion he knows something."
Then they trotted away in the moonlight, for it was a long ride to their camp beside the muskeg, which with the assistance of several men they were engaged in searching.
On the next afternoon, Prescott was at work in the summer fallow, sitting in the iron saddle of a gangplow, which four powerful horses hauled through the crackling stubble. It was fiercely hot and he was lightly clad in thin yellow shirt and overalls. A cloud of dust rose about him from the parched soil, and the broad expanse of wheat which the fallow divided glowed with varied colors as it rippled before the rush of breeze, the strong greens changing to a silvery luster as the lush blades bent and caught the light. Farther on, there were faint streaks of yellow among the oats; the great stretch of grass was white and delicate gray, the rows of clods behind the plow rich chocolate-brown.
Prescott, however, paid little attention to his surroundings. He was perhaps the only man in the district who had known Jernyngham intimately; he felt troubled about his disappearance, and he had had a disturbing interview with Wandle during the morning. The Austrian had contested his right to manage the farm, declaring that Jernyngham owed him money and had made certain plans for the joint working of their land which must be carried out. This did not so much matter, in a sense, if one could take Jernyngham's death for granted; but Prescott could not do so and had, moreover, no intention of letting his property fall into the hands of a cunning, grasping fellow, who, he was fully persuaded, had no real right to it. If Jernyngham did not turn up, Prescott meant to discharge all his debts after harvest and, as the crop promised well, to send the balance to England as a proof that his friend had not been a failure in Canada. This might be some comfort to Jernyngham's people.
He was considering the matter when he heard the stubble crackle behind him and, looking around, saw Curtis riding up. Stopping his team, he waited until the corporal drew bridle.
"Have you found him yet?" he asked.
"We have not," said Curtis. "It's a big muskeg and quite deep. You know the place?"
"Oh, yes, I know it pretty well."
Curtis looked at him sharply, but Prescott seemed to be musing.
"It's a sad thing when you think of it," he said after a few moments. "From the little he told me, the man had hard luck all through; and that Mrs. Jernyngham should leave him just after he'd sacrificed his future for her must have been a knock-out blow. Yet I've an idea that instead of crushing it braced him. It pulled him up; he showed signs of turning into a different man."
"You knew him better than I did," Curtis replied. "I heard at the hotel he'd asked you to look after his place, given you a share in the crop."
"He did. I'd some words with Wandle about the matter this morning; Jernyngham warned me he might pretend he had a claim. However, that's not to the purpose; somehow I feel convinced he'll turn up again. What motive could any one have for killing him? The only man we might have suspected—the fellow who went off with Ellice—must have been on the train bound for St. Paul."
"He was; we wired the conductor. But the thing's quite simple—the motive was robbery. You remember that wad of bills?" The corporal paused before he added: "Where did you last see Jernyngham?"
"At the trail-forks near my place. He rode right on; I took the turning."
"Did you see your man, Svendsen, or his wife when you got home?"
"I didn't; they live at the back of the house. I put up the horses, slipped in quietly, and went to bed."
"Then you can't fix the time you got back?"
Prescott moved sharply, lifting his head, while an angry color suffused his face.
"Curtis, you can't think—Jernyngham was my best friend!" Then he laughed indignantly. "You always struck me as a sensible man."
The corporal regarded him with scrutinizing eyes, his manner stamped with official austerity.
"I'm forming no opinions—yet. It's my duty to find out all I can about the matter and report. If there's anything you're open to tell me, I'll make a note of it."
Prescott's face grew stern and his glance very steady.
"I can add nothing to what I've said, and I'm busy."
Curtis rode away, but when he was out of the rancher's sight he broke into a dry smile. He was an astute young man and knew his business, which was merely to investigate and follow the instruction of his chiefs at Regina. Unembroidered facts were what they required in the first instance, but later he might be permitted to theorize.
When the corporal had gone, Prescott went on with his plowing, but the crackle of the stubble and the thud of the heavy Clydesdales' hoofs fell unheeded on his ears, and it was half-consciously that he turned his team at the head-land. He had a good deal to think about and his thoughts were far from pleasant. To begin with, the memory of Muriel Hurst had haunted him since she left; he recalled her with a regretful longing that seemed to grow steadily stronger instead of diminishing. He thought she had left an indelible mark on his life. Then there was his impersonation of Jernyngham, which he had rashly agreed to, but did not now regret. If Colston had met Cyril on the night of the riot and had gone to his untidy dwelling, he would have been forced to send home an adverse report. Prescott was glad to think he had saved his friend from a farther fall in his English relatives' esteem, though, knowing a little of the man's story, he held them largely responsible for his reckless career. Their censoriousness and suspicion had, no doubt, driven him into wilder rashness.
Besides all this, the corporal's manner rankled in his mind. He knew Curtis well and had a good opinion of his ability. It seemed preposterous that such a man could imagine that he had had any hand in Jernyngham's death. Yet the corporal's tone had been significant and the facts had an ugly look. He had seen Jernyngham secrete his money and had afterward ridden on with him, unaccompanied by anybody else. He could not prove when he returned to his farm, and it might be said that he stood to benefit by securing the management of Jernyngham's property.
When he reached the end of the furrows his face was grim, but he steadily continued his plowing.
Prescott dismounted and turned loose his horse, short-hobbled, near the muskeg about two o'clock one hot afternoon. He had begun work at four that morning, and, with harvest drawing near, time was precious to him, but he was filled with a keen curiosity to see what progress Curtis had made in his search. He had a strong personal interest in the matter, because it seemed that some suspicion might rest on him; though he was far from sharing the corporal's conviction that Jernyngham was dead. Stopping at the edge of the ravine, he looked about, taking in the details of the scene.
Though the prairie had lost its greenness and the flowers had died, it stretched away, flooded with dazzling light, a great expanse of silvery gray, flecked with faint lemon and brown. In the swampy hollow, however, the grass grew tall and green among the shining pools, and Prescott noticed to his astonishment a dozen men working assiduously lower down. They had discarded most of their clothing, their brown arms were bare, and the stiff, dark-colored soil they flung up with their shovels cumbered the bank of the ravine, which had narrowed in again. Prescott saw that they were cutting a deeper channel for the creek, with the object of draining the swamp.
Moving farther along the bank, he came upon the two policemen, who looked very hot and somewhat muddy, which, as they were usually fastidiously neat, was noticeable. He felt some hesitation in accosting them, as he recalled the corporal's attitude when they last met, but he was curious.
"I suppose you have found nothing?" he said, and when Curtis made a sign of negation continued: "How did you get so many of the boys here?"
Putting his hand in his pocket, the policeman gave him a printed circular which announced that a reward of one thousand dollars would be paid for the discovery of Cyril Jernyngham's remains.
"His people in the old country cabled it over," he explained.
"Well," Prescott said thoughtfully, "I don't believe he's here; but he was a friend of mine, and I'm as anxious to have the question answered as you are."
Private Stanton, who was sitting in the grass, looked up with a rather significant smile. Indeed, there was a certain reserve in the manner of both men which exasperated the rancher.
"It's quite likely you'll have to wait," Curtis rejoined. "Even when we've run the water out, it may take a long while to search the mushy stuff it will leave, and if we're beaten here, we'll have to try the bluffs." He looked hard at Prescott. "We don't let up until we find him."
"Tell me where I can get a shovel and I'll help the boys."
Stanton brought him one and for the next two hours he worked savagely, standing knee-deep in water in a trench, hacking out clods of the "gumbo" soil, which covers much of the prairie and grows the finest wheat. When dry it sets like stone, when wet it assumes a glutinous stickiness which makes it exceptionally difficult to deal with. Fierce sunshine poured down on Prescott's bent head and shoulders, his hands grew sore, and mire and water splashed upon him, but he was hard and leanly muscular and, driven as he was by a keen desire to test the corporal's theory, he would have toiled on until the next morning, had it been needful. At length, however, there was a warning cry from one of the men nearer the swamp.
"Watch out! Let her go!"
Prescott leaped from the trench. There was a roar higher up the ravine, and a turgid flood, streaked with frothy lines, came pouring down the new channel, bearing with it small nut bushes and great clumps of matted grass. By degrees it subsided, and the men, gathering about the edge of the muskeg, hot and splashed with mire, lay down to smoke and wait, while the pools that still remained grew smaller. They had been working hard since early morning and they did not talk much, but Prescott, sitting a little away from them, was conscious of an unpleasant tension. It was possible that the search might prove Curtis right. The corporal stood higher up the bank, scanning each clump of grass and reeds with keenly scrutinizing eyes. At length, however, he approached the others.
"I guess you've made a job, boys," he told them. "The soft spots ought to dry out in about a week, but we can't wait till then. You want to remember there's a thousand dollars for the man who finds him."
They glanced at the morass hesitatingly. It did not look inviting. In places the reeds grew as high as their heads, and one could not tell what depths they hid. In other spots there were tracks of slimy ooze in which one might sink a long way. None of them, however, was fastidious, and they waded out into the mire, shouting warnings to one another, disappearing now and then among the grass. The search was partially rewarded, for while Prescott and a companion were skirting a clump of reeds they saw part of a soaked garment protruding from the slime. For a few moments they stood looking at it irresolutely; and then Prescott, mustering his courage, advanced and seized the stained material. It came away more readily than he had expected, and he turned to his companion, conscious of keen relief, with a brown overall jacket in his hand. A further examination, shrinkingly made, revealed nothing else, and after marking the place they waded to the bank. The garment was carefully washed in the creek and the men gathered in a ring round Curtis when he inspected it.
"Have any of you seen this thing before?" he asked, holding it up.
None of them would identify it. Thin duck overalls are commonly worn by ranchers and working people, in place of heavier clothing, during the hot weather. Then Curtis turned to Prescott.
"What's your idea?"
"It isn't Jernyngham's," the rancher said decidedly. "It's too old, for one thing; looks as if it had been in the water quite a while."
"Hard to tell," commented Curtis. "But go on."
Prescott took the jacket and held it so that the others could see the inside of the collar.
"No maker's tag," he continued. "Now Cyril always bought the kind they give you a doll with."
One of the others laughed and supplied the name of the manufacturer, which was attached to every garment.
"I've seen three or four of those dolls and golliwog things in his house," the man added. "Used to guy him about keeping them, as he had no kids."
"We can fix the thing by inquiring at the dry goods store," Curtis rejoined.
"Can't see whose it was, if it wasn't Jernyngham's," another broke in. "There's no homestead anywhere near the creek and mighty few people come up here!"
The policeman took from his pocket a wet envelope, upon which the blurred writing was still legible.
"Well," he said coolly, "there's no doubt about whose this is." He handed it to Prescott. "Ever see it in Jernyngham's possession?"
"Yes," answered Prescott with some hesitation. "I recognize the address, though the English stamp has gone. It was lying near when he was talking to me on the night of the trouble in Sebastian."
He was filled with uneasiness. The police would certainly attempt to read the letter, which was the one Colston had written announcing his arrival. If they succeeded, they would no doubt wonder why the Englishman had not stayed with Jernyngham, and investigation might lead to a discovery of the part Prescott had played.
"We've begun quite satisfactorily," said the corporal, "and there's nothing more to be done to-night. I guess you can quit and have supper, boys."
In a little while trails of gray smoke floated across the ravine, and after a meal with one of his neighbors Prescott rode back to his homestead, feeling much disturbed. For all that, and in spite of the letter, he did not think Jernyngham would be found in the swamp.
On the following evening a commissioned officer of the police, who had made the journey from headquarters at Regina and spent an hour or two examining the scene of the supposititious tragedy, sat with Curtis in a very hot private room of the hotel at Sebastian. Its raw board walls gave out a resinous smell; the opening in the window was filled with mosquito-netting, so that little air crept in. On the table lay a carefully made diagram; a boot, and one or two paper patterns representing footprints were on the floor. The officer's hair was turning gray and he had a quiet brown face with a look of command in it.
"Taking it for granted that your theory's right, suspicion seems to fall on the men you mentioned," he said. "Whom do you suspect?"
Curtis considered. He was reluctant to express a decided opinion in the presence of his superior, who was famous for his acumen.
"So far as we have any evidence, I think it points to Prescott," he responded. "He saw Jernyngham hide his money; he went on alone with him, and can't prove when he got home. Then several of the footprints marked on the plan might have been made by him."
The officer took up the boot and one of the paper patterns.
"There's a doubt. I suppose he knows you have his boot?"
The corporal's eyes twinkled faintly.
"I guess he'll miss it sometime."
"It's possible. But what else have you against him?"
"Prescott stands to profit by Jernyngham's death: he has control of the holding until the year's up, and it's a pretty good crop. He declares the jacket isn't Jernyngham's; he won't allow the man can be in the muskeg. A day or two after Jernyngham disappeared he bought one of the new wide-swath binders. Paid the money down in new bills, which was what Jernyngham had, though the implement agent didn't note the numbers."
"Pretty strong points. What's your private opinion? Out with it."
The man's tone was commanding and Curtis complied.
"On the whole, I'm inclined to blame the other fellow, Wandle."
"Against the evidence?" asked his superior in quiet surprise. "You of course remember your instructions and know what your duty is."
"Yes, sir," said Curtis. "Still, I think——" He paused and continued diffidently: "You would have an answer."
The other leaned back in his chair with a meditative expression.
"We'll let it go at that," he said. "Perhaps you had better follow the waiting course you seem to have decided on, but if suspicion gathers round Prescott it won't be a drawback and you needn't discountenance it. For one thing, it may divert attention, and after all he may be the right man."
A look of comprehension shone in the corporal's eyes. He believed that his superior, who never expressed a strong opinion prematurely, agreed with him.
"Suppose either of the men lights out?" he suggested.
"You'll have to guard against it. If it happens, apply for a warrant and follow him."
The officer returned to Regina the next day; and a week or two, during which Curtis and his assistants laboriously searched the drying swamp, passed uneventfully. Then one morning Prescott sat somewhat moodily in the saddle of his binder which a powerful team hauled along the edge of the wheat. The great stretch of grain blazed with color as it swayed with a harsh rustle of warm-tinted ears before the breeze, but now and then broad cool shadows sped across it as the white-edged clouds drove by. Behind him followed two more teams and machines, half covered by falling sheets of yellow grain, while their whirling wooden arms flashed in the dazzling sunlight as they flung out the sheaves. Bare-armed and very scantily attired men came after them, piling the stocks together. Disturbed as he was, Prescott felt cheered by the prospect of harvesting a record crop.
He had turned a corner and was proceeding along another side of the great oblong when he noticed a wagon approaching, carrying two strangers and several large trunks. As their dress differed from that usually worn on the prairie, he wondered who they were and why they were driving toward his ranch. The liveryman, who held the reins, presently pulled up his team and Prescott; stopping his binder, waited to be addressed. An old soft hat fell shapelessly forward over his deeply bronzed face, his neck and most of his arms were uncovered. Before him the four powerful horses stood fidgeting in the heat, a black cloud of flies about their heads. Though not a man of striking appearance, he was in harmony with his surroundings, and formed a fine central figure in the great harvest field: a worthy type of the new nation that is rising in the West.
For a moment or two the strangers studied him carefully from the wagon. The one nearest him was a woman of thirty, he thought, of tall and chastely lined figure, with a colorless and rather expressionless face, though her features were excellent. She wore a tight-fitting dark dress which seemed to have been made all in one piece, and gave an impression of prim coldness and careful restraint. The man in the soft hat was obviously her father. He had gray hair; his face, which was finely chiseled, suggested a formal, decided, and perhaps domineering, character; his gray tweed traveling suit was immaculately neat. There was no doubt that they were English, and Prescott wondered whom they reminded him of, until the truth flashed upon him with a disconcerting shock—they were Jernyngham's father and sister!
"Mr. Prescott?" inquired the man.
Prescott bowed, and the teamster, jumping down, handed him two cards.
"I understand that you knew my unfortunate son," the newcomer continued.
"I did," Prescott replied guardedly.
"Then can I have a word or two with you in private?"
Getting down from the binder, Prescott helped the other to alight from the high wagon; the man was not agile, though he carried himself well. They walked back some distance along the edge of the wheat. Then the rancher stopped and from force of habit felt for his pipe.
"I must be to some extent confidential," began Jernyngham. "You must guess why I came."
The strong light fell searchingly on his face, revealing lines on it which Prescott thought had lately been deepened by pain, but his eyes were very keen and hard.
"I suppose the recent calamity brought you," the rancher ventured.
"Yes; I have come to see justice done. But we will not discuss that yet. We arrived yesterday evening and found it was impossible that my daughter should be comfortable at the hotel; besides which, it is rather too far away. I accordingly determined to look for quarters at one of the ranches, but succeeded in getting shelter for only the one night."
Prescott felt amused. Jernyngham and his daughter were not the kind of people the somewhat primitive prairie ranchers would welcome; their request for accommodation was more likely to cause astonishment and alarm.
"People are very busy, now that harvest's coming on, and they've extra hands to cook for," he explained.
"I understand," continued Jernyngham, "that my son's homestead is in this neighborhood, and domestics might be hired; but after what has happened, I fear my daughter would find living there a painful strain. That was why I thought of applying to you."
The announcement filled Prescott with dismay. The presence of the Jernynghams might involve him in further complications.
"I'm sorry, but we live very simply," he said hastily. "My place is only half furnished; we have no time to make it comfortable—and I'm sure you'd find our cooking barbarous. I'm afraid Miss Jernyngham couldn't put up with the accommodation we could offer her."
"We only want quietness, fresh air, and a little privacy, none of which seems to be obtainable at Sebastian. While the question of terms is no consideration, I recognize that I must make my appeal to your generosity."
Prescott did not answer, and Jernyngham resumed in a more urgent tone:
"I must beg you not to make difficulties; I'm told there is nobody else in the neighborhood who could take us in. We will require very little attention and will promise to give you no trouble."
Prescott wavered. The man was keenly anxious; it was hard to resist his appeal, and there was, after all, only a small risk that he might hear of Colston's visit. Svendsen and his wife, who attended to the housekeeping, were Scandinavians, and could scarcely converse in English. When they addressed him by any distinguishing epithet it was always as "Boss."
"Well," he said doubtfully, "I can't refuse you shelter. You can stay for a while, anyway, until we see how we get on. I'll go up to the homestead with you."
He had an interview with his housekeeper, who protested in broken English that harvest was a singularly inconvenient time to entertain strangers, but eventually gave away. The extra hands lately hired could be put up in the barn, and there were two rooms that could be spared. Prescott showed his visitors in and afterward watched with some amusement their surprise when they sat down to the midday meal with the lightly clad toilers from the field. During the afternoon and until late in the evening, he worked hard among the grain, but when the light was failing and he leaned on a wire fence, hot and tired after the long day of effort, Jernyngham came toward him.
"We have had very little talk so far," he said. "My daughter, however, desires me to convey her thanks to you. She believes she will be perfectly comfortable."
He was irritatingly formal, his tone was precise, but it changed as he added:
"So you knew Cyril!"
"Yes," Prescott said gravely. "I was fond of him."
Jernyngham seemed to be struggling with some stirring of his deeper nature beneath the crust of mannerisms.
"Mr. Prescott," he said, "I may tell you that I now fear I treated the lad injudiciously, and perhaps with needless harshness. I looked upon extravagance and eccentricity as signs of depravity. It was a vast relief when I heard from Colston, whom you may have met; that Cyril had prospered and was leading an exemplary life in Canada."
The blood crept into Prescott's face, and Jernyngham glanced at him curiously before he proceeded.
"We were somewhat hurt that he would not come home; but after past mistakes I could not urge him, and it seemed possible that he might change his mind later. Then the dreadful blow fell—crushing and filling me with all the bitterness of useless regret. I had spoken too late; the opportunity I would not use in time had gone."
He broke off, and his face had grown white and stern when he went on again:
"There is only one thing I can do, but if needful, I will devote the rest of my life to it—that is, to track down the man who killed my son!"
He was silent for the next few minutes, and then, after a few words on indifferent subjects, intended, Prescott thought, to cover his display of feeling, he turned away, leaving the rancher smoking thoughtfully.
A DAY ON THE PRAIRIE
A week after Jernyngham's arrival at the homestead he sat among the sheaves in the harvest field late one afternoon studying a letter which the mail-carrier had just brought him. His daughter, sheltered from the strong sunlight by the tall stocked sheaves, was reading an elegantly bound book of philosophy. Gertrude Jernyngham had strict rules of life and spent an hour or two of every day in improving her mind, without, so far as her friends had discovered, any enlargement of her outlook. Among her numerous virtues was an affectionate solicitude about her father's health, which was variable. Though still muscularly vigorous, Jernyngham was getting an old man, and he had been out of sorts of late.
"I'm glad you are looking much better than you did this morning," she said, glancing at him after a while.
"Thank you," Jernyngham rejoined punctiliously. "I suppose it was the strain of the past few weeks that tried me, and perhaps I have been doing too much, traveling backward and forward between here and the muskeg." Then with an effort he banished his painful thoughts and smiled. "I wonder how many years it is since I spent an afternoon in a harvest field! I'll confess that I find much to interest me."
Gertrude laid down her book and glanced about. She was of a practical disposition and almost devoid of artistic susceptibilities, but the richness and color of the scene impressed her. Far away in front ran the long ranks of sheaves, gleaming in the sunshine amid the golden stubble which was flecked by their deep-blue shadows. The air was cooling, but the light was brilliant and the standing wheat was picked out with tints of burnished copper. By comparison with it, the oat stocks shone pale and silvery. Round the edge of the grain moved the binders, clashing and tinkling musically, while their whirling arms flashed in the sunlight.
Prescott, lightly clad, drove the foremost machine. The fine modeling of his lean, muscular figure was effectively displayed; his uncovered arms and face were the color of the soil. Seated behind the big horses, he looked wonderfully virile. The man seemed filled with primitive vigor; he was a type that was new to Gertrude Jernyngham.
"Our host," remarked her father, "strikes one as tireless; though I'm inclined to think that during harvest everybody here works at a higher tension than would be borne at home. Their methods are rather wasteful—this tall stubble, for instance, continuous cereal crops, except for the short summer fallow—but they're no doubt adapted to the needs of the country. Having some experience in these matters, I should say this farm was excellently managed."
In place of answering, Gertrude watched the rancher. The physical perfection of the man had an effect on her, though she was essentially prudish.
"I ought to drive in to the settlement and send off a cablegram, though I expect it will be difficult to get a team," Jernyngham resumed, returning to his letter. "Cranford wants instructions about a matter of importance that has cropped up since we left."
"It wouldn't be wise for you to drive so far," Gertrude said firmly. "I might go instead; we'll speak to Mr. Prescott about it this evening."
Shortly afterward there was a harsh clanking sound and Prescott, pulling up his team, sprang down from the binder. He became busy with hammer and spanner, and in a few minutes the stubble was strewn with pinion wheels, little shafts, and driving-chains. Then, while his guests watched him with growing interest, he put the machine together, started his team and stopped it, and again dismembered the complicated gear. This, as Gertrude realized, was work that needed a certain amount of skill. Finally, when the overtaking binders had stopped near-by, he took out a small shaft and held it up so that the harvesters could see it.
"Journal's bent; I'll have to go get a new piece," he said. "Go ahead with your teams."
After that he unhitched his horses and was leading them past the place where the Jernynghams sat, when Gertrude spoke to him.
"I'm sorry you had an accident, and I suppose you will have to send the broken part to Sebastian. May I go with the team?"
"Why, of course," he said. "I'll drive you in to-morrow. As it's a pretty long way, I'll try to borrow a comfortable rig."
He went on with the horses and she saw no more of him that day, but early the next morning he brought up a light, four-wheeled vehicle, which would carry two people and had a hood that could be drawn up. Gertrude thought it a great improvement on the prairie wagon, and she admired the restive team which he had some trouble in holding. When she got in, he sprang to the seat beside her, the horses bounded forward, and they sped out through a gap in the fence, the vehicle lurching wildly among the ruts.
For a while Gertrude was occupied, to the exclusion of everything else, in trying to keep her place, but when Prescott turned the team on to a stretch of smooth short grass she began to look about. It was a clear, cool morning, the sky was a wonderful blue, and bluffs miles away showed up with sharp distinctness. In the foreground the gray grass was bathed in a soft light which was restful to the eyes. Then Gertrude examined the rig, as the man had called it, which struck her as remarkably light and fragile; and the same thing was noticeable about the harness. The horses moved as if they were drawing no load, swinging along at a fast and springy trot, while the vehicle ran lightly up and down the slight undulations, the wheels jarring now and then into a hollow or smashing through dwarf scrub. The pace was exhilarating, the fine air invigorated the girl, and her usual prim reserve melted away.
"I am fortunate in getting in to Sebastian," she said. "There's a cablegram it's necessary that my father should send."
"Glad to take you," Prescott rejoined. "Is Mr. Jernyngham in business?"
"Oh, no; not as you would understand it. We spend most of our time in the country, where he manages the estate. It's small, but there are two quarries which need looking after. Then he's director of a company. He doesn't believe that a man should be idle."
Prescott smiled. He had read a good deal about England, and he could imagine Jernyngham's firm control of his property. His rule would, no doubt, be just, but it would be enforced on autocratic and highly conventional lines. His daughter, the rancher thought, resembled him in some respects. She was handsome and dignified in a colorless way; she might have been charming if she were only a trifle less correct in manner and there were more life in her.
"Well," he said, in answer to her last remark, "that's a notion you'll find lived up to here. The man who won't work mighty hard very soon goes broke. It's a truth you in the old country ought to impress on the men you're sending out to us."
She liked his easy phraseology; which she supposed was western, and there was nothing harsh in his intonation. It was that of a well-educated man, and the Jernynghams were exacting in such matters.
"I think there must be something in the air which makes toil less arduous," she said. "The people I've met have a cheerful, optimistic look." She hesitated, and added in a confidential tone: "I like to imagine that my brother wore the same expression, though he was always carelessly gay. He seems to have made a capable rancher. It was a great relief to us when we were told of it."
Prescott grew hot and embarrassed, but he thought he could understand how Cyril Jernyngham had entered on a course of recklessness. It was a reaction against the overwhelming propriety of his father and sister.
"I don't think you need grieve for your brother yet," he said gravely. "Although nobody here seems to agree with me, I find it impossible to believe that he is dead."
Gertrude gave him a grateful look.
"I'm glad to hear you say so—there is at least a doubt, and that is comforting; though I'm afraid my father can't be made to realize it."
"Can't you persuade him not to take too much for granted?"
"I wish I could." Gertrude's tone was sad. "He has been brooding over the dreadful news ever since it reached us. It has possessed him absolutely; he can think of nothing else, and there will be no relief for him until he finds the guilty person, or it is proved beyond all doubt that the police are mistaken." She paused before she went on. "If they're right, I think I should feel as merciless as he does. Cyril was my only brother; I was very fond of him."
Her voice trembled a little, though her eyes were hard, and Prescott felt sorry for her. She was not of emotional nature; he could imagine her shrinking from any display of tenderness. Nevertheless, it was obvious that she was a prey to fear and grief.
"So was I," he said. "I wonder if I may point out that he struck me as being different from you and your father?"
"I think I know what you mean. Cyril was like my mother—she died a long while ago, but I remember her as gentle, sympathetic, and perhaps more variable than I am. Cyril was swayed by feeling rather than by judgment."
Prescott knew this was correct, but he found his companion an interesting study. She was wrapped up in cold propriety; she must have led an uneventful life, looked up to and obeyed by the small community that owned her father's rule. Romance could not have touched her; she was not imaginative; but he thought there were warmth and passion lying dormant somewhere in her nature. She could not have wholly escaped the consequences of being Cyril Jernyngham's sister.
Nothing further was said for a while, and presently the team toiled through a belt of sandy ridges, furrowed by the wind, where the summits were crested here and there by small jack-pines. Looking up as they crossed one elevation, Gertrude noticed a wedge of small dark bodies outlined against the soft blue sky.
"What are those?" she asked.
"Wild geese; the forerunners of the host that will soon come down from the marshes by the Polar Sea."
"But do they go so far?"
"They cross this continent twice a year; up from the steaming lagoons on the Gulf to the frozen muskegs of the North, and back again. They're filled with a grand unrest and wholly free; travelers of the high air, always going somewhere."
"Ah!" responded Gertrude. "To be always doing something is good. But the other—the ceaseless wandering——"
"Going on and on, beating a passage through the icy winds, rejoicing in the sun, seeking for adventure. Is there no charm in that?"
She looked at him uneasily, as if his words had awakened some half-understood response.
"I think Cyril must have felt something of the kind. So far it has never stirred me. Isn't it wise to hold fast by what is safe and familiar?"
"Oh, I don't know," Prescott answered with a smile. "I follow the course you mention, because I have to. It's my business to drive the plow, and the hazard of having a crop hailed out is adventure enough. But I don't think it should make one hard on the people who prefer the other thing. After all, they may be right; the life they take pleasure in may be the best for them, though it wouldn't appeal to you or me."
"I'm not sure that toleration should be encouraged. It often means indifference, perhaps a lack of principle."
She grasped tightly the rail around the seat, for the horses plunged down a sandy slope at a wild gallop, passing at the bottom a horse and buggy in which sat a man dressed in a dark gray suit, to whom Prescott waved his hand.
"Is he a clergyman?" asked Gertrude.
"Well," Prescott smiled, "he's a Presbyterian minister. I suppose you think there's a difference?"
His companion with unusual forbearance let this pass.
"Then you have churches at Sebastian?"
"Four. I can't say they're crowded; but, while we're liberal-minded on many points, the flocks won't mix. Strikes me as a pity."
"It is a pity; there should be only one strong and united church in every place."
"And that the right one?" Prescott's eyes twinkled mischievously. "You're thinking of the one we call Episcopalian?"
"Yes," said Gertrude severely; "the Church."
"I'll admit that I'm on pretty good terms with the lot, but Father Dillon's my favorite. For one thing, he's a practical farmer as well as a fine classical scholar. His crowd, for the most part, are hard-up foreigners; and he shows them how to build decent homes and put their crops in. All the same, I've quite a high opinion of the Methodist and the Presbyterian, who are at the opposite end of the scale."
Gertrude showed signs of disapproval.
"In these matters, broad-mindedness may be dangerous. One can't compromise."
"Well," he said, "even the Roman Curia tried it before the council of Trent, and your people made an attempt to conciliate the English Calvinists about Elizabeth's time; you were inclined to Genevan Protestantism once or twice afterward."
His companion's surprise was evident, and he laughed as he read her thoughts.
"Oh," he explained, "I used to take some interest in these matters once upon a time. You see, I was at McGill."
"McGill? I seem to have heard the name, but what does it stand for?"
Prescott looked amused.
"I don't know that it quite means what Oxford does to you, but it's something of the kind; you might have seen the fine buildings at the foot of the mountain, if you had stayed in Montreal. Then we have Toronto; with deference to the Toronto men, I'll compare that to Cambridge. Still, so far as I understand your English ideas, there's a difference—our boys go to McGill or Toronto with the intention of learning something that will open up a career. They certainly play football and one or two other games pretty well, but that's a very secondary object; so's the acquiring of a polished style. In fact, it's not altogether unusual on this side of the Atlantic to find university men spending a vacation as waiters in the summer hotels."
"But why do they do that?" Gertrude asked with a shocked expression.
"For money," Prescott answered dryly. "One gathers that the St. Andrew boys did something of the same kind in Scotland in your grandfather's time; and no logical objection could be made to it, anyway. Isn't it a pretty good test of a man's determination? It's hard to see why he should make a worse doctor, engineer, or preacher, because he has the grit to earn his training by carrying plates, or chopping trees, which some of our boys take to."
This was difficult to answer, and Gertrude did not attempt it; her prejudices were stronger than her powers of reasoning. Looking southward, she saw the turreted tops of the Sebastian elevators rising from the sea of grass like cathedral towers. Their smallness emphasized the vastness of the plain, which was beginning to have a stimulating effect on her mind. She thought it might explain the broadness of her companion's views, which, while erroneous, were becoming comprehensible. He lived in the open, beyond the bounds of walls and fences, breathing this wonderful invigorating air. Nevertheless, he was obviously a man of varied and extensive information, which struck her as somewhat curious in face of his severely practical abilities. He could mend harness, plow a straight furrow, break horses, and strip a complicated machine. As a new type, he deserved attention.
After a while they struck into a well-beaten track which had been graded where it crossed a muskeg. The rude work, however, had suffered from frost and rain: the ruts in the hard black soil were deep and there were dangerous holes. To make matters worse, a big gasoline tractor, intended to assist in some harvesting operations, had got into difficulties near the middle of the graded track. It was making an alarming noise and diffusing a pungent odor, while two men thrust bits of board beneath the wheels for it to climb out of the hole on. Prescott's team slackened their pace, jerking their heads and pricking their ears. They were young range horses that had roamed over wide spaces, and were badly broken.
Getting a tight grip on the reins he turned to his companion.
"We can't get around—the muskeg's too soft. I'd put you down, only that I may not be able to hold the team after we get past that machine." He raised his voice. "Can't you stop her, boys?"
"No, sir!" cried a grimy man. "Soon as we cut out the engine she'd run back into the hole! We've been here two hours already!"
"Hold tight!" Prescott cautioned Gertrude, and urged the horses forward.
As they approached the tractor the noise suddenly increased, and its wheels spun faster, grinding on the skids. One of the horses reared, swinging up the pole, which nearly threw its fellow; then there was a frantic thud of hoofs against the frame of the vehicle, and the team, swinging half around, threatened to overturn it into the swamp. Prescott plied the whip; the beasts plunged. One pair of wheels left the road, and the rig slanted alarmingly. A violent crash and jolt followed; Gertrude came near to being flung out of her seat; and they passed the tractor and sped across the graded stretch at a furious pace. Prescott was braced backward, his feet pressed hard against a bar, his lips tightly set, while Gertrude, shrinking from the disaster that seemed imminent, wondered how he swung the panic-stricken beasts clear of the worst holes. She gasped with relief when they had passed the muskeg, but the trail was still in a dangerous state, and Prescott turned the team upon the grass, where they galloped on while the wheels smashed through short scrub, until at last the speed began to slacken. The horses' coats were foul and flecked with spume when Gertrude looked backward and saw the tractor far away in the distance.
"They've had enough," Prescott remarked. "We made the last mile at a pretty good clip; I kept them at it. Guess they won't start another circus if we meet a freight locomotive on the switches."
The settlement was reached without further mis-adventure, and Prescott, as a special favor, secured a separate table at the hotel, where Gertrude was served with an excellent meal. Afterward he showed her how to despatch her father's message, and as she turned away the telegraph operator grinned at Prescott.
"Where are all these high-toned English girls coming from, Jack?" he said. "You have brought another one this time."
Leaving the man without an answer, Prescott rejoined his companion.
"Are there any English people staying near the settlement?" she asked.
"The fellow was alluding to Miss Hurst."
"Muriel Hurst?" Gertrude exclaimed sharply. "Was she here with you?"
"Yes." Prescott regretted that she had asked for an explanation of the operator's remarks. "I once drove her in; Cyril's team was doing something else. But you said you wanted to visit the drygoods store, didn't you?"
Gertrude accompanied him there and when he left her in the hands of a lady clerk she fancied that she was favored with somewhat unusual attention on his account. The man seemed to be a favorite in the settlement. She spent a tedious afternoon in the hotel parlor while he went about the business that had brought him in and the team rested. It was a relief when he reappeared in time for supper; and after that they set out again. The sun set before they reached the homestead, the air grew bracingly cool, and the prairie rolled away before them, dim and mysterious, streaked with shadowy blurs of bluffs until a full moon rose and flooded it with silvery light. There was strange, deep silence except for the thud of hoofs which rose and fell in sharp staccato rhythm.
Gertrude was tired when Prescott helped her down at the homestead, but all her senses were unusually alert. She had enjoyed what she felt had been an invigorating day, and she admitted that, although she by no means agreed with all the rancher said, his breezy talk had added to its zest.
PRESCOTT MAKES A PROMISE
The fortnight that followed Gertrude's drive to Sebastian passed uneventfully, though the minds of three of the occupants of the homestead were filled with disturbing thoughts. Prescott spent the time working hard at his harvest, but he wished that something might relieve him of his guests, whose presence he found embarrassing, since it forced him to be continually on his guard. In spite of this, he was conscious of strong sympathy for them and did what he could to ensure their comfort. He was getting uneasy, for he saw that Cyril Jernyngham had involved him in a maze of complications from which there seemed to be no escape. It was obvious that appearances were against him; the evidence that Curtis had obtained pointed to his being implicated in the death of his friend, and the painstaking corporal might discover something more damaging. Prescott fancied that one or two of his acquaintances who now and then rode across his farm on different errands returned his greeting with a new and significant coldness.
Jernyngham spent much of his time at the muskeg, encouraging the men who searched it and often assisting in the work. The whole morass was being systematically turned over with the spade, but no further discoveries had been made. In addition to this, Jernyngham rode to and fro about the prairie, talking to the farmers whom he met on the trail or found at work in the fields. They were all sorry for him, but there was something deterrent in his sternness and his formal English manner, and they were less communicative than they might have been. This was why he failed to learn that the Colstons had stayed at Prescott's homestead, though, for that matter, the fact was not generally known. The man could not rest; tormented by regrets for his past harshness, he was bent on making the only amend he could by hunting down the slayer of his son. His whole mind was fixed on the task, and he brooded over it in a manner that aroused his daughter's concern. She dreaded the effect a continuance of the strain might have.
Gertrude, however, was relieved of a more pressing anxiety. Though her father steadfastly refused to entertain it, she shared Prescott's belief that her brother was not dead. For one thing, Cyril was not the man to come badly to grief; he had done many reckless things and somehow escaped the worst results. Illogical as the idea was, she felt that his luck was good. It was a comforting reflection and she was sensible of a growing confidence in the farmer, who encouraged her to cling to it.
One afternoon she left the house and strolled across the harvest fields, which had greatly changed in appearance since she had first seen them. The oats were all stooked and stood in silvery sheaves, ready for the thrasher; the great stretch of wheat had melted down to a narrow oblong, round which the binders were working. Gertrude stopped to watch them. The plodding horses, the bent figures of the men, the play of light on falling grain, and the revolving arms of the machines fixed her eyes; the rustle of sheaves, the crackle of stubble, and the musical tinkle of metal, fell pleasantly on her ears. The mornings and evenings were cold now, but the days were hot and bright, and the scene was steeped in vivid hues: ocher, lemon, and coppery red below, dazzling blue above.
Prescott drove the leading binder and when it drew nearer she followed his movements with careful scrutiny. She admitted that the man aroused her interest. He was wonderfully virile, sanguine, and hopeful, with a trace of what she thought of as the primitive strain; which tended toward physical perfection; his vigor and muscular symmetry had their effect on her. Though her father was a man of means and influence, her circle of acquaintances had been restricted by the narrowness of his views; and the men with whom she had been brought into contact were, for the most part, distinguished rather by unexceptional morals and sound opinions than by bodily grace and original thought.
By disposition as well as training Gertrude was a formalist and a prude, but she was human and she unconsciously obeyed a law of nature which ordains the union of the dissimilar. This was why, having met only men of her own kind hitherto, she had escaped the touch of passion and now felt drawn toward one who greatly differed from her.
After a while Prescott stopped his binder and opened a box attached to it. He closed it sharply, as if annoyed, called to one of the men gathering up the sheaves, and then walked toward the house.
"Run out of twine; I'll have to get some," he explained to Gertrude.
"You look tired," she said, stopping him. "You have been working very hard."
"I don't feel quite as bright as usual," he confessed. "It's the heat, I think, but I've turned out at four o'clock every morning since harvest began."
"Then why not take a few minutes' rest? I'll make you a cup of tea; I was going in to get some ready. It's an English custom."
He indicated his attire.
"I'd be glad, but I haven't time to make myself presentable."
"I'll excuse that." Gertrude smiled and added with unusual boldness: "You don't seem to know that your dress is really most artistic. It suits you."
He bowed to her.
"I'm flattered. This costume was adopted with a view to economy and comfort. The worst of a man's wearing smart clothes is that whenever he wants to do anything useful he has to take them off."
"Is that a great trouble?"
"It takes a lot of valuable time," he answered with a smile.
They turned toward the house, and after getting the twine he joined her in a cool, shadowy room. Gertrude was watching a silver spirit-lamp; near which two dainty cups and plates were laid out.
"That's a very pretty outfit," he remarked. "Is it English?"
"No; I bought it at a big store in Winnipeg—on Portage Avenue, I think."
"I know the place. So they're selling this kind of thing there! It's significant. A few years ago they'd have got nobody to buy such truck." He picked up a cup and held it to the light after examining the chaste color, design, and stamp. "Anyway, it's English; the genuine article. I believe the biscuit can't be imitated."
Gertrude had not expected him to understand artistic china.
"I've read about these things," he explained with a good-humored laugh; "and I've a way of remembering. We have time in winter, and one is glad to study anything that comes along. Still, I'll allow that I found five-cent cans quite good enough when I first came out."
This was not a point of much importance, but it fixed Gertrude's attention. She was in the habit of roughly sorting people into different groups; there were, for example, those who appreciated beautiful things and had been endowed with them as a reward of merit, and those of coarser nature on whom they would be wasted, which was, no doubt, why they had none. Yet here was a man with artistic taste, who was nevertheless engaged in hard manual labor and had drunk contentedly out of common cans. It did not fit in with her theories.
"I suppose this country has its influence on one?" she said, searching for an explanation.
"That's so; the influence is strong and good, on the whole."
She considered this, quietly studying him. It was the first time she had entertained at table a man in outdoor working attire; Prescott, out of deference to his guests, had made some preparation for the meals they shared. Still, the simple dress became him; he was, as she vaguely thought of it, admirable, in a way. His hands and wrists were well-shaped, though scarred and roughened by the rasp of the hot straw. The warmth of the sun seemed to cling to his brown face; a joyous vitality emanated from him, and he had mental gifts. She felt lightly thrilled by his propinquity.
"But everything out here is still very crude," she said.
"That's where our strength lies; we're a new people, raised on virgin soil out in the rushing winds. We haven't simmered down yet; we're charged with unexhausted energies, which show themselves in novel ways. In our cities you'll find semibarbarous rawness side by side with splendor and art, and complicated machines run by men who haven't much regard for the fastidious niceties of civilization, though they're unexcelled in their engineering skill. We undertake big works in an unconsidered manner that would scare your cautious English minds, make wild blunders, and go ahead without counting the damage. We come down pretty hard often, but it never brings us to a stop."
He saw that she did not grasp all he meant to convey, and he leaned back in his chair with a laugh.
"This is the kind of fool talk you would expect from a boastful Westerner, isn't it?"
"No," she replied somewhat formally; "that isn't what I thought. I find everything I see and hear interesting, but there's much I can't understand. One has to feel for its meaning."
"It's a very proper attitude," he rejoined with amusement. "So long as you don't bring over a ready-made standard to measure our shortcomings by, we'll explain all we can. In fact, it's a thing we're fond of doing." Then his tone grew grave. "But I haven't seen your father since this morning. Is he at the muskeg?"
"Yes. I'm getting anxious about him; the trouble is preying on his mind. Grief, of course, is a natural feeling, but he thinks of nothing except revenge. He's growing haggard and losing his judgment. I'm almost afraid to think what may happen if he finds anything that looks like a clue. The shock has shaken him terribly."
"I feel half guilty because I've been so calm since I came here, but I can't believe the worst. You have reassured me." She paused and added softly: "And I'm very grateful."
"I'm glad." Prescott's tone was sympathetic. "But I can imagine what your father feels. From a few things he has told me, he seems to have led a smooth, well-ordered life; no doubt he made too much of the trouble your brother caused him."
"Yes; I think so now."
"Perhaps he half-consciously formed an idea that things would always go tranquilly with him, and when it came without warning the shock of Cyril's disappearance was too strong. And yet I firmly believe he's mistaken in his fears."
Gertrude made a sign of agreement.
"Nothing I can say calms him. One can only wait."
"And that's always hard," Prescott said gently.
She roused him to strong compassion. She had, he thought, no great depth of character, but her development had been checked by many restraints. Her father had curbed each natural impulse, until the little originality in her withered and died; she had grown up cold and colorless, with narrow views, and petty, if quite blameless, aims. Prescott, however, was wrong in crediting Jernyngham with too great a success. Gertrude's nature had not been utterly repressed and stunted, and now, in time of stress, it was expanding.
Romance had come late to her, but she was dimly conscious of it at last. Her senses were stirring and she felt a half-guilty pleasure at seeing the bronzed rancher's eyes bent on her tenderly. To think of him except as her host for a few weeks was, of course, folly; but there was a fascination in the gentleness he showed her. She was beginning to understand and sympathize with Cyril's rash daring and contempt for restraints. She felt tempted to follow her impulses; her frigid reserve was melting.
"Will you have more tea?" she asked, shrinking back to safe ground.
"Thank you," he said, holding out the dainty cup.
"Hot water? It's rather strong."
"Before I had a housekeeper we made it black and drank it by the kettleful."
"But the effect on your nerves!"
"Nerves?" he laughed. "We don't cultivate them in this country. Mine make no trouble."
"You're to be envied," she said, and looked up sharply at a sound of footsteps as her father came in.
His clothes were dusty and creased; the neatness which had characterized him on his arrival had gone. His face had grown brown, but it was haggard, hotly flushed, and beaded with perspiration; his lips were tightly set, his eyes had an ominous glitter. Throwing down a riding quirt he carried, he sat down; resting his arms on the table, in an attitude of blank dejection.
"Nothing yet," he said listlessly. "It's hard to bear."
"There's a suggestion I want to make." Prescott spoke quietly. "The offer of a reward here has led to nothing; send another round to the Alberta and British Columbia papers, with a description of your son, saying you'll pay a hundred dollars for trustworthy information about him. I believe it will bring you good news."
Jernyngham turned to him in keen impatience.
"It would be useless—my son is dead! The police have proved that beyond a doubt, and I cannot understand why you should persist in denying it!" His eyes grew hard with sudden suspicion. "It looks as if you had some motive."
"I'm afraid you're hardly just," Gertrude broke in. "Mr. Prescott only wishes to lessen your anxiety, but he's convinced of what he says."
It was a rare thing for her to oppose him, but Jernyngham was too preoccupied to be surprised at her boldness, and he made a gesture of deprecation.
"You must forgive me, Mr. Prescott—my daughter's right. But to offer me assurances that must prove false is rank cruelty. I have faced the worst; I'm not strong enough to bear a second blow, which is what must follow if I listen to you. As it is, the strain is merciless."
His voice and bearing showed it. Indeed, one could have imagined that it would have been better had he yielded a little more, but his eyes expressed a grim, vengeful determination. He was not the man to weaken, he would hold out until he broke down; but his daughter and Prescott were filled with fears for him.
"I'm sorry," said the rancher. "Has Curtis thought of anything new?"
"No," Jernyngham answered harshly. "The police can entertain only one idea at a time; they can read the meaning of footprints and there their ability ends. They have no power of organization; I can't force them to make investigations on a proper scale, and I'm helpless until harvest's over. Then, when men can be hired, I'll have every bluff and ravine in the country searched. If I spend the rest of my life here, I'll find the guilty man!"
He said nothing further, and there was a strained silence while he sat, leaning forward limply, with bent head, and a thin hand clenched hard upon the table. Rousing himself by and by, he took the cup of tea Gertrude passed to him, and set it down without drinking. It made a sharp clatter, but he left it setting near him as if he had forgotten it. Unable to bear the sight of his distress, Prescott went quietly out, and when he was leaving the house Gertrude joined him.
"Perhaps I should have stayed with him, but I was afraid to speak," she said. "Besides, there was nothing to be said."
"This can't go on," Prescott declared. "It's too much for him. I can't leave here until the harvest's over, and then the grain ought to be hauled in, but I've thought of making a tour of inquiry along the new railroad and round the Alberta ranches and the mines in British Columbia."
Gertrude looked grateful.
"It would be a great relief to feel that something was being done. But—" she added hesitatingly, "your time is valuable and there would be expense. I have some means, Mr. Prescott, and though I dare not speak to my father about it, you must draw on me."
"We'll talk about it later. I wish I could go now, but that's impossible, and there's no use in suggesting that Mr. Jernyngham should send somebody else. Besides, I believe I'd have the best chance of picking up the right trail. You won't mind my saying that I'm very sorry for you?"
Her eyes grew soft and her whole expression gentle. It was an attractive face Prescott looked into.
"I value your sympathy," she said softly. "Indeed, I can't tell you what a comfort you have been. But you will undertake this search as soon as possible, won't you?"
"Yes," Prescott replied firmly; "you can count on that. If I've made things easier for you, I'm very glad."
Then he turned away and hurried back to the binder.
A NEW CLUE
It was a clear, cool morning and Prescott was busily engaged throwing sheaves into his wagon. He had finished his harvest and, in accordance with western custom, had immediately begun the thrashing. Part of the great field was already stripped to a belt of tall stubble, though long ranks of stooks still stretched across the rest, and dusty men were hard at work among them. Wagons rolled through the crackling straw—going slowly, piled high with rustling loads; returning light, jolting wildly, as fast as the teams could trot, for the thrashers were paid by the bushel and would brook no delay. In the background stood their big machine, pouring out a cloud of smoke that stretched in a gray trail across the prairie, and filling the air with its harsh clatter.
It was a scene of strenuous activity, filled with hurriedly moving figures, but its coloring had lost something of its former vividness. The blue of the sky was softer, the light less strong; the varying hues of lemon and copper and ocher had become subdued; the shadows were no longer darkly blue but a cool restful gray. The rushing winds that had swept the wide plain all summer had come to rest; the air was sharp and still.
The last week or two, however, had brought no change to the inmates of the homestead. Jernyngham still brooded over his loss and worried the police, his daughter looked to her host for comfort, and Prescott did what he could to cheer her. Gertrude, indeed, was sensible of a rapidly growing confidence in him and of the abandonment of many long-held ideas. The man was not of her station: he was a working farmer, his views at first had jarred on her; and yet the attraction he had for her was steadily increasing. She made a feeble fight against it. In England she had stood on safe ground, hedged in by conventions, ruled by the opinions of a narrow circle of friends. Now all was different; she had lost these supports and restraints and she was helpless without them. Passion was beginning to touch her and she mistook the rancher's gentleness and sympathy.
When Prescott had loaded his wagon she joined him as he led his team between the ranks of stooks, but while she walked by his side he thought of another Englishwoman whom he had once brought home with the prairie hay. He remembered how Muriel Hurst had nestled among the yielding grass, with something delightful in every line of her figure. He recalled her bright good-humor, the music of her laugh, the soft tones of her voice, the hint of courage he had seen in her eyes; and there was pain in the recollection. Gertrude Jernyngham was powerless to move him as Muriel had done, but he was sorry for Cyril's sister and very considerate of her.
"We'll have the crop off the ground before long," he said. "Then I'll start for Alberta, as I promised."
"You will be away some time?"
"I'm afraid so. It's a big province, though there are not a great many settlements in it yet; and I may have to cross over into British Columbia."
Gertrude looked down.
"It is very generous of you to go, but I shall miss you. I shall feel as if I had lost my chief support."
"So far, I've done nothing but talk; and talk is cheap," he laughed.
"You have given me courage," she said with shy hesitation. "And sympathy is worth a good deal."
He did not respond as she thought he might have done, and she continued:
"If my father had been less obstinate, you need not have gone; he could have hired a professional inquiry agent. But you had better not say anything about your object to him—it must be a secret between us."
"Yes," assented Prescott thoughtfully, "I guess that would be wiser. You want to keep his mind at rest as far as you can. Of course, there's a big chance that I may fail."
Gertrude turned to him with a smile.
"Oh, no! You are not one to fail!"
Prescott was slightly embarrassed. He had a feeling that he was being gently led on toward a closer acquaintance with his companion. She was dropping the reserve she had at first displayed and seemed to invite him tacitly into her confidence. He admitted that this idea might be incorrect, but it had troubled him once or twice before.
"I expect you'll be comfortable enough while I'm away," he said. "Mrs. Svendsen's trustworthy, and everything will be quiet after the harvesters have gone."
Gertrude did not answer, and they went on in silence to the noisy separator. Perspiring men, stripped of their heavier garments, were tossing the sheaves amid a cloud of dust; cleaned grain poured out into open bags, and as each was filled two panting toilers flung it into a wagon. Near-by stood a great and growing pile of bags, over which the short straw would be spread a number of feet thick, to form a granary. Gertrude joined her father, who was standing near the machine, moodily looking on, and before Prescott had unloaded his wagon Curtis rode up with Private Stanton.
"Nothing new at the muskeg, sir," he reported to Jernyngham rather curtly, and walked his horse toward Prescott.
"We were passing," he told him, and indicated the pile of grain. "You're not selling right away?"
"No; I'm not ready to haul the crop in to the elevators yet. I've one or two more pressing things to do."
"Mayn't you miss a chance? Prices are pretty good."
Prescott was on his guard; he felt that Curtis suspected him.
"I don't know," he answered. "I guess they won't fall much."
"Your neighbors mean to sell, though it's quite likely that's to meet their bills, and you always tried to get in on the first of the market until this year. It must have cost you a pile to put in that big crop."
"Then how have you got so prosperous since last fall?"
It was a pointed question, because everybody in the district knew that Prescott had sold only a few head of cattle and a horse or two, while he would shortly have his accounts to meet.
"It's a matter of management," he replied. "I've been working on a different system this spring, and I find it pays." Then he looked steadily at the corporal, "Besides, running Jernyngham's place along with mine made it easier to cut expenses."
"It's a great crop. But we must be getting on."
He rode off and when they had left the stubble, Private Stanton looked at him.
"His being able to hold his wheat; which he couldn't do last year, is a pretty strong count against the man. You gave him his chance for explaining and he made a mighty bad show. Looks as if he'd got some money he couldn't account for since last fall."
"Not proved," returned Curtis. "There's something in what he said. Anyway, he isn't afraid of us, since he's putting up his grain."
"I don't quite catch on."
"You're young. A guilty man would have rushed his crop into the elevators and had his money ready to light out with. If Prescott pulls out suddenly, he'll have to leave his property behind."
"The thing's between him and Wandle," Stanton persisted.
"Looks like that. Anyway, as the Austrian's at the settlement, we'll have a good look round his homestead. It's possible that we'll find something."
"What made you think of searching the place again? Anything in the last instructions you got from Regina? You didn't show them to me."
"That's so. It isn't a part of my duty to consult you, and you're a bit of a hustler. However, this is what I heard—a land agent in Navarino sent for the district sergeant; told him he'd run across a man from Sebastian at the hotel and the fellow got talking about Jernyngham. It was the first the land agent had heard of the matter; but he was struck by the date on which Jernyngham disappeared, because he'd had a deal with him three days later."
"That's mighty strange. If he's right, Jernyngham couldn't have been killed."
"Don't hustle!" said Curtis. "The fellow showed the sergeant the sale record, but he described Jernyngham as a big, rather stout man with light hair."
"Wandle!" exclaimed Stanton. "Are you going to arrest him?"
"Not yet. We might get him sent up for fraud and forgery, but if he had anything to do with knocking Jernyngham out, he'll be more likely to give us a clue of some kind while he's at large."
They rode on and reaching Wandle's farm searched the house carefully, replacing everything exactly as they found it. They discovered nothing of importance, but as they went out Curtis glanced at the ash and refuse heap.
"We might have thought of that earlier," he said. "I've heard of people trying to burn up things it might be dangerous to leave about."
Setting to work with a fork and shovel, they presently unearthed a rusty iron object which Stanton picked up.
"Looks like a big meat can," he remarked. "Kind of curious that Wandle should double it over this way and flatten it down."
Curtis took it from him and examined it carefully.
"It isn't a meat can; top edges are turned over a wire—here's a bit sticking out—and it's had a handle. There's a hinge in another place. The thing has been a box—a cash-box, I guess—one of the rubbishy kind they sell for about a dollar."
"But what would make a man smash up his cash-box?"
"I don't know; guess it doesn't apply. I could understand his wanting to get rid of one that belonged to somebody else, after he'd cleaned it out. Aren't you beginning to understand?"
"Sure," said Stanton eagerly. "The box was Jernyngham's—we'll find out when he bought it at the hardware store. Then we'll get after Wandle."
"You hustle too much!" Curtis rebuked him, and then sat down with knitted brows. "Now see here—in a general way, it's convictions we're out for; you want to count on your verdict before you arrest a man. It comes to this: he's tried first by us, and if he's to be let off, it saves trouble if we decide the thing, instead of leaving it to the jury. They won't tell you that at Regina, but, in practise, you'll find that a police trooper is expected to use some judgment. Still, there are exceptions to what I've said about holding back. In the interests of justice, one might have to corral an innocent man."
"How's that going to serve the interests of justice?"
The corporal's eyes twinkled with dry amusement.
"For one thing, it might lead the fellow we were really after to think we hadn't struck his trail. But that's not the point. How much ash would you figure Wandle takes out of his stove each time he lights it?"
"About a bucketful, burning wood."
"Not quite, but there's a bucket yonder. See how many times you can fill it with the stuff we shoveled off, while I take a smoke. Build up the pile to look as if we hadn't disturbed it."
Stanton did as he was bidden, counting each bucketful he replaced, and then Curtis sent him to clean out the stove and estimate the quantity of ash before he put it back. Then he made a calculation.
"Allowing for some of the ash slipping down the pile and for our having moved a little that was there before Wandle threw the cash-box in, it fixes the time he did so pretty close to Jernyngham's disappearance," he remarked. "Looks bad against the Austrian, doesn't it?"
"You have quite as much against Prescott."
"Yes," Curtis admitted regretfully; "that's the trouble. It isn't quite so easy being a policeman as folks seem to think. Now we'll ride along and call on the hardware man."
They mounted and soon afterward saw a buggy emerge from the short pines on the crest of a distant rise, whereupon Curtis rode hard for a poplar bluff, which he kept between himself and the vehicle.
"Looks like Wandle coming back," he said to Stanton, who had followed him. "I can't see any reason he should know we've been prospecting round his place."
Reaching the settlement they visited the hardware dealer, who remembered having sold Jernyngham a small cheap cash-box about twelve months earlier. On being shown the bent-up iron, he expressed his belief that it was the article in question.
A day or two after the corporal's discovery, the mail-carrier left some letters at the Prescott homestead, and when it was getting dusk Gertrude strolled out on the prairie, thinking of one she had received. After a while Prescott joined her and she greeted him with a smile.
"My team was looking a bit played out and the boys will be able to keep the separator gang going as long as they can see," he said.
"Do you feel that you have to make excuses for stopping work, after twelve hours of it?" Gertrude asked.
"Yes," he laughed; "I do feel something of the kind. There's so much to do and the days are getting shorter fast."
He glanced at her with appreciation. She wore a thin, black dress made after the latest London mode, which showed to advantage the graceful lines of her tall figure; the Jernynghams, who seldom departed from an established custom, changed their attire every evening. Gertrude had on no hat, and the fading light shone into her face. It was finely cut but cold, the features unusually good. She was a handsome woman, but she lacked warmth and softness.
"I'm in a difficulty," she told him. "Perhaps you can help—you're a man of many resources."
"I'll be glad to do what I can."
"We are expecting a visit from three old friends of ours who heard in America of the trouble we are in and want to see us. What can we do with them?"
"I haven't room," Prescott answered. "But let me think—Leslie has quite a big house, and it's only three miles from here. Now that he will have got rid of the harvesters, he might be willing to take your friends in. He and his wife are pleasant people; but I think you met her."
"Yes. I knew you wouldn't fail us," Gertrude said gratefully. "But, after all, I feel inclined to wish they were not coming."
There was an elusive something in her tone which did not escape Prescott's notice.
"Why do you wish that?" he asked.
"Oh," she said, "it's difficult to explain, but we have got used to the mode of life here: the few people we meet seem to understand our feelings, and we have learned to trust them. Strangers would rather spoil it all; in a sense, their visit would be an intrusion."
Prescott realized that this was complimentary to him. She had made it clear that he was not a stranger, but one of the people she trusted. The effect was to render him somewhat embarrassed, but Gertrude resumed:
"I think we owe you a good deal. I don't know what we should have done had we fallen into less considerate hands."
"I'm yours to command," he replied; and they walked on in silence for a while, Gertrude glancing at him unobtrusively now and then.
She did not believe her brother dead—Prescott had reassured her; and now she felt strongly attracted by the rancher. She had thrown off the restraints in which she had long acquiesced; she was driven by a passion which was rapidly overpowering her.
"You don't suggest that the Leslies should take us all," she said.
"No," Prescott answered gravely; "I'd rather keep you and your father here."
"Then you're no longer anxious to get rid of us?"
"That's true. I begin to feel I'm one of the party. Then, you see, Leslie's pretty talkative and agrees with Curtis. He might have a bad effect on your father; he might even shake your confidence."
"Oh," she begged, "don't labor the explanation. You are one of the party and our friend."
"I'll try to make that good. I'm going off to look for your brother in a few more days, but it will cost me something to leave the homestead now."
He had spoken the truth. Until lately the man had been bereft of all the amenities of life, but he had now grown to appreciate the society of cultured people; the task of cheering and encouraging his guests had become familiar; he might even have been drawn to the beautiful woman he had comforted had not his heart been filled with the image of Muriel.
"But after the summer's hard monotonous work, a change must be nice," she suggested.
"Yes; in a way. The trouble is that I must leave my guests."
Gertrude's eyes grew soft as they rested on him.
"We shall miss you," she murmured. "But you must go and find out all you can; I'm afraid the mystery and suspense are breaking my father down."
They walked on in silence for a while, and then Svendsen appeared near the homestead, waving his arm.
"Looks as if I were wanted," Prescott remarked; "I believe there's a wagon to be fixed. Will you excuse me? I'll ride over and have a talk with Leslie in the morning."
The sun had just dipped, leaving a rim of flaring color on the edge of the vast plain, when Prescott sat smoking on the stoop of the Leslie homestead a week after his evening walk with Gertrude. Leslie and his wife were simple people from Ontario, who had prospered in the last few years. Their crops had escaped rust and hail and autumn frost, and as a result of this, the rancher had replaced his rude frame dwelling with a commodious house, built, with lower walls of brick and wood above, in a somewhat ornate style copied from the small villas which are springing up on the outskirts of the western towns.
Leslie, an elderly, brown-faced man, sat near Prescott; the Jernynghams, who had driven over to welcome his friends, were inside, talking to Mrs. Leslie.
"Guess you don't know much about the English people we're expecting?" Leslie asked.
"No," said Prescott; "only that they're friends of the Jernynghams. I don't think I've even heard their names yet."
"Mrs. Leslie knows," rejoined the farmer; "I forget it. I feel kind of sorry now that she agreed to take them in, but you made a point of it, and if the man's not so blamed stand-offish, I'll have somebody to talk to."
"I wouldn't talk too much about Cyril Jernyngham."
Leslie looked hard at him.
"There's one point, Jack, where I can't agree with you—you're the only man in this district who doesn't believe Jernyngham's dead. It strikes me that you know more about the thing than you have told anybody yet."
"Let it go at that," said Prescott awkwardly, "All I could say would only bring more trouble on his people, and they've had quite enough."
"Sure," agreed Leslie, raising his hand in warning. "Sh-h! They're coming out."
The next moment Gertrude and her father joined the men, and after a few words with them stood still, listening. A long bluff, through which the trail from the settlement led, ran close up to the homestead, cutting against the pale green glow of the sky. For a few minutes there was a deep silence, intensified by the musical clash of cowbells in the distance, and then a measured, drumming sound rose softly from behind the trees.
"Guess that's your friends," Leslie said to Jernyngham. "Jim's made pretty good time."
The beat of hoofs grew nearer until the listeners could hear the rattle of wheels. Then a light, four-wheeled vehicle came lurching out of the bluff and Jernyngham hurried down the steps. Prescott had entered the house to tell Mrs. Leslie, and he came out as the driver pulled up his team. The occupants of the wagon, which had run a little past the door, had their backs to him, but seeing a girl about to alight he sprang forward. Her head was turned away from him at first, but she glanced round when he offered to assist her; and he forgot what the consequences of the meeting must be as he looked into the eyes of Muriel Hurst. He was conscious of an overwhelming delight, which showed itself in his shining eyes and the warm color that suddenly flushed his face; Gertrude Jernyngham, standing beside him, read what was in his heart.
The effect on Muriel was as marked. He had seized her hand and as she was standing precariously poised, ready to descend, he swung her down. Then she recoiled from him, startled, but with strong relief in her expression.
"Cyril!" she cried in a strained voice. "Why didn't you write and tell us that it was all a mistake? We heard that you were dead!"
Then Prescott remembered and his heart sank, but he strove to gather his courage, for there was a crisis to be faced. He stood silent, with one hand clenched tight, while Gertrude watched him with hard, unwavering eyes. Jernyngham, however, had heard Muriel's startled exclamation and hurried toward her.
"What's this?" he asked harshly. "You called my son's name!"
The girl looked at Prescott; troubled and surprised by the confused emotions his face betrayed. There was obviously something wrong, but she could not imagine what it was.
"Yes," she said, "I called him Cyril. Why shouldn't I?"
Colston and his wife joined the group, while the driver looked on from the wagon and the Leslies from the stoop. Prescott and the girl stood a little distance apart and Muriel was sensible of a nervous shiver. When Prescott had first held up his hand to her, she had seen his keen pleasure and her heart had responded to it; now, however, she was filled with dismay.
Jernyngham answered her in curt, stern tones:
"There's one very good reason—this is not my son!"
"Not Cyril!" Colston broke in. "But he made us believe he was; he's the man we stayed with!" He made a puzzled gesture. "I can't understand the thing."
"Nor I," replied Jernyngham. "Is this the man you wrote to us about?"
"Of course!" said Colston stupidly. "I thought he was Cyril; so did we all. We had no cause to doubt it."
Jernyngham turned in fury to the Leslies.
"Who is the fellow?" he demanded.
Prescott braced himself.
"I'll answer that—Jack Prescott. Mr. Colston stayed at my homestead."
"And you personated my son? I suppose you had some motive for doing so and must see that we are entitled to an explanation?"
"Yes," Prescott returned quietly. "This isn't the place to make it. Hadn't you better take your friends in?"
They entered the house, which was getting dark, and while the hired man carried in the baggage Leslie lighted a lamp in his sitting-room. It was spacious, roughly paneled in cedar, with an uncovered floor. There were a few chairs scattered about and a plain pine table. Jernyngham sat by the table and the others found seats here and there, except Prescott, who stood quietly opposite the old man. At a curt sign from Jernyngham, Leslie and his wife left the room.
"Mr. Prescott," Jernyngham began, "you have deceived my friends here and I think they should remain to hear what you have to say, but I will dismiss them if you prefer it. You are responsible to me and I must ask for a full account of your conduct."
Prescott glanced round the room, which reminded him of a court. Gertrude Jernyngham's eyes were fixed on him, and there was a hardness that hinted at cruelty in them; she looked very dignified and cold. Mrs. Colston he could not see, but her husband seemed disturbed and uneasy. Muriel leaned forward in her chair, with wonder, apprehension, and pity curiously mingled in her expression. All of them were very still, the silence was disconcerting, but Prescott roused himself to make what defense he could.
"I passed for Cyril Jernyngham at his request," he said.
"An extraordinary statement!" Jernyngham remarked with ironical incredulity. "May one ask if he gave any reasons for wishing you to do so?"
Prescott hesitated, which counted against him.
"Well," he said, "Cyril had got hurt in a row at the settlement a few hours before Mr. Colston's arrival. His head was badly cut; he thought it might make a bad impression."
"That doesn't sound very convincing. Had he no better reason?"
The rancher paused to think. He would not explain that his friend's mode of life would not have borne a critical examination, but he had a duty to himself and something must be urged.
"I think he meant to hide the fact that he was married. He did not wish your friends to meet his wife."
Colston started and it was obvious that the others were keenly interested, but Jernyngham's face grew darker and marked by signs of pain, for he had learned a little about Ellice. He was struggling with an overwhelming humiliation.
"We'll let that pass," he said. "It's a matter that cannot be discussed. Was Mr. Colston's visit the only time you personated my son?"
"Certainly! Nothing would induce me to play the part again."
"Then you will be surprised to hear that shortly after Cyril's disappearance a man sold some land of his at a town farther along the line?"
"I am surprised, but I believe it must have been Cyril."
"Then his handwriting must have totally changed, which I believe is a very unusual thing," Jernyngham rejoined sarcastically. "I have been shown some documents which he is supposed to have filled in."
Prescott began to realize that appearances were very strongly against him. He had admitted having once impersonated his friend and it would be difficult to convince those who had heard his confession that he had not done so again, when there was a strong motive for it in the price of the land.
"Well," he said firmly; "if the handwriting wasn't Cyril's, I can't tell whose it was; it certainly wasn't mine. There's one thing I'm convinced of—your son is not dead."
Jernyngham looked at him; with the veins on his forehead swollen and his face tense with anger, but he held himself in hand.
"You have said so often. I did not believe you; I do not believe you now; but your object in making the statement is easy to understand. I've no doubt you realize that you lie open to a very ugly suspicion."
"No!" a strained voice broke in. "That is not just!"
Looking up, Prescott saw that it was Muriel who had spoken. Her eyes were bright with indignation and her face was hot, but none of the others showed him any sympathy. Colston's face was grave and troubled, his wife's expressionless; Gertrude Jernyngham looked more determined and more merciless than her father. She sat very still, coldly watching him.
"Thank you," he said to Muriel. "It's comforting to find one person who does not think the worst of me."
"Silence, sir!" Jernyngham exclaimed with the air of a judge rebuking a prisoner of whose guilt he is convinced. "You cannot be permitted to speak to this lady."
"I think that is a point for Mrs. Colston to decide, but we'll let it drop. Out of consideration for you, I've answered your questions; but you have gone too far, and this must end." Prescott's expression grew as stern as the old man's and he looked about with pride. "I tell you it must stop! What right have you to fling these infamous hints at me?"
Jernyngham broke into a harsh laugh.
"The part of an innocent man is too much for you to play; we won't force you into it. It will be a favor if you will have our baggage sent across here; needless to say, neither my daughter nor I can re-enter your house." Then his self-control deserted him and he broke out in hot fury: "I firmly believe you are the man who killed my son, and you shall not escape!"
"I think," said Colston quietly, "that is going too far."
Making no answer, Prescott left them; and he was harnessing his horse outside when, somewhat to his astonishment, Muriel came toward him. A half-moon hung low above the bluff and the silvery light shone into her face, showing her warmth of color and the sparkle in her eyes. He thought she looked wonderfully attractive and his heart throbbed faster, but he knew he must hold himself in hand.
"Hadn't you better go back?" he asked. "You have heard what your friends think of me."
"What does that matter?" she exclaimed with feeling. "I'm very angry with them. I can't let you go without saying that I know you could not have done what you have been wickedly accused of."
"I'm glad. Thank you. It's a big relief to feel that you believe in me. So long as I have that assurance nothing else counts."
"Harry Colston's not convinced; I believe he's trying to keep an open mind."
"Is that so?" said Prescott. "I don't expect much from him. He's the kind of man who's guided by appearances and seldom does anything out of the common."
Muriel disregarded this.
"But you were very foolish in deceiving us. I can't understand yet why you did so."
"I can only tell you that it was for Cyril's sake."
"Oh," she cried, "it could not have been because of any benefit that you would get! That would never have tempted you."
He read unshaken confidence in her eyes and it cost him a stern effort to refrain from reckless speech. Muriel was beautiful, but that was not all: she was generous and fearless, a loyal friend and a staunch partizan.
"Well," Prescott confessed, "when I explained, I was more afraid of you than of Jernyngham. I wanted to keep your good opinion, and I wondered whether you had only given it to me because you thought I was Cyril Jernyngham. From your friends' point of view Jack Prescott is a very different kind of person."
"Is it unpardonable that I was angry when I first found out the mistake? Try to imagine with what ideas I have been brought up. But the feeling left me when I saw how merciless Jernyngham was; his hard words turned it into sympathy."
"That is something to be thankful for, though it doesn't content me. I think you would be sorry for any one, even an enemy, who was in trouble and getting hurt."
She grasped his meaning and looked at him steadily with an air of pride.
"Then must I tell you that I have as much faith in Jack Prescott as I had in the man whom I supposed to be Cyril Jernyngham? But you must justify my confidence. You have been wrongly and cruelly accused; don't you see the duty that lies on you?"
"Yes," Prescott answered gravely; "I have to clear myself. If there were no other reason than the one you have given, it would have to be done. It's going to be a tough proposition, but I'll get about it very soon."
"You know that I wish you all success," she told him softly.
Then she held out her hand and turned away. When she had gone Prescott went on with his work and after buckling the last strap he found that he had forgotten a parcel Mrs. Leslie had asked him to deliver. Hurrying back to the house for it, he met Gertrude Jernyngham in the hall and she stopped where the light fell on her, instead of avoiding him as he had expected. There was suspicion in her eyes.
"I see you agree with your father," he said boldly.
"Yes," she replied in a scornful tone. "You can pose rather cleverly—you tricked me into trusting you, but your ability is limited, after all. When the strain comes, you break down. Could anything have been feebler than the defense you made?"
"It was pretty lame, but every word was true."
"Oh," she cried with disgust and impatience, "one wouldn't expect you to say it was false! You don't seem to have anything more convincing to add."
"I'm going to add nothing. It isn't very long since you were willing to take my word."
"I'm afraid I was easily deceived," Gertrude said bitterly. "I didn't know you had twice passed yourself off as my brother, and you can't complain if we see an obvious motive for your doing so the second time."
"You mean that I stole the price of Cyril's land?" Prescott asked sternly.
"Yes," she said, watching him with cruel eyes. "That, however, is not the worst." She struggled with rising passion before she resumed: "I believe——"
Prescott raised his hand commandingly.
"Stop! I'm going away to find your brother."
"One can understand your going away!" she flung back at him as she passed on down the hall.
Prescott drove home at a reckless pace. Facing the situation boldly, he recognized that the outlook was very dark.
Two days after the arrival of the Colstons, Gertrude Jernyngham walked down the trail from the Leslie homestead in a very bitter mood. During the last few weeks her cold nature had kindled into sudden warmth; love had most unexpectedly crept into her heart. At first she had struggled against and been ashamed of it, for its object was a man beneath her in rank and of widely different mode of thought; but by degrees the judgment she had hitherto exercised had given place to passion. After the narrow, conventional life she had led, there was a strange exhilaration and excitement in yielding to her impulses; the virility of Prescott's character and his physical perfection stirred her. She desired him and had boldly used such charms as she possessed in his subjugation. Misled by his gentleness, she imagined him responsive, and then Muriel had appeared on the scene and the truth was plain to her when she saw his face light up at sight of the girl. She had read warm love in his eager glance.
Now Gertrude was crushed and humbled. She had cheapened herself, as she thought of it, to this rancher, only to find that he preferred another. Her punishment was severe, but she felt that it was deserved, and her ripening passion had turned to something very much like hate. Whether he had really had any hand in her brother's death was a point she would not calmly reason out, though she had a half-conscious feeling that he could not be charged with this. She wanted to think him base: to believe in his guilt would be an excuse for making him suffer.
While she walked, she cast quick glances across the waste of grass, looking for a mounted figure that did not appear, until at last she turned with a start at the sound of footsteps as Muriel came up.
"I saw you alone and thought I would join you," Muriel said.
"It's a relief to be by oneself now and then," Gertrude answered with curt ungraciousness.
"One can understand that. I tried to give Harry a hint that our visit might be an intrusion, when he talked of joining your father; but he thought it would be some comfort for you to have your friends about you."
"He was some time in putting his idea into practise."
"We started as soon as we heard of your trouble," said Muriel. "We were in Mexico then, and as we had moved about a good deal there was some delay in our letters. Has your father decided to stay with the Leslies?"
"Yes, for a while. It was, of course, impossible for us to remain with Mr. Prescott."
"Why could you not?" Muriel asked with sparkling eyes.
"Isn't it obvious, after what you heard the man admit?"
Muriel stopped, the color creeping into her face, which was filled with anger.
"It's impossible that Mr. Prescott could have had any connection with Cyril's disappearance. It's wicked and cruel to suspect him!"
"You seem strangely convinced of his innocence," Gertrude retorted with a somber glance at her. "We shall see by and by whether you or my father is right."