They walked on slowly, and shortly afterward two mounted figures appeared on the plain. Gertrude watched them draw near, and then turned to her companion.
"The police; we have been expecting them," she said. "My father sent a message to the corporal after Prescott had gone."
"Then he will be deeply ashamed of his harshness before long," Muriel declared as she abruptly moved away.
Gertrude let her go with a cruel smile. She thought she knew how matters stood, and if the girl were suffering, she had no pity for her. Then she waited until the police trotted by, and afterward walked slowly toward the house. On reaching it, she met Curtis coming out and he asked for a word with her.
"I understand you were the last person to see Prescott when he left this place the other night," he said.
Gertrude admitted it, watching the man. He looked disturbed, as if he did not know what to think. Private Stanton was sitting in his saddle with an expressionless face a few yards away, but she imagined it was intended that he should hear her answers.
"Well," Curtis resumed, "I have to ask what he said to you; anyway, so far as it bears on the business we have in hand. You know why I was sent for?"
Gertrude hesitated. She was very angry with Prescott, and there was a statement he had made which would prove damaging to him if she repeated part of it without the rest. She shrank from this course, but her rancor against the man suddenly grew too strong for her.
"I suppose I must answer that?"
"It's your duty."
"Then," she said in a strained voice, "Mr. Prescott told me he was going away."
"Going away!" Curtis looked astonished. "I guess you realize that this is a serious matter. Did he mention when?"
"I understood it would be very soon." Gertrude looked at the man haughtily. "That is all I have to tell."
She went into the house, feeling that she had said enough, and Curtis motioned to his companion and rode away. They had gone some distance when Stanton turned to his superior.
"Pretty significant. What are you going to do about it?" he asked.
"I'll have to apply for a warrant."
"You certainly will."
"Well," Curtis went on, "this thing isn't quite so simple as it seems. To begin with, it's my idea that Miss Jernyngham hasn't told us all she knows; you want to remember that Prescott's a good-looking fellow with a taking manner. I can see complications, though I can't get the right drift of them."
"Guess the matter will be worse mussed up if Prescott lights out. Now that Bardsley's gone down the line, you can't get your warrant for a day or two."
"That's so," Curtis agreed. "I'll make for the settlement and wire Bardsley and our bosses at Regina; you'll ride on and keep Prescott in sight—though it would be better if you didn't let him know you were watching him. When he clears, take the trail behind him and send back word to Sebastian. Soon as I get the warrant or instructions, I'll come after you."
They separated and some time later Stanton took up his station in a bluff which commanded a view of the Prescott homestead. Lying hidden with his horse, he saw the rancher drive up and disappear within the house. Prescott had been very busy during the past two days and had found strenuous application something of a relief. He recognized that suspicion was centering on him and that he might expect a visit from the police, but the only way of proving his innocence that he could see was to produce his supposed victim. He foresaw that it might take a long while to find the man, and he must make preparations for a lengthy absence. The risk he ran in remaining until he had completed them was grave, but there was a vein of dogged persistency in him and he would not go before he was ready.
He had, however, other matters to think of. Miss Jernyngham had turned against him; after the confidence she had expressed, he could not understand why she had done so. Muriel Hurst, however, still believed in him, which was a comforting thought, though he would not permit himself to dwell on it. He loved the girl, but it seemed impossible that she should marry him. There was so much against this: the mode of life to which she had been accustomed, his obscure position, the prejudices of her relations. He blamed himself for not struggling more determinedly against the charm she had exerted on him; but it was too late to regret this now. He must bear his trouble and try to think of her as seldom as possible, which would be the easier, inasmuch as the work that waited him would demand his close attention. As soon as it grew dark that evening, he must set off on his search for Cyril Jernyngham.
Dusk was falling when he rode away from the homestead with a couple of blankets and provisions for a few days strapped to his saddle. Though he could trust Svendsen to look after things in his absence, he was anxious and dejected, and it was with keen regret that he cast a last glance across the sweep of shadowy stubble toward the lighted windows of the house. All he saw belonged to him; he had by patient labor in frost and scorching sun built up the farm, and he was conscious of a strong love for it. It was hard to go away, an outcast, branded with black suspicion, leaving the place in another's charge; but there was no remedy.
The sky was faintly clouded, the moon, which was near its setting, obscured; the prairie ran back, dim and blurred; the air was keen and still. Prescott thought he heard a soft beat of hoofs behind him. He could, however, see nobody, and he rode on faster, heading for the house of a neighbor with whom he had some business, near the trail to the settlement. After a while he pulled up, and listening carefully heard the sound again. It looked as if he were being followed and he thought that if the police were on his trail, they would expect him to make for the American frontier, and to do that he must pass through or near Sebastian. If they believed this was his object, it might save him trouble, for he meant to ride north in search of Jernyngham after calling at the farm.
Checking his horse, he rode on without haste until it became obvious that the man behind was drawing up, then he set off at a gallop. Behind the farm he meant to visit lay a belt of broken ground, marked by scrub and scattered bluffs, where it should not be difficult to evade his pursuer. The staccato thud of the gallop would ring far through the still, night air, but this was of no consequence; he was some distance ahead and his horse was fresh and powerful. In a few minutes he believed that he was gaining and when he rode into sight of the little wooden house, which showed up black against the sky with one dim light in it, he was seized by a new idea. A horse stood outside the door, and he supposed the rancher had just returned. The man was a friend of Prescott's and believed in his innocence.
"Larry," he cried as he rode up, and added when a shadowy figure came out: "You can send along your teams and do that breaking we were speaking of. Svendsen will pay you when you're through with it. I'm off to the north."
"Ah!" exclaimed the other sharply. "I guess I know what you're after. It strikes me you should have gone before."
He paused with a lifted hand as he heard the drumming of hoofs, and Prescott laughed.
"That's so. I believe you'll have a police trooper here in the next few minutes. Your horse is still saddled?"
"Yes; I've just come back from Gillom's."
"Then get up and ride for the settlement. Mail an order for some harness or anything useful to Regina by the night train, when you get there; you can let Svendsen have the bill. You had better go pretty fast and keep ahead of the trooper as long as you can. I guess you understand."
"Sure," grinned the other, and getting into the saddle, rode away at a smart trot, while Prescott dismounted and led his horse quietly toward the nearest bluff.
On reaching it he stopped and, listening carefully, heard the rancher riding down the trail to Sebastian, and another beat of hoofs that grew rapidly louder. By and by he made out a dim mounted figure that pressed on fast across the shadowy waste, and for a few anxious moments wondered whether the policeman would call at the house and discover its owner's absence. He passed on, however, and was presently lost in the darkness. When the drumming of his horse's hoofs gradually died away, Prescott mounted and rode hard toward the north. It would, he thought, be an hour or two before the trooper found out his mistake; the rancher would not betray him, and there was a prospect of his getting clear away.
THE CONSTRUCTION CAMP
The light was fading when Prescott walked into sight of the construction camp. It was situated on the edge of a belt of a muskeg sprinkled with birches and small pines, where the new railroad, leaving the open country to the south, ran up toward the great coniferous forest that fringes the northern portion of the prairie. Prescott had sold his horse at a lonely farm and he was now tired and hungry, but he felt satisfied that he was on the right track and had succeeded in eluding the police. Curtis and Private Stanton were men of fixed ideas; believing Jernyngham to be dead, they had, no doubt, merely made a few perfunctory inquiries at the nearest railroad camps. Moreover, as they had reason for concluding that Prescott would seek refuge across the American boundary, they would concentrate their efforts on looking for him there. Accordingly, he felt safe from pursuit.
By and by he stopped to look about. To the eastward all was gray, a dim waste of grass dotted with shadowy trees; but a vivid band of green still glowed on the western horizon. In front lay a broad shallow basin, streaked with filmy trails of mist, between which came the wan gleam of little pools. A causeway stretched out into the morass, sprinkled with the indistinct figures of toiling men. At its inner end, where it left the higher ground, a row of cars stood on a side-track, and near-by there were ranged straggling lines of tents and wooden shacks. Wisps of blue smoke drifted across the swamp, and a beam of strong white light streamed out from the electric head-lamp of a locomotive. The still air was filled with the clink of shovels, the clang of flung-down rails, and the sharp rattle of falling gravel.
Going on until he reached the camp, Prescott stopped beside a group of men sitting about a fire, and loosed the heavy pack that galled his shoulders.
"If you can give me a place to lie down and a bit of supper, boys, I'd be obliged," he said.
Two or three of them turned and looked at him without much curiosity. They were strong, brown-faced fellows, dressed in old duck overalls and slate-colored shirts, with shapeless hats and dilapidated knee-boots.
"Why, certainly," responded one in a clean English intonation. "However, as we're paying for our board, we'll have to invite you as the guest of the construction contractor; but there's no reason you should be shy about accepting his hospitality. Sit down until Shan Li brings the grub along."
"Here's a place," said another. "Want a job?"
"I don't know yet," Prescott answered. "I'm looking for a friend of mine: man of middle height, with pale-blue eyes and a curious twinkling smile. He was wearing a green shirt of finer stuff than they generally sell at the settlements when I last saw him, and I expect he'd have a fresh scar on his head."
There was signs of interest and amusement which suggested that Prescott was on the right track.
"Did he call himself Kermode?" one of the men asked.
Prescott hesitated. It was possible that some of them had heard of the Jernyngham affair, and he had no wish that they should connect him with it. While he considered his answer, the man with the English accent broke in:
"We needn't trouble about the point. One name's as good as another, as our friend Kermode, who seems to have been a bit of philosopher, remarked when they put him on the pay-roll."
"When I was back at Nelson a smart policeman rode into the camp," said another of the group. "Wanted to know if we had seen the man you're asking for; gave us quite a good description of him. Anyway, I hadn't seen him then, and when I struck him afterward I didn't send word to the police. I've no use for those fellows; they're best left alone."
"Then you know him?" Prescott exclaimed eagerly.
The man looked at his comrades and there was a laugh.
"Oh, yes," said one of them; "we know him all right. Glad to meet a man who's a friend of his; but if you expect a job here, you don't want to mention it. If another fellow of that kind comes along, the boss will get after him with a gun."
"Kermode," the Englishman explained, "is a man of happy and original thoughts. I believe I might say he is unique."
The conversation was interrupted by a steadily increasing rattle, and a great light that moved swiftly blazed on the camp. It faded as a ballast-train rolled out upon the bank which traversed the swamp, with a swarm of indistinct figures clinging to the low cars. When it stopped, the sides of the cars fell outward, a big plow moved forward from one to another, and broken rock and gravel, pouring off, went crashing and rattling down the slope. The noise it made rang harshly through the stillness of the evening, and when it ceased a whistle screamed and the clangor of the wheels began again. As the engine backed the train away, the blaze of the head-lamp fell on an object lying half buried in the muskeg about sixty feet below the line, and one of the men, pointing to it, touched Prescott's arm.
"See what that is?" he said.
Prescott saw that it was what the railroad builders call a steel dump: a metal wagon capable of carrying thirty or forty tons of ballast, with an automatic arrangement for throwing out its load.
"How did it get there?" he asked.
"Tell you after supper," said the fellow. "They're bringing it along."
A whistle blew and Prescott followed his companions into a shed built of railroad ties and galvanized iron. It was lighted by kerosene lamps which diffused an unpleasant odor, and fitted with rude tables and benches; but the meal laid out in it was bountiful and varied: pork, hard steak, fish from the lakes, potatoes, desiccated fruits, and tea. The shovel-gang paid six dollars a week for their board and got good value. As usual, most of them were satisfied in fifteen minutes, for in the West the rank and file eat with determined haste, and when they trooped out Prescott went back with his new friends to the fire. Taking out his pipe, he made himself as comfortable as possible on a pile of gravel and, tired with a long day's march, looked lazily about. The strong light still blazed along the bank where hurrying men passed through the stream of radiance, vanished into the shadows, and appeared again. There was a continuous rattling and clinking and roar of falling stones; rails rang as they were moved, and now and then hoarse orders came out of the darkness.
After Prescott had asked a few leading questions, the men began to talk of Kermode, who had already left the camp, and the rancher was able to put together the story of his doings there.
* * * * *
The muskeg was an unusually bad one. It swallowed the rock the men dumped in; logs, brush, and branches afforded no foundation, and a long time elapsed before the engineers were satisfied about the base of the embankment. The weather remained unusually hot until late in the fall, and the contractor, already behind time and anxious to make progress before the frost interfered with his work, developed a virulent temper. His construction foreman drove the men mercilessly, spurring on the laggards with scathing words and occasionally using a heavy fist when they showed resentment. The laborers' nerves were worn raw, their strength was exhausted; but the muskeg must be filled and, while carload after carload of rock and gravel was hurled down, the line crept on.
Things were in this state when Kermode reached the camp and, on applying for work, was given a shovel and made to use it in a strenuous fashion. It appeared that he was not expert with the tool and the foreman's most pointed remarks were generally addressed to him, but he had a humorous manner which gained him friends. Once or twice, to his comrades' admiration, he engaged his persecutor in a wordy contest and badly routed him, which did not improve matters. Indeed, his last victory proved a costly one, because afterward when there was anything particularly unpleasant or dangerous to be done, Kermode was selected. As it happened, the risks that must be faced were numerous.
Kermode stood it for some weeks, though he grew thin and his hands were often bleeding. In spite of this, his eyes still twinkled mischievously and, when occasion demanded, his retort was swift and edged with wit. Now and then he made reprisals, for when, as happened once or twice, a load of gravel nearly swept the foreman down the bank, Kermode was engaged in the vicinity. Another time, the bullying martinet was forced to jump into the muskeg, where he sank to the waist, in order to avoid a mass of ballast sent down before its descent was looked for.
There was a difference of opinion about the cause of Kermode's holding out. Some of his comrades said he must have meant to wait for the arrival of the pay car, so as to draw his wages before he left; others declared that this did not count with him, and he stayed because he would not be driven out. The Englishman took the latter view for, as he told Prescott, Kermode once said to him, "I want the opposition to remember me when I quit."
By degrees the foreman's gibes grew less frequent. Kermode was more than a match for him, and his barbed replies were repeated with laughter about the camp; but his oppressor now relied on galling commands which could not be disobeyed. Kermode's companions sympathized with him, and waited for the inevitable rupture, which they thought would take a dramatic shape. At length two big steel dump cars were sent up from the east and run backward and forward between the muskeg and a distant cutting where they were filled with broken rock. This was deposited in places where the embankment needed the most reinforcing, but after a while the foreman decided that the locomotive of the gravel train need not be detained to move the cars. They could, he said, be pushed by hand, and nobody was surprised when Kermode was among the men chosen for the task.
Though the nights were getting cold, the days were still very hot, and those engaged in it found the work of propelling a steel car carrying about thirty tons of stone over rails laid roughly on a slight upward grade remarkably arduous. This, however, did not content the foreman. He took two men away; and when those whom he left had been worked to exhaustion, he changed them, with the exception of Kermode, who was kept steadily at the task. As a result, he came to be looked on as leader of the gang, and his companions took their instructions from him, which the foreman concurred in, because it enabled him to hold Kermode responsible for everything that went wrong.
Then the pay car arrived, and when wages were drawn, the men awaited developments with interest; but nothing unusual occurred until a week had passed. Kermode had had his hand crushed by a heavy stone and meant to rest it for a day or two, but his persecutor drove him out to work. He obeyed with suspicious meekness and toiled in the scorching sun all day; but a few minutes before the signal to stop in the evening for which they were eagerly waiting, the gang was ordered to run a loaded dump car to the end of the line. The men were worn out, short in temper, and dripping with perspiration. Kermode's hand pained him and in trying to save it he had strained his shoulder; but he encouraged the others, and they slowly pushed the load along, moving it a yard or two, and stopping for breath. The men on the bank were dawdling through the last few minutes, waiting to lay down their tools, and they offered the gang their sympathy as they passed. Then there was a change in their attitude as the foreman strode up the track.
"Shove!" he ordered. "Get a move on! You have to dump that rock before you quit."
They were ready to turn on him and Kermode's eyes flashed; but he spoke quietly to his men:
A few more yards were covered, the foreman walking beside the gang until they stopped for breath.
"Get on!" he cried. "Send her along, you slobs!"
"We're pretty near the top of the grade," Kermode answered him quietly. "We want to go easy, so as to stop her at the dumping-place."
The line, when finished, would cross the muskeg with a slight ascent; but the bank sank as they worked at it, and the track now led downhill toward its end. The foreman failed to remember this in his vicious mood.
"Are you going to call me down?" he roared. "Mean to teach me my job? If this crowd's a sample of white men, give me Chinamen or niggers! Get on before you make me sick, you slouching hogs!"
He became more insulting, using terms unbearable even in a construction camp, but Kermode did not answer him.
"Keep her going, boys," he said.
They made another few yards, gasping, panting, with dripping faces; and then the work grew easier as they crossed the top of the ascent.
"Push!" said Kermode. "Send her along!"
They looked at him in surprise. It was getting dark, but they could still see his face, which was quietly resolute; he evidently meant what he said, and they obeyed him. The big car began to move more freely, and they waited for an order to slacken the pace; but their leader seemed to be increasing his exertions and his eyes gleamed.
"He told us to push, boys!" he reminded them. "Rush her ahead!"
Then comprehension dawned on them. The foreman had dropped behind, satisfied, perhaps, with bullying them, but every man taxed his tired muscles for a last effort. The wheels turned faster, the men broke into a run, and none of them was astonished when a warning cry rose behind them.
"Go on!" shouted Kermode. "He'll hold me responsible! You know what to do!"
Men along the line called to them as they passed, and they answered with a breathless yell. The car was gathering speed, and they kept it going. There were further warnings, but they held on, until Kermode raised his voice harshly:
"A good shove, boys, and let her go!"
They stopped, exhausted, but the dump rolled on with its heavy load of rock, struck the guard-beams at the end of the track and smashed through them. Then with a crash and a roar the big steel car plunged down the slope, plowing up the gravel, hurling out massive stones. A cloud of dust leaped about it; there was a shrill ringing sound as an axle broke, a last downward leap, and with a mighty splash the dump came to rest, half buried, in the muskeg.
Kermode turned with a cheerful smile as the foreman ran up; and the spectators knew that the time for words had passed. Nobody could remember who struck the first blow, but Kermode's left hand was injured, and he clinched as soon as he could. For a few minutes the men reeled about the track; and then with a tense effort Kermode pushed the foreman off the bank and went down with him. The gravel was small and slippery, lying at a steep slope, and they rolled down, still grappling with each other, until there was a splash below. A few moments later Kermode painfully climbed the bank alone.
"I guess you had better go down and pull your boss out," he said. "It's pretty soft in the muskeg; I believe he got his head in, and by the way he's floundering it looks as if he couldn't see." He paused and waved his hand in genial farewell. "Good-night, boys! I'm sorry I have to leave you; but considering everything, I think I'll take the trail."
Then he turned and moved down the track, vanishing into the growing darkness.
* * * * *
When the tale was finished, Prescott sat a while, smoking thoughtfully. He imagined that he had struck Jernyngham's trail; all that he had heard was characteristic of the man.
"Do you know where Kermode went?" he asked.
"No. Guess he might have headed for a camp farther west; I've heard they're short of men."
Prescott thought this probable and determined to resume his search in the morning. Presently the gravel train came back and the stream of light from the head-lamp, blazing along the embankment, rested on the half-buried dump. Then there was a roar as the plow flung the load off the cars, and in the silence that followed one of the men got up.
"Morning will come soon enough; I guess it's time for sleep," he said.
ON THE TRAIL
When Prescott got up the next morning, dawn was breaking across the muskeg. There was frost in the air, the freight-cars on the side-track and the roofs of the shacks were white, and a nipping breeze swept through the camp. It was already filled with sounds of activity—hoarse voices, heavy footsteps, the tolling of a locomotive bell, and the rattle of wheels—and Prescott's new friends were eating in a neighboring shed. Going in, he was supplied with breakfast, and when he left the table the Englishman joined him.
"Have you made up your mind whether you want a job or not?" he asked.
Prescott said he thought he would push on, and the man looked at him deprecatingly.
"Well," he said, "we don't want to appear inhospitable, but as things are run here, you're the guest of the boss, and since he didn't give the invitation, there might be trouble if he noticed you."
"As it happens, I want to get hold of Kermode as soon as I can," Prescott answered.
"You shouldn't have much difficulty in finding him. It's hardly possible for a man of his gifts to go through the country without leaving a plain trail behind."
Prescott agreed with this. He had not much doubt of Kermode's identity, and he thought his missing friend would give any acquaintances he made on his travels cause to remember him.
"There's a construction train starting west in about half an hour," resumed the railroad hand. "If you get on board with the boys, it will look as if you belonged to the gang."
Daylight had come when Prescott clambered up on one of the long flat cars loaded with rails and ties, and in a few minutes the train started. It followed what was called a cut-out line, which worked round the muskeg and back to the main track through a country too difficult for the latter to traverse; and for a while Prescott's interest was occupied by its progress. Groups of men in brown overalls were seated on the rails, which clanged musically in rude harmony with the clatter of the wheels. A sooty cloud streamed back above them, now and then blotting out the clusters of figures; the cars swayed and shook, and in view of the roughness of the line Prescott admired the nerve of the engineer.
The wind that whipped his face was cold and pierced the blanket he had flung over his shoulders; but the sunshine was growing brighter and the mist in the hollows was rapidly vanishing. As a rule, the depressions were swampy, and as they sped across them Prescott could see the huge locomotive rocking, while the rails, which were spiked to ties thrown down on brush, sank beneath the weight and sprang up again as the cars jolted by. As they rushed down tortuous declivities, the cars banged and canted round the curves, while Prescott held on tight, his feet braced against a rail. It was better when they joined the graded track, and toward noon he was given a meal with the others at a camp where a bridge was being strengthened. When they started again, he lay down in his blanket where the sunshine fell upon him and the end of the car kept off the wind, and lighting his pipe became lost in reflection.
It was obvious that he must use every effort to find Jernyngham and he thought he might succeed in this; but what then? To prove his innocence, in which she already believed, would not bridge the gulf between him and Muriel Hurst. It seemed impossible that she should be willing to marry a working rancher. Yet he knew that he could not overcome his love for her; there was pleasure as well as pain in remembering her frankness and gaiety and confidence in him; and the charm of her beauty was strong. He recalled the crimson of her lips, the glow of warm color in her hair, the brightness of her smile, and the softness he had once or twice seen in her violet eyes. Then he drove these thoughts away; to indulge in them would only make the self-denial he must practise the harder.
He next tried to occupy his mind with Gertrude Jernyngham, for he was still without a clue to her disconcerting change of mood. She had no great attraction for him, but he had pitied her and found a certain pleasure in her society. It was strange that after taking his view of her brother's fate against the one her father held, she should suddenly turn upon him in bitter anger. He was hurt at this, particularly as he did not think the revelation that he had personated Cyril accounted for everything. However, as it was unavoidable, he thought he could bear Miss Jernyngham's suspicion.
He was disturbed in his reflections by a sudden jolt of the train as it stopped at a water-tank. Getting down with the others, he saw a man standing in the entrance of a half-finished wooden building. The fellow looked like a mechanic, and his short blue-serge jacket and other details of his dress suggested that he was an Englishman. On speaking to him, Prescott learned that the train would be detained a while, because a locomotive and some empty cars were coming down the line. The man further mentioned that a number of railroad hands had been engaged in putting up the building until lately, when they had been sent on somewhere else, and Prescott inquired if there had been a man among them who answered to his friend's description.
"There was," said the other dryly, and called to somebody inside: "Here's a fellow asking for Kermode!"
"Bring him in!" replied a voice, and Prescott entered the building.
It contained a pump and two large steel tanks. Near one of them a man was doing something with a drill, but he took out his pipe and pointed to a piece of sacking laid on a beam.
"Sit down and have a smoke," he said. "You have plenty of time. Was Kermode a friend of yours?"
Prescott looked about the place. He saw that it was a filtering station for the treatment of water unfit for locomotive use.
"Thanks," he responded. "I knew Kermode pretty well; but I needn't stop you."
"Oh, don't mind that!" grinned the other. "We're not paid by the piece on this job. Besides, they've some chisels for us on your train and we haven't got them yet."
"You're English, aren't you?" Prescott asked. "Are you stopping out here?"
"Not much!" exclaimed the other with scorn. "What d'you take me for? There's more in life than whacking rivets and holding the caulker. When a man has finished his work in this wilderness, what has he to do? There's no music halls, no nothing; only the dismal prairie that makes your eyes sore to look at."
Prescott had heard other Englishmen express themselves in a similar fashion, and he laughed.
"If that's what you think of the country, why did you come here?"
"Big wages," replied the first man, entering the building. "Funny, isn't it, that when you want good work done you have to send for us? Every machine-shop in your country's full of labor-saving and ingenious tools, but when you build bridges with them they fall down, and I've seen tanks that wouldn't hold water."
"Oh, well," said Prescott, divided between amusement and impatience, "this isn't to the point. I understand Kermode was here with you?"
"He was. Came in on a construction train, looking for a job, and when we saw he was from the old country we put him on."
"You put him on? Don't these things rest with the division boss?"
The man grinned.
"You don't understand. We're specialists and get what we ask for. Sent the boss word we wanted an assistant, and, as we'd picked one up, all he had to do was to put him on the pay-roll."
"And did Kermode get through his work satisfactorily?"
"For a while. He was a handy man; might have made a boiler-maker if he'd took to it young. When we had nothing else to keep him busy, he'd cut tobacco for us and set us laughing with his funny talk."
This was much in keeping with Jernyngham's character. But the man went on:
"When we'd made him a pretty good hand with the file and drill, he got Bill to teach him how to caulk. He shaped first-rate, so one day we thought we'd leave him to it while we went off for a jaunt. Bill had bought an old shot-gun from a farmer, and we'd seen a lot of wild hens about."
"It would be close time—you can only shoot them in October; but I suppose that wouldn't count."
"Not a bit," said the boiler-maker. "All we were afraid of was that a train might come in with the boss on board; but we chanced it. We told Kermode he might go round the tank-plate landings—the laps, you know—with the caulker, and give them a rough tuck in, ready for us to finish; and then we went off. Well, we didn't shoot any wild hens, though Bill got some pellets in his leg, and when we came back we both felt pretty bad when we saw what Kermode had done. Bill couldn't think of names enough to call him, and he's good at it."
"What had he done?"
"Hammered the inside of the landings down with a gullet you could put your finger in. Too much energy's your mate's complaint. Nobody could tell what that man would do when he gets steam up. Understand, we're boiler-making specialists, sent out on awkward jobs; and he'd put in work that would disgrace a farmer! For all that, it was Bill's fault for speaking his mind too free—he got thrown behind the tank."
"I wasn't," contradicted the other. "He jumped at me unexpected when the spanner hit him, and I fell."
Prescott laughed. Remembering how Jernyngham had driven a truculent rabble out of Sebastian, he could imagine the scene in the shed; but it was evident that the boiler-makers bore him no malice.
"After all," said the first one, "when we cooled off and got talking quiet, he said he'd better go, and we parted friendly."
"Do you know where he went?"
"I don't; we didn't care. We'd had enough of him. First thing was to put that caulking right, and we spent three or four days driving the landings down—you can do a lot with good soft steel. Anyhow, when we filled up the time-sheet showing how far we'd got on with the job, there was a nasty letter from the engineer. Wanted to know what we'd been playing at and said he'd have us sent home if we couldn't do better."
While Prescott thanked them for the information a bell began to toll and there was a rattle of wheels. Hurrying out, he saw a locomotive approaching the tank and men clambering on to the cars in which he had traveled. Soon after he joined them, the train rolled out of the side-track and sped west, clattering and jolting toward the lurid sunset that burned upon the edge of the plain. Jack-pines and scattered birches stood out hard and black against the glare, the rails blazed with crimson fire and faded as the ruddy light changed to cold green, and there was a sting of frost in the breeze.
They dropped a few men at places where work was going on, stopped for water, and crawled at slow speed over half-finished bridges and lengths of roughly graded line. After nightfall it grew bitterly cold and Prescott, lying on the boards with his blanket over him, shivered, half asleep. For the most part, darkness shut them in, but every now and then lights blazed beside the line and voices hailed the engineer as the pace decreased. Then, while the whistle shrieked, ballast cars on a side-track and tall iron frameworks slipped by, and they ran out again into the silent waste. Prescott was conscious of a continuous jolting which shook him to and fro; he thought he heard a confused altercation among his companions at the end of the car, and the clang of wheels and the shaking rails rang in measured cadence in his ears. Then the sounds died away and he fell into a heavy sleep.
It was noon the next day when he alighted, aching all over, where the line ran into a deep hollow between fir-clad hills. A stream came flashing through the gorge and at the mouth of it shacks and tents and small frame houses straggled up a rise, with a wooden church behind them. Farther up, the hollow was filled with somber conifers, and the hills above it ran back, ridge beyond ridge, into the distance. Then, looking very high and far away, a vast chain of snowy summits was etched against a sky of softest blue. Those that caught the light gleamed with silvery brightness, but part of the great range lay in shadow, steeped in varying hues of ethereal gray. From north to south, as far as the eye could follow, the serrated line of crag and peak swept on majestically.
Tired as he was, Prescott felt the impressiveness of the spectacle; but he had other things to think about, and slipping away from the railroad hands, he turned toward a rude frame hotel which stood among the firs beside the river. Rows of tall stumps spread about it, farther back lay rows of logs, diffusing a sweet resinous fragrance. Through a gap between the towering trunks one looked up the wild, forest-shrouded gorge, and the litter of old provision cans, general refuse, and discarded boots could not spoil the beauty of the scene. Prescott asked for a room; and sitting outside after dinner, he gathered from some men, who were not working, the story of Kermode's next exploit. Their accounts of it were terse and somewhat disconnected, but Prescott was afterward able to amplify them from the narrative of a more cultured person.
* * * * *
Kermode had been unloading rails all day, and he was standing on the veranda one evening when a supply train from the east was due. It appeared that he had renewed his wardrobe at the local store and invariably changed his clothes when his work was finished. This was looked upon as a very unusual thing, and his companions thought it even more curious that he had not been known to enter the bar of the hotel; its proprietor was emphatic on the point. A number of railroad hands lounged about, attired as usual in their working clothes.
At length the tolling of a bell broke through the silence of the woods and the train ran in. The rutted street became crowded with unkempt, thirsty men, and in a few minutes the hotel was filled with their harsh voices. Last of all appeared a girl, with a very untidy man carrying a bag beside her. She walked with a limp, and looked jaded and rather frightened. Her light cloak was thick with dust and locomotive cinders which clung to the woolly material; her face was hot and anxious, but attractive.
"Thank you," she said to her companion, opening her purse when they reached the veranda.
"Shucks! You can put that back," returned the man with an awkward gesture and then, lifting the bag, carefully replaced the end of a garment that projected through the bottom. "I'll carry the grip in for you, but you want to be careful with the thing. Seems to have got busted when the rails fell on it."
The girl passed through a wire-net door that he opened, and Kermode, following, waited for several minutes after her companion had rung a bell. Then a man in a white shirt and smart clothes appeared.
"Can I send a telegram from here to Drummond?" she asked him.
"No; the wires won't run into that district until next year."
"How can I get there?"
"I guess you'll have to hire a team at the livery-stable; take you about three days to get through."
The girl looked dismayed.
"Then can you give me a room to-night?" she asked.
"Sorry," said the man, "we're full up with the railroad boys; the waitresses have to camp in the kitchen. Don't know if anybody can take you in; the track bosses have got all the rooms in town."
He disappeared and the girl sat down, looking very forlorn and disconsolate. Her voice was English and she had obviously traveled a long distance in an open car on the supply train. Kermode felt sorry for her. He took off his hat as he approached.
"If you don't mind waiting a few minutes, I'll see if I can find you quarters," he said.
She glanced at him suspiciously, with a heightened color, which he thought a favorable sign, but her eyes grew more confident and when she agreed he withdrew. As a man of experience who had been a favorite with women, he was, however, guilty of an error of judgment during his search. A smart young woman with whom he was on friendly terms managed a cigar store, and it is possible that she would have taken some trouble to oblige him; but his request that she should offer shelter to another girl whose acquaintance he seemed to have made in a most casual manner was received with marked coldness. Kermode, indeed, felt sorry he had suggested it when he left the store and set out for a shack belonging to the widow of a man killed on the line. She was elderly and grim, a strict Methodist from the east, who earned a pittance by mending the workmen's clothes. After catechizing Kermode severely, she gave a very qualified assent; and returning to the hotel, he found the girl anxiously waiting for him. She looked relieved when he reported his success.
"I had better go at once," she said. "You think Mrs. Jasper will take me in?"
Kermode picked up the bag.
"To tell the truth, she only promised to have a look at you." Then he smiled reassuringly. "I've no doubt there'll be no difficulty when she has done so."
The girl followed him and, as they went slowly up the street, while all the loungers watched them, she gave Kermode a confused explanation. Her name was Helen Foster, and she had come from England to join a brother who had taken up a farm near Drummond, which Prescott had heard was a remote settlement. Her brother had told her to notify him on her arrival at Winnipeg and await instructions, but on board the steamer she had met the wife of a railroad man engaged on the new line who had offered her company to a point in the west from which Helen could reach her destination. On arriving at the railroad man's station, he had sent her on by the supply train.
A little distance up the street, Kermode stopped outside a shed in which a fellow of unprepossessing appearance was rubbing down a horse. His character, as Kermode knew, was no better than his looks.
"I must see the liveryman," he told the girl, and when he had sent the hostler for him the proprietor came out.
"The round-trip to Drummond will take six days, and you'd want a team," he said. "I'd have to charge you thirty dollars."
Kermode looked dubious, his companion dismayed. She had three dollars and a few cents.
"Can you drive this lady there?" Kermode asked.
"I can't. Jim would have to go."
"I think not," said Kermode firmly. "I'll see you about a saddle-horse in the morning." He turned to the girl: "We'll go along again."
A few minutes later they reached the widow's shack and Kermode waited some time after his companion was admitted. As she did not come out, he concluded that Mrs. Jasper was satisfied and returned to the hotel, where he was freely bantered by the loungers.
"That will do, boys," he said at length. "If there's any more of this kind of talk, the man who keeps it up will get badly hurt."
They saw that he meant it and, as he was popular, they left him in peace.
MISS FOSTER'S ESCORT
On the morning after he met Helen Foster, Kermode sought a foreman with whom he was on good terms.
"I want to quit work for a week," he said abruptly.
"Sorry; I can't give you leave, and the boss went down the line yesterday. If you let up before you see him, it's quite likely he won't take you back."
"If he doesn't I won't be very grieved. Throwing forty-foot rails about all day palls on one. But what about my wages up to date?"
"That's a matter for the pay-clerk when he comes along. If you quit without notice, he'll make trouble."
Kermode considered this; but he had about ten dollars in his pocket and he was not of provident nature. He decided that something must be left to chance, though the thought that he might have handled heavy rails for the contractor's exclusive benefit was strongly distasteful. Walking across the town, he paid a visit to Miss Foster.
"Can you ride?" he asked her.
"I haven't ridden for years."
"Perhaps you could manage a steady horse which wouldn't go faster than a walk?" he suggested.
"Yes." Then she hesitated. "But horses are expensive, and I have very little money left. Somehow, it seems to disappear rapidly in Canada."
"That's an annoying trick it has," Kermode laughed. "However, you had better start for Drummond this morning, and I'll go with you."
The girl looked dubious. She knew nothing about him, but his manner and appearance were in his favor, and her position was far from pleasant. Mrs. Jasper, who had already presented what appeared to be an extortionate bill, seemed by no means anxious to keep her, and it might be a long time before she could communicate with her brother. How she was to hold out until he came to her assistance she could not tell.
"Thank you," she said, gathering her courage; and after promising that he would be back in an hour, Kermode went away.
He was a man who acted on impulse and, as a rule, the more unusual a course was the better it pleased him. In spite of her lameness Miss Foster was attractive, which, perhaps, had its effect, though he was mainly actuated by compassion and the monotony of his track-laying task. He did not think the settlement, in which there were very few women, was the kind of place in which she could comfortably remain, particularly if her means were exhausted. Presently he met the livery-stable keeper driving in his buggy and motioned to him to pull up.
"How much will you charge for the hire of the roan, to go to Drummond?" he asked, and the man named his charge.
"I'll give you eight dollars now and the balance when I come back."
"No sir!" replied the other firmly. "You might fix up to stay there."
"Will an order on the railroad pay-clerk satisfy you?"
"It won't. If you want the horse, you must put the money down."
"Then I can't make the deal."
The man drove on, but Kermode was not to be daunted by such a difficulty; besides, he had noticed Jim, the hired man, dawdling about the outside of the stable. When the buggy was out of sight, he accosted him.
"I want the roan in half an hour," he said. "I see you have Mrs. Leaver's saddle here, and as she's away, you had better put it on. I'm going to take the lady you saw with me to Drummond."
"S'pose you have seen the boss about it?"
"You must have noticed me talking to him," Kermode replied curtly. "Bring the horse along to Mrs. Jasper's as soon as you're ready."
Then he returned to the hotel and wrote a note which he gave the bar-tender, instructing him to let the proprietor of the livery-stable have it when he came in for dinner. After this he succeeded in borrowing a small tent, and when he had supplied himself with provisions he hurried toward the widow's shack. The horse was already there, and when he had strapped on the folded tent and Miss Foster's bag he helped her to mount, and set off, carrying his blankets and stores in a pack on his back. He showed no sign of haste and chatted gaily, though he was anxious to get out of the town as soon as possible, because he did not know when the stable-keeper would return.
It was a clear morning; the girl looked brighter after her night's rest, and the fresh air brought a fine color into her face. Kermode kept her laughing with his light chatter, but he was nevertheless glad when they reached the shadow of the pines, where they could travel faster without attracting attention. After half an hour's rapid walking, he left the trail, which ran on toward Drummond for a day's journey before it stopped at a ranch, and turned down into the valley. He thought it might be wiser to keep to the south of the line he would be expected to take, though this would entail the crossing of rougher country. Reaching the edge of a stream, he stopped and regarded it with some concern. It ran fast between great boulders and looked deep, but as there was no sign of a better crossing he warned the girl to hold on, and led the horse in.
After a few paces he sank above his knees, and found it hard to keep his footing and the horse's head upstream. The roan was slipping badly among the stones and the hem of his companion's skirt was getting wet. He was pleased to notice that she did not look unduly alarmed.
"We'll be across in another minute or two," he said as cheerfully as he could.
She smiled at him rather dubiously and at the next step he sank deeper and dragged the horse round as he clung to the bridle. The roan plunged savagely and the water rippled about Kermode's waist as he struggled for a foothold on the slippery stones. With a desperate effort he managed to find firmer bottom and soon came out on a strip of shingle. Stopping there for a few moments, he gathered breath while the girl looked about. They were in the bottom of a deep gorge filled with the sound of running water and sweet resinous scents. Here the torrent flashed in bright sunshine; there it flowed, streaked with foam, through dim shadow, while somber pines towered above it. There was no sound or sign of human life; they had entered the gates of the wilderness.
"Where do we go next?" the girl asked.
"Up this slope," said Kermode. "Then among the pines, across the hills, and high plains, into a lonely land. I don't suppose we'll see a house until we get to Drummond."
"Do you know the way?"
"I don't," Kermode said cheerfully. "I've never been here before, but I'm accustomed to traveling about the prairie, where trails are scarce. You don't look daunted."
There was a hint of pleasurable excitement in his companion's laugh.
"Oh," she replied, "adventures appeal to me, and I've never met with any. For three years since my brother left, I've led a life of drudgery; and before that, half the pleasures I might have had were denied me by an accident."
Recognizing a kindred nature, Kermode looked sympathetic. She was evidently alluding to her lameness, which must prove a heavy handicap to a girl of the active, sanguine temperament he thought she possessed.
"In a way, it was a great adventure for you to come out here alone over the new road," he said.
"I thought so last night," she confessed with a smile. "When I reached the settlement and found I could get no farther, I was really scared. Now, however, all my fears have gone. I suppose it's the sunshine and this glorious air."
"Well, we had better get on. I'm afraid you'll have to walk a while."
She let him lift her down, with no sign of prudishness or coquetry, and he led the horse uphill while she followed. Her attitude pleased him, because he had no desire for philandering, although he was content to act as protector and guide. Still, while he adapted his pace to the girl's he thought about her. Her rather shabby attire and scanty baggage hinted that she had not been used to affluence; but she showed signs of possessing a vigorous, well-trained mind, and he decided that she must have been a teacher.
When they reached the top of the ascent, she mounted and they went on among scattered clumps of pines and across a tableland as fast as he could travel, because it seemed prudent to place as long a distance as possible between them and the settlement. He had left the place with a valuable horse and saddle which he had not paid for, and he was very dubious whether the livery-stable keeper would be satisfied with the promises he had left. Accordingly he only stopped for half an hour at noon; and evening was near when he helped the girl down and picketed the horse beside a small birch bluff, and set up the tent.
"There are provisions in my pack and you might lay out supper, but I don't think we'll make a fire to-night," he said. "I'll be back in about half an hour; I want to see what lies beyond the top of yonder ridge."
She let him go, and he climbed between slender birches to the summit of a long rise, where he lay down and lighted his pipe. From his lofty position he commanded a wide sweep of country—hills whose higher slopes were still bathed in warm light, valleys filled with cool blue shadow, straggling ranks of somber pines. The air was sharp and wonderfully bracing; the wilderness, across which he could wander where he would, lured him on. Irresponsible and impatient of restraint, as he was, he delighted in the openness and solitude. For all that, he concentrated his gaze on one particular strip of bare hillside. At its foot ran the gorge they had crossed, but it had now grown narrow and precipitous, a deep chasm wrapped in shadow. He did not think a horse could be led down into it, which was consoling, because if any pursuit had been attempted, it would follow the opposite side, near which a trail ran.
After a while his vigilance was rewarded, and he smiled when three very small figures of mounted men appeared on the hillslope. They were going back disappointed, and he did not think he had much to fear from them. Wages were high about the settlement, where everybody was busy, and the liveryman would, no doubt, find the search too costly to persist in. When the horsemen had vanished, he returned to the camp, and Miss Foster glanced at him keenly.
"Supper's quite ready; you have been some time," she said. "What did you see from the top?"
"Mountains, woods and valleys. They were well worth looking at in the sunset light."
"And what else? As you live in this country, you didn't go up for the view."
Kermode saw that she was suspicious, and thought her too intelligent to be put off with an excuse.
"I'll admit that I wasn't greatly surprised to see three men a long way off. They were riding back to the settlement and I dare say they were angry as well as tired."
"Ah!" she said. "You wouldn't light a fire, though you have a package of tea here and there's a spring near-by. You thought it wouldn't be prudent?"
"I did think something of the kind; but won't you begin your supper? What shall I hand you?"
"Wait a little. You haven't told me very much yet." Then her eyes sparkled with amusement. "Mr. Kermode, I'd better say that my brother will be responsible for the expenses of this journey. I suppose you haven't paid for the horse?"
"It's unfortunately true. The trouble was that your brother lives a long way off, and you led me to believe that your money was running out."
"I have," she said calmly, "fifty cents left."
Kermode began on a sandwich she handed him.
"And I've three or four dollars. You see our difficulty needed a drastic remedy."
"But you were at work on the railroad. I understand wages are high."
"That's so; but it's some time since the pay car came along."
"But you will get what is due you, when you go back?"
"Have another sandwich," said Kermode. "You have made them very well." Then seeing that she meant to have an answer, he added: "I'm not going back."
A little color crept into her face as she looked at him. Kermode had for a time led a dissipated life, but there had been a change during the last few months. He had practised abstinence, and in new surroundings found it easier than he had expected; severe labor had healed and hardened him. His brown skin was clear, his pale-blue eyes were bright and steady, his figure was spare and finely lined.
"So," she said, "you sacrificed your wages to assist a stranger?"
He made her a whimsical bow.
"I'd like to think we'll be better acquainted before we part."
"But what will you do now?"
"Oh," he responded lightly, "that's hardly worth talking about. I'll strike something. So long as you're pretty active there's generally work to be had, and when it grows monotonous you pull out and go on again."
Miss Foster mused.
"After all," she said, "life must have a good deal to offer a strong man with the ability to make the most of things. He can set off, when he likes, in search of new and interesting experiences."
"It has its drawbacks now and then," declared Kermode, smiling. "Anyway, you needn't imagine you're shut off from everything of the kind. You took a big risk and faced a startling change when you came out here."
"So I felt. Though I had misgivings, the thought of it drew me."
"I understand. You have courage, the greatest gift, and you felt circumscribed at home. No doubt, the love of adventure isn't confined to one sex. It's a longing many of us can't overcome; but it doesn't seem to meet with general sympathy, and it's apt to get one into difficulties."
"Yes," Miss Foster assented with some bitterness; "particularly a woman."
After that, she went on with her meal while dusk crept up about the lonely camp. The sky was pale green in the west and the hills stood out against it, black and calm; not a breath of wind was stirring and it was very still, except that out of the distance came the murmur of falling water. When the air grew damper, Kermode brought her a blanket which she wrapped about her shoulders and they talked on for an hour in a casual manner. Then he got up.
"You will be quite safe in the tent," he said. "I've found a comfortable berth in the wood. We'll get off as soon as it's light to-morrow."
He disappeared into the shadows and she noticed that he had left her the two blankets he had brought from the settlement. She hesitated about taking them both, but decided not to call him back. A little later she entered the tent, while Kermode scraped out a hollow in a bank of fallen leaves and went to sleep.
The grass was white with frost when Miss Foster left the tent in the morning, but a fire of branches crackled cheerfully near-by and Kermode was busy with a frying-pan. A light cloud of smoke rose into the still, cold air, and day was breaking on the eastern horizon.
"This looks pretty good," he said, taking out a greasy cake and several strips of pork. "If you will make the tea, I'll water the horse."
He was back in a few minutes. His companion enjoyed the simple meal, and when it was finished they resumed the march. During most of the day their pathway led over high, treeless ridges which lay in bright sunshine, though a delicate haze dimmed the encircling hills. Then they dipped to a valley where they had trouble among the timber and the girl was forced to dismount. The winter gales had swept the forest and great pines lay piled in belts of tangled ruin, through which Kermode found it difficult to lead the horse, while as they floundered over branches and through crackling brush his companion's limp grew more pronounced. Afterward there were several rapid creeks to be forded, and Kermode was wet and Miss Foster very tired when they camped at sunset, in a grove of spruce. Little was said during the evening meal and soon after it was over the girl sought her tent, while Kermode found a resting-place among the withered sprays at the foot of a tree.
They spent the next morning toiling up a long ascent, and from its summit a prospect of majestic beauty burst upon them. The great peaks had grown nearer, the air was clear, and the girl sat, rapt, in the saddle, gazing at the vast snow-fields that glittered with ethereal brilliance, very high up against a cloudless sky. Then the wonderful blue coloring of the shadows streaking the white slopes caught her glance, and she found it unutterably lovely. Kermode, however, had an eye for other things and carefully searched the wide valley that stretched away beneath them.
"What are you looking for?" the girl asked at length.
"Smoke; I thought I saw a faint streak, but it has gone. I suppose you didn't notice it?"
"Oh no!" she told him with a smile. "I'm afraid I shouldn't have noticed such a commonplace thing, even if it had been very plain."
He made a sign of comprehension.
"Then what have you seen?" he asked.
"Unapproachable, stainless whiteness, touched with an unearthly glory that daunts the mind!" Then her expression changed. "But the sight is too overpowering to talk about. I would have been more useful had I looked for smoke, as that would mean a house."
"We have stores enough for another meal or two and had better get on. I believe I've kept pretty near the line I was told to take, but I'd be glad to see the first ranch in the Drummond district by supper time."
They went down into the valley, struggling through belts of timber and clumps of brush, until they reached a broad expanse of grass broken by small bluffs. After camping for a meal, they pushed on steadily while the girl grappled with a growing fatigue, until the white peaks faded into dusky blue and the waste grew shadowy. Kermode had seen no sign of life and he was getting anxious when, as they approached a bluff, he pulled up the horse.
"Listen!" he exclaimed. "I think I heard something!"
There was silence for a moment or two, and then he caught a soft drumming and a rattle that might have been made by wheels.
"Yes," he said. "It's a team and wagon."
The sound grew plainer, and when Kermode shouted, an answer came out of the gathering darkness. Then a moving shape appeared from behind the bluff, and a minute or two later the newcomer pulled up his team.
"Well," he said, "what do you want?"
"Tom!" cried the girl excitedly.
The man sprang down, and Kermode needed no explanation. After his companion had dismounted and run forward, he stood quietly holding the horse, until she beckoned him.
"This is Mr. Kermode, who brought me here," she said. "My brother, Tom Foster."
"Indebted to you," responded the man. "I was driving home when you shouted; my place is about six miles off. If you'll follow, I'll take my sister in the wagon."
Kermode thought it better that she should explain the reason for their journey, and he got into the saddle and contented himself with keeping the vehicle in sight until it stopped at a wooden house that stood near a sod stable and rude log barn. When he entered the dwelling after putting up the horse, the lamp was lighted and the stove burning. He saw that Foster was a young man with a good-humored brown face.
"I understand that I owe you more than I thought at first," he said. "Helen seems to have been pretty awkwardly situated when you appeared on the scene. Sit down and smoke while I get supper."
They talked gaily during the meal.
"Is there any means of sending back the horse I brought?" Kermode asked after a while.
"I've been thinking about that," Foster replied.
"I have a neighbor who is going east on business. He'll strike the new line where you left it, and he'll be glad to have the horse."
Then they talked about other matters, but when the men sat smoking some time later, Foster said cordially:
"You'll stay here a while?"
Kermode said that he would remain a few days.
"Where will you make for then?" his host asked. "There's nothing doing round here except a little cattle-raising."
"For the mountains, I think. I hear the railroad people are busy in the passes; but I'll try to strike something softer than handling rails."
"I can fix that," Foster declared. "They've been advertising for haulage tenders—there are a lot of piles and building logs they want brought in. Now I've two good horses I've not much use for and I'd be glad to let you have them. You could bring them back when the frost stops work."
"Thanks," said Kermode. "What's your idea of shares?"
The rancher declared that he did not expect a share, but when Kermode insisted, they arrived at a satisfactory understanding, and soon after Helen appeared the party broke up.
Kermode spent three or four pleasant days with his new friends, and when he left the ranch one morning, leading two strong horses, Helen Foster walked with him some distance up the valley. She had not known him long enough to recognize his failings, which were plentiful, but his virtues were obvious, and she knew that she would miss him.
"So you are going out on the trail again," she said. "Where will it lead you?"
"That," he answered with a gay laugh, "is more than I can tell. No doubt, to fresh adventures and strange experiences."
"But you know your first stopping-place, the railroad camp. When you have finished your work there, you could come here again and rest a while."
"No," he said, more gravely; "I'll send your brother his horses, but I don't think I'll come back. It's nice to feel that we have been pretty good friends, but it might spoil any pleasant impression I'm leaving if you saw too much of me. Besides, I'm a wanderer; the long trail beckons."
"It runs through swamps and many rough places into the lonely wilds. Aren't you afraid of weariness?"
Kermode smiled, falling into her mood.
"You may remember that there are compensations," he said; "glimpses of glory on the untrodden heights. It's true that one never gets there, but they lead one on."
"But you can see them from the valley."
"No; the farmer's eyes are fixed on the furrow; he must follow the plow. His crop and his stock are nearer him; he cannot see past them. The wanderer's mind is free."
"When you had that glimpse of glory, you turned away and looked for household smoke."
"There you have me," he laughed. "Inconsistent, wasn't it? But we're only human: one needs rest and food."
Helen changed the subject.
"Well," she declared, "I'm grateful; and if it's any comfort, you won't be forgotten."
He stopped the restive horses.
"That's good to hear," he told her. "But the ground is rough ahead and you have come some way."
"Good-by," she said, and gave him her hand.
He held it for a moment, and then, getting into the saddle, turned and swung off his hat. After that he rode on into the waste, leading one horse; and Helen Foster watched him for a while before she went back, slowly and thoughtfully, to the ranch.
THE MISSIONARY'S ALLY
On reaching the railroad camp, Kermode was engaged by the contractor to haul in logs cut in a neighboring forest for constructional purposes. The line ran into a wild valley, clinging to the rocks that formed one side of it, with a torrent brawling hoarsely among the stones beneath. Above rose vast slopes, streaked in some places with small firs, in others ground to a smooth scarp by sliding snow. Farther back were glaciers and a chain of glittering peaks.
The mouth of the valley had been laid out as the site of a future town, but so far it was occupied by rows of tents and rude wooden shacks, inhabited by the construction gangs. A large proportion of them were orderly, well-conducted men: industrious immigrants who had seized the first opportunity for getting work, small farmers attracted by high wages, skilled artisans. There were, however, some of a rougher type; and the undesirable element, was, as usual, well represented. On the whole, the camp was sober, largely because no licenses had been issued, though this did not prevent men who came up from other points from bringing liquor in, and the authorities suspected another source of supply.
Kermode had little trouble with his work, which he found profitable, and he rapidly made friends. Among them was a young Presbyterian missionary whom he met for the first time on the hillside, engaged on a squared log with a big jack-plane. He wore knee-boots and a threadbare suit of gray, while his hat had suffered from exposure to the weather. Kermode stopped his team near-by and the clergyman looked around.
"If you have a good eye, you might tell me whether this chamfer's running true," he said.
"You want a bit off here." Kermode laid his finger on the spot. "Except for that, it's good."
The clergyman sat down and pulled out a tobacco pouch.
"I'll attend to it presently, but I feel I'm entitled to a rest. Take a smoke; you're not paid on time."
"I'm not sure it would matter if I were." Kermode's eyes twinkled as he filled his pipe. "An idea of the kind you suggested doesn't go far in a construction camp, unless, of course, a foreman happens to be about. However, you made one rash statement, didn't you?"
"I'm afraid I make a good many," replied the clergyman good-humoredly. "But you are right. It would be very rash to claim all that one was entitled to; in other words, one's deserts. You're Mr. Kermode, I believe; you must know my name is Ferguson."
"What are you going to do with this log?" he asked.
"It's to be a door-post in the new church. I wonder if you would be willing to haul it in?"
Kermode said that he would be glad to do so.
"You encourage me to go a little farther," Ferguson continued. "Building a church is a costly proposition."
"So I should imagine; I can't speak from experience." Kermode was generally liberal, and he took out some money. "I think you ought to let me off with this, as I don't belong to your flock."
"It's a generous contribution; better than the excuse. There are, I may remind you, many kinds of sheep, and the outward difference is often marked. Since, you're from the old country, you can take the little Cheviot and the ponderous Shropshire as examples. You see the drift of this?"
"That they're all sheep. I've noticed, however, that they wear a good many different brands."
"Ah, the pity of it! After all, a shepherd has his human weaknesses; perhaps he's too fond of using his private mark or the stamp of his guild."
"That," Kermode smiled, "is a handsome admission. Anyway, you have no rival in shepherding the boys here; and taking us all round, we need it. But can you raise building funds on the spot?"
"Oh, no! I went to Ontario this summer and spent a month begging from people who have very little to spare. The response was generous—I've a carload of shiplap lumber coming out; but you may understand how that adds to one's responsibility."
"It's obvious. I suppose you know you're up against a strong opposition?"
"That's true, unfortunately." The clergyman looked thoughtful. "There's one group, the Mitcham crowd, who would like to run me out. The fellow's piling up money by smuggling in liquor; he and his friends are depraving the camp. They must be stopped."
"It's a big thing for one man to undertake. It may wreck your mission."
Ferguson's eyes sparkled.
"The risk mustn't count. One can't shut one's eyes to what those fellows are doing. But I want backers; will you give me your support?"
"That's more than I can consistently promise. However, I'll look on and see you get fair play. If the opposition hit below the belt, I may take a hand in."
"Thanks," responded Ferguson, and Kermode went on with his team.
He was favorably impressed by the young missionary and kept the promise he had made, though it now and then involved him in difficulties with his comrades. The carload of lumber duly arrived, and with the help of men who gave their labor after their hard day's work was done, the church was raised by the light of flaring blast-lamps which the contractor allowed. By day, Ferguson worked at it alone, and the building steadily grew into shape; but as the weather got colder trouble broke out in camp. Men engaged on the higher portions of the line were laid off by snow and frost, and when the cost of their board ran on, their tempers got short. There were dismissals, and as working hours diminished, the gangs were driven harder. Friends began to quarrel over games of chance, and the violence they displayed was often accounted for by indulgence in smuggled liquor.
Ferguson, however, was making progress: gaining staunch adherents here, tacit sympathizers there, though the opposition saw to it that several had reason to regret their joining him. Kermode took no open part in the struggle, but watched it interestedly.
At length, one nipping morning, he left his tent with a shiver before it was light and busied himself about his horses with a lantern in their rude branch and bark shelter. Winter was beginning in earnest, and a bitter wind had raged all night, covering gorge and hillside deep with snow, but this would make his hauling easier when he had broken out a trail. He plowed through the snow in the darkness, and the threatening dawn had broken when he came down the hillside with the ends of three or four big logs trailing behind his jumper-sled. The shacks and tents were white in the hollow, over which there floated a haze of thin, blue smoke; the rapid creek that flowed past them showed in leaden-colored streaks among the ice; and somber pines rose in harsh distinctness from the hillside.
Then the half-covered frame of the church caught Kermode's eye. Something was wrong with it. The skeleton tower looked out of the perpendicular; and on his second glance its inclination seemed to have increased. The snow, however, was clogging the front of his sled and he set to work to scrape it off. While he was thus engaged there was a sharp, ripping sound, and then a heavy crash, and swinging around he saw that the tower had collapsed. Where it had stood lay a pile of broken timber, and planks and beams were strewn about the snow.
Kermode urged his team downhill, and when a group of men came running up to meet him, he recognized Ferguson some distance in front of them. The man's face showed how heavy the blow had been.
"It looks bad; I'm very sorry," said Kermode when they reached the wrecked building.
"I'm afraid we can't get things straight until spring and I don't know how I'll raise the money then," declared Ferguson. "A good deal of the lumber seems destroyed, and I've levied pretty heavily on every friend I've got." Then he tried to assume a philosophic tone. "Well, I suppose this is the result of impatience; there were spikes I didn't put in because I couldn't wait for them and some tenons were badly cut. It blew hard last night and there must have been a big weight of snow on the new shingling."
"I don't think you're right," Kermode said dryly, and turned to a bridge-carpenter who stood near-by. "What's your idea?"
"The thrust of what roof they'd got up wouldn't come on the beams that gave," rejoined the man. "There's something here I don't catch on to."
"Just so," said Kermode. "Suppose you take a look at the king-posts and stringers. We'll clear this fallen lumber out of the way, boys."
They set to work, and in an hour the sound and damaged timber had been sorted into piles. Then, when the foundations were exposed, Kermode and the carpenter examined a socket in which a broken piece of wood remained.
"This has been a blamed bad tenon," the mechanic remarked. "The shoulders weren't butted home."
"I'm afraid that's true; I made it," Ferguson admitted; but Kermode, laying his finger on the rent wood, looked up at his companion.
"For all that, should it have given way as it has done?"
"I'll tell you better when we find the beam it belonged to."
It took them some time; and then the carpenter turned to Ferguson.
"You marked this tenon off before you cut it. Did you run the saw past your line?"
"No," said Ferguson with a start; "that's certain. I dressed up to the mark afterward with a chisel."
The carpenter looked at Kermode meaningly.
"Guess you're right. See here"—he indicated the broken stump—"there's a saw-cut running well inside his mark. Now that tenon was a bit too small, anyway, and when they'd notched her, she hadn't wood enough left to hold up the weight."
There were exclamations from the others standing round in the snow, but Kermode glanced at Ferguson. His face grew darkly red, but with an effort he controlled his anger.
"Who can have done this thing?" he asked.
"There's no direct evidence to show, but I've my suspicions," Kermode said. "It's dangerous to interfere with people's business, particularly when it isn't quite legitimate. You must have known you ran a risk."
"Do you think I should have let that stop me?" Ferguson asked with sparkling eyes.
"That's a matter of opinion," Kermode rejoined. "Perhaps you had better wait and think the thing over when you cool off. I've some logs to haul in."
He moved off with his team and went on with his work all day, but when night came he attended, by special invitation, a meeting held in a tent that flapped and strained in the boisterous wind. Half a dozen men were present, steady and rather grim toilers with saw and shovel, and though two or three had been born in Ontario, all were of Scottish extraction. Their hard faces wore a singularly resolute expression when Kermode entered.
"Boys," he said, "before we begin I'd better mention that taking a part in a church assembly is a new thing to me."
One or two of them frowned at this: his levity was not in keeping with the occasion.
"Ye're here, and we'll listen to your opinion, if ye hae one," said their leader. "Jock is for raiding Mitcham's shack and firing him and the other scoundrel out of camp."
"I see objections. Mitcham has a good many friends, and if he held you off, you'd have made a row for nothing, besides compromising Mr. Ferguson."
"There's reason in that," another remarked.
"Then," continued Kermode, "you can't connect Mitcham with the wrecking of your church."
"I'm thinking the connection's plain enough for us. Weel, we ken——"
"Knowing a thing is not sufficient; you want proof, and if you go ahead without it, you'll put yourselves in the wrong. This is not the time to alienate popular sympathy."
"Weel," said the leader, "hae ye a plan?"
Kermode lighted his pipe and after a few moments answered thoughtfully:
"I hear that Mitcham, Long Bill, and Libby will take the trail to-morrow with Bill's team and sled—he's laid off work because of the snow. They were away three or four days once or twice before, and when they came back a number of the boys got on a high-class jag and there was trouble in camp. I dare say you can put the things together?"
"Sure," declared one who had not spoken yet. "Where do we butt in?"
"This is my suggestion—half a dozen picked men will meet Mitcham coming home and seize the sled. If its load is what I suspect, somebody will ride off for Sergeant Inglis on my horse, and you'll have a guard ready to bring the sled to camp and hold the liquor until the police arrive. I'm inclined to think you can leave the rest to them."
A harsh smile crept into the faces of the listeners, and their leader nodded gravely.
"We cannot do better. It will work."
The plan was duly put into execution, and one bitter night Kermode and several others plodded up a frozen creek. It had been snowing hard for the last few hours and he could scarcely see his companions through the driving flakes, while the wail of the wind in the pines above drowned the soft sound of their footsteps. Kermode was tired and very cold, and could not have explained clearly what had induced him to accompany the expedition. Adventure, however, always appealed to him, and he was sorry for Ferguson, who had, he thought, been very shabbily treated. Kermode had a fellow-feeling for anybody in difficulties.
After a while the snow ceased and they could dimly see the dark pines climbing the steep banks that shut them in. It was obvious that if Mitcham's party had entered the deep hollow, they could not well get out of it. The expedition had only to go on or wait until it met them; but Kermode did not envy the man whose duty it would be to ride across the open waste to the lonely post where Sergeant Inglis might be found. Resting, however, was out of the question. They must move to keep from freezing, and though the snow began again, they plodded on, with heads lowered to meet the blast that drove the stinging flakes into their faces.
At length the leader stopped and raised his hand. Standing still, they heard a muffled sound that might have been made by the fall of hoofs ahead, and they hastily turned toward a clump of spruce. The trees concealed them and the sound grew nearer, until they could see the dim shapes of men and horses moving through the driving flakes. Then they left cover and spread out across the creek. The team stopped and an angry voice came out of the snow:
"What's this? What do you want?"
"Yon sled and its load," the leader concisely replied.
"Stand clear!" cried the voice. "Go right ahead, Bill!"
A man sprang forward and seized the near horse's head.
"Stop where you are!" he cried. "We're not looking for trouble, but we want the sled!"
Two others ran out from behind the horses, but the leader of the expedition raised his hand.
"It's six to three, Mitcham, and that's long odds. Ye'll get sled and team when ye claim them in camp. Lift a fist and ye'll give the boys the excuse they're wearying for. I'll ask nothing better."
Mitcham turned to his companions.
"They've got us, boys. Leave them to it," he said.
"Lead the horses, Kermode," directed one of the party, and the team moved on again while the leader, walking beside the sled, hastily examined its load. Several small cases lay beneath a tarpaulin.
What became of Mitcham and his friends did not appear, for they were left behind in the snow; but the night grew wilder and the cold more biting. For minutes together they could see nothing through the cloud of flakes that drove furiously past them; it was hard to urge the tired horses forward through the deeper drifts and all were thankful when they came to reaches which the savage wind had swept almost clear. They could not, however, leave the creek without their knowing it, and they had a fringe of willows, into which they stumbled now and then, as guide. When, at length, the gorge opened out, there was a high ridge to be crossed, and they had cause to remember the ascent. The route led up through belts of brush and between scattered pines, and leaving it inadvertently every now and then, they got entangled among the scrub. Two of them plodded at the stumbling horses' heads, four pushed the sled, and at the top of every steeper slope every one stopped and gasped for breath. It was now near dawn and they had marched all night after a day of heavy toil.
The ascent made, they went down the hill at an awkward run, the horses slipping with the sled pressing on them, colliding with small trees, smashing through matted brush, until they heard a hail. It was answered and another body of men appeared and escorted them into camp. Drowsy voices called to them and here and there a man looked out as they passed the lines of shacks and tents, but no word was spoken until they reached their leader's cabin. The cases were carried in and while two of the company took the horses away the others were given hot coffee and afterward sat down to wait for morning. It was very cold and icy draughts crept in, but they were undisturbed until daybreak, when there was a cry outside:
"Here's Mitcham wanting to talk to you!"
A weary man, white with snow, entered and looked eagerly round the shack.
"I've come for those cases," he said, pointing to the pile.
"What right have you to them?" Kermode inquired.
"What right?" cried the other. "They're my property; I bought them!"
"You hear that; you'll remember it, boys."
Mitcham's face grew dark as he saw the trap he had fallen into.
"Anyhow, I want them," he muttered. "You won't be wise to keep them."
"Now see here," said one of the party. "We have a dozen men round this shack, and if there's trouble, we have only to call for more. Every boy knows what to do. Strikes me it wouldn't pay you to bring your hobos along."
Mitcham looked at the others and saw that they were resolute. His enemies were masters of the situation. Bluster and threats would not serve him; but it was Kermode's amusement which caused him the most uneasiness.
"Well," he said, "keep them while you can. You're going to be sorry for this!"
He went out and several of the men broke into a laugh. They had, however, a problem to face later, when they received a sharp message from the foreman demanding their immediate return to work. All were willing to lose a day's pay, but the prompt dismissal which would follow disobedience was a more serious matter.
"The trouble is that if we leave the shack without a guard, Mitcham will steal his liquor back," declared one.
"I think I had better see Mr. Morgan," Kermode suggested, and they let him go.
The young engineer he interviewed listened with a thoughtful air to the request that several of the workmen should be given a day's leave.
"It would be awkward to let these fellows quit," the engineer protested.
"If you would tell the foreman to send the boys I'll mention ahead up the track, so they couldn't get back before evening, and give two of us a day off, it would get over the difficulty."
When he heard the names the engineer looked hard at Kermode.
"Has this request any connection with the collapse of Mr. Ferguson's church?"
"It has, indirectly. I'm sorry I can't give you an explanation."
"Try to understand how I'm situated. I may have my sympathies, but I can't be a partizan; my business is to see you do your work. Suppose I do as you suggest, will it make any trouble in the camp? I want a straight answer."
"No," said Kermode. "I give you my word that what we mean to do will lead to quietness and good order."
"Then I'll have the boys you mentioned sent up the track; they're a crowd I've had my eye on. One of your friends and you can lie off."
Kermode thanked him and went back to the shack, where he kept watch with the leader of the Presbyterians until two police troopers rode up late in the afternoon. They opened the cases and heard Kermode's story.
"You declare the man Mitcham claimed this liquor as his property?" Sergeant Inglis asked.
"He said he'd bought it. We're ready to swear to that, and we can give you the names of several more who heard him."
"I'll take them down. Where's Mitcham?"
They told him and he closed his notebook.
"You may be sent for from Edmonton later. Don't let these cases out of your sight until Private Cooper calls for them."
He went out and came back later with the trooper and a teamster they had hired, who loaded the cases on a sled. Sergeant Inglis, however, sat still in his saddle, with a watchful eye on Mitcham and another man who stood, handcuffed, at his horse's side. When the police had ridden off with their prisoners, Morgan, the engineer, sent for Kermode.
"I've seen the sergeant and he gave me an outline of the affair," he said. "It was cleverly thought out—I suppose the idea was yours?"
"I can't deny it," returned Kermode modestly.
"Well," said the other, "see that your friends and you begin work as usual to-morrow."
During the next two weeks Ferguson made some progress in repairing the damage to his church. He found several helpers, now that his strongest opponent had been removed. The weather, however, grew more severe and as the frost interfered with operations, men were freely dismissed. One day Morgan and the contractor's clerk sat talking in the latter's office.
"I'll have to cut out two or three teams," he said. "I don't know whom I ought to fire."
"Kermode," Morgan advised promptly.
The clerk looked surprised.
"Foreman reports him as a pretty good teamster. He strikes me as smart and capable," he objected.
"He is. In fact, that's the trouble. I like the man, but you had better get rid of him."
"You're giving me a curious reason."
"I expect our plans for the winter may lead to some trouble with the boys; such work as we can carry on is going to be severe. Now do you think it prudent to provide them with a highly intelligent leader?"
"Guess you're right," the clerk agreed. "He'll have to go, though I'm sorry to part with him."
"I'll send him to another job nearer the coast," said Morgan.
The next day Kermode was informed of this decision and took it good-humoredly. Before leaving the camp he spent an evening with Ferguson, who expressed keen regret at his departure.