"I have an idea that I may have got you into trouble, and it hurts me," the minister said.
Kermode laughed in a reassuring manner.
"It's likely that you're wrong; but I'm not the first man who has found a righteous cause unprofitable."
"That," Ferguson returned gravely, "is in one sense very true."
They sat up late, talking; and the next morning Kermode found means of sending Foster's horses back, and then resumed his journey.
THE PASSAGE OF THE MOUNTAINS
Kermode had been gone a fortnight when Prescott reached the camp and heard from Ferguson and others of his latest exploit. He smiled as he listened to their stories, but that he should find people willing to talk about the man did not surprise him. Kermode was not likely to pass unnoticed: his talents were of a kind that seized attention. Where he went there was laughter and sometimes strife; he had a trick of winning warm attachment, and even where his departure was not regretted he was remembered.
Ferguson insisted on taking Prescott in, for his comrade's sake, and late one evening he sat talking with him beside the stove. His house was rudely put together, shingle-roofed and walled with shiplap boards that gave out strong resinous odors. The joints were not tight and stinging draughts crept in. Deep snow lay about the camp and the frost was keen.
"I can't venture to predict Kermode's movements," said the clergyman. "It was his intention to make for a camp half-way to the coast, but he may change his mind long before he gets there."
"Yes," Prescott replied; "that's the kind of man he is."
"You and Kermode strike me as differing in many ways; yet you seem strongly attached to him."
"That's true," Prescott assented. "I can't see that I owe him anything, and he once led me into a piece of foolishness that nobody but himself could have thought of. I knew the thing was crazy, but I did it when he urged me, and I've regretted it ever since. Still, when I meet the fellow I expect I shan't have a word of blame for him."
"He's a man I had a strong liking for, though on many matters our points of view were opposite. However, I dare say it's something to be thankful for that we're not all made alike."
"Kermode's unique," Prescott explained. "I'm of the plodding kind and I find that consequences catch me up. Kermode's different: he plunges into recklessness and the penalty falls on somebody else."
"You don't mean by his connivance?"
"Never! It's the last thing I meant. Kermode never shirks. Bring a thing home to him and he'll face it, but somehow he generally escapes. There's the matter I mentioned—he and I played a fool trick, and while he rambles about the country, flinging a foreman down an embankment, assisting a lady in distress, posing as a temperance reformer, in his usual inconsequent way, I'm deep in trouble, and so are other people who don't deserve it. So far I've always reached the scene of his latest exploit soon after he had left; but the man must be found."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"Follow him to the Pacific, if necessary. As the country isn't opened up, he can't get off the line."
"I'm afraid you're going to have a very rough journey. The track's surveyed and blazed; they're working at it in sections, but there are big gaps where nothing has been done yet, and they have been withdrawing a large number of men. Crossing the mountains is a tough proposition in the winter."
"Kermode didn't seem afraid of it."
"He started two weeks ago, when there had been less snow. You'll find it difficult to get through the passes now."
"Anyway," declared Prescott, "I have to get through."
Ferguson pondered the simple answer. It was, he thought, typical of the man, and the contrast between him and his friend became more forcible. Kermode exercised a curious charm. His gay, careless nature made him excellent company, and he had a strain of somewhat eccentric genius; but he was irresponsible and erratic, one could not depend on him. The Canadian was of different temperament: slower, less subject to impulse, but more stubborn and more consistent. When dealing with him one would know what to expect. He would reason out a purpose and then unwaveringly adhere to it.
"Well," the clergyman said, "you may have to cross a big province; and though it's warmer as you get down to the coast, the weather's often nearly arctic among the ranges, while it's only here and there that you'll have a chance to find shelter. It's a trip that's not to be undertaken rashly. You'll need a fur coat, among other things, and I think I can get you one. You had better take a couple of days' rest so as to start fresh. And now it's time for bed."
Prescott spent the next day with him and left the camp at daybreak on the second morning. He wore a long coat, from which the fur had peeled in patches, and carried a heavy pack besides a small ax. His boots were dilapidated, but he had been unable to replace them. There was sharp frost and when he boarded a construction train he looked back at the camp with keen regret; he shrank from the grim wilds ahead. A haze of smoke hung over the clustering shacks, lights still blinked among them, and already the nipping air was filled with sounds of activity. Then the locomotive shrieked and he turned his face toward the lonely white hills as the cars moved forward with a jerk. It was bitterly cold, though he lay down out of the wind behind the load of rails, where hot cinders rattled about him and now and then stung his face.
At noon the train stopped. Alighting with cramped limbs, Prescott saw that the rails went no farther. A few shacks stood forlornly upon the hillside, a frozen river wound like a white riband through the gorge beneath, and ahead lay a sharply rising waste of rock and snow. His path led across it, and after a word or two with the men on the line he began his journey, breaking through the thin, frozen crust. The sounds behind him grew fainter and ceased; the trail of dingy smoke which had followed him melted away, and he was alone in the wilderness. His course was marked, however, by a pile of stones here, a blazed tree there, and he plodded on all day. When night came he found a hollow free from snow beneath a clump of juniper, and lay awake, shivering under his blankets. White peaks and snow-fields were wrapped in deathly silence: there was not even the howl of a prowling wolf or the splash of falling water.
Rising at dawn, almost too cold to move, he could find no dry wood to make a fire and had serious trouble in getting on his frozen boots; and after a hurried meal he set out again. It was some time before he felt moderately warm, but with a short rest at noon, he held on until evening was near, when he camped in a deep rift among the rocks filled with small firs. Here he found dry branches, and made his supper, sitting between a sheltering stone and a welcome fire. Soon afterward, he lay down and slept until the piercing cold awakened him near dawn. The fire had burned out to a few red embers; he had some trouble in stirring it into life, and it was bright daylight when he resumed his journey.
He was too tired and generally too cold to retain any clear impression of the next few days' march. There were ranks of peaks above, glittering at times against an intensely blue sky, but more often veiled in leaden cloud, while rolling vapor hid their lower slopes. He skirted tremendous gorges, looked up great hollows filled with climbing trees, followed winding valleys, and at length limped into sight of a lonely camp at the foot of a crag. The light was fading when he reached it, though a lurid sunset glowed behind the black firs on the crest of a ridge, and the place had a desolate look. Most of the shacks were empty, there were rings of branches with a litter of old cans about them where tents had been pitched, but a few toiling figures were scattered about a strip of track. It was comforting to see them, but Prescott was too jaded to notice what they were doing.
Entering a shanty, roughly built of ties and galvanized iron, he found a stove burning, and a Chinaman who told him that supper would be ready soon. After a while the men came in and, asking very few questions, gave him a share of their meal; then he was shown a rude bed of fir branches and swamp hay and told he could sleep there. Prescott lay down and lighted his pipe and then looked about for a while. The place was dimly lighted and filled with rank tobacco smoke, through which he saw the blurred figures of his new companions. Some of them were playing cards under a lamp, some were disputing in harsh voices, and now and then there was a burst of laughter. Once or twice a man went out and an icy draught swept through the shed, but except for that it was delightfully warm. Soon Prescott's pipe dropped from his hand and, failing in a drowsy attempt to find it, he went to sleep.
At breakfast the next morning he learned that a man answering Kermode's description had spent a night there eight or nine days ago. That showed that he was gaining, and he forced his pace all day. At sunset he made a fire beside a frozen lake, and after three or four days of arduous toil reached another camp. From the few men remaining there he learned that Kermode had left the spot a week earlier with a companion whose work had been interfered with by the frost. It was understood that they intended to examine a mineral vein the railroad hand had discovered in a valley some distance off, and when Prescott had ascertained where it lay he set off on their trail. The camp was well supplied with provisions and he bought a quantity.
He felt more cheerful now. It looked as if the end of his long search were near, since there was every reason to believe he would join the men before they could test the claim. On the second day he laboriously ascended a steep slope leading out of a valley he had followed, a broken line of footprints running upward in front of him. This seemed to indicate that the great ridge ahead could be crossed, though when he glanced at the ramparts of dark rock the task looked insuperable. Prescott knew nothing of mountaineering, but he judged that Kermode's companion must be accustomed to the ranges.
The slope grew sharper, there seemed to be an unbroken wall of rock ahead; but, climbing higher, Prescott saw a small smooth track running up the barrier. It was obviously a gully filled with snow and its steepness suggested that the ascent of it might prove beyond his powers; but the footprints led on to where it began. After following them to the spot, Prescott sat down on a stone to gather breath. He looked upward with a sinking heart. The hollow was deep and narrow—a cleft in the vast ridge of rock, which was glazed with ice. In places it looked precipitous, but there seemed to be no way of working round the flank of the mountain. Then Prescott noticed that the snow was pitted with small holes, about two feet apart, from which he concluded that the prospectors had carried a grubhoe, a tool resembling a mountaineer's ice-ax. He might get up by using these footholds.
Before starting he carefully adjusted his pack, and slung the ax where it seemed least likely to do him an injury. Then he found that by laying his mittened hands in the holes above he could steady himself while he found a fresh support for his feet, and for a while he made progress, though the labor of carrying up his load became intense. Coming to a fang of rock which offered a precarious seat, he stopped and wondered how he was to get up the rest of the way. It seemed a vast distance to the top, and he was already distressed by a form of exertion to which he was unaccustomed. Bright sunshine rested on the jagged ridge above, but the gully lay in shadow; and, growing cold, the man went on again. The next few minutes passed uneventfully, except that he made a dangerous slip; and then a stone rushed past him and he heard a sharp crash below. This was a risk he had not counted on. Looking up anxiously, he saw some snow coming down. There was not much of it, but it was traveling ominously fast and he was right in its path. He dared not leave the steps to seek the shelter of the rocks. Driving in his feet to secure a better hold; he waited, wondering whether he would be swept away and hurled down to the bottom with broken bones.
The sliding snow was close upon him; he saw that it was spinning and of a flat round shape, not a ball as he had expected, and then, while he dug in his hands and stiffened every muscle to resist the shock, he received a heavy blow on his lowered shoulder and a wet mass was flung violently into his face. He held on, however, and without looking around, heard the snow rush on down the gully beneath him. After he had climbed a few yards, it seemed possible to reach a projecting spur of rock, and when he had carefully kicked out a hold for one foot he made the attempt. He had scarcely reached the shelter of the rock when there was a sharp crash above and a great stone leaped by.
Prescott found that he could maintain his position fairly comfortably and he lighted his pipe and sat still to rest and consider, while the downward rush of another stone gave him food for thought. He believed he was half-way up, and after the exertions he had made, it was unthinkable that he should go back and seek another route; besides, he doubted whether he could get down without slipping. It seemed quite as perilous to go on, until he reasoned from the state of the snow, which was not deeply scored, that the stones did not come down continuously. Perhaps the warmth of the sun, helped by a soft chinook wind that had set in had loosened them; but the light was fading off part of the ridge and if he waited a while, the discharge might cease. The trouble was that he was getting very cold. He smoked another pipe, and as he heard no further crashes, he cautiously ventured out and regained the deepest part of the gully. His joints ached, his muscles felt sore, but there was a break in the rocks some distance higher up and he determined to climb to it.
The effort was severe, but he reached the spot, breathless, and carefully looked about. The sunshine had now vanished from the crest of the rocks and he supposed the stones would soon freeze fast again, but there would be only another hour or two of daylight and he must gain a place of safety before it grew dark. An incautious movement would precipitate him from his insecure refuge and he could not contemplate his remaining there through the night. Then he grew angry with Kermode.
It was difficult to believe this was the easiest way into the valley where the railroad man had made his discovery; the latter, being used to the ranges, had, no doubt, taken it to shorten the distance, and Kermode should have objected. Kermode, however, never paused to think; he cheerfully plunged into the first folly that appealed to him and left other people to bear the consequences. Then, having rested, Prescott saw that there were weak points in this reasoning, since the man he was following must have climbed the slope, and, what was more, that his irritation led to no result. He could consider such matters when he had reached the summit, and in order to do so, he must get on at once.
No more stones came down, but after Prescott had gone some distance a fresh difficulty confronted him. The gully was getting steeper, and the holes had disappeared; he supposed that the snow had softened in the sunshine earlier in the day and slipping down had filled up the recesses. He had, however, discovered that one could kick through the hard crust and make a hole to stand in, provided it were done carefully, and he went up by this means, wondering whether his boots would hold out until he reached the top, and stopping every few yards for breath. It was exhausting work after a long march and he was heavily loaded, but it could not be shirked, and he crawled up, watching the distance shorten foot by foot. Once a step broke away and he slid back a yard before he brought up with hands buried deep in the snow and the perspiration streaming from him in his terror. Still, he was slowly mounting; and at last, worn out and breathless, he reached the narrow ridge of crag and looked down with keen relief or a long slope to a valley filled with forest.
In front there was a glorious vista of peaks that shone in the evening light, but Prescott was in no mood to think of them. He must get down to the trees, where he could camp in comfort, before darkness fell. Rising after a few minutes' rest, he made the descent and, as dusk crept round him, lighted his fire among the sheltering trunks.
The next day he followed the valley through thick timber and withered underbrush which tore his clothes and delayed his march. There were fallen trunks with spreading branches to be scrambled over, and tangles of thorny canes, but he was cheered by signs that somebody had passed on ahead of him not long before. Later, the forest died out and the bottom of the hollow was strewn with sharp-edged stones, which threatened to tear his worn boots from his feet, and which added seriously to his toil. It was, however, impossible that the prospectors had climbed the crags that hemmed him in, and believing they could not be far in front of him, he held on until late in the afternoon.
At length he came to a wider stretch, out of which a ravine that looked accessible led, but he gave little thought to it. There were a few small trees about and one of them had recently been felled. He could see the white chips and the place where a fire had burned. A meat-can lay near-by and when Prescott picked it up he found the few fragments adhering to it quite fresh. The men he sought had camped there, but he began to grow anxious, for he could see no signs of them. Laying down his load, he made a hasty examination of the locality and found a spot where the face of a crag was marked by a streak of different material. It was rent in one place, heavy fragments were scattered about, and Prescott saw that they had been blown out with giant-powder.
For a few minutes he eagerly proceeded with his search, but he could find no blankets or provision cache, and when he saw footprints leading toward the ravine the truth dawned on him. The prospectors had left the spot and were not coming back; once more he had arrived too late. It was a cruel disappointment and he sat down in black dejection, looking heavily about. The high summits were wrapped in leaden cloud, the lower rocks towered above him, rugged and forbidding, and a mournful wind wailed through the gorge.
With an effort he forced himself to think. He had provisions for only a day or two; one of the prospectors was obviously an expert mountaineer, which led Prescott to believe that they would travel faster than he was capable of doing. It would be the height of rashness to push on farther into the wilds without a guide, and the first fall of snow would blot out any trail the others might have left. Reason warned him that he must turn back; but it was unthinkable that he should descend the gully. He determined to climb the ravine on the morrow.
Growing cold, he fell to work with the ax, and soon had a fire burning in a hollow among the rocks.
The next morning Prescott awakened in the dark and set to work, shivering, to rekindle his fire. Day broke with a transitory brightness while he had breakfast and soon afterward he entered the ravine. It was steep, and filled with ice in places, but freshly dislodged stones and scratches on the rocks showed him that the prospectors had gone that way. The ascent was difficult: it cost him a tense effort now and then to gain a slippery ledge or to scramble up a slab, and he had frequently to stop and consider how he could best force a passage.
He was tired and damp with perspiration when he reached the top and met an icy wind that swept across a tableland. The high plain was strewn with rocky fragments, the peaks above were lost in vapor, but he saw by a glance at the watery sun that it ran roughly west; and footprints led across it with an inclination toward the south. This was comforting, because the line of track ran to the south, and if he could strike that, it would serve as a guide; moreover it confirmed Prescott's conclusion that Kermode, who had evidently found the mineral vein worthless, would hold on toward the sea. He was not the man to haunt familiar ground when a wide, newly opened country lay before him.
Then a few stinging flakes struck Prescott's face, the pale sunshine was blotted out, and a savage blast drove him back to the shelter of the ravine. For an hour he sat, shivering, among the rocks while the gorge was swept by snow. When it ceased he came out; but there was no sign of a footprint now and, to make things worse, the new snow was soft. But he plodded through it, heading southwest, so as to strike the track again, a little farther on.
He spent the day on the high ground; at times toilsomely picking a way across banks of stones buried in snow that hid the dangerous gaps between them. Now and then he sank through the treacherous covering and plunged into a hollow, at the risk of breaking his leg; but walking was easier between these tracts, and when evening came he reached a few large fallen rocks, among which he camped and lay awake, half frozen, without a fire. Starting as soon as day broke, he felt that he must make the surveyed line before dark. He was growing afraid of the white desolation and wanted to get into touch with something that would lead him to the haunts of men.
It was afternoon when he came to a great dip. A valley lay beneath him with a frozen river winding through its depths, and he felt convinced that it was one the track would follow. The trouble, however, was to get down, for the hillside fell away in a vast scarp, broken here and there by dark crags that showed through the snow. There was a belt of timber a long way down, but the slope was too steep for him to reach it, and he walked along the summit in search of a spot from which the descent could be made, until he came to a long declivity that looked a little less sharp. Then, strapping his fur coat on his pack, he kicked a step in the snow and began to climb down, facing inward toward the bank.
For a while, he made steady progress; and then the snow grew harder. Its surface had melted and frozen again, resulting in a crust that could scarcely be penetrated. He thought about his ax, but he could not see how he could use it in cutting steps beneath him without falling down, and this was not the place for hazardous experiments. He went on very cautiously, finding the work of kicking hollows for his feet extremely severe, until, when he supposed that half an hour had passed, he drove his toes in deep and lay down to rest. On looking up, he seemed to have come a very short distance, and when he glanced below he felt appalled at the length of the declivity he must still creep down. His limbs ached; his mittens were worn and his hands badly numbed; and one boot was coming to pieces.
The descent, however, must be continued, and he began to move again, very warily. Presently he found he could not break through the crust with his foot. Clinging hard to his handhold, he lowered himself to feel for a softer spot. His toe went in a little way; he ventured to trust to the slight support; but as he did so the treacherous snow broke beneath him. For a few tense moments his numbed fingers held him to the slope. He tried in terror to kick another hole; the attempt failed, his hands slipped away, and he began to slide downward, the snow driving up into his face. The pace grew rapidly faster; he could not keep himself straight, but slid on his side; then his pack caught something that turned him farther round so that his head was lowest. He could see nothing; his pace grew frightful, and he drove on, unable to make the least effort.
How long this continued he had no idea. It was a terrifying experience; but at length, to his dull astonishment, his speed slackened suddenly and he stopped. He found that he was whole in limb, and on getting up cautiously he was forced to the conclusion that he was little the worse for his rapid descent. His clothes were packed with snow, but it was easily shaken out. After recovering a little, he saw that he had brought up on a slope that fell less sharply and that it would be possible to walk down it without much trouble. The timber was close ahead, and he smiled as he remembered his horror; it looked as if he might have made the descent uninjured if he had calmly sat down and let himself go.
Moving downward among the trees, he had almost reached the bottom of the valley when he came upon a belt of rugged stones, and in picking a path across them slipped and fell. He was not much hurt, but when he went on again his foot felt sore and he was limping when he reached the river. One or two trees near it had been chopped, and a spur of rock lower down had its summit marked by a pole. He had reached the line of track, and he followed it west, having heard there was a camp farther on, though his informants did not know whether it was now occupied. It was, however, a relief to stop among a clump of spruce at dusk. When he had made a fire he examined his foot. There was no sign of injury except that ankle and instep were rather red, and he went to sleep reassured.
In the morning he was surprised to find that the foot was painful and that the back of his leg felt strained. He would have been tempted to remain in camp only that his provisions were nearly exhausted, and after a meager breakfast he resumed the march. The bottom of the valley was level, the timber thin, but there was a good deal of brush to be struggled through and before long he was forced to take to the winding river. By noon it cost him a determined effort to walk, for his foot was extremely painful and his leg getting sore. As he did not know how far off the camp was, it seemed prudent to save the food he had left, and he limped on, his lips tight-set.
The snow-covered ice was smooth, but the bends of the river increased the distance wofully; there was a keen wind, and the dark pines stretched on without a break as far as he could see. As he entered each fresh loop of the stream he looked eagerly for an opening or sign of life, but there were only rows of ragged spires, cutting sharply against the sky. He felt inexpressibly lonely and badly afraid; the desolation was growing appalling, and he could not keep on his feet much longer. He had food enough for two scanty meals, and then, if no help came, he must starve.
There was now a pain which grew rapidly worse in his left side; his shoulders ached beneath his load, and every joint was sore with the effort it cost him to save his injured foot. The sun sank lower, and the trees still ran on ahead. Indeed, they were growing thicker, and he could see only a short distance into the avenues between the great colonnades of trunks. The loops of the river doubled more closely; in spite of his exertion he was getting very little farther down the valley; but an attempt to push through the forest led him into such tangles of fallen trunks and branches that he was forced back to the ice.
At length he reached a spot where a fire had swept the bush. Branches and clustering needles had been burned away; the trees ran up in bare, charred columns, black when looked at closely, in the distance a curious silvery gray. Prescott could see ahead between them, and he stopped with his heart beating rapidly, for on the white hillside some distance off stood a few shacks. This was the camp, and in spite of the pain it cost him he increased his pace, driven by keen suspense. He did not know if there were men yonder, and he could see no smoke. The doubt grew tormenting; leaving the stream farther on, he struck into unburned bush that hid the camp from him. There were thorny brakes and thickets of withered ferns, but though progress was excruciatingly painful he smashed through them furiously. He was hot and breathless; it was insufferable that he should be delayed among the timber in anxiety. Breaking out into the open, he sent up a hoarse cry, for a thin trail of vapor curled above one of the shacks. Then a man appeared in the doorway and waved a hand to him.
Prescott felt suddenly limp and nerveless; now that help was near at hand, he wanted to sit down; but he held on until he limped into the hut, where two men stood awaiting him. They were strong, weather-beaten fellows, dressed in quaintly patched garments, and they looked good-humored.
"Come right in," said one. "Pull that box up to the fire and sit down."
Prescott was glad to obey, and when he had taken off his pack he looked about the shack. It was substantially built: stones and soil had been used in its construction as well as boards and bark. It was warmed by a big open fire and contained a table, besides a few tubs and cases which served as seats. A bunk neatly made of split boards and filled with spruce twigs and swamp hay ran along one end.
"Can you take me in for a day or two?" he asked. "I've hurt my foot."
"Sure," said the second man. "I noticed you were walking lame. We're well stocked in groceries and Steve got a deer a day or two ago."
"How did you get your stores?"
"The contractor brought them up. There was quite a camp here; company putting in all the preliminary work that could be done with the shovel. They shut down when the frost came, but we figured we'd stay on, and took over part of the supplies. The boss had more truck than he could pack down to the other camps."
"Then there's nobody else about the place?"
"No, sir," said the first man; "they're all gone. It's kind of lonely, but we're doing some chopping for the road, and we'll be right here with money saved when work begins in spring. Bought a piece of fruit land, part on mortgage, at a snap, and with good luck we'll have it clear when we go back."
The short explanation supplied a clue to the characters of the men, who with an eye to the future preferred to face the rigors of the north rather than to spend the winter hanging round the saloons on the warmer coast.
"Well," inquired the other, "where did you come from?"
Prescott mentioned the last camp he had visited and gave them a few particulars about his journey.
"And so you came down the Long Bench—pretty tough proposition that! And kept the trail on short rations!" one of his hosts remarked. "Suppose you take a smoke, and I'll get supper a little earlier."
Before long he was given a share of a simple but abundant meal, and after it was over sat talking with his hosts. It was dark outside now, but although the men had run out of oil for the lamp, the fire gave them light, and pungent odors issued from the resinous logs. The room was warm and, by comparison with the frozen wilderness, supremely comfortable.
"What's the matter with your foot?" one of the men asked when Prescott took off his boot.
Prescott described how it felt, though he explained that he could find no sign of injury, and the other nodded.
"Ricked it a bit; got one of the ligaments or something kinked," he said. "Known that happen when there wasn't much to show. You had better lie off for a while."
It occurred to Prescott that he might be in much worse quarters, though he shrank from the delay a rest would entail.
"What took you up the gully and over the Bench, anyway?" the man went on.
Prescott explained and then asked: "Have you come across my partner or the other fellow, Hollin?"
"Never seen your partner." The man looked at his comrade and laughed. "But we know Hollin, all right. Got an idea that he's a boss prospector and froze on to the railroad job because it took him into the mountains. Been all round looking for minerals; got fired for it at one or two camps, and never struck anything worth speaking of. It's a point on which he's certainly a crank."
It was characteristic of Kermode, Prescott thought, that he should be willing to accompany a man with a craze of the kind.
"I'd expected to find them here. I understood they didn't mean to go back to the camp at Butler Ridge," he said.
"We haven't seen their tracks, and if they were heading west, they'd have to come down this valley; but I guess nobody could tell where Hollin would make for. Of course, you can't prospect much in winter with everything frozen up and the snow about, but so long as he can trail through the mountains and find a few clean rocks the man will be happy; and I'll allow that he's smart at it. Knows how to fix a camp, and find a deer, if there's one in the country. It's a sure thing he'll have to strike for a camp or store sooner or later; but it's likely he has crossed the line south and is trying to make the Fraser and the settlements along the Canadian Pacific railroad."
It was bad news to Prescott. He knew enough about the Pacific Province to realize that if his host's suppositions were correct, he would have a vast area to search; a region of stony uplands, mountain chains, and rock-walled valleys.
"Would it be possible for me to get through?" he asked.
"No, sir! You don't want to think of it. Guess your partner will be pretty safe with Hollin; but you're a plainsman and you'd sure get lost in a day or two and starve when your grub ran out."
"That's right," agreed the other man. "The thing can't be done."
Prescott fell in with his opinion. It would, he thought, require a number of expert mountaineers to trace the men he sought through the desolation of rock and forest to the south. Besides, British Columbia was well populated along the Canadian Pacific line, from which many avenues of communication opened up, and there would be a strong probability of his missing Kermode.
"Well," he said reluctantly, "perhaps, I had better stop round here in case they keep this track; and my foot's too sore to let me move. Could you put me up for a week or two? I'll try to make it worth your while."
"Stop as long as you want," Steve responded. "We'll have to charge you for the grub, because we paid quite a pile for it, but we'll only strike you for your share."
"Thank you," said Prescott, and the others began to talk of Hollin.
"If that man would let up on prospecting he'd get rich," declared one. "When a survey outfit goes up into the bush, Hollin's picked for the boss packer's job, and when there's a new wagon road to be staked out they generally put him on. A smart man at striking the easiest line through rough country."
"That's so," agreed Steve. "Trouble is that he can't stay with it. Soon as he collects some pay, he goes off on the prospecting trail, and then heads for Vancouver with a bag of specimens that aren't worth anything. When the mineral men hear of a new Hollin discovery they smile. Guess he's found most everything—gold, copper, zinc, and platinum—and never made fifty cents out of them, 'cept once when, so the boys say, a mining company fellow gave him five dollars to promise he wouldn't worry him again. Now they've orders in all the offices that if Hollin comes round with any more specimens they're not to let him in."
Prescott laughed. The man he had heard described was Kermode's companion, and he could imagine their wandering up and down the province, one as irresponsible as the other; meeting with strange experiences, stubbornly braving the perils of the wilds; making themselves a nuisance to business men in the cities. The matter had, however, a more serious aspect. Prescott had spent some time on the useless search and he could not continue it throughout the winter. It would be futile to speculate on the movements of men so erratic as those he had followed. He could not neglect his farm, and he had a heavy crop to haul in and sell: this was a duty that must be attended to.
If he went back without Jernyngham, and Curtis still clung to his theory, the police might give him trouble; but he must run that risk. Though convinced of it, he had no means of proving that Jernyngham was wandering through British Columbia in company with a crazy prospector.
After a while he grew drowsy and got into the bunk, where he lay down, enjoying the warmth and softness of the spruce twigs until he went to sleep.
It was Saturday evening, clear and cold, though the frost was not intense. A number of the farmers and their wives had driven in to Sebastian to meet their friends and make their weekly purchases. A row of light rigs stood outside the livery-stable, voices and laughter rose from the sidewalks; the town looked cheerful and almost picturesque with its roofs and tall elevator towers cutting against the soft night sky.
A full moon hung above them, but its silvery radiance was paled by other lights. Warm gleams shone out from the store windows upon the hard-trodden snow; a train of lighted cars stood at the station, and the intense white glare of the head-lamp mingled with the beam flung far across the prairie by a freight locomotive on a side-track. Groups of people strolled up and down the low platform, waiting to see the train go out, and their voices rang merrily on the frosty air. From one of the great shadowy elevators there came a whirr of wheels.
When the train rolled away into the wilderness, Muriel Hurst entered the hotel and went upstairs to the parlor where Colston and her sister were sitting. The room was furnished in defective taste, but it was warm and brightly lighted, and the girl had got accustomed to the smell of warm iron diffused by the stove and the odor of burning kerosene. Colston occupied an easy-chair, and when Muriel took off her furs he looked up with a smile, noticing the fine color the nipping air had brought into her face. She looked braced and vigorous, but it struck him that she wore a thoughtful expression.
"Did you buy all you wanted?" he asked.
"I got what I came for." Muriel sat down and handed her sister a parcel. "I think that ought to match. Has Harry been lounging there since supper? Isn't he the picture of comfortable laziness?"
Colston laughed. He was still very neatly dressed, but he looked harder than he had when he first reached the prairie and his face was brown.
"I'm content, and that's a great thing," he rejoined. "Indeed, I'll confess that I could enjoy our stay here, except for the damping effect of our friends' trouble. It's astonishing how little one misses the comforts we insist on in England, and I'm coming to take an interest in the visits we pay among the ranches and our weekly trip to Sebastian. Then nobody could maintain that your sister looks any the worse for her experience. I'm beginning to think she might pass for a wheat-grower's wife."
"I heard Mrs. Johnson ask when you were going to take a farm," Muriel retorted. "It would be difficult to imagine you tramping down a furrow behind a plow or driving one of those smelly gasoline tractors; but you'll be able to pose before your constituents as an authority on colonial questions when you go home."
"I'm afraid they'll throw me over unless they see me soon; but there's nothing else to take me back, and I'd feel we were deserting our friends in their distress."
"We can't leave them yet," Mrs. Colston broke in. "The suspense is preying upon Jernyngham. He's getting dangerously moody; I know Gertrude feels anxious about him."
A curious expression crept into Muriel's eyes.
"Believing what he does, it's natural that he should clamor for justice, but he's becoming possessed by a feverish cruelty. It's mastering him, destroying his judgment."
"You're alluding to his suspicions of Prescott?"
Muriel's eyes sparkled as she took up the challenge.
"You know as well as I do that they're altogether wrong! It's impossible that he should be guilty!"
"One would like to think so," her sister responded with dry reserve. "But it's a pity he ran away."
Muriel could not deny this. She had retained her faith in Prescott, but his silence about the motive for an absence that must tell against him troubled her. It was strange that he had given her no hint, and she felt hurt.
"He may have gone because he could not bear to be distrusted," she said. "You are both sorry for Jernyngham, but don't you think the man he unjustly suspects deserves some pity?"
"Well," said Colston, "I've tried to keep an open mind. Prejudice, of course, should not be pandered to; but one is as likely to be led astray by too strong a partiality for the suspected person." He paused before he added: "However, I envy you your confidence; I liked the man."
"The worst of it is that the matter may go dragging on until it wears Gertrude and her father out," Mrs. Colston remarked. "It would be a relief in some ways to learn the truth, however bad it is."
"Mr. Prescott has no reason to dread the truth's coming out," said Muriel staunchly.
Then a maid came in to announce that their team was ready, and, putting on her furs, Muriel went down in advance of the others to see that her purchases had been placed together. After she had gone, Mrs. Colston looked at her husband.
"I think it would be advisable to mention Prescott as seldom as possible."
"So do I," Colston agreed. "I wonder whether you have noticed anything unusual in the relations between Muriel and Gertrude of late? They used to be good friends in England."
"I have remarked some signs of strain. But it is not a matter you could be expected to take an interest in."
"Of course," Colston rejoined deprecatingly, and went down with his wife.
Leslie's team and a smart sleigh, which Jernyngham had had sent out from Toronto, stood at the door, and after he had helped his wife and Muriel in, Colston took the reins. When they had jolted across the track, the snow was beaten smooth along the trail; the team was fresh after resting, and it was a brilliant night. They set off at an exhilarating speed, and though their faces tingled they kept warm beneath their furs and driving-robes. Far in front of them spread the prairie, gleaming white beneath the moon; no cloud stained the vault of soft deep blue, and the drumming of the hoofs rang out in merry rhythm. The crisp cold, which was less marked than usual, stirred the blood.
They passed a buggy, drawn by a good horse, and later a light wagon, for the snow does not, as a rule, lie deep on the western prairie and the farmers largely continue the use of wheels. After that for some time they were alone on the waste, until as they approached a tract of broken country a wagon appeared on the crest of a rise, with the double span of horses in front of it cutting sharply black against the snow. It came on slowly, heavily loaded with bags of grain, and then the dark shape of a man who walked beside the team grew visible. As they came closer, Colston turned his horses out of the trail to let the wagon pass, and then started as the moonlight fell on the teamster's face. It was Prescott.
For a moment he hesitated, and then pulled up, acknowledging the man's greeting with a lifted hand. Mrs. Colston, however, said nothing, and Prescott stood quietly by his horses' heads, until Muriel called him forward and gave him her hand.
"When did you get back?" she asked.
"Late last night. We broke the wheat bin this morning, and I'm taking the first load in."
"But where were you?"
"In Alberta and British Columbia most of the time."
He volunteered no further information and there was an awkward pause, for Prescott had noticed that Colston had been undecided whether to drive on or not. Mrs. Colston sat farthest from him, so that he could not see her, but she had not addressed him yet. It was clear that his appearance had affected them unpleasantly.
"When we next meet, you must tell us about your trip," said Muriel.
"We should be interested to hear about it," Colston added lamely, and Prescott forced a smile. Muriel was the only one who had treated him on the old friendly footing; and he could hardly visit the Leslie homestead, even if he were invited, while Jernyngham was there.
"I may see you some time, and I mustn't keep you now," he responded.
He started his team, and Colston turned to his companions.
"I'll confess that I've had a great surprise."
"Of course, you imagined that Mr. Prescott had gone for good!" said Muriel with scorn.
"I'm afraid I had some idea of that nature. He would hardly have come back if he were guilty."
"Oh," said Muriel mockingly, "you really can't tell what an unscrupulous, bold man might do."
"Spare me," Colston begged with a laugh. "After all, it looks as if you have been right." He turned to his wife. "What do you think?"
"Mr. Prescott's guilt or innocence is a question I can't decide; but in making us believe he was Cyril Jernyngham he did a very wrong and foolish thing. That Cyril may have urged him to do so is no excuse."
"Leaving Mr. Prescott out, I think Cyril's idea was a very generous one," Muriel declared.
"How can you believe that?"
"He must have wished to save his father and sister pain, and he knew the trick would cost him a good deal. For one thing, it would prevent his going home to be reinstated, because of course if he had done so, we would have seen he was not the man we had met in Canada. He meant to stay here, refusing to benefit by the change in his affairs, out of consideration for his relatives."
"And you approve his passing off this western farmer for a Jernyngham?" Mrs. Colston asked.
"Oh, that!" Muriel's laugh was scornful. "You were satisfied with the man until you knew his name was Prescott. How was it that you didn't miss the inherent superiority of the Jernynghams? Besides, I can't think Cyril suffered by getting his friend to represent him. Though people won't talk very freely, I've picked up some information since I've been here, enough to show what kind of man Cyril was. He hadn't much to boast of, and one must do him the justice to admit that he seems to have recognized it. You probably know, though you hid it from me, that on the evening he should have met us he was lying in the hotel after getting badly hurt in a drunken brawl among some riotous Orangemen."
"I can't have any reflections cast upon Orangemen," Colston objected. "There are a large number in my constituency; most worthy people, for whom I've a strong respect."
"You have a respect for their votes, you mean," Muriel rejoined. "You know you're really ritualistic High Church. If your constituents knew as much about St. Cuthbert's as I do, they would turn you out."
"I have never hid my convictions," Colston declared. "Anyway, I have ascertained that the greater proportion of the Orangemen were sober."
"Then," retorted Muriel, "I'm sorry that Cyril was not. But there are more important points to consider."
"That is very true," said Mrs. Colston. "Will you tell Jernyngham that we have seen Prescott, Harry?"
"No; I don't think so. I'm afraid of the effect it may have on him; and he won't be up when we get in. All the same, he's bound to hear the news from somebody else very soon."
Neither of the others answered, and they drove on in silence until the lights of the Leslie homestead blinked across the snow. The cheerfulness which had marked the party when they set out had gone; they felt a sense of constraint, and Muriel wondered uneasily whether she had spoken with too much freedom.
The next morning they were sitting with Jernyngham and Gertrude when a neighboring rancher came in.
"I thought Leslie might be here," he explained. "Don't mean to intrude."
Colston knew the man and he asked him to sit down. Jernyngham glanced up from the Winnipeg paper he was reading. His face was worn and had set into a fixed, harsh expression, but his manner conveyed a hint of eagerness; of late it had suggested that he was continually expecting something.
"I drove over to give Leslie a message," the newcomer continued. "I guess you have heard that Prescott's back."
Jernyngham started and dropped the paper.
"Prescott back? You must be mistaken!"
"No, sir! Spoke to him on the trail last night. He was hauling in a load to the settlement, and I was driving home half an hour after Mr. Colston."
"There's only one trail," said Jernyngham, looking hard at Colston. "You must have met the fellow. Why didn't you tell me?"
Colston showed confusion.
"To tell the truth, I was afraid the news might distress and excite you. You couldn't do anything until Monday, and I thought it better to let you spend to-day in peace."
"In peace!" Jernyngham laughed in a jarring manner. "Tormented as I am by suspense that grows beyond endurance!" His eyes glittered and the lines on his face deepened. "And I'm to be kept in ignorance while the villain who robbed and killed my son goes about his work undisturbed!"
There was an awkward silence for a few moments. Mrs. Colston looked distressed, and Gertrude regarded Muriel with a long searching glance. The girl felt that she was being suspected of abetting her brother-in-law for some ulterior purpose. She was of sanguine temperament and wayward temper, and her blood ran warm; but she held in check the anger that she burned to give expression to. Then their visitor, whom they had forgotten, broke in:
"Now, sir, you're getting ahead too fast. There's nothing proved against Prescott, and I and others know he never did the thing!" He paused and Muriel, regardless of her companions, flung him a grateful glance as he went on: "Even Curtis can't bring it home to him!"
"Curtis," said Jernyngham contemptuously, "is a cautious fool! I'll communicate with his chiefs at Regina." He got up with a decided air. "I'll start for Sebastian at once. Where's Leslie? I must see him about a team."
"You stay where you are," said the farmer, with rude sympathy. "I heard that one of the police bosses will be at the settlement to-morrow and you can see him then; Curtis took a room for him at the hotel. I'm telling you because the sooner all this muss is cleared up the better, and it won't hurt Prescott."
He went out and Jernyngham, without speaking to the others, picked up his paper. Muriel took a book from a shelf, but although she determinedly tried to fix her attention on it, she could make no sense of what she read. It was a dreary morning; Colston was soon driven out, and the others were oppressed by a feeling of constraint and tension. They were glad when Jernyngham and Gertrude started for Sebastian in the afternoon. After they had gone, Colston looked at his wife and sister-in-law dolefully.
"This kind of thing will tell upon your nerves; I'm beginning to feel it," he said. "We must have a long drive to-morrow to get rid of the depression. Those people on the ranch by the bluff pressed us to come back again."
"There are many excuses for our friends; you couldn't expect them to be cheerful," Mrs. Colston replied.
"That's very true; one must try to remember it. It seems our duty to remain and comfort them as much as possible; but I can't say that they're always very grateful. Indeed, I have felt hurt by Gertrude's reserve, though, considering how trying all this must be for her, one can't take exception to it."
"Gertrude knows her brother is alive!" said Muriel coldly.
Her sister cast a keen glance at her, while Colston, made a sign of expostulation.
"I scarcely think you have any right to say that; but I'll confess that I'm wavering in my opinions—Prescott's return has had its effect on me. In fact, the mystery's getting deeper and more fascinating; I feel impelled to wait and see it unraveled."
"That is hardly the way to regard it," his wife rebuked him. "I would rather remember that the Jernynghams have a strong claim on our sympathy."
"It's the main consideration, of course. But we'll decide on the drive to-morrow. It has been a depressing day."
MURIEL RELIEVES HER MIND
On the Monday morning, Jernyngham was shown into the parlor of the hotel where a commissioned officer of the police sat waiting for him. He had keen, observant eyes, but his manner was quiet, and Jernyngham endeavored to control his impatience.
"I suppose you know that Prescott has returned to his farm?" he said, taking the chair the other pointed to.
"I have been informed so," the officer replied.
"Then may I ask what you mean to do?"
"We have come to no decision."
"But your men have a warrant for him!"
The officer changed his position and his expression hinted at forbearance.
"That is so. On the whole, I think it should not have been issued."
"You must not let the fellow's return influence you unduly."
"Very true," said the other with a calm which Jernyngham found maddening. "It would be unwise to infer too much from that."
"He is a bold man; he has, no doubt, counted on the effect his coming back would have," Jernyngham urged.
"It's possible," the officer agreed.
Jernyngham's nerves had given way beneath the strain he had borne, and he now stood up, trembling with anger.
"Am I to understand that you intend to leave the fellow alone? Now, when he is within your reach, you will not arrest him? The scoundrel killed my son!"
"Might I suggest your sitting down again?" said the officer calmly. "Let me try to put the matter before you as we look at it. To begin with, we can't very well press the charge you make against Prescott without some proof of the victim's death, which has not been discovered yet. The muskeg, I must remind you, was drained and nothing found. The handsome reward you offered led to no result, though every man in the district who had any time to spare spent it in searching the bluffs. Corporal Curtis has made systematic investigations, but they have been fruitless."
"Corporal Curtis is a man of whose intelligence I have a very poor opinion!" said Jernyngham hotly.
His companion smiled.
"That's a point upon which I don't altogether share your views."
"In short, you intend to let the matter drop! I must protest against such a scandalous failure of justice! But you shall not let it drop; I warn you that I shall apply to Ottawa, where there are people who can put upon you the pressure that seems to be needed!"
A look of weariness crept into the officer's face.
"You have my sympathy, Mr. Jernyngham, but you can't be allowed to interfere with the Northwest Police."
Jernyngham pulled himself together.
"I had no wish to be offensive, though I meant what I said. Suppose this fellow goes off again—for good—as soon as he has sold his wheat?"
"That will have to be guarded against. He will be watched; if he leaves his farm, he will be followed."
"He gave you the slip neatly on a previous occasion."
"Quite true," said the officer. "Our men are not infallible. I think I can promise that it will not happen again." Then he rose. "I have some business waiting and you must excuse me. I can assure you that nothing which promises to throw any light upon the matter will be neglected."
He opened the door and politely but firmly bowed out his visitor. Then he called Curtis, who was waiting below.
"I dare say you can guess Mr. Jernyngham's errand," he said. "Unless we can hit on the truth before long, you'll have that gentleman in the guard-room."
Curtis looked astonished and his superior smiled compassionately.
"I mean as a sufferer from mental derangement. Don't be communicative, and confine yourself to reassuring generalities, if you come across him. His mind's morbidly fixed on punishing Prescott. I don't think he can be convinced that the man is innocent."
"I can't help meeting him, sir. He spends his time following me about. In a way, one can't blame him for what he thinks."
"Though it doesn't agree with your conclusions? Sit down; we have a number of things to talk about."
"Well, sir," said Curtis, "this is certainly a mixed-up case. I've said nothing all along to disturb people's belief that it was Prescott we were after, but if I had to corral one of the two, I'd get Wandle. The land agency man gave us a good description of him."
His superior nodded thoughtfully.
"Prescott impersonated Cyril Jernyngham before his supposed death, and Wandle personated him afterward; the latter with the more obvious motive. The point is that there's no evidence of collusion, but rather disagreement, between the two. Of course, we could arrest Wandle now."
"Yes, sir. As soon as the agent identified him, we could prove forgery and falsification of the land sale record. He'd be safe in the guard-room or a penitentiary."
"Just so; we will have him there sooner or later, but if he's guilty of the more serious charge, he'd have no opportunity for giving himself away. I'd rather he was left at large and you kept your eye on him. The same applies to Prescott. Now I've been making a fresh study of the diagram of the footsteps near the muskeg, and I can see no fault in the conclusions you arrived at—only the remains can't be found."
"Sure, that's a weak point, sir. But I might mention the case of the person who was found in a bluff a few miles from home after they'd searched the district for six months."
"It has been in my mind. But you have other matters to report on. What about the disturbance on the Indian reservation?"
While they discussed it, Jernyngham set out for the Leslie homestead and on his arrival found Gertrude alone. Sitting down with a shiver, he looked at her dejectedly.
"I have failed again. They will do nothing; there's no satisfaction to be had," he said. "I drove out my son by arbitrary harshness, and now the only reparation I might have made is denied me."
"You were harsh," assented Gertrude. "I have begun to realize it since we came to Canada—one sees things differently here. But, in a sense, I think you were not to be blamed; you acted in the belief that you were right."
She had seldom ventured to address him with so much candor and she was surprised at his calmness.
"Yes," he said, "it is some relief to remember that; but I was wrong."
"Then shouldn't it make you more careful not to fall into a similar error again? You have a fixed idea in your mind and the way you dwell on it is breaking you down; seeing you suffer is wearing me. Can't you believe that there is room for doubt?"
"I wish I could," he said with some gentleness, recognizing the anxious appeal in her voice. "But I imagined you were as convinced as I am of Prescott's guilt."
"Oh," she replied miserably, "I believed I was; but I don't know what to think!"
He noticed the distress in her face with uncomprehending sympathy. He was fond of her, in his stern, reserved fashion, and knew she must deeply feel the loss of her brother.
"As soon as he saw he was suspected, Prescott ran away," he continued. "That must count against him. If he had had any motive except the wish to escape, he would have mentioned it."
Gertrude sat silent, tormented by confused emotions. Prescott had told her he was going to hunt for Cyril, and until she had seen his devotion to Muriel she had felt that she must believe in him; then her mind had been filled with jealousy and doubt. She thought she hated him; after all, he might be guilty. It was not her part to speak in his defense; though she felt she was acting treacherously, she could not stand up for him.
"It is possible that the police were wrong about Cyril," she said at length.
"I'm afraid not," said Jernyngham. "It might be urged that Prescott has come back; but I believe that was only to sell his wheat." He broke into a harsh laugh. "One must admit that the fellow has courage; but he won't find it easy to escape again. Every move of his will be watched."
Gertrude sat very still for a few moments, her lips tightly pressed together. Then she made a gesture of weariness.
"Oh," she said, "it's all so hard to bear! There's nothing but doubt and suspense; not a ray of comfort!"
Getting up languidly she went out and left her father lost in thought.
An hour or two afterward, Prescott sat near the stove in his homestead, moodily making entries in an account-book, when he heard voices in the passage and looked up with a start. The next moment the door opened and Muriel Hurst came in. His heart throbbed furiously at the sight of her; she looked excited and eager; her rich furs enhanced her charm. He thought she made a wonderfully attractive picture in the small, simply furnished room, but he laid a strong restraint upon himself as he rose.
"I felt that I had to come; I wanted to show that your friends still trusted you," she said impulsively.
He made no move to bring her a chair.
"It was a generous thought, but, considering everything, I don't know that it was wise. Did you tell Colston or your sister that you were coming?"
"No," she answered with a trace of confusion; "I left rather in a hurry." Then she broke into a forced laugh. "This isn't the welcome I expected!"
Prescott's eyes gleamed.
"You know I'm glad to see you."
"Well," she said, sitting down with a hint of defiance in her air, "that's the most important thing; though the confession had to be extorted from you. It looked as if you wanted to get rid of me."
"I felt I ought to."
Muriel looked at him with amusement.
"Duty against inclination! It's a pity the former was beaten. But aren't you falling into our way of thinking rather fast?"
"That isn't strange. I've had English ideas impressed on me pretty forcibly during the last few months. But you made a statement that surprised me. Does Colston trust me?"
"He wants to."
"That implies a doubt. And your sister; is she on my side?"
"She's reserving her opinion."
"You can't say that the Jernynghams are convinced of my innocence."
"No," said Muriel. "I think they're cruelly and unreasonably bitter."
"Then that leaves only one person with unshaken faith." His eyes rested on the girl with deep gratitude and tenderness. "Miss Hurst, I think I may say it's quite enough."
She looked up fearlessly, with heightened color.
"We won't pay each other compliments. Will you tell me why you went away?"
"Yes; I went to look for Cyril Jernyngham."
Muriel made an abrupt movement and her eyes sparkled with relief which she did not try to hide.
"Oh," she said, "that's such a complete explanation; it answers everything! But why didn't you tell people the reason you were going? You must have known that stealing away, as you did, would count against you!"
"I told Miss Jernyngham."
"Gertrude knew?" Muriel started. Then her face hardened. "After all, that doesn't matter; there are much more important things. You didn't find Cyril?"
"I followed him across three provinces and lost him in the end."
"Ah!" she said. "How unfortunate, how terribly disappointing! But tell me all you did; I'm not asking from mere curiosity." She hesitated. "I think you owe me that."
He told her the story of his wanderings and what he had learned about Kermode's adventures. She listened with eager attention, and laughed now and then.
"It's convincing on the face of it," she declared. "One feels that everything is exactly what Cyril Jernyngham must have done. Will you tell his father?"
"No," Prescott answered gravely. "He wouldn't believe the tale."
"But I feel it can't be doubted, after what I have heard of Cyril's character and his conduct in England."
"You have an open mind. I think you hate injustice; you try to be fair. That, I guess, is why you came to see me."
Muriel glanced at him sharply, and then smiled.
"I suppose it was; I felt that you have been badly treated. But I only meant to stay a minute or two, and you seem to be busy."
He did not deny it. Conscious as he was of her charm and his longing for her, he feared to detain her lest he should be driven into some rash avowal.
"I'm very grateful for your confidence," he answered slowly.
"Well," said Muriel, "I must go." She rose, but stood still a moment. "Mr. Prescott, it hurts me to see suspicion fall on my friends. You must clear yourself somehow."
"Ah," he said moodily, "how am I to set about it?"
"For one thing, you must not go away again. That would look bad." She hesitated. "And, from a few words I heard, I fear it would bring the police after you."
"It seems very probable; I'll stay while I'm allowed," he said with some bitterness and turned toward the door with her. Then a little color crept into his face as she held out her hand. "Miss Hurst," he added, "you are a very staunch friend."
"It really looks as if staunchness were one of my virtues; but you see I venture to act on my opinions without paying much attention to what other people think. After all, that would be foolish, wouldn't it?"
Then she got into the sleigh and left him wondering what she could have meant. He knew her friends regarded him as a man of inferior station, who, if cleared from suspicion, might perhaps be tolerated so long as he recognized his limitations and did not presume. Had Muriel wished to hint that she differed from them in this respect? The thought of it set his heart to beating fast and when he went back to his books he found it singularly difficult to fix his mind on them.
Muriel drove rapidly to the Leslie homestead and, reaching it after dark, joined the others at supper. During the meal, a reference to Jernyngham's interview with the police officer gave her the opportunity she was waiting for.
"When Mr. Prescott went away it told badly against him, because people didn't know what his object was," she said.
She fixed her eyes on Gertrude, but the latter's face was expressionless as she moved her plate.
"He went to find Cyril," she added.
Mrs. Colston looked up sharply; her husband started.
"If true, it's a strong point in his favor," Colston declared.
Gertrude still made no sign; but her father broke into an incredulous smile.
"An excellent motive! It's a pity he didn't mention it before he went! It would have carried more weight then!"
There was an awkward silence; and then Muriel said firmly:
"Still, that was why he went away."
Jernyngham looked hard at her and made a gesture which suggested that the matter would not bear discussion. Then Colston began to talk to her, and he was glad when the meal was finished. Muriel waited until she found Gertrude alone in her room.
"You knew Mr. Prescott went to look for your brother, and yet you would not say a word," she said.
"Ah!" exclaimed Gertrude sharply. "So you have seen him! You drove over this afternoon—one might have expected that."
Muriel's eyes sparkled, but she answered calmly:
"Yes, I went to see him; but you're evading the point. What reason could you have had for trying to injure an innocent man?"
Gertrude made an uneasy movement.
"Aren't you taking too much for granted? To begin with, his innocence is very doubtful."
"Yet, I think you must have been convinced of it. That he told you why he was going proves that you were on friendly terms, which would have been impossible if you had thought him guilty. What has made you change?"
The girl's voice was stingingly scornful. It looked as if she suspected something, and Gertrude broke into a cold smile.
"Oh," she said, "the man is clever; he has a way of creeping into one's confidence. He appears to have had no trouble in gaining yours. After all, however, if my father is right, I have a duty to my brother's memory."
"Your father is so possessed and carried away by an idea that one can almost forgive him his injustice and cruelty. You have not the same excuse!"
Gertrude turned toward her with a formal manner.
"I think you have gone far enough. Do you intend to tell the others what you have said to me?"
"Oh, no," answered Muriel. "It would serve no purpose. But I feel that sooner or later you will be sorry for what you have done."
Then she went out, leaving Gertrude alone with her reflections.
WANDLE TAKES PRECAUTIONS
Bright sunshine streamed down upon the glittering plain, tempering the frost, when Wandle stood outside his house one morning, wondering how he should employ himself during the day. He had hauled his wheat in to the elevators, and when that is done the western farmer has now and then some leisure, because the frozen ground renders many of his usual operations impossible. Wandle had a stack of cordwood ready cut, and though he needed some logs for an addition to his stable which he meant to build, the thinness of the snow, which had been disturbed by a strong wind, would make the work of hauling them home too difficult. He was, however, an active man, who rarely wasted time or money; and as he looked about, the ash-heap caught his eye. It was rather large and near his house, and he determined to remove it, now that he had nothing better to do.
In a few minutes he was hard at work with a pick, and succeeded, with some difficulty, in breaking through the frozen crust. The moisture, however, had not penetrated far enough into the fine wood-ash for the rest to freeze, so that he was soon able to use the shovel and during the next half-hour he flung a quantity of the stuff into his wagon. As he did so he looked out for Jernyngham's cash-box, and grew surprised when it did not appear. When he had hauled the load away and deposited it in a swampy place he was getting anxious. The box could not have escaped his notice, because he had spread the ash thinly; he had, he thought, dug far enough into the pile to have reached it; but there was still no sign of it. This was disconcerting, and he worked until he had largely reduced the heap, and he scattered the next load so that every bit of rubbish among it could be seen. Then he stopped in dismay to think. He had certainly thrown the box among the ash, and it was gone; the only inference was that somebody had afterward dug it up and taken it away.
Wandle realized this with a shock, but he was too keen-witted to give way to alarm and leave his task unfinished. He must remove the whole pile, in order to give no cause for suspicion that he had been excavating in search of something; and the sooner it was done the better. It was noon when the work was finished and he entered the house, where there was something else to be done. He was a methodical man and had a place for each of his belongings. He began by examining the position of every article in a cupboard. None seemed to have been disturbed, which was reassuring, and Wandle proceeded to empty a chest in which he kept his clothing. He had reached the bottom of it when a pair of light summer shoes caught his eye and his face became intent. They were not where he had placed them; he remembered having fitted them in between some other things at the opposite end of the chest. This confirmed his worst suspicions, but he carefully laid back each garment before he sat down to consider.
It was obvious that the police had searched his house, and had taken the cash-box away, but he was careful not to let his fears overcome his judgment. The box was of a cheap and common pattern; it would be difficult to identify it as having belonged to Jernyngham. He was more troubled by the evidence that he was being watched by the police because it might result in their discovering the sale of land he had made. This must be guarded against, as the offense was serious, and would, moreover, connect him with Jernyngham's disappearance; but Wandle would not be driven into any rash and precipitate action by his alarm. He was a cool, ready-witted, avaricious man, who had found industry profitable, and he had no intention of leaving the farm he had spent so much work on. Flight would mean ruin: he could not dispose of his property before he went without attracting attention, and it would, in all probability, lead to his arrest. He must stay and face the matter out.
First of all, he tried to estimate the risk of his being recognized as the man who had sold Jernyngham's land. If the suspicions of the agent he had dealt with were aroused, he might describe his customer to the police. Wandle was glad his appearance was by no means striking. When he sold the land, he had, however, worn a newly made suit of a rather vivid brown, which the man would probably remember. Wandle had bought it on a business visit to Brandon, which was a long way off, and the police could not have seen it when searching his house, because they had done so in his absence and when he left the farm to drive in to the settlement he had put on the clothes. There was a risk that somebody in Sebastian might remember how he was dressed, but, as he had been there only once or twice in the past few months, he did not think it was likely.
The garments would have to be sacrificed, which was unfortunate, because clothing is dear in western Canada; but Wandle thought of a better means of getting rid of them, than destroying them. It was obvious that the suspicions of the police must fall on himself or Prescott, and he preferred that the latter should be implicated. After a while, he saw what could be done, provided there was wind enough to obliterate his footsteps in the snow or there should be another fall.
He had to wait a few days; and then one evening he made up the clothes into a bundle, saddled a horse, and rode off across the prairie toward the Prescott homestead. It was very cold and he would have been more comfortable wrapped in a driving-robe in his buggy; but the moon now and then shone through the rifts in the clouds, and a rig could not be hidden or driven in among thick trees.
A long bluff ran close up to the homestead, and when Wandle reached its outer end he got down and walked beside his horse, keeping the wood between him and the farm trail. It was important that he should not be seen. The horse would attract no attention, because Prescott had a number, and hardy, range-bred horses are often left to run loose through the winter. Still, clear moonlight streamed through between the slender trees, and there was a glow from the windows of the house. As Wandle drew nearer it he moved with greater caution. He was fortunate in having done so, for he stopped with a start as two black mounted figures cut against the sky not far in front of him. They were clearly visible as they crossed an opening, and though he stood in shadow beside a denser growth of trees his heart beat faster as he watched them. They were riding slowly, keeping out of view of the house, which was significant, because had they been neighbors of Prescott's returning from a visit to him they would have taken no trouble to avoid being seen. These were police troopers, watching the homestead.
Presently one of them spoke to the other, and Wandle recognized Private Stanton's voice. Indeed, it was ominously distinct, and Wandle, standing very still with a firm hand on the bridle, passed a few anxious moments; a movement of his horse might betray him. The troopers, however, drew abreast without glancing toward him and the tension slackened as they slowly moved away. What they expected to find he could not tell, but he was on the whole pleased to see them hanging round the bluff. He waited a while after the faint sound they had made died away; and then, tying his horse to a branch, he crept quietly into the bluff.
There were belts of shadow among the trees; he got entangled among nut bushes and thickets, but creeping on toward the house, he reached a more open space and found a hollow nearly filled with withered leaves. There he stopped, wondering whether it would be safe to strike a match; but he knew that something must be risked and he got a light and bent down, shielding it with his hands. The leaves lay thickly together, a foot or two in depth, and the place looked suitable for his purpose.
A stream of light suddenly broke out from the door of the homestead and Wandle's hand closed quickly on the match; somebody was crossing from the house to the stable with a lantern. He could see the man's dark figure plainly, though he could not recognize him, and he waited until a door was noisily opened. Then he scraped the leaves aside and laid the brown clothes in the hollow. He stayed beside it until the man with the lantern returned to the house, and then he crept back through the bluff and led his horse toward its end, where he mounted and rode to the next farm. After spending an hour with its owner, arranging for a journey to a bluff where unusually large logs could be found, he rode home content. Everything had gone as he wished; there would, he thought, be snow enough before morning to cover any tracks he had left, and he could, if necessary, account for his having been in the neighborhood of the Prescott farm.
During the next week, Wandle watched the weather, which continued fine after a few snow showers. A heavy fall might hide the clothes until spring, but he could think of no means of leading up to their discovery. To give the police a hint would fix their suspicions on himself, and he wondered how one could be conveyed to them indirectly. Chance provided him with an opportunity.
Gertrude Jernyngham borrowed Leslie's team one afternoon and set out for a drive. Troubled as she was, she had of late found the strain of maintaining a tranquil demeanor before her friends growing too much for her, and it was trying to spend the greater portion of her time in Muriel's society. She was filled with a jealous hatred of the girl, and felt that it would be a relief to be alone a while. The air was still, bright sunshine flooded the plain, the thick driving-robe kept her comfortably warm; and, lost in painful thought, she had driven farther than she intended when she turned back. On doing so, she noticed that she had left the beaten trail and she looked about timidly. The sun was low, a gray dimness had crept across the eastern half of the prairie where the homestead lay and a piercing wind was springing up. There was nobody in sight and no sign of a house, and she could not remember which of the bluffs that stretched in wavy lines across the waste she had passed.
She drove on toward the east, eagerly looking for the trail, while the horse broke through the thin snow-crust and the sleigh ran heavily, until she reached a slope leading to a frozen swamp. It was of some extent, and she grew anxious, for she had not seen the spot before. The country ahead was more broken, rolling in low rises with short pines on their summits, and it was with unfeigned satisfaction that she saw a man crossing one of the ridges. He answered when she called and in a few minutes she stopped close beside him. He was a tall man, wearing an old fur coat and dilapidated fur cap; a rancher, she thought.
"Can you tell me where Leslie's house is?" she asked.
"Sure," said Wandle, pointing toward the east. "But as it will be dark before you get there, you had better let me put you on the trail. You'll have to cross these sandhills, and as the snow's blown off in places, it's rough traveling."
Gertrude thanked him, and she was glad that he led the team as they crossed the broken belt, picking out the smoothest course among the clumps of birches and low steep ridges. At times he had difficulty in urging the horses up a bank of frozen sand, but after a while he looked around at her.
"You're Miss Jernyngham?" he said. "Guess you must have had a mighty trying time?"
His tone was respectful and, though he was a stranger, Gertrude could not resent the allusion to her troubles. She had generally found the western ranchers blunt.
"Yes," she replied; "my father and I have had much to bear."
Wandle made a gesture of sympathy.
"The mystery's the worst—it's easier to face a trouble one knows all about. What have the police been doing lately?"
"I don't know; they have told us nothing for some time."
"You find them kind of disappointing?"
"I believe my father does."
The man said nothing for a while, and then looked around again.
"Well," he ventured, "it strikes me there's one man Curtis ought to keep his eye on."
Gertrude started and Wandle studied her face. He was observant and quick to draw a conclusion, and he read something that surprised him in her eyes. It was, he thought, a deeper feeling than suspicion; Miss Jernyngham knew whom he meant and had some reason for being very bitter against Prescott.
"Why do you say that?" she asked.
"All I've heard looks black against him," he answered with an air of reflection. "What does your father think?"
"He is perplexed and distressed," said Gertrude coldly, deciding that the man must not be allowed to go too far.
Wandle guessed her thoughts, but he was not to be daunted.
"That's natural. He must be anxious to learn the truth, and the police haven't found out much yet—looks as if they were getting tired."
Gertrude hesitated, while he led the horses round a clump of birches. It was painful and undignified to discuss the matter with a stranger, but his manner was suggestive; she felt that he had something to tell. Perhaps it was her duty to encourage him, and her suspicions of Prescott drove her on. Wandle waited, knowing that she would speak.
"Is there anything that might be useful they have neglected doing?"
"It's hard to say. I'll allow that they've worked through the muskeg and the bluffs pretty thoroughly; but do you know if they've made a good search round Prescott's house?"
"No," said Gertrude eagerly; "I can't tell you that. But why should they look there?"
Wandle considered. It would be awkward if she mentioned that she had had a hint from him, but he did not think this would happen. There was a greater probability of her acting as if the idea had originated with her. He let the team stop and looked at her impressively.
"It strikes me as quite a likely place. I've heard of people hiding things they wanted to get rid of in a bluff. You put it to your father and see how the notion strikes him."
"I'll think of it," Gertrude replied coldly; but Wandle knew that she would do as he had suggested.
He said nothing further until they had crossed another rise or two, when he stopped and pointed to a bluff not far away.
"When you make those trees you'll strike the trail and it's pretty well beaten. It will take you straight in to Leslie's."
Gertrude thanked him and drove on. It was getting dark, and a bitter wind swept the waste, but at first she was scarcely conscious of the cold, for her thoughts were busy. She felt that she had done wrong in allowing the man to make the suggestion. Somehow it seemed to involve her in a plot against Prescott; but of late she had tried to convince herself of his guilt. After all, it was her duty to have the fullest investigation made and the fellow had spoken in a significant manner. One could imagine that he knew more than he had said.
Darkness closed in on the empty plain, the wind stung her face, the loneliness grew intense, and she began to shiver in a mood of black depression. The mystery of her brother's disappearance filled her with keen anxiety; now she could no longer believe Prescott's assurance that he was not dead. A little while ago she had trusted him and her cold nature had suddenly expanded in the warmth of love, but the transforming glow had suddenly died out, leaving her crushed, humiliated, and very bitter. Even if her fears about Cyril proved unfounded, she had nothing to look forward to except a life that had grown meaningless and dreary; the brief passion she had yielded to would never be stirred again. She was growing hard and cruel; her keenest desire was to punish the man who had, as she thought of it, deceived her.
At length a light began to blink in the gloom ahead and soon afterward she got down at the homestead, feeling very cramped and cold; but an hour or two passed before she had an opportunity for speaking to her father alone. It was easy to lead him on to talk of Cyril's disappearance, and by and by she asked if the neighborhood of Prescott's homestead had been searched. He caught at the idea.
"It's hard to understand why I didn't think of that!" he cried. "I have lost all confidence in Curtis. What he is doing, or if he means to let the matter drop, I don't know; but if Prescott has hidden anything that might tell against him, it will of course be in the bluff! I'll go over and examine every hollow among the bushes, without the police."
His expression grew eager and Gertrude, knowing that she had said enough, left him quietly.
JERNYNGHAM MAKES A DISCOVERY
A piercing wind swept the lonely waste when Jernyngham left the homestead in the afternoon. He went on foot, because it was no great distance to the Prescott farm, and he had no wish to attract notice by driving up in the sleigh. It was his intention to enter the bluff quietly a little while before it got dark and, after searching it, to walk home. By doing so he would run less risk of being seen, for it was undesirable that he should put Prescott on his guard. He had said nothing about his plan to any one except Gertrude, which was unfortunate, because Leslie, who could read the signs of the weather, would have dissuaded him.
Jernyngham felt uneasy as he glanced across the plain. There was something unusual in the light: every clump of scrub and bush in the foreground stood out with a curious hard distinctness, though the distance was blurred and dim. There was no horizon; the bluffs a few miles off had faded into a hazy shapelessness. The sky was uniformly gray, except in the north, where it darkened to a deep leaden color; the cold struck through the man like a knife. He was, however, not to be deterred; snow was coming and a heavy fall might make an effective search impossible for the remainder of the winter. There was something inexorable in his nature; his views were narrow, but he was true to them and ruled himself and his dependents in accordance with a few fixed principles. This was why he had driven out his son, and was now with the same grim consistency bent on avenging him. He had a duty and he meant to discharge it, in spite of raging blizzard or biting frost. Indeed, if need be, he was willing to lay down the dreary life which had of late grown valueless to him. Yet he was not without tenderness, and as he plodded on over the frozen snow, he thought of the lost outcast with wistful regret.
He reached the bluff, and stopped a few moments, slightly breathless, among the first of the trees. They were small and their branches cut in sharp, intricate tracery against the sky; farther back, the rows of slender trunks ran together in a hazy mass, though they failed to keep out the wind, and once or twice a fine flake touched the old man's face with a cold that stung. He pulled his fur cap lower down and set about the search. For half an hour he scrambled among thick nut bushes, kicking aside the snow beneath them here and there; and then he plunged knee-deep into the withered grass where a sloo had dried. The snow was thin in the wood, but it hid the iron-hard ground so that he could not tell if it had been disturbed. It was obvious that the chances were against his discovering anything, but he persevered, working steadily nearer to the homestead, of which he once or twice caught a glimpse where the trees were thinner.
At length he stopped suddenly and cast a quick glance around. He had heard a sharp crack behind him, but it was not repeated and there was little to be seen. While he listened, the wind wailed among the branches and the sloo grass rustled eerily. The patch of sky above him was growing darker, and the wood looked, inexpressibly dreary; but as the light was going, there was more reason for his making use of it. Though he was getting tired, he pushed on; avoiding fallen trunks and branches where he could, and floundering through thickets, he came to a small hollow which traversed the bluff. As it was nearly filled with drifted snow, he stepped down upon its white surface and, breaking through, sank above his boots in withered leaves. These, he thought, would effectively hide anything laid among them until it rotted and crumbled into their decay. He followed up the hollow, kicking the snow aside. He fancied that he heard the snapping sound again; but he was too eager to feel much curiosity about the cause of it, and there was nothing to be seen. The light was dying out rapidly, heavy snow was coming, and he must make the best use of his time.
After a while, his foot struck something which did not yield as the leaves had done, and dropping on his knees he dragged it out. A thrill of excitement ran through him as he saw that is was a suit of clothes and made out in the gathering dusk that their color was brown. Then, as he rose with grim satisfaction, he saw with a start two indistinct figures watching him a dozen yards away. They moved forward, and he recognized the first of them as Curtis.
"Mr. Jernyngham?" said the corporal.
"Yes," said Jernyngham. "Who did you think it was?"
"Well," returned Curtis dryly, "we didn't expect to find you. What brought you here?"
"I've been doing your work with more success than seems to have attended your efforts." He pointed to the clothes. "To my mind, this is conclusive."
An icy blast that set them shivering went roaring through the wood, but they were too intent to heed it, and Curtis picked up one of the garments. He could see only that it was a jacket, for darkness was closing in suddenly.
"I'll allow it's kind of suggestive," he admitted guardedly.
Jernyngham broke into a contemptuous laugh.
"How was the man who sold my son's land dressed?"
"Smartly, in new clothes. The land agent remembered that they were a reddish brown."
"That's the color of the thing in your hand. There was more light when I pulled it out of the leaves yonder. Are you convinced now?"
"It's certainly enough to make one think."
"To think, but not to act! You seem strangely content with the former! Isn't it plain that Prescott sold the land, and then, remembering that he had worn a suit of rather unusual color which might help to identify him, hid it in the bluff? Having other people in the house, he was, no doubt, afraid to burn the clothes."
Curtis folded up the garments and laid them on his arm.
"Well," he said, "it sounds quite probable; but there are discrepancies. I'll take these things along, and I guess you had better make for the homestead and ask them to let you in. We'll have a lively blizzard down on us very soon."
The trees bent above him as he spoke, the wood was filled with sound, and fine flakes drove past in swirls. Then, as the wild gust subsided, they heard a galloping horse going by outside the bluff and Curtis swung sharply round toward his comrade.
"It's that blamed ranger of yours broken loose!" he cried. "Get after him with my horse!"
The next moment the police had vanished and Jernyngham was left alone, listening to the crackle of undergrowth, which was lost in a furious uproar as the wood was swept by another gust. Then the thrashing trees were blotted out by a white haze which stung his face with an intolerable cold and filled his eyes. For a minute or two he could see nothing, though he was conscious of a tumult of sound and broken twigs came raining down upon him; then, lowering his head, he stumbled forward between blurred trees, ignorant of where he was going. He struck one or two of the trees and blundered into thickets, but at last he struggled out of the wood and stopped for a few moments in dismay.
The light had gone; he could scarcely see a yard ahead, through the thick white cloud that rushed past him. The wind buffeted him cruelly, threatening to fling him down; the awful cold dulled his senses. He had not intended to seek shelter at the homestead—the idea was repugnant—and he hardly thought he meant to do so now, but, overwhelmed by the blizzard, he could not stand still and freeze. Struggling heavily forward, he found himself in the open; all trace of the wood had vanished; he could not tell where he was heading, but he must continue moving to keep life in him. He could no longer reason collectedly. He had not been trained to physical endurance, and he was getting old; in the grip of the storm he was helpless. By and by his steps grew feebler and his breath harder to get. How long he stumbled on he could not remember; but at length he was sensible of a faint brightness in the snow ahead and he made toward it in a half-dazed fashion. It seemed to die out, leaving him in a state of dull despair, but a few moments later something barred his way and stretching out his mittened hand it fell upon the lapped boarding of a house. There must be a door, he reasoned, and he groped along the wall until his hand fell forward into a shallow recess. Then he knocked savagely.
There was no response. The gale shrieked about the building, flinging the snow against it in clouds, and he realized that any noise he made was not likely to be heard. He fumbled for a latch, and found a knob which his numbed fingers failed to turn. Then in a fury he struck the door again, each blow growing feebler than the last, until the cold overcame him and he slipped down into the snow. He could not get up; even the desire to do so grew fainter, and he sank into oblivion.
It did not last, however, and the return to consciousness was agonizing. A strong light shone about him, though he could see nothing clearly, and he felt as if a boiling fluid were trying to creep through his half-frozen limbs; his hands and feet, in particular, tingled beyond endurance, which, had he known it, was a favorable sign. Then somebody gave him a hot drink and he heard voices which he vaguely recognized, though he could not tell to whom they belonged. A little later, he was lifted up and carried into a different room, where somebody laid him down and wrapped clothing about him. The tingling pain passed away, he felt delightfully warm, and that was all that he was conscious of as he sank into heavy slumber.
It was daylight when he awakened, clear-headed and comfortable, and recognized the room as the one he had previously occupied in Prescott's house. It was obvious that he had slept for twelve or fourteen hours; and seeing his clothes laid out, dry, upon a chair, he got up and dressed. Then he went down to the living-room, where Prescott rose as he came in.