"You don't look much the worse," the rancher said. "You had a fortunate escape."
"How did I get here?" Jernyngham asked, leaning on the back of a chair, for he felt shaky still.
"That's more than I can tell. Svendsen found you outside the door when he tried to get across to the stable. You couldn't have been there long: a few minutes, I guess, though we didn't hear you. Do your feet and hands feel right?"
Jernyngham was glad that his host made no inquiries as to what had brought him into the neighborhood.
"Thank you, yes," he said. "I must assure you that I had no intention of seeking shelter in your house."
"So I should imagine," Prescott answered smiling. "However, there ought to be a truce between even the deadliest enemies where there's a blizzard raging and the temperature's forty below. Though I can't say you have treated me well, I'm glad you didn't get frozen, and if you'll sit down, I'll tell Mrs. Svendsen to bring you in some breakfast."
"With what there is between us, you could hardly expect me to sit at your table."
"That's a comfortable chair you have your hand on. Bring it nearer the stove and let's try to look at the thing sensibly," Prescott persuaded. "I'll confess that I'd have excused your visit, if it could have been avoided, but as you already owe Svendsen and me something, it would be rather forcing matters for you to drive away hungry. That strikes me as about the limit of wrong-headedness, particularly as I'm not suggesting that we should make friends."
The elder man was possessed by a fixed idea and his prejudices were strong, but he was, nevertheless, a judge of character, and the rancher's manner impressed him. He took the chair.
"I believe I owe my life to you or your hired man. I find the situation embarrassing."
"It would be intolerable, if you were not mistaken about another point," Prescott said calmly. "Now I want your attention. I'm not anxious for your good opinion—I don't know that I'd take it as a gift, after the way you have persecuted me—but I've a pity for you that softens my resentment."
Jernyngham moved abruptly, but Prescott raised his hand.
"Let me get through! I believe you're honest; you're acting from a sense of duty, which is why I tell you that you're tormenting yourself without a cause. I had no hand in your son's disappearance, and it's my firm conviction that he's alive now and wandering through British Columbia with a mineral prospector."
"What proof have you of this?"
"None that would satisfy you; nothing but my word, and I give you that solemnly. Make your own inquires among my neighbors whether it's to be believed."
For several moments Jernyngham fixed his eyes on him, and his suspicions began to melt away. Truth had rung in Prescott's voice and it was stamped on his face; no man, he thought, could lie and look as this rancher did. Even the discovery of the brown clothes appeared less damaging.
"Then there's much to be explained," he said slowly.
"That's so. It will all come to light some day. And now, it's a bitter morning, the drifts are deep, and the trail lost in snow; Svendsen will have some trouble in driving you to Leslie's, and you can't go without food."
Prescott called to Mrs. Svendsen, and she presently brought in breakfast. Jernyngham ate a little before he got into the buggy and was driven away. He reached the Leslie homestead greatly disturbed. The painful mystery was as deep as ever, but he was inclined to think he had been following a false clue; the man on whom all his suspicions had centered might be innocent. It was so seldom that he changed his mind that he felt lost in a maze of doubt, and in his perplexity he told Gertrude what he had found and related his conversation with Prescott. They were alone and she listened with fixed attention, studiously hiding her feelings behind an inscrutable expression.
"I don't know what to think; for perhaps the first time in my life, I'm utterly at a loss and need a lead," he said. "Everything we have learned about the man tells against him, and yet I felt I could not doubt his unsupported assurance. There was a genuine pride in the way he referred me to his neighbors for his character for truthfulness and one must admit that a number of them have an unshakable belief in him. Then Colston's wavering; and Muriel has shown her confidence in the fellow in a striking manner."
"Ah!" said Gertrude sharply. "You have noticed that?"
"I could hardly fail to do so. It is no affair of mine and perhaps a breach of good manners to mention it, but if I were in Colston's place, I should feel disturbed about the way in which his sister-in-law has taken Prescott's part."
"The reason should be obvious. Leaving the man's guilt or innocence out of the question, there is his position; I needn't enlarge on it. Muriel's family is an old and honored one; it would be insufferable that she should break away from its traditions. Then we know what her upbringing has been. Could one calmly contemplate her throwing herself away on a working farmer?"
He had appealed to his daughter's strongest prejudices, which had for a while sunk into abeyance and then sprung into life again. All that he had said about Muriel applied with equal force to her. She had yielded to a mad infatuation, and returning sanity had brought her a crushing sense of shame. She might have made a costly sacrifice for the rancher's sake, flinging away all she had hitherto valued; she had sought him, humbled herself to charm him, and he had never spared a tender thought for her. Despising herself, her jealous rage and wounded pride could only be appeased by his punishment.
"Prescott," she said coldly, "is a dangerous man; I have never met anybody so insinuating and plausible. When he speaks to you, it's very hard to disbelieve him; his manner's convincing."
"I felt that," said her father with a troubled air.
"Then shouldn't it put you on your guard, and make you test his statements? Is it wise to let them influence you before they're confirmed?"
"It was foolish of me to be impressed; but still——"
Gertrude checked him.
"With us suspicion is a duty. Try to think! Cyril had his failings, but you were harsh to him. You showed him no pity; you drove him out."
"It's true," admitted Jernyngham in a hoarse voice. "I've regretted it deeply."
She knew she had not appealed in vain to her father's grief and she meant to work upon his desire for retribution.
"Cyril came here and fell into Prescott's hands. Instead of his meeting Colston, the rancher personated him. He was the last man to see him; he knew where he had hidden his money; soon afterward he bought a costly machine."
"I know all this," said Jernyngham wearily.
"There seems to be some danger of your forgetting it! Let me go on! Prescott took over control of Cyril's farm. He passed himself off for him a second time and sold land of his; you found the clothes he wore hidden near his house. Could you have any proofs more conclusive?"
Jernyngham flung her a swift glance.
"You believed him once. You are very bitter now."
"Yes," she said, "I have admitted that he is plausible; he deceived me. Perhaps that has made me more relentless; but I have lost my brother, and I loved him."
Her father's face grew very stern, and he clenched his hand.
"I have lost my son, and I wronged him."
Then there was silence for a few moments; but Gertrude knew she had succeeded. Her father had been wavering, but she had stirred him to passion, and his thoughts had suddenly returned to the groove they would not leave again. The fixed idea had once more possessed him; unavailing sorrow and longing for justice would drive him on along the course he had chosen.
"You have reminded me of my duty," he said with grim forcefulness. "I shall not fail in it."
Then he got up and left her sitting still, lost in painful reflection. His motives were honest and blameless; but she had not this consolation. She tried to find comfort in the thought that if Prescott were innocent, he had nothing to fear.
A NIGHT RIDE
It was six o'clock in the evening. Curtis had just finished his supper and sat drowsily content in his quarters at the police post after being out in the frost all day. The temperature had steadily fallen since morning and the cold was now intensified by a breeze that drove scattered clouds across the moon and flung fine snow against the board walls, but the stove, which glowed a dull red, kept the room comfortable. A nickeled lamp shed down a cheerful light, and the tired corporal looked forward to a long night's rest. Private Stanton sat near him, cleaning a carbine.
"It's curious you have heard nothing from Regina since you sent up those clothes," he remarked. "It looked pretty bad for Prescott."
"I don't know," said Curtis. "Have you ever seen him with that suit on?"
"Nor has anybody else, so far as I can learn. There's another point—the land agent talked of a tall, stoutish man. You wouldn't call Prescott that."
"Those clothes were 'most as good as new; he might have only had them on the once," Stanton persisted.
"That's what struck me; I don't know how they looked so good, if they'd been lying where Jernyngham found them, since last summer."
"It's a thing I might have thought of."
"You have a good deal to learn yet." Curtis smiled tolerantly.
"Anyhow, I found you a photograph of Prescott, and you were glad to send it along to Regina. What do you think our bosses are doing about it?"
"Lying low, like sensible men; the more we find out about this case, the more puzzling it gets. You think you have pretty good eyes, don't you?"
"They're as good as anybody's I've come across yet."
"Well, you searched the bluff several times in daylight and didn't see those clothes. Jernyngham comes along when it is getting dark and finds them. How do you account for that?"
"I've quit guessing; I'll leave the thing to you. Anyhow, I've had about enough of Jernyngham; talked to me like a sergeant instructor last time I met him, and you'd have felt proud if you'd seen the way he smiled when I told him he had better go to you."
"We'll leave it at that," said Curtis. "The man's making me tired, and he's worse than he was a month ago. Where's that Brandon paper?"
While Stanton looked for it there was a sound of wheels and a hail outside, and a stinging draught swept in when the trooper opened the door. A fur-wrapped man sat in a wagon holding up an envelope.
"For Curtis; come for it," he said. "Operator asked me to bring it along. I'm 'most too cold to get down and I can't let the team stand."
The envelope slipped from his numbed fingers as Stanton tried to take it.
"Dropped near the wheel. My hand's 'most frozen, though I've good thick mittens on. It's about the coldest night I've been out in."
He drove on, and Stanton hurried in and flung the door to before he handed the telegram to Curtis.
When the corporal opened it his face grew intent.
"It's from Sergeant Crane," he said. "Glover was seen this morning near Norton, heading east on the Sand Belt trail."
Stanton's face fell. He had been in the saddle the greater part of the day, and the prospect of spending the night in pursuit of Glover did not appeal to him, though he knew it could not be avoided. The man was a notorious thief, whose last exploit had shown some ingenuity. Appearing at the house of a prosperous farmer, he had shown him a letter from a railroad contractor asking for the use of his best Clydesdale team on tempting terms. The farmer let the horses go and saw no more of them, while the contractor repudiated the letter. Glover was also supposed to have had a hand in one or two more serious affairs.
"I guess we'll have to get after him," said the trooper. "Where'll he make for?"
"Jepson's, sure. I don't know another house near the Sand Belt he could reach to-night, and Jepson's most as slippery a tough as Glover is."
"It's a mighty long ride," said Stanton, "My ranger will stand for it; I don't know about your gray."
"He'll have to make it," Curtis answered shortly. "Get your saddle on."
When Stanton went out Curtis stood up regretfully, for he was aching from a long journey in the stinging cold and the room looked very comfortable. An effort was required to leave it, and he had not much expectation of making a capture that would stand to his credit. Jepson and his brother were cunning rogues; Glover had escaped once or twice already, and Curtis realized that the chances were in favor of his returning after a fruitless ride. Nevertheless, his duty was plain; he had been trained to disregard fatigue and most physical weaknesses, and he went out resignedly into the arctic frost.
They set off a few minutes later, and Curtis had the depressing feeling that he was riding a worn-out mount, though there was some consolation in the thought that the range of the service carbine might, in case of necessity, make up for his lack of speed. When he met the biting north wind that swept the plain the warmth seemed to leave his body; his mittened hands stiffened on the bridle, and it was only resolution that kept him in the saddle. He would run less risk of frost-bite if he walked, but time would not permit this and the claims of the service are more important than the loss of a trooper's feet or hands. If he were crippled and incapacitated, there was a small pension; it was his business to face the risks of the weather.
They rode on with lowered heads, fine snow stinging their faces now and then, and though its touch was inexpressibly painful they were glad they retained the power of feeling. When that went, more serious trouble would begin. For a while a half moon shone down, and their black shadows sped on before them across the glittering plain, but by and by clouds drove up and the prairie grew dim. It changed to a stretch of soft grayish-blue, with the trail they followed running across it a narrow stretch of darker color. The light, however, was not wholly obscured; they could see a bluff stand out, a bank of shadow, a mile away. Once they saw the cheerful lights of a farm in the distance and a longing for warmth and the company of their fellow-creatures seized them, but this was a desire that must be subdued, and, leaving the beaten trail they pressed on into the waste. Save for the faint, doleful sound the wind made it was dauntingly silent and desolate. There was not a bush to break its gray surface, and the frost was intense. They bore it uncomplainingly for an hour or two, and then Stanton broke out:
"I'll have to get down or I'll lose my foot! I'll run a while beside my horse and then catch you up."
Curtis nodded and trotted on, breasting the wind which, so far as he could judge from his sensations, was turning him into ice. He could hear Stanton behind him, but that was the only sound of life in the vast desolation. After a while the trooper came up at a gallop, and Curtis called to him sharply:
"No feeling in my foot yet," said Stanton. "I'm anxious about it, but I couldn't drop too far behind you. We have no time to lose."
"That's so," Curtis answered. "Glover will pull out from Jepson's long before morning. He won't rest much until he's a day's ride from the nearest post."
They went on, and some time later the moon shone through again, flooding the plain with light. It was welcome because they were now entering the Sand Belt where scrub trees were scattered among little hills. Pushing through it, they came to a taller ridge late at night, and Curtis drew bridle on its summit. A faint, warm gleam appeared on the snow about a mile away.
"Jepson's," said Curtis. "Looks as if he had some reason for sitting up quite a while after he ought to be in bed."
Stanton glanced thoughtfully down the slope in front. It was smooth and unbroken, a long, gradual descent, and he knew the farm stood on the flat at its foot. A straggling poplar bluff grew close up to the back of the buildings, but there was nothing that would cover the approach of the police, and he had no doubt that a watch was being kept.
"It's a pity the moon's so bright," he remarked. "There's a cloud or two driving up, but I don't know that they'll cover it."
"We can't wait. This is my notion—you'll turn back a piece and work down to the ravine that runs east behind the homestead. Stop when you can find cover and watch out well. I'll have to ride straight in."
"You want to be careful. There'll be three of them in the place, counting Glover, and they're a tough crowd."
"Jepson has a pretty long head. He'll bluff, if he can, but he won't get himself into trouble for his partner. The thing's not serious enough for that."
"Anyway, you want to keep your eye on them," Stanton persisted. "Glover'll sure make for the ravine if he breaks out."
Turning his horse, he disappeared behind the ridge, while Curtis rode on toward the farm. Glancing up at the moon, he saw that the clouds were nearer it, though he could not be certain that they would obscure the light. This was unfortunate, because he knew that he and his horse would stand out sharply against the smooth expanse of snow. The light ahead grew brighter as he trotted on, urging his jaded mount in order to give the inmates of the homestead as short a warning as possible. Suddenly another patch of brightness appeared. It was a narrow streak at first, but it widened into an oblong and then went out. Somebody had opened the door of the homestead, and the next moment the first gleam faded and all was dark. Curtis was inclined to think this a mistake on Jepson's part, but he kept a very keen watch as the buildings grew into plainer shape against the shadowy bluff. He knew he must have been visible some minutes earlier.
At length he rode up to the little square house, which rose abruptly from the plain without fence or yard. It was dark and silent, and he was glad to remember that it had only one door, though there were one or two buildings close behind it. He was so numbed that it was difficult to dismount, but he got down clumsily and beat on the door for several minutes without getting an answer. This confirmed his suspicions, for he was convinced that Jepson had heard his vigorous knocking. Then the moonlight, which might have been useful now, died away, and the plain faded into obscurity. Curtis was making another attack on the door when a window above was flung up and a man leaned out, holding what looked suggestively like a rifle.
"Stand back from that door!" he cried. "What in thunder do you want?"
"Drop your gun!" said Curtis. "Come down right now and let me in!"
"I guess not! If you don't light out of this mighty quick, you'll get hurt!"
"Quit fooling, Jepson! You know who I am!"
"Seem to know your voice now," said the other, leaning farther out. "Why, it's Curtis!" He laid down the rifle and laughed. "You were near getting plugged. Figured you were one of those blamed rustlers—the country's full of them—Barton back at the muskeg lost a steer last week. What I want to know is—why the police don't get after them? Guess it would be considerably more useful than walking round the stations with a quirt under your arm."
The man was not talkative as a rule, and Curtis surmised that he wished to delay him.
"Come down!" he said sternly.
"I'll be along quick as I can," the other answered, and shut the window.
While he waited, Curtis listened with strained attention. He was inclined to think that Glover had already left the house, which must nevertheless be searched, but he could hear nothing except the dreary wail of wind in the neighboring bluff. His fingers were so numbed that he could scarcely hold his carbine, his horse stood wearily with drooping head, and when a minute or two had passed Curtis struck the door violently. It opened, and Jepson stood in the entrance, holding a lamp.
"All alone?" he remarked good-humoredly. "Where's your partner? But come in; it's fierce to-night."
"Then stand out of my way. I've come for Glover."
"Looked as if you were after somebody. He isn't here, but you had better see for yourself. Walk right in; you're welcome to find him."
The house contained four small rooms, which had nothing in them that would hide a man, and in a minute or two Curtis sprang out of the door and scrambled to his saddle. He did not think Glover would seek refuge in any of the outbuildings, and he rode toward the thin bluff that hid the ravine. The man might have reached the trees, unseen, by keeping the house between himself and the slope down which Curtis had come. He had not left the house long before he heard the sharp drumming of a gallop, and drove his horse at the belt of timber. All had turned out as he had expected. Stanton had headed off Glover as he slipped away down the ravine, and the outlaw had broken out to the north, making for a tract of lonely, bluff-strewn country. He was now between the corporal and the trooper, and his capture might be looked for, provided that Curtis's mount could bear a sharp gallop, which was doubtful.
The sides of the ravine were steep and clothed with brush, there were fallen logs in the fringing bluff, but Curtis urged his jaded horse mercilessly toward the timber, and went through it with rotten branches smashing under him. Once or twice the beast stumbled, but it kept its feet, and in a few more moments they reeled down the declivity. A fall might result in the rider's getting a broken leg and afterward freezing to death, but Curtis took risks of this nature lightly, and, reaching the bottom safely, somewhat to his surprise, he struggled up the opposite ascent.
From the summit he saw two dark, mounted figures pressing across the open plain some distance apart. By riding straight out from the ravine he thought that he could cut off the leader. His weariness had fallen from him, the mad drumming of hoofs fired his blood, and as he burst out of the timber at a gallop the moon came through. The fugitive seemed to hear him, for he altered his course a little—he could not swerve much without approaching Stanton—and for a few minutes Curtis shortened the distance between them. Then his horse began to flag; it looked as if Glover might escape, after all, though he must still draw nearer to the trooper before he got away.
Curtis, roughly calculating speed and distance, pulled up his horse. Springing from the saddle, he flung himself down in the snow, and for a few seconds gripped his carbine tight. Then there was a flash and little spirts of snow leaped up one after another ahead of the outlaw. Curtis pressed down the rear sight and fired again; but Glover was still riding hard, with Stanton dropping behind him. At the third shot Glover's horse went down in a struggling heap, hiding its rider. A few moments later the man reappeared, and began to run, but he stopped as Stanton came down on him at a gallop, and Curtis got up hastily. Glover made a sign of submission, and the next minute Stanton sprang to the ground beside him.
"Hold up your hands!" he ordered sharply, and there was a clink as the irons snapped to.
After that the trooper turned to Curtis, who was hurrying toward them.
"Lend me your carbine; mine's clean."
He walked to the fallen horse, which was struggling feebly, and, stooping down he examined it. Then there was a crash and a puff of smoke, and he rejoined the corporal.
"Nothing else that could be done," he explained.
Curtis spoke to the prisoner.
"Come along. You had better not try to break away."
They went back to the homestead where they found Jepson waiting for them. He looked disturbed.
"I told you he wasn't here," he said. "How was I to know he was hiding in the ravine?"
Curtis gave him a searching glance.
"We'll consider that later. I want your team and wagon, some blankets, and driving-robes."
"Am I bound to outfit the police?"
"I guess you had better. Your record's none too good."
He led his prisoner into the kitchen, where the stove was burning, and, laying his carbine on the table, he loosed the handcuffs and bade the man take off his long coat.
"Go through his pockets, Stanton," he said.
The trooper did as he was told, but nothing of any importance was produced. The man was not armed, and there were only a few silver coins and bills for small amounts in his possession. Curtis stood wearily, regarding him with a thoughtful smile.
"Where did you get that jacket, Glover?" he asked.
"Where do you generally get such things? At the store."
"Just so," said Curtis. "I can't see why you didn't buy one that fitted you." He turned suddenly to Jepson. "Bring me his jacket."
The farmer made an abrupt movement, and then seemed to pull himself up, and stood still.
"I've no use for that kind of fooling; he has it on!"
"I don't think so," said Curtis meaningly. "Give Stanton a light and he'll look for it."
The trooper came back in a few minutes with a garment which he had found under a bed, and Curtis bade him put it on the prisoner.
"Right size, same stuff as the trousers, and worn about as much," he remarked. "Now you can take it off and search it."
There was nothing in the pockets, but after a careful examination Stanton felt a lump inside the lining. He ripped that, and took out a wad of carefully folded bills. On opening them, he found that they were for twenty dollars each, and clean. The corporal's face grew suddenly intent.
"Where did you get them?" he asked.
"You can find out!" muttered Glover, who had shown signs of dismay.
Curtis turned to Jepson.
"It looks as if he trusted you farther than I would; but harness your team quick, and if your brother's hanging round outside, tell him that he'll run up against trouble if he interferes."
They sat down and waited until the farmer brought a wagon to the door, and then they drove away through the stinging cold with their prisoner.
MURIEL PROVES OBDURATE
Some time after leaving Jepson's Curtis was joined by two police troopers, despatched by the sergeant who had telegraphed to him. He handed over his prisoner and the wagon to them, though he asked permission to keep the wad of bills. Then Stanton unhitched the jaded horses from the back of the vehicle, and while the others drove back to the west he and Curtis rode on to the post. Reaching it, half frozen, in the morning, they filled up the stove and went to sleep until supper time. When the meal was over they sat down to smoke and talk.
Stanton felt lazily good-humored. A sound sleep had refreshed him, and though his limbs still ached, he was enjoying the pleasant, physical reaction which usually succeeds fatigue and exposure to the arctic frost. What was better, he had assisted in the successful completion of an arduous piece of work. Curtis lay back in a chair opposite him, pipe in mouth, his expression suggesting quiet satisfaction.
"Toes feeling pretty good?" he inquired by and by.
"I'm glad to say they are, though I thought I was in for trouble," Stanton said with a deprecatory smile. "I allow that frost-bite's a thing I'm easy scared about, after the patrol I made with Stafford through the northern bush last winter. Got his foot wet with mushy snow crossing a rapid where the ice was working, and it froze bad; had to pack him the last two hundred miles on the sled, with the dogs getting used up, and the grub running out. They paid him off at Regina and sent him home; but Stafford will never put on an ordinary boot again."
"A frozen foot's bad enough, if you have to walk until it galls," Curtis admitted. "A hand's easier looked after, though I've three fingers I'm never quite sure of. That's one reason it took so much shooting before I plugged Glover's horse."
"You were pretty cute about his jacket," Stanton remarked.
"That was easy enough. The thing was too big for him and newer than his trousers. Soon as I noticed it, I knew I'd dropped on to something worth following up."
"I can't see what you made of it, and you haven't told me yet."
"I was too dog-goned cold and tired to talk; wanted to make the post and get to sleep. However, though I gave Crane's boys no hint, I'll show you what I've been figuring on. Consider yourself a jury and tell me how it strikes you. You have as much intelligence as the general run of them."
"If I hadn't any more than the kind of jurymen we're usually up against, I'd quit the service," Stanton declared.
The corporal's eyes twinkled.
"If you'll learn to think and not hustle, you'll make a useful man some day. Anyhow, the first thing I caught on to was that Glover had taken off his jacket because there was something in it he didn't want us to find. Next, that it was money or valuables, because he could have put any small thing into the stove or hid it in the snow before he lit out. Now, Glover knew it was kind of dangerous to leave his jacket with Jepson, who might find the bills, and as he couldn't tell you were in the ravine he must have thought he had a good chance of getting clear away; but, for all that, he wouldn't risk taking the wad along. Guess there's only one explanation—he'd a reason for being mighty afraid of those bills falling into our hands. That was plain enough when I asked him about his jacket."
"Yes," Stanton said thoughtfully; "I guess you have got it right. But what was his reason? He knows Crane can have him sent up for horse-stealing."
Curtis, opening a drawer, took out a slip of paper with some numbers on it, and then laid the wad of bills on the table.
"Twenty dollars each, Merchants' Bank, and quite clean," he said.
"It was a five-dollar bill on the same bank we found at the muskeg!" cried Stanton, starting.
"It was." Curtis took up the list. "Now here are the numbers of the twenty-dollar bills Morant at Sebastian got from the bank a day or two before he made the deal with Jernyngham; it was with those bills he paid him the night he disappeared." He paused and added significantly, "I guess we have got some of them here."
This proved to be correct when they had compared them with the list. Then Curtis leaned back in his chair and filled his pipe.
"It's a mighty curious case," he remarked.
"Sure," replied Stanton. "You get no farther with it. You have points against three different men, and it's pretty clear that they haven't been working together. They can't all have killed the man."
"That's true. Well, I've made a report for Regina, and they'll keep Glover safe until we want him. I can't tell what our chiefs will do; but as Glover's not likely to tell them anything, I guess they'll hold this matter over until we find out more." He locked up the money. "Now we'll quit talking about it. I want to give my mind a rest."
Curtis had few of the qualities needed for the making of a great detective; he was merely a painstaking, determined man, with a capacity for earnest work, which is perhaps more useful than genius in the ranks of the Northwest Police. He could tirelessly follow the dog-sleds, sometimes on the scantiest rations, for hundreds of miles over the snow, sleeping in the open in the arctic frost. He had made long forced marches to succor improvident settlers starving far out in the wilds; in the fierce heat of summer he made his patrols, watching the progress of the grass-fires, sternly exacting from the ranchers the plowing of the needed guards; and cattle-thieves prudently avoided the district that he ruled with firm benevolence. The man was a worthy type of his people, the new nation that is rising in the West: forceful, steadfast, direct, and, as a rule, devoid of mental subtleties. He admitted that the Jernyngham mystery, every clue to which broke off as he began to follow it, was harassing him.
While he spent the evening, lounging in well-earned leisure beside the stove, Mrs. Colston was talking seriously to her sister in a room of the Leslie homestead. Owing to the number of its inmates, she had found it difficult to get a word with the girl alone, and now that an opportunity had come, she felt that she must make the most of it.
"Muriel," she said, "do you think it's judicious to speak so strongly in Prescott's favor as you have done of late? You were rude to Gertrude last night."
The girl colored. She had, as a matter of fact, lost her temper, which was generally quick.
"I hate injustice!" she broke out. "Gertrude and her father make such an unfair use of everything they can find against him, and I think Gertrude's the worse of the two." She looked hard at her sister. "She shows a rancor against the man which even the disappearance of her brother doesn't account for."
The same idea had occurred to Mrs. Colston, but it was a side issue and she was not to be drawn away from the point.
"You stick to the word disappearance," she said.
"Yes," Muriel answered steadily. "Cyril Jernyngham isn't dead!"
"You have only Prescott's word for that."
Muriel made no answer for a few moments; then she looked up with a resolute expression.
"I'm satisfied with it!"
Her sister understood this as a challenge. She had indulged in hints and indirect warnings, and they had been disregarded. The situation now needed more drastic treatment.
"That," she said, "is a significant admission; I can't let it pass. Your prejudice in favor of the man has, of course, been noticeable; you have even let him see it. Don't you realize what damaging conclusions one might draw from it?"
"Damaging?" Muriel's eyes were fixed on her sister, though her face was hot. "As you have been thinking of all this for some time, perhaps you had better explain and get it over."
Mrs. Colston leaned forward with a severe expression.
"I feel that some candor is necessary. You have taken the man's side openly; you have sympathized with him; I might even say that you have led him on."
Muriel's wayward temperament drove her to the verge of an outbreak, but with an effort at self-control, she sat still, and her sister resumed:
"Besides his lying under suspicion, the man is a mere working farmer, imperfectly educated, forced to live in a most primitive manner, thinking of nothing but his crops and horses."
"He is not imperfectly educated! As a matter of fact, he knows more about most things than we do; but that's not important. Mind, I'm admitting nothing of all that you suggest, but you might have said that I'm a penniless girl, living on your husband's charity. I must confess that he gives it very willingly."
"That is precisely why I'm anxious about your future." Mrs. Colston's voice softened to a tone of genuine solicitude. "Of course, we are glad to have you—Harry has always been fond of you—but, for your sake, I could wish you a completer life in a home of your own. But so much depends on the choice you make."
"Yes; a very great deal depends on that. I'm expected, of course, to make a brilliant match!"
"Not necessarily brilliant, but there are things we have always enjoyed which must be looked for—a good name, position, the right to meet people brought up as we have been, on an equal footing."
Muriel broke in upon her with a strained laugh.
"Once, for a little while, it looked as if we should have to do without them, and somehow I wasn't very much alarmed. But your list's rather short and incomplete. There are one or two quite as important things you might have added to it; though perhaps I'm exacting."
There was silence for a few moments, and a faint flicker of color crept into Mrs. Colston's face while the girl mused. Her sister had got all she asked for, but Muriel suspected that she was not content; now and then, indeed, she had seen a hint of weariness in her expression. Harry Colston made a model husband in some respects, but he had his limitations. His virtues were commonplace and sometimes tedious; his intelligence was less than his wife's. Muriel was fond of him, but his unwavering good-nature and placidity irritated her. She was inclined to be sorry for her sister in some ways.
"Muriel," Mrs. Colston resumed gently, "your happiness means a good deal to me. A mistake might cost you dear, and, after all, one cannot have everything."
"That is obviously true. I suppose it's a question of what one values most, or perhaps what most strongly appeals to one's fancy. It would be difficult to fix an accurate standard for judging suitors by, wouldn't it?" Then her tone grew scornful. "Besides, as those who are eligible aren't numerous, a girl's expected to wait with an encouraging smile and thankfully take what comes."
Mrs. Colston looked at her reproachfully.
"You're hardly just, my dear; I only urge you to be prudent now."
"Prudence is such a cold-blooded thing! I'm afraid I never had it. After all, what seems wise to me might appear to be folly to you. I think if ever what looks like a chance of happiness is offered me, I shall take all risks and clutch at it."
She picked up a book, as if to intimate that she had no more to say, and Mrs. Colston wondered whether her worst fears were justified or whether Muriel had been behaving with unusual perverseness. In either case, she might make things worse by laboring the subject. She hesitated a moment and then went out in search of her husband.
"Harry," she said, "we have been away a long while. Don't you think it is time to go home?"
"No," he answered; "I haven't thought so. What suggested the idea?"
It was obvious that he had no suspicion of her motive, and she was not prepared to explain that she wished to place Muriel beyond Prescott's reach.
"Well," she said lamely, "aren't you rather neglecting your duties?"
"No," Colston replied with a smile; "as they're to a large extent merely formal ones, I believe they can wait a little longer without much harm being done."
Mrs. Colston was surprised. She had not expected such an admission from her husband, though she agreed with him. Harry was not, as a rule, susceptible to new impressions, but there was a subtle influence in the simple life on the prairies which altered one's point of view and led to one's forming a new estimate of values. She had felt this. Things which had seemed essential in England somehow lost their importance in Canada.
"Besides," he resumed, "you will remember that I made arrangements to be away a year, if necessary, and perhaps if I make the most of my opportunities in this country, I may have something worth while to say when we go home again."
This was more in his usual vein; but his wife did not encourage him. Harry was apt to grow tiresome in his improving mood.
"But you don't think of staying the full year?" she asked in alarm.
"Oh, no; we might wait another week or two, or even a month more. It wouldn't be the thing to desert Jernyngham; and, as we're mixed up in it, I feel it would be better to see the matter through." He smiled at his wife with cumbrous gallantry. "Then, though you always look charming, you're now unusually fresh and fit; there's no doubt that the place agrees with you."
Mrs. Colston could not deny it. She yielded for the present, deciding to wait until some turn of events rendered him more amenable. In spite of his good humor, Harry was obstinate and often hard to move.
She went to join Gertrude, while Muriel, sitting alone where she had been left, laid down her book, and let her eyes range slowly round the room, trying to analyze the impression it made on her. There was no carpet on the floor; the walls were made of mill-dressed boards which had cracked with the dryness and smelt of turpentine. The furniture consisted of a few bent-hardwood chairs and a rickety table covered with a gaudy cloth. The nickeled lamp, which diffused an unpleasant odor, was of florid but very inartistic design; the plain stove stood in an ugly iron tray, and its galvanized pipe ran up, unconcealed, to the ceiling. A black distillate had trickled down from a bend in it, and stained the floor.
Muriel realized that had she been expected to live in such a place in England it would have struck her as comfortless, and almost squalid; but now, perhaps by contrast with the frozen desolation without, it looked cheerful, and had a homelike air. This, she thought, was significant, and she followed up the train of ideas to which it led. She had a practical, independent bent; she liked to handle and investigate things for herself, to get into close and intimate touch with life. At home, this had not often been possible; she was too sheltered and, in a sense, too secluded. The people she met were conventional, acting in accordance with a recognized code, concealing their feelings. If she rode or drove, somebody got ready the horse for her; it was the same with the car. When she strolled through an English garden, she might pluck a flower or take pleasure in the smoothness of the lawn, but it was always with the feeling that others had planted and mown. She could take no active part in things; there was little that she could really do.
It was different on the Western prairie. Here men and women showed anger or sorrow or gladness more or less openly. One could realize their emotions, and this, instead of deterring, attracted her; one came to close grips with the primitive influences of human nature. Then they were strenuous people, toiling stubbornly, rejoicing in tangible results that their hands and brains had produced. Woman was man's real helpmate, not a companion for his idle hours. She kept his house, and in time of pressure drove his horses; she had her say in determining the count of the cattle and the bushels of seed, and it was sometimes conceded that her judgment was the better.
But this was only one aspect of the subject that filled the girl's thoughts. She knew that Prescott loved her and she was glad of it; but here she stopped. She was sanguine, impulsive, courageous, but, with all that could be said for it, the change she must face if he claimed her was a startling one. Besides, he must clear himself of suspicion, and because the part of a mere looker-on was uncongenial, there was a course which she would urge on him. She must see him and convince him of the necessity for it. Soon after she had made up her mind on this point, Jernyngham and Colston came in, and she had to talk to them.
A WOMAN'S INFLUENCE
Muriel found it needful to wait several days for an opportunity for speaking to Prescott. It did not seem advisable to visit his house again, and she was at a loss for a means of meeting him when she overheard Leslie tell his wife that he would ask Prescott, who was going to Sebastian the next morning, to bring out some stores they required. The next day Muriel borrowed a team and, contenting herself with an intimation that she was going for a long drive, set off for the settlement. It would be time enough to confess her object if her sister taxed her with it, and there were one or two purchases she really wished to make.
She had never gone so far alone, though she had occasionally driven to an outlying farm, and the expedition had in it the zest of adventure. Moreover, she was boldly going to undertake a very unusual task in showing Prescott what he ought to do. So far, she had been an interested spectator of the drama of life, but now she would participate in it, exercising such powers as she possessed, and the thought was additionally fascinating because among her intimate friends she could not pick out a man who owed much to a woman's guidance. Her sister had some mental gifts, but Harry Colston, disregarding her in a good-humored but dogged fashion, did what he thought best; while the idea of Jernyngham's deferring to Gertrude was frankly ridiculous. Neither man had much ability; indeed, it was, as a rule, the dullest men who were most convinced of their superior sense. Prescott far surpassed them in intellect; but she pulled herself up. She was not going to dwell on Prescott's virtues unduly, and she had not convinced him yet.
The team gave her no trouble, the trail was good, and reaching Sebastian safely, she spent some time in a drygoods store, and afterward went to the hotel, where supper was being served. She would not have waited for it, only that she had seen nothing of Prescott, and she had the excuse that the team must have a rest. On entering the big dining-room she was inclined to regret that meals can rarely be had in private in the West, although, by the favor of a waitress, she succeeded in obtaining a small table to herself. There were only two women present, clerks in the store, she believed, but the room was nearly filled with men. Among them were ranchers with faces darkened by the glare of the snow, some of them wearing shabby coats from which the fur was coming off, though the room was warm; a few railroad hands who laid sooty mittens on the table; the smart station-agent; a number of storekeepers and clerks. Now and then boisterous laughter rang out, and one group indulged in rather pointed banter, while the way that several of them used their knives and forks left much to be desired; but nobody regarded the girl with marked attention. For all that, she was sensible of some relief when Prescott came in and moved toward her table.
"May I take this place?" he asked.
"Of course," she said.
After speaking to a waitress, he inquired whether Colston or her sister were at the hotel.
"No; I drove in alone."
She saw his surprise, which suggested that her task might prove more difficult than she had imagined.
"Well," he said, "the trail's pretty good and there's a moon to-night; but didn't you hesitate about getting supper here by yourself?"
"Not very much; there was really no reason why I should hesitate."
"That's true. But you had your doubts?"
"They were foolish," Muriel told him. "Why are you so curious?"
"I'm interested." He indicated the room and its occupants. "These people, their manners, and surroundings are typical of the New West."
"Do you feel that you ought to defend them?"
"Oh, no! They don't need it. They have their faults and their virtues, and neither are mean. They've the makings of a big nation and they're doing great work to-day. However, you had certainly no cause for uneasiness; there's not a man in the place who would have shown you the least disrespect."
"After all," Muriel contended, "they're not your people. You came from Montreal; your ideas and habits are more like ours than theirs."
"They're mine by adoption; I've thrown in my lot with them." He fixed his eyes on her. "Do you know the secret of making colonization a success? In a way, it's a hard truth, but it's this—there must be no looking back. The old ties must be cut loose once for all; a man must think of the land in which he prospers as his home; it's not a square deal to run back with the money he has made in it. He must grow up with the rising nation he becomes a member of."
"Yes," Muriel conceded slowly; "I think that is so. But it's harder for a woman."
"And yet have you seen any one who looked unhappy?"
"No," she admitted with thoughtful candor. "The few I have got to know seem to have an importance that perhaps is not very common at home. For instance, I heard Leslie giving his wife his reasons for thinking of buying some Hereford cattle, and his respect for her opinion impressed me."
"If I were going to sell those beasts, I'd rather make the deal with her husband."
Then he changed the subject and they talked in a lighter vein until the room began to empty and a waitress came to collect the plates.
"Don't they close this place as soon as supper is finished?" Muriel asked, trying to overcome her diffidence. "Where can I have a word or two with you? I was afraid that somebody might overhear us here."
"The parlor would be best," he answered in some surprise. "The boys prefer the downstairs room and the bar. I'll tell the man about my horse, and then I'll be there."
Muriel found the few minutes she had to wait trying, but she gathered her courage when he joined her.
"Sit down," she said with an air of decision. "I'd better begin at once, and the thing is serious. What have you done to clear yourself, since I last saw you?"
His searching glance filled her with misgivings; without being subtle, he was by no means dull, and he must be curious about her motive in asking him. To her relief, however, he confined himself to the point she had raised.
"Nothing. I don't see what can be done."
"Then are you content to remain suspected?"
"No; I'm not content! But as I seem to be helpless, the fools who can only judge by appearances and the others who are quick to think the worst of me must believe what they like. Anyway, their opinion doesn't count for much."
"How can people judge except by appearances?" Muriel argued. "Besides, do you divide everybody you know into those two classes?"
He looked hard at her and, to her annoyance, she grew confused.
"No," he said slowly; "that would be very wrong—I was too quick. There are a few with generous minds who haven't turned against me and I'm very grateful."
"It might have been enough if you had said they had sense; but don't you feel you owe them something? Is it fair to keep silence and do nothing while they fight your battle?"
"Are there people who are doing so?"
"Yes," Muriel answered steadily. "You oughtn't to doubt it. You're wronging your friends."
His expression betokened a strong effort at self-control.
"Well," he said, "it seems I have a duty to them, but how I'm to get about it is more than I know."
"Have you thought of telling the police about your journey to British Columbia and what you learned about Cyril Jernyngham?"
"I'm afraid they wouldn't believe me. Then there's the trouble that the man I followed called himself Kermode."
"Never mind. Tell them; tell everybody you know."
"It would be useless," Prescott said doggedly.
"You're wrong," Muriel persisted. "When a thing is talked about enough, people begin to believe it. Besides, it would give your supporters an argument against the doubtful. I'm afraid they need one after the finding of the clothes."
"The clothes? What clothes?"
Muriel's faith in Prescott had never been shaken, but his surprise caused her keen satisfaction, and she told him all she knew about Jernyngham's discovery.
"Still, I don't see what finding them there could signify," he said when she had finished.
"Then you don't know that a day or two after Cyril Jernyngham disappeared, a man dressed in clothes like those found, sold some land of his at a place called Navarino?"
"It's the first I've heard of it. There's some villainy here; the things must have been hidden near my house with the object of strengthening suspicion against me!"
"Of course! But you can't think that Jernyngham had a hand in it?"
"Oh, no! The man is trying to ruin me, but that kind of meanness isn't in his line. Perhaps I'd better say that I never had clothes like those and that I sold no land of Cyril's."
"Mr. Prescott," Muriel murmured shyly, "it isn't necessary to tell me this; I never doubted it."
"Thank you," he answered shortly, but there was trouble in his voice and the girl thought she knew what his reticence cost.
"Well," she said, "you will tell other people this and go to see Corporal Curtis? You agreed that women have some power here, and, even if you're not convinced, you will do what I ask because I wish it?"
"You have my promise."
He walked toward the window and stood looking out for a moment or two before he turned to her again.
"Don't you think you had better start for home? The moon looks hazy. May I drive out with you?"
Muriel had shrunk from the long journey in the dark, and she readily agreed.
"I'll tell them to bring your team round," he said, moving toward the door. "Get off as soon as you're ready, and I'll come along when I've collected a few things I bought."
The girl let him go, appreciating his consideration, for she guessed his thoughts. He was under suspicion and would give the tatlers in the town nothing on which to base conjectures. It hurt her pride, however, to admit that such precautions had better be taken.
Leaving the hotel, she found the trail smooth when she had crossed the track, but after she passed the last of the fences the waste looked very dreary. The moon was dimmed by thin, driving clouds, and the deep silence grew depressing; the loneliness weighed on her, and she began to listen eagerly for the beat of hoofs. For a time she heard nothing and she had grown angry with Prescott for delaying when a measured drumming stole out of the distance and her feeling of cheerfulness and security returned. Its significance was not lost on her: she was learning to depend on the man, to long for his society. Then, for no obvious reason, she urged the team and kept ahead for a while. When he came up with an explanation about a missing package, she laughed half-mockingly, and on the whole felt glad that the narrowness of the trail, which compelled him to follow, made conversation difficult.
An hour after she left the settlement the moon was hidden and fine snow began to fall. It grew thicker, gradually covering the trail, until Muriel had some difficulty in distinguishing it. The sleigh was running heavily, and after a while Prescott told her to stop.
"I'll go ahead, and then you can follow my buggy," he said. "There won't be much snow."
Muriel felt that there was quite enough to have made her very anxious had she been alone, but when he passed and took his place in front she drove on in confidence. She remembered that this was not a new feeling. He was a man who could be trusted; one felt safe with him. Now and then she could hardly see the buggy and she was glad of his cheery laugh and the somewhat inconsequent remarks he flung back to her when the haze of driving flakes grew thicker. So far as she could see, the trail now differed in nothing from the rest of the wilderness, but he held on without hesitation, and she felt no surprise when once or twice a belt of trees she remembered loomed up. They made better progress when the snow ceased, and at length Prescott stopped his horse and she saw a faint blink of light some distance off.
"That's Leslie's," he said. "Shall I drive to the house with you?"
"No, that isn't needful, thank you."
"Then I'll wait until I see the door open. I'll look up Curtis in the morning."
Muriel turned off toward the farm, where she found Colston and her sister disturbed by her absence.
"Where have you been?" Mrs. Colston asked. "You have frightened us. Harry would have driven out to look for you if he had known which way to go."
"I went to the settlement. I bought the things we spoke about, and I met Mr. Prescott, who brought me home." Muriel spoke in a tone that discouraged further questions. "Now I'm very cold, Harry, you might shake the snow from those furs."
She left them soon afterward, pleading fatigue, and went to sleep, feeling satisfied with what she had done and knowing that Prescott would keep his promise.
Her confidence was justified, for on the following day he drove over to the police post and found Curtis alone.
"I've come to tell you something and I'll ask you to let me get through before you begin to talk," he said.
Curtis showed no surprise and indicated a chair.
"Sit there and go ahead."
He listened with close attention while Prescott described his journey and recounted all that he had learned about Kermode.
"Why didn't you tell me this earlier?" Curtis asked.
"I couldn't imagine that you would believe it."
"Then what makes you think I'll believe it now?"
"To be honest, I don't care whether you do or not."
Curtis sat silent a few moments.
"What you have told me amounts to this," he then summed up: "you have heard of a man who seems to look like Cyril Jernyngham."
"It's as much to the purpose that he acts like him. I've told you all I learned about his doings and you can judge for yourself. You knew the man."
"So do you," said Curtis pointedly.
"Leave it at that. I want you to find out whether I'm correct or not. You made some inquiries along the new line?"
"We didn't go far west," Curtis admitted. "There were difficulties, and we couldn't see much reason for the search. It was quite clear to me that Jernyngham was knocked out near the muskeg." He looked hard at Prescott. "It isn't easy to change that opinion."
"It seems your duty to test it. Even if the thing costs some trouble, can't you instruct your people in Alberta to find out whether a man called Kermode worked in any of the construction camps, and if they're satisfied that he answers Jernyngham's description, to have him followed up in British Columbia?"
"There's a point you haven't got hold of," Curtis replied. "When you struck a camp, asking after your partner, the boys were ready to talk to you; but it's quite different when a trooper comes along. I wouldn't have much use for anything they told him."
Prescott realized the truth of this. Traveling on foot in search of a working comrade, he had been received by the railroad hands as one of themselves; but he knew that men with checkered careers which would not bear investigation found refuge among the toilers on the new lines, and that even those who had nothing to fear would consider reticence becoming when questioned by the police. The only excuse for loquacity would be the sending of an inquisitive constable on a fruitless expedition.
"Then can't you try the bosses?" he asked.
"I guess they're not likely to have found out much about the man, and the boys wouldn't tell them. However, I'll send up a report and see what can be done."
"Thanks," said Prescott, and then asked bluntly: "What do you make of the brown clothes?"
"So you heard they were found!" said Curtis with some dryness. "I haven't done figuring on the matter yet."
"I don't suppose I'd help you by saying that they don't belong to me."
Curtis looked at him thoughtfully but made no answer for a while. Then:
"Did you ever see anybody wearing a suit like that?" he asked.
"Well," Prescott answered, "I believe I once did, but I can't think who it was. I've been trying hard to remember all day and it may come back."
He got up and Curtis walked to the door with him.
"Frost's keeping pretty keen," he remarked.
Prescott drove away, and the corporal was smoking near the stove when Stanton came in.
"You look as if you'd been studying the Jernyngham case," he said. "I'll allow it's enough to get on your nerves."
"Prescott's been here," replied Curtis. "He's heard those blamed clothes were found, and that's going to make us trouble. We've had Jernyngham interfering and mussing up the tracks, and now Prescott's getting ready to butt in. I expect he'll be off to Navarino very soon, and we can't stop him unless we arrest him, which I'm not ready to do."
"Did he tell you he was going?"
"It wasn't needed; I've been figuring out the thing."
"Well," remarked Stanton with a thoughtful air, "he wouldn't let that land agent see him if he'd been guilty."
Curtis reserved his opinion.
"You're getting smart," he said with a grin. "Still, you don't want to hustle."
"Hustle?" Stanton rejoined scornfully. "Jernyngham was killed last summer and we haven't corralled anybody yet!"
"That's so," Curtis assented tranquilly, "I've heard of the boys getting the right man nearly two years afterward."
PRESCOTT MAKES INQUIRIES
Supper was over and Laxton, the land agent, sat in the rotunda of the leading hotel at Navarino. It was a handsome building, worthy of the new town which had sprung into existence on the discovery that a wide belt of somewhat arid country, hitherto passed over by settlers, was capable of growing excellent wheat. As soon as this was proved, rude shacks and mean frame houses had been torn down, and banks, stores, and hotels, of stone or steel and cement rose in their places. Great irrigation ditches were dug and a period of feverish prosperity began.
Though the frost was almost arctic outside, the rotunda was pleasantly warm and was dimmed, in spite of its glaring lamps, with a haze of cigar smoke. In front of the great plate-glass windows rows of men sat in tilted chairs, their feet on a brass rail, basking in the dry heat of the radiators. Drummers and land speculators were busy writing and consulting maps at the tables farther back among the ornate columns, and the place was filled with the hum of eager voices. The town was crowded with homestead-selectors, and many, braving the rigors of winter, were camping on their new possessions in frail tents and rude board shacks, ready to begin work in the spring. Indeed, determined men had slept in the snow on the sidewalks outside the land offices to secure first attention in the morning when cheap locations were offered for settlement.
Laxton had had a tiring day, and he was leaning back lazily in his chair, watching the crowd, when a man entered the turnstile-door, which was fitted with glass valves to keep out the cold. He looked about the room as if in search of somebody; and then after speaking to the clerk came toward the land agent. Laxton glanced at him without much interest, having already as much business on his hands as he could manage. The stranger wore an old fur-coat and looked like a rancher.
"Mr. Laxton, I believe," he said, taking the next chair.
The land agent nodded and the other continued:
"My name's Prescott. I've come over from Sebastian to have a talk with you."
"I suppose I'll have to spare you a few minutes," said Laxton with more resignation than curiosity.
"In the first place, I want to ask if you have ever seen me before?"
Laxton looked at him with greater interest. The man's brown face was eager, his eyes were keen, with a sparkle in them that hinted at determination.
"Well," he said, "I can't recollect it."
"Would you be willing to swear to that?"
"Don't know that I'd go quite so far; I don't see why I should."
Prescott took out a sheet of paper with some writing on it.
"Do you recognize that hand?"
"No," said the agent decidedly. "It's a bold style that one ought to notice, but I don't think I've seen it." Then he looked up sharply. "What you getting after?"
"I'll explain in a minute. Let me say that I've examined the land sale record here, and have found a deal registered that you were concerned in. It was made in the name of Cyril Jernyngham."
"Look here," he said, "I've had a lot of trouble over this thing since I was fool enough to write to the police; in fact, I've had enough of the Jernyngham case." He broke off for a moment as a light dawned on him and then went on: "It's a sure thing I haven't met you, but, when I think, there was a young lad something like you among others in blanket-coats in a photograph a sergeant brought me. Montreal snowshoe or toboggan club, I guess."
"I don't know how the police got it. But what did you tell the sergeant?"
"Said it was no use showing me a photograph like that, because I didn't trade with kids."
"Then, as I'm the man the police suspect of selling that land of Jernyngham's, it would be a great favor if you'll tell me candidly what you know about the matter."
"Hang up your coat," said Laxton; "I'll do what I can. Anyway, you're not the fellow I made the deal with."
He drew out a cigar-case when Prescott came back.
"Take a smoke and go ahead. I'm willing to talk."
"First of all, turn over the paper I gave you and look at the signature."
"Cyril Jernyngham!" exclaimed Laxton, astonished. "I see your point—the hand ought to be the same as that on the sale registration form, and I might have been expected to recognize it, but I can't remember all the writing I see. However, we'll compare it with the other signature to-morrow."
"When you do so, you'll find a difference."
"Ah!" said Laxton. "Then whose hand is this?"
"Cyril Jernyngham's. It was written in my presence, and what's more important, in the presence of another man. Now will you tell me what the fellow who made the deal with you was like?"
Laxton did so, and Prescott thought the description indicated Wandle, though he was not the only man in the neighborhood of Sebastian to whom it might apply.
"Did you notice how he was dressed?" he asked.
"He had on a suit of new brown clothes."
Prescott sat still, his brows knitted, his right hand clenched. The reason why the clothes had been hidden near his house was obvious, but there was something else: a blurred memory that was growing into shape. Ever since he had heard about them from Muriel, he had been trying to think where he had seen the clothes, and at last he seemed to hold a clue. In another few moments it led him to the truth; everything was clear. He had once met Wandle driving toward the settlement wearing such a suit, and by good fortune he had shortly afterward been overtaken by a farmer who must have seen the man. In his excitement he struck the table.
"Now I know!" he cried. "The man who forged Jernyngham's name hid his clothes near my house to fix the thing on me. I owe you a good deal for your help in a puzzling matter."
The agent was sympathetic, and after Prescott had given him an outline of his connection with the case, they sat talking over its details. Laxton had a keen intelligence and his comments on several points were valuable. When Prescott went to sleep it was with a weight off his mind; but his mood changed the next day and he traveled back to Sebastian in a very grim humor.
Open and just as he was in all his dealings, Wandle's treachery infuriated him. There would, he felt, have been more extenuation for the trick had the man killed Jernyngham, but that he should conspire to throw the blackest suspicion on a neighbor in order to enjoy the proceeds of a petty theft was abominable. He must be made to suffer for it. However, Prescott did not mean to trouble the police. He had had enough of their cautious methods. He determined to secure a proof of Wandle's guilt, unassisted, without further loss of time, and to do this he must obtain a specimen of the man's writing to compare with that on the land sale documents. There was, he thought, a way of getting it.
Reaching Sebastian in the evening, he was going to the livery-stable to hire a team when he met an acquaintance who offered to drive him home. As the man would pass within a mile or two of Wandle's homestead and there was a farm in the neighborhood where he might borrow a horse, Prescott agreed. His companion found him preoccupied during the journey. He put him down at a fork of the trail, and Prescott, walking on quickly through the darkness, saw Wandle's team standing harnessed when he reached the house. This was a sign that their owner had recently come home, and Prescott, opening the door without knocking, abruptly entered the kitchen. The lamp was lighted and Wandle, standing near it with his fur-coat still on, looked startled. Prescott was sensible of a burning desire to grapple with him and extort a confession by force, but there was a risk of the crude method defeating its object, and with strong self-denial he determined to set to work prudently.
"I see you have just come in, and I'm anxious to get home, so I won't keep you more than a few minutes," he said.
"How did you come?" Wandle asked. "I didn't hear a team."
"Harper drove me out. I walked up the cross trail; but that doesn't matter. The last time we had a talk we fell out over the straightening up of Jernyngham's affairs."
"That's so; you still owe me a hundred dollars."
"I don't admit it," said Prescott, who had laid his plans on the expectation of this claim being made. "Anyhow, the dispute has been dragging on and it's time we put an end to it. It was the small items you wanted to charge Jernyngham with that I objected to, and I may have cut some of them down too hard. Suppose you write me out a list."
"I can tell you them right away."
"Put them down on paper; then we can figure them out more easily."
"Don't know if I've any ink," said Wandle. "Haven't you a notebook in your wallet? You used to carry one."
Prescott made a mistake in putting his hand into his pocket, which showed that he had the book, but he remembered that it would not suit his purpose to produce it.
"I'm not going to make out your bill," he said. "That's your business. Give me a proper list of the disputed expenses and we'll see what can be done."
He was a poor diplomatist and erred in showing too keen a desire to secure a specimen of the other's handwriting, which is a delicate thing to press an unskilful forger for. Wandle was on his guard, though he carefully hid all sign of uneasiness.
"Well," he said, "I'll send you a list over in a day or two; after all, if I think them over, I may be able to knock something off one or two of the items. But now you're here, I want to say that you were pretty mean about that cultivator. They're not sold at the price you allowed me."
This was intended to lead Prescott away from the main point and it succeeded, because, being at a loss for an excuse for demanding the list immediately, he was willing to speak of something else while he thought of one.
"You're wrong," he said curtly. "You can get them at any big dealer's. I looked in at a western store where they stock those machines, yesterday, and the fellow gave me his schedule."
He had taken off his mittens, but his hands were stiff with cold, and when he felt in his pocket he dropped several of the papers he brought out. The back of a catalogue fell uppermost, and it bore the words, "Hasty's high-grade implements, Navarino." Near this lay an envelope printed with the name of a Navarino hotel.
There was nothing to show that Wandle had noticed them—he stood some distance off on the opposite side of the table—but Prescott was too eager in gathering them up. Opening the catalogue, he read out a description of the cultivator and the price.
"Taking the cash discount, it comes to a dollar less than what I was ready to pay you," he said. "Now make out the list and we'll try to get the thing fixed up before I go."
Wandle sat down for a few moments, for he had received a shock. His suspicions had already been aroused, and Prescott's motive in going to Navarino was obvious; besides, he thought he had read Laxton's name on the envelope. He could expect no mercy—Prescott's face was ominously grim—and there was no doubt that, having seen Laxton, he knew who had hidden the brown clothes. The game was up, but, shaken by fear and rage as he was, he rose calmly from his seat.
"Well, since you insist on it, I guess I'll have to write the thing; but I can't leave my team standing in the frost. Sit down and take a smoke while I put them in."
Prescott could not object to this. He lighted his pipe when Wandle left him. He heard the door shut and the horses being led away, for the stable stood at some little distance from the house, and after that no further sound reached him. Mastering his impatience, he began to consider what he would best do when Wandle had given him the list. He supposed he ought to hand it over to Curtis, but he was more inclined to go back to Navarino and compare the writing with the signature on the documents relating to the sale. Then, having proof of the forgery, he would communicate with the police. He was sensible of a curious thrill at the thought that the suspicion which had tainted him would shortly be dispelled.
After a while it occurred to him that Wandle should have returned, but he reflected that the man might be detained by some small task. After waiting some minutes longer, he walked to the door, but finding that he could not see the entrance to the stable, he stood still, irresolute. He thought he had been firm enough, and to betray any further eagerness would be injudicious. The matter must be handled delicately, lest Wandle take alarm.
When he had smoked out his pipe, Prescott could no longer restrain his impatience. He hurried toward the stable. The moonlight fell on the front of the building and the door was open; but Prescott stopped with a start, for all was dark inside and there was no sign of the vehicle in which the rancher had driven home. A worse surprise awaited him, for when he ran inside and struck a match it was clear that Wandle and his team had gone.
Prescott dropped the match and stood still a few moments, in savage fury. There was no doubt that he had been cleverly tricked; Wandle, guessing his object, had quietly driven away as soon as he had led the team clear of the house. Moreover, Prescott had good cause for believing that he would not come back. With an effort, he pulled himself together. To give rein to his anger and disappointment would serve no purpose; but he had no horse with which to begin the pursuit. He remembered having told Wandle so when he first entered the house. Striking another match, he lighted a lantern he found and eagerly looked about. A plow team occupied two of the stalls, and though they were heavy Clydesdales with no speed in them, they would be capable of traveling faster than a man on foot. As he could not find a saddle, he ran back to the house and returned with a blanket. A bit and bridle hung on a nail, he found a girth, but his hands were cold and he spent some time adjusting straps and fastening on the blanket before he led one of the horses out and mounted.
The moonlight was clear enough to show him that there were no fresh wheelmarks in the snow. Wandle had kept to the trail, and Prescott surmised that he would travel south toward the American boundary. Although he feared he would lose ground steadily, he meant to follow, since there was a chance of the fugitive's being delayed by some accident, which would enable him to come up. It was extremely cold, Prescott was not dressed for riding, and the folded blanket made a very bad saddle. At times pale moonlight shone down, but more often it died away, obscured by thin cloud. The trail, however, was plain and the big Clydesdale was covering the ground. Prescott's hands and feet grew numbed, and there was a risk in this, but he trotted steadily on.
After a while he heard two horsemen following him. He did not pull up; time was precious, and if the others wished to overtake him, he had no doubt that they could do so. During the next few minutes it became evident that they were gaining, and he heard a cry which he answered without stopping. Then, as the moon came through, another shout reached him, sharp and commanding:
"Stop, before we drop you!"
This was not to be disregarded. Pulling up, he turned his horse. Two mounted men rode furiously down on him, loose snow flying about their horses, and one poised a carbine across his saddle. Struggling to check his horse, he swept past, shouting to his comrade:
"Hold on! It's Prescott!"
They were a little distance ahead when they stopped and trotted back, and Prescott waited until Curtis pulled up at his side.
"Where were you going?" cried the corporal.
"I might have guessed!" said Curtis savagely, and turned to Stanton. "This explains the thing."
"How far is he ahead of you?" Stanton asked.
"He got off half an hour before I did, as near as I can guess."
They sat silent for a moment or two, breathless and crestfallen, their horses distressed.
"Let's get into the lee of the bluff yonder; this wind's keen," Curtis said.
"You're losing time," Prescott objected.
"We've lost it," Curtis told him grimly. "My mount has been out since noon, and it's near midnight now. Stanton's isn't much fresher."
Prescott rode with them to the bluff, where they got down.
"That's a relief; it's quite a while since I could feel the bridle," said Curtis, turning to Prescott. "How did you scare Wandle off? Be as quick as you can!"
Prescott briefly related what led to his call at the farm and the corporal's face was filled with scornful anger.
"This is what comes of you blamed amateurs butting in!" he remarked. "Jernyngham was bad enough, but he can't come near you at mussing up our plans. Guess you don't know that we've been watching Wandle for some weeks, ready to corral him, and you start him off like this, without warning."
"I'd reason to believe you were watching me," Prescott dryly rejoined.
"Oh, well," said Curtis, "that's another matter. Anyhow, I had trailed Wandle to Kelly's place since dark, and I'd trotted round to see if he'd got back to his homestead when I found that he had gone. Stanton and I were prospecting out this way when we struck your trail."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"We'll make the next farm and try to borrow horses. Then I'll ride to the railroad and get the wires to work. Stanton will keep the trail by Long Lake."
"Then I'll push right on by the Traverse. There's a ranch I should make by daylight where I might get a mount. I'm going to see the thing through."
Curtis considered this.
"Well," he said, "I guess you can't do much harm, and Wandle may not have gone by the lake after all. You can pick up Stanton if you find out anything, and I'll try to join you from one of the stations along the line."
They mounted, and on reaching the trail forks where they must separate, Prescott turned to Curtis.
"Aren't you afraid of letting me out of your sight?" he asked.
"No, sir," Curtis answered with a smile. "You're not quite so important to us now; and I'm not running much risk, anyway, considering the horse you've got."
It was noon on the day after Wandle's flight, and Jernyngham was sitting with his friends in a room of the Leslie homestead when Muriel, looking out of the window, saw Prescott's hired man ride up at a gallop. His haste and his anxious expression when he dismounted alarmed her, but her companions had not noticed him, and she waited, listening to the murmur of voices that presently reached her from an adjoining room. They ceased in a few minutes, she saw the man ride away as fast as he had come, and soon afterward Leslie opened the door. He was a talkative person and looked as if he had something of importance to relate.
"Svendsen has been over to ask if I saw Prescott when I was in at the settlement yesterday," he said. "When I told him that I hadn't, he seemed mighty disturbed."
Muriel's heart throbbed painfully, but she waited for one of the others to speak, and Jernyngham, laying down his paper, glanced up sharply.
"Why?" he asked.
This was all the encouragement Leslie needed.
"I'll tell you, so far as I've got the hang of the thing; I thought you'd like to know. It seems Prescott has been away somewhere for a few days and should have got home last night. He came in on the train in the evening, and Harper drove him out and dropped him at Wandle's trail; Prescott said he wanted to see the man. Well, he didn't get home, and Svendsen, who'd been to Harper's this morning, found Wandle gone and three of his horses missing. Then he found out from Watson, who stayed at the hotel last night, that Curtis rode in on a played-out horse before it was light, and kept the night operator busy for a while with the wires. Seems to me the thing has a curious look."
For a moment or two nobody spoke. Muriel felt dismayed by the news, and she glanced at the others, trying to read their thoughts. Colston looked troubled, Gertrude's face was hard and stamped with a kind of cruel satisfaction, Jernyngham was very grim.
"Is that all you know about the matter?" Jernyngham asked.
"I guess so," Leslie answered. "Still, Svendsen did allow he thought he'd seen Stanton hanging about the homestead yesterday evening."
"Thank you," said Jernyngham with cold politeness. "I'll want the team after dinner."
Seeing no excuse for remaining, the rancher went out, and Jernyngham turned to the others. His brows were knitted and his eyes gleamed ominously.
"There's no mystery about the matter; the man has gone for good," he said. "In spite of the assurances they gave me, these fools of police have let him slip through their fingers. That he saw Wandle before he bolted proves collusion between them. It was a thing I half suspected, but Curtis, of course, did not agree with me."
Muriel was recovering from the shock. Though things looked very bad, she could not believe that Prescott had run away. He had promised to call on Curtis and her confidence in him was unshaken.
"He went away by train a day or two ago, and if he had had anything to fear, he would have made his escape then," she said.
Mrs. Colston cast a warning glance at her, as if begging her to say nothing more, but Jernyngham curtly answered her remark.
"The man probably wanted to sell his property where it would excite less notice than at Sebastian. Then I suppose he found it needful to see his confederate."
"They could have gone off together in the first instance," Colston objected.
Jernyngham made an impatient gesture.
"I was merely suggesting an explanation; the point is not important. The fellow has bolted; but I've reason for believing he won't get across the boundary!"
He broke off, tearing the newspaper as he opened it, and there was an awkward silence until Mrs. Leslie brought in dinner. Jernyngham ate very little, and after spending a few minutes in his room, he drove off in the sleigh. Somewhat later, Colston met Gertrude in a passage and stopped her. He thought she looked anxious.
"I'm sorry I couldn't calm your father, but I was afraid that anything I might say would only make him more excited," he told her. "I meant to go with him, but he wouldn't permit it."
"No," she said, "there was nothing that you could do; but I'm badly disturbed." She paused irresolutely, and then resumed: "He has taken a magazine pistol, though I believe it's the first time he has carried it."
Colston looked grave. He determined, if possible, to abstract the pistol and hide it on Jernyngham's return.
"I'm very sorry. It must be trying for you. Indeed, I wonder anxiously where all this is leading us."
"The horrible mystery will be cleared up on Prescott's arrest," Gertrude said in a harsh voice. "I think that can't be long deferred."
She left him troubled by her expression, and he and the others spent a dreary afternoon and evening. It was late when Jernyngham returned, looking worn but very stern.
"From what I've learned, word has been sent to every police trooper between here and the frontier," he said, and broke into a grim smile. "Prescott's chance of escape is a very poor one."
He made a scanty meal, without seeming to notice what he ate, and afterward sat silent. The others seldom spoke and when a word was exchanged there was strain in their voices. The snapping of the poplar billets in the stove seemed to emphasize the quiet and jarred on their nerves, while Muriel, tormented by fears on Prescott's account, found the suspense and constraint almost intolerable. She was thankful when bedtime came, though she could not sleep. Her troubled thoughts were with her lover, and she wondered what perils he was exposed to on the snowy wilds.
As it happened, Prescott was riding steadily through the stinging frost. He had been unable to obtain a fresh horse, but he had borrowed a saddle, and the Clydesdale, though far from fast, possessed good staying powers. For all that, he had been forced to rest part of the day at an outlying farm, and while there a man brought him word from Stanton, whose line of travel ran roughly parallel with his, three or four leagues to the west. The trooper's horse had gone badly lame, and Prescott was instructed to push on while Stanton sought another mount.
It was a very bitter night, but the young rancher was used to cold, and, riding alone in the moonlight, he made the best pace he could across the white desolation. There was no sign of life on it. Nothing moved in the reeds beside the frozen ponds and the shadowy bluffs he passed; no sound but the thud of heavy hoofs broke the overwhelming silence. By and by he left the trees behind, and pressed on into a vast glittering plain which ran back to the horizon, unbroken by a bush, and inexpressibly lonely.