In the early morning he reached a homestead where he rested until the afternoon. He chafed at the delay, but as the Clydesdale was badly jaded, it could not be avoided, and Wandle would have to stop now and then, unless he could hire fresh horses, which might be difficult. Starting again, he came to a small wooden settlement in the evening and rode first to the livery-stable. The telephone wires, which were being stretched across the prairie, had not reached the place, and he surmised that the police had been unable to communicate with it. The liveryman was busy in one of the stalls, but he came out and answered Prescott's question.
"Yes," he said, "a fellow like the one you speak of came in here about an hour ago. His team looked pretty used up and he wanted to hire another, but I couldn't deal. Keep my horses hauling cordwood through the winter, and the only team I have in the stable is ordered by a drummer for to-morrow."
"Can't you find me a mount? I'll pay you what you like."
"No, sir," said the other. "When I engage to drive a man round, I've got to make good. If I didn't, it would soon ruin my trade."
Seeing he was not to be moved, Prescott asked:
"How do you strike the south trail?"
"Go straight through the town. It forks in about three miles, and you can take either branch. They're both pretty bad, but the west one's the shorter and the worse."
"What's between the forks?"
"A big patch of broken country—sandhills and bluffs. About eight miles on, the other trail runs in again."
"Are there any homesteads on the way?"
"Nothing near the trail. There's a shack where two fellows cutting cordwood camp."
Prescott considered when he had thanked the man. He was tired and his horse was far from fresh, but he understood that Wandle's team was in a worse condition. There was a possibility of his overtaking him, if he pushed on at once. Leaving the stable, he meant to walk a short distance to ease his aching limbs, but he saw a mounted man trotting up the street and called out as he recognized Stanton.
"I thought I might get news of you here," said the trooper, pulling up. "Have you found out anything?"
Prescott told him what he had heard, and Stanton nodded.
"Then we had better get on. The horse I've got is pretty fresh."
In another minute or two they had left the lights of the settlement behind and Prescott prepared for a third night on the trail. His eyes were heavy, long exposure to extreme cold had had its effect on him, and the warmth seemed to be dying out of his exhausted body. After a while they came to a straggling clump of birches with blurred masses of taller trees behind, where the trail broke in two. Stanton dismounted and struck a few matches, examining the snow carefully.
"Nothing to show which way Wandle's gone," he reported. "Somebody's been along with a bob-sled not long ago and rubbed out his tracks. Anyhow, I'll take the shorter fork."
They separated; the trooper riding on in the moonlight and Prescott entering the gloom of the trees. He soon found the trial remarkably uneven. So far as he could make out, it skirted a number of low, thickly timbered ridges, swinging sharply up and down. In places it slanted awkwardly toward one edge; in others it was covered with stiff, dwarf scrub. One or two of the descents to frozen creeks were alarmingly steep and the Clydesdale stumbled now and then, but it kept its feet and Prescott felt that, everything considered, he was making a satisfactory pace. Stanton, he supposed, was two or three miles to the west of him, following the opposite edge of the high ground, but there was nothing to indicate which of them was the nearer to Wandle.
He rode on, wishing the light were better, for the faint gleam of the moon among the trees confused his sight and made it difficult to distinguish the trail, while to leave it might lead to his plunging down some precipitous gully. At length he saw a yellow glow ahead, and soon afterward came upon a shack in an opening. Small logs were strewn about it and among them stood tall piles of cordwood. The door opened as he rode up and a man's dark figure appeared in the entrance.
"Have you seen a rig going south?" Prescott asked.
"I heard one, about seven or eight minutes ago. The fellow didn't seem to be driving quick."
"Thanks," responded Prescott, and rode off with a feeling of satisfaction.
He had gained on Wandle, who had probably been delayed by some mischance on the trail. If the Clydesdale could be urged to a faster pace, he might overtake him, but this must be done before the fugitive could hire a fresh team. Next, he began to wonder what progress Stanton had made, for the relative positions of Wandle and the constable were now important. If Stanton were far enough ahead, he would reach the spot where the trails united before the absconder, in which case they would have him between them and it would be better for Prescott to save his horse's strength, because speed might be required. On the contrary, if Stanton were not yet abreast of him, he ought to push on as fast as possible. Wandle, he was glad to remember, could not know how closely he was being followed.
Turning the matter over in his mind, he rode at a moderate pace while the rough track wound deeper into the bluff. The partial obscurity was now extremely puzzling. Here and there a slender trunk glimmered in the faint moonlight that streamed down between the branches, and patches of brightness lay across the path, but this intensified the darkness of the background. It was hard to tell which of the dim avenues that kept opening up was the trail; the state of the short scrub could no longer be used as a guide, for the cordwood cutters had not penetrated so far with their sled.
Prescott knew that he must go forward, however; and he was gazing anxiously ahead with eyes that ached from long exposure to the reflection from the snow when the Clydesdale stumbled violently. He had scarcely time to clear his feet of the stirrups before the beast went down and he was flung into a clump of brush with a force that nearly drove the breath out of him. For a few moments he lay still, dimly conscious that the horse was struggling in the snow; and then, rousing himself with an effort, he got up unsteadily. He felt badly shaken, but he saw the horse scramble to its feet without assistance and stand trembling, looking about for him.
Neither he nor the animal seemed to be seriously injured, but he felt incapable of mounting and waited a while, wondering what he should do. He was tired out and was sensible of a depressing lassitude, the result of nervous strain. Then, as the bitter cold nipped him, a reaction set in. Wandle, he remembered, had with detestable cunning plotted to ruin him; it might be difficult to clear himself unless the man were arrested. For the sake of the girl who had maintained his innocence with steadfast faith, the suspicion under which he labored must be dispelled. Prescott was seized by a fit of fury against his betrayer. Nerved by it, he got into the saddle and rode on, urging the Clydesdale savagely through the wood.
Half an hour later he heard a measured drumming sound and Stanton's voice answered his hail. Then a horseman rode out of a gap in the trees and pulled up near him.
"I suppose you have seen nothing of Wandle?" Prescott asked.
"Not a sign," said Stanton shortly. "Have you?"
Prescott raised his hand and sat listening while he struggled with his rage and disappointment. The night was still; he thought he would hear any sound there might be a long distance off, but nothing broke the silence.
"I learned from a chopper that I wasn't far behind him, and I half expected you would have headed him off. I can't think he has passed this spot."
"We'll try to fix that."
Stanton dismounted and struck several matches. The flame burned steadily, but it showed none of the marks for which he searched the beaten snow with practised eyes.
"No," he said, "I'd stake a month's pay that the fellow's not ahead."
They looked at each other, frankly puzzled; and then Prescott broke out angrily:
"Where can the blasted rustler be?"
"Couldn't have left the bluffs on my side without my seeing him, and if he'd doubled back on his tracks, you'd have met him," Curtis remarked.
"He's not likely to be hiding in the woods. He'd freeze without a proper outfit, which he can't have got."
They grappled with the problem in silence for a minute or two.
"We'll take the back trail," Stanton decided. "The fellow must have broken out for open country on your side. I guess he knows where there's a homestead where he might find a team."
Prescott agreed, and they rode off wearily the way he had come, shivering with the cold that had seized them while they waited. The expectant excitement which had animated them for the past hour had gone and was followed by a reaction. Their bodies were half frozen, their minds worked heavily, but both were conscious of a grim resolve. It was the trooper's duty to bear crushing fatigue and stinging frost, one that was sternly demanded of him; and the rancher had a stronger motive. He must clear himself for Muriel's sake, and he was filled with rage against the man who had tried to betray him. He would go on, if necessary, until his hands and feet froze or the big Clydesdale fell.
THE END OF THE PURSUIT
When they had ridden some distance through the wood, Stanton checked his horse.
"Hold on!" he cried. "Here's a bit of an opening in the brush!"
He moved away a few yards, and then called out:
"Looks mighty like a trail. I guess you didn't notice it when you came along."
Prescott admitted that he had not done so, which was not surprising. There was little to distinguish the gap between the nut bushes from others that opened up all round; but Stanton seemed satisfied that he was right.
"Somebody has driven out this way not long ago," he explained.
"It doesn't follow that the man was Wandle."
"Why, no. Still, I guess it's likely; and if there's a trail, it leads to a homestead. Anyway, we'll track it up."
When they reached the open prairie, the moonlight showed faint wheelmarks running on before them to the east. The country was open and empty; a wide plain, with one slight rise some miles away that cut with a white gleam against the deep blue of the sky. They headed toward it wearily, following the track, and drew bridle when they gained the summit. A half-moon floated rather low in the western sky, glittering keen with frost, and they could see that the prairie ahead of them was more rolling and broken. Dusky smears of bluffs checkered its white surface here and there, and a low irregular dark line ran across it. Prescott supposed this to be a small timber growing along the edge of a ravine. Beyond it, in the distance, a faint glimmer of yellow light caught and held his eye. It was the one touch of warm color in the chill and lifeless waste of white and blue.
"A homestead," said Stanton. "We'll ride as far as the ravine together; and then I guess I'll make for the farm alone. If Wandle's been there looking for horses, he'll strike south and take the trail we left, farther on. You'll head down that way and watch out to cut him off if he lights out before I come up."
Prescott understood the maneuver. By driving east the fugitive had lost ground, and if he could push on fast enough, Prescott might reach a position from which he could either run him down or turn him back into the hands of the trooper.
When they came to the ravine and descended the deep shadowy hollow, they parted company, Prescott following the opposite brink, because Wandle would have to cross it lower down to regain the south trail. Once or twice he left it for a while when the gorge twisted in a big loop away from him, but he could see nothing of his companion. They had commanded a wide sweep of plain when they crossed the rise, but now that he was on low ground, the scattered bluffs obstructed his view. Indeed, he fancied from their position that they would prevent Stanton's seeing the farm. Once he stopped and listened with strained attention, but he could hear only the faint sighing of a light wind among the trees he skirted and the snapping of a twig, made by what means he could not tell, for there was no sign of life in all the frozen wilds. It was very dreary, and Prescott had little expectation of overtaking Wandle after the time they had lost, but he doggedly rode on.
At length an indistinct sound, too regular for the wind to account for, reached him, and grew louder when he pulled up his horse. It was a dull, measured throbbing, and he knew it to be the beat of hoofs. It was drawing nearer, but it might be made by Stanton riding to join him, and he headed so as to clear one of the bluffs which prevented his seeing far across the plain. On passing the end of the timber he saw another taller patch half a mile off, which hid most of the prairie between him and the farm, and knowing that time might be valuable he clung to the ravine, urging the jaded Clydesdale to its fastest pace, which was very moderate. He had gone about a mile, opening up the flat waste beyond the second bluff, when the black shape of a team and rig appeared on it. The team was being driven furiously, and in another few moments Prescott was not surprised to see a horseman sweep out from the gloom of the trees behind them. It was, however, soon obvious that the trooper was not gaining ground; Wandle had got fresh horses, his rig was light, while Stanton's mount had already carried him a long way. Prescott's Clydesdale had been harder taxed, but he knew he could not spare the beast. Wandle must have seen him, but he was holding straight on, and this could only be because he was following a trail which led to the easiest crossing of the ravine. The man would shrink from the risk of getting entangled among thick timber with his team.
Prescott would have found speed difficult, even had he been mounted on a fresh horse. The snow was thin, but it was loose and dusty beneath the crust, through which the hoofs broke, while Wandle was making excellent progress along a beaten trail. Still, Prescott was nearer to the point the man was making for, and if he could reach it first, Wandle could not escape. Riding with savage determination, he sped on, the snow flying up behind him, the thrill of the pursuit firing his blood and filling him with fierce excitement. Wandle's fresh team was going at a gallop, the hoofs beating out a sharp drumming that mingled with the furious rattle of wheels, and through these sounds broke a rapid, pounding thud which told that Stanton was following hard behind. The trooper was, however, less close than he had been; too far, Prescott thought, to use his carbine; and as he mercilessly drove his beast he feared that he could scarcely reach the trail in time. He was closing with the rig and could see Wandle savagely lash his team; the trouble was that instead of riding to cut off the fugitive, in another few minutes he would be behind him, which was a very different thing.
While he plied the quirt he saw the rig vanish among the trees close ahead. They stretched out some distance into the prairie, and he might not be too late yet, if he were willing to take a serious risk. He did not think the trail ran straight down into the ravine—the hollow was too deep for that—it would descend the slope obliquely and might trend toward him. If so, he should still be able to intercept the rig by cutting off the corner and riding straight down the steep bank through the timber. The odds were in favor of his killing the horse and breaking his own neck, but this did not count, and the next moment there was a crash as the Clydesdale rushed through a brake. A branch struck Prescott's leg a heavy blow, but he was too numbed to feel much pain, and as he swung round a bush that threatened to tear him from the saddle he could look down between the trees. Then he was filled with exultation, for the trail had turned his way. Below him, but farther from the bottom of the dipping track than he was, Wandle's horses were plunging downhill at a furious gallop, the rig jolting behind them, the driver leaning forward and using the whip. There was no sign of Stanton except the pounding of hoofs that rose among the trees.
Then the slope grew dangerously sharp and Prescott set his teeth. The Clydesdale flinched from the descent, but it was too jaded to struggle hard, and the next moment it stumbled and slid over the edge. They went down, slipping over ground as hard as granite under its thin coat of snow, smashing through nut bushes, tearing off low branches. Prescott saw Wandle turn his head and look up at him. Then the fugitive sent up a hoarse cry of rage and warning, too late. If he could stop his team, which was very doubtful, he might escape the threatened collision; but this would involve his capture by Stanton, and he lashed his horses and went on, while Prescott and the great plow horse came madly rushing down at him. He looked at them again, with a breathless yell; then he let the reins fall and seized a seat rail.
The Clydesdale struck the light off-side horse, hurling it upon its fellow, breaking the pole. Both lost their footing and were driven round. Prescott, flung upon the backs of the horses, grasped the front of the rig, which ran on a yard or two and overturned with a crash. The Clydesdale went down among the wreckage, another horse was on its side, kicking savagely; and Stanton, hurrying up, saw Prescott crawl slowly clear of it. Seizing him, he lifted him to his feet, and to his great surprise the man leaned against a tree with a half-dazed laugh.
"Well," he gasped, "I'm not in pieces, anyway!"
"Then you ought to be!" said Stanton, too startled to congratulate him on his escape. "But where's Wandle?"
Prescott seemed unable to answer and the trooper, looking round, saw Wandle lying in the snow; but before he could reach him the man began to raise himself on his elbow. This was disconcerting, for Stanton had thought him dead.
"Well," the trooper said stupidly, "what's the matter with you?"
"I don't know," Wandle replied weakly. "Don't feel like talking; let me alone."
Stanton had no fear of his escaping, so he went back to the horses. One of them stood trembling, attached to the rig by the deranged harness; the other still lay kicking, while the big Clydesdale rolled to and fro, with its leg through a wrenched-off wheel. It was astonishing that none of them was killed. Prescott apparently needed no assistance, and Stanton felt that he required some occupation to calm himself. Accordingly, he freed the Clydesdale of the broken wheel, narrowly escaping a kick which would have broken his ribs. The horse was a valuable one and must not be left in danger, and after a few minutes of severe exertion Stanton got it on its feet. Then he turned to the fallen driving horse and began, at some risk, to cut away its harness. Prescott came to help him, and together they raised the beast. Then Stanton sat down heavily on the wreckage.
"Well," he remarked, "that was the blamedest fool trick, your riding down the grade; they wouldn't expect that kind of work from us in the service! What I can't account for is that you look none the worse."
Prescott, standing shakily in the moonlight, smiled. "It is surprising; but hadn't you better look after Wandle? He seems to be getting up."
Wandle was cautiously getting on his feet, and the trooper watched him until he moved a pace or two.
"You don't look very broke up," he said. "Do you feel as if you could walk?"
"I believe I could ride," Wandle answered sullenly.
"Well, I guess you won't. You have given us trouble enough already, and you'll be warmer on your feet." Then he drew out a paper. "This is my warrant. It's my duty to arrest you——"
Wandle listened coolly to the formula, in which he was charged with fraudulently selling Jernyngham's land and forging his name. Indeed, Prescott fancied that he was relieved to find that nothing more serious had been brought against him.
"Well," he said, "you'll hear my defense when it's ready. What's to be done now?"
"Head back to the homestead where you got the team. Think you can lead one of them? It's either that or I'll put the handcuffs on you—make your choice." Stanton turned to Prescott. "It will be warmer walking, and I've ridden about enough."
The suggestion was agreed to, and after looping up the cut harness awkwardly with numbed fingers, they set off; Wandle going first, holding one horse's head, Prescott following with two, and the trooper bringing up the rear. When they reached the farm, to the astonishment of its occupants, they were given quarters in the kitchen, where a big stove was burning. Soon afterward, Prescott and Wandle lay down on the wooden floor, wrapped in blankets supplied them by the farmer, and Prescott sank into heavy sleep. Stanton, sitting upright in an uncomfortable chair, kept watch with his carbine laid handy on the table. He spent the night in a tense struggle to keep awake, and when Prescott got up at dawn the trooper's face was haggard and his eyes half closed, but he was still on guard.
After breakfast, they borrowed a saddle for Wandle and set out on the return journey, meeting Curtis, who had ridden from the railroad, at the first settlement they reached. Prescott left the others there, and rode toward the station the corporal had just left, taking some telegrams Curtis asked him to despatch. He spent an afternoon and a night in the little wooden town, and went on again the next day by a local train.
While Prescott was on the way, Jernyngham drove to Sebastian with Gertrude. The girl had insisted on accompanying him. Soon after they left the homestead Colston, who was trying to read a paper from which his interest wandered, looked up at his wife.
"It's fine weather and not quite so cold," he said. "Suppose we go to the settlement and get supper there? I've no doubt there's something you or Muriel would like to buy."
"As it happens, there is," Mrs. Colston replied. "But I don't think that's all you have in your mind."
"The fact is, I'm disturbed about Jernyngham," Colston admitted. "He has been in an extremely restless mood since Prescott disappeared."
"I have noticed that. But do you know why he has gone to Sebastian to-day?"
"He told me. One of the police authorities, whom he has seen already, is staying at the hotel to-night. Jernyngham means to get hold of him and insist upon an explanation of what they are doing."
Muriel leaned forward in her chair. She looked anxious, for no news of anything that had happened since Wandle's flight had reached the neighborhood. It was only known that the police were in pursuit of him; and local opinion was divided as to whether Prescott was also a fugitive or, knowing more about the matter than anybody else, had offered Curtis his assistance.
"I think you ought to go," she said. "And you may hear something."
"Well," Colston replied, "I'll confess that I'm curious, though I'm going mainly on Jernyngham's account." He turned to his wife. "Don't you think it's advisable?"
"I do, and it would be better if we all went. Then you will have an excuse for following Jernyngham and can watch him without making the thing too marked. It's a pity you didn't succeed in getting the pistol away from him."
"I've done what I could. I had another try this morning, but he caught me looking for it and I believe he guessed what I was after, because he was unusually short with me. It's my opinion that he has taken to wearing the thing; so far as I can discover, it's nowhere in the house. One hesitates about ransacking his room."
"It is not in the house, and he is not to be trusted with it," Muriel said quietly.
Colston cast a surprised glance at her.
"Oh! You seem to know. I've no doubt you are cleverer with your fingers than I am and wouldn't be so afraid of leaving your tracks."
"Gertrude knows where the pistol is and she thought it necessary to go with her father," Mrs. Colston said significantly. "We'll get off as soon as you have asked Leslie for the buggy; I wish it had been the sleigh."
They drove away in half an hour; but Jernyngham reached the settlement some time before they did. Leaving Gertrude at a drygoods store, he went to the hotel, where the commissioned officer of police had a room. The officer was acquainted with all that Prescott had told Curtis about his absence in search of the missing man, and had been advised by telegraph of the assistance he had rendered in Wandle's arrest. This was, however, a matter that must stand in abeyance until he saw Curtis, for he had come down to investigate some complaints about the reservation Indians, who were in a restless, discontented state, and the business demanded careful thought and handling. He was studying the report of a local constable when there was a knock at the door, and he looked up with annoyance as Jernyngham came in. The man had his sympathy, but he was troublesome.
"I'm afraid I can't spare you more than a minute or two," he said. "I'm expecting a constable I've sent for."
"One would have imagined that my business was of the first importance," Jernyngham rejoined. "Have you any news of the fugitives?"
"Wandle has been arrested."
"Ah! That's satisfactory, though I don't think it will carry us very far. His attempt to escape with Prescott, however, makes it obvious that they were confederates."
The officer let this remark pass, for he was anxious to get rid of his visitor. Jernyngham was piqued by his silence.
"I suppose you have not apprehended Prescott yet?" he resumed.
"No," answered the other shortly. "He will remain at liberty."
There was a knock at the door and a trooper looked in and withdrew.
"Mr. Jernyngham," said the officer, "if you will make an appointment to meet me on my return from the reservation, I will be at your service, but you must excuse me now. I have some instructions to give the constable, who has a long ride before him."
"A minute, please; I'll be brief. Am I to understand that you have no intention of seizing Prescott?"
"That is what I meant. So far as I can determine at present, we shall not interfere with him."
Jernyngham's haggard face grew red with anger.
"What are your grounds for this extraordinary decision?" he demanded.
"A strong presumption of his innocence."
"Preposterous!" Jernyngham broke out. "The scoundrel killed my son, and you refuse to move any further against him! I must carry the matter to Ottawa; you leave me no recourse."
The officer rapped on the table and the trooper entered.
"Come and see me when I get back, Mr. Jernyngham, and we'll talk over the thing again. I have other business which demands urgent attention now."
Jernyngham's face was deeply colored and the swollen veins showed on his forehead.
"Understand that I insist on Prescott's arrest! I will, spare no effort to secure it through your superiors!"
Seeing that he was in no mood to listen to reason, the officer let him go, and Jernyngham walked slowly to the lobby downstairs. There were a number of men in it, but two or three strolled into the bar and the others drew away from him when he sat down. They were not without compassion, but they shrank from the grim look in the man's worn face. For a while he sat still, resting one elbow on a table, and trying to arrange his confused thoughts. He knew nothing of Prescott's interview with Curtis or the reason for his visit to Wandle on the night of the latter's flight; the discovery of the brown clothes occupied the most prominent place in his mind, and convinced him of Prescott's guilt.
Then he began to consider how he could best bring pressure to bear on the administration in Ottawa. From inquiries he had made, it appeared less easy than he had supposed. It was, he had been told, unusual for anybody to interfere with the Northwest Police, who had been entrusted with extensive powers; and there was a strong probability of his failing to obtain satisfaction. It was, however, unthinkable that Prescott should escape. Jernyngham's poignant sense of loss and regret for past harshness to his son had merged into an overwhelming desire for vengeance on the man whom he regarded as Cyril's murderer. He was left without an ally; the organized means of justice had signally broken down; but the man should not go unpunished.
Tormented by his thoughts, he went out in search of Gertrude.
JERNYNGHAM BREAKS DOWN
Colston and his party were leaving the hotel, with Jernyngham and Gertrude a few paces in front of them. A big lamp hung beneath the veranda, and the light from the windows streamed out on the snow. While Colston held the door open for his wife and Muriel to pass through a man came hurriedly along the sidewalk and Colston started.
"Be quick!" he cried to Muriel. "It's Prescott!"
Letting the door swing to, he moved hastily forward, and then stopped, seeing that he was too late to prevent the meeting. Jernyngham had recognized the newcomer.
"Mr. Prescott," the old man cried, "a word with you!"
Prescott stopped with a troubled face a few yards away.
"If you insist, I'm at your service."
Colston drew nearer. Jernyngham's tone had alarmed him, and it's ominous harshness was more marked when he resumed:
"For the last time, I ask you, where is my son?"
"I wish I knew," said Prescott quietly. "I believe he's in British Columbia, but it's a big province and I lost trace of him there."
"It's a lie!" Jernyngham cried, hoarse with fury. "Your tricks won't serve you; I'll have the truth!"
"Be calm, Mr. Jernyngham," Colston begged, touching his arm. "We'll have a crowd here in a few moments. Come back into the hotel."
He was violently pushed away. Jernyngham's eyes glittered, his face was grimly set; it was obvious that his self-control had deserted him. Seeing that he could not be reasoned with, Colston left him alone and waited, ready to interfere if necessary. The man, he thought, was in a dangerous mood; the situation was liable to have alarming developments.
"Why don't you speak?" Jernyngham stormed at Prescott. "You shall not leave the spot until we hear your confession!"
Prescott stood still, looking at him steadily, with pity in his face. He made a striking figure in the glare of light, finely posed, with no sign of shrinking. The others had fixed their eyes on him, and did not notice Muriel move quietly through the shadow of the wooden pillars.
"I have nothing to confess," he said.
Jernyngham's fur coat was open and his hand dropped quickly to a pocket. As he brought it out Colston sprang forward, a moment too late; but Muriel was before him, her hand on the man's arm. There was a flash, a sharp report, and blue smoke curled up toward the veranda, but Prescott stood still, untouched.
"Be quick!" screamed Muriel. "He's trying to fire again!"
There was no time to be particular. Colston seized the elder man, dragging him backward several paces before he wrenched the pistol from him. Then he paused, breathless, looking about in a half-dazed fashion. Everything had happened with startling suddenness, and the scene under the veranda was an impressive one. His wife clutched one of the pillars as if unnerved. Gertrude leaned against the sidewalk rail, her face tense with horror, and Jernyngham stood with a slackness of carriage which suggested that power of thought and physical force had suddenly left him.
"Jack, are you hurt?" cried Muriel clinging to Prescott.
The tension was relieved by the appearance of the commissioned officer, who sprang out of the hotel with the constable close behind him.
"Shut the door and keep them in!" he ordered.
The constable obeyed, but his efforts were wasted, for men were already hurrying out through the separate entrance to the bar and from an adjoining store. Others ran out from the houses, and the street was rapidly filling with an eager crowd.
"Stand back there!" called the officer sharply. Then he turned to the group under the veranda. "Now what's this? I heard a shot!"
"Yes," said Colston, pulling himself together, though his manner was confused; "there was one. I don't know how it happened—it was a surprise to us all. I don't think the pistol's safe; it goes off too easily. However, the most important thing is that nobody is hurt."
"That's fortunate. I'll take the weapon from you," replied the officer dryly.
When Colston had given it to him, as if glad to be rid of it, the officer noted the positions and attitudes of the others before he turned to Prescott.
"Can you tell me anything?" he asked.
"I don't think so," Prescott answered. "Of course, I saw the flash, but the bullet didn't come anywhere near me."
Then Gertrude's nerve gave way. All that had happened was her work; she had, when her father was wavering and questioning the justice of his suspicions, driven them back more firmly into his mind, and as a result of this he had come near to killing an innocent man. Overwhelmed by the thought, she swayed unsteadily and fell back against the rails.
"Miss Jernyngham is fainting!" Mrs. Colston cried, hurrying toward her.
"Bring her in!" said the officer; and when this was done, with Colston's assistance, he called to the constable:
"Stand at the door; keep everybody out!"
The big lobby was cleared, and the officer gravely watched the way the actors of the scene arranged themselves. Prescott stood well apart from the others with Muriel at his side. She was flushed and overstrung, but her pose and expression suggested that she was defying the rest, and she cast a hard, unsympathetic glance at Gertrude, who sat limply, with clenched hands. Colston, looking embarrassed and unhappy, sat near his wife, who had preserved some composure. Jernyngham leaned against the counter, dejected and apparently half dazed.
"Before you go any farther, I'd better tell you that I fired the shot," he said brokenly.
"When I came out, the pistol was in Mr. Colston's hand," the officer pointed out in a meaning tone.
"That's true," Colston broke in. "I took it from him, for fear of an accident. Mr. Jernyngham was in a very nervous and excited state. He has, of course, been bearing a heavy strain, and I imagine you must have said something that rather upset his balance."
"I was perfectly sensible!" Jernyngham harshly interrupted him. "I found I could get no assistance from the police; it looked as if my son's death must go unavenged!"
Colston raised his hand to check him. Jernyngham could not be allowed to explain his action, as he seemed bent on doing.
"No! no!" he said soothingly, "you mustn't think of it! Please let me speak." He addressed the officer. "You can see the nervous state Mr. Jernyngham is in—very natural, of course, but I think it should appeal to your consideration."
The officer reflected. He had been brought up in the old country, and could sympathize with the people before him; they deserved pity, and he had no wish to humiliate them. Moreover, Miss Hurst, whom he admired, seemed to be involved. These reasons could not be allowed to carry much weight, but there were others. It was obvious that Jernyngham was hardly responsible for his actions; the man's worn and haggard face showed that he had been severely tried. Justice would not be served by probing the matter too deeply, and Colston's attitude indicated that this would be difficult.
"As you seem to be the one who had the narrowest escape, Mr. Prescott, have you any complaint to make?" he said.
"None whatever. I'm sorry the thing has made so much stir."
"It was my duty to investigate it. But I think that a charge of unlawfully carrying dangerous weapons, which is punishable by a fine, will meet the case." He turned to the trooper. "You will attend to the matter in due course, Constable Slade."
Then he bowed to the company and went out, leaving Colston to deal with the situation with the assistance of his wife, who thought it desirable to break up the party as soon as possible.
"The teams must be ready, and it's too cold to keep them standing," she remarked.
"They're outside," said Colston. "We'll be mobbed by an inquisitive crowd, if we don't get off at once. Gertrude, bring your father."
Gertrude led Jernyngham to the door, and Colston turned back to Prescott.
"It was very regretable," he said. "We are grateful for your forbearance."
Then his wife joined him, calling to Muriel.
"Be quick! The people haven't gone away; the street's full!"
Muriel, disregarding her, looked at Prescott, who had spoken to nobody except the officer. His face was troubled, but he made no attempt to detain her.
"I believe you saved my life," he said. "I can't thank you now. May I call to-morrow?"
"We should be glad to see you," Mrs. Colston broke in hurriedly; "but, with Mr. Jernyngham at the homestead, wouldn't it be embarrassing? Muriel, we really can't wait."
The girl smiled at Prescott.
"Yes," she said quietly, "come when you wish."
Then her sister, knowing that she was beaten, drew her firmly away.
They went out and Prescott sat down, feeling that he had done right and yet half ashamed of his reserve, for he had seen that Muriel had expected him to claim her and was ready to acknowledge him before her friends. This, however, was when she was overstrung and under the influence of strong excitement; the sacrifice she did not shrink from making was a heavy one, and she must have an opportunity for considering it calmly. He was not long left undisturbed, for men flocked in, anxious for an account of the affair, but he put them off with evasive answers and, making his escape, hurried to the livery-stable where he hired a team.
The next afternoon he drove to Leslie's in a quietly exultant mood. His long fight was over; nature had beaten him, and he was glad to yield, though he had not done so under sudden stress of passion. During his search for Jernyngham and afterward sitting by his stove on bitter nights, he had come to see that if the girl he desired loved him, no merely prudential reasons ought to separate them. He had feared to drag her down, to rob her of things she valued, but he now saw that she might, after all, hold them of little account. He was, for his station, a prosperous man; his wife need suffer no real deprivation; he had a firm belief in the future of his adopted country, and knew that in a little while all the amenities of civilized life could be enjoyed in it. Wandle's trial would free him of suspicion; when he had stood facing Jernyngham, Muriel had revealed her love for him, and since it could not be doubted, he need not hesitate. It was her right to choose whether she would marry him. Only she must clearly realize all that this would imply.
He had expected some opposition from Mrs. Colston, but, when it was inevitable, she could gracefully bear defeat. Moreover, she had never agreed with Jernyngham's suspicions of Prescott, and in some respects he impressed her favorably. There was no reserve in her greeting when he reached the homestead.
"The less that is said about last night, the better, but I can't pass over it without expressing our gratitude for the position you took," she said. "Harry has driven Jernyngham out in the sleigh—he has been in a curious limp state all morning—and Gertrude has not yet got over the shock."
"It must have been very trying for Miss Jernyngham."
"No doubt." There was not much pity in Mrs. Colston's voice, for she could guess how matters stood. "However, I am disengaged and I believe Muriel will be here directly."
Prescott followed her into a room and made an effort to talk to her until she rose and went out as Muriel entered. The girl, to his surprise, was dressed in furs, and he felt his heart beat when she looked at him with a shy smile.
"I have been expecting you," she said, giving him her hand.
"I wonder," he asked gravely, "whether you can guess why I have come?"
"Yes," she answered in a steady voice; "I think I can. But we'll go out, Jack."
He followed her, puzzled, but not questioning her wish, and they walked silently down the beaten trail that stretched away, a streak of grayish blue, across the glittering snow. Brilliant sunshine streamed down on them and the nipping air was wonderfully clear. When they passed a birch bluff that hid them from the house; Prescott stopped.
"Muriel," he said, "I think you know that I love you."
There was a warm color in her face, but for a moment she met his eyes squarely.
"Yes; I knew it some time ago, though perhaps I should have shrunk from confessing that so frankly, if it hadn't been for last night. But why were you afraid of telling me, Jack?"
He read surrender in her face and yielding pose, and with a strange humility that tempered the wild thrill of delight he placed his arm about her. Then, as she crept closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder, every feeling was lost in a delirious sense of triumph. It was brief, for he remembered how he was handicapped, and he held her from him, looking gravely down at her.
"Dear, there is something to be said."
"Yes," she rejoined with tender mockery; "you either took a great deal for granted or there was one important thing you were willing to leave in doubt. Now take my hands and hold them fast. You know I have suffered something—fears and anxieties because of you—I want to feel safe."
He did as she bade him and she looked up.
"Now listen, Jack dear. All that I have to give, my love, my closest trust, is yours, and because you said I saved your life, that belongs to me. I think it's all that matters."
He was silent for a few moments, overwhelmed by a sense of his responsibility.
"Still," he urged, "you must understand what you are risking. I should have told you first."
Muriel released her hands, and her glance was grave.
"Yes; you had better continue, Jack. I suppose we must speak of these things now, and then forget them forever."
"You know what Jernyngham believed of me. I could not marry you with such a stain on my name; but it will be wiped off in a few more days, and this I owe to you. It was you who insisted that I should clear myself."
"Remember that I know nothing, except that you went away."
Prescott told her briefly what he had learned at Navarino and of Wandle's capture; and her deep satisfaction was obvious.
"I'm so glad!" she exclaimed. "This will make it easier for the others, though it doesn't affect me. If I had had any doubts, I couldn't have loved you. But I'm pleased you told me before you were really cleared. To have waited until everybody knew you were innocent would have looked as if you were afraid to test my faith in you."
"No," he said; "that couldn't be. I was afraid of your having to make too heavy a sacrifice; and, unfortunately, there's some risk of that still."
"Go on, Jack."
"I'm far from a rich man, though I never regretted it much until of late. You know how we live here; I can guess what you have enjoyed at home. Life's strenuous on the prairie, and though I think it's good, it makes demands on one you can't have felt in England. There's so much that you must give up, many things that you will miss. I am anxious when I think of it."
Muriel looked far across the plain which ran back; glistening in the sunlight, until it faded into cold blues and purples toward the skyline. The gray bluffs, standing one behind the other, and the long straggling line of timber by a ravine marked its vast extent. It filled the girl with a sense of freedom; its wideness uplifted her.
"Jack," she said, "I wonder whether you can understand why I made you take me out? The prairie has drawn me from the beginning, and I felt it would be easier to make a great change in this wonderful open space; I wanted to adopt the country, to feel it belonged to me. Now that I've made my choice, my home is where you are; I want nothing but to be loved and cared for, as you must care for me."
Prescott drew her toward him, but there was more of respect than passion in his caress.
"My dear," he said gravely, "I feel very humble as well as thankful. It's a great thing I've undertaken, to make you happy; and I think you'll try to forgive me if I sometimes fail."
Muriel laughed and shook herself free.
"I'm not really hard to please, and even if you make mistakes now and then, good intentions count for a good deal. But you are dreadfully solemn, and there's so much that is pleasant to talk about."
They walked on briskly, for it had been possible to stand still only in the shelter of the bluff with bright sunshine streaming down on them; the cold they had forgotten now made itself felt.
"I can't understand Jernyngham," Prescott said after a while. "One can't blame him for persecuting me, but there's something in his conduct that makes one think him off his balance."
Muriel's eyes sparkled with indignation.
"I suppose he ought to be pitied, but I can't forgive him, and I'll tell you what I think. He has led a well-regulated life, but his virtues are narrow and petty. Indeed, I think they're partly habits. He is not a clever or a really strong man; but because of his money and position, which he never ventured out of, he found people to obey him and grew into a domineering autocrat. I believe he was fond of Cyril and felt what he thought of as his loss; but that was not all. The shock brought him a kind of horrified anger that anything of a startling nature should happen to him—he felt it wasn't what he deserved. Then his desire for justice degenerated into cruelty and when he came out here, where nobody gave way to him, he somehow went to pieces. His nature wasn't big enough to stand the strain."
It was a harsh analysis, but Muriel was not inclined to be charitable. Jernyngham had made things very hard for her lover.
"I dare say you're right," responded Prescott. "But the morning after he reached my place in the blizzard I had a talk with him and found him reasonable. I think he half believed in my innocence, but soon afterward he was more savage than before."
"Isn't it possible that you took too much for granted? He couldn't be rude to you when you had saved him from freezing."
"I don't think I did. He was pretty candid at first and I wasn't cordial, but he listened to me, and I feel convinced that before he left he was beginning to see that he might have been mistaken. What I don't understand is why he changed again, when nothing fresh turned up to account for it."
A light dawned on Muriel. She saw Gertrude's work in this and her face flushed with anger, but it was not a subject she meant to discuss with the man she loved.
"Well," she said, "it's scarcely likely that you will learn the truth. After all, much of Jernyngham's conduct can't be explained." She smiled at Prescott. "If he'd had any reason in him, he would never have doubted you."
They turned back to the homestead presently and on reaching it Prescott found that Colston had arrived. The latter gave him an interview in the barn, which was the only place where they could be alone, and listened with a thoughtful air to what he had to say. This included an account of his meeting with Laxton and the pursuit of Wandle.
"I'm in an unfortunate position," Colston remarked when Prescott had finished. "You see, every prudential consideration urges me to oppose you—looked at from that point of view the match is most undesirable—but I must admit my sympathy with you, and I don't suppose my opposition would have much effect."
"It certainly wouldn't," Prescott replied.
"After all," Colston resumed, "I have no real authority; Muriel's of age and she has no property. Still, I'm fond of the girl and am anxious about her future. I think you ought to satisfy me that you're able to take care of her."
Prescott gave him a concise account of his means, his farming operations, and his plans for the future; and Colston listened with satisfaction. The man was more prosperous than he had supposed and had carefully considered what could be done to secure the comfort of his wife; his schemes included the rebuilding of his house. It was obvious that Muriel need not suffer greatly from the change. Moreover, Colston had liked Prescott from the beginning and had found it hard to distrust him, even when appearances were blackest against him.
"All this," he said frankly, "is a relief to me. But there's another and more important point." He paused a moment before he continued: "To my mind your name is cleared, but you must agree that the mystery isn't unraveled yet. Although I have no power to interfere, Muriel is my wife's sister and I think she owes my views some deference. Neither of us can countenance an engagement or your meeting Muriel often while a doubt remains. The matter must stand over."
"I must yield to that; you have been more liberal than I could have expected." Then Prescott smiled. "There's only one thing which could really clear me—the reappearance of my victim; and I don't despair of it. The police are trying to trace him on the Pacific Slope, but it would be quite in accordance with his character if he suddenly turned up here."
They went out together, shivering a little, for the barn was very cold, but they were on friendly terms and were mutually satisfied.
On the day after Prescott's avowal, Muriel found Gertrude alone and sat down opposite her.
"Don't you think you ought to insist on your father's going home?" she asked. "The strain is wearing him out; he may lose his reason if he stays."
Gertrude looked up sharply. There was no sympathy in the girl's tone and her eyes were hard. Muriel might have forgiven a wrong done to herself, but she was merciless about an injury to one she loved.
"Ah!" exclaimed Gertrude. "You wish to get rid of us?"
"No; my suggestion was really generous, because I would much rather you both remained and saw Mr. Prescott proved innocent."
Not knowing what had prompted her rival, Gertrude gave her jealous anger rein.
"I'm afraid we couldn't wait. Even my father's patience would hardly hold out."
"It wouldn't be long tried; but in a way you're right. It's dangerous for him to stay here, and you're responsible for his condition."
"I'm responsible?" cried Gertrude with a start.
"Of course! You knew Mr. Prescott went away to look for your brother and you kept it secret; when he saved your father from freezing, he almost convinced him that he had nothing to do with Cyril's disappearance. You must have known how it would have eased his mind to get rid of his dreadful suspicions, but you worked upon him and brought them back."
Gertrude sank down in her chair with a shiver. A denial would serve no purpose and she was conscious of her guilt.
"Could you expect me to be indifferent to the loss of my brother?"
"You knew you had not lost him. You believed what Mr. Prescott told you, until we came." Muriel flushed and hesitated, for this was as far as she would go. Even in her anger, she would not taunt her beaten rival with defeat. "Now," she continued, "you must see what you have done. You have made your father suffer terribly; I think you have weakened his mind, and, if I hadn't turned the pistol, you would have made him kill an innocent man. He seems too dazed and shaken to realize what he meant to do, but the thing was horrible."
Gertrude sat silent for a few moments, her face drawn and colorless. Then she looked up.
"I couldn't see what it would lead to. Do the others know what you have told me? Does Mr. Prescott?"
She looked crushed and defenseless and Muriel's resentment softened.
"No," she said. "Nobody knows, and Mr. Prescott will never suspect; he's not the man to think hard things of a woman. But I'm going to insist on your taking your father away."
"But how can I?" cried Gertrude. "You know how determined he is!"
"You have influenced him already; you must do so again. You will regret it all your life if you let him stay."
"Well," Gertrude promised desperately, "I will try." Then a thought struck her and her expression grew gentler. "Muriel, have you realized that if we leave here soon, the Colstons will accompany us and you will have to go with them?"
"No," Muriel replied with a resolute smile; "I will stay."
Gertrude turned her head and there was silence for a while. Then she said with an effort:
"I can't ask your forgiveness; it would be too much, and I'm not sure that I wish to have it. But I feel that you are generous."
"Take your father home," Muriel responded, and getting up went quietly out.
During the next fortnight, Gertrude exerted all her powers of persuasion, without much success. Jernyngham was apathetic, moody, and morose, and his companions found the days pass heavily. Then one evening Prescott drove over with the excuse of a message for Leslie, and Muriel, putting on her furs, slipped out to speak to him before he left. They stood near the barn, talking softly, until there was a pause and Muriel looked out across the prairie. It was a clear, cold evening; a dull red glow blazed above the great plain's rim, and the bluffs stood out in wavy masses with sharp distinctness. The snow had lost its glitter and was fading into soft blues and grays.
The darker line of the trail caught the girl's eye and, following it, she noticed a horseman riding toward the homestead.
"Nobody has been here for a while," she said. "I wonder who it can be?"
Prescott's team, which had been growing impatient of the cold, began to move, and he was occupied for the next minute in quieting them. Then he looked around, started violently, and stood very still, his eyes fixed on the approaching man.
"Jernyngham, by all that's wonderful!" he gasped, and sent a shout ringing across the snow: "Cyril!"
The man waved his hand, and Prescott, turning at a sound, saw Muriel lean weakly against the side of the sleigh. The color had faded from her face, but her eyes were shining.
"O Jack!" she said breathlessly. "Now everything will be put straight!"
Prescott realized from the greatness of her relief what she had borne on his account; but there was something that must be done and he ran to the stable, where Leslie was at work.
"Get into my sleigh, and drive to Harper's as hard as you can!" he said. "Curtis was there when I passed; bring him here at once!"
Leslie came out with him and understood when he saw the newcomer. Jumping into the vehicle, he drove off, while Prescott ran to meet Cyril, who dismounted and heartily shook hands with him.
"It's good to see you, Jack," he said, and indicated the galloping team. "The sensation I seem to make shows no signs of lessening."
"Haven't you heard!" Prescott exclaimed. "Don't you understand?"
"Not much," Cyril replied with a careless laugh. "When I got off the train at the settlement, everybody stared at me, and there were anxious inquiries as to where I'd been. I promised to tell them about it another time, and at the livery-stable Kevan said something about my being killed. I told him it didn't look like it; and as the boys seemed determined on hearing my adventures; I rode off smartly. When I reached your place, Svendsen looked scared, and all I could get out of him was that you were here."
Prescott made a gesture of comprehension. It was typical of Cyril that he had not taken the trouble to find out the cause of the excitement his appearance had aroused.
"Who is the lady?" Cyril asked.
"Miss Hurst. You had, perhaps, better know that she has promised to marry me."
Cyril looked at him in frank astonishment, and then laughed.
"I suppose my surprise isn't complimentary, but I wasn't prepared for your news. Jack, you're rather wonderful, but you have my best wishes, and you can tell me what brought Miss Hurst back by and by. No doubt she expects me to speak to her."
"Thanks," said Prescott dryly. "Whatever my capabilities of making a sensation are, they're a long way behind yours."
They walked toward the girl and Prescott led up his companion.
"Muriel," he said, "Cyril Jernyngham wishes to be presented to you."
She gave him her hand, and he realized that she was studying him carefully.
"I'm glad we have met," she said. "I have heard a good deal about you."
Cyril bowed with a mischievous smile.
"Nothing very much to my credit, I'm afraid. As an old friend of Jack's, it's my privilege to wish you every happiness and assure you that you have got a much better man than the one you at first took him for."
"Jack stands on his own merits."
Then she turned to Prescott.
"Does he know? Have you told him?"
"Not yet. I've news for you, Cyril. Your father and sister are here."
"What brought them?" There was astonishment in Cyril's face, but he looked more disturbed than pleased.
"They thought you dead," Muriel told him.
"Then I'm sorry if they've been anxious, but I can't understand the grounds for it. In fact, everybody I've met seems to have gone crazy, except you and Jack."
"We knew the truth," said Muriel. "There are a number of explanations you will have to make, but you had better go in."
The next moment the door opened and Gertrude appeared, as if in search of Muriel. She saw the group and broke into a startled cry.
He ran toward her and Prescott suggested that it might be advisable for him to retire, but Muriel would not agree.
"Give them a few minutes, Jack, and then we'll go in together; you are one of us now and must be acknowledged. Besides, you have a right to hear what Cyril has to say."
They walked briskly up the trail and when they turned to come back Muriel glanced at Prescott with a smile.
"Jack dear, I like him, but he said something that was true. I should never have fallen in love with the real Cyril Jernyngham."
They found the others in the large sitting-room. Cyril was talking gaily, though Prescott concluded from one remark that he had not yet given a full account of his adventures. Jernyngham sat rather limply in an easy-chair, as if the relief of finding his son safe had shaken him, but his eyes were less troubled and his manner calmer. He rose when he saw Prescott.
"Mr. Prescott," he said, "I must own before these others, who have heard me speak hardly of you, that I have done you a grievous wrong. I have no excuse to urge in asking you to forgive it. There is nothing that now seems to mitigate my folly."
"All you thought and did was very natural, sir," Prescott answered quietly. "I tried not to blame you and I feel no resentment."
"What's this?" Cyril glanced up sharply, and as he noticed the guilty faces of the others and Gertrude's strained expression, the truth dawned on him.
"Oh!" he cried, "it's preposterous! You all suspected my best friend!"
"If it's any consolation, we're very much ashamed of it," Colston replied. "And there was one exception; Muriel never shared our views."
Cyril still looked disturbed.
"Its obvious that I've given everybody a good deal of trouble, but I feel that you deserved it for your foolishness. May I ask on what grounds you suspected Jack?"
Seeing that none of them was ready to answer, Prescott interposed.
"Perhaps I had better explain; I think you ought to know."
He related the events that had followed his friend's disappearance, and when he had finished, Cyril turned to the others.
"After all, you were not so much to blame as I thought at first—you don't know Jack as I do, and things undoubtedly looked bad. Now I'll give you an account of my adventures and clear up the mystery."
"Not yet," said Prescott with a smile. "You don't seem to realize that instead of excusing people for suspicions they could hardly avoid, you're expected to make some defense for the carelessness that gave rise to them. Anyway, Curtis is entitled to an explanation, and as I sent him word, he should be here soon."
"You did right," Jernyngham broke in with a trace of asperity. "It's proper that the blundering fellow who misled us all should have his stupidity impressed on him!"
They waited, talking about indifferent matters, until Curtis arrived. At Cyril's request he made a rough diagram of the tracks he had discovered in the neighborhood of the muskeg and stated his theory of what had happened there.
"A clever piece of reasoning," Cyril remarked. "There's scarcely a flaw in it, as you'll see by my account of the affair. After saying good-by to Prescott on the night I left the settlement, I went on until I was near the muskeg and had dismounted to camp when a stranger rode up. We sat talking for a while and I foolishly told him I meant to buy some horses and apply for a railroad haulage contract, from which he no doubt concluded I was carrying some money. Soon afterward, he went off to hobble his horse, and I suppose he must have crept up behind me and knocked me out with the handle of his quirt, for I fell over with a stupefying pain in my head. This was the last thing I was clearly conscious of until the next morning, when I found myself lying close to the water, but at some distance from where I met the man. My hat had gone and my head was cut; my horse had disappeared, and I afterward discovered I had been robbed."
Cyril paused and glanced at Curtis.
"There's a point to be accounted for—how I reached the spot where I was lying, and this is my suggestion: The fellow thought he had killed me and in alarm determined to throw me into the muskeg. As I had a hazy recollection of being roughly lifted, I imagine he laid me across his saddle and after a while I must have moved or groaned. Then, having no doubt only meant to stun me, he left me on the ground. All this fits in with your theory."
"What was the man like?" Curtis asked.
Cyril described him, explaining that there was a good moon; and the corporal nodded, as if satisfied.
"Then I'm glad to say that, as I half expected, we have got the fellow; corralled him for horse-stealing a while ago, and he'll be charged with robbing you in due time. But go on."
"I felt horribly thirsty, and crawling to the edge of the sloo, tumbled in. There was more slime than water, but I could see a cleaner pool some way out, and being up to my knees already, I tried to reach it. It was hardly fit to drink, but I felt better and clearer-headed after swallowing some; and then I noticed thick grass in front of me. This implied that the swamp was shallower there and I made for the other bank, instead of going back. The grass and reeds that I disturbed would soon straighten, which accounts for your losing my tracks. You wouldn't have expected me to wade across the muskeg?"
"No," admitted Curtis; "I didn't."
"Why did you not return to Sebastian after being robbed of your horse and money?" Jernyngham asked.
"Ah!" said Cyril with some constraint in his manner, "that's more difficult to explain. To some extent it was a matter of temperament. I had left the settlement after a painful and rather humiliating discovery; you can understand that I was anxious to avoid my neighbors. Then I'd been knocked out and robbed by the first rascal I fell in with. I hadn't the courage to crawl back in my battered state and face the boys' amusement; and there was something that appealed to me in the thought of cutting loose and going on without a dollar, to see what I could do." He smiled at his father and sister. "You know I had always rather eccentric ideas."
Then he recounted his adventures along the railroad under the name of Kermode, until Prescott interrupted him.
"I followed you to the abandoned claim in the mountains, where I had to give it up. How did you make out after you struck south with the prospector crank?"
"That was the most interesting part of the trip, but I could hardly describe it. We crawled up icy rocks, found a river we could travel on here and there, scrambled through brush that ripped our clothes and over stones that cut our boots to bits, and finally came down by Quesnelle to the Canadian Pacific main track."
"Loaded with worthless mineral specimens?"
"They were pretty heavy, Jack. Once or twice I thought of dumping my share of them, but it's fortunate that Hollin, who seemed to suspect my intentions, kept his eye on me when I got played out. You see, an assayer we took them to found that they were rich in lead and silver."
Prescott's astonishment was obvious and Cyril frankly enjoyed it.
"Well," he said, "the end of it was that I called on some of the mining people in Vancouver—it seems they knew Hollin and had had enough of him—but I left one office with a check for a thousand dollars, besides retaining an interest in the claim. Hollin has gone back to see about its development."
His father and sister looked as surprised as Prescott. One could imagine that they found it difficult to conceive of Cyril's financial success, but they offered him their congratulations, and soon afterward Curtis took his leave. Prescott stayed another hour, and when he went Muriel walked to the door with him.
"Jack," she murmured, with her head on his shoulder, "I'm inexpressibly glad it has all come right; but you must remember that I knew it would."
Prescott gently turned her face toward him.
"I'm so thankful that it makes me grave. It's a pretty big task to repay your confidence, but I'll try."
"You'll succeed," she said smiling. "You're rather a determined man and I'm not dreadfully exacting; I couldn't be to you."
Prescott drove off, grateful for Mrs. Colston's permission to come back the next day.
When he drove up on the following afternoon, he found Muriel dressed in furs.
"It's beautifully fine and you may take me for a drive," she said, and added with a smile: "That is, unless you would rather talk to Harry."
"I think Colston and I are going to be good friends, but I didn't come over to see him," Prescott retorted lightly. "I have something to say to Cyril, but it will do when we get back."
"You can't see him now," said Muriel, moving toward the sleigh. "He's engaged with Gertrude and his father, and I think they have something important to talk about. Cyril looked very serious, and one would imagine that's not often the case with him."
Prescott laughed as he helped her in.
"I dare say he has his thoughtful moments; it would be surprising if he hadn't, considering his capacity for getting into scrapes."
They drove away, but Muriel's supposition was well founded, for Cyril was feeling unusually grave as he sat opposite to his father and sister in a room of the homestead. A brief silence had fallen upon the group, emphasized by the crackle of poplar billets in the stove. Jernyngham, in whose appearance there had been a marked improvement since his son's return, wore an eager expression; Gertrude was watching her brother with troubled eyes.
"You have heard my suggestions about your return to England," Jernyngham said at length. "I think they are fair."
"They are generous," Cyril answered, and added slowly: "But I cannot go."
Jernyngham leaned back in his chair as if he were weary, with keen disappointment in his face.
"I have no other son, Cyril. We will wipe out the past—there is something to regret on both sides—and try to make everything pleasant for you. I feel that you ought to come."
"No," Cyril persisted with signs of strain. "I'm strongly tempted, but it would not be wise."
Jernyngham looked hard at him and then made a sign of resignation.
"You will, at least, give us your reasons."
"I'll try, though I'm not sure you will understand them; it's unfortunate we're so different that we cannot find a common viewpoint from which to look at things. I believe I've overcome what bitterness I once felt, but in all that's essential I haven't changed. After the first few weeks, I should jar on you, or I should have to be continually on my guard, until the repression got too much for me and the inevitable outbreak came."
"Why should there be an outbreak?" his father asked with some asperity.
Cyril glanced at Gertrude, noticing her rather weary smile, and fancied that she could sympathize with him, which was more than he had expected. She had somehow gained comprehension in Canada.
"I suppose I must explain. I'm not thinking of my worst faults, but, you see, I'm a careless trifler, impatient of restraint. To have to do things in stereotyped order distresses me; I must go where my fancy leads. When I'm cooped up and confined, I feel I must break loose, even if it leads to havoc." He laughed. "Of course, such a frame of mind is beyond your imagining."
"I must confess that it is," Jernyngham replied dryly.
Gertrude cast a half-applauding glance at her brother. With all his failings, which she recognized and deplored, Cyril was to her something of a romantic hero. He took risks, and did daring and perhaps somewhat discreditable things, but, narrow as her decorous life had been, she envied his reckless gallantry. Once she had ventured to break through the safe rules of conduct and grasp at romance, but it had eluded her and left her humiliation and regret. She must go back to the dreary routine wherein lay security, but she admired him for standing out.
"Well," said Cyril, "I'm talking at large; but we must thrash out the matter once for all. I may do something useful here—make wheat grow; perhaps help in developing the mine—which I couldn't do at home." He paused and concluded whimsically: "It's even possible that I may turn into a successful rancher."
"But that means working like an English field laborer!"
"For a higher pay. When the crop escapes drought and frost, and there's no hail or rust, western farming's fairly profitable."
"In short," said Jernyngham, "you have made up your mind not to come home with us."
"I'm sorry it is so," Cyril responded gravely. "Try to understand. If I stay here, we will be good friends and you will think well of me. If I go home there will be trouble and regret for you. I want to save you that."
"Father," Gertrude broke in softly, "though it's hard to say, I know that Cyril's right."
Jernyngham got up wearily.
"There is nothing more that I can urge. You must do as you think best, my son, but while I shall never quite grasp your point of view, you will always be in our thoughts."
They were glad to separate, for the interview had been trying to them all.
Some time had passed when Cyril, hearing a beat of hoofs, went out and found Prescott pulling up his team.
"We have been talking over matters while you were out," he told him. "As I've decided to stay here, my people are going home soon—in a week or two, I think; and I expect Colston will leave with them. I thought you might like to know."
He saw the color creep into Muriel's face; and when he turned back to the house Prescott lifted the girl down from the sleigh.
"Dear, I can't let them take you away," he said.
Muriel glanced across the snowy plain to the blaze of fading color upon its western rim. It was growing shadowy, the woods were blurred and vague, but its wideness fired her imagination and she felt the exhilaration that was in the nipping air.
"Jack," she smiled up at him, "my home is here! I'm learning to love the prairie, and it has brought me happiness. I'm glad to stay with you!"