Prescott of Saskatchewan
by Harold Bindloss
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August, 1913








The air was cooling down toward evening at Sebastian, where an unpicturesque collection of wooden houses stand upon a branch line on the Canadian prairie. The place is not attractive during the earlier portion of the short northern summer, when for the greater part of every week it lies sweltering in heat, in spite of the strong west winds that drive dust-clouds through its rutted streets. As a rule, during the remaining day or two the temperature sharply falls, thunder crashes between downpours of heavy rain, and the wet plank sidewalks provide a badly-needed refuge from the cement-like "gumbo" mire.

The day, however, had been cloudless and unusually hot. Prescott had driven in from his wheat farm at some distance from the settlement, and he now walked toward the hotel. He was twenty-eight years old, of average height and rather spare figure; his face, which had been deeply bronzed by frost and sun, was what is called open, his gray eyes were clear and steady, the set of his lips and mould of chin firm. He looked honest and good-natured, but one who could, when necessary, sturdily hold his own. His attire was simple: a wide gray hat, a saffron-colored shirt with flannel collar, and a light tweed suit, something the worse for wear.

As he passed along the sidewalk he looked about. The small, frame houses were destitute of paint and any pretense of beauty, a number of them had raised, square fronts which hid the shingled roofs; but beyond the end of the street there was the prairie stretching back to the horizon. In the foreground it was a sweep of fading green and pale ocher; farther off it was tinged with gray and purple; and where it cut the glow of green and pink on the skyline a long birch bluff ran in a cold blue smear. To the left of the opening rose three grain elevators: huge wooden towers with their tops narrowed in and devices of stars and flour-bags painted on them. At their feet ran the railroad track, encumbered with a string of freight-cars; a tall water-tank, a grimy stage for unloading coal, and a small office shack marked the station.

Prescott, however, did not notice much of this; he was more interested in the signs of conflict on the persons of the men he met. Some looked as if they had been violently rolled in the dust; others wore torn jackets; and the faces of several were disfigured by bruises. Empty bottles, which make handy clubs, were suggestively scattered about the road. All this was unusual, but Prescott supposed some allowance must be made for the fact that it was the anniversary of the famous victory of the Boyne. Moreover, there was a community of foreign immigrants, mixed with some Irishmen and French Canadians, but all professing the Romish faith, engaged in some railroad work not far away.

In front of the hotel ran a veranda supported on wooden pillars, and a row of chairs was set out on the match-strewn sidewalk beneath it. Most of them were occupied by after-supper loungers, and several of the men bore scars. Prescott stopped and lighted his pipe.

"Things seem to have been pretty lively here," he remarked. "I came in to see the implement man and found he couldn't talk straight, with half his teeth knocked out. It's lucky the Northwest troopers have stopped your carrying pistols."

One of the men laughed.

"We've had a great day, sure. Quite a few of the Dagos had knives, and Jernyngham had a sword. Guess he'd be in trouble now, only it wasn't one you could cut with."

"How did he get the sword?"

"It was King Billy's," explained another man. "Fellow who was acting him got knocked out with a bottle in his eye. Jernyngham got up on the horse instead and led the last charge, when we whipped them across the track."

"Where's the Protestant Old Guard now?"

"Some of it's in Clayton's surgery; rest's gone home. When it looked as if the stores would be wrecked, Reeve Marvin butted in. Telephoned the railroad boss to send up gravel cars for his boys; told the other crowd he'd bring the troopers in if they didn't quit. Ordered all strangers off on the West-bound, and now we're simmering down."

"Where's Jernyngham?"

The man jerked his hand toward the hotel.

"In his room, a bit the worse for wear. Mrs. Jernyngham's nursing him."

Pushing open the wire-mesh mosquito door, Prescott entered the building. Its interior was shadowy and filled with cigar smoke; flies buzzed everywhere, and the smell of warm resinous boards pervaded the rank atmosphere. The place was destitute of floor covering or drapery, and the passage Prescott walked down was sloppy with soap and water from a row of wash-basins, near which hung one small wet towel. Ascending the stairs, he entered a little and very scantily furnished room with walls of uncovered pine. It contained a bed with a ragged quilt and a couple of plain wooden chairs, in one of which a man leaned back. He was about thirty years old and he roughly resembled Prescott, only that his face, which was a rather handsome one, bore the stamp of indulgence. His forehead was covered by a dirty bandage, there was dust on his clothes, and Prescott thought he was not quite sober. In the other chair sat a young woman with fine dark eyes and glossy black hair, whose appearance would have been prepossessing had it not been spoiled by her slatternliness and cheap finery. She smiled at the visitor as he walked in.

"If you'd come sooner, we might have kep' him out o' trouble," she said. "He got away from me when things begun to hum."

Her slight accent suggested the French Canadian strain, though Prescott imagined that there was a trace of Indian blood in her. Her manners were unfinished, her character was primitive, but Prescott thought she was as good a consort as Jernyngham deserved. The latter had a small wheat farm lying back on the prairie, but his erratic temperament prevented his successfully working it. Prescott was not a censorious person, and he had a liking and some pity for the man.

"Well," he said, in answer to the woman's remark, "that was certainly foolish of him. But what had he to do with the row, anyway?"

"Have a drink, and I'll try to explain," said Jernyngham. "A big cool drink might clear my head, and I feel it needs it."

"You kin have soda, but nothin' else!" the woman broke in. "I'll send it up; and now that I kin leave you, I'm goin' to the store." She turned to Prescott. "Nothin' but soda; and see he don't git out!"

She left them and Jernyngham laughed.

"Ellice's a good sort; I sometimes wonder how she puts up with me. Anyhow, I'm glad you came, because I'm in what might be called a dilemma."

As this was not a novelty to his companion, Prescott made no comment, and by and by two tumblers containing iced liquid were brought in. Jernyngham drained his thirstily and looked up with a grin.

"It isn't exhilarating, but it's cool," he said. "Now, however, you're curious about my honorable scars—I got them from a bottle. It broke, you see, but there's some satisfaction in remembering that I knocked out the other fellow with the flat of the Immortal William's sword."

"You'll get worse hurt some day," Prescott rebuked him severely.

"It's possible, but you're wandering from the point. I'm trying to remember what led me into the fray in the incongruous company of certain Hardshell Baptists, Ontario Methodists, and Belfast Presbyterians. As a young man, my sympathies were with the advanced Anglicans, perhaps because my people were sternly Evangelical. Then the whole thing's unreasonable—what have I to do, for instance, with the Protestant succession?"

"It isn't very plain," said Prescott. "Still, everybody knows what kind of fool you are."

"I live," declared Jernyngham. "You steady, industrious fellows grow. The row began at the ball-game—disputed base, I think—and our lot had got badly whipped at the first round when I stood on the veranda and sang them, 'No Surrender.' That was enough for the Ulster boys, and three or four of them go a long way in this kind of scrimmage."

Prescott had no sympathy with Jernyngham's vagaries, but one could not be angry with him: the man was irresponsible. In a few moments, however, Jernyngham's face grew graver.

"Jack," he resumed, "I'm in a hole. Never troubled to ask for my letters until late in the afternoon, and now I don't know what to do unless you can help me."

"You had better tell me what the trouble is."

"To make you understand, I'll have to go back some time. Everybody round this place knows what I am now, but I believe I was rather a promising youngster before I left the old country, a bit of a rebel though, and inclined to kick against the ultra-conventional. In fact, I think honesty was my ruin, Jack; I kicked openly."

"Is there any other way? I can't see that there's much use in kicking unless the opposition feels it."

"Don't interrupt," scowled Jernyngham. "This is rather deep for you, but I'll try to explain. If you want to get on in the old country, you must conform to the standard; though you can do what you like at times and places where people of your proper circle aren't supposed to see you. I didn't recognize the benefits of the system then—and I suffered for it."

He paused with a curious, half-tender look in his face.

"There was a girl, Jack, good as they're made, I still believe, though not in our station. Well, I meant to marry her—thought I was strong enough to defy the system—and she, not knowing what manner of life I was meant for, was fond of me."

"What manner of life were you meant for?"

Jernyngham laughed harshly.

"The Bar, for a beginning; I'd got my degree. The House later—there was strong family influence—to assist in propagating the Imperial idea. Strikes one as amusing, Jack."

Prescott thought his companion would not have spoken so freely had he been wholly sober, but he had long noticed the purity of the man's intonation and the refinement that occasionally showed in his manners.

"You're making quite a tale of it," he said.

"Well," resumed Jernyngham, "I didn't know what I was up against; the system broke me. When the stress came, I hadn't nerve enough to hold out, and for that I've been punished. My sister—she meant well—got hold of the girl, persuaded her to give me up—for my sake, Jack. Wouldn't see me, sent back my letters, and I came to Canada, beaten."

He paused.

"There's a reason why you must try to realize my father and sister. He's unflinchingly upright, conventional to a degree; Gertrude's a feebler copy, as just, but perhaps not quite so hard. Well, I've never written to either, but I've heard from friends and the conclusion seems to be that as I've never asked for money I must have reformed. There's a desire for a reconciliation; my father's getting old, and I believe, in their reserved way, they were fond of me. Don't be impatient; I'm coming to the point at last. I'd a letter to-day from Colston—though the man's a relative, I haven't seen him since I left school. He and his wife are passing through on their way to British Columbia and the idea seems to be that he should see me and report."

Prescott made a sign of understanding. Jernyngham, stamped with dissipation and injured in a brawl, and his small homestead where everything was in disorder and out of repair, were hardly likely to create a favorable impression on his English relatives. Besides, there was Mrs. Jernyngham. The effect of her appearance and conversation might be disastrous.

"Now," continued Jernyngham, "you see how I'm fixed. I haven't much to thank my people for, but I want to spare them a shock. If it would make things easier for them, I don't mind their thinking better of me than I deserve."

His companion pondered this. It was crudely put, but it showed a rather fine consideration, Prescott thought, for the people who were in part responsible for the man's downfall; perhaps, too, a certain sense of shame and contrition. Jernyngham's desire could not be found fault with.

"What are you going to do about it?" he asked.

"Nothing," said Jernyngham with a reckless laugh. "You'll do all that's needed; I mean to leave my friends to you. Strikes me as a brilliant idea, though not exactly novel; made a number of excellent comedies. Did you ever see 'Charley's Aunt'?"

Prescott frowned.

"I don't deal."

"Think! You're not unlike me and we're about the same age; Colston, hasn't seen me for fourteen years; his wife never!"

"No," objected Prescott. "It can't be done!"

"It's hardly good form to remind you of it, Jack, but there was a time when we took a grading contract on the line and you got into trouble close in front of the ballast train."

Prescott's determined expression changed.

"Yes," he conceded; "it gives you a pull on me—I can't go back on that." He spread out his hands. "Well, if you insist."

"For the old man's sake," said Jernyngham. "I want you to take the Colstons out to your place and entertain them for a day or two; they won't stay long. They're coming in by the West-bound this evening."

"Then," exclaimed Prescott, "they'll be here in half an hour, if the train's on time! If there are any points you can give me about your family history, you had better be quick!"

"In the first place, I was rather a wild youngster, with an original turn of mind and was supposed to be a bit of a rake, though that wasn't correct—my eccentricities were harmless then. Your word 'maverick' describes me pretty well: I didn't belong to the herd; I wouldn't be rounded up with the others and let them put the brand on. That's no doubt why they credited me with vices I didn't possess." Jernyngham laughed. "Still, you mustn't overdo the thing; you want delicately to convey the idea that you're now reformed. The part requires some skill; it's a pity you're not smarter. Jack. But let me think——"

He went into a few details about his family, and then Prescott left him and, after giving an order to have his team ready, proceeded to the station. It was getting dark, but the western sky was still a sheet of wonderful pale green, against which the tall elevators stood out black and sharp. The head-lamp of a freight locomotive flooded track and station with a dazzling electric glare, the rails that ran straight and level across the waste gleaming far back in the silvery radiance. This helped Prescott to overcome his repugnance to his task, as he remembered another summer night when he had attempted to hurry his team across the track before a ballast train came up. Startled by the blaze of the head-lamp and the scream of the whistle, one of the horses plunged and kicked; a wheel of the wagon, sinking in the loose ballast, skidded against a tie; and Prescott stood between the rails, struggling to extricate the beasts, while the great locomotive rushed down on them. There was a vein of stubborn tenacity in him and it looked as if he and the horses would perish together when Jernyngham came running to the rescue. How they escaped neither of them could afterward remember, but a moment later they stood beside the track while the train went banging by, covering them with dust and fragments of gravel. Prescott admitted that he owed Jernyngham something for that.

Nevertheless there was no doubt that the part he had undertaken to play would be difficult. He could see its humorous side, but he had not been a prodigal; indeed he was by temperament and habit steady-going and industrious. The son of a small business man in Montreal, he had after an excellent education abandoned city life and gone west, where he had prospered by frugality and hard work. He was by no means rich, but he was content and inclined to be optimistic about the future.

When he reached the station, he found that the usual crowd of loungers had gathered to watch the train come in. Lighting his pipe, he walked up and down the low platform, wondering uneasily how he would get through the next few days. Jernyngham, he felt, had placed him in a singularly embarrassing position.



The sunlight was fading off the prairie when a party of three sat in a first-class car as the local train went jolting westward. Henry Colston leaned back in his seat with a Winnipeg paper on his knee; and his appearance stamped him as a well-bred Englishman traveling for pleasure. He was thirty-four; his dress, though dusty, was fastidiously neat; his expression was pleasant, but there was an air of formality about him. One would not have expected him to do anything startling or extravagant, even under stress of emotion. Mrs. Colston resembled him in this respect. She was a handsome woman, a little reserved in manner, and was tastefully dressed in traveling tweed, which she had found too hot for the Canadian summer. Muriel, her sister, was twenty-four, and though the two were alike, the girl's face was fresher, more ingenuous and perhaps more intelligent. It was an attractive face, crowned with red-gold hair; broad brows, straight nose and firm mouth hinted at some force of character, but her eyes of deep violet were unusually merry, and her warm coloring suggested a sanguine temperament.

So far, Muriel Hurst had taken life lightly and had foiled Mrs. Colston's attempts to make a suitable match for her. The daughter of a man of taste who had died in difficulties, she had not a penny beyond the allowance provided by her sister's generosity. Nevertheless, she was happy and had a strong liking and respect for her prosperous brother-in-law, though his restricted views sometimes irritated her.

She was now trying to arrange her impressions of Canada, which were mixed. She had looked down on Montreal with its great bridge and broad river from the wooded mountain, and from there it had struck her as a beautiful city. Then she had seen the handsome stone houses with their lawns at the foot of the hill, and afterward the magnificent commercial buildings round the postoffice. These could scarcely be equaled in London, but the rest of the town had not impressed her. It was strewn with sand and cement-dust: they seemed to be pulling down and putting up buildings and tearing open the streets all over it.

Afterward the Western Express had swept her through a thousand miles of wilderness, a vast tract of forest filled with rocks and lakes and rivers; and then she had spent two days in Winnipeg on the verge of the prairie. This city she found perplexing. The station hall was palatial, part of wide Main Street and Portage Avenue with their stately banks and offices could hardly be too much admired, and there were pretty wooden houses running back to the river among groves of trees. But apart from this, the place was somehow primitive. There were numerous hard-faced men hanging about the streets, and it jarred on her to see the rows of well-dressed loungers in the hotels lolling in wooden chairs close against the great windows, a foot or two from the street. It gave her a hint of western characteristics; the people were abrupt, good-naturedly so, perhaps, but devoid of delicacy.

Last had come the prairie—the land of promise—which seemed to run on forever, flooded with brilliant sunshine under a sky of dazzling blue. Banded with miles of wheat, flecked with crimson flowers, it stretched back, brightly green, until it grew gray and blue on the far horizon. It was relieved by the neutral purple of poplar bluffs, and little gleaming lakes; its vastness and openness filled the girl with a sense of liberty. Narrow restraints, cramping prejudices, must vanish in this wide country; one's nature could expand and become optimistic here.

Then Colston began to talk.

"We should arrive in the next half-hour and I'll confess to a keen curiosity about Cyril Jernyngham. He was an amusing and eccentric scapegrace when I last saw him, though that is a very long time ago."

"You object to eccentricity, don't you?" laughed Muriel.

"Oh, no! Call it originality, and I'll admit that a certain amount is useful; but it should be kept in check. Indulged in freely, it's apt to rouse suspicion."

"Which is rather unfair."

"I don't know," Mrs. Colston broke in. "Considered all round, it's an excellent rule that if you won't do what everybody in your station does, you must take the consequences."

Colston nodded.

"I agree. One must think of the results to society as a whole."

"Cyril Jernyngham seems to have taken the consequences," Muriel pointed out. "Isn't there something to be said for the person who does so uncomplainingly? I understand he never recanted or asked for help."

Mrs. Colston shot a quick glance at her. She did not wish her sister's sympathy to be enlisted on the black sheep's behalf.

"I believe that's true," she replied. "Perhaps it's hardly to his credit. His father is an old man who had expected great things of him. If he had come home, he would have been forgiven and reinstated."

"Yes," said Colston, "though Jernyngham seldom shows his feelings, I know he has grieved over his son. There can be no question that Cyril should have returned; I've told him so in my letters."

"I suppose they'd have insisted on a full and abject surrender?"

"Not an abject one," answered Colston. "He would have been expected to fall in with the family ideas and plans."

"And he wouldn't?" suggested Muriel with a mischievous smile. "I think he was right." Reading disapproval in her sister's expression, she continued: "You dear virtuous people are a little narrow in your ideas; you can't understand that there's room for the greatest difference of opinion even in a harmonious family, and that it's very silly to drive the nonconformer into rebellion. Variety's a law of nature and tends to life."

Colston glanced meaningly at his wife. He was not a hypercritical person, but it did not please him that his sister-in-law, of whom he was fond, should champion Jernyngham.

"I don't wish to be severe on Cyril," he rejoined. "As a matter of fact, I know nothing good or bad about his Canadian life; but he must be regarded as, so to speak, on probation until he has proved that he deserves our confidence."

Muriel made no answer. She was looking out of the window toward the west, and the glow on the vast plain's rim seized her attention. The sunset flush had faded, but the sky shone a transcendent green. The air was very clear; every wavy line of bluff was picked out in a wonderful deep blue. Muriel thought she had never seen such strength and vividness of color. Then she glanced round the long car. It was comfortable except for the jolting; the silvery gray of its cane-backed seats contrasted with the paneling of deep brown. The big lamps and metal fittings gleamed with nickel. All the girl saw connected her with luxurious civilization, and she wondered with a stirring of curiosity what awaited her in the wilds, where man still grappled with nature in primitive fashion.

"Sebastian in three or four minutes!" announced the conductor; and while Muriel and Mrs. Colston gathered together a few odds and ends a scream of the whistle broke out.

Prescott heard it on the station platform and with strong misgivings braced himself for his task. A bright light was speeding down the track, blending with that flung out by a freight locomotive crossing the switches. Then amid the clangor of the bell the long cars rolled in and he saw a man standing on the platform of one. There was no doubt that he was an Englishman and Prescott hurried toward the car.

"Mr. Henry Colston?" he asked.

The man held out his hand.

"I think Harry is sufficient. Come and speak to Florence; she has been looking forward to meeting you with interest." He turned. "My dear, this is Cyril."

Prescott shook hands with the lady on the car platform, and then looked past her in confused surprise. A girl stood in the vestibule, clad in garments of pale lilac tint which fell about her figure in long sweeping lines, emphasizing its fine contour against the dark brown paneling. She had a large hat of the same color, and it enhanced the attractiveness of her face, which wore a friendly smile. She was obviously one of the party, though Jernyngham had not mentioned her, and Prescott pulled himself together when Colston presented him.

"My sister-in-law, Muriel Hurst," he added.

When they had alighted, Prescott asked for the checks and moved toward the baggage car. While he waited, watching the trunks being flung out, Ellice passed him talking to a smartly dressed man. This struck Prescott as curious, but he knew the man as a traveling salesman for an American cream-separator, and as he must have called at Jernyngham's homestead on his round and was no doubt leaving by the train, there was no reason why Ellice should not speak to him. He thought no more of the matter and proceeded to carry several trunks and valises across the platform to his wagon, while his new friends watched him with some surprise. It was a novel experience in their walk of life to see their host carrying their baggage, and when Prescott lifted the heaviest trunk Colston hurried forward to protest.

"Stand aside, please," said the rancher, walking firmly across the boards with the big trunk on his shoulders. When he had placed it in the wagon he turned to the ladies with a smile.

"I had thought of putting you up for the night at the hotel, but they're full, and with good luck we ought to make my place in about three hours. I dare say this isn't the kind of rig you have been accustomed to driving in; and somebody will have to sit on a trunk. There's only room for three on the driving-seat."

Mrs. Colston surveyed the vehicle with misgivings. It was a long, shallow box set on four tall and very light wheels, and crossed by a seat raised on springs. Two rough-coated horses were harnessed to it with a pole between them. She saw this by the glare of the freight locomotive's head-lamp when the train moved out, and noticed that her husband was looking at their host in surprise.

"I'll take the trunk," said Colston. "We had dinner down the line not long ago."

Prescott helped the ladies up and seating himself next to the younger started his horses. They set off at a rapid trot and the wagon jolted unpleasantly as it crossed the track. Then the horses broke into a gallop, raising a dust-cloud in the rutted street, while the light vehicle rocked in an alarming fashion, and Prescott had some trouble in restraining them when they ran out on to the dim waste of prairie. Then the wonderful keen air, faintly scented with wild peppermint, reacted upon the girl with a curious exhilarating effect. She felt stirred and excited, expectant of new experiences, perhaps adventures. The wild barley brushed about the wheels with a silky rustle; the beat of hoofs rang in a sharp staccato through the deep silence; and the touch of the faint night wind brought warmth into Muriel's face.

"They're pretty fresh; been in the stable of a farm near here most of the day," Prescott explained. "Not long off the range, anyhow, and they're bad to hold."

There was a shrill scream from a dusky shape flitting through the air as they skirted a marshy pool, and the team again broke into a furious gallop. The trail was grown with short scrub which smashed beneath the hoofs, and the vehicle lurched sharply when the wheels left the ruts and ran through tall, tangled grass. Prescott with some diffidence slipped his arm round Muriel's waist, while Colston jolted up and down with his trunk.

"You have still the same taste in horses, Cyril," he remarked. "I suppose you remember Wildfire?"

"Wildfire?" queried Prescott, and then, having the impression that young English lads were sometimes given a pony, ventured: "Quite a cute little beast."

"Little!" exclaimed Colston. "How many hands make a big horse in this country? I'm speaking of the hunter you cajoled the second groom into saddling when your father was away. Can't you remember how you insisted on putting her at the Newby brook?"

"I don't seem to place it somehow," said Prescott in alarm, seeing that if he were called upon to share any more reminiscences it might lead him into difficulties. "You know I've been out here a while."

"Long enough to forget, it seems."

Prescott made a bold venture.

"That's so; perhaps it's better. This is a brand new country. One starts afresh here, looking forward instead of back."

Muriel considered this. The idea was, she thought, appropriate, but the man's tone and air were not what one would have expected of a reformed rake. There was no hint of contrition; he spoke with optimistic cheerfulness.

"Of course," Colston agreed. "I wonder if I might say that you have grown more Canadian than I expected to find you?"

"More Canadian?" Prescott checked himself in time and laughed. "Is it surprising? You drive and starve out many a good man who dares to be original—I've met a number of them. Can you wonder that when they're welcomed here they're willing to forget you and become one with the people who took them in?"

"In a way, that's a pity," said Mrs. Colston. "We like to think we haven't lost you altogether."

Disregarding his horses, Prescott turned toward her with a bow.

"Face the truth, ma'am. If you're ever in a tight place, we'll send you what help we can, hard men, such as can't be raised in your cities, to keep the flag flying, but we stop there. Don't think we belong to you—we stand firm on our own feet, a new free nation. I"—he paused in an impressive manner—"am a Canadian."

Muriel felt a responsive thrill. His ideas were certainly not English, nor was his mode of expressing them, but his boldness appealed to her. Her companions were frankly astonished and rather hurt, which he seemed to realize, for he resumed with a laugh:

"But we won't talk politics. Things I've heard English people say out here make one tired."

Then he turned toward the girl, adding softly:

"Was that a very bad break I made?"

"I think it could be forgiven," she told him.

"The years you have spent in Canada seem to have had their full effect on you," Colston remarked dryly.

Prescott turned his attention to his team, slightly checking their pace.

"What did you mean when you said we should reach your ranch in three hours, if we had good luck?" Muriel asked.

"Oh," he said, "there are badger burrows about, and a little beast called a gopher makes almost as bad a hole; they're fond of digging up the trail. If a horse steps into one of those holes, it's apt to bring him down. Besides, we trust a good deal to our luck in this country—one has to run risks that can't be estimated: harvest frost, rust, dry seasons, winds that blow destroying sand about. I've lost two crops in the eight years I've been here."

"Can it be eight?" Colston broke in. "If I remember right, you spent three years in Manitoba."

"It's the same kind of country and the same climate," Prescott rejoined, conscious that he had nearly betrayed himself again. He felt angry with Jernyngham for giving him such a difficult part to play.

After this, he carefully avoided any personal topic and talked about Canadian farming, sitting silent when he could, while Muriel gazed about with pleasurable curiosity. It is never quite dark on those wide levels in summertime, and, for there was no moon, the prairie stretched away before them shadowy, silent, and mysterious. Now they passed a sheet of water, gleaming wanly among thin willows; then they plunged into the deep gloom of a poplar bluff; and later, lurching down a steep declivity, swept through a shallow creek. The air was filled with the smell of dew-damped soil and unknown aromatic scents, the loneliness was impressive, the half-obscurity emphasized the strangeness of everything. Muriel felt as if she had left all that was stereotyped and matter-of-fact far behind. It was the unexpected and romantic that ought to happen in this virgin land.

Then, worn by several days' journey in the jolting cars, she grew drowsy. The steady drumming of hoofs, the slapping of the traces, and the rattle of wheels were strangely soothing. She fancied that once or twice when they sped furiously down an incline, the driver held her fast, but she did not resent the support of his arm: it was a steady, reassuring grasp. At last, as they swung round a poplar bluff, she roused herself, for dim black buildings loomed up ahead, and one which had lighted windows took the shape of a small house. The team stopped, there were voices speaking with a curious accent which reminded her of Norway, and the rancher helped her down.

Afterward she followed her sister into a simply furnished, pine-boarded room with a big stove at one end of it, where a middle-aged woman set food and coffee before them. She spoke English haltingly, but her lined face lighted up when Muriel thanked her in Norse. Then there followed a flow of eager words, a few of which the girl caught, until the woman broke off when their host came in. He was silent, for the most part, during the meal, and shortly afterward Muriel was shown into a small room where she went to sleep in a few minutes.



Prescott's guests had spent a week at his homestead with content when Colston and his wife sat talking one morning.

"I'm frankly puzzled," said Colston, opening his cigar case; "I can't make Cyril out. He's frugal, remarkably industrious—I think the description's warranted—and, from all that one can gather, as steady as a rock. This, of course, is gratifying, but it's by no means what I expected."

"He certainly doesn't fit in with the picture his sister Gertrude drew me, though she conveyed the impression that she was softening things down. There can be no doubt that he was wild. That might, perhaps, be forgiven, but one or two of the stories I've heard about him filled me with disgust."

Her husband looked thoughtful. He had not noticed that Muriel was sitting just outside the open window, though Mrs. Colston, being in a different position, had done so. She thought their voices would reach the girl, and if anything strongly in Cyril's disfavor cropped up during the conversation it might be as well that she should hear it. Mrs. Colston was willing that he should be reconciled to his relatives, but a reformed rake was not the kind of man to whom she wished her sister to be attracted. One could not tell whether the reformation would prove permanent.

"After all, I never heard any really serious offense proved against him," Colston rejoined. "It's sometimes easy to acquire a reputation without doing anything in particular to deserve it. People are apt to jump at conclusions."

"When there's a general concurrence of opinion it's wiser to fall in with it. But what did he say about his father's suggestion that he should go home?"

"Asked for a day or two to think it over; I fancied that he wished to consult somebody. Then he promised to give me an answer."

"On the whole, I think they need have no hesitation about taking him back now," Mrs. Colston responded; and Muriel agreed with her. "There's another point," she added. "How long shall we stay here?"

"I don't know. I've a growing liking for Cyril, the place is pleasant, and though things are rather rudimentary, the air's wonderfully bracing. He urged me to stay some little time, and I felt that he wished it."

Mrs. Colston considered. She was enjoying her visit; everything was delightfully novel and she felt more cheerful and more vigorous than she had done for some time. But Muriel seemed to find the prairie pleasant, and there was a possibility of danger there.

"We might, perhaps, remain another week," she suggested.

As it happened, Colston's suspicion that his host wished to consult somebody was correct, for Prescott was then driving in to the settlement to lay his visitor's message before the man it most concerned. He found him lounging in the hotel bar, and, drawing him into the general-room, he sat down opposite him in a hard wooden chair. The apartment had no floor covering and was cheerless and dirty; there was not even a table in it; and only a railroad time-table and advertisements of land sales hung on its rough pine walls. Jernyngham, however, looked in keeping with his surroundings. The dirty bandage still covered his forehead, his clothes were stained and untidy, and he had an unkempt, dissipated air.

"Well," he asked with a grin, "how are you getting on with your new friends?"

"I don't know; I'm curious about what they think of me. Anyway, I found the thing harder than I expected. Why didn't you tell me Mrs. Colston was bringing her sister?"

"If I ever heard she had one, I forgot it; suppose I couldn't have read the letter properly. What's she like?"

"Herself," said Prescott. "I can't think of anybody we know I could compare her with."

He had endeavored to speak carelessly, but something in his voice betrayed him and Jernyngham laughed.

"That's not surprising. If you want to play your part properly, you had better make love to her. It's what would be expected of me, and it couldn't do any harm, because these people would very soon head you off. Harry Colston's sister-in-law would look for an assured position and at least five thousand dollars a year. When are they going?"

"I've asked them to stay a little longer and I think they'll agree. But that is not what I came to see you about. Colston laid a proposition before me—you're formally invited to return home."

"On what terms?"

Prescott detailed them, watching his companion. The latter sat silent for a minute or two, and then he said slowly:

"It's a handsome offer, but it was made under a mistake. There's no doubt that Colston was trusted with powers of discretion. He must be satisfied with you—don't you feel complimented, Jack?"

"What I feel is outside the question."

"Well," continued Jernyngham thoughtfully, "I suppose if I indulged in a spell of hard work in the open and practised strict abstinence it might improve my appearance, and I could, perhaps, keep out of Colston's way, or if needful, own up to the trick. The old man would hold to his bargain: he's that kind. It's a strong temptation—you see what I'd stand to gain—a liberal allowance, a life that's wildly luxurious by comparison with the one I'm leading, the society of people of the stamp I've been brought up among. Jack, I feel driven to the point of yielding. But it's a pity this offer has come too late."

"Is it too late?"

"Think! Would it be fair to go? For a month or two I might keep straight, then—I've tried to describe my people—you can imagine their feelings at the inevitable outbreak. Besides, there's a more serious difficulty." Jernyngham's tense face relaxed into a grim smile. "Can you imagine Ellice an inmate of an English country house, patronizing local charities, presiding over prim garden parties? The idea's preposterous! And that's not all."

Prescott knew little about England, but he could imagine her making an undesirable sensation in Montreal or Toronto.

"You force me to ask something. Is she Mrs. Jernyngham?" he said, hesitatingly.

"I used to think so; there's a doubt about the matter now."

"One would have imagined that was a point you would have been sure about."

"I understood her husband was dead when we were married in Manitoba. She was a waitress in a second-rate hotel; the brute had ill-used and deserted her. But there's now some reason to believe he's farming in Alberta. I haven't made inquiries: I didn't think it would improve matters."

Prescott said nothing. In face of such a situation, any remarks that he could make would be superfluous. There was a long silence; and then Jernyngham spoke again, slowly, but resolutely.

"You see how it is, Jack—where my interest lies. Against that, there's the feelings of my father and sister to consider. Then my reinstatement would have to be bought by casting off the woman who has borne with my failings and stuck to me pluckily. I haven't sunk quite so far as that. You'll have to tell Colston that I'm staying here!"

He got up and Prescott laid a hand on his arm.

"It's hard; but you're doing the square thing, Cyril."

Jernyngham shook off his hand.

"Don't let us talk in that strain. Come and see Ellice and try to amuse her. Don't know what's wrong with the woman; she has been moody of late."

"I must get back as soon as I can and I've some business to do."

"Oh, well," acquiesced Jernyngham, walking with him to the bar, which was the quickest way of leaving.

On reaching it he turned and glanced about sardonically. The room was dark, filled with flies, and evil smelling, as well as thick with smoke; half a dozen, untidy men leaned against the counter.

"What a set of loafing swine you are!" he coolly remarked. "It's not to the point that I'm no better, but if any of you feel insulted, I'll be happy to make what I've said good."

"Cut it out, Cyril! Can't have a circus here!" exclaimed the bar-tender.

"You needn't be afraid. They look pretty tame," Jernyngham rejoined, and going on to the door, shook hands with Prescott.

"Tell Colston he has my last word," he said.

Turning away, he proceeded to the untidy parlor where he found Ellice dawdling over a paper. Her white summer dress was stained in places and open at the neck, where a button had come off. The short skirt displayed a hole in one stocking and a shoe from which a strap had been torn. Jernyngham leaned on the table regarding her with a curious smile.

"What's Jack come about?" she asked.

"To say my fastidious relatives want me to go home, which would mean leaving you behind."

She looked at him searchingly, and then laughed.

"And you won't go?"

"That's the message I sent."

Ellice's face softened, though there was a hint of indecision in it.

"You're all right, Cyril, only a bit of a fool."

"A bit?" he said dryly. "I'm the whole blamed hog. But enough of that. We'll pull out for the homestead to-morrow. I expect Wandle is robbing me."

"He's been robbin' you ever since you bought the ranch. I don't know why you stopped me from gettin' after him."

"He saves me trouble," explained Jernyngham, and they discussed the arrangements for their return.

Prescott, arriving home, had a brief private interview with Colston, who realized with some disappointment that his errand had failed. Then the rancher harnessed a fresh team and proceeded to a sloo where his Scandinavian hired man was cutting prairie hay. An hour or two later Muriel went out on the prairie and walked toward a poplar bluff, in the shadow of which she gathered ripe red saskatoons, and then sat down to look about.

The dazzling blue of the sky was broken by rounded masses of silver-edged clouds that drove along before a fresh northwest breeze. Streaked by their speeding shadows, the great plain stretched away, checkered by ranks of marigolds and tall crimson flowers of the lily kind that swayed as the rippling grasses changed color in the wind. A mile or two distant stood the trim wooden homestead, with a tall windmill frame near by, girt by broad sweeps of dark-green wheat and oats. These were interspersed with stretches of uncovered soil, glowing a deep chocolate-brown, which Muriel knew was the summer fallow resting after a cereal crop. Beyond the last strip of rich color, there spread, shining delicately blue, a great field of flax; and then the dusky green of alfalfa and alsike for the Hereford cattle, standing knee-deep in a flashing lake. The prairie, she thought, was beautiful in summer; its wideness was bracing, one was stirred into cheerfulness and bodily vigor by the rush of its fresh winds. She felt that she could remain contentedly at the homestead for a long time; and then her thoughts centered on its owner.

This was perhaps why she rose and strolled on toward the sloo, though she would not acknowledge that she actually wished to meet him. The man was something of an enigma and therefore roused in her an interest which was stronger because of some of the things she had heard to his discredit. Following the rows of wheelmarks, she brushed through the wild barley, whose spiky heads whipped her dress, passed a chain of glistening ponds, a bluff wrapped in blue shadow, and finally descended a long slope to the basin at its foot where the melting snow had run in spring. Now it had dried and was covered with tall grass which held many flowers and fragrant wild peppermint.

A team of horses and a tinkling mower moved through its midst, and at one edge Prescott was loading the grass into a wagon. Engrossed as he was in his task, he did not notice her, and she stood a while watching him. He wore no jacket; the thin yellow shirt, flung open at the neck and tightly belted at the waist, and the brown duck trousers, showed the lithe grace of his athletic figure. His poise and swing were admirable, and he was working with determined energy, his face and uncovered arms the warm color of the soil.

Muriel drew a little closer and he stopped on seeing her. His brown skin was singularly clean, his eyes were clear and steady, though they often gave a humorous twinkle. If this man had ever been a rake, his reformation must have been drastic and complete, because although she had a very limited acquaintance with people of that sort, it was reasonable to conclude that they must bear some sign of indulgence or sensuality. The rancher had no stamp of either.

He showed his pleasure at her appearance.

"You have had quite a walk," he said. "If you will wait while I put up the load, I'll take you back."

Muriel sat down and watched him fling the grass in heavy forkfuls on to the growing pile, until at last he clambered up upon the frame supporting it and, pulling some out and ramming the rest back, proceeded to excavate a hollow.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Making a nest for you," he told her with a laugh. "Now, if you'll get up."

While she mounted by the wheel he stood on the edge of the wagon, leaning down toward her. There did not seem to be much foothold, the grass looked slippery, and the hollow he had made was beyond her reach, but she seized the hand he held out and he swung her up. For a moment his fingers pressed tightly upon her waist, and then she was safe in the hollow, smiling at him as he found a precarious seat on the rack.

"You couldn't see how you were going to get up, but you didn't hesitate," he said with a soft laugh, when he had started his team.

"No," she smiled back at him. "Somehow you inspire one with confidence. I didn't think you would let me fall."

"Curious, isn't it?"

She reclined in the recess among the grass, which yielded to her limbs in a way that gave her a sense of voluptuous ease. Her pose, although scarcely a conventional one, showed to advantage the fine contour of her form; and the lilac-tinted dress that flowed in classic lines about her made a patch of cool restful color on the warm ocher of her surroundings. It was easy to read the man's admiration in his glance, and she became suddenly filled with mischievous daring.

"Cyril," she said, "you are either an excellent actor, or else—"

"I have been maligned. Is that what you meant?"

"I think I did mean something of the kind."

"Then I'm a very poor actor. That should settle the question."

"I've wondered how you became so very Canadian," she said thoughtfully.

"What's the matter with the Canadians?"

"Nothing. I haven't met very many yet, but on the whole I'm favorably impressed by them. They're direct, blunt, perhaps less complex than we are."

"No trimmings," he suggested. "They don't muss up good material so that it can hardly be recognized. You can tell what a man is when you see him or hear him talk."

"I don't know," Muriel argued. "I've an idea that it might be difficult, even in Canada."

He let this pass.

"What do you think of the country?" he asked.

She glanced round. It was late in the afternoon and somewhat cooler than it had been. Half the plain lay in shadow, but the light was curiously sharp. A clump of ragged jack-pines stood on a sandhill miles away, and a lake twinkled in the remote distance. The powerful Clydesdale horses plodded through short crackling scrub; a fine scent of wild peppermint floated about.

"Oh," she responded, "it's delightful! And everybody's so energetic! You move with a spring and verve; and I don't hear any grumbling, though there seems to be so much to do!"

"And to bear now and then: crops wiped out—I've lost two of them. The work never slackens, except in winter, when you sit shivering beside the stove, if you're not hauling in building logs or cordwood through the arctic frost. At night it's deadly silent, unless there's a blizzard howling; the plains are very lonely when the snow lies deep. Don't you think you're better off in England, taking it all 'round?"

He laid respectful fingers on the hem of her skirt, touching the fine material, as if appraising its worth.

"Our wheat-growers' wives and daughters are lucky if they've a couple of moderately smart dresses, but I suppose you have several trunks full of things like this. That and the kind of life it implies must count for something."

"I believe I have," said Muriel with candor, answering his steady inquiring glance. "Still, I've felt that we drift along from amusement to amusement in a purposeless way, doing nothing that's worth while. There might come a time when one would grow very tired of it."

"It must come and bring trouble then. Here one goes on from task to task, each one bigger and more venturesome than the last; acre added to acre, a gasoline tractor to the horse-plow, another quarter-section broken. Mind and body taxed all day and often half the night. One can't sit down and mope."

This was, she thought, a curious speech for a man who had been described as careless, extravagant, and dissolute; but he was getting too serious, and she laughed.

"You were energetic enough in England, if reports are true. I've often thought of your right-of-way adventure. It must have been very dramatic when you appeared at the garden party covered with fresh tar."

"Sounds like that, doesn't it?" he cautiously agreed. "How do they tell the tale?"

"Something like this—you were at the Hall with Geoffrey when the townspeople were clamoring about Sir Gilbert's closing the path through the wood, and for some reason you assisted them in attacking the barricade. It had been well tarred as a defensive measure, hadn't it? Then you returned, triumphant, black from head to foot, when you thought the guests had gone, and plunged into the middle of the last of them—Maud always laughs when she talks about it. Sir Gilbert was somewhere out of sight when you related the rabble's brilliant victory, but he dashed out red in face when he understood and never stopped until he jumped into his motor. I don't think Geoffrey's wife has forgiven you."

Prescott smiled.

"Well," he said, "I must have grown very staid since then."

Muriel changed the subject, but they talked with much good-humor until they reached the homestead, where the man alighted and held out his arms to her. She hesitated a moment, and then was seized by him and swung gently to the ground, but she left him with a trace of heightened color in her face and went quietly into the house.



It was pleasantly cool in the shadow of Jernyngham's wooden barn, where Prescott sat, talking to its owner. Outside the strip of shade, the sun fell hot upon the parched grass, and the tall wheat that ran close up to the homestead swayed in waves of changing color before the rush of breeze. The whitened, weather-worn boards of the house, which faced the men, seemed steeped in glowing light, and sounds of confused activity issued from the doorway that was guarded by mosquito-netting. A clatter of domestic utensils indicated that Ellice was baking, and she made more noise than she usually did when she was out of temper. Jernyngham listened with faint amusement as he filled his pipe.

"Sorry I can't ask you in, Jack," he said. "The kitchen is a pretty large one, but when Ellice starts bread-making, there isn't a spot one can sit down in. Of course, we've another living-room—I furnished it rather nicely—but for some reason we seldom use it."

The mosquito door swung back with a crash and Ellice appeared in the entrance with a hot, angry face, and hands smeared with dough, her hair hanging partly loose in disorder about her neck, her skirt ungracefully kilted up.

"Ain't you goin' to bring that water? Have I got to wait another hour?" she cried, ignoring Prescott.

Jernyngham rose and moved away. Returning, he disappeared into the kitchen with a dripping pail and Ellice's voice was raised in harsh upbraiding. Then the man came out, looking a trifle weary, though he sat down by Prescott with a smile.

"These things should be a warning, Jack," he said. "Still, one has to make allowances; this hot weather's trying, and Ellice got a letter that disturbed her by the last mail. I didn't hear what was in it, but I suspect it was a bill."

Prescott nodded, because he did not know what to say. Mrs. Jernyngham had, he gathered, been unusually fractious for the last week or two, and Cyril was invariably forbearing. Indeed, Prescott sometimes wondered at his patience, for he imagined that his comrade had outgrown what love he had borne her. The man had his virtues: he was rash, but he seldom failed to face the consequences with whimsical good-humor.

"Your friends are going to-morrow," Prescott told him. "They understand that you will write home and explain your reasons for remaining."

"I suppose I'll have to do so, though it will be difficult. You see, to give the reasons that count most would be cruel. If it's any comfort to my folks to think favorably of me, I'd rather let them. I've made a horrible mess of things, but that's no reason why others should suffer."

Prescott glanced round at the dilapidated house, the untidy stable, the door of which was falling to pieces, and the wagon standing with a broken wheel. There was no doubt that Jernyngham was right in one respect.

"Jack," Cyril resumed, "your manner gives me the impression that you'll be sorry to lose your visitors."

"I shall be sorry. I pressed them to stay and I think they'd have done so, only that Mrs. Colston was against it."

"Ah! That strikes me as significant. You see, I can make a good guess at her motives; I've suffered from that kind of thing. She evidently considers you dangerous. Don't you feel flattered?"

"Mrs. Colston has no cause for uneasiness; I could wish she had."

"Then I'm glad my friends are going. It will save you trouble, Jack. A match between Miss Hurst and you is out of the question."

"I've felt that, so far as my merits go, which is the best way I can put it," said Prescott gravely. "You speak as if there were stronger reasons."

"There are; I'm a little surprised you don't see them. Your merits—I suppose you mean your character and appearance—should go a long way; we'll admit that you're a man who might have some attraction for even such a girl as Miss Hurst seems to be, if she didn't pause to think. Unfortunately for you, however, it's her duty to her relatives to make a brilliant match and I've no doubt she recognizes it. Girls of her station—you had better face the truth, Jack—never marry beneath them."

"But a man may."

"A fair shot," laughed Jernyngham. "I can't resent it. But the man generally suffers, and the price is a heavier one when the girl has to pay. There's a penalty for breaking caste."

"You seem to tolerate worse things in the old country."

"Not often, after all—you hear of the flagrant offenders, and though I dare say there are others who are not found out, the bulk against whom there's no reproach, excite no attention. But we'll let that go. I want you to understand. You're right, Jack; it's your position that's all wrong. Girls of the kind we're considering are brought up in luxury, taught every accomplishment that's economically useless, led to believe that every comfort they need will somehow be supplied. They're charming in their proper environment, but it's a cruelty to take them out of it. They'd be helpless in this grim country, where you must work for all you want and do without many things even then. Can you imagine Miss Hurst standing over a hot stove all day and spending her evenings mending your worn-out shirts?"

Prescott looked up, his face set hard.

"You have said enough."

There was silence after this, until a big man dressed in old brown overalls stopped his horse near-by.

"I've fixed up with Farrer to send over his gasoline tractor to do the fall breaking," he said. "Saw the telephone construction people yesterday and told them I'd let them have two teams to haul in their poles. It's going to pay us better than keeping them for plowing."

"Quite right, Wandle," replied Jernyngham, and the fellow nodded to Prescott and rode away.

He lived on the next half-section and assisted Jernyngham in the management of his ranch, besides sharing the cost of labor, implements and horses with him, though Prescott had cause for believing that the arrangement was not to his friend's benefit.

"You'd be better off if you didn't work with that man," he said.

"It's possible," Jernyngham agreed. "I know he robs me, but he saves me bother. Besides, if we decided to separate and came to a settlement, I dare say he would claim that I was in his debt; and he might be right. I'm no good at business. Ranching I don't mind, but I could never learn how to buy and sell."

"It's a very useful ability," Prescott rejoined with some dryness. "But as I want to be home for supper, I must get on."

He unhitched his horse and mounted, and Jernyngham walked with him to the gate in the wire fence.

"You'll remember what I told you, Jack," he said meaningly.

"Yes," Prescott answered with a stern face. "I suppose I ought to thank you. I'm not likely to forget."

He rode home and arriving in time for supper took his place at the table with mixed feelings, foremost among which was keen regret. Except for the company of his Scandinavian hired man and the latter's hard-featured wife, he had lived alone in Spartan simplicity, thinking of nothing but his farm; and his guests' arrival had revealed to him the narrowness of his life. They had brought him new desires and thoughts, besides recalling ideas he had long forgotten, and among other things had made the evening meal a pleasant function to be looked forward to, instead of an opportunity for hurriedly consuming needed food.

The spotless cloth and the flowers on the table were novelties, but they pleased his eye. Colston with his cheerful, well-bred air and fastidiousness in dress, talked interestingly; Mrs. Colston with her gracious dignity, and Muriel, who was wholly alluring, seemed to fill the room with charm. It was perhaps all the more enjoyable because Prescott had been accustomed to pleasant society in Montreal, before he abandoned it with other amenities and went out to a life of stern toil and frugality in the grim Northwest.

He said little, though it was the last time they would gather tranquilly round his board—they were to leave for the railroad early on the morrow. A heavy melancholy oppressed him, though bright sunlight streamed into the room and an invigorating breeze swept in through the open window, outside which tall wheat and blue flax rolled away. He could not force himself to talk, though he laughed at Colston's anecdotes, and it was a relief when the meal was over. Half an hour later he overtook Muriel strolling along the edge of the wheat.

"Have you recovered yet?" she asked. "You looked very downcast."

"That's how I feel. It strikes me as perfectly natural. I'll be alone to-morrow."

"But you were alone before we came."

"Very true; I didn't seem to mind it then. I was happy thinking how I could put in a bigger crop or raise another bunch of stock. My mind was fixed on the plow. But you have lifted me out of the furrow. I guess it's weak, but somehow I hate the thought of going back to the clods."

Remembering Jernyngham's remarks, it struck him that this was not the line he should have taken, and for a moment or two Muriel turned her head. Then she looked at him, smiling.

"I shall be very sorry to leave, and I believe Florence and Harry feel the same."

"But you are going to British Columbia and down the Pacific Coast. You will revel in new experiences and interesting sights."

"I suppose so," she answered, rather listlessly. "We shall get a glimpse of a new country, but that will be all. On the steamers we'll meet much the kind of people we are accustomed to, and no doubt we'll stay at hotels built especially for luxurious tourists. You see, we take our usual environment along with us."

"But isn't that what you like?"

"I don't know; perhaps it ought to be." Muriel paused and looked up at him with candid eyes. "You hinted that we had given you a new and wider outlook—or brought back the one you used to have, which is what you must have meant. You don't seem to realize that you have done much the same thing to me."

"I'm not sure I understand."

"It shouldn't be difficult. You know the kind of people I have hitherto met, and how we spend our time in a round of amusements that lead to nothing, with all that could jar on one carefully kept away. This is the first time I've come into touch with strenuous, normal life."

"And it doesn't seem to have frightened you?"

"No," she said with a smile; "I'm not in the least afraid—why should I be? I must have more courage than you think, but does one need a great deal of it to live here?"

He looked at her in grave admiration. There was a hint of pride in her pose, and her eyes were calm.

"I believe if ever a time of stress came, you wouldn't shrink. But this is a pretty hard and lonely country, especially in winter."

Muriel changed the subject.

"For all that, I feel you are right in staying, Cyril. Have you written to your people?"

Prescott felt embarrassed and guilty, as he generally did when, in confidential moments, she called him by Jernyngham's name. Somehow he could not imagine her saying Jack.

"No," he rejoined slowly. "Of course, they must be written to."

Muriel did not answer. The turn their conversation had taken had filled her with a vague unrest as she looked back at the life she had led. Three or four years ago it had seemed filled with glamour and excitement, and she had entered on its pleasures with eager zest, but of late she had begun to find them wearisome. They no longer satisfied her. If this were the result of a few years' experience, what would she feel when she had grown jaded with time and everything was stale? Then her glimpse of the simple, healthful western life had come as a revelation. It was real, a bracing struggle, in which no effort was wasted but produced tangible results: broad stretches of splendid wheat, sweeps of azure flax.

But this was not all. She felt drawn to her brown-faced companion, who had obviously redeemed whatever errors he had been guilty of in the past. She had known him for only about a fortnight, but she had seen his admiration for her with a satisfaction that was slightly tempered by misgivings. She could not tell exactly what she expected from him, but she had at least looked for some expression of a wish that their acquaintance should not end abruptly on the morrow. She did not think she would have resented a carefully modified display of the gallantry Cyril Jernyngham must be capable of, if reports were true. Considering what his past was supposed to have been, the grave man who watched her with troubled eyes was hard to understand.

"Cyril," she asked, "has Harry given you our address at Glacier and Banff?"

He supposed that this implied permission to write to her, but he could not do so as Jack Prescott and he already bitterly regretted that he had allowed her to think of him as Jernyngham.

"Yes," he said, with a carelessness which cost him an effort. "But I'm afraid I'm not a good correspondent. I'm too busy, for one thing."

"Too busy?" she mocked, with a stronger color in her face. "Can't you spare half an hour from your plowing to write to your friends?"

"Well," he answered with forced coolness, "it's difficult, except, of course, in the winter and you'll be back in England then, with so many festivities on hand that you won't be anxious to hear about Canada."

She looked at him for a moment, puzzled and a little angry, and he guessed her thoughts. He was behaving like a boor; but it was better that she should think him one.

"How very un-English you have become!" she said.

"You mean I'm very Canadian? Anyway, I try to be sensible—I've done some wretchedly foolish things and I've got to pay for them. Of course, this visit's only an episode to you; something that's soon over and forgotten."

There was trouble in his voice, though he strove to speak with indifference, and after a swift glance at him she answered coldly:

"I suppose it is. One impression rubs out another, and no doubt we shall see something novel and interesting farther on. However, we won't stay in Canada very long and we shall see your father and sister as soon as we get home. It's curious that you have scarcely mentioned them."

"Oh, well," he evaded awkwardly, "Harry has told me a good deal."

He turned his head, dreading her curious eyes. His last evening in her company was proving more trying than he had expected; though usually tolerant and good-humored, the strain made him bitter. To-morrow he must put this girl out of his mind. After all, it was to Cyril Jernyngham, rake and wastrel, but a man of her own station, that she had been gracious and charming; had she known he was Jack Prescott, she would, no doubt, have treated him very differently; but in this supposition he did her wrong.

Puzzled by his lack of responsiveness and with wounded pride, she stopped and looked out toward the northwest across the prairie. Steeped in strong coloring, it seemed to run back into immeasurable distance, though a wonderful blaze of crimson marked its rim. The faint, cool air that flowed across it was charged with a curious exhilarating quality; there was a subtle fragrance of herbs in the grass.

"It's getting late," she said; "I must go in. This is the last sunset I shall watch on the prairie, and in several ways I'm sorry. You have made our stay here very pleasant."



Colston and his party had been gone a fortnight when Prescott called at the Jernyngham homestead one afternoon and found its owner sitting moodily in the kitchen, which presented a chaotic appearance. Unwashed plates and dishes were scattered about, the wood-box was overturned and poplar billets strewed the floor, there was no fire in the rusty stove, and the fragments of a heavy crock lay against the wall. The strong sunlight that streamed in emphasized the disorder of the room.

"I was passing and thought I'd come in," Prescott explained. "Where's Mrs. Jernyngham? The look of the place gives one the idea that she's not at home."

"It's never remarkably tidy." Jernyngham broke into a rueful smile. "I believe she started for the settlement when I was at work in the summer fallow this morning. The fact that the horse and buggy are missing points to it."

"But don't you know whether she has gone or not?"

"I don't," said Jernyngham. "She didn't acquaint me with her intentions. As I see she has taken some things along, it looks as if she meant to visit Mrs. Harvey at the store. They're friends now and then."

His manner was suggestive, though he looked more resigned than disturbed, and Prescott, glancing at the shattered crock, ventured a question which he feared was not quite judicious:

"How did you break that thing?"

"It ought to be a warning. I didn't break it; it was meant to break on me. Ellice flung it at my head a day or two ago, and fortunately missed, though as a rule she's a pretty good shot. I suppose it's significant that neither of us troubled to pick up the pieces."

Prescott looked sympathetic, and hesitated, with his half-filled pipe in his hand.

"Shall I go, Cyril? I want to make Sebastian before it's dark."

"Sit still," Jernyngham told him. "I'm in an expansive mood, and I've a notion that I'm not far off a crisis in my affairs. Ellice has been fractious lately; I seem to have been getting on her nerves, which perhaps is not surprising."

Prescott made no comment and after sitting silent a few moments Jernyngham resumed:

"I was rather rash when I ventured to remonstrate about a bill. Ellice pointed out, with justice, that so long as I slouched round and let Wandle rob me, I'd no right to grumble at her for buying a few things. Most unwisely I maintained my point and"—he indicated the broken crock and littered table—"you see the consequences."

"Wandle is a bit of a rogue," said Prescott, choosing the safest topic. "I've told you so."

"You have. For all that, he's useful and I don't mind being robbed in moderation; I'm a man who's accustomed to losing things." His half-mocking tone grew serious. "I wrote to my people, as soon as Colston left, telling them I'd determined to remain in Canada; but if it wasn't for Ellice, I think I'd quit farming."

Prescott smoked in silence for a while. Jernyngham had made a costly sacrifice, chiefly on the woman's account, and Prescott felt sorry for him.

"Perhaps I'd better get on," he said after a while.

For a few moments Jernyngham looked irresolute, and then he got up.

"I'll come with you to Sebastian. I think I'd have gone earlier, only Ellice had the horse and rig, and Wandle's using the wagon team. It's no doubt my duty to sue for peace."

They set out shortly afterward and reaching Sebastian late in the evening drove to the livery-stable, where Jernyngham called the man who took Prescott's team.

"I suppose you have my horse?" he asked.

"Sure," said the fellow, looking at him curiously. "Mrs. Jernyngham said we'd better keep him until you came in. She left a note for you with the boss; he's in the hotel."

Jernyngham crossed the street, followed by his companion, and Prescott noticed that the loungers in the bar seemed interested when they came in. Two of them put down their glasses and turned to fix their eyes on Jernyngham, a third paused in the act of lighting his pipe and dropped the match. Then the owner of the livery-stable looked up in a hesitating manner as Jernyngham approached him.

"I believe you have a message for me," Jernyngham said abruptly.

"That's so," the man rejoined gravely. "I'll give it to you outside."

They left the bar, and when they stood under the veranda, Jernyngham tore open the envelope handed him. A moment later he firmly crumpled up the note it had held.

"When did she leave?" he asked in a harsh voice.

The liveryman regarded him sympathetically.

"By the afternoon East-bound. I'm mighty sorry, Cyril—guess you know it isn't a secret in the town."

Jernyngham's face grew darkly flushed.

"Then you can tell me whom she went with?"

"The drummer who was selling the separators. Bought tickets through to St. Paul. Told Perkins he wasn't coming back here; nothing doing on this round."

The man tactfully moved away and Jernyngham turned to Prescott, speaking rather hoarsely.

"She's gone—that's the end of it!"

He dropped into one of the chairs scattered about and a few moments later broke into a bitter laugh.

"It would have been more flattering if she had chosen you or Wandle instead of that blasted weedy drummer. Still, there the thing is, and it has to be faced." Then he surprised his companion, for his voice and expression became suddenly normal. "Go in and get me a cigar."

He lighted it carefully when it was brought to him and leaned back in his chair.

"Jack," he said, "I've got to hold myself in hand—if I start off on the jag now, it will be a dangerous one. Have you noticed that I've been practising strict abstinence since Colston left?"

Prescott, not knowing how to regard his ironic calmness, said nothing, and Jernyngham continued:

"It's a bitter pill. I was very fond of her once, and there's not much consolation in reflecting that she'll probably scare the fellow out of his wits the first time she breaks out in one of her rages." Then his voice grew regretful. "Ellice's far from perfect, but she's much too good for him."

Remembering that it was on the woman's account his friend had remained on the prairie, Prescott made a venture:

"Since she has gone, it's a pity she didn't go a few weeks earlier."

"That doesn't count," declared Jernyngham. "She has cause to blame me as much for marrying her—one must try to be just. I thought of her when I determined to stay, but my own weaknesses played as big a part in deciding me."

He sat silent a while, and then indicated his surroundings with a contemptuous sweep of his hand—the dirty sidewalk strewn with cigar ends and banana peelings, the straggling houses with their cracked board walls and ugly square fronts, the rutted street down which drifted clouds of dust.

"Jack," he said, "I'm very sick of all this, and I can't face the lonely homestead now Ellice's gone. I must have a change and something to brace me; something that has a keener bite than drink. Think I'll take a haulage job on the new railroad, where there ought to be rough and risky work, and I'll leave this place to-night. Come across with me to Morant's, and I'll see what I can borrow on the land."

The sudden unreasoning decision was characteristic of him, but Prescott expostulated.

"You can't clear out in this eccentric fashion; there are a number of things to be settled first."

"I think I can," Jernyngham retorted dryly. "It's certain that I can't stay here."

He took his companion with him to call on a land-agent and mortgage-broker, and when they left the office Jernyngham had a bulky roll of bills in his pocket.

"Jack," he requested, "you'll run my place and pay Morant off after harvest; if Wandle gets his hands on it, there'll be very little left when I come back. You may have trouble with him, but you must hold out. Charge me with all expenses and pay as much of the surplus as you think I'm entitled to into my bank when you have sold the crop. Now if you'll come into the hotel, I'll give you a written authority and get Perkins to witness it."

Prescott demurred at first, but eventually yielded because he believed his friend's interest would need looking after in his absence. After some discussion they agreed on a workable scheme, which was put down in writing and witnessed by the hotel-keeper. Then Jernyngham borrowed a saddle and sent for his horse.

"I'll pull out for the railroad now; it's cooler riding at night and there's a good moon," he said. "As I'll pass close to your place, you may as well drive so far with me."

They set off, Prescott seated on the front of his jolting wagon, Jernyngham riding as near it as the roughness of the trail permitted, with a blanket and a package of provisions strapped to his saddle. He was wearing a hat of extra-thick felt and uncommon shape which had been given him by a man who had broken his journey for the purpose of seeing the country when returning from Hong Kong by the Canadian Pacific route. Soon after they left Sebastian, a young trooper of the Northwest Police dressed in khaki uniform came trotting up in the moonlight and joined them.

"Where are you off to, Jernyngham?" he asked, glancing at the rolled up blanket. "Looks as if you meant to camp on the trail."

"I'll have to, most likely," said Jernyngham. "I'm leaving the farm to Prescott for a while and heading for Nelson's Butte on the new road."

"What are you going to do there?"

"Thought I'd pick up a horse or two at one of the ranches I'll pass and apply for a teaming job. Contractor was asking for haulage tenders; he's having trouble among the sandhills and muskegs."

"Then you'll be taking a wad of money along?"

Jernyngham assented and the trooper looked thoughtful.

"Now," he cautioned, "there's a pretty tough crowd at Nelson, and though we stopped any licenses being issued, we've had trouble over the running-in of liquor. Then you have a long ride before you through a thinly-settled country. You want to be careful about that money."

"The settlers are to be trusted."

"That's so, but we have reason to believe the rustlers are at work in the district; seem to have been going into the liquor business, and I've heard of horses missing. Now that the boys have stopped their branding other people's calves in Alberta and corralled their leaders, it looks as if the fellows were beginning the game in this part of the country."

"Thanks," said Jernyngham. "I may as well take precautions. How would you recommend my carrying the money?"

The trooper made one or two ingenious suggestions as to the safest way of secreting the bills, and Jernyngham, dismounting, carried them out. Soon afterward the trooper struck off across the plain, and the others, riding on, met a farmer who spoke to them as he passed. At length Prescott pulled up his team at the spot where his companion must leave the trail.

"I'll do what I can with the land, Cyril, and keep an account," he said. "You might write and let me know how you are getting on."

They shook hands and Jernyngham trotted away, while Prescott sat watching him for a minute or two. Man and horse were sharply outlined against the moonlit grass. Jernyngham looked very lonely as he rode out into the wilderness. He could hardly have been happy, Prescott thought, in his untidy and comfortless house at the farm; but, after all, it had been a home, and now he was rudely flung adrift. It was true that the man was largely responsible for the troubles that had fallen upon him, but this was no reason for refusing him pity, and Cyril had his strong points. He had staunchly declined to profit by a felicitous change of fortune out of consideration for the relatives who had once disowned and the woman who had deserted him. Jernyngham had been a careless fool, and Prescott suspected that he was not likely to alter much in this respect, but he did not expect others to pay for his recklessness when the reckoning came. Then Prescott started his team.

Two days later, he was busy in front of his homestead putting together a new binder which had just arrived from the settlement. It was the latest type of harvesting implement and designed to cut an unusually broad swath. While he was engaged, the trooper he had met when accompanying Jernyngham rode up with a corporal following. He stopped his horse and glanced at the binder with admiration.

"She's a daisy, Jack; I guess she cost a pile," he said. "Where did you get the money to buy a machine of that kind?"

"It wasn't easy to raise it," Prescott replied. "But I'll save something in labor—harvest wages are high—and I've long wanted this binder. When Trant came round from the implement store yesterday morning I thought I'd risk the deal. Will you wait for dinner?"

"No, thanks," the corporal broke in. "We're making a patrol north; just called to look at your guards. Several big grass fires have been reported in the last few days."

Prescott pointed to the rows of plowed furrows which cut off his holding from the prairie. The strip of brown clods, which was two or three yards in width, seemed an adequate defense, and after a glance at it the corporal nodded his satisfaction.

"Good enough," he said. "We'll take the trail."

He trotted away with his companion and it was evening when they rode along the edge of a ravine which pierced a high tract of rolling country. The crest of the slope they followed commanded a vast circle of grass that was changing in the foreground from green to ocher and silvery white. Farther back, it ran on toward the sunset, a sweep of blue and neutral gray, flecked with dusky lines of bluffs, interspersed with gleaming strips of water, but nowhere in the wide landscape was there a sign of human habitation. Small birches and poplars, with an undergrowth of nut bushes, clothed the sides of the ravine, but some distance ahead it broadened out and the stream that flowed through it turned the hollow into a muskeg. There harsh grass and reeds grew three or four feet high, hiding the stretch of mire.

The police were young men with deeply bronzed faces, dressed in smart khaki uniform with broad Stetson hats of the same color.

"What's that?" exclaimed Corporal Curtis, pointing to an indistinct object lying among a patch of scrub some distance off.

"Looks like a hat," replied Private Stanton. "Some settler prospecting for a homestead location must have lost it."

"You jump at things!" said the corporal. "How'd the man lose it? Guess it wouldn't drop off without his knowing it, and with the sun we've been having he'd want it pretty bad. He wouldn't throw it away, when he knew he couldn't get another. We'll go along and see."

They dismounted a minute or two later and made a startling discovery. The hat was a good one, but in one place the soft gray felt had been crushed and partly cut as though by a heavy blow. On turning it over, they saw that the inside was stained a dull red.

"Blood!" said Curtis significantly, and swept a searching glance about. "More of it," he added. "See here—on the brush."

Moving forward, they found a succession of crimson spots and splashes on the leaves of the willow scrub and withering grass.

"Picket the horses. Stanton; we've got to look into this," the corporal said.

"I'd better lead them back a piece," responded his companion. "We don't want to muss up things by making fresh tracks."

When he had done so, they set about the examination systematically. They were men who lived, for the most part, in the open, and made long journeys through the wilds, sleeping where they could find shelter in ravine or bluff. Such things as a broken twig, a bruised tuft of grass, or a mark in loose soil had a meaning to them, and here they had plentiful material to work upon. Counting footprints and hoofmarks, measuring distances, they constructed bit by bit the drama that had taken place, but half an hour had passed before they sat down to talk it over and took out their pipes. The afterglow shone about them; their hands and thoughtful faces showed the same warm color as the brown grass in the ruddy light. In the hat lay a five-dollar bill and a coat button.

"There were two men here," Curtis remarked. "Both were mounted and came up the trail from the settlement, but it looks as if the first one had picketed his horse and started to make camp when the other joined him."

"That's so," Private Stanton agreed.

"Then there was trouble, but the men didn't clinch. One fellow hit the other with something heavy enough to drop him in his tracks, then got into the saddle and rode off, leading the other horse."

The evidence on which he arrived at this conclusion was slender, but Stanton signified assent.

"Well," he said, "where's the hurt man?"

"I've a notion he's in yonder muskeg. The other fellow could have packed him there on the led horse—the blood spots point to it—though he might have hid him farther on in a bluff. It's getting too dark to search now; we'll try to-morrow. But I guess we know who he is."

"Sure," said Stanton. "I'll swear to the hat. Chaffed Jernyngham about it one day, and he put it in my hands and said there wasn't another of the kind in the country. A man from Hong Kong gave it to him."

Curtis took up the bill.

"Five dollars, Merchants' Bank, and quite clean; not been issued long. We'll find out if they've a branch at Regina or Saskatoon and trace up the fellow they paid it to. The button doesn't count—quite a common pattern. Now if you'll fill the kettle at the creek, I'll start a fire. We'll camp near the birch scrub yonder."



On the morning after the corporal's discovery, Gustave Wandle was leading his team to a drinking pool on the creek that crossed his farm. He was a big, reserved, fair-haired man, with a fleshy face that was redeemed from heaviness by his eyes, which were restless and keen. Though supposed to be an Austrian, little was known about him or his antecedents except that he owned the next half-section of land to Jernyngham's and farmed it successfully. It was, however, believed that he was of an unusually grasping nature, and his neighbors took precautions when they made a deal with him. He had reached the shadow of a poplar bluff when he heard hurried footsteps and a man with a hot face came into sight.

"I'm going across your place to save time; I want my horse," he explained hastily. "Curtis, the policeman, has ridden in to the settlement and told me to go up and search a muskeg near the north trail with Stanton. Somebody's killed Jernyngham and hidden him there."

"So!" exclaimed Wandle. "Jernyngham murdered! You tell me that?"

"Sure thing!" the other replied. "The police have figured out how it all happened and I'm going to look for the body while Curtis reports to his bosses. A blamed pity! I liked Jernyngham. Well, I must get to the muskeg soon as I can!"

He ran on, and Wandle led his horses to the pool and stood thinking hard while they drank. He was well versed in Jernyngham's affairs and knew that he had once bought a cheap quarter-section of land in an arid belt some distance off. A railroad had since entered the district, irrigation work had been begun, and the holding must have risen in value. Now, it seemed, Jernyngham was dead, which was unfortunate, because Wandle had found their joint operations profitable, and it was very probable that Ellice and himself were the only persons who knew about the land. Wandle mounted one of the horses and set out for Jernyngham's homestead at its fastest pace.

On reaching it, he soon found an iron cash-box in a cupboard and succeeded in forcing it with a screw-driver. It contained a few papers, among which were one or two relating to the purchase of the quarter-section, and Wandle put these in his pocket. The others he threw into the cupboard—Jernyngham's carelessness was well known—and then hastily studied a railroad time-table. By starting promptly, he could catch a train at the station next after Sebastian, which he thought would be wiser, and reach a new wooden town of some importance in the evening. Having ascertained this, he hurried out and rode home, taking the cash-box with him. On arriving, he smashed it flat with an ax and flung it into his stove in which a fire was burning; then he made a hasty meal, changed his clothes, and saddling a horse, rode hard across the prairie. There was, he realized, some risk in what he meant to do, but it was not a very serious one, and he was thankful that the sale of land is attended by few formalities in western Canada.

When he reached his destination, business premises were closed for the night, but after making inquiries he found a land agent who was recommended as respectable and trustworthy at a smart hotel. Wandle led him to the far end of the lobby, where they would not be disturbed, and sitting down at a table took out the papers.

"What's that quarter-section worth?" he asked.

The agent told him and Wandle lighted his pipe and affected to consider. He thought Jernyngham had not suspected its value.

"Don't you think you could get another three dollars an acre?" he suggested.

"It's possible, if you will leave the sale in my hands; but I may have to wait for a suitable opportunity. There's a good demand for land in the district now that they're getting on with the irrigation scheme, but to insist on the top price will mean delay."

"Could you sell it for me promptly at the figure you mentioned?"

"Why, yes," said the agent. "I've a number of inquiries for farming land on my books. I shouldn't wonder if I fixed the thing up in a week."

"I can't wait a week. There's a pretty good haulage contract I could get, but it will take some financing, which is what brought me along; because I ought to see about it in the next few days. Now I'll tell you what I'll do—I'll sell you that land to-night at the lower figure."

The agent pondered.

"No, sir," he said, irresolutely. "I'd only make a few dollars an acre on the deal, and I can get ten per cent. on my money right in this hotel."

"You'd have to wait a year for it, wouldn't you? What price will give you ten per cent. profit on this quarter-section? You want to remember that you may get it in a few weeks, and you'd have first-class security."

After making a rough calculation in his notebook, the agent looked up.

"As a rule, I prefer to buy for other people, but I can't go back on what I said about land being in strong demand, and I'll make you a bid. This is the most I can do."

Wandle, after trying to raise the price, made a sign of acquiescence.

"We'll let it go at that. I'll get things fixed up as soon as the land-office is open in the morning."

He left the hotel, satisfied on the whole, though he had sacrificed a dollar or two an acre and there was an element of danger in what he had done. The sale of the land must be registered, and the date would be two or three days after the one on which Jernyngham was killed. The latter's homestead was, however, a long distance off, there was only one small weekly newspaper published in the district, and it was very probable that the agent would not hear of the affair until some time had elapsed, and then might not attach any importance to the fact that the victim's name was that of his customer. Even if he did so, the small discrepancy in the dates would, no doubt, escape his attention. Wandle did not think he had much cause for uneasiness.

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