THE HUNTED WOMAN
JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD
Author of KAZAN, Etc.
FRANK B. HOFFMAN
TO MY WIFE
OUR COMRADES OF THE TRAIL
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"'Look at MacDonald.... It's not the gold, but MacDonald, that's taking me North, Ladygray.... Up there, another grave is calling MacDonald.'"
A tall, slim, exquisitely poised figure.... "'Another o' them Dotty Dimples come out to save the world. I thought I'd help eggicate her a little, an' so I sent her to Bill's place'"
"A crowd was gathering.... A slim, exquisitely formed woman in shimmering silk was standing beside a huge brown bear"
"'The tunnel is closed,' she whispered.... 'That means we have just forty-five minutes to live.... Let us not lie to one another.'"
It was all new—most of it singularly dramatic and even appalling to the woman who sat with the pearl-gray veil drawn closely about her face. For eighteen hours she had been a keenly attentive, wide-eyed, and partly frightened bit of humanity in this onrush of "the horde." She had heard a voice behind her speak of it as "the horde"—a deep, thick, gruff voice which she knew without looking had filtered its way through a beard. She agreed with the voice. It was the Horde—that horde which has always beaten the trails ahead for civilization and made of its own flesh and blood the foundation of nations. For months it had been pouring steadily into the mountains—always in and never out, a laughing, shouting, singing, blaspheming Horde, every ounce of it toughened sinew and red brawn, except the Straying Angels. One of these sat opposite her, a dark-eyed girl with over-red lips and hollowed cheeks, and she heard the bearded man say something to his companions about "dizzy dolls" and "the little angel in the other seat." This same voice, gruffened in its beard, had told her that ten thousand of the Horde had gone up ahead of them. Then it whispered something that made her hands suddenly tighten and a hot flush sweep through her. She lifted her veil and rose slowly from her seat, as if to rearrange her dress. Casually she looked straight into the faces of the bearded man and his companion in the seat behind. They stared. After that she heard nothing more of the Straying Angels, but only a wildly mysterious confabulation about "rock hogs," and "coyotes" that blew up whole mountains, and a hundred and one things about the "rail end." She learned that it was taking five hundred steers a week to feed the Horde that lay along the Grand Trunk Pacific between Hogan's Camp and the sea, and that there were two thousand souls at Tete Jaune Cache, which until a few months before had slumbered in a century-old quiet broken only by the Indian and his trade. Then the train stopped in its twisting trail, and the bearded man and his companion left the car. As they passed her they glanced down. Again the veil was drawn close. A shimmering tress of hair had escaped its bondage; that was all they saw.
The veiled woman drew a deeper breath when they were gone. She saw that most of the others were getting off. In her end of the car the hollow-cheeked girl and she were alone. Even in their aloneness these two women had not dared to speak until now. The one raised her veil again, and their eyes met across the aisle. For a moment the big, dark, sick-looking eyes of the "angel" stared. Like the bearded man and his companion, she, too, understood, and an embarrassed flush added to the colour of the rouge on her cheeks. The eyes that looked across at her were blue—deep, quiet, beautiful. The lifted veil had disclosed to her a face that she could not associate with the Horde. The lips smiled at her—the wonderful eyes softened with a look of understanding, and then the veil was lowered again. The flush in the girl's cheek died out, and she smiled back.
"You are going to Tete Jaune?" she asked.
"Yes. May I sit with you for a few minutes? I want to ask questions—so many!"
The hollow-cheeked girl made room for her at her side.
"You are new?"
"Quite new—to this."
The words, and the manner in which they were spoken, made the other glance quickly at her companion.
"It is a strange place to go—Tete Jaune," she said. "It is a terrible place for a woman."
"And yet you are going?"
"I have friends there. Have you?"
The girl stared at her in amazement. Her voice and her eyes were bolder now.
"And without friends you are going—there?" she cried. "You have no husband—no brother——"
"What place is this?" interrupted the other, raising her veil so that she could look steadily into the other's face. "Would you mind telling me?"
"It is Miette," replied the girl, the flush reddening her cheeks again. "There's one of the big camps of the railroad builders down on the Flats. You can see it through the window. That river is the Athabasca."
"Will the train stop here very long?"
The Little Angel shrugged her thin shoulders despairingly.
"Long enough to get me into The Cache mighty late to-night," she complained. "We won't move for two hours."
"I'd be so glad if you could tell me where I can go for a bath and something to eat. I'm not very hungry—but I'm terribly dusty. I want to change some clothes, too. Is there a hotel here?"
Her companion found the question very funny. She had a giggling fit before she answered.
"You're sure new," she explained. "We don't have hotels up here. We have bed-houses, chuck-tents, and bunk-shacks. You ask for Bill's Shack down there on the Flats. It's pretty good. They'll give you a room, plenty of water, and a looking-glass—an' charge you a dollar. I'd go with you, but I'm expecting a friend a little later, and if I move I may lose him. Anybody will tell you where Bill's place is. It's a red an' white striped tent—and it's respectable."
The stranger girl thanked her, and turned for her bag. As she left the car, the Little Angel's eyes followed her with a malicious gleam that gave them the strange glow of candles in a sepulchral cavern. The colours which she unfurled to all seeking eyes were not secret, and yet she was filled with an inward antagonism that this stranger with the wonderful blue eyes had dared to see them and recognize them. She stared after the retreating form—a tall, slim, exquisitely poised figure that filled her with envy and a dull sort of hatred. She did not hear a step behind her. A hand fell familiarly on her shoulder, and a coarse voice laughed something in her ear that made her jump up with an artificial little shriek of pleasure. The man nodded toward the end of the now empty car.
"Who's your new friend?" he asked.
"She's no friend of mine," snapped the girl. "She's another one of them Dolly Dimples come out to save the world. She's that innocent she wonders why Tete Jaune ain't a nice place for ladies without escort. I thought I'd help eggicate her a little an' so I sent her to Bill's place. Oh, my Lord, I told her it was respectable!"
She doubled over the seat in a fit of merriment, and her companion seized the opportunity to look out of the window.
The tall, blue-eyed stranger had paused for a moment on the last step of the car to pin up her veil, fully revealing her face. Then she stepped lightly to the ground, and found herself facing the sunlight and the mountains. She drew a slow, deep breath between her parted lips, and turned wonderingly, for a moment forgetful. It was the first time she had left the train since entering the mountains, and she understood now why some one in the coach had spoken of the Miette Plain as Sunshine Pool. Where-ever she looked the mountains fronted her, with their splendid green slopes reaching up to their bald caps of gray shale and reddish rock or gleaming summits of snow. Into this "pool"—this pocket in the mountains—the sun descended in a wonderful flood. It stirred her blood like a tonic. She breathed more quickly; a soft glow coloured her cheeks; her eyes grew more deeply violet as they caught the reflection of the blue sky. A gentle wind fretted the loose tendrils of brown hair about her face. And the bearded man, staring through the car window, saw her thus, and for an hour after that the hollow-cheeked girl wondered at the strange change in him.
The train had stopped at the edge of the big fill overlooking the Flats. It was a heavy train, and a train that was helping to make history—a combination of freight, passenger, and "cattle." It had averaged eight miles an hour on its climb toward Yellowhead Pass and the end of steel. The "cattle" had already surged from their stifling and foul-smelling cars in a noisy inundation of curiously mixed humanity. They were of a dozen different nationalities, and as the girl looked at them it was not with revulsion or scorn but with a sudden quickening of heartbeat and a little laugh that had in it something both of wonder and of pride. This was the Horde, that crude, monstrous thing of primitive strength and passions that was overturning mountains in its fight to link the new Grand Trunk Pacific with the seaport on the Pacific. In that Horde, gathered in little groups, shifting, sweeping slowly toward her and past her, she saw something as omnipotent as the mountains themselves. They could not know defeat. She sensed it without ever having seen them before. For her the Horde now had a heart and a soul. These were the builders of empire—the man-beasts who made it possible for Civilization to creep warily and without peril into new places and new worlds. With a curious shock she thought of the half-dozen lonely little wooden crosses she had seen through the car window at odd places along the line of rail.
And now she sought her way toward the Flats. To do this she had to climb over a track that was waiting for ballast. A car shunted past her, and on its side she saw the big, warning red placards—Dynamite. That one word seemed to breathe to her the spirit of the wonderful energy that was expending itself all about her. From farther on in the mountains came the deep, sullen detonations of the "little black giant" that had been rumbling past her in the car. It came again and again, like the thunderous voice of the mountains themselves calling out in protest and defiance. And each time she felt a curious thrill under her feet and the palpitant touch of something that was like a gentle breath in her ears. She found another track on her way, and other cars slipped past her crunchingly. Beyond this second track she came to a beaten road that led down into the Flats, and she began to descend.
Tents shone through the trees on the bottom. The rattle of the cars grew more distant, and she heard the hum and laughter of voices and the jargon of a phonograph. At the bottom of the slope she stepped aside to allow a team and wagon to pass. The wagon was loaded with boxes that rattled and crashed about as the wheels bumped over stones and roots. The driver of the team did not look at her. He was holding back with his whole weight; his eyes bulged a little; he was sweating, in his face was a comedy of expression that made the girl smile in spite of herself. Then she saw one of the bobbing boxes and the smile froze into a look of horror. On it was painted that ominous word—DYNAMITE!
Two men were coming behind her.
"Six horses, a wagon an' old Fritz—blown to hell an' not a splinter left to tell the story," one of them was saying. "I was there three minutes after the explosion and there wasn't even a ravelling or a horsehair left. This dynamite's a dam' funny thing. I wouldn't be a rock-hog for a million!"
"I'd rather be a rock-hog than Joe—drivin' down this hill a dozen times a day," replied the other.
The girl had paused again, and the two men stared at her as they were about to pass. The explosion of Joe's dynamite could not have startled them more than the beauty of the face that was turned to them in a quietly appealing inquiry.
"I am looking for a place called—Bill's Shack," she said, speaking the Little Sister's words hesitatingly. "Can you direct me to it, please?"
The younger of the two men looked at his companion without speaking. The other, old enough to regard feminine beauty as a trap and an illusion, turned aside to empty his mouth of a quid of tobacco, bent over, and pointed under the trees.
"Can't miss it—third tent-house on your right, with canvas striped like a barber-pole. That phonnygraff you hear is at Bill's."
She went on.
Behind her, the two men stood where she had left them. They did not move. The younger man seemed scarcely to breathe.
"Bill's place!" he gasped then. "I've a notion to tell her. I can't believe——"
"Shucks!" interjected the other.
"But I don't. She isn't that sort. She looked like a Madonna—with the heart of her clean gone. I never saw anything so white an' so beautiful. You call me a fool if you want to—I'm goin' on to Bill's!"
He strode ahead, chivalry in his young and palpitating heart. Quickly the older man was at his side, clutching his arm.
"Come along, you cotton-head!" he cried. "You ain't old enough or big enough in this camp to mix in with Bill. Besides," he lied, seeing the wavering light in the youth's eyes, "I know her. She's going to the right place."
At Bill's place men were holding their breath and staring. They were not unaccustomed to women. But such a one as this vision that walked calmly and undisturbed in among them they had never seen. There were half a dozen lounging there, smoking and listening to the phonograph, which some one now stopped that they might hear every word that was spoken. The girl's head was high. She was beginning to understand that it would have been less embarrassing to have gone hungry and dusty. But she had come this far, and she was determined to get what she wanted—if it was to be had. The colour shone a little more vividly through the pure whiteness of her skin as she faced Bill, leaning over his little counter. In him she recognized the Brute. It was blazoned in his face, in the hungry, seeking look of his eyes—in the heavy pouches and thick crinkles of his neck and cheeks. For once Bill Quade himself was at a loss.
"I understand that you have rooms for rent," she said unemotionally. "May I hire one until the train leaves for Tete Jaune Cache?"
The listeners behind her stiffened and leaned forward. One of them grinned at Quade. This gave him the confidence he needed to offset the fearless questioning in the blue eyes. None of them noticed a newcomer in the door. Quade stepped from behind his shelter and faced her.
"This way," he said, and turned to the drawn curtains beyond them.
She followed. As the curtains closed after them a chuckling laugh broke the silence of the on-looking group. The newcomer in the doorway emptied the bowl of his pipe, and thrust the pipe into the breast-pocket of his flannel shirt. He was bareheaded. His hair was blond, shot a little with gray. He was perhaps thirty-eight, no taller than the girl herself, slim-waisted, with trim, athletic shoulders. His eyes, as they rested on the still-fluttering curtains, were a cold and steady gray. His face was thin and bronzed, his nose a trifle prominent. He was a man far from handsome, and yet there was something of fascination and strength about him. He did not belong to the Horde. Yet he might have been the force behind it, contemptuous of the chuckling group of rough-visaged men, almost arrogant in his posture as he eyed the curtains and waited.
What he expected soon came. It was not the usual giggling, the usual exchange of badinage and coarse jest beyond the closed curtains. Quade did not come out rubbing his huge hands, his face crinkling with a sort of exultant satisfaction. The girl preceded him. She flung the curtains aside and stood there for a moment, her face flaming like fire, her blue eyes filled with the flash of lightning. She came down the single step. Quade followed her. He put out a hand.
"Don't take offence, girly," he expostulated. "Look here—ain't it reasonable to s'pose——"
He got no farther. The man in the door had advanced, placing himself at the girl's side. His voice was low and unexcited.
"You have made a mistake?" he said.
She took him in at a glance—his clean-cut, strangely attractive face, his slim build, the clear and steady gray of his eyes.
"Yes, I have made a mistake—a terrible mistake!"
"I tell you it ain't fair to take offence," Quade went on. "Now, look here——"
In his hand was a roll of bills. The girl did not know that a man could strike as quickly and with as terrific effect as the gray-eyed stranger struck then. There was one blow, and Quade went down limply. It was so sudden that he had her outside before she realized what had happened.
"I chanced to see you go in," he explained, without a tremor in his voice. "I thought you were making a mistake. I heard you ask for shelter. If you will come with me I will take you to a friend's."
"If it isn't too much trouble for you, I will go," she said. "And for that—in there—thank you!"
They passed down an aisle through the tall trees, on each side of which faced the vari-coloured and many-shaped architecture of the little town. It was chiefly of canvas. Now and then a structure of logs added an appearance of solidity to the whole. The girl did not look too closely. She knew that they passed places in which there were long rows of cots, and that others were devoted to trade. She noticed signs which advertised soft drinks and cigars—always "soft drinks," which sometimes came into camp marked as "dynamite," "salt pork," and "flour." She was conscious that every one stared at them as they passed. She heard clearly the expressions of wonder and curiosity of two women and a girl who were spreading out blankets in front of a rooming-tent. She looked at the man at her side. She appreciated his courtesy in not attempting to force an acquaintanceship. In her eyes was a ripple of amusement.
"This is all strange and new to me—and not at all uninteresting," she said. "I came expecting—everything. And I am finding it. Why do they stare at me so? Am I a curiosity?"
"You are," he answered bluntly. "You are the most beautiful woman they have ever seen."
His eyes encountered hers as he spoke. He had answered her question fairly. There was nothing that was audacious in his manner or his look. She had asked for information, and he had given it. In spite of herself the girl's lips trembled. Her colour deepened. She smiled.
"Pardon me," she entreated. "I seldom feel like laughing, but I almost do now. I have encountered so many curious people and have heard so many curious things during the past twenty-four hours. You don't believe in concealing your thoughts out here in the wilderness, do you?"
"I haven't expressed my thoughts," he corrected. "I was telling you what they think."
"Oh-h-h—I beg your pardon again!"
"Not at all," he answered lightly, and now his eyes were laughing frankly into her own. "I don't mind informing you," he went on, "that I am the biggest curiosity you will meet between this side of the mountains and the sea. I am not accustomed to championing women. I allow them to pursue their own course without personal interference on my part. But—I suppose it will give you some satisfaction if I confess it—I followed you into Bill's place because you were more than ordinarily beautiful, and because I wanted to see fair play. I knew you were making a mistake. I knew what would happen."
They had passed the end of the street, and entered a little green plain that was soft as velvet underfoot. On the farther side of this, sheltered among the trees, were two or three tents. The man led the way toward these.
"Now, I suppose I've spoiled it all," he went on, a touch of irony in his voice. "It was really quite heroic of me to follow you into Bill's place, don't you think? You probably want to tell me so, but don't quite dare. And I should play up to my part, shouldn't I? But I cannot—not satisfactorily. I'm really a bit disgusted with myself for having taken as much interest in you as I have. I write books for a living. My name is John Aldous."
With a little cry of amazement, his companion stopped. Without knowing it, her hand had gripped his arm.
"You are John Aldous—who wrote 'Fair Play,' and 'Women!'" she gasped.
"Yes," he said, amusement in his face.
"I have read those books—and I have read your plays," she breathed, a mysterious tremble in her voice. "You despise women!"
She drew a deep breath. Her hand dropped from his arm.
"This is very, very funny," she mused, gazing off to the sun-capped peaks of the mountains. "You have flayed women alive. You have made them want to mob you. And yet——"
"Millions of them read my books," he chuckled.
"Yes—all of them read your books," she replied, looking straight into his face. "And I guess—in many ways—you have pointed out things that are true."
It was his turn to show surprise.
"You believe that?"
"I do. More than that—I have always thought that I knew your secret—the big, hidden thing under your work, the thing which you do not reveal because you know the world would laugh at you. And so—you despise me!"
"I am a woman."
He laughed. The tan in his cheeks burned a deeper red.
"We are wasting time," he warned her. "In Bill's place I heard you say you were going to leave on the Tete Jaune train. I am going to take you to a real dinner. And now—I should let those good people know your name."
A moment—unflinching and steady—she looked into his face.
"It is Joanne, the name you have made famous as the dreadfulest woman in fiction. Joanne Gray."
"I am sorry," he said, and bowed low. "Come. If I am not mistaken I smell new-baked bread."
As they moved on he suddenly touched her arm. She felt for a moment the firm clasp of his fingers. There was a new light in his eyes, a glow of enthusiasm.
"I have it!" he cried. "You have brought it to me—the idea. I have been wanting a name for her—the woman in my new book. She is to be a tremendous surprise. I haven't found a name, until now—one that fits. I shall call her Ladygray!"
He felt the girl flinch. He was surprised at the sudden startled look that shot into her eyes, the swift ebbing of the colour from her cheeks. He drew away his hand at the strange change in her. He noticed how quickly she was breathing—that the fingers of her white hands were clasped tensely.
"You object," he said.
"Not enough to keep you from using it," she replied in a low voice. "I owe you a great deal." He noted, too, how quickly she had recovered herself. Her head was a little higher. She looked toward the tents. "You were not mistaken," she added. "I smell new-made bread!"
"And I shall emphasize the first half of it—Ladygray," said John Aldous, as if speaking to himself. "That diminutizes it, you might say—gives it the touch of sentiment I want. You can imagine a lover saying 'Dear little Ladygray, are you warm and comfy?' He wouldn't say Ladygray as if she wore a coronet, would he?"
"Smell-o'-bread—fresh bread!" sniffed Joanne Gray, as if she had not heard him. "It's making me hungry. Will you please hurry me to it, John Aldous?"
They were approaching the first of the three tent-houses, over which was a crudely painted sign which read "Otto Brothers, Guides and Outfitters." It was a large, square tent, with weather-faded red and blue stripes, and from it came the cheerful sound of a woman's laughter. Half a dozen trampish-looking Airedale terriers roused themselves languidly as they drew nearer. One of them stood up and snarled.
"They won't hurt you," assured Aldous. "They belong to Jack Bruce and Clossen Otto—the finest bunch of grizzly dogs in the Rockies." Another moment, and a woman had appeared in the door. "And that is Mrs. Jack Otto," he added under his breath. "If all women were like her I wouldn't have written the things you have read!"
He might have added that she was Scotch. But this was not necessary. The laughter was still in her good-humoured face. Aldous looked at his companion, and he found her smiling back. The eyes of the two women had already met.
Briefly Aldous explained what had happened at Quade's, and that the young woman was leaving on the Tete Jaune train. The good-humoured smile left Mrs. Otto's face when he mentioned Quade.
"I've told Jack I'd like to poison that man some day," she cried. "You poor dear, come in, I'll get you a cup of tea."
"Which always means dinner in the Otto camp," added Aldous.
"I'm not so hungry, but I'm tired—so tired," he heard the girl say as she went in with Mrs. Otto, and there was a new and strangely pathetic note in her voice. "I want to rest—until the train goes."
He followed them in, and stood for a moment near the door.
"There's a room in there, my dear," said the woman, drawing back a curtain. "Make yourself at home, and lie down on the bed until I have the tea ready."
When the curtain had closed behind her, John Aldous spoke in a low voice to the woman.
"Will you see her safely to the train, Mrs. Otto?" he asked. "It leaves at a quarter after two. I must be going."
He felt that he had sufficiently performed his duty. He left the tent, and paused for a moment outside to touzle affectionately the trampish heads of the bear dogs. Then he turned away, whistling. He had gone a dozen steps when a low voice stopped him. He turned. Joanne had come from the door.
For one moment he stared as if something more wonderful than anything he had ever seen had risen before him. The girl was bareheaded, and she stood in a sun mellowed by a film of cloud. Her head was piled with lustrous coils of gold-brown hair that her hat and veil had hidden. Never had he looked upon such wonderful hair, crushed and crumpled back from her smooth forehead; nor such marvellous whiteness of skin and pure blue depths of eyes! In her he saw now everything that was strong and splendid in woman. She was not girlishly sweet. She was not a girl. She was a woman—glorious to look at, a soul glowing out of her eyes, a strength that thrilled him in the quiet and beautiful mystery of her face.
"You were going without saying good-bye," she said. "Won't you let me thank you—a last time?"
Her voice brought him to himself again. A moment he bent over her hand. A moment he felt its warm, firm pressure in his own. The smile that flashed to his lips was hidden from her as he bowed his blond-gray head.
"Pardon me for the omission," he apologized. "Good-bye—and may good luck go with you!"
Their eyes met once more. With another bow he had turned, and was continuing his way. At the door Joanne Gray looked back. He was whistling again. His careless, easy stride was filled with a freedom that seemed to come to her in the breath of the mountains. And then she, too, smiled strangely as she reentered the tent.
If John Aldous had betrayed no visible sign of inward vanquishment he at least was feeling its effect. For years his writings had made him the target for a world of women, and many men. The men he had regarded with indifferent toleration. The women were his life—the "frail and ineffective creatures" who gave spice to his great adventure, and made his days anything but monotonous. He was not unchivalrous. Deep down in his heart—and this was his own secret—he did not even despise women. But he had seen their weaknesses and their frailties as perhaps no other man had ever seen them, and he had written of them as no other man had ever written. This had brought him the condemnation of the host, the admiration of the few. His own personal veneer of antagonism against woman was purely artificial, and yet only a few had guessed it. He had built it up about him as a sort of protection. He called himself "an adventurer in the mysteries of feminism," and to be this successfully he had argued that he must destroy in himself the usual heart-emotions of the sex-man and the animal.
How far he had succeeded in this he himself did not know—until these last moments when he had bid good-bye to Joanne Gray. He confessed that she had found a cleft in his armour, and there was an uneasy thrill in his blood. It was not her beauty alone that had affected him. He had trained himself to look at a beautiful woman as he might have looked at a beautiful flower, confident that if he went beyond the mere admiration of it he would find only burned-out ashes. But in her he had seen something that was more than beauty, something that for a flashing moment had set stirring every molecule in his being. He had felt the desire to rest his hand upon her shining hair!
He turned off into a winding path that led into the thick poplars, restraining an inclination to look back in the direction of the Otto camp. He pulled out the pipe he had dropped into his shirt pocket, filled it with fresh tobacco, and began smoking. As he smoked, his lips wore a quizzical smile, for he was honest enough to give Joanne Gray credit for her triumph. She had awakened a new kind of interest in him—only a passing interest, to be sure—but a new kind for all that. The fact amused him. In a large way he was a humourist—few guessing it, and he fully appreciated the humour of the present situation—that he, John Aldous, touted the world over as a woman-hater, wanted to peer out through the poplar foliage and see that wonderful gold-brown head shining in the sun once more!
He wandered more slowly on his way, wondering with fresh interest what his friends, the women, would say when they read his new book. His title for it was "Mothers." It was to be a tremendous surprise.
Suddenly his face became serious. He faced the sound of a distant phonograph. It was not the phonograph in Quade's place, but that of a rival dealer in soft drinks at the end of the "street." For a moment Aldous hesitated. Then he turned in the direction of the camp.
Quade was bolstered up on a stool, his back against the thin partition, when John Aldous sauntered in. There was still a groggy look in his mottled face. His thick bulk hung a bit limply. In his heavy-lidded eyes, under-hung by watery pouches of sin and dissipation, there was a vengeful and beastlike glare. He was surrounded by his friends. One of them was taking a wet cloth from his head. There were a dozen in the canvas-walled room, all with their backs to the door, their eyes upon their fallen and dishonoured chief. For a moment John Aldous paused in the door. The cool and insolent smile hovered about his lips again, and little crinkles had gathered at the corners of his eyes.
"Did I hit you pretty hard, Bill?" he asked.
Every head was turned toward him. Bill Quade stared, his mouth open. He staggered to his feet, and stood dizzily.
"You—damn you!" he cried huskily.
Three or four of the men had already begun to move toward the stranger. Their hands were knotted, their faces murderously dark.
"Wait a minute, boys," warned Aldous coolly. "I've got something to say to you—and Bill. Then eat me alive if you want to. Do you want to be square enough to give me a word?"
Quade had settled back sickly on his stool. The others had stopped, waiting. The quiet and insolently confident smile had not left Aldous' lips.
"You'll feel better in a few minutes, Bill," he consoled. "A hard blow on the jaw always makes you sick at the pit of the stomach. That dizziness will pass away shortly. Meanwhile, I'm going to give you and your pals a little verbal and visual demonstration of what you're up against, and warn you to bait no traps for a certain young woman whom you've lately seen. She's going on to Tete Jaune. And I know how your partner plays his game up there. I'm not particularly anxious to butt into your affairs and the business of this pretty bunch that's gathered about you, but I've come to give you a friendly warning for all that. If this young woman is embarrassed up at Tete Jaune you're going to settle with me."
Aldous had spoken without a tremor of excitement in his voice. Not one of the men noticed his speaking lips, his slim hands, or his careless posture as he leaned in the door. They were looking straight into his eyes, strangely scintillating and deadly earnest. In such a man mere bulk did not count.
"That much—for words," he went on. "Now I'm going to give you the visual demonstration. I know your game, Bill. You're already planning what you're going to do. You won't fight fair—because you never have. You've already decided that some morning I'll turn up missing, or be dug out from under a fall of rock, or go peacefully floating down the Athabasca. See! There's nothing in that hand, is there?"
He stretched out an empty hand toward them, palm up.
A twist of the wrist so swift their eyes could not follow, a metallic click, and the startled group were staring into the black muzzle of a menacing little automatic.
"That's known as the sleeve trick, boys," explained Aldous with his imperturbable smile. "It's a relic of the old gun-fighting days when the best man was quickest. From now on, especially at night, I shall carry this little friend of mine just inside my wristband. There are eleven shots in it, and I shoot fairly straight. Good-day!"
Before they had recovered from their astonishment he was gone.
He did not follow the road along which Joanne had come a short time before, but turned again into the winding trail that led riverward through the poplars. Where before he had been a little amused at himself, he was now more seriously disgusted. He was not afraid of Quade, who was perhaps the most dangerous man along the line of rail. Neither was he afraid of the lawless men who worked his ends. But he knew that he had made powerful enemies, and all because of an unknown woman whom he had never seen until half an hour before. It was this that disturbed his equanimity—the woman of it, and the knowledge that his interference had been unsolicited and probably unnecessary. And now that he had gone this far he found it not easy to recover his balance. Who was this Joanne Gray? he asked himself. She was not ordinary—like the hundred other women who had gone on ahead of her to Tete Jaune Cache. If she had been that, he would soon have been in his little shack on the shore of the river, hard at work. He had planned work for himself that afternoon, and he was nettled to discover that his enthusiasm for the grand finale of a certain situation in his novel was gone. Yet for this he did not blame her. He was the fool. Quade and his friends would make him feel that sooner or later.
His trail led him to a partly dry muskeg bottom. Beyond this was a thicker growth of timber, mostly spruce and cedar, from behind which came the rushing sound of water. A few moments more and he stood with the wide tumult of the Athabasca at his feet. He had chosen this spot for his little cabin because the river ran wild here among the rocks, and because pack-outfits going into the southward mountains could not disturb him by fording at this point. Across the river rose the steep embankments that shut in Buffalo Prairie, and still beyond that the mountains, thick with timber rising billow on billow until trees looked like twigs, with gray rock and glistening snow shouldering the clouds above the last purple line. The cabin in which he had lived and worked for many weeks faced the river and the distant Saw Tooth Range, and was partly hidden in a clump of jack-pines. He opened the door and entered. Through the window to the south and west he could see the white face of Mount Geikie, and forty miles away in that wilderness of peaks, the sombre frown of Hardesty; through it the sun came now, flooding his work as he had left it. The last page of manuscript on which he had been working was in his typewriter. He sat down to begin where he had left off in that pivotal situation in his masterpiece.
He read and re-read the last two or three pages of the manuscript, struggling to pick up the threads where he had dropped them. With each reading he became more convinced that his work for that afternoon was spoiled. And by whom? By what? A little fiercely he packed his pipe with fresh tobacco. Then he leaned back, lighted it, and laughed. More and more as the minutes passed he permitted himself to think of the strange young woman whose beauty and personality had literally projected themselves into his workshop. He marvelled at the crudity of the questions which he asked himself, and yet he persisted in asking them. Who was she? What could be her mission at Tete Jaune Cache? She had repeated to him what she had said to the girl in the coach—that at Tete Jaune she had no friends. Beyond that, and her name, she had offered no enlightenment.
In the brief space that he had been with her he had mentally tabulated her age as twenty-eight—no older. Her beauty alone, the purity of her eyes, the freshness of her lips, and the slender girlishness of her figure, might have made him say twenty, but with those things he had found the maturer poise of the woman. It had been a flashlight picture, but one that he was sure of.
Several times during the next hour he turned to his work, and at last gave up his efforts entirely. From a peg in the wall he took down a little rifle. He had found it convenient to do much of his own cooking, and he had broken a few laws. The partridges were out of season, but temptingly fat and tender. With a brace of young broilers in mind for supper, he left the cabin and followed the narrow foot-trail up the river. He hunted for half an hour before he stirred a covey of birds. Two of these he shot. Concealing his meat and his gun near the trail he continued toward the ford half a mile farther up, wondering if Stevens, who was due to cross that day, had got his outfit over. Not until then did he look at his watch. He was surprised to find that the Tete Jaune train had been gone three quarters of an hour. For some unaccountable reason he felt easier. He went on, whistling.
At the ford he found Stevens standing close to the river's edge, twisting one of his long red moustaches in doubt and vexation.
"Damn this river," he growled, as Aldous came up. "You never can tell what it's going to do overnight. Look there! Would you try to cross?"
"I wouldn't," replied Aldous. "It's a foot higher than yesterday. I wouldn't take the chance."
"Not with two guides, a cook, and a horse-wrangler on your pay-roll—and a hospital bill as big as Geikie staring you in the face?" argued Stevens, who had been sick for three months. "I guess you'd pretty near take a chance. I've a notion to."
"I wouldn't," repeated Aldous.
"But I've lost two days already, and I'm taking that bunch of sightseers out for a lump sum, guaranteeing 'em so many days on the trail. This ain't what you might call on the trail. They don't expect to pay for this delay, and that outfit back in the bush is costing me thirty dollars a day. We can get the dunnage and ourselves over in the flat-boat. It'll make our arms crack—but we can do it. I've got twenty-seven horses. I've a notion to chase 'em in. The river won't be any lower to-morrow."
"But you may be a few horses ahead."
Stevens bit off a chunk of tobacco and sat down. For a few moments he looked at the muddy flood with an ugly eye. Then he chuckled, and grinned.
"Came through the camp half an hour ago," he said. "Hear you cleaned up on Bill Quade."
"A bit," said Aldous.
Stevens rolled his quid and spat into the water slushing at his feet.
"Guess I saw the woman when she got off the train," he went on. "She dropped something. I picked it up, but she was so darned pretty as she stood there looking about I didn't dare go up an' give it to her. If it had been worth anything I'd screwed up my courage. But it wasn't—so I just gawped like the others. It was a piece of paper. Mebby you'd like it as a souvenir, seein' as you laid out Quade for her."
As he spoke, Stevens fished a crumpled bit of paper from his pocket and gave it to his companion. Aldous had sat down beside him. He smoothed the page out on his knee. There was no writing on it, but it was crowded thick with figures, as if the maker of the numerals had been doing some problem in mathematics. The chief thing that interested him was that wherever monetary symbols were used it was the "pound" and not the "dollar" sign. The totals of certain columns were rather startling.
"Guess she's a millionaire if that's her own money she's been figgering," said Stevens. "Notice that figger there!" He pointed with a stubby forefinger. "Pretty near a billion, ain't it?"
"Seven hundred and fifty thousand," said Aldous.
He was thinking of the "pound" sign. She had not looked like the Englishwomen he had met. He folded the slip of paper and put it in his pocket.
Stevens eyed him seriously.
"I was coming over to give you a bit of advice before I left for the Maligne Lake country," he said. "You'd better move. Quade won't want you around after this. Besides——"
"My kid heard something," continued the packer, edging nearer. "You was mighty good to the kid when I was down an' out, Aldous. I ought to tell you. It wasn't an hour ago the kid was behind the tent an' he heard Quade and Slim Barker talking. So far as I can find from the kid, Quade has gone nutty over her. He's ravin'. He told Slim that he'd give ten thousand dollars to get her in his hands. What sent the boy down to me was Quade tellin' Slim that he'd get you first. He told Slim to go on to Tete Jaune—follow the girl!"
"The deuce you say!" cried Aldous, clutching the other's arm suddenly. "He's done that?"
"That's what the kid says."
Aldous rose to his feet slowly. The careless smile was playing about his mouth again. A few men had learned that in those moments John Aldous was dangerous.
"The kid is undoubtedly right," he said, looking down at Stevens. "But I am quite sure the young woman is capable of taking care of herself. Quade has a tremendous amount of nerve, setting Slim to follow her, hasn't he? Slim may run up against a husband or a brother."
Stevens haunched his shoulders.
"It's not the woman I'm thinking about. It's you. I'd sure change my location."
"Why wouldn't it be just as well if I told the police of his threat?" asked Aldous, looking across the river with a glimmer of humour in his eyes.
"Oh, hell!" was the packer's rejoinder.
Slowly he unwound his long legs and rose to his feet.
"Take my advice—move!" he said. "As for me, I'm going to cross that cussed river this afternoon or know the reason why."
He stalked away in the direction of his outfit, chewing viciously at his quid. For a few moments Aldous stood undecided. He would liked to have joined the half-dozen men he saw lounging restfully a distance beyond the grazing ponies. But Stevens had made him acutely aware of a new danger. He was thinking of his cabin—and the priceless achievement of his last months of work, his manuscript. If Quade should destroy that——
He clenched his hands and walked swiftly toward his camp. To "burn out" an enemy was one of Quade's favourite methods of retaliation. He had heard this. He also knew that Quade's work was done so cleverly that the police had been unable to call him to account.
Quade's status had interested Aldous from the beginning. He had discovered that Quade and Culver Rann, his partner at Tete Jaune, were forces to be reckoned with even by the "powers" along the line of rail. They were the two chiefs of the "underground," the men who controlled the most dangerous element from Miette to Fort George. He had once seen Culver Rann, a quiet, keen-eyed, immaculately groomed man of forty—the cleverest scoundrel that had ever drifted into the Canadian west. He had been told that Rann was really the brain of the combination, and that the two had picked up a quarter of a million in various ways. But it was Quade with whom he had to deal now, and he began to thank Stevens for his warning. He was filled with a sense of relief when he reached his cabin and found it as he had left it. He always made a carbon copy of his work. This copy he now put into a waterproof tin box, and the box he concealed under a log a short distance back in the bush.
"Now go ahead, Quade," he laughed to himself, a curious, almost exultant ring in his voice. "I haven't had any real excitement for so long I can't remember, and if you start the fun there's going to be fun!"
He returned to his birds, perched himself behind a bush at the river's edge, and began skinning them. He had almost finished when he heard hoarse shouts from up the river. From his position he could see the stream a hundred yards below the ford. Stevens had driven in his horses. He could see them breasting the first sweep of the current, their heads held high, struggling for the opposite shore. He rose, dropped his birds, and stared.
"Good God, what a fool!" he gasped.
He saw the tragedy almost before it had begun. Still three hundred yards below the swimming horses was the gravelly bar which they must reach on the opposite side. He noted the grayish strip of smooth water that marked the end of the dead-line. Three or four of the stronger animals were forging steadily toward this. The others grouped close together, almost motionless in their last tremendous fight, were left farther and farther behind. Then came the break. A mare and her yearling colt had gone in with the bunch. Aldous saw the colt, with its small head and shoulders high out of the water, sweep down like a chip with the current. A cold chill ran through him as he heard the whinneying scream of the mother—a warning cry that held for him the pathos and the despair of a creature that was human. He knew what it meant. "Wait—I'm coming—I'm coming!" was in that cry. He saw the mare give up and follow resistlessly with the deadly current, her eyes upon her colt. The heads behind her wavered, then turned, and in another moment the herd was sweeping down to its destruction.
Aldous felt like turning his head. But the spectacle fascinated him, and he looked. He did not think of Stevens and his loss as the first of the herd plunged in among the rocks. He stood with white face and clenched hands, leaning over the water boiling at his feet, cursing softly in his helplessness. To him came the last terrible cries of the perishing animals. He saw head after head go under. Out of the white spume of a great rock against which the flood split itself with the force of an avalanche he saw one horse pitched bodily, as if thrown from a huge catapault. The last animal had disappeared when chance turned his eyes upstream and close in to shore. Here flowed a steady current free of rock, and down this—head and shoulders still high out of the water—came the colt! What miracle had saved the little fellow thus far Aldous did not stop to ask. Fifty yards below it would meet the fate of the others. Half that distance in the direction of the maelstrom below was the dead trunk of a fallen spruce overhanging the water for fifteen or twenty feet. In a flash Aldous was racing toward it. He climbed out on it, leaned far over, and reached down. His hand touched the water. In the grim excitement of rescue he forgot his own peril. There was one chance in twenty that the colt would come within his reach, and it did. He made a single lunge and caught it by the ear. For a moment after that his heart turned sick. Under the added strain the dead spruce sagged down with a warning crack. But it held, and Aldous hung to his grip on the ear. Foot by foot he wormed his way back, until at last he had dragged the little animal ashore.
And then a voice spoke behind him, a voice that he would have recognized among ten thousand, low, sweet, thrilling.
"That was splendid, John Aldous!" it said. "If I were a man I would want to be a man like you!"
He turned. A few steps from him stood Joanne Gray. Her face was as white as the bit of lace at her throat. Her lips were colourless, and her bosom rose and fell swiftly. He knew that she, too, had witnessed the tragedy. And the eyes that looked at him were glorious.
To John Aldous Joanne's appearance at this moment was like an anti-climax. It plunged him headlong for a single moment into what he believed to be the absurdity of a situation. He had a quick mental picture of himself out on the dead spruce, performing a bit of mock-heroism by dragging in a half-drowned colt by one ear. In another instant this had passed, and he was wondering why Joanne Gray was not on her way to Tete Jaune.
"It was splendid!" she was saying again, her eyes glowing at him. "I know men who would not have risked that for a human!"
"Perhaps they would have been showing good judgment," replied Aldous.
He noticed now that she was holding with one hand the end of a long slender sapling which a week or two before he had cut and trimmed for a fish-pole. He nodded toward it, a half-cynical smile on his lips.
"Were you going to fish me out—or the colt?" he asked.
"You," she replied. "I thought you were in danger." And then she added, "I suppose you are deeply grateful that fate did not compel you to be saved by a woman."
"Not at all. If the spruce had snapped, I would have caught at the end of your sapling like any drowning rat—or man. Allow me to thank you."
She had stepped down to the level strip of sand on which the colt was weakly struggling to rise to its feet. She was breathing quickly. Her face was still pale. She was without a hat, and as she bent for a moment over the colt Aldous felt his eyes drawn irresistibly to the soft thick coils of her hair, a glory of colour that made him think of the lustrous brown of a ripe wintelberry. She looked up suddenly and caught his eyes upon her.
"I came quite by accident," she explained quickly. "I wanted to be alone, and Mrs. Otto said this path would lead to the river. When I saw you I was about to turn back. And then I saw the other—the horses coming down the stream. It was terrible. Are they all drowned?"
"All that you saw. It wasn't a pretty sight, was it?" There was a suggestive inquiry in his voice as he added, "If you had gone to Tete Jaune you would have missed the unpleasantness of the spectacle."
"I would have gone, but something happened. They say it was a cave-in, a slide—something like that. The train cannot go on until to-morrow."
"And you are to stay with the Ottos?"
Quick as a flash she had seemed to read his thoughts.
"I am sorry," she added, before he could speak. "I can see that I have annoyed you. I have literally projected myself into your work, and I am afraid that I have caused you trouble. Mrs. Otto has told me of this man they call Quade. She says he is dangerous. And I have made him your enemy."
"I am, not afraid of Quade. The incident was nothing more than an agreeable interruption to what was becoming a rather monotonous existence up here. I have always believed, you know, that a certain amount of physical excitement is good oil for our mental machinery. That, perhaps, was why you caught me hauling at His Coltship's ear."
He had spoken stiffly. There was a hard note in his voice, a suggestion of something that was displeasing in his forced laugh. He knew that in these moments he was fighting against his inner self—against his desire to tell her how glad he was that something had held back the Tete Jaune train, and how wonderful her hair looked in the afternoon sun. He was struggling to keep himself behind the barriers he had built up and so long maintained in his writings. And yet, as he looked, he felt something crumbling into ruins. He knew that he had hurt her. The hardness of his words, the coldness of his smile, his apparently utter indifference to her had sent something that was almost like a quick, physical pain into her eyes. He drew a step nearer, so that he caught the soft contour of her cheek. Joanne Gray heard him, and lowered her head slightly, so that he could not see. She was a moment too late. On her cheek Aldous saw a single creeping drop—a tear.
In an instant he was at her side. With a quick movement she brushed the tear away before she faced him.
"I've hurt you," he said, looking her straight in the eyes. "I've hurt you, and God knows I'm a brute for doing it. I've treated you as badly as Quade—only in a different way. I know how I've made you feel—that you've been a nuisance, and have got me into trouble, and that I don't want to have anything more to do with you. Have I made you feel that?"
"I am afraid—you have."
He reached out a hand, and almost involuntarily her own came to it. She saw the change in his face, regret, pain, and then that slow-coming, wonderful laughter in his eyes.
"That's just how I set out to make you feel," he confessed, the warmth of her hand sending a thrill through him. "I might as well be frank, don't you think? Until you came I had but one desire, and that was to finish my book. I had planned great work for to-day. And you spoiled it. I couldn't get you out of my mind. And it made me—ugly."
"And that was—all?" she whispered, a tense waiting in her eyes. "You didn't think——"
"What Quade thought," he bit in sharply. The grip of his fingers hurt her hand. "No, not that. My God, I didn't make you think that?"
"I'm a stranger—and they say women don't go to Tete Jaune alone," she answered doubtfully.
"That's true, they don't—not as a general rule. Especially women like you. You're alone, a stranger, and too beautiful. I don't say that to flatter you. You are beautiful, and you undoubtedly know it. To let you go on alone and unprotected among three or four thousand men like most of those up there would be a crime. And the women, too—the Little Sisters. They'd blast you. If you had a husband, a brother or a father waiting for you it would be different. But you've told me you haven't. You have made me change my mind about my book. You are of more interest to me just now than that. Will you believe me? Will you let me be a friend, if you need a friend?"
To Aldous it seemed that she drew herself up a little proudly. For a moment she seemed taller. A rose-flush of colour spread over her cheeks. She drew her hand from him. And yet, as she looked at him, he could see that she was glad.
"Yes, I believe you," she said. "But I must not accept your offer of friendship. You have done more for me now than I can ever repay. Friendship means service, and to serve me would spoil your plans, for you are in great haste to complete your book."
"If you mean that you need my assistance, the book can wait."
"I shouldn't have said that," she cut in quickly, her lips tightening slightly. "It was utterly absurd of me to hint that I might require assistance—that I cannot take care of myself. But I shall be proud of the friendship of John Aldous."
"Yes, you can take care of yourself, Ladygray," said Aldous softly, looking into her eyes and yet speaking as if to himself. "That is why you have broken so curiously into my life. It's that—and not your beauty. I have known beautiful women before. But they were—just women, frail things that might snap under stress. I have always thought there is only one woman in ten thousand who would not do that—under certain conditions. I believe you are that one in ten thousand. You can go on to Tete Jaune alone. You can go anywhere alone—and care for yourself."
He was looking at her so strangely that she held her breath, her lips parted, the flush in her cheeks deepening.
"And the strangest part of it all is that I have always known you away back in my imagination," he went on. "You have lived there, and have troubled me. I could not construct you perfectly. It is almost inconceivable that you should have borne the same name—Joanne. Joanne, of 'Fair Play.'"
She gave a little gasp.
"Joanne was—terrible," she cried. "She was bad—bad to the heart and soul of her!"
"She was splendid," replied Aldous, without a change in his quiet voice. "She was splendid—but bad. I racked myself to find a soul for her, and I failed. And yet she was splendid. It was my crime—not hers—that she lacked a soul. She would have been my ideal, but I spoiled her. And by spoiling her I sold half a million copies of the book. I did not do it purposely. I would have given her a soul if I could have found one. She went her way."
"And you compare me to—her?"
"Yes," said Aldous deliberately. "You are that Joanne. But you possess what I could not give to her. Joanne of 'Fair Play' was splendid without a soul. You have what she lacked. You may not understand, but you have come to perfect what I only partly created."
The colour had slowly ebbed from Joanne's face. There was a mysterious darkness in her eyes.
"If you were not John Aldous I would—strike you," she said. "As it is—yes—I want you as a friend."
She held out her hand. For a moment he felt its warmth again in his own. He bowed over it. Her eyes rested steadily on his blond head, and again she noted the sprinkle of premature gray in his hair. For a second time she felt almost overwhelmingly the mysterious strength of this man. Perhaps each took three breaths before John Aldous raised his head. In that time something wonderful and complete passed between them. Neither could have told the other what it was. When their eyes met again, it was in their faces.
"I have planned to have supper in my cabin to-night," said Aldous, breaking the tension of that first moment. "Won't you be my guest, Ladygray?"
"Mrs. Otto——" she began.
"I will go to her at once and explain that you are going to eat partridges with me," he interrupted. "Come—let me show you into my workshop and home."
He led her to the cabin and into its one big room.
"You will make yourself at home while I am gone, won't you?" he invited. "If it will give you any pleasure you may peel a few potatoes. I won't be gone ten minutes."
Not waiting for any protest she might have, Aldous slipped back through the door and took the path up to the Ottos'.
As soon as he had passed from the view of the cabin door Aldous shortened his pace. He knew that never in his life had he needed to readjust himself more than at the present moment. A quarter of an hour had seen a complete and miraculous revolution within him. It was a change so unusual and apparently so impossible that he could not grasp the situation and the fact all at once. But the truth of it swept over him more and more swiftly as he made his way along the dark, narrow trail that led up to the Miette Plain. It was something that not only amazed and thrilled him. First—as in all things—he saw the humour of it. He, John Aldous of all men, had utterly obliterated himself, and for a woman. He had even gone so far as to offer the sacrifice of his most important work. Frankly he had told Joanne that she interested him more just now than his book. Again he repeated to himself that it had not been a surrender—but an obliteration. With a pair of lovely eyes looking quietly into him, he had wiped the slate clean of the things he had preached for ten years and the laws he had made for himself. And as he came in sight of the big Otto tent, he found himself smiling, his breath coming quickly, strange voices singing within him.
He stopped to load and light his pipe before he faced Mrs. Otto, and he clouded himself in as much smoke as possible while he explained to her that he had almost forced Joanne to stop at his cabin and eat partridges with him. He learned that the Tete Jaune train could not go on until the next day, and after Mrs. Otto had made him take a loaf of fresh bread and a can of home-made marmalade as a contribution to their feast, he turned back toward the cabin, trying to whistle in his old careless way.
The questions he had first asked himself about Joanne forced themselves back upon him now with deeper import. Almost unconsciously he had revealed himself to her. He had spread open for her eyes and understanding the page which he had so long hidden. He had as much as confessed to her that she had come to change him—to complete what he had only half created. It had been an almost inconceivable and daring confession, and he believed that she understood him. More than that, she had read about him. She had read his books. She knew John Aldous—the man.
But what did he know about her beyond the fact that her name was Joanne Gray, and that the on-sweeping Horde had brought her into his life as mysteriously as a storm might have flung him a bit of down from a swan's breast? Where had she come from? And why was she going to Tete Jaune? It must be some important motive was taking her to a place like Tete Jaune, the rail-end, a place of several thousand men, with its crude muscle and brawn and the seven passions of man. It was an impossible place for a young and beautiful woman unprotected. If Joanne had known any one among the engineers or contractors, or had she possessed a letter of introduction to them, the tense lines would not have gathered so deeply about the corners of Aldous' mouth. But these men whose brains were behind the Horde—the engineers and the contractors—knew what women alone and unprotected meant at Tete Jaune. Such women floated in with the Horde. And Joanne was going in with the Horde. There lay the peril—and the mystery of it.
So engrossed was Aldous in his thoughts that he had come very quietly to the cabin door. It was Joanne's voice that roused him. Sweet and low she was singing a few lines from a song which he had never heard.
She stopped when Aldous appeared at the door. It seemed to him that her eyes were a deeper, more wonderful blue as she looked up at him, and smiled. She had found a towel for an apron, and was peeling potatoes.
"You will have some unusual excuses to make very soon," she greeted him. "We had a visitor while you were gone. I was washing the potatoes when I looked up to find a pair of the fiercest, reddest moustaches I have ever seen, ornamenting the doorway. The man had two eyes that seemed about to fall out when he saw me. He popped away like a rabbit—and—and—there's something he left behind in his haste!"
Joanne's eyes were flooded with laughter as she nodded at the door. On the sill was a huge quid of tobacco.
"Stevens!" Aldous chuckled. "God bless my soul, if you frightened him into giving up a quid of tobacco like that you sure did startle him some!" He kicked Stevens' lost property out with the toe of his boot and turned to Joanne, showing her the fresh bread and marmalade. "Mrs. Otto sent these to you," he said. "And the train won't leave until to-morrow."
In her silence he pulled a chair in front of her, sat down close, and thrust the point of his hunting knife into one of the two remaining potatoes.
"And when it does go I'm going with you," he added.
He expected this announcement would have some effect on her. As she jumped up with the pan of potatoes, leaving the one still speared on the end of his knife, he caught only the corner of a bewitching smile.
"You still believe that I will be unable to take care of myself up at this terrible Tete Jaune?" she asked, bending for a moment over the table. "Do you?"
"No. You can care for yourself anywhere, Ladygray," he repeated. "But I am quite sure that it will be less troublesome for me to see that no insults are offered you than for you to resent those insults when they come. Tete Jaune is full of Quades," he added.
The smile was gone from her face when she turned to him. Her blue eyes were filled with a tense anxiety.
"I had almost forgotten that man," she whispered. "And you mean that you would fight for me—again?"
"A thousand times."
The colour grew deeper in her cheeks. "I read something about you once that I have never forgotten, John Aldous," she said. "It was after you returned from Thibet. It said that you were largely made up of two emotions—your contempt for woman and your love of adventure; that it would be impossible for you not to see a flaw in one, and that for the other—physical excitement—you would go to the ends of the earth. Perhaps it is this—your desire for adventure—that makes you want to go with me to Tete Jaune?"
"I am beginning to believe that it will be the greatest adventure of my life," he replied, and something in his quiet voice held her silent. He rose to his feet, and stood before her. "It is already the Great Adventure," he went on. "I feel it. And I am the one to judge. Until to-day I would have staked my life that no power could have wrung from me the confession I am going to make to you voluntarily. I have laughed at the opinion the world has held of me. To me it has all been a colossal joke. I have enjoyed the hundreds of columns aimed at me by excited women through the press. They have all asked the same question: Why do you not write of the good things in women instead of always the bad? I have never given them an answer. But I answer you now—here. I have not picked upon the weaknesses of women because I despise them. Those weaknesses—the destroying frailties of womankind—I have driven over rough-shod through the pages of my books because I have always believed that Woman was the one thing which God came nearest to creating perfect. I believe they should be perfect. And because they have not quite that perfection which should be theirs I have driven the cold facts home as hard as I could. I have been a fool and an iconoclast instead of a builder. This confession to you is proof that you have brought me face to face with the greatest adventure of all."
The colour in her cheeks had centred in two bright spots. Her lips formed words which came slowly, strangely.
"I guess—I understand," she said. "Perhaps I, too, would have been that kind of an iconoclast—if I could have put the things I have thought into written words." She drew a deep breath, and went on, her eyes full upon him, speaking as if out of a dream. "The Great Adventure—for you. Yes; and perhaps for both."
Her hands were drawn tightly to her breast. Something about her as she stood there, her back to the table, drew John Aldous to her side, forced the question from his lips: "Tell me, Ladygray—why are you going to Tete Jaune?"
In that same strange way, as if her lips were framing words beyond their power to control, she answered:
"I am going—to find—my husband."
Silent, his head bowed a little, John Aldous stood before her after those last words. A slight noise outside gave him the pretext to turn to the door. She was going to Tete Jaune—to find her husband! He had not expected that. For a breath, as he looked out toward the bush, his mind was in a strange daze. A dozen times she had given him to understand there was no husband, father, or brother waiting for her at the rail-end. She had told him that she was alone—without friends. And now, like a confession, those words had come strangely from her lips.
What he had heard was one of Otto's pack-horses coming down to drink. He turned toward her again.
Joanne stood with her back still to the table. She had slipped a hand into the front of her dress and had drawn forth a long thick envelope. As she opened it, Aldous saw that it contained banknotes. From among these she picked out a bit of paper and offered it to him.
"That will explain—partly," she said.
It was a newspaper clipping, worn and faded, with a date two years old. It had apparently been cut from an English paper, and told briefly of the tragic death of Mortimer FitzHugh, son of a prominent Devonshire family, who had lost his life while on a hunting trip in the British Columbia Wilds.
"He was my husband," said Joanne, as Aldous finished. "Until six months ago I had no reason to believe that the statement in the paper was not true. Then—an acquaintance came out here hunting. He returned with a strange story. He declared that he had seen Mr. FitzHugh alive. Now you know why I am here. I had not meant to tell you. It places me in a light which I do not think that I can explain away—just now. I have come to prove or disprove his death. If he is alive——"
For the first time she betrayed the struggle she was making against some powerful emotion which she was fighting to repress. Her face had paled. She stopped herself with a quick breath, as if knowing that she had already gone too far.
"I guess I understand," said Aldous. "For some reason your anxiety is not that you will find him dead, Ladygray, but that you may find him alive."
"Yes—yes, that is it. But you must not urge me farther. It is a terrible thing to say. You will think I am not a woman, but a fiend. And I am your guest. You have invited me to supper. And—the potatoes are ready, and there is no fire!"
She had forced a smile back to her lips. John Aldous whirled toward the door.
"I will have the partridges in two seconds!" he cried. "I dropped them when the horses went through the rapids."
The oppressive and crushing effect of Joanne's first mention of a husband was gone. He made no effort to explain or analyze the two sudden changes that swept over him. He accepted them as facts, and that was all. Where a few moments before there had been the leaden grip of something that seemed to be physically choking him, there was now again the strange buoyancy with which he had gone to the Otto tent. He began to whistle as he went to the river's edge. He was whistling when he returned, the two birds in his hand. Joanne was waiting for him in the door. Again her face was a faintly tinted vision of tranquil loveliness; her eyes were again like the wonderful blue pools over the sunlit mountains. She smiled as he came up. He was amazed—not that she had recovered so completely from the emotional excitement that had racked her, but because she betrayed in no way a sign of grief—of suspense or of anxiety. A few minutes ago he had heard her singing. He could almost believe that her lips might break into song again as she stood there.
From that moment until the sun sank behind the mountains and gray shadows began to creep in where the light had been, there was no other reference to the things that had happened or the things that had been said since Joanne's arrival. For the first time in years John Aldous completely forgot his work. He was lost in Joanne. With the tremendous reaction that was working out in him she became more and more wonderful to him with each breath that he drew. He made no effort to control the change that was sweeping through him. His one effort was to keep it from being too apparent to her.
The way in which Joanne had taken his invitation was as delightful as it was new to him. She had become both guest and hostess. With her lovely arms bared halfway to the shoulders she rolled out a batch of biscuits. "Hot biscuits go so well with marmalade," she told him. He built a fire. Beyond that, and bringing in the water, she gave him to understand that his duties were at an end, and that he could smoke while she prepared the supper. With the beginning of dusk he closed the cabin door that he might have an excuse for lighting the big hanging lamp a little earlier. He had imagined how its warm glow would flood down upon the thick soft coils of her shining hair.
Every fibre in him throbbed with a keen and exquisite satisfaction as he sat down opposite her. During the meal he looked into the quiet, velvety blue of her eyes a hundred times. He found it a delightful sensation to talk to her and look into those eyes at the same time. He told her more about himself than he had ever told another soul. It was she who spoke first of the manuscript upon which he was working. He had spoken of certain adventures that had led up to the writing of one of his books.
"And this last book you are writing, which you call 'Mothers,'" she said. "Is it to be like 'Fair Play?'"
"It was to have been the last of the trilogy. But it won't be now, Ladygray. I've changed my mind."
"But it is so nearly finished, you say?"
"I would have completed it this week. I was rushing it to an end at fever heat when—you came."
He saw the troubled look in her eyes, and hastened to add:
"Let us not talk about that manuscript, Ladygray. Some day I will let you read it, and then you will understand why your coming has not hurt it. At first I was unreasonably disturbed because I thought that I must finish it within a week from to-day. I start out on a new adventure then—a strange adventure, into the North."
"That means—the wild country?" she asked. "Up there in the North—there are no people?"
"An occasional Indian, perhaps a prospector now and then," he said. "Last year I travelled a hundred and twenty-seven days without seeing a human face except that of my Cree companion."
She had leaned a little over the table, and was looking at him intently, her eyes shining.
"That is why I have understood you, and read between the printed lines in your books," she said. "If I had been a man, I would have been a great deal like you. I love those things—loneliness, emptiness, the great spaces where you hear only the whisperings of the winds and the fall of no other feet but your own. Oh, I should have been a man! It was born in me. It was a part of me. And I loved it—loved it."
A poignant grief had shot into her eyes. Her voice broke almost in a sob. Amazed, he looked at her in silence across the table.
"You have lived that life, Ladygray?" he said after a moment. "You have seen it?"
"Yes," she nodded, clasping and unclasping her slim white hands. "For years and years, perhaps even more than you, John Aldous! I was born in it. And it was my life for a long time—until my father died." She paused, and he saw her struggling to subdue the quivering throb in her throat. "We were inseparable," she went on, her voice becoming suddenly strange and quiet. "He was father, mother—everything to me. It was too wonderful. Together we hunted out the mysteries and the strange things in the out-of-the-way places of the earth. It was his passion. He had given birth to it in me. I was always with him, everywhere. And then he died, soon after his discovery of that wonderful buried city of Mindano, in the heart of Africa. Perhaps you have read——"
"Good God," breathed Aldous, so low that his voice did not rise above a whisper. "Joanne—Ladygray—you are not speaking of Daniel Gray—Sir Daniel Gray, the Egyptologist, the antiquarian who uncovered the secrets of an ancient and wonderful civilization in the heart of darkest Africa?"
"And you—are his daughter?"
She bowed her head.
Like one in a dream John Aldous rose from his chair and went to her. He seized her hands and drew her up so that they stood face to face. Again that strange and beautiful calmness filled her eyes.
"Our trails have strangely crossed, Lady Joanne," he said. "They have been crossing—for years. While Sir Daniel was at Murja, on the eve of his great discovery, I was at St. Louis on the Senegal coast. I slept in that little Cape Verde hotel, in the low whitewashed room overlooking the sea. The proprietor told me that Sir Daniel had occupied it before me, and I found a broken fountain pen in the drawer of that sickly black teakwood desk, with the carved serpent's head. And I was at Gampola at another time, headed for the interior of Ceylon, when I learned that I was travelling again one of Sir Daniel's trails. And you were with him!"
"Always," said Joanne.
For a few tense moments they had looked steadily into each other's eyes. Swiftly, strangely, the world was bridging itself for them. Their minds swept back swiftly as the fire in a thunder-sky. They were no longer strangers. They were no longer friends of a day. The grip of Aldous' hands tightened. A hundred things sprang to his lips. Before he could speak, he saw a sudden, startled change leap into Joanne's face. She had turned her face a little, so that she was looking toward the window. A frightened cry broke from her lips. Aldous whirled about. There was nothing there. He looked at Joanne again. She was white and trembling. Her hands were clutched at her breast. Her eyes, big and dark and staring, were still fixed on the window.
"That man!" she panted. "His face was there—against the glass—like a devil's!"
She caught at his arm as he sprang toward the door.
"Stop!" she cried. "You mustn't go out——"
For a moment he turned at the door. He was as she had seen him in Quade's place, terribly cool, a strange, quiet smile on his lips. His eyes were gray, smiling steel.
"Close the door after me and lock it until I return," he said. "You are the first woman guest I ever had, Ladygray. I cannot allow you to be insulted!"
As he went out she saw him slip something from his pocket. She caught the glitter of it in the lamp-glow.
It was in the blood of John Aldous to kill Quade. He ran with the quickness of a hare around the end of the cabin, past the window, and then stopped to listen, his automatic in his hand, his eye piercing the gloom for some moving shadow. He had not counted on an instant's hesitation. He would shoot Quade, for he knew why the mottled beast had been at the window. Stevens' boy had been right. Quade was after Joanne. His ugly soul was disrupted with a desire to possess her, and Aldous knew that when roused by passion he was more like a devil-fish than a man—a creeping, slimy, night-seeking creature who had not only the power of the underworld back of him, but wealth as well. He did not think of him as a man as he stood listening, but as a beast. He was ready to shoot. But he saw nothing. He heard no sound that could have been made by a stumbling foot or a moving body. An hour later, the moon would have been up, but it was dark now except for the stars. He heard the hoot of an owl a hundred yards away. Out in the river something splashed. From the timber beyond Buffalo Prairie came the yapping bark of a coyote. For five minutes he stood as silent as one of the rocks behind him. He realized that to go on—to seek blindly for Quade in the darkness, would be folly. He went back, tapped at the door, and reentered the cabin when Joanne threw back the lock.
She was still pale. Her eyes were bright.
"I was coming—in a moment," she said, "I was beginning to fear that——"
"—he had struck me down in the dark?" added Aldous, as she hesitated. "Well, he would like to do just that, Joanne." Unconsciously her name had slipped from him. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to call her Joanne now. "Is it necessary for me to tell you what this man Quade is—why he was looking through the window?"
"Only partly," continued Aldous, his face white and set. "It is necessary that you should know more than you have guessed, for your own protection. If you were like most other women I would not tell you the truth, but would try to shield you from it. As it is you should know. There is only one other man in the Rocky Mountains more dangerous than Bill Quade. He is Culver Rann, up at Tete Jaune. They are partners—partners in crime, in sin, in everything that is bad and that brings them gold. Their influence among the rougher elements along the line of rail is complete. They are so strongly entrenched that they have put contractors out of business because they would not submit to blackmail. The few harmless police we have following the steel have been unable to touch them. They have cleaned up hundreds of thousands, chiefly in three things—blackmail, whisky, and women. Quade is the viler of the two. He is like a horrible beast. Culver Rann makes me think of a sleek and shining serpent. But it is this man Quade——"
He found it almost impossible to go on with Joanne's blue eyes gazing so steadily into his.
"—whom we have made our enemy," she finished for him.
"Yes—and more than that," he said, partly turning his head away. "You cannot go on to Tete Jaune alone, Joanne. You must go nowhere alone. If you do——"
"What will happen?"
"I don't know. Perhaps nothing would happen. But you cannot go alone. I am going to take you back to Mrs. Otto now. And to-morrow I shall go on to Tete Jaune with you. It is fortunate that I have a place up there to which I can take you, and where you will be safe."
As they were preparing to go, Joanne glanced ruefully at the table.
"I am ashamed to leave the dishes in that mess," she said.
He laughed, and tucked her hand under his arm as they went through the door. When they had passed through the little clearing, and the darkness of the spruce and balsam walls shut them in, he took her hand.
"It is dark and you may stumble," he apologized. "This isn't much like the shell plaza in front of the Cape Verde, is it?"
"No. Did you pick up any of the little red bloodshells? I did, and they made me shiver. There were strange stories associated with them."
He knew that she was staring ahead into the blank wall of gloom as she spoke, and that it was not thought of the bloodshells, but of Quade, that made her fingers close more tightly about his own. His right hand was gripping the butt of his automatic. Every nerve in him was on the alert, yet she could detect nothing of caution or preparedness in his careless voice.
"The bloodstones didn't trouble me," he answered. "I can't remember anything that upset me more than the snakes. I am a terrible coward when it comes to anything that crawls without feet. I will run from a snake no longer than your little finger—in fact, I'm just as scared of a little grass snake as I am of a python. It's the thing, and not its size, that horrifies me. Once I jumped out of a boat into ten feet of water because my companion caught an eel on his line, and persisted in the argument that it was a fish. Thank Heaven we don't have snakes up here. I've seen only three or four in all my experience in the Northland."
She laughed softly in spite of the uneasy thrill the night held for her.
"It is hard for me to imagine you being afraid," she said. "And yet if you were afraid I know it would be of just some little thing like that. My father was one of the bravest men in the world, and a hundred times I have seen him show horror at sight of a spider. If you were afraid of snakes, why did you go up the Gampola, in Ceylon?"
"I didn't know the snakes were there," he chuckled. "I hadn't dreamed there were a half so many snakes in the whole world as there were along that confounded river. I slept sitting up, dressed in rubber wading boots that came to my waist, and wore thick leather gloves. I got out of the country at the earliest possible moment."
When they entered the edge of the Miette clearing and saw the glow of lights ahead of them, Aldous caught the sudden upturn of his companion's face, laughing at him in the starlight.
"Kind, thoughtful John Aldous!" she whispered, as if to herself. "How nice of you it was to talk of such pleasant things while we were coming through that black, dreadful swamp—with a Bill Quade waiting for us on the side!"
A low ripple of laughter broke from her lips, and he stopped dead in his tracks, forgetting to put the automatic back in his pocket. At sight of it the amusement died in her face. She caught his arm, and one of her hands seized the cold steel of the pistol.
"Would he—dare?" she demanded.
"You can't tell," replied Aldous, putting the gun in his pocket. "And that was a creepy sort of conversation to load you down with, wasn't it, Ladygray? I imagine you'll catch me in all sorts of blunders like that." He pointed ahead. "There's Mrs. Otto now. She's looking this way and wondering with all her big heart if you ought not to be at home and in bed."
The door of the Otto home was wide open, and silhouetted in the flood of light was the good-natured Scotchwoman. Aldous gave the whistling signal which she and her menfolk always recognized, and hurried on with Joanne.
Before they had quite reached the tent-house, Joanne put a detaining hand on his arm.
"I don't want you to go back to the cabin to-night," she said. "The face at the window—was terrible. I am afraid. I don't want you to be there alone."
Her words sent a warm glow through him.
"Nothing will happen," he assured her. "Quade will not come back."
"I don't want you to return to the cabin," she persisted. "Is there no other place where you can stay?"
"I might go down and console Stevens, and borrow a couple of his horse blankets for a bed if that will please you."
"It will," she cried quickly. "If you don't return to the cabin you may go on to Tete Jaune with me to-morrow. Is it a bargain?"
"It is!" he accepted eagerly. "I don't like to be chased out, but I'll promise not to sleep in the cabin to-night."
Mrs. Otto was advancing to meet them. At the door he bade them good-night, and walked on in the direction of the lighted avenue of tents and shacks under the trees. He caught a last look in Joanne's eyes of anxiety and fear. Glancing back out of the darkness that swallowed him up, he saw her pause for a moment in the lighted doorway, and look in his direction. His heart beat faster. Joyously he laughed under his breath. It was strangely new and pleasing to have some one thinking of him in that way.
He had not intended to go openly into the lighted avenue. From the moment he had plunged out into the night after Quade, his fighting blood was roused. He had subdued it while with Joanne, but his determination to find Quade and have a settlement with him had grown no less. He told himself that he was one of the few men along the line whom it would be difficult for Quade to harm in other than a physical way. He had no business that could be destroyed by the other's underground methods, and he had no job to lose. Until he had seen Joanne enter the scoundrel's red-and-white striped tent he had never hated a man as he now hated Quade. He had loathed him before, and had evaded him because the sight of him was unpleasant; now he wanted to grip his fingers around his thick red throat. He had meant to come up behind Quade's tent, but changed his mind and walked into the lighted trail between the two rows of tents and shacks, his hands thrust carelessly into his trousers pockets. The night carnival of the railroad builders was on. Coarse laughter, snatches of song, the click of pool balls and the chink of glasses mingled with the thrumming of three or four musical instruments along the lighted way. The phonograph in Quade's place was going incessantly. Half a dozen times Aldous paused to greet men whom he knew. He noted that there was nothing new or different in their manner toward him. If they had heard of his trouble with Quade, he was certain they would have spoken of it, or at least would have betrayed some sign. For several minutes he stopped to talk with MacVeigh, a young Scotch surveyor. MacVeigh hated Quade, but he made no mention of him. Purposely he passed Quade's tent and walked to the end of the street, nodding and looking closely at those whom he knew. It was becoming more and more evident to him that Quade and his pals were keeping the affair of the afternoon as quiet as possible. Stevens had heard of it. He wondered how.
Aldous retraced his steps. As though nothing had happened, he entered Quade's place. There were a dozen men inside, and among them he recognized three who had been there that afternoon. He nodded to them. Slim Barker was in Quade's place behind the counter. Barker was Quade's right-hand man at Miette, and there was a glitter in his rat-like eyes as Aldous leaned over the glass case at one end of the counter and asked for cigars. He fumbled a bit as he picked out half a dollar's worth from the box. His eyes met Slim's.
"Where is Quade?" he asked casually.
Barker shrugged his shoulders.
"Busy to-night," he answered shortly. "Want to see him?"
"No, not particularly. Only—I don't want him to hold a grudge."
Barker replaced the box in the case and turned away. After lighting a cigar Aldous went out. He was sure that Quade had not returned from the river. Was he lying in wait for him near the cabin? The thought sent a sudden thrill through him. In the same breath it was gone. With half a dozen men ready to do his work, Aldous knew that Quade would not redden his own hands or place himself in any conspicuous risk. During the next hour he visited the places where Quade was most frequently seen. He had made up his mind to walk over to the engineers' camp, when a small figure darted after him out of the gloom of the trees.
It was Stevens' boy.
"Dad wants to see you down at the camp," he whispered excitedly. "He says right away—an' for no one to see you. He said not to let any one see me. I've been waiting for you to come out in the dark."
"Skip back and tell him I'll come," replied Aldous quickly. "Be sure you mind what he says—and don't let any one see you!"
The boy disappeared like a rabbit. Aldous looked back, and ahead, and then dived into the darkness after him.
A quarter of an hour later he came out on the river close to Stevens' camp. A little nearer he saw Stevens squatted close to a smouldering fire about which he was drying some clothes. The boy was huddled in a disconsolate heap near him. Aldous called softly, and Stevens slowly rose and stretched himself. The packer advanced to where he had screened himself behind a clump of bush. His first look at the other assured him that he was right in using caution. The moon had risen, and the light of it fell in the packer's face. It was a dead, stonelike gray. His cheeks seemed thinner than when Aldous had seen him a few hours before and there was despair in the droop of his shoulders. His eyes were what startled Aldous. They were like coals of fire, and shifted swiftly from point to point in the bush. For a moment they stood silent.
"Sit down," Stevens said then. "Get out of the moonlight. I've got something to tell you."
They crouched behind the bush.
"You know what happened," Stevens said, in a low voice. "I lost my outfit."
"Yes, I saw what happened, Stevens."
The packer hesitated for a moment. One of his big hands reached out and gripped John Aldous by the arm.
"Let me ask you something before I go on," he whispered. "You won't take offence—because it's necessary. She looked like an angel to me when I saw her up at the train. But you know. Is she good, or——You know what we think of women who come in here alone. That's why I ask."
"She's what you thought she was, Stevens," replied Aldous. "As pure and as sweet as she looks. The kind we like to fight for."
"I was sure of it, Aldous. That's why I sent the kid for you. I saw her in your cabin—after the outfit went to hell. When I come back to camp, Quade was here. I was pretty well broken up. Didn't talk to him much. But he seen I had lost everything. Then he went on down to your place. He told me that later. But I guessed it soon as he come back. I never see him look like he did then. I'll cut it short. He's mad—loon mad—over that girl. I played the sympathy act, thinkin' of you—an' her. He hinted at some easy money. I let him understand that at the present writin' I'd be willing to take money most any way, and that I didn't have any particular likin' for you. Then it come out. He made me a proposition."
Stevens lowered his voice, and stopped to peer again about the bush.
"Go on," urged Aldous. "We're alone."
Stevens bent so near that his tobacco-laden breath swept his companion's cheek.
"He said he'd replace my lost outfit if I'd put you out of the way some time day after to-morrow!"
For a few moments there was a silence broken only by their tense breathing. Aldous had found the packer's hand. He was gripping it hard.
"Thank you, old man," he said. "And he believes you will do it?"
"I told him I would—day after to-morrow—an' throw your body in the Athabasca."
"Splendid, Stevens! You've got Sherlock Holmes beat by a mile! And does he want you to do this pretty job because I gave him a crack on the jaw?"
"Not a bit of it!" exclaimed Stevens quickly. "He knows the girl is a stranger and alone. You've taken an interest in her. With you out of the way, she won't be missed. Dammit, man, don't you know his system? And, if he ever wanted anything in his life he wants her. She's turned that poison-blood of his into fire. He raved about her here. He'll go the limit. He'll do anything to get her. He's so crazy I believe he'd give every dollar he's got. There's just one thing for you to do. Send the girl back where she come from. Then you get out. As for myself—I'm goin' to emigrate. Ain't got a dollar now, so I might as well hit for the prairies an' get a job on a ranch. Next winter I guess me 'n the kid will trap up on the Parsnip River."
"You're wrong—clean wrong," said Aldous quietly. "When I saw your outfit going down among the rocks I had already made up my mind to help you. What you've told me to-night hasn't made any difference. I would have helped you anyway, Stevens. I've got more money than I know what to do with right now. Roper has a thirty-horse outfit for sale. Buy it to-morrow. I'll pay for it, and you needn't consider yourself a dollar in debt. Some day I'll have you take me on a long trip, and that will make up for it. As for the girl and myself—we're going on to Tete Jaune to-morrow."
Aldous could see the amazed packer staring at him in the gloom. "You don't think I'm sellin' myself, do you, Aldous?" he asked huskily. "That ain't why you're doin' this—for me 'n the kid—is it?"
"I had made up my mind to do it before I saw you to-night," repeated Aldous. "I've got lots of money, and I don't use but a little of it. It sometimes accumulates so fast that it bothers me. Besides, I've promised to accept payment for the outfit in trips. These mountains have got a hold on me, Stevens. I'm going to take a good many trips before I die."
"Not if you go on to Tete Jaune, you ain't," replied Stevens, biting a huge quid from a black plug.
Aldous had risen to his feet. Stevens stood up beside him.
"If you go on to Tete Jaune you're a bigger fool than I was in tryin' to swim the outfit across the river to-day," he added. "Listen!" He leaned toward Aldous, his eyes gleaming. "In the last six months there's been forty dead men dragged out of the Frazer between Tete Jaune an' Fort George. You know that. The papers have called 'em accidents—the 'toll of railroad building.' Mebby a part of it is. Mebby a half of them forty died by accident. The other half didn't. They were sent down by Culver Rann and Bill Quade. Once you go floatin' down the Frazer there ain't no questions asked. Somebody sees you an' pulls you out—mebby a Breed or an Indian—an' puts you under a little sand a bit later. If it's a white man he does likewise. There ain't no time to investigate floaters over-particular in the wilderness. Besides, you git so beat up in the rocks you don't look like much of anything. I know, because I worked on the scows three months, an' helped bury four of 'em. An' there wasn't anything, not even a scrap of paper, in the pockets of two of 'em! Is that suspicious, or ain't it? It don't pay to talk too much along the Frazer. Men keep their mouths shut. But I'll tell you this: Culver Rann an' Bill Quade know a lot."