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The Spoilers of the Valley
by Robert Watson
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THE SPOILERS OF THE VALLEY

ROBERT WATSON



THE SPOILERS OF THE VALLEY

By ROBERT WATSON

Author of "The Girl of O. K. Valley", etc.

A. L. BURT COMPANY

Publishers—New York

Published by arrangement with George H. Doran Company

Printed in U. S. A.



COPYRIGHT, 1921,

BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA



TO

A LADY CALLED NAN



CONTENTS

CHAPTER PAGE I The Man Hunt 11 II The Wolf Note 19 III At Pederstone's Forge 36 IV Wayward Langford 44 V The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing 58 VI A Bird to Pluck 67 VII Wild Man Hanson Goes Wild 74 VIII Like Man, Like Horse 89 IX The Doings of Percival 101 X Jim's Grand Toot 122 XI Sol Wants a Good Wife—Bad 140 XII The Dance 148 XIII The Big Steal 165 XIV The Round-Up 176 XV Sol's Matrimonial Mix-Up 190 XVI The Breakaway 203 XVII Wayward Langford's Grand Highland Fling 224 XVIII The Coat of Many Colours 240 XIX Ranching De Luxe 258 XX A Breach and a Confession 273 XXI A Maiden, a Lover and a Heathen Chinee 302 XXII Fire Begets Hot Air 320 XXIII So Deep in Love am I 338 XXIV The Landslide 355 XXV The Bank Robbery 372 XXVI The Dawn of a New Day 382



The Spoilers of the Valley



THE SPOILERS OF THE VALLEY



CHAPTER I

The Man Hunt

Up on the hill, high above the twinkling lights of the busy little ranching town of Vernock, at the open dining-room window of a pretty, leafy-bowered, six-roomed bungalow, a girl, just blossoming into womanhood, stood in her night robes and dressing gown, braiding her dark hair. She was slight of form, but health glowed from her expressive face.

She was dreamily contemplating the beauties of the night.

Below her, stretching like a fan, was the Valley upon which was built the merry, happy-go-lucky, scattered little town she loved. Everywhere around were the eternal, undulating hills, enclosing the Valley in a world by itself. The night had just lately closed in. The sky was clear and presented a wall and a dome of almost inky blue. Away due south, right over the peak of a hill, on the wall of blue hung a great star, bright and scintillating like a floating soap bubble, while a handspan straight above that again a thin, crescent moon lay coldly on its back sending up a reflection of its own streaky, ghostly light from the distant lake which was no more than visible through a rift in the hills.

As the girl drank in the delights of the peaceful panorama spreading away right from her very feet, she was aroused sharply from her meditation. She heard, or fancied she heard, a distant shot, followed by the sound of excited voices and the barking of dogs. She went to the door, threw it open fearlessly and peered down the hill; but all was silent again save for this barking which travelled farther and farther away all the time, being caught up and carried along in a desultory fashion by the dogs of all the neighbouring houses and ranches.

She stood for a moment, looking about her, then, shivering slightly with the cold, she threw a kiss to the Valley, closed the door again and turned slowly toward her bedroom.

Her fingers were upon the lamp to turn down the light, when three short peremptory raps at the back door caused her to start nervously. She took up the lamp and tiptoed into the kitchen.

"Who's there?" she called.

The rapping was repeated; this time with a much greater insistence.

"Quick,—quick! For God's sake let me in!" came a hoarse, muffled voice which sounded strangely tired.

The girl set the lamp on the kitchen table and went cautiously forward to the door.

"Who's there?" she repeated, her hand on the door fastenings.

"Let me in!" came the voice in desperation. "If you have a heart, please open."

"I cannot until I know who you are. I am a girl. I am alone."

A groan escaped the man on the outside, and the anguish of it struck into the bosom of Eileen Pederstone. Once more the voice came pleadingly:—

"And I am a man! I am hunted,—I need help."

The girl shot back the bolt, threw wide the door and stood back with bated breath.

A masculine figure, panting and dishevelled, staggered in, blinking in the lamplight.

Eileen slowly pushed the door shut, keeping her frightened eyes upon the incomer who tottered weakly to the wall and leaned against it for support.

Dirty from head to heel, he was dressed only in a pair of ragged trousers and a torn, mud-stained shirt. His stockingless feet were partly hidden in a pair of broken boots. Several days' growth of beard made it hard to guess him young or old. But his blue eyes, despite their tired and bloodshot appearance, betrayed, as they gazed in wonder at the girl, many characteristics of a youthfulness not yet really past.

While the two stood thus, the far-away sound of voices floated up the hill from below.

The fugitive's eyes roved like those of a hunted animal. He braced himself as if ashamed of his momentary show of fear. He tried hard to smile, but the smile was a dismal failure.

"Sorry," he panted, "but—but——" His voice sounded harsh and hoarse from exposure. "Is there anywhere—any place where you could hide me till they pass. They were only—only a little behind me. Guess—I—shouldn't—shouldn't have got you mixed up in this. They are coming this way. They want to take me back—but I can't—I won't go back there. Ah!"

He clung with his fingers against the wall to prevent him from collapsing.

In a moment, anxious and all alert, Eileen searched the kitchen for a place of safe hiding. She thought of the cupboards, the clothes-closets in her own bedroom, even her bed of spotless linen; but none of these afforded security. At last, her ready eyes found what her nimble mind was seeking.

"Quick—here!" she cried, turning to the huge box in the corner which she used for holding the short firewood for her stove. "Help me unload this wood. The box is good and big. You can get inside; I'll pile the wood on top of you. They'll never guess."

The girl, although slight in appearance, set to with a vigour and an agility that carried a swift contagion. The man was by her side at once. He gave a little crackle of a laugh in his throat, and shot a glance of admiration at her. In sixty seconds more, the box was emptied of its contents. The man clambered inside and crouched in the bottom of it.

It was only then that the girl noticed his very great physical weakness.

"Oh, what shall I do?" she cried in sudden alarm. "I can't leave you this way. You have been hurt. There is blood on your shirt. The cowards!—they've shot you."

"Never mind me—hurry! It is nothing at all—only a scratch! Quick!" he gasped.

"Wait a moment then!" she whispered.

The man raised himself on his elbow and watched her as she ran to the tap in the pantry and filled a tumbler to the brim with water.

Greedy hands clutched the glass from her, and the contents were swallowed in great gulps. The man sighed like a tired child. He smiled slightly, showing teeth of delightful regularity.

"Water's great—isn't it?" he said childishly.

And as Eileen looked into his eyes she saw that they were young eyes; eyes filled with tears, and eyes that were ever so blue.

"Quick! They're pretty nearly here."

Eileen commenced cautiously to pile the wood on top of him.

"Don't mind me!" he whispered huskily. "Tumble it in. I'm—I'm only a runaway convict."

She worked fast and furiously, and had just turned away from the innocent-looking, well-piled box of split wood in the corner, when she heard the excited voices of hurrying men at her front door.

They tapped sharply.

She took the lamp from the kitchen table, carried it with her to the door, shot the bolt back again and threw the door wide open.

Three men stepped into the semi-circle of light. All were tall and of agile build.

"Poor boy!" was Eileen's first thought. "What chance has he against these?"

One of the men carried a rifle. She knew him. Everybody in Vernock knew him. She had known him ever since his coming to the Valley five years before.

She had marked with childlike wonder—as others had done—his meteoric progress in wealth and power. He was a man, disliked by some, feared by many, and obeyed by all; a land-owner; a cattle breeder; a grain dealer; a giant in body as well as will; and—the new Mayor of Vernock.

The other men were strangers to the girl.

All three walked straight through to the kitchen. The one nearest to Eileen addressed her.

"Sorry miss, for intrudin' so late, 'specially as we hear your dad's at Enderby and you're all alone to-night. But we're after a man—a convict—escaped from Ukalla jail. Saw your light! Thought we saw your door open!"

He peered about suspiciously. "Didn't see anything of him—did you?"

Eileen looked away from the ferrety eyes that searched hers.

"I was just going to bed," she answered nervously. "I—I fancied I heard voices and a shot."

"Wasn't any fancy, miss!"

"I—I opened the door and looked out, but didn't hear anything more, so I closed the door again."

"Hum!" put in her interlocutor, rubbing his chin. "You didn't see any signs of our man when you looked out?"

Eileen shivered, for she did not know how much these men knew or how much they had really seen.

"Yes or no, miss!" he snapped.

"No!—most certainly, no!" Eileen shot back at him in defiance. "How dare you talk to me in that way!"

Tears of vexation sprang to her eyes; vexation that she should have had to lie, although it was forced upon her unless she meant to betray the man who had trusted himself to her safe-keeping.

"Easy, officer;—easy! Miss Pederstone is all right," put in the man with the rifle. "What she says you can bank on."

"Oh, pshaw!—you don't have to teach me my business," retorted the detective.

"Maybe not; but you can stand some teaching in manners," returned the other.

"See here, sir!" came the quick answer, "if you don't like this, you had better get down the hill and home. You village mayors give me a pain."

The man with the rifle bit his lip and remained silent.

"You don't mind me having a look round, miss?" inquired the officer a little bit less brusquely, but starting in to search without waiting for her permission.

He threw open the cupboards and the closets. He examined every room in the house. He even went into Eileen's bedroom. She followed him there, carrying the lamp. He looked into her bed and searched under it. He examined her clothes chest.

At last both returned to the kitchen.

The moment she got there, Eileen's heart stood still. She gave vent to a startled exclamation, which, however, she quickly covered up by stumbling slightly forward as if she had tripped on the rug and almost upset the lamp.

The second officer, who all along had remained silent and simply an onlooker, was seated on the top of the wood box, rapping his heels on the side of it and whistling softly to himself with a look on his face which might have been taken for one of blissful ignorance or secret knowledge, so bland was it.

"All through, Barney?" he asked.

"Ya!"

"Satisfied?"

"Ya!—come on!"

The second officer turned to the box upon which he had been sitting.

"Some box this!" he exclaimed, kicking it with his foot. "Guess we'd better see if there's anyone under the wood pile."

He got down and commenced to throw a few pieces off the top.

Eileen's heart stopped beating.

The detective at the door came over with a look of supreme contempt on his face. He lifted the lid of the stove and spat some tobacco juice into the fire, then he went over to his companion.

"Say, Jim!—are you a detective or a country boob on his vacation?"

"Why? What's the matter with you?"

"Aw, quit! Can't you see the lady wants to get to bed! Why don't you look inside the teapot?"

"Oh, all right!" replied the other, dusting off his hands. "This is your hunt:—if you are satisfied, so am I."

Eileen's heart thumped as if it would burst through her body, and she feared for the very noise of it.

Slowly the second detective followed the other two men out.



CHAPTER II

The Wolf Note

At the door, the man carrying the rifle came close to Eileen. He caught her hand in his and tapped it lightly.

"Don't worry, little girl! I tried my best to keep them from disturbing you," he said in low tones, "but you know what these fellows are like."

"Thank you! You are very kind," answered Eileen quietly. "Father will thank you, too, when he comes back."

The Mayor wished her good-night, raised his hat and followed the others, who were already well on their way down the hill.

Eileen waited at the door until they were no longer within sight or earshot. Then she closed and bolted it. She ran over to the wood-box. She tossed the chunks of wood about her in frantic haste, whispering, almost crooning, to the man underneath, who did not hear her for he was lying there crumpled in a senseless heap.

With a cry she freed him and bent over him. Her supple young arms went under his shoulders. She raised him, half dragging, half lifting, until she had him stretched upon the floor in front of the stove. She ran for a basin of water, cut some linen into strips and, on her knees beside him, she bathed and dressed the raw, open wound in his side, where a bullet had ripped and torn along the white flesh.

When she finished, she raised his limp head and bathed his brow with cold water.

The fugitive groaned and opened his eyes.

He smiled a wan sort of smile through a grimy, unshaven mask, as he looked into the sweet face above him. Then he closed his eyes again, as if he feared the picture might vanish.

"Oh, brace up!" Eileen whispered tearfully, almost shaking him in her fear. "You must brace up. They've gone. But they may come back. If they do, they'll be sure to get you."

Gathering his scattered senses, the man on the floor raised himself with an effort on to his elbow. He struggled to his feet and swayed unsteadily. He passed his hand over his eyes and made an involuntary movement as if to thrust his fingers through his hair. As he did so, a pained expression crossed his face, for his fingers encountered nothing but a short stubble of hair close cropped to his skin.

Eileen lent him her support, as he tried to brace himself. She set him in an armchair, then brought him bread, butter, some cold meat and fresh milk from the cupboard, placing them on the table before him.

Only his eyes expressed thanks, but they did it eloquently. Ravenously he turned to, while his young hostess watched him in curiosity and wonder, for never before had she seen one really famishingly hungry.

When not a morsel remained, the man pushed back his chair and turned to the young lady apologetically.

"You'll excuse me if I forgot my table manners, but—but that was my first food for three days."

He rose.

"I guess I will be able to make it now. I feel all right;—thanks to you."

"No, no!" exclaimed Eileen, "you mustn't go just yet. You must rest if only for a few minutes. I was anxious before these men were clear away, but they have gone. The rest will do you good."

"No!—I must go. It—it would mean trouble for you if they found me here."

"You shan't! Sit down!" she commanded. "You may require all your strength before morning."

She set him in the chair again, and he obeyed her helplessly and with a sigh of weariness.

"But——" he protested feebly, raising his hand.

"Trouble for me!" she interposed; "I am not afraid of trouble."

"You are indeed a Good Samaritan," he said in a voice which sounded less forlorn. "If I wasn't a jailbird, I'd thank you in my prayers."

He smiled crookedly. "You know, convicts' prayers don't seem to rise very high, miss—don't seem to reach anywhere. We haven't got the stand-in with the Boss that others seem to have," he said in some bitterness.

"Hush!" she whispered. "You must not say that, for it isn't true. Those men might have caught you,—but they didn't. But, but," she added seriously, "surely you are not a convict; not a criminal, I mean?"

He turned his hands outwards with a shrug.

"You don't look like one who loved doing wrong. If you have ever done wrong, I am sure it was done in a moment of rashness; maybe thoughtlessness." She clasped her hands in front of her. "You would never do it again."

He shook his head.

"No,—never, never again!" But his voice had no sound of contrition in it.

"When you are free—really free—you will try to be what God meant you to be; a real man; good, honest and earnest."

He moved uneasily, then he got up once more, went over to the window and looked out into the night. He remained with his back to her for some time, and she did not seek to break into his thoughts.

Finally he turned, and, as he leaned against the wall by the door, he gazed at her curiously.

"They nick-named me 'Silent' in jail, because I wouldn't talk," he said in a husky tone. "God knows!—what inducement had a man to talk—there?"

"Maybe I shouldn't talk now—but I might feel better if I did, and you cared to listen."

"Yes, oh yes!—please tell me," replied the girl earnestly.

"I have never committed any crime against anyone. The only wrong I have done is to myself. Like a fool, I took the blame to save the other fellow, because, oh, because I thought I was better able to—that was all. But that other fellow skulked away, deserted me;—the low coward!"

The man's voice rose in the quiet of that little bungalow upon the hill where the only other sounds were the ticking of the clock and the quick breathing of an anxious listener.

"God help him when we meet!"

"Hush!" cautioned the girl again.

"When I took on his troubles," he continued, more quietly, "I did not think of anything more than a few months in prison, but, Great God! they gave me five years:—FIVE YEARS!"

His eyes widened at the awfulness of the thought and a look of agony came into his face.

Eileen Pederstone gasped, and her lips parted.

"Five years," she whispered.

The man continued in bitterness.

"Yes! five years in hell—buried alive—away from humanity—from light—air—freedom; from the sunshine, the hills, and the valleys; from the sea, the wind, and, and, the higher things—literature, music, art: truth—love—life:—buried from the combination of all these, from God himself."

He shuddered. He almost wept in his frailness. "And now the very sunshine hurts like an electric shock, the open spaces make me feel lost and afraid; make me long for the confinement of a cell again."

He stopped suddenly and brushed his eyes with the back of his hand.

Eileen went over to him, laid a hand tenderly on his torn shirt-sleeve and led him over to the chair again, for he still showed signs of his physical exhaustion. He sat back and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Eileen spoke to him.

"And you ran away? Why, oh, why did you do that? Couldn't you see that it would mean recapture; more imprisonment? And you were probably so near the end of it."

Her whole soul was speaking compassionately.

"Near the end!" he said bitterly. "It was the end. I broke prison because they had no right to keep me there any longer."

"But why? How could that possibly be?" she asked, closing her hands nervously.

He gave expression to a sound of surprise at her innocence.

"You don't know them, miss. Anything, everything is possible in there. They are masters, kings, gods. My conduct was good. After three years and eight months I was due to get out in one month more. But I was useful to them in there. I had education. I was the only accountant; the greatest book-lover in jail. To keep me from thinking—for the thinking is what drives men mad—I worked and slaved night and day. They had no one to take my place. I was trusted. I did the work of three men.

"One day I interfered in behalf of a fellow prisoner—a horse thief—who was wrongly accused at this particular time of breaking some trivial prison law. My good conduct sheet was cancelled. I was told that I must serve my full time. That's what I got for trying, for the second time, to help my fellow-man." He laughed. "That—and a peculiar-sounding word which that strange little jailbird gave to me, on condition that I would never sell it, stating it was all he had and that it might be useful to me some day if I ever had the handling of horses.

"Yes!—I should have been wise that time. It was my second offence of helping my neighbour. Three years and nine months in jail for a kindly act! Fifteen months more in hell in exchange for a word! What bargains!"

He grew bitter again.

"The hell-hounds!—they thought I didn't tumble to their little game."

He stopped again, closing his mouth tightly as if inquiring of himself why he should be telling this young lady so much.

"Please—please go on," Eileen pleaded, divining his thoughts.

"Why?" he asked bluntly, surveying the slight, lissom figure before him.

"Oh, because—because I am interested. I am so sorry for you and for so many others like you," she said.

"Well!—I served my full time—five years—three years with 365 days each and two leap years with an extra day in them,—1,827 days and nights, 43,848 hours; 2,630,880 minutes; 157,852,800 second strokes on the clock. You see I remember it all. Great God, how I used to figure it out!

"Eight days ago my time was up. I asked them regarding my release. And simply because I inquired instead of waiting their good pleasure, they told me I had two weeks more to serve. The damnable lie! As if I didn't know, as if every jailbird doesn't know the day and the very minute his release is due!

"Two weeks more!" he went on, his face flushed with indignation and his breath coming in short jerks.

The clock on Eileen's mantelshelf struck midnight, slowly and clearly.

The convict looked at it and gasped. When it stopped striking, he turned to Eileen and his eyes twinkled for a second.

"The Governor of the prison has a little clock just the same as that in his private room," he said. "Do you know, I'm afraid all the time that I'm going to wake up from this and find myself back there."

He jerked his torn garments together.

"Guess I'd better be going, though. I've stayed far too long already. I feel rested now."

"Won't you finish your story first?" pleaded Eileen. "I think you are safer here—for a while longer—than you would be outside. It won't hurt to let those horrid, prying, suspicious creatures get well away from here."

"I have already said more than I intended to," he remarked.

The pair presented a strange contrast as they sat opposite each other in the lamplight; the one, wet-eyed, sympathetic and earnest; the other, gaunt, indignant and breathless as he gasped out his story with the hunger of one to whom sympathy was a rediscovered friend.

"Where was I at?" he asked. "Ah, yes!

"The Governor's dirty-worker wouldn't listen when I tried to explain. He ordered me back.

"At work in the office next day, I took advantage of a warder's slackness and broke clear away.

"I didn't care what happened then. I was crazed. An old lady in a cottage—God bless her!—fed me and gave me these clothes—her son's castaways—and three dollars; all the money she had.

"I walked twenty miles without stop or let-up. After that I slept during the day and walked at night. Three days after my breakaway, I got on to a freight train and stole a ride as far as Sicamous. I slept overnight in a barn there. Next morning I tried to bribe a boy to get me some food at the grocery store. I gave him a dollar. He never came back. I heard some men talking at the door of the barn about a suspicious character who had been seen skulking about. That decided me. I got out when night came and slipped under an empty fruit car which was being shunted on the siding. I got off yesterday, slipping away between a little village up the line and here. The engineer got his eye on me and stopped the train. He let some men off: they were two detectives, I think. They had been riding in the caboose. They came after me. I fell exhausted somewhere in the bush. When I came to it was broad daylight and the men were gone."

He looked up at Eileen suddenly.

"There isn't much more. Early this morning I managed to get into a barn by the railway tracks. I got in through a skylight in the roof. I went to sleep among the straw there. Soon after, the sound of a key in the padlock outside woke me. I scrambled up and through the skylight again, and away. There were three men—one with a rifle. They hunted me, finding me and losing me several times. The devil with the rifle got a line on me down the hill a short time ago.

"When I got to your door I was all in." He smiled. "You're a real sport. You didn't give me away."

He got up and threw out his hands. "Oh, what's the good anyway! All jailbirds tell the tale and shout their innocence."

Eileen's heart was moved. Tears welled up in her eyes. She was at a loss to know what to do or say.

As the man turned from her, his elbow struck something hanging on the wall. He caught at it quickly as it was falling.

It was an old violin of very delicate workmanship.

"Sorry!" he exclaimed, handing it to her. "I am clumsy in a house. Haven't been in one for so long. Glad I didn't smash it."

"I almost wish you had," said Eileen enigmatically.

"Don't you like music?" he asked.

"Oh, yes!"

"Violin music?"

"Yes!—but not from that violin. It is not like other violins: it has an unsavoury history."

"Do you play?"

"Not the violin," said Eileen, standing with her back to the table, leaning lightly there, clad in her dressing gown, her plaited hair hanging over her shoulder and her eyes on her strange visitor in manifest interest.

"My father is very fond of scraping on a violin. The one he plays is hanging up there."

She pointed to another violin beside the mantelshelf in the adjoining room.

"And this one?" he queried curiously, pointing to the one she had laid on the table.

"This one is several hundred years old. It has been in the family for ever so long. The story goes with it that the member of our family who owns it will attain much wealth during his life, but will lose it again if he doesn't pass it on when he is at the very height of his prosperity. My father says it has always proved true, and he is hoping for the day when its promise will be fulfilled in his case, for he longs for wealth and all it brings; and he has striven all his life to get it."

"I hope that he has his wish and is able to tell when he gets to the highest point of his success, so that he may get rid of the violin in time."

Eileen smiled.

"Daddy says that has been the trouble with our forefathers, who always got wealthy but never seemed to be able to hold it when they got it. That is my daddy over there."

She pointed to framed picture on the wall.

"He is big and brawny, and not afraid of anybody. He is—oh, so good. He is the best in all the world."

The young man gazed at her as she expressed her admiration.

"He isn't here to-night?" he remarked.

Eileen turned her eyes on him sharply, as if she had sensed something of a suspicious nature in his query. But she shook the thought from her and laid her mind bare.

"No!—daddy was called away this afternoon. He won't be back until to-morrow, noon.

"This violin," reverted Eileen, as if endeavouring to interest her guest and keep his thoughts away from the misery of his own condition as long as possible, "was the last work of a very famous Italian violin maker, who disappeared mysteriously and was never heard of afterwards. It has a most beautiful tone, but for one note, and that one note is hideous. Ugh!—I hate it."

She shuddered. "I would have destroyed it long ago only my father prizes it as a great curio and as an heirloom."

The convict showed deep interest.

"Isn't it strange that a beautiful instrument like this should have a discordant note in it that no one seems to be able to explain away?" she asked, as they stood together near the window, losing themselves in their interest.

"Yes,—it is strange," returned the man, examining the violin closely. "I have read of something similar somewhere. The discord, I think, is called the wolf note, and it is well named. I believe its presence is difficult to explain, and such an instrument has occasionally been produced by the best violin makers. They usually destroyed them, as the discord is unalterable, making the instrument, of course, unmarketable as a music producer."

Eileen remained in thought for a while, then she held out her hand for the violin, took it from the man and went to the wall where she hung it up, as if dismissing a distasteful subject.

Back to the young man's face came the hopeless look of remembrance. "I had almost forgotten myself," he remarked. "Thank you! I must be off. I should not be here. I—I should never have intruded."

"One moment!" said Eileen. "The air is chilly and you have nothing but that thin, torn, cotton shirt on your back. Get into this! It is an old sweater of mine; it is loose and big. It will keep the cold out."

"No! You have already done more than I can ever hope to pay back. I might get caught with it on——"

"But you must," she put in imperiously. "I have several of them. This is the oldest of those I have. You are not depriving me of anything, and you will be glad of it before the morning, for it is cold up here at nights."

He took it from her with reluctance, pushed his arms into it and drew it over his head and shoulders.

"Thank you!" he said in a quiet voice. "I was sick and in prison—I was anhungered—I was thirsty—I was naked. I don't know exactly how it goes," he apologised, "but it is something like that and it certainly does apply to you, miss."

His mood changed. He turned up part of the sleeve of the sweater and put it to his lips.

Eileen's face took on a flood of colour despite herself.

A smile flitted across the unshaven face of the man, disclosing his regular, clean teeth.

Eileen drew herself up stiffly.

She went to the door and opened it to allow him to pass out of her life as he had come into it. But as he turned to go, he started back at a sound in the dark.

The tall, athletic figure of a man loomed up, blocked the way and stepped into the kitchen beside them.

Eileen gasped and clutched at her bosom in terror.

"Mr. Brenchfield," she cried in sudden anger, "what do you mean? You—you have been watching. I didn't think you were a spy, although after all, possibly I did, for I intentionally held back the man you are after."

Brenchfield ignored her remark and pointed with his finger at the fugitive, who came forward, his eyes staring as if he were seeing an apparition.

"Great God,—you!" exclaimed the young man. Then with a catching sound in his throat, he sprang at the burly, well-fed man before him.

Brenchfield was taken completely by surprise. He staggered against the side of the door, as thin claw-like fingers found his throat and tried to stop the vital air. The fingers closed on his windpipe too tightly for comfort.

Eileen cried out and tried to go between, but she was thrust aside.

The men swayed together, then Brenchfield's hands went up, catching the other by the wrists in a firm hold. There was a momentary struggle, the runaway's grip was broken and he was flung to the floor.

Brenchfield turned to Eileen.

"Miss Pederstone, have you gone crazy trying to hide this man? Don't you know he is a runaway; a dangerous convict? The police—blind fools—didn't tumble to your nervousness, but I caught on. I knew you had him hidden in the wood-box."

The hunted man rose slowly from the floor and staggered forward, gasping for breath. He gave Brenchfield a look of loathing.

"Graham," he said brokenly, "may the good God forgive you, for I never shall."

He threw out his thin arms and looked at them, while tears of impotence came into his eyes. He clenched his hands and grit his teeth. "And may the devil, your friend, protect you," he continued threateningly, "when these grow strong again."

Brenchfield looked him over with indifference.

"My good fellow, you'll excuse me! You have wheels in your head. I don't know you from a hedge-fence. Damn it!" he suddenly flared angrily, "I don't want to know you. Get out; quick! before I help you along, or put you in the hands of your friends down the hill who are so anxious to renew your acquaintance."

The young man stared fearlessly into the eyes of Graham Brenchfield, wealthy rancher, cattleman, grain merchant and worthy Mayor of Vernock. Then his lips parted in a strange smile, as he threw up his head.

He turned to Eileen.

"Guess I've got to go now. I have my marching orders."

"Come on;—enough of this—git!" put in Brenchfield roughly, stepping up in a threatening manner.

The fugitive ignored the interruption.

"Good-bye, Miss—Miss Pederstone—and, remember this from a convict who doesn't count:—as surely as there is a wolf-note in some violins, so surely is there a wolf-note in some men. Strike the wolf-note and you set the devils in hell jumping."

In the next moment he passed out at the door and down the dusty highway leading to Vernock.

Graham Brenchfield stood looking after him until the night shut him out.

Eileen Pederstone stared in front of her with eyes that saw no outward thing.

At last Brenchfield broke the silence.

"It was rather unwise—foolish—harbouring such a man as that; and your father from home."

"Yes?" queried Eileen, with a slow intonation of resentment.

"Unprotected as you were!"

"We girls would have little need for protection if you men were all as gentlemanly as he was. He seemed to be an old acquaintance of yours. Who is he?"

Brenchfield shrugged his shoulders.

"Pshaw!—that kind would claim acquaintance with the very devil himself. You don't suppose I ever met him before. He is a dangerous criminal escaped from Ukalla."

"He told me so," put in Eileen, as if tired of the interview, "and he seemed quite annoyed when I refused to believe the dangerous criminal part."

"But the police tell me he is. It was only for your sake that I let him go."

Brenchfield tried to turn her to the seriousness of her misdemeanour. "For the sake of your good name, you had no right admitting him. You know what Vernock is like for gossip. You know the construction likely to be placed on your action."

Eileen drew herself up haughtily.

"You'll excuse me, Mr. Brenchfield! When did you earn the right to catechise Eileen Pederstone?"

He changed suddenly and his peculiarly strong and handsome face softened.

"I am sorry. I did not mean it in that way, Eileen. And this is no time to speak, but—but I hope—some day——"

The girl held up her hand, and he stopped.

He was tall, full-chested and tremendously athletic of figure and poise, with dark eyes that fascinated rather than attracted and a bearing of confidence begotten of five years of triumphal success in business ventures and real-estate transactions; a man to whom men would look in a crisis; a man whom most men obeyed instinctively and one to whom women felt drawn although deep down in their hearts they were strangely afraid of him.

He held Eileen with his eyes.

"There is something I wish to ask you some day, Eileen. May I?"

"Nothing serious, I hope, Mr. Brenchfield?" she returned lightly, for she at least had never acknowledged any submission to those searching eyes of his. "And please remember, it is past midnight. My father isn't here."

"Serious!—yes!" he returned, ignoring her admonition, "but some day will do."

"It is an old story;—some day may never come, good sir!"

He smiled indulgently.

Eileen, despite her apparent unconcern, placed her hand over her heart as if to stay a fluttering there.

Mayor Brenchfield was a young man, a successful man; to many women he would have been considered a desirable man.

He professed friendship with Eileen's father. He put business her father's way. He was of the same political leanings. He had met Eileen on many occasions. Brenchfield was a tremendously energetic man; he seemed to be everywhere at once.

Eileen, like other women, could not help admiring him for his forceful handling of other men, for his keen business acumen, for his almost wizardly success.

He had many qualities that appealed strongly to the romantic in her youthful nature; but, girl-like, she had not stopped at any time to analyse the feelings he engendered in her.

And now, up there on the hill, in the chill of the night air, under the stars that hung so low and prominently that one felt one might almost reach up and pluck them from the heavens,—now there came a sudden dread.

It was this inexplicable dread that set her heart athrob.

Brenchfield took her hand from her bosom and patted it gently.

His touch annoyed her. She drew away imperiously, and she shivered.

"Why, little woman!—you are cold and it is very late. How thoughtless of me! Good night, Eileen!"

"Good night!" she returned wearily, closing the door.

The moment he heard the bolts shoot home, Brenchfield's whole nature changed. An oath came to his lips. He crushed his hat down on his head, leapt the fence and rushed headlong by the short cut down through the orchards—townward.

At the Kenora Hotel corner his low whistle brought two men from the saloon.

The three conversed together earnestly for a few moments, then they separated to different positions in the shadows but commanding a full view of the road leading down the hill from the east of the Main Street of Vernock.

But of all this Eileen Pederstone—alone in the little bungalow up on the hill—was blissfully ignorant.



CHAPTER III

At Pederstone's Forge

Pederstone the blacksmith—or, to give him his full name which he insisted on at all times, John Royce Pederstone—was busy on his anvil, turning a horse shoe. His sleeves were rolled up almost to his shoulders and his lithe muscles slipped and rippled under his white skin in a rhythm of harmony. His broad chest was bare as his arms, and his chubby apple-red cheeks shone with perspiration which oozed from his every pore. He was singing to himself in happy unconcern about his being a jovial monk contented with his lot. Two horses were tied inside the shop waiting to be shod, chafing and pawing in their impatience.

Pederstone's right-hand man, Sol Hanson, a great chunk of a bachelor Swede, was at the back door swearing volubly because an iron tire refused to fit the wooden rim of a cart wheel to his satisfaction.

Horseshoes, ploughs, harrows, iron gates and cart and buggy wheels of all kinds were lying about in disorderly profusion.

The noonday sun was pouring in aslant at the front door, while at the back door, away from Hanson, a Russian wolf-hound was stretched out lazily gnawing at a bone which it held between its fore paws.

The furnace fire was blazing, and Pederstone's anvil was ringing merrily, when suddenly the melodious sounds were interrupted by a deep growl and then a yelp of pain from the hound as it sprang away from the spurred boot of a great, rough, yet handsome figure of a man of the cowboy type, who came striding in, legs apart, dressed in sheepskin chaps.

"Say, Ped!—ain't you got that hoss o' mine shod? Can't wait all day in this burg!"

The smith stopped suddenly and glared at the newcomer.

"None of that Ped stuff, you untamed Indian! Mr. Royce Pederstone to you and your kind; and, if you don't like it and can't wait your turn, take your cayuse out of here and tie her up at the back of the hotel for an hour or two. You're not half drunk enough yet to be going back to Redmans Creek."

"All right, Mister-Royce-Pederstone—but I ain't Indian, and don't you forgit it. The fact that I git all the booze I like from Charlie Mac settles that in this burg."

It was a sore point with the newcomer, for at least three-quarters of him was white, and part of it first-class white at that.

He took off his hat.

"Ever see an Indian with hair like that?"

He pushed a tousled head of flaring red hair under the blacksmith's nose. He struck his chest dramatically with his fist.

"Donald McTavish McGregor, that's my name. And I'm off to take your advice, but you can keep the mare till she's shod."

He swaggered out.

At the door he had to side-step—much to his disgust—to get out of the way of one, Ben Todd, who was not in the habit of making way for anyone but a lady. Todd was the Editor and Manager of the Vernock and District Advertiser, the man behind most of the political moves in the Valley. He was a hunchback, with a brain that always seemed to have a "hunch" before any other brain in the country started to wake up.

"Hullo, John!" shouted Todd.

"Fine day, Ben!" returned Pederstone.

"See the Government's turned down the new Irrigation Scheme!"

"What?" shouted Pederstone. "The mean pikers!"

"Guess it's about time we had a new Government, John!"

"Yes!—or at least a new member for the Valley," returned the smith.

"Well,—there's truth in that, too. And, as you're President of the Association, why don't you get the boys to change their man? The one we've got has been too long on the job. Seems to think he's in for life."

"The trouble is, Ben,—who could we get that would be an improvement?"

"Why not have a try at it yourself, John, at the coming election?" suggested the editor as a feeler.

"What!—me?" exclaimed the smith in surprise, viewing the serious look on the face of the bearded hunchback.

"Sure!—why not?"

"It isn't a question of why not," laughed Royce Pederstone, "but rather one of WHY."

"Because we want you," returned the editor. "You're one of us, and you know what this Valley requires better than any other."

Royce Pederstone was silent.

"Would you run if we put you up?" pursued Ben Todd.

"Might," grinned the smith, "but I won't say where I'd run to."

"But straight goods?"

"No, siree! Not for me! A bit of ranching and my work here in the shop keeps me busy enough. In fact, I've been thinking lately that I would like to give up this strenuous labour in the smithy."

Ben Todd was about to pursue the subject further when they were interrupted by the approach of a horse, which pulled up abruptly at the front door. A beautiful, full-blooded mare, of tremendous proportions, reared high in the air, then dropped to a stand-still as docile as a lamb.

Mayor Brenchfield, groomed to perfection in leggings and riding breeches, slid to the ground, thrust his reins through a hitching ring and stepped inside, thus providing the third side of an interesting triangle for conversation.

They had been talking for some fifteen minutes, when the conversation veered to the subject that had been uppermost in everyone's mind in the neighbourhood of Vernock for many weeks past.

"I see the Assizes have got through with their work at last," put in Ben Todd.

Brenchfield's eyebrows moved slightly.

"Yes?"

"Loo Yick, the chink, is to hang."

"You bet,—the yellow skunk! Imagine a fine girl like Lottie Mays being done to death by that; and every man that ever saw her just crazy for her."

"Well!—Lottie and her kind take chances all the time. Somebody generally gets them in the finish," put in Royce Pederstone. "She wasn't content with her price, but stole his wad as well. The town would be better quit of the bunch."

"Guess you're right," agreed Brenchfield. "But it does seem a pity we can't cut down in the number of Chinamen we have in the Okanagan."

"Yes!" put in Todd, "but you know who brought them here. You fellows with the ranches, looking for cheap help, did it."

He laughed. "And, by God, you got it with a vengeance; and all that goes with it. They're likely to rout us out of house and land before they're through with us. You will have one high-U time getting them out,—believe me."

"And Pierre Qu'appelle got sent down for ten years."

"Guess that ends the wholesale thieving that has been going on around Vernock these last five years."

"Hope so!" exclaimed the Mayor. "But you can't always sometimes tell."

"Pierre didn't have the ghost of a chance; caught with the goods on him," remarked Todd.

"Seems funny to me that he should play a lone game, though," said Royce Pederstone.

"Not when you know the bunch he gangs with," remarked Ben Todd. "They're generally all in it, and one man takes the risk and the blame. He'll get his share kept for him till he comes out again.

"Morrison of the O.K. Supply Company says he has had over seven thousand dollars' worth of feed and flour stolen from his warehouses inside of six months. The Pioneer Traders never give out what they lose."

"You, yourself, have lost quite a bit, haven't you, Brenchfield?" put in Pederstone.

"Yes!—from time to time, but I could never lay my finger definitely on the shortage. My records have been faulty in the past, but I'm going to keep a better watch on it for the future."

"Well!" returned the smith, "the fewer of Pierre Qu'appelle's thieving kind we have in the community, the better for all of us."

"We pretty nearly had a newcomer of the same brand when you were at Enderby, John."

"So I heard! How did it finish, Ben? I heard they got him. How did they manage it?"

"Better ask the Mayor," said the editor guardedly. "He ought to know how these things finish. Who was the man, Graham? How did the chase end?"

"Oh!" muttered Brenchfield, "it was some runaway from Ukalla. He landed in here under a freight train, and the detectives were riding in the caboose and he didn't know it."

Todd laughed.

"Pretty good copy! What else?"

"He gave them the slip. They got in touch with me later. We set off on a hunt. Found the fellow in a barn. But he got out at the skylight window and made a run for it."

"The poor devil! He deserved to get away after that," remarked the editor.

"Pretty nearly did, too! One of the detectives winged him on the B. X. Road," lied the Mayor. "He beat us to it for a time. I went home to bed after a bit, but I heard later that they fell in with their man looking for food in Chinatown in the early morning. He led them another chase up over the high road and down the Kickwillie Loop to the lake. He got into a rowing boat and made out into the middle of the water. The detectives got into Murray's gasoline launch and were soon within hailing distance of him. But the beggar was game, although he must have been half-dead by that time.

"When he saw it was all up, he took off the coat, or sweater, or whatever it was he was wearing, wrapped it round the little anchor in the boat, undid the rope and plumped the lot into the lake."

"What on earth did he do that for?" asked Pederstone.

"Oh, I guess he got the clothes from someone up here and didn't wish to implicate them."

"By gosh! but he was game," put in Ben Todd. "Darned if I wouldn't like a shake of his hand for that!"

The editor turned, and his expression changed. He raised his hat.

"Eh,—excuse my language, Miss Pederstone. I,—I didn't know you were there."

The talk stopped abruptly, as Eileen Pederstone came forward into the centre of the shop.

"Hello, Eilie, dear!" cried her father. "Dinner time already? and my work miles ahead of me, while we gossips are going at it like old wives at market. Why,—what's the matter, lass?"

The girl's face showed pale in the light of the forge fire and her eyes were moist.

She pulled herself together.

"Nothing, daddy! I was just feeling sorry for that poor young fellow Mr. Brenchfield was telling about."

"Tuts!" exclaimed Todd, "don't waste your sorrow, Eileen. Why,—he wasn't a young fellow. He was an old, grey-haired, cross-eyed, yellow-toothed, dirty, wizened-faced, knock-kneed specimen of a jailbird escaped from Ukalla. Look up the Advertiser Thursday, you'll see."

"Oh no, he wasn't; he—he,—Mr. Brenchfield——" Eileen stopped. "Didn't I hear you say he was a young man, Mr. Brenchfield?" she asked, endeavouring to cover up her confusion, turning her big eyes full on the Mayor.

"Why, eh—yes! I did mention something about him being young," gallantly agreed Brenchfield.

"Did—he—get—away?" inquired Eileen desperately.

Brenchfield busied himself adjusting his leggings. Eileen put her hand on his arm.

"Did he get away, Mr. Brenchfield?" she asked again.

"Better finish the yarn, Graham!" said Royce Pederstone. "Eilie is like others of her sex; you can't shake her once she gets a grip."

"Well!" resumed Brenchfield uneasily, "as far as I can learn the man jumped out of the rowing boat as the launch came up on him. He tried to swim for it. He evidently knew how to swim, too;—but he was weak as a kitten. The detectives played him. When he was thoroughly exhausted, they let him sink."

"The beasts!" exclaimed Eileen, her body aquiver with sudden anger.

"Guess I had better stop this stuff!" said Brenchfield.

"No, no! Don't mind me. Go on!"

"He came up—and they let him sink again. Next time he came up, they fished him out, because he might not have come up again.

"The fellow came to after a bit. You see, that kind won't kill. So I guess he is now safely back home, in his little eiderdown bed, getting fed with chicken broth;—home in Ukalla jail, where he belongs.

"Little boys always get into trouble when they run away from home, eh, Ben!" laughed Brenchfield.

The coarse humour didn't catch on.

Eileen Pederstone laid her basket on the smithy floor, threw a look of contempt into the youthful Mayor's face and walked out with her head high.

"One for his nobs!" laughed Ben Todd. "And, damn it!—you cold-blooded alligator!—she served you rightly."



CHAPTER IV

Wayward Langford

While the foregoing was taking place in Pederstone's smithy at Vernock, a scene of a different nature was being enacted in the Governor's private office at Ukalla Prison.

Phil Ralston, somewhat refreshed from a scrubbing, a good sleep and two prison meals, had just been ushered into the presence of the man who held power almost of life and death over every unfortunate confined there.

Phil expected no mercy. His feelings were blunted by what he had already gone through, so the worst that might happen now did not worry him; for, when hope of relief entirely goes, what one has to face loses most of its terrors.

The well-fed, strong-jawed governor leaned over his desk and looked at his prisoner.

"Ay, Ralston! So you were a naughty boy and ran away!"

The young fellow did not reply.

"Look up, man! I'm not going to eat you."

Ralston's eyes met his calmly.

"Why did you run away?"

"Because my time was up, sir!"

"Of course it was! Hang it all!—that's why I can't understand your behaviour."

The governor smiled in a manner that was meant to be reassuring—for, after all, he knew he had exceeded his limit and, if it were known, he might have difficulty in squaring himself.

"But you told me, sir, that I had still two weeks to serve."

"What? I told you that? Why, man, you're crazy. Wake up! You foolish fellow, don't you know that the moment you made off, your discharge papers were lying on my desk all ready?"

"And you didn't say I had two more weeks to serve?"

"No, damn it, no! How could I? Why, Johnston there had already been sent to the storage room for your belongings.

"Isn't that so, Johnston?"

"Yes, sir!" nodded the chief jailer emphatically.

"Didn't I tell you number three hundred and sixteen was due out that day?"

"Yes, sir! Remember distinctly, sir."

Phil's lip curled contemptuously, and, although he was in no mood for arguing under such conditions, he could not resist one more query.

"Why then did they go after me and bring me back, sir?"

"Why did they! Why do you think, you young fool? Do you imagine breaking out is the way to leave Ukalla Jail? What kind of an institution do you think we are running here? Do you fancy we are going to stand still to that kind of thing? What kind of respect have you for my good reputation anyway? You selfish bunch are all alike!

"Of course we went after you! Of course we brought you back, just to teach you manners, same as a school teacher calls back a scholar to shut the door he has left open.

"If you got your deserts you would be back there for a few months longer. If you don't watch yourself when you get out, you'll be back here again. Eh, Johnston!"

"Yes, sir! They generally do come back, sir," grunted that echo. "Seem to like us; can't stay away, sir!"

"Now, Ralston! Here is your discharge. You're free to go when you like. But Johnston will open the gate for you this time."

In an overflow of weakness, Phil reeled at the unexpected news. He staggered against the Governor's desk as he clutched at the paper.

That official smiled benignly. "Here is a present from the government, a cheque for fifty dollars for your faithful services—never absent, never late," he grinned. "Johnston has your two grips in the hall with your stuff in them that they found in your shack at Carnaby."

He held out his hand.

"Good-bye, Ralston! You've been a good lad here but for your one bad break fifteen months ago, and this one. Don't come back."

In half an hour, Philip Ralston was breathing the air of freedom in the inter-urban tram speeding toward Vancouver.

It was the spring of the year. His worldly wealth was fifty dollars. His clothes were some years behind the latest model, but they were decent enough, clean and serviceable.

He put up at a third-rate hotel on Cordova Street and spent one glorious week sleeping, eating, strolling the busy streets and lounging in the parks and on the beaches. He spoke to few, although he had of a necessity to listen to many. At the hotel in the evenings, several transients told him their story, hoping thereby to hear his own as a time-chaser, but Phil, true to the sobriquet he had earned at Ukalla, remained silent.

At the end of a week, after paying his bed and board, his fifty dollars had dwindled to thirty. He knew he could not afford to let it go much lower, otherwise the detectives, who seemed forever spying on him, would be arresting him on a vagrancy charge. Vancouver was chuck-full of detectives, many of whom Phil knew by sight, while the others he sensed. And he loathed and abhorred their entire breed.

Too many were the stories he had heard from fellow prisoners at Ukalla, who had tried honestly to take up some definite occupation after leaving jail, only to be hounded from position to position by these interfering sleuths who fancied it their duty to inform the erstwhile employer that the man who was working for him was an ex-jailbird and consequently should have a keen eye kept on him for a while. The inevitable, of course, followed; for what employer could afford to have an ex-convict on his staff?

And so, Phil did not attempt to secure work in Vancouver. He had a horror of the rush and buzz of the city anyway.

Policemen were everywhere; on the sidewalks watching everybody and everything; at the street corners directing the traffic.

Self-consciousness made Phil feel guilty almost. These men gave him the creeps, innocent of all guilt though he was. His one desire was to get as far away from them and all things connected with them as was possible.

He sat on a seat in the park one afternoon, trying to decide his future.

He thought of Graham Brenchfield, now Mayor of Vernock, evidently wealthy beyond Phil's wildest dreams. He remembered the old partnership pact and the five hundred dollars he paid for it—five years, a pool and a straight division of the profits. He put his hand in his pocket, took out his money and counted it over;—twenty-four dollars and fifteen cents.

He laughed. But his laugh was void of merriment, for he had vowed solemnly to himself in prison that some day he would get even with Graham Brenchfield. And, so far as Brenchfield was concerned, the iron was still in Phil Ralston's soul.

As he sat there, the vision of an angel face came back to him; the picture of a girl of small frame, fairy-like, agile, bending over him as he lay faint and wounded on the floor of her little bungalow up on the hill overlooking Vernock. And it settled his mental uncertainty.

He would go back there! It was a free and bracing life in that beautiful Valley, and, God knows! that was what he required after five years of confinement. He could pick up his strength while at work on the farms, or among the orchards, or on the cattle ranges. Lots of things he could do there!

No one would know him,—no one had seen him before but she and Brenchfield. She would never recognise him—shaved and clean—for the broken, ragged wretch whom she had befriended. As for Brenchfield—he would know Phil anywhere, in any disguise, but Phil knew how to close his mouth tighter than a clam.

Besides, there was the settlement to be made between Brenchfield and himself.

Yes!—Vernock was the place of all places for Phil Ralston.

He went back to the hotel, dressed himself in the best clothes he had, paid his score and packed his grips. And that night he was speeding eastward.

On the following afternoon he landed at the comparatively busy little ranching town of Vernock, where he had decided to try out his fortune.

He left his grips at the station and sauntered down the Main Street. There were few people about at the time and all were evidently too intent on their own particular business to pay much attention to a new arrival. He passed a commodious-looking hotel, built of wood, typically western in style, with hitching posts at the side of the road, a broad sidewalk and a few steps up to a wide veranda which led into an airy and busy saloon.

For want of anything better to occupy his attention, Phil strolled in. He called for a glass of beer at the bar. While waiting service, he took in his surroundings.

Several men were lounging at the bar talking loudly, smoking, spitting carelessly and drinking. At a table, near the window, a long-legged, somewhat wistful-looking young man, with prominent front teeth and a heavy mop of auburn hair, was sitting in front of a glass of liquor, gazing lazily into the vacant roadway. From an adjoining room off the saloon rough voices rose every now and again in argument over a poker game which was in progress there between a number of men who appeared to be in off some of the neighbouring ranches.

As Phil surveyed the scene, a man galloped up to the hotel entrance, tossed his reins over his horse's head and jingled loudly into the saloon. He was clean-cut, dark-skinned and red-haired, and walked with a swinging gait. He shouted the time of day to the bar-tender, as he kept on into the inner room where the card game was in progress.

Phil guessed him for the foreman of the cattlemen inside and conjectured that he had been giving them some instructions regarding their departure, but passed the incident from his mind as quickly as it had cropped up: and he was still slowly refreshing himself when half a dozen rough-looking men tumbled out of the card-room.

"Come on fellows! Drinks all round, Mack! Don't miss a damned man in the room. Everybody's havin' one on me."

The speaker hitched up his trousers, blew out a mouthful of chewing tobacco and waved his arm invitingly.

The counter loungers gathered round in expectation, as the proprietor and his assistant busied themselves filling the welcome order.

"Hi, Wayward!" he continued, shouting over to the long-legged man sitting by the window. "What-ya drinkin'?"

There was no answer.

"Oh, hell!—he's up in the clouds. Take him over a Scotch and soda, Pete."

Phil looked up in time to intercept a wink between the speaker and one of his gang.

"Hello, stranger! Just blowed in?"

"Yes!" answered Phil. "I am just off the train."

"Stayin' long?"

"Possibly!"

"All right,—what's your poison? It's my deal and your shout."

"Nothing for me, thanks!" replied Phil. "I've all I require here."

The broad-shouldered, clean-limbed fellow came over closer to Phil.

"Say, young man,—'tain't often Don McGregor stands drinks all round, but when he does 'tain't good for the health to turn him down. You've got to have one on me, or you and me ain't goin' to be friendly,—see."

Phil looked him over good-naturedly and smiled.

"Oh, all right; let her go!" he answered. "I'll have a small lemonade."

"What?" exploded the man who called himself Don McGregor.

A shout of laughter came from everyone in the bar-room.

"Didn't you ask me to name my drink?" put in Phil.

"Sure!"

"Well—I've named it."

"No, you ain't! Lemonade ain't a drink: it's a bath."

More merriment greeted the sally.

Phil flushed but held down his rising temper. He had had five years' experience of self-effacement which stood him in good stead now.

"You're not trying to pick a quarrel with me?" he inquired quietly.

"Me? Not on your life! I ain't pickin' scraps with the likes of you. But, for God's sake, man,—name a man-sized drink and be quick. The bunch is all waitin'."

Phil immediately changed his tactics.

"Thanks!" he answered. "I'll have a Scotch."

"That's talkin'."

The bar-tender came over with a bottle in his hand. "Say when!" he remarked to Phil.

"Keep a-going," put in Phil. "Up,—up!"

McGregor stood and gaped.

"That's 'nough!" said Phil easily, as the liquor was brimming over.

The bar-tender pushed along a glass of water. Phil pushed it back.

At a draught he emptied the liquor down his throat. It burned like red-hot coals, for he was unused to it, but he would have drunk it down if it had cremated him.

McGregor had made a miscalculation and he appeared slightly crestfallen as he turned from Phil and talked volubly to his comrades.

While they conversed, McGregor backed gradually, as if by accident, until he was almost touching Phil. Finally he got the heel of his boot squarely on Phil's toe, and he kept it there, pressing harder and harder every second, still talking loudly to those around him and apparently all oblivious of his action.

Even then Phil had no definite notion that it was not merely the clumsy accident of a half-intoxicated cowboy.

At last he poked the man in the back.

"Excuse me," he said, "but when you are finished with my foot I should like to have it."

"What'n the—Oh!" exclaimed the red-haired man, grinding his full weight on Phil's toe as he got off. "Was I standin' on you? Hope I didn't hurt you!" he grinned maliciously.

The pain was excruciating, but still Phil forebore with an effort, accepting the man's half-cocked apology.

Suddenly a new diversion appeared in the shape of a half-witted boy of about twelve years of age, who slouched in evidently on the look-out for any cigar ends that might be lying about the floor.

The boy was clad raggedly and wore a perpetual grin.

"Hullo, Smiler!" cried one of the men. "Come and have a drink."

The boy shook his head and backed away.

McGregor made a grab at him and caught him by the coat collar. He pulled the frightened youngster to the counter and, picking up a bottle of whisky, thrust it under the lad's nose.

"Here, kid;—big drink! Ginger-beer;—good stuff!"

The boy caught the bottle in his hands, tilted it and took a gulp. Then he coughed and spluttered, and spat it out, almost dropping the bottle as McGregor, laughing hilariously, laid hold of it.

"Come on, Smiler!—you got to finish this. Say, Stitchy,—let's make him drunk. Here!—you hold him."

The boy made that inarticulate cry which dumb people make when seized suddenly with fear.

Only then did it strike Phil Ralston that the lad was dumb, as well as half-witted.

The man whom McGregor addressed as Stitchy caught the boy and held him securely by the arms, tilting his head backward until he was unable to move. McGregor brought the bottle and was on the point of forcing the helpless Smiler to open his mouth, when the bottle was sent flying out of his hands and he staggered back against the counter from a blow on the side of the face from Phil's fist.

"Leave the boy alone!" he cried angrily, his face pale as he laboured to stifle his excitement.

He had refrained from interfering as long as he could, well knowing his present physical weakness and what a mix-up might mean to him if the police happened along, but this ill-treatment was a little more than he could stand, despite all possible consequences.

The moment Smiler was released, the boy ran to the door and away.

Meantime, McGregor pulled himself together and began to laugh as if from his stomach.

"I guess that means a scrap," he grunted.

"Not that I know of," put in Phil. "But I like to see fair play. The youngster wasn't hurting you."

For answer McGregor unbuckled his belt and handed it to his friend called Stitchy, spitting noisily on the saw-dusted floor.

The hotel proprietor jumped over the counter and interfered.

"There's going to be no rough-house here. If you fools want to fight get out on the back lot where there's plenty of room. Come on,—out you go! The whole caboodle of you!"

He and his assistant—both burly men—cleared the bar.

Phil was among the last to leave, and, in a faint hope of avoiding trouble, he turned aside, but McGregor sprang after him and laid hold.

"Not by a damn-sight!" he cried. "Here, stick them up!"

He feinted round Phil, then ran in on him. Phil had no alternative. He put up his arms, jumped aside and dealt the cattleman a stiff blow on the mouth.

The crowd gathered round and made a ring. For a time, Phil more than held his own, getting in blow after blow, while McGregor tried his best to come to grips.

"Don't ever let him get his arms round you," cautioned a friendly voice, the owner of which Phil had no time to note.

The stout-chested cattleman had no science, but he possessed an unlimited amount of vital energy and strength. Phil had science, but nothing else to back it up.

The ultimate issue was beyond all question and Phil knew it, for five minutes had not gone ere he was gasping for breath and had black specks floating in hundreds before his vision. He sprang aside and circled time and again, trying to avoid his antagonist's determination to get to grips, but at last, just after a particularly close escape, someone pushed him suddenly from behind and, before he was aware of it, two great arms were round him crushing the life out of him. He struggled frantically, but felt like a puppy-dog in the paws of a grizzly. He was whirled round and round till he grew dizzy. He was crushed and hugged until he became faint. When his bones were cracking and the very life seemed oozing out of him, he felt himself suddenly catapulted somewhere in glorious release, then his senses gave way and he remembered no more for a time.

When he came to, he was lying on the bar-room floor. Someone, whose face he recollected, was bending over him, holding up his head and mopping his brow with a wet cloth. He looked into the face and remembered it. It was the long-legged man with the mop of wavy, auburn hair, whom he had noticed sitting by the window in abstraction a short time before.

"Getting better, old man?" said the young fellow good-naturedly, grinning and showing his great, strong, prominent teeth.

Phil muttered a few inarticulate words of thanks and tried to rise. The lanky man helped him up, led him over to a bench, set him down and then sat down beside him.

"Sorry I didn't interfere sooner. Might have saved you that rough handling," said the stranger. "But to tell you the truth, I thought you were going to eat Rob Roy McGregor up. Guess you could, too, for you handle your fists better than any man I have ever seen;—but you're just as weak as a half-drowned kitten. What's the matter; been boozing?"

"No!" replied Phil. "I seldom drink."

"Lucky you!" put in the big fellow. "Sick then?"

"Yes!—I—I'm just recovering from a severe illness," answered Phil, for want of a better excuse.

"Just come into town?"

"I came in off the noon train."

"Any friends?"

"No!"

"Say!—you don't mind me cross-examining you this way, old man? I—I kind of like your looks."

A big smile went over the face of the stranger, wrinkling and puckering it amusingly.

"What's your name? Mine's Jim Langford. They call me Wayward,—because I am. I'm a B. Sc. of Edinburgh University; a barrister, by profession only; lazy; fond of books and booze; no darned good; always in trouble; sent out here for the good of my health and for the peace of mind of the family, after a bit of trouble; had ten thousand dollars to start with; spent it all before I woke up. I get fifty dollars a month to keep away from the Old Land.

"Have you a place to sleep to-night? Got any baggage?"

"No!" said Phil, in answer to the second last question. "I haven't had time to look around yet. My baggage is at the station."

"Come then! Let's get your stuff. My landlady has a spare room. I guess she'll be glad to let you have it. She's a decent sort, too."

Phil hesitated a moment.

"If you haven't got the money, that won't matter."

"I have a little;—a very little,—enough for a few days. I'm up here to find work."

"Well,—come along with me for the time being," said Langford.

"All right!" assented Phil. And the two walked up Main Street together, up toward the railway tracks, past the barn Phil had hidden in on his first, unofficial visit to Vernock.

"How,—how did you manage to beat off those cowpunchers?" asked Phil.

"Easy as breathing! I once punched the heart out of that rotter McGregor. Beat a man once, good and plenty, and it isn't hard beating him again. And that doesn't only refer to fighting, either. But say! if I didn't know you were a stranger hereabout, I would have said Rob Roy's picking on you was a put up job."

A pang shot through Phil at the suggestion, and it set him wondering.

"First thing you've got to do, young fellow, is to get up your strength and go back and lick the stuffing out of that scum. If you don't, your life won't be worth living in Vernock."

Phil laughed.

"That's straight goods!" returned Langford, his Scottish burr turning the Western phrase strangely.

"Well—I don't mind if I do," said Phil.

They called in at the railway depot, and Phil got his two grips.

"Ralston!—what kind of business do you follow? Hope you aren't a pen-pusher, because pen-pushing isn't for you for some time to come. What you need is something out in the open. You seem to have played merry hell with your constitution. I'm skin and bone myself, but I'm not the fattening kind. I'm built for speed. Now your frame's made for muscle and flesh, and you haven't a pick of meat on your entire carcass."

Phil smiled in an embarrassed kind of way.

"Don't mind me," continued Langford. "You'll get on to my way after a bit. What's your line of trade?"

"Well, to be honest," said Phil, "I haven't any. I came out here to try anything. I'm an M.A. of Toronto University; have substituted in school; can clear land if I get my own time to it; have a pretty fair knowledge of accounting; but haven't done much of anything so far. I used to be a good athlete."

It was Langford's turn to smile.

"Another poor, hand-fed chicken out of the University incubator, who can do everything but what he is meant to do—lay eggs, golden ones. Say, Ralston, the world is full of us and we're little or no damned good. We know too much, or think we do, to be contented with the pick and shovel game, and we don't know enough—because we think we know it all already—to get down to the steady grind year in and year out, at some business that might ultimately bring us to an armchair job. So we go along with our noses to the ground snuffing for a convenient hole to crawl into.

"Oh, well!" he exploded, "who the devil wants to be tied up body and soul to some corporation all his life, for the sake of making a little money that somebody else is going to go to the dogs over after you have gone?"



CHAPTER V

The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Far enough up the hill to view the blossoming orchards all over the Valley and the distant blue of the lake between the hills, Langford stopped at a large, two-storied dwelling house set in expansive grounds and almost hidden among shade trees.

He walked right in, and Phil followed him.

A matronly woman, of portly dimensions, met them in the hallway.

"Mrs. Clunie," cried Langford, "I've caught you a new, live lodger fresh off the train to-day. He will just fit the spare room over the way from mine."

Mrs. Clunie looked her prospective tenant over critically.

"Mrs. Clunie,—Mr. Ralston," continued Langford.

Phil bowed, and Mrs. Clunie nodded in a strictly non-committal way.

"His father is Lord Athelhurst-Ralston of Ecclefechan, Mrs. Clunie. He has come out here for his health."

"Mr. Langford,—that'll do," said the landlady severely. "There was no' a Ralston in the whole o' Ecclefechan let alone a Lord What-ye-call-him Ralston, when I left twenty years syne, and I ha'e my doots if there's one there noo. Don't be makin' a fool o' the young man.

"Where do ye come frae, laddie?"

"I come from Campbeltown, Mrs. Clunie."

"What?—Campbeltown on the Mull o' Kintyre,—then you must ha'e left there before you were shortened," she returned quickly.

"Campbeltown, Ontario!" corrected Phil.

"Oh,—ahee!—You're sober, respectable, law-abiding, and attentive to your work?"

"I hope so."

"As upright as Mr. Langford?"

"Oh, yes!" laughed Phil, remembering Langford's autobiography as he had heard it a short time ago.

"I hope so," she returned pointedly, repeating Phil's own words.

"And he can say the Shorter Catechism and repeat the Psalms of David by heart," put in Langford sonorously.

"Mr. Langford,—that'll do. Scotsmen shouldna be flippant ower such serious subjects," the goodly Mrs. Clunie chided.

"Come up stairs and I'll show ye your room."

She showed Phil into a comfortable little place, fixed a price that suited his scanty purse, collected a month's rent on the spot—lest haply Phil might run into temptation by having that much more money in his possession—and left the newcomer to his own devices.

Half an hour later, Langford shouted to him from the hallway.

"Come on over, Ralston, if you're awake."

Phil obeyed.

"We've all had to go through what you did," said Langford, "but Mrs. Clunie is worth it;—she's a crackerjack. How do you like the lay-out?"

Phil was busy taking in the physical features of Langford's room.

But for the bed and the bureau, the room was more like a study than a bedroom. It contained bookcases from floor to ceiling, packed with literary treasures.

"My pals," said Langford, pointing to two of them containing the classics of fiction, poetry and essays.

"My enemies," he continued, nodding at the third bookcase, packed with books on law.

"Friends of mine," he went on, pointing to a pen and inkwell on a small writing table.

He went over to one of the trunks that graced the window as seats. He raised the lid. It was filled to overflowing with rolls of paper, loose sheets and scraps, all closely written upon.

"My babies," he laughed. "Behold in me the most prolific mother in all literature!"

"What are they?" inquired Phil.

"The offsprings of fancy," returned Langford, grandiloquently; "essays, short stories, dramas, poems—all of no financial value. Dime novels worth fifty dollars a time, but all cashed. Advice to the Love Sick—five dollars a column—alas also unconvertible."

Phil stood before him a little nonplussed, while Langford grinned and smoked on.

"I suffer continually the mental pangs of literary childbirth."

He sat in a chair and lounged dreamily as he puffed out clouds of smoke, his long legs sprawling out in front of him.

"You're lucky to have such a talent," put in Phil at last.

"Lucky! Talent!" exclaimed Langford.

"I always understood literature was a lucrative pursuit."

"Pursuit,—yes;—but lucrative! Ye gods!

"You see, Ralston, I suffer with my thoughts until I relieve myself by getting them down as best I can on paper, then I bury them in my trunk along with their elder brothers. I know I ought to burn them, but I haven't the heart to murder my children born in such travail. Some day, however, it will have to be done, otherwise they'll crowd their father-mother out of house and home."

"Don't you try to market your work?"

"I did once—many times once—but they would have none of my high-faluting flights, although as Captain Mayne Plunkett, the writer of penny dreadfuls for the consumption of England's budding pirates and cowpunchers, I am not without a following, and I have a steady contract for one per month at fifty dollars straight. To a New York girls' journal, I am not unkindly thought of as Aunt Christina in the Replies to the Love Lorn column,—five dollars per—."

He laughed reflectively.

"But don't you work?" asked Phil innocently.

"Work! Lord, isn't that work a-plenty?"

"Yes, but work that pays in real dollars and cents."

"Ah!" Langford's eyes swept the ceiling. "Meantime, I am what you might call Assistant to the Government Agent. God knows how long he will suffer me. He is a real good sort, and doesn't expect too much for his money either in time or in ability. I knock about fifty dollars a month out of him when I work, and that, with the fifty with which my old dad so benevolently pensions me, together with fifty for every 'penny horrible' I write, I contrive to eke out a scanty living.

"You've got to work, too, Ralston; haven't you?"

"Work or starve!" answered Phil.

"I hate to think of any man having to work," mused Langford, "but if starve is the only alternative, why, I guess you've got to find a job. Got anything in view?"

"No!"

"Particular about what you tackle?"

"Not at all!"

"All right! I've to be at the Court House at five o'clock. Kick your heels around this little burg for a few hours and I'll try to scare up something for you. But don't get into mischief."

He rose, knocked the ashes out of his pipe on the heel of his boot at the stove, and put on his hat.

He turned at the door.

"Say, Ralston! It won't be any pen-pushing job, mark you. You have to get your muscle up, for there's something I want you to do when you are good and fit."

"And what is that?"

"Tell you later. So long!"

A few minutes later Phil got his hat from the hall-rack and strolled leisurely out, taking the road down the hill toward the main street of the town.

He passed a red brick building which bore the aristocratic title on a large painted sign over the doorway, "Municipal Hall." He looked at the windows. Hanging on one of them, in the inside, was a black card with gilt letters, "Mayor Brenchfield."

Phil's under lip shot out and his brow wrinkled. His hand travelled to his hip pocket, as a nervous man's does when he sees a sign in a railway station, "Beware of Pickpockets."

He swung on his heel and walked up the wooden steps into the main office, as calm and collected as could be.

"Is the Mayor in?" he asked one of the officials.

"Yes! Wish to see him? What name, please?"

"Oh, just tell him it's an old friend."

The office man went into the inner room and soon returned.

"He is very busy on some special work. Would you mind calling in again?"

"Anybody with him?"

"No!"

Phil brushed past the man and walked straight into the Mayor's office, closing the door behind him.

Brenchfield was sitting in an armchair, behind a desk, smoking a huge cigar and blowing clouds in the air; the very picture of municipal overwork.

"Thought it might be you! Heard you were in town. Sit down, Phil!"

"Thanks, no!" returned Phil brusquely.

Brenchfield reached over, opened a cheque book, took up a pen, dipped it in an inkwell, turned his cigar savagely to a corner of his mouth and looked up at his visitor inquiringly.

"How much do you want?"

Phil smiled on him, half-pityingly. Physically, he was tremendously weak, but he despised the man before him so much that it gave him courage and strength.

"How much have you?" he asked.

"None of your damned business!"

"Oh!—I guess you've forgotten that our five years' partnership is up:—a pool and a fair divide, wasn't it? Share and share alike! Well,—there's mine!"

He threw a few bills and a little silver on the table.

Brenchfield pushed back his chair.

"So that's your game, you poor miserable—you know the name!"

"Poor and miserable, all right,—like the fool I was. But I'm not a fool any more. I know you. I know the world just a little better than I did five years ago."

"Shut up, man! Do you wish the whole town to hear?"

"What if they do hear? I've nothing to hide;—I'm not like you."

"And you'll be getting a little more of what you have already had, if you don't go easier than you are doing. See here!—I'm busy, but I'm willing to start you off. What's your price to get out of here for good and forget you ever knew me, and to forget me for all time to come?"

"One-half of all you have, and interest to date,—I to stay here as long as I please."

The Mayor looked at Phil as if he were looking at a lunatic, then he smiled and started in to fill up a cheque.

"I owe you five hundred. I've tacked on a thousand more. There! The train leaves at 3:15 P.M. to-morrow. You get out on it. Do you understand?"

"Thank you!—but this place suits me. I like it and I'm going to stay."

"You are,—eh! If you don't get out with to-morrow's train you'll go out the day following, in a box, feet first."

"Yes! Judging from what happened early this afternoon, I daresay you are quite equal to that kind of thing," said Phil quietly. "But I'm going to stay all the same."

"You won't get a job within twenty miles of Vernock. If you do, you won't hold it, for every man in the district will know you for what you are,—an ex-jailbird."

"Who will tell them?"

"I will."

"No, you won't!"

"Won't I? Try it out and I'll show you quick enough."

Phil went over to Brenchfield's desk.

"I suppose you think your tracks are pretty well covered up after five years."

"I have none to cover," retorted Brenchfield. "I don't know you personally; never did know you;—don't want to know you. I do know you by reputation for an escaped jailbird and a would-be blackmailer, who will be back where he belongs before he is much older. Get that?"

"Yes,—I got it," answered Phil, desperate, and almost beaten, when an imp in his mind set him busy.

"I'm going to stay here, Graham, and you're not going to try to prevent me or say a word that would injure my standing. If you do, then God help you."

Brenchfield laughed up at the ceiling.

"Five years ago," went on Phil, "you wrote a little note in cypher and left it with me when you turned tail and ran away. Maybe you have forgotten about that note. Well,—written things have a habit of turning up."

Brenchfield's bravado oozed away. His hard face grew pale.

"You're lying. You burned that note."

"Did I?"

"If you didn't, it would have been found and would have come out in the evidence."

"Perhaps!"

Phil put his hand in the inside pocket of his jacket, as if to bring out the paper, then he appeared to change his mind, for he desisted and made as if to leave.

Brenchfield jumped up quickly, sprang for the door and stood with his back to it.

"Damn you! How much do you want?"

"Nothing!"

"Name your price and give me that note."

"It is priceless."

"Good heavens, man!—you need money. You're a pauper. I can make you comfortable. I can get you a position that will make you secure for life."

Phil slowly picked up his own money that he had thrown on the desk and put it in his trouser pocket.

"Much obliged!" he remarked, "but I have no intention of remaining a pauper for long. I wouldn't insult my conscience by taking any position you could find for me. Do you mind letting me out?"

For answer, Brenchfield was on him like a wild-cat. Phil wriggled, but the Mayor got behind him, with an arm pressing his throat and a hand over his mouth. With a quick movement and without the slightest noise he bore Phil backward full length on the thickly carpeted floor. He moved his grip and, half strangling him with one hand as he knelt heavily on Phil's chest, he went through Phil's inside pocket.

The pocket was empty.

Phil could not cry out, and would not have done so had he been able.

Slowly Brenchfield searched every pocket in turn. He failed to find a document of any kind.

He released him at last, rose and brushed the dust from his trousers, breathing heavily.

"Damn you!—I knew you lied."

Phil got up also.

"Guess you take me for a fool such as I used to be," he panted. "I don't carry my valuables with me now when I visit your kind. I have more sense. Now, do you mind letting me out?"

Brenchfield made as if he were going to strike Phil in his anger.

"If I thought you had that paper, I'd kill you for it."

"And, if you thought I hadn't, you'd hound the life out of me. Well,—do your darnedest."

"The money offer still holds good," said Brenchfield in a more conciliatory tone. "Keep your mouth shut and I'll do the same. Let me know when you are ready to name your price for that paper."

"When I need the money, I'll let you know," replied the other.

Brenchfield opened the door, and smiling an urbane mayoral "Good afternoon," that all in the main office could hear, he ushered Phil out.



CHAPTER VI

A Bird to Pluck

As he walked down Main Street toward the Kenora Hotel, where it was his intention to have a bite to eat, Phil congratulated himself inwardly, on the one side, on the more than ordinary success of his gigantic bluff—for he knew that so long as he was able to hold this bogey of a confession as a club over the head of Brenchfield, he was safe from open interference:—on the other side, he cursed his arrant stupidity and childlike simplicity in destroying a document which, even if he never used it, proved beyond the shadow of a doubt his innocence of the crime for which he had been imprisoned.

He tried hard to recollect exactly what had happened that fatal morning after Brenchfield had left the shack on the side of the road at Carnaby, but all was more or less hazy and indistinct. He remembered deciphering the note and crumpling it up in his despair and worry. Later, he recollected gathering up the loose papers and other material evidences of Brenchfield's guilt, stuffing them into the stove and setting them alight.

As he walked along his musings were brought to an abrupt stop, as his eye caught sight of a tall, straight, picturesque-looking individual coming toward him. The man was dressed in what at one time had been an immaculate sporting suit, but which, in its now battered and tattered state, gave the wearer the look of a bookmaker who had been dragged through a mud puddle and then hung out to dry.

The man's wide sombrero was battered, his stock around his neck was dirty, the brass buttons on his robin-redbreast waistcoat were dull and tarnished, his riding breeches and leggings seemed sworn enemies of brush and polish. But despite all this, one could not get away from the fact that everything the man wore was of the very best and most expensive materials.

He stepped up in front of Phil apologetically. His voice was attractively musical and exceedingly English.

"Excuse me, old chap! I'm a stranger here. I'm deuced dirty and devilish hungry. Do you mind directing me to a good hotel where I could get a wash and a jolly good tuck in?"

"Certainly," said Phil. "I think the Kenora's all right. I'm going that way myself for a snack, if you care to come along."

"Thanks! Jolly decent! Don't mind if I do!"

He turned with Phil, and as they went on together he took a little silver case from his pocket and handed a card to Phil.

"My name! What's yours?"

Phil scanned the card and smiled.

Percival DeRue Hannington The Oaks Mount Raeburn Hants

"Sorry I haven't a card," he said. "My name's Ralston, Phil Ralston."

"Don't mention it, old chap! They don't cotton much to cards out here, I notice."

He wrung Phil's hand heartily.

A little cord was hanging round Percival Hannington's neck and led to a top pocket of his vest. Phil felt positive it terminated in a monocle and, as the stranger's fingers wandered down the cord, Phil, in his dread of what was about to happen, laid his hand restrainingly over the travelling fingers.

"Don't!" he pleaded. "They don't cotton to that, either, out here."

The stranger flushed a little.

"By jove,—you're right. Thanks! Habits are beastly things, you know. Better rid myself of all my old ties if I'm to start afresh, eh!"

He pulled out the monocle, jerked the cord from his neck, snapped the glass between his fingers and tossed the lot into the roadway.

Something in the spontaneous act went to Phil's heart and he felt from that moment that here was a man he could like despite his strange exterior.

They passed through the bar of the Kenora, which was the only way one could get admittance to that hotel unless by the back door among empty cans and kitchen garbage. The strange apparition of the Englishman reduced everyone in the saloon to funereal silence. Phil bravely led the way, however, without mishap, except for a distant shout of laughter which reached them at the dining-room.

Phil spoke to the hotel clerk, who shouted for the bell boy.

"Follow that boy," said Phil. "He will fix you up."

"Thanks! If you don't mind, I should like to have my bite with you, old chap. I won't be a jiffy."

And off he strutted after the grinning boy, while Phil sat in five minutes' dreamy contemplation.

Back came Percival DeRue Hannington, spick and span as far as a clothes-brush and soap and water could make him.

"By jove! It's a corker how much dirt can stick to a fellow without falling off," he remarked. "What are you having?"

Phil named something light.

"That all?" asked Hannington. "I'm hungry as a blooming hawk. I haven't had a decent bite for three months.

"Everything on the blessed calendar for me, miss, frills and extras included," he went on, addressing the waitress, who went away with the end of her apron in her mouth.

"You know, Mister—Mister——"

"Phil Ralston!"

"Ah, yes! Mister Phil——"

"Just plain Phil!"

"Phil—yes, excuse me! You know, I came out to this bally country on false pretences, as it were. Oh,—the country's all right! Don't misunderstand me. It's a regular ripper, but, damme, I got done, you know."

The soup came along, and DeRue Hannington fumbled for his monocle but suddenly seemed to remember that it was no longer a part of him. He blundered awkwardly a while, as if he had suddenly been deprived of one of his active members.

"It's this way, Mister, eh, Phil. The guv'nor thought I was going the pace too hard and becoming a bally rotter, so he said I had to go out West and be a rawncher. He said it just like that,—as if being a rawncher was as easy as being a rotter.

"Are you a rawncher?"

"No! It takes money to be that."

"You're a foreman, or a cowboy, or something?"

"No,—I'm not anything yet," smiled Phil. "I'm just starting in. I've lately finished my college training."

The irony in his voice was lost on DeRue Hannington who was too full of his own troubles to worry about those of anyone else.

"Well, you see,—when the dad and I had that tiff, I just took him on.

"I saw an advertisement of a rawnching chap in a London journal, offering to take on an Englishman as an apprentice and teach him everything about rawnching for three years for five hundred dollars a year. I just cabled that fellow and got his answer to come right away. And here I got three months ago."

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