The Story of the Foss River Ranch
A Tale of the Northwest
By RIDGWELL CULLUM
"The Law Breakers," "The Way of the Strong," "The Watchers of the Plains." Etc.
A.L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York
Published by Arrangement with THE PAGE COMPANY
Published August, 1903
TO MY WIFE
I THE POLO CLUB BALL 1
II THE BLIZZARD: ITS CONSEQUENCES 12
III A BIG GAME OF POKER 24
IV AT THE FOSS RIVER RANCH 32
V THE "STRAY" BEYOND THE MUSKEG 45
VI "WAYS THAT ARE DARK" 56
VII ACROSS THE GREAT MUSKEG 64
VIII TOLD IN BAD MAN'S HOLLOW 76
IX LABLACHE'S "COUP" 88
X "AUNT" MARGARET REFLECTS 96
XI THE CAMPAIGN OPENS 110
XII LABLACHE FORCES THE FIGHT 120
XIII THE FIRST CHECK 128
XIV THE HUE AND CRY 138
XV AMONG THE HALF-BREEDS 150
XVI GAUTIER CAUSES DISSENSION 163
XVII THE NIGHT OF THE PUSKY 176
XVIII THE PUSKY 188
XIX LABLACHE'S MIDNIGHT VISITOR 200
XX A NIGHT OF TERROR 210
XXI HORROCKS LEARNS THE SECRET OF THE MUSKEG 219
XXII THE DAY AFTER 230
XXIII THE PAW OF THE CAT 243
XXIV "POKER" JOHN ACCEPTS 253
XXV UNCLE AND NIECE 261
XXVI IN WHICH MATTERS REACH A CLIMAX 270
XXVII THE LAST GAMBLE 279
XXVIII SETTLING THE RECKONING 287
XXIX THE MAW OF THE MUSKEG 297
THE POLO CLUB BALL
It was a brilliant gathering—brilliant in every sense of the word. The hall was a great effort of the decorator's art; the people were faultlessly dressed; the faces were strong, handsome—fair or dark complexioned as the case might be; those present represented the wealth and fashion of the Western Canadian ranching world. Intellectually, too, there was no more fault to find here than is usual in a ballroom in the West End of London.
It was the annual ball of the Polo Club, and that was a social function of the first water—in the eyes of the Calford world.
"My dear Mrs. Abbot, it is a matter which is quite out of my province," said John Allandale, in answer to a remark from his companion. He was leaning over the cushioned back of the Chesterfield upon which an old lady was seated, and gazing smilingly over at a group of young people standing at the opposite end of the room. "Jacky is one of those young ladies whose strength of character carries her beyond the control of mere man. Yes, I know what you would say," as Mrs. Abbot glanced up into his face with a look of mildly-expressed wonder; "it is true I am her uncle and guardian, but, nevertheless, I should no more dream of interfering with her—what shall we say?—love affairs, than suggest her incapacity to 'boss' a 'round up' worked by a crowd of Mexican greasers."
"Then all I can say is that your niece is a very unfortunate girl," replied the old lady, acidly. "How old is she?"
John Allandale, or "Poker" John as he was more familiarly called by all who knew him, was still looking over at the group, but an expression had suddenly crept into his eyes which might, in a less robust-looking man, have been taken for disquiet—even fear. His companion's words had brought home to him a partial realization of a responsibility which was his.
"Twenty-two," she repeated, "and not a relative living except a good-hearted but thoroughly irresponsible uncle. That child is to be pitied, John."
The old man sighed. He took no umbrage at his companion's brusquely-expressed estimation of himself. He was still watching the group at the other end of the room. His face was clouded, and a keen observer might have detected a curious twitching of his bronzed right cheek, just beneath the eye. His eyes followed the movement of a beautiful girl surrounded by a cluster of men, immaculately dressed, bronzed—and, for the most part, wholesome-looking. She was dark, almost Eastern in her type of features. Her hair was black with the blackness of the raven's wing, and coiled in an ample knot low upon her neck. Her features, although Eastern, had scarcely the regularity one expects in such a type, whilst her eyes quashed without mercy any idea of such extraction for her nationality. They were gray, deeply ringed at the pupil with black. They were keen eyes—fathomless in their suggestion of strength—eyes which might easily mask a world of good or evil.
The music began, and the girl passed from amidst her group of admirers upon the arm of a tall, fair man, and was soon lost in the midst of the throng of dancers.
"Who is that she is dancing with now?" asked Mrs. Abbot, presently. "I didn't see her go off; I was watching Mr. Lablache standing alone and disconsolate over there against the door. He looks as if some one had done him some terrible injury. See how he is glaring at the dancers."
"Jacky is dancing with 'Lord' Bill. Yes, you are right, Lablache does not look very amiable. I think this would be a good opportunity to suggest a little gamble in the smoking-room."
"Nothing of the sort," snapped Mrs. Abbot, with the assurance of an old friend. "I haven't half finished talking to you yet. It is a most extraordinary thing that all you people of the prairie love to call each other by nicknames. Why should the Hon. William Bunning-Ford be dubbed 'Lord' Bill, and why should that sweet niece of yours, who is the possessor of such a charming name as Joaquina, be hailed by every man within one hundred miles of Calford as 'Jacky'? I think it is both absurd and—vulgar."
"Possibly you are right, my dear lady. But you can never alter the ways of the prairie. You might just as well try to stem the stream of our Foss River in early spring as try to make the prairie man call people by their legitimate names. For instance, do you ever hear me spoken of by any other name than 'Poker' John?"
Mrs. Abbot looked up sharply. A malicious twinkle was in her eyes.
"There is reason in your sobriquet, John. A man who spends his substance and time in playing that fascinating but degrading game called 'Draw Poker' deserves no better title."
John Allandale made a "clucking" sound with his tongue. It was his way of expressing irritation. Then he stood erect, and glanced round the room in search of some one. He was a tall, well-built man and carried his fifty odd years fairly well, in spite of his gray hair and the bald patch at the crown of his head. Thirty years of a rancher's life had in no way lessened the easy carriage and distinguished bearing acquired during his upbringing. John Allandale's face and figure were redolent of the free life of the prairie. And although, possibly, his fifty-five years might have lain more easily upon him he was a man of commanding appearance and one not to be passed unnoticed.
Mrs. Abbot was the wife of the doctor of the Foss River Settlement and had known John Allandale from the first day he had taken up his abode on the land which afterwards became known as the Foss River Ranch until now, when he was acknowledged to be a power in the stock-raising world. She was a woman of sound, practical, common sense; he was a man of action rather than a thinker; she was a woman whose moral guide was an invincible sense of duty; he was a man whose sense of responsibility and duty was entirely governed by an unreliable inclination. Moreover, he was obstinate without being possessed of great strength of will. They were characters utterly opposed to one another, and yet they were the greatest of friends.
The music had ceased again and once more the walls were lined with heated dancers, breathing hard and fanning themselves. Suddenly John Allandale saw a face he was looking for. Murmuring an excuse to Mrs. Abbot, he strode across the room, just as his niece, leaning upon the arm of the Hon. Bunning-Ford, approached where he had been standing.
Mrs. Abbot glanced admiringly up into Jacky's face.
"A successful evening, Joaquina?" she interrogated kindly.
"Lovely, Aunt Margaret, thanks." She always called the doctor's wife "Aunt."
Mrs. Abbot nodded.
"I believe you have danced every dance. You must be tired, child. Come and sit down."
Jacky was intensely fond of this old lady and looked upon her almost as a mother. Her affection was reciprocated. The girl seated herself and "Lord" Bill stood over her, fan in hand.
"Say, auntie," exclaimed Jacky, "I've made up my mind to dance every dance on the program. And I guess I sha'n't Waste time on feeding."
The girl's beautiful face was aglow with excitement. Mrs. Abbot's face indicated horrified amazement.
"My dear child, don't—don't talk like that. It is really dreadful."
"Lord" Bill smiled.
"I'm so sorry, auntie, I forgot," the girl replied, with an irresistible smile. "I never can get away from the prairie. Do you know, this evening old Lablache made me mad, and my hand went round to my hip to get a grip on my six-shooter, and I was quite disappointed to feel nothing but smooth silk to my touch. I'm not fit for town life, I guess. I'm a prairie girl; you can bet your life on it, and nothing will civilize me. Billy, do stop wagging that fan."
"Lord" Bill smiled a slow, twinkling smile and desisted. He was a tall, slight man, with a faint stoop at the shoulders. He looked worthy of his title.
"It is no use trying to treat Jacky to a becoming appreciation of social requirements," he said, addressing himself with a sort of weary deliberation to Mrs. Abbot. "I suggested an ice just now. She said she got plenty on the ranch at this time of year," and he shrugged his shoulders and laughed pleasantly.
"Well, of course. What does one want ices for?" asked the girl, disdainfully. "I came here to dance. But, auntie, dear, where has uncle gone? He dashed off as if he were afraid of us when we came up."
"I think he has set his mind on a game of poker, dear, and—"
"And that means he has gone in search of that detestable man, Lablache," Jacky put in sharply.
Her beautiful face flushed with anger as she spoke. But withal there was a look of anxiety in her eyes.
"If he must play cards I wish he would play with some one else," she pursued.
"Lord" Bill glanced round the room. He saw that Lablache had disappeared.
"Well, you see, Lablache has taken a lot of money out of all of us. Naturally we wish to get it back," he said quietly, as if in defense of her uncle's doings.
"Yes, I know. And—do you?" The girl's tone was cutting.
"Lord" Bill shrugged. Then,—
"As yet I have not had that pleasure."
"And if I know anything of Lablache you never will," put in Mrs. Abbot, curtly. "He is not given to parting easily. The qualification most necessary amongst gentlemen in the days of our grandfathers was keen gambling. You and John, had you lived in those days, might have aspired to thrones."
"Yes—or taken to the road. You remember, even then, it was necessary to be a 'gentleman' of the road."
"Lord" Bill laughed in his lazy fashion. His keen gray eyes were half veiled with eyelids which, seemed too weary to lift themselves. He was a handsome man, but his general air of weariness belied the somewhat eagle cast of countenance which was his. Mrs. Abbot, watching him, thought that the deplorable lassitude which he always exhibited masked a very different nature. Jacky possibly had her own estimation of the man. Whatever it was, her friendship for him was not to be doubted, and, on his part, he never attempted to disguise his admiration of her.
A woman is often a much keener observer of men than she is given credit for. A man is frequently disposed to judge another man by his mental talents and his peculiarities of temper—or blatant self-advertisement. A woman's first thought is for that vague, but comprehensive trait "manliness. She drives straight home for the peg upon which to hang her judgment. That is why in feminine regard the bookworm goes to the wall to make room for the athlete. Possibly Jacky and Mrs. Abbot had probed beneath "Lord" Bill's superficial weariness and discovered there a nature worthy of their regard. They were both, in their several ways, fond of this scion of a noble house.
"It is all very well for you good people to sit there and lecture—or, at least, say 'things,'" "Lord" Bill went on. "A man must have excitement. Life becomes a burden to the man who lives the humdrum existence of ranch life. For the first few years it is all very well. He can find a certain excitement in learning the business. The 'round-ups' and branding and re-branding of cattle, these things are fascinating—for a time. Breaking the wild and woolly broncho is thrilling and he needs no other tonic; but when one has gone through all this and he finds that no Broncho—or, for that matter, any other horse—ever foaled cannot be ridden, it loses its charm and becomes boring. On the prairie there are only two things left for him to do—drink or gamble. The first is impossible. It is low, degrading. Besides it only appeals to certain senses, and does not give one that 'hair-curling' thrill which makes life tolerable. Consequently the wily pasteboard is brought forth—and we live again."
"Stuff," remarked Mrs. Abbot, uncompromisingly.
"Bill, you make me laugh," exclaimed Jacky, smiling up into his face. "Your arguments are so characteristic of you. I believe it is nothing but sheer indolence that makes you sit down night after night and hand over your dollars to that—that Lablache. How much have you lost to him this week?"
"Lord" Bill glanced quizzically down at the girl.
"I have purchased seven evenings' excitement at a fairly reasonable price."
The girl leant forward and in her eyes was a look of anxiety. She meant to have the truth.
"I have enjoyed myself."
"But the price?"
"Ah—here comes your partner for the next dance," "Lord" Bill went on, still smiling. "The band has struck up."
At that moment a broad-shouldered man, with a complexion speaking loudly of the prairie, came up to claim the girl.
"Hallo, Pickles," said Bill, quietly turning upon the newcomer and ignoring Jacky's question. "Thought you said you weren't coming in to-night?"
"Neither was I," the man addressed as "Pickles" retorted, "but Miss Jacky promised me two dances," he went on, in strong Irish brogue; "that settled it. How d'ye do, Mrs. Abbot? Come along, Miss Jacky, we're losing half our dance."
The girl took the proffered arm and was about to move off. She turned and spoke to "Lord" Bill over her shoulder.
Bill shrugged his shoulders in a deprecating fashion. The same gentle smile hovered round his sleepy eyes.
"Three thousand dollars."
Jacky glided off into the already dancing throng.
For a moment the Hon. Bunning-Ford and Mrs. Abbot watched the girl as she glided in and out amongst the dancers, then, with a sigh, the old lady turned to her companion. Her kindly wrinkled old face wore a sad expression and a half tender look was in her eyes as they rested upon the man's face. When she spoke, however, her tone was purely conversational.
"Are you not going to dance?"
"No," abstractedly. "I think I've had enough."
"Then come and sit by me and help to cheer an old woman up."
"Lord" Bill smiled as he seated himself upon the lounge.
"I don't think there is much necessity for my cheering influence, Aunt Margaret. Amongst your many other charming qualities cheerfulness is not the least. Doesn't Jacky look lovely to-night?"
"Yes, of course—but Jacky always seems to surpass herself under excitement. One would scarcely expect it, knowing her as we do. But she is as wildly delighted with dancing as any miss fresh from school."
"And why not? It is little pleasure that comes into her life. An orphan—barely twenty-two—with the entire responsibility of her uncle's ranch upon her shoulders. Living in a very hornet's nest of blacklegs and—and—"
"Gamblers," put in the man, quietly.
"Yes," Aunt Margaret went on defiantly, "gamblers. With the certain knowledge that the home she struggles for, through no fault of her own, is passing into the hands of a man she hates and despises—"
"And who by the way is in love with her." "Lord" Bill's mouth was curiously pursed.
"What pleasure can she have?" exclaimed Mrs. Abbot, vehemently. "Sometimes, much as I am attached to John, I feel as if I should like to—to bang him!"
"Poor old John!" Bill's bantering tone nettled the old lady, but she said no more. Her anger against those she loved could not last long.
"'Poker' John loves his niece," the man went on, as his companion remained silent. "There is nothing in the world he would not do for her, if it lay within his power."
"Then let him leave poker alone. His gambling is breaking her heart."
The angry light was again in the old lady's eyes. Her companion did not answer for a moment. His lips had assumed that curious pursing. When he spoke it was with, great decision.
"Impossible, my dear lady—utterly impossible. Can the Foss River help freezing in winter? Can Jacky help talking prairie slang? Can Lablache help grubbing for money? Can you help caring for all of our worthless selves who belong to the Foss River Settlement? Nothing can alter these things. John would play poker on the lid of his own coffin, while the undertakers were winding his shroud about him—if they'd lend him a pack of cards."
"I believe you encourage him in it," said the old lady, mollified, but still sticking to her guns. "There is little to choose between you."
The man shrugged his indolent shoulders. This dear old lady's loyalty to Jacky, and, for that matter, to all her friends, pleased while it amused him.
"Maybe." Then abruptly, "Let's talk of something else."
At that moment an elderly man was seen edging his way through the dancers. He came directly over to Mrs. Abbot.
"It's getting late, Margaret," he said, pausing before her. "I am told it is rather gusty outside. The weather prophets think we may have a blizzard on us before morning."
"I shouldn't be at all surprised," put in the Hon. Bunning-Ford. "The sun-dogs have been showing for the last two days. I'll see what Jacky says, and then hunt out old John."
"Yes, for goodness' sake don't let us get caught in a blizzard," exclaimed Mrs. Abbot, fearfully. "If there is one thing I'm afraid of it is one of those terrible storms. We have thirty-five miles to go."
The new-comer, Dr. Abbot, smiled at his wife's terrified look, but, as he turned to urge Bill to hurry, there was a slightly anxious look on his face.
"Hurry up, old man. I'll go and see about our sleigh." Then in an undertone, "You can exaggerate a little to persuade them, for the storm is coming on and we must get away at once."
A moment or two later "Lord" Bill and Jacky were making their way to the smoking-room. On the stairs they met "Poker" John. He was returning to the ballroom.
"We were just coming to look for you, uncle," exclaimed Jacky. "They tell us it is blowing outside."
"Just what I was coming to tell you, my dear. We must be going. Where are the doctor and Aunt Margaret?"
"Getting ready," said Bill, quietly. "Have a good game?"
The old man smiled. His bronzed face indicated extreme satisfaction.
"Not half bad, boy—not half bad. Relieved Lablache of five hundred dollars in the last jackpot. Held four deuces. He opened with full on aces."
"Poker" John seemed to have forgotten the past heavy losses, and spoke gleefully of the paltry five hundred he had just scooped in.
The girl looked relieved, and even the undemonstrative "Lord" Bill allowed a scarcely audible sigh to escape him. Jacky returned at once to the exigencies of the moment.
"Then, uncle, dear, let us hurry up. I guess none of us want to be caught in a blizzard. Say, Bill, take me to the cloak-room, right away."
THE BLIZZARD: ITS CONSEQUENCES
On the whole, Canada can boast of one of the most perfect health-giving climates in the world, despite the two extremes of heat and cold of which it is composed. But even so, the Canadian climate is cursed by an evil which every now and again breaks loose from the bonds which fetter it, and rages from east to west, carrying death and destruction in its wake. I speak of the terrible—the raging Blizzard!
To appreciate the panic-like haste with which the Foss River Settlement party left the ballroom, one must have lived a winter in the west of Canada. The reader who sits snugly by his or her fireside, and who has never experienced a Canadian winter, can have no conception of one of those dread storms, the very name of which had drawn words of terror from one who had lived the greater part of her life in the eastern shadow of the Rockies. Hers was no timid, womanly fear for ordinary inclemency of weather, but a deep-rooted dread of a life-and-death struggle in a merciless storm, than which, in no part of the world, can there be found a more fearful. Whence it comes—and why, surely no one may say. A meteorological expert may endeavor to account for it, but his argument is unconvincing and gains no credence from the dweller on the prairies. And why? Because the storm does not come from above—neither does it come from a specified direction. And only in the winter does such a wind blow. The wind buffets from every direction at once. No snow falls from above and yet a blinding gray wall of snow, swept up from the white-clothed ground, encompasses the dazed traveller. His arm outstretched in daylight and he cannot see the tips of his heavy fur mitts. Bitter cold, a hundred times intensified by the merciless force of the wind, and he is lost and freezing—slowly freezing to death.
As the sleigh dashed through the outskirts of Calford, on its way to the south, there was not much doubt in the minds of any of its occupants as to the prospects of the storm. The gusty, patchy wind, the sudden sweeps of hissing, cutting snow, as it slithered up in a gray dust in the moonlight, and lashed, with stinging force, into their faces, was a sure herald of the coming "blizzard."
Bunning-Ford and Jacky occupied the front seat of the sleigh. The former was driving the spanking team of blacks of which old "Poker" John was justly proud. The sleigh was open, as in Canada all such sleighs are. Mrs. Abbot and the doctor sat in a seat with their backs to Jacky and her companion, and old John Allandale faced the wind in the back seat, alone. Thirty-five miles the horses had to cover before the storm thoroughly established itself, and "Lord" Bill was not a slow driver.
The figures of the travellers were hardly distinguishable so enwrapped were they in beaver caps, buffalo coats and robes. Jacky, as she sat silently beside her companion, might have been taken for an inanimate bundle of furs, so lost was she within the ample folds of her buffalo. But for the occasional turn of her head, as she measured with her eyes the rising of the storm, she gave no sign of life.
"Lord" Bill seemed indifferent. His eyes were fixed upon the road ahead and his hands, encased in fur mitts, were on the "lines" with a tenacious grip. The horses needed no urging. They were high-mettled and cold. The gushing quiver of their nostrils, as they drank in the crisp, night air, had a comforting sound for the occupants of the sleigh. Weather permitting, those beautiful "blacks" would do the distance in under three hours.
The sleigh bells jangled musically in response to the high steps of the horses as they sped over the hard, snow-covered trail. They were climbing the long slope which was to take them out of the valley wherein was Calford situate. Presently Jack's face appeared from amidst the folds of the muffler which kept her storm collar fast round her neck and ears.
"It's gaining on us, Billy."
"Yes, I know."
He understood her remark. He knew she referred to the storm. His lips were curiously pursed. A knack he had when stirred out of himself.
"We shan't do it."
The girl spoke with conviction.
"Guess we'd better hit the trail for Norton's. Soldier Joe'll be glad to welcome us."
"Lord" Bill did not answer. He merely chirruped at the horses. The willing beasts increased their pace and the sleigh sped along with that intoxicating smoothness only to be felt when travelling with double "bobs" on a perfect trail.
The gray wind of the approaching blizzard was becoming fiercer. The moon was already enveloped in a dense haze. The snow was driving like fine sand in the faces of the travellers.
"I think we'll give it an hour, Bill. After that I guess it'll be too thick," pursued the girl. "What d'you think, can we make Norton's in that time—it's a good sixteen miles?"
"I'll put 'em at it," was her companion's curt response.
Neither spoke for a minute. Then "Lord" Bill bent his head suddenly forward. The night was getting blacker and it was with difficulty that he could keep his eyes from blinking under the lash of the whipping snow.
"What is it?" asked Jacky, ever on the alert with the instinct of the prairie.
"Some one just ahead of us. The track is badly broken in places. Sit tight, I'm going to touch 'em up."
He flicked the whip over the horses' backs, and, a moment later, the sleigh was flying along at a dangerous pace. The horses had broken into a gallop.
"Lord" Bill seemed to liven up under the influence of speed. The wind was howling now, and conversation was impossible, except in short, jerky sentences. They were on the high level of the prairie and were getting the full benefit of the open sweep of country.
"Cold?" Bill almost shouted.
"No," came the quiet response.
"Straight, down-hill trail. I'm going to let 'em have their heads."
Both of these people knew every inch of the road they were travelling. There was no fear in their hearts.
"Put 'em along, then."
The horses raced along. The deadly gray wind had obscured all light. The lights of the sleigh alone showed the tracks. It was a wild night and every moment it seemed to become worse. Suddenly the man spoke again.
"I wish we hadn't got the others with us, Jacky."
"Because I could put 'em along faster, as it is—" His sentence remained unfinished, the sleigh bumped and lifted on to one runner. It was within an ace of overturning. There was no need to finish his sentence.
"Yes, I understand, Bill. Don't take too many chances. Ease 'em up—some. They're not as young as we are—not the horses. The others."
"Lord" Bill laughed. Jacky was so cool. The word fear was not in her vocabulary. This sort of a journey was nothing new to her. She had experienced it all before. Possibly, however, her total lack of fear was due to her knowledge of the man who, to use her own way of expressing things, "was at the business end of the lines." "Lord" Bill was at once the finest and the most fearless teamster for miles around. Under the cloak of indolent indifference he concealed a spirit of fearlessness and even recklessness which few accredited to him.
For some time the two remained silent. The minutes sped rapidly and half an hour passed. All about was pitch black now. The wind was tearing and shrieking from every direction at once. The sleigh seemed to be the center of its attack. The blinding clouds of snow, as they swept up from the ground, were becoming denser and denser and offered a fierce resistance to the racing horses. Another few minutes and the two people on the front seat knew that progress would be impossible. As it was, "Lord" Bill was driving more by instinct than by what he could see. The trail was obscured, as were all landmarks. He could no longer see the horses' heads.
"We've passed the school-house," said Jacky, at last.
"Yes, I know."
A strange knowledge or instinct is that of the prairie man or woman. Neither had seen the school-house or anything to indicate it. And yet they knew they had passed it.
"Half a mile to Trout Creek. Two miles to Norton's. Can you do it, Bill?"
Quietly as the words were spoken, there was a world of meaning in the question. To lose their way now would be worse, infinitely, than to lose oneself in one of the sandy deserts of Africa. Death was in that biting wind and in the blinding snow. Once lost, and, in two or three hours, all would be over.
"Yes," came the monosyllabic reply. "Lord" Bill's lips were pursed tightly. Every now and then he dashed the snow and breath icicles from his eyelashes. The horses were almost hidden from his view.
They were descending a steep gradient and they now knew that they were upon Trout Creek. At the creek Bill pulled up. It was the first stop since leaving Calford. Jacky and he jumped down. Each knew what the other was about to do without speaking. Jacky, reins in hand, went round the horses; "Lord" Bill was searching for the trail which turned off from the main road up the creek to Norton's. Presently he came back.
"Animals all right?"
"Fit as fiddles," the girl replied.
There was no assisting this girl to her seat. No "by your leave" or European politeness. Simply the word of one man who knows his business to another. Both were on their "native heath."
Bill checked the horses' impetuosity and walked them slowly until he came to the turning. Once on the right road, however, he let them have their heads.
"It's all right, Jacky," as the horses bounded forward.
A few minutes later the sleigh drew up at Norton's, but so dark was it and so dense the snow fog, that only those two keen watchers on the front seat were able to discern the outline of the house.
"Poker" John and the doctor assisted the old lady to alight whilst Jacky and "Lord" Bill unhitched the horses. In spite of the cold the sweat was pouring from the animals' sides. In answer to a violent summons on the storm door a light appeared in the window and "soldier" Joe Norton opened the door.
For an instant he stood in the doorway peering doubtfully out into the storm. A goodly picture he made as he stood lantern in hand, his rugged old face gazing inquiringly at his visitors.
"Hurry up, Joe, let us in," exclaimed Allandale. "We are nearly frozen to death."
"Why, bless my soul!—bless my soul! Come in! Come in!" the old man exclaimed hastily as he recognized John Allandale's voice. "You out, and on a night like this. Bless my soul! Come in! Down, Husky, down!" to a bob-tail sheep-dog which bounded forward and barked savagely.
"Hold on, Joe," said "Poker" John. "Let the ladies go in, we must see to the horses."
"It's all right, uncle," said Jacky, "we've unhitched 'em. Bill's taken 'em right away to the stables."
The whole party passed into Joe Norton's sitting-room, where the old farmer at once set about kindling, with the aid of some coal-oil, a fire in the great box-stove. While his host was busy John took the lantern and went to "Lord" Bill's assistance in the stables.
The stove lighted, Joe Norton turned to his guests.
"Bless me, and to think of you, Mrs. Abbot, and Miss Jacky, too. I must fetch the o'd 'ooman. Hi, Molly, Molly, bestir yourself, old girl. Come on down, an' help the ladies. They've come for shelter out o' the blizzard—good luck to it."
"Oh, no, don't disturb her, Joe," exclaimed Mrs. Abbot; "it's really too bad, at this unearthly hour. Besides, we shall be quite comfortable here by the stove."
"No doubt—no doubt," said the old man, cheerfully, "but that's not my way—not my way. Any of you froze," he went on ungrammatically, "'cause if so, out you go and thaw it out in the snow."
"I guess there's no one frozen," said Jacky, smiling into the old man's face. "We're too old birds for that. Ah, here's Mrs. Norton."
Another warm greeting and the two ladies were hustled off to the only spare bedroom the Nortons boasted. By this time "Lord" Bill and "Poker" John had returned from the stables. While the ladies were removing their furs, which were sodden with the melting snow, the farmer's wife was preparing a rough but ample meal of warm provender in the kitchen. Such is hospitality in the Far North-West.
When the supper was prepared the travellers sat down to the substantial fare. None were hungry—be it remembered that it was three o'clock in the morning—but each felt that some pretense in that direction must be made, or the kindly couple would think their welcome was insufficient.
"An' what made you venture on the trail on such a night?" asked old Norton, as he poured out a joram of hot whiskey for each of the men. "A moral cert, you wouldn't strike Foss River in such a storm."
"We thought it would have held off longer," said Dr. Abbot. "It was no use getting cooped up in town for two or three days. You know what these blizzards are. You may have to do with us yourself during the next forty-eight hours."
"It's too sharp to last, Doc," put in Jacky, as she helped herself to some soup. Her face was glowing after her exposure to the elements. She looked very beautiful and not one whit worse for the drive.
"Sharp enough—sharp enough," murmured old Norton, as if for something to say.
"Sharp enough to bring some one else to your hospitable abode, Joe," interrupted "Lord" Bill, quietly; "I hear sleigh bells. The wind's howling, but their tone is familiar."
They were all listening now. "Poker" John was the first to speak.
"It's—" and he paused.
Before he could complete his sentence Jacky filled up the missing words.
"Lablache—for a dollar."
There was a moment's silence in that rough homely little kitchen. The expression of the faces of those around the board indexed a general thought.
Lablache, if it were he, would not receive the cordial welcome which had been meted out to the others. Norton broke the silence.
"Dang it! That's what I ses, dang it! You'll pardon me, ladies, but my feelings get the better of me at times. I don't like him. Lablache—I hates him," and he strode out of the room, his old face aflame with annoyance, to discharge the hospitable duties of the prairie.
As the door closed behind him Dr. Abbot laughed constrainedly.
"Lablache doesn't seem popular—here."
No one answered his remark. Then "Poker" John looked over at the other men.
"We must go and help to put his horses away."
There was no suggestion in his words, merely a statement of plain facts. "Lord" Bill nodded and the three men rose and went to the door.
As they disappeared Jacky turned to Mrs. Norton and Aunt Margaret.
"If that's Lablache—I'm off to bed."
Her tone was one of uncompromising decision. Mrs. Abbot was less assured.
"Do you think it polite—wise?"
"Come along, aunt. Never mind about politeness or wisdom. What do you say, Mrs. Norton?"
"As you like, Miss Jacky. I must stay up, or—"
"Yes—the men can entertain him."
Just then Lablache's voice was heard outside. It was a peculiar, guttural, gasping voice. Aunt Margaret looked doubtfully from Jacky to Mrs. Norton. The latter nodded smilingly. Then following Jacky's lead she passed up the staircase which led from the kitchen to the rooms above. A moment later the door opened and Lablache and the other men entered.
"They've gone to bed," said Mrs. Norton, in answer to "Poker" John's look of inquiry.
"Tired, no doubt," put in Lablache, drily.
"And not without reason, I guess," retorted "Poker" John, sharply. He had not failed to note the other's tone.
Lablache laughed quietly, but his keen, restless eyes shot an unpleasant glance at the speaker from beneath their heavy lids.
He was a burly man. In bulk he was of much the same proportions as old John Allandale. But while John was big with the weight of muscle and frame, Lablache was flabby with fat. In face he was the antithesis of the other. Whilst "Poker" John was the picture of florid tanning—While his face, although perhaps a trifle weak in its lower formation, was bold, honest, and redounding with kindly nature, Lablache's was bilious-looking and heavy with obesity. Whatever character was there, it was lost in the heavy folds of flesh with which it was wreathed. His jowl was ponderous, and his little mouth was tightly compressed, while his deep-sunken, bilious eyes peered from between heavy, lashless lids.
Such was Verner Lablache, the wealthiest man of the Foss River Settlement. He owned a large store in the place, selling farming machinery to the settlers and ranchers about. His business was always done on credit, for which he charged exorbitant rates of interest, accepting only first mortgages upon crops and stock as security. Besides this he represented several of the Calford private banks, which many people said were really owned by him, and there was no one more ready to lend money—on the best of security and the highest rate of interest—than he. Should the borrower fail to pay, he was always suavely ready to renew the loan at increased interest—provided the security was sound. And, in the end, every ounce of his pound of flesh, plus not less than fifty per cent. interest, would come back to him. After Verner Lablache had done with him, the unfortunate rancher who borrowed generally disappeared from the neighborhood. Sometimes this man's victims were never heard of again. Sometimes they were discovered doing the "chores" round some obscure farmer's house. Anyway, ranch, crops, stock—everything the man ever had—would have passed into the hands of the money-lender, Lablache.
Hard-headed dealer—money-grubber—as Lablache was, he had a weakness. To look at him—to know him—no one would have thought it, but he had. And at least two of those present were aware of his secret. He was in love with Jacky. That is to say, he coveted her—desired her. When Lablache desired anything in that little world of his, he generally secured it to himself, but, in this matter, he had hitherto been thwarted. His desire had increased proportionately. He was annoyed to think that Jacky had retired at his coming. He was in no way blind to the reason of her sudden departure, but beyond his first remark he was not the man to advertise his chagrin. He could afford to wait.
"You'll take a bite o' supper, Mr. Lablache?" said old Norton, in a tone of inquiry.
"Supper?—no, thanks, Norton. But if you've a drop of something hot I can do with that."
"We've gener'ly got somethin' o' that about," replied the old man. "Whiskey or rum?"
"Whisky, man, whisky. I've got liver enough already without touching rum." Then he turned to "Poker" John.
"It's a devilish night, John, devilish. I started before you. Thought I could make the river in time. I was completely lost on the other side of the creek. I fancy the storm worked up from that direction."
He lumped into a chair close beside the stove. The others had already seated themselves.
"We didn't chance it. Bill drove us straight here," said "Poker" John.
"Guess Bill knew something—he generally does," as an afterthought.
"I know a blizzard when I see it," said Bunning-Ford, indifferently.
Lablache sipped his whisky. A silence fell on that gathering of refugees. Mrs. Norton had cleared the supper things.
"Well, if you gents'll excuse me I'll go back to bed. Old Joe'll look after you," she said abruptly. "Good-night to you all."
She disappeared up the staircase. The men remained silent for a moment or two. They were getting drowsy. Suddenly Lablache set his glass down and looked at his watch.
"Four o'clock, gentlemen. I suppose, Joe, there are no beds for us." The old farmer shook his head. "What say, John—Doc—a little game until breakfast?"
John Allandale's face lit up. His sobriquet was no idle One. He lived for poker—he loved it. And Lablache knew it. Old John turned to the others. His right cheek twitched as he waited the decision. "Doc" Abbot smiled approval; "Lord" Bill shrugged indifferently. The old gambler rose to his feet.
"That's all right, then. The kitchen table is good enough for us. Come along, gentlemen."
"I'll slide off to bed, I guess," said Norton, thankful to escape a night's vigil. "Good-night, gentlemen."
Then the remaining four sat down to play.
The far-reaching consequences of that game were undreamt of by the players, except, perhaps, by Lablache. His story of the reason of his return to Norton's farm was only partially true. He had returned in the hopes of this meeting; he had anticipated this game.
A BIG GAME OF POKER
"What about cards?" said Lablache, as the four men sat down to the table.
"Doc will oblige, no doubt," Bunning-Ford replied quietly. "He generally carries the 'pernicious pasteboards' about with him."
"The man who travels in the West without them," said Dr. Abbot, producing a couple of new packs from his pocket, "either does not know his country or is a victim of superstition."
No one seemed inclined to refuse the doctor's statement, or enter into a discussion upon the matter. Instead, each drew out a small memorandum block and pencil—a sure indication of a "big game."
"Limit?" asked the doctor.
Lablache shrugged his shoulders, affectionately shuffling the cards the while. He kept his eyes averted.
"What do the others say?"
There was a challenge in Lablache's tone. Bunning-Ford flushed slightly at the cheek-bones. That peculiar pursing was at his lips.
"Anything goes with me. The higher the game the greater the excitement," he said, shooting a keen glance at the pasty face of the money-lender.
Old John was irritated. His ruddy face gleamed in the light of the lamp. The nervous twitching of the cheek indicated his frame of mind. Lablache smiled to himself behind the wood expression of his face.
"Twenty dollars call for fifty. Limit the bet to three thousand dollars. Is that big enough for you, Lablache? Let us have a regulation 'ante.' No 'straddling.'"
There was a moment's silence. "Poker" John had proposed the biggest game they had yet played. He would have suggested no limit, but this he knew would be all in favor of Lablache, whose resources were vast.
John glanced over from the money-lender to the doctor. The doctor and Bunning-Ford were the most to be considered. Their resources were very limited. The old man knew that the doctor was one of those careful players who was not likely to allow himself to suffer by the height of the stakes. There was no bluffing the doctor. "Lord" Bill was able to take care of himself.
"That's good enough for me," said Bunning-Ford. "Let it go at that."
Outwardly Lablache was indifferent; inwardly he experienced a sense of supreme satisfaction at the height of the stakes.
The four men relapsed into silence as they cut for the deal. It was an education in the game to observe each man as he, metaphorically speaking, donned his mask of impassive reserve. As the game progressed any one of those four men might have been a graven image as far as the expression of countenance went. No word was spoken beyond "Raise you so and so"—"See you that." So keen, so ardent was the game that the stake might have been one of life and death. No money passed. Just slips of paper; and yet any one of those fragments represented a small fortune.
The first few hands resulted in but desultory betting. Sums of money changed hands but there was very little in it. Lablache was the principal loser. Three "pots" in succession were taken by John Allandale, but their aggregate did not amount to half the limit. A little luck fell to Bunning-Ford. He once raised Lablache to the limit. The money-lender "saw" him and lost. Bill promptly scooped in three thousand dollars. The doctor was cautious. He had lost and won nothing. Then a change came over the game. To use a card-player's expression, the cards were beginning to "run."
"Lord" Bill dealt. Lablache was upon his right and next to him the doctor.
The money-lender picked up his cards, and partially opening them glanced keenly at the index numerals. His stolid face remained unchanged. The doctor glanced at his and "came in." "Poker" John "came in." The dealer remained out. The doctor drew two cards; "Poker" John, one; Lablache drew one. The veteran rancher held four nines. "Lord" Bill gathered up the "deadwood," and, propping his face upon his hands, watched the betting.
It was the doctor's bet; he cautiously dropped out. He had an inkling of the way things were going. "Poker" John opened the ball with five hundred dollars. He had a good thing and he did not want to frighten his opponent by a plunge. He would leave it to Lablache to start raising. The money-lender raised him one thousand. Old John sniffed with the appreciation of an old war-horse at the scent of battle. The nervous, twitching cheek remained unmoved. The old gambler in him rose uppermost.
He leisurely saw the thousand, and raised another five hundred. Lablache allowed his fishy eyes to flash in the direction of his opponent. A moment after he raised another thousand. The gamble was becoming interesting. The two onlookers were consumed with the lust of play. They forgot that in the result they would not be participants. Old John's face lost something of its impassivity as he in turn raised to the limit. Lablache eased his great body in his chair. His little mouth was very tightly clenched. His breathing, at times stertorous, was like the breathing of an asthmatical pig. He saw, and again raised to the limit. There was now over twelve thousand dollars in the pool.
It was old John's turn. The doctor and "Lord" Bill waited anxiously. The old rancher was reputed very wealthy. They felt assured that he would not back down after having gone so far. In their hearts they both wished to see him relieve Lablache of a lot of money.
They need have had no fears. Whatever his faults "Poker" John was a "dead game sport." He dashed a slip of paper into the pool. The keen eyes watching read "four thousand dollars" scrawled upon it. He had again raised to the limit. It was now Lablache's turn to accept or refuse the challenge. The onlookers were not so sure of the money-lender. Would he accept or not?
A curious thought was in the mind of that monument of flesh. He knew for certain that he held the winning cards. How he knew it would be impossible to say. And yet he hesitated. Perhaps he knew the limits of John Allandale's resources, perhaps he felt, for the present, there was sufficient in the pool; perhaps, even, he had ulterior motives. Whatever the cause, as he passed a slip of paper into the pool merely seeing his opponent, his face gave no outward sign of what was passing in the brain behind it.
Old John laid down his hand.
"Four nines," he said quietly.
"Not good enough," retorted Lablache; "four kings." And he spread his cards out upon the table before him and swept up the pile of papers which represented his win.
A sigh, as of relief to pent-up feelings, escaped the two men who had watched the gamble. Old John said not a word and his face betrayed no thought or regret that might have been in his mind at the loss of such a large amount of money. He merely glanced over at the money-lender.
"Your deal, Lablache," he said quietly.
Lablache took the cards and a fresh deal went round. Now the game became one-sided. With that one large pull the money-lender's luck seemed to have set in. Seemingly he could do no wrong. If he drew to "three of a kind," he invariably filled; if to a "pair," he generally secured a third; once, indeed, he drew to jack, queen, king of a suit and completed a "royal flush." His luck was phenomenal. The other men's luck seemed "dead out." Bunning-Ford and the doctor could get no hands at all, and thus they were saved heavy losses. Occasionally, even, the doctor raked in a few "antes." But John Allandale could do nothing right. He was always drawing tolerable cards—just good enough to lose with. Until, by the time daylight came, he had lost so heavily that his two friends were eagerly seeking an excuse to break up the game.
At last "Lord" Bill effected this purpose, but at considerable loss to himself. He had a fairly good hand, but not, as he knew, sufficiently good to win with. Lablache and he were left in. The money-lender had in one plunge raised the bet to the "limit." Bill knew that he ought to drop out, but, instead of so doing, he saw his opponent. He lost the "pot."
"Thank you, gentlemen," he said, quietly rising from the table, "my losses are sufficient for one night. I have finished. It is daylight and the storm is 'letting up' somewhat."
He turned as he spoke, and, glancing at the staircase, saw Jacky standing at the top of it. How long she had been standing there he did not know. He felt certain, although she gave no sign, that she had heard what he had just said.
"Poker" John saw her too.
"Why, Jacky, what means this early rising?" said the old man kindly. "Too tired last night to sleep?"
"No, uncle. Guess I slept all right. The wind's dropping fast. I take it it'll be blowing great guns again before long. This is our chance to make the ranch." She had been an observer of the finish of the game. She had heard Bill's remarks on his loss, and yet not by a single word did she betray her knowledge. Inwardly she railed at herself for having gone to bed. She wondered how it had fared with her uncle.
Bunning-Ford left the room. Somehow he felt that he must get away from the steady gaze of those gray eyes. He knew how Jacky dreaded, for her uncle's sake, the game they had just been playing. He wondered, as he went to test the weather, what she would have thought had she known the stakes, or the extent of her uncle's losses. He hoped she was not aware of these facts.
"You look tired, Uncle John," said the girl, solicitously, as she came down the stairs. She purposely ignored Lablache. "Have you had no sleep?"
"Poker" John laughed a little uneasily.
"Sleep, child? We old birds of the prairie can do with very little of that. It's only pretty faces that want sleep, and I'm thinking you ought still to be in your bed."
"Miss Jacky is ever on the alert to take advantage of the elements," put in Lablache, heavily. "She seems to understand these things better than any of us."
The girl was forced to notice the money-lender. She did so reluctantly, however.
"So you, too, sought shelter from the storm beneath old man Norton's hospitable roof. You are dead right, Mr. Lablache; we who live on the prairie need to be ever on the alert. One never knows what each hour may bring forth."
The girl was still in her ball-dress. Lablache's fishy eyes noticed her charming appearance. The strong, beautiful face sent a thrill of delight over him as he watched it—the delicate rounded shoulders made him suck in his heavy breath like one who anticipates a delicate dish. Jacky turned from him in plainly-expressed disgust.
Her uncle was watching her with a gaze half uneasy and wholly tender. She was the delight of his old age, the center of all his affections, this motherless child of his dead brother. His cheek twitched painfully as he thought of the huge amount of his losings to Lablache. He shivered perceptibly as he rose from his seat and went over to the cooking stove.
"I believe you people have let the stove out," the girl exclaimed, as she noted her uncle's movement. She had no intention of mentioning the game they had been playing. She feared to hear the facts. Instinct told her that her uncle had lost again. "Yes, I declare you have," as she knelt before the grate and raked away at the ashes.
Suddenly she turned to the money-lender.
"Here, you, fetch me some wood and coal-oil. Men can never be trusted."
Jacky was no respecter of persons. When she ordered there were few men on the prairie who would refuse to obey. Lablache heaved his great bulk from before the table and got on to his feet. His bilious eyes were struggling to smile. The effect was horrible. Then he moved across the room to where a stack of kindling stood.
"Hurry up. I guess if we depended much on you we'd freeze."
And Lablache, the hardest, most unscrupulous man for miles around, endeavored to obey with the alacrity of any sheep-dog.
In spite of himself John Allandale could not refrain from smiling at the grotesque picture the monumental Lablache made as he lumbered towards the stack of kindling.
When "Lord" Bill returned Lablache was bending over the stove beside the girl.
"I've thrown the harness on the horses—watered and fed 'em," he said, taking in the situation at a glance. "Say, Doc," turning to Abbot, "better rouse your good lady."
"She'll be down in a tick," said Jacky, over her shoulder. "Here, doctor, you might get a kettle of water—and Bill, see if you can find some bacon or stuff. And you, uncle, came and sit by the stove—you're cold."
Strange is the power and fascination of woman. A look—a glance—a simple word and we men hasten to minister to her requirements. Half an hour ago and all these men were playing for fortunes—dealing in thousands of dollars on the turn of a card, the passion for besting his neighbor uppermost in each man's mind. Now they were humbly doing one girl's bidding with a zest unsurpassed by the devotion to their recent gamble.
She treated them indiscriminately. Old or young, there was no difference. Bunning-Ford she liked—Dr. Abbot she liked—Lablache she hated and despised, still she allotted them their tasks with perfect impartiality. Only her old uncle she treated differently. That dear, degenerate old man she loved with an affection which knew no bounds. He was her all in the world. Whatever his sins—whatever his faults, she loved him.
AT THE FOSS RIVER RANCH
Spring is already upon the prairie. The fur coat has already been exchanged for the pea-jacket. No longer is the fur cap crushed down upon the head and drawn over the ears until little more than the oval of the face is exposed to the elements; it is still worn occasionally, but now it rests upon the head with the jaunty cant of an ordinary headgear.
The rough coated broncho no longer stands "tucked up" with the cold, with its hind-quarters towards the wind. Now he stands grazing on the patches of grass which the melting snow has placed at his disposal. The cattle, too, hurry to and fro as each day extends their field of fodder. When spring sets in in the great North-West it is with no show of reluctance that grim winter yields its claims and makes way for its gracious and all-conquering foe. Spring is upon everything with all the characteristic suddenness of the Canadian climate. A week—a little seven days—and where all before had been cheerless wastes of snow and ice, we have the promise of summer with us. The snow disappears as with the sweep of a "chinook" in winter. The brown, saturated grass is tinged with the bright emerald hue of new-born pasture. The bared trees don that yellowish tinge which tells of breaking leaves. Rivers begin to flow. Their icy coatings, melting in the growing warmth of the sun, quickly returning once more to their natural element.
With the advent of spring comes a rush of duties to those whose interest are centered in the breeding of cattle. The Foss River Settlement is already teeming with life. For the settlement is the center of the great spring "round-up." Here are assembling the "cow-punchers" from all the outlying ranches, gathering under the command of a captain (generally a man elected for his vast experience on the prairie) and making their preparations to scour the prairie east and west, north and south, to the very limits of the far-reaching plains which spread their rolling pastures at the eastern base of the Rockies. Every head of cattle which is found will be brought into the Foss River Settlement and thence will be distributed to its lawful owners. This is but the beginning of the work, for the task of branding calves and re-branding cattle whose brands have become obscured during the long winter months is a process of no small magnitude for those who number their stocks by tens of thousands.
At John Allandale's ranch all is orderly bustle. There is no confusion. Under Jacky's administration the work goes on with a simple directness which would astonish the uninitiated. There are the corrals to repair and to be put in order. Sheds and out-buildings to be whitewashed. Branding apparatus to be set in working order, fencing to be repaired, preparations for seeding to commence; a thousand and one things to be seen to; and all of which must be finished before the first "bands" of cattle are rounded up into the settlement.
It is nearly a month since we saw this daughter of the prairie garbed in the latest mode, attending the Polo Ball at Calford, and widely different is her appearance now from what it was at the time of our introduction to her.
She is returning from an inspection of the wire fencing of the home pastures. She is riding her favorite horse, Nigger, up the gentle slope which leads to her uncle's house. There is nothing of the woman of fashion about her now—and, perhaps, it is a matter not to be regretted.
She sits her horse with the easy grace of a childhood's experience. Her habit, if such it can be called, is a "dungaree" skirt of a hardly recognizable blue, so washed out is it, surmounted by a beautifully beaded buckskin shirt. Loosely encircling her waist, and resting upon her hips, is a cartridge belt, upon which is slung the holster of a heavy revolver, a weapon without which she never moves abroad. Her head is crowned by a Stetson hat, secured in true prairie fashion by a strap which passes under her hair at the back, while her beautiful hair itself falls in heavy ringlets over her shoulders, and waves untrammelled in the fresh spring breeze as her somewhat unruly charger gallops up the hill towards the ranch.
The great black horse was heading for the stable. Jacky leant over to one side and swung him sharply towards the house. At the veranda she pulled him up short. High mettled, headstrong as the animal was, he knew his mistress. Tricks which he would often attempt to practice upon other people were useless here—doubtless she had taught him that such was the case.
The girl sprang, unaided, to the ground and hitched her picket rope to a tying-post. For a moment she stood on the great veranda which ran down the whole length of the house front. It was a one-storied, bungalow-shaped house, built with a high pitch to the roof and entirely constructed of the finest red pine-wood. Six French windows opened on to the veranda. The outlook was westerly, and, contrary to the usual custom, the ranch buildings were not overlooked by it. The corrals and stables were in the background.
She was about to turn in at one of the windows when she suddenly observed Nigger's ears cocked, and his head turned away towards the shimmering peaks of the distant mountains. The movement fixed her attention instantly. It was the instinct of one who lives in a country where the eyes and ears of a horse are often keener and more far-reaching than those of its human masters. The horse was gazing with statuesque fixedness across a waste of partially-melted snow. A stretch of ten miles lay flat and smooth as a billiard-table at the foot of the rise upon which the house was built. And far out across this the beast was gazing.
Jacky shaded her eyes with her hand and followed the direction of the horse's gaze. For a moment or two she saw nothing but the dazzling glare of the snow in the bright spring sunlight. Then her eyes became accustomed to the brilliancy, and far in the distance, she beheld an animal peacefully moving along from patch to patch of bare grass, evidently in search of fodder.
"A horse," she muttered, under her breath. "Whose?"
She could find no answer to her monosyllabic inquiry. She realized at once that to whomsoever it belonged its owner would never recover it, for it was grazing on the far side of the great "Muskeg," that mighty bottomless mire which extends for forty miles north and south and whose narrowest breadth is a span of ten miles. She was looking across it now, and innocent enough that level plain of terror appeared at that moment. And yet it was the curse of the ranching district, for, annually, hundreds of cattle met an untimely death in its cruel, absorbing bosom.
She turned away for the purpose of fetching a pair of field-glasses. She was anxious to identify the horse. She passed along the veranda towards the furthest window. It was the window of her uncle's office. Just as she was nearing it she heard the sound of voices coming from within. She paused, and an ominous pucker drew her brows together. Her beautiful dark face clouded. She had no wish to play the part of an eavesdropper, but she had recognized the voices of her uncle and Lablache. She had also heard the mention of her own name. What woman, or, for that matter, man, can refrain from listening when they hear two people talking about them. The window was open; Jacky paused—and listened.
Lablache's thick voice lolled heavily upon the brisk air.
"She is a good girl. But don't you think you are considering her future from a rather selfish point of view, John?"
"Selfish?" The old man laughed in his hearty manner "Maybe you're right, though. I never thought of that. You see I'm getting old now. I can't get around like I used to. Bless me, she's two-an'-twenty. Three-and-twenty years since my brother Dick—God rest his soul!—married that half-breed girl, Josie. Yes, I guess you're right, she's bound to marry soon."
Jacky smiled a curious dark smile. Something told her why Lablache and her uncle were discussing her future.
"Why, of course she is," said Lablache, "and when that happy event is accomplished I hope it will not be with any improvident—harum-scarum man like—like—"
"The Hon. Bunning-Ford I suppose you would say, eh?"
There was a somewhat sharp tone in the old man's voice which Jacky was not slow to detect.
"Well," went on Lablache, with one of those deep whistling breaths which made him so like an ancient pug, "since you mention him, for want of a better specimen of improvidence, his name will do."
"So I thought—so I thought," laughed the old man. But his words rang strangely. "Most people think," he went on, "that when I die Jacky will be rich. But she won't."
"No," replied Lablache, emphatically.
There was a world of meaning in his tone.
"However, I guess we can let her hunt around for herself when she wants a husband. Jacky's a girl with a head. A sight better head than I've got on my old shoulders. When she chooses a husband, and comes and tells me of it, she shall have my blessing and anything else I have to give. I'm not going to interfere with that girl's matrimonial affairs, sir, not for any one. That child, bless her heart, is like my own child to me. If she wants the moon, and there's nothing else to stop her having it but my consent, why, I guess that moon's as good as fenced in with triple-barbed wire an' registered in her name in the Government Land Office."
"And in the meantime you are going to make that same child work for her daily bread like any 'hired man,' and keep company with any scoun—"
"Hi, stop there, Lablache! Stop there," thundered "Poker" John, and Jacky heard a thud as of a fist falling upon the table. "You've taken the unwarrantable liberty of poking your nose into my affairs, and, because of our old acquaintance, I have allowed it. But now let me tell you this is no d——d business of yours. There's no make with Jacky. What she does, she does of her own accord."
At that moment the girl in question walked abruptly in from the veranda. She had heard enough.
"Ah, uncle," she said, smiling tenderly up into the old man's face, "talking of me, I guess. You shouted my name just as I was coming along. Say, I want the field-glasses. Where are they?"
Then she turned on Lablache as if she had only just become aware of his presence.
"What, Mr. Lablache, you here? And so early, too. Guess this isn't like you. How is your store—that temple of wealth and high interest—to get on without you? How are the 'improvident'—'harum-scarums' to live if you are not present to minister to their wants—upon the best of security?" Without waiting for a reply the girl picked up the glasses she was in search of and darted out, leaving Lablache glaring his bilious-eyed rage after her.
"Poker" John stood for a moment a picture of blank surprise; then he burst into a loud guffaw at the discomfited money-lender. Jacky heard the laugh and smiled. Then she passed out of earshot and concentrated her attention upon the distant speck of animal life.
The girl stood for some moments surveying the creature as it moved leisurely along, its nose well down amongst the roots of the tawny grass, seeking out the tender green shoots of the new-born pasture. Then she closed her glasses and her thoughts wandered to other matters.
The gorgeous landscape was, for a moment, utterly lost upon her. The snowy peaks of the Rockies, stretching far as the eye could see away to the north and south, like some giant fortification set up to defend the rolling pastures of the prairies from the ceaseless attack of the stormy Pacific Ocean, were far from her thoughts. Her eyes, it is true, were resting on the level flat of the muskeg, beyond the grove of slender pines which lined the approach to the house, but she was not thinking of that. No, recollection was struggling back through two years of a busy life, to a time when, for a brief space, she had watched over the welfare of another than her uncle, when the dark native blood which flowed plentifully in her veins had asserted itself, and a nature which was hers had refused to remain buried beneath a superficial European training. She was thinking of a man who had formed a secret part of her life for a few short years, when she had allowed her heart to dictate a course for her actions which no other motive but that of love could have brought about. She was thinking of Peter Retief, a pretty scoundrel, a renowned "bad man," a man of wild and reckless daring. He had been the terror of the countryside. A cattle-thief who feared neither man nor devil; a man who for twelve months and more had carried, his life in his hands, the sworn enemy of law and order, but who, in his worst moments, had never been known to injure a poor man or a woman. The wild blood of the half-breed that was in her had been stirred, as only a woman's blood can be, by his reckless dealings, his courage, effrontery, and withal his wondrous kindliness of disposition. She was thinking of this man now, this man whom she knew to be numbered amongst the countless victims of that dreadful mire. And what had conjured this thought? A horse—a horse peacefully grazing far out across the mire in the direction of the distant hills which she knew had once been this desperado's home.
Her train of recollection suddenly became broken, and a sigh escaped her as the sound of her uncle's voice fell upon her ears. She did not move, however, for she knew that Lablache was with him, and this man she hated with the fiery hatred only to be found in the half-breeds of any native race.
"I'm sorry, John, we can't agree on the point," Lablache was saying in his wheezy voice, as the two men stood at the other end of the veranda, "but I'm quite determined Upon the matter myself. The land intersects mine and cuts me clean off from the railway siding, and I am forced to take my cattle a circle of nearly fifteen miles to ship them. If he would only be reasonable and allow a passage I would say nothing. I will force him to sell."
"If you can," put in the rancher. "I reckon you've got chilled steel to deal with when you endeavor to 'force' old Joe Norton to sell the finest wheat land in the country."
At this point in the conversation three men came round from the back of the house. They were "cow" hands belonging to the ranch. They approached Jacky with the easy assurance of men who were as much companions as servants of their mistress. All three, however, touched their wide-brimmed hats in unmistakable respect. They were clad in buckskin shirts and leather "chaps," and each had his revolver upon his hip. The girl lost the rest of the conversation between her uncle and Lablache, for her attention was turned to the men.
"Well?" she asked shortly, as the men stood before her.
One of the men, a tall, lank specimen of the dark-skinned prairie half-breed, acted as spokesman.
He ejected a squirt of tobacco juice from his great, dirty mouth before he spoke. Then with a curious backward jerk of the head he blurted out a stream of Western jargon.
"Say, missie," he exclaimed in a high-pitched nasal voice, "it ain't no use in talkin', ye kent put no tenderfoot t' boss the round-up. There's them all-fired Donoghue lot jest sent right in t' say, 'cause, I s'pose, they reckon as they're the high muck-i-muck o' this location, that that tarnation Sim Lory, thar head man, is to cap' the round-up. Why, he ain't cast a blamed foot on the prairie sence he's been hyar. An' I'll swear he don't know the horn o' his saddle from a monkey stick. Et ain't right, missie, an' us fellers t' work under him an' all."
His address came to an abrupt end, and he gave emphasis to his words by a prolonged expectoration. Jacky, her eyes sparkling with anger, was quick to reply.
"Look you here, Silas, just go right off and throw your saddle on your pony—"
"Guess it's right thar, missie," the man interrupted.
"Then sling off as fast as your plug can lay foot to the ground, and give John Allandale's compliments to Jim Donoghue and say, if they don't send a capable man, since they've been appointed to find the 'captain,' he'll complain to the Association and insist on the penalty being enforced. What, do they take us for a lot of 'gophers'? Sim Lory, indeed; why, he's not fit to prise weeds with a two tine hay fork."
The men went off hurriedly. Their mistress's swift methods of dealing with matters pleased them. Silas was more than pleased to be able to get a "slant" (to use his own expression) at his old enemy, Sim Lory. As the men departed "Poker" John came and stood beside his niece.
"What's that about Sim Lory, Jacky?"
"They've sent him to run this 'round-up.'"
"Oh, I just told them it wouldn't do," indifferently.
Old John smiled.
"In those words?"
"Well, no, uncle," the girl said with a responsive smile. "But they needed a 'jinning' up. I sent the message in your name."
The old man shook his head, but his indulgent smile remained.
"You'll be getting me into serious trouble with that impetuosity of yours, Jacky," he said absently. "But there—I daresay you know best."
His words were characteristic of him. He left the entire control of the ranch to this girl of two-and-twenty, relying implicitly upon her judgment in all things. It was a strange thing to do, for he was still a vigorous man. To look at him was to make oneself wonder at the reason. But the girl accepted the responsibility without question. There was a subtle sympathy between uncle and niece. Sometimes Jacky would gaze up into his handsome old face and something in the twitching cheek, the curiously-shaped mouth, hidden beneath the gray mustache, would cause her to turn away with a sigh, and, with stimulated resolution, hurl herself into the arduous labors of managing the ranch. What she read in that dear, honest face she loved so well she kept locked in her own secret heart, and never, by word or act, did she allow herself to betray it. She was absolute mistress of the Foss River Ranch and she knew it. Old "Poker" John, like the morphine "fiend," merely continued to keep up his reputation and the more fully deserve his sobriquet. His mind, his character, his whole being was being slowly but surely absorbed in the lust of gambling.
The girl laid her hand upon the old man's arm.
"Uncle—what was Lablache talking to you about? I mean when I came for the field-glasses."
"Poker" John was gazing abstractedly into the dense growth of pines which fringed the house. He pulled himself together, but his eyes had in them a far-away look.
"Many things," he replied evasively.
"Yes, I know, dear, but," bending her face while she removed one of her buckskin gauntlets from her hand, "I mean about me. You two were-discussing me, I know."
She turned her keen gray eyes upon her relative as she finished speaking. The old man turned away. He felt that those eyes were reading his very soul. They made him uncomfortable.
"Oh, he said I ought not to let you associate with certain people."
"Why?" The sharp question came with the directness of a pistol-shot.
"Well, he seemed to think that you might think of marrying."
"He seemed to fancy that you, being impetuous, might make a mistake and fall—"
"In love with the wrong man. Yes, I understand; and from his point of view, if ever I do marry it will undoubtedly be the wrong man."
And the girl finished up with a mirthless laugh.
They stood for some moments in silence. They were both thinking. The noise from the corrals behind the house reached them. The steady drip, drip of the water from the melting snow upon the roof of the house sounded loudly as it fell on the sodden ground beneath.
"Uncle, did it ever strike you that that greasy money-lender wants to marry me himself?"
The question startled John Allandale more than anything else could have done. He turned sharply round and faced his niece.
"Marry you, Jacky?" he repeated. "I never thought of it."
"It isn't to be supposed that you would have done so."
There was the faintest tinge of bitterness in the girl's answer.
"And do you really think that he wants to marry you?"
"I don't know quite. Perhaps I am wrong, uncle, and my imagination has run away with me. Yes, I sometimes think he wants to marry me."
They both relapsed into silence. Then her uncle spoke again.
"Jacky, what you have just said has made something plain to me which I could not understand before. He came and gave me—unsolicited, mind—"a little eagerly, "a detailed account of Bunning-Ford's circumstances, and—"
"Endeavored to bully you into sending him about his business. Poor old Bill! And what was his account of him?"
The girl's eyes were glowing with quickly-roused passion, but she kept them turned from her uncle's face.
"He told me that the boy had heavy mortgages on his land and stock. He told me that if he were to realize to-morrow there would be little or nothing for himself. Everything would go to some firm in Calford. In short, that he has gambled his ranch away."
"And he told this to you, uncle, dear." Then the girl paused and looked far out across the great muskeg. In her abrupt fashion she turned again to the old man. "Uncle," she went on, "tell me truly, do you owe anything to Lablache? Has he any hold upon you?"
There was a world of anxiety in her voice as she spoke. John Allandale tried to follow her thought before he answered. He seemed to grasp something of her meaning, for in a moment his eyes took on an expression of pain. Then his words came slowly, as from one who is not sure of what he is saying.
"I owe him some—money—yes—but—"
The question was jerked viciously from the girl's lips.
Jacky turned slowly away until her eyes rested upon the distant, grazing horse. A strange restlessness seemed to be upon her. She was fidgeting with the gauntlet which she had just removed. Then slowly her right hand passed round to her hip, where it rested upon the butt of her revolver. There was a tight drawnness about her lips and her keen gray eyes looked as though gazing into space.
"How much?" she said at last, breaking the heavy silence which had followed upon her uncle's admission. Then before he could answer she went on deliberately: "But there—I guess it don't cut any figure. Lablache shall be paid, and I take it his bill of interest won't amount to more than we can pay if we're put to it. Poor old Bill!"
THE "STRAY" BEYOND THE MUSKEG
The Foss River Settlement nestles in one of those shallow hollows—scarcely a valley and which yet must be designated by such a term—in which the Canadian North-West abounds.
We are speaking now of the wilder and less-inhabited parts of the great country, where grain-growing is only incidental, and the prevailing industry is stock-raising. Where the land gradually rises towards the maze-like foothills before the mighty crags of the Rockies themselves be reached. A part where yet is to be heard of the romantic crimes of the cattle-raiders; a part to where civilization has already turned its face, but where civilizaton has yet to mature. In such a country is situate the Foss River Settlement.
The settlement itself is like dozens of others of its kind. There is the school-house, standing by itself, apart from other buildings, as if in proud distinction for its classic vocation. There is the church, or rather chapel, where every denomination holds its services. A saloon, where four per cent. beer and prohibition whiskey of the worst description is openly sold over the bar; where you can buy poker "chips" to any amount, and can sit down and play from daylight till dark, from dark to daylight. A blacksmith and wheelwright; a baker; a carpenter; a doctor who is also a druggist; a store where one can buy every article of dry goods at exorbitant prices—and on credit; and then, besides all this, well beyond the township limit there is a half-breed settlement, a place which even to this day is a necessary evil and a constant thorn in the side of that smart, efficient force—the North-West Mounted Police.
Lablache's store stands in the center of the settlement, facing on to the market-place—the latter a vague, undefined space of waste ground on which vendors of produce are wont to draw up their wagons. The store is a massive building of great extent. Its proportions rise superior to its surroundings, as if to indicate in a measure its owner's worldly status in the district It is built entirely of stone, and roofed with slate—the only building of such construction in the settlement.
A wonderful center of business is Lablache's store—the chief one for a radius of fifty miles. Nearly the whole building is given up to the stocking of goods, and only at the back of the building is to be found a small office which answers the multifarious purposes of office, parlor, dining-room, smoking-room—in short, every necessity of its owner, except bedroom, which occupies a mere recess partitioned off by thin matchwood boarding.
Wealthy as Lablache was known to be he spent little or no money upon himself beyond just sufficient to purchase the bare necessities of life. He had few requirements which could not be satisfied under the headings of tobacco and food—both of which he indulged himself freely. The saloon provided the latter, and as for the former, trade price was best suited to his inclinations, and so he drew upon his stock. He was a curious man, was Verner Lablache—a man who understood the golden value of silence. He never even spoke of his nationality. Foss River was content to call him curious—some people preferred other words to express their opinion.
Lablache had known John Allandale for years. Who, in Foss River, had he not known for years? Lablache would have liked to call old John his friend, but somehow "Poker" John had never responded to the money-lender's advances. Lablache showed no resentment. If he cared at all he was careful to keep his feelings hidden. One thing is certain, however, he allowed himself to think long and often of old John—and his household. Often, when in the deepest stress of his far-reaching work, he would heave his great bulk back in his chair and allow those fishy, lashless, sphinx-like eyes of his to gaze out of his window in the direction of the Foss River Ranch. His window faced in the direction of John's house, which was plainly visible on the slope which bounded the southern side of the settlement.
And so it came about a few days later, in one of these digressions of thought, that the money-lender, gazing out towards the ranch, beheld a horseman riding slowly up to the veranda of the Allandale's house. There was nothing uncommon in the incident, but the sight riveted his attention, and an evil light came into his usually expressionless eyes. He recognized the horseman as the Hon. Bunning-Ford.
Lablache swung round on his revolving chair, and, in doing so, kicked over a paper-basket. The rapidity of his movement was hardly to be expected in one of his bulk. His thin eyebrows drew together in an ugly frown.
"What does he want?" he muttered, under his heavy breath.
He hazarded no answer to his own question. It was answered for him. He saw the figure of a woman step out on to the veranda.
The money-lender rose swiftly to his feet and took a pair of field-glasses from their case. Adjusting them he gazed long and earnestly at the house on the hill.
Jacky was talking to "Lord" Bill. She was habited in her dungaree skirt and buckskin bodice. Presently Bill dismounted and passed into the house.
Lablache shut his glasses with a snap and turned away from the window. For some time he stood gazing straight before him and a swift torrent of thought flowed through his active brain. Then, with the directness of one whose mind is made up, he went over to a small safe which stood in a corner of the room. From this he took an account book. The cover bore the legend "Private." He laid it upon the table, and, for some moments, bent over it as he scanned its pages.
He paused at an account headed John Allandale. The figures of this account were very large, totalling into six figures. The balance against the rancher was enormous. Lablache gave a satisfied grunt as he turned over to another account.
"Safe—safe enough. Safe as the Day of Doom," he said slowly. His mouth worked with a cruel smile.
He paused at the account of Bunning-Ford.
"Twenty thousand dollars—um," the look of satisfaction was changed. He looked less pleased, but none the less cruel. "Not enough—let me see. His place is worth fifty thousand dollars. Stock another thirty thousand. I hold thirty-five thousand on first mortgage for the Calford Trust and Loan Co." He smiled significantly. "This bill of sale for twenty thousand is in my own name. Total, fifty-five thousand. Sell him up and there would still be a margin. No, not yet, my friend."
He closed the book and put it away. Then he walked to the window. Bunning-Ford's horse was still standing outside the house.
"He must be dealt with soon," he muttered.
And in those words was concentrated a world of hate and cruel purpose.
Who shall say of what a man's disposition is composed? Who shall penetrate those complex feelings which go to make a man what his secret consciousness knows himself to be? Not even the man himself can tell the why and wherefore of his passions and motives. It is a matter beyond the human ken. It is a matter which neither science nor learning can tell us of. Verner Lablache was possessed of all that prosperity could give him. He was wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, and no pleasure which money could buy was beyond his reach. He knew, only too well, that when the moment came, and he wished it, he could set out for any of the great centers of fashion and society, and there purchase for himself a wife who would fulfill the requirements of the most fastidious. In his own arrogant mind he went further, and protested that he could choose whom he would and she would be his. But this method he set aside as too simple, and, instead, had decided to select for his wife a girl whom he had watched grow up to womanhood from the first day that she had opened her great, wondering eyes upon the world. And thus far he had been thwarted. All his wealth went for nothing. The whim of this girl he had chosen was more powerful in this matter than was gold—the gold he loved. But Lablache was not the man to sit down and admit of defeat; he meant to marry Joaquina Allandale willy-nilly. Love was impossible to such a man as he. He had conceived an absorbing passion for her, it is true, but love—as it is generally understood—no. He was not a young man—the victim of a passion, fierce but transient. He was matured in all respects—in mind and body. His passion was lasting, if impure, and he meant to take to himself the girl-wife. Nothing should stand in his way.
He turned back to his desk, but not to work.
In the meantime the object of his forcible attentions was holding an interesting tete-a-tete with the man against whom he fostered an evil purpose.
Jacky was seated at a table in the pleasant sitting-room of her uncle's house. Spread out before her were several open stock books, from which she was endeavoring to estimate the probable number of "beeves" which the early spring would produce. This was a task which she always liked to do herself before the round-up was complete, so as the easier to sort the animals into their various pastures when they should come in. Her visitor was standing with his back to the stove, in typical Canadian fashion. He was, clad in a pair of well-worn chaps drawn over a pair of moleskin trousers, and wore a gray tweed coat and waistcoat over a soft cotton shirt, of the "collar attached" type. As he stood there the stoop of his shoulders was very pronounced. His fair hair was carefully brushed, and although his face was slightly weather-stained, still, it was quite easy to imagine the distinguished figure he would be, clad in all the solemn pomp of broadcloth and the silk glaze of fashionable society in the neighborhood of Bond Street.
The girl was not looking at her books. She was looking up and smiling at a remark her companion had just made.
"And so your friend, Pat Nabob, is going up into the mountains after gold. Does he know anything about prospecting?"
"I think so—he's had some experience."
Jacky became serious. She rose and turned to the window, which commanded a perfect view of the distant peaks of the Rockies, towering high above the broad, level expanse of the great muskeg. With her back still turned to him she fired an abrupt question.
"Say, Bill, guess 'Pickles' has some other reason for this mad scheme. What is it? You can't tell me he's going just for love of the adventure of the thing. Now, let's hear the truth."
Unobserved by the girl, her companion shrugged his shoulders.
"If you want his reason you'd better ask him, Jacky. I can only surmise."
"So can I." Jacky turned sharply. "I'll tell you why he's going, Bill, and you can bet your last cent I'm right. Lablache is at the bottom of it. He's at the bottom of everything that causes people to leave Foss River. He's a blood-sucker."
Bunning-Ford nodded. He was rarely expansive. Moreover, he knew he could add nothing to what the girl had said. She expressed his sentiments fully. There was a pause. Jacky was keenly eyeing the tall thin figure at the stove.
"Why did you come to tell me of this?" she asked at last.
"Thought you'd like to know. You like 'Pickles.'"
"Yes—Bill, you are thinking of going with him."
Her companion laughed uneasily. This girl was very keen.
"I didn't say so."
"No, but still you are thinking of doing so. See here, Bill, tell me all about it."
Bill coughed. Then he turned, and stooping, shook the ashes from the stove and opened the damper.
"Beastly cold in here," he remarked inconsequently.
"Yes—but, out with it."
Bill stood up and turned his indolent eyes upon his interrogator.
"I wasn't thinking of going—to the mountains."
"To the Yukon."
In spite of herself the girl could not help the exclamation.
"Why?" she went on a moment later.
"Well, if you must have it, I shan't be able to last out this summer—unless a stroke of luck falls to my share."
"Lablache—and the Calford Trust Co."
"The same thing," with conviction.
"Exactly—the same thing."
"And you stand?"
"If I meet the interest on my mortgages it will take away every head of fat cattle I can scrape together, and then I cannot pay Lablache other debts which fall due in two weeks' time." He quietly drew out his tobacco-pouch and rolled a cigarette. He seemed quite indifferent to his difficulties. "If I realize on the ranch now there'll be something left for me. If I go on, by the end of the summer there won't be."
"I suppose you mean that you will be deeper in debt."
He smiled in his own peculiarly lazy fashion as he held a lighted match to his cigarette.
"Just so. I shall owe Lablache more," he said, between spasmodic draws at his tobacco.
"Lablache has wonderful luck at cards."
Jacky returned to the table and sat down. She turned the pages of a stock book idly. She was thinking and the expression of her dark, determined little face indicated the unpleasant nature of her thoughts. Presently she looked up and encountered the steady gaze of her companion. They were great friends—these two. In that glance each read in the other's mind something of a mutual thought. Jacky, with womanly readiness, put part of it into words.
"No one ever seems to win against him, Bill. Guess he makes a steady income out of poker."
The man nodded and gulped down a deep inhalation from his cigarette.
"Wonderful luck," the girl went on.
"Some people call it 'luck,'" put in Bill, quietly, but with a curious purse of the lips.
"What do you call it?" sharply.
Bunning-Ford refused to commit himself. He contented himself with blowing the ash from his cigarette and crossing over to the window, where he stood looking out. He had come there that afternoon with a half-formed intention of telling this girl something which every girl must hope to hear sooner or later in her life. He had come there with the intention of ending, one way or the other, a friendship—camaraderie—whatever you please to call it, by telling this hardy girl of the prairie the old, old story over again. He loved this woman with an intensity that very few would have credited him with. Who could associate lazy, good-natured, careless "Lord" Bill with serious love? Certainly not his friends. And yet such was the case, and for that reason had he come. The affairs of Pat Nabob were but a subterfuge. And now he found it impossible to pronounce the words he had so carefully thought out. Jacky was not the woman to approach easily with sentiment, she was so "deucedly practical." So Bill said to himself. It was useless to speculate upon her feelings. This girl never allowed anything approaching sentiment to appear upon the surface. She knew better than to do so. She had the grave responsibility of her uncle's ranch upon her shoulders, therefore all men must be kept at arm's length. She was in every sense a woman, passionate, loyal, loving. But in addition nature had endowed her with a spirit which rose superior to feminine attributes and feelings. The blood in her veins—her life on the prairie—her tender care and solicitude for her uncle, of whose failings and weaknesses she was painfully aware, had caused her to put from her all thoughts of love and marriage. Her life must be devoted to him, and while he lived she was determined that no thought of self should interfere with her self-imposed duty.
At last "Lord" Bill broke the silence which had fallen upon the room after the girl's unanswered question. His remark seemed irrevelant and inconsequent.
"There's a horse on the other side of the muskeg. Who's is it?"
Jacky was at his side in an instant. So suddenly had she bounded from the table, that her companion turned, with that lazy glance of his, and looked keenly at her. He failed to understand her excitement. She had snatched up a pair of field-glasses and had already leveled them at the distant object.
She looked long and earnestly across the miry waste. Then she turned to her companion with a strange look in her beautiful gray eyes.
"Bill, I've seen that horse before. Four days ago. I've looked for it ever since, but couldn't see it. I'm going to round it up."
Bill was looking out across the muskeg again.
"Guess I'm going right across there this evening," the girl said quietly.
"Across the muskeg?" Her companion was roused out of himself. His usually lazy gray eyes were gleaming brightly. "Impossible!"
"Not at all, Bill," she replied, with an easy smile. "I know the path."
"But I thought there was only one man who ever knew that mythical path, and—he is dead."
"Quite right, Bill—only one man."
"Then the old stories—"
There was a peculiar expression on the man's face. The girl interrupted him with a gay laugh.
"Bother the 'old stories.' I'm going across there this evening after tea—coming?"
Bunning-Ford looked across at the clock—the hands pointed to half-past one. He was silent for a minute. Then he said,—
"I'll be with you at four if—if you'll tell me all about—"
"Peter Retief—yes, I'll tell you as we go, Bill. What are you going to do until then?"
"I'm going down to the saloon to meet 'Pickles,' your pet aversion, Pedro Mancha, and we're going to find a fourth."
"I'm sorry, Bill. But be here at four sharp and I'll tell you all about it. See here, boy, 'mum's' the word."
The craving of the Hon. Bunning-Ford's life was excitement. His temperament bordered on the lethargic. He felt that unless he could obtain excitement life was utterly unbearable. He had sought it all over the world before he had adopted the life of a rancher. Here in the West of Canada he had found something of what he sought. There was the big game shooting in the mountains, and the pursuit of the "grizzly" is the most wildly enthralling chase in the world. There was the taming and "breaking" of the wild and furious "broncho"—the most exemplary "bucking" horse in the world. There was the "round-up" and handling of cattle which never failed to give unlimited excitement. And then, at all times, was the inevitable poker, that king of all excitements among card games. The West of Canada had pleased "Lord" Bill as did no other country, and so he had invested the remains of his younger son's portion in stock.
He had asked for excitement and Canada had responded generously. Bill had found more than excitement, he had found love; and had found a wealth of real friendship rarely equaled in the busy cities of civilization.
In the midst of all these things which, seeking, he had found, came this suggestion from a girl. The muskeg—the cruel, relentless muskeg, that mire, dreaded and shunned by white men and natives alike. It could be crossed by a secret, path. The thought pleased him. And none knew of this path except a man who was dead and this girl he loved. There was a strange excitement in the thought of such a journey.
"Lord" Bill, ignoring his stirrup, vaulted into his saddle, and, as he swung his horse round and headed towards the settlement, he wondered what the day would bring forth.
"Confound the cards," he muttered, as he rode away.
And it was the first time in his life that he had reluctantly contemplated a gamble.
Had he only known it, a turning-point in his life was rapidly approaching—a turning-point which would lead to events which, if told as about to occur in the nineteenth century, would surely bring down derision upon the head of the teller. And yet would the derided one have right on his side.
"WAYS THAT ARE DARK"
It was less than a quarter of a mile from the Allandales' house to the saloon—a den of reeking atmosphere and fouler spirits.
The saloon at Foss River was no better and no worse than hundreds of others in the North-West at the time of which we write. It was a fairly large wooden building standing at the opposite end of the open space which answered the purpose of a market-place, and facing Lablache's store. Inside, it was gloomy, and the air invariably reeked of stale tobacco and drink. The bar was large, and at one end stood a piano kept for the purpose of "sing-songs"—nightly occurrences when the execrable whisky had done its work. Passing through the bar one finds a large dining-room on one side of a passage, and, on the other, a number of smaller rooms devoted to the use of those who wished to play poker.
It was towards this place that the Hon. Bunning-Ford was riding in the leisurely manner of one to whom time is no object.
His thoughts were far from matters pertaining to his destination, and he would gladly have welcomed anything which could have interfered with his projected game. For the moment poker had lost its charm.
This man was at no time given to vacillation. All his methods were, as a rule, very direct. Underneath his easy nonchalance he was of a very decided nature. His thin face at times could suddenly become very keen. His true character was hidden by the cultivated lazy expression of his eyes. Bunning-Ford was one of those men who are at their best in emergency. At all other times life was a thing which it was impossible for him to take seriously. He valued money as little as he valued anything in the world. Poker he looked upon as a means to an end. He had no religious principles, but firmly believed in doing as he would be done by. Honesty and truth he loved, because to him they were clean. It mattered nothing to him what his surroundings might be, for, though living in them, he was not of them. He would as soon sit down to play cards with three known murderers as play in the best club in London, and he would treat them honestly and expect the same in return—but a loaded revolver would be slung upon his hip and the holster would be open and handy.
As he neared the saloon he recognized the figures of two men walking in the direction of the saloon. They were the doctor and John Allandale. He rode towards them.