It was all new—most of it singularly dramatic and even appalling to the woman who sat with the pearl-gray veil drawn closely about her face. For eighteen hours she had been a keenly attentive, wide-eyed, and partly frightened bit of humanity in this onrush of "the horde." She had heard a voice behind her speak of it as "the horde"—a deep, thick, gruff voice which she knew without looking had filtered its way through a beard. She agreed with the voice. It was the Horde—that horde which has always beaten the trails ahead for civilization and made of its own flesh and blood the foundation of nations. For months it had been pouring steadily into the mountains—always in and never out, a laughing, shouting, singing, blaspheming Horde, every ounce of it toughened sinew and red brawn, except the Straying Angels. One of these sat opposite her, a dark-eyed girl with over-red lips and hollowed cheeks, and she heard the bearded man say something to his companions about "dizzy dolls" and "the little angel in the other seat." This same voice, gruffened in its beard, had told her that ten thousand of the Horde had gone up ahead of them. Then it whispered something that made her hands suddenly tighten and a hot flush sweep through her. She lifted her veil and rose slowly from her seat, as if to rearrange her dress. Casually she looked straight into the faces of the bearded man and his companion in the seat behind. They stared. After that she heard nothing more of the Straying Angels, but only a wildly mysterious confabulation about "rock hogs," and "coyotes" that blew up whole mountains, and a hundred and one things about the "rail end." She learned that it was taking five hundred steers a week to feed the Horde that lay along the Grand Trunk Pacific between Hogan's Camp and the sea, and that there were two thousand souls at Tête Jaune Cache, which until a few months before had slumbered in a century-old quiet broken only by the Indian and his trade. Then the train stopped in its twisting trail, and the bearded man and his companion left the car. As they passed her they glanced down. Again the veil was drawn close. A shimmering tress of hair had escaped its bondage; that was all they saw.
The veiled woman drew a deeper breath when they were gone. She saw that most of the others were getting off. In her end of the car the hollow-cheeked girl and she were alone. Even in their aloneness these two women had not dared to speak until now. The one raised her veil again, and their eyes met across the aisle. For a moment the big, dark, sick-looking eyes of the "angel" stared. Like the bearded man and his companion, she, too, understood, and an embarrassed flush added to the colour of the rouge on her cheeks. The eyes that looked across at her were blue—deep, quiet, beautiful. The lifted veil had disclosed to her a face that she could not associate with the Horde. The lips smiled at her—the wonderful eyes softened with a look of understanding, and then the veil was lowered again. The flush in the girl's cheek died out, and she smiled back.
"You are going to Tête Jaune?" she asked.
"Yes. May I sit with you for a few minutes? I want to ask questions—so many!"
The hollow-cheeked girl made room for her at her side.
"You are new?"
"Quite new—to this."
The words, and the manner in which they were spoken, made the other glance quickly at her companion.
"It is a strange place to go—Tête Jaune," she said. "It is a terrible place for a woman."
"And yet you are going?"
"I have friends there. Have you?"
The girl stared at her in amazement. Her voice and her eyes were bolder now.
"And without friends you are going—there?" she cried. "You have no husband—no brother——"
"What place is this?" interrupted the other, raising her veil so that she could look steadily into the other's face. "Would you mind telling me?"
"It is Miette," replied the girl, the flush reddening her cheeks again. "There's one of the big camps of the railroad builders down on the Flats. You can see it through the window. That river is the Athabasca."
"Will the train stop here very long?"
The Little Angel shrugged her thin shoulders despairingly.
"Long enough to get me into The Cache mighty late to-night," she complained. "We won't move for two hours."
"I'd be so glad if you could tell me where I can go for a bath and something to eat. I'm not very hungry—but I'm terribly dusty. I want to change some clothes, too. Is there a hotel here?"
Her companion found the question very funny. She had a giggling fit before she answered.
"You're sure new," she explained. "We don't have hotels up here. We have bed-houses, chuck-tents, and bunk-shacks. You ask for Bill's Shack down there on the Flats. It's pretty good. They'll give you a room, plenty of water, and a looking-glass—an' charge you a dollar. I'd go with you, but I'm expecting a friend a little later, and if I move I may lose him. Anybody will tell you where Bill's place is. It's a red an' white striped tent—and it's respectable."
The stranger girl thanked her, and turned for her bag. As she left the car, the Little Angel's eyes followed her with a malicious gleam that gave them the strange glow of candles in a sepulchral cavern. The colours which she unfurled to all seeking eyes were not secret, and yet she was filled with an inward antagonism that this stranger with the wonderful blue eyes had dared to see them and recognize them. She stared after the retreating form—a tall, slim, exquisitely poised figure that filled her with envy and a dull sort of hatred. She did not hear a step behind her. A hand fell familiarly on her shoulder, and a coarse voice laughed something in her ear that made her jump up with an artificial little shriek of pleasure. The man nodded toward the end of the now empty car.
"Who's your new friend?" he asked.
"She's no friend of mine," snapped the girl. "She's another one of them Dolly Dimples come out to save the world. She's that innocent she wonders why Tête Jaune ain't a nice place for ladies without escort. I thought I'd help eggicate her a little an' so I sent her to Bill's place. Oh, my Lord, I told her it was respectable!"
She doubled over the seat in a fit of merriment, and her companion seized the opportunity to look out of the window.
The tall, blue-eyed stranger had paused for a moment on the last step of the car to pin up her veil, fully revealing her face. Then she stepped lightly to the ground, and found herself facing the sunlight and the mountains. She drew a slow, deep breath between her parted lips, and turned wonderingly, for a moment forgetful. It was the first time she had left the train since entering the mountains, and she understood now why some one in the coach had spoken of the Miette Plain as Sunshine Pool. Where-ever she looked the mountains fronted her, with their splendid green slopes reaching up to their bald caps of gray shale and reddish rock or gleaming summits of snow. Into this "pool"—this pocket in the mountains—the sun descended in a wonderful flood. It stirred her blood like a tonic. She breathed more quickly; a soft glow coloured her cheeks; her eyes grew more deeply violet as they caught the reflection of the blue sky. A gentle wind fretted the loose tendrils of brown hair about her face. And the bearded man, staring through the car window, saw her thus, and for an hour after that the hollow-cheeked girl wondered at the strange change in him.
The train had stopped at the edge of the big fill overlooking the Flats. It was a heavy train, and a train that was helping to make history—a combination of freight, passenger, and "cattle." It had averaged eight miles an hour on its climb toward Yellowhead Pass and the end of steel. The "cattle" had already surged from their stifling and foul-smelling cars in a noisy inundation of curiously mixed humanity. They were of a dozen different nationalities, and as the girl looked at them it was not with revulsion or scorn but with a sudden quickening of heartbeat and a little laugh that had in it something both of wonder and of pride. This was the Horde, that crude, monstrous thing of primitive strength and passions that was overturning mountains in its fight to link the new Grand Trunk Pacific with the seaport on the Pacific. In that Horde, gathered in little groups, shifting, sweeping slowly toward her and past her, she saw something as omnipotent as the mountains themselves. They could not know defeat. She sensed it without ever having seen them before. For her the Horde now had a heart and a soul. These were the builders of empire—the man-beasts who made it possible for Civilization to creep warily and without peril into new places and new worlds. With a curious shock she thought of the half-dozen lonely little wooden crosses she had seen through the car window at odd places along the line of rail.
And now she sought her way toward the Flats. To do this she had to climb over a track that was waiting for ballast. A car shunted past her, and on its side she saw the big, warning red placards—Dynamite. That one word seemed to breathe to her the spirit of the wonderful energy that was expending itself all about her. From farther on in the mountains came the deep, sullen detonations of the "little black giant" that had been rumbling past her in the car. It came again and again, like the thunderous voice of the mountains themselves calling out in protest and defiance. And each time she felt a curious thrill under her feet and the palpitant touch of something that was like a gentle breath in her ears. She found another track on her way, and other cars slipped past her crunchingly. Beyond this second track she came to a beaten road that led down into the Flats, and she began to descend.
Tents shone through the trees on the bottom. The rattle of the cars grew more distant, and she heard the hum and laughter of voices and the jargon of a phonograph. At the bottom of the slope she stepped aside to allow a team and wagon to pass. The wagon was loaded with boxes that rattled and crashed about as the wheels bumped over stones and roots. The driver of the team did not look at her. He was holding back with his whole weight; his eyes bulged a little; he was sweating, in his face was a comedy of expression that made the girl smile in spite of herself. Then she saw one of the bobbing boxes and the smile froze into a look of horror. On it was painted that ominous word—DYNAMITE!
Two men were coming behind her.
"Six horses, a wagon an' old Fritz—blown to hell an' not a splinter left to tell the story," one of them was saying. "I was there three minutes after the explosion and there wasn't even a ravelling or a horsehair left. This dynamite's a dam' funny thing. I wouldn't be a rock-hog for a million!"
"I'd rather be a rock-hog than Joe—drivin' down this hill a dozen times a day," replied the other.
The girl had paused again, and the two men stared at her as they were about to pass. The explosion of Joe's dynamite could not have startled them more than the beauty of the face that was turned to them in a quietly appealing inquiry.
"I am looking for a place called—Bill's Shack," she said, speaking the Little Sister's words hesitatingly. "Can you direct me to it, please?"
The younger of the two men looked at his companion without speaking. The other, old enough to regard feminine beauty as a trap and an illusion, turned aside to empty his mouth of a quid of tobacco, bent over, and pointed under the trees.
"Can't miss it—third tent-house on your right, with canvas striped like a barber-pole. That phonnygraff you hear is at Bill's."
She went on.
Behind her, the two men stood where she had left them. They did not move. The younger man seemed scarcely to breathe.
"Bill's place!" he gasped then. "I've a notion to tell her. I can't believe——"
"Shucks!" interjected the other.
"But I don't. She isn't that sort. She looked like a Madonna—with the heart of her clean gone. I never saw anything so white an' so beautiful. You call me a fool if you want to—I'm goin' on to Bill's!"
He strode ahead, chivalry in his young and palpitating heart. Quickly the older man was at his side, clutching his arm.
"Come along, you cotton-head!" he cried. "You ain't old enough or big enough in this camp to mix in with Bill. Besides," he lied, seeing the wavering light in the youth's eyes, "I know her. She's going to the right place."
At Bill's place men were holding their breath and staring. They were not unaccustomed to women. But such a one as this vision that walked calmly and undisturbed in among them they had never seen. There were half a dozen lounging there, smoking and listening to the phonograph, which some one now stopped that they might hear every word that was spoken. The girl's head was high. She was beginning to understand that it would have been less embarrassing to have gone hungry and dusty. But she had come this far, and she was determined to get what she wanted—if it was to be had. The colour shone a little more vividly through the pure whiteness of her skin as she faced Bill, leaning over his little counter. In him she recognized the Brute. It was blazoned in his face, in the hungry, seeking look of his eyes—in the heavy pouches and thick crinkles of his neck and cheeks. For once Bill Quade himself was at a loss.
"I understand that you have rooms for rent," she said unemotionally. "May I hire one until the train leaves for Tête Jaune Cache?"
The listeners behind her stiffened and leaned forward. One of them grinned at Quade. This gave him the confidence he needed to offset the fearless questioning in the blue eyes. None of them noticed a newcomer in the door. Quade stepped from behind his shelter and faced her.
"This way," he said, and turned to the drawn curtains beyond them.
She followed. As the curtains closed after them a chuckling laugh broke the silence of the on-looking group. The newcomer in the doorway emptied the bowl of his pipe, and thrust the pipe into the breast-pocket of his flannel shirt. He was bareheaded. His hair was blond, shot a little with gray. He was perhaps thirty-eight, no taller than the girl herself, slim-waisted, with trim, athletic shoulders. His eyes, as they rested on the still-fluttering curtains, were a cold and steady gray. His face was thin and bronzed, his nose a trifle prominent. He was a man far from handsome, and yet there was something of fascination and strength about him. He did not belong to the Horde. Yet he might have been the force behind it, contemptuous of the chuckling group of rough-visaged men, almost arrogant in his posture as he eyed the curtains and waited.
What he expected soon came. It was not the usual giggling, the usual exchange of badinage and coarse jest beyond the closed curtains. Quade did not come out rubbing his huge hands, his face crinkling with a sort of exultant satisfaction. The girl preceded him. She flung the curtains aside and stood there for a moment, her face flaming like fire, her blue eyes filled with the flash of lightning. She came down the single step. Quade followed her. He put out a hand.
"Don't take offence, girly," he expostulated. "Look here—ain't it reasonable to s'pose——"
He got no farther. The man in the door had advanced, placing himself at the girl's side. His voice was low and unexcited.
"You have made a mistake?" he said.
She took him in at a glance—his clean-cut, strangely attractive face, his slim build, the clear and steady gray of his eyes.
"Yes, I have made a mistake—a terrible mistake!"
"I tell you it ain't fair to take offence," Quade went on. "Now, look here——"
In his hand was a roll of bills. The girl did not know that a man could strike as quickly and with as terrific effect as the gray-eyed stranger struck then. There was one blow, and Quade went down limply. It was so sudden that he had her outside before she realized what had happened.
"I chanced to see you go in," he explained, without a tremor in his voice. "I thought you were making a mistake. I heard you ask for shelter. If you will come with me I will take you to a friend's."
"If it isn't too much trouble for you, I will go," she said. "And for that—in there—thank you!"
They passed down an aisle through the tall trees, on each side of which faced the vari-coloured and many-shaped architecture of the little town. It was chiefly of canvas. Now and then a structure of logs added an appearance of solidity to the whole. The girl did not look too closely. She knew that they passed places in which there were long rows of cots, and that others were devoted to trade. She noticed signs which advertised soft drinks and cigars—always "soft drinks," which sometimes came into camp marked as "dynamite," "salt pork," and "flour." She was conscious that every one stared at them as they passed. She heard clearly the expressions of wonder and curiosity of two women and a girl who were spreading out blankets in front of a rooming-tent. She looked at the man at her side. She appreciated his courtesy in not attempting to force an acquaintanceship. In her eyes was a ripple of amusement.
"This is all strange and new to me—and not at all uninteresting," she said. "I came expecting—everything. And I am finding it. Why do they stare at me so? Am I a curiosity?"
"You are," he answered bluntly. "You are the most beautiful woman they have ever seen."
His eyes encountered hers as he spoke. He had answered her question fairly. There was nothing that was audacious in his manner or his look. She had asked for information, and he had given it. In spite of herself the girl's lips trembled. Her colour deepened. She smiled.
"Pardon me," she entreated. "I seldom feel like laughing, but I almost do now. I have encountered so many curious people and have heard so many curious things during the past twenty-four hours. You don't believe in concealing your thoughts out here in the wilderness, do you?"
"I haven't expressed my thoughts," he corrected. "I was telling you what they think."
"Oh-h-h—I beg your pardon again!"
"Not at all," he answered lightly, and now his eyes were laughing frankly into her own. "I don't mind informing you," he went on, "that I am the biggest curiosity you will meet between this side of the mountains and the sea. I am not accustomed to championing women. I allow them to pursue their own course without personal interference on my part. But—I suppose it will give you some satisfaction if I confess it—I followed you into Bill's place because you were more than ordinarily beautiful, and because I wanted to see fair play. I knew you were making a mistake. I knew what would happen."
They had passed the end of the street, and entered a little green plain that was soft as velvet underfoot. On the farther side of this, sheltered among the trees, were two or three tents. The man led the way toward these.
"Now, I suppose I've spoiled it all," he went on, a touch of irony in his voice. "It was really quite heroic of me to follow you into Bill's place, don't you think? You probably want to tell me so, but don't quite dare. And I should play up to my part, shouldn't I? But I cannot—not satisfactorily. I'm really a bit disgusted with myself for having taken as much interest in you as I have. I write books for a living. My name is John Aldous."
With a little cry of amazement, his companion stopped. Without knowing it, her hand had gripped his arm.
"You are John Aldous—who wrote 'Fair Play,' and 'Women!'" she gasped.
"Yes," he said, amusement in his face.
"I have read those books—and I have read your plays," she breathed, a mysterious tremble in her voice. "You despise women!"
She drew a deep breath. Her hand dropped from his arm.
"This is very, very funny," she mused, gazing off to the sun-capped peaks of the mountains. "You have flayed women alive. You have made them want to mob you. And yet——"
"Millions of them read my books," he chuckled.
"Yes—all of them read your books," she replied, looking straight into his face. "And I guess—in many ways—you have pointed out things that are true."
It was his turn to show surprise.
"You believe that?"
"I do. More than that—I have always thought that I knew your secret—the big, hidden thing under your work, the thing which you do not reveal because you know the world would laugh at you. And so—you despise me!"
"I am a woman."
He laughed. The tan in his cheeks burned a deeper red.
"We are wasting time," he warned her. "In Bill's place I heard you say you were going to leave on the Tête Jaune train. I am going to take you to a real dinner. And now—I should let those good people know your name."
A moment—unflinching and steady—she looked into his face.
"It is Joanne, the name you have made famous as the dreadfulest woman in fiction. Joanne Gray."
"I am sorry," he said, and bowed low. "Come. If I am not mistaken I smell new-baked bread."
As they moved on he suddenly touched her arm. She felt for a moment the firm clasp of his fingers. There was a new light in his eyes, a glow of enthusiasm.
"I have it!" he cried. "You have brought it to me—the idea. I have been wanting a name for her—the woman in my new book. She is to be a tremendous surprise. I haven't found a name, until now—one that fits. I shall call her Ladygray!"
He felt the girl flinch. He was surprised at the sudden startled look that shot into her eyes, the swift ebbing of the colour from her cheeks. He drew away his hand at the strange change in her. He noticed how quickly she was breathing—that the fingers of her white hands were clasped tensely.
"You object," he said.
"Not enough to keep you from using it," she replied in a low voice. "I owe you a great deal." He noted, too, how quickly she had recovered herself. Her head was a little higher. She looked toward the tents. "You were not mistaken," she added. "I smell new-made bread!"
"And I shall emphasize the first half of it—Ladygray," said John Aldous, as if speaking to himself. "That diminutizes it, you might say—gives it the touch of sentiment I want. You can imagine a lover saying 'Dear little Ladygray, are you warm and comfy?' He wouldn't say Ladygray as if she wore a coronet, would he?"
"Smell-o'-bread—fresh bread!" sniffed Joanne Gray, as if she had not heard him. "It's making me hungry. Will you please hurry me to it, John Aldous?"
They were approaching the first of the three tent-houses, over which was a crudely painted sign which read "Otto Brothers, Guides and Outfitters." It was a large, square tent, with weather-faded red and blue stripes, and from it came the cheerful sound of a woman's laughter. Half a dozen trampish-looking Airedale terriers roused themselves languidly as they drew nearer. One of them stood up and snarled.
"They won't hurt you," assured Aldous. "They belong to Jack Bruce and Clossen Otto—the finest bunch of grizzly dogs in the Rockies." Another moment, and a woman had appeared in the door. "And that is Mrs. Jack Otto," he added under his breath. "If all women were like her I wouldn't have written the things you have read!"
He might have added that she was Scotch. But this was not necessary. The laughter was still in her good-humoured face. Aldous looked at his companion, and he found her smiling back. The eyes of the two women had already met.
Briefly Aldous explained what had happened at Quade's, and that the young woman was leaving on the Tête Jaune train. The good-humoured smile left Mrs. Otto's face when he mentioned Quade.
"I've told Jack I'd like to poison that man some day," she cried. "You poor dear, come in, I'll get you a cup of tea."
"Which always means dinner in the Otto camp," added Aldous.
"I'm not so hungry, but I'm tired—so tired," he heard the girl say as she went in with Mrs. Otto, and there was a new and strangely pathetic note in her voice. "I want to rest—until the train goes."
He followed them in, and stood for a moment near the door.
"There's a room in there, my dear," said the woman, drawing back a curtain. "Make yourself at home, and lie down on the bed until I have the tea ready."
When the curtain had closed behind her, John Aldous spoke in a low voice to the woman.
"Will you see her safely to the train, Mrs. Otto?" he asked. "It leaves at a quarter after two. I must be going."
He felt that he had sufficiently performed his duty. He left the tent, and paused for a moment outside to touzle affectionately the trampish heads of the bear dogs. Then he turned away, whistling. He had gone a dozen steps when a low voice stopped him. He turned. Joanne had come from the door.
For one moment he stared as if something more wonderful than anything he had ever seen had risen before him. The girl was bareheaded, and she stood in a sun mellowed by a film of cloud. Her head was piled with lustrous coils of gold-brown hair that her hat and veil had hidden. Never had he looked upon such wonderful hair, crushed and crumpled back from her smooth forehead; nor such marvellous whiteness of skin and pure blue depths of eyes! In her he saw now everything that was strong and splendid in woman. She was not girlishly sweet. She was not a girl. She was a woman—glorious to look at, a soul glowing out of her eyes, a strength that thrilled him in the quiet and beautiful mystery of her face.
"You were going without saying good-bye," she said. "Won't you let me thank you—a last time?"
Her voice brought him to himself again. A moment he bent over her hand. A moment he felt its warm, firm pressure in his own. The smile that flashed to his lips was hidden from her as he bowed his blond-gray head.
"Pardon me for the omission," he apologized. "Good-bye—and may good luck go with you!"
Their eyes met once more. With another bow he had turned, and was continuing his way. At the door Joanne Gray looked back. He was whistling again. His careless, easy stride was filled with a freedom that seemed to come to her in the breath of the mountains. And then she, too, smiled strangely as she reëntered the tent.
If John Aldous had betrayed no visible sign of inward vanquishment he at least was feeling its effect. For years his writings had made him the target for a world of women, and many men. The men he had regarded with indifferent toleration. The women were his life—the "frail and ineffective creatures" who gave spice to his great adventure, and made his days anything but monotonous. He was not unchivalrous. Deep down in his heart—and this was his own secret—he did not even despise women. But he had seen their weaknesses and their frailties as perhaps no other man had ever seen them, and he had written of them as no other man had ever written. This had brought him the condemnation of the host, the admiration of the few. His own personal veneer of antagonism against woman was purely artificial, and yet only a few had guessed it. He had built it up about him as a sort of protection. He called himself "an adventurer in the mysteries of feminism," and to be this successfully he had argued that he must destroy in himself the usual heart-emotions of the sex-man and the animal.
How far he had succeeded in this he himself did not know—until these last moments when he had bid good-bye to Joanne Gray. He confessed that she had found a cleft in his armour, and there was an uneasy thrill in his blood. It was not her beauty alone that had affected him. He had trained himself to look at a beautiful woman as he might have looked at a beautiful flower, confident that if he went beyond the mere admiration of it he would find only burned-out ashes. But in her he had seen something that was more than beauty, something that for a flashing moment had set stirring every molecule in his being. He had felt the desire to rest his hand upon her shining hair!
He turned off into a winding path that led into the thick poplars, restraining an inclination to look back in the direction of the Otto camp. He pulled out the pipe he had dropped into his shirt pocket, filled it with fresh tobacco, and began smoking. As he smoked, his lips wore a quizzical smile, for he was honest enough to give Joanne Gray credit for her triumph. She had awakened a new kind of interest in him—only a passing interest, to be sure—but a new kind for all that. The fact amused him. In a large way he was a humourist—few guessing it, and he fully appreciated the humour of the present situation—that he, John Aldous, touted the world over as a woman-hater, wanted to peer out through the poplar foliage and see that wonderful gold-brown head shining in the sun once more!
He wandered more slowly on his way, wondering with fresh interest what his friends, the women, would say when they read his new book. His title for it was "Mothers." It was to be a tremendous surprise.
Suddenly his face became serious. He faced the sound of a distant phonograph. It was not the phonograph in Quade's place, but that of a rival dealer in soft drinks at the end of the "street." For a moment Aldous hesitated. Then he turned in the direction of the camp.
Quade was bolstered up on a stool, his back against the thin partition, when John Aldous sauntered in. There was still a groggy look in his mottled face. His thick bulk hung a bit limply. In his heavy-lidded eyes, under-hung by watery pouches of sin and dissipation, there was a vengeful and beastlike glare. He was surrounded by his friends. One of them was taking a wet cloth from his head. There were a dozen in the canvas-walled room, all with their backs to the door, their eyes upon their fallen and dishonoured chief. For a moment John Aldous paused in the door. The cool and insolent smile hovered about his lips again, and little crinkles had gathered at the corners of his eyes.
"Did I hit you pretty hard, Bill?" he asked.
Every head was turned toward him. Bill Quade stared, his mouth open. He staggered to his feet, and stood dizzily.
"You—damn you!" he cried huskily.
Three or four of the men had already begun to move toward the stranger. Their hands were knotted, their faces murderously dark.
"Wait a minute, boys," warned Aldous coolly. "I've got something to say to you—and Bill. Then eat me alive if you want to. Do you want to be square enough to give me a word?"
Quade had settled back sickly on his stool. The others had stopped, waiting. The quiet and insolently confident smile had not left Aldous' lips.
"You'll feel better in a few minutes, Bill," he consoled. "A hard blow on the jaw always makes you sick at the pit of the stomach. That dizziness will pass away shortly. Meanwhile, I'm going to give you and your pals a little verbal and visual demonstration of what you're up against, and warn you to bait no traps for a certain young woman whom you've lately seen. She's going on to Tête Jaune. And I know how your partner plays his game up there. I'm not particularly anxious to butt into your affairs and the business of this pretty bunch that's gathered about you, but I've come to give you a friendly warning for all that. If this young woman is embarrassed up at Tête Jaune you're going to settle with me."
Aldous had spoken without a tremor of excitement in his voice. Not one of the men noticed his speaking lips, his slim hands, or his careless posture as he leaned in the door. They were looking straight into his eyes, strangely scintillating and deadly earnest. In such a man mere bulk did not count.
"That much—for words," he went on. "Now I'm going to give you the visual demonstration. I know your game, Bill. You're already planning what you're going to do. You won't fight fair—because you never have. You've already decided that some morning I'll turn up missing, or be dug out from under a fall of rock, or go peacefully floating down the Athabasca. See! There's nothing in that hand, is there?"
He stretched out an empty hand toward them, palm up.
A twist of the wrist so swift their eyes could not follow, a metallic click, and the startled group were staring into the black muzzle of a menacing little automatic.
"That's known as the sleeve trick, boys," explained Aldous with his imperturbable smile. "It's a relic of the old gun-fighting days when the best man was quickest. From now on, especially at night, I shall carry this little friend of mine just inside my wristband. There are eleven shots in it, and I shoot fairly straight. Good-day!"
Before they had recovered from their astonishment he was gone.
He did not follow the road along which Joanne had come a short time before, but turned again into the winding trail that led riverward through the poplars. Where before he had been a little amused at himself, he was now more seriously disgusted. He was not afraid of Quade, who was perhaps the most dangerous man along the line of rail. Neither was he afraid of the lawless men who worked his ends. But he knew that he had made powerful enemies, and all because of an unknown woman whom he had never seen until half an hour before. It was this that disturbed his equanimity—the woman of it, and the knowledge that his interference had been unsolicited and probably unnecessary. And now that he had gone this far he found it not easy to recover his balance. Who was this Joanne Gray? he asked himself. She was not ordinary—like the hundred other women who had gone on ahead of her to Tête Jaune Cache. If she had been that, he would soon have been in his little shack on the shore of the river, hard at work. He had planned work for himself that afternoon, and he was nettled to discover that his enthusiasm for the grand finale of a certain situation in his novel was gone. Yet for this he did not blame her. He was the fool. Quade and his friends would make him feel that sooner or later.
His trail led him to a partly dry muskeg bottom. Beyond this was a thicker growth of timber, mostly spruce and cedar, from behind which came the rushing sound of water. A few moments more and he stood with the wide tumult of the Athabasca at his feet. He had chosen this spot for his little cabin because the river ran wild here among the rocks, and because pack-outfits going into the southward mountains could not disturb him by fording at this point. Across the river rose the steep embankments that shut in Buffalo Prairie, and still beyond that the mountains, thick with timber rising billow on billow until trees looked like twigs, with gray rock and glistening snow shouldering the clouds above the last purple line. The cabin in which he had lived and worked for many weeks faced the river and the distant Saw Tooth Range, and was partly hidden in a clump of jack-pines. He opened the door and entered. Through the window to the south and west he could see the white face of Mount Geikie, and forty miles away in that wilderness of peaks, the sombre frown of Hardesty; through it the sun came now, flooding his work as he had left it. The last page of manuscript on which he had been working was in his typewriter. He sat down to begin where he had left off in that pivotal situation in his masterpiece.
He read and re-read the last two or three pages of the manuscript, struggling to pick up the threads where he had dropped them. With each reading he became more convinced that his work for that afternoon was spoiled. And by whom? By what? A little fiercely he packed his pipe with fresh tobacco. Then he leaned back, lighted it, and laughed. More and more as the minutes passed he permitted himself to think of the strange young woman whose beauty and personality had literally projected themselves into his workshop. He marvelled at the crudity of the questions which he asked himself, and yet he persisted in asking them. Who was she? What could be her mission at Tête Jaune Cache? She had repeated to him what she had said to the girl in the coach—that at Tête Jaune she had no friends. Beyond that, and her name, she had offered no enlightenment.
In the brief space that he had been with her he had mentally tabulated her age as twenty-eight—no older. Her beauty alone, the purity of her eyes, the freshness of her lips, and the slender girlishness of her figure, might have made him say twenty, but with those things he had found the maturer poise of the woman. It had been a flashlight picture, but one that he was sure of.
Several times during the next hour he turned to his work, and at last gave up his efforts entirely. From a peg in the wall he took down a little rifle. He had found it convenient to do much of his own cooking, and he had broken a few laws. The partridges were out of season, but temptingly fat and tender. With a brace of young broilers in mind for supper, he left the cabin and followed the narrow foot-trail up the river. He hunted for half an hour before he stirred a covey of birds. Two of these he shot. Concealing his meat and his gun near the trail he continued toward the ford half a mile farther up, wondering if Stevens, who was due to cross that day, had got his outfit over. Not until then did he look at his watch. He was surprised to find that the Tête Jaune train had been gone three quarters of an hour. For some unaccountable reason he felt easier. He went on, whistling.
At the ford he found Stevens standing close to the river's edge, twisting one of his long red moustaches in doubt and vexation.
"Damn this river," he growled, as Aldous came up. "You never can tell what it's going to do overnight. Look there! Would you try to cross?"
"I wouldn't," replied Aldous. "It's a foot higher than yesterday. I wouldn't take the chance."
"Not with two guides, a cook, and a horse-wrangler on your pay-roll—and a hospital bill as big as Geikie staring you in the face?" argued Stevens, who had been sick for three months. "I guess you'd pretty near take a chance. I've a notion to."
"I wouldn't," repeated Aldous.
"But I've lost two days already, and I'm taking that bunch of sightseers out for a lump sum, guaranteeing 'em so many days on the trail. This ain't what you might call on the trail. They don't expect to pay for this delay, and that outfit back in the bush is costing me thirty dollars a day. We can get the dunnage and ourselves over in the flat-boat. It'll make our arms crack—but we can do it. I've got twenty-seven horses. I've a notion to chase 'em in. The river won't be any lower to-morrow."
"But you may be a few horses ahead."
Stevens bit off a chunk of tobacco and sat down. For a few moments he looked at the muddy flood with an ugly eye. Then he chuckled, and grinned.
"Came through the camp half an hour ago," he said. "Hear you cleaned up on Bill Quade."
"A bit," said Aldous.
Stevens rolled his quid and spat into the water slushing at his feet.
"Guess I saw the woman when she got off the train," he went on. "She dropped something. I picked it up, but she was so darned pretty as she stood there looking about I didn't dare go up an' give it to her. If it had been worth anything I'd screwed up my courage. But it wasn't—so I just gawped like the others. It was a piece of paper. Mebby you'd like it as a souvenir, seein' as you laid out Quade for her."
As he spoke, Stevens fished a crumpled bit of paper from his pocket and gave it to his companion. Aldous had sat down beside him. He smoothed the page out on his knee. There was no writing on it, but it was crowded thick with figures, as if the maker of the numerals had been doing some problem in mathematics. The chief thing that interested him was that wherever monetary symbols were used it was the "pound" and not the "dollar" sign. The totals of certain columns were rather startling.
"Guess she's a millionaire if that's her own money she's been figgering," said Stevens. "Notice that figger there!" He pointed with a stubby forefinger. "Pretty near a billion, ain't it?"
"Seven hundred and fifty thousand," said Aldous.
He was thinking of the "pound" sign. She had not looked like the Englishwomen he had met. He folded the slip of paper and put it in his pocket.
Stevens eyed him seriously.
"I was coming over to give you a bit of advice before I left for the Maligne Lake country," he said. "You'd better move. Quade won't want you around after this. Besides——"
"My kid heard something," continued the packer, edging nearer. "You was mighty good to the kid when I was down an' out, Aldous. I ought to tell you. It wasn't an hour ago the kid was behind the tent an' he heard Quade and Slim Barker talking. So far as I can find from the kid, Quade has gone nutty over her. He's ravin'. He told Slim that he'd give ten thousand dollars to get her in his hands. What sent the boy down to me was Quade tellin' Slim that he'd get you first. He told Slim to go on to Tête Jaune—follow the girl!"
"The deuce you say!" cried Aldous, clutching the other's arm suddenly. "He's done that?"
"That's what the kid says."
Aldous rose to his feet slowly. The careless smile was playing about his mouth again. A few men had learned that in those moments John Aldous was dangerous.
"The kid is undoubtedly right," he said, looking down at Stevens. "But I am quite sure the young woman is capable of taking care of herself. Quade has a tremendous amount of nerve, setting Slim to follow her, hasn't he? Slim may run up against a husband or a brother."
Stevens haunched his shoulders.
"It's not the woman I'm thinking about. It's you. I'd sure change my location."
"Why wouldn't it be just as well if I told the police of his threat?" asked Aldous, looking across the river with a glimmer of humour in his eyes.
"Oh, hell!" was the packer's rejoinder.
Slowly he unwound his long legs and rose to his feet.
"Take my advice—move!" he said. "As for me, I'm going to cross that cussed river this afternoon or know the reason why."
He stalked away in the direction of his outfit, chewing viciously at his quid. For a few moments Aldous stood undecided. He would liked to have joined the half-dozen men he saw lounging restfully a distance beyond the grazing ponies. But Stevens had made him acutely aware of a new danger. He was thinking of his cabin—and the priceless achievement of his last months of work, his manuscript. If Quade should destroy that——
He clenched his hands and walked swiftly toward his camp. To "burn out" an enemy was one of Quade's favourite methods of retaliation. He had heard this. He also knew that Quade's work was done so cleverly that the police had been unable to call him to account.
Quade's status had interested Aldous from the beginning. He had discovered that Quade and Culver Rann, his partner at Tête Jaune, were forces to be reckoned with even by the "powers" along the line of rail. They were the two chiefs of the "underground," the men who controlled the most dangerous element from Miette to Fort George. He had once seen Culver Rann, a quiet, keen-eyed, immaculately groomed man of forty—the cleverest scoundrel that had ever drifted into the Canadian west. He had been told that Rann was really the brain of the combination, and that the two had picked up a quarter of a million in various ways. But it was Quade with whom he had to deal now, and he began to thank Stevens for his warning. He was filled with a sense of relief when he reached his cabin and found it as he had left it. He always made a carbon copy of his work. This copy he now put into a waterproof tin box, and the box he concealed under a log a short distance back in the bush.
"Now go ahead, Quade," he laughed to himself, a curious, almost exultant ring in his voice. "I haven't had any real excitement for so long I can't remember, and if you start the fun there's going to be fun!"
He returned to his birds, perched himself behind a bush at the river's edge, and began skinning them. He had almost finished when he heard hoarse shouts from up the river. From his position he could see the stream a hundred yards below the ford. Stevens had driven in his horses. He could see them breasting the first sweep of the current, their heads held high, struggling for the opposite shore. He rose, dropped his birds, and stared.
"Good God, what a fool!" he gasped.
He saw the tragedy almost before it had begun. Still three hundred yards below the swimming horses was the gravelly bar which they must reach on the opposite side. He noted the grayish strip of smooth water that marked the end of the dead-line. Three or four of the stronger animals were forging steadily toward this. The others grouped close together, almost motionless in their last tremendous fight, were left farther and farther behind. Then came the break. A mare and her yearling colt had gone in with the bunch. Aldous saw the colt, with its small head and shoulders high out of the water, sweep down like a chip with the current. A cold chill ran through him as he heard the whinneying scream of the mother—a warning cry that held for him the pathos and the despair of a creature that was human. He knew what it meant. "Wait—I'm coming—I'm coming!" was in that cry. He saw the mare give up and follow resistlessly with the deadly current, her eyes upon her colt. The heads behind her wavered, then turned, and in another moment the herd was sweeping down to its destruction.
Aldous felt like turning his head. But the spectacle fascinated him, and he looked. He did not think of Stevens and his loss as the first of the herd plunged in among the rocks. He stood with white face and clenched hands, leaning over the water boiling at his feet, cursing softly in his helplessness. To him came the last terrible cries of the perishing animals. He saw head after head go under. Out of the white spume of a great rock against which the flood split itself with the force of an avalanche he saw one horse pitched bodily, as if thrown from a huge catapault. The last animal had disappeared when chance turned his eyes upstream and close in to shore. Here flowed a steady current free of rock, and down this—head and shoulders still high out of the water—came the colt! What miracle had saved the little fellow thus far Aldous did not stop to ask. Fifty yards below it would meet the fate of the others. Half that distance in the direction of the maelstrom below was the dead trunk of a fallen spruce overhanging the water for fifteen or twenty feet. In a flash Aldous was racing toward it. He climbed out on it, leaned far over, and reached down. His hand touched the water. In the grim excitement of rescue he forgot his own peril. There was one chance in twenty that the colt would come within his reach, and it did. He made a single lunge and caught it by the ear. For a moment after that his heart turned sick. Under the added strain the dead spruce sagged down with a warning crack. But it held, and Aldous hung to his grip on the ear. Foot by foot he wormed his way back, until at last he had dragged the little animal ashore.
And then a voice spoke behind him, a voice that he would have recognized among ten thousand, low, sweet, thrilling.
"That was splendid, John Aldous!" it said. "If I were a man I would want to be a man like you!"
He turned. A few steps from him stood Joanne Gray. Her face was as white as the bit of lace at her throat. Her lips were colourless, and her bosom rose and fell swiftly. He knew that she, too, had witnessed the tragedy. And the eyes that looked at him were glorious.