THE VALLEY OF GOLD

DAVID HOWARTH September 15 1921

THE VALLEY OF GOLD

DAVID HOWARTH September 15 1921

THE VALLEY OF GOLD

DAVID HOWARTH

FOR a long time there was silence in the room. Then McClure spoke slowly, weighing each word, held from a full committal by some sudden instinct of caution.

“I believe you, Sykes,” was his low-voiced admission. “At present I don’t see anything against your plan. But it is a big thing, and you have rushed it up to me. I want time to think. I’ll not say just now whether I’ll hook up with your offer or not, I have a stipulation to hand you before we go ahead. You must see the chit yourself and make her a fair proposition. Put it straight to her and make it as rosy as you can. If she throws you down I’ll probably take a hand.”

Sykes nodded his head in reluctant acquiescence. “Very well,” said he. “I’ll meet you. I’ll talk to the little girl, though I know it will do no good. It may stampede her into some decision that will queer our game. She is no fool.”

“I insist,” said McClure firmly. “Get busy. In the meantime I’ll catch my feet. For to-night I have had enough.”

Seizing his hat, McClure took his abrupt departure.

As he shut the door Sykes put out the lamp. Taking a cigarette from his pocket he struck a match and proceeded to light it. In the red glow his face seemed to float out of the black pall of the night, an impish thing from the pit. The grin of the wolf snarled off the lips as they opened to emit a soft, chuckling laugh.

XX

A Fawn at Bay

THE following afternoon Mary McClure sat pensively at her piano, her spirit awander in the dulcet shadowlands of an improviso. She was pondering a remarkable thing. At that moment her parents were out for a jaunt in the Valley, the first in years. She recalled the pleasure lighting her mother’s face as she accepted the unique proposal. Hope of happier relations had stirred in her breast. For all the bright little circumstance there was a query in Mary’s mind that drew minor strains from the plaintive piano.

It was some weeks since she had seen Ned Pullar. They had then agreed to terminate their covert meetings, hoping for a turn in the wheel of fate that would be auspicious.

A chat with Margaret Grant had informed her of the presence of the stranger Foyle as inimical to Ned.

The old homestead was in some way involved. Shortly after her chat with Margaret she had observed her father in friendly conversation with Foyle before the office of Chesley ■Sykes. At the sight a shadow had flitted through her mind. Was her father involved in Ned’s trouble?

She had abandoned herself to a sombre brooding upon this disquieting theme when a knock sounded upon the door. It startled her, for she was alone. Lifting her hands from the keys, she went to the door.

On opening she was confronted with the great figure of Chesley Sykes.

A smile lit his handsome face.

Touching his hat with graceful courtesy, he greeted her respectfully.

“Good-day, Miss McClure!” was his quiet salute.

At the sound of his voice the episode at the door flashed into her mind. She regretted the absence -of her parents.

Hospitality forbade rudeness and she invited him within. ^

“I have come to see you, yourself,” said he, smiling at her formality. “I am heartily glad there is nobody else about. I have been anxious to crave your pardon for my part in the incident at the door. It was inexcusable and foolish, I acknowledge. I am sorry.”

THE girl looked away with serious face. Instinct warned her against the man, but his tone and manner ■were agreeably penitent. She believed him.

“I do not hold grudges, Mr. Sykes,” was her reply.

“I remember the matter well and I am glad to forget it, since you desire it.” •

“That relieves me,” was the pleased reply. “I promise to observe the good old conventions in the future. There was something extenuating, had you known it. Have you no suspicion of what a real fact lay behind that silly act? Of that fact I am not ashamed.”

Mary offered no surmise and moved to the window, where she became absorbed in the world without.

“I want to talk some things over to-day.” said he frankly, moving to her side. “This is probably the last time I shall solicit your forbearance. I am leaving Pell-

“You know of the college years and the unswerving interest a certain student at law took in a certain small co-ed. That interest had deepened during these days in

Pellawa. You and you alone, Mary McClure, are the reason for my presence here. I have been chasing the gleam. I have been bitterly disappointed. The rustic life has not drawn us any nearer. And yet—I—I have not thrown up the sponge. 1 am not resigning you, Mary. That is my purpose here to-day. I want to let you know this. I have only one objective, only one dream in the alluring puzzle called life, and that is, Mary McClure. My single ambition is to win you for my wife. Some day, Mary, will you marry me?”

The girl turned toward him, astounded at his impudence,

a flush rising in her cheeks. At sight of him she could not doubt his sincerity.

“Mr. Sykes,” she said quickly, “you have no right to make such an approach to me.” “Only the right of a mighty big regard that keeps on growing without any especial attention from the most desirable quarter.”

She remained silent a moment, suddenly reflective. “Perhaps you are right,” she said thoughtfully. “If you are, you already know my answer. I can never become the wife of Chesley Sykes. Never.”

She repeated the refusal in so deliberate a manner that the confidence of the man received a jolt. He heard the ring of steel on steel and looked in wonder at the dainty antagonist.

“I am sure you will not approach me again,” said she in a manner he realized was imperative. Then she smiled. “You are Daddy’s friend,” said she, with a pleasant courtesy. “I will not forget that.”

There followed a long silence. At length she looked up. His face was a surprise to her. There was no vexation, no displeasure. Instead, the passion of the man expressed itself in a great friendliness. There was something else that disturbed her. It was a confidence, an assurance, a determination not to be denied.

With a shrug of his shoulders he seemed to throw off the gloom that attended his defeat and, smiling ingenuously, said:

“Play for me that sweet thing you were dreaming over when I broke up your paradise.”

She shook her head.

“No,” was her quiet refusal. “I cannot. My mood is not musical any longer. I hear Father’s bells. He will be better able to entertain you.”

“Sorry you cannot draw to me to-day,” said he regretfully, taking up his hat. “But your mood will change. Some day you will take a delight in delighting me. I, myself, am not now in a frame of mind to be companionable. It is better that I return to Pellawa. Give my regards to your parents. And remember,” enjoined he with peculiar emphasis, “remember th at_ I am still on the trail of my distracting little Will-o’-the-wisp.”

SYKES had gone but a few minutes when Helen McClure entered. Her face was flushed and unhappy. Gathering Mary into her arms, she kissed her with impulsive tenderness.

“Whatever happens, darling,” she whispered hurriedly, “follow your heart. The happiness of us all depends upon it, though it may seem otherwise.”

“Mother!” said the girl, excitement welling up in her eyes. "How troubled you are! What is it?”

am a little anxious for said the mother, disengaging herself gently from Mary’s clasp. “Your father has been talking to me of your prospects. He wishes to see you in the office. He is coming now. If you follow' your heart all will some day be well.”

With the words she bestowed upon Mary a clinging caress.

The girl walked hesitantly to the office and stood looking out of the window as she awaited her father She was threatened with panic but grew composed as she heard his footsteps in the hall. She turned as he entered and lifted her head, meeting his great eyes with the clear gaze of her own. He, too, was steeling himself to the interview'. His unsmiling face distressed her. Passing by her, he seated himself in his office chair and whirled about. Before he could look up to where she stood he was surprised to feel the touch of her hands upon his head. Enfolding him in her arms, she kissed his brow. A thrill swept over him. For an instant, he looked with

the inner eye upon his own soul. He knew it to be unnatural, brutal.

“Daddy!” she whispered. “Let me tell you all before you speak.”

Gently, but with a steady, rigid motion of his hands, he pressed her back. The tenderness that had betrayed him for but an instant vanished.

“We’ll see about that in a moment,” was the cold reply. “I want to ask you a few questions before you tell your story. Sykes tells me he had a talk with you this afternoon.”

“A diplomatic conversation,” corrected Mary, with a faint smile.

“What did he say?”

“A great deal. It was not, after all, very much of a conversation. It was a declaration. I almost fancied he was issuing a veiled ultimatum. He did, however, ask me a pointed question, and I gave him a blunt reply.” “You refused him?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know Sykes?”

“Too wisely and too well. His father is a wealthy broker; his mother a delightful aristocrat and a very fashionable lady. They live in a dreamland on The Crescent shut in with exclusive hedges amid the bloom of wonderful flowers. Their well-trimmed terraces run down to the water’s edge. Sykes is a fellow-student of some years’ duration. He has seemed to take rather more than a mild interest in the lone hope of the McClures. But I do not like him, Dad. I like Ned.”

“So they tell me.”

“I love Ned, Dad,” was the gentle confession.

“But Sykes is a gentleman,” said McClure testily. “Ned is a man. I love a man, a real man, Dad.” McClure rose to his feet, the old passion rising afresh.

“I cannot agree with you. A man would not sneak into the bluffs "to be alone with the girl he respects.” The stroke drew blood. A flush swept over the sensitive face.

“I did meet Ned once alone by accident,” was the admission, “At all other times Margaret Grant joined us. We have not had even these interviews for weeks.” “How long have you been encouraging Pullar?” “Ned and I became good friends in our first year at the University.”

“Why did you not tell me?”

THE girl looked pleadingly into the eyes that grew each moment more chill. She halted in her reply, irresolute and deeply troubled.

Had she the courage to drag the family skeleton into the light? She dropped her eyes and pondered. When she lifted them they were wet with tears.

“Come!” was the brusque command.

“Tell me why you and Pullar skulk about the ravines like a pair of coyotes.”

“The reason I have not confided in you,

Father,” said the girl slowly, “is because of your strange enmity for Ned. That, however, would not have been a sufficient reason had it not been for the cruel thing that has robbed Mother and me of our husband and Daddy. You have become a stranger to us.

We do not tell these dear tales to—strangers.

I could love you, Father, if you did not trample our hearts with your cruel heels.”

At her words, McClure shrank back. He scarcely believed his ears. Yet it was little Mary who stood before him self-possessed and unafraid, smiting his conscience with her gentle voice. Her eyes were imploring and beautiful, with a yearning he could not face. With an impatient shrug he turned away.

“What would we have gained,” continued the girl, “had I told you of my intimacy with the man you hate? It would have resulted in only deeper misery for our home. It is cruel of me to talk like this, but it is the truth. Mother suffers continuous anguish, hiding it from us as only her wonderful love can devise. This is my only reason for loving Ned in secret. We are not afraid to let the world know of it. It already knows. As you w’ell know, Ned fears nothing, not even the anger of Rob McClure.”

The sight of the girl with her earnest eyes and tremulous lips touched the buried ruth of the man. At her frank arraignment he felt the stirrings of a compunction that was new. Her piteous helplessness held off from him by his own chill unrelenting pierced him to a depth she little dreamed. The memory of her suppliant figure haunted him through the after years.

But he resisted. He had been tempered to a triple hardness. A sudden bracing of the unyielding will stiffened his wavering resolution. As is usual when a man stifles the inner voice, Rob McClure swung instantly to the opposite extreme. “Here,” he mused, “is this daughter of mine, browbeating me rather than giving me dutiful obedience.” He was about to lash her with scan-

dalous insinuation when the ulterior object recurred to him. He forthwith tempered his rage with a wise crafti-

“You have given a strange reason.” said he judicially. “I will not give my consent to your friendship with such a hound. Why not consider a red-blooded man like Chesley Sykes? He is intelligent, educated, wealthy and delightfully congenial.. In addition, he is your father’s close friend. Never before have I used my authority. But now I forbid you to have anything to do with Pullar. Turn your attention to something that offers you a future.” “You mean that I must break my engagement with Ned?”

“I do.” was the adamant response.

AT THE brutal tone a swift change came over the girl.

While an infinite suffering looked out of her eyes she stood erect and proud.

“Do you also command that I shall accept Chesley Sykes in Ned’s place?”

Her voice had the ring that had shaken the confidence of Sykes but a short time before. He felt the danger in it and tempered his reply.

“No, Mary! I don’t command. I urge you.” “But you have as much right to command me to marry Chesley Sykes as you have to forbid my friendship with Ned Pullar. Why not, then?”

McClure paused a moment, calculating her intention. “I have the right to do either,” was the triumphant reply. There was a threat in his voice.

The girl looked at him a moment, her face aquiver with pain. The anguish of her emotion blanched cheeks and lips. She addressed him in a voice strange for its quality of renunciation.

“Father,” said she, “your words are terrible to me. They mean that you would deprive me of your affection— of my home. You have not the right to command me to do a wrong. That is not the prerogative of even a parent. As for Chesley Sykes. I abhor him as unscrupulous and cruel. The more I know of him, the less I can discover to admire. I will never marry him. On the other hand, some day I shall marry Ned. You misunderstand him. He is not your enemy. He would be a real friend. I shall be forced to disobey you, Father.” Reluctantly the girl turned away and walked to tue

McClure was the victim of an overwhelming rage

Never had he been so stoutly withstood. It galled him to know that his daughter was right. In logic of brain and ethics she had worsted him. He was eager for savage retort, but the offer of Sykes dangled before him like golden fruit. The venom of his rage would destroy it. So he was cunning and remained silent.

“.Just a moment, Mary,” said he in a conciliatory voice.

She turned eagerly toward him.

■'I would not force you to do anything you do not wish to do,” said he. “But do not be rash. Think it all over carefully. Your home is here. It will always be so. Perhaps after a time you will be able to meet my wishes.”

Bitterly disappointed, the girl turned away. She was also surprised. Her father, though beyond doubt in a violent rage, had acquiesced to her will. Amid all the turmoil of her distress she recalled the nonchalance of Chesley Sykes as she refused his proposal. As with him, her father seemed not so greatly disappointed. As she pondered the enigma a thought flitted into her mind that caused a cold chill to clutch at her heart.

Without a reply she passed through the door.

XXI

The Counterplot

FOLLOWING their interview with Mary, Rob McClure and Sykes concluded it expedient to make a flying visit to the city. Mary found her father in remarkably good humour on his return. So affable was his mood that she was beginning to hope for a reprieve of the fates to avert the calamity she feared. But her hope was short lived. Riding into the stable after a long evening canter through the Valley she was greeted pleasantly by her father.

“Is Bobs going good to-day?” was his interested question. “Bobs never misses,” was the reply. “He danced along in wonderful form, but I could not enter into his gaiety. I bounced around upon his back a most unresponsive dreamer.”

He lifted his eyebrows.

“Surely you are not yet worrying over our conversation?”

The kindliness of his tone drew the simple admission: “Yes, Daddy.”

“Have you decided to fall in with your good prospects?” She studied his eyes with a keenness that alarmed him. He read her answer in the wearied face and, speaking quickly, forestalled her reply.

“I will say no more about Ned Pullar,” said he. “I am willing to leave it all with you. I am confident you will see after a while that it is best to forget him. Lest you should act rashly I want you to know that not only your own happiness but my future career rests wholly with you. I am now a partner in the new firm of brokers, Sykes, McClure and Sykes. Nothing but a foolish spurning of your wonderful opportunity with Chesley Sykes can hold back the most astonishing possibilities for us all.”

The girl’s head drooped. She realized that snares were being skilfully and cruelly laid. To her father she had become a mere chattel.

“Daddy,” she said gently, “it grieves me to disobey you, to disappoint you. But once for all you must know that no inducement, however tempting to me or however disappointing to you in my refusal of it, will persuade me to do the thing you urge.” Again to her surprise, he showed no great chagrin. Instead he betrayed an over anxiety in his desire to conciliate her.

THROUGH the long, sleepless hours of the night she brooded, striving to think a way out. The sense of personal peril grew upon her. She remembered the light in her father’s eyes as he told her of his good fortune. She shuddered as she recalled it. In the morning, as she rode over the Valley, she decided to see Ned at the earliest moment.

Rob McClure was greatly alarmed at the invulnerable front the girl represented. Arrived in his office, he drew a bundle of documents from a drawer and examined them. The title fascinated him. He rocked back in his chair to con its lure when his eyes caught the vision of the two faces above. Suddenly he realized that upon the inscrutable and inviolable will behind the sweet face of Mary rested his fortune. With Mary, and not with himself rested the ' decision that should ratify or destroy his arrangement with Sykes. It all depended upon the girl above with the innocent face. Could he leave it to her? A keen study of the pure eye and firm brow shook his confidence in a desirable outcome. Rising, he leaned toward the picture with an

abandon that betrayed his intensity of desire.

“Mary!” he whispered. “You will throw me down. I feel it. Sykes is right. There is no other way. The little chit is blind. I shall be forced to do it. T will see Sykes. She will surrender when there is nothing else to do.”

This colloquy with the silent photograph had momentous results for the fair original.

AT NOON there was a clatter of hoofs outside the Pullar homestead and the winding of a silvery halloo. Ned went

“To saddle!” cried Mary as Ned appeared. “Get Darkey and come! We’ll ride at high noon! We’ll brew a tale on the King’s

Highway.

Aware that some serious matter prompted Mary’s visit Ned was up on Darkey in a trice and they rode out on an endless trail of the undulating plain. When deep out in the lonely stretch Mary drew Bobs to a walk.

“Ned,” she said,

“are you prepared for a most unusual proposition?”

“Anything you propose will meet with my entire support.”

“Then hear me.

The danger you feared so long ago is imminent. Father has learned of our engagement from the lips of Chesley Sykes. I have talked with Father. You can easily surmise what that interview involved. But a few minutes before Sykes had submitted a personal offer to the present rider of Bobs. The offer was declined respectfully if summarily. Father has backed his friend and forbids me you, Ned. I am to instantly and casually forget you. In the selfsame instant I am to foster the tenderest regard for Sykes. This very interview is a disobedience.”

She paused, looking up at Ned, her face a compound of anxiety and mischief. Ned sent Darkey to Bobs’ flank and threw his arm about the lithe little rider.

“Mary,” said he, “you are a brave girl. Will you marry me to-day! This very day?”

“Hush, Ned!” was her cry as she placed her hand upon his lips. “You are stealing my fire. That is my proposition. Only I put it this way. Will you marry me not to-day or to-morrow but the day after?”

“I’ll marry you to-day and to-morrow and the day after,” was the happy response. “But why put it off?” “Now I have broken the ice, Ned, it will be easier. I am a frightened little prairie chicken running for cover. I was going to ask you to do this trifling thing for me the day after to-morrow when you anticipated by two days. It is very good of my big farmer to ask no questions and to be willing even to advance dates, but I have a little to say in justification of this bold visit.

“Since my interview with Father the firm of Sykes and Sykes has become the firm of Sykes, McClure and Sykes. Last night Father informed me that if I throw down Chesley Sykes, I therewith crash to the ground his whole brilliant future—that is Father’s.”

“You are in a hard place, Mary,” said Ned solicitously. “It is troubling you terribly despite your brave front. You are grieving, I know.”

“A little worried, Ned,” was the simple acknowledgment. “It has been difficult and it will be. It is not Father’s anger that has driven me to you. It is abject fear. I am afraid of Sykes—and Father. I turn down Sykes. It does not anger him. He remains congenial. I withstand Father and promise to wreck his whole career. He is scarcely disturbed. Why are they not provoked? Because they are not. They are confident of realizing the thing they want. Ned, I have become such a frightened little goose that I carry this.”

SHE drew an automatic gun from some mysterious repository in the breast of her riding habit. At sight of the weapon Ned’s eyes flashed their dangerous light.

“You are wise to provide defense,” said he soberly, “since your enemy is Sykes. Your intuition has not led you astray. For all his suavity and culture Sykes is a savage. He is the monster our civilization rears in the lap of luxury. He has been trained to expect full satiation of his desires. He has a maxim that he gets what he

goes after. He knows utterly nothing of self-mastery. He has never denied himself. He never will. Nor will he yield to fate. You are in great danger and have been for months. Some conspiracy is on foot. Its execution may be a matter of but a few hours. There is but one thing to do, Mary. You must marry me to-day.”

The girl looked into his eyes.

“I am glad you understand,” said she. “I will marry you, Ned, but at the time I have proposed. They shall lead me into nothing undesirable before then. Today, to-night I want to myself to think it all out. Tomorrow I shall teach and to-morrow night I shall tell all to Mother and consult with her. She will agree to our marriage upon the day after.”

Ned demurred but to no purpose.

.“Since you insist on your date,” said Ned with a smile, “will you grant me the privilege of planning the elopement?”

“Your plans first. This is my escapade.”

“Very well. The ‘day after’ you ride out to The Craggs as usual. I shall meet you at the Peak of the Buffalo Trails and together we shall ride to The Fort. It is only a canter of twenty miles. There we shall be wed in the parsonage of Oliver Darwin. He is our good friend. Father will go over to the school and inform the children that Miss McClure is ‘indisposed’. ”

"My saddle for a bridal coach! Ned! That is an inspiration. We’ll ride the winding trail into the mystic West.”

She held her lips to him and their kiss was the pure caress of a noble passion.

That night Ned rode to Thp Fort and made full arrangements, reaching home by the gray light of dawn.

XXII

Wolves

THE pastime of draw poker was engaging the energies of Sykes, McClure. Foyle, Snoopy Bill and their gang of familiars. The hour ran long past the closing time of eleven P. M.

Though stakes had flown high the game had failed to catch the interest of Rob McClure. He played his hand with a detachment that threw him open to heavy losses. So far he had escaped. His mind was the battle ground

of a struggle he had not calculated on. Sykes watched him covertly all evening, striving to pierce the mask of his unsmiling face. It delighted him to trace the ruthless lines about the mouth. On the other hand it perturbed him not a little to see distinct evidences of indecision With a deliberate purpose of fostering the reckless mood Sykes kept up a perpetual toasting. He toasted the pot the queens and the aces all in turn, drinking lightly himself while McClure took copious draughts. With all his

apathy McClure won regularly while Sykes lost as steadily. The double-playing of the farmer with the frequently recurring toast and an unswerving success in the game was fast realizing Sykes’ purpose. He was growing reckless in his sullen vindictiveness while the inner struggle was evident in strange moments of aberration. A gloominess was gathering in his befuddled brain. This greatly puzzled Sykes and alarmed him as well. He watched like a spider in his

Suddenly he leaned forward. A change had come over the farmer. McClure sat in his place, his head resting heavily upon his left hand. His cards lay upon the table before him face up. The game was forgotten. His eyes were readihg the contents of a halfemptied glass with a stare repellent in its fierce amazement. Holding the glass tightly in his right hand he trained bulging eyes on some sight within.

At that moment Rob McClure was a physical wreck rolling helplessly on a rough sea. At best the conscience of the man was atrophied. Now it was incapable as well. The countenance, spacious with a native bigness, was marred by the double bestiality of bibber and rogue. The rudderless mind was mighty with unleashed desire. Amid the wreck of faculties sat the will, an ominous thing living, uncontrolled, with strength unimpaired, ready to strike adder-like in any direction.

Oblivious of the commotion of the game he beheld the figment of his drugged brain rising to view in the glass of drink. His face grew black with an anger horrible to behold. Amid the gleam of the liquor two faces tools nebulous shape growing in definition the longer he watched. At length they rose into view through the bubbles and froth. They vanished magically only to reappear with a tripled vividness of shape. They were living faces of beautiful women sorrowful with a gentle reproach that stirred some tender, sleeping thing within him, while at the same instant it bated the savage beast glaring out of his eyes. As he looked,' one instant fearful, the next enraged, the tender thing was suddenly crushed and the beast sprang from his lair. A wild vengefulness gleamed in his eyes as he sprang to his feet with a weird cry. Swinging his arm aloft he hurled the glass crashing upon the table before him.

“Ha!” he cried laughing horribly. “That will shut your blankety eyes.”

CUNNINGLY he searched the ring of startled faces.

As he looked something clicked in the brain and the hallucination passed. His face resumed its normal expression, though an inkling of what he had just done remained dimly with him.

The others sprang to their feet in alarm, striking sudden attitudes of defense. An instant’s contemplation disclosed to all his drunken state. His eyes were fixed curiously upon the shivered glass. A chorus of raillery broke out. But McClure did not smile. Ilis face was dark.

“What the-?” jollied Snoopy Bill.

Stepping to the door he stooped down and yelled through the keyhole:

“Hi you, Louie! No more strong stuff for McClure.

Continued on page 37

Continued from page 27

He’s seeing ’em. Bring a tray of lemon-

McClure was in an unfortunate mood for the jibe. Stung by the roar of applause he leaped at Snoopy Bill in swift reprisal. Gripping him savagely by the throat he applied a strange clutch. Snoopy’s head bobbed back and he sank to the floor with blackening face. With shouts of alarm the others sprang toward the two men. Tearing away McClure’s deadly grasp they pinned him to the floor. The struggle aided him to recover his mental poise. Looking up at them with a sane glance he said quietly:

“I’m through. Let me up.”

Released, he regained his feet and resumed his chair.

Snoopy’ Bill’s face was livid as he sank panting into his place. Into his eyes crept a vengeful light. He glanced sullenly about. He, too, had imbibed over freely. As he recovered the sense of outrage deepened and he proceeded to wreak immediate revenge. With the slyness of the inebriate he reached out and seized his glass. Fixing direful eyes on McClure he drew back his hand. But the murderous throw was interrupted. His wrist was suddenly seized in the viselike grip of Sykes’ long fingers.

“Better not Bill,” he admonished in a low voice. “Rob is dead drunk. Don’t even know he fouled you. If you let him^ have that you’ll be up against mur-

“He’s a blankety coward—” was the angry retort. ‘Til get him yet. Watch me bust up this gang. By the blankety blank I’ll tip Pullar himself.”

Above the growls this threat produced rose the voice of Sykes roaring blasphemously at Swale who stood in the open door with mouth agape.

“You bottle washing smuggler!” he tried. “Fill up a tray of your dummest ¡will and hand it out on the double quick. Mo more poison or we’ll blow you up.” Satisfied that the brawl was over Swale disappeared with the desired alacrity.

McClure’s assault had tapped a smold;ring mine. Though the game was relumed neither McClure nor Snoopy Bill •vinced any interest, while the latter coninued to breathe vengeance. Beside lim sat Ford who, too, was showing little nterest in the cards.

“Come, Ford!” challenged Snoopy Bill in a stage whisper. “I’ll stump you to split on the hounds. I’m quitting.” “Cut the ragging!” called Sykes appeasingly. “This bad stuff all comes from drinking Swale’s rotten whiskey. Here comes the best ever.”

Sw'ale appeared with a loaded tray. The glasses were passed around.

“Keep it!” said Snoopy Bill. “I tell you I’m quitting.”

“Me too,” said Nick Ford, pushing his glass away. “I reckon I’m with Bill,” said he rising. “This gang’s never been right. But it hit the rocks good and hard about the time Hank Foyle blew in.

I know I ain’t a Sunday-school teacher but I’ve felt like a skunk since that steal of Pullar’s farm. I’ve a sneaking idea therc-’s some scurvy game on right now. Rolling an old man is bad enough but I draw* the line at fouling a woman. I’m through.

^TICK’S words had a startling effect.

The drinkers paused in their act of tossing the glass. There was a passage of swift glances between Sykes and McClure. The hush of a deep calm fell on the room, broken by a wild laugh from Snoopy Bill.

“Keep it up, old top!” hé shouted, slapping Ford on the back. “Cough it out. Spit up the facts. We’ll enjoy

Ford gave a knowing smirk.

“No, Bill,” was his insinuating reply. “I ain’t telling all I know. I’ll let it off at the regular time ”

For McClure and Sykes his words had a disquieting significance. How much did Ford know? Beyond all doubt he had an inkling of the facts.

“None of this little party know .what Nick is raving about,” said Sykes. “Nick’s had a peculiar dream. Louie’s poison got him a little differently from Rob. Let us forget the gab and every man hit the bottom of his glass. There’s a tankful left. Watch us touch the high spots in this little game.”

He pointed to the cards.

There was a roar of app'ause.

“No you don’t,” said Nick determinedly. “It’s bye, bye, boys, for me. I’m taking a walk to myself.”

“Take me along,” cried Snoopy Bill, rising and joining him.

THE gang watched the two delinquen'8 lock arms and pass out into the barroom. No mai: made a move to obstruct them. Any such attempt would have been organized by either McClure or Sykes and for some reason they were

81 With the game broken up the party went out. „ , . ,

“Come over to the office, whispered Sykes to McClure and Foyle. “Fords next our game. We’ll have to finish^with a spurt if we are to pull off a wn.

The interview lasted a long time. They had barely entered upon it when a shadow crept up and hung low near the window. With surprising temerity the stealthy v'sitant lighted a cigarette. In the light of the match appeared the dark visage of Nick Ford. He had sprung a bluff on the plotters, basing his charge on a phrase or two he had overheard. His guess had been shrewd. Satisfied that some conspiracy was afoot he decided to shadow the three men with the result that he now sat at the window listening with alert ears to the conversation going on within. He caught significant parts of their talk, enough to discover that some scheme was being concocted against the little school-teacher. He listened breathlessly in effort to learn complete details, but without success.

‘Hang my ears!” was his impatient whisper. “Why can’t I get it all?”

He had learned enough, however, to present him with a serious challenge.

“They’ve got me!” he whispered half fearfully. “Sykes has piles of money. If I chuck him he’ll break me sure.” Hearing signs of a break-up of the party he stole away to his home debating the momentous demand the facts he had learned now suddenly made upon his conscience. It was easier to threaten to split on the gang than to come through with the threat, for Nick Ford was no squealer. It was dawn before he arrived at a conclusion. Finally he decided.

“Ah, Brubbie!” he breathed softly. “For her sake, I’ll do it. She saved you from the wolves. Yes, I’ll do it. I’ll let Ned Pullar know all.

XXIII

The Adventure at the Bridge

THE morning following her interview with Ned, Mary elected to follow the round-about route of the Buffalo paths. She had a desire to flee the highway and sequester herself in the friendly silences. The flashing June morning was zestful with the humours of capricious little winds that pressed refreshingly on cheeks and lips and curled the brown hair about her temples. She was gratefully aware of all this caressing though looking out on the Valley with solemn

^She was deep in the cogitations that pressed her continually when she realized that Bobs had halted of his own accord on the bald peak.

Below her the lake lay a glistening quietude in the verdant lap of the Valley. Vagrant breaths of tiny squalls dimpled the water here and there shadowing it with fleeting frowns.£¿Beneath her the Storm Rock hung on the glassy’ sheet suspended between two skies. Cottonwoods and ragged oak formed an inviting bower. The island so lonely and silent had an unusual attraction for her.

“You dear little covert, ” she whispered “How I should like to hide in you today?”

With a sigh she turned Bobs down the hill and into Willow Glade where she must perforce halt again and muse in the precious nook with its haunting memories.

Throughout the day the children of The Craggs wondered at the frequent periods of preoccupation that would creep over their usually attentive teacher. They were deeply touched by the singular gentleness with which she resumed the task. For all their mute sympathy the hours lagged strangely.

Nick Ford wasted no time in addressing himself to the task he had resolved upon. It is hard to travel back over the devious way one has come when that way has been too devious. To carry out his resolution would involve a divulging of most unpleasant facts. He knew of the intimate relations of Mary and Ned and trusted to Ned finding some way of foiling the designs of the plotters once he was acquainted with the fact that there was a plot. Hitching his horse he set

out for the homestead with laudable dispatch.

He was bowling along, passing through a bluff not far from his destination when a shadow darted out of the trees ahead and bis horse stopped abruptly. His attention was directed to the unusual movements at his horse’s head when he felt a stiong hand close tightly on his arm. Turning with an exclamation of surprise he looked into the grinning countenance of Reddy Sykes.

“Good day, Nick!” was the quiet greeting. “Making a little morning run,

“Hello, Sykes?” he replied innocently. “What are you doing here?”

Sykes grinned afresh.

“Let it out, Nick,” was the reply. “You’re heading for Pullar’s. We’ve been waiting for you. I saw the yellow streak in you last night. We decided to head you off. You spoke about skunks in your little spiel. You’re right and we’ve trapped the same polecat this morning.”

At the words he dragged the other from the vehicle. Realizing his helplessness in the powerful hands of Sykes Nick decided to submit quietly to the will of h s captor. Taking him into the trees Sykes sought to force a confession. But he found Nick had no particular use for free speech just then.

“Hide his horse and rig in the bluff.” directed Sykes addressing Foyle. “We’ll gag this scab and hitch him to a tree for the present. If I make the get-away you can send somebody in to let him go.”

In the depths of the bluff they gagged him and tying his hands behind his back strapped him to a big tree with his leather lines. Satisfied of the security of their prisoner they slipped quietly out of

DURING the noon hour Ned joined Mary in another ride in which arrangements were perfected for their sudden, nuptials. Resting in his arms at parting she looked up into his eyes.

“I am looking forward to our ride tomorrow Ned,” said she. “But how I -should have delighted to set out on the great adventure from the doorstep of Mother and Dad!”

“Keep them back, Mary!” enjoined Ned cheeringly as he saw the tears shine in her eyes. Wrapping his sheltering arms about her he whispered the optimism of his great heart into her fluttering

“In our heart of hearts, Mary.” said he, “we both deplore this premature wedding. But it is the only sane thing for us to do. Your mother will agree with us when you tell her to-night. She will bless us. It is the only way of assuring your protection. I believe another desirable and most wonderful result will follow. It will break the spell Sykes has cast over your father. A complete severance with Sykes and the crash of his house of cards will restore your father to you clothed and in his right mind.”

At the words Ned felt the pressure of dear lips on his.

“Thank you, Ned!” were her happy words. “That is beautiful of you. And you do not hate Father after all his injustice?”

“No, Mary, I pity him. It is after all his greater misfortune.”

“Good-bye,” said she at last. “It is very hopeful after all. Meet me at the Buffalo Peak in the morning and we’ll ride away into the days of our happy dreams.”

Ned watched from the edge of the trees until the small white figure disappeared within the schoolhouse. He was troubled as she vanished from sight. It occurred to him that she was very frail and lonely. He had a powerful impression that he should ride through the Valley with her in the evening as she returned to her home. He had proposed accompanying her to the Peak at least, but she had demurred. It was better that they should not be seen together. There were eyes that would draw pertinent conclusions that might wreck everything. Reluctantly he turned Darkey into the trail leading to the homestead.

The last few minutes with Ned greatly lightened Mary’s spirits. She felt that a wise providence was guiding them. On the heels of her great depression there followed the ecstasy of a greater hope. Even storm-clouds show a silver edge at times.

Shortly after four Bobs and 1rs rider

set out for home. The day had been bright but as the afternoon sped away a belt of blue clbuds appeared in the north. She was riding along immersed in her momentous reflections when the sudden pricking forward of Bobs’ ears recalled her to the task of guiding him down the ravine. The cause of his interest she discovered in a vehicle ahead. It was slowly threading the Cut, evidently on its way to Pellawa. The equipage had stopped upon the bridge, crowding close to one side, leaving thus plenty

of room for her to pass. Sending Bobs ahead she walked him upon the bridge. As she drew abreast of the vehicle she was startled to recognize Chesley Sykes. An alarm leaped into her breast at meeting him there, for the gulch was deep and thickly wooded. It was a hidden bit of road.

Lifting his hat casually, Sykes addressed her in a friendly voice.

“Good-day, Miss McClure! An unexpected meeting!”

To be Concluded