THE PATTERSON LIMIT
Concluding instalment of a two part story of a girl fire-ranger who makes good
THE dog did not make a good impression upon the people of Lac St. Dennis. He steadfastly refused to make friends with anyone until Ray Lane came for him. Even from her he at fust held aloof. She looked at him fearlessly. but did not touch him; and he made no advances.
‘Come, Spunky, old chap,” Ray murmured. “Come along with me and have a look at the place. I won’t hurt you.”
At the sound of his name, a feeling of great friendliness stole over the Airedale. There’s nothing like hearing a sympathetic voice speaking your name when you're strange. He hesitated just an instant, then ran to her, crouching at her feet and licking at her extended hand.
From that on they were inseparable companions in the forests.
There followed a comparatively uneventful period during which Therien preserved an attitude of “masterly inactivity."
Just how far he intended to go in annoying the ranger aras a question that he alone could answer; but certain it was that reckoning with an unprotected girl, and a girl plus a dog whose jealous guardianship threatened the life and limb of every other living thing but her that approached the shack, was not at all one and the same thing. He redoubled his caution and Ray redoubled her vigilance, and thus they played at a grim game of catch-as-catch-can on the Patterson limit.
The advent of the tourists with their camp fires made it necessary for the girl to be eternally vigilant. She left the dog on guard at the shack while she carried out her program of watchfulness.
Night after night, parties from the hotel paddled across the lake to sleep on the limit, and night after night, the ranger tlung herself down somewhere near, in order that she might be on hand to extinguish the embers upon which a few drops of coffee had been
upon ineffectually poured, or to beat out an incipient blaze that had sprung up from a badly constructed fireplace. More than one party, palpably as strange to the ways of the woods as they would have been to a Tibetan Llamasary, simply collected leaves and twigs in a heap, and
•July dragged feverishly into August, and still there came no rain. The air grew thick with a breathless haze, behind which the sun hung each day like a frayed copper shield, and the blistered ground c o nameneed to cool only as dawn quivered in the sky.
was to the ranger
during that time cannot be set forth in eold
type. In a very few days after his arrival, he learned that fire was the one thing that a dog might honorably fear, and he would track down a smouldering cigarette or the like, with a ferocity as ardent as he would have felt in attacking the Ogre, himself.
After he came, her canoe was not cut adrift while she went to the stóre, nor were her provisions stolen from the fork of the trail during a short visit to Madame Janisse. And after he Ray worked and slept in
peace, secure in the thought that no one could approach within scenting distance, without Spunky’s warning her of the fact.
Then came an eventful day when Ray had to go to the village for provisions, taking Spunky with her.
About an hour before noon Therien swaggered into the clearing, coming down the hill from the Look-out, near which he had lurked since early morning.
HIS heart was full of bitterness against the ranger and her dog. But for his presence of mind and quickness of hand, he would have been badly bitten yesterday, and he knew that so long as Spunky lived the entirety of his body was threatened. Because of the dog, he had been afraid to show himself on the limit lately, and most of the plans he had laid with such cunning, had failed. As a matter of fact, he no longer wanted the job of ranger, but his thirst for revenge was as keen as ever, and to satisfy this craving he had worked more diligently than ever before at any other occupation.
His hands, however, did not falter in their grim task. He drew from his pocket a lump of hard, white substance about the size of a large potato, and placed it in such a manner that the tiny ribbon of water of the creek might dissolve it before dropping down into a shallow pool, from which he knew from patient watching the dog always refreshed himself on reaching the edge of the clearing.
The job completed to his satisfaction, Therien obliterated all traces of his presence and disappeared in the direction from whence he had come.
The sky turned from rose to orange, from orange to
mauve, and then the blue veil of night dropped softly down.
Near the shack, the trees seemed to stand in hushed suspense, in terrible expectancy, while tiny creatures of the night tip-toed out of the gloom to peer fearfully at the polluted water.
A nervous wind hurried along the trail, and leaves beat one upon the other with a sharp flip. . . .flip. . . .
Ray Lane was coming up the hill, talking to the dog.
Had she not been so intent upon her thoughts, she must have noted the death-like stillness in the clearing; she must have felt the inexplicable chill that crept to meet her like a warning. For once, her sensitiveness,
usually so keen out in the woods, was Munted.
The dog bounded ahead, and stopped over the spot where Death lay hidden in a pool of water.
“Greedy beast,” she laughed. “I am twice as
thirsty as you are, and yet I wait until I reach a real stream. I don’t stop to lap the water from every needy leaf!”
Out flashed Spunky’s red tongue. Scarcely had the water touched the back of his throat, than his limbs began to stiffen. There was no writhing, no paroxysm of pain. With a bewildered look about him, a last loving glance at his idol, now, alas, only a moving blur across the clearing, he lay down to die as he had lived, uncomplainingly, and without asking the reason why.
THE first day had seemed endless. Ray resolutely schooled herself to the readjustment of her thoughts, to the realization that the dog was dead, but a dozen times her lips puckered themselves to whistle, a dozen times she stood waiting in the trail, forgetful of the fact that a dusty brown form could no longer jump at her from the bushes. Sitting on a fallen tree, eating her lunch, Ray was stricken with such poignant loneliness that every mouthful choked her.
Of actual work there was very little increase. Spunky neither cut, burned, cooked nor climbed for her. But she soon discovered that upon his finer instincts, she had placed greater dependence than she had realized. She had rested both day and night secure in the knowledge that he would warn her of approaching danger, and she had relied upon him to guide her over trails previously taken by some camping party. To Spunky, she owed the discovery of several small fires, and with him near, she was absolutely safe from Therien.
Deprived of the dog’s faculties, Ray soon acquired disastrous habits. She tried to rest without losing
consciousness, with the result that within a week, it had become impossible for her to obtain complete oblivion at all. “Falling asleep” took on a sinister meaning—nightmare! The identical dream occurred each time she tried to rest from a smothering, hot cloud, heaving with the odor of burning bush, she would hurtle into Stygian blackness, miles upon miles below,there to crash into something rough and solid . • • and wakefulness, again.
Her imagination began to play cruel tricks. She fancied that every other breath was laden with the smell of smoke— that each rift of haze betokened
smouldering flames. Like a mirage or a will-o’-the-wisp the vision of fire hovered ever before her, and again and again, the hum of voices lured her to places where utter silence reigned!
The days dragged by in weary roving, punctuated by periods of exhaustion of which she was scarcely conscious. Her only thought was to guard the forests until her term was ended.
Once as she dozed the face of Archer Patterson took shape out of the blur that surrounded her. Lying prone on her face under a giant pine, she watched him come slowly up the trail and seat himself beside her. He neither smiled nor spoke. His lips moved but the
words they formed had no sound. The ranger lay very still, her face buried in the fragment pine needles, and yet looking at Patterson. He seemed to be distressed. She felt a sympathetic reflection of his pain, so poignant she uttered a cry and sat up—to find herself alone.
Her watch announced that it was ten o’clock. At dawn, she had started down from the Look-out for something to eat. By the time she had reached the shack she had forgotten her need for food. Six hours
had been spent in dreaming, yet she had not slept.....
From Observation Rock, she trained her glasses on two canoes just leaving the hotel. They were evidently bound for Therien’s favorite haunt at the western boundary of the limit. She groaned and stepped from under the searing shaft of sunlight into the sultry cavern of the trees, trying to convince herself that a personal inspection of the party was not necessary. A fivemile tramp across the roughest part of the globe, it seemed, under the flare of such a sun was suggestive of unpleasant consequences. And yet that party must be forbidden to make a fire!
LABORIOUSLY, she returned to -» the shack, never realizing until long afterwards that this was a strange and unprecedented thing for her to do. Her most rational course would have been to proceed direct from Observation Rock. It had never been her custom to notify the office of her plans—least of all to communicate her doubts and fears to Devine.
Actually, Ray had no thought of telephoning when she retraced her steps. The necessity for food stirred listlessly somewhere in the recesses of her mind. It was only afterward, when inside the shack and face to face with the instrument, that she felt the impulse to use it.
Devine answered with a promptness, an eagerness that almost irritated her. His inquiry as to her health was followed by a bitter complaint against the weather.
“Poor old Ouimet toppled over this morning,” he said. “It isn’t so much the heat as the sultriness.
Can you find a cool spot up there in the woods?” “I don’t know. I haven’t looked for one. I’m just starting off for the western boundary—Therien’s retreat, you know. Saw two canoes headed that way half an hour ago. He’s probably in charge of a party.”
“Don’t think of making that trip to-day, Ann,” he cried. “It would be sheer suicide! If you are uneasy, I'll go, and give stringent orders that not a match shall be struck. It won’t take me any time to paddle across the Landing, you know. Please, let me do that much!” She would not hear of it. The best he could do, was to extract a promise that she would call for assistance at the first sign of danger.
At ten o’clock that same morning it seemed to Archer Patterson that he was sitting in the shade of a large tree. He was intensely conscious of the stillness of the forest, and the odor of heat. Off to his right, the sunshine lay like a fiery blanket over the withered earth. Beyond that, again, spears of light, thin but concentrated, shot through the shadows and streaked the trees with dusty bands. Somewhere near, he heard the slow drip of water.
HE SAT still, amazingly still, and looked at the form of a girl who lay prone on her face beside him. Although her features were hidden from him, yet he saw them quite distinctly—the lovely warm brown of her skin, the delicate oval of her cheeks against which clusters of glinting chestnut hair nestled. He noticed that her lips were tightly closed like those of a child who is trying not to cry, and her eyes held an expression that was unfathomable. She was struggling to tell him something, and he could not understand. He felt like an imperfect instrument, unable to receive the message that hummed against its wires. He suffered, and yet he was not wholly unhappy.
Leaning forward until he almost touched her, Patterson cried:
In an instant, trees fell all about him. A great wave of blackness carried the girl away, while unseen hands pinned him under some crushing weight. He fought, called again, and woke!
In his hotel bedroom, Archer Patterson steamed trying to catch an hour or two’s fitful rest after a
miserable night on the train and marvelled that anyone could exist in the terrific midsummer heat of Montreal. The sleeper which he had left three hours before had been bad enough; men, women, and children had abandoned any attempt at privacy and tossed about scantily clad, in berths innocent of curtains. But the City was worse. It seemed to fester under a sun that was scarcely visible behind a haze of smoke.
The heat affected him strangely—like an insidious gas that seeped through his body, and paralysed his
muscles while stimulating his mind. He kept conjuring up pictures that he had no wish to review, or anticipating events that he did not want to consider at all. Once, in a while, an unaccountable vision, such as this last, would take possession of his mind. Its banishment left him light-headed, and a little sick.
Not once, but many times during the past twelve hours he had asked himself why he was travelling towards Lac St. Dennis—and marriage with Enid McAllister. He did not like summer hotels, and he did not love Enid. Of those two facts he was absolutely certain. Yet, quite deliberately, he had planned this trip—at least, as deliberately as he had performed any act during the last few months. Sometimes, he wondered if there might not be something in all this talk about people being “controlled,” for there were occasions when the thing he did “deliberately,” lacked the stamp of his own personality, and showed rather an influence that was as strange as it was compelling.
' I 'HERE was his inexplicable visit to the McAllisters, on their yacht, where, in conspicuous intimacy with Enid, he had spent several languid comfortable days. He had gone “deliberately” enough, and, at the same time, he had felt disgusted with himself for being there. This state of affairs defied his power of analysis, for he was not the man to do one thing wishing he had done another.
For what object he had been invited, there was no need to consult a seer. He was a part of Mrs. McAllister’s plan for Enid’s future. And flabbily, he was falling in with that plan! Worse! He was abetting it by taking this trip to Lac St. Dennis, for while he had uttered no word of love to the girl, he was well aware that he could progress no further without compromising her and committing himself. Rumors of their engagement were already afloat.
Engagement with Enid McAllister! Good Heavens! he thought, there were times when he almost despised her, and the exotic, artificial life she represented! She was no more fit to be a man’s companion than was the pampered Pekinese she carried under her arm. Company she might provide for him when it suited her, but comradeship, never! She was something to pet, to shelter, to spoil, to hang clothes and jewels upon, to
display when young and try to endure when youth has fled.
She didn’t love him. Archer Patterson realized that with no resentment. He knew that women of her type are born without the capacity to love, that the strongest of their emotions is desire—desire for wealth, extravagance, ease, superiority over one another. He realized that as the provider of such, he was sought.
Then memory flung him back against recollections that he wished were dead. Out of the past a voice cried, passionately:
“You are only a rich man’s son, Pat, and the obstacles before you are mountains of gold! It is difficult enough to climb the face of shalecovered rocks in order to top the summit and look out to the hills beyond, but for you the ascent is even harder. Think of climbing a mountain composed of golden dollars; consider how they would shift beneath your feet. . . a step up, and twro back! Oh, give me the rocks of the forest, every time!”
The words were so distinct as to leave an echo. The face of Ray Lane took shape there in the room and cast calmness out of his reflections.
IF SHE had only answered his letters! If she had ever given him the feeblest glimmer of hope, the smallest sign, he would have wooed her with the abandoned ardor of a de Bergerac. But before her silence his heart quailed. She was so sure of herself, so strong. It did not occur to him that he himself had attained a higher development in his struggles to understand himself than even Ray had dared to dream.
On his way, consciously, to join Enid McAllister, his thoughts were filled with Ray Lane. How fiercely he wanted her! How vapid life would seem with any other woman! He knew it, and yet because of the gnawing, the loneliness had become intolerable; he was trying to deceive himself with the hope that intimacy with anything so perfect would excite his pride if not affection, and that shielding such perfection would provide an interest sufficiently absorbing to enable him to regard the marriage with complacency, at least.
Now, however, he became assailed by new doubts and indecision. Should he go on with this hollow farce —or should he turn back from the meeting with Enid before it was too late.... ?
As if in answer to his question, a knock sounded at his door, and a telegram was laid before him. It stated that important advices had been forwarded to the Lac St. Dennis limits from the head office at Toronto and that his personal attention was required at the limits immediately.
Shortly after noon he swung down to Windsor Street station and boarded a train east. He tried to concentrate his thoughts on affairs at the limits, but with every revolution of the wheels beneath him, he felt the force of Monckton’s plaint:
“But the damned thing won’t die. . . won’t die!” CHAPTER IX.
FOR the second time that morning, the ranger stood on Observation Rock staring into the hot blaze beyond which the limit looked unreal, impossible, like the chromos of a southern sea. The sky w-as leadencolored, the threatening sort of a sky that warned sailors of ancient craft to see to their hatches and look to the reefing of their canvas. Ray gasped as she scanned it. It looked like that for days and days.
“When will it rain?” she wondered.
She set out resolutely through the bush, despite the fatigue which urged her to desist and lie by the cool of the streams she passed, and early in the afternoon she reached the spot where Therien and the four girls were preparing for their lunch.
To her relief there was no sign of a tire, but she was so utterly exhausted that her mind would not adjust itself accordingly. Like a needle caught in the groove of a phonograph record and blatting forth the same bar, the ranger’s thoughts were caught in a groove of her brain, and the necessity to warn these people hammered there without mercy.
Bursting through the bush she stood before them, unaware of the fact that her appearance was wild, positively uncivilized. Her clothing was_ blackened
and torn, her hair tossed and bristling with bits of twig and leaf, her face streaked with scratches and swellings made by low-hanging branches and the sting of venomous insects. Her cheeks were scarlet. Her lips were white.
“Sorry to intrude," she panted, “but in my capacity as fire-ranger, I must ask you to strike no matches whatever not even for smoking. The limit is too dry You caa see for yourselves that a chance spark might start a conflagration impossible to control.”
No utterance could have been more unlike her. Foggily, she realized it herself, and was not surprised when the girls flashed expressive glances at one another. “It is as we have heard.” they seemed to say. "She is an extremely disagreeable person.”
Therien gave a derisive grunt, and turned towards the prettiest of the party. Knid McAllister.
'I did not know about dese rule’, Mam’selle,” he said “Here is always somet’ing new. Perhaps, we better move across de boundaree?”
“Hules?” drawled Enid McAllister. “Why, there are no rules governing this place. The land belongs to the Province and is merely leased to companies or individuals for the timber. We cannot be regarded as trespassers, even, as 1 understand the matter—not on the Patterson limit and trespassing against the Province would place us in the class of outlaws, or something equally ridiculous I hardly think we are that!” "Well. no. mam’selle,” said Therien, with deferential encouragement.
“Unpack the rest of the hamper,” Enid McAllister commanded. “I have no intention of leaving this spot.” Then tilting her fan so that she appeared to address the ranger without deigning to glance at her, the girl remarked. "We are willing to do without coffee for our lunch, but to give up our cigarettes well, that is asking a little too much!”
"Still, I must insist upon it," returned Ray Lane, standing limp against a tree.
“T'HERE was a tone in her voice that caught the other ^ girl’s attention, a tone of quiet authority that was seldom, if ever, used towards her. Enid McAllister flushed with anger and felt the resentment of one who realizes the falsity of her position and the difficulty of justifying it before her associates. Their attitudes seemed to suggest “This person may be right!” And hers objected, “I don’t care if she is—she can’t adopt that tone with me!" Moreover, she knew that her defence was weak.
"And I must remind you,” she assumed a greater arrogance of manner, “that you are pushing your authority too far. We are not children, likely to fling burning matches carelessly about, and we have with us a competent guide, who, I should say, is quite able to repair any small damage we may accidentally cause."
She turned languidly back to the unpacking of the hamper as though dismissing an insistent beggar. The attitude was rather overdone, and she knew it, but she was very angry. She lifted a cigarette from her gold case and touched a match to it.
The ranger did not move. Scarcely able to stand, yet there was remarkable vigor in her voice as she answered:
“I am sorry if I appear to place undue importance on what, evidently, is to you a trivial matter, but the performance of my duty is the first consideration. I sincerely believe that smoking in this congested area, especially, is dangerous to the timber I am here to protect, and, therefore. I must see that no smoking is done."
“And I,” returned the girl, raising her voice, “tell you that there is no one on earth who can prevent my having a cigarette, when I want one. You possibly consider that all this unpleasant arguing is necessary for the performance of your duty, but now that you have discharged the obligation, there is no need to stay. Good afternoon!”
Ray said in a level tone: “I shall stay, nevertheless.” The girl closed her fan with a sharp click, rose to her feet and approached the ranger. Beneath, above, around, penetrating her fury, was amazement that anyone could so daringly oppose her, defy her. The creature purely must be mad.
Your impertinence is simply intolerable,” she said. “I shall report you to Mr. Patterson, whom I know well—very well. Ir. fact, we are his guests, and as such, I — Miss McAllister -will hold myself responsible, accountable to him for any untoward circumstance that may be occasioned by this party.”
“Ir. that case," returned Ray, evenly, “there is nothing further for me to say.”
She left them, and finding a convenient spot near the edge of the lake she lay down and bathed her spinning head with its tepid water. Then, gradually, the world darkened, and she drifted into a dreamless, sodden slumber.
Enid McAllister sank down in the place she had vacated and bit daintily into a chicken sandwich. She
was greatly irritated, feeling that although she had gained her point, hers was the real defeat.
Still she remarked: “A most officious person. . .A typical case of one who is vested with a little brief authority, and who is over-zealous in asserting it. Why, under heaven, do you suppose Archer Patte-son engaged a woman as ranger?”
Therien’s lip curled sympathetically. “You may well h-ask, mam’selle,” he said.
CONSCIOUSNESS returned to the ranger under the spur of a babel of feminine voices. It was evident the campers were in distress. Ray’s first thought was of fire; but there was no smell of smoke mingled with the stilling air of the mid-afternoon. She arose and proceeded slowly through the heavy brush, wondering what could have happened.
The source of all the excitement was easily located. It lay immovable, unconscious, repulsive, under a tree. Auguste Therien was drunk. . . dead drunk.
“Oh,” cried one of the girls as the ranger stepped into their midst. “Isn’t it fortunate that you happened to be here?”
A moment of awkwardness ensued. They were glad to seek her assistance now, but, remembering their reception and dismissal of her, they could scarcely hope that she would reciprocate in their cordiality.
Enid McAllister was the first to speak. “You can see what has happened,” she indicated. “That disgusting creature has drunk himself insensible—and left us in a pretty fix.”
“It certainly is annoying,” replied Ray. “He looks as though he would sleep for hours. But,”—with a
long breath that might have been a sigh—-“I will stay around here and see that he does no damage.”
“Awfully good of you,” murmured another of the girls, seeing “their competent guide” in quite a new light, “but that doesn’t help us out of the mess we are in. You see, I am the only one who can paddle, and not very well at that. We can’t all go home in one canoe, and I couldn’t possibly make more than one trip—especially on a day like this!”
“Oh, I see,” said Ray, and waited.
“You will come to the rescue, won’t you?” urged Enid McAllister. “I must get back at once. I really ought to be there now. . . and I wouldn’t trust myself to Miss Stevens, here, without a competent—an expert—” she corrected herself and changed color— “canoeist near at hand.”
Ray did not answer at once. There was no suspicion of vindictiveness in her hesitation. She did not suggest the victor with his heel upon the enemy’s neck. Hers was not the disposition to gloat over the grovelling discomfiture of the vanquished. But she mistrusted Therien, drunk as he was. Instinct, a premonition or whatever it is causes inexplicable uneasiness, made her averse to leave the spot.
“But you said, yourself, that he was likely to sleep for hours,” the girl named Stevens reminded her, “and at the longest, you will not be away for more than forty minutes. That’s allowing for my slow paddling. Oh, do help us! We will”—she cut short her unspoken promise to “make it worth while,” and said,—“we will be so grateful!”
Therien lay on his side, half his face buried in rustycolored moss. The other half was covered with his greasy, battered hat, which Ray removed by inserting the tip of her boot beneath it. She watched the man intently. The girls watched her.
They called him, sharply. They prodded him with their parasols. Ray rapped on the soles of his feet, and wished that she could have inflicted a more severe form of bastinado. But a few grunts, a guttural oath was all the response they drew forth.
“What other proofs can you want?” the girls asked. ‘Do come, at once. . . we are late, as it is.”
RELUCTANTLY, the ranger pushed off from the shore. Half stupefied herself, with heat and enthusiasm, she was conscious of feeling fettered even as she moved, of being unable, as in a nightmare, to avert impending disaster.
She paddled mechanically through clouds of steam, while the air hummed, hammered, in her ears. Her eyes were fixed upon a wavering plume of smoke that marked the location of the hotel, and she tried not to see the shore circling round her.
A voice anxious with belated friendliness drifted to her from the other canoe:
“It hardly seems safe for you to stay on guard there, alone. Couldn’t you get some one from the village to take him away before he comes to? He is certain to be unpleasant—he might be even violent, dangerous!” “Oh, I can manage him,” Ray answered, listlessly. She dared not trus herself to say more.
All at once, the rotting boards of the hotel landing scraped across the bow of the canoe, and, with varying expressions of gratitude—and apprehension for her safety—the party disembarked. Ray made vague
responses and turned back to the other shore that receded with every stroke of her paddle, until it seemed to stretch into the lap of infinity.
Her passage across the lake was slower than she realized.
By the time she reached the shore, strong puffs of torrid wind rushed from behind her into the trees. It not only felt hot, but it smelled of heat, as though it had been blown directly from a steaming oven. It wrinkled the glassy surface of the water into sulky little waves, and drove the canoe impatiently forward.
With dull eyes fixed on the approximate spot where, about an hour before, she had left Therien sleeping. Ray saw the heavy atmosphere thicken into a denser haze. A thin, bluish spiral floated out from the tops of the trees, and then lost itself against the smokecolored sky. The acrid odor of burning brush touched the girl’s consciousness. But she tried not to be alarmed. Many times since the dog’s death, she had seen a like mirage and smelled an imaginary fire.
She climbed out of her canoe and turned to make it fast. At that moment, a sound broke sharply through the monotonous humming in her head A crackle a splutter. . . a hissing Fire!
She dashed up the bank. . Therien had been shamming. Too late she realized what his cunning ruse had been and its possible consequences. ... If Therien had done this thing, she would shoot him on sight!
THEN for the third time that day she burst into the little clearing where the girls’ camp had been. There she found Therien deliberately firing the forest.
At the sight of him, less intoxicated with whisky than with the success of his villainy, the girl cried out in horrified anger.
“How dare you?” she screamed. “Drop that brand, you—you—murderous devil!”
Her trained eye swept over the immediate section, choking with bone-dry “small stuff,” and indented with timber-filled pockets; and she saw, that given half an hour’s headway, the conflagration would be beyond human control. At best, a company of fighters could only follow in the path of devastation. At the same time, she was beating out the crimson tongues nearest her and conscious of Therien’s delirious ravings.
“You will be de ranger, hein?” he shouted. “Y'ou will come ’ere an’ tak’ de place of a good mans? You mak’ me look lak one damfools in my own homes— well, I show you!”
Ray raised her revolver and fired three shots into the air.
With a cry of bestial rage, Therien stooped to the ground, caught up a broken hardwood bough. . . .She remembered that her arm dropped slowly. . . that there was a loud report, and in a rush of searing flames she sank to the earth. . unconscious.
Mr. Cox, pale and shaky, met the afternoon train and a limp employer. A punctilious old body, was Cox, and cautious withal. He felt the wisdom of proceeding slowly with items of interest that Lac St. Dennis afforded: not plunging impetuously into them as Devine would have done. There were certain references, allusions, that must inevitably merge into explanations, but he was determined that these should not he abrupt or premature.
“We did not expect to have the pleasure of welcoming you so soon, sir,” he remarked, after a few complaints against the weather had passed between them. "The wire from head office quite took away my breath this morning.”
“Well, this trip was more or less suddenly planned,’ returned Archer Patterson. “I have some friends at the hotel, and—and—I just succumbed to the temptation of spending a few days in the woods. To-morrow, I am going up to the shack with our ranger!"
Mr. Cox, holding open the office door, felt unsettling tremors in the pit of his stomach. It had never occurred to him that Nature’s bestowal of femininity upon A. Crump—as she was recorded on the payroll sheets— and his instalment of her upon Mr. Patterson’s limit, would interfere in any way with his employer’s personal plans. Like a child who sees the searchlight of discovery turned upon some mischief he has hoped to keep hidden, the old man magnified his guilt. He broke into a gentle perspiration and quailed under that peculiar form of cowardice that he should have outgrown with his short trousers.
He saw his employment of the ranger as an act of unparalleled audacity; an act justifying the severest criticism—perhaps dismissal. He could find absolutely no excuse for it. The difficulties that had beset him when applications were so few, were forgotten. He should have anticipated this identical contingency what was more natural than that Mr. Patterson should expect to enjoy the hospitality of his own ranger’ Devine stopped grinding at the telephone as the two men entered the office.
“Afraid you had a beastly trip, sir." he said. “This Continued on page 44
Continued from page 22
is the worst day we’ve had, although for a week, the same stifling, thundery, oppression has been in the air.”
To himself Cox was saying: “He had intended to spend his time in the shack, with our ranger! Now I am in for a most embarrassing explanation.” And he wondered how he could get rid of Devine, make his confession and bow his head under the storm of his employer’s cold sarcasm, -without an audience. Incidentally, he wondered how Ann Crump would “take it.”
“It certainly looks as though we might expect a downpour at any moment,” Patterson was saying in a conversational tone that made Mr. Cox’s flesh creep. How complacent he was in the expectation of sharing the shack with his Ranger!
“I would like to have a glance at my mail, Mr. Cox, please.”
The office manager came out of his trance and hurried forward with a sheaf of letters.
FOR a few moments no sound broke the silence save the rustle of paper. Devine kept jerking his head towards the telephone as though ready to leap at it the instant it tinkled. Cox fingered some letters on his desk without being aware of his movements. He was rehearsing his announcement to Archer Patterson. “Speaking of the ranger, sir,” he decided to begin, “an exceptionally intelligent—” A revolver shot sent its sharp message through the air, cutting short his words. Devine grasped the corner of his desk in a tight grip. “Listen,” he cried. Crack. . . . a second passed, while the men stared at one another. Crack!
“The ranger’s in trouble,” Devine spoke rapidly, breathlessly, “that’s the signal. . . It’s Therien and a fire, likely . . . , We expected something. ...I’m going, and for God’s sake, sir, get help, and hurry'.”
He dashed from the office, and up the road towards the landing, Patterson close upon his heels. They had not made a dozen strokes with their paddles, before a spurt of yellow flame leaped from the distant trees.
“Western boundary,” muttered Devine. “My Heavens, v/hat a trip to have taken on a day like this!”
“The limit’s as good as gone,” remarked its owner, steering the canoe through the blackening -water.
Devine could not wait to reach the shore. He plunged into the lake waist deep, and waded in. While Patterson was making fast the canoe, he rushed up the incline, shouting “Ann! Ann—oh, Ann!” The roar of the fire made a noise like the whir of a thousand wings. Now and
again, it was punctuated by soft explosions as some particularly dry substance burst into flame. But above the din, Archer Patterson heard a wild cry that sent him hurrying into the clearing.
There, Devine bent over the prostrate form of a girl. Her face beneath its scars and scratches was sickly white, and from her forehead a thin stream of blood trickled.
“Look!” panted the boy, hysterically. “Look at this—he has killed her!”
“Oh, my God,” breathed Patterson, dropping to his knees and drawing the limp body out of his assistant’s arms into his own. “What is she doing here?”
“What she always did,” returned the other savagely, “her duty by you and these damned trees! And now see what has happened .... Ann! Ann, don’t you hear me, Ann?”
“Ann?” Patterson’s voice cut sharply through the din. “Why, whom do you think this is?”
“I don’t think at all! I know. . . .It’s Ann Crump, your fire-ranger!”
“You’re insane, man! This is Miss Ray Lane. . . a friend of mine!”
The two stared at one another across the body of the unconscious girl. The same expression burned in the eyes of each—stupefaction, jealousy and the hate it breeds. Then, at the same moment, partial understanding dawned. Patterson recovered himself first.
“Can’t we get some water?” he asked. “She is badly hurt, you know!” Devine found a bottle left by a picnic party and filled it. Together, the two men bathed her face and her cold hands, and presently they saw her eyelids flutter.
A little moan escaped her lips. They bent to hear.
“Jim—Jim—” she whispered. “I couldn’t save them, either,” and lapsed into unconsciousness again.
ASHOT from the hotel landing announced that a volunteer company of fighters was on its way. It was answered from the opposite end of the lake, where three canoes testified to Mr. Cox’s success in getting help at the village. But before any of these men reached the burning trees, nature’s infallible assistant had already begun to work.
The sky poured down its torrents with tropical extravagance. A deluge fell from the lowering heavens on to the sun-baked earth. It struck heavily upon the dark waters of the lake, and raised spiteful little geysers where it touched. It heat smartly in the faces of the struggling men. At the Western boundary of the Patterson limit, a mighty sound like the protest of a thousand angry serpents, mingled with the
patter of falling water through the dense copper-coloured smoke.
Ray Lane choked and tried to sit up. She opened frightened eyes and turned them towards Devine.
“Fire,” she gasped, “Oh, Dick. . . the timber!”
“It’s all right,” he answered quickly, “we’ve got it out. . . don’t you see the rain?”
“Good old Dickie,” she sighed, “I knew you would come!” She closed her eyes again. “Thank God for the rain.”
“Ray!” Patterson spoke softly.
She caught her breath and looked at him, passed her hand across her forehead and looked again. This was the same vision, or dream or whatever you will, that had occurred to her that morning under the pine tree. There was Archer Patterson, sitting beside her, silent, unsmiling. She saw the details of his costume —his khaki hunting suit open at the throat and outlined by a dark blue tie. She saw the gray at his temples, the fine lines about his mouth and eyes. Very still she lay, staring at him, and wondering when the dream would fade.
Her expression sent a sharp pang through the heart of Richard Devine, a sort of hollow pain that spread through his entire being. It choked him more than the smoke which was rapidly clearing away, and impelled him to clench both his hands and his teeth. He coughed and scrambled to his feet, muttering something about going to meet the others.
“Must start on a man hunt,” he said, and felt his way down to the shore. Ray turned back to the contemplation of her persistent vision. She stretched forth an explorative finger, and touched the man.
“Is it really you?” she exclaimed, and struggled to a sitting posture.
Instead of answering, Archer Patterson gathered her into his arms. His lips sought hers and held them as though to find In this caress the delayed happiness of seven empty years.
For a moment she lay inert, unresisting, unresponsive. She was dumb. Even now, she could not believe in the actuality of this thing.
“I said I would protect the timber,” she mused aloud, “and this is what I’ve done!”
“Oh, Ray, my darling,” Patterson cried, “whatever made you commit this madness? Why didn’t you write to me? But don’t answer. I have found you. you
are mine, that is enough. And you are hurt. ..”
“No, no! It’s only a scratch. Where is Therien?” she asked, anxiously. “Let me go, please, just for a little. We can talk later. I must see what has happened.”
BUT he would not release her. In jerky, half-finished sentences, he drew the whole story from her—all save the truth of her experience with Enid McAllister and that, he guessed.
What had happened, none will ever know. Beyond the thinning wall of smoke through which tree trunks, scorching boughs, trailing vines and parasitic creepers showed vague outlines, like a badly blurred etching, the charred body of Therien was found, pinned under a smouldering tree.
Perhaps he had been stunned as the burning maple fell, or smothered by the sudden density of smoke; perhaps he had been fatally wounded by the stray shot from Ray Lane’s revolver as her hand dropped under his blow; the fact remained that Auguste Therien met a hoirible death. Nature, magnificently relentless in her vengeance, had taken toll from him of all he had to give, and there were few to mourn his passing.
The rain ceased as suddenly as it had come, and the volunteers emptied their boats and set out upon the fretted little lake once more.
Patterson had sent Devine with the rest after telling him to arrange for the best accommodation the village offered for Ray Lane, whom he would accompany there, later. A chastened sun hovered a moment over the haze-wrapped hills. It had the air of confessing a fault, asking mute forgiveness before it dropped into the mauve mist that lay between the mountains and the horizon. And although light was drawn slowly after it, the limit was not really dark.
In the midst of its peaceful stillness, there glowed the inextinguishable radiance of love.