THE WOMAN IN THE FOG
A NOVELETTE COMPLETE IN THIS ISSUE
THEODORE GOODRIDGE ROBERTS
CHAPTER I A Light in the Fog
THE fog came up and in from the sea, white out of the
dark, rolled over the brows of black cliffs by a black wind. It spread across the black barrens and crawled up among the stunted black timber of the hills. It was cold as the breath of an ice-berg.
Dunton halted instantly when the fog reached him, lowered his burden of fresh-killed caribou meat to the ground, dropped his cased rifle and felt about beneath the encircling spruce-tuck with his hands for dry moss and twigs. He lit a bunch of moss with a match from a watertight metal box. He fed the small flame with more moss and dry twigs gathered hurriedly from the ground. In a minute or two the flame stood a foot high. He cleared his belt-axe, waded into the tough brush, felt about for dry branches and hacked them off. He built the fire long and
Was it love or hate that held this woman as the buffer between this man who had saved her life and her cringing, violent husband?
high. It melted a cheery room for itself between painted curtains of fog and tossed golden sparks high and wide.
Philip Dunton’s cabin was in a cleft in the black hills only ten or twelve miles away to the north and west, but he had no intention of attempting to reach it while the fog held. He knew the country tco well for that—its physical and climatic characteristics, its permanent and
changing peculiarities. The month was October, a difficult season on the wastes of Labrador between the empty Atlantic and the desolate mountains. The only thing to do was to sit tight and wait for the fog to lift. A hummock of jumbled rocks and brush sheltered the fire from the fog-choked wind out of the east.
Dunton found a mossy basin of clear water among the rocks and there filled his smoky kettle. He gathered more of the branchy fuel—a stack of it. He found and cut a few small birches to give heart to the fire. He broiled a generous steak of venison over raked-out embers on a forked stick, ate it, brewed and drank tea, lit his pipe. He made a couch of dead brakes where the heat was reflected from the nearest face of rock, and there reclined at ease with his feet to the fire and his shoulders to the warm stone.
He was tired, for he had been on the barrens all day. He smoked out his pipe, laid it aside and tossed more brush on the f're without leaving his couch of brakes. The fog continued to drift over and around his fire-lit nook, shutting him in from the world of desolation beyond. He felt as absolutely alone as he actually believed himself to be, cut off from sight and knowledge of mankind He heard the weird cries of birds flying south h'gh above the fog. He heard a timber wolf howl off to the northward, the desolate sound muted by the fog. H:s thoughts ranged far beyond the little ring of warmth and fire-shine, east and south beyond the empty barrens and the far black cliffs.
jpHILIP DUNTON had known three years of this desolation of loneliness, and still his heart ached with it. He remembered things of another life, as far removed from this loneliness as the life of another world.
He grew drowsy. The warmth and glow of the fire weighed his eyes. He dozed and dreamed. He was among men again. The eyes of hundreds of men who knew him, whom he knew, looked at him. He saw affection in their glances, and admiration here and there. His friends called him by names he had not heard for three years. They thinned to shadows and turned their eyes away from him. They moved past him. shadows marchinginfours—sections, platoons, companies— passing him without looking at him He cried out to them, but not a head turned... He was with a woman. She was one whom he knew and loved and had loved always. They stood in sunshine, side by side, and she looked up at him with love in her eyes. A misty rain came up and she stood apart from him. She turned her eyes away from him. He put out his hand but could not reach her. He spoke her name, but she did not heed his voice He heard someone crying. He heard a voice shouting from the dark. He stumbled over muddy ground. He became entangled in rusty wire. Again he heard the shout from the dark, a cry for help. He struggled violently in the wire—and awoke
For a minute or two Dunton lay motionless, wideeyed and sick of heart, his soul still back with his dreams, his physical senses alert and questioning the surrounding fog and silence.
And then he heard the voice again—the shout that had pierced his sleep. He sat up and threw more fuel on the fire so that the flames leapt and sparks flew high into the cold fog. He drew his rifle from its case and slipped a clip of five cartridges into the magazine.
He fired one shot into the fog. high to the west.
A humm figure stumbled out of the fog into the circumscribed shine of the fire.
It was a targe man. emptyhanded. hatless. He stood swaring, staring wild-eyed through the yellow warmth at Dunton. He was a stranger to Dunton.
' Hullo!” exclaimed Dunton. “What’s the trouble?”
“I was lost!” cried the stranger, with a sob in his voice. "Lost in the fog— out there! My God!”
He staggered around an end of the fire and sank to the moss close beside Dunton. He was not of that country—neither a Livier (white settler1 from Dog-sledge Cove, an Eskimo from the mouth of the river nor a mountaineer Indian from the highlands to the westward. He was a man from the great outer civilization—a sportsman or an explorer.
DUNTON reached for the kettle, filled a mug with the tea and passed it to the stranger. It was emptied in a second. The big fellow was trembling, shivering. Dunton drew a flask from his hip and poured a little rum into the mug. The rum went in a twinkling.
"That’s better,” said the stranger.
"You were a fool to try to travel in this fog,” said Dunton.
The stranger’s glance steadied on him for an instant with a look of surprise and displeasure—but only for an
"My guides cleared out days ago,” he said. “We waited four days in camp—until this morning—thinking the dirty blighters might come back. But they didn’t, and provisions got low. Had to move, or starve. Any food?” “I have fresh meat here, and other grub a few miles away,” replied Dunton.
He cut a steak and broiled it, while the stranger sat and looked on in silence. He laid the hot steak on a smooth flake of rock. The other produced a pocket-knife, and with that and his fingers and strong jaws he made short work of the steak.
“Where’s your dunnage? Your kit?” asked Dunton. “Out there somewhere. Dropped it when I saw your
"Were you alone? You spoke of ‘we’ a moment ago.” “My wife. Guides deserted us and took the canoe. We left the river and tried a short-cut for the coast—place called Dog-Sledge Cove. Have you anything to smoke?” "But your wife? Where is she?”
"She isn’t far away. She said she turned her ankle.” “Great Heavens! Out there — and you stuffing yourself here!”
“My dear man, she’s perfectly safe. She isn’t starving and she won’t freeze. She could have come on with me if she’d wanted to.”
"But her ankle?”
"That anide! You don’t know it as I do or you wouldn’t worry.”
Dunton eyed the stranger curiously.
“Queer, but I thought I heard a woman crying before your shouts woke me,” he said.
“Impossible,” returned the other. “She may be crying with temper, but you couldn’t possibly hear her at the
"Of course not. Do you want another pot of tea and another steak before we go out and look for your wife?” asked Dunton; and the wavering of the fire-light gave an unpleasant twist to his lips.
“Thanks, but I think we should get her now, don’t you? The fog is a bit chilly,” replied the stranger.
“You big rotter,” said Dunton, calmly, rising to his
feet and tossing brush on the fire, which was gett'ng low.
“What’s that?” queried the other.
Dunton picked up his rifle.
“Push along,” he said. ‘ Lead the way.”
The stranger advanced into the fog, and Dunton followed close on his heels. Their eyes were useless. Nothing was to be seen but the obscure yellow glow of the fire behind them, seemingly miles away. The ground was rough, snarled with spruce-tuck, boggy here and rocky there.
“Give her a shout,” said Dunton.
“Hello! Hello!” shouted the stranger.
They stood still to listen but heard nothing. Again they moved. Again the big sportsman halted and shouted, again without success.
“That’s the sort of temper she’s in,” he said. ‘She hears me, of course— but that’s the way she feels.”
Then Dunton shouted at the top of his voice.
“There! I heard her!” he exclaimed. “To the left, I think. Here, hold the rifle.” He advanced.
He advanced a dozen paces, halted and shouted again. Again he caught a faint answer.
“Wait for me,” cried the other, behind him.
“You stand where you are. Can you see the fire from there?” returned Dunton.
“Yes, I can just make it out.”
“Then don’t move until I get back. ..”
A minute later, Dunton found the woman. Groping toward her voice, he touched her with his hands.
“I have a fire over here,” he said, gently.
She did not answer.
“If your ankle is out of commission, I’ll carry you,” he continued.
STILL without speaking, with his assistance, she stood up. So dense was the cold fog that neither could see anything of the other. He lifted her in his arms. She was not heavy and he was very strong. He held her securely and shouted, and the stranger’s voice answered, flat in the muffling fog. He moved cautiously toward the sound. The woman lay close in his arms. He could not see, but he felt her face against his shoulder.
“Have you found her?” asked the voice from the blindness close in front.
“Yes. I’m carrying her,” answered Dunton, shortly. “WTant any help?”
“No. You go ahead and build up the fire.”
Dunton placed his feet with care, feeling for every step, for the ground was tricky as well as invisible.
“Please take a grip on me,” he said.
The invisible woman slid an arm around his neck. Potent things stirred in his brain and heart—keen and bitter thoughts and fragments of romantic memories. For a moment he forgot his groping feet, tripped and just saved himself from falling heavily forward by sinking to one knee. In the effort to maintain his equilibrium, his arms tightened convulsively on the slender body he carried.
“Sorry! Did I hurt you?” he asked.
She shook her head. He felt it on his shoulder.
He saw the veiled glow of the fire expand and brighten. He was within a few yards of it when she spoke for the first time. The muffled, inarticulate cries she had made in answer to his shouts had not been speech.
“Be careful,” she whispered.
He halted abruptly in his cautious advance, swayed for a moment, made one more step and then stood firm.
“What?” he said, in a dazed voice.
“Be careful, please! Be warned!”
For a few seconds he remained thus, silent and motionless.
“Are you there?” cried1 the big sportsman from the circle of light and warmth close in front.
Dunton moved forward again, carried the woman around the fire and laid her gently down on the couch of brakes which he had gathered for himself before his solitude had been disturbed by these strangers. As she unclasped ner arrr> from his neck, he looked' down at her fac?. He. eyes were closed.
Dunton found the tin mug, oured a little :um into it and gave it to the man.
“Get her to drink this,” he said. “I’ll make fresh tea. and broil some steak.”
He refilled the smoky kettle, ut several small slices of the red meat and busied himseli t the fire. The stranger came to him with the empty mu .
“She drank it,” he srid. “And I could do with another nip myself.”
“Sorry, but you can’t hav° it,” answered Dunton* without glancing up from h business in hand, “Rum’s hard to get in this cou fy. I doubt if there’s another bottle of it nearer than Dog siedge Cove.”
“We’ll stock up later at he Cove, then. Come across with it! You’ll be well paid for it, never fear. I am No man Wilardson, a rich man—and generous.”
Dunton went on with his crude cooking, without so much as a word or a g’ance by way of reply.
“Do you hear me?” cried Wilardson.
“Go to the devil! ’ said Dunton, still with his glance ou the job in hand.
“What’s that you say?”
“Not so loud! I can hear you distinctly. 'Go to the. devil,’ is what I said.”
“Now see here, my man, that is not the way to speak to me.”
DUNTON withdrew the meat from the waver of heat above the red embers, placed it carefully on a knob of rock, stood up slowly and faced Mr. Wilardson.
“Start rig t and save yourself unpleasantness, if not worse,” he said, in a low tone. “Get a correct idea of me into your l ead now, and so avoid trouble. I care nothing for your wealth and as little for yourself. This is my fire, and I did not invite you to it. I shall do everything in my power to help you to get out of this country, but in my own way, which is sure to be a better way than yours. I don’t like what little I have seen of you—a coward, a glutton and a bully. Don’t try to bully me, or you’ll wish you’d not seen my fire through the fog. Your guides ran away from you—but I’m neither a mountaineer Indian, nor a half-breed, nor yet a poor Livier from the coast. Keep this in mind, will you.”
“Who are you?”
“Call me—well, call me Johnson.”
“Because it isn’t my name.”
" I 'HE sun rose clear next morning. The fog was gone A from the vast barrens and hung scattered in white shreds along the higher mounta ns. The wind had fallen before dawn and there was frost in the still air. The ponds among the hummocks and the little, clear pools had ice around their edges.
Mrs. Wilardson’s ankle was badly swollen. She had already cut the high boot from it. She ate a little broiled venison and drank a ittle tea. She glanced covertly at Dunton several times, but he did not look once at her. Wilardson did all the talking, which wasn’t much. His manner was improved. He expressed regret for the sprained ankle and was polite to Dunton.
After breakfast, Dunton and Wilardson went out in search of such articles of dunnage as had been carried from the river and discarded on the barrens. Where Dunton had found the woman last night, they came upon a roll of blankets and a rifle in a case.
“Anything else?” asked Dunton.
“My wdfe was carrying a few things, but she dropped them quite a while before we saw your fire—when she first turned her ankle, in fact.”
“And you carried her this far?”
“No, she walked. I didn’t believe she was really hurt.” Dunton said nothing to that. They returned to the fire with the blankets and rifle. Dunton said that the •only thing to be done was to move to his cabin in the hills, on Indian Branch. There were bandages, food, arnica, iodine, a canoe, walls and a tight roof. He made a stretcher of two young birches and a pair of blankets.
They reached Dunton’s cabin four hours later. Wilardson had called for frequent halts on the way, despite his size. Mrs. Wilardson was laid in the bunk; and as soon as there was hot water, Dunton told Wilardson to bathe the sprained ankle, and the sportsman obeyed. Dunton produced arnica and bandages. Wilardson made a poor job of the bandaging, causing his wife to wince more than once.
“Can’t you do better than that?” asked Dunton.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Uneven. All wrong. Too tight and too loose.”
“It feels perfectly comfortable, thank you,” said Mrs.
“There you are, Johnson! She should know.”
“She does, I haven’t a doubt of it,” returned, Dunton, drily.
He went out to cut the caribou meat and hang it in the smokehouse.
“I don’t like that fellow,”said the sportsman. “There’s something fishy about him. He’s queer. But he can’t fool me.”
“He seems a very ordinary sort of person to me,” replied the lady, closing her eyes.
“Ordinary? He is an educated man, for one thing. Educated men are not ordinary in this benighted wilderness.”
“Educated. I hadn’t noticed it.”
“And Johnson isn’t his name.”
She opened her eyes then, but after the briefest possible glance at her husband’s face she closed them again.
“Not his name?” she whispered.
“He told me so. ‘Call me Johnson, because it isn’t my name,’ he said. A banker in disgrace, I suppose—absconding cashier, or something of that sort. An nsolent blighter, whatever else he may be.”
“I thought him very polite.”
“He’s polite enough now, since I put him in his place.”
“Please be honest, Norman.
He is not polite to you. He speaks to you almost as rudely as you used to speak to our guides before they grew so sick of you that they ran away. He saw through you last night. It
humiliates me. You are a bully—but you can’t bully this man. And he was right about this bandage. It hurts unbearably.”
“The bandage? Then why didn’t you say so when I was putting it on?”
She opened her eyes, which were very blue, and looked at him.
“I should be sorry to have him suspect that I know you for the stupid, selfish bully you really are,” she said.
DUNTON entered the cabin at that moment, mended the fire on the hearth and set about the preparation of the mid-day meal. The menu was not elaborate. When all was on the table—the roast, the bread, the stewed berries, the tea and condensed milk—Dunton looked at the woman in the bunk.
“You are still in pain!” he exclaimed.
“The bandage hurts,” she said, without meeting his look.
He turned to Wilardson, who was already eating.
“Can’t you do that right?” he asked.
“Fix it yourself, confound you!” cried the sportsman. Dunton stepped to the bunk, unwound, moistened and rewound the bandage gently and swiftly, without so much as a glance at the woman’s face.
“Better?” he asked, turning away.
“Much better, thank you,” she answered.
Wilardson laughed unpleasantly and went on with his dinner. It was very evident that he was in a nasty temper. Mrs. Wilardson ate very little.
. “Anything to smoke?” asked Wilardson.
Dunton produced a red tin of H. B. C. tobacco, coarsecut but sound and sweet.
“Brought it in from Battle Harbor last summer,” he said.
The sportsman eyed the tobacco sulkily.
“No cigarettes?” he asked.
Dunton stared at him.
“In my opinion, you made a mistake when you came into this country, Wilardson,” he said. “It’s not your line—not even with two guides, for a few weeks’ shoot-
ing. You’re too dash^tt /ussy, if yöü' âsïc mÿ öfnWón."
“I didn’t ask for yoiíf opinion,” retorted Wilardson, glaring.
Wilardson’s eyes were the firtft to waver.
Dunton turned in the general direction of the bunk.
“Do you care to smoke?” he asked.
His voice was kindly, but wooden and impersonal, and he did not look at the woman’s face. And yet it was a charming face.
“Our cigarettes ran out more than a week ago,” she answered.
“Go ahead and say it was my fault!” exclaimed Wilardson.
Dunton dragged something out from under an end of the bunk and swung it up onto the table. It was a pack of heavy greenish canvas with broad straps for the shoulders, an important part of the British soldier’s equipment. It was somewhat faded and showed a stain here and there. Mrs. Wilardson saw it and turned her face away. Wilardson stared at it. Dunton rummaged through its contents with both hands.
“So you’re a returned man,” said the sportsman.
“Returned is good,” replied Dunton. “This is a likely place to return to.”
“Well, you know what I mean. You saw service, did you?”
Dunton paid no further attention to the man. He drew forth a small flat box, looked at it, brushed a hand over it twice, then laid it against one of the woman’s hands on the blankets.
“If you like this kind,” he said, with nothing at all in his low voice except the words. “They used to be well thought of. You will find them dry, I’m afraid. They have been in my pack a long time, years—uncommonly long years.”
Then he walked out of the cabin. The woman immediately turned her face toward the room, glanced down at the box of cigarettes and clasped it in her fingers. But she did not smoke.
Dunton walked for two hours, careless of direction, now to the east, now south, at last north to Indian Branch of the big river. He heeded nothing that he saw. He stumbled frequently even when his glance was on the ground. Once he lay flat for ten minutes or so with his face in his hands. He was on the edge of the swift water when he became suddenly aware of it, and yet its voice had been loud in his ears for minutes. He stood motionless for a little while, staring into the dark current. There was snow already in the higher hills, he thought dully. The water was cold as ice. It would soon numb a man. Even a strong swimmer wouldn’t last long in that water. He shivered suddenly, turned and retraced his steps to the cabin.
Dunton found both his guests beside the hearth.
“I made a crutch for her,” said Wilardson, pointing to a trimmed length of sapling leaning against the wall.
“But you must keep that foot up as much as possible,” said Dunton to Mrs. Wilardson. “The idea’s to keep the blood out of it.”
She was seated on a low stool of his own manufacture. He rolled up a stiff moose hide, placed it before her, and raised her injured foot gently until it rested on the roll almost on the level of her knee.
“We must get away in the morning,” said Wilardson. “Is your canoe in good shape?”
“It should be,” answered Dunton. “It’s a canvas eighteen footer; and there wasn’t anything the matter with it when I last saw it, three or four days ago.”
“I’ll hire someone at the mouth of the river to return the canoe to you. I’ll hire two men, Johnson, and send in a two-man load of provisions from the Company’s store.”
“But—but can you handle a canoe?”
“Of course I can handle a canoe! It’s simple enough, when you’re heading down stream.”
'But you don’t know the river.”
"Why don’t I know the river? I know Eskimo River. I «me up it, didn’t 1?”
“So it seems. But you haven’t been on Indian Branch.” "No, but what of it? It runs into the Eskimo. Just a matter of running with the current.”
"Heaven help you if you run with the current from my landing to the Eskimo! There are two bits of bad water—three for a greenhorn. You would have to make three carries with the canoe and dunnage.”
"Well, what of it? I can make three carries.”
"It’s tricky water all the way. It wouldn’t be safe.” "Don’t worry about me. Johnston.”
"You? Don’t flatter yourself.”
"You need not worry about Mrs. Wilardson. I can look after her.”
“I doubt it—but I am thinking of my canoe.”
"So—the precious canoe? I over-rated you, Johnson. I thought you were concerned about human lives. But you need not fee! any uneasiness for the canoe. If it suffers any damage. I shall pay you double its value.”
' I am to collect from your estate, I suppose.”
"Don’t be a fool, Johnson! And try to be a sportsman. I am determined to start for the coast to-morrow, and your services on the trip down to the mouth of the Eskimo are neither desired nor required. I wish you well, but I don’t like you, my dear man. Look the canoe over, will you. Half a minute! Here's the price, in advance.” Dunton stared at the sportsman in chilly silence for a full minute.
‘You are feeling quite your own old self again,” he said. ”1 think you have forgotten that you were ever lost on the barrens in a fog. And you are pleased to be frank. Put your money away. Wilardson, for I wouldn’t touch it with tongs. As for the price of a canoe—but forget it! My anxiety is for your wife’s safety, if you really want to know. Drown yourself, if you want to—but I’ll not let you take fool chances with a woman’s life between here and the coast. So I shall accompany you as far as the mouth of Eskimo River.”
"In spite of the fact that you are not wanted?” queried the woman without looking at him.
"Are you willing to take the chances of drowning?” he returned.
"Yes.” she said.
Dunton turned sharply and left the hut. He walked swiftly down to the river.
T^f R. WILARDSON talked a good deal while Dunton was away, but his wife paid no attention to him. Half an hour passed, and then they heard Dunton’s axe
outside. Presently Wilardson went out and found the man of the wilderness chopping at the edge of the clearing, felling and trimming poles.
"What are you doing now?” asked the sportsman. “Framing a lean-to,” replied Dunton. “I’ll roof it with brush and a tarpaulin.”
"What’s the idea?”
"Place to sleep until the river freezes hard.”
“What’s the matter with your cabin?”
"That’s for you and Mrs. Wilardson.”
"What the devil are you talking about? We are leaving this confounded place to-morrow morning, as I’ve already told you a dozen times. I don’t want any more of your funny business, Johnson. A little more from you, and I’ll have a talk about you to the factor down at the post. The law' has a long arm, Johnson.”
"Wrong again,” returned Dunton. “The long arm of the law' holds no terrors for me. But you won’t go out tomorrow', Wilardson, unless you walk or swim. The canoe is gone. It isn’t where I left it four days ago.”
The big sportsman stared.
"What’s that?” he cried.
“The canoe is gone. It isn’t where I left it four days ago.”
“You have hidden it, confound you! Find it again, and find it quick—or it will go hard with you.”
“Don’t threaten me, Wilardson. Can’t you see that it’s not the way to get along with me? But why should I hide the canoe? If I didn’t want you to use it I’d tell you so— and you wouldn’t use it. You have sense enough to see that, I hope.”
“I can see enough. You might refuse the canoe to me, but you would be ashamed to refuse it to a woman. I can see through you, Johnson—though why you want to keep us here is more than I can imagine?”
“If you can see so much, why don’t you go and find the canoe?”
“That’s exactly what I intend to do. But you must come with me.”
Hours of search failed to discover anything of Dunton’s canoe, and Wilardson swore savagely.
When Mrs. Wilardson heard of the disappearance of the canoe she smiled scornfully but made no comment.
TAUNTON slept in his newly constructed lean-to that night, with a fire across the front of it. The frost struck hard, but he had plenty of hides and blankets and did not notice the cold. He got very little sleep, however. His growing distaste for Wilardson was like poison in his blood. In all his life he had never before met a man whom he disliked and despised so intensely as he did this big sportsman.
Wilardson spent hours of the next day along the rocky shore of Indian Branch, hunting for Dunton’s canoe. His efforts again proved fruitless. Dunton paid no attention to either of his enforced guests. He rustled wood for an hour after breakfast, then went off with his shot-gun and remained away until sundown. He brought three brace of willow grouse and a big hare back with him. For supper he skinned and fried two of the fat grouse in true bushwhacker style. Wilardson was in a most unpleasant temper and sneered at the manner of cooking the birds— but he ate two-thirds of them.
“I want to talk to you,” said Wilardson as Dunton moved toward the door after supper. “We’ve got to come to an understanding,” he continued, as the other turned and reseated himself beside the table. “You first met me under somewhat trying circumstances and have carried things with a high hand ever since.”
Dunton glanced at him and then at the fire on the hearth, but did not speak.
“This can’t go on,” continued the sportsman. “I admit my wife and I were fortunate in finding your fire on the barrens, but even if our lives were saved by that accident —it was purely accidental on your part—I intend to demand honesty and civility from you. I am willing to pay you well for all that you have done for us, and twe hundred dollars for that canoe.”
“The canoe is lost, as you know, and therefore out of the question,” answered Dunton, quietly.
“I doubt that,” returned Wilardson. “I am determined to know where the canoe is and why you wish to keep us in this God-forsaken hole. I have a pistol here, and my wife also is armed.”
“She might shoot, but you haven’t the nerve to kill a man,” he said. “You are a bully, but not a killer. To be quite frank, you are a coward.”
“And you are a brave man, I suppose,” said Mrs. Wilardson from the shadow of the bunk.
Dunton turned his face to the fire again in silence. Wilardson laughed.
“I am waiting to hear about the canoe,” he said.
“I knew only one coward in France,” said Dunton, slowly, without shifting his position or his glance. “It was a queer case. Only two people knew him to be a coward. His comrades—hundreds and thousands of men don’t know it yet; and they wouldn’t believe it if they were told. He wasn’t gun-shy.”
“Tell me where you hid the canoe, Johnson,” said the sportsman. “I have you covered; and I’m not in the mood to listen to your cha tter about the late war.”
“Shoot or shut up,” retorted Dunton, still without moving.
Wilardson was beside himself with rage. He raised his pistol and rested his forearm on the edge of the table.
“Don’t do it,” said his wife, sharply.
Dunton waited, stooped slightly, gazing into the fire. He did not see the sportsman’s weapon and the infuriated eyes behind it, but he imagined them. He neither saw nor imagined the woman’s pistol; But Wilardson saw it from a comer of his right eye.
“It would be a mistake,” said the woman.
“It would be murder—and suicide.”
Wilardson swore savagely.
“But I can’t stand any more of his confounded cheek!” he cried.
“Please be very careful,” she said.
He laughed harshly and pocketed the pistol.
Dunton stood up slowly and turned.
Wilardson drew back from the other side of the little table, with his right hand in his pocket.
“We will take her down to the Post as soon as the ice is safe for a sled,” said Dunton.
Then he left the cabin, without so much as a glance toward the bunk in which Mrs.
Wilardson lay with her right hand beneath the edge of the blanket.
THERE was black ice on the little ponds next morning.
Even the edges of the swift river were filmed with elastic ice for a distance of several feet from each shore. Moss and brown fern and grey rock were all white with frost.
Dunton breakfasted early and alone by his fire in the open, leaving his guests to shift for themselves. He shouldered his rifle and went eastward toward the barrens before a feather of smoke showed above the chimney of the cabin. He did not hunt for anything in particular.
From the top of a high hummock he saw the antlers of a small herd of caribou trailing south and west but he neither headed them nor followed them. If he thought at all of killing, it was not of the killing of meat. The sky was clear and the sunshine warmed toward noon. He sat in the sun and felt cold and nerveless. He tried not to think of anything; but memories crowded his mind and would not be denied and he felt miserably conscious of his present desolate situation. He was sorry for himself. He knew that thousands of good men, strong men, would pity him if they knew the truth.
The truth! There was nothing like it! But he had hidden it too long to tell now.
He thought of cowards and cowardice. He had seen no physical cowards in the war, but he had suspected a number on the fringes of it. And this big fellow Wilardson, whatever he had done and whatever else he was, was a physical coward, a man afraid of being hurt. He recalled the incident of the man staggering to the fire in the fog and gulping drink and wolfing food, the disabled woman deserted and forgotten. That was the sort of coward that got his goat, disgusted him, made him see red, made him want to use a club. That was the sort of coward he had seen nothing of in France or Flanders—on his own side of the front, at least.
Dunton returned to the cabin at sundown, emptyhanded. He found both his guests seated by the hearth, Mrs. Wilardson with her injured foot up on a block of wood. He filled the kettle and hung it above the fire and took the frying-pan down from its nail. Wilardson was the first of the three to speak. He took up something from the floor beside his stool and laid it across his knees.
“Look at this,” he said.
' I ‘'HE illumination from the lantern and fire was not brilliant, and Dunton had to approach and stoop slightly to make the thing out.
“I found it half a mile below your landing and about two hundred yards back, between two big rocks,” Wilardson continued. “What does it look like to you, Mr. Johnson?”
“Will you never learn sense?” he returned, grimly. “Will you never learn to avoid trouble; to let well-enough alone? That, as you can see for yourself, is a charred fragment of the gunnel of a canvas canoe. If you think it belonged to my canoe, you are right, dead right. If you think that my canoe was burned, again you are right. I
burned my canoe because Mrs. Wilardson refused to allow me to take you down to the mouth of the river in it and I knew that you wouldn’t get through Indian Branch without me. If she had not objected to my accompanying you, I would have gone and seen you safely through. You can go drown yourself any time you feel like it, for all I care, but I could not sit calmly at home and let you
drown a woman who is fool enough to trust herself to you. That’s all about the canoe. If you ever mention it to me again I’ll drag you out by the scruff of the neck and beat you up so you won’t be able to see, smell or hear for a week.”
“You heard me.”
“But, damn you, you can’t—”
Dunton moved quick as thought His right arm shot out, his fingers gripped the sportsman a few inches below the chin.
“Say the word canoe, you poor dud, and I’ll bash you and chuck you into the fire,” he whispered.
For a second, Wilardson thought of hitting, and then he thought better of it. There was murder in Dunton’s eyes.
“You’re choking me! Be reasonable !” he cried.
His wife, seated at the other side of the hearth, turned her face away. Her lips were at once scornful and tremulous. The expression of her blue eyes was indescribable.
Dunton released his hold and continued his preparations for supper. The meal -was eaten in silence. Mrs. Wilardson glanced covertly at Dunton now and again, but not once at her husband. Dunton turned a threatening gaze frequently upon the sportsman, but ignored the woman. Wilardson did not look once at either of his companions. There was no color in his big face and his hands trembled.
Supper was over and the dishes were washed when the woman broke the silence.
_ “I think you had better take your pistols and ammunition, Johnson,” she said, casually. “Norman is more dangerous than you imagine and he is reaching for his coat now.”
It was true. The coat was hanging beside the chimney and Wilardson w7as reaching for it. He swore and dipped his hand into one of the big side-pockets. It was the wrong pocket! He uttered an hysterical cry of rage and
terror, withdrew his hand and plungedfit into the other pocket. But Dunton was upon him before he could withdraw the pistol. He was gripped by wrist and throat, and the impact of the assault drove him backward along"the wall to the rear of the cabin. The coat was tom from the nail and the pistol hopped on the rough floor.
TX/TLARDSON struck several mighty wallops with his
» » free hand but landed on nothing but bunched muscles. Dunton closed tight with him. They wrestled, staggering, heaving, bumping against the rough logs of two walls. The woman took the lantern from the table and hobbled close to them and looked at their faces. Her husband’s was both savage and afraid. Dunton’s was calm but grim. Dunton’s glance met hers for a moment.
“Please don’t hurt him,” she said, quietly.
Mrs. Wilardson retired to the bunk with the lantern, to be out of the way. The fight whirled and bumped around the cabin. The sportsman was the heavier of the two by thirty pounds and the taller by two inches, but he was already making heavy7 weather of it. He grunted. He kept his feet under him with increasing difficulty. He was on the outer edge of all the swings. It was always his back that came into violent contact with the walls and chimney. The table went over with a clatter of tin dishes. They span slowly in the middle of the room, like dancers. Wilardson gasped for breath, his knees felt like w7ater and all hope of crushing Dunton with his superior weight died out of him. Then, quicker than his terrified brain could realize it, his hold on Dunton was broken and he was sent reeling violently from his point of balance without anything to cling to. He struck the wall and slid limply to the floor.
Dunton stooped above the fallen sportsman for a moment, laughed shortly, and busied himself with collecting fire-arms and ammunition.
“He isn’t hurt, but he is frightened almost to death,” he said to the woman.
She held out a pistol to him. He extended a hand as if to take it, then shook his head and turned away.
“Keep it,” he said. “If he gets it from you, it will be by your consent.”
“I think he has just enough nerve to shoot you in the back,” she whispered.
He did not look at her.
“What more fitting finish for a coward than to be shot in the back by a thing like your spineless husband?” he sneered.
“But I’ll not let him have it,’ she whispered; and if he had looked at her then he would have seen that her blue eyes were gleaming with tears.
“Whatever your whim may suggest,” he said, and left the cabin.
He placed the arms and ammunition in the lean-to. lit his fire and returned to the door of the cabin. He heard the murmur of voices from within. For two hours or more he paced back and forth between the lean-to and the cabin. The night was tingling with frost. At last, working silently, he padlocked the door of the cabin on the outside. He knew that the windows were far too small to admit of the passage of Wilardson’s large body, and there was no axe inside the cabin. Then he rolled a log onto his fire and retired to his sleeping-bag.
TAUNTON was up and about before sun-rise. He hid the arms and cartridges, with the exception of his own rifle, in the roof of his store-house, then unlocked the door of the cabin without a sound and pocketed the padlock and key. He cooked and ate a breakfast of tea, hard-bread, and smoked fish. He went into the woods a little way with his axe and rifle and set to work clearing out a tangle of dry “blow-downs.” He could see the cabin from where he worked. He had chopped for an hour before the first thin wisp of smoke topped the squat chimney. Ten minutes later the door opened and Wilardson appeared on the threshold, kettle in hand. Dunton went on with his chopping and the sportsman filled the kettle at the spring and returned to the cabin.
Wilardson reappeared half an hour later. Dunton was still at work trimming out the dry spruces and chopping them into three-foot lengths. The sportsman approached him slowly and halted half a dozen yards away.
“I want to suggest that we—ah, cut out the—unpleasantness.” said the sportsman, his glance wandering.
“It is ail the same to me.” returned Dunton.
“But it is foolishness, madness, situated as we are!” exclaimed Wilardson. “It is unreasonable. Let us make a new start You took a dislike to me that first night, and I admit that I didn't cut a heroic figure—but please forget it. 1 was confused: and I did not know that 1 was dealing with a man from civilisation. We are not savages.”
Dunton smiled but did not speak.
"We are educated men.” continued the sportsman. "I am willing to forget about the destruction of the canoe, and I hope you will forget my outburst of temper last night. I am in a hurry to get out of here and back to Montreal. I am needed there. Let us be friends, and so save time and trouble and make the remainder of our stay a little less unpleasant for Mrs. Wilardson. Yes, let us be inends. Johnson. I can’t see any reason for our being enemies.”
"I ha'.e no intention of harming or delaying either you or your wife,” replied Dunton. "I burned my canoe because it was the only way, under the circumstances, to save you both from drowning. As soon as the ice will hold us. I shall see you safely down to the Post at the mouth of Eskimo River, where you’ll be able to get men and a fore-and-after to take you to Battle Harbour; and this is what 1 intended to do all the time. And until the ice is set on the river I shall continue to see that you have the best shelter I can offer, plenty of food and plenty of fuel. On the other hand. I shall safe-guard myself against your tricky temper. You drew a gun on me once and you tried it again, so I mean to see that you don’t make a third move of that sort. As for friendship, that is out of the question.”
"But we must trust each other.”
"You may trust me, Wilardson.”
"And you may trust me—on the word of a gentleman.”
"I shall do everything in my power to get you and Mrs. Wilardson safely out of here. A week of this weather will make the sled-journey possible.”
"You are very good. I admit that I have been hot-headed and that I was unreasonable ab >ut the canoe. But we shall get along very comfortably row that we understand one another. Ah. by the way—about the guns?”
"Everything shall be returned to you at the mouth of the river.”
But, my dear fellow, we have put distrust behind us."
"I prefer you unarmed. Wilardson, so
please don’t argue."
The sportsman returned to the cabin.
DUNTON' did not enter the cabin that day. He piled wood beside the door but did not cross the threshold. He wandered abroad, all afternoon, but d d not uncase his rifle. He returned to the little clearing after nightfall and retired to his lean-to. He left his sleeping-bag before midnight, crossed the clearing and padlocked the door of the cabin. When he arose at dawn to unfasten the door, snow was failing.
Snow continued to fall in crisp, small flakes until noon, for the windless air was bitterly cold. Dunton breakfasted outside by himself, but he entered the cabin soon afterward. Wilardson was frying venison and cursing the smoke, but he smoothed out his face and hi3 language at the sight of Dunton. Mrs. Wilardson, seated beside the hearth, was trying to toast a slice of Dunton’s stale yet clammy home-made bread. She, too, wished the man of the wilderness a polite good-morning. Dunton replied politely enough, fetched water, produced a tin of condensed mil.-: and a bottle of stewTed partridge-berries and took over the cooking. Their breakfast was soon on the table.
Mrs. Wilardson was able to move about without the crutch by thÍ3 time, but she walked with a slight limp. But even the limp was graceful, Dunton thought.
CHAPTER V Back-tracking for Trouble
pHILIP DUNTON was not the only * person who despised and disliked Norman Wilardson. Even up there in the wilderness
on Indian Branch there was another who despised him and was swiftly learning to hate him—the man’s own wife. In cities, shielded from dangers and fatigue, surrounded by' luxuries, soothed by calculating flattery and servility', full-fed and comforted with flagons, he had managed for more than a year to hide the worst qualities of his real nature from her. She had soon discovered that he was selfish, and she had early heard that he was cruel in business; but it was the ill-advised expedition to Eskimo River after caribou that had opened her eyes to the depths of his selfishness and cruelty and the fact that he was a bully and a coward. Her eyes had been opened thus far even before the desertion of the two guides. And since then she had seen to the despicable depths of him. His bellowing, bullying, insulting treatment of the guides had been bad enough, and his outburst of temper at her protests had been worse, but worse still had been his futile rage and yammering terror upon learning that the guides liad gone and taken with them the canoe and the bulk of the provisions. And his treatment of her in the fog had been monstrous.
Cowardice was the key-note of Wilardson’s character. In the world he figured as a strong man, hard in business but public-spirited. Only his secretaries suspected the y'ellow streak in him—in the world of banks and theatres and drawing-rooms and clubs. He had enemies, which was only to be expected of a strong and successful man;
but even his most bitter enemies in the great world did not know the truth about him.
The whole truth of Wilardson was known only to those who had seen him in the stark wilderness of the Eskimo River country. Even the factor and store-keeper at the Hudson’s Bay Company post at the mouth of the river did not know him. They had seen only the big, wealthy Mr. Norman Wilardson garbed and armed and equipped as a robust sportsman and accompanied by his charming wife and two willing and humble guides from Dog-sledge Cove. They, the factor and the store-keeper, had admired everything about the great man and the blue-eyed lady except their idea of how and where to have a rest and a good time.
The two guides from Dog-sledge Cove, so willing and humble in their ignorance, had in time grown wise to the real Wilardson,.
OILL PRADDLE and Nick Dugan were Liviers, men of white blood established on the desolate Labrador. Their fathers had coasted “down North” from Newfoundland and settled in Dog-sledge Cove. They' lived to keep life in them, but gave very little thought to their miserable condition. They fished, killed deer, trapped a little fur for trade, shot or “batted” seals when the Greenland ice-floe was driven onto the coast. Bill and Nick were honest, and they were as humble as they were ignorant of everything but the bitter toil of keeping life in themselves and their families in Dog-sledge Cove—but deep in the dulled heart of each glowed a spark of the Old Adam. Norman Wilardson had blown upon those sparks and heated the dull blood to fury. Had there been a cross of any brisker blood in the veins of either of the guides—-a dash of French or Spanish, for instance, or a strain of Mountaineer Indian or Micmac— murder would have been done on Eskimo River; and small blame to the murderers! But the blood of the Praddles and Dugans of Dog-sledge Cove was slow to heat to the killing point. So, furious, and fearful and humiliated, the guides had deserted in the night and taken the canoe and the bulk of the provisions with them.
Bill Praddle and Nick Dugan had descended the Eskimo to within six miles of the Post at its mouth. They were afraid to show themselves to the factor without the Wilardssons, so they landed on the southern shore and took to the barrens with the dunnage and the big canoe. Twenty miles would bring them to Dog-sledge Cove and their little grey cabins in the clefts of the cliffs— straight miles as flown by homing crows. It doesn’t sound far, but these poor Liviers had no wings, and the big canoe was twentytwo feet long and broad of beam and heavy of frame and ribs. The canoe was a necktorturing load the dunnage was lumpy and a strong man’s load, and the way was neither straight nor smooth. Jumbled rocks, bogs, wide tangles of spruce-tuck and crooked ponds lay and lumped between them and home.
With packs on their backs and topped by the big canoe, the runaway guides advanced four miles southward by staggering five. They halted, got out from under the canoe, slipped their packs and lay down. They were sore inside and outside, and uneasy. Bill Praddle spat on the polished flank of the canoe and said that if it was teetering on the brink of the bottomless pit he wouldn’t so much as reach out a hand to save it.
“Nor Wilardson, neither,” said Nick Dugan, feeling in a ragged pocket for his black stump of a pipe.
“May the devil fetch dat one!” exclaimed Bill. “May every hair on his head turn into a rusty spike an’ prick into his brain! Him, wid his heart o’ icy rock an’ his belly o’ pride an’ his cursin’ tongue an’ rabbit’s liver! May the devil take a two-handed twist of his black gizzard an’ fetch ’im a bat on his bellowin’ mout’!”
“Sure, b’y, an’ worse nor dat,” returned Jack, filling and lighting his pipe.
“An’ here we be a-headin’ for Dog-sledge Cove wid nary a bill for all our toil an’shame, an’ the bread-bin empty an’the fish sweated,” said Bill in a voice of despair. “Dogs baint used like us two was used by Wilardson, Nick me lad. Dogs wouldn’t stand for it! An’ what be our wages? A canoe! Aye, a canoe—to hide among the rocks for fear a word o’ it gets to the ears o’ Mister Hill down to the Post. An’ a back-freight o’ dirty grub onfit for decent bellies! An’ the big black bellowin’ Continued on page 51 the hills, the last patch of brown on the beast would make t’ieves an’ murderers o’ two honest lads for wort’less t’ings like dat!”
The Woman in the Fog
Continued from page 14
“Back-ache an’ belly-ache an’ heartache be all as ever comes to the like o’ us, Bill—an’ dat rich big squid from up-along will sure be the shameful deat’s o’ us yet, wid ropes ’round our necks.”
“We run off an’ left him, for fear o’ our mortal lives.”
“Aye, but we fetched the grub an’ the canoe along wid us. The law will make murder o’ that. An’ I be a-wishin’ as how we’d fetched out the woman. Herself had a good heart, human as poverty.”
“If I was back wid the black squid I’d not run from him again, by all the blessed saints! The cold fright do be gone out me, Nick, and the red anger be lit in me blood. Aye, a dog would turn an’ kill his master for the abuse an’ the curses Wilardson put onto us! An’ nary a bill to show for it; an’ murder at our heels; an’ winter acomin’ wid the belly-pinch for our women an’ children._ Lay hold on yer pack an’ the canoe, Nick, an’ you an’ me will turn about an’ go back an’ save the poor woman an’ fill Wilardson’s mout’ wid his dirty rich blood.”
_ “Not me, Bill. I be a-goin’ home wid dis here grub for the empty pots. Sure I be grieved for dat woman—but she married soft, an’ she can blame her own self if the dyin’ be hard.”
“I’ll have murder on me hands but not on me immortal soul!” cried Praddle. “Murder it be, go nort’ or go sout’—but I’ll save the woman who was kind to us; an’ when the Law takes me for the deat’ o’ Norman Wilardson I’ll go contented wid the red memory of it. Leave yer pack where it lays, Nick, to carry sout’ wid ye on the way back, an’ lend me a hand wid the canoe to the river.”
SO THEY carried the canoe and half the provisions north again to Eskimo River. There the friends parted, Praddle going west and Dugan heading south again for Dog-slèdge Cove.
Praddle kept close to the southern shore of the river, in shallow water. He was a good boatman and riverman, seasoned to salt-water and fresh, trained to canoe, bateau, or skiff, and bully. But he was not a deep-sea sailor, had never been more than fifteen miles off the coast or farther south than Battle Harbour. He had been born and bred by cold waters—water so bitterly cold even in summer, so numbing to blood and muscle, that he had never learned to swim. In this he was not peculiar. Few of the Liviers on that coast can swim half a dozen strokes.
Praddle stood aft in the long canoe and plied the white pole tirelessly, crawling steadily up toward the man from whom he had run away. His mind was made up. He knew his mission and pictured every possible result of it without wavering. He realized now that he and Nick Dugan had been fools to desert the man and woman from “up-along” under cover of darkness, with a canoe that was of no use to them under the circumstances, with nothing to repay them for their crime and their toil save a few pounds of queer food. They should have taken the woman, who deserved nothing but kindness at their hands, and delivered her to Mr. Hill at the Post, along with a true story of Wilardson’s behavior. She would not have denied the facts, he thought, and thus they would have saved their consciences and perhaps their necks. But in that there would not have been anything with which to feed the hungry people of Dog-sledge Cove, unless the woman was as eager to get away from the big sportsman as they were. Or they might have sacrificed peace-of-mind to profit, robbed Wilardson of the money he carried— (they had seen fat rolls of it)—and fled by land. Any way would have been better than the way they had actually taken.
DILL PRADDLE’S hatred of the big xJ fellow from the great world of men and money grew hotter and deeper with every mile of toil up the desolate, swift river. He did not fear Wilardson now. He would face him, confront him eye to eye, slap his big face, bring him to his knees, beat him up, make him cry for mercy, perhaps kill him, certainly collect his and Nick Dugan’s wages. He would show the rich beast that he, Bill Praddle, was a man despite his poverty. He would make him eat every insulting word of the past, recall every sneering curse, take back every bellowed threat. Wilardson had kicked him once. Very well, he would kick Wilardson ten times forthat. Wilardson had struck him twice. Ah! He would shower blows upon the full-fed devil, by all the blessed saints in Heaven with stars in their hair! Perhaps Wilardson would offer him money—hundreds of dollars? Good! He would take the money—when he was tired of beating him. Perhaps Wilardson would fight? Good again! It would be Wilardson’s last fight; and still there would be the money for Bill Praddle. Whatever he might do to Wilardson, he would bring the woman out safely to the coast and then escape from Dogsledge Cove with his wife and children.
Praddle climbed the river without sight or sound of humanity. He towed the big canoe up the rapids, During the day, he kept a sharp eyeout for the Wilardsons, thinking that they might have followed afoot down the river—but he failed to remark any sign of them. He slept in the lee of the high bank, rolled in blankets beside a big fire. The frost struck hard, and in the nippy mornings he had to break the new ice away from the rocks before he could launch the canoe. It was slow work. Not until the afternoon of the fourth day after parting from Nick Dugan did he reach the site of the camp in which he had last seen the Wilardsons. He landed a hundred yards below the spot and approached it cautiously on foot, for the rich man from up-along had a rifle and a gun and pistols, and he was unarmed save for a knife with a buck-horn halt and a heavy-backed five-inch blade.
PRADDLE need not have been so careful, for the site was vacant. Only a tarpaulin, the ashes and charred butts of dead fires, empty bottles and cans and a belt-axe remained. At least so it seer-ed to Praddle at the first glance. He searched the ground and the bushes, giving most of his attention to the spot in the thicket where the rich folk’s little tent of oiled silk had stood. There he found a little spirit-stove, a silly and useless contraption from up-along for the quick brewing of a cup of tea. This article of a rich sportsman’s outfit reminded him so painfully of Wilardson that he booted it into the river. Further search in the moss brought to light a large silver flask nearly full of whiskey. It was dinted on one side as if it had been stepped on. Praddle refreshed himself from it, then pocketed it with care.
Praddle scouted around. He climbed the steep bank, through the heavy brush, to the edge of the great barrens and looked abroad over the waste of rocks and bogs and black snarls of spruce-tuck. His eyes were far-sighted, adjusted from birth to wide sea spaces and the vast sweeps of barrens. He ascended a hummock to its topmost boulder and surveyed the landscape. He looked for smoke but did not find it. Then he looked far and wide for movement and saw a small herd of caribou far off to the west, led slowly toward the shelter of the wooded hills by a big grey stag. He studied the nearer ground after that, yard by yard, and soon spotted something which did not seem to blend perfectly with its surroundings. He scrambled down the southern slope of the hummock, made his way over jumbled rocks and around tangles of spruce-tuck and presently stooped and picked up the thing that had caught his eye. It was a fine new guncase of heavy yellow leather which he had often seen before. On one side the following inscription was painted very elegantly in small black letters: Mrs. Norman
Wilardson, Montreal. He opened the case and gazed reflectively at the costly and elaborate contents.
“Me an’ mine would feed hearty from now clear t’rough to May, wid figgy-duff to our dinner free times every week, on half the price she give for dis here little gun an’ all the fancy fixin’s,” he murmured.
HE TOOK out the twelve-gauge barrels, masterpieces of the gunsmiths’ craft; then the polished stalk with its slender pistol-grip. He fitted the little gun together and balanced it in his hands, thinking dully of hunger and wealth and the basic problems of life in general. He took the ammunition from its own compartment in the case—twenty-four rounds —and slipped two cartridges into the gun and stowed the rest away about his person. He pocketed the pull-through and oil-flask also; and the fine case was empty. He ripped the strong leather to tatters with his knife, hammered the frame flat with the belt-axe, and buried the wreck between two high boulders with brush and lesser stones to hold it and bide it.
Praddle shot a brace of willow-grouse before sunset and ate a hearty supper. He slept that night in the shelter of the tarpaulin, deep in the brush under the high bank. Snow fell during the night and all morning. He spent the afternoon on the barren, hunting for further signs of the Wilardsons. He found a dunnagebag full of beautiful and correct attire for the well-dressed sportsman, (as imagined and recommended by tailors)—woolly jackets plastered with pockets, woolly knickerbockers, silk underclothes, flannel shirts as soft as silk, stockings thick and soft, yellow boots and fur-lined gloves. He shouldered the bag and carried it six miles back to the river.
It was clear to Bill Praddle s anxious mind and uneasy conscience that the Wilardsons had attempted to reach tue coast on foot by way of the trackless barrens, and he knew that it would be useless for him to look for them in that waste. The Great South Barrens, this particular expanse of treeless and manless desolation, extended from Eskimo River to Lance-au-Loup far to the southward of Battle Harbor, and westward to the mountains a varying distance of fifty to thirty miles. Ten thousand square miles, just about., was what the area of the Great South Barrens figured out at, with a length of two hundred and fifty miles and an average width of forty. But these figures were not for Bill Praddle. He only knew that the barrens filled most of his world between the sea from which he took cod and caplin and seal to the mountains to which he sometimes followed the caribou in mid-winter, and that there was no permanent human habitation in all its rugged length and breadth. There was still game on the barrens, grouse and hares in plenty; and the Wilardsons still possessed a rifle and a shot-gun, so far as Praddle knew, and tea and beef-extract and tinned meats; and the distance between the camp on Eskimo River and Dogsledge Cove was not more than fifty miles in a straight line; and yet Praddle did not believe that they would reach Dog-sledge Cove or any other settlement on the coast. He tried to believe that they were safe,hut he couldn’t fool himself, He remembered the fog, the snow, the cold and Wilardson’s yellow streak and wild temper.
PRADDLE thought hard that night while he smoked by the fire; and even after he had knocked the ashes from his pipe and rolled in his blankets, his brain and conscience kept him awake for hours. The fate of the woman with the blue eyes lay heavy on his heart.
Praddle remembered Philip Dunton, the mysterious gentleman from _“up-along” who lived like a hermit on Indian Branch. He had accompanied Dunton into his chosen wilderness, up the Eskimo to the Fork and then up the swifter Indian Branch, close onto three years ago; and he had helped to build the cabin—all for a generous wage. He liked Dunton, who had treated him like a man. He had last seen him in June, down at the Post, but he supposed that he was still alive and on Indian Branch. Now he wondered if Dunton knew anything about the Wilard-
sons. He would if any man did, for he often spent days togetherout on the barrens. And even if Dunton had not seen anything of the Wilardsons, Praddle felt that it would be a wise move to visit him and talk over the unfortunate situation and ask for advice.
Poor Bill Praddle felt that he needed a friend, a strong and wise friend; and he believed the mysterious Dunton to be a powerful person and entertained a high opinion of his qualities of mind and heart. Like most people, Praddle believed that he knew a gentleman when he saw one; and he had spotted Dunton for a gentleman within five minutes of first meeting him.
He was up against it. To look for the Wilardsons on the barrens was hopeless. If they died in the wilderness, he would have the death of the woman on his soul; and, sooner or later, Mr. Hill of the H. B. C. would suspect trouble and nose it out and set the machinery of the law in motion. If the Wilardsons won through to Dog-sledge Cove his conscience would be clear and his soul stainless, but the law would be set to work very swiftly and he and Nick would be jailed for theft. In either case, he needed advice and a strong friend. He cursed the big devil Wilardson for not sitting tight on the river, where he had been left, and waiting to be decently beaten—perhaps decently murdered.
Praddle broke the shore-ice again next morning and launched the canoe and continued his ascent of the river. _ He reached the Fork by sun-down. Again he broke ice—and there was more of it to break each morning—;and turnedpup Indian Branch. Here his slow progress was even slower, for Indian Branch was a swifter stream than the big river and was broken into “ripples” and white water at frequent intervals.
Through a Frosty Window
WINTER tightened its grip on Indian Branch. Dunton continued to pass his nights in the lean-to and breakfast by himself, but he was in and out of the cabin many times each day and ate his dinners and suppers with his guests.
A veneer of peace glossed the intercourse of the woman and the two men, thinner than the first skim of ice on flowing water. Dunton did not pretend friendship for Wilardson, but he did his best to be polite. His breeding made this easy for him, up a to a certain point. But at times his emotions showed through the veneer like a red shadow. He continued to keep the arms hidden and to fasten the cabin door on the outside every night. His manner toward Mrs.Wilardson was considerate, but decidedly cool. He seldom addressed her and even more rarely looked at her.
Mrs. Wilardson was polite, but no more than that. She showed her scorn of her husband in her eyes; and perhaps she voiced something of it when Dunton was not present. She said little to either of the men. She glanced frequently at Dunton when not observed, the expression of her blue eyes tortured and inscrutable.
Wilardson was the best actor of the three. His manner toward his host was frequently cordial. He pretended friendship and an honest robustness of character. He was magnanimous—under the peculiar circumstances. He was full of hearty talk and fairly good stories—when Dunton was present. But he never looked Dunton squarely in the eye for more than a second at a time. There were things in his heart which might show in his eyes, and two of them were fear and cunning. His immediate aim in life was to get. safely out to civilization, back to his own stamping-ground and the place and condition of his power, and for this he twisted his face into smiles and oiled his voice and kept a grip on his bullying black temper. After that, he would square accounts with this fellow Johnson, whatever and whoever he might be, though it cost him thousands. And after that again—well, it was evident that his wife needed disciplining. And the two guides from Dog-sledge Cove who had deserted him on Eskimo River must not be forgotten. He would see that each of them got a five-years term in the penitentiary at St. John’s, Newfoundland, and so make the Labrador safe for plutocracy.
The hundreds of ponds on the barrens froze deep, the last herd of deer sought big hares turned white as snow. Ice covered Indian Branch from shore to shore except at the roaring rapids. Great airholes gaped where the broken white waters leapt strongest, streaming white in the frosty air. Snow fell, dry and small, and drifted. Dunton got out his sled and looked it over, set a new bolt in one of the wide iron shoes and renewed the raw-hide traces. It was a small dogsled—but he had no dogs. With a light load, a level way and two strong men in the traces, it would go very well, however. He had pulled it many weary miles singlehanded. He got out his snowshoes, of which he had only two pairs, and mended the webbing in spots.
ICE forced Bill Praddle to abandon the big canoe. He dragged it half-way up the bank, laid it between two great rocks with the bulk of his dunnage beneath it and covered all Mth brush. He continued his journey on foot, warmly and correctly clothed in the discarded garments of his enemy, with blankets and a light pack on his shoulders and the priceless little gun in his gloved hands. He travelled on the firm, level ice close in-shore.
Praddle left the river two hours after sunset one cold and windy night. The dry snow drifted and swirled about him, but he knew the ground. He soon reached the edge of Dunton’s sheltered clearing and was about to advance upon the cabin when the red glow of a low fire at the edge of the timber caught his attention. He halted and considered the matter. He could see shafts of light from the small windows of the cabin. Then why the fire in the open? Could it be that Dunton had visitors?-—and so many that the cabin could not hold them all?
The door of the cabin opened, and for a second a human figure was silhouetted against the glow of lantern-light. The door closed. Praddle crouched where he stood, straining ears and eyes against the black and white obscurity of the night. He caught a dull crunch of footsteps through the puffing of the wind. The wind lulled for a moment and he heard a faint crackling of dry brush across near the low red smudge of the fire; and then he saw a spurt of sparks ascend and vanish and, a second later, yellow flames lick up above the red.
An uneasy conscience made Bill Praddle cautious. He moved silently around toward the fire, crouched low against the black edge of young spruces. As he drew near to his objective a little eddy of wind brought him a fleeting scent of burning tobacco. It was good tobacco— the kind smoked by Dunton. Could it be that Dunton slept outside, crowded out by his visitors? What was the idea? Who were his visitors? Good-natured as he was, he would scarcely put himself to such inconvenience for a bunch of Mountainer Indians. No, it was not at all likely that Dunton himself was camped in the open. It was much more likely that the man or men beside the fire were smoking Dunton’s tobacco.
Praddle saw the lean-to by the shine of the fire, and a seated figure within. A stick broke in the fire, and by the upfling of brighter light he saw that the solitary occupant of the shelter was the mysterious Dunton himself.
P RADDLE’S uneasiness increased.
New misgivings assailed him, many of them confused and vague. Could it be that the police were here, already searching for him? No, they would never search for him on Indian Branch, but wait for him in Dog-sledge Cove. Perhaps a party from the Post, headed by Mr. Hill himself, was hunting for the Wilardsons. That would be more likely, for Mr. Hill was probably a friend of the rich, hoping to be rich himself some day. And yet how could canoes or sledges have ascended Eskimo River and Indian Branch without being seen by Praddle? They couldn’t have done it.
Praddle was sorely puzzled. He backed away from the lean-to without making his presence known to Dunton, and edged around to the back of the cabin, where there was a little window. But nothingwas to be learned there, for the two small lights of the window were so heavily' frosted that nothing couid be seen through them. They glowed with the warm shine within, but they disclosed nothing.
Praddle crept around a corner to another window. This, too, was frosted on the inside, but in a corner of one pane there was a spot of clear glass no larger
than a human eye. To this spot Praddle set his right eye.
He saw the lighted lantern on the table, and beyond the table the hearth and its leaping fire. He could not see the bunk, for it was built against the same wall in which the window he was peering through was set. He saw a man seated beside the hearth, beyond the little table —a tall, large man smoking a fine pipe. He recognized the pipe, then the man—Wilardson!
Bill Praddle was astonished, to put it mildly. Wilardson! That black devil, that yellow-livered squid, away up here on Indian Branch, alive and hearty and smoking his grand pipe beside Dunton’s fire! And alone! And Dunton out in the lean-to!
PRADDLE stepped back from the window, breathing unevenly as if he had run a mile over rough ground at top speed. His heart knocked and his brain was befogged. What was the meaning of it? Dunton must have found the big sportsman on the barrens and brought him home. Yes, that was it—but why did Dunton sleep outside? And where was the woman?
“If he’ve harmed her—if he’ve come off the barrens widout her-—if herself baint safe—by all the livin’ saints o’ God, but I’ll kill ’im wid me knife afore the break o’ tomorry!” he gasped, shaking and choking with rage and horror.
He returned to the window and again set his eye to the spot of unfrosted glass. He was just in time to see Wilardson leave his seat and kneel on the floor at one side of the chimney. The big fellow dug at the floor with a knife and presently lifted a couple of short sections of poles. He replaced these a few seconds later and returned to his seat. He was smiling. He raised a bottle to his lips and held it there a long time.
At that sight, Praddle felt his gorge rise and smoke more bitterly than ever. If he had hated Wilardson before, now he hated him beyond any power of expression. The black devil! The bellowing devil! And where was the woman with the blue eyes? —and him sitting there thieving the good Mister Dunton’s rum and swilling it fit to bust himself! Aye, and the owner of the fine cabin out in a lean-to in the drift of the snow! And the woman? Starved to death long ago with the cold, like as not, stiff out on the barrens!
The thought and the sight were too much for Bill Praddle. The fact that he knew himself to be partially guilty of the woman’s fate simply blackened his rage toward Wilardson. The dirty squid! The heartless black guzzler, sitting there at his ease guzzling precious rum!
PRADDLE stepped back a pace from the window, pulled the fur-lined glove from his right hand and inserted his hand into the fronts of his outer and inner coats. For a moment he had thought of pushing the barrels of the gun through the frosty glass and letting fly two charges of partridge shot—but that would have been clumsy work. No, he would do the deed neatly and surely, at close quarters! He found the haft of the knife, drew the weapon from its sheath and placed it handily in a side-pocket of his outer coat. (Mr. Wilardson’s tailor had made the pockets wide and deep and roomy, good man, little suspecting what they would be used for and by whom.) He buttoned his coats, regloved bis hand and moved stealthily along the wall toward the front of the cabin, where the door was. He would slip quietly inside, close the door behind him and dispatch his business with Wilardson. After that would be time enough to plan the next step.
He was within a foot of the corner when he heard something. The sound was faint and furtive but very near. He shrank against the logs and remained motionless for a few seconds, scarcel ' breathing. Then he sank forward onto his hands and knees and peered cautiously around the butts of the mortised logs. He saw a figure dimly, within three yards of him, stooping close in front of the closed door. It was Dunton, beyond a doubt. Was Dunton about to open the door and catch the big sport from up-along in the act of guzzling his precious rum? It was an agreeable thought to Bill Praddle.
Dunton did not open the door. He moved noiselessly back from it and vanished in the direction of the lean-to.
Praddle slipped around the corner and along to the door. He stooped, stared
closely at the door and saw the heavy chain and big padlock. So Wilardson was a prisoner! Dunton’s prisoner. So Wilardson and Dunton were not friends. Good! But why did Dunton hand over the whole cabin to his prisoner and occupy the leanto? This was being too goodnatured, something that was too deep for him to get at in a hurry.
Praddle was about to move away from the door to take another look through the window, when the bellowing voice which he hated more than any other sound in the world was raised within the cabin. It came faintly to him through the heavy door, but the tone was unmistakable to Praddle, who had heard it many times raised against himself at this same pitch of bullying mad fury. It was terrific and shook him for a moment. It dashed his courage for a moment. All his old fear for the big man from “up-along,” the fear that had caused Nick Dugan and himself to run away in the night, drove back into his heart.
WILARDSON was cursing sömëöhë as he had so often cursed his guides on Eskimo River. Praddle raced back to the window' and was about to look through the peep-hole in the frosted pane when lie heard the small, sharp report of a pistol from wdthin. He broke the breech of the gun. pushed in two shells, then set his eye to the spot of clear glass.
There w'as Wilardson cowering back against the table, facing the window with abject fear in his eyes. But he was not looking at the window. He was_ staring at something a little to the left of it which Praddle could not see. His lips moved, but no sound of his voice reached the guide now. Terror had cracked and muffled it. Praddle could see his_ hands, and they were empty. Who had fired the shot, then? Had the big fellow gone mad of a guilty conscience and fired at himself, or at nothing, and then dropped the pistol? But be saw something. It was in his eyes that he saw something—something from w'hich he shrank in terror. Perhaps it was something no bullet could harm. That thought sent an icy tingle down Praddle’s spine despite all his fine w'arm shirts and coats.
Praddle could not see the door, but he suddenly heard sounds at it, the grind of a key in a lock and the rattle of a chain. He knew' that Dunton had heard the shot and returned to the cabin. He did not shift his startled and devouring eye from the corner of the window or so much as blink it. He saw Wilardson turn his head toward the door, and then he saw Philip Dunton. By the sudden crooked leap and sway of the flames in the chimney, he knew that Dunton had left the door open. Quick as thought, he turned asidefrom the window and moved swiftly and silently along the wall again and around the corner to the door. Yes, the door was open. He lay flat, close against the foundationlog, and raised his head until his eyes were just above the threshold.
Praddle saw Mrs. Wilardson kneeling up in the bunk with a pistol gleaming jn her hand. Of course the simple soul mistook her for a ghost, at the first glimpse— but a sniff of the exploded charge reassured him. The pistol was real, and ghosts don’t fire real pistols. Mrs. Wilardson was alive! His heart jumped with blessed relief at that realization. His conscience was clean. His immortal soul was safe. He heard her voice.
“He drank for courage and then tried to take the pistol from me,” she said. “So I fired a shot—and look at him now! I didn’t touch him—but look at him! He was working himself up. He intended to murder you in your sleep. But look at him now!”
“I see him,” returned Dunton, coolly. “Not a sight for a brave and particular woman to be proud of, I must say! But I was safe. The door was locked.”
A T THAT MOMENT, Wilardson il leapt at Dunton and struck with the black bottle. Dunton dodged, quick as a cat, and the bottle shattered on the muscles of his left shoulder. The_ table went over with a crash and the lighted lantern rolled, spluttering, onto the vearth. But the lighter and more active man was working at top speed. He had the UDper hand from the first and kept it. Wilardson fought the air, whirling toward the open door. Even_ the rum he had gulped was against him. Dunton kept right with him, hot after him, strik-
ing, hustling, but not once falling intö ä clinch.
Bill Praddle squirmed back from the threshold just in the nick of time to avoid being stepped upon as the two gentlemen from “up-along” emerged from the cabin. Wilardson, who came out backwards and staggering, tripped ano fell, flung himself around in the snow, scrambled to his feet and bolted. Dunton dashed after him into the darkness. Then Mrs. Wilardson darted forth and vanished in their wake.
Bill Praddle had been thinking fast since his glimpse of the woman alive in the bunk. His conscience was clear of the woman and even of the man. They were both alive, as far as he and his friend Nick Dugan were concerned, and the law could not possibly hold anything against them except the theft of a canoe and a little grub. The moral account with the bullying black devil was being settled by Mr. Dunton, so it was no longer the affair of the humble Bill Praddle of Dog-sledge Cove. All things being so, Praddle saw his next move, his next and his next, clear as pictures in a book. Self-preservation and the welfare of his wife and children were the only things he had to worry about and work for now.
Within ten seconds of Mrs. Wilardson’s hasty departure from the cabin, Praddle entered it, bent double, quick as a mink. He did not touch the door. The light from the hearth lit only half the cabin. The lantern, which had contained very little oil, was already a black and unilluminating wreck among the red embers.
Praddle darted around in the shadows to the far side of the chimney .where he had seen Wilardson’s coats hanging against the wall. He frisked them, and in three seconds found what he wanted—a fat roll of paper money. He slipped out of the cabin, and not a moment too soon.
WILARDSON entered, pushed by Dunton, who had a grip on the back of his neck. The woman followed Dunton. Wilardson’s eyes were bunged and his mouth was bleeding. The woman closed the door.
Praddle, clear of conscience and light of heart and greatly comforted by what he had seen of Wilardson’s humiliation, hastened to the lean-to and from Dunton’s supply added half a pound of tea, a chunk of frozen meat and a small red tin of tobacco to his pack. He saw the two pairs of snowshoes and considered them, keeping an eye all the while on the darkness in the direction of the cabin in case a sudden yellow glow should signal the opening of the door.
“I be for the barrens an’ the shortest way home, where the snow lays deep, but dese folks be for the long an’ easy way, if dey ever goes out alive,” he reflected. “Sure I needs the racquets, one pair o’ dem, worse’n dey folks from ‘up-along’ needs two pairs. The wind do alius keep a clean track scooped on the river, whatever way she blows, under one bank or tudder, so what be the use o’ racquets to dem as travels dat route? Dey be as well widout ’em, sure, wid the snow no deeper nor gravy on a rich man’s dinner-plate an’ the grand level ice under it all the way.”
So he helped himself to the pair of snowshoes that looked the tougher of the two. He left the lean-to, with packs and snowshoes on his shoulders and the gun still in his hand, and returned to the cabin and peered through the window for the third time. By the fire-light he saw Dunton and Wilardson lying peacefully on the floor with hides and blankets under them. Wildardson’s arms and legs were securely bound with ropes. He could not see Mrs. Wilardson and so supposed that she had retired to the bunk. It was quite evident that Dunton intended to pass the remaining hours of the night on the floor of the warm cabin. So Praddle went back to the lean-to, laid aside his pack,melted snow in Dunton’s kettle and brewed tea, thawed and broiled a venison steak, ate heartily and then slept soundly in Dunton’s blankets for several hours.
Praddle awoke before dawn. He blew the ashes from the red heart of the fire and breakfasted on tea and hot steak and toasted bread. He lit his pipe, slung his pack and departed. The first icy blink of dawn was lifting when he reached the edge of the great barrens. He halted for a minute to study the landmarks and hitch his pack an inch or two higher, then set out on a straight course for Dogsledge Cove, undaunted by the weary miles of cold and desolation before nim. He was square with the big bellowing black devil from “up-along”—square and more than square, and blood-guiltless.
Talk of Fools and Cowards
DUNTON awoke and remembered the trouble of the night. Mrs. Wilardson had handed her pistol over to him, for safe-keeping, and he felt it now in his pocket. He glanced at the man on the floor beside him and saw that he was asleep. He did not look toward the bunk, but built up the fallen fire, pulled on his coat and moccasins, took up a bucket and opened the door. The sun was showing an edge of white fire in the east and already the wind was rising and puffing. Little swirls of dry snow spun up and fell and ran as the uncertain wind whipped into the sheltered clearing. The air was gnawing cold. He filled the bucket at the spring after chopping through the night’s lid of ice. Upon returning to the cabin, he immediately removed the ropes from Wilardson’s legs and arms.
Wilardson opened his eyes, only to close them again instantly. He did not speak. Dunton filled the kettle and began the preparation of breakfast. It was ready when Mrs. Wilardson emerged from the bunk. She crossed the room and stood in front of Dunton and spoke to him. He had to look at her.
“Good Lord!” he exclaimed. “How did that happen?”
She raised a hand and touched an angry bruise on one cheek lightly with delicate finger-tips, but she did not answer the question.
Dunton turned and touched Wilardson with his foot.
“Wake up,” he said.
But the big sportsman remained shuteyed and motionless. His lips were swollen and cracked and one eye was discolored and puffed.
“Wake up, or I’ll wake you in a way you won’t like!” cried Dunton.
Wilardson moved at that, commenced a realistic yawn but shut it off before it had gone far because of his scve lips, opened one eye and raised Kmself on an elbow.
“Wilardson, I’ll tell you something now that I want you to think about and remember,” said Dunton in a cool voice with an edge to it._ “If you ever start anything with me again, it will be the last time. One more break from you, and I’ll kill you! It seems to me that hanging would be a small price to pay for the pleasure of killing you. you big slobbering coward. That’s the way I feel; and I advise you to keep it in mind and behave accordingly until I get you down to the Post and off my hands.”
Wilardson moved his swollen lips without a sound and bowed his head. “Breakfast is ready,” said Dunton.
No one ate much. No one spoke. Dunton went to the door after his second mug of tea and looked out. The rising wind swished a trail of snow past him into the cabin. It hopped on the floor like sand. He shut the door and returned to the table.
“A bad day for a start,” he said. “All things considered, I think we had better wait until tomorrow. That wind would cut to the bone, even in the shelter of the river-banks.”
“You know best,” said Wilardson. Dunton crossed the clearing to the leanto after breakfast, with the intention of staying out of the cabin as long as the cold would let him. The lean-to was well sheltered by a hill heavy brush, He dug in the ashes until he found red coals, threw on twigs and scraps of bark and soon had the fire roaring. He was not anxious about the woman’s safety, in spite of the fact that she was now unarmed, for he knew that Wilardson would be afraid to lift his hand to her again so long as they remained in the wilderness. He had broken Wilardson’s black spirit last night in a way that would not be soon or easily mended.
DUNTON sat motionless in the lean-to along time, draped about with blankets and smoking his pipe. His thoughts were long and unhappy. He saw faces of the past, of men and women, and Mrs. Wilardson’s face with the purpling bruise on the smooth cheek.
“The fool! It is her own fault!” he muttered.
He thought of his recent struggle with Wilardson in the cabin and out on the frozen ground. He wondered that he had
not killed the fellow with his hands, and he was thankful that he had not done so. Perhaps he would have choked him to death in cold disgust and fury if the woman had not broken the grip of his fingers. “You would pay for it, and it would not be worth the price,” she had whispered in his ear. “It is for me to pay—so let him live!”
“Yes, let her pay!” he muttered, staring into the fire and shivering a little beneath the draped blankets.
He did not shiver with cold, for the long fire filled the shelter with warmth and wavering light. He was sick of heart and soul.
Presently he aroused his mind from its unhappy thoughts and looked about him, reviewing his plans for the journey which he sincerely hoped would commence on the morrow. He saw one pair of snowshoes but not the other. Pie searched around among blankets and robes, but failed to uncover the missing racquets. Then he looked through such provisions as happened to be in the lean-to, and missed the small tin of tobacco and the packet of tea. He left the shelter and scouted around the edges of the clearing, but the thin, dry snow was blowing and settling continually and he did not find tracks or any other signs of a visitor.
Dunton returned to the cabin at noon. He did not mention the loss of the snowshoes, the tobacco and the tea to his tragic guests, for it was a matter of small importance.
THE wind shifted early in the afternoon and the cold moderated. The wind died out as the sun sank and snow began to fall soon afterward.
“Do I have to tie you up again?” asked Dunton, staring the big sportsman straight in the eye.
‘ I s'.war there’s no need of it,” whispered the other, hanging his head. “I was dri’ iK last night. The first drop went to my head. I don’t know what I did, or what I was trying to do.”
“You hit your wife in the face,” said Dunton.
“I was drunk,” returned Wilardson. “The rum maddened me.”
Dunton looked at the woman.
“Are you afraid of him?” he asked.
“I’m a coward too—at night,” she answered in a faint voice, glancing aside. Dunton smiled bitterly.
“Cowardice is a nasty thing,” he said slowly. “I used to know a man—he was a good deal of a friend of mine—who was the sort of coward you wouldn’t understand, Wilardson. He had a platoon in the second battle of Ypres, and he didn’t turn a hair. He put on some neat raids next winter, opposite Messines—quite desperate little shows, but successful—• and we didn’t know if he was trying to get killed or decorated. His luck was astonishing. Nothing touched him. He distinguished himself on the Somme, where he commanded a company. But it seems that he was a coward after all.”
“If he wasn’t a coward, why did he do what he did?” asked Mrs. Wilardson, in a low voice.
“What was that?” returned Dunton. “What ever caused people to—to think him a coward.”
“People? Yes, himself and one other. It was never known in France, nor so much as suspected there. In my opinion, he wasn’t a coward, but he was a fool; and the only other person who thought him a coward, or pretended to think so, was the greater fool of the two.”
“What did he do?” asked Wilardson, humbly and politely, pretending an interest which he did not feel, his mind on the power and flesh-pots of civilization and the journey that was to commence in the morning.
“He got mixed up with a woman,” replied Dunton, staring so fixedly and threateningly that the big fellow regretted having attracted his attention. “He had felt something of the kind before, for other women, but never anything like that. His men became as shadows to him and the war nothing but a beastly muck of danger and dull duty designed for the sole purpose of keeping him awavfrom her and breaking her tender heart with anxiety for him. Her love was a beautiful and wonderful thing, and he firmly believed that if anything should happen to him— any little thing like having his legs or his head blown off—she would die of a broken heart. But he blundered along, ar d his battalion thought he was ill. The M. O. doctored him for fever and his secondin-command bought him a hot-water bottle. He hoped that he wouldn’t be hit —but he didn’t show any anxiety. He had some sense left. He was commanding a battalion by this time; and though his heart wasn’t in it, he didn’t make any mistakes. He carried-on; and in a big show late in 1917 he and his command did a bit of work so fine that he was offered a brigade. Another job was offered him at the same time, a staff-job in England. England! That meant the girl and a wedding and no more dreams of himself lying dead in the mud and her dying of a broken heart. And he deserved a soft job, and love, and a brass hat. He had been in the field three years. He chose the job in England, deserting the men and officers who knew him for the woman who loved him. They were dazed. They had nothing to say. They thought he was ill. But when he told the woman about it—the woman who loved him, the woman for whose peace of mind he had given up four of the best battalions on the Western Front—she called him a coward!”
“She was a fool,” said Mrs. Wilardson.
“Yes; and so was your friend, Johnson —if you don’t mind me saying so,” said Wilardson. “More of a fool than a coward, it seems to me. To a man like your friend, a fellow who wasn’t unnerved by shells and bullets, a brigade would be worth more than any woman in the world, I think. I was never a military man—my business interests made it impossible— and don’t know anything about battalions and brigades, but I’ve known a few women.”
Dunton stood up, sneering.
“We’ll start for the Post to-morrow, weather permitting,” he said. “You’ll soon be back with your business interests, Wilardson—if you behave yourself—both of you as safe and smug as if you had never lost your way in a fog. So I think that there is no need of my tying you up to-night. It would be against both your personal and business interests to make another break before you’re off my hands. I am as anxious to get you out of this country as you are keen to be gone—both of you.”
“Do you care nothing for my safety?” asked the woman.
“You are safe enough, I assure you,” returned Dunton.
“Then I’ll not sleep in this cabin!” she cried.
“What has become of your pride?” he asked.
She looked at him for a second, then turned away.
“What the devil are you crying about now?” exclaimed Wilardson. “You know you are safe with me! You know that I wasn’t myself last night!”
“You are wrong there, Wilardson,” said Dunton, turning and smiling dangerously. “You were yourself last night! The lady knows you better than I do, poor thing. We shall let her have the cabin to herself to-night, like the considerate and enlightened gentlemen we are, and you shall share my lean-to with me; and, just in case you should imagine during the night that you can get to tne mouth of Eskimo River without my help, and decide to dispense with my services, I shall take these ropes along and tie you up as I did last night.”
Wilardson’s protests availed him nothing.
DUNTON awoke early and looked out at the weather. The air was still and not distressingly cold and a foot of new, undrifted snow lay on the ground. A line of lemon-tinted fire spread and widened to the east and south. Above the yellow, the sky was egg-shell green. In the west and north, white stars continued to sparkle. The dawn promised a fine day, but Dunton did not feel any joy at the promise. He freed Wilardson, who continued to sleep heavily, took up his cased rifle and went to the cabin. He was about to knock on the door when a sudden thought caused him to withhold his hand. He saw that the future would be quite difficult enough for the woman without his adding to the difficulties by any thoughtless action. Cursing Wilardson in his heart, he hastened back to the lean-to, tossed a stick on the fire, and awoke the big sportsman.
“It is a fine day, and we’ll pull out soon after breakfast,” he said.
Wilardson sat up.
“Thank God for that!” he exclaimed, in something of his old manner. “I’ll be glad to get back to civilization and sanity.”
“And lucky,” retorted Dunton, turning instantly.
He crossed again to the cabin, setting his feet carefully in the tracks already sunk in the new snow. His scorn and hatred of Wilardson almost choked him at the thought and suggestion that inspired this precaution. Again he hesitated, struggling against a mad impulse to dash back to the lean-to and beat the life out of the fellow—but his hesitation was only for a second.
Mrs. Wilardson opened the door to his knock. He turned on the threshold and shouted to Wilardson to move lively. Then he entered the cabin and, without a glance at the woman, set about the preparation of breakfast. She helped him, looking at him often with dimmed eyes—but he avoided her questioning, piteous gaze.
THE sled was laid from end to end with hides, furs and blankets, and among them the fire-arms were stowed away. More blankets, and provisions for ten days, in a dunnage-bag, were stowed aft and covered with a rubber groundsheet and roped down. All this left just room enough on the sled for Mrs. Wilardson and the big tarpaulin.
Everything was ready for the start by nine in the morning. Dunton turned the key'in the big padlock on the outside of the door.
Mrs. Wilardson refused to be drawn on the sled. Her sprained ankle was almost well. The men pulled on the raw-hide traces and the woman walked behind and steadied the sled now and again over rough places. The snow had drifted here and there between the cabin and the river, but it was so light that even the deeper drifts were easily pulled through. The single pair of snowshoes lay idle on the sled.
Once on the river, the travellers found the way as level and smooth as the surface of a table. Dunton kept close to the right bank, where there was no snow on the ice save what had fallen during the night. This was not all. He knew Indian Branch and Eskimo River in every season of the year, and the ice and the water under the ice.
Their progress was slow, for Wilardson lacked stamina and had to rest frequently. They came to the head of Potlid Ripple before noon, where several murmuring air-holes gapedand steamed. Theycrossed the river well above the rapids to safer ice along the southern shore. They rested for an hour at noon, beside a good fire of dry brush.
Mrs. Wilardson’s ankle began to give trouble before they had gone far after dinner, and she was forced to take to the sled. The addition to the load caused Wilardson to grumble and grunt and cry halt more frequently than ever. Dunton put up with it for half an hour, ignoring the grumbling and patiently enduring the interruptions to the journey. But only for half an hour. Then he turned suddenly on the grumbler.
“Shut up, confound you!” he cried. “Shut up and buck up! Isn’t there any manhood in you at all? And what the devil are you grousing about? Haven’t you realized yet that you are lucky to be alive?—a dashed sight luckier than you deserve!”
Wilardson shrank back.
“I didn’t mean anything,” he muttered. “Then cut out the squealing, for I can’t stand much more from you,” retorted Dunton, starting forward again on the trace with a jerk that almost yanked Wilardson off his feet.
Dunton built a big fire that night and made a snug shelter with the tarpaulin in a thicket of young spruces. He cooked the evening meal. There was no attempt at conversation. After supper and a smoke he produced his ropes and bound Wilardson’s legs and arms.
“Sorry, but I don’t trust you drunk or sober,” he said.
There was that in his eyes which silenced the other’s protests.
WILARDSON lay awake for hours;
it was neither remorse nor discomfort that kept sleep from him. He was comfortable enough, despite his bonds. As for remorse, he felt not so much as a twinge of it. He had no conscience and he felt no shame. It was nothing to him that the people between whom he lay despised and detested him. He would soon be himself again, and then he would show them a thing or two. He thought and planned, smiling frequently to himself. He planned the confusion and undoing of this fellow who called himself Johnson. It would be easy—so easy that he wanted to laugh. Johnson was a fool, whoever he was. He would fix him at the mouth of Eskimo River—fix him for a few years, at least. As for his wife?—well, she would realize the error of her ways gradually but painfully, week by week, year by year.
The next day was fine. Wilardson pulled more steadily than before and the Fork was reached soon after sundown. They had made twenty miles that day.
The third day of the journey held fine, but with enough wind to sweep a clean path for them close along the northern shore. It was a south-east wind, and by noon it had blown up a grey haze. They made good progress and Dunton pitched the tarpaulin again soon after sunset.
Dunton did not tie Wilardson that night.
“I’m sick of it,” he said. “I’m not afraid of you, and I imagine you have learned a little sense by this time. If not, heaven help you!”
So Wilardson lay unbound that night. He lay awake for an hour, scheming, then slept soundly until morning. He was very sure of himself now. Dunton also slept soundly, though a touch of a finger would have brought him to his feet with open eyes and a clear brain. But the woman lay awake all night, tortured by remorse and shame, sure of nothing but her grief and humiliation.
Snow was falling softly when they awoke. Six inches of it had settled down during the night, moist and heavy. The three set out at the usual time, however. Mrs. Wilardson walked behind in the track dragged by the sled and the men wore the snowshoes turn and turn about. The one without the snowshoes sank to his knees at every step.
“If this had held off, we would have made the Post to-night,” said Dunton. “Another trek of twenty miles would have done it.”
“One day more or less won’t make or break us,” returned Wilardson, pleasantly.
The snow continued to fall and the “going” grew heavier every hour. Mrs. Wilardson pushed on the sled. Wilardson pulled steadily,_ did not grumble once and showed an inclination to be chatty. They rested two hours at noon, and Wilardson ate with evident relish and talked agreeably like one without regrets or misgivings. Dunton wondered at his mood. Mrs. Wilardson paid no attention to his talk but remained deep-sunk in her own thoughts, tortured by memories, numbed by doubts, afraid to consider the future.
TOURING the short, dark afternoon A-' they did not add more than six or seven miles to the morning’s march, so heavily did feet and sled drag in the moist snow. The snow-fall thinned at sundown, and by the time camp was made for the night and the big fire was roaring it ceased to the last flake. While supper was cooking a little wind came up, cold and dry, out of the north and west.
Wilardson had to watch himself now, and consider every word before he spoke it, to guard against a premature display of his old manner—for he was feeling his old self again. With the Post so near, he felt very sure of himself. The Post at the mouth of the river was the advance stronghold of that particular side of civilization—the material side of it—in which lay his power. He had impressed Mr. Hill, the factor, with his power on the way in. Again he lay awake in his warm blinkets between the woman who was hin wife and the man who had saved him from the fog on the barrens, and schemed for their ruin. They knew him and despised him, these two. Very well! They would find him more dangerous than they imagined!
It seemed to Wilardson that it would be wise for him to obtain a private interview with Mr. Hill before the factor could hear anything of what Johnson had to say. He had Johnson cold, ’tis true— the theft of the thousand dollars from his pocket was weapon enough with which to square accounts with Johnson—and yet he shrank from the thought of laying the charge before Johnson’s face. The fellow had the courage and ferocity of a devil and the speed of lightning, and there was
no saying what he might do before Hill could interfere. And there was no knowing what the woman might say or do.
It became clear to Wilardson that he must reach the Post and the ear of the factor an hour or two ahead of his companions—an hour or two, at least—to avoid unpleasant complications. And this thought suggested another, a greater. It was an inspiration, this new idea. It was aimed at the woman, his wife—his wife who knew him and despised him.
As soon as he believed the others to be sound asleep, Wilardson slipped from his blankets, cautiously pulled on his moccasins and outer coat, lifted the snowshoes and stole away. He had less than seven miles to go, and the river was his road. He would reach the Post and explain the situation to the factor before midnight; and his wife and this fellow who called himself Johnson, the woman and man who despised him, would turn up in tne morning. It was a rich thought.
THE night was colder than the day had been, but nothing to dismay a well-clothed, well-fed man. The wind fell upon the wide surface of the river irregularly, puffing up the drying snow, whirling it aloft in clouds, driving it in columns, twisting it in wisps, dropping it and lifting it again.
Mrs. Wilardson had not been asleep. She had thereforeseen her husband’s prepparations for departure and furtive exit from the shelter through drooped, deceptive lashes. Knowing nothing about the loss of the money from his pocket, she guessed at only a part of the truth—at the part of his scheme against her. But she did not move or cry out. She was content to let him go, to let things take their course. She did not care. She was unafraid. She had hurt herself so grievously that she knew that Wilardson and the world could not do anything to hurt her more. So she made no effort to recall him or to arouse Dunton.
Wilardson had not been gone more than fifteen minutes when Dunton suddenly awoke and sat up, warned of danger by a sense that had been developed by nights of peril far to the eastward of Eskimo River. He glanced at the empty blankets beside him, then instantly at the corner of the shelter where he had stood the snowshoes. He slipped from the shelter without a word, threw wood and dry brush on the fire, drew on coat and moccasins and went out beyond the wavering edge of the fire-shine. Stooping, he made out the webbed tracks, some clearcut and perfect, others half-erased by the drift. He followed the trail for twenty yards or so, sometimes sinking thigh-deep, sometimes no deeper than his ankle; and then the tracks vanished. The snow had filled them. He scouted ahead and soon picked them up again. One glance at them and one back at the ire and at the surrounding gloom of darkness and fleeting wraiths of whiteness, and he knew that Wilardson had swung away from the shore toward mid-river.
He made what speed he could back to the shelter and found Mrs. Wilardson awake and on her feet. He unfastened the load from the sled and tossed it aside, guns and furs and all.
“What is it? ” she asked.
“Don’t you see that your husband has given me the slip?” he returned.
“What of it? He cannot do you any harm,” she answered.
“The fool is heading for the middle of the river!” he exclaimed. “Thin ice and swift water and air-holes!”
“Let him go!” she cried. “Let him go!” For a few seconds he stood as motionless as if frozen, staring at her in silence through the wavering shine of the fire. Then, without a word, he stooped and piled his entire supply of cut fuel onto the fire, stooped again and placed an armful of blankets on the sled, laid hold of the rawhide traces and pulled out into the dark.
MRS. WILARDSON followed Dunton, plunging and stumbling at the tail of the sled. He halted frequently to examine the snow, but did not once look around at her. Here and there the tracks were hidden for ten or fifteen yards altogether. Sometimes they were forced to pause and bow their heads for half a minute at a time to let the choking drift spin over them.
A piercing shriek rang from the gloom ahead. Dunton stood harkening, hearing only the dry whisper of running snow and a duller, heavier sound throbbing beyond it. Seconds passed: and then the shriek was followed and confirmed by terrific, despairing yells.
Dunton moved toward the outcry, dragging the sled. The yells continued, but in spite of them the heavy throbbing grew louder on the air. He knew it for the voice of the rapids thundering under thin ice and sobbing for breath at roaring air-holes. He advanced cautiously and shouted in reply to the bellows of terror. Presently he drew the sled up, turned it and pushed it along in front of him. He cautioned Mrs. Wilardson to keep back a little.
Wilardson was at the lower edge of an air-hole. His feet were wedged against a huge rock, and that was the only thing that saved him from being swept down under the ice. He clung to the edge of the ice with arms and chin. His yells were growing faint by the time the tail of the sled touched his hands. He laid hold of it, first with one hand, then with both, then hooked his elbows in it. He kicked away from the rock with what little strength was left in his numbed legs. One snowshoe was torn away by the dragging water, and that helped him. He kicked again, lurched upward and got his chest on the edge of the ice.
“Pull!” he screamed.
Dunton and the woman pulled on the sled, slowly, steadily, with all their might, Wilardson struggled, wriggled. His arms felt as if they were being dragged from their sockets. The hungry water tore at his battling legs as if they would strip him from the waist down. But, inch by inch, working with every muscle of every part of him and clinging to the strong sled with arms and chin, he came up and forward over the edge of the ice.
THEY dragged him clear of the airhole; and when Dunton stooped above him he found him unconscious, though the great arms still clung to the sled. He broke the grip of fingers and elbows, rolled the body in blankets and lifted it onto the sled. On the way back to the shelter and the fire, Mrs. Wilardson pulled beside Dunton on the rawhide traces. It was hard pulling, and the wind was rising. Sometimes they crouched side by side, close together, to let the suffocating flurries of snow go over, but neither spoke a word to the other.
Wilardson slept heavily for the remaining hours of the night, heaped about with warm blankets; and in the morning he seemed no worse physically for his fright and immersion, though considerably dashed in spirits. He made no attempt to explain the situation from which he had been rescued, and no questions were asked.
The wind blew all day, so the three remained in camp and Wilardson kept to his blankets. Dunton spent most of the day in the heavy woods behind and below the camp, chopping fuel for the fire.
The next day dawned clear and windless. The journey was resumed after an early breakfast, with Wilardson lying in state on the sled, and concluded before noon. Big dogs raced down upon them silently and circled around them. An old squaw looked out at them from her cabin, then ran to the house with the news. Mr. Hill and the store-keeper came out and advanced cordially to meet them.
“Glad to see you alive and safe, Mrs. Wilardson!” exclaimed the factor, approaching in his best manner. “I’ve been looking out for you for weeks. What, Colonel, is that you? This is an unexpected pleasure.”
Wilardson rolled off the sled, kicked himself free from robes and blankets and ran forward to the factor.
“What did you call that fellow?” he asked in a thrilling whisper. “Did you say Colonel? Who the devil is he?”
He laid a heavy hand on Mr. Hill’s shoulder and shook him.
“My dear sir!” protested Hill. “I said Colonel, of course! He is Colonel Dunton, Philip Dunton—highly respectable—-distinguished, in fact—though somewhat eccentric.”
“Eccentric!” cried Wilardson. “He’s a thief, I tell you!—and you are a fool! He robbed me of eight hundred dollars!” “You are mad, Mr. Wilardson!” retorted the factor. “I made enquiries about him two years ago. He wouldn’t take your money even if he needed it. You must be crazy! And may I ask what you have done with your guides?”
This last was too much for the rich sportsman. To be questioned by this
little whipper-snapper of a trader about the two worthless fellows who had deserted him and stolen his canoe, in an accusing tone of voice, as if he had eaten them and would have to pay for them—this filled his cup to overflowing with the blind wine of wrath. He glared madly for a few seconds, then gave full vent to his emotions. He damned Mr. Hill, and the guides, and someone called Johnson and the thief who had picked his pocket, and all the colonels who had survived the late war.
“He had a nasty accident a couple of nights ago,” said Dunton to the factor. “He broke through the ice at First Rattle, and Mrs. Wilardson and I had all we could do to get him out. We must put him to bed immediately.”
Dunton and Hill and the sturdy storekeeper put Mr. Wilardson to bed, and they found it just about all they could do. They were forced to throw him. They had to handle him roughly—but it was all for his own good.
DUNTON hired Micmac White and Micmac’s five big dogs, loaded his sled, purchased and tied on new snowshoes and set out on his return trip to Indian Branch within twenty hours of his spectacular arrival at the Post. Before leaving, he described to Hill the outstanding incidents of his intercourse with Mr. Norman Wilardson and asked him, as one friend of another, to do all in his power for Mrs. Wilardson. But, despite his solicitude, he went without saying good-bye to the lady.
The weather was fine, but the going was heavy. Dunton and Micmac White took turns at breaking trail for the dogs. The cabin on Indian Branch was reached without accident, in the course of time. Men and dogs rested two days and nights.
“I’ve had enough of this,” Dunton said to Micmac White, one morning at breakfast. “It’s a good sporting country, but it is becoming a trifle too popular to suit me. I think I’ll give the interior of Brazil a try-out.”
“You head back for de Post to-day, what?” returned the ’breed.
“Yes, that’s the idea. To-day as well as to-morrow.”
“Dat Mis’ Wilarson head for Brazil, hey?”
“What the devil are you talking about?’
“Dat a’right, Colonel. But Micmac White see grand wid two eyes, you bet! Why don’t you lose dat poor squid when you got ’im ’way up on dis here Injun Branch, hey?”
“You don’t know what you are saying! You are a fool! Shut up!”
“Nope, Micmac White ain’t no fool. Nor Colonel Dunton ain’t no fool,neither. Dat a’right, sir. We make de Post in free days, easy.”
Dunton filled a dunnage-bag and his Wolsley-kit with his books, papers and odds-and-ends and rearranged the load on the sled.
Mr. Hill was astonished at Dunton’s reappearance so soon, for his eyes were not so observant, nor his heart so understanding, as the eyes and heart of Micmac White. But he liked Dunton and admired eccentric gentlemen who could afford to be that way; so he hid his astonishment as well as he could behind the cordiality of his welcome.
DINNER at the Post that night was a thing to remember. The factor and the store-keeper are still talking about it. The cook and her helpers were warned of it at noon, and Micmac White volunteered to bear a hand in the kitchen. The cook possessed a cook-book which she could not read—but the imaginative and enthusiastic half-breed spelled it out for her, and the keys of cellar and store house were theirs. Mr. Hill and Mr. McFee wore black coats. Dunton donned a service-jacket with ribbons on the left breast, for lack of anything more suitable. The dishes from the kitchen were served as they were ready, or as they came to hand, without regard to precedent, and every dusty bin in the cellar was ravished of at least one historic bottle.
A number of strange dishes had been tasted, a brace of roast grouse had been wrecked and the bottles had made several rounds before Mr. Hill spoke of the subject which had been uppermost in his mind ever since Dunton’s arrival before noon. He spoke of the Wilardsons; and this was the first mention of them in Dunton’s presence.
“We got the Wilardsons away three days ago, in a fore-and-after for the hospital at Battle Harbor,” he said. “He is a very sick man in my opinion—and quite off his chump. I sent a squaw along with them as far as Battle Harbor, just to make things more comfortable for the lady. Have you known him long, Colonel?”
“Never set eyes on him before he came floundering and yelling to my fire out of the fog,” returned Dunton.
“Well, I pity that charming woman! She married him for his money, I suppose. He is rotten with it, I hear.”
“Very likely,” replied Dunton. “He is a type of man who does not interest me in the least. McFee, I’ll trouble you to push the Scotch across.”
So the subject was dropped for an hour. Dunton told queer tales of trench and billet and disputed barricade, now tenderly, again in a vein of grim humor. McFee talked of the Glasgow of his youth. Hill talked of London, and music halls, and attempted a sentimental song. A bottle of port appeared, sealed with green wax.
“That’s Archie McTavish stuff,” said Hill, chipping the wax with a knife. “He laid down ten dozens of it when he was factor here. Fine old boy! He died in Paris fifty years ago.”
The port warmed McFee to personalities.
“Colonel, I admire ye,” he said. “An uncle of me mother’s was a soldier an’ fought at Waterloo, an’ me own father was a scholar. Ye’re both, man, an’ I honour ye for it. Factor, me lad, we’ll drink a health to the Colonel an’ another to the soul o’ Archie McTavish an’ to the devil with orthodoxy!”
The toasts were drunk with plenty of enthusiasm.
“And here’s another, two more, for the three of us!” cried Mr. Hill. “Here’s joy to all beautiful ladies—especially and particularly to them with blue eyes—and confusion to their rich and bullyin’ and bleatin’ husbands.”
“Very delicately expressed, sir!” exclaimed McFee.
Dunton emptied his glass, but his face was expressionless.
Dunton breakfasted alone next morning. His hosts arose painfully two hours later, just in time to see him off in Peter Dormer’s skiff for Dog-sledge Cove.
Dunton went ashore at Dog-sledge Cove, where he was known and highly thought of, and learned that Bill Praddle and Nick Dugan and their families had dug up a pot of gold on the landwash and sailed away for Newfoundland.
DUNTON paid off Peter Dormer and the skiff and engaged a larger craft and a crew of two for the next stage of his coastwise journey. He reached Battle Harbor without accident. He and Dr. Scanlon of the Sea Mission Hospital had met only once before, but he had read and heard a good deal about the eccentric gentleman on Indian Branch. The last word which the doctor had heard of Dunton had been from Mrs. Wilardson.
“I wish you had arrived two days ago,” said Scanlon. “The mailboat put in here for the last time this season, headed south. I think you were expected. A friend of yours sailed with her, in most unhappy circumstances. It is most unfortunate that you did not get here two days ago.”
“I suppose you re'er to the Wilardsons,” returned Dunton. “They were only a few days ahead of me, I know— but I cannot imagine why they should expect me to overtake them, as I had no intention of coming out when I last saw them. I ran across them up on Indian Branch, and if they are unhappy—well, honestly, Doctor, I don’t quite see that it is any business of mine.”
“She spoke of you as a friend, Colonel Dunton—and she was in need of a friend, poor thing!”
Dunton lost color.
“What has happened now?” he demanded. “What has that rotter been up to now?”
Dr. Scanlon stared.
“Rotter?” he queried. “I don’t follow you.”
“I am refering to that skunk Wilardson, as you know!” cried the other. “Get it off your chest, for heaven’s sake!”
“Mr._ Wilardson died of pneumonia
within a day of his arrival,” replied Scanlon, stiffly, “and the widow went south with the body day before yesterday.”
The color came back to Dunton’s face and the expression of his dark eyes changed.
“Did you say he died?” he whispered. “Wilardson dead?”
“He died in this house,” said the Doctor, gazing searchingly, curiously, into his visitor’s face.
“Thank God!” cried Dunton; and then he leaned back in his chair and began to tremble. His hands and the muscles of his face twitched. He laughed, then groaned.
“Nothing new—or serious,” he said, jerkingly. “Touch of fever. Trench fever. Felt it coming for days. Terrible depression—then this. Used to hit me often— but not more than once in—three months now.”
Dr. Scanlon got busy and Dunton found quinine on his tongue and whiskey washing it down his throat; and his chair moved nearer to the stove as if of its own volition; and blankets draped themselves about his shoulders. A dusky orderly appeared, knelt and pulled off his moccasins and stockings and set his feet firmly into a big pan of very hot water redolent of mustard. Sensations of pleasant vagueness and delicious irresponsibility crept slowly over him. He dozed. He slept.
WHEN Dunton awoke, he found himself in a bed, between sheets, with a hot-water bottle at his feet. A shaded lamp stood on a little table beside him, and Dr. Scanlon sat nearby smoking a cigarette.
“That’s all of that,” said Dunton. “I’m fit as a fiddle again.”
“You’ll be fitter when I’m done with you,” returned the Doctor.
Dunton was silent for a half-minute, while Scanlon continued to observe him with an air that was at once human and professional.
“Did you say something about someone dying, or did I dream it?” he asked.
“I told you that Wilardson died here a few days ago,” answered the Doctor. He paused for a second or two. “The lady left a letter with me, for you,” he continued. “It slipped my mind at the moment of your arrival; and I’m not sure that I should give it to you now, with your temperature still a degree above normal. I wouldn’t if I were nothing but a doctor. Here it is.”
He produced an envelope from an inner pocket and handed it to Dunton.
Dunton opened the envelope slowly and read the enclosure with half-closed eyes and an expressionless face. This is what he read:
“Your pride was as much to blame as mine. But I admit mine—and am ashamed of it. Why did you go away, when you knew in your heart that I did not mean a word of the mad thing I said? I called you a coward because you thought of and treated me as a coward. I was jealous of your honour—as jealous for it as the men of your regiment were—and I never doubted your courage any more than they doubted it. What cause had I ever given you to believe me a coward?—afraid for either you or myself? My faith in you was as great as my love for you; and neither have ever wavered. But you, in your madness, let me ruin my life with my mad pride—without a question, without turning once and looking through my eyes into my heart for the truth which you knew to be there.”
Dunton folded the letter and replaced it in the envelope.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Eight thirty,” answered Scanlon. “Night?”
“Night, of course.”
“Is there a schooner in the harbor?” “Yes, there are two fore-and-afters.” “Please charter one for me, Doctor— the fastest—to be ready to sail south tomorrow morning.”
“But your fever, Colonel!”
“Forget it!” exclaimed Dunton, smiling. “What is a touch of fever to a man who has been dead for years? I start for Montreal to-morrow! For Montreal,my boy! For life! To pick up life where I lost it years ago!”
“It sounds good to me,” said the Doctor. “We’ll have a drink on it.”