THERE came the sharply-cheerful tinkle of sleigh-bells. Davy wiped his be-floured hands on the roller as he threw back the door. A sorrel was towing a pung across the clearing; its nostrils and steaming flanks raising a thin cloud in the bitter air. An intense sun stood a few degrees above the black spruces and shed its fire upon the clearing until every snow crystal burst into multi-colored flame. Davy shaded his eyes with his hand, incidentally adding some white hairs to his black brows. Then he whistled impressively.
“If it ain’t her and the kid!”
Cindy’s circular red face, topped with a carrot-like spout of red hair, appeared at the cook’s elbow. His eyes were not dismayed by the glitter, but stared as glassily as blue beads.
“It looks like Ruby, eh? and Rosy-Lily, eh?” he grunted with huge delight.
“It not only looks like ’em, it is ’em. But what they’re doing way back here in this kind of weather is more than I kin see.”
Before the light sleigh was within a hundred yards of the lumber-camp a shrill, piping voice broke the brilliant silence.
"Please, Davy, Rosy-Lily wants a cookie.”
The horse stopped willingly enough before the door.
“Mighty glad to see you, Ruby. Come right in an’ git warm. You an’ the kid must be nigh froze,” and the cook began to haul at the buffalo robe and the mound of shawls and blankets beneath it. Presently he arrived at something that wriggled like Rosy-Lily, although its face was still swathed in a knitted scarf, and he handed it over to the grinning Cindy. Ruby was now free to descend. She threw back her hood and showed a glimpse of the prettiest face on the Tobique. A few strands of bronzy-red hair had escaped from the white wool “tuke”; her complexion was bronzy-brown; even her eyes were bronzy-brown with a weaving of lights and shadows for all the world like a deep brook-pool on a sunny day. Her chin was the chin of a woman but her lips were the lips of a child, full and red.
SHE followed the cookee and Rosy-Lily into the main building of Red McGraw’s camp. As the child munched alternately on a cookie and a doughnut, eyeing the long tiers of bunks, the rows of hanging socks, the glittering stacks of tinware, from her vantage point on the “deacon seat,” her mother warmed her slim fingers over the cookstove and told the reason of her coming.
John Ross, the mail-carrier for all the Tobique valley, had met with an accident, and as there did not appear to be a man available to carry on his duties she had stepped into the breach. She had been two days in her journey from Plaster Rock, leaving letters and newspapers all along the route; she had some for McGraw’s camp; she had a large package for Nictaux Camp, twenty miles up. She proposed leaving Rosy-Lily with her father, Red McGraw, until she returned, that is if the child would not be a bother to the camp. Davy emphatically reckoned that it would be quite all right: that it was the kind of bother the boys had a craving for, and that he knew someone (and he eyed her slyly) who, he was sure, was just hankering to begin his training in this direction.
"Say, what a blamed fool I am!” and honest Davy spanked the flour from his apron. “Cindy, skin out as fast as you kin and go and tell Dan who’s here. No. don’t say nothing, Ruby. I guess the boss will stand for it, under the circumstances.”
The cookee clapped a muskrat cap on his wide head and was gone. The cook dragged up a bench, whisked the crumbs off with a toss of his apron and after insisting that his visitor be seated dropped beside her for a confidential chat. Davy had been cooking in Red McGraw’s camps for ten years and knew Ruby like a sister. If the girl ever needed a champion she would find one in Davy. But for that matter she would have found one in almost every lumberman, married or unmarried, in the district, for they knew her story and they knew her and the combination appealed to their rough and kindly emotions in a way that they themselves could never have explained. The fact that she had been wooed, won and deserted without sanction of church or state condemned her not at all in their eyes, even while it put her betrayer hopelessly beyond the social pale.
There could be no extenuating circumstances where he was concerned, while more than one worthy individual had offered her the protection of his name and roof. Big Dan Morrison alone refused to take no for an answer, persisting unobtrusively in his attentions with a patience that gave promise in time of steam-rolling every obstacle out of sight. Of course she liked him. Who could help liking Big Dan? The settlements declared that he was just the right man for Ruby, and proud of their perspicacity soon had the two as good as married.
Davy launched into a detailed report of the usual incidents that crop up in a lumber-camp, while Ruby hearkened with more sympathy than interest. There had been a heavier fall of snow than usual; a full complement of teams, sawyers, axemen and drivers; no serious accidents and the yards were heaped fifty per cent higher than this time last winter. Shark Welsh continued to bust more axe-handles than all the rest of them combined; Pierre Chute was with them again and funnier than “a barrel of monkeys” with his songs and dances; Jacque Sequin, on the other hand, was meaner and more unpopular than ever, if such was possible. Then they had a new fellow, greener than moss, right out of the city. Perhaps she had heard of him already. No? Some said he had heaps of money and came into the woods for his health; others that he was hunting for something. Whatever the reason, and it was nobody’s business anyway, he was thought a heap of by the boys, especially by her pa.
“Where did you say he was from?” asked the girl politely.
“I didn’t say, but I seen a letter of his once marked Boston.”
A faint flush warmed the tan of her cheeks. “What does he look like?” Her voice hinted of boredom.
“Well now, Ruby, I can’t rightly describe him. Only I should say he was middlin’ tall, wears his moustache docked short and is amazin’ light on his feet. Why I have seen him jump that there table without a run mind you, and I reckon there’s not another fellow in the woods kin do it. Why—” and Davy began to work himself into a great state of enthusiasm over the stranger, under cover of which the girl’s slim figure straightened tautly and her eyes narrowed.
JUST then the door opened and Red McGraw’s burly shoulders filled the opening. He kissed his daughter very formally and very tenderly, but he took Rosy-Lily high in the air and snuggled her face into his straw-like beard. Big Dan, who was close on his heels, touched Ruby’s fingers with his eyes cast down and his ruddy skin ruddier than ever. One suspected that he possessed more of the courage than the composure of his convictions. He relieved his feelings on the child however, to her great delight, prancing up and down the length of the camp with her eyes well above the level of the upper tier of bunks.
McGraw wouldn’t have Ruby take the mail further, offering to send one of the boys, but she was enjoying the experience too much to surrender a fraction of it. And she must not delay longer if she would make Nictaux Camp before dark. She kept her eyes on the windows and only half heeded the remarks addressed to her. She explained to her father that Rosy-Lily’s nightgown and bed-socks were in the bag, but Big Dan was the one who listened with the utmost attention and promised to see that orders were carried out to the smallest detail. Then, after she had disposed of a mug of strong tea and a hunk of Davy's flaw less marble-cake, she slipped into her warm, blue blanket coat and, kissing her child, left the camp.
The gang trooped back to the cabins at sundown with noisy expectancy. They had heard that they had a guest for the night. Lumbermen, many of them fathers of bumper families, grow heart hungry for their own during the long winter months. Rosy-Lily was an excellent representative. They were not surprised, nor even amused, at her gruff grandfather’s abject worship of her. They entered the main camp with subdued emotions and due respect to the minor proprieties. They knew that their guest had a way of taking in everything that went on and reviewing it again at the most unexpected moments; also that she was being brought up according to the latest “rules of etiquette.” In consequence they did not swamp her in a deluge of greetings, but beyond a nod or word waited until they had visited the basin and roller towel before paying their respects. Then they crowded around, vying with one another in clumsy rivalry for the favor of the little backwoods queen.
The stranger was in the midst of them, but in some subtle way was not of them. Outside the fact that he was the only man there with a smooth cheek and a fresh-trimmed mustache, he had a manner of holding his head, of walking, of laughing, that differentiated him from the backwoodsman, and stamped him a person of another world. Although of medium height and dressed exactly like his fellows in flannel shirt, homespun trousers—the bottoms hidden in gray-wool socks—and shoe-packs, he gave the impression of being a man of steel among men of iron.
ON ENTERING he had shot an incurious glance at Rosy-Lily and afterwards refrained from joining the crush about her bench, spending the few precious moments preceding supper in changing his socks and smoothing his hair with a pair of black army brushes. When he stepped over his bench into place at the table he found their guest had been enthroned on a folded pile of blankets at the head of the board, beside the boss, where she could see and be seen. While waiting Cindy’s arrival with the pot of steaming pork he caught the little one’s eyes fixed intently upon him. He smiled, saluting her playfully, and, after some seconds more of scrutiny, her round hazel eyes half-closed and through the long, golden lashes she flashed at him such a look of roguish merriment that the camp roared with amusement. He alone did not laugh. On the contrary his face became clouded and all during the meal he studied the kiddie’s pouting lips and firm, pointed chin abstractedly. When the last tin plate was scraped and swabbed clean as fork and bread could make it and quids and plugs were appearing in every horny palm Stevens took forcible possession of the child. Planting her upon his knee, he proceeded to win her confidence by the time-honored method of watch and smoke-rings and other bits of white magic. Presently she had ceased to stare, big-eyed and questioning, and was accepting his attentions with condescending grace. The men, lounging on bunk and bench, grinned their appreciation of Stevens’ efforts to please.
“What’s your name?” suddenly demanded Rosy-Lily.
“Bill Stevens is my name,” he answered.
"Do you live in Plaster Rock?”
“No, farther away than that.”
“Oh, I know, Fredericton.”
“Farther than that. Did you ever hear of a town called Boston?”
She shook her tousled head. “Gran'pa can make ten, fee rings all at once. How many can you make'”’ He wasn’t -sure but he would put his ability to the test. She watched his pursed lips breathlessly, counting the outpouring rings aloud: “Two, fee, ten, twenty—” Suddenly she put her hand up to his cheeks, patting them as softly as butterfly wings.
“What for are you smooth, Bill Stevens? This ain’t Sunday.”
A shout went up from the listeners. Their disapproval of the stranger’s senseless waste of time and energy on a nightly shave had been no less deep than silent. The child resented the shout.
“I like smooth men better’n rough men. Rough men scratch awful. I don’t mind you kissin’ me, Bill Stevens.”
Bill Stevens took the hint, and next instant Rosy-Lily’s plump little arms were clasping his neck in a bear-hug. He pressed his face into her silky tangle, thus concealing eyes that had gone suddenly wet. The silence was hurt by a sardonic chuckle. Stevens’ upward glance encountered Sequin’s narrow, sneering features. He did not like this Canuck and his eyes showed, it. Sequin pulled the pipe-stem from his teeth, spat,
“Maybe you be the brat’s dear papa, eh?”
Stevens felt it for an insult, but knowing naught of the truth was surprised at the sudden way the whole camp seemed to leap to his defense. “D—n you, shut up!” roared one. “The dirty, yellow cur!” drawled another. Epithets were hurled at him from all sides, “rules of etiquette” forgotten in a storm of righteous wrath. Davy turned, an empty tin cauldron in his hand.
“Lucky for him he don’t make them remarks when the Boss or Big Dan be around.”
“T’hell Big Dan, an’ you too! Maybe I make one, two joke when I want, eh, never mind your business!”
“I’ll make it my business,” threatened the cook, but as the other only spat contemptuously in reply he completed the act of hanging up the cauldron.
Rosy-Lily’s shrill treble relieved the tension somewhat. “He naughty, naughty man. I don’t like him; mamma don’t like him; God don’t like him.”
PRESENTLY a sweep of winter air that caused the oil flames in lanterns and bracket lamps to dance smokily, announced Big Dan’s arrival from the stables. He came straight for the child, who held out her arms sleepily, indifferent to the pungent odor of ammonia and the wisps of straw that clung about his person. A door at the far end of the camp opened into a small shack, where Red McGraw did his primitive book-keeping, stored a few hundred dollars in a battered safe, and slept. The width of the room allowed for two bunks, end to end, and Rosy-Lily was to occupy one of them.
Big Dan had hands like boxing-gloves but the heart of a woman. Luckily the child was an adept at buttons and strings. Between them they got along famously from lifting the wee plaid dress to lowering the pink flannel nightie. Rosy-Lily chattered incessantly to ears deafened by the weight of responsibility. Dan could only do one thing at a time, even a trivial thing, so that it was scarcely surprising that his answers were noncommittal and sometimes quite irrelevant.
Stevens sat on the “deacon seat” behind the stove, his back against the log walls, his slippered feet stuck straight out, a bulldog pipe in his mouth, and thought of Rosy-Lily. The child had stirred him strangely. His acquaintanceship with children had been slight. Theoretically he had liked them, but in actual contact he had felt an awkwardness amounting to fear. However there was no fear here. Her first act of coquetry had enslaved him: the downy touch of her fingers had shaken him to the depths; he was immoderately glad that she liked him. and already he was missing her. He had encountered many of the earth’s enigmas in his adventurous career, and here was another. It is true that she subtly reminded him of a certain person whom he only met in his dreams, someone with Titian hair and Burne-Jones lips and eyes that entangled the senses through a web of gold. But that was not sufficient to account for it. As he puffed and mentally wandered Davy won through his business and. leaving the slow-but-sure Cindy to complete the chores, sat down besides Stevens
“He’s a yaller dog if ever there was one,” murmured the cook, shooting a' malevolent glance toward Sequin, who was deep in a “penny dreadful.” “If I was boss I’d fire him right off the bat.”
“I must admit I don’t cotton to him myself. But what was all the fuss about a minute ago?” asked Stevens.
“Fuss about? Say, Mister, I reckon you don’t know the story or you wouldn’t ask. Seein’ as how you’re the right sort and how the kid’s taken such a shine to you I don’t think it’ll do no harm to tell yer. The truth is Rosy-Lily ain’t got no father; leastways no one knows rightly who he is.” Davy eyed the stranger narrowly to make sure he was duly impressed with the enormity of the news, and then hastened to the defense.
“Now don’t you git thinkin’ bad of Ruby McGraw, not if you want to stand well with the boys. I tell you she is the finest, decentest girl in the settlements and that’s sayin’ a heap, includin’ my own sister. About six years ago when she was away visitin’ a friend she run up against one of these city dudes who let on he was goin’ to marry her and swep her off her feet. No one blames her none, but say, if we caught that skunk—” and Davy paused ominously.
“You’d shoot him, eh?” interposed Stevens sympathetically.
SHOOT him! We’d treat him like we always do skunks in these here parts—skin him under water, head upstream.”
“I don’t doubt it,” agreed the other. “Nothing is too good for that kind of thief. But he is seldom the one that pay’s the piper.”
“Well, I rather bet he will in this case. Red McGraw is not the kind that forgives nor forgets and he’s goin’ after him with an axe once he gets a bit of money saved up. You see Big Dan’s crazy about Ruby, but her pa says no one’s goin’ to marry no daughter of his till he’s settled accounts with her betrayer, sort of wiped his name off’n his books.”
“Sort of hard on Dan,” said Stevens.
“Oh, he’s willin’ to wait a year or two more. I reckon any fellow would be right glad to wait for a prize like that. I might have said two prizes. Now, look at that, will you?” The last remarks were prompted by the appearance of Rosy-Lily in her long pink nightie, followed docilely by her huge nurse. The gown was so long that the child perforce must reef it up with her chubby fists, while her spun-gold hair, laboriously brushed, stood out like a Raphael halo. Silently as a fawn in her bright-quilted moccasins, she flitted the length of the camp, bobbing her head to every logger in turn, shyly returning the greetings of a few honored individuals.
Good-night., Bob,’ she lisped, or “Pleasant dreams, Sarky Welsh; and finally she stopped before the great, flat-topped stove, dropping her gown in order to warm her hands.
STEVENS’ eyes had never wavered from the tiny figure during its triumphant progress. For that matter neither did the eyes of any of the gang, unless maybe Sequin’s. He waited his turn with quickened pulse.
“Bill Stevens, you may hear Rosy-Lily’s prayers,” and she lifted her gown and came to his knee.
For an instant Stevens was nonplused. Prayers had been an unknown quantity to him for so long that he scarcely knew what was expected of him. But he found that his sole duty was to sit still and listen. She clasped her hands tightly, shut her eyes and tripped through a series of brief verses, a breath to a verse apparently, and in a baby jargon meaningless to his ears.
“You ought to have shut your eyes, Bill Stevens,” she admonished shaking her head. Then she stood on tip-toe to be kissed, swung around and raced for her room, Big Dan lumbering and roaring madly in pursuit.
NEXT morning at six, when the cook’s tin horn brayed the camp awake, the snow was dropping thickly from a bulging sky. The teamsters, returning from watering and feeding the horses, beat the white grains from cap and mackinaw. They breakfasted by lamp-light off fat pork and flapjacks, well oiled with molasses and washed down with black coffee, and then stumbled out into the whirling darkness. When the lumbermen returned to the camp for the eleven o’clock dinner the storm was still raging. Ruby McGraw should have returned from Nictaux Camp ere this. The Boss and Dan got their heads together. After dinner the latter put the gray mare between the shafts of a home-made sled, informed Rosy-Lily that he was going to fetch her ma, and jogged off.
All day the child played happily about the caulk-pitted floor, satisfied with such improvised toys as Davy's or Cindy’s ingenuity could provide, and even took a hand in the mysteries of biscuit and doughnut making. If the dishes had been breakable Cindy would have wrought considerable execution among them, for it is a difficult feat to do the chores with your gaze fixed over your shoulder.
Early darkness brought the men from the mutilated forest, but neither Ruby nor Dan from the up-river trail. Everyone took for granted that in Dan’s absence the duties of nurse would devolve upon the cook. McGraw himself never had interfered with affairs domestic in the past and did not intend to begin now. However the child settled the momentous question in her own way by informing her grandfather that Bill Stevens was going to be her mamma that night, and Bill Stevens it was.
Ridiculously proud as he felt over the honor conferred upon him. he was not beyond an inward tremor of misgiving and unworthiness as he followed the little maid into the shack. Again he found that his fears were groundless. His duties were rather those of an acolyte than a priest He had but to do what he was told and be chided now and then for his stupidity. And so he progressed, until he had peeled her wee soft shirt over her curb and brought to light a tiny trinket suspended on a thread-like gold chain about her neck.
He caught the trinket in his fingers, dropping on his knee and leaning close in the dim light. It was a blue-gray cameo of Vesuvius clay edged with gold, beyond a doubt the one he had picked up in Naples, and, after many years, given to a certain Canadian girl in Portland. And of course this was her child! And—remembering suddenly what Davy had been telling him—and his child.
Whatever the dominant thought in the mental maelstrom that caught him the expression on his face worried Rosy-Lily.
“What’s the matter, Bill Stevens? You got a pain in you tummy?”
He laughed and tears trickled slowly down his cheeks. He caught the child hungrily to him pressing his lips against neck and hair.
“Put on my nightie this minute, Bill Stevens! I’s cold,” she commanded.
He obeyed. He watched from the edge of her bunk as she made her tour of inspection down the lines. His child. A faint clue had brought him into New Brunswick in his search for the only woman that he thought he loved, and he had stumbled on both a woman and a child! His heart began to sing like a forest of birds. “Thank God, I found her! he murmured over and over beneath his breath. “Thank God the trenches spared me to find my little family!” And so Mary McCabe, of Lincoln’s Inn, is Ruby McGraw, daughter of a lumber-boss of the Upper Tobique. “The finest, decentest girl in the settlements,” the cook had said, and she had waited for him all these years in spite of his silence! But Davy had unknowingly called him a skunk, and then there was Dan. Perhaps after all she had not been waiting for him. Perhaps she thought he had betrayed and deserted her, intentionally. Perhaps—and now the singing birds were fled—she no longer loved him; she had forgotten him; she despised him; yea, she loved another! No, no, impossible—not when there was a Rosy-Lily to bind them. A word of explanation and she would understand and the wilderness would blossom like a rose.
The child returned. He heard her unintelligible prayers and tucked her into her straw-filled bunk in an ecstasy of paternal pride and tenderness. She sighed contentedly and was asleep. He stood over her watching her, while outside in the buffeting storm, her face close to the snow-dogged panes, another watched him with much the same expression.
RUBY had gained Nictaux Camp by a fairly well-broken road, had been received with all the rough and ready hospitality of the camps, and had bunked in the “beaver house” among the grocerie and spare parts. The next morning, however, Harry Smith, the boss, induced her to delay her going in order to allow the storm to moderate. Chiefly on Molly’s account she had reluctantly consented. She dreaded the ordeal of putting up at her father’s camp over night, under the same roof with him. By the middle of the morning her fears got the better of her and in spite of the cook’s remonstrances she had the mare harnessed into the pung and started off. The snow had drifted three feet deep or more in clearings and glades, but on the close-trunked road, while soft and retarding, it was level and scarcely above the horse’s fetlocks. Along in the afternoon however she came to a spot where the road skirted a small lake and discovered that the wind had interposed a six-foot barrier to her further retreat.
Nothing daunted she drew a stumpy-handled shovel from under the seat and attacked the drift vigorously. She paused in half an hour, breathing hard, and found that she had made little impression on the enemy. Behind her the dry snow was sifting in almost as fast as it had gone out. Somewhat discouraged, but stubborn, she renewed her laborious task, and while thus engaged Big Dan came upon her. Although relieved and grateful, her behavior toward him going back failed miserably to show it. She permitted him the scanty satisfaction of holding the reins, but she would not lift a finger to aid him in his painful efforts at conversation, and retreated so far back in her peaked hood that he could do no more than glimpse the point of her saucy nose. Very slowly, and with the gray mare following after, they journeyed on until, through the storm and gray-darkness, they caught the red splotches of light across the clearing and drew up in the lee of the main building.
AS DAN led the horses toward the stables something prompted Ruby to wade up to the shack window. Her child was already abed. The figure of her nurse lifted his head from a good-night kiss, and she saw who it was. Her mittened hands clenched convulsively. “How dare you touch her! How dare you!” she gasped. He straightened up, dropped his arms to his sides and motionless as a stump stood gazing down upon the small sleeper.
There was that in his eyes that pierced the cloud of resentment and self-pity that lay on the girl’s heart. Love, loneliness, unutterable tenderness were there crying for response, as she had once before heard them cry, and she knew then that he knew his child and craved it as he had once craved her in those eons of long ago. The picture was suddenly washed out in a rosy flood. She leaned against the rough logs, panting as from a race. She heard Dan whistling carelessly as he returned from the stables.
“Here I am, Dan, waiting for you,” she called in a rather shaky voice, and intercepted him at the door.
The two entered the camp together and the men greeted them with a shout. Red McGraw kissed his daughter in his seeming diffident manner, while her companion explained her delay in one brief sentence.
“Snow driftin’ heavy at Birch Lake. Had to dig her out.”
Just then Bill Stevens came from the inner room and the men stepped aside to let him pass. Within six feet of her he stopped. She glanced up with the unseeing eyes of a stranger. Not a tremor of the pouting lips betrayed emotion. He was dimly conscious of the fact that Red McGraw was introducing them. He bowed formally, not daring to risk the rejection of his hand, and she nodded, turned on her heel and disappeared into the shack. Dazed and morose he sought the comparative privacy of the “deacon seat” and a tobacco cloud in which to nurse his misery.
He hardly expected her to reappear that night. Yet in half an hour, when Dan rapped on the door, she emerged, smiling and rosy, and accompanied him to one end of the long oilcloth-covered table, where Davy had a veritable feast spread for them. Stevens could see them, past the stove-pipe, without turning his head, and noted many things. Her appetite was not impaired by their meeting; her mood was careless; her witchery had increased with maturity; she was a hundred-fold more desirable than the woman of his memories and his dreams. He could not fail to note how animatedly she talked to Dan, and how intently he harkened; how zealously he passed her the cookies or biscuits; how eager he was to spring up to fetch the tea-pot from the stove, even though Davy was always hovering near. Honest Big Dan. For once in his homely existence he was in imminent danger of becoming intensely disliked.
“Say, I know what you t’ink,” a voice began in his ear, “you t’ink dat Ruby mighty fine girl, eh?” Sequin fell on the bench leering wisely. “Dan one d—n fool. He get her, soon he lose her. Me an’ you weren’t born yesterday, eh, what?”
Stevens felt an overmastering desire to kick the rogue out of the camp. Instead he rose and, grabbing his cap from its peg, left the camp himself. The cool fingers of the night stroked kindly on his hot face. The blackness and the fury fused with his own mood and soothed him. Coatless and mittless he struck off up a logging road, battling with the drifts. When he returned, two hours later, the camp was dark, except for the red chinks of the stove, and filled with the snoring and groaning of sleeping men.
Ruby did not appear at the breakfast table, and when Stevens came in for dinner he heard that she had left in the care of Big Dan. But there was some consolation in finding that her child was going to be their guest for the next two weeks, or until the roads were well broken. He thought seriously of asking for a few days’ leave, striking out to the settlements, and compelling Ruby to acknowledge him for what in truth he was, her husband. But he shrank from forcing a decision. If there were a shred of her old love remaining he would nurse it back to life, if not directly then indirectly, through their child. If there were not he had at least his child close to him for a few more precious days. Although she had not recognised him before the camp neither had she exposed him. There was comfort in that thought especially when he remembered that Dan could not possess her until her former lover had been brought to book. Waiting was a game foreign to his nature, but he decided to play it.
For the next two weeks he slogged doggedly at axe and saw by day and spent each brief, precious evening between supper and bed-time in Rosy-Lily’s company. The child was as drawn to him as he was to her, so that she would not permit anyone, else, excepting only he and Dan, to have any say in her management, and Dan was relegated to second place.
“He has a big heart,” said the loggers.
“He has one long head,” sneered Sequin.
ONE afternoon, returning to the camp for a new saw blade, he noted fresh runner marks on the tote-road and with quickened pulse followed them around to the stables. There was the familiar red pung. Molly was already in her stall. As he entered noiselessly on larriganed feet he could hear a male voice speaking so fast that its words seemed blurred into one interminable sentence. He paused, then recognising the speaker went on. At this instant Ruby screamed.
Stevens was in the mouth of the stall at a bound. Sequin had the girl’s wrists manacled in his long fingers and his grinning lips were close to hers. Stevens struck as the other let go, and reeled against the manger. He was hungry to strike again, but the Frenchman was too disconcerted by the blow to raise his guard or resist and the Bostonian restrained himself with an effort.
A foot crunched at the stable entrance. “You in there, Ruby?” came her father’s voice.
“Don’t hurt him,” she hissed .and ran from the stall.
Presently Red McGraw strode in, bigger and redder than ever.
“You white-livered hound, Jacque Sequin! Clear out of here, an’ if I ketch yer erbout here again I’ll lambaste the life outer yer. Git yer duds! Jump!”
Stevens stepped aside and Sequin sidled past the Boss, who let out a great boot, catching the culprit in the usual place and materially hastening his going. The Boss followed him up.
Stevens found the girl waiting for him in the outer stable.
“Thank you, Mr. Stevens,” she said simply, her eyes on the straw.
“Ruby!” he called poignantly. “Ruby, have you forgotten everything?”
Now she looked at him and her eyes were more like brass than gold.
“No, I have not forgotten, anything. I would to God that I had.” She turned abruptly.
“Listen. Ruby! You must listen!” he pleaded. “I loved you when I first met you in Portland and I have loved you ever since, and I love you now a thousand times more than ever. You remember it was just before the war and being half Canadian I joined up with the first contingent. I wrote you every day for a fortnight and you did not answer. I would have come up and searched for you only I couldn’t get leave. If you knew how I thought of you every day over there, waking and sleeping—
She swung on him fiercely. “Yes, and did you think of what I was going through, with all the country talking, talking, talking; what hell I was enduring; what shame! While you were only risking your life I was losing my honor. Did you think of that? If it had not been for papa I would have killed myself. How dare you talk to me of lovel Men like you don’t know what love is!’
“I did not know the truth or I believe I would have deserted. I knew nothing until I saw the cameo on Rosy-Lily. Why, why didn’t you write to me?”
“Was it my place to write? I did not even get a note from you. Were you not coming for me? And now it’s not me you want it is Rosy-Lily. But you can’t have her! She is mine—mine—and Dan’s!” Her voice broke. She turned and fled precipitately out into the dusk.
THERE was an atmosphere of depression about the camp that evening. The usual rough buoyancy seemed lacking. Red McGraw appeared more sullen than was his wont, as though the recent unpleasant incident had inflamed his open wound. There was an empty place at the table where Sequin always sat and of course the gang knew why. Then Ruby pleaded a headache, which no one was surprised at, and had tea and toast served up by Cindy in her room. After supper Dan succeeded in capturing Rosy-Lily and in monopolising her until her time for bed. Consequently Stevens sat alone on the “deacon seat” and ruminated in the gall of jealousy and failure and sorrow. His companions, not comprehending his mood, left him religiously alone.
There seemed but one thing left him to do. On the morrow he would declare himself, explain his blundering to the best of his ability, if only to put her in the best of lights, formally ask her hand in marriage from her father and then take the licking that he was certain would be his. After that—well there was always something doing in South America or Mexico. He would learn to forget his wife and his child in time, perhaps. If he had erred in the past he was certainly paying for it now in the sweat of agony. His wife! His child! Another would have them. Another would usurp his place in their dear hearts. Dan’s arms would be about his wife’s slim body. Dan’s ears would be thrilled by the shout of “daddy! daddy!” And he was helpless to lift a finger to hold them. Church ceremony and ritualism had always seemed somewhat of a mockery of true love and worship and yet if it had been invoked in his case he would not now have seen the whole fabric of his happiness being swept away in a gray flood of misunderstanding.
By nine o’clock the tardiest lumberjack had rolled himself in his blankets and closed his eyes. Stevens tossed for a couple of hours, but the day’s exertions were too much for even his feverish thoughts and brought them finally into complete subjection.
The camp slept.
About midnight Stevens awoke in tumult. His ears were filled with the hoarse shouting of men and the splintering of wood. He sat up in his place in the middle of the upper tier of bunks to see by a blood-red glare the last of his comrades dropping from sight. In one motion he shed his blankets, grabbed his larrigans and slid to the floor. The inner half of the camp was a hellish tempest of smoke and flame, but the exit was still accessible. As he passed he noted that the “deacon seat” was occupied by Davy’s tins of bread dough.
Outside, the snow was rosy-tinted, as were the faces of the loggers collecting in a straggling line to watch the destruction of their home. He heard a sharp crash and saw Ruby shoot through the shack window into the snow. The next instant Dan’s big body squeezed from the opening, which was immediately closed again with a wide orange flame.
Stevens was dumbfounded, having taken for granted that he was the last one out. And then a thin scream sounded above the coughing of the flames. He saw Ruby leap to her feet and toward the belching window, to be caught in Dan’s arms and dragged back, fighting like a mad thing.
The horrible truth lay bare. Her child —his child—was still in there! He cleared the few yards he had just come at a bound and ducking below the outpouring column of smoke, ran swiftly through the camp. His mind was as active as his body. He caught a trailing blanket as he went and slung it about his head and shoulders. Although the flames licked greedily at his legs and the smoke buffeted him in the face, his impetus carried him, utterly reckless of consequences, through the doorway of the shack and headlong onto the bunk. His eyes and mouth were tight shut, but his hands fell instantly on the child. He twirled her twice over in the blankets and leaped back as he had come.
The men met him, blind and choking, midway of the camp, catching his precious bundle as he fell, and carried them into the safety of the cool starlit night.
Rosy-Lily, far back in her bunk, had escaped the flames and much of the smoke. Her mother, snatching her from the arms of Big Dan, marked as much at a glance. Dan, freed of his burden, turned toward Stevens, who was rising from the snow.
“God bless you, Bill Stevens!” he growled huskily, laying his great arm over the other’s shoulders.
Stevens threw off the arm as though the contact hurt.
“Save your breath, Morrison. She’s my child, not yours, and it’s time you knew it, d—n you!”
In the silence that followed this sharp speech the swish of flames sounded like wind in pines.
And then Red McGraw pushed Dan violently aside, thrusting his wild, bristling face toward Stevens. His eyes rolled wildly in the glow.
“So you're the skunk I've been looking for, are you!” he bellowed.
His right hand still held an axe. He swung it up with an oath. But Ruby caught it in her arms from behind, wrenching it from his fingers.
“He is mine—mine! He saved Rosy-Lily! and—I love him!”