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- Northern Lights, Volume 1. - 5/13 -
kicking nervously at a log on the fire. "It takes two to settle a thing like that, and there's only one says it's got to be settled. Maybe it takes more than two--or three--to settle a thing like that." Now she laughed mirthlessly.
The man started, and his face flushed with anger; then he put a hand on himself, drew a step back, and watched her.
"One can settle a thing, if there's a dozen in it. You see, Nance, you and Bantry's got to close out. He's fixing it up to-night over at Dingan's Drive, and you can't go it alone when you quit this place. Now, it's this way: you can go West with Bantry, or you can go North with me. Away North there's buffalo and deer, and game aplenty, up along the Saskatchewan, and farther up on the Peace River. It's going to be all right up there for half a lifetime, and we can have it in our own way yet. There'll be no smuggling, but there'll be trading, and land to get; and, mebbe, there'd be no need of smuggling, for we can make it, I know how--good white whiskey--and we'll still have this free life for our own. I can't make up my mind to settle down to a clean collar and going to church on Sundays, and all that. And the West's in your bones too. You look like the West--"
The girl's face brightened with pleasure, and she gazed at him steadily.
"You got its beauty and its freshness, and you got its heat and cold--"
She saw the tobacco-juice stain at the corners of his mouth, she became conscious of the slight odour of spirits in the air, and the light in her face lowered in intensity.
"You got the ways of the deer in your walk, the song o' the birds in your voice; and you're going North with me, Nance, for I bin talkin' to you stiddy four years. It's a long time to wait on the chance, for there's always women to be got, same as others have done--men like Dingan with Injun girls, and men like Tobey with half-breeds. But I ain't bin lookin' that way. I bin lookin' only towards you." He laughed eagerly, and lifted a tin cup of whiskey standing on a table near. "I'm lookin' towards you now, Nance. Your health and mine together. It's got to be settled now. You got to go to the 'Cific Coast with Bantry, or North with me."
The girl jerked a shoulder and frowned a little. He seemed so sure of himself.
"Or South with Nick Pringle, or East with someone else," she said quizzically. "There's always four quarters to the compass, even when Abe Hawley thinks he owns the world and has a mortgage on eternity. I'm not going West with Bantry, but there's three other points that's open."
With an oath the man caught her by the shoulders, and swung her round to face him. He was swelling with anger. "You--Nick Pringle, that trading cheat, that gambler! After four years, I--"
"Let go my shoulders," she said quietly. "I'm not your property. Go and get some Piegan girl to bully. Keep your hands off. I'm not a bronco for you to bit and bridle. You've got no rights. You--" Suddenly she relented, seeing the look in his face, and realising that, after all, it was a tribute to herself that she could keep him for four years and rouse him to such fury--"but yes, Abe," she added, "you have some rights. We've been good friends all these years, and you've been all right out here. You said some nice things about me just now, and I liked it, even if it was as if you learned it out of a book. I've got no po'try in me; I'm plain homespun. I'm a sapling, I'm not any prairie-flower, but I like when I like, and I like a lot when I like. I'm a bit of hickory, I'm not a prairie-flower--"
"Who said you was a prairie-flower? Did I? Who's talking about prairie- flowers--"
He stopped suddenly, turned round at the sound of a footstep behind him, and saw, standing in a doorway leading to another room, a man who was digging his knuckles into his eyes and stifling a yawn. He was a refined-looking stripling of not more than twenty-four, not tall, but well made, and with an air of breeding, intensified rather than hidden by his rough clothes.
"Je-rick-ety! How long have I slept?" he said, blinking at the two beside the fire. "How long?" he added, with a flutter of anxiety in his tone.
"I said I'd wake you," said the girl, coming forwards. "You needn't have worried."
"I don't worry," answered the young man. "I dreamed myself awake, I suppose. I got dreaming of redcoats and U. S. marshals, and an ambush in the Barfleur Coulee, and--" He saw a secret, warning gesture from the girl, and laughed, then turned to Abe and looked him in the face. "Oh, I know him! Abe Hawley's all O. K.--I've seen him over at Dingan's Drive. Honour among rogues. We're all in it. How goes it--all right?" he added carelessly to Hawley, and took a step forwards, as though to shake hands. Seeing the forbidding look by which he was met, however, he turned to the girl again, as Hawley muttered something they could not hear.
"What time is it?" he asked.
"It's nine o'clock," answered the girl, her eyes watching his every movement, her face alive.
"Then the moon's up almost?"
"It'll be up in an hour."
"Jerickety! Then I've got to get ready." He turned to the other room again and entered.
"College pup!" said Hawley under his breath savagely. "Why didn't you tell me he was here?"
"Was it any of your business, Abe?" she rejoined quietly.
"Hiding him away here--"
"Hiding? Who's been hiding him? He's doing what you've done. He's smuggling--the last lot for the traders over by Dingan's Drive. He'll get it there by morning. He has as much right here as you. What's got into you, Abe?"
"What does he know about the business? Why, he's a college man from the East. I've heard o' him. Ain't got no more sense for this life than a dicky-bird. White-faced college pup! What's he doing out here? If you're a friend o' his, you'd better look after him. He's green."
"He's going East again," she said, "and if I don't go West with Bantry, or South over to Montana with Nick Pringle, or North--"
"Nancy--" His eyes burned, his lips quivered.
She looked at him and wondered at the power she had over this bully of the border, who had his own way with most people, and was one of the most daring fighters, hunters, and smugglers in the country. He was cool, hard, and well-in-hand in his daily life, and yet, where she was concerned, "went all to pieces," as someone else had said about himself to her.
She was not without the wiles and tact of her sex. "You go now, and come back, Abe," she said in a soft voice. "Come back in an hour. Come back then, and I'll tell you which way I'm going from here."
He was all right again. "It's with you, Nancy," he said eagerly. "I bin waiting four years."
As he closed the door behind him the "college pup" entered the room again. "Oh, Abe's gone!" he said excitedly. "I hoped you'd get rid of the old rip-roarer. I wanted to be alone with you for a while. I don't really need to start yet. With the full moon I can do it before daylight." Then, with quick warmth, "Ah, Nancy, Nancy, you're a flower-- the flower of all the prairies," he added, catching her hand and laughing into her eyes.
She flushed, and for a moment seemed almost bewildered. His boldness, joined to an air of insinuation and understanding, had influenced her greatly from the first moment they had met two months ago, as he was going South on his smuggling enterprise. The easy way in which he had talked to her, the extraordinary sense he seemed to have of what was going on in her mind, the confidential meaning in voice and tone and words had, somehow, opened up a side of her nature hitherto unexplored. She had talked with him freely then, for it was only when he left her that he said what he instinctively knew she would remember till they met again. His quick comments, his indirect but acute questions, his exciting and alluring reminiscences of the East, his subtle yet seemingly frank compliments, had only stimulated a new capacity in her, evoked comparisons of this delicate-looking, fine-faced gentleman with the men of the West by whom she was surrounded. But later he appeared to stumble into expressions of admiration for her, as though he was carried off his feet and had been stunned by her charm. He had done it all like a master. He had not said that she was beautiful--she knew she was not-- but that she was wonderful, and fascinating, and with "something about her" he had never seen in all his life, like her own prairies, thrilling, inspiring, and adorable. His first look at her had seemed full of amazement. She had noticed that, and thought it meant only that he was surprised to find a white girl out here among smugglers, hunters, squaw- men, and Indians. But he said that the first look at her had made him feel things-feel life and women different from ever before; and he had never seen anyone like her, nor a face with so much in it. It was all very brilliantly done.
"You make me want to live," he had said, and she, with no knowledge of the nuances of language, had taken it literally, and had asked him if it had been his wish to die; and he had responded to her mistaken interpretation of his meaning, saying that he had had such sorrow he had not wanted to live. As he said it his face looked, in truth, overcome by some deep inward care; so that there came a sort of feeling she had never had so far for any man--that he ought to have someone to look after him. This was the first real stirring of the maternal and protective spirit in her towards men, though it had shown itself amply enough regarding animals and birds. He had said he had not wanted to live, and yet he had come out West in order to try and live, to cure the trouble that had started in his lungs. The Eastern doctors had told him that the rough outdoor life would cure him, or nothing would, and he had vanished from the college walls and the pleasant purlieus of learning and fashion into the wilds. He had not lied directly to her when he said that he had had deep trouble; but he had given the impression that he was suffering from wrongs which had broken his spirit and ruined his health. Wrongs there certainly had been in his life, by whomever committed.
Two months ago he had left this girl with her mind full of memories of what he had said to her, and there was something in the sound of the slight cough following his farewell words which had haunted her ever since. Her tremendous health and energy, the fire of life burning so brightly in her, reached out towards this man living on so narrow a
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