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- Northern Lights, Volume 2. - 1/15 -
[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]
By Gilbert Parker
TO-MORROW QU'APPELLE THE STAKE AND THE PLUMB-LINE
"My, nothing's the matter with the world to-day! It's so good it almost hurts."
She raised her head from the white petticoat she was ironing, and gazed out of the doorway and down the valley with a warm light in her eyes and a glowing face. The snow-tipped mountains far above and away, the fir- covered, cedar-ranged foothills, and, lower down, the wonderful maple and ash woods, with their hundred autumn tints, all merging to one soft, red tone, the roar of the stream tumbling down the ravine from the heights, the air that braced the nerves--it all seemed to be part of her, the passion of life corresponding to the passion of living in her.
After watching the scene dreamily for a moment, she turned and laid the iron she had been using upon the hot stove near. Taking up another, she touched it with a moistened finger to test the heat, and, leaning above the table again, passed it over the linen for a few moments, smiling at something that was in her mind. Presently she held the petticoat up, turned it round, then hung it in front of her, eyeing it with critical pleasure.
"To-morrow!" she said, nodding at it. "You won't be seen, I suppose, but I'll know you're nice enough for a queen--and that's enough to know."
She blushed a little, as though someone had heard her words and was looking at her, then she carefully laid the petticoat over the back of a chair. "No queen's got one whiter, if I do say it," she continued, tossing her head.
In that, at any rate, she was right, for the water of the mountain springs was pure, the air was clear, and the sun was clarifying; and little ornamented or frilled as it was, the petticoat was exquisitely soft and delicate. It would have appealed to more eyes than a woman's.
"To-morrow!" She nodded at it again and turned again to the bright world outside. With arms raised and hands resting against the timbers of the doorway, she stood dreaming. A flock of pigeons passed with a whir not far away, and skirted the woods making down the valley. She watched their flight abstractedly, yet with a subconscious sense of pleasure. Life--they were Life, eager, buoyant, belonging to this wild region, where still the heart could feel so much at home, where the great world was missed so little.
Suddenly, as she gazed, a shot rang out down the valley, and two of the pigeons came tumbling to the ground, a stray feather floating after. With a startled exclamation she took a step forward. Her brain became confused and disturbed. She had looked out on Eden, and it had been ravaged before her eyes. She had been thinking of to-morrow, and this vast prospect of beauty and serenity had been part of the pageant in which it moved. Not the valley alone had been marauded, but that "To- morrow," and all it meant to her.
Instantly the valley had become clouded over for her, its glory and its grace despoiled. She turned back to the room where the white petticoat lay upon the chair, but stopped with a little cry of alarm.
A man was standing in the centre of the room. He had entered stealthily by the back door, and had waited for her to turn round. He was haggard and travel stained, and there was a feverish light in his eyes. His fingers trembled as they adjusted his belt, which seemed too large for him. Mechanically he buckled it tighter.
"You're Jenny Long, ain't you?" he asked. "I beg pardon for sneakin' in like this, but they're after me, some ranchers and a constable--one o' the Riders of the Plains. I've been tryin' to make this house all day. You're Jenny Long, ain't you?"
She had plenty of courage, and, after the first instant of shock, she had herself in hand. She had quickly observed his condition, had marked the candour of the eye and the decision and character of the face, and doubt of him found no place in her mind. She had the keen observation of the dweller in lonely places, where every traveller has the potentialities of a foe, while the door of hospitality is opened to him after the custom of the wilds. Year in, year out, since she was a little girl and came to live here with her Uncle Sanger when her father died--her mother had gone before she could speak--travellers had halted at this door, going North or coming South, had had bite and sup, and bed, may be, and had passed on, most of them never to be seen again. More than that, too, there had been moments of peril, such as when, alone, she had faced two wood- thieves with a revolver, as they were taking her mountain-pony with them, and herself had made them "hands-up," and had marched them into a prospector's camp five miles away.
She had no doubt about the man before her. Whatever he had done, it was nothing dirty or mean--of that she was sure.
"Yes, I'm Jenny Long," she answered. "What have you done? What are they after you for?"
"Oh! to-morrow," he answered, "to-morrow I got to git to Bindon. It's life or death. I come from prospecting two hundred miles up North. I done it in two days and a half. My horse dropped dead--I'm near dead myself. I tried to borrow another horse up at Clancey's, and at Scotton's Drive, but they didn't know me, and they bounced me. So I borrowed a horse off Weigall's paddock, to make for here--to you. I didn't mean to keep that horse. Hell, I'm no horse-stealer! But I couldn't explain to them, except that I had to git to Bindon to save a man's life. If people laugh in your face, it's no use explainin'. I took a roan from Weigall's, and they got after me. 'Bout six miles up they shot at me an' hurt me."
She saw that one arm hung limp at his side and that his wrist was wound with a red bandana.
She started forward. "Are you hurt bad? Can I bind it up or wash it for you? I've got plenty of hot water here, and it's bad letting a wound get stale."
He shook his head. "I washed the hole clean in the creek below. I doubled on them. I had to go down past your place here, and then work back to be rid of them. But there's no telling when they'll drop on to the game, and come back for me. My only chance was to git to you. Even if I had a horse, I couldn't make Bindon in time. It's two days round the gorge by trail. A horse is no use now--I lost too much time since last night. I can't git to Bindon to-morrow in time, if I ride the trail."
"The river?" she asked abruptly.
"It's the only way. It cuts off fifty mile. That's why I come to you."
She frowned a little, her face became troubled, and her glance fell on his arm nervously. "What've I got to do with it?" she asked almost sharply.
"Even if this was all right,"--he touched the wounded arm--" I couldn't take the rapids in a canoe. I don't know them, an' it would be sure death. That's not the worst, for there's a man at Bindon would lose his life--p'r'aps twenty men--I dunno; but one man sure. To-morrow, it's go or stay with him. He was good--Lord, but he was good!--to my little gal years back. She'd only been married to me a year when he saved her, riskin' his own life. No one else had the pluck. My little gal, only twenty she was, an' pretty as a picture, an' me fifty miles away when the fire broke out in the hotel where she was. He'd have gone down to hell for a friend, an' he saved my little gal. I had her for five years after that. That's why I got to git to Bindon to-morrow. If I don't, I don't want to see to-morrow. I got to go down the river to-night."
She knew what he was going to ask her. She knew he was thinking what all the North knew, that she was the first person to take the Dog Nose Rapids in a canoe, down the great river scarce a stone's-throw from her door; and that she had done it in safety many times. Not in all the West and North were there a half-dozen people who could take a canoe to Bindon, and they were not here. She knew that he meant to ask her to paddle him down the swift stream with its murderous rocks, to Bindon. She glanced at the white petticoat on the chair, and her lips tightened. To-morrow- tomorrow was as much to her here as it would be to this man before her, or the man he would save at Bindon. "What do you want?" she asked, hardening her heart. "Can't you see? I want you to hide me here till tonight. There's a full moon, an' it would be as plain goin' as by day. They told me about you up North, and I said to myself, 'If I git to Jenny Long, an' tell her about my friend at Bindon, an' my little gal, she'll take me down to Bindon in time.' My little gal would have paid her own debt if she'd ever had the chance. She didn't--she's lying up on Mazy Mountain. But one woman'll do a lot for the sake of another woman. Say, you'll do it, won't you? If I don't git there by to-morrow noon, it's no good."
She would not answer. He was asking more than he knew. Why should she be sacrificed? Was it her duty to pay the "little gal's debt," to save the man at Bindon? To-morrow was to be the great day in her own life. The one man in all the world was coming to marry her to-morrow. After four years' waiting, after a bitter quarrel in which both had been to blame, he was coming from the mining town of Selby to marry her to- morrow.
"What will happen? Why will your friend lose his life if you don't get to Bindon?"
"By noon to-morrow, by twelve o'clock noon; that's the plot; that's what they've schemed. Three days ago, I heard. I got a man free from trouble North--he was no good, but I thought he ought to have another chance, and I got him free. He told me of what was to be done at Bindon. There'd been a strike in the mine, an' my friend had took it in hand with knuckle-dusters on. He isn't the kind to fell a tree with a jack-knife. Then three of the strikers that had been turned away--they was the
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