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enough to wish you were going back with me; I wish you could sit with me on the bank of the lake, aching and longing for your man up there in the smoke as I ache and long for mine. Misery loves company.”

Stella’s eyes were clouded as the train pulled out. Something in Linda Benton’s parting words made her acutely lonely, dispirited, out of joint with the world she was deliberately fashioning for herself. Into Linda’s life something big and elemental had come. The butterfly of yesterday had become the strong man’s mate of to-day. Linda’s heart was unequivocally up there in the smoke and flame with her man, fighting for their mutual possessions, hoping with him, fearing for him, longing for him, secure in the knowledge that if nothing else was left them, they had each other. It was a rare and beautiful thing to feel like that. And beyond that sorrowful vision of what she lacked to achieve any real and enduring happiness, there loomed also a self-torturing conviction that she herself had set in motion those forces which now threatened ruin for her brother and Jack Fyfe.

There was no logical proof of this. Only intuitive, subtle suggestions gleaned here and there, shadowy finger-posts which pointed to Monohan as a deadly hater and with a score chalked up against Fyfe to which she had unconsciously added. He had desired her, and twice Fyfe had treated him like an urchin caught in mischief. She recalled how Monohan sprang at him like a tiger that day on the lake shore. She realized how bitter a humiliation it must have been to suffer that sardonic cuffing at Fyfe’s hands. Monohan wasn’t the type of man who would ever forget or forgive either that or the terrible grip on his throat.

Even at the time she had sensed this and dreaded what it might ultimately lead to. Even while her being answered eagerly to the physical charm of him, she had fought against admitting to herself what desperate intent might have lain back of the killing of Billy Dale,–a shot that Lefty Howe declared was meant for Fyfe. She had long outgrown Monohan’s lure, but if he had come to her or written to make out a case for himself when she first went to Seattle, she would have accepted his word against anything. Her heart would have fought for him against the logic of her brain.

But–she had had a long time to think, to compare, to digest all that she knew of him, much that was subconscious impression rising late to the surface, a little that she heard from various sources. The sum total gave her a man of rank passions, of rare and merciless finesse where his desires figured, a man who got what he wanted by whatever means most fitly served his need. Greater than any craving to possess a woman would be the measure of his rancor against a man who humiliated him, thwarted him. She could understand how a man like Monohan would hate a man like Jack Fyfe, would nurse and feed on the venom of his hate until setting a torch to Fyfe’s timber would be a likely enough counterstroke.

She shrank from the thought. Yet it lingered until she felt guilty. Though it made no material difference to her that Fyfe might or might not face ruin, she could not, before her own conscience, evade responsibility. The powder might have been laid, but her folly had touched spark to the fuse, as she saw it. That seared her like a pain far into the night. For every crime a punishment; for every sin a penance. Her world had taught her that. She had never danced; she had only listened to the piper and longed to dance, as nature had fashioned her to do. But the piper was sending his bill. She surveyed it wearily, emotionally bankrupt, wondering in what coin of the soul she would have to pay.

CHAPTER XXIII

A RIDE BY NIGHT

Stella sang in the gilt ballroom of the Granada next afternoon, behind the footlights of a miniature stage, with the blinds drawn and a few hundred of Vancouver’s social elect critically, expectantly listening. She sang her way straight into the heart of that audience with her opening number. This was on Wednesday. Friday she sang again, and Saturday afternoon.

When she came back to her room after that last concert, wearied with the effort of listening to chattering women and playing the gracious lady to an admiring contingent which insisted upon making her last appearance a social triumph, she found a letter forwarded from Seattle. She slit the envelope. A typewritten sheet enfolded a green slip,–a check. She looked at the figures, scarcely comprehending until she read the letter.

“We take pleasure in handing you herewith,” Mr. Lander wrote for the firm, “our check for nineteen thousand five hundred dollars, proceeds of oil stock sold as per your telegraphed instructions, less brokerage charges. We sold same at par, and trust this will be satisfactory.”

She looked at the check again. Nineteen thousand, five hundred–payable to her order. Two years ago such a sum would have lifted her to plutocratic heights, filled her with pleasurable excitement, innumerable anticipations. Now it stirred her less than the three hundred dollars she had just received from the Granada Concert committee. She had earned that, had given for it due measure of herself. This other had come without effort, without expectation. And less than she had ever needed money before did she now require such a sum.

Yet she was sensibly aware that this windfall meant a short cut to things which she had only looked to attain by plodding over economic hills. She could say good-by to singing in photoplay houses, to vaudeville engagements, to concert work in provincial towns. She could hitch her wagon to a star and go straight up the avenue that led to a career, if it were in her to achieve greatness. Pleasant dreams in which the buoyant ego soared, until the logical interpretation of her ambitions brought her to a more practical consideration of ways and means, and that in turn confronted her with the fact that she could leave the Pacific coast to-morrow morning if she so chose.

Why should she not so choose?

She was her own mistress, free as the wind. Fyfe had said that. She looked out into the smoky veil that shrouded the water front and the hills across the Inlet, that swirled and eddied above the giant fir in Stanley Park, and her mind flicked back to Roaring Lake where the Red Flower of Kipling’s _Jungle Book_ bloomed to her husband’s ruin. Did it? She wondered. She could not think of him as beaten, bested in any undertaking. She had never been able to think of him in those terms. Always to her he had conveyed the impression of a superman. Always she had been a little in awe of him, of his strength, his patient, inflexible determination, glimpsing under his habitual repression certain tremendous forces. She could not conceive him as a broken man.

Staring out into the smoky air, she wondered if the fires at Roaring Lake still ravaged that noble forest; if Fyfe’s resources, like her brother’s, were wholly involved in standing timber, and if that timber were doomed? She craved to know. Secured herself by that green slip in her hand against every possible need, she wondered if it were ordained that the two men whose possession of material resources had molded her into what she was to-day should lose all, be reduced to the same stress that had made her an unwilling drudge in her brother’s kitchen. Then she recalled that for Charlie there was an equivalent sum due,–a share like her own. At the worst, he had the nucleus of another fortune.

Curled among the pillows of her bed that night, she looked over the evening papers, read with a swift heart-sinking that the Roaring Lake fire was assuming terrific proportions, that nothing but a deluge of rain would stay it now. And more significantly, except for a minor blaze or two, the fire raged almost wholly upon and around the Fyfe block of limits. She laid aside the papers, switched off the lights, and lay staring wide-eyed at the dusky ceiling.

At twenty minutes of midnight she was called to the door of her room to receive a telegram. It was from Linda, and it read:

“Charlie badly hurt. Can you come?”

Stella reached for the telephone receiver. The night clerk at the C.P.R. depot told her the first train she could take left at six in the morning. That meant reaching the Springs at nine-thirty. Nine and a half hours to sit with idle hands, in suspense. She did not knew what tragic denouement awaited there, what she could do once she reached there. She knew only that a fever of impatience burned in her. The message had strung her suddenly taut, as if a crisis had arisen in which willy-nilly she must take a hand.

So, groping for the relief of action, some method of spanning that nine hours’ wait, her eye fell upon a card tucked beside the telephone case. She held it between, finger and thumb, her brows puckered.

TAXIS AND TOURING CARS
Anywhere . . . Anytime

She took down the receiver again and asked for Seymour 9X.

“Western Taxi,” a man’s voice drawled.

“I want to reach Roaring Hot Springs in the shortest time possible,” she told him rather breathlessly. “Can you furnish me a machine and a reliable chauffeur?”

“Roaring Springs?” he repeated. “How many passengers?”

“One. Myself.”

“Just a minute.”

She heard a faint burble of talk away at the other end of the wire. Then the same voice speaking crisply.

“We gotta big six roadster, and a first-class driver. It’ll cost you seventy-five dollars–in advance.”

“Your money will be waiting for you here,” she answered calmly. “How soon can you bring the car around to the Hotel Granada?”

“In ten minutes, if you say so.”

“Say twenty minutes, then.”

“All right.”

She dressed herself, took the elevator down to the lobby, instructed the night clerk to have a maid pack her trunk and send it by express to Hopyard, care of St. Allwoods Hotel on the lake. Then she walked out to the broad-stepped carriage entrance.

A low-hung long-hooded, yellow car stood there, exhaust purring faintly. She paid the driver, sank into the soft upholstering beside him, and the big six slid out into the street. There was no traffic. In a few minutes they were on the outskirts of the city, the long asphalt ribbon of King’s Way lying like a silver band between green, bushy walls. They crossed the last car track. The driver spoke to her out of one corner of his mouth.

“Wanna make time, huh?”

“I want to get to Roaring Lake as quickly as you can drive, without taking chances.”

“I know the road pretty well,” he assured her. “Drove a party clear to Rosebud day before yesterday. I’ll do the best I can. Can’t drive too fast at night. Too smoky.”

She could not gage his conception of real speed if the gait he struck was not “too fast.” They were through New Westminster and rolling across the Fraser bridge before she was well settled in the seat, breasting the road with a lurch and a swing at the curves, a noise under that long hood like giant bees in an empty barrel.

Ninety miles of road good, bad and indifferent, forest and farm and rolling hill, and the swamps of Sumas Prairie, lies between Vancouver and Roaring Lake. At four in the morning, with dawn an hour old, they woke the Rosebud ferryman to cross the river. Twenty minutes after that Stella was stepping stiffly out of the machine before Roaring Springs hospital. The doctor’s Chinaman was abroad in the garden. She beckoned him.

“You sabe Mr. Benton–Charlie Benton?” she asked. “He in doctor’s house?”

The Chinaman pointed across the road. “Mist Bentle obah dah,” he said. “Velly much sick. Missa Bentle lib dah, all same gleen house.”

Stella ran across the way. The front door of the green cottage stood wide. An electric drop light burned in the front room, though it was broad day. When she crossed the threshold, she saw Linda sitting in a chair, her arms folded on the table-edge, her head resting on her hands. She was asleep, and she did not raise her head till Stella shook her shoulder.

Linda Abbey had been a pretty girl, very fair, with apple-blossom skin and a wonderfully expressive face. It gave Stella a shock to see her now, to gage her suffering by the havoc it had wrought. Linda looked old, haggard, drawn. There was a weary droop to her mouth, her eyes were dull, lifeless, just as one might look who is utterly exhausted in mind and body. Oddly enough, she spoke first of something irrelevant, inconsequential.

“I fell asleep,” she said heavily. “What time is it?”

Stella looked at her watch.

“Half-past four,” she answered. “How is Charlie? What happened to him?”

“Monohan shot him.”

Stella caught her breath. She hadn’t been prepared for that.

“Is he–is he–” she could not utter the words.

“He’ll get better. Wait.” Linda rose stiffly from her seat. A door in one side of the room stood ajar. She opened it, and Stella, looking over her shoulder, saw her brother’s tousled head on a pillow. A nurse in uniform sat beside his bed. Linda closed the door silently.

“Come into the kitchen where we won’t make a noise,” she whispered.

A fire burned in the kitchen stove. Linda sank into a willow rocker.

“I’m weary as Atlas,” she said. “I’ve been fretting for so long. Then late yesterday afternoon they brought him home to me–like that. The doctor was probing for the bullet when I wired you. I was in a panic then, I think. Half-past four! How did you get here so soon? How could you? There’s no train.”

Stella told her.

“Why should Monohan shoot him?” she broke out. “For God’s sake, talk, Linda!”

There was a curious impersonality in Linda’s manner, as if she stood aloof from it all, as if the fire of her vitality had burned out. She lay back in her chair with eyelids drooping, speaking in dull, lifeless tones.

“Monohan shot him because Charlie came on him in the woods setting a fresh fire. They’ve suspected him, or some one in his pay, of that, and they’ve been watching. There were two other men with Charlie, so there is no mistake. Monohan got away. That’s all I know. Oh, but I’m tired. I’ve been hanging on to myself for so long. About daylight, after we knew for sure that Charlie was over the hill, something seemed to let go in me. I’m awful glad you came, Stella. Can you make a cup of tea?”

Stella could and did, but she drank none of it herself. A dead weight of apprehension lay like lead in her breast. Her conscience pointed a deadly finger. First Billy Dale, now her brother, and, sandwiched in between, the loosed fire furies which were taking toll in bodily injury and ruinous loss.

Yet she was helpless. The matter was wholly out of her hands, and she stood aghast before it, much as the small child stands aghast before the burning house he has fired by accident.

Fyfe next. That was the ultimate, the culmination, which would leave her forever transfixed with remorseful horror. The fact that already the machinery of the law which would eventually bring Monohan to book for the double lawlessness of arson and attempted homicide must be in motion, that the Provincial police would be hard on his trail, did not occur to her. She could only visualize him progressing step by step from one lawless deed to another. And in her mind every step led to Jack Fyfe, who had made a mock of him. She found her hands clenching till the nails dug deep.

Linda’s head drooped over the teacup. Her eyelids blinked.

“Dear,” Stella said tenderly, “come and lie down. You’re worn out.”

“Perhaps I’d better,” Linda muttered. “There’s another room in there.”

Stella tucked the weary girl into the bed, and went back to the kitchen, and sat down in the willow rocker. After another hour the nurse came out and prepared her own breakfast. Benton was still sleeping. He was in no danger, the nurse told Stella. The bullet had driven cleanly through his body, missing as by a miracle any vital part, and lodged in the muscles of his back, whence the surgeon had removed it. Though weak from shock, loss of blood, excitement, he had rallied splendidly, and fallen into a normal sleep.

Later the doctor confirmed this. He made light of the wound. One couldn’t kill a young man as full of vitality as Charlie Benton with an axe, he informed Stella with an optimistic smile. Which lifted one burden from her mind.

The night nurse went away, and another from the hospital took her place. Benton slept; Linda slept. The house was very quiet. To Stella, brooding in that kitchen chair, it became oppressive, that funeral hush. When it was drawing near ten o’clock, she walked up the road past the corner store and post-office, and so out to the end of the wharf.

The air was hot and heavy, pungent, gray with the smoke. Farther along, St. Allwoods bulked mistily amid its grounds. The crescent of shore line half a mile distant was wholly obscured. Up over the eastern mountain range the sun, high above the murk, hung like a bloody orange, rayless and round. No hotel guests strolled by pairs and groups along the bank. She could understand that no one would come for pleasure into that suffocating atmosphere. Caught in that great bowl of which the lake formed the watery bottom, the smoke eddied and rolled like a cloud of mist.

She stood a while gazing at the glassy surface of the lake where it spread to her vision a little way beyond the piles. Then she went back to the green cottage.

Benton lifted alert, recognizing eyes when she peeped in the bedroom door.

“Hello, Sis,” he greeted in strangely subdued tones. “When did you blow in? I thought you’d deserted the sinking ship completely. Come on in.”

She winced inwardly at his words, but made no outward sign, as she came up to his bedside. The nurse went out.

“Perhaps you’d better not talk?” she said.

“Oh, nonsense,” he retorted feebly. “I’m all right. Sore as the mischief and weak. But I don’t feel as bad as I might. Linda still asleep?”

“I think so,” Stella answered.

“Poor kid,” he breathed; “it’s been tough on her. Well, I guess it’s been tough on everybody. He turned out to be some bad actor, this Monohan party. I never did like the beggar. He was a little too high-handed in his smooth, kid-glove way. But I didn’t suppose he’d try to burn up a million dollars’ worth of timber to satisfy a grudge. Well, he put his foot in it proper at last. He’ll get a good long jolt in the pen, if the boys don’t beat the constables to him and take him to pieces.”

“He did start the fire then?” Stella muttered.

“I guess so,” Benton replied. “At any rate, he kept it going. Did it by his lonesome, too. Jack suspected that. We were watching for him as well as fighting fire. He’d come down from the head of the lake in that speed boat of his, and this time daylight caught him before he could get back to where he had her cached, after starting a string of little fires in the edge of my north limit. He had it in for me, too, you know; I batted him over the head with a pike-pole here at the wharf one day this spring, so he plunked me as soon as I hollered at him. I wish he’d done it earlier in the game. We might have saved a lot of good timber. As it was, we couldn’t do much. Every time the wind changed, it would break out in a new place–too often to be accidental. Damn him!”

“How is it going to end, the fire?” Stella forced herself to ask. “Will you and Jack be able to save any timber?”

“If it should rain hard, and if in the meantime the boys keep it from jumping the fire-trails we’ve cut, I’ll get by with most of mine,” he said. “But Jack’s done for. He won’t have anything but his donkeys and gear and part of a cedar limit on the Tyee which isn’t paid for. He had practically everything tied up in that big block of timber around the Point. Monohan made him spend money like water to hold his own. Jack’s broke.”

Stella’s head drooped. Benton reached out an axe-calloused hand, all grimy and browned from the stress of fire fighting, and covered her soft fingers that rested on his bed.

“It’s a pity everything’s gone to pot like that, Stell,” he said softly. “I’ve grown a lot wiser in human ways the last two years. You taught me a lot, and Jack a lot, and Linda the rest. It seems a blamed shame you and Jack came to a fork in the road. Oh, he never chirped. I’ve just guessed it the last few weeks. I owe him a lot that he’ll never let me pay back in anything but good will. I hate to see him get the worst of it from every direction. He grins and doesn’t say anything. But I know it hurts. There can’t be anything much wrong between you two. Why don’t you forget your petty larceny troubles and start all over again?”

“I can’t,” she whispered. “It wouldn’t work. There’s too many scars. Too much that’s hard to forget.”

“Well, you know about that better than I do,” Benton said thoughtfully. “It all depends on how you _feel_.”

The poignant truth of that struck miserably home to her. It was not a matter of reason or logic, of her making any sacrifice for her conscience sake. It depended solely upon the existence of an emotion she could not definitely invoke. She was torn by so many emotions, not one of which she could be sure was the vital, the necessary one. Her heart did not cry out for Jack Fyfe, except in a pitying tenderness, as she used to feel for Jack Junior when he bumped and bruised himself. She had felt that before and held it too weak a crutch to lean upon.

The nurse came in with a cup of broth for Benton, and Stella went away with a dumb ache in her breast, a leaden sinking of her spirits, and went out to sit on the porch steps. The minutes piled into hours, and noon came, when Linda wakened. Stella forced herself to swallow a cup of tea, to eat food; then she left Linda sitting with her husband and went back to the porch steps again.

As she sat there, a man dressed in the blue shirt and mackinaw trousers and high, calked boots of the logger turned in off the road, a burly woodsman that she recognized as one of Jack Fyfe’s crew.

“Well,” said he, “if it ain’t Mrs. Jack. Say–ah–“

He broke off suddenly, a perplexed look on his face, an uneasiness, a hesitation in his manner.

“What is it, Barlow?” Stella asked kindly. “How is everything up the lake?”

It was common enough in her experience, that temporary embarrassment of a logger before her. She knew them for men with boyish souls, boyish instincts, rude simplicities of heart. Long ago she had revised those first superficial estimates of them as gross, hulking brutes who worked hard and drank harder, coarsened and calloused by their occupation. They had their weaknesses, but their virtues of abiding loyalty, their reckless generosity, their simple directness, were great indeed. They took their lives in their hands on skid-road and spring-board, that such as she might flourish. They did not understand that, but she did.

“What is it, Barlow?” she repeated. “Have you just come down the lake?”

“Yes’m,” he answered. “Say, Jack don’t happen to be here, does he?”

“No, he hasn’t been here,” she told him.

The man’s face fell.

“What’s wrong?” Stella demanded. She had a swift divination that something was wrong.

“Oh, I dunno’s anythin’s wrong, particular,” Barlow replied. “Only–well, Lefty he sent me down to see if Jack was at the Springs. We ain’t seen him for a couple uh days.”

Her pulse quickened.

“And he has not come down the lake?”

“I guess not,” the logger said. “Oh, I guess it’s all right. Jack’s pretty _skookum_ in the woods. Only Lefty got uneasy. It’s desperate hot and smoky up there.”

“How did you come down? Are you going back soon?” she asked abruptly.

“I got the _Waterbug_,” Barlow told her. “I’m goin’ right straight back.”

Stella looked out over the smoky lake and back at the logger again, a sudden resolution born of intolerable uncertainty, of a feeling that she could only characterize as fear, sprang full-fledged into her mind. “Wait for me,” she said. “I’m going with you.”

CHAPTER XXIV

“OUT OF THE NIGHT THAT COVERS ME”

The _Waterbug_ limped. Her engine misfired continuously, and Barlow lacked the mechanical knowledge to remedy its ailment. He was satisfied to let it pound away, so long as it would revolve at all. So the boat moved slowly through that encompassing smoke at less than half speed. Outwardly the once spick and span cruiser bore every mark of hard usage. Her topsides were foul, her decks splintered by the tramping of calked boots, grimy with soot and cinders. It seemed to Stella that everything and every one on and about Roaring Lake bore some mark of that holocaust raging in the timber, as if the fire were some malignant disease menacing and marring all that it affected, and affecting all that trafficked within its smoky radius.

But of the fire itself she could see nothing, even when late in the afternoon they drew in to the bay before her brother’s camp. A heavier smoke cloud, more pungent of burning pitch, blanketed the shores, lifted in blue, rolling masses farther back. A greater heat made the air stifling, causing the eyes to smart and grow watery. That was the only difference.

Barlow laid the _Waterbug_ alongside the float. He had already told her that Lefty Howe, with the greater part of Fyfe’s crew, was extending and guarding Benton’s fire-trail, and he half expected that Fyfe might have turned up there. Away back in the smoke arose spasmodic coughing of donkey engines, dull resounding of axe-blades. Barlow led the way. They traversed a few hundred yards of path through brush, broken tops, and stumps, coming at last into a fairway cut through virgin timber, a sixty-foot strip denuded of every growth, great firs felled and drawn far aside, brush piled and burned. A breastwork from which to fight advancing fire, it ran away into the heart of a smoky forest. Here and there blackened, fire-scorched patches abutted upon its northern flank, stumps of great trees smoldering, crackling yet. At the first such place, half a dozen men were busy with shovels blotting out streaks of fire that crept along in the dry leaf mold. No, they had not seen Fyfe. But they had been blamed busy. He might be up above.

Half a mile beyond that, beside the first donkey shuddering on its anchored skids as it tore an eighteen-inch cedar out by the roots, they came on Lefty Howe. He shook his head when Stella asked for Fyfe.

“He took twenty men around to the main camp day before yesterday,” said Lefty. “There was a piece uh timber beyond that he thought he could save. I–well, I took a shoot around there yesterday, after your brother got hurt. Jack wasn’t there. Most of the boys was at camp loadin’ gear on the scows. They said Jack’s gone around to Tumblin’ Creek with one man. He wasn’t back this mornin’. So I thought maybe he’d gone to the Springs. I dunno’s there’s any occasion to worry. He might ‘a’ gone to the head uh the lake with them constables that went up last night. How’s Charlie Benton?”

She told him briefly.

“That’s good,” said Lefty. “Now, I’d go around to Cougar Bay, if I was you, Mrs. Jack. He’s liable to come in there, any time. You could stay at the house to-night. Everything around there, shacks ‘n’ all, was burned days ago, so the fire can’t touch the house. The crew there has grub an’ a cook. I kinda expect Jack’ll be there, unless he fell in with them constables.”

She trudged silently back to the _Waterbug_. Barlow started the engine, and the boat took up her slow way. As they skirted the shore, Stella began to see here and there the fierce havoc of the fire. Black trunks of fir reared nakedly to the smoky sky, lay crisscross on bank and beach. Nowhere was there a green blade, a living bush. Nothing but charred black, a melancholy waste of smoking litter, with here and there a pitch-soaked stub still waving its banner of flame, or glowing redly. Back of those seared skeletons a shifting cloud of smoke obscured everything.

Presently they drew in to Cougar Bay. Men moved about on the beach; two bulky scows stood nose-on to the shore. Upon them rested half a dozen donkey engines, thick-bellied, upright machines, blown down, dead on their skids. About these in great coils lay piled the gear of logging, miles of steel cable, blocks, the varied tools of the logger’s trade. The _Panther_ lay between the scows, with lines from each passed over her towing bitts.

Stella could see the outline of the white bungalow on its grassy knoll. They had saved only that, of all the camp, by a fight that sent three men to the hospital, on a day when the wind shifted into the northwest and sent a sheet of flame rolling through the timber and down on Cougar Bay like a tidal wave. So Barlow told her. He cupped his hands now and called to his fellows on the beach.

No, Fyfe had not come back yet.

“Go up to the mouth of Tumbling Creek,” Stella ordered.

Barlow swung the _Waterbug_ about, cleared the point, and stood up along the shore. Stella sat on a cushioned seat at the back of the pilot house, hard-eyed, struggling against that dead weight that seemed, to grow and grow in her breast. That elemental fury raging in the woods made her shrink. Her own hand had helped to loose it, but her hands were powerless to stay it; she could only sit and watch and wait, eaten up with misery of her own making. She was horribly afraid, with a fear she would not name to herself.

Behind that density of atmosphere, the sun had gone to rest. The first shadows of dusk were closing in, betokened by a thickening of the smoke-fog into which the _Waterbug_ slowly plowed. To port a dimming shore line; to starboard, aft, and dead ahead, water and air merged in two boat lengths. Barlow leaned through the pilot-house window, one hand on the wheel, straining his eyes on their course. Suddenly he threw out the clutch, shut down his throttle control with one hand, and yanked with the other at the cord which loosed the _Waterbug’s_ shrill whistle.

Dead ahead, almost upon them, came an answering toot.

“I thought I heard a gas-boat,” Barlow exclaimed. “Sufferin’ Jerusalem! Hi, there!”

He threw his weight on the wheel, sending it hard over. The cruiser still had way on; the momentum of her ten-ton weight scarcely had slackened, and she answered the helm. Out of the deceptive thickness ahead loomed the sharp, flaring bow of another forty-footer, sheering quickly, as her pilot sighted them. She was upon them, and abreast, and gone, with a watery purl of her bow wave, a subdued mutter of exhaust, passing so near than an active man could have leaped the space between.

“Sufferin’ Jerusalem!” Barlow repeated, turning to Stella. “Did you see that, Mrs. Jack? They got him.”

Stella nodded. She too had seen Monohan seated on the after deck, his head sunk on his breast, irons on his wrists. A glimpse, no more.

“That’ll help some,” Barlow grunted. “Quick work. But they come blame near cuttin’ us down, beltin’ along at ten knots when you can’t see forty feet ahead.”

An empty beach greeted them at Tumbling Creek. Reluctantly Stella bade Barlow turn back. It would soon be dark, and Barlow said he would be taking chances of piling on the shore before he could see it, or getting lost in the profound black that would shut down on the water with daylight’s end.

Less than a mile from Cougar Bay, the _Waterbug’s_ engine gave a few premonitory gasps and died. Barlow descended to the engine room, hooked up the trouble lamp, and sought for the cause. He could not find it. Stella could hear him muttering profanity, turning the flywheel over, getting an occasional explosion.

An hour passed. Dark of the Pit descended, shrouding the lake with a sable curtain, close-folded, impenetrable. The dead stillness of the day vanished before a hot land breeze, and Stella, as she felt the launch drift, knew by her experience on the lake that they were moving offshore. Presently this was confirmed, for out of the black wall on the west, from which the night wind brought stifling puffs of smoke, there lifted a yellow effulgence that grew to a red glare as the boat drifted out. Soon that red glare was a glowing line that rose and fell, dipping and rising and wavering along a two-mile stretch, a fiery surf beating against the forest.

Down in the engine room Barlow finally located the trouble, and the motor took up its labors, spinning with a rhythmic chatter of valves. The man came up into the pilot house, wiping the sweat from his grimy face.

“Gee, I’m sorry, Mrs. Fyfe,” he said. “A gas-engine man would ‘a’ fixed that in five minutes. Took me two hours to find out what was wrong. It’ll be a heck of a job to fetch Cougar Bay now.”

But by luck Barlow made his way back, blundering fairly into the landing at the foot of the path that led to the bungalow, as if the cruiser knew the way to her old berth. And as he reached the float, the front windows on the hillock broke out yellow, pale blurs in the smoky night.

“Well, say,” Barlow pointed. “I bet a nickel Jack’s home. See? Nobody but him would be in the house.”

“I’ll go up,” Stella said.

“All right, I guess you know the path better’n I do,” Barlow said. “I’ll take the _Bug_ around into the bay.”

Stella ran up the path. She halted halfway up the steps and leaned against the rail to catch her breath. Then she went on. Her step was noiseless, for tucked in behind a cushion aboard the _Waterbug_ she had found an old pair of her own shoes, rubber-soled, and she had put them on to ease the ache in her feet born of thirty-six hours’ encasement in leather. She gained the door without a sound. It was wide open, and in the middle of the big room Jack Fyfe stood with hands thrust deep in his pockets, staring absently at the floor.

She took a step or two inside. Fyfe did not hear her; he did not look up.

“Jack.”

He gave ever so slight a start, glanced up, stood with head thrown back a little. But he did not move, or answer, and Stella, looking at him, seeing the flame that glowed in his eyes, could not speak. Something seemed to choke her, something that was a strange compound of relief and bewilderment and a slow wonder at herself,–at the queer, unsteady pounding of her heart.

“How did you get way up here?” he asked at last.

“Linda wired last night that Charlie was hurt. I got a machine to the Springs. Then Barlow came down this afternoon looking for you. He said you’d been missing for two days. So I–I–“

She broke off. Fyfe was walking toward her with that peculiar, lightfooted step of his, a queer, tense look on his face.

“Nero fiddled when Rome was burning,” he said harshly. “Did you come to sing while _my_ Rome goes up in smoke?”

A little, half-strangled sob escaped her. She turned to go. But he caught her by the arm.

“There, lady,” he said, with a swift change of tone, “I didn’t mean to slash at you. I suppose you mean all right. But just now, with everything gone to the devil, to look up and see you here–I’ve really got an ugly temper, Stella, and it’s pretty near the surface these days. I don’t want to be pitied and sympathized with. I want to fight. I want to hurt somebody.”

“Hurt me then,” she cried.

He shook his head sadly.

“I couldn’t do that,” he said. “No, I can’t imagine myself ever doing that.”

“Why?” she asked, knowing why, but wishful to hear in words what his eyes shouted.

“Because I love you,” he said. “You know well enough why.”

She lifted her one free hand to his shoulder. Her face turned up to his. A warm wave of blood dyed the round, white neck, shot up into her cheeks. Her eyes were suddenly aglow, lips tremulous.

“Kiss me, then,” she whispered. “That’s what I came for. Kiss me, Jack.”

If she had doubted, if she had ever in the last few hours looked with misgiving upon what she felt herself impelled to do, the pressure of Jack Fyfe’s lips on hers left no room for anything but an amazing thrill of pure gladness. She was happy in his arms, content to rest there, to feel his heart beating against hers, to be quit of all the uncertainties, all the useless regrets. By a roundabout way she had come to her own, and it thrilled her to her finger tips. She could not quite comprehend it, or herself. But she was glad, weeping with gladness, straining her man to her, kissing his face, murmuring incoherent words against his breast.

“And so–and so, after all, you do care.” Fyfe held her off a little from him, his sinewy fingers gripping gently the soft flesh of her arms. “And you were big enough to come back. Oh, my dear, you don’t know what that means to me. I’m broke, and I’d just about reached the point where I didn’t give a damn. This fire has cleaned me out. I’ve–“

“I know,” Stella interrupted. “That’s why I came back. I wouldn’t have come otherwise, at least not for a long time–perhaps never. It seemed as if I ought to–as if it were the least I could do. Of course, it looks altogether different, now that I know I really want to. But you see I didn’t know that for sure until I saw you standing here. Oh, Jack, there’s such a lot I wish I could wipe out.”

“It’s wiped out,” he said happily. “The slate’s clean. Fair weather didn’t get us anywhere. It took a storm. Well, the storm’s over.”

She stirred uneasily in his arms.

“Haven’t you got the least bit of resentment, Jack, for all this trouble I’ve helped to bring about?” she faltered.

“Why, no” he said thoughtfully. “All you did was to touch the fireworks off. And they might have started over anything. Lord no! put that idea out of your head.”

“I don’t understand,” she murmured. “I never have quite understood why Monohan should attack you with such savage bitterness. That trouble he started on the Tyee, then this criminal firing of the woods. I’ve had hints, first from your sister, then from Linda. I didn’t know you’d clashed before. I’m not very clear on that yet. But you knew all the time what he was. Why didn’t you tell me, Jack?”

“Well, maybe I should have,” Fyfe admitted. “But I couldn’t very well. Don’t you see? He wasn’t even an incident, until he bobbed up and rescued you that day. I couldn’t, after that, start in picking his character to pieces as a mater of precaution. We had a sort of an armed truce. He left me strictly alone. I’d trimmed his claws once or twice already. I suppose he was acute enough to see an opportunity to get a whack at me through you. You were just living from day to day, creating a world of illusions for yourself, nourishing yourself with dreams, smarting under a stifled regret for a lot you thought you’d passed up for good. _He_ wasn’t a factor, at first. When he did finally stir in you an emotion I had failed to stir, it was too late for me to do or say anything. If I’d tried, at that stage of the game, to show you your idol’s clay feet, you’d have despised me, as well as refused to believe. I couldn’t do anything but stand back and trust the real woman of you to find out what a quicksand you were building your castle on. I purposely refused to let you to, when you wanted to go away the first time,–partly on the kid’s account, partly because I could hardly bear to let you go. Mostly because I wanted to make him boil over and show his teeth, on the chance that you’d be able to size him up.

“You see, I knew him from the ground up. I knew that nothing would afford him a keener pleasure than to take away from me a woman I cared for, and that nothing would make him squirm more than for me to check-mate him. That day I cuffed him and choked him on the Point really started him properly. After that, you–as something to be desired and possessed–ran second to his feeling against me. He was bound to try and play even, regardless of you. When he precipitated that row on the Tyee, I knew it was going to be a fight for my financial life–for my own life, if he ever got me foul. And it was not a thing I could talk about to you, in your state of mind, then. You were through with me. Regardless of him, you were getting farther and farther away from me. I had a long time to realize that fully. You had a grudge against life, and it was sort of crystallizing on me. You never kissed me once in all those two years like you kissed me just now.”

She pulled his head down and kissed him again.

“So that I wasn’t restraining you with any hope for my own advantage,” he went on. “There was the kid, and there was you. I wanted to put a brake on you, to make you go slow. You’re a complex individual, Stella. Along with certain fixed, fundamental principles, you’ve got a streak of divine madness in you, a capacity for reckless undertakings. You’d never have married me if you hadn’t. I trusted you absolutely. But, I was afraid in spite of my faith. You had draped such an idealistic mantle around Monohan. I wanted to rend that before it came to a final separation between us. It worked out, because he couldn’t resist trying to take a crack at me when the notion seized him.

“So,” he continued, after a pause, “you aren’t responsible, and I’ve never considered you responsible for any of this. It’s between him and me, and it’s been shaping for years. Whenever our trails crossed there was bound to be a clash. There’s always been a natural personal antagonism between us. It began to show when we were kids, you might say. Monohan’s nature is such that he can’t acknowledge defeat, he can’t deny himself a gratification. He’s a supreme egotist. He’s always had plenty of money, he’s always had whatever he wanted, and it never mattered to him how he gratified his desires.

“The first time we locked horns was in my last year at high school. Monohan was a star athlete. I beat him in a pole vault. That irked him so that he sulked and sneered, and generally made himself so insulting that I slapped him. We fought, and I whipped him. I had a temper that I hadn’t learned to keep in hand those days, and I nearly killed him. I had nothing but contempt for him, anyway, because even then, when he wasn’t quite twenty, he was a woman hunter, preying on silly girls. I don’t know what his magic with women is, but it works, until they find him out. He was playing off two or three fool girls that I knew and at the same time keeping a woman in apartments down-town,–a girl he’d picked up on a trip to Georgia,–like any confirmed rounder.

“Well, from that time on, he hated me, always laid for a chance to sting me. We went to Princeton the same year. We collided there, so hard that when word of it got to my father’s ears, he called me home and read the riot act so strong that I flared up and left. Then I came to the coast here and got a job in the woods, got to be a logging boss, and went into business on my own hook eventually. I’d just got nicely started when I ran into Monohan again. He’d got into timber himself. I was hand logging up the coast, and I’d hate to tell you the tricks he tried. He kept it up until I got too big to be harassed in a petty way. Then he left me alone. But he never forgot his grudge. The stage was all set for this act long before you gave him his cue, Stella. You weren’t to blame for that, or if you were in part, it doesn’t matter now. I’m satisfied. Paradoxically I feel rich, even though it’s a long shot that I’m broke flat. I’ve got something money doesn’t buy. And he has overreached himself at last. All his money and pull won’t help him out of this jack pot. Arson and attempted murder is serious business.”

“They caught him,” Stella said. “The constables took him down the lake to-night. I saw him on their launch as they passed the _Waterbug_.”

“Yes?” Fyfe said. “Quick work. I didn’t even know about the shooting till I came in here to-night about dark. Well,” he snapped his fingers, “exit Monohan. He’s a dead issue, far as we’re concerned. Wouldn’t you like something to eat, Stella? I’m hungry, and I was dog-tired when I landed here. Say, you can’t guess what I was thinking about, lady, standing there when you came in.”

She shook her head.

“I had a crazy notion of touching a match to the house,” he said soberly, “letting it go up in smoke with the rest. Yes, that’s what I was thinking I would do. Then I’d take the _Panther_ and what gear I have on the scows and pull off Roaring Lake. It didn’t seem as if I could stay. I’d laid the foundation of a fortune here and tried to make a home–and lost it all, everything that was worth having. And then all at once there you were, like a vision in the door. Miracles _do_ happen!”

Her arms tightened involuntarily about him.

“Oh,” she cried breathlessly. “Our little, white house!”

“Without you,” he replied softly, “it was just an empty shell of boards and plaster, something to make me ache with loneliness.”

“But not now,” she murmured. “It’s home, now.”

“Yes,” he agreed, smiling.

“Ah, but it isn’t quite.” She choked down a lump in her throat. “Not when I think of those little feet that used to patter on the floor. Oh, Jack–when I think of my baby boy! My dear, my dear, why did all this have to be, I wonder?”

Fyfe stroked her glossy coils of hair.

“We get nothing of value without a price,” he said quietly. “Except by rare accident, nothing that’s worth having comes cheap and easy. We’ve paid the price, and we’re square with the world and with each other. That’s everything.”

“Are you completely ruined, Jack?” she asked after an interval. “Charlie said you were.”

“Well,” he answered reflectively, “I haven’t had time to balance accounts, but I guess I will be. The timber’s gone. I’ve saved most of the logging gear. But if I realized on everything that’s left, and squared up everything, I guess I’d be pretty near strapped.”

“Will you take me in as a business partner, Jack?” she asked eagerly. “That’s what I had in mind when I came up here. I made up my mind to propose that, after I’d heard you were ruined. Oh, it seems silly now, but I wanted to make amends that way; at least, I tried to tell myself that. Listen. When my father died, he left some supposedly worthless oil stock. But it proved to have a market value. I got my share of it the other day. It’ll help us to make a fresh start–together.”

She had the envelope and the check tucked inside her waist. She took it out now and pressed the green slip into his hand.

Fyfe looked at it and at her, a little chuckle deep in his throat.

“Nineteen thousand, five hundred,” he laughed. “Well, that’s quite a stake for you. But if you go partners with me, what about your singing?”

“I don’t see how I can have my cake and eat it, too,” she said lightly. “I don’t feel quite so eager for a career as I did.”

“Well, we’ll see,” he said. “That light of yours shouldn’t be hidden under a bushel. And still, I don’t like the idea of you being away from me, which a career implies.”

He put the check back in the envelope, smiling oddly to himself, and tucked it back in her bosom. She caught and pressed his hand there, against the soft flesh.

“Won’t you use it, Jack?” she pleaded. “Won’t it help? Don’t let any silly pride influence you. There mustn’t ever be anything like that between us again.”

“There won’t be,” he smiled. “Frankly, if I need it, I’ll use it. But that’s a matter there’s plenty of time to decide. You see, although technically I may be broke, I’m a long way from the end of my tether. I think I’ll have my working outfit clear, and the country’s full of timber. I’ve got a standing in the business that neither fire nor anything else can destroy. No, I haven’t any false pride about the money, dear. But the money part of our future is a detail. With the incentive I’ve got now to work and plan, it won’t take me five years to be a bigger toad in the timber puddle than I ever was. You don’t know what a dynamo I am when I get going.”

“I don’t doubt that,” she said proudly. “But the money’s yours, if you need it.”

“I need something else a good deal more right now,” he laughed. “That’s something to eat. Aren’t you hungry, Stella? Wouldn’t you like a cup of coffee?”

“I’m famished,” she admitted–the literal truth. The vaulting uplift of spirit, that glad little song that kept lilting in her heart, filled her with peace and contentment, but physically she was beginning to experience acute hunger. She recalled that she had eaten scarcely anything that day.

“We’ll go down to the camp,” Fyfe suggested. “The cook will have something left. We’re camping like pioneers down there. The shacks were all burned, and somebody sank the cookhouse scow.”

They went down the path to the bay, hand in hand, feeling their way through that fire-blackened area, under a black sky.

A red eye glowed ahead of them, a fire on the beach around which men squatted on their haunches or lay stretched on their blankets, sooty-faced fire fighters, a weary group. The air was rank with smoke wafted from the burning woods.

The cook’s fire was dead, and that worthy was humped on his bed-roll smoking a pipe. But he had cold meat and bread, and he brewed a pot of coffee on the big fire for them, and Stella ate the plain fare, sitting in the circle of tired loggers.

“Poor fellows, they look worn out,” she said, when they were again traversing that black road to the bungalow.

“We’ve slept standing up for three weeks,” Fyfe said simply. “They’ve done everything they could. And we’re not through yet. A north wind might set Charlie’s timber afire in a dozen places.”

“Oh, for a rain,” she sighed.

“If wishing for rain brought it,” he laughed, “we’d have had a second flood. We’ve got to keep pegging away till it does rain, that’s all. We can’t do much, but we have to keep doing it. You’ll have to go back to the Springs to-morrow, I’m afraid, Stella. I’ll have to stay on the firing line, literally.”

“I don’t want to,” she cried rebelliously. “I want to stay up here with you. I’m not wax. I won’t melt.”

She continued that argument into the house, until Fyfe laughingly smothered her speech with kisses.

* * * * *

An oddly familiar sound murmuring in Stella’s ear wakened her. At first she thought she must be dreaming. It was still inky dark, but the air that blew in at the open window was sweet and cool, filtered of that choking smoke. She lifted herself warily, looked out, reached a hand through the lifted sash. Wet drops spattered it. The sound she heard was the drip of eaves, the beat of rain on the charred timber, upon the dried grass of the lawn.

Beside her Fyfe was a dim bulk, sleeping the dead slumber of utter weariness. She hesitated a minute, then shook him.

“Listen, Jack,” she said.

He lifted his head.

“Rain!” he whispered. “Good night, Mister Fire. Hooray!”

“I brought it,” Stella murmured sleepily. “I wished it on Roaring Lake to-night.”

Then she slipped her arm about his neck, and drew his face down to her breast with a tender fierceness, and closed her eyes with a contented sigh.

THE END