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The Mallings always had a good gathering at their card parties. Such form of entertainment and dances were the chief winter amusement of these prairie-bred folks. A twenty-mile drive in a box-sleigh, clad in furs, buried beneath heavy fur robes, and reclining on a deep bedding of sweet-smelling hay, in lieu of seats, made the journey as comfortable to such people as would the more luxurious brougham to the wealthy citizen of civilization. There was little thought of display amongst the farmers of Manitoba. When they went to a party their primary object was enjoyment, and they generally contrived to obtain their desire at these gatherings. Journeys were chiefly taken in parties; and the amount of snugness obtained in the bottom of a box-sleigh would be surprising to those without such experience. There was nothing blase about the simple country folk. A hard day’s work was nothing to them. They would follow it up by an evening’s enjoyment with the keenest appreciation; and they knew how to revel with the best.

The first to arrive at Loon Dyke Farm were the Furrers. Daisy, Fortune, and Rachel, three girls of round proportions, all dressed alike, and of age ranging in the region of twenty. They spoke well and frequently; and their dancing eyes and ready laugh indicated spirits at concert pitch. These three were great friends of Prudence, and were loud in their admiration of her. Peter Furrer, their brother, was with them; he was a red-faced boy of about seventeen, a giant of flesh, and a pigmy of intellect outside of farming operations. Mrs. Furrer accompanied the party as chaperon for even in the West chaperons are recognized as useful adjuncts, and, besides, enjoyment is not always a question of age.

Following closely on the heels of the Furrers came old Gleichen and his two sons, Tim and Harry. Gleichen was a well-to-do “mixed” farmer a widower who was looking out for a partner as staid and robust as himself. His two sons were less of the prairie than their father, by reason of an education at St. John’s University in Winnipeg. Harry was an aspirant to Holy Orders, and already had charge of a mission in the small neighbouring settlement of Lakeville. Tim acted as foreman to his father’s farm; a boy of enterprising ideas, and who never hesitated to advocate to his steady-going parent the advantage of devoting himself to stock-raising.

Others arrived in quick succession; a truly agricultural gathering. Amongst the latest of the early arrivals were the Ganthorns; mother, son, and daughter, pretentious folk of considerable means, and recently imported from the Old Country.

By half-past seven everybody had arrived with the exception of George Iredale and Leslie Grey. The fun began from the very first.

The dining-table had disappeared from the parlour, as had the rugs from the floor, and somehow a layer of white wax, like an incipient fall of snow, lay invitingly on the bare white pine boarding. And, too, it seemed only natural that the moment she came into the room ready for the fray, Daisy Furrer should make a rush for the ancient piano, and tinkle out with fair execution the strains of an old waltz. Her efforts broke up any sign of constraint; everybody knew everybody else, so they danced. This was the beginning; cards would come later.

They could all dance, and right well, too. Faces devoid of the absorbing properties of powder quickly shone with the exercise; complexions innocent of all trace of pigments and the toilet arts glowed with a healthy hue and beamed with perfect happiness. There could be no doubt that Prudence and her mother knew their world as well as any hostess could wish. And it was all so easy; no formality, few punctilios to observe just free-and-easy good-fellowship.

Mrs. Malling emerged from the region of the kitchen. She was a little heated with her exertions, and a stray wisp or two of grey hair escaping from beneath her quaint lace cap testified to her culinary exertions. She had been stooping at her ovens regardless of her appearance. She found her daughter standing beside the door of the parlour engaged in a desultory conversation with Peter Furrer. Prudence hailed her mother with an air of relief, and the monumental Peter moved heavily away.

“Oh, mother dear, it’s too bad of you,” exclaimed the girl, gazing at her critically. “And after all the trouble I took with your cap! Look at it now. It’s all on one side, and your hair is sticking out like like Timothy grass. Stand still while I fix it.”

The girl’s deft fingers soon arranged her mother afresh, the old lady protesting all the while, but submitting patiently to the operation.

“There, there; you children think of nothing but pushing and patting and tittivating. La, but one ’ud think I was going to sit down at table with a King or a Minister of the Church. Nobody’s going to look at me, child until the victuals come on. Besides, what does it matter with neighbours? Look at old Gleichen over there, bowing and scraping to Mrs. Ganthorn; one would think it wasn’t his way to do nothing else. He’s less elaborate when he’s trailing after his plough. My, but I can’t abide such pretending. Guess some folks think women are blind. And where’s George Iredale? I don’t see him. Now there’d be some excuse for his doing the grand. He’s a gentleman born and bred.”

“Ah, yes, mother, we all know your weakness for Mr. Iredale,” replied Prudence, with an affectionate finishing pat to the grey old head. “But then he just wouldn’t ‘bow and scrape,’ as you call it, to Mrs. Ganthorn or anybody else. He’s not the sort for that kind of thing. He hasn’t come yet. I’ll bring him to you at once, dear, when he arrives,” she finished up with a laugh.

“You’re a saucy hussy,” her mother returned, with a chuckle. Then: “But I’d have taken to him as a son. Girls never learn anything now-a-days until they’re married to the man they fancy.”

“Nothing like personal experience, lady mother. Did you ask any one’s advice when you married father?”

“That I didn’t for sure, child, but it was different. Your father, Silas, wasn’t the man to be put off with any notions. He just said he was going to marry me and he did marry me. I was all sort of swept off my feet.”

“But still you chose him yourself,” persisted the girl, laughing.

“Well, maybe I did, child, maybe I did.”

“And you didn’t regret your own choice, mother; so why should I?”

“Ah, it was different with me quite different. Ah, there’s some one coming in.” Hephzibah Malling turned as she spoke, glad to be able to change the subject. The front door was opened, and a fur-clad figure entered. “It’s George Iredale,” she went on, as the man removed his cap and displayed a crown of dark-brown hair, tinged here and there with grey, a broad high forehead and a pair of serious eyes.

“Come along, George.” Mrs. Malling bustled forward, followed by her daughter. “I thought you couldn’t get, maybe. The folks are all dancing and dallying. You must come into the kitchen first and have something warm. It’s a cold night.”

“I meant to come earlier,” replied the new arrival, in a deep, quiet voice. “Unfortunately, just as I was going to start, word was brought in to me that a suspicious-looking horseman was hovering round. You see my place is so isolated that any arrival has to be inquired into. There are so many horse-thieves and other dangerous characters about that I have to be careful. Well, I rode out to ascertain who the intruder was, but I lost him. That delayed me. How are you, and Prudence too? Why, it’s ages since I’ve seen either of you. Yes, something hot is always welcome after a long winter’s ride.”

George Iredale had divested himself of his coat and over-shoes, and now followed his hostess to the kitchen. He was a man of considerable inches, being little short of six feet in height. He was powerfully built, although his clothes disguised the fact to a large extent, and his height made him look even slim. He had a strong, keen, plain face that was very large-featured, and would undoubtedly have been downright ugly but for an expression of kindly patience, not unmixed with a suspicion of amused tolerance. It was the face of a man in whom women like to place confidence, and with whom men never attempt to take liberties. He had, too, a charm of manner unusual in men living the rough life of the prairie.

The tinkling strains of the waltz had ceased, and Prudence went back to the parlour. She felt that it was high time to set the tables for “progressive euchre.” It was past eight and Grey had not turned up. She began to think he intended carrying out his threat of staying away. Well, if he chose to do so he could. She wouldn’t ask him to do otherwise. She felt unhappy about him in spite of her brave thoughts.

Her announcement of cards was hailed with delight, and the guests departed with a rush to search the house for a sufficient number of small tables to cope with the requirements of the game.

In the kitchen George Iredale was slowly sipping a steaming glass of rye whisky toddy. He was seated in a rigid, high-backed arm-chair, well away from the huge cook-stove, at which Hephzibah Malling was presiding. Many kettles and saucepans stood steaming upon the black iron top, and the occasional opening and shutting of the ovens told of dainties which needed the old farm-wife’s most watchful care. Mrs. Malling’s occupation, however, did not interrupt her flow of conversation. George Iredale was a great favourite of hers.

“He’s like his poor father in some things,” she was saying, as she lifted a batch of small biscuits out of the oven and moved towards the ice-box with them. “He never squealed about his misfortune to me. Not one letter did I get asking for help. He’s proud, is Hervey. And now I don’t know, I’m sure.”

She paused with her hand on the open door of the refrigerator and looked back into the man’s face.

“Did he tell you any details of his failure? What was responsible for it?” Iredale asked, poising his glass on one of the unyielding arms of his chair.

“No, that he didn’t, not even that,” in a tone of pride. “He just said he’d failed. That he was ‘broke.’ He’s too knocked up with travelling he’s come from Winnipeg right here or you should hear it from his own lips. He never blamed no one.”

“Ah and you are going to help him, Mrs. Malling. What are you going to do?”

“That’s where I’m fixed some. Money he can have all he wants.”

Iredale shook his head gravely.

“Bad policy, Mrs. Malling until you know all the facts.”

“What, my own flesh and blood, too? Well, there ”

“I mean nothing derogatory to your boy, believe me,” interrupted Iredale, as he noted the heightened colour of face and the angry sparkle that flashed in the good dame’s eyes “I simply mean that it is useless to throw good money after bad. Fruit farming is a lottery in which the prizes go to those who take the most tickets. In other words, it is a question of acreage. A small man may lose his crop through blight, drought, a hundred causes. The larger man has a better chance by reason of the extent of his crop. Now I should take it, you could do better for your son by obtaining all the facts, sorting them out and then deciding what to do. My experience prompts me to suggest another business. Why not the farm?”

All signs of resentment had left Mrs. Malling’s face. She deposited her biscuits and returned to the stove, standing before her guest with her hands buried deep in her apron pockets and a delighted smile on her face.

“That’s just what I thought at once,” she said. “You’re real smart, George; why not the farm? I says that to myself right off. I couldn’t do better, I know, but there’s drawbacks. Yes, drawbacks. Hervey isn’t much for the petticoats meaning his own folks. He’s not one to play second fiddle, so to speak. Now while I live the farm is mine, and I learned my business from one who could teach me my Silas. Now I’d make Hervey my foreman and give him a good wage. He’d have all he wants, but he’d have to be my foreman.” The old lady shook her head dubiously.

“And you think Hervey wouldn’t accept a subordinate position?”

“He’s that proud. Just like my poor Silas,” murmured the mother.

“Then he’s a fool. But you try him,” Iredale said dryly.

“Do you think he might?”

“You never can tell.”

“I wonder now if you yes, I’ll ask him.”

“Offer it to him, you mean.” George Iredale smiled quietly.

“Yes, offer it to him,” the old lady corrected herself thoughtfully. “But I’m forgetting my stewing oysters, and Mistress Prudence will get going on for she had them sent up all the way from St. John’s if they’re burned.” She turned to one of the kettles and began stirring at once. “Hervey is coming back after he’s been to Niagara, and I’ll talk to him then. I wish you could have seen him before he went, but he’s abed.”

“Never mind, there’s time enough when he comes back. Ah, Prudence, how is the euchre ’progressing’?” Iredale turned as the girl came hurriedly in.

“Oh, here you are. You two gossiping as usual. Mother, it’s too bad of you to rob me of my guests. But I came to ask for more lemonade.”

“Dip it out of yonder kettle, child. And you can take George off at once. It’s high time he got at the cards.”

“He’s too late, the game is nearly over. He’ll have to sit out with Leslie. He, also, was too late. Come along, Mr. Iredale,” she had filled the lemonade pitcher, “and, mother, when shall you be ready with the supper? Remember, you’ve got to come and give out the prizes to the winners before that.”

“Also to the losers,” put in Iredale.

“Yes, they must all have prizes. What time, mother?”

“In an hour. And be off, the pair of you. Mary! Mary!” the old lady called out, moving towards the summer kitchen. “Bustle about, girl, and count down the plates from the dresser. La, look at you,” she went on, as the hired girl came running in; “where’s the cap I gave you? And for good-a-mussey’s sake go and scrub your hands. My, but girls be jades.”

Iredale and Prudence went off to the parlour. The game was nearly over, and the guests were laughing and chattering noisily. The excitement was intense. Leslie Grey sat aloof. He was engaged in a pretence at conversation with Sarah Gurridge, but, to judge by the expression of his face, his temper was still sulky or his thoughts were far away. The moment Iredale entered the room Grey’s face lit up with something like interest.

Prudence, accompanying the rancher, was quick to observe the change. She had been prepared for something of the sort, although the reason she assigned to his interest was very wide of the mark. She smiled to herself as she turned to reply to something Iredale had just said.

The evening passed in boisterous jollification. And after the prizes had been awarded supper was served. A solid supper, just such a repast as these people could and did appreciate. The delicacies Mrs. Malling offered to her guests were something to be remembered. She spared no pains, and even her enemies, if she had any, which is doubtful, admitted that she could cook; such an admission amongst the prairie folks was a testimonial of the highest order.

After supper George Iredale, whose quiet manner and serious face debarred him from the revels of the younger men, withdrew to a small work-room which was usually set aside on these occasions for the use of those who desired to smoke. Leslie Grey, who had been talking to Mrs. Malling, and who had been watching for this opportunity, quickly followed.

He fondly believed that Iredale came to the farm to thrust his attentions upon Prudence. This was exasperating enough in itself, but when Grey, in his righteous indignation, thought of other matters pertaining to the owner of Lonely Ranch, his indignation rose to boiling pitch. He meant to have it out with him to-night.

Iredale had already adjusted himself into a comfortable chintz-covered arm-chair when Grey arrived upon the scene. A great briar pipe hung from the corner of his strong, decided mouth, and he was smoking thoughtfully.

Grey moved briskly to another chair and flung himself into its depths with little regard for its age. Nor did he attempt to smoke. His mind was too active and disturbed for anything so calm and soothing.

His first words indicated the condition of his mind.

“Kicking up a racket in there,” he said jerkily, indicating the parlour. “Can’t stand such a noise when I’ve got a lot to think about.”

“No.” Iredale nodded his head and spoke without removing the pipe from his mouth.

“We are to be married to-morrow week Prudence and I.”

“So I’ve been told. I congratulate you.”

Iredale looked at his companion with grave eyes. They were quite alone in the room. He had met Grey frequently and had learned to understand his ways and to know his bull-headed methods. Now he quietly waited. He had a shrewd suspicion that the man had something unpleasant to say. Unconsciously his teeth closed tighter upon his pipe.

Grey raised his eyebrows.

“Thanks. I hardly expected it.”

“And why not?” Iredale was smiling, his grey eyes had a curious look in them something between quizzical amusement and surprise.

“Oh, I don’t know,” the other retorted with a shrug. “There is no telling how some men will take these things.”

Iredale removed his pipe, and pressed the ash down with his little finger. The operation required the momentary lowering of his eyes from his companion’s face.

“I don’t think I understand you.”

Grey laughed unpleasantly.

“There’s not much need of comprehension. If two men run after the same girl and one succeeds where the other fails, the successful suitor doesn’t usually expect congratulations from his unfortunate rival.”

“Supposing such to be the case in point,” Iredale replied quietly, but with an ominous lowering of his eyelids. “Mark you, I only say ‘supposing.’ I admit nothing to you. The less successful man may surely be honest enough, and man enough, to wish his rival well. I have known such cases among men.”

Grey twisted himself round in his chair and assumed a truculent attitude.

“Notwithstanding the fact that the rival in question never loses an opportunity of seeking out the particular girl, and continuing his attentions after she is engaged to the other? That may be the way among men. But not honest men.”

The expression of Iredale’s face remained quite calm. Only his eyes keen, direct-gazing eyes lit up with an angry sparkle. He drew a little more rapidly at his pipe, perhaps, but he spoke quietly still. He quite understood that Grey intended forcing a quarrel upon him.

“I shall not pretend to misunderstand you, Grey. Your manner puts that out of the question. You are unwarrantably accusing me of a most ungentlemanly proceeding. Such an accusation being made by any one what shall I say? more responsible than you, I should take considerable notice of; as it is, it is hardly worth my consideration. You are at best a blunderer. I should pause before I replied had I the misfortune to be you, and try to recollect where you are. If you wish to quarrel there is time and place for so doing.”

Iredale’s words stung Leslie Grey to the quick. His irresponsible temper fairly jumped within him, his eyes danced with rage, and he could scarcely find words to express himself.

“You may sneer as much as you like,” he at length blurted out, “but you cannot deny that your visits to this house are paid with the object of addressing my affianced wife. You are right when you describe such conduct as ungentlemanly. You are no gentleman! But I do not suppose that the man who owns Lonely Ranch will feel the sting of being considered a a cad or anything else.”

“Stop!” Iredale was roused, and there was no mistaking the set of his square jaw and the compression between his brows. “You have gone a step too far. You shall apologize or ”

“Stop eh? You may well demand that I should stop, Mr. George Iredale. Were I to go on you would have a distinctly bad time of it. But my present consideration is not with the concerns of Lonely Ranch, but only with your visits here, which shall cease from to-day out. And as for apologizing for anything I have said, I’ll see you damned first.”

There was a pause; a breathless pause. The two men confronted each other, both held calm by a strength which a moment ago would have seemed impossible in at least one of them.

Grey’s face worked painfully with suppressed excitement, but he gripped himself. George Iredale was calm under the effort of swift thought. He was the first to break the silence, and he did so in a voice well modulated and under perfect control. But the mouthpiece of his pipe was nearly bitten through.

“Now I shall be glad if you will go on. You apparently have further charges to make against me. I hardly know whether I am in the presence of a madman or a fool. One or the other, I am sure. You may as well make your charges at once. You will certainly answer for all you have already said, so make the list of your accusations complete before ”

“You fool!” hissed Grey, goaded to the last extremity of patience. His headlong nature could not long endure restraint. Now his words came with a blind rush.

“Do you think I’d speak without being sure of my ground? Do you think, because other men who have occupied the position which is mine at Ainsley have been blind, that I am? Lonely Ranch; a fitting title for your place,” with a sneer. “Lonely! in neighbourhood, yes, but not as regards its owner. You are wealthy, probably the wealthiest man in the province of Manitoba; why, that alone should have been sufficient to set the hounds of the law on your trail. I know the secret of Lonely Ranch. I have watched day after day the notice you have inserted in the Free Press ’Yellow booming slump in Grey.’ Nor have I rested until I discovered your secret. I shall make no charge here beyond what I have said, but ”

He suddenly broke off, awakening from his blind rage to the fact of what he was doing. His mouth shut like a trap, and beads of perspiration broke out upon his forehead. His eyes lowered before the ironical gaze of his companion. Thus he sat for a moment a prey to futile regrets. His anger had undone him. The sound of a short laugh fell upon his ears, and, as though drawn by a magnet, his eyes were once more turned on the face of the rancher.

“I was not sure which it was,” said Iredale dryly; “whether you were a fool or a madman. Now I know. I had hoped that it was madness. There is hope for a madman, but none for a fool. Thank you, Grey, for the information you have supplied me with. Your folly has defeated your ends. Remember this. You will never be able to use the ’Secret’ as you are pleased to call it of Lonely Ranch. I will take good care of that. And now, as I hear sounds of people running up-stairs, we will postpone further discussion. This interview has been prolonged sufficiently more than sufficiently for you.”

Iredale rose from his chair; to all appearance he was quite undisturbed. Grey’s condition was exactly the reverse.

He, too, rose from his seat. There was a sound of some one approaching the door. Grey stepped up to his companion and put his mouth close to his ear.

“Don’t forget that you cannot conceal the traces that are round your ranch. Traces which are unmistakable to those who have an inkling of the truth.”

“No, but I can take steps which will effectually nullify the exertions you have been put to. Remember you said I was wealthy. I am tired of your stupid long-winded talk.”

Iredale turned away with a movement of disgust and irritation just as the door opened and Prudence came in.

“Ah, here you are, you two. I have been wondering where you were all this time. Do you know the people are going home?”

The girl ceased speaking abruptly and looked keenly at the two men before her. Iredale was smiling; Grey was gazing down at the stove, and apparently not listening to her.

Prudence saw that something was wrong, but she had no suspicion of the truth. She wondered; then she delivered a message she had brought and dismissed Iredale.

“Mother wants to see you, Mr. Iredale; something about Hervey.”

“I will go to her at once.” And the owner of Lonely Ranch passed out of the room.

The moment the door closed behind him the girl turned anxiously to her lover.

“What is it, Leslie dear? You are not angry with me still?”

The man laughed mirthlessly.

“Angry? No, child. I wonder if I no, better not. It’s time to be off. Give me a kiss, and I’ll say good-night.”