Read CHAPTER XVII of The Hound From The North , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

THE LAST OF LONELY RANCH

There are moments which come in all lives when calm reflection is powerless to influence the individual acts; when calmness, even in the most phlegmatic natures, is impossible; when a tide of impulse sweeps us on, giving us not even so much as a breathless, momentary pause in which to consider the result of our headlong career. We blunder on against every jagged obstacle, lacerated and bleeding, jolting cruelly from point to point, whither our passions irresistibly drive us. It is a blind, reckless journey, from which there is no escape when the tide sets in. We see our goal ahead, and we fondly believe that because it is ahead we must come to it. We do not consider the awful road we travel, nor the gradual exhaustion which is overtaking us. We do not realize that we must fall by the wayside for lack of strength, nor even, if our strength be sufficient to carry us on to the end, do we ask ourselves, shall we be able to draw aside out of the raging torrent when our goal is reached? or shall we be swept on to the yawning Beyond where, for evermore, we must continue to struggle hopelessly to return? Once give passion unchecked sway, and who can say what the end will be?

It was at such a moment in her life at which Prudence had arrived. Her mind was set upon an object which absorbed all her faculties, all her brain, all her feelings. Had she been able to pause, even for one moment, reason must have asserted itself and she would have understood the folly of what she was doing. But that moment was denied her. All the latent passions of a strong nature had been let loose and she was swept on by their irresistible tide. She believed that she was the appointed avenger of the man she had once loved, and that this duty unfulfilled would be a crime, the stain of which nothing could wipe out. Iredale must be confronted, challenged, and

And so she came to Lonely Ranch on her self-imposed errand of justice.

The man she sought was not in the house when she came. The valley seemed to be devoid of life as she rode up. But the solitude was almost instantly broken by the appearance of Chintz from the region of the barn. She dispatched him in search of his master and passed into the bachelor sitting-room to await his coming.

She was restless and her nerves were strung to a great tension. Her eyes still shone with that peculiar light which ever seemed to look out of her brother’s. There was no yielding in the set of her mouth. Her resolve disfigured the sweetness which usually characterized her beautiful features.

She stood before the window, looking out upon the shadow-bathed valley. She saw before her the dark wall of foliage which rose to the heights of the Front Hill. Not a living soul was about, only was there a rising wind which disturbed the unbroken forest of pines. She turned abruptly from the view as though she could not bear the solitude which was thus made so apparent. She crossed over to where the bookcase stood against the wall, and glanced in through the glazed doors. But she comprehended nothing of what she saw. She was thinking, thinking, and her mind was in a tumult of hysterical fancies. And she was listening too; listening for a sound any sound other than that which the wind made. Mechanically she came over to the table and leant against it in an attitude of abstraction. She shivered; she stood up to steady herself and she shivered again. And all the time the frenzied eyes gleamed in their beautiful oval setting, the lips were drawn inwards, and there remained only a sharply-defined line to mark the sweet mouth. Presently her lips parted and she moistened them with her tongue. A fever seemed to be upon her, and mouth and throat were parched.

Suddenly the sound for which she waited came. She darted eagerly to the window and saw Chintz pass round in the direction of the barn. Then she saw the burly figure of the man she was awaiting appear in the clearing fronting the house.

George Iredale came along at a robust gait. He was clad in moleskin riding-breeches, much stained with clay, as though he had been digging; a soft shirt, the sleeves of which were rolled up above the elbow; his Stetson hat was adjusted at the correct angle upon his head; and he wore a pair of tan-coloured field boots, much smeared with the signs of toil. He came rapidly towards the house. There was nothing furtive, nothing guilty about this man’s bearing; he came readily to meet his visitor, and his appearance was the confident bearing of a man who has little to fear.

She saw him look towards the window where she stood, and his smile of welcome set her nerves tingling with a sensation she failed to understand. Her hand went round to the pocket of her linen riding-skirt and remained there. She heard his step in the hall; she heard him approach and turn the door handle. As he came into the room she faced him.

“Why, Prudence, this is a delightful ” he began. But she interrupted him coldly.

“One moment,” she said, and her voice was hoarse with the dryness of her throat. “I have not come over for any visit of pleasure, but strictly upon a matter of of business. There are some explanations which we both need to make, but more especially you.”

“Yes.”

Iredale was gazing earnestly into the face before him. He was trying to fathom the meaning of her coldness. For the moment he wondered; then, slowly, he began to understand that Hervey had been at work.

“You got my note,” he said, choosing to ignore the result of his observations. “My delay in calling at the farm was unavoidable. I am in the midst of disposing of my ranch. I had not expected that I should have been called upon to do so so soon. I beg that you will forgive me what must seem an unwarrantable delay.”

Prudence’s nerves were so strung that she felt as though she could strike him for his calm words. Her condition demanded the opposition of passion equal to her own. His coolness maddened her. So long had she dwelt upon the accusation Hervey had brought against him that she believed in this man’s guilt. The evidence of her own senses had militated against him, and now she steeled herself in an armour of unbelief. But, in spite of herself, the dictates of her heart were struggling hard to find the joints of her armour. Nor were the struggles lessened now that she stood confronting him. His coolness, though maddening to her, was not without effect. The moral influence he wielded was great.

She backed to the table; then she plunged into the subject of her mission without further preamble. Her eyes stared straight into his, and her tones sounded incisively in the stillness of the room.

“I little knew the man whom I was listening to when he offered me his life, nor had I an idea of how near I was to the man who inspired the words which have appeared in the paper the words which were the last Leslie Grey ever uttered. What must have been your feelings when I told you that I knew their author to be a murderer?” Then, with scathing bitterness: “But your feelings must have long since been dead dead as the poor creature you so wantonly sent to his reckoning. The time has come for you to defend yourself; that is, if defence you can offer. No flimsy excuse or extenuation will cover you. Even the Scriptures teach us that the penalty is ‘a life for a life.’ Yours is the hand that struck Leslie down, and now you must face the consequences of your wanton act.”

Iredale’s quiet eyes never attempted to avoid the girl’s direct gaze, nor did he flinch as the accusation fell from her lips. Never was he more alert, never more gently disposed towards this half-demented creature than at that moment. He recognized the hand that had been at work, and he laid no blame upon her. His feelings were of sorrow sorrow for the woman he loved, and sorrow for himself. But his thoughts were chiefly for her. He knew, as she had said, that his time had come.

“So Hervey has been to you to sell the discovery which I rejected at the price he asked. He told you that I was a smuggler; that the announcement in the paper was mine. And did he tell you that I was the murderer of Leslie Grey? Or did your heart prompt you to that conclusion?”

The girl supported herself against the table with one hand, and the other was still in the pocket behind her. Iredale noted these things without moving his eyes from her face.

“Hervey told me the facts and the inevitable proof they bore. Nor was his statement exaggerated. My own reason told me that.”

The man sighed. He had hoped that the work had been only of the brother’s doings. He had hoped that she had come bearing Hervey’s accusation and not her own.

“Go on,” he said.

“I know you for what you really are, George Iredale. And now I have come to you to give you the chance of defending yourself. No man must be condemned without a hearing. Neither shall you. The evidence against you is overwhelming; I can see no escape for you. But speak, if you have anything to say in your defence, and I will listen. I charge you with the murder of Leslie Grey.”

Just for one brief moment Iredale felt a shiver pass through his body. The icy tones of the girl’s voice, the seemingly dispassionate words filled him with a horror unspeakable. Then he pulled himself together. He was on his defence before the one person in the world from whose condemnation he shrank. He did not answer at once. He wished to make no mistake. When at last he spoke his words came slowly as though he weighed well each syllable before he gave it utterance.

“With one exception all that Hervey has doubtless said of me is true. I am a smuggler; I inspired that line in the paper; but I am no murderer. Leslie Grey’s life was sacred to me at the time if only for the reason that he was your affianced husband. I loved you at that time as I have loved you for years, and all my thoughts and wishes were for your happiness. It would have made you happy to have married Grey, therefore I wished that you should marry him. I am quite unchanged. I will tell you now what neither you nor Hervey knows, even though it makes my case look blacker. I knew that Grey was on my track. I knew that he had discovered my secret. How he had done so I cannot say. He quarrelled with me, and, in the heat of his anger, told me of his intentions. It was late one night at a card-party at your house, and just before he was so foully murdered. No doubt you, or any right-minded person for that matter, will say that this evidence only clinches the case against me. But, in spite of it, I assert my innocence. Amongst my many sins the crime Hervey charges me with” he purposely avoided associating the charge with her “is not numbered. Can I hope that you will believe me?”

The gentle tones in which the burly man spoke, the earnest fearlessness which looked out from his quiet eyes, gave infinite weight to all he said. Prudence shook her head slowly, but the fire in her eyes was less bright, and the voice of her own heart crying out began to make itself heard in the midst of her chaotic thought.

She tried to stiffen herself for the task she had undertaken, but the result was not all she sought Still, she replied coldly

“How can I believe with all the black evidence against you? You, in all this region, were the one man interested in Leslie’s death. His life meant penitentiary to you; his death meant liberty. Your own words tell me that. How can I believe such a denial as you now make? Tell me, have you no proof to offer? Account for the day on which Leslie met his death; prove your movements upon that day.”

The girl’s denial of belief was belied by the eagerness in her voice. For one brief instant a flash of hope rose in her. She saw a loophole for her lover. She longed to believe him. But the hope died down, leaving her worse distracted for its coming.

For Iredale did not speak, and his face assumed a look of gloom.

“Ah, you cannot you cannot,” she went on hysterically. “I might have known, I did know.” A world of passion again leapt into her eyes. Then something of the woman broke through her anger, and a heart-breaking piteousness sounded in her voice. “Oh, why, why did you do this thing? Why did you stain your hands with such a crime as murder? What would his living have meant to you? At worst the penitentiary. Was it worth it to destroy thus the last chance of your immortal soul? Oh, God! And to think of it! A murderer!” Then the fierce anger became dominant once more. “But you shall not escape. Your crime shall be expiated as far as human crimes can be expiated. The gallows awaits you, George Iredale, and your story shall be told to the world. You shall hang unless you can give to judge and jury a better denial than you have given to me.” She suddenly broke off. A whistling indrawn breath startled the man before her. She gazed round her wildly; she had remembered what she had come for. She had forgotten when she had talked of “judge and jury.” Her face assumed a ghastly hue at the recollection. Her eyes alone still told of the madness that possessed her.

Nor was Iredale without an uneasy feeling at what he saw that catch of breath; that hunted look as she gazed about the room. Intuition served him in the moment of crisis. What was the meaning? Why was that hand concealed in her dress? There was only one possible answer to such questions, and he read the answer aright.

“Prudence,” he said, in his deep musical voice, whilst his keen eyes riveted her attention, “I can prove my innocence of the crime you charge me with. Listen to me patiently, and I will tell you how. Do not let your anger drive you to any rash act which might bring you lifelong regret.”

The girl made a sharp ejaculation. But she did not attempt to interrupt him.

“I can prove that I was not within three hundred miles of this place on the day of Leslie’s death,” the man went on. “That I was in a city to the west of here distributing” bitterly “my wares. I can prove all this to you. And I intend that before you leave me to-day you shall be a witness to my innocence, even against all prejudice. But before judge and jury it will be different very different.” He sighed. “There I cannot prove my innocence, for to do so would be to betray my comrades those who have traded with me and trusted me and send them to the penal servitude which also awaits me.” His eyes had become reflective. He seemed to be talking to himself now rather than to the woman before him. “No, I cannot save myself at such a cost. Even to escape the gallows I will not play the part of Judas.”

The woman made no reply. She stood staring at him with all that was best in her shining in her eyes. She was trying to follow his every word and to take his meaning, and the one thought which dominated her whole mind was his expressed ability to prove his innocence to her.

He seemed to awake from some melancholy reverie, and again his eyes sought hers.

“Do you wish me to prove my innocence?”

“Yes; you must you shall!”

The girl moved from the table; and, for the first time during the interview, her hand was removed from the pocket in her skirt. Hope filled the heart in which but now the fires of hell had seemed to burn. She drank in his words with a soul-consuming thirst The proof! That was what she required.

Iredale went on with grave gentleness.

“The proof is in here.” He moved to the bookcase and opened a secret recess in the back of it, “In this cupboard.”

He produced a pile of books and brought them to the table. Picking out one he opened it at the date of Grey’s death. It was a diary. He read out the entries for the entire week, all of which bore out his testimony. Every one was dated at a different town or village, and related to his sales of opium. He then opened another book and showed the entries of his sales and the figures. He went through the whole pile, book after book, and all of them bore out his statement as to his whereabouts. Then he produced several contracts; these were deeds between himself and various traders, and were dated at the towns at which they were signed. Each book and paper he passed on to Prudence for her scrutiny, drawing her attention to the corroboration in the evidence. There could be no doubt as to the genuineness of these facts, and the girl’s last shadowy doubts of his innocence evaporated before the overwhelming detail. The hope which had filled her heart was now replaced by a triumphant joy. This man had shown her, had convinced her, and she wanted nothing more at that moment.

She looked up into his face, hoping to see a reflection of her own happiness in it. But there was no happiness there. His face was calm, but the melancholy had deepened in his eyes. What she saw came like an icy douche to her, and the happy expression died upon her lips. She suddenly remembered that he had said he could not use this evidence to publicly declare his innocence.

“But ” she began.

He shook his head. He knew that she wished to protest. For a moment they looked into each other’s eyes. Then the woman, the weaker, broke down under the strain. Tears came to her eyes, and she poured out all the pent-up grief of her hours of misery.

“Oh, George,” she cried, “can you ever forgive my wickedness? I ought never to have believed. My heart told me that you were innocent; but the evidence oh, the evidence. I could see no loophole. Everything pointed to you you. And I, wretch that I am, I believed.” And the girl sobbed as though her heart would break. Iredale made no attempt to soothe her; he felt that it would be good for her to weep. She leant against the table, and after a while her sobs quietened. Then the man touched her upon the shoulder.

“Don’t cry, Prue; my heart bleeds for you when I listen to your sobs. You’re not to blame for believing me guilty. Twelve jurymen will shortly do the same, and who can blame them?” He shrugged. “I must face the ‘music’ and take my chance. And now, child,” he added, his hand still resting upon her shoulder, and smiling down upon her from his superior height, “give me that which you have concealed in your pocket. We will throw it away.”

Prudence sprang up and moved beyond his reach.

“No, no! I can’t! Don’t ask me. Spare me the shame of it. As you love me, George, don’t ask me for it.”

“As you will, dear; I merely wished to rid ourselves of an ugly presence. While we are together and it may not be for long now nothing should come between us, least of all that.”

The girl’s tears had dried. She looked over at her lover. His compelling influence was upon her. She paused irresolute; then she plunged her hand into her pocket and drew forth a large revolver.

“Here, take it. Take it, and do what you like with it” Then she laughed bitterly. “You know me as I am now. I brought that to shoot you with, and afterwards to shoot myself. You see, I am a murderess at heart.” And she smiled bitterly.

Iredale took the weapon and placed it in his bookcase. Then he came to the girl’s side and put his arm tenderly about her shoulders.

“Forget it, child; forget it as you would a hideous dream. Your feelings were forced upon you by well, through my wretched doings. That which I have done to gain wealth has brought only what might have been expected in its train. No work of evil is without its sting, and, as is always the case, that sting seeks out the most sensitive part of its victim. The chastisement for my wrongdoing has been inflicted with cruel cunning, for you, Prue, have been made to suffer; thus is my punishment a hundredfold greater.”

He drew her to him as he spoke, and gently smoothed her dark hair. Under the influence of his touch and the sound of his voice, the girl calmed. She nestled close to his side, and for a moment abandoned herself to the delight of being with him. But her thoughts would not remain idle for long. Suddenly she released herself and moved to arm’s length from him.

“George,” she said, in a tone of suppressed eagerness, “they cannot try you for for murder. You will tell them. You will show them all these. For my sake, for the sake of all your friends, you will not let them condemn you. Oh, you can’t allow it. Think,” she went on, more passionately; “no men would willingly let you be declared guilty when they know you to be innocent. It must not be.”

Iredale gave no outward sign. He had turned his face away and was gazing in the direction of the window. His reflective eyes looked out upon the valley, but his resolve was written plainly in them.

“Do not tempt me, Prue,” he said quietly. “Were I to do otherwise than I have resolved, and obtained an acquittal thereby, I should live a life of utter regret. I should despise myself; I should loathe my own shadow. Nothing could be more revolting to me than the man who plays the part of a traitor, and were I that man life would be impossible to me. Think of it only for one moment, sweetheart, and your own good heart will tell you how impossible is that which you ask me to do. It cannot be. All the world would despise me. But even so, its utmost execration would be nothing compared with my own feelings at the thought that I had saved myself by such methods.” He withdrew his hand from her embrace. “No, when the time comes and I am forced to stand my trial for Grey’s murder, I shall face it. Nor shall I betray my friends by one single word. And, too, when that time comes there will not remain one single trace of the traffic which has hitherto been part of my very existence. There shall be no possible chance of discovery for those who have trusted me. Your brother Hervey will never hold his hand. I know that. I realized that when he left me after seeking ‘blackmail.’ His vindictive nature will see this through. And perhaps I would rather have it so. It will then be settled once and for all. I may get off, but I fear that it will be otherwise.”

At the mention of her brother’s name, Prudence started, and the blood receded from her anxious face, leaving it ghastly in its pallor. She had forgotten that he was even now on his way to Winnipeg for the express purpose of denouncing Iredale. For one instant she shook like an aspen. Then she recovered herself. What was to be done? She tried to think. This matter of Hervey was of her doing. She had driven him to it; urged him to it. Now she realized the full horror of what her foolish credulity had led her into. It had been in her power to stay his hand, at least to draw his fangs. Now it was too late. Suddenly she turned upon her lover in one final appeal. At that moment it seemed the only chance of saving him.

“George, there is a way out of it all; one last resource if you will only listen to me. You love me even in spite of the way I have wronged you. You belong to me if only by reason of our love. You have no right to throw your life away when you are innocent. God knows I honour you for your decision not to betray your companions. If it were possible, I love you more than ever. But the sin would be as great to throw your life away for such a shadow as it would be to deliver your friends up to justice. You can save yourself; you must. The border is near. We are right on it. Surely the way you have brought the Chinese into the country should provide an exit for us. Oh, my poor love, will you not listen to me? Will you not give me the life I crave? George, let us go together.”

Her words came passionately. She had stepped forward and placed her two brown hands upon his great shoulders, and her dark, earnest eyes gazed lovingly up into his.

The temptation was a sore one, and the man found it hard to resist. He experienced a sudden rush of blood to the brain. His body seemed to be on fire. He was pulsating with a mad passion. The thought of what she suggested came near to overthrowing his sternest resolve. To go with her. To have her evermore by his side. The thought was maddening. Surely he had never realized until that moment how dearly he loved this woman. But his strong nature came to his rescue in time. The passion had died down as swiftly as it had risen and left him cold and collected.

He gazed down into the brown eyes ever so kindly, ever so lovingly; and his answer came in a tone so gentle that the girl felt that whatever the future might hold for them, this moment had been worth living for.

“No, no, sweetheart. Not flight, even though you would be my companion. We love one another dearly, and for that very fact I could never allow myself to remain under this cloud. At all costs we will have the matter cleared. I owe it to you, to those at the farm, and to myself.”

The girl’s hands dropped to her sides and she turned away. Then all the agony of her soul found vent in one exclamation.

“Oh, God!” she cried. And with that last cry came the revealing flash which answered the question she had so repeatedly asked herself. She turned back to her lover, and the agonized expression of her face had changed, and in her eyes was the eager light of excitement. Iredale saw the change, but did not recognize its meaning. He felt that she must no longer remain there.

“Child, I want you to go back to the farm and tell them of the accusation that has been brought against me. Tell them all the circumstances of it. Tell them that I have clearly convinced you of my innocence; but, as you love me, I charge you not to reveal the manner in which it was done. Tell your mother that I shall come over to-morrow, and she shall hear the whole story from my own lips. I wish to do this that she may hear my version before she reads of what must happen in the papers. After that I shall go into Winnipeg and set the law in motion. I will clear myself or otherwise. But on your honour you must promise that all I have shown you to-day remains a secret between us.”

Prudence listened intently to all he said, but a quiet look of resolve slowly crept into her eyes.

“I promise,” she said, and Iredale thanked her with a look.

There was the briefest of pauses; then she went on

“On one condition.”

“What do you mean?”

Iredale looked his surprise.

“Now you must hear me, George,” she went on eagerly. “You have charged me with this thing. You must abide by my time. A day more or less can make little difference to you.”

“But I wish to give myself up before others can make the charge.”

“Just so. And in the meantime I want your promise not to come to the farm until the” she paused to make a swift mental calculation “day after to-morrow at four o’clock in the afternoon.”

“Tell me your reason.”

“That is my own.” The girl was smiling now. Then she again became excited. “Promise, promise, promise! There is no time to lose. Even now I fear we are too late.”

Iredale looked dubiously at her. Suddenly he saw her face darken.

“Promise!” she demanded almost fiercely, “or I will not abide by my promise to you.”

“I promise.”

An expression of relief came into Prudence’s eyes, and she stepped towards him and looked up into his face.

“Good-bye, George, dearest.”

The man suddenly clasped her in a bear-like embrace and rained passionate, burning kisses on her upturned lips. Then quietly she released herself. She stood away from him holding one of his great hands in both of hers.

“Quick! Now my horse.”

Iredale departed, and Prudence was left alone. She stood looking after him thinking, thinking.

“Can I do it?” she asked herself.

Damside City was the nearest telegraph station. It lay nearly thirty-five miles due west of Owl Hoot It was merely a grain station for the district and in no sense a village. She must make that point and so intercept Hervey with a telegraphic message. It was her one chance. In spite of her lover she would buy Hervey’s silence, and trust to the future to set the rest straight. She was strong and her horse was good. She must reach the office before it was closed at six o’clock that evening. She calculated it up; she had just three hours in which to cover the distance. She looked out of the window. The wind was blowing from the east; that was good, it would ease the horse. She looked up at the sky, there were a few clouds scudding westwards.

“Yes, I’ll do it,” she said at last, “if it kills poor Kitty.”

A moment later Iredale returned with the mare. The girl waited not a second. Her lover assisted her into the saddle reluctantly. He did not approve this sudden activity on the part of the girl. When she had settled herself she bent down, and their lips met in one long, passionate kiss.

“Good-bye, George.”

The man waved his adieu. His heart was too full to speak. She swung her mare round and galloped down the valley to the north. Her object was to clear the valley and then turn off to the west on the almost disused trail to Damside.

Iredale looked after her until the sound of the mare’s hoofs died away in the distance. He was filled with wonder at her strange request and her hurried departure. But his speculations brought him to no definite conclusions, and he turned abruptly and called to his man, Chintz.

The man hurried from the stable.

“We have been a little delayed. Is everything ready?” Iredale looked up at the sky, then down at the grizzled face before him.

Chintz nodded.

“Good. Then get to work. Start the first fire directly beyond the graveyard to the east. The wind is getting up steadily. You are sure there are no farms to the west of us, between here and Rosy River?”

The man gave a negative shake of the head.

“That’s all right then. There will be no damage done. And the river will cut the fire off. This time to-morrow we shall be homeless wanderers, Chintz you and I.” And the smuggler laughed bitterly.

Then his laugh died out.

“Well, to work. Set the fires going.”