Read CHAPTER XLI - SENSE AND NONSENSE of Man Size, free online book, by William MacLeod Raine, on ReadCentral.com.

Beresford speaking, to an audience of one, who listened with soft dark eyes aglow and sparkling.

“He’s the best scout ever came over the border, Jessie.  Trusty as steel, stands the gaff without whining, backs his friends to the limit, and plays the game out till the last card’s dealt and the last trick lost.  Tom Morse is a man in fifty thousand.”

“I know another,” she murmured.  “Every word you’ve said is true for him too.”

“He’s a wonder, that other.” admitted the soldier dryly.  “But we’re talking about Tom now.  I tell you that iron man dragged West and me out of the Barrens by the scruff of our necks.  Wouldn’t give up.  Wouldn’t quit.  The yellow in West came out half a dozen times.  When the ten-day blizzard caught us, he lay down and yelped like a cur.  I wouldn’t have given a plugged six-pence for our chances.  But Tom went out into it, during a little lull, and brought back with him a timber wolf.  How he found it, how he killed it, Heaven alone knows.  He was coated with ice from head to foot.  That wolf kept us and the dogs alive for a week.  Each day, when the howling of the blizzard died down a bit, Tom made West go down with him to the creek and get wood.  It must have been a terrible hour.  They’d come back so done up, so frozen, they could hardly stagger in with their jags of pine for the fire.  I never heard the man complain - not once.  He stood up to it the way Tom Sayers used to.”

The girl felt a warm current of life prickling swiftly through her.  “I love to hear you talk so generously of him.”

“Of my rival?” he said, smiling.  “How else can I talk?  The scoundrel has been heaping on me those coals of fire we read about.  I haven’t told you half of it - how he nursed me like a woman and looked after me so that I wouldn’t take cold, how he used to tuck me up in the sled with a hot stone at my feet and make short days’ runs in order not to wear out my strength.  By Jove, it was a deucedly unfair advantage he took of me.”

“Is he your rival?” she asked.

“Isn’t he?”

“In business?”

“How demure Miss McRae is,” he commented.  “Observe those long eyelashes flutter down to the soft cheeks.”

“In what book did you read that?” she wanted to know.

“In that book of suffering known as experience,” he sighed, eyes dancing.

“If you’re trying to tell me that you’re in love with some girl - ”

“Haven’t I been trying to tell you for a year?”

Her eyes flashed a challenge at him.  “Take care, sir.  First thing you know you’ll be on thin ice.  You might break through.”

“And if I did - ”

“Of course I’d snap you up before you could bat an eye.  Is there a girl living that wouldn’t?  And I’m almost an old maid.  Don’t forget that.  I’m to gather rosebuds while I may, because time’s flying so fast, some poet says.”

“Time stands still for you, my dear,” he bowed, with a gay imitation of the grand manner.

“Thank you.”  Her smile mocked him.  She had flirted a good deal with this young man and understood him very well.  He had no intention whatever of giving up the gay hazards of life for any adventure so enduring as matrimony.  Moreover, he knew she knew it.  “But let’s stick to the subject.  While you’re proposing - ”

“How you help a fellow along!” he laughed.  “Am I proposing?”

“Of course you are.  But I haven’t found out yet whether it’s for yourself or Mr. Morse.”

“A good suggestion - novel, too.  For us both, let’s say.  You take your choice.”  He flung out a hand in a gay debonair gesture.

“You’ve told his merits, but I don’t think I ever heard yours mentioned,” she countered.  “If you’d recite them, please.”

“It’s a subject I can do only slight justice.”  He bowed again.  “Sergeant Beresford, at your service, of the North-West Mounted.”

“Sergeant!  Since when?”

“Since yesterday.  Promoted for meritorious conduct in the line of duty.  My pay is increased to one dollar and a quarter a day.  In case happily your choice falls on me, don’t squander it on silks and satins, on trips to Paris and London - ”

“If I choose you, it won’t be for your wealth,” she assured him.

“Reassured, fair lady.  I proceed with the inventory of Sergeant Beresford’s equipment as a future husband.  Fond, but, alas! fickle.  A family black sheep, or if not black, at least striped.  Likely not to plague you long, if he’s sent on many more jobs like the last.  Said to be good-tempered, but not docile.  Kind, as men go, but a ne’er-do-well, a prodigal, a waster.  Something whispers in my ear that he’ll make a better friend than a husband.”

“A twin fairy is whispering the same in my ear,” the girl nodded.  “At least a better friend to Jessie McRae.  But I think he has a poor advocate in you.  The description is not a flattering one.  I don’t even recognize the portrait.”

“But Tom Morse - ”

“Exactly, Tom Morse.  Haven’t you rather taken the poor fellow for granted?” She felt an unexpected blush burn into her cheek.  It stained the soft flesh to her throat.  For she was discovering that the nonsense begun so lightly was embarrassing.  She did not want to talk about the feelings of Tom Morse toward her.  “It’s all very well to joke, but - ”

“Shall I ask him?” he teased.

She flew into a mild near-panic.  “If you dare, Win Beresford!” The flash in her eyes was no longer mirth.  “We’ll talk about something else.  I don’t think it’s very nice of us to - to - ”

“Tom retired from conversational circulation,” he announced.  “Shall we talk of cats or kings?”

“Tell me your plans, now you’ve been promoted.”

“Plans?  Better men make ’em.  I touch my hat, say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and help work ’em out.  Coming back to Tom for a minute, have you heard that the Colonel has written him a letter of thanks for the distinguished service rendered by him to the Mounted and suggesting that a permanent place of importance can be found for him on the Force if he’ll take it?”

“No.  Did he?  Isn’t that just fine?” The soft glow had danced into her eyes again.  “He won’t take it, will he?”

“What do you think?” His eyes challenged hers coolly.  He was willing, if he could, to discover whether Jessie was in love with his friend.

“Oh, I don’t think he should,” she said quickly.  “He has a good business.  It’s getting better all the time.  He’s a coming man.  And of course he’d get hard jobs in the Mounted, the way you do.”

“That’s a compliment, if it’s true,” he grinned.

“I dare say, but that doesn’t make it any safer.”

“They couldn’t give him a harder one than you did when you sent him into the Barrens to bring back West.”  His eyes, touched with humor and yet disconcertingly intent on information, were fixed steadily on hers.

The girl’s cheeks flew color signals.  “Why do you say that?  I didn’t ask him to go.  He volunteered.”

“Wasn’t it because you wanted him to?”

“I should think you’d be the last man to say that,” she protested indignantly.  “He was your friend, and he didn’t want you to run so great a risk alone.”

“Then you didn’t want him to go?”

“If I did, it was for you.  Maybe he blames me for it, but I don’t see how you can.  You’ve just finished telling me he saved your life a dozen times.”

“Did I say I was blaming you?” His warm, affectionate smile begged pardon if he had given offense.  “I was just trying to get it straight.  You wanted him to go that time, but you wouldn’t want him to go again.  Is that it?”

“I wouldn’t want either of you to go again.  What are you driving at, Win Beresford?”

“Oh, nothing!” He laughed.  “But if you think Tom’s too good to waste on the Mounted, you’d better tell him so while there’s still time.  He’ll make up his mind within a day or two.”

“I don’t see him.  He never comes here.”

“I wonder why.”

Jessie sometimes wondered why herself.