Summary: Bettina Bradlee had second thoughts after her hasty war marriage to Neil Carrington. He returned from service to find her recovering from a severe bout of flu and decidedly cool toward him. Bettina has gone to a Maine cabin to think things out, but Neil is there, too, investigating a lumber theft. We left Bettina in the company of Joe, a woodsman.
Today, the conclusion of our story…
As Bettina, racquets on feet, hatchet at her belt, and a small pack on her shoulders, entered the trail from the cabin, the light of morning was spreading low and wide behind the hills and the stars were disappearing one by one. The line of traps ran westward. Pack on back, rifle in hand, the Indian led the way. The air was clear and stingingly cold.
By the time the sun was high, he had taken three mink, a lynx, and a patch fox.
“Dat’s a’mighty beeg pity,” Joe volunteered as he skinned the fox. “Him might jes’s easy been black or gray an’ wort’ beeg money, yes, you bet. Darn shame, but he better’n red. Best move on,” he suggested.
“We mak camp here,” he announced later as they came to a small clearing dotted with thickets and rimmed with trees. Joe hung his skins from a branch and proceeded to make a small fire. He filled a kettle with snow and set it near the blaze. Then he cut fir boughs for a seat for the girl. She dropped onto them with a little sigh of relief. She was quite ready to rest and ravenously hungry. When the kettle boiled, she made tea, and when the fire died down a bit, she dangled strips of pink bacon from a forked stick over the heat. When it had sizzled and curled and browned, she laid it between thin crackers.
During lunch, the girl made attempts at conversation, but Joe answered with grunts or monosyllables; he was evidently not in a discursive mood. The clear air was without a breath of wind. A tiny column of smoke rose straight and unbroken from the dying fire till it lost itself in the brilliant sunshine.
“Are we going on, Joe?” Bettina asked as he busied himself scattering the embers of the fire and obliterating all traces of their camping place. He looked up to answer, then held up his hand suddenly.
“Look! he muttered in a strident whisper which brought the girl’s heart to her throat. She peered over his shoulder. Her eyes followed his pointing finger. Her throbbing pulse stopped, then raced madly on again. Plunging along under the trees a hundred yards in front of them, his head thrown back, his hoofs sending the snow in glittering mists about him, went a stag caribou.
“No wind. Him no sniff us,” whispered the guide. “Him seem in a’mighty beeg hurry. We strike dat trail, too. Mebbe we get good shot, what?” he stripped the case from his rifle as he looked at Bettina.
The girl crushed back temptation. She wasn’t hard enough yet to trail a caribou; she would only hamper the Indian. She shook her head. The guide’s usually impassive face was a closeup of misery.
“You go, Joe,” she insisted with a thrill of excitement in the whispered words. “I’ll wait here. You won’t be gone long and I’ll be perfectly safe. I have the revolver, matches, and a compass in my pack. You blazed every tree as we came along, so even if you are delayed, I can get back. Go get your caribou and we’ll surprise Mr. Carrington,” she urged.
His Indian instinct for the hunt overcame caution.
“You sure be a’mighty knowing’ in de forest. You stay here; I not be gone long,” he answered and glided off.
Bettina watched him till he reached th trail of the caribou, which led straight into a tangle of underbrush. Then she sank down upon the boughs to wait. The forest was so silent that the sudden, clean snapping of frost in the trees had the startling effect of popguns. She looked about her. Toward the west, between serried phalanxes of firs, mysterious alleys of unbroken white stretched alluringly. They sparkled with myriad tiny brilliants where the sun filtered through green branches.
As Bettina gazed dreamily, a white furry shape leaped into the foreground. For the fraction of a moment, it set on its hind quarters, stiffened its long ears, glanced warily from its bulging eyes, wrinkled its sensitive nostrils, then stretched its long body and hopped away, leaving an enticing trail of triplicate bunches of footprints on the glistening snow. It doubled out of sight behind a tree.
Bettina sprang to her feet, all thought of guide and fatigue forgotten.
“That’s a veritable Alice in Wonderland rabbit,” she exclaimed excitedly. I fully expected to hear it sigh: ‘O, my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!'” Her eyes flashed with daring. “That’s an idea, too,” she communed aloud. “I’ll follow the rabbit, as Alice did hers, and see what happens. I can easily find my own tracks back in that unbroken white.”
She traveled slowly, blazing the trees she passed carefully. She stopped for a moment to listen to the ghostly drill of a woodpecker on a dead tree trunk, then pushed on again.
With a suddenness which gave her pause, the sun disappeared. The forest grew colder. For a moment, the treetops seemed to whisper among themselves, the sky seemed to lower and turn gray, then with a soft rustle, the air filled with feathery flakes. They drifted down slowly at first, then faster and faster, till it seemed as though somewhere above, a feather pillow had been ripped open and its contents flung into the air. Bettina halted in consternation.
“Fools rush in where woodsmen fear to tread,” she paraphrased aloud. “You’ve said it, Bettina Carrington. Well, now that you’re in, let’s see you get yourself out without whimpering,” she admonished herself sternly. Already the tiny trail which had lured her was obliterated. She tried to retrace her steps, but the snow swept in a sort of blizzard and she could not distinguish the marks she had made.
She had lost her trail! A sudden terror of the vast, trackless white wilderness gripped her; her way seemed beset with lurking perils. She bit her lips hard to steady them. She could see weatherworn marks on the trees ahead. She must be on an old logging road. That was bound to lead somewhere. She must go on. To stand still would be madness.
She crushed down the hectic possibilities her imagination conjured and took out her compass. The logging road ran eastward. She had come from that direction in the morning. Slightly encouraged, she stumbled on. Low branches shook their load of soft snow upon her head as she passed under them. After a little she leaned against a tree to get her breath. She closed her eyes for a moment and when she opened them gasped with incredulity. Ahead of her loomed a shack!
Then and there, Bettina established a new speed record. Her snowshoes seemed to grow wings as she sped forward. The tightly closed door of the cabin yielded to her pressure. She sat on the threshold while she removed her racquets, then shook the snow from her clothing, cautiously peered into the house, entered, and closed the door behind her. The quiet seemed a bit portentous.
“Anybody at home?” she called softly.
There was no sound save the soft splash of snow against the windows. The room she was in was cold but dry. On one side loomed a fireplace of rough stone with a pile of wood beside it. Boxes, which in their fat days had doubtless held canned goods, had been made to serve as chairs and table, as on one of them stood an empty bottle, its neck fantastically adorned with candle grease. A lean and hungry looking king of spades scowled up at her from a playing card on the floor There were bunks on either side of the room. Bettina rallied her courage, dropped to her knees, and peered under each one of them. There was nothing but dust and dry leaves in the spaces, which were large enough to accommodate a man’s body.
“Silly! What would you have done had you found some one there?” she wondered aloud to keep herself company. Her eyes traveled stealthily to the card on the floor. “Just the same, I’m not crazy about finding that old king of spades here,” she confessed. “But why worry?” she laughed. Now that she was safe under cover, fear vanished and circulation was restored to her sense of humor. She had plenty to eat in her pack, Neil’s villainous looking sixshooter at her belt, there was wood for a fire, and the day was yet young. Joe would find her. He must. He would never dare face Neil without her. Besides, the snow might cease as suddenly as it had begun. The game of follow the rabbit hadn’t ended disastrously yet. She looked from the window and shook her head. She was too optimistic. The snow still fell steadily. Even the tracks she had made when approaching the cabin were obliterated. She latched the door, then noticed that there was another directly opposite.
“Two doors to guard and barricade in case of attack,” she thought whimsically. For some reason, her spirits refused to be depressed by her rather ticklish situation. She consulted her wrist watch. One o’clock! The early lunch and darkened sky had made it seem later. She cold easily get back to Neil’s cabin, if the snow stopped. Meanwhile, why not a fire? She laid her snowshoes and hatchet in one of the bunks. Their weight promptly settled them deep into the dry boughs with which it was filled. She was about to throw her mittens after them when a subdued stamping outside the rear door sent her spine crawling to the nape of her neck, whence it slowly wriggled down again.
Who was that! A movie of thieving lumbermen and joy-racqueting trappers reeled through her mind. Perhaps this was their gambling den, with a quick glance at the malevolent black king on the floor. With a stifled exclamation, she flung herself to her knees and slid under the bunk with lightning rapidity.
Whoever was outside was unaccustomed to the latch. How he fumbled! The door slowly and cautiously opened. For an instant the light of a lantern cast a dusky illumination about the room. Satisfied that the place was unoccupied, the visitor entered and closed the door. Bettina saw two moccasined feet, with rifle trailing behind, pad across to the box with the bottle and knew from the sound that the lantern was set down.
She disciplined her unruly breath and waited. It seemed hours to her excited fancy before the feet moved and began to pace back and forth. Once they paused before the bunk under which she lay flattened to the floor. Her world was a succession of flaming merry to rounds as she held her breath. Suppose the owner of those feet should sit on her racquets! She swallowed an excited sob just as the restless moccasins began to pace again. Suddenly, they stopped before the window. The girl risked detection in her effort to see to whom they belonged. She shrank back against the wall as she heard a guarded tap on the door by which she had entered. The person on the inside answered:
“Entrez, M’sieu’ Marks!”
Francois Lacross! Bettina gasped as she recognized the voice of the French trapper. What was he doing here so mysteriously? She had mistrusted him from the moment she had heard his suave, silky tones that morning. Joe didn’t believe in him, either.
Had she stumbled on a conspiracy? What would happen were she caught eavesdropping? She must not be caught. She might be on the trail of the lumber theft. By keeping a grip of steel on nerve and courage, she might be able to help Neil. A sudden, inexplicable wave of feeling swept her as she thought of him–why–what could it–the sound of an opening door brought her thoughts back with a rush to the matter at hand. She steadied her lips with her teeth as a second pair of moccasins appeared and took their place on the other side of the box. The newcomers were broad and stodgy and were planted far apart.
“You have t’ree hun’red dollar for me,” asserted the smooth voice of the Frenchman, without preamble.
“O, come off the perch, Francus,” retorted the other with a burly laugh which the girl decided was quite in character with his feet. “You don’t get but one hundred from this deal. A hell of a lot you’ve helped. Who brought you into this game, huh? We had the timber down before you appeared.”
“Sacre, m’sieu’, you one funny man. I tell M’sieu Carrington de men who cut his lumber all gone, nevaire come bac no more, no use fer him to look for dem. Bicause you tole me, ‘Francois Lacross,’ you say, ‘look here, you get rid of dat w’ite soldier an’ I pay you t’ree hun’red dollar.’ M’sieu, you one damn-fool—“
“O, go chase yourself, Frenchy,” interrupted Marks savagely.
“By gar, m’sieu’, dat dam-fool talk, too. Somebody died one tam fer saying t’ing lak dat to Francois Lacross. We all alone here.” There was the ominous click of a rifle. You don’t lak dat talk, ha? You go all yellow. Den you pay me t’ree hun’red–
“Put up your gun, Frenchy. I’ll pay. I was just trying to get a rise out of you,” stammered Marks. Bettina could have sworn that she heard the chatter of his teeth. She brought her brows together in a puzzled frown. There was a hint of familiarity in the voice of Francois; she had only heard him say a few words in the morning, she remembered–it was nothing definite, nothing tangible, just a teasing echo from the past. If only she could get a glimpse of the men! She cautiously poked her head from under the bunk. Her movement jarred the dried balsam above her and with a gentle rustle her hatchet and racquets settled deeper into the boughs. Out went the lantern. A box crashed over.
“What–what was that?” hissed Marks with a menace in his voice which made the girl’s flesh creep. A coward was apt to be a deomon at bay. His big moccasins started in her direction. They stopped beside the bunk under which she lay. The sound of the man’s excited breathing came nearer. He was bending over. In a moment, he would find the hatchet and snowshoes. What should she do? Crawl out and face them? If she remained, she would be caught like a rat in a trap. What was that? She heard a cautious rap at the door.
“That’s my signal! Somebody’s coming! Sam Latouche was to warn me if I had been followed,” whispered the man at the bunk hoarsely. He flung some bills to the floor. “There’s your money, Frenchy, but if you’ve double crossed me–” His words trailed off as he shot for the door.
Bettina heard the suave, “Merci, m’sieu’,” of the Frenchman as he picked up the money. Then she saw the moccasins patter to the window. Her fighting spirit flared. That money would provide evidence for Neil. Where was he? He had said that he had business with Francois. Had the trapper double crossed him? The thought turned her sick. What could she do? As she turned restlessly to ease her cramped limbs her hand rested on the holster at her side. Her eyes flashed. If she could capture this man with the incriminating evidence he held! “Here’s where the little combat division gets busy,” she thought determinedly.
Slowly she drew the revolver from the holster. Moving barely an inch at a time, she wriggled out from under the bunk. She steadied herself by one foot and a knee for a moment. She was stiff from her cramped position. Her cranky muscles forced a little “Ouch!” of pain through her lips. The Frenchman whirled from the window. The sun, which had been playing hide and seek with a cloud, burst out with superb effectiveness and shot a blinding beam of light through the window full upon the kneeling figure. It dazzled Bettina’s eyes and made it impossible for her to see the face of the man who uttered a stunned “Sacre!” and stood as though petrified, his back to the light. But she could still think.
“Hold up your hands!” she commanded as she covered him with the gun.
The man obeyed instantly. As Bettina pulled herself painfully to her feet, she could see that he was shaking and that he had drawn his head down as far as possible into the collar of his coat. The girl eyed him contemptuously. No wonder that he was afraid that she would recognize him and tell Neil. Marks need not have feared this man. Her tone lashed as she commanded:
“Throw that money at my feet!” Then, as he opened his lips, she fingered the revolver purposefully. “I’m not afraid to use a gun.”
He flung the bills to the floor. His teeth flashed beneath his black mustache to an ingratiating smile as he answered:
“Bien, ma’m’selle, w’at t’ink you I do wit’ it ef you say you want it?”
Bettina picked up the money and thrust it into her pocket.
“You’re nothing but a yellow quitter,” she taunted; ” the men I know wouldn’t give up, even to a girl, without a fight.”
The words had barely passed her lips before she knew that she had been mad to anger him. Her face whitened as his eyes flew to the cartridges in her belt. Could he suspect that she had not loaded the gun? She relaxed a bit as in a gallantly reckless tone he observed:
“But I lak ma’m’selle to hav’ t’ree hun’red dollar. I have m’sieu’.”
He laughed defiantly, still with his glance on her belt. Every drop of blood in Bettina’s body seemed to drain back to her heart. It felt bursting.
“What–what do you mean? What have you done with my–my husband?”
There was an instant’s charged silence before the man deftly knocked the weapon from the girl’s hand. He caught her in his arms.
“So-o-o, you marry wit’ some one! I t’ink I kiss you for him. You play tricks wit’ me, Francois Lacross; now it my turn. You say he giv’ up wit’out a fight. Bien! He bin lak dat, but, by gar, he ain’t nevaire goin’ giv’ up no more. You pretty leetle gal. I bet you make oder gals look lak dey ain’t nodings. Now I kiss you–wal, w’y not?”
He pulled the cap from her hair and kissed her eyes, her hair, the tiny cleft in her chin. Bettina shut her eyes at his first touch. She was horrified at the feeling of surrender which swept her. She gathered her strength and wrenched herself away. A strand of her hair caught in the button of his coat and she jerked it free. Her eyes were wide with fury now, her face colorless as she backed away from him.
“You–you–” she choked.
A thundering bang at the door burst it open. Bettina rushed towrad the man who stood in the opening.
“Joe; O, Joe!” she cried, and flung herself on the guide.
His swarthy face was strangely colorless as he stared at her unblinkingly. He drew his hand across his eyes.
“You sure did give me one bad time till I found your handkerchief an’ foller dem blaze. I t’ink de boss he kill me, mebbe, if you git los’.”
“Never mind me, Joe,” she interrupted breathlessly. “We must find Mr. Carrington. And Joe, make Francois Lacross–” She looked behind her into the cabin. It was empty. It was quite still, save for the wind stirring in the chimney. The black king still glared from the floor. Joe’s face resumed its normal color.
“You git your racquets. De boss, him look after hisself heap more’n Joe can.”
“You–you are sure that no harm has come to Mr. Carrington?” Bettina asked as she braced herself against the log wall while the guide strapped on her snowshoes. “Perhaps he only said it to frighten me, but Francois–“
“Francois! Why you min’ what Francois say? He don’t know nothin’. He ain’t no more courage den a skeeter bug. He jes’ crazy ’bout gals an’ clo’es, det’s all. He talk a’mighty perlite to a gal an talk beeg–O him beeg man, him talk. He try frighten you? Gosh darn! De boss larn all ’bout dese woods an’ streams. Why, him been way up nort’ on bizness.
Her heart lightened of anxiety by Joe’s assurance, Bettina followed her guide into the snowy forest. Westward the sun was dipping its lower rim behind the hill tops. Its light crimsoned the lofty tips of pine and spruce. The sky was quite clear and the patch visible overhead was a deep blue.
The girl hummed lightly as she tramped along. In her pocket she carried evidence to convict the plunderers of the timber and she knew the name of the man who had paid the money. Neil might forgive her now even if she didn’t love–again that curious wave of feeling swept her. Her heart was like a stronghold furiously attacked and threatened to choke her with its beating. What did this clamor of heart and pulses mean? Was it possible that she did love Neil? Ever since that horrible, miserable Frenchman had caught her in his arms, she had been longing to tell Neil about it.
With a frightened exclamation she stopped, caught up a handful of snow and scrubbed cheeks and chin until they burned. If she could only scrub the insult from her memory as easily. Dusk began to settle among the treetops. Far away on the hills a fox barked. From a nearby tree an owl hooted dismally. Cold, keen sparks appeared in the heavens. Over the uplands in the east something which looked like the rim of a mammoth golden disk peeped above the horizon. Eager to escape the tumult of her thoughts, Bettina broke into a run. She fouled one snowshoe with another and fell heavily. Joe seized her hands and pulled her up.
“We must hurry, Joe,” she pleaded.
“Now don’t you worry ’bout de boss. He heap t’ings to do. He ain’t goin’ git los.'”
When they reached the cabin, Joe built a roaring fire, lighted the lamp, and brought fresh water. It was 5 o’clock. There was no sign of Carrington’s return. Bettina removed her sport clothes. What a day it had been! She had lived years since she left home in the morning. Her follow the rabbit adventure had certainly proved thrilling and profitable save when Francois–she shivered and dashed at her face again with clear, cold water. Refreshed and rested, she contemplated her radiant self in the mirror. Her bronze hair shone like satin, her eyes were like stars. She blew a kiss to the looking glass girl.
“You don’t look much like the pale, dispirited creature who arrived here four days ago,” she told that other Betty. “It’s the white magic of the wilderness that’s done the trick. I wonder if Neil notices–” She bit her lips. Neil never looked at her if he could help it. Perhaps–perhaps he didn’t care for her any more–perhaps he was disgusted with her weak mindedness. The thought gave her heart a relentless twist. She shut her eyes with the pain. Neil must look at her. With a gleam of determination in her eyes and an unsteady laugh she flew to her trunk. Half an hour later she regarded her reflection critically. She had put on a frock of filmy, pale blue with touches of silver. Bettina stretched to her toes to admire the silken hosiery which matched the frock, and the black slippers with their ridiculously high heels and sparkling buckles.
“You are so appropriately dressed for the wilderness, my dear,” she scoffed. “But, desperate situations demand desperate measures. Whatever made you bring this gown, I wonder?”
The bang of the cabin door sent her heart to her throat in sudden, ungovernable haste. Neil would be furious if he had heard of her escapade from Joe. Better to take the offensive, she decided. She snatched up the money she had secured from the Frenchman and made a dash for the living room. Just across her threshold she stopped. Carrington faced her. He had thrown his leather coat over the top of the big armchair and stood in front of the fire., the 1918 model of the knight of old. He was dressed in an immaculate campaign shirt of o. d., with a black tie, the serge breeches, polished puttees and spurred boots of his uniform, only the insignia of his rank was missing. His attitude, the set of his shoulders, the light which flamed in his eyes at sight of the girl set the atmosphere tingling with his out to win personality. Bettina caught her breath before she exclaimed with gay audacity:
“‘Two souls with but a single thought!’ We’ve both dressed for dinner. You are most resplendent, major, but it will put dimmers on that conquering-hero air of yours when you learn what poor little insignificant me has done. Behold!”
With a melodramatic flourish, she flung the bills to the table. Eager, expectant, she bent forward to watch his face. He looked at the money, then at her.
“Where did you get that, Betty? Does Joe know?” he asked tensely.
With arms resting on his coat on the back of the big chair, Bettina began her recital of the day’s adventures with a sense of dramatic values and a hold-your-breath vividness which held Carrington tense until she concluded:
“And then I snatched the money and–and–“
“And what?” he prompted curtly.
“And–and that’s all,” she finished lamely. She couldn’t tell him what Francois had done–yet. She flushed to her hair and dropped her eyes guiltily. Her embarrassed glance became intent on her restless fingers as they smoothed the coat under them. Suddenly her eyes narrowed. Were those bronze hairs twisted around one of the buttons?
She felt suffocating, as though she were being held under water. Could it be possible? Her mind visualized that scene in the forest cabin. Now she knew why the voice of the Frenchman had held that tantalizingly familiar note, why she had surrendered for a moment to his arms. It had been Neil! Neil masquerading as Francois to catch Marks. For a moment, her universe turned turtle, then righted. She loved Neil. Did he suspect it, she wondered. If he didn’t she would have to–to tell him. She owed him that after her treatment of him this last year. But–but how he had frightened her when he had kissed her. He deserved a little punishment for that. She looked up with affected indifference, but the indifference became a rout as she caught the glow of determination in his eyes.
“Now–now that you have discovered the truth about the lumber, what will you do, Neil?” she asked hurriedly to gain time.
“Go home and start proceedings to recover it or its value,” he answered promptly. “But first–“
She dashed over the top with precipitate speed. She clasped the hands which threatened to betray by their trembling behind her:
“Before you go, Neil, I want to tell you that I–I think I’m in love with a man–” she flung out desperately.
He had her by the shoulders in a moment. He forced her chin up with one hand that he might see her eyes. She had a fleeting glimpse of his white face before she lowered her long lashes. His voice was husky with repressed passion as he answereed.
“Then, girl, you have another think coming to you. I’ve loved you ever since you wore your hair in curls down your back. You’ve got to love me. Do you think there’s a man on earth I’d give you up to? Who is this man you think you love? Where did you meet him? Has he told you that he loves you? What did he say?”
A little frightened by the tempest she had raised, she colored suddenly, adorably. There was furtive laughter in the eyes she raised to his for a moment. Her lips were curiously unsteady as she answered:
“He–he said–‘You pretty leetle gal. I bet you mak’ oder gals look lak dey ain’t nodings. Now I kiss you, wal, w’y not?'”
For one breathless second there was silence before he crushed her in his arms. His eyes turbulent with emotion challenged hers. “Betty–do you mean–” he demanded.
“Unbeliever!” she scoffed tenderly.
Later as they sat in the big chair which had been so obviously designed for two, she asked:
“Neil, how did you get Marks to the cabin in the woods?”
“Francois arranged that. The kid is clever in spite of Joe’s contempt of him. I wrote Jim to bring me the Charlie Chaplin mustache for my impersonation. You can imagine my amazement when you appeared from under that bunk. For a moment I was too stunned to speak, then the absurdity of the situation convulsed me, my knees shook with laughter. Then I had an inspiration. Perhaps a crisis would shock you to a realization of the fact that you loved the man you had married,” with a look which brought the color waving to her hair. “You remember that I scanned that belt very carefully before I seized the gun. You had started with six cartridges. They were all there. I wouldn’t take a chance with you and a loaded gun with that look on your face. But I adored you for it.”
Eyes lowered, cheeks rosily pink, she arranged his tie with unsteady fingers.
“Some day, Neil, will you tell Jim that I wasn’t afraid when I thought I could help? He–he thinks I’m–I’m a quit–“
“What ho, within there!” hailed a stentorian voice from without, followed by a bang at the door which would have done credit to a French 75. It was flung open and Jim Bradlee appeared on the threshold. Bettina with flaming cheeks sprang to her feet only to be forcibly detained by Carrington’s arm and his laughing, “As you were!”
Bradlee’s amused, keen glance flashed from his sister’s face to his partner’s and rested there content.
“Right as usual, old man,” he remarked as he came forward into the firelight. “There is magic in this white wilderness.”