“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.
“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.”