Where the river ferry was half drawn up on the shore, its stern frozen in the ice, he paused and looked down at the girl in quiet surprise. She nodded, smiling, and motioned across the river.
“I was over there once to-night,” said Howland aloud. “Didn’t see any houses and heard nothing but wolves. Is that where we’re going?”
Her white teeth gleamed at him and he was conscious of a warm pressure against his arm as the girl signified that they were to cross. His perplexity increased. On the farther shore the forest came down to the river’s edge in a black wall of spruce and balsam. Beyond that edge of the wilderness he knew that no part of Prince Albert intruded. It was possible that across from them was a squatter’s cabin; and yet if this were so, and the girl was going to it, why had she told him that she was a stranger in the town? And why had she come to him for the assistance she promised to request of him instead of seeking it of those whom she knew?
He asked himself these questions without putting them in words, and not until they were climbing up the frozen bank of the stream, with the shadows of the forest growing deeper about them, did he speak again.
“You told me you were a stranger,” he said, stopping his companion where the light of the stars fell on the face which she turned up to him. She smiled, and nodded affirmatively.
“You seem pretty well acquainted over here,” he persisted. “Where are we going?”
This time she responded with an emphatic negative shake of her head, at the same time pointing with her free hand to the well-defined trail that wound up from the ferry landing into the forest. Earlier in the day Howland had been told that this was the Great North Trail that led into the vast wildernesses beyond the Saskatchewan. Two days before, the factor from Lac Bain, the Chippewayan and the Crees had come in over it. Its hard crust bore the marks of the sledges of Jean Croisset and the men from the Lac la Ronge country. Since the big snow, which had fallen four feet deep ten days before, a forest man had now and then used this trail on his way down to the edge of civilization; but none from Prince Albert had traveled it in the other direction. Howland had been told this at the hotel, and he shrugged his shoulders in candid bewilderment as he stared down into the girl’s face. She seemed to understand his thoughts, and again her mouth rounded itself into that bewitching red O, which gave to her face an expression of tender entreaty, of pathetic grief that the soft lips were powerless to voice, the words which she wished to speak. Then, suddenly, she darted a few steps from Howland and with the toe of her shoe formed a single word in the surface of the snow. She rested her hand lightly on Howland’s shoulder as he bent over to make it out in the elusive starlight.
“Camp!” he cried, straightening himself. “Do you mean to say you’re camping out here?”