“Now, go to it, Alan,” he said. “I’m ready. Give me hell!”
It was thus, with a note of something inevitable in his voice, that Stampede brought Alan back solidly to earth. There was a practical and awakening inspiration in the manner of the little red-whiskered man’s invitation.
“I’ve been a damn fool,” he confessed. “And I’m waiting.”
The word was like a key opening a door through which a flood of things began to rush in upon Alan. There were other fools, and evidently he had been one. His mind went back to the Nome. It seemed only a few hours ago—only yesterday—that the girl had so artfully deceived them all, and he had gone through hell because of that deception. The trickery had been simple, and exceedingly clever because of its simplicity; it must have taken a tremendous amount of courage, now that he clearly understood that at no time had she wanted to die.
“I wonder,” he said, “why she did a thing like that?”
Stampede shook his head, misunderstanding what was in Alan’s mind. “I couldn’t keep her back, not unless I tied her to a tree.” And he added, “The little witch even threatened to shoot me!”
A flash of exultant humor filled his eyes. “Begin, Alan. I’m waiting. Go the limit.”
“For letting her ride over me, of course. For bringing her up. For not shufflin’ her in the bush. You can’t take it out of her hide, can you?”
He twisted his red whiskers, waiting for an answer. Alan was silent. Mary Standish was leading the way up out of a dip in the tundra a quarter of a mile away, with Nawadlook and Keok close behind her. They trotted up a low ridge and disappeared.
“It’s none of my business,” persisted Stampede, “but you didn’t seem to expect her—”
“You’re right,” interrupted Alan, turning toward his pack. “I didn’t expect her. I thought she was dead.”
A low whistle escaped Stampede’s lips. He opened his mouth to speak and closed it again. Alan observed him as he slipped the pack over his shoulders. Evidently his companion did not know Mary Standish was the girl who had jumped overboard from the Nome, and if she had kept her secret, it was not his business just now to explain, even though he guessed that Stampede’s quick wits would readily jump at the truth. A light was beginning to dispel the little man’s bewilderment as they started toward the Range. He had seen Mary Standish frequently aboard the Nome; a number of times he had observed her in Alan’s company, and he knew of the hours they had spent together in Skagway. Therefore, if Alan had believed her dead when they went ashore at Cordova, a few hours after the supposed tragedy, it must have been she who jumped into the sea. He shrugged his shoulders in deprecation of his failure to discover this amazing fact in his association with Mary Standish.