It was a knock at his door that turned him about at last, and in answer to his invitation Stampede came in. He nodded and sat down. Shiftingly his eyes traveled about the room.
“Been a fine night, Alan. Everybody glad to see you.”
“They seemed to be. I’m happy to be home again.”
“Mary Standish did a lot. She fixed up this room.”
“I guessed as much,” replied Alan. “Of course Keok and Nawadlook helped her.”
“Not very much. She did it. Made the curtains. Put them pictures and flags there. Picked the flowers. Been nice an’ thoughtful, hasn’t she?”
“And somewhat unusual,” added Alan.
“And she is pretty.”
“Most decidedly so.”
There was a puzzling look in Stampede’s eyes. He twisted nervously in his chair and waited for words. Alan sat down opposite him.
“What’s on your mind, Stampede?”
“Hell, mostly,” shot back Stampede with sudden desperation. “I’ve come loaded down with a dirty job, and I’ve kept it back this long because I didn’t want to spoil your fun tonight. I guess a man ought to keep to himself what he knows about a woman, but I’m thinking this is a little different. I hate to do it. I’d rather take the chance of a snake-bite. But you’d shoot me if you knew I was keeping it to myself.”
“Keeping what to yourself?”
“The truth, Alan. It’s up to me to tell you what I know about this young woman who calls herself Mary Standish.”
The physical sign of strain in Stampede’s face, and the stolid effort he was making to say something which it was difficult for him to put into words, did not excite Alan as he waited for his companion’s promised disclosure. Instead of suspense he felt rather a sense of anticipation and relief. What he had passed through recently had burned out of him a certain demand upon human ethics which had been almost callous in its insistence, and while he believed that something very real and very stern in the way of necessity had driven Mary Standish north, he was now anxious to be given the privilege of gripping with any force of circumstance that had turned against her. He wanted to know the truth, yet he had dreaded the moment when the girl herself must tell it to him, and the fact that Stampede had in some way discovered this truth, and was about to make disclosure of it, was a tremendous lightening of the situation.
“Go on,” he said at last. “What do you know about Mary Standish?”
Stampede leaned over the table, a gleam of distress in his eyes. “It’s rotten. I know it. A man who backslides on a woman the way I’m goin’ to oughta be shot, and if it was anything else—anything—I’d keep it to myself. But you’ve got to know. And you can’t understand just how rotten it is, either; you haven’t ridden in a coach with her during a storm that was blowing the Pacific outa bed, an’ you haven’t hit the trail with her all the way from Chitina to the Range as I did. If you’d done that, Alan, you’d feel like killing a man who said anything against her.”