Thayor’s mind was also occupied. His loss had been a heavy one; the camp he loved had been criminally laid in ashes—such had been his reward for generosity. The very men he had befriended had burned him out with murderous intent. They would at that moment take his life could they find him. His money had been the cause of jealousy and discontent; it had resulted in a catastrophe—one that had been premeditated, carefully planned and carried swiftly into execution, presumably by the help of Morrison’s liquor. It was clear, too, that the fire had started simultaneously in half a dozen places. The identity of the burned man was still a mystery. “Pray God it wasn’t poor Bob Dinsmore hunting for food!” he said to himself. If Holcomb and the trapper had any suspicion they made no comment. They had left the body lying where it was. Neither had they referred to the hero who had risked his life to save both Holcomb and Alice.
As for Holcomb’s thoughts, they had been all fastened on Margaret. In fact, there was no moment when she was out of his mind. He was continually near her during every step of their forced march as they followed the trapper—often her hand in his for better support.
It was while helping her over the hard places, she leaning on his arm, clasping his fingers for a better spring over a wind-slash or slippery rock that the currents of their lives flowed together.
Margaret, who, though tired out, had kept up her spirits all day, had wandered off by herself a little way into the silent woods during a half hour’s rest and had sunk down on a bed of moss behind the lean-to. There, half hidden by a thicket of balsam, Holcomb had discovered her pitiful little figure huddled in the rough ulster. She did not hear him until he stood over her and, bending, laid his hand on the upturned collar of the overcoat that lay damp against the fair hair.
“Don’t cry,” he had said tenderly; “we’ll soon be out of this.”
“I know,” she returned faintly, meeting his eyes in an effort to be brave, “but—but—Billy, I’m so unhappy.”
“But that’s because you’re tired out. That’s what’s the matter. It’s been too rough a trip for you. I told Holt yesterday we must go slower.”
“No,” she moaned, “no—it’s not that.”
“But it will come out all right,” he pleaded, “I feel sure of it. Think of it—to-morrow you will be out of the woods and—and—safely on your way home.” Yet he was not sure of either.
She looked up at him with her brown eyes wide open, her lips trembling.
“But then you will be gone, Billy!”
His own lips trembled now. That which he had tried all these days to tell her, she had told him out of her frank young heart. He took one of her plump, little hands in both his own, holding it as gently as he would have held a wounded bird. A strange sensation of weakness stole through him. He bent lower, until his bronzed cheek felt the flush of her own through the maze of spun gold. Then he sank on his knees in the damp moss, pressing his lips to the warm fingers.