BERTRAND W. SINCLAIR
Illustrations by CLARENCE H. ROWE
G. W. DILLINGHAM COMPANY PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Copyright, 1907, by STREET & SMITH
Copyright, 1908, by G. W. DILLINGHAM COMPANY
Issued June, 1908
I. The Long Arm of the Law 7
II. A Reminiscent Hour 18
III. Birds of Prey 30
IV. A Tale Half Told 59
V. Mounted Again 50
VI. Stony Crossing 58
VII. Thirty Days in Irons 69
VIII. Lyn 85
IX. An Idle Afternoon 103
X. The Vanishing Act, and the Fruits Thereof 116
XI. The Gentleman Who Rode in the Lead 130
XII. We Lose Again 146
XIII. Outlawed 163
XIV. A Close Call 179
XV. Piegan Takes a Hand 197
XVI. In the Camp of the Enemy 214
XVII. A Master-stroke of Villainy 226
XVIII. Honor Among Thieves 240
XIX. The Bison 251
XX. The Mouth of Sage Creek 258
XXI. An Elemental Ally 271
XXII. Speechless Hicks 283
XXIII. The Spoils of War 294
XXIV. The Pipe of Peace 303
Hicks drew his and slapped me over the head with it, even as my finger curled on the trigger Frontispiece 161
Bedded in the soft earth underneath lay the slim buckskin sacks 159
"There's been too much blood shed over that wretched gold already. Let them have it" 212
A war for the open road against an enemy whose only weapon was his unswerving bulk 256
THE LONG ARM OF THE LAW.
How many of us, I wonder, can look back over the misty, half-forgotten years and not see a few that stand out clear and golden, sharp-cut against the sky-line of memory? Years that we wish we could live again, so that we might revel in every full-blooded hour. For we so seldom get the proper focus on things until we look at them through the clarifying telescope of Time; and then one realizes with a pang that he can't back-track into the past and take his old place in the passing show.
Would we, if we could? It's an idle question, I know; wise men and musty philosophers say that regrets are foolish. But I speak for myself only when I say that I would gladly wheedle old, gray-bearded Tempus into making the wheels click backward till I could see again the buffalo-herds darkening the green of Northwestern prairies. They and the blanket Indian have passed, and the cowpuncher and Texas longhorns that replaced them will soon be little more than a vivid memory. Already the man with the plow is tearing up the brown sod that was a stamping-ground for each in turn; the wheat-fields have doomed the sage-brush, and truck-farms line the rivers where the wild cattle and the elk came down to drink.
It was a big life while it lasted—primitive, exhilarating, spiced with dangers that added zest to the game; the petty, sordid things of life only came in on the iron trail. There was no place for them in the old West, the dead-and-gone West that will soon be forgotten.
I expect nearly everybody between the Arctic Circle and the Isthmus of Panama has heard more or less of the Northwest Mounted Police. They're changing with the years, like everything else in this one-time buffalo country, but when Canada sent them out to keep law and order in a territory that was a City of Refuge for a lot of tough people who had played their string out south of the line, they were, as a dry old codger said about the Indian as a scalp-lifter, naturally fitted for the task. And it was no light task, then, for six hundred men to keep the peace on a thousand miles of frontier.
It doesn't seem long ago, but it was in '74 that they filed down the gangway of a Missouri River boat, walking as straight and stiff as if every mother's son of them had a ramrod under his tunic, and out on a rickety wharf that was groaning under the weight of a king's ransom in baled buffalo-hides.
"Huh!" old Piegan Smith grunted in my ear. "Look at 'em, with their solemn faces. There'll be heaps uh fun in the Cypress Hills country when they get t' runnin' the whisky-jacks out. Ain't they a queer-lookin' bunch?"
They were a queer-looking lot to more than Piegan. Their uniforms fitted as if they had grown into them; scarlet jackets buttoned to the throat, black riding-breeches with a yellow stripe running down the outer seam of each leg, and funny little round caps like the lid of a big baking-powder can set on one side of their heads, held there by a narrow strap that ran around the chin. But for all their comic-opera get-up, there was many a man that snickered at them that day in Benton who learned later to dread the flash of a scarlet jacket on the distant hills.
They didn't linger long at Benton, but got under way and marched overland to the Cypress Hills. On Battle Creek they built the first post, Fort Walsh, and though in time they located others, Walsh remained headquarters for the Northwest so long as buffalo-hunting and the Indian trade endured. And Benton and Walsh were linked together by great freight-trails thereafter, for the Mounted Police supplies came up the Missouri and traveled by way of long bull-trains to their destination; there was no other way then; Canada was a wilderness, and Benton with its boats from St. Louis was the gateway to the whole Northwest.
Two years from the time Fort Walsh was built the La Pere outfit sent me across the line in charge of a bunch of saddle-horses the M. P. quartermaster had said he'd buy if they were good. I turned them over the afternoon I reached Walsh, and inside of forty-eight hours I was headed home with the sale-money—ten thousand dollars—in big bills, so that I could strap it round my middle. I remember that on the hill south of the post the three of us, two horse-wranglers and myself, flipped a dollar to see whether we kept to the Assiniboine trail or struck across country. It was a mighty simple transaction, but it produced some startling results for me, that same coin-spinning. The eagle came uppermost, and the eagle meant the open prairie for us. So we aimed for Stony Crossing, and let our horses jog; there were three of us, well mounted, and we had plenty of grub on a pack-horse; it seemed that our homeward trip should be a pleasant jaunt. It certainly never entered my head that I should soon have ample opportunity to see how high the "Riders of the Plains" stacked up when they undertook to enforce Canadian law and keep intact the peace and dignity of the Crown.
We had started early that morning, and by the time we thought of camping for dinner we saw ahead of us what we could tell was a white man's camp. It wasn't far, so we kept on, and presently it developed that we had accidentally come upon old Piegan Smith. He was lying there ostensibly resting his stock from the hard buffalo-running of the past winter, but I knew the old rascal's horses were more weary from a load of moonshine whisky they had lately jerked into the heart of the territory. But he was there, anyway, and half a dozen choice spirits with him, and when we'd said "Howdy" all around they proceeded to spring a keg of whisky on us.
Now, the whole Northwest groaned beneath a cast-iron prohibition law at that time, and for some years thereafter. No booze of any description was supposed to be sold in that portion of the Queen's domain. If you got so thirsty you couldn't stand it any longer, you could petition the governing power of the Territory for what was known as a "permit," which same document granted you leave and license to have in your possession one gallon of whisky. If you were a person of irreproachable character, and your humble petition reached his excellency when he was amiably disposed, you might, in the course of a few weeks, get the desired permission—but, any way you figured it, whisky was hard to get, and when you got it it came mighty high.
Naturally, that sort of thing didn't appeal to many of the high-stomached children of fortune who ranged up and down the Territory—being nearly all Americans, born with the notion that it is a white man's incontestable right to drink whatever he pleases whenever it pleases him. Consequently, every mother's son of them who knew how rustled a "worm," took up his post in some well-hidden coulee close to the line, and inaugurated a small-sized distillery. Others, with less skill but just as much ambition, delivered it in four-horse loads to the traders, who in turn "boot-legged" it to whosoever would buy. Some of them got rich at it, too; which wasn't strange, when you consider that everybody had a big thirst and plenty of money to gratify it. I've seen barrels of moonshine whisky, so new and rank that two drinks of it would make a jack-rabbit spit in a bull-dog's face, sold on the quiet for six and seven dollars a quart—and a twenty-dollar gold piece was small money for a gallon.
All this, of course, was strictly against the peace and dignity of the powers that were, and so the red-coated men rode the high divides with their eagle eye peeled for any one who looked like a whisky-runner. And whenever they did locate a man with the contraband in his possession, that gentleman was due to have his outfit confiscated and get a chance to ponder the error of his ways in the seclusion of a Mounted Police guardhouse if he didn't make an exceedingly fast getaway.
We all took a drink when these buffalo-hunters produced the "red-eye." So far as the right or wrong of having contraband whisky was concerned, I don't think any one gave it a second thought. The patriarchal decree of the government was a good deal of a joke on the plains, anyway—except when you were caught defying it! Then Piegan Smith set the keg on the ground by the fire where everybody could help himself as he took the notion, and I laid down by a wagon while dinner was being cooked.
After six weeks of hard saddle-work, it struck me just right to lie there in the shade with a cool breeze fanning my face, and before long I was headed smoothly for the Dreamland pastures. I hadn't dozed very long when somebody scattered my drowsiness with an angry yelp, and I raised up on one elbow to see what was the trouble.
Most of the hunters were bunched on one side of the fire, and they were looking pretty sour at a thin, trim-looking Mounted Policeman who was standing with his back to me, holding the whisky-keg up to his nose. A little way off stood his horse, bridle-reins dragging, surveying the little group with his ears pricked up as if he, too, could smell the whisky. The trooper sniffed a moment and set the keg down.
"Gentlemen," he asked, in a soft, drawly voice that had a mighty familiar note that puzzled me, "have you a permit to have whisky in your possession?"
Nobody said a word. There was really nothing they could say. He had them dead to rights, for it was smuggled whisky, and they knew that policeman was simply asking as a matter of form, and that his next move would be to empty the refreshments on the ground; if they got rusty about it he might haze the whole bunch of us into Fort Walsh—and that meant each of us contributing a big, fat fine to the Queen's exchequer.
"You know the law," he continued, in that same mild tone. "Where is your authority to have this stuff?"
Then the clash almost came. If old Piegan Smith hadn't been sampling the contents of that keg so industriously he would never have made a break. For a hot-tempered, lawless sort of an old reprobate, he had good judgment, which a man surely needed if he wanted to live out his allotted span in the vicinity of the forty-ninth parallel those troubled days. But he'd put enough of the fiery stuff under his belt to make him touchy as a parlor-match, and when the trooper, getting no answer, flipped the keg over on its side and the whisky trickled out among the grass-roots, Piegan forgot that he was in an alien land where the law is upheld to the last, least letter and the arm of it is long and unrelenting.
"Here's my authority, yuh blasted runt," he yelled, and jerked his six-shooter to a level with the policeman's breast. "Back off from that keg, or I'll hang your hide to dry on my wagon-wheel in a holy minute!"
A REMINISCENT HOUR.
The policeman's shoulders stiffened, and he put one foot on the keg. He made no other move; but if ever a man's back was eloquent of determination, his was. From where I lay I could see the fingers of his left hand shut tight over his thumb, pressing till the knuckles were white and the cords in the back of his hand stood out in little ridges. I'd seen that before, and I recalled with a start when and where I'd heard that soft, drawly voice. I knew I wasn't mistaken in the man, though his face was turned from me, and I likewise knew that old Piegan Smith was nearer kingdom come than he'd been for many a day, if he did have the drop on the man with the scarlet jacket. He was holding his pistol on a double back-action, rapid-fire gun-fighter, and only the fact that Piegan was half drunk and the other performing an impersonal duty had so far prevented the opening of a large-sized package of trouble. While on the surface Smith had all the best of it, he needed that advantage, and more, to put himself on an even footing with Gordon MacRae in any dispute that had to be arbitrated with a Colt; for MacRae was the cool-headed, virile type of man that can keep his feet and burn powder after you've planted enough lead in his system to sink him in swimming water.
There was a minute of nasty silence. Smith glowered behind his cocked pistol, and the policeman faced the frowning gun, motionless, waiting for the flutter of Piegan's eye that meant action. The gurgling keg was almost empty when he spoke again.
"Don't be a fool, Smith," he said quietly. "You can't buck the whole Force, you know, even if you managed to kill me. You know the sort of orders we have about this whisky business. Put up your gun."
Piegan heard him, all right, but his pistol never wavered. His thin lips were pinched close, so tight the scrubby beard on his chin stood straight out in front; his chest was heaving, and the angry blood stood darkly red under his tanned cheeks. Altogether, he looked as if his trigger finger might crook without warning. It was one of those long moments that makes a fellow draw his breath sharp when he thinks about it afterward. If any one had made an unexpected move just then, there would have been sudden death in that camp. And while the lot of us sat and stood about perfectly motionless, not daring to say a word one way or the other, lest the wrathful old cuss squinting down the gun-barrel would shoot, the policeman took his foot off the empty cause of the disturbance, and deliberately turning his back on Piegan's leveled six-shooter, walked calmly over to his waiting horse.
Smith stared after him, frankly astonished. Then he lowered his gun. "The nerve uh the darned——Say! don't go off mad," he yelled, his anger evaporating, changing on the instant to admiration for the other's cold-blooded courage. "Yuh spilled all the whisky, darn yuh—but then I guess yuh don't know any better'n t' spoil good stuff that away. No hard feelin's, anyhow. Stop an' eat dinner with us, an' we'll call it square."
The policeman withdrew his foot from the stirrup and smiled at Piegan Smith, and Piegan, to show that his intentions were good, impulsively unbuckled his cartridge-belt and threw belt and six-shooters on the ground.
"I don't hanker for trouble with a hombre like you," he grunted. "I guess I was a little bit hasty, anyhow."
"I call you," the policeman said, and stripping the saddle and bridle from his sweaty horse, turned him loose to graze.
"Hello, Mac!" I hailed, as he walked up to the fire. He turned at the sound of my voice with vastly more concern than he'd betrayed under the muzzle of Piegan's gun.
"Sarge himself!" he exclaimed. "Beats the devil how old trails cross, eh?"
"It sure does," I retorted, and our hands met.
He sat down beside me and began to roll a cigarette. You wouldn't call that a very demonstrative greeting between two old amigos who'd bucked mesquite and hair-lifting Comanches together, all over the Southwest. It had been many a moon since we took different roads, but MacRae hadn't changed that I could see. That was his way—he never slopped over, no matter how he felt. If ever a mortal had a firm grip on his emotions, MacRae had, and yet there was a sleeping devil within him that was never hard to wake. But his looks gave no hint of the real man under the surface placidity; you'd never have guessed what possibilities lay behind that immobile face, with its heavy-lashed hazel eyes and plain, thin-lipped mouth that tilted up just a bit at the corners. We had parted in the Texas Panhandle five years before—an unexpected, involuntary separation that grew out of a poker game with a tough crowd. The tumultuous events of that night sent me North in undignified haste, for I am not warlike by nature, and Texas was no longer healthy for me unless I cared to follow up a bloody feud. But I'd left Mac a trail-boss for the whitest man in the South, likewise engaged to the finest girl in any man's country; and it's a far cry from punching cows in Texas to wearing the Queen's colors and keeping peace along the border-line. I knew, though, that he'd tell me the how and why of it in his own good time, if he meant that I should know.
One or two of the buffalo-hunters exchanged words with us while Mac was building his cigarette and lighting it. Old Piegan stretched himself in the grass, and in a few moments was snoring energetically, his grizzled face bared to the cloudless sky. The camp grew still, except for the rough and ready cook pottering about the fire, boiling buffalo-meat and mixing biscuit-dough. The fire crackled around the Dutch ovens, and the odor of coffee came floating by. Then Mac hunched himself against a wagon-wheel and began to talk.
"I suppose it looks odd to you, Sarge, to see me in this rig?" he asked whimsically. "It beats punching cows, though—that is, when a fellow discovers that he isn't a successful cowpuncher."
"Does it?" I returned dryly. "You were making good in the cow business last time I saw you. What did you see in the Mounted Police that took your fancy?"
He shrugged his shoulders philosophically. "They're making history in this neck of the woods," he said, "and I joined for lack of something better to do. You'll find us a cosmopolitan lot, and not bad specimens as men go. It's a tolerably satisfying life—once you get out of the ranks."
"How about that?" I queried; and as I asked the question I noticed for the first time the gilt bars on his coat sleeve. "You've got past the buck trooper stage then? How long have you been in the force?"
"Joined the year they took over the Territory," he replied. "Yes, I've prospered in the service. Got to be a sergeant; I'm in charge of a line-post on Milk River—Pend d' Oreille. You'd better come on over and stay with me a day or two, Sarge."
"I was heading in that direction," I answered, "only I expected to cross the river farther up. But, man, I never thought to see you up here. I thought you'd settled down for keeps; supposed you were playing major-domo for the Double R down on the Canadian River, and the father of a family by this time. How we do get switched around in this old world."
"Don't we, though," he said reflectively. "It's a great game. You never know when nor where your trail is liable to fork and lead you to new countries and new faces, or maybe plumb over the big divide. Oh, well, it'll be all the same a hundred years from now, as Bill Frayne used to say."
"You've turned cynic," I told him, and he smiled.
"No," he declared, "I rather think I'd be classed as a philosopher; if you could call a man a philosopher who can enjoy hammering over this bald country, chasing up whisky-runners and hazing non-treaty Indians onto reservations, and raising hell generally in the name of the law. Still, I don't take life as seriously as I used to. What's the use? We eat and drink and sleep and work and fight because it's the nature of us two-legged brutes; but there's no use getting excited about it, because things never turn out exactly the way you expect them to, anyhow."
"If that's your philosophy of life," I bantered, "you ought to make a rattling good policeman. I can see where a calm, dispassionate front would save a man a heap of trouble, at this sort of thing."
"Josh all you like," MacRae laughed, "but I tell you a man does save himself a heap of trouble when he doesn't get too anxious whether things come out just as he wants them to or not. Six or seven years ago I couldn't have done this sort of work. I've changed, I reckon. There was a time when I'd have felt that there was only one way to settle a row like I just had. And the chances are that I would have wound up by putting that old boy's light out. Which wouldn't have helped matters any for me, and certainly would have been tough on old Piegan Smith—who happens to be a pretty fair sort; only playing the opposite side of the game."
As if the low-spoken sound of his name had reached his ears and electrified him, Piegan sat up very suddenly, and at the same instant the cook sounded the long call. So we broke off our chat, and getting a tin plate and cup and a set of eating-implements, we helped ourselves from the Dutch ovens and squatted in the grass to eat.
When we'd finished, one of the hunters rounded up the horses and we caught our nags and saddled them. MacRae was going back to his post that night, and I also was in haste to be traveling—that ten thousand dollars of another man's money was a responsibility I wanted to be rid of without the least possible delay. Pend d' Oreille was twenty-five or thirty miles south of us—a long afternoon's ride, but MacRae and I were glad of each other's company, and it was worth while straining a point to have even one night's shelter at a Police camp in that semi-hostile country. There were no road-agents to speak of, for sums of money large enough to tempt gentry of that ilk seldom passed over those isolated trails; but here and there stray parties of Stonies and Blackfeet, young bucks in war-paint and breech-clout, hot on the trail of their first medicine, skulked warily among the coulee-scarred ridges, keeping in touch with the drifting buffalo-herds and alert for a chance to ambush a straggling white man and lift his hair. They weren't particularly dangerous, except to a lone man, still there was always the chance of running slap into them, in which case they usually made a more or less vigorous attempt to wipe you out. A red coat, however, was a passport to safety; even so early in the game the copper-colored brother had learned that the Mounted Police were a hard combination—an enemy who never turned back when he took the war-trail.
When we were mounted Mac leaned over and muttered an admonitory word for Piegan's ear alone. "Better lay low, Smith," he said, "and let the boot-leggers go it on their own hook for a while. We are watching for you. It's only a matter of time till somebody takes you in, because your whisky is making lots of nasty work for us these days, and we've got orders from the big chief to nail you if there's a show. I'm passing up this little affair to-day. That doesn't count. But the next time you cross the river with a four-horse load of it I'll be on you like a wolf. If I don't, some other fellow will. Sabe? Think it over."
Smith bit off a huge chew of tobacco, while he digested MacRae's warning. Then he looked up with a smile that broadened to a grin. "You're all right," he said cheerfully. "I like your style. If I get the worst of the deal, I won't holler. So-long!"
BIRDS OF PREY.
Once clear of the buffalo-hunters' camp, MacRae and I paired off and speedily began to compare notes, where we had been, what we had done, how the world had used us in the five years since we had seen each other last. And although we gabbled freely enough, MacRae avoided all mention of the persons of whom I most wished to hear. I didn't press him, for I knew that something out of the common must have happened, else he would not have been wearing the Queen's scarlet, and I didn't care to bring up a subject that might prove a sore one with him. But men we had known and trails we had followed furnished us plenty of grist for the conversational mill. Our talk ranged from the Panhandle to the Canada line, while our horses jogged steadily southward.
Dark came down on the four of us as we topped Manyberries Ridge, and seven or eight miles of rolling prairie still lay between us and Pend d' Oreille. If Mac had been alone he would have made the post by sundown, for the Mounted Police rode picked horses, the best money could buy. But it was a long jaunt to Benton, and the rest of us were inclined to an easier pace, that we might husband the full strength of our grass-fed mounts for any emergency that should arise on the way.
With the coming of night a pall of clouds blew out of the west, blanketing the stars and shutting off their hazy light completely, and when the sky was banked full from horizon to horizon, the dark enveloped us like a black sea-mist. Once or twice we startled a little bunch of buffalo, and listened to the thud of their hoofs as they fled through the sultry, velvet gloom; but for the most our ride was attended by no sounds save the night song of frogs in the upland sloughs and the hollow clank of steel bits keeping time to the creak of saddle-leather.
Halfway down the long slope MacRae and I, riding in the lead, pulled up to make a cigarette on the brink of a straight-walled coulee that we could sense but not see. As I waited for Mac to strike a match my eyes roved about, seeking to pierce the unnatural blackness that wrapped itself about us, and while my gaze was for an instant fixed on the night-enshrouded canyon, a red tongue of flame flashed out for a moment in the inky shadow below. MacRae saw it also, and held the match unstruck.
"Must be somebody camped down there," I hazarded.
"A camp-fire would hardly flash and die out like that, Sarge," he answered thoughtfully. "At least, not an ordinary one. There are some folk in this country, you know, who manifest a very retiring disposition at times. That looks to me like a blind fire or a signal. Let's wait a minute."
We sat there on our horses, grouped close together, a minute that lengthened to five; then MacRae broke off in the middle of a sentence as the flare leaped up, flickered an instant, and was blotted out again. I could have sworn I heard a cry, and one of my men spoke in a tone that assured me my imagination had not been playing a trick.
"Hear that?" he asked eagerly. "Somebody hollered down there."
"I don't much like that," MacRae said, in a low tone. "I have a hunch that something crooked is going on, and I reckon I'll go down and see what that fire means. You fellows better go a little farther and wait for me."
"Not on your life," I protested. "You might run into most any kind of formation. We'll go in a bunch, if we go at all."
"Might be Injuns," Bruce Haggin put in. "An', anyhow, whatever play comes up, four men's a heap better'n one. If you're bound t' mix in, why, lead the way. I'm kinda curious about what's down there m'self."
So near to the post it was that MacRae almost knew the feel of the ground underfoot. He led us a hundred yards along the rim of the bank and stopped again.
"This is as good a place as any, but you'll have to get down and lead your horses," he warned. "It's a devil of a scramble from here to the bottom."
We dismounted, and speedily found that MacRae hadn't exaggerated the evil qualities of that descent. If there had been boulders on that hillside the noise of our coming would have alarmed a deaf man; but the soft dirt and slippery grass gave out no sound, though we slid and tumbled and dug in our heels for a foothold till the sweat streamed down our cheeks.
At the bottom we mounted again and followed MacRae in a cautious file around clumps of willow and rustling quaking-asp to the place where the blaze should have shown. But no glint of fire appeared in any direction; the coulee-bottom lay more dark and silent, if that were possible, than the gloomy hills above. Perplexed, MacRae halted, and we bunched together, whispering, each of us straining his eyes and ears to catch some sight or sound of life in that black, ghostly quiet. We might have concluded that our senses had been playing pranks at our expense, that the flame we had seen from the ridge was purely an imaginary thing, but for the rank, unmistakable odor of burning wood—a smell no man bred in a land of camp-fires can mistake. We were near it, wherever it was, but how near we had no means of knowing.
After a bit of waiting, Mac decided that the smoke was floating from a certain direction, and we began to edge carefully that way. Presently we circled a clump of brush, to come near riding right into a banked fire, barely visible, even at short range, under its covering of earth. A dimly outlined bulk lay beside it, and leaning over in our saddles, the faint glow of the coals revealed a man's body, half stripped of its clothing, and—oh, well, such things are so utterly devilish you wouldn't credit it. It's bad enough to kill, even when it's necessary; but I never could understand how a white man could take a leaf out of the Indian's torture-book.
The fire had been heaped over with earth—to screen it from prying eyes, I suppose, while the good work went on. We got off our horses and stooped over the man, forgetting for the moment that danger might lurk in the surrounding thicket. Mac swore under his breath when he bent and peered keenly at the man's face; then he straightened up and kicked a part of the clay covering from the smoldering embers. As the bright glow of a little cascade of sparks pierced the darkness, a voice in our rear called sharply: "Hands up!" and we swung round to behold two masked faces regarding us from behind steadily held Winchesters.
The very suddenness of the hold-up made it a complete success. Apart, and moving, we might have scattered in the brush like young quail, and so have been able to give the gentlemen a hard run for the money. But we were bunched together, shocked out of all caution, staring at the pitiful figure at our feet when MacRae unmasked the fire, and the flare of it surrounded us with a yellow nimbus that made us fair marks for a gun. With that dazzling light in our eyes and those ugly-looking customers at the business end of the guns, it would have been out and out suicide to reach for a six-shooter. For at that period in Northwestern history, when a man had the drop on you under such conditions, there was absolutely no question of what would happen if you made a suspicious move. We were fairly caught, and there was nothing to do but elevate our digits and paw the air as commanded.
It took one of those Western Turpins about a minute to relieve us of our artillery, after which he silently proceeded to lead our horses out of sight. When he did that I began to hope the horses were all they wanted, that they had no knowledge of the money I carried; but my hopes died an early death, for he was back in a moment, and the man behind the gun indicated me with a motion of the Winchester.
"That long, stoop-shouldered gazabo's got the stuff on him," he growled.
There was half a second when I entertained a wild notion of getting fractious. A fellow hates to make a bungle of the first decent trust he's had in a long time; but I was in a tight place, and I couldn't figure where I'd delay giving up beyond the length of time it would take the gentleman with the Winchester to drill me. Under the circumstances it didn't take long to decide that it was a heap better all around to be robbed alive than dead—they'd get the money anyway, and if I got myself shot up to no purpose that would spoil all chance of getting back at them later.
The silent partner wasted no time in fruitless search of my person. He seemed to know right where to look, which was another feature of the play that I didn't sabe at the time. He reached down inside my shirt, with a none too gentle hand, and relieved me of the belt that held the money. Then the pair of them backed up, still covering us, and faded away in the gloom.
A TALE HALF TOLD.
When they were gone we let our hands down to their natural level and drew a long breath.
"We appear to have got considerably the worst of this transaction," I observed. "The La Pere outfit is shy something like ten thousand dollars—we're afoot, minus everything but cigarette material. It's a wonder they didn't take that, too. A damn good stroke of business, all right," I finished, feeling mighty sore at myself. When it was too late, I could think of half a dozen ways we might have avoided getting held up.
"I got you into it, too," MacRae said calmly. "But don't get excited and run on the rope this early in the game, Sarge; you'll only throw yourself. Brace up. We've been in worse holes before." Never a word of what it might mean to him; never even hinted that the high moguls at Fort Walsh were more than likely to put him on the rack for letting any such lawless work be carried out successfully, in his own district. A Mounted Policeman can make no excuses for letting a tough customer slip through his fingers; the only way he can escape censure is to be brought in feet first.
He motioned to the poor devil lying by the fire.
"Look at him, Sarge," he went on, in a different tone. "You always had a pretty good memory for faces. So have I, for that matter, but—go ahead—look."
I bent over the man, looked closely at the still features, dropped on one knee and turned his face toward the firelight to make sure. I recognized him instantly, and I knew that MacRae had no doubts of his identity, for each of us had broken bread and slept in the same blankets with that quiet figure.
"It's Rutter," I whispered, and MacRae nodded silently.
"He's done for, too—no, by God, he isn't!" I cried, and shrank involuntarily, for his eyeballs rolled till only the whites showed in a way that made me shudder. "He's not dead, yet, Mac!"
"One of you fellows get some water," Mac commanded. He squatted beside me, holding up Rutter's head. In a minute Bruce was back with his hat full of water from the creek that whimpered just beyond the willow patch. I peeled off my coat and spread it over the marred limbs, and Bruce held the water so that I could dip in my hand and sprinkle Rutter's face. After a little his mouth began to twitch. Queer gurgling sounds issued from his throat. He moved his head slightly, looking from me to MacRae. Presently he recognized us both; his face brightened.
"Gimme a drink," he whispered huskily.
Mac propped him up so that he could sip from the hat. He came near going off again, but rallied, and in a second or two his lips framed a question:
"Did yuh—get 'em?"
I shook my head. "You might say that they got us," I answered.
"Who were they, Hans?" MacRae questioned eagerly. "And why did they do this to you? We'll make them sweat blood for this night's work. Did you know them? Tell us if you can."
"No," Rutter spoke with a great effort. Each sentence came as if torn piecemeal from his unwilling tongue; short, jerky phrases, conceived in pain and delivered in agony. "We—me'n Hank Rowan—comin' from the North—made a stake on the Peace. They started it—at the Stone—yuh know—Writin'-Stone. Hank an' me—you'll find Hank in the cottonwoods—Stony Crossin'. I tried—tried t' make Walsh. Two of 'em—masked—tried t' make me tell—tell 'em—where we made the cache. I'm—I'm done—I guess. The dust, it's—it's—a-a-ah——"
The gnarled hands shut up into clenched fists, and the feeble voice trailed off in an agonized moan.
I laved his pain-twisted face with the cool water and let a few drops trickle into his open mouth. He gasped a few times, then, gathering strength again, went on with that horrible spasmodic recitation.
"They were after us—a long time. Lyn's at Walsh. There's a—a good stake. Get it—for her. It's cached—under the Stone—yuh know—Writin'-Stone. Three sacks. That's what—they wanted. You'll—you'll—on the rock above—marked—gold—raw gold—that's it—gold—raw gold—Mac—I want—I want——"
That was all. The tense muscles relaxed. His head fell back limp on MacRae's arm, and the rest of the message went with the game old Dutchman across the big divide. We laid him down gently, folded his arms on his breast, and for a moment held our peace in tribute to his passing.
MacRae was first to speak.
"There's a lot back of this that I can't understand," he said, more to himself than to the rest of us. "It beats me why these two old cowmen should be here in this country, tangled up with buried gold-dust, and being hunted like beasts for its possession. Old Hans was certainly in his right mind or he wouldn't have known us; and if he told us right, Hank Rowan has been murdered too. If Lyn is at Walsh, she may be able to shed some light on this. But I'll swear I feel like a man groping in a dark room."
"If Lyn is at Walsh," I asserted stoutly, "she got there since I left this morning. I was there two days, and I wasn't in the background by any means; and she's the sort of girl that isn't backward about hailing a friend. We know one thing—the men that killed Rutter are the ones that held us up, and got off with that money of mine. And say—how did those fellows know I had that money and where I was carrying it? Good Lord! it sounds like the plot of a dime novel."
It was a stubborn riddle for us to try and read. And our surroundings at that particular moment were not the most favorable to coherent thought or plausible theory-building. When a man has been robbed at the point of a gun, and set afoot in the heart of an unpeopled waste, with a dead man and a dying fire for company, his nerves are apt to get a little bit on edge. Things that wouldn't tax your fortitude in daylight look like the works of the devil when you have to face them in the black hours of the night. None of us are so far removed from savagery that a few grains of superstition don't lurk in our souls, all ready to bob up if the setting is appropriate. If it should ever be my lot to take the Long Trail at short notice, I hope it will be under a blue sky and a blazing sun. It was hard to be philosophic, or even decently calm, standing there in the sickly glow of the fading coals with old Hans mutely reminding us that life is a tenuous thread, easily snipped.
A little night breeze rustling the willows about us brought into my mind the fact that our masked acquaintances could easily sneak up and pot us if, as an afterthought, they decided to do a really workmanlike job. Doubt it? Wasn't the dead man stretched in the shadow convincing proof of their capacity for pure devilishness? Read the history of those days along the line, and you'll turn some red pages. There were no half-way measures in the code of an outlaw then; the pair who held us up would have taken our lives as nonchalantly as they relieved us of our material possessions had we proved in the least degree troublesome.
I hinted what was in my mind to MacRae, and when he agreed that it was a possible contingency, we filed out of the treacherous light and squatted in the edge of a quaking-asp grove where we couldn't be seen, and where a coyote, much less a man, couldn't steal up on us without the crackle of dry brush betraying him.
"What do you think you'll do, Sarge?" Mac whispered to me, while we sat there undecided as to our next move. "Go on to Benton, or stay here on the chance of breaking even?"
"I've got to stick; it's the only thing I can do," I growled back. "I've been sure enough whipsawed this deal, but I'm still in the game, and when it comes to calling the last turn I'll be there with a stack of blues. How in hell can I show my face in Benton while some other fellow is packing the money La Pere trusted me to bring back? If I can rustle horses I'll send these two boys on home, with a note to the old man explaining how the play came up. If those jaspers flash any part of the roll in the Territory before snowfall, I'll get them. I've got to get them, to square myself."
"That would be my idea, if I were in your place," he answered. "If they're like the average run of men that turn a trick of that kind, they'll give themselves away in the long run. It's lucky, in a way, that you had paper money instead of gold; the big bills will be their downfall if they undertake to spend them in this country—and if old Hans had it straight, they're not going to pull out with a measly ten thousand dollars. It's an ugly mess, and liable to be worse before it's cleaned up. If there is a stake like that cached around the Stone, these land pirates will camp mighty close on the trail of anybody that goes looking for it. And it won't be any Sunday-school picnic dealing with them—they showed a strong hand there," he motioned to the place where Rutter lay.
"The best thing we can do," he continued, "is to drag it for Pend d' Oreille, afoot. We have two extra horses there. We can get a little sleep and move early in the morning. I'll have to report this thing in person at Walsh, but before I do I want to know if Hank Rowan was really killed at Stony Crossing. If we find him there as Rutter said, you can gamble that trouble has camped in our dooryard for a lengthy stay. And it might be a good idea for you to give your men a gentle hint to keep their mouths closed about this affair—all of it. There's a slim chance at the best of finding that gold, even if it's there, and it won't help us nor the rest of the Force to run down the men who held us up, if everybody on both sides of the line gets to talking about it."
"I'll tell them," I agreed. "I reckon you have the right idea. I think it's a cinch that if we land the men that set us afoot and got away with the money, we'll have the cold-blooded brutes that put Hans Rutter's light out. But I don't sabe, Mac, why those old-timers should be mixed into a deal of this kind. Their cattle and range on the Canadian had a gold-mine beat to death for money-making; old men like them don't jump two thousand miles from home without mighty strong reasons."
"They probably had, if we only knew," MacRae muttered. "I reckon we'd better start; we can't do any good here."
Mac led the way. The four of us slipped through the brushy bottom as silently as men unaccustomed to walking might go, for we had no hankering, unarmed as we were, to bring those red-handed marauders after us again, if they happened to be lurking in that canyon. Rutter's body we had no choice but to leave undisturbed by the blackening fire. In the morning we would come back and bury him, but for that night—well, he was beyond any man's power to aid or injure, lying there alone in the dark.
We stumbled along, close up, for the thick-piled clouds still hung their light-obscuring banners over the sky. Three yards apart we became invisible to each other. I followed behind MacRae more or less mechanically, though I was, in a way, acutely conscious of the necessity for stealthy going, one part of my mind busy turning over the quick march of events and guessing haphazard at the future.
Striding along in this mental semi-detachment from the business in hand, some three hundred yards down the coulee I tripped over a fallen cottonwood and drove the point of a projecting limb clean through the upper of my boot and into the calf of my leg—not a disabling wound, but one that lacked nothing in the way of pain. The others stopped while I pulled out the snag, which had broken off the trunk, and while I was about this a familiar clattering noise uprose near-by. Ever hear a horse shake himself, like a water-spaniel fresh from a dip, when he has been tied for a long time in one place with the dead weight of a heavy stock saddle on his back? There is a little by-play of grunting and clearing of nostrils, then the slap of skirts and strings and stirrup-leathers—a man never forgets or mistakes the sound of it, if he has ever slept in a round-up camp with a dozen restless night-horses saddled and tied to a wagon twenty feet from his bed. But it made us jump, welling up out of the dark so unexpectedly and so near.
"Saddle-horse—tied," Mac tersely commented. We squatted in the long grass and buck-brush, listening, and a few seconds later heard a horse snort distinctly. This sound was immediately followed by the steady beat of an impatient forefoot.
"Over yonder," I said. "And there's more than one, I think. Let's investigate this. And we'd better not separate."
Fifty yards to the left we struck a cottonwood grove, and in the outer edge of it loomed the vague outline of a horse—when we were almost within reaching-distance of him. I ran my hand over the saddle and knew it instantly for Bruce Haggin's rig. A half-minute of quiet prowling revealed our full quota of livestock, even to the pack-horse that bore our beds and grub, each one tied hard and fast to a tree. Also our six-shooters reposed in their scabbards, the four belts hooked over the horn of MacRae's saddle.
Maybe it didn't feel good to be on the hurricane deck of a good horse once more! Whenever I have to walk any distance, I can always understand why a horse-thief yields to temptation and finally becomes confirmed in his habit. It was rather an odd thing for those outlaws to leave everything, even to our guns, but I figured—and time proved the correctness of my arithmetic—that they had bigger fish to fry.
Once in the saddle, with the comfortable weight of a cartridge-belt around each man's middle, we experienced a revulsion of feeling. Primed for trouble if we could jump it out of the brush, we rode the bottom for half an hour. But our men were gone. At least, we could not locate them. So we took to the upland again and loped toward Pend d' Oreille.
"I've been thinking it isn't so strange—those old fellows being in this country—after all," Mac suddenly began, as we slowed our horses down to take a hill. "I didn't remember at first, but two years ago, just after I joined the Force, I ran across a bull-whacker on the Whoop Up trail, and he told me that the Double R had closed out. He said Hank had got into a ruction with Dick Feltz—you recollect there was considerable feeling between them in our time down there—and killed him one day at Fort Worth. Feltz had some folks that took it up, and Hank had to spend a barrel of money to come clear. That, and a range war that grew out of the killing, and some kind of a business deal just about broke them. That's the way this fellow had it; said a trail-boss told him at Ogalalla that spring. I didn't take much stock in the yarn at the time, but I'm beginning to think he had it straight. You didn't hear anything about it?"
"Not a word; it's news to me," I said. "When I left that country I kept moving north all the time. The last three years I've been in the Judith Basin, and southern outfits haven't begun to come in there yet. So I haven't had much chance to hear from that part of the world. But I'm framing up my think-works so I won't be surprised at anything I see or hear after to-night. How long since you left that country, Mac?"
"Next spring after you did," he answered. "If they did go broke, I can sabe their being here. Rutter said, you know, that they'd made a stake on the Peace—Peace River, I suppose he meant. There's been a lot of placer mining in that north country the last three or four years. They might have been up there and struck it good and plenty. They made their start in the cow business off a placer in California, you know."
I knew that, for Rowan often spoke of it. And granting that we had surmised rightly, it required no vivid imagination to picture what might happen to men crossing those wide prairies with a fortune in yellow dust. But my imagination was hardly equal to the task of reconciling the fact that the evil pair had been busy at other deviltry and yet knew I carried a large sum of money and where it was concealed about my person. That brought me back to something else Rutter had told us; something that I knew—or thought I knew—touched MacRae very closely.
"Hans said Lyn was at Walsh," I remarked. "I don't think she was there, this morning. But she might be due to arrive there. Hang it all, Mac, what the dickens chased you away from the Canadian?"
"Looking back, I can't just say what it was," he presently replied, in a hard, matter-of-fact tone. "You see, one's feelings can change, Sarge. It looks different to me now than it did then. I reckon I could have written essays on the futility of sentiment, and the damned silliness of a man who thinks he cares for a woman. But I'm past that stage. And so I can't say for sure just how it was or why. Something came up between me and Lyn—and I drifted, and kept drifting. Went through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana; finally rambled here, and went into the Force because—well, because a man with anything to him can go to the top. A man must play at something, and this looked like a good game."
There was a note of something that I'd never heard in MacRae's voice before; neither bitterness nor anger nor sorrow nor lonesomeness, and yet there was a hint of each, but so slight, so elusive I couldn't grasp it. I remembered that the last sentence MacRae had spoken to me in the South was a message to Lyn Rowan, a message that I never had the pleasure of delivering, for my hasty flitting took me out other trails than the one that led to the home ranch. And so they had parted—gone different ways—probably in anger. Well, that's only another example of the average human's cussedness. Lyn could be just as haughty as she was sweet and gracious, which was natural enough, seeing she'd ruled a cattle king and all his sunburned riders since she was big enough to toddle alone; and Gordon MacRae wasn't the sort of man who would come to heel at any woman's bidding—at least, he wasn't in the old days. Oh, I could understand how it happened, all right. Each of them was chuck full of that dubious sort of pride that has busted up more than one love-fiesta.
Neither of us spoke again, and at length the squat log buildings of Pend d' Oreille loomed ahead of us in the night. Tired and hungry, we stabled our horses, ate a bite, and rolled into bed.
"There's Stony Crossing, Sarge; and over yonder, at the west end of that blue ridge, is Writing-on-the-Stone."
At the foot of the long slope on which we stood Milk River glinted in the sunshine, deceptively beautiful—a shining example of the truth of that old saw about distance lending enchantment, for, looking down on the placid stream slipping smoothly along between fringes of scrubby timber, one would never guess that miles and miles of hungry quick-sands lined the river-edge, an unseen trap for the feet of the unwary.
Stony Crossing I could see, even without Mac's guiding finger. The Whoop Up trail, a brown streak against the vivid upland green, dipped down the hillside to our right, down to the sage-grown flat, and into the river by the great boulders that gave the ford its name. The blue ridge up the river I gave scant heed to; the Writing-Stone was only a name to me, for I'd never seen the place. My attention was all for the scene at hand. The patch of soft green that I knew for the cottonwoods Rutter had spoken of drew my roving gaze whether I would or no. I have ridden on pleasanter missions than the one that took us to Stony Crossing that day.
"It's sure tough," I voiced a thought that had been running in my mind all morning, "to think that a good old fellow like Hank Rowan has been murdered and left to rot on the prairie like a skinned buffalo. Hanged if I can make myself really believe we'll find him down there."
"The more I think of it, the more I'm inclined to believe that we will," MacRae answered evenly. "We'll know beyond a doubt in the next hour. So we might as well go on."
If I hadn't known him so well I might have thought he didn't care a damn what we found at Stony Crossing, that he was as unmoved as the two case-hardened troopers who rode with us. But that repression was just as natural to him as emotional flare-ups are to some. Whatever he felt he usually kept bottled up inside, no matter how it hurt. I never saw him fly to pieces over anything. He was something of an anomaly to me, when I first knew him. I was always so prone to do and say things according to impulse that I thought him cold-blooded, a man without any particular feeling except a certain pride in holding his own among his fellows.
But I revised my opinion when I came to know him better. Under the surface he was sensitive as a girl; one could wound him with a word or a look. Paradoxically, he was absolutely cold-blooded toward a declared enemy. He would fight fair, but without mercy. Side by side with the sensitive soul of him, and hidden always under an impassive mask of self-control, lay the battling spirit, an indomitable fighting streak; it cropped out in a cool, calculating manner of taking desperate chances when the sleeping devil in him was roused. He would sidestep trouble—and one met the weeping damsel at many turns of the road in those raw days—if he could do it without loss of self-respect; but the man who stirred him up needlessly, or crowded him into retaliation, always regretted it—when he had time to indulge in vain regrets. And you can bet your last, lone peso, and consider it won, that MacRae meant every word when he said to old Hans Rutter: "We'll make them sweat blood for this."
When we got down into the bottom Mac turned aside to the deep-worn trail and glanced sharply down at the ruts. The dust in them lay smooth, and the hoof-marks that showed were old and dim.
"I wondered if there had been any freight teams pass lately," he explained. "But there hasn't—not for a day or two, anyway. Let's look in the timber."
That was a long time ago, and since then I have seen much of life and death in many countries, but I can recall as distinctly as if it were yesterday the grim sight that met us when we rode in among the whispering cottonwoods. We found Hank Rowan in a little open place, where rifts of sunlight filtered through the tangled branches; one yellow bar, full of quivering motes, rested on the wide-open eyes and mouth, tinting the set features the ghastly color of a plaster cast. The horse he had ridden lay dead across his legs, and just beyond, a crumpled heap against the base of a tree, was the carcass of a mule, half-hidden under a bulky pack. The thing that sickened me, that stirs me even yet, was a circular, red patch that crowned his head where should have been thick, iron-gray hair.
"The damned hounds!" MacRae muttered. "They tried to make it look like an Indian job."
The pack-ropes had been cut and the pack searched. In the same manner they had gone through his pockets and scattered a few papers and letters on the ground. These we gathered carefully together, against the time of meeting Lyn, and then—for time pressed, and a dead man, though he may be your friend and his passing a sorrow, is out of the game forever—we dragged him from beneath the dead horse, wrapped him in the canvas pack-cover, and buried him in the soft leaf-mold where he lay, as we had buried his lifetime partner early in the morning. When we had finished, MacRae ordered his two troopers back to Pend d' Oreille, and we mounted our horses and turned their heads toward Fort Walsh.
It is seventy miles in an air-line from Stony Crossing to the fort. That night we laid out, sleeping without hardship in a dry buffalo-wallow, and noon of the next day brought us to Walsh, a huddle of log buildings clustering around a tall pole from which fluttered the union jack.
Off to one side of the fort a bunch of work-bulls fed peacefully. Down in the creek bottom a tent or two flapped in the mid-day breeze, and in their neighborhood uprose the smoke of half a dozen dinner fires. By the post storeroom, waiting their turn to unload, was ranged a line of the tarpaulin-covered wagons, wheeled galleons of the plains, that brought food and raiment to the Northwest before the coming of steam and steel.
"That looks to me like Baker's outfit, from Benton," I said to MacRae, as we swung off our horses before the building in which the officer of the day held forth. "They must have come by way of Assiniboine."
"Probably," Mac answered. "And over yonder's the paymaster's train. At least, he's due, and I can't account for a bunch of horses in charge of a buck trooper any other way."
We clanked into the ante-room—that's what I call it, anyway. It happened that I didn't stay around those police posts long enough to get familiar with the technical terms for everything. Not that they wouldn't have welcomed my presence; faith, their desire for my company was only equaled by my reluctance to accept their hospitality. There was a while when I developed a marvelous capacity for dodging invitations to Fort Walsh. And if the men in scarlet had been a bit swifter, or I a little slower, I'd have had ample leisure to observe life in the Force from the inside—of the guardhouse. As I said, we went into the ante-room, and there I got my first peep at the divinity that doth hedge—not a king, but a commissioned officer in Her Majesty's N. W. M. P. An orderly held us up, and when MacRae had convinced him that our business was urgent, and not for his ears, he graciously allowed us to enter the Presence—who proved to be a heavy-set person with sandy, mutton-chop whiskers set bias on a vacuous, round, florid countenance. His braid-trimmed uniform was cut to fit him like the skin of an exceedingly well-stuffed sausage, and from his comfortable seat behind a flat-topped desk he gazed upon us with the wisdom of a tree-full of owls and the dignity of a stage emperor.
MacRae's heels clicked together and his right hand went up in the stiff military salute. The red-faced one acknowledged it by a barely perceptible flip of a fat paw, then put a little extra stiffening into his spinal column and growled, in a voice that seemed to come booming up from the region of his diaphragm, "Pro-ceed."
MacRae proceeded. But he didn't get very far. In fact, he'd barely articulated, 'I have to report, sir, that——' when the human sausage bethought himself of something more important, and held up one hand for silence. He produced a watch and studied it frowningly, then dismissed us and the recital of our troubles with a ponderous gesture.
"Repawt again," he rumbled, away down in his chest cavity, "at hawf—pawst—one."
"Yes, sir," MacRae saluted again, and we withdrew.
"A beautiful specimen; a man of great force," I unburdened myself when we got outside. "Have you many like him? I'd admire to see him cavorting around on the pinnacles after horse-thieves or whisky-runners or a bunch of bad Indians. A peaceable citizen would sure do well on the other side of the line if sheriffs and marshals took a lay-off to feed themselves when a man was in the middle of his complaint. How long do you suppose it will take that fat slob to get a squad of these soldier-policemen on the trail of that ten thousand?"
MacRae laughed dryly. "Old Dobson is harmless, all right, so far as hunting outlaws is concerned. But he doesn't cut much figure around here, one way or the other; no more than two or three other 'haw-haw' Englishmen who got commissions in the Force on the strength of their family connections. Lessard—the major in charge—is the brains of the post. He gets out and does things while these fatheads stay in quarters and untangle red tape. Personally, I don't like Lessard—he's a damned autocrat. But he's the man to whip this unorganized country into shape. I imagine he'll paw up the earth when he hears our story."
We mounted and rode to the stables. When we'd unsaddled and put up our horses, Mac led the way toward a row of small, whitewashed cabins set off by themselves, equidistant from barrack and officers' row.
"Sometimes I eat with the sergeants' mess," Mac said. "But generally I camp with 'Bat' Perkins when I drop in here. Bat's an ex-stock-hand like ourselves, and we'll be as welcome as payday. And he'll know if Lyn Rowan has come to Walsh."
I wasn't in shape, financially, to have any choice in the matter of a stopping-place. Forty or fifty dollars of expense money covered the loose cash in my pockets when I left Walsh for Benton; and, while I may have neglected to mention the fact, those two coin-collectors didn't overlook the small change when they held me up for La Pere's roll. There was a sort of sheebang—you couldn't call it a hotel if you had any regard for the truth—on the outskirts of Walsh, for the accommodation of wayfarers without a camp-outfit, but most of the time you couldn't get anything fit to eat there. So I was mighty glad to hear about Bat Perkins.
THIRTY DAYS IN IRONS!
It transpired, however, that before we reached Bat Perkins' cabin Mac got an unexpected answer to one of the questions he intended to ask. As we turned the corner of a rambling log house, which, from its pretentiousness, I judged must house some Mounted Police dignitary, we came face to face with a tall, keen-featured man in Police uniform, and a girl. Even though Rutter had declared she would be at Walsh, I wasn't prepared to believe it was Lyn Rowan. Sometimes five years will work a wonderful change in a woman; or is it that time and distance work some subtle transition in one's recollection? She didn't give me much time to indulge in guesswork, though. While I wondered, for an instant, if there could by any possibility be another woman on God's footstool with quite the same tilt to her head, the same heavy coils of tawny hair and unfathomable eyes that always met your own so frankly, she recognized the pair of us; though MacRae in uniform must have puzzled her for an instant.
"Gordon—and Sarge Flood! Where in the world did you come from? And—and——" She stopped rather suddenly, a bit embarrassed. I knew just as well as if she had spoken the words, that she had been on the point of asking him what he was doing in the yellow-striped breeches and scarlet jacket of a Mounted Policeman. Whatever had parted them, she hadn't held it against him. There was an indefinable something in the way she spoke his name and looked at him that told me there was still a soft spot in her heart for the high-headed beggar by my side.
But MacRae—while I was wise to the fact that he was the only friend I had in that country, and the sort of friend that sticks closer than a brother, I experienced a sincere desire to beat him over the noodle with my gun and thereby knock a little of the stiffness out of his neck—simply saluted the officer, tipped his hat to her, and passed on. I didn't sabe the play, and when I saw the red flash up into her face it made me hot, and there followed a few seconds when I took a very uncharitable view of Mr. Gordon MacRae's distant manner.
The fellow with her, I noticed, seemed to draw himself up very stiff and dignified when she stopped and spoke to us; and the look with which he favored MacRae was a peculiar one. It was simply a vagrant expression, but as it flitted over his face it lacked nothing in the way of surprised disapproval; I might go farther and say it was malignant—the kind of look that makes a man feel like reaching for a weapon. At least, that's the impression it made on me.
"I might fire that question back at you, Miss Rowan," I replied. "We're both a long way from the home range. I was here a day or two ago. How did you manage to keep out of sight—or have you just got in?"
"Yesterday, only," she returned. "We—you remember old Mammy Thomas, don't you?—came over from Benton with the Baker freight outfit. I expect to meet dad here, in a few days."
Her last sentence froze the words that were all ready to slip off the end of my tongue, and made my grouch against MacRae crystallize into a feeling akin to anger. Why couldn't the beggar stand his ground and deliver the ugly tidings himself? That bunch of cottonwoods with the new-made grave close by the dead horses seemed to rise up between us, and I became speechless. I hadn't the nerve to stand there and tell her she'd never see her father again this side of the pearly gates. Not I. That was a job for somebody who could put his arms around her and kiss the tears away from her eyes. Unless I read her wrong, there was only one man who could make it easier for her if he were by, and he was walking away as if it were none of his concern.
Something of this must have shown in my face, for she was beginning to regard me curiously. I gathered my scattered wits and started to make some attempt at conversation, but the man with the shoulder-straps forestalled me.
"Really, we must go, Miss Rowan, or we shall be late for luncheon," he drawled. The insolent tone of him was like having one's face slapped, and it didn't pass over Lyn's head by any means. I thought to myself that if he had set out to entrench himself in her good graces, he was taking the poorest of all methods to accomplish that desirable end.
"Just a moment, major," she said. "Are you going to be here any length of time, Sarge?"
"A day or so," I responded shortly. I didn't feel overly cheerful with all that bad news simmering in my brain-pan, and in addition I had conceived a full-grown dislike for the "major" and his I-am-superior-to-you attitude.
"Then come and see me this afternoon if you can. I'm staying with Mrs. Stone. Don't forget, now—I have a thousand things I want to talk about. Good-bye." And she smiled and turned away with the uniformed snob by her side.
MacRae had loitered purposely, and I overtook him in a few rods.
"Well," I blurted out, as near angry as I ever got at MacRae in all the years I'd known him, "you're a high-headed cuss, confound you! Is it a part of your new philosophy of life to turn your back on every one that you ever cared anything for?"
He shrugged his shoulders tolerantly. "What did you expect of me?"
"You might have—oh, well, I suppose you'll go your own gait, regardless," I sputtered. "That's your privilege. But I don't see how you had the nerve to pass her up that way. Especially since that Stony Crossing deal."
Mac took a dozen steps before he answered me.
"You don't understand the lay of things, Sarge," he said, rather hesitatingly. "If I have the situation sized up right, Lyn is practically alone here, and things are going to look pretty black to her when she learns what has happened. Hank never had anything much to do with his people. I doubt if Lyn has even a speaking acquaintance with her nearest kin. She has friends in the South—plenty of them who'd be more than glad to do as much for her as you or I. But we're a long way from the Canadian River, now. And so if she has made friends among the official set here, it's up to me to stand back—until that cache is found, anyway."
"Then you're not going to try and see her, and tell her about this thing yourself?" I asked.
"I can't," he replied impatiently. "You'll have to do that, Sarge. Hang it, can't you see where I stand? The mere fact that Lessard was taking her about shows that these officers' women have received her with open arms. They form a clique as exclusive as a quarantined smallpox patient, and a 'non-com' like myself is barred out, until I win a pair of shoulder-straps; when my rank would make me socially possible. Meantime, I'm a sergeant, and if Lyn went to picking friends out of the ranks, I'm not sure they wouldn't drop her like a hot potato. Sounds rotten, but that's their style; and you've been through the mill at home enough to know what it is to be knifed socially. It's different with you; you're an American citizen, a countryman of hers. You understand?"
"Yes," I answered tartly. "But I don't understand how you can stomach this sort of existence. What is there in it? Where is the profit or satisfaction in this kind of thing, for you? Will the man in the ranks get credit for taming the Northwest when his work is done? Why the devil don't you quit the job? Cut loose and be a free agent again."
"It is a temptation, the way things have come up in the last day or two," he mused. "I'd like to be foot-loose, so I could work it out without any string attached to me. But there are only two ways I could get out of the Force, and neither is open. I might desert, which would be a dirty way to sneak out of a thing I went into deliberately; or, if they were minded to allow me, I could buy my discharge—and I haven't the price. Besides, I like the game and I don't know that I want to quit it. The life isn't so bad. It's your rabidly independent point of view. A man that can't obey orders is not likely to climb to a position where he can give them. What the dickens would become of the cow-outfits," he challenged, "if every stockhand refused to take orders from the foreman and owners? Do you stand on your dignity when La Pere tells you to do certain things in a certain way?"
I shrugged my shoulders. There was just enough truth in his words to make them hard to confute, and, anyway, I was not in the mood for that sort of argument. But I was very sure that I would rather be a forty-dollar-a-month cowpuncher than a sergeant in the Mounted Police.
"That fellow with her is the big gun here, is he?" I reverted to Lyn and her affairs.
"Yes," Mac answered shortly, "that was Lessard."
By this time we had come to the last cabin in the row. A whitewashed fence enclosed a diminutive yard, and as we turned in the gate Bat Perkins appeared in the doorway, both hands thrust deep in his trousers pockets and a pipe sagging down one corner of his wide mouth. He was rudely jovial in his greeting, as most of his type were. His wit was labored, but his welcome was none the less genuine.
"I seen yuh ride in, Mac," he grinned, "an' I told the old woman t' turn herself loose on the beefsteak an' spuds, for here comes that hungry-lookin' jasper from Pend d' Oreille."
I was duly made acquainted with Bat, and later with his wife, who, if she did have a trace of Indian blood in her, could certainly qualify as the patron saint of hungry men. Good cooks were a scarce article on the frontier then. Bat, I learned, was attached to the Force in a civilian capacity.
We ate, smoked a cigarette apiece, and then it was time for us to "repawt." So we betook ourselves to the seat of the mighty, to unload our troubles on the men who directed the destinies of the turbulent Northwest and see what they could do toward alleviating them.
This time the orderly passed us in without delay, and once more we faced the man of rank, who, after taking our measure with a deliberate stare, ordered MacRae to state his business.
As Mac related the unvarnished tale of the banked fire in the canyon, the hold-up, and the double murder, a slight sound caused me to turn my head, and I saw in a doorway that led to another room the erect figure of Major Lessard listening intently, a black frown on his eagle face. When MacRae had finished his story and the incapable blockhead behind the desk sat there regarding the two of us as though he considered that we had been the victims of a rank hallucination, Lessard slammed the door shut behind him and strode into the room.
"I'll take charge of this, Captain Dobson," he brusquely informed the red-faced numskull.
Taking his stand at the end of the desk, he made MacRae reiterate in detail the grim happenings of that night. That over, he quizzed me for a few minutes. Then he turned loose on MacRae with a battery of questions. Could he give a description of the men? Would he be able to identify them? Why did he not exercise more precaution when investigating anything so suspicious as a concealed fire? Why this, why that? Why didn't he send a trooper to report at once instead of wasting time in going to Stony Crossing? And a dozen more.
With every word his thin-lipped mouth drew into harder lines, and the cold, domineering tone, weighted heavy with sneering emphasis, grated on me till I wanted to reach over and slap his handsome, smooth-shaven face. But MacRae stood at "attention" and took his medicine dumbly. He had to. He was in the presence, and answering the catechism, of a superior officer, and his superior officer by virtue of a commission from the Canadian government could insult his manhood and lash him unmercifully with a viperish tongue, and if he dared to resent it by word or deed there was the guardhouse and the shame of irons—for discipline must be maintained at any cost! I thanked the star of destiny then and there that no Mounted Police officer had a string attached to me, by which he could force me to speak or be silent at his will. It was a dirty piece of business on Lessard's part. Even Dobson eyed him wonderingly.
"Why, damn it!" Lessard finally burst out, "you've handled this like a green one, fresh from over the water. You are held up; this man is robbed of ten thousand dollars; another man is murdered under your very nose—and then you waste thirty-six hours blundering around the country to satisfy your infernal curiosity. It's incredible, in a man of your frontier experience, under any hypothesis except that you stood in with the outlaws and held back to assure their escape!"
At first MacRae had looked puzzled, at a loss. Then under the lash of Lessard's bitter tongue the dull red stole up into his weather-browned cheeks, glowed there an instant and receded, leaving his face white under the tan. His left hand was at its old, familiar trick—fingers shut tight over the thumb till the cords stood tense between the knuckles and wrist—a never-failing sign that internally he was close to the boiling-point, no matter how calm he appeared on the surface. And when Lessard flung out that last unthinkable accusation, the explosion came.
"You lie, you——!" MacRae spoke in a cold impersonal tone, and only the flat strained note betrayed his feeling; but the term applied to Lessard was one to make a man's ears burn; it was the range-riders' gauntlet thrown squarely in an enemy's face. "You lie when you say that, and you know you lie. I don't know your object, but I call your bluff—you—you blasted insect!"
Lessard, if he had been blind till then, saw what was patent to me—that he had gone a bit too far, that the man he had baited so savagely was primed to kill him if he made a crooked move. MacRae leaned forward, his gray eyes twin coals, the thumb of his right hand hooked suggestively in the cartridge-belt, close by the protruding handle of his six-shooter. They were a well-matched pair; iron-nerved, both of them, the sort of men to face sudden death open-eyed and unafraid.
A full minute they glared at each other across the desk corner. Then Lessard, without moving a muscle or altering his steady gaze, spoke to Dobson.
"Call the orderly," he said quietly.
Dobson, mouth agape, struck a little bell on the desk and the orderly stepped in from the outer room.
"Orderly, disarm Sergeant MacRae."
Lessard uttered the command evenly, without a jarring note, his tone almost a duplicate of MacRae's. He was a good judge of men, that eagle-faced major; he knew that the slightest move with hostile intent would mean a smoking gun. MacRae would have shot him dead in his tracks if he'd tried to reach a weapon. But a man who is really game—which no one who knew him could deny MacRae—won't, can't shoot down another unless that other shows fight; and a knowledge of that gun-fighters' trait saved Major Lessard's hide from being thoroughly punctured that day.
The orderly, a rather shaky orderly if the truth be told (I think he must have listened through the keyhole!) stepped up to Mac.
"Give me your side-arms, sergeant," he said, nervously.
MacRae looked from one to the other, and for a breath I was as nervous as the trooper. It was touch and go, just then, and if he'd gone the wrong way it's altogether likely that I'd have felt called upon to back his play, and there would have been a horrible mix-up in that two by four room. But he didn't. Just smiled, a sardonic sort of grimace, and unbuckled his belt and handed it over without a word. He'd begun to cool.
"Reduced to the ranks—thirty days in irons—solitary confinement!" Lessard snapped the words out with a wolfish satisfaction.
"Keep a close mouth, Sarge," MacRae spoke in Spanish with his eyes bent on the floor, "and don't quit the country till I get out." Then he turned at the orderly's command and marched out of the room.
When I again turned to Lessard he still stood at the end of the desk, industriously paring his fingernails. An amused smile wrinkled the corners of his mouth.
Whereas Lessard had acted the martinet with MacRae, he took another tack and became the very essence of affability toward me. (I'd have enjoyed punching his proud head, for all that; it was a dirty way to serve a man who had done his level best.)
"Rather unfortunate happening for you, Flood," he began. "I think, however, that we shall eventually get your money back."
"I hope so," I replied coolly. "But I must say that it begins to look like a big undertaking."
"Well, yes; it is," he observed. "Still, we have a pretty thorough system of keeping track of things like that. This is a big country, but you can count on the fingers of one hand the places where a man can spend money. Of course, you probably realize the difficulty of laying hands on men who know they are wanted, and act accordingly. We can't arrest on a description, because you wouldn't know the men if you saw them. Our only chance is to be on the lookout for free spenders. It's a certainty that they will be captured if they spend that money at any trading-post within our jurisdiction. I'll find out if the quartermaster knows the numbers and denomination of the bills. On the other hand, if they go south, cross the line, you know, we won't get much of a show at them. But we'll have to take chances on that."
"I've done all I can do in that direction," I said. "I've sent word to La Pere."
"You had better stay hereabout for a while," he decided. "You can put up at one of the troop-messes for a few days. I'll send a despatch to Whoop Up and MacLeod, and we'll see what turns up. Also I think I shall send a detail to bring in those bodies. The identification must be made complete. No doubt it will be a trial for Miss Rowan, but I think she would feel better to have her father buried here. By the way, you knew the Rowans in the States, I believe."
"Was trail-boss three seasons for Hank Rowan and his partner," I returned briefly. I didn't much like his offhand way of asking; not that it wasn't a perfectly legitimate query. But I couldn't get rid of the notion that he would hand me out the same dose he had given MacRae if only he had the power.
"Ah," he remarked. "Then perhaps you would like to go out and help bring in those bodies. It will save taking the Pend d' Oreille riders from their regular patrol, and we are having considerable trouble with whisky-runners these days."
I agreed to go, and that terminated the conversation. I didn't mind going; in fact some sort of action appealed to me just then. I had no idea of going back to Benton right away, and sitting around Fort Walsh waiting for something to turn up was not my taste. It never struck me till I was outside the office that Lessard had passed up the gold episode altogether; he hadn't said whether he would send any one to prognosticate around Writing-Stone or not. I wondered if he took any stock in Rutter's story, or thought it merely one of the queer turns a man's brain will sometimes take when he is dying. It had sounded off-color to me, at first; but I knew old Hans pretty well, and he always seemed to me a hard-headed, matter of fact sort of man, not at all the flighty kind of pilgrim that gets mixed in his mental processes when things go wrong. Besides, if there wasn't some powerful incentive, why that double killing, to say nothing of the incredible devilishness that accompanied it.
Once out of the official atmosphere, I hesitated over my next move. Lessard's high-handed squelching of MacRae had thrown everything out of focus. We'd planned to report at headquarters, see Lyn, if she were at Walsh, and then with Pend d' Oreille as a base of operations go on a still hunt for whatever the Writing-Stone might conceal. That scheme was knocked galley-west and crooked, for even when MacRae's term expired he'd get a long period of duty at the Fort; he'd lost his rank, and as a private his coming and going would be according to barrack-rule instead of the freedom allowed a sergeant in charge of an outpost like Pend d' Oreille—I knew that much of the Mounted Police style of doing business. And so far as my tackling single-handed a search for Hank Rowan's cache—well, I decided to see Lyn before I took that contract.
I hated that, too. It always went against my grain to be a bearer of ill tidings. I hate to make a woman cry, especially one I like. Some one had to tell her, though, and, much as I disliked the mission, I felt that I ought not to hang back and let some stranger blurt it out. So I nailed the first trooper I saw, and had him show me the domicile of Mrs. Stone—who, I learned, was the wife of Lessard's favorite captain—and thither I rambled, wishing mightily for a good stiff jolt out of the keg that Piegan Smith and Mac had clashed over. But if there was any bottled nerve-restorer around Fort Walsh it was tucked away in the officers' cellars, and not for the benefit of the common herd; so I had to fall back on a cigarette.
Lyn was sitting out in front when I reached the place. Another female person, whom I put down as Madam Stone, arose and disappeared through an open door at my approach. Lyn motioned me to a camp-stool close by. I sat down, and immediately my tongue became petrified. My think-machinery was running at a dizzy speed, but words—if silence is truly golden, I was the richest man in Fort Walsh that afternoon, for a few minutes, at least. And when my vocal organs did at last consent to fulfil their natural office, they refused to deliver anything but empty commonplaces, the kind one's tongue carries in stock for occasional moments of barren speech. These oral inanities only served to make Lyn give me the benefit of a look of amused wonder.
"Dear me," she laughed at last. "I wonder what weighty matter is crushing you to the earth. If you've got anything on your conscience, Sarge, for goodness' sake confess. I'll give you absolution, if you like, and then perhaps you'll be a little more cheerful."
"No, there's nothing particular weighing me down," I lied flatly. "Anyway, I don't aim to unload my personal troubles on you. I came over here to acquire a little information. How came you away up here by your lonesome, and what brought your father and old Hans——"
Her purple-shaded eyes widened, each one a question-mark.
"Who told you that Hans was up North? I know I didn't mention him," she cut in quickly. "Have you seen them?"
It's a wonder my face didn't betray the fact that I was holding something back. I know I must have looked guilty for a second. That was a question I would gladly have passed up, but her eyes demanded an answer.
"Well," I protested, "it occurred to me that if you expected to meet your father here in a day or two, Rutter would naturally be with him, seeing that they've paddled in the same canoe since a good many years before you were born, my lady. What jarred you all loose from Texas? And what the mischief did you do to MacRae that he quit the South next spring after I did, and straightway went to soldiering in this country?"
She shied away from that query, just as I expected. "We had oceans of trouble after you left there, Sarge," she told me, turning her head from me so that her gaze wandered over the barrack-square. "It really doesn't make pleasant telling, but you'll understand better than some one that didn't know the country. You remember Dick Feltz, and that old trouble about the Conway brand that dad bought a long time back?"