By RIDGWELL CULLUM
AUTHOR OF "The Story of the Foss River Ranch," "In the Brooding Wild," "The Way of the Strong," Etc.
With Frontispiece in Colors
A. L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York Published by Arrangement with GEORGE W. JACOBS & CO.
COPYRIGHT, 1914, BY GEORGE W. JACOBS & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED PRINTED IN U. S. A.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
THE WAY OF THE STRONG THE TWINS OF SUFFERING CREEK THE NIGHT-RIDERS THE ONE-WAY TRAIL THE TRAIL OF THE AXE THE SHERIFF OF DYKE HOLE THE WATCHERS OF THE PLAINS
I WATCHING THE LINE 1
II WHITE POINT 5
III THE HOLD-UP 11
IV AT THE FOOT OF AN AGED PINE 18
V BOUND FOR THE SOUTHERN TRAIL 25
VI THE MAN-HUNTERS 35
VII CHARLIE BRYANT 43
VIII THE SOUL-SAVERS 53
IX THE "STRAY"-HUNTER 64
X THE BROTHERS 73
XI THE UNREGENERATE 79
XII THE DISCOMFITURE OF HELEN 91
XIII LIGHT-HEARTED SOULS 100
XIV THE HOUSE OF DIRTY O'BRIEN 110
XV ADVENTURES IN THE NIGHT 120
XVI FURTHER ADVENTURES 128
XVII BILL PEEPS UNDER THE SURFACE 137
XVIII THE ARM OUTREACHING 142
XIX BILL MAKES THREE DISCOVERIES 155
XX IN THE FAR REACHES 166
XXI WORD FROM HEADQUARTERS 176
XXII MOVES IN THE GAME OF LOVE 184
XXIII STORM CLOUDS 195
XXIV THE SOUL OF A MAN 206
XXV THE BROKEN CHAIN 215
XXVI ROCKY SPRINGS HEARS THE NEWS 221
XXVII AT THE HIDDEN CORRAL 235
XXVIII A WAGER 241
XXIX BILL'S FRESH BLUNDERING 256
XXX THE COMMITTEE DECIDE 261
XXXI ANTAGONISTS 265
XXXII TREACHERY 272
XXXIII PLAYING THE GAME 278
XXXIV AN ENCOUNTER 286
XXXV ON MONDAY NIGHT 296
XXXVI STILL MONDAY NIGHT 299
XXXVII THE NIGHT TRAIL 307
XXXVIII THE FALL OF THE OLD PINE 315
XXXIX FROM THE ASHES 327
XL THE DAWN 335
WATCHING THE LINE
There was no shade anywhere. The terrible glare of the summer sun beat down upon the whole length of the wooden platform at Amberley. Hot as was the dry, bracing air, it was incomparable with the blistering intensity of heat reflected from the planking, which burned through to the soles of the feet of the uniformed man who paced its length, slowly, patiently.
This sunburnt, gray-eyed man, with his loose, broad shoulders, his powerful, easy-moving limbs, seemed quite indifferent to the irritating climatic conditions of the moment. Even the droning of the worrying mosquitoes had no power to disturb him. Like everything else unpleasant in this distant northwestern land, he accepted these things as they came, and brushed them aside for the more important affairs he was engaged upon.
He gazed out across the wide monotony of prairie with its undulating wavelets, a tawny green beneath the scorching summer sun. He was thinking deeply; perhaps dreaming, although dreaming had small enough place in his busy life. His lot was a stern fight against crime, and, in a land so vast, so new, where crime flourished upon virgin soil, it left him little time for the more pleasant avenues of thought.
Inspector Stanley Fyles came to a halt at the eastern end of the long platform. Miles of railroad track stretched away in a dead straight line toward the distant, shimmering horizon. For miles ahead the road was unbroken by a single moving object, and, after a long, keen survey, the man abruptly turned his back upon it.
In a moment he became aware of a hollow-chested man hurrying toward him. He was coming from the direction of the only building upon the platform—the railroad office, or, as it was grandiloquently called, the "booking hall."
Fyles recognized the man as the railroad agent, Huntly, who controlled the affairs of his company in this half-fledged prairie town.
He came up in a flurry of unusual excitement.
"She's past New Camp, inspector," he cried. "Guess she's in the Broken Hills, an' gettin' near White Point. I'd say she'd be along in an hour—sure."
For once in his life Stanley Fyles's patience gave way.
The man grinned.
"It ain't no use cussin'," he protested, with a suggestion of malicious delight. "Y'see, she's just a bum freight. Ain't even a 'through.' I tell you, these sort have emptied a pepper box of gray around my head. Yes, sir, there's more gray to my head by reason of their sort than a hired man could hoe out in half a year."
"Twenty minutes ago you told me she'd be in in half an hour."
There was resentment as well as distrust in the officer's protest.
"Sure," the man responded glibly. "That was accordin' to schedule. Guess Ananias must have been the fellow who invented schedules for local freights."
The toe of Fyles's well-polished riding-boot tapped the superheated platform.
His gray eyes suddenly fixed and held the ironical eyes of the other.
"See here, Huntly," he said at last, in that tone of quiet authority which never deserted him for long. "I can rely on that? There's nothing to stop her by the way—now? Nothing at all?"
But the agent shook his head, and his eyes still shone with their ironical light.
"I'd say the prophet business petered out miser'bly nigh two thousand years ago. I wouldn't say this dogone prairie 'ud be the best place to start resurrectin' it. No, sir! There's too many chances for that—seein' we're on a branch line. There's the track—it might give way. You never can tell on a branch line. The locomotive might drop dead of senile decay. Maybe the train crew's got drunk, and is raisin' hell at some wayside city. You never can tell on a branch line. Then there's that cargo of liquor you're yearnin' to——"
"Cut it out, man," broke in the officer sharply. "You are sure about the train? You know what you're talking about?"
The agent grinned harder than ever.
"This is a prohibition territory——" he began.
But again Fyles cut him short. The man's irrepressible love of fooling, half good-humored, half malicious, had gone far enough.
"Anyway you don't usually get drunk before sundown, so I guess I'll have to take your word for it."
Then Inspector Fyles smiled back into the other's face, which had abruptly taken on a look of resentment at the charge.
"I tell you what it is," he went on. "You boys get mighty close to the wind swilling prohibited liquor. It's against the spirit of the law—anyway."
But the agent's good humor warmed again under the officer's admission of his difficulties. He was an irrepressible fellow when opportunity offered. Usually he lived in a condition of utter boredom. In fact, there were only two things that made life tolerable for him in Amberley. These were the doings of the Mounted Police, and the doings of those who made their existence a necessity in the country.
Even while weighted down with the oppressive routine of his work, it was an inspiriting thing to watch the war between law and lawlessness. Here in Amberley, situated in the heart of the Canadian prairie lands, was a handful of highly trained men pitted against almost a world of crime. Perhaps the lightest of their duties was the enforcing of the prohibition laws, formulated by a dear, grandmotherly government in an excess of senile zeal for the welfare of the health and morals of those far better able to think for themselves.
The laws of prohibition! The words stuck with Mr. Huntly as they stuck with every full-grown man and woman in the country outside the narrow circle of temperance advocates. The law was anathema to him. Under its influence the bettering, the purification of life in the Northwestern Territories had received a setback, which optimistic antagonists of the law declared was little less than a quarter of a century. Drunkenness had increased about one hundred per cent, since human nature had been forbidden the importation and consumption of alcohol in any form stronger than four per cent. beer.
Huntly knew that Inspector Fyles was almost solely at work upon the capture of contraband liquor. Also he knew, and hated the fact, that his own duty required that he must give any information concerning this traffic upon his railroad which the police might require. Therefore there was an added vehemence in his reply to the officer's warning.
"Sakes, man! What 'ud you have us do?" he cried, with a laugh that was more than half angry. "Do you think we're goin' to sit around this darned diagram of a town readin' temperance tracts, just because somebody guesses we haven't the right to souse liquor? Think we're goin' to suck milk out of a kid's feeder, just because you boys in red coats figure that way? No, sir. Guess that ain't doin'—anyway. I'm sousing all the liquor I can get my hooks on, an' it's all the sweeter because of you boys. Outside my duty to the railroad company I wouldn't raise a finger to stop a gallon of good rye comin' into town, no, not if the penitentiary was yearnin' to swallow me right up."
Fyles's purposeful eyes surveyed the man with a thoughtful smile.
"Just so," he said coolly. "That clause about 'duty' squares the rest. You'll need to do your duty about these things. That's all we want. That's all we intend to have. Do you get me? I'm right here to see that duty done. The first trip, my friend, and you won't talk of penitentiary so—easily." The quietness with which he spoke did not rob his words of their significance. Then he went on, just a shade more sharply. "Now, see here. When that freight gets in I hold you responsible that the hindmost car—next the caboose—is dropped here, and the seals are intact. It's billed loaded with barrels of cube sugar, for Calford. Get me? That's your duty just now. See you do it."
Huntly understood Fyles. Everybody in Amberley understood him. And the majority recognized the deliberate purpose lying behind his calmest assurance. The agent knew that his protest had touched the limit, consequently there was nothing left him but to carry out instructions to the letter. He hated the position.
His face twisted into a wry grin.
"Guess you don't leave much to the imagination, inspector," he said sourly.
Fyles was moving away. He replied over his shoulder.
"No. Just the local color of the particular penitentiary," he said, with a laugh.
Mr. Moss was the sole employe of the railroad company at White Point flag station. His official hours were long. They extended round the dial of the clock twice daily. Curiously enough, his leisure extended to practically the same limits. The truth was, in summer, anyway, he had no duties that could seriously claim him. Thus the long summer days were spent chiefly among his vegetables, and the bits of flowers at the back of the shanty, which was at once his home and his office, in short, White Point.
Jack Huntly at Amberley grumbled at the unenlivening conditions of his existence, but compared with those of Mr. Moss he lived in a perfect whirlwind of gaiety.
There was no police station at White Point. There were no farms in the neighborhood. There was not even a half-breed camp, with its picturesque squalor, to break up the deadly drear of the surrounding plains. The only human diversion that ever marred the calm serenity of the neighborhood was the rare visit of some lodge of Indians, straying from the reservation, some sixty miles to the south, on a hunting pass.
But if White Point lacked interest from human associations its setting at least was curiously arresting. Nature's whim was the inspiration which had brought the station into existence. To the north, south, and west the prairie stretched away in the distance for untold miles; but immediately to the east quite another aspect prevailed. Here lay the reason of White Point station.
Almost from the very foot of the walls of Mr. Moss's shanty the land rose up with, as it were, a jolt. Great forest-clad hills reared their torn and barren crests to enormous heights out of the dead level of the prairie. A tumbled sea of Nature's wreckage lay strewn about unaccountably, for a distance of something like two miles, east and west, and double that distance from north to south. It was an oasis of natural splendor in the heart of a calm sea of green grass.
These strange hills necessitated a watchful eye upon the railroad track, which pierced their heart, in winter and spring. In summer there was nothing to exercise the mind of Mr. Moss. But in winter the track was constantly becoming blocked with snow, while during the spring thaw there was always the dread of a "wash-out" to disturb his nightly dreams. At such times these things kept the agent far more alive than he cared about.
Just now, however, it was the height of summer, and no such anxieties prevailed. Therefore Mr. Moss fell back upon the less exciting pastime of a perspiry afternoon among his potatoes and other vegetable luxuries.
He was hoeing the rows of potatoes with a sort of dogged determination to find interest in the work. He believed that physical effort was the only safety-valve for healthy feelings all too long bottled up. Even the streaming sweat suggested to him a feeling that it was at least hygienic, although the moist mixture of muddy consistency upon his face, merging with the growth of three days' beard, left his appearance something more than a blot upon the general view.
Just now he had nothing to disturb the blank of his mind. The only possible interruption to the work in hand, of an official character, was the passing of a local freight train. However, a local freight was a matter of no importance whatever. It might come to-day, or it might come to-morrow. He would signal it through in due course, after that he didn't much care what happened to it.
The potatoes fully occupied him, and as he came to the end of each row he took the opportunity of straightening out the crick in his back, and gazing upon his handiwork with the look of a man who feels he has surely earned his own admiration.
Once he varied this procedure by glancing up while still in the middle of a row. His glance was sharp and startled. He had heard an unaccustomed sound, distinct but distant. It seemed to him that a horse had neighed. There came an answering neigh. It was quite disturbing.
A long and careful scrutiny of the plains in every direction, however, left him with a feeling of doubt. There was no horse in sight anywhere, and the great hills adjacent offered no inducement whatsoever for any straying quadruped. He assured himself that the solitude of his life was rendering him fanciful, and forthwith returned to his work.
For some time the measured stroke of his hoe clanked upon the baking soil, and later on he paused to fill and light his pipe. He had just cut the flakes of tobacco from his plug, and was rolling them in the palms of his hands, when the thought occurred to him to glance at the time. His great coin-silver timepiece pointed the hour when he felt he might safely signal the freight train through.
Lounging round to the front of the station building he walked down the track to the foot of the semaphore, and flung the rusty lever over. His action expressed something of the contempt in which he held all "local freights." Then he sauntered back to his work with his pipe under full blast.
But his day has yet surprises in store. In half an hour's time he received his second start. A distant rumble and grinding warned him that the freight was approaching through the hills. He smiled at the sound, and his smile was largely satirical. He glanced up once, but promptly continued his work. But it was only for a few moments. The sound which had been growing had almost died out and was being replaced by the hammering of the cars as they closed up against each other. The train was stopping.
He was looking up now full of interest, and one hand went up to his head, and its fingers raked among the roots of his hair. Suddenly the engine bell began to clang violently. There was distinctly a note of protest in the sound. Something was wrong. He swung round and looked at his signal. Say—was he dreaming? What on earth——? Half an hour ago he had lowered the semaphore, at least he had set the lever over, and now—now it was set against the train!
For a second he stared at the offending arm, then, as the bell clanged still more violently, he dashed across the intervening space to remedy his mistake.
But now incident crowded upon him. He was quite right. The lever was set as it should be set. His practiced eye glanced rapidly down the connecting rod to discover the source of the trouble, and further amazement waited upon him. The explanation of the mystery lay before his eyes. There at the triangular junction, where the connecting rod linked with the down-haul of the semaphore, the bolt had fallen out, and the whole thing was disconnected. The bolt with its screw nut and washer were lying on the ground, where, apparently, they had fallen.
The furious clanging of the engine bell, where the head of the train stood just in view round the bend of the track where it entered the hills, left him no time for consideration of the mishap. The protesting train must be passed on without further delay. Therefore, with deft hands, he quickly readjusted the bolt, and once again set the lever. This time the arm of the signal dropped.
It was not until these things were accomplished that he had time to study the cause of the disconnection. Then, at once, a curious feeling of incredulity swept over him. It was an impossibility for the thing to have happened. The bolt fitted horizontally, and the washered nut had full two inches to unscrew! Besides this, the whole thing was well rusted with years of exposure. Yet the impossible had happened!
He stood gazing at the bolt with a sort of uncanny feeling stirring within him. The engine at the head of its long string of box cars approached. It passed him, and he heard its driver hurl some uncomplimentary remark at him as the rattling old kettle clanked by. Then, as the last car passed him, and rapidly grew smaller as the distance swallowed it up, he turned back to his vegetable patch with the mystery still unsolved.
* * * * *
The journey through the hills was nearly over, and White Point was but a short distance ahead. The conductor and crew of the local freight were lounging comfortably in the caboose.
The brakeman's life is full of risk and little comfort, and such moments as these were all too few. When they came they were more than gratefully received. Now the men were spread out in various attitudes of repose, and, for the most part, were half asleep.
Suddenly, without the least warning, they were startled into full wakefulness by the familiar clatter, beginning at the head of the train and passing rapidly down its full length, as the cars closed up on each other. The resting men knew that the locomotive was either stopping, or had already come to a halt.
The conductor, or head brakeman, sat up with a jolt.
"Hey, you, Jack!" he cried peevishly. "Get up aloft an' get a peek out. Say, we sure ain't goin' to get held up at a bum flag layout."
His contempt was no less for the flag station than Mr. Moss's for a local freight.
The man addressed as "Jack" sprang alertly to the roof of the caboose. A moment later his voice echoed through the car below him.
"Can't see a thing," he cried. "We're on the last bend, just outside White Point. She's stopped—dead sure. Guess the flag has got us held up." With a few added curses he clambered down into the car again.
* * * * *
As the brakeman left the roof of the caboose the enactment of a strange scene began at the fore part of the car immediately in front of it.
A glance down at the coupling would have revealed the cautious appearance of a shock of rough hair covering a man's head from under the last box car. Slowly it twisted round till a grimy, dust-covered face was turned upward, and a pair of expectant eyes peered up at the tops of the two cars.
Apparently the preliminary survey was satisfactory, for, in a moment, the head was withdrawn, only to be replaced by an outstretched bare hand and forearm. The hand reached up and caught the iron foot rail, gripping it firmly. Then another hand appeared, and with it came the same head again and part of a man's body. The second hand reached toward the coupling-pin, which, with a dexterous movement, was slowly and noiselessly removed. The pin was lowered to the length of its chain. Then, once more the hand reached toward the coupling. This time it seized the great iron link. This, without a moment's delay, was lifted from its hook and noiselessly lowered till it swung suspended from the car in front. Then both arms, head, and body vanished once more under the car, beneath which the man must have traveled for miles.
* * * * *
A few moments later the welcome jolting of couplings reached the crew in the caboose, who promptly settled themselves down to await the next call of duty. The conductor's relief at the brevity of the delay was expressed in smiling contempt at the expense of all flag stations.
"Trust a darned outfit like that to hold you up," he cried witheringly. "They got to act fresh, or the company 'ud get wise they ain't no sort o' use on the line. Say——"
But he broke off listening.
The jolting had ceased. The grinding of wheels of the moving train was plainly heard. But—the caboose remained stationary.
He leaped to his feet.
"Hell!" he cried. "What the——"
But the brakeman, Jack, was on his feet, too. With a bound he sprang at the door of the caboose. But instantly he fell back with a cry.
Four gun muzzles were leveled at his body, and, behind them, stood the figures of two masked men.
One of the two spoke in the slow easy drawl of the West, which lacked nothing in conviction.
"Jest keep dead still—all o' you," he said. "Don't move—nor nothin', or we'll blow holes through your figgers that'll cause a hell of a draught. We ain't yearning to make no sort o' mess in this yer caboose. But we're going to do it—'cep' you keep quite still, an' don't worry any."
The conductor was a man of wide experience on the railroad. He had seen many "hold-ups." So many, he was almost used to them. But without being absolutely sure of the purpose of these men he thanked his genius of good luck that he had not seen the "pay train" for nearly a month. He was quite ready to obey. For all he cared the raiders could take locomotive, train, caboose and all, provided he was left with a whole skin.
Just beyond the flag station at White Point, where the forest-clad slopes of the great hills crowded in upon the railroad track, a scene of utter lawlessness was being silently enacted.
The spot was a lonely one, lonely with that oppressive solitude always to be found where the great hills of ages rear their towering heads. It was utterly cut off, too, from the outer world, by a monstrous abutment of hill which left the track a mere ribbon, like the track of some invertebrate, laboriously making its way through surroundings all uncongenial and antagonistic. Yet the station was but a few hundred yards beyond this point, where it lay open to the sweep of at least three of the four winds of Heaven. But even so, the two places were as effectually separated as though miles, and not yards, intervened.
No breath of air stirred the generous spruce and darkening pinewoods. The drooping, westering sun, already athwart the barren crown of the hill tops, left a false, velvety suggestion of twilight in the heart of the valley, while a depressing superheat enervated all life, except the profusion of vegetation which beautified the rugged slopes. For the most part the stillness was profound, only the most trifling sounds disturbing it. There was an uneasy shuffle of moving feet; there was the occasional crisp clip of a driven axe; then, too, weighty articles being dropped into the bottom of a heavy wagon sent up their dull boom at long intervals.
The outlaws worked swiftly, but without apparent haste. The success of their efforts depended upon rapidity of execution, that and the most exact care for the detail of their organization. Provided these things were held foremost in their minds there was small enough chance of interruption. Had not the train, with its all unconscious driver, passed upon its rumbling way toward Amberley? Had not all suspicion been lulled in the mind of the bucolic agent, who was even now laboriously expending a maximum of energy for a minimum return of culinary delicacies in his vegetable patch? What was there to interfere? Nothing. These men well knew that except for the flag station there was not a habitation within ten miles, and the ruggedness of the hills barred them to every form of traffic except the irresistible impulse of railroad enterprise.
Three men carried out the work of unloading the box car, while the two others held the train crew at bay. All were masked with one exception, and he, from his evident authority and mode of dress, was obviously the leader of the gang.
He was a slight, dark man, of somewhat remarkable refinement of appearance. He was good looking, and almost boyish in the lack of hair upon his face. But this was more than counterbalanced by the determined set of his features, and the keen, calculating glance of his eyes. The latter, particularly, were darkly luminous and lit with an expression of lawless exhilaration as the work proceeded. Compared with his fellows, who were of the well-known type of ruffian, in whom the remoter prairie lands abound, he looked wholly out of place in such a transaction. His air was that of a town-bred man, and his clothing, too, suggested a refinement of tailoring, particularly the rather loose cord riding breeches he affected. The others, masked as they were, with their coatless bodies, and loose, unclean shirts, their leather chapps, and the guns they wore upon their hips—well, they made an exquisite picture of that ruffianism which bows to no law of civilization, but that which they carry in the leather holsters hanging at their waists.
The trackside was strewn with disemboweled whitewood barrels. The wreckage was grotesque. The ground was strewn in every direction with a litter of white cube sugar, like the wind-swept drifts of a summer snowfall. Barrels were still being dragged out of the car and dropped roughly to the ground, where the sharp stroke of an axe ripped out the head, revealing within the neatly packed keg of spirit, embedded so carefully in its setting of sugar. The cargo had been well shipped by men skilled in the subtle art of contraband. It was billed, and the barrels were addressed, to a firm in Calford whose reputation for integrity was quite unimpeachable. Herein was the cunning of the smugglers. The sugar barrels were never intended to reach Calford. They were not robbing the consignees in this raid upon the freight train. They were simply possessing themselves, in unorthodox fashion, of an illicit cargo that belonged to their leader.
Fifteen kegs of spirit had been removed and bestowed in the wagon. There were still five more to complete the tally.
The leader, in easy tones, urged his men to greater speed.
"Get a hustle, boys," he said, in a deep, steady voice, while he strove with his somewhat delicate hands to lift a keg into the wagon.
The effort was too great for him single-handed, and one of his assistants came to his aid.
"There's no time to spare," he went on a moment later, breathing hard from his exertion. "Maybe the loco driver'll whistle for brakes." He laughed with a pleasant, half humorous chuckle. "If that happens, why—why I guess the train'll be chasing back on its tracks to pick up its lost tail."
He spoke with a refined accent of the West. The man nearest him guffawed immoderately.
"Gee!" he exclaimed delightedly. "This game's a cinch. Guess Fyles'll kick thirteen holes in himself when that train gets in."
"Thirteen?" inquired the leader smilingly.
"Sure. Guess most folks reckon that figure unlucky."
The third man snorted as he shouldered a keg and moved toward the Wagon.
"Holes? Thirteen?" he cried, as he dropped his burden into the vehicle. Then he hawked and spat. "When that blamed train gets around Amberley he'll hate hisself wuss'n a bank clerk with his belly awash wi' boardin' house wet hash."
Again came the leader's dark smile. But he had nothing to add.
Presently the last keg was hoisted into the wagon. The leader of the enterprise sighed.
It was a sigh of pent feeling, the sigh of a man laboring under great stress. Yet it was not wholly an expression of relief. If anything, there was regret in it, regret that work he delighted in was finished.
One of the men was removing his mask, and he watched him. Then, as the face of the man who had been concealed under the car was revealed, he signed to him.
"Get busy on the wagon," he said.
The man promptly mounted to the driving seat, and gathered up the reins.
"Hit the south trail for the temporary cache," the leader went on. "Guess we'll need to ride hard if Fyles is feeling as worried as you fellows—hope."
The man winked abundantly.
"That's all right, all right. He'll need to hop some when we get busy. Ho, boys!" And he chirrupped his horses out of the shallow cutting, and the wagon crushed its way into the smaller bush.
The leader stood for a moment looking after it. Then he turned to the other man, still awaiting orders.
"Get the other boys' horses up," he said sharply. "Then stand by on horseback, and hold the train crew while they tumble into the saddle. Then make for the cache."
The man hurried to obey. There were no questions asked when this man gave his orders. Long experience had taught these men that there was no necessity to question. Hardy ruffians as they were they knew well enough that if they had the bodies for this work, he had a head that was far cleverer even than that of Inspector Fyles himself.
Meanwhile the leader had moved out into the center of the track, and his eyes were turned westward, toward the bend round the great hill. They were pensive eyes, almost regretful, and somehow his whole face had changed from its look of daring to match them. The exhilaration had gone out of it; the command, even the determination had merged into something like weakness. His look was soft—even tender.
He stood there while the final details of his enterprise were completed. He heard the horses come up; he heard the two men clamber from the caboose and get into the saddle. Then, at last, he turned, and moved off the track.
Once more the old look of reckless daring was shining in his luminous eyes. He dashed off into the bush to mount his horse, leaving his softer mood somewhere behind him—in the West.
There was a clatter and rattle of speeding hoofs, which rapidly died out. Then again the hills returned to their brooding silence.
The withdrawal of the outlaws was the cue for absurd activity on the part of the train crew. A whirlwind of heated blasphemy set in, which might well have scorched the wooden sides of the car. They cursed everybody and everything, but most of all they cursed the bucolic agent at White Point.
Then came a cautious reconnoitering beyond the door. This was promptly followed by a pell-mell dash for the open. In a moment they were crowding the trackside, staring with stupid eyes and mouths agape at the miniature snowfall of sugar, and the wreckage of whitewood barrels.
The conductor was the first to gather his scattered faculties.
"The lousy bums!" he cried fiercely. Then he added, with less ferocity and more regret, "The—lousy—bums!"
A moment later he turned upon his comrades in the aggrieved fashion of one who would like to accuse.
"'Taint no use in gawkin' around here," he cried sharply. "We're up agin it. That's how it is." Then his face went scarlet, as a memory occurred to him. "Say, White Point's around the corner. And that's where we'll find that hop-headed agent—if he ain't done up. Anyways, if he ain't—why, I guess we'll just set him playin' a miser-arey over his miser'ble wires, that'll set 'em diggin' out a funeral hearse and mournin' coaches in that dogasted prairie sepulcher—Amberley."
* * * * *
Mr. Moss was disentangling the crick in his back for the last time that day. His stomach had forced on him the conviction that his evening meal was a necessity not lightly to be denied.
His back eased, he shouldered his hoe and moved off toward his shanty with the dispirited air of the man who must prepare his own meal. As he passed the lean-to, where his kindling and fuel were kept, he flung the implements inside it, as though glad to be rid of the burden of his labors. Then he passed on round to the front of the building with the lagging step of indifference. There was little enough in his life to encourage hopeful anticipation.
At the door he paused. Such was his habit that his eyes wandered to the track which had somehow become the highway of his life, and he glanced up and down it. The far-reaching plains to the west offered him too wide a focus. There was nothing to hold him in its breadth of outlook. But as his gaze came in contact with the frowning crags to the east, a sudden light of interest, even apprehension, leaped into his eyes. In a moment he became a creature transformed. His bucolic calm had gone. The metamorphosis was magical.
In one bound he leaped within the hut. Then, in a moment, he was back at the door again, his tensely poised figure filling up the opening. His powerful hands were gripping his Winchester, and he stood ready. The farmer in him had disappeared. His eyes were alight with the impulse of battle.
Along the track, from out of the hills, ran four unkempt human figures. They were rushing for the flag station, gesticulating as they came. In the loneliness of the spot there was only one interpretation of their attitude for the waiting man.
Mr. Moss's voice rang out violently, and caught the echo of the hills.
"What in hell——?" he shouted, raising the deadly Winchester swiftly to his shoulder. "Hold up!" he went on, "or I'll let daylight into some of you."
The effect of this challenge was instantaneous and almost ludicrous. The oncoming figures stopped, and nearly fell over each other in their haste to thrust their hands above their heads. Then the eager, anxious shout of the gray-headed brakeman came back to him.
"Fer Gawd's sake don't shoot!" he cried, in terrified tones. "We're the train crew! The freight crew! We bin held up! Say——!"
But the lowering of the threatening gun saved him further explanation at such a distance.
The light of battle had entirely died out of Mr. Moss's eyes, but it was the brakeman's uniform, rather than his explanation, that had inspired the white flag of peace.
The man came hastily up.
"What the——?" began the agent. But he was permitted to proceed no further.
The angry eyes of the brakeman snapped, and his blasphemous tongue poured out its protesting story as rapidly as his stormy feelings could drive him. Then, with an added violence, he came to his final charge of the agent himself.
"What in hell did you flag us for?" he cried. "You, on this bum layout? Do you stand in with these 'hold-ups'? I tell you right here this thing's goin' to be just as red-hot for you as I can make it. That train was flagged without official reason," he went on with rising heat. "Get me? An' you're responsible."
Having delivered himself of his threat, he assumed the hectoring air which the moral support of his companions afforded him.
"Now, you just start right in and get busy on the wires. You can just hammer seven sorts of hell into your instruments and call up Amberley quick. You're goin' to put 'em wise right away. Macinaw! When I'm done with this thing you're goin' to hate White Point wuss'n hell, an' wish to Gawd they'd cut 'flag station' right out o' the conversation of the whole durned American continent."
Mr. Moss had listened in a perfect daze. It was his blank acceptance of the brakeman's hectoring which had so encouraged that individual. But now that all had been told, and the man's harsh tones ceased to disturb the peace of their surroundings, his mind cleared, and hot resentment leaped to his tongue.
He sat down at his instrument and pounded the key, calling up Amberley; and as the Morse sign clacked its metallic, broken note he verbally replied to his accuser.
"You've talked a whole heap that sounds to me like hot air," he cried, with bitter feeling. "Maybe you're old, so it don't amount to anything. As for your bum freight it was late—as usual. It wasn't my duty to pass it through till you shouted for signals. There ain't any schedule for bum freights. When they're late it's up to them."
But for all Mr. Moss's contempt, and righteous indignation, the brakeman's charge had had its effect. Well enough he remembered the disjointed connecting rod, and he wondered how these "hold-ups" had contrived it under his very nose. In his own phraseology, he felt "sore." But his ill humor was not alone due to the brakeman's abuse. He was thinking of something far more vital. He knew well enough that his explanation would never satisfy the heads of his department. Then, too, always hovering somewhere in the background, was the, to him, sinister figure of Inspector Fyles of the Mounted Police.
AT THE FOOT OF AN AGED PINE
Waiting for word from the agent, Huntly, Inspector Fyles had retreated to the insignificant wooden shack which served the police as a Town Station in Amberley. It consisted of two rooms and a loft in the pitch of the roof. Its furniture was reduced to a minimum, and everything, except the loft above where the two troopers and the corporal in charge slept, was a matter of bare boards and bare wooden chairs.
The officer sat in the smaller inner room where the telephone was close to his hand, while the non-commissioned officer and his men occupied the outer room.
Fyles faced the window with his hard Windsor chair close beside the office table. His elbow rested upon its chipped and discolored surface, and his chin was supported on the palm of his hand. Just now his busy thoughts were free to wander whithersoever they listed. This was an interim of waiting, when all preparations were made for the work in hand, and there was nothing to do but await developments. So used was he to this work of seizing contraband spirits that its contemplation had not power enough to quicken one single beat of his pulse. And in this, too, he displayed that wondrous patience which was so much a part of his nature.
Stanley Fyles's reputation in these wild regions was decidedly unique. Scarcely a day passed but what some strenuous emergency arose demanding quick thought and quicker action, where life, frequently his own, hung in the balance. Yet the most strenuous of them found him always easy, always deliberate, and, as his subordinates loved to declare, he always managed to "beat the game by a second."
There were people outside, civilians, who confidently and contemptuously declared him to be a bungler; a patient, hard-working bungler. These were the men who saw few of his successes, and always contrived to smell out his failures. These people were those who had no understanding of the difficulties of a handful of men pitted against a country eaten up with every form of criminal disease. There were others, again, who insisted that far more crime slipped through his well "oiled" hands than ever was held by them. These were the people who sneered at his reputation for stern discipline, and declared it to be a mere pose to cover his tracks, while he patiently piled up a fortune through the shady channels of "graft." A small minority admitted his ability, but averred that his patience erred on the side of slackness, which was one of the causes that the flood of prohibited liquor in the country showed no abatement.
Nevertheless, one and all admitted his patience, whether it was in bungling, in harvesting his graft, or whether it was a form of slackness. Nor could they help doing so, for patience, a wonderful purposeful patience, was his greatest characteristic. Every other feature of his personality was subservient to it, and so it was that the most hardened criminals began at once a nervous scrutiny of their tracks the moment the news reached them that the lean nose of Stanley Fyles had caught their scent.
Those who knew Fyles best ignored the patience which caught the public mind so readily. They saw something more beneath it, something much more to their liking. His patience only masked a keen, swift-moving, scheming brain, packed to the uttermost with a wonderful instinct for detection. He worked on no rule-of-thumb method as so many of his comrades did. He was the fortunate possessor of an imagination, and, long since, he had learned its value in his crusade against crime.
But this man was by no means a mere detection machine. He was full of ambition. Police work was merely serving its purpose in his scheme of things. He saw advancement in it—advancement in the right direction. In five years he had raised himself from the lowest rung of the police ladder to a commissioned rank, and from this rank he knew he could reach out in any of the directions in which he required to proceed.
There were several directions in which his ambitious eyes gazed. There were politics, with their multifarious opportunities for fortune and place. There was the land, crying aloud of the fortunes lying hidden within its bosom. There was official service upon higher planes, from which so many names were drawn to fill the roll of fame to be handed down to an adoring posterity. He was not yet thirty years of age, and he felt that any one of these things lay well within the focus his present position presented.
But the time for his next move was not yet; and herein was the real man. In his mind there were still purposes which required complete fulfilment before that further upward movement began. It was the more human side of the man dictating its will upon him, that will which can never be denied when once it rouses from its slumbers amid the living fires which course through the veins of healthy manhood.
Just now, as he leaned back in his unyielding chair, luxuriating in a comfort which only a man as hard as he could have extracted from it, the hot, living fires were stirring in his veins. His mind had gone back to a picture, one of the many pictures which so often held him in his scant leisure, that represented the first waking of those dormant fires of manhood.
The scene was a memory forming the starting point of a long series of other pictures, which aways came with a rush, changing and changing with kaleidoscopic rapidity till they developed into a stream of swiftly flowing thought.
It was the picture of a quaint, straggling prairie village, half hidden in the multi-hued foliage of a deep valley, as viewed from his saddle where his horse stood upon the shoulder of land which dropped away at his feet. It was one of those wondrous fairy scenes with which the prairie, in her friendlier moods, delights to charm the eye. Perhaps "mock" would better express her whim, for many of these fair settlements in the days of the Prohibition Laws were veritable sepulchers of crime, only whitewashed by the humorous mood of nature.
Ten yards below him an aged pine reared its hoary, time-worn head toward the gleaming azure of a noonday summer sky. It was a landmark known throughout the land; it was the landmark which had guided him to this obscure village of Rocky Springs. It had been in his eye all the morning as he rode toward it, and as he drew near curiosity had impelled him to leave the trail he was on and examine more closely this wonderful specimen of a far, far distant age.
But his inspection was never fully made. Instead, his interest was abruptly diverted to that which he beheld reposing beneath its shadow. A girl was sitting, half reclining, against the dark old trunk, with a sewing basket at her side, and a perfect maze of white needlework in her lap.
She was not sewing, however, as he drew near. She was gazing out over the village below, with a pair of eyes so deep and darkly beautiful that the man caught his breath. Just for one unconscious moment Stanley Fyles had followed the direction of her gaze, then his own eyes came back to her face and riveted themselves upon it.
She was very, very beautiful. Her hair was abundant and dark. Yet it was quite devoid of that suggestion of great weight so often found in very dark hair. There was a melting luster in the velvet softness of her deeply fringed eyes. Her features were sufficiently irregular to escape the accusation of classic form, and possessed a firmness and decision quite remarkable. At that moment the solitary horseman decided in his mind that here was the most beautiful creature he had ever looked upon.
She was dressed in a light summer frock, through the delicate texture of which peeped the warm tint of beautifully rounded arms and shoulders. She was hatless, too, in spite of the summer blaze. To his fired imagination she belonged to a canvas painted by some old master whose portrayals suggested a strength and depth of character rarely seen in life. Even the beautiful olive of her complexion suggested those southern climes whence alone, he had always been led to believe, old masters hailed.
To him it was the face of a woman whose heart and mind were crowding with a yearning for something—something unattainable. Such was her look of strength and virility that he almost regretted them, fearing that her character might belie her wondrous femininity.
But in a moment he had denial forced upon him. The girl turned slowly, and gazed up into his face with smiling frankness. Her eyes took him in from his prairie hat to his well-booted feet. They passed swiftly over his dark patrol jacket, with its star upon its shoulder, and down the yellow stripe of his riding breeches. There was nothing left him but to salute, which he did as her voice broke the silence.
"You're Inspector Stanley Fyles?" she said, with a rising inflection in her deep musical voice.
The man answered bluntly. He was taken aback at the unconventional greeting.
"Yes——" He cleared his throat in his momentary confusion. Then he responded to her still smiling eyes. "And—that's Rocky Springs?" he inquired, pointing down the valley. The information was quite unnecessary.
The girl nodded.
"Yes," she said, "a prairie village that's full of everything interesting—except, perhaps, honesty."
The man smiled broadly.
"That's why I'm here."
The girl laughed a merry, rippling laugh.
"Sure," she nodded. "We heard you were coming. You're going to fix a police station here, aren't you?" Then, as he nodded, her smile died out and her eyes became almost earnest. "It's surely time," she declared. "I've heard of bad places, I've read of them, I guess. But all I've heard of, or read of, are heavens of righteousness compared with this place. Look," she cried, rising from the ground and reaching out one beautifully rounded arm in the direction of the nestling houses, amid their setting of green woods, with the silvery gleam of the river peeping up as it wound its sluggish summer way through the heart of the valley. "Was there ever such a mockery? The sweetest picture human eyes could rest on. Fair—far, far fairer than any artist's fancy could paint it. It's a fit resting place for everything that's good, and true, and beautiful in life, and—and yet—I'd say that Rocky Springs, very nearly to a man, is—against the law."
For a moment Fyles had no reply. He was thinking of the charm of the picture she made standing there silhouetted against the green slope of the far side of the valley. Then, as she suddenly dropped her arm, and began to gather up the sewing she had tumbled upon the ground when she stood up, he pulled himself together. He beamed an unusually genial smile.
"Guess there are things we police need to be thankful for, and places like Rocky Springs are among 'em," he said, cheerfully. "I'd say if it wasn't for your Rocky Springs, and its like, we should be chasing around as uselessly as hungry coyotes in winter. The Government wouldn't fancy paying us for nothing."
By the time he had finished speaking the girl's work was gathered in her arms.
"That's the trail," she said abruptly, pointing at the path which Fyles had left for his inspection of the tree. "It goes right on down to the saloon. You see," she added slyly, "the saloon's about the most important building in the town. Good-bye."
Without another word she walked off down the slope, and, in a moment, was lost among the generous growth of shrubs.
This was the scene to which his mind always reverted. But there were others, many of them, and in each this beautiful girl's presence was always the center of his focus. He had seen and spoken to her many times since then, for his duty frequently took him into the neighborhood of that aged pine. But in spite of her frankness at their first meeting she quickly proved far more elusive than he would have believed possible, and consequently his intimacy with her had progressed very little.
The result was a natural one. The man's interest in her was still further whetted, till, in time, he finally realized that the long anticipated move upwards, which he was preparing for, could no longer be made—alone.
These were the thoughts occupying him now as he stared out through the dusty window at the scattered houses which lined Amberley's main street. These were the thoughts which conjured on his bronzed, strong features, that pleasant half-smile of satisfaction. He wanted her very much. He wanted her so much that all impulse to rush headlong and make her his was thrust aside. He must wait—wait with the same patience which he applied to all that which was important in his life, and, when opportunity offered, when the moment was ripe, he would make the great effort upon which he knew so much of his future happiness depended.
Thus he was dreaming on pleasantly, hopefully, and yet not without doubts, when a sharp knock at his door banished the last vestige of romance from his mind. In an instant he was on his feet, alert and waiting.
His summons was promptly answered, and the tall figure of the corporal stood framed in the doorway.
The question came with the sharp ring of authority.
"It's Huntly, sir," the man explained briefly. "He's got a message. There's been a 'hold-up' of the freight, just beyond White Point. The 'jumpers' have dropped off the two hindermost cars and held the crew prisoners. Seems the train was flagged on the bend out of the hills and then allowed to pass. While it was standing the cars were cut loose. Then the train came on without them. She's in sight now. Huntly's outside."
The Inspector gave no sign while his subordinate talked. His eyes were lowered at a point of interest on the floor. At the conclusion of the man's brief outline he glanced up.
"Has Huntly got the message with him?"
Fyles made a move, and the other stepped back to let him pass out.
The agent was waiting in the outer office. His eyes were wide with excitement.
"Well? Where's the message?" the officer demanded.
Huntly thrust a paper into his hand.
"It just came through."
Fyles took it, and his strong brows drew together as he read the long story of the "hold-up" which the man had taken down from his instrument.
A deep silence prevailed while the officer read the news which so completely frustrated all his plans.
At last he looked up. Favoring the man Huntly with one inquiring glance, he turned to the corporal.
"It says here the brakeman heard the leader tell his men to make for the south trail. That was either bluff—or a mistake. They sometimes make mistakes, and that's how we get our chances. The south trail is the road into Rocky Springs. Rocky Springs is twenty-two miles from White Point. They've probably had an hour's start with a heavily loaded wagon. Rocky Springs is twenty-six from here by trail. Good. Say, tell the boys to get on the move quick. They'll strike the south trail about seven miles northeast of Rocky Springs. If they ride hard they should cut them off, or, any way, hit their trail close behind them."
As Fyles turned back to the inner room and picked up the telephone, ignoring the still waiting agent, the corporal hurried away.
In a moment the telephone bell rang out and the officer was speaking.
"Yes, sir, Fyles. Yes, at the Town Station. I'm coming up to barracks right away. It's most important. I must see you. The whisky-runners have—doubled on us."
BOUND FOR THE SOUTHERN TRAIL
Three uniformed men rode hard across the tawny plains. They rode abreast. Their horses were a-lather; their lean sides tuckered, but their gait remained unslackening. It was a gait they would keep as long as daylight lasted.
Sergeant McBain's horse kept its nose just ahead of the others. It was as though the big, rawboned animal appreciated its rider's rank.
Quite abruptly the non-commissioned officer raised an arm and pointed.
"Yon's the Cypress Hills, boys," he cried. "See, they're getting up out of the heat haze on the skyline. We're heading too far south."
He spoke without for a moment withdrawing the steady gaze of his hard blue eyes.
One of the troopers answered him.
"Sure, sergeant," he agreed. "We need to head away to the left."
The horses swung off the line, beating the sun-scorched grass with their iron-shod hoofs with a vigor that felt good to the riders.
The bronzed faces of the men were eager. Their widely gazing eyes were alert and watchful. They were trailing a hot scent, a pastime as well as a work that was their life. They needed no greater incentive to put forth the best efforts of bodily and mental energies.
The uniform of these riders of the western plains was unassuming. Their brown canvas tunics, their prairie hats, their black, hard serge breeches, with broad, yellow stripes down the thighs, possessed a businesslike appearance not to be found in a modern soldier's uniform. These things were for sheer hard service.
The life of these men was made up of hard service. It was demanded of them by the Government; it was also demanded of them by the conditions of the country. Lawlessness prevailed on these fair, sunlit plains; lawlessness of man, lawlessness of Nature. Between the two they were left with scarce a breathing space for those comforts which only found existence in dreams that were all too brief and transitory.
Nominally, these men were military police, yet their methods were far enough removed from all matters martial. Theirs it was to obey orders, but all similarity ended there. Each man was left free to think and act for himself. Brief orders, with little detail, were hurled at him. For the rest his superiors demanded one result—achievement. A crime was committed; a criminal was at large; information of a contemplated breach of the peace was to hand. Then go—and see to it. Investigate and arrest. The individual must plan and carry out, whatever the odds. Success would meet with cool approval; failure would be promptly rewarded with the utmost rigor of the penal code governing the force. The work might take days, weeks, months. It mattered not. Nor did it matter the expense, provided success crowned the effort. But with failure resulting—ah, there must be no failure. The prestige of the force could not stand failure, for its seven hundred men were required to dominate and cleanse a territory in which half a dozen European countries could be comfortably lost.
Presently Sergeant McBain spoke again. His steady eyes were still fixed upon the horizon.
"Say, that's her," he said. "There she is. Coming right up like a mop head. That's the pine at Rocky Springs. Further away to the left still, boys."
He turned his horse, and the race against time was continued. Somewhere ahead, on the southern trail, a gang of whisky smugglers were plying their trade. Inspector Fyles had said, "Go, and—round them up."
The odds were all against these men, yet no one considered the matter. Each, with eyes and brain alert, was ready to do all of which human effort was capable.
Now that definite direction over those wastes of grass had been finally located, the sergeant, a rough, hard-faced Scot, relaxed his vigilance. His mind drifted to the purpose in hand, and a dry humor lit his eyes.
"Eh, man, but it's a shameful waste, spilling good spirit," he said, addressing no one in particular. "Governments are always prodigal—except with pay."
One of the troopers sniggered.
"Guess we could spill some of it, sergeant," he declared meaningly.
"Spill it!" The sergeant grinned. "That isn't the word, boy. Spill don't describe the warm trickle of good liquor down a man's throat. Say, I mind——"
The other trooper broke in.
"Fyles 'ud spill champagne," he cried in disgust. "A man like that needs seeing to."
The sergeant shook his head.
"Fyles would spill anything or anybody that required spilling, so he gets his nose to windward of the game. He's right, too, in this God-forgotten land. If we didn't spill, we'd be right down and out, and our lives wouldn't be worth a second's purchase. No, boys, it breaks our hearts to spill—but we got to do it—or be spilt ourselves."
The man shook his reins and bustled the great sorrel under him. The animal's response was a lengthening of stride which left his companions hard put to it to keep pace.
The brief talk was closed. It had been a moment of relaxed tension. Now, once more, every eye was fixed on the shimmering skyline. They were eagerly looking out for the southern trail.
Half an hour later its yellow, sandy surface lay beneath their feet, an open book for the reading.
All three leaped from the saddle and began a close examination of it, while their sweating horses promptly regaled themselves with the ripe, tufty grass at the trail side.
Sergeant McBain narrowly scrutinized the wheel tracks, estimating the speed at which the last vehicle to pass had been traveling. The blurred hoofmarks of the horses warned him they had been driven hard.
"We're behind 'em, boys," he declared promptly, "an' their gait says they're taking no chances."
Further down the trail one of the troopers answered him:
"There's four saddle horses with 'em," he said thoughtfully. "Two shod, and two shod on the forefeet only. Guess, with the teamster, that makes five men. Prairie toughs, I'd guess."
The sergeant concurred, while they continued their examination.
Then the third man exclaimed sharply—
"Here!" he cried, picking something up at the side of the trail.
The others joined him at once.
He was quietly tearing open a half-burned cigarette, the tobacco inside of which was still moist.
"Prairie toughs don't smoke made cigarettes around here. It's a Caporal. Get it? That's bought in a town."
"Ay," said McBain quickly. "Rocky Springs, I'd say. It's the Rocky Springs gang, sure as hell. It's the foulest hole of crime in the northwest. Come on, boys. We need to get busy."
Two minutes later a moving cloud of dust marked their progress down the trail in the direction of Rocky Springs. Presently, however, the dust subsided. The astute riders of the plains were giving no chances away; they had left the tell-tale trail and rode on over the grass at its edge.
* * * * *
The westering sun was low on the horizon. The air was still. Not a cloud was visible anywhere in the sky. The world was silent. The drowsing birds, even, had finished their evensong.
Low bush-grown hills lined the trail where it entered the wide valley of Leaping Creek, which, six miles further on, ran through the heart of the hamlet of Rocky Springs.
It was a beauty spot of no mean order. The smaller hills were broken and profuse, with dark woodland gorges splitting them in every direction, crowded with such a density of foliage as to be almost impassable. Farther on, as the valley widened and deepened, its aspect became more rugged. The land rose to greater heights, the lighter vegetation gave way to heavier growths of spruce and blue gum and maple. These too, in turn, became sprinkled with the darker and taller pines. Then, as the distance gained, a still further change met the eye. Vast patches of virgin pine woods, with their mournful, tattered crowns, toned the brighter greens to the somber grandeur of more mountainous regions.
The breathless hush of evening lay upon the valley. There was even a sense of awe in the silence. It was peace, a wonderful natural peace, when all nature seems at rest, nor could the chastened atmosphere of a cloister have conveyed more perfectly the sense of repose.
But the human contradiction lay in the heart of the valley. It was the abiding place of the hamlet of Rocky Springs, and Rocky Springs was accredited with being the very breeding ground of prairie crime.
Just now, however, the chastened atmosphere was perfect. Rocky Springs, so far away, was powerless to affect it. Even the song of the tumbling creek, which coursed through the heart of the valley, was powerless to awaken discordant echoes. Its music was low and soft. It was like the drone of the stirring insects, part of that which went to make up the atmosphere of perfect peace.
The sun dropped lower in the western sky. A velvet twilight seemed to rise out of the heart of the valley. Slowly the glowing light vanished behind a bluff of woodland. In a few minutes the trees and undergrowth were lit up as though a mighty conflagration were devouring them. Then the fire died down, and the sun sank.
But as the sun sank, a low, deep note grew softly out of the distance. For a time it blended musically with the murmuring of the bustling creek and the wakeful insect life. Then it dominated both, and its music lessened. Its note changed rapidly, so rapidly that its softer tone was at once forgotten, and only the harshness it now assumed remained in the mind. Louder and harsher it grew till from a mere rumble it jumped to a rattle and clatter which suggested speed, violence, and a dozen conflicting emotions.
Almost immediately came a further change, and one which left no doubt remaining. The clatter broke up into distinct and separate sounds. The swift beat of speeding hoofs mingled with the fierce rattle of light wheels, racing over the surface of a hard road.
All sense of peace vanished from the valley. Almost it seemed as if its very aspect had changed. A sense of human strife had suddenly possessed it, and left its painful mark indelibly set upon the whole scene.
The climax was reached as a hard driven team and wagon, escorted by four mounted men, precipitated themselves into the picture. They came over the shoulder of the valley and plunged headlong down the dangerous slope, regardless of all consequences, regardless both of life and limb. The teamster was leaning forward in his seat, his arms outstretched, grasping a rein in each hand. He was urging his horses to their utmost. In his face was that stern, desperate expression that told of perfect cognizance of his position. It said as plainly as possible, however great the danger he saw before him, it must be chanced for the greater danger behind.
Two of the horsemen detached themselves from the escort and remained hidden behind some bush at the shoulder of the hill. They were there to watch the approach to the valley. The others kept pace with the racing vehicle as the surefooted team tore down the slope.
Rocking and swaying and skidding, the vehicle seemed literally to precipitate itself to the depths below, and, as the horses, with necks outstretched and mouths beginning to gape, with ears flattened and streaming flanks, reached the bottom, the desperate nature of the journey became even more apparent. There was neither wavering nor mercy in the eyes of the teamster and his escort as they pressed on down the valley.
One of the escort called sharply to the teamster.
"Can we make it?" he shouted.
"Got to," came back the answer through clenched jaws. "If we got twenty minutes on the gorl darned p'lice they won't see us for dust. Heh!"
The man's final exclamation came as one of his horses stumbled. But he kept the straining beast on its legs by the sheer physical strength of his hands upon the reins. The check was barely an instant, but he picked up the rawhide whip lying in the wagon and plied it mercilessly.
The exhausted beasts responded and the vehicle flew down the trail, swaying and yawing the whole breadth of the road. The dust in its wake rose up in a dense cloud. Into this the escort plunged and quickly became lost to view behind the bush which lined the sharply twisting trail.
Faster and faster the horses sped under the iron hand of the teamster, till distance took hold of the clatter and finally diminished it to a rumble. In a few minutes even the rising cloud of dust, like smoke above the tree tops, thinned and finally melted away, and so, once more, peace returned to the twilit valley.
* * * * *
A wagon was lumbering slowly toward Rocky Springs. It was less than a mile beyond the outskirts of the village, and already an occasional flash of white paint through the trees revealed the sides of some outlying house in the distance ahead.
The horses were dejected-looking creatures, and their flanks were streaked with gray lines of caking sweat. They were walking, and the teamster on the wagon sat huddled down in the driving seat, an exquisite picture of unclean ease.
He was a hard-faced, unwashed creature, whose swarthy features were ingrained with sweat and dirt. He was clad in typical prairie costume, his loose cotton shirt well matching the unclean condition of his face. One cheek was bulging with a big chew of tobacco, while the other sank in over the hollows left by absent back teeth.
He certainly was unprepossessing. Even his contented smile only added to the evil of his expression. His contentment, however, was by no means his whole atmosphere. In fact, it was rather studied, for his eyes were alight and watchful with the furtive watchfulness so easy to detect in those of partial color. They suggested that his ears, too, were no less alert, and now and again this suggestion received confirmation in the quick turn of the head in a direction which said plainly he was listening for any unusual sound from behind him.
One of these turns of the head remained longer than usual. Then, with quite a sharp movement of the body, he swung one of the great pistols hanging at his waist, so that its barrel rested across his thigh, and its butt was ready to his hand. Then, with a malicious chuckle, he took a firmer grip of his reins, and his jaded horses raised their drooping heads.
The object of his change of attitude quickly became apparent, for, a few moments later, the distant sound of hoof-beats, far behind him, echoed through the still valley.
He checked his horses still more, and it became evident that he wished those who were behind him to come up before he reached the village. The smile on his evil face became more humorous, and he spat out a stream of tobacco juice with great enjoyment.
The sounds grew louder, and he turned about and peered down the darkening valley. There was nothing and no one in sight yet amid the woodland shadows. Only the clatter of hoofs was growing with each moment. He finally turned back and resettled himself. His attitude now became one of even more studied indifference, but his gun remained close to his hand.
The sounds behind him were drawing nearer. His tired horses pricked their ears. They, too, seemed to become interested. The pursuers came on. They were less than a hundred yards behind. In a few moments they were directly behind. Then the man lazily turned his head. For some moments he stared stupidly at the three uniformed figures who had descended upon him. Then he suddenly sat up and brought his horses to a standstill. The policemen were surrounding his wagon.
Sergeant McBain was abreast of him on one side, one trooper drew up his horse at the other side, while the third came to a halt at the rear of the wagon and peered into it.
"Evenin', sergeant," cried the teamster, with deliberate cheeriness. "Makin' Rocky Springs?"
McBain's hard blue eyes looked straight into the half-breed's face. He was endeavoring to fix and hold those dark, furtive eyes. But it was not easy.
"Maybe," he said curtly.
Then he glanced swiftly over the outfit. The sweat-streaked horses interested him. The nature of the wagon. Then, finally, the contents of the wagon covered with a light canvas protection against the dust.
"Where you from?" he demanded peremptorily.
"Just got through from Myrtle," replied the man, quite undisturbed by the other's manner.
"Fourteen miles," said McBain sharply. "Guess your plugs sweated some. What's your name, and who do you work for?"
"Guess I'm Pete Clancy, an' I'm Kate Seton's 'hired' man. Been across to Myrtle for fixin's for her."
The sergeant's eyes at last compelled the other's. There was something like insolence in the way Pete Clancy returned his stare. There was also humor.
"Sure," he returned easily. "Guess you'll find 'em in the wagon ef you raise that cover. There's one of them fakes fer sewin' with. There's a deal o' fancy canned truck, an' say, the leddy's death on notions. Get a peek at the colors o' them silk duds. On'y keep dirty hands off'n 'em, or she'll cuss me to hell for a fust-class hog."
McBain signed to the trooper at the rear of the wagon and the man stripped the cover off. The first thing the officer beheld was a sewing machine in its shining walnut case. Beside this was an open packing case filled with canned fruits and meats, and a large supply of groceries. In another box, packed under layers of paper, were materials for dressmaking, and a roll of white lawn for other articles of a woman's apparel.
With obvious disgust he signed again to the trooper to replace the cover. Then Clancy broke in.
"Say," he cried ironically, "ain't they dandy? I tell you, sergeant, when it comes to fancy things, women ha' got us skinned to death. Fancy us wearin' skirts an' things made o' them flimsies! We'd fall right through 'em an' break our dirty necks. An' the colors, too. Guess they'd shame a dago wench, an' set a three-year old stud bull shakin' his sides with a puffic tempest of indignation. But when it comes to canned truck, well, say, prairie hash ain't nothin' to it, an' if I hadn't been raised in a Bible class, an' had the feel o' the cold water o' righteousness in my bones, I'd never ha' hauled them all this way without gettin' a peek into them cans. I——"
"Cut it out, man," cried the officer sharply. "I need a straight word with you. Get me? Straight. Your bluff'll do for other folks. You haven't been to Myrtle. You come from White Point, where you helped hold up a freight. You ran a big cargo of liquor in this wagon, which is why your plugs are tuckered out. You've cached that liquor in this valley, at the place you gathered up this truck. I don't say you aren't 'hired man' to Miss Seton in Rocky Springs, but you're playing a double game. You fetched her goods and dumped 'em at the cache, only to pick 'em up when you were through with your other game."
The man laughed insolently.
"Gee! I must be a ter'ble bad feller, sergeant," he cried. "Me, as was raised in a Bible class." His eyes twinkled as he went on. "An' I done all that? All that you sed, sergeant? Say, I'm a real bright feller. Guess I'll get a drink o' that liquor, won't I? It 'ud be a bum trick——"
The sergeant's eyes snapped.
"You'll get the penitentiary before we're through with you. You and the boys with you. We've followed your trail all the way, and that trail ends right here. We're wise to you——"
"But you ain't wise where the liquor's cached," retorted the man with a chuckle.
Then he looked straight into the officer's eyes.
"Say," he cried with his big laugh. "You can talk penitentiary till you're sick. Ther' ain't no liquor in my wagon, an' if there ever has been any, as you kind o' fancy, it's right up to you to locate it, and spill it, an' not set right there keepin' me from my work."
As he finished speaking, with elaborate display, he shook his reins and shouted at his horses, which promptly moved on.
As the wagon rolled away he turned his head and spoke over his shoulder.
"You can't spill canned truck an' sewin' machines, sergeant," he called back derisively. "That penitentiary racket don't fizz nothin'. Guess you best think again."
The officer's chagrin was complete. It was the start the outlaws had had that had beaten him. This was the wagon; this was one of the men. Of these things he was convinced. There were others in it, too, but they——. He turned to his troopers.
"I'd give a month's pay to get bracelets on that feller," he said with a grin that had no mirth in it. Then he added grimly, as he gazed after the receding wagon: "And I'm a Scotchman."
The girl's handsome face was turned toward the valley below her. She was staring with eyes of dreaming, half regretful, yet not without a faint light of humor, at the nestling village in the lap of the woodlands, which crowded the heart of the valley, where the silvery thread of river wound its way.
The wide foliage of the maple tree, beneath which she sat, sheltered her bare head from the burning noonday sun. And here, so high up on the shoulder of the valley, she felt there was at least air to breathe.
The book on the ground beside her had only just been laid there; its pages, wide open, had been turned face downward upon the dry, grassless patch surrounding the tree trunk.
Only a few feet away another girl, slight and fair-haired, was nimbly plying her needle upon a pile of white lawn, as to the object of which there could be small enough doubt. She was working with the care and obvious appreciation which most women display toward the manufacture of delicate underclothing.
As her companion laid her book aside and turned toward the valley, the pretty needlewoman raised a pair of gray, speculative eyes. But almost at once they dropped again to her work. It was only for a moment, however. She reached the end of her seam and began to fold the material up, and, as she did so, her eyes were once more raised in the direction of her sister, only now they were full of laughter.
"Kate," she said, in a tone in which mirth would not be denied, "do you know, it's five years to-day since we first came to Rocky Springs? Five years." She breathed a profound sigh, which was full of mockery. "You were twenty-three when we came. You are twenty-eight now, and I am twenty-two. We'll soon be old maids. The folks down there," she went on, nodding at the village below, "will soon be speaking of us as 'them two old guys,' or 'them funny old dears, the Seton sisters.' Isn't it awful to think of? We came out West to find husbands for ourselves, and here we are very nearly—old maids."
Kate Seton's eyes wore a responsive twinkle, but she did not turn.
"You're a bit of a joke, Hel," she replied, in the slow musical fashion of a deep contralto voice.
"But I'm not a joke," protested the other, with pretended severity. "And I won't be called 'Hel,' just because my name's Helen. It—it sounds like the way Pete and Nick swear at each other when they've been spending their pay at Dirty O'Brien's. Besides, it doesn't alter facts at all. It won't take much more climbing to find ourselves right on the shelf, among the frying pans and other cooking utensils. I'm—I'm tired of it—I—really am. It's no use talking. I'm a woman, and I'd sooner see a pair of trousers walking around my house than another bunch of skirts—even if they belong to my beloved sister. Trousers go every time—with me."
Kate withdrew her gaze from the village below and looked into her sister's pretty face with smiling, indulgent eyes.
"Well?" she said.
The other shook her fair head. Her eyes were still laughing, but their expression did not hide the seriousness which lay behind them.
"It's not 'well' at all," she cried. She drew herself up from the ground into a kneeling position, which left her sitting on the heels of shoes that could never have been bought in Rocky Springs. "Now, listen to me," she went on, holding up a warning finger. "I'm just going to state my case right here and now, and—and you've got to listen to me. Five years ago, Kate Seton, aged twenty-three, and her sister, Helen Seton, were left orphans, with the sum of two thousand dollars equally divided between them. You get that?"
Her sister nodded amusedly. "Well," the girl went on deliberately. "Kate Seton was no ordinary sort of girl. Oh, no. She was most unordinary, as Nick would say. She was a sort of headstrong girl with an absurd notion of woman's independence. I—I don't mean she was masculine, or any horror like that. But she believed that when it came to doing the things she wanted to do she could do them just as well, and deliberately, as any man. That she could think as well as any man. In fact, she didn't believe in the superiority of the male sex over hers. The only superiority she did acknowledge was that a man could ask a woman to marry, while the privilege of asking a man was denied to Kate's sex. But even in acknowledging this she reserved to herself an alternative. She believed that every woman had the right to make a man ask her."
The patient Kate mildly protested. "You're making me out a perfectly awful creature," she said, without the least umbrage. "Hadn't I better stand up for the—arraignment?"
But her sister's mock seriousness remained quite undisturbed.
"There's no necessity," she said, airily. "Besides, you'll be tired when I'm through. Now listen. Kate Seton is a very kind and lovable creature—really. Only—only she suffers from—notions."
The dark-eyed Kate, with her handsome face so full of decision and character, eyed her sister with the indulgence of a mother.
"You do talk, child," was all she said.
Helen nodded. "I like talking. It makes me feel clever."
"Ye—es. People are like that," returned the other ironically. "Go on."
Helen folded her hands in her lap, and for a moment gazed speculatively at the sister she knew she adored.
"Well," she went on presently. "Let us keep to the charge. Five years ago this spirit of independence and adventure was very strong in Kate Seton. Far, far stronger than it is now. That's by the way. Say, anyhow, it was so strong then that when these two found themselves alone in the world with their money, it was her idea to break through all convention, leave her little village in New England, go out west, and seek 'live' men and fortune on the rolling plains of Canada. The last part of that's put in for effect."
The girl paused, watching her sister as she turned again toward the valley below.
With a sigh of resignation Helen was forced to proceed. "That's five years—ago," she said. Then, dropping her voice to a note of pathos, and with the pretense of a sob: "Five long years ago two lonely girls, orphans, set out from their conventional home in a New England village, after having sold it out—the home, not the village—and turned wistful faces toward the wild green plains of the western wilderness, the home of the broncho, the gopher, and the merciless mosquito."
"Oh, do get on," Kate's smile was good to see.
"It's emotion," said Helen, pretending to dab her eyes. "It's emotion mussing up the whole blamed business, as Nick would say."
"Never mind Nick," cried her sister. "Anyway, I don't think he swears nearly as much as you make out. I'll soon have to go and get the Meeting House ready for to-morrow's service. So——"
"Ah, that's just it," broke in Helen, with a great display of triumph in her laughing eyes. "Five years ago Kate Seton would never have said that. She'd have said, 'bother the old Meeting House, and all the old cats who go there to slander each other in—in the name of religion.' That's what she'd have said. It's all different now. Gone is her love of adventure; gone is her defiance of convention; gone is—is her independence. What is she now? A mere farmer, a drudging female, spinster farmer, growing cabbages and things, and getting her manicured hands all mussed up, and freckles on her otherwise handsome face."
"A successful—female, spinster farmer," put in Kate, in her deep, soft voice.
Helen nodded, and there was a sort of helplessness in her admission.
"Yes," she sighed, "and that's the worst of it. We came to find husbands—'live' husbands, and we only find—cabbages. The man-hunters. That's what we called ourselves. It sounded—uncommon, and so we used the expression." Suddenly she scrambled to her feet in undignified haste, and shook a small, clenched fist in her sister's direction. "Kate Seton," she cried, "you're a fraud. An unmitigated—fraud. Yes, you are. Don't glare at me. 'Live' men! Adventure! Poof! You're as tame as any village cat, and just as—dozy."
Kate had risen, too. She was not glaring. She was laughing. Her dark, handsome face was alight with merriment at her sister's characteristic attack. She loved her irresponsible chatter, just as she loved the loyal heart that beat within the girl's slight, shapely body. Now she came over and laid a caressing hand upon the girl's shoulder. In a moment it dropped to the slim waist about which her arm was quickly placed.
"I wish I could get cross with you, Helen," she said happily. "But I simply—can't. You know you get very near the mark in your funny fashion—in some things. Say, I wonder. Do you know we have more than our original capital in the bank? Our farm is a flourishing concern. We employ labor. Two creatures that call themselves men, and who possess the characters of—hogs, or tigers, or something pretty dreadful. We can afford to buy our clothes direct from New York or Montreal. Think of that. Isn't that due to independence? I admit the villagy business. I seem to love Rocky Springs. It's such a whited sepulcher, and its inhabitants are such blackguards with great big hearts. Yes, I love even the unconventional conventions of the place. But the spirit of adventure. Well, somehow I don't think that has really gone."
"Just got mired—among the cabbages," said Helen, slyly. Then she released herself from her sister's embrace and stood off at arm's length, assuming an absurdly accusing air. "But wait a moment, Kate Seton. This is all wrong. I'm making the charge, and you're doing all the talking. There's no defense in the case. You've—you've just got to listen, and—accept the sentence. Guess this isn't a court of men—just women. Now, we're man-hunters. That's how we started, and that's what I am—still. We've been five years at it, with what result? I'll just tell you. I've been proposed to by everything available in trousers in the village—generally when the 'thing' is drunk. The only objects that haven't asked me to marry are our two hired men, Nick and Pete, and that's only because their wages aren't sufficient to get them drunk enough. As for you, most of the boys sort of stand in awe of you, wouldn't dare talk marrying to you even in the height of delirium tremens. The only men who have ever had courage to make any display in that direction are Inspector Fyles, when his duty brings him in the neighborhood of Rocky Springs, and a dypsomaniac rancher and artist, to wit, Charlie Bryant. And how do you take it? You—a man-hunter? Why, you run like a rabbit from Fyles. Courage? Oh, dear. The mention of his name is enough to send you into convulsions of trepidation and maidenly confusion. And all the time you secretly admire him. As for the other, you have turned yourself into a sort of hospital nurse and temperance reformer. You've taken him up as a sort of hobby, until, in his lucid intervals, he takes advantage of your reforming process to acquire the added disease of love, which has reduced him to a condition of imbecile infatuation with your charming self."