E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE RETURN OF BLUE PETE
Author of "Blue Pete: Half-Breed," "The Lone Trail," "The Blue Wolf," Etc.
New York George H. Doran Company
Copyright, 1922, by George H. Doran Company
THE RETURN OF BLUE PETE. II
I MAHON ON THE TRAIL II EVENING AT MILE 130 III THE MYSTERIOUS RAFT IV IGNACE KOPPOWSKI APPEARS V BLUE PETE, FRIEND AND LOVER VI THE HIDDEN MARKSMAN VII CONRAD FLASHES A GUN VIII A TRAGEDY OF CONSTRUCTION IX TORRANCE EVOLVES A PLAN X MAVY TAKES A RISK XI THE DESERTED CAMP XII SERGEANT MAHON SKIRTS DEATH XIII THE VISIT OF THE INDIANS XIV THE FIGHT IN THE SHACK XV KOPPY MAKES A THREAT XVI THE HEART OF A HALF-BREED XVII A PLOT DEFEATED XVIII THE CONSCIENCE OF A BOHUNK XIX THE BEAT OF A MOUNTED POLICEMAN XX INDIAN OR POLICEMAN? XXI BLUE PETE WORKS ALONE XXII NIGHT—AND THE MYSTERIOUS SPEEDERS XXIII RIFLES! XXIV THE SCHEMES OF A LEADER XXV BLUE PETE AND WHISKERS TO THE RESCUE XXVI SERGEANT MAHON'S VISION XXVII AN IRISHMAN AND AN ENGLISHMAN XXVIII THE SIEGE OF THE SHACK XXIX RETRIBUTION BEGINS XXX KOPPY PAYS XXXI BLUE PETE RETURNS
THE RETURN OF BLUE PETE
MAHON ON THE TRAIL
Sergeant Mahon emptied the barracks mail bag on the desk before Inspector Barker and stood awaiting instructions. The Inspector passed his hand over the small pile of letters and let his eye roam from one to another in the speculative way that added zest to the later revelation of their contents.
One from headquarters at Regina he set carefully aside. With an "ah!" of satisfied expectancy he selected one from the remainder and placed it before him. Mahon was mildly interested. The little foibles of his superior were always amusing to him. Eyes still fixed on the envelope, the Inspector commenced to fill his pipe.
"Spoiling for a job, Mahon?"
"Hm-m! Beautifully non-committal."
Mahon's interest was rising. The Inspector went on calmly cramming in the tobacco. When the job was completed to his liking, he thrust the pipe between his lips, flicked a loose flake from his tunic, and forgot to apply a match. Instead, he picked up the envelope and examined it on all sides. Mahon began to grow impatient.
Twice the Inspector turned the letter over. Mahon fretted. He could see on its face the Division headquarters stamp—Lethbridge—but why all this ceremony and pother about an official note that came almost every day? He recalled suddenly that his wife would be holding lunch for him—with fresh fish he had seen unloaded little more than an hour ago from the through train from Vancouver. He could almost smell it sizzling on the natural gas cooker.
"Hm-m!" The envelope was not yet broken. "I imagine this will interest you, Mahon."
Suddenly the Inspector dived into a drawer and, taking from it an official looking envelope, passed it back to the Sergeant. The latter accepted it with fading interest. The Assistant Commissioner at Regina was unfolding to Inspector Barker's immediate superior, the Superintendent at Lethbridge, an unexciting tale of crime. Crime was their daily diet, and this was located far beyond their district.
Somewhere away up north, hundreds of miles beyond the jurisdiction of the Medicine Hat unit of the Mounted Police, events of concern to the Police were happening along the line of the transcontinental railway now under construction. Certain acts of sabotage—tearing down railway trestles and bridges, undermining trains, displacing grade, tampering with rails and switches—were not only hampering construction but endangering life. And things were growing worse. In addition there was complaint of horse-stealing at one isolated camp.
The point of the letter was contained in the last paragraph. Could Superintendent Magwood spare an experienced bushman and trailer to go north and take temporary charge?
Mahon handed the letter back with a laugh.
"Bit of a joke, horse-stealing from contractors who only last year grabbed every stolen horse offered them. Retribution!"
The Inspector swung about on his swivel chair.
"We never discovered who got those horses."
"The ones Blue Pete stole?" A cloud came to Mahon's face. "Not exactly the contractors who got them, but there was no doubt where they went."
"I always regretted we had to hand over the search just there to a Division that knows little about ranch horses," murmured the Inspector. "Still—perhaps—" He stopped and shifted the letter he held from one hand to the other, as if weighing it.
"We'd have made short work of it, sir."
"Even if we'd implicated your halfbreed friend?" The older man was peering beneath his iron-grey brows.
"I'm afraid nothing more was needed to implicate Blue Pete," sighed Mahon.
"For a halfbreed rustler he seems to have stamped himself on your imagination, Boy." They had called Mahon "Boy" almost since he joined the force seven years before as a young man, packed with youthful vitality, frankness and ambition, and the nickname was dear to him.
"But he wasn't always a rustler. I remember him only for the two years he spent unofficially in the Force, the best rustler-buster we ever had. That was the real Blue Pete. That he died a rustler was due to crooked 'justice.' Poor old Pete! If only he hadn't had the Indian strain!"
"He wouldn't have been so useful to us. His uncanny scent on the trail—By the way, Mahon, strange we never found trace of him—his grave or something—when you're so certain how and where he died. And where's that ugly pinto of his? Whiskers, he called her, wasn't it?"
"Mira found the body, sir—that last letter she sent us said as much. She'd hide him from us—it's exactly the thing she would do. She was a loyal wife—"
"Not quite a wife."
"A wife as truly as absence of formal ceremony can make one. He's lying out there somewhere in the heart of the Hills he loved. . . . They were a sentimental pair."
"Almost too much sentiment in Mira Stanton for you," chuckled the Inspector. "When I think of how near a thing it was—"
"I was a fool, sir." Mahon's face was red. "But it wasn't because I was too good for her. We'd never have pulled together; I know that now. She was born and bred in the wild ways. I respect her as much as I ever did—perhaps more because she has steadfastly refused even to let us know where she is—we who sent her down and indirectly killed the man she loved."
"I suppose you've talked all this over with your wife, young man?"
"Yes, sir. Helen, though reared in such a different atmosphere from her cousin, understands Mira better than I. She sympathises—"
"But where is she—Mira, I mean? We know she's drawing the profits regularly from the 3-bar-Y. But that foreman of hers is as mute as a clam. . . . And now Bert, her best cowboy, has disappeared. Hm-m! What d'ye make of it, Mahon?"
It was not like the Inspector to draw the opinions of his staff, and Mahon regarded him slyly.
"You have a theory, sir. I haven't. I only see what's clear. Mira's over in Montana—"
"And so you think Mira Stanton is living on her past in Montana—gamboling about with Whiskers, I suppose? And Blue Pete lies in the Hills? Comfortable disposal of the whole affair. I envy you."
"I've searched the Hills in all his old haunts, sir—"
"And I'm dam glad you didn't find him."
The Inspector tore open the letter in his hand, smiled, and passed it back.
"You have a copy of the Assistant Commissioner's letter to me of the tenth," it ran. "In observance of his orders I would suggest that you send Sergeant Mahon, who is, I believe, the best for the purpose in the Division."
Mahon flushed. A gleam of boyish excitement made him look five years younger. Eagerly he searched the Inspector's face.
"I'd like it, sir. I'd do my best. I've done bush work in the Hills, and Blue Pete knocked something into me about trails."
"It always surprises me," began the Inspector maliciously, "how eager young husbands are to get away—"
"May I take Helen, sir?"
"No—you—may—not! What do you think this is—a honeymoon? In the first place you'll probably be located in some defunct end-of-steel village where even the ghosts are abominable. In the next place you'll be too busy to know you're married. Horse-thieves? Bah! This is different stuff. You'll be up against something new. We've more than a suspicion that those devils, the Independent Workers of the World, are at the bottom of it. When you get on the trail of the I.W.W., Boy, there'll be no chivalry of the plains. It'll be knives, and poison, and dynamite . . . and darkness for deeds of darkness. All the criminals you've met are saints compared with these foreign devils. Thank the Lord, they've come no further from the States as yet than the construction camps!"
He rose and deliberately removed the tunic that was to him the badge of office.
"Speaking unofficially," he observed, "my advice is to shoot first and enquire after. Remember that every Pole and Russian and Hungarian there carries a knife or a slug—he has to in self-protection—and uses it as we do slang. Every foreign workman on a railway construction gang is a potential murderer. . . . I'd rather give evidence for you on a murder charge than strew flowers on your grave."
He reached for his tunic.
"You'll have a chance to do credit to Blue Pete's memory. . . . About Helen—wait till we see what size the cloud is."
He thrust his arms into the tunic and buttoned it tight to his chin.
"You leave on Saturday," he growled.
EVENING AT MILE 130
Big Jim Torrance, framed in the doorway of the shack, was deaf to everything but the scene before him.
"Daddy!" There was a note of impatience in the girl's voice. "I know what you're doing—" She appeared in the doorway between kitchen and living room, enamel pan in one hand and a dish towel in the other. "Of course! That horrid trestle—always that trestle! And you might have been helping with the pans. You know how they stain my hands."
But the noise of the distant camp, lounging out now from the night meal, crowded what small interstices of his attention remained from the beloved trestle.
Out before him, painted in the vivid mesmeric colours of evening, lay a vista dear to him—a new railway built in silent places. Across the yellow grade the bush of Northern Canada stretched on and on, not thick just here, but prophetic of the untracked forests beyond. On his left a great cleft cut the earth, an eleven hundred yard valley, in the middle of which ran a river, sweeping into sight up there round the bend from the deep green of the bush—running placidly enough until it struck the foaming rapids above the trestle—then smoothing into quiet current and swinging back through the chasm to disappear into the unknown behind the shack.
Five hundred yards up the wide bottom of the valley the construction camp sprawled its ugly mass. From where he stood in the doorway he looked down on it over the grade—its straggling unformed planning; the flimsy shacks, half unhewn logs, half canvas, without respect for streets or angles or lines; its half-hearted struggle to lift itself up the slope to the sheltered forest above.
A disreputable, careless, disgusting picture of hardened man catering only to his simplest needs. In large part the survival of previous grade and bridge camps which had merely picked up their canvas when they moved along, it had been patched up with more disreputable canvas, now mouldy and torn, with bits of roof gone here, and windows and doors missing there. The very dregs even of construction camps. Big Jim Torrance himself had used it first on grade and had sold the portable parts to a contractor with work further west. Then O'Connor, the first contractor to tackle the trestle, had shoved his men into what was left with orders to do their damnedest. And now Torrance again, having taken over the task O'Connor had funked in a moment of panic.
Half a thousand bohunks were existing there now, five hundred of the wildest foreigners even Torrance had handled. But they were his gang. And Mile 130 was his camp. That thought had impelled him once to punch the head of a leering engineer who rashly ventured to call it "Torrance's pig-sty" in Torrance's hearing. The camp might go to perdition so far as he was concerned, but he wasn't going to have any rank outsider shoving it along.
With a determined little set to her lips, her only inheritance from her father, Tressa Torrance passed through the living room and seized him by the ear; and he returned to earth with a howl of mock pain.
"You little tyrant!" he protested, wrapping one arm about her and hoisting her to his shoulder. "Your mother wasn't a patch to you."
She wriggled herself free and, still holding to the ear, led him into the shack.
"At least you can empty the water," she ordered.
"Oh, I can do more than that. How about the pans?"
He was really contrite. "I guess I did forget, little girl."
"It's a habit you have."
He rubbed his moustached lips along her bare arm and swung her again to his shoulder.
She bent from her lofty perch until her cheek lay along his hair, and they passed into the kitchen, where he set her down with elaborate care.
"I guess that trestle isn't through with me yet," he observed, a frown marking his forehead. "It's dropped six inches in the last week." He picked up a pan of dirty water and started for the door. "You won't be beaten," she told him confidently. "It's sinking less every day. You've put in half the country now—there must be bottom somewhere." He disappeared without a word and tossed the water over the edge of the chasm. "Anyway," she protested, as he returned, "looking at it isn't going to stiffen its backbone. If it is, you can do the pans and I'll do the looking. See those hands!" She held them outspread before his face. "Aren't you ashamed?"
He tried to look as she desired.
"They're the dandiest little hands in the world to me. They're your mother's over again. You don't need to care who sees them out here."
He saw the slight flush come to her cheeks, and his voice sobered.
"Adrian Conrad looks a pretty big fish where there's nobody but bohunks."
"Adrian's a 'big fish' anywhere," she flamed, "and you know it. Besides, there's the Police. Counting you that makes four real nice people. We've often been where there are fewer. The daughter of James Torrance, the big railway contractor—"
"Big Jim Torrance, you mean," he interrupted, throwing back his huge head to laugh. "The crudest boss that ever hammered a lazy bohunk to his pick. No, no, little girl, not all your airs, not all my big jobs, can make me more than a half-taught rough-neck—a success, I'll admit. But the biggest success he ever had was in having a daughter—"
He dived for her, but she held him off by planting the bottom of the pan on his face.
"Now," she ordered, "you finish your work."
By the time he had obeyed orders—emptied the last pan of water, taken a look at the two horses in the stable behind the shack, tossed his mud-caked boots through the back door to await his pleasure—inter-larding between each chore another glance at the trestle—Tressa was in her own room.
Torrance returned to the front door. A crash of musical instruments broke from the ugly clutter of buildings on the river bottom.
"Do cut it short to-night, Tressa. Morani's got the orchestra going already. Where that Italian devil stows music in that vile body of his, and where he manages to find more of it in those other brutes, beats me."
He could hear her moving about her room, sliding drawers, lifting and dropping the implements of her evening toilet.
"Not another woman in a hundred miles," he grumbled, "at least not one that matters. And yet I got to go through this waiting every night!"
She laughed, her mouth full of the coil of her hair.
His eye moved upward from the camp and settled on one lone shack that crowned a promontory overlooking the ugly scene below.
"Koppy's at home," he called.
"Some day you'll find out something about your underforeman," she teased.
"I wish I could," he returned so viciously that she laughed aloud.
"You've been wishing it a long time, but to date he seems innocent enough. You don't need to care so long as he turns up to work every morning."
"Innocent?" He snorted. "Them damn Poles can't be innocent. Ever since them horses began to go— If we could only do without the damn heathen!"
"But you damn well can't."
"Tressa!" He stumbled back to her door with horrified eyes.
"My daddy's good enough to copy," she laughed.
"Your daddy, girl, is—is shocked. If I hear you—" He tossed his hands up helplessly. "You're making your daddy so mealy-mouthed, the first bohunk with a grouch will pull his nose. I've got to swear at 'em. If you don't let me tear loose a bit when I'm with you, the air's going to be so blue next time I meet a bohunk that he'll think he's gone to his last reward."
She came to the doorway of her room, coiling a loop of hair.
"Go and listen to the music, daddy. You need sweetening to-night."
The rough big fellow looked deep into her eyes. "I'd go plumb crazy in this life without you, little girl."
"Sure you would," she agreed contentedly. "Now run along and do Morani's orchestra justice. He deserves it."
He patted her cheek and returned to his favourite stand in the front door.
The evening mysteries were deepening. Already the trunks of the trees on the far bank of the river were merging into a dull mass. The play of sunlight and shadow in the nearer forest was an etching of white and black. The mellow sudden Western night was dropping glamorous mantle over the familiar scene, softening the crudeness of the camp and exalting the dying round of the forest's fight for solitude. The sand of the grade gleamed with evening tint of ochre. The network of the trestle was a maze of incised lines against the shaded bank opposite. A solitary bird, astir beyond its bedtime, hovered against the sky, cheeping to unseen brood below. Some swift-vanishing creature—wolf or coyote—ran along the edge of the distant bank for a fearful, curious glimpse of the persistent invasion of its venerable privacy. The sun, like a mocking challenge, was painting with flaming hand its tremendous but fleeting colour-picture on the northwest sky, where clouds unseen by day hung ever ready for the evening-hour brush of the great artist.
The dirty canvas of the camp was laundered by the mysteries of twilight. Living groups lay peacefully about the river bottom, gambling, Torrance knew. For the moment the orchestra was resting. But snatches of hideous sound came wafting on the evening air as music; concertina, fiddle, mouth-organ, with here and there a cornet, a mandolin, a guitar, many breathing individual melody, merged into one vast harmony. Rasping voices lifted themselves in song. No laughter, no shouting—only the sounds of men whose memories are more sensitive than their feelings, who live in the past or the future, never in the present. Evening was fluttering gently down, mellowing line and tone.
Even to Big Jim Torrance at such an hour came the appeal of dimly reverent things. Here on the fringe of prairie and forest, in the vast spaces of Northern Canada where wolf met coyote, Torrance was waging a big fight. Last year he had brought the grade, a simple task, east of the mountains. Somewhere far down the list of sub-sub-contractors—fleas on larger fleas almost ad infinitum—he had built that gleaming line of yellow sand that held the sleepers and the rails—almost with his own hands. From far over the horizon to the east he had crept along westward, urging on his big gang with relentless but just hand. And out there before his door they had driven the last spike at the very edge of the valley that cut the landscape.
There was the end of his contract. Eastward the line awaited only the final ballasting. Westward—that was different.
The great river chasm that had ended his task was baffling O'Connor, the bridge contractor. For the irregular, winding gouge in the earth, reminder of the day when some tremendous torrent teemed there from the mountains hundreds of miles to the west, was more than a mere cutting to fill. Eleven hundred yards, one foot, four inches from bank to bank (Torrance knew every measurement to the last inch), by one hundred and forty-one feet, eight inches deep, was task enough. Where the railway was to span the Tepee River, meandering in the midst of the valley, the water ran only seventy yards wide; nowhere in sight was it more than one hundred and fifty. And there was solid bottom to it.
But down there, one hundred and fifty feet below Torrance's eyes, was two hundred yards of quicksands. There lay the real job.
O'Connor had tackled it blithely enough, while Torrance was hustling grade from the east. But when Big Jim Torrance, his task completed, had rolled down his sleeves and commenced to pack, O'Connor was more than worried. Tressa had skipped about the packing with happy songs, for they were going East—to civilisation.
Then Torrance had gone to take a last look at O'Connor's progress, and O'Connor had turned haggard eyes on his friend and bent his head over his arms and wept. The quicksands were beating him.
Torrance fled back to the end-of-steel village at Mile 127, that ghastly face before him, the picture of a strong man weeping. And for three days he drank himself to forgetfulness.
On the morning of the fourth day he rolled up his sleeves again, waved his hand after the fleeing O'Connor, and signed a fresh contract for himself. Nature, the enemy he had been threshing into submission all his life, was not going to block the beautiful grade he had built. With the effects of the acidulated poison of Mile 127 still in his limbs but clear of his brain he shook his fist at the quicksands.
And now, eleven months later, he was still shaking his fist—and his curses were deeper and more bitter. For the quicksands were fighting to the last ditch, swallowing whole forests of trees and hills of rock, and opening its maw for more. Friends urged Torrance to ask leave to move the grade north or south to sounder bottom. But Torrance was not built that way. Besides, he had great reverence for a survey. Even a bridge, where a filled-in trestle was planned—a bridge with a span two hundred yards long—impossible!
Torrance stood in the doorway and cast his eye along the line of steel above the trestle. Only a week ago it had been shored up again, and fewer supply trains than usual had passed. Yet it was down six inches.
The orchestra Chico Morani, a mere Dago bohunk himself, had organised among the men, burst afresh. And every other sound ceased. Even the gambling groups out before the camp paused to listen.
"Morani's started on the second number, Tressa. Thank Heaven he has one redeeming feature, if he is a Wop."
"This isn't your loving night, daddy. It must be my cooking—"
"There's Koppy just come out of his shack. A couple with him, Werner and Heppel, I bet."
"Dear me!" she teased out to him. "And I've been so careful with the meals." A few moments of mirror concentration. "But I know what it really is—that trestle. It's nerves. . . . Till that hole's filled you're just an ordinary sick man. . . . And you know you can't stand the twilight. Come in and light up. . . . Adrian'll be here in a few minutes and read you back to peace. . . . And don't forget, daddy, we're almost out of books. You'll have to send for more by the next supply train. Constable Williams is to lend me his catalogues to make out a new list."
She stopped, conscious of a tense stillness from the room beyond. For a fleeting moment she listened, then hurried out, fastening the last pin in her belt.
Her father, feet braced, was staring tensely over the grade past the camp. And in his hand, half raised, was the rifle that always hung in a rack beside the door.
 The term applied to foreign laborers, especially on railway construction.
THE MYSTERIOUS RAFT
Tressa Torrance, inured as sensitive girl could be to the turmoil and danger of their life on railway construction, experienced a new sensation of fear. Never had she seen her father use a firearm; his ready fists were more to his liking. With a breathless rush she stood by his side, one hand gripping the wrist of the hand that held the trigger guard.
That precaution first. Then she turned her eyes to where her father was staring.
Far up the ribbon of river, only a few hundred yards below where it emerged from its hidden course through the forest, a clumsy raft was drifting clumsily down. In the gleam of the last sun rays it was but a silhouette of black—a flat base with live creatures on it. In a moment it drifted from the glare and in the clear evening air was visible to the last line.
On it were a man and a woman, and a group of horses. Good cause for excitement there in the shack up by the grade. Along the mile of the Tepee that was known to man there was only one raft—at least only one that had a right to exist—the make-shift affair employed on construction duty down at the base of the trestle. Within sixty miles there was not a living soul but the construction gang and the two Policemen at Mile 127, not a horse but Torrance's and the Police pair. At least that was the limit of Torrance's information, and none other had such claim to know.
But this was not the construction raft—and there were the horses. Torrance had already lost a dozen of his best in some mysterious way. It was with that thought that he had seized his rifle.
Then the woman!
Suddenly he became aware that something was wrong with the raft—and a few hundred yards ahead was a stretch of foaming rapids that would smash it to kindling wood. The woman stood leaning on the shaft of a broken sweep, watching the man. With unhurried but almost superhuman strength he was working the other sweep from the rear, aiming for the opposite bank.
The struggle seemed hopeless. Torrance read it at a glance, unaccustomed as he was to water. The tug of the rapids was drawing them swiftly downward in a course that was too slightly diagonal to its current to promise more than the faintest hope. The man seemed suddenly to grasp the extent of their peril, for his arms moved more quickly, the bow of the raft swinging about and pointing upstream; but still the current gripped them relentlessly.
The woman lifted her head and looked down along the whirling eddies to the froth of broken water. For a moment she stood, rigid, then turned to the horses, and from among them sprang a huge dog. Into its mouth she pressed the end of a rope, and it leaped far into the water.
Torrance's left hand fumbled back within the door for his field-glasses. Through them he saw the dog emerge lower down, still holding the rope, and dash in long bounds up the bank. As the strain of the rope came, it sank back on its haunches. The rope snapped up out of the water for a moment, and the dog plunged forward with the jerk, fighting every inch. Then it got a firmer hold and braced. Inch by inch the raft yielded to the extra power. It continued to drift toward the rapids, but also it was working to the bank now. At intervals the eddying current pulled the dog along, but always it braced against the tug, its feet digging into the loose gravel and sand.
The man was working hard, but so regularly that the dog felt but a fraction of the weight of the loaded raft. But what it felt was sufficient to turn the scales.
As the raft slithered in sideways to the bank, a small broncho dashed ashore, followed by four other horses. At a fast lope it led away toward the trees that grew down the distant slope to the river bottom.
Torrance awakened then. With livid face he swung the rifle up and fired. Tressa struck at his arm too late.
It was a long range, and to such an indifferent marksman a matter of luck. But to Tressa to try was sacrilege after the struggle they had witnessed. The bullet fell far short, glancing from the water in a swift slit in the reflecting surface.
At the report the broncho broke into a gallop. The man and the woman swung swiftly toward the grade, and the next instant the woman had disappeared—somewhere; neither Torrance nor Tressa knew where. The man straightened and shaded his eyes toward them.
Tressa was struggling with her father. He must not shoot again. The man watched. Presently he slowly raised his rifle.
The thud of the bullet in the shack not two feet from Torrance's shoulder preceded the sound of the explosion. The rifle did not drop. A second tiny fleck of smoke, and a bullet sank into the logs only two feet on the other side of the doorway. Torrance heaved Tressa back within the shack. And as he came about, a third bullet from the mysterious stranger dug into the log not more than a foot above his head.
Torrance did not move—he scarcely even thought at that moment. The marksman above the rapids lowered his rifle and turned carelessly away. The woman and the dog joined him. The horses were lost in the trees.
The big contractor twisted himself from bullet hole to bullet hole, and one big hand pushed wonderingly through his heavy hair.
"It sure ain't me he wants," he muttered.
IGNACE KOPPOWSKI APPEARS
The rifle fire, disturbing to Torrance, created a panic in the camp below. Men who used weapons on each other with the worst intent were the first to appreciate their menace. True, they seldom resorted to firearms, for the Pole, and the Russian, and the Hungarian, and the Italian and their kind on construction consider the knife more suited to their particular case, as being safer and more satisfying. But for a gun they have a proper respect.
Some of the groups of gamblers on the river bottom saw the raft while yet Torrance was wrapped in the evening picture, watching at first with the stupidity of their class, then with equally characteristic suspicion. From group to group the strange spectacle passed without spoken word; and some whose spotted lives had carried them through varied scenes realised the threat of the rapids. Here and there one, more sensitive to the struggle, rose to his feet in unconscious sympathy. The stable foreman, recognising the horses, stumbled away to where his charges were housed for the night. But for the most part these slow-witted men without a quiver saw death creeping on the raft. Until the horses leaped ashore each knew to a cent his position in the interrupted games.
But the rifle shot whipping out from the boss's shack up beside the grade electrified them. As if worked by a common spring, they rushed for the camp, heavy footed and panicky, drawing hidden weapons from shirt or trousers or bootleg to repel the danger they did not understand.
By the time the stranger across the river had replied twice only one face was visible about the camp.
From a shack part way up the bank toward the trestle a small man had bounded at the first report. In his right hand was a hairbrush, and a pair of mauve suspenders hung from his hips. Anxious but angry, he searched the camp with those firm eyes.
Adrian Conrad, Torrance's foreman, Tressa's lover—the latter first in sequence of time as in everything else—knew these men and hated them with an intensity born of enforced association. Their unorthodox but definitive methods of settling the smallest dispute were familiar to him by experience. Indeed, on his small wiry frame were sundry scars of knives, whose customarily decisive operations he had thus far escaped by an arrogance of manner and a promptness of action that disconcerted a bohunk's aim and riddled his nerve.
About the camp he saw only the panic of getting to cover. As he wondered, he caught the movement of the lifting rifle across the river. Ahead of the bullet his eye reached the shack beside the trestle, and Torrance's quick turn pointed out its course. Conrad, who kept no rifle at his shack, had to be satisfied with watching, mechanically completing his toilet where he stood. Mauve suspenders jerked to his shoulders—brush slashing across his hair—one hand to test the poise of his tie—Conrad was preparing for eventualities.
He marvelled at his own lack of concern. He could see Tressa's struggle with her father, and he suspected its cause. Also he had sufficient faith in her to feel that she was right. The stranger puzzled him. In the way he handled a rifle was the carelessness of complete confidence. Even before the third bullet directed Torrance's amazed eyes upward, Conrad knew that Tressa and her father were in no danger.
It was a fleeting glimpse of the horses disappearing among the trees that galvanised him into action. Running back into the shack, he satisfied himself with a hasty glance in the mirror, stuck a jaunty stiff hat askew on his head, and sped away up the path his feet had worn through the months straight to Tressa's door.
Torrance was still examining the bullet marks when Conrad dropped over the grade.
"There!" He placed a big finger tip importantly over one hole. "And there—and there!" He turned to Conrad with such a look of awe that the latter laughed.
"All you need care," Conrad said, digging a finger into Torrance's chest, "is that he didn't wish to put it there."
The contractor scratched his head.
"That fellow sure can shoot . . . but it ain't half as queer as the way he didn't want to."
Tressa, hearing Conrad's voice, tripped to the door, her eyes aglow with a shy eagerness.
"Evening, Tressa!" The foreman swept off his hat. "Fine evening for rifle practice."
"I know it don't matter about me," grunted Torrance, "but two feet at a range of twelve hundred yards is cutting it fine for Tressa."
But Conrad only smiled his unconcern.
"At least you might be interested in the horses," Torrance grumbled. "Another bunch gone. That's your business."
"So that's the cuss who's been robbing us."
"Such a clever lad, he is!" sneered Torrance. "You could see through a pail with the bottom kicked out of it. He'll keep on robbing us, for all you're doing to stop him. Right before our eyes he gets away with it. What do you think I pay you a hundred a month for?"
"Because you can't get any one else to do half the work half as well at twice the price," grinned the foreman.
Torrance growled into his moustache. "Four more gone, that is. And I bet you stopped to brush your hat."
"I didn't hurry. Why should I? That chap knew he was safe. He's miles away now, and by the time we could get across the river after him he'd be in the next Province. He knows the prairie better than we do grade. We'd have about as much chance of getting him as you had of hitting him. Besides, we're track builders, not track finders. Your measly hundred a month don't half pay for my real job. Get the Police if you want to keep the excitement up."
"A hundred a month—and every evening in my shack," grumbled Torrance. "I know lots of better men would think it good pay."
"It's every evening in your shack," gibed Conrad, "or you'd have to come and live with Tressa and me."
"Oh?" questioned Tressa.
"If you two are going to quarrel over me, I'll go back East."
"Dad-in-law," pleaded Conrad, "don't you think we could stage a good rough-and-tumble here and now? I've been two years trying to get her back East for good."
"I'm staying," declared Tressa, tossing her head.
"So'm I—in spite of your father."
"What gets me," marvelled Torrance, "is why he bothered to shoot when he didn't want to hit. A regular splash of them, too. I might have fired back."
Conrad's eyes were twinkling. "So you might. What a blessing is self-control! I suppose he's killed so many in his day it's sort of lost its glamour. See the admiring public he left behind by only frightening you to death."
"But the woman in the case!"
"What woman?" The foreman looked from one to the other.
"You didn't see her?"
"I confess I haven't the eye for skirts you have, but—" He broke off suddenly and darted to the grade. "Here!" he snapped, peering into the dark woods beyond. "Come out of it."
Three men emerged somewhat shame-facedly from the gloom and followed him to the shack. One of them, evidently the leader, was talking volubly, but Conrad did not even appear to listen until they stood in the open before the door.
"Now, what were you doing there?"
"Lefty Werner and Heppel and me, we hear shots," explained a large, raw-boned foreigner with an ugly scar along the side of his jaw. "We come quick. Fear boss and young missus maybe need help."
Koppy, the Polish under foreman, sent his eyes darting from face to face. In his manner was a curious mingling of bravado and diffidence—a lumbering body, a shrinking way of holding himself, a stammering foreign accent and phrasing. But in spite of it there was ample ground for Torrance's persistent suspicions. Perhaps it was the darting, all-seeing eyes, perhaps the exaggeration of diffidence, but Koppy gave the impression of thinking more than he said.
"When we need help—" Torrance began furiously.
Conrad cut in more quietly, but he was evidently holding himself in check. "And so you sneak up and listen—hide in the trees?"
"No sneak." Something stronger peeped through Koppy's veneer.
"We won't argue it. You know I know."
"I hear rifles," said Koppy, looking from foreman to boss. "I come quick." He was, in his subtle way, demanding an explanation.
"If you were half as keen over the knives and knuckle-dusters of them fellows of yours!" snapped Torrance.
"Rifles kill—far away. Knives—perhaps not—and only that far." He swung out a dexterous arm.
"Except when they throw the beastly things," growled Conrad beneath his breath, with twinges of memory.
"My men throw only when they can't reach," replied Koppy, as if Conrad had spoken aloud.
"Or when they're afraid to," added the foreman.
"Or when they're afraid to," agreed the underforeman.
The hint of authority beyond his superiors nettled them both.
"I don't know what hold you have over that damned crew," Torrance stormed, "but if you'd make them watch the horses you'd be earning your money better than running up here."
"That damned crew steal no horses," Koppy objected with dignity. "I hold my men—yes," he went on proudly. "You pay me for that. I make them obey boss. Ignace Koppowski make them—"
"Yes, yes," Conrad broke in testily. "We know your full name. Drop the heroics."
"No heroics to think of young missus." Koppy turned to Tressa, forced to be an uncomfortable witness of one of the frequent quarrels that never reached an issue. "If she say no danger, Ignace Koppowski satisfied." He bent his big frame with surprising grace.
Tressa smiled on the Pole from the upper step. She never could understand why her father and lover hated the fellow so. "Thank you, Koppy. Not a bit of danger—as it happened. It was good of you to be concerned."
The Pole repeated the obeisance. Conrad caught his eye as he lifted his head.
"And now," he ordered shortly, "you've learned all you're likely to. Get out."
A flash of anger came and went in the underforeman's face. He straightened, looking Conrad in the eye.
"Up here I take boss's orders. Boss want us to go—we go. But boss maybe need us some day. Perhaps we find who steal horses."
"I wish to hell you would," grunted Torrance. "It's worth fifty bucks in your hand if you do. Horses don't grow on spruce trees in this country."
"Horses don't. Boss lose no more—and Ignace Koppowski take no more pay."
With the flourish of the surprising promise he was swinging about to leave, when Conrad spoke.
"One moment, Koppy." His voice was very quiet, but his chin was thrust forward a little. "When Miss Torrance requires protection, there are those here can give it without your assistance. That's all."
A strange gleam they did not understand shot into the Pole's eyes. "Perhaps—not," he muttered, and disappeared over the grade, his two silent followers at his heels.
Torrance scowled after them. "I'd be willing to lose every horse in the camp, if you'd go with them."
"I'll fire him to-morrow." The words chipped from Conrad's lips.
Torrance laughed. "Two years with them brutes hasn't taught you much, Adrian. Fire Koppy, and there wouldn't be a bohunk in camp the same night. . . . And their successors would be viler still, primed to vengeance by the bunch you'd kicked out. Ten years of it has taught me not to gamble with the unknown because I hate the known. Never really had so little trouble with a gang—at least, not till these last few weeks. . . . What d'ye think's got into them, Adrian? Somebody's sure at the bottom of all these things. That last bit of trestle didn't undermine itself, and them spikes didn't loosen just to dump the ballast train. What's the answer?"
"Sheer cussedness. What would you expect from such scum?"
As they passed inside, Torrance stooped to his foreman's face. "I hire a foreman to stop such things—or cow the brutes."
"I suggested firing Koppy to-morrow. That's the best way."
Conrad's eyes fell away sullenly. "He had the impertinence to imagine—" He stopped. "I could shoot him like a mad dog," he exploded.
Torrance chuckled. "That's the spirit, lad. I was going to say that there's only one way to handle the bohunk: beat him down. . . . D'ye realise, Adrian, you haven't killed a single one yet? Sandy, who went before you, did for five in his last season—"
"And 'went before' me," smiled Conrad, "with five knives in his ribs. Thanks. I'm still alive—and I'm getting the work out of them. But this is a new one about Sandy. You told the Police, of course?"
"Sh-sh! I couldn't swear to it in a court of law. I'm not sure an unprejudiced jury wouldn't call it accidental death. The accidents happened to be convenient to Sandy and me. If a bohunk or two dropped out of the way now, d'ye think I'd try to fix it on you? I think too much of you, Adrian, my lad."
Tressa came round the table and pressed them into their favourite chairs. In Conrad's hand she thrust a lurid-backed novel. "And after all this blood and murder, let's get to the more peaceful pursuits of brigands and treasure-hunters. Sandy was a man after daddy's heart, Adrian—and at the last a few hundred bohunks were after Sandy's heart."
"Sandy never was a hero," said Conrad. "The hero never dies."
BLUE PETE, FRIEND AND LOVER
Close to the waters of the Tepee River, now returned to its normal sluggishness with the rapidity of mountain-fed streams, a man sat on his heels in a clump of spruce. There, two miles above the construction camp, the canyon fell away more gradually to the old river bottom, and the trees, encouraged by a century of immunity from floods, crept ever downward until they pressed to the very edge of the channel that held the waters of the Tepee fifty weeks of the year.
It was evening. Clear as lines on a white sheet the woods on the other side stood out in the dustless air against the flaming sky. The wide band of water that intervened gleamed in the setting sun, scarce revealing the existence of a current. Save for the low chatter of nesting birds and the gentle gurgle of water beneath the bank there was not a sound. The wind was against the camp. For all the solitary man could hear he might have been the only human within the northland.
About him was a furtiveness of the wilds, not guilty but protective. In such surroundings he had been born, there he had spent most of his days. You could read it in the crouch, the quiet, unwasted movements, the unconscious attitudes.
His face told much of his story. Those bright, darting eyes, crooked though they were, missed nothing; those sudden spaces of motionlessness, the peculiar, utterly still tilt of the head, were the natural impulses of one ever listening; the calm immobility of the dusky face was bred of a life of self-sufficiency, where muscle and eye were ever-active guardians. The coarse black hair that straggled from beneath a dirty Stetson, the high cheek bones, the swarthy complexion; these the outward signals of his half-breed origin. Yet from Stetson to high-heeled boots he was a cowboy, with the individual eccentricities in dress that scorned hairy chaps for leather, and walked with an arch of leg that craved the back of a horse to fill it.
The half breed was whittling, yet even in that simple recreation of the careless he bent to his surroundings. No crackling of hasty knife, no splashing about of shavings. Already one capacious pocket was filled with them, and those just made lay in a neat heap for hasty collection.
Often his hand held to listen, and always as he listened his eyes sought the shadows among the trees on the far shore. A scowl was twisting his face, of worry, not of anger; sometimes the knife bit into the soft stick with muscular response to his thoughts.
Presently he pushed the dirty Stetson back and ran a sleeve across his forehead, though it was not warm. Raising himself to his feet within the limited range of the clump of trees, he peered anxiously across the river, searching the opposite bank from the east to where it curved southward above the camp.
"Gor swizzle! Ef she don't come soon I gotta git over thar an' trail her. . . . An' that means givin' up the job . . . an' mebbe losin' out. Suthin' 's happened; she never took so long before. . . . But pshaw! what with Whiskers 'n' Juno—they'd take's good keer o' her as I cud myself."
He resumed his seat, but not the whittling, leaning against a tree with closed eyes. But he was not resting, for deep sighs broke from him, and his muscles were not loose.
Suddenly his eyes opened wide with a look of alarm, though not a muscle twitched. His quick ears had caught a sound among the trees at his back. On the instant he appraised the risk of the gleaming water before him, and then, like a part of the shadows, seemed to melt into the ground. The clump of spruce was there, and the shadows, just as they had been all these years, but not a shaving, not a mark.
Far out in the current the smooth gleam of the water was broken in moving eddies. Some round object was making its way toward the bank. In the cover of another cluster of trees further down the bank the halfbreed leaned out over the water and waved a warning hand. He dare not whistle or shout. But the round object, not forty yards out, turned sideways, revealing the head of a large dog.
At the same moment a rifle snapped from the thickets behind, and even as the halfbreed flattened out he noted the swift flash of spume close to the dog's head. Instantly the head dived. Instantly, too, the second cluster of trees was empty, though there had been no sound, no perceptible movement.
Yards further down the stream the head reappeared, directed now to the far bank and moving more swiftly. A second shot from the thicket told of a watchful enemy.
Before the echo had returned from the opposite bank, a third shot, this time that of a revolver, split the evening silence. A stifled exclamation of alarm, and then the crashing of hasty flight up the slope.
The half breed thrust his gun in his belt and glided across the open to pick up a rifle with shattered stock.
"Don't know wot makes me so squeamish these days," he drawled, with a slow smile. "He sartin desarved it in the throat. That Pole 'n' me's goin' to butt agin each other some more. I never was wuth shucks when it comes to justice . . . an' I allus suffer fer it after. Look at Bilsy, an' Dutch Henry, an' a bunch more!"
He carried the broken rifle to the river's edge and whistled. The dog, now near the opposite shore, turned about. As it approached the clump that hid the halfbreed, ears came forward to assist eyes and nose, and a waggle of welcome told that all was well. With a shudder that sent a cloud of spray about, a great cross-bred Russian wolf-hound, with the head of a mastiff, clambered up the bank and bounded into the trees. The halfbreed threw his arms about the wet neck and hugged it in silent joy. His eyes were moist as he glanced sheepishly across to the other shore.
"Juno, ole woman, I sure love yuh to-night."
From about the dog's neck he untied a tiny water-proof bag and exposed a note, which he laboriously spelt out. Then, moving to the water's edge, he reached down and waved a hand twice back and forward.
Followed by the dog, he struck noiselessly upstream through the woods, and at last lowered himself over the gravel bank by means of overhanging boughs. Ankle-deep, screened by the foliage, he untied a raft of freshly cut logs, made a careful survey of the shore about him, and shoved out into the river, pointing slightly upstream. The dog established herself on the bow, her eyes on the shore they were approaching.
As he worked the sweep at the stern the man talked to the dog.
"Guess you 'n' Whiskers 'n' the missus has bin gallivantin', eh, Juno, ole woman? Sort o' leadin' the gay life all down them coupla hunderd miles to the Hills whar nobody lives. Trust the women! Yuh wudn't 'member thar was a feller back here chewin' his fingers off worryin' about yuh . . . an' workin' the shart offen his back an' gittin' thin fer the fambly, an' not even a horse to git about. . . . Nobody but a bunch o' roughnecks an' houn's—'poligisin' tuh yuh, Juno, fer callin' them critters houn's. They're c'yutes, that's wot they are. Ef thar was trees 'nough I'd len' my bes' rope to hang 'em . . . every dang one of 'em, 'cept Mister Conrad 'n' the boss."
Juno's only response was a periodic and perfunctory wagging of a limited tail, further limited by being sat on.
"'Magine me, Blue Pete, bes' shot in the Badlands, an' Canada, too, fer that matter—least that's so, now Dutchy's gone, an' it was nip 'n' tuck between us—'magine me, cow-puncher from my born days, sometime rustler, sometime Mounted P'lice detective, sometime—oh, sometime pretty near everythin' with a horse in it, an' a rifle, an' a rope—'magine me workin' 'longside a gang o' Dagoes 'n' Poles that think a knife's fer stickin' people, an' a rifle fer the P'lice . . . me shovin' rocks 'n' logs into a hole in the groun' that won't fill this side everlastin'! . . . Kin yuh 'magine it, ole woman? An' them joshin' 'n' guyin' me, an' me swallerin' it like a tenderfoot! . . . An' never did fer one of 'em!"
The dog evidently considered it too preposterous for caudal comment; eyes and ears and nose were stretched toward the shore they were nearing.
"Yah, she's thar all right, eh, Juno? Yer eyes is better'n mine—but I bet I kin feel her thar. That's whar I git the bulge on yuh, ole woman." The half-breed chuckled, and leaned more powerfully to the sweep. "An 'magine me shakin' chaps fer overalls, an' this ole Stetson fer a fi'-cent cap, an' these nifty ridin' boots fer things as big as this scow . . . an' takin' back-talk from a two-by-five Pole I cud break over one knee 'n' kick the pieces tuh Medicine Hat. . . . But it won't be fer long now, Juno. Jest two more little horses 'n' it's did . . . all did. . . . An' then mebbe we kin go back an' hold up our heads, Mira 'n' you 'n' Whiskers 'n' me. . . . Wonder wot Whiskers thinks o' me these days!"
He concentrated on the working of the sweep. Juno raised herself to give every inch of her stubby tail a chance. Blue Pete peered eagerly into the shadows along the shore.
"An' thar's yer missus, Juno," he cried joyfully. "Mira—our Mira!"
A few powerful movements of his arm swept the raft sideways against the bank. A woman, small and dainty, swarthy but without Indian blood, leaned eagerly forward—eager but shy. Waves of dark hair peeped from beneath her Stetson, and her green blouse blazed against the darker hue of the trees as she stood, one foot advanced, holding her arms toward the halfbreed.
Tossing the painter to the dog, Blue Pete leaped ashore and gathered her in his arms without a word. Then, tremulously happy but abashed by the fervour of their meeting, he released her and looked enquiringly about.
"I suppose it should have been Whiskers first," she pouted.
He laughed and whistled twice, and out from the trees trotted an ugly little pinto, all blotches of yellowish white and faded red, with a ragged tail that looked as if something had started to make a meal of it but became disgusted just before the end; and the left ear drooped humorously in its upper third. It nosed up against the halfbreed, nibbling playfully at his ears, his hands, the brim of his Stetson, the leather fringe of his chaps, the ends of the polka-dot handkerchief knotted about his neck.
"Yuh're some glad to see me, Whiskers, ole gal—if Mira ain't. But then yuh 'n' me knowed each other longer, an' sort o' got to see the good p'ints."
He laughed slyly at Mira from the corner of his eyes, and she laughed back, with a tinge of sadness in the tone, and turned away to take the painter from Juno. A second horse that had followed Whiskers from the trees stepped aboard the raft after the pinto.
"Bes' wait till it's darker," advised Blue Pete. "They got mighty peery since that las' raft showed us up. How d'yuh like the new one? 'Tain't's nifty 's the ole one, but it's easier handled, an' it'll last us through, I guess."
Mira was examining it soberly. "What's the matter with it? It don't seem even somehow."
He looked it over sheepishly. "I figured if I made it a bit shorter one side, yuh'd have less to pull. What bustin' I've did's run more to horses than boats, but ain't that about right? But the dang thing don't seem to work—like a loco'ed cayuse. Anyway it was a job. Them bohunks is getting' to roamin' about real annoyin', an' Koppy wust of all."
"Who was shooting just before you gave me the signal?"
"The bohunks, out after sparrow pie fer supper, I guess," he lied placidly, "ur larnin' which end a gun fires at. It's real dangerous in the bush these days. Fus' thing we know we'll have to show ourselves 'n' ask 'em to shoot at us to be safe. These loose bullets ain't a bit reasonable."
Mira let him ramble on; she loved to hear him, loved it now more than ever, after her absence south with the last lot of stolen horses.
"Ain't it a bit small for horses, Pete?"
He eyed the raft doubtfully. "Thar's jes' two more, yuh know. It'll carry 'em, I guess. Anyway we kin make two trips of it." He paused and turned his gleaming eyes full on her face. "Jes' two more, Mira, an' then we kin clear out!"
"Where to, Pete?" She looked up at him in sudden fright then that she had spoken so plainly.
"Why—why—down south—to the 3-bar-Y—to suthin' wuth livin' fer—to whar yuh'll be a sight better off than with a rough cuss like me."
The wistfulness that had stilled her laugh and sobered her face these many weeks spoke at last; her eyes were wet.
"Have you thought, Pete, dear—thought what'll happen when they get us again?"
"Sure I have," he replied bravely. "Wot d'yuh mean?"
"What will the Police say?"
He reached out to tickle Whiskers' neck with a twig and laughed lightly. "I don' know wot they'll say, an' I don' care, but I know wot they'll do. They'll take hold o' my hands an'—an'—Gor-swizzle! I shud oughta know the Sergeant. . . . No more I ain't skeered o' th' Inspector."
"But we're still stealing horses, Pete."
"Yuh still want me to pay Torrance, the ole sinner, fer horses he knew was stole when he bought 'em?" He frowned. "If yuh say so when I got the money myself, I'll give him the ten bucks a head he paid me fer 'em las' year . . . but I'm sure goin' to git them horses back fust the way they come, an' I'm not goin' to take any o' your money. Anyway he wudn't sell fer ten bucks."
"The Police never forgive," she sighed.
The half breed leaned thoughtfully against a tree, chewing the twig.
"I kind o' feel, Mira," he said presently, "th' Inspector's got feelin's some bigger'n that furrin sign he faces every day over his desk, 'maintins he drut,' ur suthin' like that. He's a bully P'liceman, but he's a bully sight better friend, I'm gamblin'. Have any trouble this trip?"
She threw aside her melancholy. "The two corrals this side of the Red Deer are falling to pieces. Whiskers and Juno and I managed to keep them in at nights, but we couldn't do it again, I'm afraid. I used the old ford near the H-Lazy-Z; the water was too high to risk the other. Of course I crossed at night. Met a farmer just over the railway, but it was too dark to mean anything. Bert is having an easy time with the bunch in the Hills, but we moved them further east. He's saw the Police poking about the Hills a lot, specially Sergeant Mahon. . . . I'll be glad when it's over, Pete. Things has gone too easy for a long time. Something always turns up to spoil things."
"Didn't the raft 'most get away on us in the rapids? Ain't that 'nough to happen?"
"I wasn't scared a bit," she said. "I knew you'd get us through."
"Swizzled if I did," he laughed. "I was skeered stiff."
"Well, you fooled me," patting his cheek with loving incredulity.
"An' all the time my knees fair tremblin'—wuss'n when Dutchy had the drop on me an' me without a gun. Juno, ole woman, yuh done us fine that time. . . . Only two more to git, Mira, an' then we're free. I don' say them two ain't goin' to take some gittin'; they're in the boss's own stable, an' he has ears like a gopher. He 'n' the young missus ride 'em—ur they think they do."
He handed her aboard the raft and took his place at the stern.
"Lie down, Whiskers; yer legs is too teetery fer this craft. Yuh might take a day off 'n' larn that fool jinny o' Mira's to lie down when she's told to. No, Mira, I'll git it across myself. It's down stream, an' I wantuh show yuh she ain't so bad a boat fer a cow-puncher to make with wooden trees outen a wooden head. I got all my ole muscles back . . . workin' fer Torrance, dang hard work, too, to say nothin' o' them dirty Poles and other cats. . . . I gotta turn up to the minute every mornin' ur they wanta know why. That nigger, Koppy! Some day I'll jes' natcherl bust up an' take him to Heaven with me. I'm sure losin' my spunk."
 "Maintiens le droit," the motto of the Mounted Police.
THE HIDDEN MARKSMAN
Adrian Conrad withdrew his feet from the table and consulted his watch. Benny, his cook, a large fair-haired Norwegian, pushed through from the kitchen with an armful of dishes and gravely arranged them on the oilcloth-covered table in preparation for tomorrow's breakfast. Then, with a cough—his nightly farewell—he disappeared.
Conrad, still examining his watch, heard him depart by the back door, drawing it carefully behind him, and tramp in his heavy dragging way round the shack to the path leading down to the camp. Alone, the foreman rose and pulled out a drawer, frowning critically into it.
The task of selecting his evening tie was interrupted by a subdued grunt from the doorway. The ruddy face of Benny, the silent, was poking through, alive with excitement.
At the same instant Conrad became aware of the source of the Norwegian's agitation. From the camp below broke the distant clamour of altercation, the full-mouthed curses of excited foreigners building up a structure of more strenuous argument. In four strides the foreman was at the door.
Conrad's shack was strategically situated. Half-way up the sloping path between camp and trestle, it overlooked the former unobtrusively. From his door he had his men under his eye, with all the advantages of a not too distant isolation.
The scene of the commotion was apparent enough, a small excited group of men, probably the participators in one of the games of chance always in progress in the evenings in the open space between the camp and the water. Far more industriously the bohunk gambled his pay away in the evening than he earned it by day. And always overhung the contractors this peril of a camp quarrel.
Almost before Conrad had seized the spirit of the incident, it was swelled by the accession of other disputants. Five seconds' thoughtful scrutiny warned him that to attempt to quell it without assistance was taking an unjustifiable risk. Small groups were rising angrily everywhere about the river bottom, and crowding to the fringes of the altercation. Alone, he might fail, and it were better then not to have tried. By the time he could reach the scene half the camp would probably be involved.
For he saw at a glance that this was no personal squabble but one of the infrequent but always impending race feuds.
He jerked his head about to see if Torrance knew. But the shack door up at the trestle was empty; Torrance and Tressa would be in the kitchen cleaning up. Thereupon Conrad set off at a run up the sloping path, watching intermittently the angry scene below.
A hundred yards from the grade he put his fingers to his lips and whistled. Torrance came instantly to the door. He saw the fight, saw Conrad's beckoning hand, and, without hat or coat, dashed out to the grade. But even as he leaped the rails his mood altered: pulling up, he strolled leisurely on down the path.
Conrad was intent on the waxing conflict. Group by group it was extending. He realised the wisdom of the instinct that had sent him for help—if the affray had not already passed control. There were only the two of them to count on. Koppy, whose duty it was to forestall such conflicts, was nowhere in sight; and anyway Conrad had learned not to trust the Pole. Casting hasty eyes upward toward the underforeman's shack topping the promontory overlooking the camp, he fancied a dim movement in the darkness of the interior. Unless his eyes deceived him, Koppy was out of the reckoning in case of need. Irritated, Conrad swung about impatiently. Torrance was sauntering downward, filling his pipe.
"Here," the foreman called sharply, "we must stop that, and quick."
"It's only a fight," drawled Torrance.
Conrad's face darkened with disgust. "Don't cut your own throat. You don't seem to have heard of where these fights sometimes lead—Swanson's, for instance, and Tillman's, to mention only last year's. You'd be in a fine mess with one of those on your hands in late July, wouldn't you?"
"Let it go for a couple of minutes longer, Adrian," pleaded Torrance. "They're just getting into it. I see a knife out."
"And that's what we must forestall. Or it'll end only when the Italians and the Hungarians have cleaned out the Swedes and the Poles, or vice versa. There's not a second to waste."
He had hold of Torrance's arm and was forcing him to run.
"I know you're right, Adrian," panted Torrance, "but I don't want to."
As they neared the camp, running now at top speed, Conrad saw Koppy emerge fussily from his shack above the camp and come leaping down—too late, of course, to be of much service.
The fight had grown to alarming proportions. Originating in a mere normal act of cheating at cards, naturally resented by a huge Swede who had been losing steadily to a one-eyed Italian, it had passed swiftly into the realms of the smouldering feud between the races. And the first blow had excited the onlookers to take vociferous sides; the first weapon had roused their lingering instincts of antagonism; and the first drop of blood had driven a dozen of them headlong into the melee. Before Conrad and Torrance arrived, knives and knife-ended knuckle-dusters and clubs were swinging.
The most disgusting feature of the shrieking, struggling mass was the presence on its outskirts of sneaking villains intent only on their personal enemies.
One of these had just plunged his knife into an unsuspecting arm when Torrance caught sight of him. It fired his blood to a blind fury. With a lunge he planted his heavy boot on the brute's forehead, and the fellow crumpled up and lay record to an honest man's anger. Thereafter Torrance knew only that he was enjoying himself, as fist and boot struck snarling face or struggling body. Followed a few minutes of more careful fighting, as the roused bohunks began to retaliate; and then a sense of personal danger not to be countered by any amount of exertion.
As he threw himself into the fight he glowed with the satisfaction of knowing that every face before him belonged to an enemy. Normally slinking cowards before authority, the bohunks were now inflamed beyond anything but brute force. Curses too deep and furious to express more than their tone—the cries of the wounded—the panting of laboured breathing—Torrance roared into it, striking right and left.
At the last moment Conrad turned aside. He had an idea that the impression on the warring elements would be increased by separate attacks. From another angle, therefore, silently and recklessly he fought his way into the mob. He had no thought of defence—merely slugged, trusting to the surprise and speed of his attack to protect him.
Five convulsed faces had fallen before the fury of Torrance's assault before there was resistance. The first threatening arm he seized in relentless clutch, flinging back over his head the knife it held. Then a Hungarian, saved from a swinging club by Torrance's quick blow, recognised only another foe and lunged with a knife. The contractor kicked him out of the fray and went on.
In the meantime Conrad was realising his mistake in dividing forces. The mob was quieting a little, it was true, but it was the comparative calm only of discovering new foes. Torrance, ten yards away, was battling like a madman, but now advance was hopelessly blocked by weight of numbers and concentrated resistance. Two dozen bohunks, lost now to any ordinary sense of peril, were bent on paying off old scores. Conrad began seriously to fight his way over to Torrance.
Across the crowd he could see Koppy making headway at last, and he vaguely wondered why. A face loomed before him, and he struck into it viciously. It dropped away, but a shooting pain across his scalp warned him that he was cut; a moving spot of warm moisture on the back of his neck located a small stream of blood.
The maddest fury of the fight seemed to have waned, yet Conrad knew that the danger to him and Torrance had increased. Italian and Hungarian, Pole and Swede, had forgotten their race feud in the greater hatred of their bosses. The noise, so hideous and snarling when they arrived, was stilled in unity of purpose.
Many had retired, some to nurse their wounds, others not yet blind enough to custom to ignore authority. Those who remained knew what they were doing. Murder was in their eyes.
Through a temporary opening in his own group Conrad caught Torrance's eye, anxious and a little uncertain. The foreman made a peremptory movement of his head urging retreat—for Torrance. If one of them could get away for a rifle! At that instant he ducked to avoid a side attack, and Torrance saw the blood on his neck. With a bellow the contractor charged through.
"Back to back!" he shouted, and lashed out sideways with one foot at a fresh onset against the tiring foreman. Conrad smiled. He was feeling the strain—had been for minutes—but Torrance's arrival lent him fresh strength. Back to back they continued the losing struggle.
A gleam of light darted on Conrad's right, and he knew he could not avoid it. But suddenly the knife dropped, and the one who had wielded it grabbed his wrist with the other hand. The foreman dare not look to see what had happened, but he was aware of a sudden thinning in the crowd of spectators.
A lumbering Pole, his club knocked away by an unexpected blow from Torrance, leaped furiously on the contractor. The latter turned his back to receive the shock, at the same time ducking forward. The Pole's legs shot into the air before Conrad's eyes—a shriek—and a sudden stain of blood on the pant leg. Yet no one had touched the place where the blood gushed.
The scene was changing curiously. A score of men still fought to reach their prey, blind and deaf to everything but their own passions; but the great crowd that had made the threat of disaster so ominous had disappeared. One of the mad group about them, teeth bared, was creeping closer to Torrance, a long stiletto held aloft. But as it jerked back to strike, the hand that held it opened nervelessly, and a spurt of blood covered the fingers.
Many pairs of eyes had been on that stiletto, and when it dropped, bloody and useless, a sudden silence fell. In the midst of it a rifle snapped from the trees behind the camp. An Italian, into whose bloodshot eyes a sudden sense of fear was crowding, grabbed his ear and howled. A thin stream of blood trickled down his wrist.
Not another blow was struck. It was not the casualties, not alone the sound of the rifle, but rather the uncanny mystery of the hidden marksman and his aim. Almost before the two hard-pressed men dare look about them, the river bottom was empty of life, save for themselves and Koppy, and two or three delayed by the nature of their wounds.
"Right again, Adrian," puffed Torrance, picking at the torn sleeve of his shirt and feeling himself over gingerly. "I thought they'd got you when I saw that scratch. Here, let's look at it."
But even as he reached to Conrad's shoulder his interest faded before the marvel of their succour, and he turned to run his eye in a puzzled way along the thin trees of the slope behind the camp.
"By hickory! The horse-thief again! There ain't two can shoot like that." He noticed Koppy staring angrily in the same direction. "It sure ain't one of your gang, Koppy. That would be one too many."
"No bohunk—no bohunk!" assented the Pole, and there was that in his voice boded ill for proof to the contrary. "No bohunk . . . maybe. . . . I don't think."
Tressa came running round the nearest shack, rifle in one hand and a small automatic in the other. She saw the blood on Adrian's collar and made straight for him. For a moment her father frowned jealously.
"A man brings a daughter into the world," he sulked, "frets and stews and labours over her until she's old enough—to fall in love with some young fellow who never had a moment's worry about her."
"And so it has been since ribs ceased to become women," grinned Conrad. "It's only another beauty mark, Tressa. It's stopped bleeding already." He turned angrily on Koppy. "You saw this fight from the first—"
"I come as soon as I see," protested the Pole indignantly.
"You lie! You wanted to see it get beyond us. You thought they'd do for us, didn't you?"
"Why do I fight, then?" enquired Koppy, with lifted eyebrows.
"Heaven only knows," muttered Conrad. "But you saw we had 'em licked."
"Don't be an ass," chided Torrance, his eyes still on the trees. "We can lick four hundred and ninety-five of them, but it was that fellow in there did for the extra five. Find him for me, Koppy, and I'll put him in your place and kick you to hell."
"If Koppy find him, you no need," replied the Pole, the expression of his face clearing away the ambiguity of his words. "I find him."
As if in challenge, the unseen rifle replied. Koppy leaped aside, stooping to examine a long slit in the side of his high boots.
"I find him," he hissed, shaking his fist at the trees.
Torrance chuckled delightedly. "A dandy eye for beauty, that chap has. He seems to like us; I'd hate to have him shooting the boots off me like that."
He started for home, but bethought himself.
"Get the wounded rounded up, Koppy. Nobody dead. Just as well. Funerals are a nuisance. Can't see why a bohunk can't sneak off into the bush and die without any bother. If there's more than one speeder load to lug that seventy-five miles to the hospital, there'll be the devil to pay. You and the cooks have your hands full bandaging the rest of the evening, I guess. Come up in an hour and report."
As they toiled up the slope to the trestle Torrance broke a long silence.
"In your prayers to-night, Tressa, you might put in a word for a mysterious stranger with an eye like an eagle. I think we're going to need him a lot before this job's finished."
CONRAD FLASHES A GUN
A whistle sounded down the line, a short nervous blast twice repeated. An instant shrieking of handbrakes, and the rumbling train of loaded flat-cars slowed down toward the trestle.
Torrance lumbered up from the supper table to watch. He was hoping that by some slip of the levers up in Murphy's cab the rock-laden cars would glide out over the trestle and give it a real test. The trains that crossed carrying supplies to construction further west were comparatively light, because of just such tender spots on the line; and they never stopped until they reached the other side. And always they sent back the taunting whistle of engineers breathing again after the perils of the "softest" place on the line.
Murphy, the engineer of his ballast train, persistently refused to expose one little car to "the crazy conthraption ye have the nerve to call a threstle. Sure I'd as lave tie down me gauge and sit on the biler as put a foot on that skinny doodle." And Murphy never made a mistake with his levers.
As Torrance watched, the end car slowly glided back toward the trestle and, to the sharply extended arms of an overalled brakesman, came to a standstill with a few inches of the truck overhanging the gossamer structure.
Far up the track the engine puffed and panted. Presently a bewhiskered little old Irishman climbed from it and came ploughing down beside the grade.
"Late to-night, Murphy," said Torrance severely. "What's the row?"
"Row, d'ye ask? Listen to that now," he demanded of the grinning brakesman. "Huh!" He bent to examine his sand-filled boots. "I'll be later still some o' these nights, that I will, ye big bully, if ye don't take the throuble to lay a footpath down that gr-rade for dacent citizens to use. Me legs are only that long, and I wasn't born on the seashore. Some day I'll stay up with me cab, I will, and then who'll brighten up yeer dull and unintheresting lives? How'd ye kape in touch with civilisation then, I'd ask ye?"
As the extent of Murphy's connection with civilisation was never more than fifteen miles down the line, Torrance and Tressa could laugh without offending his choleric feelings.
Murphy became aware of the few inches of flatcar that overhung the trestle.
"Ye mooney-face!" he roared at the brakesman who, his day's work done, was lolling on the grass. "Don't ye know that straw-pile's apt to blow over if ye disturb the air about it. Ye just saved yeer skin by about four inches. If ye'd let me run out on that toy I'd have t'rown ye over it, that I would."
The brakesman continued to grin.
"Ye can slit yeer face all up and think ye're laughing, ye can, but be the time ye'd struck a few t'ousand o' these bean-poles and clothes-line props that Torrance here calls a threstle, ye'd be looking like a pin-cushion dress-making day. It's dangerous, I call it, to lave splinters like thim with their ends up. Some day a thoughtless brakesman like yeerself will take a careless breath in the vicinity—and there ain't an undertaker this side o' Saskatoon."
Torrance, half nettled, laughed carelessly.
"If you'd sharpen up your wits more, Murphy, hustling along here in reasonable hours, instead of insulting a work you're not big enough to understand, you'd get away sooner to a softer job."
"Softer, is it? Sure I nade something softer soon or I'll get as tough as a railway contractor. I suppose ye'd call it a soft job running a train where a herd of—no, ye didn't hear what I called them, Miss Tressa—where a filthy, low-down gang of craters dressed up like men and walking on their hind legs, is running loose. Lifted about four miles of rail, they did. This locomotive engineer's been doing railway building for half a day; and if ye could do my job as well as I can do yours, Torrance, there'd be no nade o' the two of us. If I had a rowdy, dyed-in-the-wool mob like them under me I'd shoot the lot and have a better stand in with St. Peter than I'm going to have as an engineer. I'd die happy if I could catch one of thim in the act and he wasn't too big for the fire-door."
Torrance looked grave. "Another? That's the second this week. If this—"
"Indade, it was another. Ye didn't think it was the same rail I've been putting down every day for six years or so. When I fix a rail it stays, it does."
"Leave the train there till morning," urged Torrance; "we'll unload it first thing."
"Lave thim, is it?" shouted Murphy. "Lave thim on the main line! Not likely! When I lave this man-trap, they go too."
"Murphy, you're a bad-tempered little stickler to rules that don't mean a cuss. There isn't another train within a hundred miles or so, except west; there won't be one this way for days."
"I didn't know ye'd done so well as a bridge builder they'd made ye train-despatcher too," sneered Murphy. "Build a siding and I'll take a chance, though it ain't fair to Molly. Ye'll nade one anyway. Trains ought to have a chance to pull up where it's safe and say their prayers before tempting Providence on those straws. Why don't ye set up a saloon where the passengers can get drunk first—"
"Look here, man, the whole camp's at supper. They wouldn't work an extra hour for the devil."
"Why don't ye let somebody else ask thim thin? Of course if they've got ye scared—"
Torrance knew the danger of demanding overtime even when necessitated by their own devilish destruction. He knew the added risk since the recent camp fight. But the suggestion of danger threw precaution to the winds. Taking a nickel whistle from his pocket he stepped on the trestle and blew a long blast.
The camp lay quiet and clear in the late afternoon sun, a long line of sluggish smoke marking the cook-houses. A few minutes more and the lazy evening life would filter out over the river bottom. At the moment five hundred mouths were working as if their lives depended on it, five hundred pairs of eyes were looking for the next plate to devour.
First to appear in answer to the summons was Adrian Conrad, the one to whom it was directed. He took in the situation at a glance, even without Torrance's pointing arm, and made straightway for the cook-houses. From the open door of one of them Koppy's head appeared, and disappeared as quickly. He, too, understood.
As Conrad approached the nearest cook-house, Koppy emerged hastily on his way to the next. Conrad changed his intentions and strolled on after the underforeman. The two men met face to face as Koppy was coming out. The foreman, inches shorter, laid a hand on the Pole's shoulder. "I want you back here, Koppy." Without excitement, without apparent annoyance, he thrust the Pole ahead into the building.
A hundred and fifty evil countenances glared at them from about the long tables, some openly defiant, some only uncomfortable; all sullen and prepared to resist under the influence of what Koppy had just hurled at them in impassioned words.
"I'm afraid you've made it hard for yourself, Koppy," said the foreman. "How long will it take them to finish?"
"Supper is their time," returned the underforeman stiffly. He was temporising; he scarcely knew how far it was wise to resist. "After supper?" He shrugged his shoulders in simulated indifference.
Conrad ran undisturbed eye over the tables, noting the pie before each diner.
"After supper is my time to-night," he corrected quietly. "In ten minutes they're wanted on the grade. There's a train to unload."
A rumble of protest cut him short. Koppy, the firm lines of the foreman's face close to his shoulder, hesitated.
"Why for train not here in time?" he demanded. "We work ten hours. Train don't come. Why?"
Conrad lifted his shoulders and let them drop. "Ask the boss that—after. Now—the train has to be unloaded!"
The underforeman still hesitated. He had a curious respect for this quiet little fellow who never argued, never swore, never retreated from a stand once taken; and he was not quite certain how far he could trust his men in open conflict with authority. But they were waiting for his lead; his future with them was at stake.
"Perhaps they not work. Perhaps they say they work enough to-day." He caught the hardening gleam in Conrad's eye. "Can I make them?"
"If you can't," said Conrad, "I can. Only there'll be sore heads, and an empty bunk or two before I'm through. And yours will be one of them. I've given the orders; are you going to make them obey or am I—in your absence?"
A few of the men were on their feet now, mumbling, waving their soiled fists. Certain mysterious movements were significant to Conrad. Like a flash he had Koppy round the waist and was pressing a small automatic into his stomach.
"I want them to sit down, Koppy," ordered the foreman, "every one of them. You have till I count five. If I see a knife in the meantime, time's up. One—two—"
The Pole swallowed—shouted something in a foreign tongue, and every hand fell into the open, weaponless, every man sat down.
"You're a wise guy sometimes, Koppy," smiled Conrad. "Now you and I remain here for five minutes, then fifty of them come with us—I won't need more. Tell them that in the lingo. I'm already holding the watch. . . . And, Koppy, hereafter you'll save yourself embarrassment by remembering I'm foreman; these men take orders from me—through you. I don't make a habit of showing a gun, but I prefer it to argument with you. . . . All ready, march. You and I'll go last, Koppy."
But outside, Adrian Conrad passed carelessly along the line of sullen men and led up the bank and through the woods to the standing train. And not a knife showed.
Torrance and Murphy and the train crew watched the line file from the cook-house and up the path.
"'Blimey!' as me friend, 'Uggins, o' Whitechapel, would say," exclaimed Murphy. "And then some!"
Torrance only rubbed his hands.
"Did I bring enough?" enquired Conrad.
"So'll ye, me lad," said Murphy behind his hand to Tressa. "Faith, but ye've a way wid ye. Here I was hoping for a bang-up spree, wid me houlding the watch till me blood got riled; and all that rat of a kid does is to dr-rop a few hundred husky bohunks into his pocket and lug 'em up the bank to overtime on a foine night like this. It's dishear-rtening. A chap can't get up a recent foight out here. I'm going back to civilisation where they still bang each other about a bit in a friendly way, thank God! Where'd yeer father pick him up, Tressa?"
"He didn't 'pick him up'," replied Tressa indignantly.
The merry eyes of the engineer came round to her in a slow circle.
"I'm always making mistakes like that. I never can tell when a couple's married—not unless he's showing the mar-rks of it about the pate, or flir-rting wid another gir-rl. What I meant to ask was how did yeer benevolent paterfamilias contrive to induce him to direct his seductive manners to the uncongenial atmosphere o' construction." He peered more closely into the laughing eyes of the girl. "And good taste he has, too, bad cess to him! If I was younger now— These whiskers hide me age; they've always been me fatal lure. The girls take to thim like ants to sugar. Me first wife took to thim so liberally I had to cut thim off in self-protection. I used to wear thim par-rted in the middle. Ah, a gay dog was I. That was before I saw 'Lord Dundreary.' Sure I changed thim so quick then the gir-rls didn't know they weren't flirting wid the same fellow. Next to being taken for an Englishman, an Irishman would prefer old Nick himself. So I let thim grow solid, the luxuriant and becoming gr-rowth ye're admiring this very minute. . . . Look at that now!"
He indicated the work of unloading. Each car was being emptied at the edge of the trestle on the other side of the grade, where a long shoot had been scooped from the bank and walled off to direct the falling rocks from the framework of the trestle.
"Ye'd think some o' thim beggars liked wor-rk. Koppy, there, him o' the leering eye and forked tongue—that's Indian, ye know—he thinks he's showing off."
Koppowski was standing on a car, legs far apart, heaving over great rocks with his bare hands. Two bohunks, unsuccessfully tussling with a huge piece, he unceremoniously pushed aside, to grip it with his callous hands. Slowly it tilted, balanced a moment, and bounded away to the valley with great thuds.
"Ye mayn't be aware of it, gir-rl, but ye're expected to clap. Koppy's showing off. I know the symptoms—but I grew whiskers then." He combed long, toil-stained fingers through the beard.
Car after car the train moved back, the empty ones passing out over the trestle, which Murphy pretended to study with anxiety. The engine panted up to the end of its task.
"Well, there's Molly." The firemen thrust tousled head from the engineer's side of the cab to catch the signals. "Billy 'Uggins may be only an Englishman from Whitechapel, or wherever they raise the lowest brand, but he and Molly are getting too friendly. If I weren't frightened o' that crazy conthraption o' yeer father's I wouldn't let him touch a lever; but till that beanpole toy is safe for a cat I'm not going to risk the head end of any train. And here's for supper, and a long sleep!"
He sprang into the cab with a roar at 'Uggins, tossed a kiss to Tressa, pulled the whistle cord, and drew away with increasing speed from the trestle and down the line to the official siding, three miles away, at the deserted end-of-steel village.
The work was completed for the night, yet the men lingered, self-consciously kicking over fragments of rock. Torrance and Conrad, without seeming to notice, were aware that something was in brew; and, wishing to meet it in the open, they did not enter the shack.
Presently Koppy and one of his bosom friends, Carl Heppel, detached themselves from the loitering group and approached the boss.
"What you pay overtime, my men ask?"
"Overtime!" Torrance's roar rolled out over the valley. "What in h— d'ye mean? When I want men they got to work. I don't care what hour it is—" The depth of his fury choked him. "Get your damned bunch out of my sight, and quick, or I'll kick you to perdition. They tore up the rail that forced the overtime—"
Conrad had come to his side; he spoke quietly now:
"These men may be innocent. They've worked beyond the ten hours. Time-and-a-quarter would be fair."
Torrance gaped; the world seemed to be falling from beneath his feet.
"I would add this proviso," continued the calm voice of the foreman, "that when damage occurs again, the extra work it entails will not be paid for. You may take that as a warning, Koppy. Tell them"—his eyes were flashing, though his voice had not risen—"that extra work caused by damage to the line will always be done overtime—and—they're going—to do it—without pay. Understand? Now clear out."