The milch cows were slowly mouching from the corrals as he neared the sheds. A diminutive herder was urging them along with shrill, piping shrieks—vicious but ineffective. Far more to the purpose were the efforts to a well-trained, bob-tailed sheep dog who was awaking echoes on the brisk morning air with the full-toned note of his bark.
"Lord" Bill found one or two hands quietly enjoying their after-breakfast smoke, but the majority had not as yet left the kitchen. Outside the barn two men were busily soft-soaping their saddles and bridles, whilst a third, seated on an upturned box, was wiping out his revolver with a coal-oil rag. Bill passed them by with a nod and greeting, and went into the stable. The horses were feeding, but as yet the stalls had not been cleaned out. He returned and gave some instructions to one of the men. Then he walked slowly back to the house. Usually he would have stayed down there to see the work of the day carried out; now, however, he was preoccupied. On this particular morning he took but little interest in the place; he knew only too well how soon it must pass from his possession.
Half-way up the hill he paused and turned his sleepy eyes towards the south. At a considerable distance a vehicle was approaching at a spanking pace. It was a buckboard, one of those sturdy conveyances built especially for light prairie transport. As yet it was not sufficiently near for him to distinguish its occupant, but the speed and cut of the horses seemed familiar to him. He continued on towards the house, and seated himself leisurely on the veranda, and, rolling himself another cigarette, calmly watched the on-coming conveyance.
It was the habit of this man never to be prodigal in the display of energy. He usually sat when there was no need for standing; he always considered speech to be golden, but silence, to his way of thinking, was priceless. And like most men of such opinion he cultivated thought and observation.
He propped his back against the veranda post, and, taking a deep inhalation from his cigarette, gazed long and earnestly, with half-closed eyes, down the winding southern trail.
His curiosity, if such a feeling might have been attributed to him, was soon set at rest, for, as the horses raced up the hill towards him, he had no difficulty in recognizing the bulky proportions of his visitor. Seeing the driver of the buckboard making for the house, two of the "hands" had hastened up the hill to take the horses. Lablache, for it was the fleshy money-lender, slid, as agilely as his great bulk would permit him, from the vehicle, and the two men took charge of the horses. Bill was not altogether cordial. It was not his way to be so to anybody but his friends.
"How are you?" he said with a nod, but without rising from his recumbent attitude. "Goin' to stay long?"
His latter question sounded churlish, but Lablache understood his meaning. It was of the horses the rancher was thinking.
"An hour, maybe," replied Lablache, breathing heavily as a result of his climb out of the buckboard.
"Right Take 'em away, boys. Remove the harness and give 'em a good rub down. Don't water or feed 'em till they're cool. They're spanking 'plugs,' Lablache," he added, as he watched the horses being led down to the barn. "Come inside. Had breakfast?" rising and knocking the dust from the seat of his moleskin trousers.
"Yes, I had breakfast before daylight, thanks," Lablache said, glancing quickly down at the empty corrals, where his horses were about to undergo a rubbing down. "I came out to have a business chat with you. Shall we go in-doors?"
There was an expressive curtness in the two words. Bill permitted himself a brief survey of the great man's back as the latter turned towards the front door. And although his half-closed lids hid the expression of his eyes, the pursing of the lips and the fluctuating muscles of his jaw spoke of unpleasant thoughts passing through his mind. A business talk with Lablache, under the circumstances, could not afford the rancher much pleasure. He followed the money-lender into the sitting-room.
The apartment was very bare, mannish, and scarcely the acme of neatness. A desk, a deck chair, a bench and a couple of old-fashioned windsor chairs; a small table, on which breakfast things were set, an old saddle, a rack of guns and rifles, a few trophies of the chase in the shape of skins and antelope heads comprised the furniture and decorations of the room. And too, in that slightly uncouth collection, something of the character of the proprietor was revealed.
Bunning-Ford was essentially careless of comfort. And surely he was nothing if not a keen and ardent sportsman.
"Sit down." Bill indicated the chairs with a wave of the arm. Lablache dubiously eyed the deck chair, then selected one of the unyielding Windsor chairs as more safe for the burden of his precious body, tested it, and sat down, emitting a gasp of breath like an escape of steam from a safety-valve. The younger man propped himself on the corner of his desk.
Lablache looked furtively into his companion's face. Then he turned his eyes in the direction of the window. Bill said nothing, his face was calm. He intended the money-lender to speak first. The latter seemed indisposed to do so. His lashless eyes gazed steadily out at the prairie beyond. "Lord" Bill's persistent silence at length forced the other into speech. His words came slowly and were frequently punctuated with deep breaths.
"Your ranch—everything you possess is held on first mortgage."
"Not all." Bunning-Ford's answer came swiftly. The abruptness of the other's announcement nettled him. The tone of the words conveyed a challenge which the younger man was not slow to accept.
Lablache shrugged his shoulders with deliberation until his fleshy jowl creased against the woolen folds of his shirt front.
"It comes to the same thing," he said; "what I—what is not mortgaged is held in bonds. The balance, practically all of it, you owe under signature to Pedro Mancha. It is because of that—latest—debt I am here."
Bill rolled a fresh cigarette and lit it. He guessed something of what was coming—but not all.
"Mancha will force you to meet your liabilities to him. Your interest is shortly due to the Calford Loan Co. You cannot meet both."
Lablache gazed unblinkingly into the other's face. He was thoroughly enjoying himself.
Bill was staring pensively at his cigarette. One leg swung pendulum fashion beside the desk. His indebtedness troubled him not a jot. He was trying to fathom the object of this prelude. Lablache, he knew, had not come purposely to make these plain statements. He blew a cloud of smoke down his nostrils with much appreciation. Then he heaved a sigh as though his troubles were too great for him to bear.
"Right—dead right, first time."
The lazy eyes appeared to be staring into space. In reality they were watching the doughy countenance before him. "What do you propose to do?" Lablache asked, ignoring the other's flippant tone.
"Debts of honor must be met first," he said quietly. "Mancha must be paid in full. I shall take care of that. For the rest, I have no doubt your business knowledge will prompt you as to what course the Calford Loan Co. and yourself had best adopt."
Lablache was slightly taken aback at the cool indifference of this man. He scarcely knew how to deal with him. He had driven out this morning intending to coerce, or, at least, strike a hard bargain. But the object of his attentions was, to say the least of it, difficult.
He moved uneasily and crossed his legs.
"There is only one course open to your creditors. It is a harsh method and one which goes devilishly against the grain. But—"
"Pray don't apologize, Mr. Lablache," broke in the other, smiling sardonically. "I am fully aware of the tender condition of your feelings. I only trust that in this matter you will carry out your—er—painful duty without worrying me with the detail of the necessary routine. I shall settle Mancha's debt at once and then you are welcome to the confounded lot."
Bill moved from his position and walked towards the door. The significance of his action was well marked. Lablache, however, had no intention of going yet. He moved heavily round upon his chair so as to face his man.
"One moment—er—Ford. You are a trifle precipitate. I was going on to say, when you interrupted me, that if you cared to meet me half-way I have a proposition to make which might solve your difficulty. It is an unusual one, I admit, but," with a meaning smile, "I rather fancy that the Calford Loan Co. might be induced to see the advantage, to them, of delaying action."
The object of this early morning visit was about to be made apparent. Bill returned to his position at the desk and lit another cigarette. The suave manner of his unwelcome guest was dangerous. He was prepared. There was something almost feline in the attitude and the expression of the young rancher as he waited for the money-lender to proceed. Perhaps Lablache understood him. Perhaps his understanding warned him to adopt his best manner. His usual method in dealing with his victims was hardly the same as he was now using.
"Well, what is this 'unusual' course?" asked Bill, in no very tolerant tone. He wished it made quite plain that he cared nothing about the "selling up" process to which he knew he must be subjected. Lablache noted the haughty manner and resented it, but still he gave no outward sign. He had a definite object to attain and he would not allow his anger to interfere with his chances of success.
"Merely a pleasant little business arrangement which should meet all parties' requirements," he said easily. "At present you are paying a ten per cent, interest on a principal of thirty-five thousand dollars to the Calford Loan Co. A debt of twenty thousand to me includes an amount of interest which represents ten per cent, interest for ten years. Very well, Your ranch should be yielding a greater profit than it is. With your permission the Calford Trust Co. shall put in a competent manager, whose salary shall be paid out of the profits. The balance of said profits shall be handed Over to your creditors, less an annual income to you of fifteen hundred dollars. Thus the principal of your debts, at a careful computation, should be liquidated in seven years. In consideration of thus shortening the period of the loans by three years the Calford Trust Co. shall allow you a rebate of five per cent, interest. Failing the profits in seven years amounting to the sums of money required, the Calford Trust Co. and myself will forego the balance due to us. Let me plainly assure you that this is no philanthropic scheme but the result of practical calculation. The advantage to you is obvious. An assured income during that period, and your ranch well and ably managed and improved. Your property at the end of seven years will return to you a vastly more valuable possession than it is at present. And we, on our part, will recover our money and interest without the unpleasant reflection that, in doing so, we have beggared you."
Lablache, usurer, scoundrel, smiled benignly at his companion as he pronounced his concluding words. The Hon. Bunning-Ford looked, thought, and looked again. He began to think that Lablache was meditating a more rascally proceeding than he had given him credit for. His words were so specious. His pie was so delicately crusted with such a tempting exterior. What was the object of this magnanimous offer? He felt he must know more.
"It sounds awfully well, but surely that is not all. What, in return, is demanded of me?"
Lablache had carefully watched the effect of his words. He was wondering whether the man he was dealing with was clever beyond the average, or a fool. He was still balancing the point in his mind when Bill put the question.
Lablache looked away, produced a snuff-box and drew up a large pinch of snuff before answering. He blew his nose with trumpet-like vehemence on a great red bandana.
"The only return asked of you is that you vacate the country for the next two years," he said heavily. And in that rejoinder "Lord" Bill understood the man's guile.
It was a sudden awakening, but it came to him as no sort of surprise. He had long suspected, although he had never given serious credence to his suspicions, the object the money-lender had in inveigling both himself and "Poker" John into their present difficulties. Now he understood, and a burning desire swept over him to shoot the man down where he sat. Then a revulsion of feeling came to him and he saw the ludicrous side of the situation. He gazed at Lablache, that obese mountain of blubber, and tried to think of the beautiful, wild Jacky as the money-lender's wife. The thing seemed so preposterous that he burst out into a mocking laugh.
Lablache, whose fishy eyes had never left the rancher's face, heard the tone and slowly flushed with anger. For an instant he seemed about to rise, then instead he leant forward.
"Well?" he asked, breathing his monosyllabic inquiry hissing upon the air.
Bill emitted a thin cloud of smoke into the money-lender's face. His eyes had suddenly become wide open and blazing with anger. He pointed to the door.
"I'll see you damned first! Now—git!"
At the door Lablache turned. In his face was written all the fury of hell.
"Mancha's debt is transferred to me. You will settle it without delay."
He had scarcely uttered the last word when there was a loud report, and simultaneously the crash of a bullet in the casing of the door. Lablache accepted his dismissal with precipitation and hastened to where his horses were stationed, to the accompaniment of "Lord" Bill's mocking laugh. He had no wish to test the rancher's marksmanship further.
LABLACHE FORCES THE FIGHT
A month—just one month and the early spring has developed with almost tropical suddenness into a golden summer. The rapid passing of seasons, the abrupt break, the lightning change from one into another, is one of the many beauties of the climate of that fair land where there are no half measures in Nature's mode of dealing out from her varied store of moods. Spring chases Winter, hoary, bitter, cruel Winter, in the hours of one night; and in turn Spring's delicate influence is overpowered with equal celerity by the more matured and unctuous ripeness of Summer.
Foss River had now become a glorious picture of vivid coloring. The clumps of pine woods no longer present their tattered purplish appearance, the garb in which grim Winter is wont to robe them. They are lighter, gayer, and bathed in the gleaming sunlight they are transformed from their somber forbidding aspect to that of radiant, welcome shade. The river is high, almost to flooding point. And the melting snow on the distant mountain-tops has urged it into a sparkling torrent of icy cold water rushing on at a pace which threatens to tear out its deterring banks and shallow bed in its mad career.
The most magical change which the first month of summer has brought is to be seen in the stock. Cattle, when first brought in from distant parts at the outset of the round-up, usually are thin, mean-looking, and half-starved. Two weeks of the delicious spring grass and the fat on their ribs and loins rolls and shakes as they move, growing almost visibly under the succulent influence of the delicate vegetation.
Few at Foss River appreciated the blessings of summer more fully than did Jacky Allandale, and few worked harder than did she. Almost single-handed she grappled with the stupendous task of the management of the great ranch, and no "hand," however experienced, was more capable in the most arduous tasks which that management involved. From the skillful organization down to the roping and branding of a wild two-year-old steer there was no one who understood the business of stock-raising better than she. She loved it—it was the very essence of life to her.
Silas, her uncle's foreman, was in the habit of summing her up in his brief but expressive way.
"Missie Jacky?" he would exclaim, in tones of surprise, to any one who dared to express wonder at her masterly management. "Guess a cyclone does its biz mighty thorough, but I take it ef that gal 'ud been born a hurricane she'd 'ave dislodged mountains an' played baseball with the glaciers."
But this year things were different with the mistress of the Foss River Ranch. True she went about her work with that thorough appreciation which she always displayed, but the young face had last something of its happy girlish delight—that debonnaire cheerfulness which usually characterized it. A shadow seemed to be hanging over her—a shadow, which, although it marred in no way her fresh young beauty, added a deepened pensiveness to her great somber eyes, and seemed to broaden the fringing black ring round the gray pupils. This year the girl had more to grapple with than the mere management of the ranch.
Her uncle needed all her care. And, too, the consciousness that the result of all her work was insufficient to pay the exorbitant interest on mortgages which had been forced upon her uncle by the hated, designing Lablache took something of the zest from her labors. Then, besides this, there were thoughts of the compact sealed between her lover and herself in Bad Man's Hollow, and the knowledge of the intentions of the money-lender towards "Lord" Bill, all helped to render her distrait. She knew all about the scene which had taken place at Bill's ranch, and she knew that, for her lover at least, the crash had come. During that first month of the open season the girl had been sorely tried. There was no one but "Aunt" Margaret to whom she could go for comfort or sympathy, and even she, with her wise councils and far-seeing judgment, could not share in the secrets which weighed so heavily upon the girl.
Jacky had not experienced, as might have been expected, very great difficulty in keeping her uncle fast to the grind-stone of duty. Whatever his faults and weaknesses, John Allandale was first of all a rancher, and when once the winter breaks every rancher must work—ay, work like no negro slave ever worked. It was only in the evenings, when bodily fatigue had weakened the purpose of ranching habit, and when the girl, wearied with her day's work, relaxed her vigilance, that the old man craved for the object of his passion and its degrading accompaniment. Then he would nibble at the whisky bottle, having "earned his tonic," as he would say, until the potent spirit had warmed his courage and he would hurry off to the saloon for "half an hour's flutter," which generally terminated in the small hours of the morning.
Such was the state of affairs at the Foss River Ranch when Lablache put into execution his threats against the Hon. Bunning-Ford. The settlement had returned to its customary torpid serenity. The round-up was over, and all the "hands" had returned to the various ranches to which they belonged. The little place had entered upon its period of placid sleep, which would last until the advent of the farmers to spend the proceeds of their garnered harvest. But this would be much later in the year, and in the meantime Foss River would sleep.
The night before the sale of "Lord" Bill's ranch, he and Jacky went for a ride. They had thus ridden out on many evenings of late. Old John was too absorbed in his own affairs to bother himself at these evening journeyings, although, in his careless way, he noticed how frequent a visitor at the ranch Bill had lately become. Still, he made no objection. If his niece saw fit to encourage these visits he would not interfere. In his eyes the girl could do no wrong. It was his one redeeming feature, his love for the motherless girl, and although his way of showing it was more than open to criticism, it was true he loved her with a deep, strong affection.
Foss River was far too sleepy to bother about these comings and goings. Lablache, alone, of the sleepy hamlet, eyed the evening journeys with suspicion. But even he was unable to fathom their object, and was forced to set them down, his whole being consumed with jealousy the while, to lovers' wanderings. However, these nightly rides were taken with purpose. After galloping across the prairie in various directions they always, as darkness crept on, terminated at a certain spot—the clump of willows and reeds at which the secret path across the great keg began.
The sun was well down below the distant mountain peaks when Jacky and her lover reached the scrubby bush of willows and reeds upon the evening before the day of the sale of Bill's ranch. As they drew up their panting horses, and dismounted, the evening twilight was deepening over the vast expanse of the mire.
The girl stood at the brink of the bottomless caldron of viscid muck and gazed out across the deadly plain. Bill stood still beside her, watching her face with eager, hungry eyes.
"Well?" he said at last, as his impatience forced itself to his lips.
"Yes, Bill," the girl answered slowly, as one balancing her decision well before giving judgment, "the path has widened. The rain has kept off long enough, and the sun has done his best for us. It is a good omen. Follow me."
She linked her arm through the reins of her horse's bridle, and leading the faithful animal, stepped fearlessly out on to the muskeg. As she trod the rotten crust she took a zigzag direction from one side of the secret path to the other. That which, in early spring, had scarcely been six feet in width, would now have borne ten horsemen abreast. Presently she turned back. "We need go no further, Bill; what is safe here continues safe across the keg. It will widen in places, but in no place will the path grow narrower."
"But tell me," said the man, anxious to assure himself that no detail was forgotten, "what about the trail of our footprints?"
The girl laughed. Then indenting the ground with her shapely boot until the moisture below oozed into the imprint, she looked up into the lazy face before her.
"See—we wait for one minute, and you shall see the result."
They waited in silence in the growing darkness. The night insects and mosquitoes buzzed around them. The man's attention was riveted upon the impression made by the girl's foot. Slowly the water filled the print, then slowly, under the moist influence, the ground, sponge-like, rose again, the water disappeared, and all sign of the footmark was gone.
When again the ground had resumed its natural appearance the girl looked up.
"Are you satisfied, Bill? No man or beast who passes over this path leaves a trail which lasts longer than a minute. Even the rank grass, however badly trodden down, rears itself again with amazing vitality. I guess this place was created through the devil's agency and for the purpose of devil's work."
Bill gave one sweeping glance around. Then he turned, and the two made their way back to the edge of the sucking mire.
"Yes, it'll do, dear. Now let us hasten home."
They remounted their horses and were soon lost in the gathering darkness as they made their way over the brow of the rising ground, in the direction of the settlement.
The next day saw the possession of the Hon. Bunning-Ford's ranch pass into other hands. Punctually at noon, the sale began. And by four o'clock the process, which robbed the rancher of everything that he possessed in the world, was completed.
Bill stationed himself on the veranda and smoked incessantly while the sale proceeded. He was there to see how the things went, and, in fact, seemed to take an outsider's interest only. He experienced no morbid sentiment at the loss of his property—it is doubtful if he cared at all. Anyhow, his leisurely attitude and his appearance of good-natured indifference caused many surprised remarks amongst the motley collection of bidders who were present. In spite of these appearances, however, he did take a very keen interest. A representative of Lablache's was there to purchase stock, and Bill knew it, and his interest was centered on this would-be purchaser.
The stock was the last thing to come under the hammer. There were twenty lots. Of these Lablache's representative purchased fifteen—three-quarters of the stock of the entire ranch.
Bill waited only for this, then, as the sale closed, he leisurely rolled and lit another cigarette and strolled to where a horse, which he had borrowed from the Allandales stable, was tied, and rode slowly away.
As he rode away he turned his head in the direction of the house upon the hill. He was leaving for good and all the place which had so long claimed him as master. He saw the small gathering of people still hanging about the veranda, upon which the auctioneer still stood with his clerk, busy over the sales. He noticed others passing hither and thither, as they prepared to depart with their purchases. But none of these things which he looked upon affected him in any mawkish, sentimental manner. It was all over. That little hill, with its wooded background and vast frontage of prairie, from which he had loved to watch the sun get up after its nightly sojourn, would know him no more. His indifference was unassumed. His was not the nature to regret past follies.
He smiled softly as he turned his attention to the future which lay before him, and his smile was not in keeping with the expression of a broken man.
In these last days of waning prosperity Bunning-Ford had noticeably changed. With loss of property he had lost much of that curious veneer of indolence, utter disregard of consequences, which had always been his. Not, that he had suddenly developed a violent activity or boisterous enthusiasm. Simply his interest in things and persons seemed to have received a fillip. There seemed to be an air of latent activity about him; a setness of purpose which must have been patent to any one sufficiently interested to observe the young rancher closely. But Foss River was too sleepy—indifferent—to worry itself about anybody, except those in its ranks who were riding the high horse of success. Those who fell out by the wayside were far too numerous to have more than a passing thought devoted to them. So this subtle change in the man was allowed to pass without comment by any except, perhaps, the money-lender, Lablache, and the shrewd, kindly wife of the doctor—people not much given to gossip.
It was only since the discovery of Lablache's perfidy that "Lord" Bill had understood what living meant. His discovery in Smith's saloon had roused in him a very human manhood. Since that time he had been seized with a mental activity, a craving for action he had never, in all his lazy life, before experienced. This sudden change had been aggravated by Lablache's subsequent conduct, and the flame had been fanned by the right that Jacky had given him to protect her. The sensation was one of absorbing excitement, and the loss of property sat lightly upon him in consequence. Money he had not—property he had not. But he had now what he had never possessed before—he had an object.
A lasting, implacable vengeance was his, from the contemplation of which he drew a satisfaction which no possession of property could have given him. Nature had, with incorrigible perversity, cut him out for a life of ease, whilst endowing him with a character capable of very great things. Now, in her waywardness she had aroused that character and overthrown the hindering superficialty in which she had clothed it. And further to mark her freakish mood, these same capabilities which might easily, under other circumstances, have led him into the fore-front of life's battle, she directed, with inexorable cruelty, into an adverse course. He had been cheated, robbed, and his soul thirsted for revenge. Lablache had robbed the uncle of the girl he loved, and, worse than all, the wretch had tried to oust him from the affections of the girl herself. Yes, he thirsted for revenge as might any traveler in a desert crave for water. His eyes, no longer sleepy, gleamed as he thought. His long, square jaws seemed welded into one as he thought of his wrongs. His was the vengeance which, if necessary, would last his lifetime. At least, whilst Lablache lived no quarter would he give or accept.
Something of this he was thinking as he took his farewell of the ranch on the hill, and struck out in the direction of the half-breed camp situated in a hollow some distance outside the settlement of Foss River.
THE FIRST CHECK
The afterglow of sunset slowly faded out of the western sky. And the hush of the night was over all. The feeling of an awful solitude, which comes to those whose business is to pass the night on the open prairie, is enhanced rather than reduced by the buzz of insect life upon the night air. The steady hum of the mosquito—the night song of the grasshoppers and frogs—the ticking, spasmodic call of the invisible beetles—all these things help to intensify the loneliness and magnitude of the wild surroundings. Nor does the smoldering camp-fire lessen the loneliness. Its very light deepens the surrounding dark, and its only use, after the evening meal is cooked, is merely to dispel the savage attack of the voracious mosquito and put the fear of man into the hearts of the prairie scavenger, the coyote, whose dismal howl awakens the echoes of the night at painfully certain intervals, and often drives sleep from the eyes of the weary traveler.
It is rare that the "cow-hand" pitches his camp amongst hills, or in the neighborhood of any bushy growth. The former he shuns from a natural dislike for a limited view. The latter, especially if the bush takes the form of pine woods, is bad for many reasons, chief amongst which is the fact of its being the harborage of the savage, gigantic timber wolf—a creature as naturally truculent as the far-famed grizzly, the denizen of the towering Rockies.
Upon a high level of the prairie, out towards the upper reaches of the Rainy River, a tributary of the broad, swift-flowing Foss River, and some fifteen miles from the settlement, two men were lounging, curled leisurely round the smoldering remains of a camp fire. Some distance away the occasional lowing of a cow betrayed the presence of a band of cattle.
The men were wide awake and smoking. Whether they refrained from sleep through necessity or inclination matters little. Probably the hungry attacks of the newly-hatched mosquito were responsible for their wakefulness. Each man was wrapped in a single brown blanket, and folded saddle-cloth answered as a pillow, and it was noticeable that they were stretched out well to leeward of the fire, so that the smoke passed across them, driving away a few of the less audacious "skitters."
"We'll get 'em in by dinner to-morrow," said one of the sleepless men thoughtfully. His remark was more in the tone of soliloquy than addressed to the other. Then louder, and in a manner which implied resentment, "Them all-fired skitters is givin' me a twistin'."
"Smoke up, pard," came a muffled rejoinder from the region of the other blanket "Maybe your hide's a bit tender yet. I 'lows skitters 'most allus goes fur young 'uns. Guess I'm all right."
"Dessay you are," replied the first speaker, sharply. "I ain't been long in the country—leastways, not on the prairie, an' like as not I ain't dropped into the ways o' things. I've allus heerd as washin' is mighty bad when skitters is around. They doesn't worry you any."
He pulled heavily at his pipe until his face was enveloped in a fog of smoke. His companion's tone of patronage had nettled him. The old hand moved restlessly but did not answer. It is doubtful if the other's sarcasm had been observed. It was scarcely broad enough to penetrate the toughened hide of the older hand's susceptibilities.
The silence was broken by a man's voice in the distance. The sound of an old familiar melody, chanted in a manly and not unmusical voice, reached the fireside. It was the voice of the man who was on watch round the band of cattle, and he was endeavoring to lull them into quiescence. The human voice, in the stillness of the night, has a somnolent effect upon cattle, and even mosquitoes, unless they are very thick, fail to counteract the effect. The older hand stirred. Then he sat up and methodically replenished the fire, kicking the dying embers together until they blazed afresh.
"Jim Bowley do sing mighty sweet," he said, in disparaging tones. "Like a crazy buzz-saw, I guess. S'pose them beasties is gettin' kind o' restless. Say, Nat, how goes the time? It must be night on ter your spell."
Nat sat up and drew out a great silver watch.
"Haf an hour yet, pard." Then he proceeded to re-fill his pipe, cutting great flakes of black tobacco from a large plug with his sheath knife. Suddenly he paused in the operation and listened. "Say, Jake, what's that?"
"What's what?" replied Jake, roughly, preparing to lie down again.
The two men bent their keen, prairie-trained ears to windward. They listened intently. The night was very black—as yet the moon had not risen. Jake used his eyes as well as ears. On the prairie, as well as elsewhere, eyes have a lot to do with hearing. He sought to penetrate the darkness around him, but his efforts were unavailing. He could hear no sound but the voice of Jim Bowley and the steady plodding of his horse's feet as he ceaselessly circled the band of somnolent cattle. The sky was cloudy, and only here and there a few stars gleamed diamond-like in the heavens, but threw insufficient light to aid the eyes which sought to penetrate the surrounding gloom. The old hand threw himself back on his pillow in skeptical irritation.
"Thar ain't nothin', young 'un," he said disdainfully. "The beasties is quiet, and Jim Bowley ain't no tenderfoot. Say, them skitters 'as rattled yer. Guess you 'eard some prowlin' coyote. They allus come around whar ther's a tenderfoot."
Jake curled himself up again and chuckled at his own sneering pleasantry.
"Coyote yerself, Jake Bond," retorted Nat, angrily. "Them lugs o' yours is gettin' old. Guess yer drums is saggin'. You're mighty smart, I don't think."
The youngster got on to his feet and walked to where the men's two horses were picketed. Both horses were standing with ears cocked and their heads held high in the direction of the mountains. Their attitude was the acme of alertness. As the man came up they turned towards him and whinnied as if in relief at the knowledge of his presence. But almost instantly turned again to gaze far out into the night. Wonderful indeed is a horse's instinct, but even more wonderful is the keenness of his sight and hearing.
Nat patted his broncho on the neck, and then stood beside him watching—listening. Was it fancy, or was it fact? The faintest sound of a horse galloping reached him; at least, he thought so.
He returned to the fire sullenly antagonistic. He did not return to his blanket, but sat silently smoking and thinking. He hated the constant reference to his inexperience on the prairie. If even he did hear a horse galloping in the distance it didn't matter. But it was his ears that had first caught the sound in spite of his inexperience. His companion pigheadedly derided the fact because his own ears were not sufficiently keen to have detected the sound himself.
Thus he sat for a few minutes gazing into the fire. Jake was now snoring loudly, and Nat was glad to be relieved from the tones of his sneering voice. Presently he rose softly from his seat, and taking his saddle blanket, saddled and bridled his horse. Then he mounted and silently rode off towards the herd. It was his relief on the cattle guard.
Jim Bowley welcomed him with the genial heartiness of a man who knows that he has finished his vigil and that he can now lie down to rest. The guarding of a large herd at night is always an anxious time. Cattle are strange things to handle. A stampede will often involve a week's weary scouring of the prairie.
Just as Jim Bowley was about to ride up to the camp, Nat fired a question which he had been some time meditating.
"Guess you didn't hear a horse gallopin' jest now, pard?" he asked quietly.
"Why cert, boy," the other answered quickly, "only a deaf mule could 'a' missed it. Some one passed right under the ridge thar, away to the southwest. Guess they wer' travelin' mighty fast too. Why?"
"Oh, nothin', Jim, on'y I guess Jake Bond's that same deaf mule you spoke of. He's too fond of gettin' at youngsters, the old fossil. I told 'im as I 'card suthin', an' 'e told me as I was a tenderfoot and didn't know wot I was gassin' about."
"Jake's a cantankerous cuss, boy. Let 'im gas; 'e don't cut any figger anyway. Say, you keep yer eye peeled on some o' the young heifers on the far side o' the bunch. They're rustlin' some. They keep mouching after new grass. When the moon gits up you'll see better. S'long, mate."
Jim rode away towards the camp fire, and young Nat proceeded to circle round the great herd of cattle. It was a mighty bunch for three men to handle. But Lablache, its owner, was never one to underwork his men. This was the herd which he had purchased at the sale of Bunning-Ford's ranch. And they were now being taken to his own ranch, some distance to the south of the settlement, for the purpose of re-branding with his own marks.
As young Nat entered upon his vigil the golden arc of the rising moon broke the sky-line of the horizon. Already the clouds were fast clearing, being slowly driven before the yellow glory of the orb of night. Soon the prairie would be bathed in the effulgent, silvery light which renders the western night so delicious when the moon is at its full.
As the cowboy circled the herd, the moon, at first directly to his left, slowly dropped behind until its, as yet, dull light shone full upon his back. The beasts were quite quiet and the sense of responsibility which was his, in a measure, lessened.
Some distance ahead, and near by where' he must pass, a clump of undergrowth and a few stunted trees grew round the base of a hillock and broken rocks. The cattle were reposing close up by this shelter. Nat's horse, as he drew near to the brush, was ambling along at that peculiar gait, half walk, half trot, essentially the pace of a "cow-horse." Suddenly the animal came to a stand, for which there seemed no apparent reason. He stood for a second with ears cocked, sniffing at the night air in evident alarm. Then a prolonged, low whistle split the air. The sound came from the other side of the rocks, and, to the tenderfoot's ears, constituted a signal.
The most natural thing for him to have done would have been to wait for further developments, if developments there were to be. However, he was a plucky youngster, in spite of his inexperience, and, besides, something of the derision of Jake Bond was still rankling in his mind. He knew the whistle to be the effort of some man, and his discovery of the individual would further prove the accuracy of his hearing, and he would then have the laugh of his companion. A more experienced hand would have first looked to his six-shooter and thought of cattle thieves, but, as Jake had said, he was a tenderfoot. Instead, without a moment's hesitation, he dashed his spurs into his broncho's flanks and swept round to the shadowed side of the rocks.
He realized his folly when too late. The moment he entered the shade there came the slithering whirr of something cutting through the air. Something struck the horse's front legs, and the next moment he shot out of the saddle in response to a somersault which the broncho turned. His horse had been roped by one of his front legs. The cowboy lay where he fell, dazed and half stunned. Then he became aware of three dark faces bending over him. An instant later a gag was forced into his mouth, and he felt himself being bound hand and foot. Then the three faces silently disappeared, and all was quiet about him.
In the meantime, on the rising ground, where the camp fire burned, all was calm slumber. The two old hands were taking their rest with healthy contentment and noisy assertion. The glory of the rising moon was lost to the slumberers, and no dread of coming disaster disturbed them. The stertorous blasts of their nostrils testified to this. The replenished fire slowly died down to a mass of white smoldering ashes, and the chill-growing air caused one of the sleepers to move restlessly in his sleep and draw his head down beneath his blanket for greater warmth.
Up the slope came three figures. They were moving with cautious, stealthy step, the movement of men whose purpose is not open. On they came swiftly—silently. One man led; he was tall and swarthy with long black hair falling upon his shoulders in straight, coarse mass. He was evidently a half-breed, and his clothes denoted him to be of the poorer class—a class accustomed to live by preying upon its white neighbors. He was clad in a pair of moleskin trousers, which doubtless at one time had been white, but which now were of that nondescript hue which dirt conveys. His upper garments were a beaded buckskin shirt and a battered Stetson hat. Around his waist was a cartridge belt, on which was slung a holster containing a heavy six-chambered revolver and a long sheath knife.
His companions were similarly equipped, and the three formed a wild picture of desperate resolve. Yard by yard they drew toward the sleepers, at each step listening for the loud indications of sleep which were made only too apparent upon the still night air. Now they were close upon the fire. One of the unconscious cow-boys, Jim Bowley, stirred. A moment passed. Then the intruders drew a step nearer. Suddenly Jim roused and then sat up. His action at once became a signal. There was a sound of swift footsteps, and the next instant the astonished man was gazing into the muzzle of a heavy pistol.
"Hands up!" cried the voice of the leading half-breed. One of his followers had similarly covered the half-awakened Jake.
Without a word of remonstrance two pairs of hands went up. Astonishment had for the moment paralyzed speech on the part of the rudely awakened sleepers. They were only dimly conscious of their assailants. The compelling rings of metal that confronted them weighed the balance of their judgment, and their response was the instinctive response of the prairie. Whoever their assailants, they had got the drop on them. The result was the law of necessity.
In depressing silence the assailants drew their captives' weapons. Then, after binding their arms, the leader bade them rise. His voice was harsh and his accent "South-western" American. Then he ordered them to march, the inexorable pistol ever present to enforce obedience. In silence the two men were conducted to the bush where the first capture had been made. And here they were firmly tied to separate trees with their own lariats.
"See hyar," said the tall half-breed, as the captives' feet were bound securely. "There ain't goin' to be no shootin'. You're that sensible. You're jest goin' to remain right hyar till daylight, or mebbe later. A gag'll prevent your gassin'. You're right in the track of white men, so I guess you'll do. See hyar, bo', jest shut it," as Jim Bowley essayed to speak, "cause my barker's itchin' to join in a conversation."
The threat had a quieting effect upon poor Jim, who immediately closed his lips. Silent but watchful he eyed the half-breed's face. There was something very familiar about the thin cheeks, high cheek-bones, and about the great hooked nose. He was struggling hard to locate the man. At this moment the third ruffian approached with three horses. The other had been busy fixing a gag in Jake Bond's mouth. Jim Bowley saw the horses come up. And, in the now brilliant moonlight, he beheld and recognized a grand-looking golden chestnut. There was no mistaking that glorious beast. Jim was no tenderfoot; he had been on the prairie in this district for years. And although he had never come into actual contact with the man, he had seen him and knew about the exploits of the owner of that perfect animal.
The half-breed approached him with an improvised gag. For the life of him Jim could not resist a temptation which at that moment assailed him. The threatening attitude of his captor for the instant had lost its effect. If he died for it he must blurt out his almost superstitious astonishment.
The half-breed seized his prisoner's lower jaw in his hand and compressed the cheeks upon the teeth. Jim's lips parted, and a horrified amazement found vent in words.
"Holy Gawd! man. But be ye flesh or sperrit? Peter Retief—as I'm a livin'—"
He said no more, for, with a wrench, the gag was forced into his mouth by the relentless hand of the man before him. Although he was thus silenced his eyes remained wide open and staring. The dark stern face, as he saw it, was magnified into that of a fiend. The keen eyes and depressed brows, he thought, might belong to some devil re-incarnated, whilst the eagle-beaked nose and thin-compressed lips denoted, to his distorted fancy, a sanguinary cruelty. At the mention of his name this forbidding apparition flashed a vengeful look at the speaker, and a half smile of utter disdain flickered unnoticed around the corners of his mouth.
Once his prisoners were secured the dark-visaged cattle-thief turned to the horses. At a word the trio mounted. Then they rode off, and the wretched captives beheld, to their unspeakable dismay, the consummate skill with which the cattle were roused and driven off. Away they went with reckless precipitance, the cattle obeying the master hand of the celebrated raider with an implicitness which seemed to indicate a strange sympathy between man and beast. The great golden chestnut raced backwards and forwards like some well-trained greyhound, heading the leading beasts into the desired direction without effort or apparent guidance. It was a grand display of the cowboy's art, and, in spite of his predicament and the cruel tightness of his bonds, Jim Bowley reveled in the sight of such a display.
In five minutes the great herd was out of sight, and only the distant rumble of their speeding hoofs reached the captives. Later, the moon, no longer golden, but shedding a silvery radiance over all, shone down upon a peaceful plain. The night hum of insects was undisturbed. The mournful cry of the coyote echoed at intervals, but near by, where the camp fire no longer put the fear of man into the hearts of the scavengers of the prairie, all was still and calm. The prisoners moaned softly, but not loud enough to disturb the peace of the perfect night, as their cruel bonds gnawed at their patience. For the rest, the Western world had resumed its wonted air.
THE HUE AND CRY
"A thousand head of cattle, John! A thousand; and 'hustled' from under our very noses. By thunder! it is intolerable. Over thirty-five thousand dollars gone in one clean sweep. Why, I say, do we pay for the up-keep of the police if this sort of thing is allowed to go on? It is disgraceful. It means ruination to the country if a man cannot run his stock without fear of molestation. Who said that scoundrel Retief was dead—drowned in the great muskeg? It's all poppy-cock, I tell you; the man's as much alive as you or I. Thirty-five thousand dollars! By heavens!—it's—it's scandalous!"
Lablache leant forward heavily in his chair and rested his great arms upon John Allandale's desk. "Poker" John and he were seated in the former's office, whither the money-lender had come, post-haste, on receiving the news of the daring raid of the night before. The great man's voice was unusually thick with rage, and his asthmatical breathing came in great gusts as his passionate excitement grew under the lash of his own words. The old rancher gazed in stupefied amazement at the financier. He had not as yet fully realized the fact with which he had just been acquainted in terms of such sweeping passion. The old man's brain was none too clear in the mornings now. And the suddenness of the announcement had shocked his faculties into a state of chaos.
"Terrible—terrible," was all he was able to murmur. Then, bracing himself, he asked weakly, "But what are you to do?"
The weather-beaten old face was working nervously. The eyes, in the past keen and direct in their glance, were bloodshot and troubled. He looked like a man who was fast breaking up. Very different from the night when we first met him at the Calford Polo Club ball. There could be no doubt as to the origin of this swift change. The whole atmosphere of the man spoke of drink.
Lablache turned on him without any attempt to conceal the latent ferocity of his nature. The heavy, pouchy jowl was scarlet with his rage. The money-lender had been flicked upon a very raw and tender spot. Money was his god.
"What am I to do?" he retorted savagely. "What are we to do? What is all the ranching world of Alberta to do? Why, fight, man. Hound this scoundrel to his lair. Follow him—track him. Hunt him from bush to bush until we fall upon him and tear him limb from limb. Are we going to sit still while he terrorizes the whole country? While he 'hustles' every head of stock from us, and—and spirits it away? No, if we spend fortunes upon his capture we must not rest until he swings from a gibbet at the end of his own lariat."
"Yes, of course—of course," the rancher responded, his cheek twitching weakly. "You are quite right, we must hunt this scoundrel down. But we know what has gone before—I mean, before he was supposed to have died. The man could never be traced. He seemed to vanish into thin air. What do you propose?"
"Yes, but that was two years ago," said Lablache, moodily. "Things may be different now. A thousand head of cattle does not vanish so easily. There is bound to be some trace left behind. And then, the villain has only got a short start of us. I sent a messenger over to Stormy Cloud Settlement the first thing this morning. A sergeant and four men will be sent to work up the case. I expect them here at any moment. As justices of the peace it devolves on both of us to set an example to the settlers, and we shall then receive hearty co-operation. You understand, John," the money-lender went on, with pompous assertiveness, "although, at present, I am the chief sufferer by this scoundrel's depredations, it is plainly your duty as much as mine to take this matter up."
The first rough storm of Lablache's passion had passed. He was "yanking" himself up to the proper attitude for the business in hand. Although he had calmed considerably his lashless eyes gleamed viciously, and his flabby face wore an expression which boded ill for the object of his rage, should that unfortunate ever come within the range of his power.
"Poker" John was struggling hard to bring a once keen intellect to bear upon the affair. He had listened to the money-lender's account of the raid with an almost doubtful understanding, the chief shock to which was the re-appearance of the supposed dead Retief, that prince of "hustlers," who, two years ago, had terrorized the neighborhood by his impudent raids. At last his mind seemed to clear and he stood up. And, bending across the desk as though to emphasize his words, he showed something of the old spirit which had, in days gone by, made him a successful rancher.
"I don't believe it, Lablache. This is some damned yarn to cover the real culprit. Why, man, Peter Retief is buried deep in that reeking keg, and no slapsided galoot's goin' to pitch such a crazy notion as his resurrection down my throat. Retief? Why, I'd as lief hear that Satan himself was abroad duffing cattle. Bah! Where's the 'hand' that's gulled you?"
Lablache eyed the old man curiously. He was not sure that there might not be some truth in the rancher's forcible skepticism. For the moment the old man's words carried some weight, then, as he remembered the unvarnished tale the cowboy had told, he returned to his conviction. He shook his massive head.
"No one has gulled me, John. You shall hear the story for yourself as soon as the police arrive. You will the better be able to judge of the fellow's sincerity."
At this moment the sound of horses' hoofs came in through the open window. Lablache glanced out on to the veranda.
"Ah, here he is, and I'm glad to see they've sent Sergeant Horrocks. The very man for the work. Good," and he rubbed his fat hands together. "Horrocks is a great prairie man."
"Poker" John rose and went out to meet the officer. Later he conducted him into the office. Sergeant Horrocks was a man of medium height, slightly built, but with an air of cat-like agility about him. He was very bronzed, with a sharp, rather than a clever face. His eyes were black and restless, and a thin mouth, hidden beneath a trim black mustache, and a perfectly-shaped aquiline nose, completed the sum of any features which might be called distinctive. He was a man who was thoroughly adapted to his work—work which needed a cool head and quick eye rather than great mental attainments. He was dressed in a brown canvas tunic with brass buttons, and his riding breeches were concealed in, a pair of well-worn leather "chaps." A Stetson hat worn at the exact angle on his head, with his official "side arms" secured round his waist, completed a very picturesque appearance.
"Morning, Horrocks," said the money-lender. "This is a pretty business you've come down on. Left your men down in the settlement, eh?"
"Yes. I thought I'd come and hear the rights of the matter straight away. According to your message you are the chief victim of this 'duffing' business?"
"Exactly," replied Lablache, with a return to his tone of anger, "one thousand head of beeves! Thirty-five thousand dollars' worth!" Then he went on more calmly: "But wait a moment, we'll send down for the 'hand' that brought in the news."
A servant was despatched, and a few minutes later Jim Bowley entered. Jacky, returning from the corrals, entered at the same time. Directly she had seen the police horse outside she knew what was happening. When she appeared Lablache endeavored to conceal a look of annoyance. Sergeant Horrocks raised his eyebrows in surprise. He was not accustomed to petticoats being present at his councils. John, however, without motive, waived all chance of objection by anticipating his guests.
"Sergeant, this is my niece, Jacky. Affairs of the prairie affect her as nearly as they do myself. Let us hear what this man has to tell us."
Horrocks half bowed to the girl, touching the brim of his hat with a semi-military salute. Acquiescence to her presence was thus forced upon him.
Jacky looked radiant in spite of the uncouthness of her riding attire. The fresh morning air was the tonic she loved, and, as yet, the day was too young for the tired shadows to have crept into her beautiful face. Horrocks, in spite of his tacit objection, was forced to admire the sturdy young face of this child of the prairie.
Jim Bowley plunged into his story with a directness and simplicity which did not fail to carry conviction. He told all he knew without any attempt at shielding himself or his companions. Horrocks and the old rancher listened carefully to the story. Lablache looked for discrepancies but found none. Jacky, whilst paying every attention, keenly watched the face of the money-lender. The seriousness of the affair was reflected in all the faces present, whilst the daring of the raid was acknowledged by the upraised brows and wondering ejaculations which occasionally escaped the police-officer and "Poker" John. When the narrative came to a close there followed an impressive pause. Horrocks was the first to break it.
"And how did you obtain your release?"
"A Mennonite family, which had bin travelin' all night, came along 'bout an hour after daylight. They pitched camp nigh on to a quarter mile from the bluff w'ere we was tied up. Then they came right along to look fur kindlin'. There wasn't no other bluff for half a mile but ours. They found us all three. Young Nat 'ad got 'is collar-bone broke. Them 'ustlers 'adn't lifted our 'plugs' so I jest came right in."
"Have you seen these Mennonites?" asked the officer, turning sharply to the money-lender.
"Not yet," was the heavy rejoinder. "But they are coming in."
The significance of the question and the reply nettled the cowboy.
"See hyar, mister, I ain't no coyote come in to pitch yarns. Wot I've said is gospel. The man as 'eld us up was Peter Retief as sure as I'm a living man. Sperrits don't walk about the prairie 'ustling cattle, an' I guess 'is 'and was an a'mighty solid one, as my jaw felt when 'e gagged me. You take it from me, 'e's come around agin to make up fur lost time, an' I guess 'e's made a tidy haul to start with."
"Well, we'll allow that this man is the hustler you speak of," went on Horrocks, bending his keen eyes severely on the unfortunate cowboy. "Now, what about tracking the cattle?"
"Guess I didn't wait fur that, but it'll be easy 'nough."
"Ah, and you didn't recognize the man until you'd seen his horse?"
The officer spoke sharply, like a counsel cross-examining a witness.
"Wal, I can't say like that," said Jim, hesitating for the first time. "His looks was familiar, I 'lows. No, without knowing of it I'd recognized 'im, but 'is name didn't come along till I see that beast, Golden Eagle. I 'lows a good prairie hand don't make no mistake over cattle like that. 'E may misgive a face, but a beastie—no, siree."
"So you base your recognition of the man on the identity of his horse. A doubtful assertion."
"Thar ain't no doubt in my mind, sergeant. Ef you'll 'ave it so, I did—some."
The officer turned to the other men.
"If there's nothing more you want this man for, gentlemen, I have quite finished with him—for the present. With your permission," pulling out his watch, "I'll get him to take me to the er—scene of disaster in an hour's time."
The two men nodded and Lablache conveyed the necessary order to the man, who then withdrew.
As soon as Bowley had left the room three pairs of eyes were turned inquiringly upon the officer.
"Well?" questioned Lablache, with some show of eagerness.
Horrocks shrugged a pair of expressive shoulders.
"From his point of view the man speaks the truth," he replied decisively. "And," he went on, more to himself than to the others, "we never had any clear proof that the scoundrel, Retief, came to grief. From what I remember things were very hot for him at the time of his disappearance. Maybe the man's right. However," turning to the others, "I should not be surprised if Mr. Retief has overreached himself this time. A thousand head of cattle cannot easily be hidden, or, for that matter, disposed of. Neither can they travel fast; and as for tracking, well," with a shrug, "in this case it should be child's play."
"I hope it will prove as you anticipate," put in John Allandale, concisely. "What you suggest has been experienced by us before. However, the matter, I feel sure, is in capable hands."
The officer acknowledged the compliment mechanically. He was thinking deeply. Lablache struggled to his feet, and, supporting his bulk with one hand resting upon the desk, gasped out his final words upon the matter.
"I want you to remember, sergeant, this matter not only affects me personally but also in my capacity as a justice of the peace. To whatever reward I am able to make in the name of H.M. Government I shall add the sum of one thousand dollars for the recovery of the cattle, and the additional sum of one thousand dollars for the capture of the miscreant himself. I have determined to spare no expense in the matter of hunting this devil," with vindictive intensity, "down, therefore you can draw on me for all outlay your work may entail. All I say is, capture him."
"I shall do my best, Mr. Lablache," Horrocks replied simply. "And now, if you will permit me, I will go down to the settlement to give a few orders to my men. Good-morning—er—Miss Allandale; good day, gentlemen. You will hear from me to-night."
The officer left in all the pride of his official capacity. And possibly his pride was not without reason, for many and smart were the captures of evil-doers he had made during his career as a keeper of the peace. But we have been told that "pride goeth before a fall." His estimation of a "hustler" was not an exalted one. He was accustomed to dealing with men who shoot quick and straight—"bad men" in fact—and he was equally quick with the gun, and a dead shot himself. Possibly he was a shade quicker and a trifle more deadly than the smartest "bad man" known, but now he was dealing with a man of all these necessary attainments and whose resourcefulness and cleverness were far greater than his own. Sergeant Horrocks had a harder road to travel than he anticipated.
Lablache took his departure shortly afterwards, and "Poker" John and his niece were left in sole possession of the office at the ranch.
The old man looked thoroughly wearied with the mental effort the interview had entailed upon him. And Jacky, watching him, could not help noticing how old her uncle looked. She had been a silent observer in the foregoing scene, her presence almost ignored by the other actors. Now, however, that they were left alone, the old man turned a look of appealing helplessness upon her. Such was the rancher's faith in this wild, impetuous girl that he looked for her judgment on what had passed in that room with the ready faith of one who regards her as almost infallible, where human intellect is needed. Nor was the girl, herself, slow to respond to his mute inquiry. The swiftness of her answer enhanced the tone of her conviction.
"Set a thief to catch a thief, Uncle John. I guess Horrocks, in spite of his shifty black eyes, isn't the man for the business. He might track the slimmest neche that ever crossed the back of a choyeuse. Lablache is the man Retief has to fear. That uncrowned monarch of Foss River is subtle, and subtlety alone will serve. Horrocks?" with fine disdain. "Say, you can't shoot snipe with a pea-shooter."
"That's so," replied John, with weary thoughtlessness. "Do you know, child, I can't help feeling a strange satisfaction that this Retief's victim is Lablache. But there, one never knows, when such a man is about, who will be the next to suffer. I suppose we must take our chance and trust to the protection of the police."
The girl had walked to the window and now stood framed in the casement of it. She turned her face back towards the old man as he finished speaking, and a quiet little smile hovered round the corners of her fresh ripe lips.
"I don't think Retief will bother us any—at least, he never did before. Somehow I don't think he's an ordinary rascal." She turned back to the window. "Hulloa, I guess Bill's coming right along up the avenue."
A moment later "Lord" Bill, lazily cheerful as was his wont, stepped in through the open French window. The selling up of his ranch seemed to have made little difference to his philosophical temperament. In his appearance, perhaps, for now he no longer wore the orthodox dress of the rancher. He was clad in a tweed lounging suit, and a pair of well-polished, brown leather boots. His headgear alone pertained to the prairie. It was a Stetson hat. He was smoking a cigarette as he came up, but he threw the insidious weed from him as he entered the room.
"Morning, John. How are you, Jacky? I needn't ask you if you have heard the news. I saw Sergeant Horrocks and old Shylock leaving your veranda. Hot lot—isn't it? And all Lablache's cattle, too."
A look of deep concern was on his keen face. Lablache might have been his dearest friend. Jacky smiled over at him. "Poker" John looked pained.
"Guess you're right, Bill," said the rancher. "Hot—very hot. I pity the poor devil if Lablache lays a hand on him. Excuse me, boy, I'm going down to the barn. We've got a couple of ponies we're breaking to harness."
The old man departed. The others watched the burly figure as he passed out of the door. His whole personality seemed shrunken of late. The old robustness seemed a thing of the past. The last two months seemed to have put ten years of ageing upon the kindly old man. Jacky sighed as the door closed behind him, and there was no smile in her eyes as she turned again to her lover. Bill's face had become serious.
"Well?" in a tone of almost painful anxiety.
The girl had started forward and was leaning with her two brown hands upon the back of a chair. Her face was pale beneath her tan, and her eyes were bright with excitement. For answer, Bunning-Ford stepped to the French window and closed it, having first glanced up and down the veranda to see that it was empty. Not a soul was in sight. The tall pines, which lined the approach to the house, waved silently in the light breeze. The clear sky was gloriously blue. On everything was the peace of summer.
The man swung round and came towards the girl. His eagle face was lit up by an expression of triumph. He held out his two hands, and the girl placed her own brown ones in them. He drew her towards him and embraced her in silence. Then he moved a little away from her. His gleaming eyes indexed the activity of his mind.
"The cattle are safe—as houses. It was a grand piece of work, dear. They would never have faced the path without your help. Say, girlie, I'm an infant at handling stock compared with you. Now—what news?"
Jacky was smiling tenderly into the strong face of the man. She could not help but wonder at the reckless daring of this man, who so many set down as a lazy good-for-nothing. She knew—she had always known, she fancied—the strong character which underlay that indolent exterior. It never appealed to her to regret the chance that had driven him to use his abilities in such a cause. There was too much of the wild half-breed blood in her veins to allow her to stop to consider the might-have-beens. She gloried in his daring, and something of the spirit which had caused her to help her half-brother now forced from her an almost worshiping adoration for her lover.
"Horrocks is to spare no expense in tracking—Retief—down." She laughed silently. "Lablache is to pay. They are going over the old ground again, I guess. The tracks of the cattle. Horrocks is not to be feared. We must watch Lablache. He will act. Horrocks will only be his puppet."
Bill pondered before he spoke.
"Yes," he said thoughtfully at last, "that is the best of news. The very best. Horrocks can track. He is one of the best at that game. But I have taken every precaution. Tracking is useless—waste of time."
"I know that from past experience, Bill. Now that the campaign has begun, what is the next move?"
The girl was all eagerness. Her beautiful dark face was no longer pale. It was aglow with the enthusiasm of her feelings. Her deep, meaning eyes burned with a consuming brilliancy. Framed in its setting of curling, raven hair, her face would have rejoiced the heart of the old masters of the Van Dyke school. She was wondrously beautiful. Bill gazed upon her features with devouring eyes, and thoughts of the wrongs committed by Lablache against her and hers teemed through his brain and set his blood surging through his veins in a manner that threatened to overbalance his usual cool judgment. He forced himself to an outward calmness, however, and the lazy tones of his voice remained as easy as ever.
"On the result of the next move much will depend," he said. "It is to be a terrific coup, and will entail careful planning. It is fortunate that the people at the half-breed camp are the friends of—of—Retief."
"Yes, and of mine," put in the girl. Then she added slowly, and as though with painful thought, "Say, Bill, be—be careful. I guess you are all I have in the world—you and uncle. Do you know, I've kind of seen to the end of this racket. Maybe there's trouble coming. Who's to be lagged I can't say. There are shadows around, Bill; the place fairly hums with 'em. Say, don't—don't give Lablache a slant at you. I can't spare you, Bill."
The tall thin figure of her companion stepped over towards her, and she felt herself encircled by his long powerful arms. Then he bent down from his great height and kissed her passionately upon the lips.
"Take comfort, little girl. This is a war, if necessary, to the death. Should anything happen to me, you may be sure that I leave you freed from the snares of old Shylock. Yes, I will be careful, Jacky. We are playing for a heavy stake. You may trust me."
AMONG THE HALF-BREEDS
Lablache was not a man of variable moods. He was too strong; his purpose in life was too strong for any vacillation of temper. His one aim—his whole soul—was wrapt in a craving for money-making and the inevitable power which the accumulation of great wealth must give him. In all his dealings he was perfectly—at least outwardly—calm, and he never allowed access to anger to thwart his ends. An inexorable purpose governed his actions to an extent which, while his feelings might undergo paroxysms of acute changes, never permitted him to make a false move or to show his hand prematurely. But this latest reverse had upset him more than he had ever been upset in his life, and all the great latent force of his character had suddenly, as it were, been precipitated into a torrent of ungovernable fury. He had been wounded deeply in the most vulnerable spot in his composition. Thirty-five thousands of his precious dollars ruthlessly torn from his capacious and retentive money-bags. Truly it was a cruel blow, and one well calculated to disturb the even tenor of his complacency.
Thought was very busy within that massive head as he lumped heavily along from John Allandale's house in the direction of his own store. Some slight satisfaction was his at the reflection of the prompt assistance he had obtained from the police. It was the satisfaction of a man who lived by the assistance of the law, of a man who, in his own inordinate arrogance, considered that the law was made for such as he, to the detriment of those who attempt to thwart the rich man's purpose. He knew Horrocks to be capable, and although he did not place too much reliance on that astute prairie-man's judgment—he always believed in his own judgment first—still, he knew that he could not have obtained better assistance, and was therefore as content as circumstances would permit. That he was sanguine of recovering his property was doubtful. Lablache never permitted himself the luxury of optimism. He set himself a task and worked steadily on to the required end. So he had decided now. He did not permit himself to dwell on the desired result, or to anticipate. He would simply leave no stone unturned to bring about the recovery of his stolen property.
He moved ponderously along over the smooth dusty road, and at last reached the market-place. The settlement was drowsily quiet. Life of a sort was apparent but it was chiefly "animal." The usual number of dogs were moving about, or peacefully basking in the sun; a few saddle horses were standing with dejected air, hitched to various tying-posts. A buckboard and team was standing outside his own door. The sound of the smith's hammer falling upon the anvil sounded plaintively upon the calmness of the sleepy village. In spite of the sensational raid of the night before, Foss River displayed no unusual activity.
At length the great man reached his office, and threw himself, with great danger to his furniture, into his capacious wicker chair. He was in no mood for business. Instead he gazed long and thoughtfully out of his office window. What somber, vengeful thoughts were teeming through his brain would be hard to tell, his mask-like face betrayed nothing. His sphinx-like expression was a blank.
In this way half an hour and more passed. Then his attention became fixed upon a tall figure sauntering slowly towards the settlement from the direction of Allandale's ranch. In a moment Lablache had stirred himself, and a pair of field-glasses were leveled at the unconscious pedestrian. A moment later an exclamation of annoyance broke from the money-lender.
"Curse the man! Am I never to be rid of this damned Englishman?" He stood now gazing malevolently at the tall figure of the Hon. Bunning-Ford, who was leisurely making his way towards the village. For the time being the channel of Lablache's thoughts had changed its direction. He had hoped, in foreclosing his mortgages on the Englishman's property, to have rid Foss River of the latter's, to him, hateful presence. But since misfortune had come upon "Lord" Bill, the Allandales and he had become closer friends than ever. This effort had been one of the money-lender's few failures, and failure galled him with a bitterness the recollection of which no success could eliminate. The result was a greater hatred for the object of his vengeance, and a lasting determination to rid Foss River of the Englishman forever. And so he remained standing and watching until, at length, the entrance of one of his clerks, to announce that the saloon dinner-time was at hand, brought him out of his cruel reverie, and he set off in quest of the needs of his inner man, a duty which nothing, of whatever importance, was allowed to interfere with.
In the meantime, Horrocks, or, as he was better known amongst his comrades, "the Ferret," was hot upon the trail of the lost cattle. Horrocks bristled with energy at every point, and his men, working with him, had reason to be aware of the fact. It was an old saying amongst them that when "the Ferret" was let loose there was no chance of bits rusting. In other words, his mileage report to his chiefs would be a long one.
As the sergeant anticipated, it was child's play to track the stolen herd. The tracks left by the fast-driven cattle was apparent to the veriest greenhorn, and Horrocks and his men were anything but greenhorns.
Long before evening closed in they had followed the footprints right down to the edge of the great muskeg, and already Horrocks anticipated a smart capture. But his task seemed easier than it really was. On the brink of the keg the tracks became confused. With some difficulty the sleuth instincts of these accomplished trackers led them to follow the marks for a mile and a half along the edge of the mire, then, it seemed, the herd had been turned and driven with great speed back on their tracks. But worse confusion became apparent; and "the Ferret" soon realized that the herd had been driven up and down along the border of the great keg with a view to evading further pursuit. So frequently had this been done that it was impossible to further trace the stock, and the sun was already sinking when Horrocks dismounted, and with him his men were at last forced to acknowledge defeat.
He had come to a standstill with a stretch of a mile and a half of cattle tracks before him. There was no sign further than this of where the beasts had been driven. The keg itself gave no clew. It was as green and trackless as ever, and again on the land side there was not a single foot-print beyond the confused marks along the quagmire's dangerous border.
The work of covering retreat had been carried out by a master hand, and Horrocks was not slow to acknowledge the cleverness of the raider. With all one good prairie man's appreciation for another he detected a foeman worthy of his steel, and he warmed to the problem set out before him. The troopers waited for their superior's instructions. As "the Ferret" did not speak one of the men commented aloud.
"Smart work, sergeant," he said quietly. "I'm not surprised that this fellow rode roughshod over the district for so long and escaped all who were sent to nab him. He's clever, is P. Retief, Esq."
Horrocks was looking out across the great keg. Strangely enough they had halted within twenty yards of the willow bush, at which point the secret path across the mire began. The man with the gold chevrons upon his arm ignored the remark of his companion, but answered with words which occurred in his own train of thought.
"It's plain enough, I guess. Yonder is the direction taken by the cattle," he said, nodding his head towards the distant peaks of the mountains beyond. "But who's got the nerve to follow 'em? Say," he went on sharply, "somewhere along this bank, I mean in the mile and a half of hoof marks, there's a path turns out, or, at least, firm ground by which it is possible to cross this devil's keg. It must be so. Cattle can't be spirited away. Unless, of course—but no, a man don't duff cattle to drown 'em in a swamp. They've crossed this pernicious mire, boys. We may nab our friend, Retief, but we'll never clap eyes on those beasts."
"It's the same old business over again, sergeant," said one of the troopers. "I was on this job before, and I reckon we landed hereabouts every time we lit on Retief's trail. But we never got no further. Yonder keg is a mighty hard nut to crack. I guess the half-breed's got the bulge on us. If path across the mire there is he knows it and we don't, and, as you say, who's goin' to follow him?" Having delivered himself of these sage remarks he stepped to the brink of the mire and put his foot heavily upon its surface. His top-boot sank quickly through the yielding crust, and the black subsoil rose with oily, sucking action, 'and his foot was immediately buried out of sight. He drew it out sharply, a shudder of horror quickening his action. Strong man and hardy as he was, the muskeg inspired him with a superstitious terror. "Guess there ain't no following them beasties through that, sergeant. Leastways, not for me."
Horrocks had watched his subordinate's action thoughtfully. He knew, without showing, that no man or beast could attempt to cross the mire with any hope of success without the knowledge of some secret path. That such a path, or paths, existed he believed, for many were the stories of how criminals in past days escaped prairie law by such means. However, he had no knowledge of any such paths himself, and he had no intention of sacrificing his life uselessly in an attempt to discover the keg's most jealously guarded secret.
He turned back to his horse and prepared to vault into the saddle.
"It's no use, boys. We are done for to-day. You can ride back to the settlement. I have another little matter on hand. If any of you see Lablache just tell him I shall join him in about two hours' time."
Horrocks rode off and his four troopers headed towards the Foss River.
Despite the fact that his horse had been under the saddle for nearly eight hours Horrocks rode at a great pace. He was one of those men who are always to be found on the prairie—thorough horsemen. Men who, in times of leisure, care more for their horses than they do for themselves; men who regard their horses as they would a comrade, but who, when it becomes a necessity to work or travel, demand every effort the animal can make by way of return for the care which has been lavished upon it. Such men generally find themselves well repaid. A horse is something more than a creature with four legs, one at each corner, head out of one end, tail out of the other. There is an old saying in the West to the effect that a thorough horseman is worthy of man's esteem. The opinion amongst prairie men is that a man who loves his horse can never be wholly bad. And possibly we can accept this decision upon the subject without question, for their experience in men, especially in "bad men," is wide and varied.
Horrocks avoided the settlement, leaving it well to the west, and turned his willing beast in the direction of the half-breed camp. There was an ex-Government scout living in this camp whom he knew; a man who was willing to sell to his late employers any information he chanced to possess. It was the officer's intention to see this man and purchase all he had to sell, if it happened to be worth buying. Hence his visit to the camp.
The evening shadows were fast lengthening when he espied in the distance the squalid shacks and dilapidated teepees of the Breeds. There was a large colony of those wanderers of the West gathered together in the Foss River camp. We have said that these places are hot-beds of crime, a curse to the country; but that description scarcely conveys the wretched poverty and filthiness of these motley gatherings. From a slight rising ground Horrocks looked down on what might have, at first sight, been taken for a small village. A scattering of small tumbled-down shacks, about fifty in number, set out on the fresh green of the prairie, created the first blot of uncleanly, uncouth habitation upon the view. Add to these a proportionate number of ragged tents and teepees, a crowd of unwashed, and, for the most part, undressed children, a hundred fierce and half-starved dogs of the "husky" type. Imagine a stench of dung fire cooking, and the gathering of millions of mosquitoes about a few choyeuses and fat cattle grazing near by, and the picture as it first presents itself is complete.
The approach to such a place makes one almost wish the undulating prairie was not quite so fair a picture, for the contrast with man's filthy squalor is so great that the feeling of nauseation which results is almost overpowering. Horrocks, however, was used to such scenes. His duty often took him into worse Breed camps than this. He treated such places to a perfectly callous indifference, and regarded them merely as necessary evils.
At the first shack he drew up and instantly became the center of attention from a pack of yelping dogs and a number of half-fearful, wide-eyed ragamuffins, grimy children nearly naked and ranging in age from two years up to twelve. Young as the latter were they were an evil-looking collection. The noisy greeting of the camp dogs had aroused the elders from their indolent repose within the shacks, and Horrocks quickly became aware of a furtive spying within the darkened doorways and paneless windows.
The reception was nothing unusual to the officer. The Breeds he knew always fought shy of the police. As a rule, such a visit as the present portended an arrest, and they were never quite sure who the victim was to be and the possible consequences. Crime was so common amongst these people that in nearly every family it was possible to find one or more law-breakers and, more often than not, the delinquent was liable to capital punishment.
Ignoring his cool reception, Horrocks hitched his horse to a tree and stepped up to the shack, regardless of the vicious snapping of the dogs. The children fled precipitately at his approach. At the door of the house he halted.
"Hallo there, within!" he called.
There was a moment's pause, and he heard a whispered debate going on in the shadowy interior.
"Hey!" he called again. "Get a hustle on, some of you. Get out," he snapped sharply, as a great husky, with bristling hair, came snuffing at his legs. He aimed a kick at the dog, which, in response, sullenly retreated to a safe distance.
The angry tone of his second summons had its effect, and a figure moved cautiously within and finally approached the door.
"Eh! what is it?" asked a deep, guttural voice, and a bulky form framed itself in the opening.
The police-officer eyed the man keenly. The twilight had so far deepened that there was barely sufficient light to distinguish the man's features, but Horrocks's survey satisfied him as to the fellow's identity. He was a repulsive specimen of the Breed; the dark, lowering face had something utterly cruel in its expression. The cast was brutal in the extreme; sensual, criminal. The shifty black eyes looked anywhere but into the policeman's face.
"That you, Gustave?" said Horrocks, pleasantly enough. He wished to inspire confidence. "I'm looking for Gautier. I've got a nice little job for him. Do you know where he is?"
"Ugh!" grunted Gustave, heavily, but with a decided air of relief. He entertained a wholesome dread of Sergeant Horrocks. Now he became more communicative. Horrocks had not come to arrest anybody. "I see," he went on, gazing out across the prairie, "this is not a warrant business, eh? Guess Gautier is back there," with a jerk of a thumb in a vague direction behind him. "He's in his shack. Gautier's just hooked up with another squaw."
"Another?" Horrocks whistled softly. "Why, that's the sixth to my knowledge. He's very much a marrying man. How much did he pay the neche this time?"
"Two steers and a sheep," said the man, with an oily grin.
"Ah! I wonder how he acquired 'em. Well, I'll go and find him. Gautier is smart, but he'll land himself in the penitentiary if he goes on marrying squaws at that price. Say, which is his shack did you say?"
"Back thar. You'll see it. He's just limed the outside of it. Guess white's the color his new squaw fancies most. S'long."
The man was glad to be rid of his visitor. In spite of the sergeant's assurance, Gustave never felt comfortable in the officer's presence. Horrocks moved off in search of the white hut, while the Breed, with furtive eyes, watched his progress.
There was no difficulty in locating the shack in that colony of grime. Even in the darkness the gleaming white of the ex-spy's abode stood out prominently. The dogs and children now tacitly acknowledged the right of the police-officer's presence in their camp, and allowed him to move about apparently unnoticed. He wound his way amongst the huts and tents, ever watchful and alert, always aiming for Gautier's hut. He knew that in this place at night his life was not worth much. A quick aim, and a shot from behind, and no one would ever know who had dropped him. But the Canadian police are accustomed to take desperate chances in their work, and think less of it than do our police patrols in the slums of London.
He found Gautier sitting at his hut door waiting for him. Another might have been surprised at the Breed's cognizance of the police-officer's intentions, but Horrocks knew the habits of these people, and was fully alive to the fact that while he had been talking to Gustave a messenger was dispatched to warn Gautier that he was sought.
"Well, sergeant, what's your best news?" Gautier asked civilly. He was a bright, intelligent-looking, dusky man, of perhaps forty years. His face was less brutal than that of the other Breed, but it was none the less cunning. He was short and massively built.
"That's just what I've come to ask you, Gautier. I think you can tell me all I want to know—if you've a notion to. Say," with a keen look round, "can we talk here?"
There was not a soul visible but an occasional playing child. It was curious how quiet the camp became. Horrocks was not deceived, however. He knew that a hundred pairs of eyes were watching him from the reeking recesses of the huts.
"No talk here." Gautier was serious, and his words conveyed a lot. "It's bad medicine your coming to-night. But there," with a return to his cunning look, "I don't know that I've got anything to tell."
Horrocks laughed softly.
"Yes—yes, I know. You needn't be afraid." Then lowering his voice: "I've got a roll of bills in my pocket."
"Ah, then don't stay here talking. There's lots to tell, but they'd kill me if they suspected. Where can I see you—quiet-like? They won't lose sight of me if they can help it, but I reckon I'm good for the best of 'em."
The man's attempt to look sincere was almost ludicrous. His cunning eyes twinkled with cupidity. Horrocks kept his voice down.
"Right. I shall be at Lablache's store in an hour's time. You must see me to-night." Then aloud, for the benefit of listening ears, "You be careful what you are doing. This promiscuous buying of wives, with cattle which you may have difficulty in accounting for your possession of, will lead you into trouble. Mind, I've warned you. Just look to it."
His last sentences were called out as he moved away, and Gautier quite understood.
Horrocks did not return the way he had come, but took a circuitous route through the camp. He was a man who never lost a chance in his work, and now, while he was in the midst of that criminal haunt, he thought it as well to take a look round. He hardly knew what he expected to find out—if anything. But he required information of Retief, and he was fully alive to the fact that all that individual's movements would be known here. He trusted to luck to help him to discover something.