The smartest of men have to work against overwhelming odds in the detection of crime. Many and devious are the ways of men whose hand is against the law. Surely is the best detective a mere babe in the hands of a clever criminal. In this instance the very thing that Horrocks was in search of was about to be forced upon him. For underlying that information was a deep-laid scheme.
Never can reliance be placed in a true half-breed. The heathen Chinee is the ideal of truth and honesty when his wiles are compared with the dark ways of the Breed. Horrocks, with all his experience, was no match for the dusky-visaged outcast of the plains. Gautier had been deputied to convey certain information to Lablache by the patriarchs of the camp. And with his native cunning he had decided, on the appearance of Sergeant Horrocks, to extort a price for that which it was his duty to tell. Besides this, as matters had turned out, Horrocks was to receive gratis that for which he would shortly pay Gautier.
He had made an almost complete circuit of the camp. Accustomed as he was to such places, the stench of it almost made him sick. He came to a stand close beside one of the outlying teepees. He was just preparing to fill his pipe and indulge in a sort of disinfecting smoke when he became aware of voices talking loudly close by. The sound proceeded from the teepees. From force of habit he listened. The tones were gruff, and almost Indian-like in the brevity of expression. The language was the bastard jargon of the French half-breed. For a moment he was doubtful. Then his attention became riveted.
"Yes," said one voice, "he is a good man, is Peter. When he has plenty he spends it. He does not rob the poor Breed. Only the gross white man. Peter is clever. Very."
Then another voice, deep-toned and full, took up the eulogy.
"Peter knows how to spend his money. He spends it among his friends. It is good. How much whisky will he buy, think you?"
Another voice chipped in at this point, and Horrocks strained his ears to catch the words, for the voice was the voice of a female and her utterance was indistinct.
"He said he would pay for everything—all we could eat and drink—and that the pusky should be held the night after to-morrow. He will come himself and dance the Red River jig. Peter is a great dancer and will dance all others down."
Then the first speaker laughed.
"Peter must have a long stocking if he would pay for all. A barrel of rye would not go far, and as for food, he must bring several of the steers which he took from old Lablache if he would feed us. But Peter is always as good as his word. He said he would pay. And he will pay. When does he come to prepare?"
"He does not come. He has left the money with Baptiste, who will see to everything. Peter will not give 'the Ferret' a chance."
"But how? The dance will be a danger to him," said the woman's voice. "What if 'the Ferret' hears?"
"He will not hear, and, besides, Peter will be prepared if the damned police come. Have no fear for Peter. He is bold."
The voices ceased and Horrocks waited a little longer. But presently, when the voices again became audible, the subject of conversation had changed, and he realized that he was not likely to hear more that would help him. So, with great caution, he stole quickly away to where his horse was tied. He mounted hastily and rode off, glad to be away from that reeking camp, and greatly elated with the success of the visit.
He had learned a lot. And he was to hear more yet from Gautier. He felt that the renowned "hustler" was already in his clutches. His spurs went sharply into his broncho's flanks and he raced over the prairie towards the settlement. Possibly he should have known better than to trust to the overhearing of that conversation. His knowledge of the Breeds should have warned him to put little faith in what he had heard. But he was eager. His reputation was largely at stake over this affair, and that must be the excuse for the rashness of his faith. However, the penalty of his folly was to be his, therefore blame can well be spared.
GAUTIER CAUSES DISSENSION
"Sit down and let me hear the—worst."
Lablache's voice rasped harshly as he delivered his mandate. Horrocks had just arrived at the money-lender's store after his visit to the half-breed camp. The police-officer looked weary. And the dejected expression on his face had drawn from his companion the hesitating superlative.
"Have you got anything to eat?" Horrocks retorted quickly, ignoring the other's commands. "I am famished. Had nothing since I set out from Stormy Cloud. I can't talk on an empty stomach."
Lablache struck a table bell sharply, and one of his clerks, all of whom were still working in the store, entered. The money-lender's clerks always worked early and late. It was part of the great man's creed to sweat his employees.
"Just go over to the saloon, Markham, and tell them to send supper for one—something substantial," he called out after the man, who hastened to obey with the customary precipitance of all who served the flinty financier.
The man disappeared in a twinkling and Lablache turned to his visitor again.
"They'll send it over at once. There's some whisky in that bottle," pointing to a small cabinet, through the glass door of which gleamed the white label of "special Glenlivet." "Help yourself. It'll buck you up."
Horrocks obeyed with alacrity, and the genial spirit considerably refreshed him. He then reseated himself opposite to his host, who had faced round from his desk.
"My news is not the—worst, as you seem to anticipate; although, perhaps, it might have been better," the officer began. "In fact, I am fairly well pleased with the result of my day's work."
"Which means, I take it, that you have discovered a clew."
Lablache's heavy eyes gleamed.
"Rather more than a clew," Horrocks went on reflectively. "My information relates more to the man than to the beasts. We shall, I think, lay our hands on this—Retief."
"Good—good," murmured the money-lender, inclining his heavy jowled head. "Find the man and we shall recover the cattle."
"I am not so sure of that," put in the other. "However, we shall see."
Lablache looked slightly disappointed. The capture of Retief seemed to him synonymous with the recovery of his stock. However, he waited for his visitor to proceed. The money-lender was essentially a man to draw his own conclusions after hearing the facts, and no opinion of another was likely to influence him when once those conclusions were arrived at. Lablache was a strong man mentally and physically. And few cared to combat his decisions or opinions.
For a moment further talk was interrupted by the entry of a man with Horrocks's supper. When the fellow had withdrawn the police-officer began his repast and the narration of his story at the same time. Lablache watched and listened with an undisturbed concentration. He lost no point, however small, in the facts as stated by the officer. He refrained from interruption, excepting where the significance of certain points in the story escaped him, and, at the conclusion, he was as conversant with the situation as though he had been present at the investigation. The great man was profoundly impressed with what he heard. Not so much with the shrewdness of the officer as with the simple significance of the loss of further trace of the cattle at the edge of the muskeg. Up to this point of the story he felt assured that Horrocks was to be perfectly relied upon, but, for the rest, he was not so sure. He felt that though this man was the finest tracker in the country the delicate science of deduction was not necessarily an accompaniment to his prairie abilities. Therefore, for the moment, he concentrated his thoughts upon the features surrounding the great keg.
"It is a curious thing," he said retrospectively, as the policeman ceased speaking, "that in all previous raids of this Retief we have invariably tracked the lost stock down to this point. Of course, as you say, there is not the slightest doubt that the beasts have been herded over the keg. Everything seems to me to hinge on the discovery of that path. That is the problem which confronts us chiefly. How are we to find the secret of the crossing?"
"It cannot be done," said Horrocks, simply but with decision.
"Nonsense," exclaimed the other, with a heavy gasp of breath. "Retief knows it, and the others with him. Those cattle could not have been herded over single-handed. Now to me it seems plain that the crossing is a very open secret amongst the Breeds."
"And I presume you consider that we should work chiefly on that hypothesis?"
"And you do not consider the possible capture of Retief as being the most important feature of the case?"
"Important—certainly. But, for the moment, of minor consideration. Once we discover the means by which he secretes his stock—and the hiding-place—we can stop his depredations and turn all our energies to his capture. You follow me? At first I was inclined to think with you that the capture of the man would be the best thing. But now it seems to me that the easiest method of procedure will be the discovery of that path."
The rasping tone in which Lablache spoke conveyed to the other his unalterable conviction. The prairie man, however, remained unconvinced.
"Well," he replied, after a moment's deliberation, "I cannot say I agree with you. Open secret or not, I've a notion that we'd stand a better chance of discovering the profoundest of state secrets than elicit information, even supposing them to possess it, of this description from the Breeds. I expect Gautier here in a few minutes; we shall hear what he has to say."
"I trust he may have something to say."
Lablache snapped his reply out in that peculiar tone of his which spoke volumes. It never failed to anger him to have his opinions gainsaid. Then his manner changed slightly, and his mood seemed to become contemplative. Horrocks observed the change and wondered what was coming. The money-lender cleared his throat and spat into the stove. Then he spoke with that slow deliberation which was his when thinking deeply.
"Two years ago, when Retief did what he liked in this part of the country, there were many stories going about as to his relationship with a certain lady in this settlement."
"Miss Allandale—yes, I have heard."
"Just so; some said that she—er—was very partial to him. Some, that they were distantly connected. All were of opinion that she knew a great deal of the man if she only chose to tell. These stories were gossip—merely. These small places are given to gossip. But I must confess to a belief that gossip is often—always, in fact—founded on a certain amount of fact."
There was no niceness of feeling about this mountain of obesity in matters of business. He spoke as callously of the girl, for whom he entertained his unholy passion, as he would speak of a stranger. He experienced no compunction in linking her name with that of an outlaw. His gross nature was of too low an order to hold anything sacred where his money-bags were affected.
"Perhaps you—er—do not know," he pursued, carefully lighting his pipe and pressing the charred tobacco down with the tip of his little finger, "that this girl is the daughter of a Breed mother?"
"Guess I hadn't a notion."
Horrocks's keen eyes flashed with interest. He too lit his pipe as he lounged back in his chair.
"She is a quarter-breed, and, moreover, the esteem in which she is held by the skulking inhabitants of the camp inclines me to the belief that—er—judicious—er—handling—"
"You mean that through her we might obtain the information we require?"
Horrocks punctuated the other's deliberate utterances with hasty eagerness. Lablache permitted a vague smile about the corners of his mouth, his eyes remained gleaming coldly.
"You anticipate me. The matter would need delicate handling. What Miss Allandale has done in the past will not be easy to find out. Granting, of course, that gossip has not wronged her," he went on doubtfully. "On second thoughts, perhaps you had better leave that source of information to me."
He relapsed apparently into deep thought. His pensive deliberation was full of guile. He had a purpose to achieve which necessitated the suggestion which he had made to this representative of the law. He wished to impress upon his companion a certain connivance on the part of, at least, one member of the house of Allandale with the doings of the raider. He merely wished to establish a suspicion in the mind of the officer. Time and necessity might develop it, if it suited Lablache's schemes that such should occur. In the meantime he knew he could direct this man's actions as he chose.
The calm superiority of the money-lender was not lost upon his companion. Horrocks was nettled, and showed it.
"But you'll pardon me, Mr. Lablache. You have offered me a source of information which, as a police-officer, it is my duty to sound. As you yourself admit, the old stories of a secret love affair may have some foundation in fact. Accept that and what possibilities are not opened up? Had I been employed on the affairs of Retief, during his previous raids, I should certainly have worked upon so important a clew."
"Tut, tut, man," retorted the other, sharply. "I understood you to be a keen man at your business. A single ill-timed move in the direction we are discussing and the fat will be in the fire. The girl is as smart as paint; at the first inkling of your purpose she'll curl up—shut up like a rat trap. The Breeds will be warned and we shall be further off success than ever. No, no, when it comes to handling Jacky Allandale you leave it to me—Ah!"
Lablache's ejaculation was the result of the sudden apparition of a dark face peering in at his window. He swung round with lightning rapidity, and before Horrocks could realize what he was doing his fat hand was grasping the butt of a revolver. Then, with a grunt of annoyance, he turned back to his guest.
"That's your Breed, I take it. For the moment I thought it was some one else; it's always best in these parts to shoot first and inquire afterwards. I occasionally get some strange visitors."
The policeman laughed as he went to the door. His irritation at the money-lender's manner was forgotten. The strangeness of the sight of Lablache's twenty stone of flesh moving with lightning rapidity astonished him beyond measure. Had he not seen it nothing would have convinced him of the man's marvelous agility when roused by emergency. It was something worth remembering.
Sure enough, the face on the other side of the window belonged to Gautier, and, as Horrocks opened the door, the Breed pushed his way stealthily in.
"It's all right, boss," said the man, with some show of anxiety, "I've slipped 'em. I'm watched pretty closely, but—good evening, sir," he went on, turning to Lablache with obsequious politeness. "This is bad medicine—this business we're on."
Lablache cleared his throat and spat, but deigned no reply. He intended to take no part in the ensuing conversation. He only wished to observe.
Horrocks at once became the officer to the subordinate. He turned sharply on the Breed.
"Cut the cackle and come to business. Have you anything to tell us about this Retief? Out with it sharp."
"That depends, boss," said the man, with a cunning smile. "As you sez. Cut the cackle and come to business. Business means a deal, and a deal means 'cash pappy.' Wot's the figger?"
There was no obsequious politeness about the fellow now. He was about as bad a specimen of the Breed as could well be found. Hence his late employment by the authorities. "The worse the Breed the better the spy," was the motto of those whose duty it was to investigate crime. Gautier was an excellent spy, thoroughly unscruplous and rapacious. His information was always a saleable commodity, and he generally found his market a liberal one. But with business instincts worthy of Lablache himself he was accustomed to bargain first and impart after.
"See here," retorted Horrocks, "I don't go about blind-folded. Neither am I going to fling bills around without getting value for 'em. What's your news? Can you lay hands on Retief, or tell us where the stock is hidden?"
"Guess you're looking fer somethin' now," said the man, impudently. "Ef I could supply that information right off some 'un 'ud hev to dip deep in his pocket fur it. I ken put you on to a good even trail, an' fifty dollars 'ud be small pay for the trouble an' the danger I'm put to. Wot say? Fifty o' the best greenbacks?"
"Mr. Lablache can pay you if he chooses, but until I know that your information's worth it I don't part with fifty cents. Now then, we've had dealings before, Gautier—dealings which have not always been to your credit. You can trust me to part liberally if you've anything worth telling, but mind this, you don't get anything beforehand, and if you don't tell us all you know, in you go to Calford and a diet of skilly'll be your lot for some time to come."
The man's face lowered considerably at this. He knew Horrocks well, and was perfectly aware that he would be as good as his word. There was nothing to be gained by holding out. Therefore he accepted the inevitable with as bad a grace as possible. Lablache kept silence, but he was reading the Breed as he would a book.
"See hyar, sergeant," said Gautier, sulkily, "you're mighty hard on the Breeds, an' you know it. It'll come back on you, sure, one o' these days. Guess I'm going to play the game square. It ain't fur me to bluff men o' your kidney, only I like to know that you're going to treat me right. Well, this is what I've got to say, an' it's worth fifty as you'll 'low."
Horrocks propped himself upon the corner of the money-lender's desk and prepared to listen. Lablache's lashless eyes were fixed with a steady, unblinking stare upon the half-breed's face. Not a muscle of his own pasty, cruel face moved. Gautier was talking to, at least, one man who was more cunning and devilish than himself.
The dusky ruffian gave a preliminary cough and then launched upon his story with all the flowery embellishments of which his inventive fancy was capable. What he had to tell was practically the same as Horrocks had overheard. There were a few items of importance which came fresh to the police-officer's ears. It stuck Lablache that the man spoke in the manner of a lesson well learned, and, in consequence, his keen interest soon relaxed. Horrocks, however, judged differently, and saw in the man's story a sound corroboration of his own information. As the story progressed his interest deepened, and at its conclusion he questioned the half-breed closely.
"This pusky. I suppose it will be the usual drunken orgie?"
"I guess," was the laconic rejoinder.
"Any of the Breeds from the other settlements coming over?"
"Can't say, boss. Like enough, I take it."
"And what is Retief's object in defraying all expenses—in giving the treat, when he knows that the white men are after him red-hot?"
"Mebbe it's bluff—cheek. Peter's a bold man. He snaps his fingers at the police," replied Gautier, illustrating his words with much appreciation. He felt he was getting a smack at the sergeant.
"Then Peter's a fool."
"Guess you're wrong thar. Peter's the slickest 'bad man' I've heerd tell of."
"We'll see. Now what about the keg? Of course the cattle have crossed it. A secret path?"
"Who knows the secret of it?"
The Breed hesitated. His furtive eyes shifted from one face to the other of his auditors. Then encountering the fixed stare of both men he glanced away towards the window. He seemed uncomfortable under the mute inquiry. Then he went on doubtfully.
"I guess thar's others. It's an old secret among the Breeds. An' I've heerd tell as some whites knows it."
A swift exchange of meaning glances passed between the two listeners.
"No, boss. Ef I knew it 'ud pay me well to tell. Guess I don't know. I've tried to find out."
"Now look you. Retief has always been supposed to have been drowned in the keg. Where's he been all the time?"
The half-breed grinned. Then his face became suddenly serious. He began to think the cross-questioning was becoming too hot He decided to draw on his imagination.
"Peter was no more drowned than I was. He tricked you—us all—into that belief. Gee!—but he's slick. Peter went to Montana. When the States got too sultry fur 'im he jest came right back hyar. He's been at the camp fur two weeks an' more."
Horrocks was silent after this. Then he turned to Lablache.
"Anything you'd like to ask him?"
The money-lender shook his head and Horrocks turned back to his man.
"I guess that's all. Here's your fifty," he went on, taking a roll of bills from his pocket and counting out the coveted greenbacks. "See and don't get mad drunk and get to shooting. Off you go. If you learn anything more I'm ready to pay for it."
Gautier took the bills and hastily crammed them into his pocket as if he feared he might be called upon to return them. Then he made for the door. He hesitated before he passed out.
"Say, sergeant, you ain't goin' fur to try an' take 'im at the pusky?" he asked, with an appearance of anxiety.
"That's my business. Why?"
The Breed shrugged.
"Ye'll feed the coyotes, sure as—kingdom come. Say they'll jest flay the pelt off yer."
The rascal "got" without further delay or evil prophecy. He knew Horrocks.
When the door closed, and the officer had assured himself of the man's departure, he turned to his host.
"Well?" retorted Lablache.
"What do you make of it?"
"An excellent waste of fifty dollars."
Lablache's face was expressive of indifference mixed with incredulity.
"He told you what you already knew," he pursued, "and drew on his imagination for the rest. I'll swear that Retief has not been seen at the Breed camp for the last fortnight. Moreover, that man was reciting a carefully-thought-out tale. I fancy you have something yet to learn in your business, Horrocks. You have not the gift of reading men."
The police-officer's face was a study. As he listened to the masterful tone of his companion his color came and went. His dark skin flushed and then rapidly paled. A blaze of anger leapt into his keen, flashing eyes. Lablache had flicked him sorely. He struggled to keep cool.
"Unfortunately my position will not allow me to fall out with you," he said, with scarcely-suppressed heat, "otherwise I should call you sharply to account for your insulting remarks. For the moment we will pass them over. In the meantime, Mr. Lablache, let me tell you, my experience leads me to trust largely to the story of that man. Gautier has sold me a good deal of excellent information in the past, and I am convinced that what I have now heard is not the least of his efforts in the law's behalf. Rascal—scoundrel—as he is, he would not dare to set me on a false scent—"
"Not if backed by a man like Retief—and all the half-breed camp? You surprise me."
Horrocks gritted his teeth but spoke sharply. Lablache's supercilious tone of mockery drove him to the verge of madness.
"Not even under these circumstances. I shall attend that pusky and effect the arrest. I understand these people better than you give me credit for. I presume your discretion will not permit you to be present at the capture?"
It was Horrocks's turn to sneer now. Lablache remained unmoved. He merely permitted the ghost of a smile.
"My discretion will not permit me to be present at the pusky. There will be no capture, I fear."
"Then I'll bid you good-night. There is no need to further intrude upon your time."
The money-lender did not attempt to show the policeman any consideration. He had decided that Horrocks was a fool, and when Lablache formed such an opinion of a man he rarely attempted to conceal it, especially when the man stood in a subordinate position.
After seeing the officer off the premises, Lablache moved heavily back to his desk. The alarm clock indicated ten minutes to nine. He stood for some moments gazing with introspective eyes at the timepiece. He was thinking hard. He was convinced that what he had just heard was a mere fabrication, invented to cover some ulterior motive. That motive puzzled him. He had no fear for Horrocks's life. Horrocks wore the uniform of the Government. Lawless and all as the Breeds were, he knew they would not resist the police—unless, of course, Retief were there. Having decided in his mind that Retief would not be there he had no misgivings. He failed to fathom the trend of affairs at all. In spite of his outward calm he felt uneasy, and he started as though he had been shot when he heard a loud knocking at his private door.
The money-lender's hand dropped on to the revolver lying upon the desk, and he carried the weapon with him when he went to answer the summons. His alarm was needless. His late visitor was "Poker" John.
The old rancher came in sheepishly enough. There was no mistaking the meaning of his peculiar crouching gait, the leering upward glance of his bloodshot eyes. To any one who did not know him, his appearance might have been that of a drink-soaked tramp, so dishevelled and bleared he looked. Lablache took in the old man's condition in one swift glance from his pouched and fishy eyes. His greeting was cordial—too cordial. Any other but the good-hearted, simple old man would have been suspicious of it. Cordiality was not Lablache's nature.
"Ah, John, better late than never," he exclaimed gutturally. "Come in and have a smoke."
"Yes, I thought I'd just come right down and—see if you'd got any news."
"None—none, old friend. Nothing at all. Horrocks is a fool, I'm thinking. Take that chair," pointing to the basket chair. "You're not looking up to the mark. Have a nip of Glenlivet."
He passed the white-labeled bottle over to his companion, and watched the rancher curiously as he shakily helped himself to a liberal "four fingers." "Poker" John was rapidly breaking up. Lablache fully realized this.
"No news—no news," murmured John, as he smacked his lips over his "tot" of whisky. "It's bad, man, very bad. We're not safe in this place whilst that man's about. Dear, dear, dear."
The senility of the rancher was painfully apparent. Doubtless it was the result of his recent libations and excesses. The money-lender was quite aware that John had not come to him to discuss the "hustler." He had come to suggest a game of cards, but for reasons of his own the former wished to postpone the request. He had not expected that "Poker" John would have come this evening; therefore, certain plans of his were not to have been put into execution until the following day. Now, however, it was different. John's coming, and his condition, offered him a chance which was too good to be missed, and Lablache was never a man to miss opportunities.
THE NIGHT OF THE PUSKY
Presently the old man drew himself up a little. The spirit had a bracing effect upon him. The dull leering eyes assumed a momentary brightness, and he almost grew cheerful. The change was not lost upon Lablache. It was a veritable game of the cat and the mouse.
"This is the first time your stock has been touched," said John, meaninglessly. His thoughts were running upon the game of cards he had promised himself. An unaccountable lack of something like moral courage prevented him talking of it. Possibly it was the iron influence of his companion which forbade the suggestion of cards. "Poker" John was inwardly chafing at his own weakness.
"Yes," responded the other, "I have not been touched before." Then, suddenly, he leant forward, and, for the moment, the money-lender's face lit up with something akin to kindliness. It was an unusual sight, and one not to be relied upon. "How many years is it, John, that we have struggled side by side in this benighted land?"
The rancher looked at the other, then his eyes dropped. He scarcely comprehended. He was startled at the expression of that leathery, puffed face. He shifted uneasily with the curious weakly restlessness of a shattered nerve.
"More years, I guess, than I care to think of," he murmured at last.
"Yes, yes, you're right, John—quite right. It doesn't do to look back too far. We're getting on. But we're not old men yet. We're rich, John, rich in land and experience. No, not so old. We can still give the youngsters points, John. Ha, ha!"
Lablache laughed hollowly at his own pleasantry. His companion joined in the laugh, but without mirth. Poker—he could think of nothing but poker. The money-lender insinuatingly pushed the whisky bottle closer to the senile rancher. Almost unconsciously the old man helped himself.
"I wonder what it would be like living a private, idle life?" Lablache went on, as though speaking to himself. Then directly to his companion, "Do you know, old friend, I'm seriously thinking of selling out all my interests and retiring. I've worked very hard—very hard. I'm getting tired of it all. Sometimes I feel that rest would be good. I have amassed a very large fortune, John—as you know."
The confidences of the money-lender were so unusual that "Poker" John, in a dazed way, mildly wondered. The whisky had roused him a good deal now, and he felt that it was good to talk like this. He felt that the money-lender was a good fellow, and much better than he had thought. He even experienced compunction for the opinions which, at times, he had expressed of this old companion. Drink plays strange pranks with one's better judgment at times. Lablache noted the effect of his words carefully.
"Yes," said John, "you have worked hard—we have both worked hard. Our lives have not been altogether without pleasure. The occasional game of cards we have had together has always helped to relieve monotony, eh, Lablache? Yes—yes. No one can say we have not earned rest. But there—yes, you have been more fortunate than I. I could not retire."
Lablache raised his sparse eyebrows. Then he helped himself to some whisky and pushed the bottle over to the other. When John had again replenished his glass the money-lender solemnly raised his and waved it towards the gray-headed old man. John responded unsteadily.
"How!" replied the rancher.
Both men drank the old Indian toast. Simple honesty was in one heart, while duplicity and low cunning filled the other.
"You could not retire?" said Lablache, when they had set their empty glasses upon the desk.
"No—no," answered the other, shaking his head with ludicrous mournfulness, "not retire; I have responsibilities—debts. You should know. I must pay them off. I must leave Jacky provided for."
"Yes, of course. You must pay them off. Jacky should be your first consideration."
Lablache pursed his sensual lips. His expression was one of deep concern. Then he apparently fell into a reverie, during which John was wondering how best to propose the longed-for game of cards. The other roused himself before the desired means suggested itself to the old gambler. And his efforts were cut short abruptly.
"Jacky ought to marry," Lablache said without preamble. "One never knows what may happen. A good husband—a man with money and business capacity, would be a great help to you, and would assure her future."
Lablache had touched upon the one strong point which remained in John Allandale's character. His love for Jacky rivaled his passion for poker, and in its pure honesty was perhaps nearly as strong as that feverish zest. The gambler suddenly became electrified into a different being. The signs of decay—the atmosphere of drink, as it were, fell from him in the flashing of a second, and the old vigorous rancher, like the last dying flame of a fire, shot up into being.
"Jacky shall marry when she chooses, and whatever man she prefers. I will never profit by that dear child's matrimonial affairs," he said simply.
Lablache bit his lips. He had been slightly premature. He acquiesced with a heavy nod of the head and poured himself out some more whisky. The example was natural and his companion followed it.
"You are quite right, John. I merely spoke from a worldly point of view. But your decision affects me closely."
The other looked curiously at the money-lender, who thus found himself forced to proceed. Hitherto he had chosen his own gait. Now he felt himself being drawn. The process was new to him, but it suited his purpose.
Lablache sighed. It was like the breathing of an adipose pig.
"I have known that niece of yours, John, ever since she came into this world. I have watched her grow. I understand her nature as well as you do yourself. She is a clever, bright, winsome girl. But she needs the guiding hand of a good husband."
"Just so. You are right. I am too old to take proper care of her. When she chooses she shall marry."
John's tone was decisive. His words were non-committing and open to no argument. Lablache went on.
"Supposing now a rich man, a very rich man, proposed marriage for her. Presuming he was a man against whom there was no doubtful record—who, from a worldly point of view, there could be no objection to—should you object to him as a husband for Jacky?"
The rancher was still unsuspecting.
"What I have stated should answer your question. If Jacky were willing I should have no objection."
"Supposing," the money-lender went on, "she were unwilling, but was content to abide by your decision. What then?"
There was a passing gleam of angry protest in the rancher's eyes as he answered.
"What I have said still holds good," he retorted a little hotly. "I will not influence the child."
"I am sorry. I wish to marry your girl."
There was an impressive silence after this announcement. "Poker" John stared in blank wonderment at his companion. The expectation of such a contingency could not have been farther from his thought. Lablache—to many his niece—it was preposterous—ludicrous. He would not take it seriously—he could not. It was a joke—and not a nice one.
He laughed—and in his laugh there was a ring of anger.
"Of course you are joking, Lablache," he said at last. "Why, man, you are old enough to be the girl's father."
"I was never more serious in my life. And as for age," with a shrug, "at least you will admit my intellect is unimpaired. Her interests will be in safe keeping."
Having recovered from his surprise the old man solemnly shook his head. Some inner feeling made him shrink from thoughts of Lablache as a husband for his girl. Besides, he had no intention of retreating from the stand he had taken.
"As far as I am concerned the matter is quite impossible. If Jacky comes to me with a request for sanction of her marriage to you, she shall have it. But I will express no wish upon the matter. No, Lablache, I never thought you contemplated such a thing. You must go to her. I will not interfere. Oh, dear! oh, dear!" and the old man laughed again nervously.
Lablache remained perfectly calm. He had expected this result; although he had hoped that it might have been otherwise. Now he felt that he had paved the way to methods much dearer to his heart. This refusal of John's he intended to turn to account. He would force an acceptance from Jacky, and induce her uncle, by certain means, to give his consent.
The money-lender remained silent while he refilled his pipe. "Poker" John seized the opportunity.
"Come, Lablache," he said jocosely, "let us forget this little matter. Have a drink of your own whisky—I'll join you—and let us go down to the saloon for a gentle flutter."
He helped himself to the spirit and poured out a glass for his companion. They silently drank, and then Lablache coughed, spat and lit his pipe. He fumbled his hat on to his head and moved to the door.
"Come on, then," he said gutturally. And John Allandale followed him out.
The two days before the half-breed pusky passed quickly enough for some of those who are interested, and dragged their weary lengths all too slowly for others. At last, however, in due course the day dawned, and with it hopes and fears matured in the hearts of not a few of the denizens of Foss River and the surrounding neighborhood.
To all appearance the most unconcerned man was the Hon. Bunning-Ford, who still moved about the settlement in his cheery, debonnaire fashion, ever gentlemanly and always indolent. He had taken up his residence in one of the many disused shacks which dotted round the market-place, and there, apparently, sought to beguile the hours and eke out the few remaining dollars which were his. For Lablache, in his sweeping process, had still been forced to hand over some money, over and above his due, as a result of the sale of the young rancher's property. The trifling amount, however, was less than enough to keep body and soul together for six months.
Lablache, too, staunch to his opinions, did not trouble himself in the least. For the rest, all who knew of the meditated coup of Horrocks were agitated to a degree. All hoped for success, but all agreed in a feeling of pessimism which was more or less the outcome of previous experiences of Retief. Did not they know, only too well, of the traps which had been laid and which had failed to ensnare the daring desperado in days gone by? Horrocks they fondly believed to be a very smart man, but had not some of the best in the Canadian police been sent before to bring to justice this scourge of the district?
Amongst those who shared these pessimistic views Mrs. Abbot was one of the most skeptical. She had learnt all the details of the intended arrest in the way she learned everything that was going on. A few judicious questions to the doctor and careful observations never left her long in the dark. She had a natural gift for absorbing information. She was a sort of social amalgam which never failed to glean the golden particles of news which remained after the "panning up" of daily events in Foss River. Nothing ever escaped this dear old soul, from the details of a political crisis in a distant part of the continent down to the number of drinks absorbed by some worthless half-breed in "old man" Smith's saloon. She had one of those keen, active brains which refuses to become dull and torpid in an atmosphere of humdrum monotony. Luckily her nature never allowed her to become a mischievous busybody. She was too kindly for that—too clever, tactful.
After duly weighing the point at issue she found Horrocks's plans wanting, hence her unbelief, but, at the same time, her old heart palpitated with nervous excitement as might the heart of any younger and more hopeful of those in the know.
As for the Allandales, it would be hard to say what they thought. Jacky went about her duties with a placidity that was almost worthy of the great money-lender himself. She showed no outward sign, and very little interest. Her thoughts she kept severely to herself. But she had thoughts on the subject, thoughts which teemed through her brain night and day. She was in reality aglow with excitement, but the Breed nature in her allowed no sign of emotion to appear. "Poker" John was beyond a keen interest. Whisky and cards had done for him what morphine and opium does for the drug fiend. He had no thoughts beyond them. In lucid intervals, as it were, he thought, perhaps, as well as his poor dulled brain would permit him, but the result of his mental effort would scarcely be worth recording.
And so the time drew near.
Horrocks, since his difference of opinion with Lablache, had made the ranch his headquarters, leaving the money-lender as much as possible out of his consultations. He had been heartily welcomed by old John and his niece, the latter in particular being very gracious to him. Horrocks was not a lady's man, but he appreciated comfort when he could get it, and Jacky spared no trouble to make him comfortable now. Had he known the smiling thought behind her beautiful face his appreciation might have lessened.
As the summer day drew to a close signs of coming events began to show themselves. First of all Aunt Margaret made her appearance at the Allandales' house. She was hot and excited. She had come up for a gossip, she said, and promptly sat down with no intention of moving until she had heard all she wanted to know. Then came "Lord" Bill, cheerily monosyllabic. He always considered that long speeches were a disgusting waste of time. Following closely upon his heels came the doctor and Pat Nabob, with another rancher from an outlying ranch. Quite why they had come up they would have hesitated to say. Possibly it was curiosity—possibly natural interest in affairs which nearly affected them. Horrocks, they knew, was at the ranch. Perhaps the magnetism which surrounds persons about to embark on hazardous undertakings had attracted them thither.
As the hour for supper drew near the gathering in the sitting-room became considerable, and as each newcomer presented himself, Jacky, with thoughtful hospitality, caused another place to be set at her bountiful table. No one was ever allowed to pass a meal hour at the ranch without partaking of refreshment. It was one of the principal items provided for in the prairie creed, and the greatest insult to be offered at such time would have been to leave the house before the repast.
At eight o'clock the girl announced the meal with characteristic heartiness.
"Come right along and feed," she said. "Who knows what to-night may bring forth? I guess we can't do better than drink success to our friend, Sergeant Horrocks. Whatever the result of his work to-night we all allow his nerve's right. Say, good people, there's liquor on the table—and glasses; a bumper to Sergeant Horrocks."
The wording of the girl's remarks was significant. Truly Horrocks might have been the leader of a forlorn hope. Many of those present certainly considered him to be such. However, they were none the less hearty in their toast, and Jacky and Bill were the two first to raise their glasses on high.
The toast drunk, tongues were let loose and the supper began. Ten o'clock was the time at which Horrocks was to set out. Therefore there were two hours in which to make merry. Never was a merrier meal taken at the ranch. Spirits were at bursting point, due no doubt to the current of excitement which actuated each member of the gathering.
Jacky was in the best of spirits, and even "Poker" John was enjoying one of his rare lucid intervals. "Lord" Bill sat between Jacky and Mrs. Abbot, and a more charming companion the old lady thought she had never met. It was Jacky who led the talk, Jacky who saw to every one's wants, Jacky whose spirits cheered everybody, by her light badinage, into, even against their better judgment, a feeling of optimism. Even Horrocks felt the influence of her bright, winsome cheeriness.
"Capture this colored scoundrel, Sergeant Horrocks," the girl exclaimed, with a laughing glance, as she helped him to a goodly portion of baked Jack-rabbit, "and we'll present you with the freedom of the settlement, in an illuminated address inclosed in a golden casket. That's the mode, I take it, in civilized countries, and I guess we are civilized hereabout, some. Say, Bill, I opine you're the latest thing from England here to-night. What does 'freedom' mean?"
Bill looked dubious. Everybody waited for his answer.
"Freedom—um. Yes, of course—freedom. Why, freedom means banquets. You know—turtle soup—bile—indigestion. Best champagne in the mayor's cellar. Police can't run you in if you get drunk. All that sort of thing, don'tcherknow."
"An excellent definition," laughed the doctor.
"I wish somebody would present me with 'freedom,'" said Nabob, plaintively.
"It's a good thing we don't go in for that sort of thing extensively in Canada," put in Horrocks, as the representative of the law. "The peaceful pastime of the police would soon be taken from them. Why, the handling of 'drunks' is our only recreation."
"That, and for some of them the process of lowering four per cent. beer," added the doctor, quietly.
Another laugh followed the doctor's sally.
When the mirth had subsided Aunt Margaret shook her head. This levity rather got on her nerves. This Retief business, as she understood it, was a very serious affair, especially for Sergeant Horrocks. She was keenly anxious to hear the details of his preparations. She knew most of them, but she liked her information first hand. With this object in view she suggested, rather than asked, what she wanted to know.
"But I don't quite understand. I take it you are going single-handed into the half-breed camp, where you expect to find this Retief, Sergeant Horrocks?"
Horrocks's face was serious as he looked over at the old lady. There was no laughter in his black, flashing eyes. He was not a man given to suavity. His business effectually crushed any approach to that sort of thing. He was naturally a stern man, too.
"I am not quite mad, madam," he said curtly. "I set some value upon my life."
This crushing rejoinder had no effect upon Aunt Margaret. She still persisted.
"Then, of course, you take your men with you. Four, you have, and smart they look, too. I like to see well-set-up men. I trust you will succeed. They—I mean the Breeds—are a dangerous people."
"Not so dangerous as they're reckoned, I guess," said Horrocks, disdainfully. "I don't anticipate much trouble."
"I hope it will turn out as you think," replied the old lady, doubtfully.
Horrocks shrugged his shoulders; he was not to be drawn.
There was a moment's silence after this, which was at length broken by "Poker" John.
"Of course, Horrocks," he said, "we shall carry out your instructions to the letter. At three in the morning, failing your return or news of you, I set out with my ranch hands to find you. And woe betide those black devils if you have come to harm. By the way, what about your men?"
"They assemble here at ten. We leave our horses at Lablache's stables. We are going to walk to the settlement."
"I think you are wise," said the doctor.
"Guess horses would be an encumbrance," said Jacky.
"An excellent mark for a Breed's gun," added Bill. "Seems to me you'll succeed," he went on politely. His eagle face was calmly sincere. The gray eyes looked steadily into those of the officer's. Jacky was watching her lover keenly. The faintest suspicion of a smile was in her eyes.
"I should like to be there," she said simply, when Bill had finished. "It's mean bad luck being a girl. Say, d'you think I'd be in the way, sergeant?"
Horrocks looked over at her, and in his gaze was a look of admiration. In the way he knew she would be, but he could not tell her so. Such spirit appealed to him.
"There would be much danger for you, Miss Jacky," he said. "My hands would be full, I could not look after you, and besides—" He broke off at the recollection of the old stories about this girl. Suddenly he wondered if he had been indiscreet. What if the stories were true. He ran cold at the thought. These people knew his plans. Then he looked into the girl's beautiful face. No, it must be false. She could have nothing in common with the rascally Breeds.
"And besides—what?" Jacky said, smiling over at the policeman.
"When Breeds are drunk they are not responsible."
"That settles it," the girl's uncle said, with a forced laugh. He did not like Jacky's tone. Knowing her, he feared she intended to be there to see the arrest.
Her uncle's laugh nettled the girl a little, and with a slight elevation of her head, she said,—
"I don't know."
Further talk now became impossible, for, at that moment the troopers arrived. Horrocks discovered that it was nearly ten o'clock. The moment for the start had come, and, with one accord, everybody rose from the table. In the bustle and handshaking of departure Jacky slipped away. When, she returned the doctor and Mrs. Abbot were in the hall alone with "Lord" Bill. The latter was just leaving. "Poker" John was on the veranda seeing Horrocks off.
As Jacky came downstairs Aunt Margaret's eyes fell upon the ominous holster and cartridge belt which circled the girl's hips. She was dressed for riding. There could be no mistaking the determined set of her face.
"Jacky, my dear," said the old lady in dismay. "What are you doing? Where are you going?"
"Guess I'm going to see the fun—I've a notion there'll be some."
"Don't 'but' me, Aunt Margaret, I take it you aren't deaf."
The old lady relapsed into dignified silence, but there was much concern and a little understanding in her eyes as she watched the girl pass out to the corrals.
A pusky is a half-breed dance. That is the literal meaning of the word. The practical translation, however, is often different. In reality it is a debauch—a frightful orgie, when all the lower animal instincts—and they are many and strong in the half-breed—are given full sway. When drunkenness and bestial passions rule the actions of these worse than savages. When murder and crimes of all sorts are committed without scruple, without even thought. Latterly things have changed, and these orgies are less frequent among the Breeds, or, at least, conducted with more regard for decorum. But we are talking of some years ago, at a time when the Breeds had to learn the meaning of civilization—before good order and government were thoroughly established in this great Western country; in the days when Indian "Sun" dances, and other barbarous functions were held. In the days of the Red River Jig, when a good fiddler of the same was held to be a man of importance; when the method of tuning the fiddle to the necessary pitch for the playing of that curious dance was a secret known only to a privileged few. Some might call them the "good" old days. "Bad" is the adjective which best describes that period.
When Horrocks and his men set out for the Breed camp they had discarded their police clothes and were clad in the uncouth garb of the half-breeds. They had even gone to the length of staining their faces to the coppery hue of the Indians. They were a ragged party, these hardy riders of the plains, as they embarked on their meditated capture of the desperate raider. All of the five were "tough" men, who regarded their own lives lightly enough—men who had seen many stirring times, and whose hairbreadth escapes from "tight" corners would have formed a lengthy narrative in themselves. They were going to they knew not what now, but they did not shrink from the undertaking. Their leader was a man whose daring often outweighed his caution, but, as they well knew, he was endowed with a reckless man's luck, and they would sooner follow such as he—for they were sure of a busy time—than work with one of his more prudent colleagues.
At the half-breed camp was considerable bustle and excitement. The activity of the Breed is not proverbial; they are at best a lazy lot, but now men and women came and went bristling with energy to their finger tips. Preparations were nearing completion. The chief item of importance was the whisky supply, and this the treasurer, Baptiste, had made his personal care. A barrel of the vilest "rot-gut" that was ever smuggled into prohibition territory had been procured and carefully secreted. This formed the chief refreshment, and, doubtless, the "bluestone" with which its fiery contents were strengthened, would work the passionate natures, on which it was to play, up to the proper crime-committing pitch.
The orgie was to be held in a barn of considerable dimensions. It was a ramshackle affair, reeking of old age and horses. The roof was decidedly porous in places, being so lame and disjointed that the starry resplendence of the summer sky was plainly visible from beneath it.
This, however, was a trifling matter, and of much less consequence than the question of space. What few horse stalls had once occupied the building had been removed, and the mangers alone remained, with the odor of horse, to remind the guests of the original purpose of their ballroom. A careful manipulation of dingy Turkey red, and material which had once been white, struggled vainly to hide these mangers from view, while coarse, rough boards which had at one time floored some of the stalls, served to cover in the tops and convert them into seats. The result was a triumph of characteristic ingenuity. The barn was converted into a place of the necessary requirements, but rendered hideous in the process.
Next came the disguising of the rafters and "collar-ties" of the building. This was a process which lent itself to the curiously warped artistic sense of the benighted people. Print—I mean cotton rags—was the chief idea of decoration. They understood these stuffs. They were cheap—or, at least, as cheap as anything sold at Lablache's store. Besides, print decorated the persons of the buxom Breed women, therefore what more appropriate than such stuff to cover the nakedness of the building. Festoons of print, flags of print, rosettes of print: these did duty for the occasion. The staring patterns gleamed on every beam, or hung in bald draping almost down to the height of an ordinary man's head. The effect was strangely reminiscent of a second-hand clothes shop, and helped to foster the nauseating scent of the place.
A row of reeking oil lamps, swinging in crazy wire swings, were suspended down the center from the moldering beams, and in the diamond window spaces were set a number of black bottles, the neck of each being stuffed with a tallow candle.
One corner of the room was set apart for the fiddler, and here a dais of rough boarding, also draped in print stuff, was erected to meet the requirements of that honored personage. Such was the uncouth place where the Breeds proposed to hold their orgie. And of its class it was an excellent example.
At ten o'clock the barn was lit up, and strangely bizarre was the result. The draught through the broken windows set the candles a-guttering, until rivers of yellow fat decorated the black bottles in which they were set. The stench from these, and from the badly-trimmed coal oil lamps down the center, blended disgustingly with the native odor of the place, until the atmosphere became heavy, pungent, revolting in the nostrils, and breathing became a labor after the sweet fresh air of the prairie outside.
Soon after this the dancers began to arrive. They came in their strange deckings of glaring colors, and many and varied were the types which soon filled the room. There were old men and there were young men. There were girls in their early teens, and toothless hags, decrepit and faltering. Faces which, in wild loveliness, might have vied with the white beauty of the daughters of the East. Faces seared and crumpled with weight of years and nights of debauchery. Men were there of superb physique, whilst others crouched huddled, with shuffling gait towards the manger seats, to seek rest for their rotting bones, and ease for their cramping muscles.
Many of the faces were marred by disease; small-pox was a prevalent scourge amongst these people. The effect of the pure air of the prairie was lost upon the germ-laden atmosphere which surrounded these dreadful camps. Crime, too, was stamped on many of the faces of those gathering in the reeking ballroom. The small bullet head with low, receding forehead; the square set jaws and sagging lips; the shifty, twinkling little eyes, narrow-set and of jetty hue; such faces were plentiful. Nor were these features confined to the male sex alone. Truly it was a motley gathering, and not pleasant to look upon.
All, as they came, were merry with anticipation; even the hags and the rheumatism-ridden male fossils croaked out their quips and coarse pleasantries to each other with gleeful unctuousness, inspired by thoughts of the generous contents of the secreted barrel. Their watery eyes watered the more, as, on entering the room, they glanced round seeking to discover the fiery store of liquor, which they hoped to help to dispose of. It was a loathsome sight to behold these miserable wretches gathering together with no thought in their beast-like brains but of the ample food and drink which they intended should fall to their share. Crabbed old age seeking rejuvenation in gut-burning spirit.
The room quickly filled, and the chattering of many and strange tongues lent an apish tone to the function. The French half-breed predominated, and these spoke their bastard lingo with that rapidity and bristling elevation of tone which characterizes their Gallic relatives. It seemed as though each were trying to talk his neighbor down, and the process entailed excited shriekings which made the old barn ring again.
Baptiste, with a perfect understanding of the people, served out the spirit in pannikins with a lavish hand. It was as well to inspire these folk with the potent liquor from the start, that their energies might be fully aroused for the dance.
When all, men and women alike, had partaken of an "eye-opener," Baptiste gave the signal, and the fiddler struck up his plaintive wail. The reedy strings of his instrument shrieked out the long-drawn measure of a miserable waltz, the company paired off, and the dance began.
Whatever else may be the failings of the Breeds they can dance. Dancing is as much a part of their nature as is the turning of a dog twice before he lies down, a feature of the canine race. Those who were physically incapable of dancing lined the walls and adorned the manger seats. For the rest, they occupied the sanded floor, and danced until the dust clouded the air and added to the choking foulness of the atmosphere.
The shrieking fiddle lured this savage people, and its dreadful tone was music of the sweetest to their listening ears. This was a people who would dance. They would dance so long as they could stand.
More drink followed the first dance. Baptiste had not yet recognized the pitch of enthusiasm which must promise a successful evening. The quantities of liquor thus devoured were appalling. The zest increased. The faces wearing an habitual frown displayed a budding smile. The natural smiler grinned broadly. All warmed to the evening's amusement.
Now came the festive barn dance. The moccasined feet pounded the filthy floor, and the dust gathered thick round the gums of the hard-breathing dancers. The noise of coarse laughter and ribald shoutings increased. All were pleased with themselves, but more pleased still with the fiery liquid served out by Baptiste. The scene grew more wild as time crept on, and the effect of the liquor made itself apparent. The fiddler labored cruelly at his wretched instrument. His task was no light one, but he spared himself no pains. His measure must be even, his tone almost unending to satisfy his countrymen. He understood them, as did Baptiste. To fail in his work would mean angry protests from those he served, and angry protests amongst the Breeds generally took the form of a shower of leaden bullets. So he scraped away with aching limbs, and with heavy foot pounding out the time upon the crazy dais. He must play until long after daylight, until his fingers cramped, and his old eyes would remain open no longer.
Peter Retief had not as yet put in an appearance. Horrocks was at his post viewing the scene from outside one of the broken windows. His men were hard by, concealed at certain points in the shelter of some straggling bush which surrounded the stable. Horrocks, with characteristic energy and disregard for danger, had set himself the task of spying out the land. He had a waiting game to play, but the result he hoped would justify his action.
The scene he beheld was not new to him, his duties so often carried him within the precincts of a half-breed camp. No one knew the Breeds better than did this police officer.
Time passed. Again and again the fiddle ceased its ear-maddening screams as refreshment was partaken of by the dancers. Wilder and wilder grew the scene as the potent liquor took hold of its victims. They danced with more and more reckless abandon as each time they returned to step it to the fiddler's patient measure. Midnight approached and still no sign of Retief. Horrocks grew restless and impatient.
Once the fiddle ceased, and the officer watching saw all eyes turn to the principal entrance to the barn. His heart leapt in anticipation as he gazed in the direction. Surely this sudden cessation could only herald the coming of Retief.
He saw the door open as he craned forward to look. For the moment he could not see who entered; a crowd obscured his view. He heard a cheer and a clapping of hands, and he rejoiced. Then the crowd parted and he saw the slim figure of a girl pass down the center of the reeking den. She was clad in buckskin shirt and dungaree skirt. At the sight he muttered a curse. The newcomer was Jacky Allandale.
He watched her closely as she moved amongst her uncouth surroundings. Her beautiful face and graceful figure was like to an oasis of stately flora in a desert of trailing, vicious brambles, and he marveled at the familiarity with which she came among these people. Moreover, he became beset with misgivings as he remembered the old stories which linked this girl's name with that of Retief. He struggled to fathom the meaning of what he saw, but the real significance of her coming escaped him.
The Breeds once more returned to their dancing, and all went on as before. Horrocks followed Jacky's movements with his eyes. He saw her standing beside a toothless old woman, who wagged her cunning, aged head as she talked in answer to the girl's questions. Jacky seemed to be looking and inquiring for some one, and the officer wondered if the object of her solicitude was Retief. He would have been surprised had he known that she was inquiring and looking for himself. Presently she seated herself and appeared to be absorbed in the dance.
The drink was flowing freely now, and a constant demand was being made upon Baptiste. Whilst the fiery spirit scorched down the hardened throats, strange, weird groans came from the fiddler's woeful instrument. The old man was tuning it down for the plaintive requirements of the Red River Jig.
The dance of the evening was about to begin. Men and women primed themselves for the effort. Each was eager to outdo his or her neighbor in variety of steps and power of endurance. All were prepared to do or die. The mad jig was a national contest, and the one who lasted the longest would be held the champion dancer of the district—a coveted distinction amongst this strange people.
At last the music began again, and now the familiar "Ragtime" beat fascinatingly upon the air. Those who lined the walls took up the measure, and, with foot and clapping hands, marked the time for the dancers. Those who competed leapt to the fray, and soon the reeking room became stifling with dust.
The fiddler's time, slow at the commencement, soon grew faster, and the dancers shook their limbs in delighted anticipation. Faster and faster they shuffled and jigged, now opposite to partners, now round each other, now passing from one partner to another, now alone, for the admiration of the onlookers. Nor was there pause or hesitation. An instant's pause meant dropping out of that mad and old time "hoe-down," and each coveted the distinction of champion. Faster and more wildly they footed it, and soon the speed caused some of the less agile to drop out. It was a giddy sight to watch, and the strange clapping of the spectators was not the least curious feature of the scene.
The crowd of dancers grew thinner as the fiddler, with a marvelous display of latent energy, kept ever-increasing his speed.
In spite of himself Horrocks became fascinated. There was something so barbarous—heathenish—in what he beheld. The minutes flew by, and the dance was rapidly nearing its height. More couples fell out, dead beat and gasping, but still there remained a number who would fight it out to the bitter end. The streaming faces and gaping lips of those yet remaining told of the dreadful strain. Another couple dropped out, the woman actually falling with exhaustion. She was dragged aside and left unnoticed in the wild excitement. Now were only three pairs left in the center of the floor.
The police-officer found himself speculating as to which would be the winner of the contest.
"That brown-faced wench, with the flaming red dress, 'll do 'em all," he said to himself. The woman he was watching had a young Breed of great agility for her vis-a-vis. "She or her partner 'll do it," he went on, almost audibly. "Good," he was becoming enthusiastic, "there's another couple done," as two more suddenly departed, and flung themselves on the ground exhausted. "Yes, they'll do it—crums, but there goes her partner! Keep it up, girl—keep it up. The others won't be long. Stay with—"
He broke off in alarm as he felt his arm suddenly clutched from behind. Simultaneously he felt heavy breathing blowing upon his cheek. Quick as a flash his revolver was whipped out and he swung round.
"Easy, sergeant," said the voice of one of his troopers. "For Gawd's sake don't shoot. Say, Retief's down at the settlement. A messenger's jest come up to say he's 'hustled' all our horses from Lablache's stable, and the old man himself's in trouble. Come over to that bluff yonder, the messenger's there. He's one of Lablache's clerks."
The police-officer was dumbfounded, and permitted himself to be conducted to the bluff without a word. He was wondering if he were dreaming, so sudden and unexpected was the announcement of the disaster.
When he halted at the bluff, the clerk was still discussing the affair with one of the troopers. As yet the other two were in their places of concealment, and were in ignorance of what had happened.
"It's dead right," the clerk said, in answer to Horrocks's sharply-put inquiry. "I'd been in bed sometime when I was awakened by a terrible racket going on in the office. It's just under the room I sleep in. Well, I hopped out of bed and slipped on some clothes, and went downstairs, thinking the governor had been taken with a fit or something. When I got down the office was in darkness, and quiet as death. I went cautiously to work, for I was a bit scared. Striking a light I made my way in, expecting to find the governor laid out, but, instead, I found the furniture all chucked about and the room empty. It wasn't two shakes before I lit upon this sheet of paper. It was lying on the desk. The governor's writing is unmistakable. You can see for yourself; here it is—"
Horrocks took the sheet, and, by the light of a match read the scrawl upon it. The writing had evidently been done in haste, but its meaning was clear.
"Retief is here," it ran. "I am a prisoner. Follow up with all speed. LABLACHE."
After reading, Horrocks turned to the clerk, who immediately went on with his story.
"Well, I just bolted out to the stables intending to take a horse and go over to 'Poker' John's. But when I got there I found the doors open, an' every blessed horse gone. Yes, your horses as well—and the governor's buckboard too. I jest had a look round, saw that the team harness had gone with the rest, then I ran as hard as I could pelt to the Foss River Ranch. I found old John up, but he'd been drinking, so, after a bit of talk, I learned from him where you were and came right along. That's all, sergeant, and bad enough it is too. I'm afraid they'll string the governor up. He ain't too popular, you know."
The clerk finished up his breathless narrative in a way that left no doubt in the mind of his hearers as to his sincerity. He was trembling with nervous excitement still. And even in the starlight the look upon his face spoke of real concern for his master.
For some seconds the officer did not reply. He was thinking rapidly. To say that he was chagrined would hardly convey his feelings. He had been done—outwitted—and he knew it. Done—like the veriest tenderfoot. He, an officer of wide experience and of considerable reputation. And worst of all he remembered Lablache's warning. He, the money-lender, had been more far-seeing—had understood something of the trap which he, Horrocks, had plunged headlong into. The thought was as worm-wood to the prairie man, and helped to cloud his judgment as he now sought for the best course to adopt. He saw now with bitter, mental self-reviling, how the story that Gautier had told him—and for which he had paid—and which had been corroborated by the conversation he had heard in the camp, had been carefully prepared by the wily Retief; and how he, like a hungry, simple fish, had deliberately risen and devoured the bait. He was maddened by the thought, too, that the money-lender had been right and he wrong, and took but slight solace from the fact that the chief disaster had overtaken that great man.
However, it was plain that something must be done at once to assist Lablache, and he cast about in his mind for the best means to secure the money-lender's release. In his dilemma a recollection came to him of the presence of Jacky Allandale in the barn, and a feeling nearly akin to revenge came to him. He felt that in some way this girl was connected with, and knew of, the doings of Retief.
With a hurried order to remain where they were to his men he returned to his station at the window of the barn. He looked in, searching for the familiar figure of the girl. Dancing had ceased, and the howling Breeds were drinking heavily. Jacky was no longer to be seen, and, with bitter disappointment, he turned again to rejoin his companions. There was nothing left to do but to hasten to the settlement and procure fresh horses.
He had hardly turned from the window when several shots rang out on the night air. They came from the direction in which he was moving. Instantly he comprehended that an attack was being made upon his troopers. He drew his pistol and dashed forward at a run. Three paces sufficed to terminate his race. Silence had followed the firing of the shots he had heard. Suddenly his quick ears detected the hiss of a lariat whistling through the air. He spread out his arms to ward it off. He felt something fall upon them. He tried to throw it off, and, the next instant the rope jerked tight round his throat, and he was hurled, choking, backwards upon the ground.
LABLACHE'S MIDNIGHT VISITOR
Lablache was alone in his office. He was more alone than he had ever been in his life; or, at least, he felt more alone—which amounted to much the same thing. Possibly, had he been questioned on the subject, he would have pooh-poohed the idea, but, nevertheless, in his secret heart he felt that, in spite of his vast wealth, he was a lonely man. He knew that he had not a single friend in Foss River; and in Calford, another center of his great wealth, things were no better. His methods of business, whilst they brought him many familiar acquaintances—a large circle of people who were willing to trade, repelled all approach to friendship. Besides, his personality was against him. His flinty disposition and unscrupulous love of power were all detrimental to human affection.
As a rule, metaphorically speaking, he snapped his fingers at these things. Moreover, he was glad that such was the case; he could the more freely indulge his passion for grab. Hated, he could work out his peculiar schemes without qualms of conscience; loved, it would have been otherwise. Yes, Lablache preferred this social ostracism.
But the great money-lender had his moments of weakness—moments when he rebelled against his solitary lot. He knew that his isolated position had been brought about by himself—fostered by himself, and he knew he preferred that it should be so. But, nevertheless, at times he felt very lonely, and in these moments of weakness he wondered if he obtained full consolation in his great wealth for his marooned position. Generally the result of these reflections brought him satisfaction. How? is a question. Possibly he forced himself, by that headstrong power with which he bent others who came into contact with him to his will, to such a conclusion. Lablache was certainly a triumph of relentless purpose over flesh and feelings.
Lablache was nearly fifty, and had lived alone since he was in his teens. Now he pined as all who live a solitary life must some day pine, for a companion to share his loneliness. He craved not for the society of his own sex. With the instinct in us all he wanted a mate to share with him his golden nest. But this mass of iron nerve and obesity was not as other men. He did not weakly crave, and then, with his wealth, set out to secure a wife who could raise him in the social scale, or add to the bags which he had watched grow in bulk from flattened folds of sacking, to the distended proportions of miniature balloons. No, he desired a girl, the only relation of a man whom he had helped to ruin—a girl who could bring him no social distinction, and who could not add one penny piece to his already enormous wealth. Moreover, strangely enough, he had conceived for her a passion which was absolutely unholy in its intensity. It is needless, then, to add, when, speaking of such a man, that, willing or not, he intended that Jacky Allandale should be his.
Thoughts of this wild, quarter-breed girl filled his brain as he sat solitary in his little office on the night of the pusky. He sat in his favorite chair, in his favorite position. He was lounging back with his slippered feet resting on the burnished steel foot-rests of the stove. There was no fire in the stove, of course, but from force of habit he gazed thoughtfully at the mica sides which surrounded the firebox. Probably in this position he had thought out some of his most dastardly financial schemes and therefore most suitable it seemed now as he calculated his chances of capturing the wild prairie girl for his mate.
He had given up all thoughts of ever obtaining her willing consent, and, although his vanity had been hurt by her rejection of his advances, still he was not the man to be easily thwarted. His fertile brain had evolved a means by which to achieve his end, and, to his scheme-loving nature, the process was anything but distasteful. He had always, from the first moment he had decided to make Jacky Allandale his wife, been prepared for such a contingency as her refusal, and had never missed an opportunity of ensnaring her uncle in his financial toils. He had understood the old man's weakness, and, with satanic cunning, had set himself to the task of wholesale robbery, with crushing results to his victim. This had given him the necessary power to further prosecute his suit. As yet he had not displayed his hand. He felt that the time was barely ripe. Before putting the screw on the Allandales it had been his object to rid the place, and his path, of his only stumbling block. In this he had not quite succeeded as we have seen. He quite understood that the Hon. Bunning-Ford must be removed from Foss River first. Whilst he was on hand Jacky would be difficult to coerce. Instinctively he knew that "Lord" Bill was her lover, and, with him at hand to advise her, Jacky would hold out to the last. However, he believed that in the end he must conquer. Bunning-Ford's resources were very limited he knew, and soon his hated rival must leave the settlement and seek pastures new. Lablache was but a clever scheming mortal. He did not credit others with brains of equal caliber, much less cleverer and more resourceful than his own. It had been better for him had his own success in life been less assured, for then he would have been more doubtful of his own ability to do as he wished, and he would have given his adversaries credit for a cleverness which he now considered as only his.
After some time spent in surveying and considering his plans his thoughts reverted to other matters. This was the night of the half-breed pusky. His great face contorted into a sarcastic smile as he thought of Sergeant Horrocks. He remembered with vivid acuteness every incident of his interview with the officer two nights ago. He bore the man no malice now for the contradiction of himself, for the reason that he was sure his own beliefs on the subject of Retief would be amply realized. His lashless eyes quivered as his thoughts invoked an inward mirth. No one realized more fully than did this man the duplicity and cunning of the Breed. He anticipated a great triumph over Horrocks the next time he saw him.
As the time passed on he became more himself. His loneliness did not strike him so keenly. He felt that after all there was great satisfaction to be drawn from a watcher's observance of men. Isolated as he was he was enabled to look on men and things more critically than he otherwise would be.
He reached over to his tobacco jar, which stood upon his desk, and leisurely proceeded to fill his pipe. It was rarely he indulged himself in an idle evening, but to-night he somehow felt that idleness would be good. He was beginning to feel the weight of his years.
He lit his heavy briar and proceeded to envelop himself in a cloud of smoke. He gasped out a great sigh of satisfaction, and his leathery eyelids half closed. Presently a gentle tap came at the glass door, which partitioned off the office from the store. Lablache called out a guttural "Come in," at the same time glancing at the loud ticking "alarm" on the desk. He knew who his visitor was.
One of the clerks opened the door.
"It is past ten, sir, shall I close up?" he asked.
"Yes, close up. Whose evening off is it?"
"Rodgers, sir. He is still out. He'll be in before midnight, sir."
"Ah, down at the saloon, I expect," said Lablache, drily. "Well, bolt the front door. Just leave it on the spring latch. I shall be up until he comes in. What are you two boys going to do?"
"Going to bed, sir."
"All right; good-night."
The door closed quietly after the clerk, and Lablache heard his two assistants close up the store and then go upstairs to their rooms. The money-lender was served well. His employees in the store had been with him for years. They were worked very hard and their pay was not great, but their money was sure, and their employment was all the year round. So many billets upon the prairie depended upon the seasons—opulence one month and idleness the next. On the ranches it was often worse. There is but little labor needed in the winter. And those who have the good fortune to be employed all the year round generally experience a reduction in wages at the end of the fall round-up, and find themselves doing the "chores" when winter comes on.
After the departure of the clerk Lablache re-settled himself and went on smoking placidly. The minutes ticked slowly away. An occasional groan from the long-suffering basket chair, and the wreathing clouds of smoke were the only appreciable indication of life in that little room. By-and-by the great man reached a memorandum tablet from his desk and dotted down a few hurried figures. Then he breathed a great sigh, and his face wore a look of satisfaction. There could be no doubt as to the tenor of his thoughts. Money, money. It was as life to him.
The distant rattle of the spring lock of the store front door being snapped-to disturbed the quiet of the office. Lablache heard the sound. Then followed the bolting of the door. The money-lender turned again to his figures. It was the return of Rodgers, he thought, which had disturbed him. He soon became buried in further calculations. While figuring he unconsciously listened for the sound of the clerk's footsteps on the stairs as he made his way up to his room. The sound did not come. The room was clouded with tobacco smoke, and still Lablache belched out fresh clouds to augment the reek of the atmosphere. Suddenly the glass door opened. The money-lender heard the handle move.
"Eh, what is it, Rodgers?" he said, in a displeased tone. As he spoke he peered through the smoke.
"What d'you want?" he exclaimed angrily. Then he rubbed his eyes and craned forward only to fall back again with a muttered curse. He had stared into the muzzle of a heavy six-shooter.
He moved his hand as though to throw his memorandum pad on the desk, but instantly a stern voice ordered him to desist and the threatening revolver came closer.
"Jest stay right thar, pard." The words were spoken in an exaggerated Western drawl. "My barker's mighty light in the trigger. I guess it don't take a hundred-weight to loose it. And I don't cotton to mucking up this floor with yer vitals."
Lablache remained still. He saw before him the tall thin figure of a half-breed. He had black lank hair which hung loosely down almost on to his shoulders. His face was the color of mud, and he was possessed of a pair of keen gray eyes and a thin-hooked nose. His face wore a lofty look of command, and was stamped by an expression of the unmost resolution. He spoke easily and showed not the smallest haste.
"Guess we ain't met before, boss—not familiar-like, leastways. My name's Retief—Peter Retief, an' I take it yours is Lablache. Now I've jest come right along to do biz with you—how does that fit your bowels?"
The compelling ring of metal faced the astonished money-lender. For the moment he remained speechless.
"Wal?" drawled the other, with elaborate significance.
Lablache struggled for words. His astonishment—dismay made the effort a difficult one.
"You've got the drop on me you—you damned scoundrel," he at last burst out, his face for the moment purpling with rage. "I'm forced to listen to you now," he went on more gutturally, as the paroxysm having found vent began to pass, "but watch yourself that you make no bad reckoning, or you'll regret this business until the rope's round your neck. You'll get nothing out of me—but what you take. Now then, be sharp. What are you going to do?"
The half-breed grinned.
"You're mighty raw oh the hide jest now, I guess. But see hyar, my reckonin's are nigh as slick as yours. An' jest slant yer tongue some. 'Damned scoundrel' sliden' from yer flannel face is like a coyote roundin' on a timber wolf, an' a coyote ain't as low down as a skunk. I opine I want a deal from you," Retief went on, with a hollow laugh, "and wot I want I mostly git, in these parts."
Lablache was no coward. And even now he had not the smallest fear for his life. But the thought of being bluffed by the very man he was willing to pay so much for the capture of riled him almost beyond endurance. The Breed noted the effect of his words and pushed his pistol almost to within arm's reach of the money-lender's face.
The half-breed's face suddenly became stem.
"That's a dandy ranch of yours down south. Me an' my pards 'ave taken a notion to it. Say, you're comin' right along with us. Savee? Guess we'll show you the slickest round up this side o' the border. Now jest sit right thar while I let my mates in."
Retief took no chances. Lablache, under pistol compulsion, was forced to remain motionless in his chair. The swarthy Breed backed cautiously to the door until his hand rested upon the spring catch. This, with deft fingers, he turned and then forced back, and the next moment he was joined by two companions as dark as himself and likewise dressed in the picturesque garb of the prairie "hustler." The money-lender, in spite of his predicament, was keenly alert, and lost no detail of the new-comers' appearance. He took a careful mental photograph of each of the men, trusting that he might find the same useful in the future. He wondered what the next move would be. He eyed the Breed's pistol furtively, and thought of his own weapon lying on his desk at the corner farthest from him. He knew there was no possible chance of reaching it. The slightest unbidden move on his part would mean instant death. He understood, only too well, how lightly human, life was held by these people. Implicit obedience alone could save him. In those few thrilling moments he had still time to realize the clever way in which both he and Horrocks had been duped. He had never for a moment believed in Gautier's story, but had still less dreamed of such a daring outrage as was now being perpetrated. He had not long to wait for developments. Directly the two men were inside, and the door was again closed, Retief pointed to the money-lender.
"Hustle, boys—the rope. Lash his feet."
One of the men produced an old lariat In a trice the great man's feet were fast.
"His hands?" said one of the men.
"Guess not. He's goin' to write, some."
Lablache instantly thought of his cheque-book. But Retief had no fancy for what he considered was useless paper.
The hustler stepped over to the desk. His keen eyes spotted the money-lender's pistol lying upon the far corner of it. He had also noted his prisoner casting furtive glances in the direction of it. To prevent any mischance he picked the gleaming weapon up and slipped it into his hip pocket. After that he drew a sheet of foolscap from the stationery case and laid it on the blotting pad. Then he turned to his comrades.
"Jest help old money-bags over," he said quietly. He was thoroughly alert, and as calmly indifferent to the danger of discovery as if he were engaged on the most righteous work.
When Lablache had been hoisted and pushed into position at the desk the raider took up a pen and held it out towards him.
"Write," he said laconically.
Lablache hesitated. He looked from the pen to the man's leveled pistol. Then he reluctantly took the pen. The half-breed promptly dictated, and the other wrote. The compulsion was exasperating, and the great man scrawled with all the pettishness of a child.
The message read—
"Retief is here. I am a prisoner. Follow up with all speed."
"Now sign," said the Breed, when the message was written.
Lablache signed and flung down the pen.
"What's that for?" he demanded huskily.
"For?" His captor shrugged. "I guess them gophers of police are snugly trussed by now. Mebbe, though, one o' them might 'a' got clear away. When they find you're gone, they'll light on that paper. I jest want 'em to come right along after us. Savee? It'll 'most surprise 'em when they come along." Then he turned to his men. "Now, boys, lash his hands, and cut his feet adrift. Then, into the buckboard with him. Guess his carcase is too bulky for any 'plug' to carry. Get a hustle on, lads. We've hung around here long enough."
The men stepped forward to obey their chief, but, at that moment, Lablache gave another display of that wonderful agility of his of which, at times, he was capable. His rage got the better of him, and even under the muzzle of his captor's pistol he was determined to resist. We have said that the money-lender was no coward; at that moment he was desperate.
The nearest Breed received a terrific buffet in the neck, then, in spite of his bound feet, Lablache seized his heavy swivel chair, and, raising it with all his strength he hurled it at the other. Still Relief's pistol was silent. The money-lender noticed the fact, and he became even more assured. He turned heavily and aimed a blow at the "hustler." But, even as he struck, he felt the weight of Retief's hand, and struggling to steady himself—his bound feet impeding him—he overbalanced and fell heavily to the ground. In an instant the Breeds were upon him. His own handkerchief was used to gag him, and his hands were secured. Then, without a moment's delay, he was hoisted from the floor—his great weight bearing his captors down—and carried bodily out of the office and thrown into his own buckboard, which was waiting at the door. Retief sprang into the driving seat whilst one of the Breeds held the prisoner down, some other dark figures leapt into the saddles of several waiting horses, and the party dashed off at a breakneck speed.
The gleaming stars gave out more than sufficient light for the desperate teamster. He swung the well-fed, high-mettled horses of the money-lender round, and headed right through the heart of the settlement. The audacity of this man was superlative. He lashed the animals into a gallop which made the saddle horses extend themselves to keep up. On, on into the night they raced, and almost in a flash the settlement was passed. The sleepy inhabitants of Foss River heard the mad racing of the horses but paid no heed. The daring of the raider was his safeguard.
Lablache knew their destination. They were traveling southward, and he felt that their object was his own ranch.
A NIGHT OF TERROR
That midnight drive was one long nightmare to the unfortunate captive. He had been thrown, sprawling, into the iron-railed "carryall" platform at the back of the buckboard, and lay on the nut-studded slats, where he was jolted and bumped about like the proverbial pea on a drum.
When the raider changed his direction, and turned off the trail on to the open prairie, the horrors of the prisoner's position were intensified a hundredfold. Alone, there was insufficient room for the suffering man in the limited space of the "carryall," but beside him sat, or rather crouched, a burly Breed, ready at a moment's notice to quash any attempt at escape on the part of the wretched money-lender.
Thus he was borne along, mile after mile, southward towards his own ranch. Sometimes during that terrible ride Lablache found time to wonder what was the object of these people in thus kidnapping him. Surely if they only meant to carry off his cattle, such a task could have been done without bringing him along with them. It seemed to him that there could be only one interpretation put upon the matter, and, in spite of his present agonies, the great man shuddered as he thought.
Courageous as he was, he endured a period of mental agony which took all the heart out of him. He understood the methods of the prairie so well that he feared the very worst. A tree—a lariat—and he saw, in fancy, a crowd of carrion swarming round his swinging body. He could conceive no other object, and his nerves became racked almost to breaking pitch.
The real truth of the situation was beyond his wildest dreams. The significance of the fact that this second attack was made against him was lost upon the wretched man. He only seemed to realize with natural dread that Retief—the terror of the countryside—was in this, therefore the outcome must surely be the very worst.
At length the horses drew up at Lablache's lonely ranch. His nearest neighbor was not within ten miles of him. With that love of power and self aggrandisement which always characterized him, the money-lender had purchased from the Government a vast tract of country, and retained every acre of it for his own stock. It might have stood him in good stead now had he let portions of his grazing, and so settled up the district. As it was, his ranch was characteristic of himself—isolated; and he knew that Retief could here work his will with little chance of interference.
As Lablache was hoisted from the buckboard and set upon his feet, and the gag was removed from his mouth, the first thing he noticed was the absolute quiescence of the place. He wondered if his foreman and the hands were yet sleeping.
He was not long left in doubt. Retief gave a few rapid orders to his men, and as he did so Lablache observed, for the first time, that the Breeds numbered at least half-a-dozen. He felt sure that not more than four besides their chief had traveled with them, and yet now the number had increased.
The obvious conclusion was that the others were already here at the time of the arrival of the buckboard, doubtless with the purpose of carrying out Retief's plans.
The Breeds moved off in various directions, and their chief and the money-lender were left alone. As soon as the others were out of earshot the raider approached his captive. His face seemed to have undergone some subtle change. The lofty air of command had been replaced by a look of bitter hatred and terrible cruelty.