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The Story of the Foss River Ranch
by Ridgwell Cullum
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"Now, Lablache," he said coldly, "I guess you're goin' to see some fun. I ain't mostly hard on people. I like to do the thing han'some. Say I'll jest roll this bar'l 'long so as you ken set. An' see hyar, ef you're mighty quiet I'll loose them hands o' yours."

Lablache deigned no reply, but the other was as good as his word.

"Sulky, some, I guess," the half-breed went on. "Wal, I'm not goin' back on my word," he added as he rolled the barrel up to his prisoner and scotched it securely. "Thar, set."

The money-lender didn't move.

"Set!" This time the word conveyed a command and the other sat down on the barrel.

"Guess I can't stand cantankerous cusses. Now, let's have a look at yer bracelets."

He sat beside his captive and proceeded to loosen the rope which bound his wrists. Then he quietly drew his pistol and rested it on his knee. Lablache enjoyed his freedom, but wondered what was coming next.

There was a moment of silence while the two men gazed at the corrals and buildings set out before them. Away to the right, on a rising ground, stood a magnificent house built of red pine lumber. Lablache had built this as a dwelling for himself. For the prairie it was palatial, and there was nothing in the country to equal it. This building alone had cost sixty thousand dollars. On a lower level there were the great barns. Four or five of these stood linked up by smaller buildings and quarters for the ranch hands. Then there was a stretch of low buildings which were the boxes built for the great man's thoroughbred stud horses. He was possessed of six such animals, and their aggregate cost ran into thousands of pounds, each one having been imported from England.

Then there were the corrals with their great ten-foot walls, all built of the finest pine logs cut from the mountain forests. These corrals covered acres of ground and were capable of sheltering five thousand head of cattle without their capacity being taxed. It was an ideal place and represented a considerable fortune. Lablache noticed that the corrals were entirely empty. He longed to ask his captor for explanation, but would not give that swarthy individual the satisfaction of imparting unpleasant information.

However, Retief did not intend to let the money-lender off lightly. The cruel expression of his face deepened as he followed the direction of Lablache's gaze.

"Fine place, this," he said, with a comprehensive nod. "Cost a pile o' dollars, I take it."

No answer.

"You ain't got much stock. Guess the boys 'ave helped themselves liberal."

Lablache turned his face towards his companion. He was fast being drawn.

"Heard 'em gassin' about twenty thousand head some days back. Guess they've borrowed 'em," he went on indifferently.

"You villain!" the exasperated prisoner hissed at last.

If ever a look conveyed a lust for murder Lablache's lashless eyes expressed it.

"Eh? What? Guess you ain't well." The icy tones mocked at the distraught captive.

The money-lender checked his wrath and struggled to keep cool.

"My cattle are on the range. You could never have driven off twenty thousand head. It would have been impossible without my hearing of it. It is more than one night's work."

"That's so," replied the half-breed, smiling sardonically. "Say, your hands and foreman are shut up in their shack. They've bin taking things easy fur a day or two. Jest to give my boys a free hand. Guess we've been at work here these three days."

The money-lender groaned inwardly. He understood the Breed's meaning only too well. At last his bottled-up rage broke out again.

"Are you man or devil that you spirit away great herds like this. Across the keg, I know, but how—how? Twenty thousand! My God, you'll swing for this night's work," he went on impotently. "The whole countryside will be after you. I am not the man to sit down quietly under such handling. If I spend every cent I'm possessed of, you shall be hounded down until you dare not show your face on this side of the border."

"Easy, boss," the Breed retorted imperturbably. "Ef you want to see that precious store o' yours again a civil tongue 'll help you best. I'm mostly a patient man—easy goin'-like. Now jest keep calm an' I'll let you see the fun. Now that's a neat shack o' yours," he went on, pointing to the money-lender's mansion. "Wonder ef I could put a dose o' lead into one o' the windows from here."

Lablache began to think he was dealing with a madman. He remained silent, and the Breed leveled his pistol in the direction of the house and fired. A moment's silence followed the sharp report. Then Retief turned to his captive.

"Guess I didn't hear any glass smash. Likely I missed it," and he chuckled fiendishly. Lablache sat gazing moodily at the building. Then the half-breed's voice roused him. "Hello, wot's that?" He was pointing at the house. "Why, some galoot's lightin' a bonfire! Say, that's dangerous Lablache. They might fire your place."

But the other did not answer. His eyes were staring wide with horror. As if in answer to the pistol-shot a fire had been lit against the side of the house. It was no ordinary fire, either, but a great pile of hay. The flames shot up with terrible swiftness, licking up the side of the red pine house with lightning rapidity. Lablache understood. The house was to be demolished, and Retief had given the signal. He leapt up from his seat, forgetful of his bound feet, and made as though to seize the Breed by the throat. He got no further, however, for Retief gripped him by the shoulder, and, notwithstanding his great bulk, hurled him back on to the barrel, at the same time pressing the muzzle of his pistol into his face.

"Set down, you scum," he thundered. "Another move like that an' I'll let the atmosphere into yer." Then with a Sudden return to his grim pastime, as the other remained quiet, "Say, red pine makes powerful fine kindlin'. I reckon they'll see that light at the settlement. You don't seem pleased, man. Ain't it a beaut. Look, they've started it the other side. Now the smoke stack's caught. Burn, burn, you beauty. Look, Lablache, a sixty thousand dollar fire, an' all yours. Ain't you proud to think that it's all yours?"

Lablache was speechless with horror. Words failed to express his feelings. The Breed watched him as a tiger might contemplate its helpless prey. He understood something of the agony the great man was suffering. He wanted him to suffer—he meant him to suffer. But he had only just begun the torture he had so carefully prepared for his victim.

Presently the roof of the building crashed in, and, for the moment, the blaze leapt high. Then, soon, it began to die down. Retief seemed to tire of watching the dying blaze. He turned again to his prisoner.

"Not 'nough, eh? Not 'nough. We can't stop here all night. Let's have the rest. The sight'll warm your heart." And he laughed at his own grim pleasantry. "The boys have cleared out your stud 'plugs.' And, I guess, yer barns are chocked full of yer wheel gearing and implements. Say, I guess we'll have 'em next."

He turned from his silent captive without waiting for reply, and rapidly discharged the remaining five barrels of his pistol. For answer another five bonfires were lighted round the barns and corals. Almost instantly the whole place became a gorgeous blaze of light. The entire ranch, with the exception of one little shack was now burning as only pine wood can burn. It was a terrible, never-to-be-forgotten sight, and Lablache groaned audibly as he saw the pride of his wealth rapidly gutted. If ever a man suffered the money-lender suffered that night Retief showed a great understanding of his prisoner—far too great an understanding for a man who was supposed to be a stranger to Lablache—in the way he set about to torture his victim. No bodily pain could have equaled the mental agony to which the usurer was submitted. The sight of the demolishing of his beautiful ranch—probably the most beautiful in the country—was a cruelly exquisite torture to the money-loving man. That dread conflagration represented the loss to him of a fortune, for, with grasping pusillanimity, Lablache had refused to insure his property. Had Retief known this he could not have served his own purpose better. Possibly he did know, and possibly that was the inducement which prompted his action. Truly was the money-lender paying dearly for past misdeeds. With the theft of his cattle and the burning of his ranch his loss was terrible, and, in his moment of anguish, he dared not attempt to calculate the extent of the catastrophe.

When the fire was at its height Retief again addressed his taunting language to the man beside him, and Lablache writhed under the lash of that scathing tongue.

"I've heerd tell you wer' mighty proud of this place of yours. Spent piles o' bills on it. Nothin' like circulatin' cash, I guess. Say now, how long did it take you to fix them shacks up?"

No answer. Lablache was beyond mere words.

"A sight longer than it takes a bit of kindlin' to fetch 'em down, I take it," he went on placidly. "When d'ye think you'll start re-building? I wonder," thoughtfully, "why they don't fire that shed yonder," pointing to the only building left untouched. "Ah, I was forgettin', that's whar your hands are enjoyin' themselves. It's thoughtful o' the boys. I guess they're good lads. They don't cotton to killin' prairie hands. But they ain't so particular over useless lumps o' flesh, I guess," with a glance at the stricken man beside him.

Lablache was gasping heavily. The mental strain was almost more than he could bear, and his crushed and hopeless attitude brought a satanic smile on the cruel face beside him.

"You don't seem to fancy things much," Retief went on. "Guess you ain't enjoyin' yerself. Brace up, pard; you won't git another sight like this fur some time. Why, wot's ailing yer?" as the barrel on which they were seated moved and Lablache nearly rolled over backwards. "I hadn't a notion yer wouldn't enjoy yerself. Say, jest look right thar. Them barns," he added, pointing, towards the fire, "was built mighty solid. They're on'y jest cavin'."

Lablache remained silent. Words, he felt, would be useless. In fact it is doubtful if he would have been equal to expression. His spirit was crushed and he feared the man beside him as he had never feared any human being before. Such was the nervous strain put upon him that the sense of his loss was rapidly absorbed in a dread for his own personal safety. The conflagration had lost its fascination for him, and at every move—every word—of his captor he dreaded the coming of his own end. It was a physical and mental collapse, and bordered closely on frenzied terror. It was no mental effort of his own that kept him from hurling himself upon the other and biting and tearing in a vain effort to rend the life out of him. The thought—the fever, desire, craving—was there, but the will, the personality, of the Breed held him spellbound, an inert mass of flesh incapable of physical effort—incapable almost of thought, but a prey to an overwhelming terror.

The watching half-breed at length rose from his seat and shrugged his thin, stooping shoulders. He had had enough of his pastime, and time was getting on. He had other work to do before daylight. He put his hand to his mouth and imitated the cry of the coyote. An instant later answering cries came from various directions, and presently the Breeds gathered round their chief.

"Say, bring up the 'plugs,' lads. The old boy's had his bellyfull. I guess we'll git on." Then he turned upon the broken money-lender and spoke while he re-charged the chambers of his pistol.

"See hyar, Lablache, this night's work is on'y a beginning. So long as you live in Foss River Settlement so long will I hunt you out an' hustle yer stock. You talked of houndin' me, but I guess the shoe's on the other foot. I ain't finished by a sight, an' you'll hear from me agin'. I don't fancy yer life," he went on with a grin. "Et's too easy, I guess. Et's yer bills I'm after. Ye've got plenty an' to spare. But bills is all-fired awk'ud to handle when they pass thro' your dirty hands. So I'll wait till you've turned 'em into stock. Savee? I'm jest goin' right on now. Thar's a bunch o' yer steers waitin' to be taken off. Happen I'm goin' to see to 'em right away. One o' these lads'll jest set some bracelets on yer hands, and leave yer tucked up and comfortable so you can't do any harm, and you can set right thar an' wait till some 'un comes along an' looses yer. So long, pard, an' remember, Foss River's the hottest place outside o' hell fur you, jest now."

Some of the half-breeds had brought up the horses whilst Retief was talking, and, as he finished speaking, the hustler vaulted on to the back of the great chestnut, Golden Eagle, and prepared to ride away. Whilst the others were getting into their saddles he took one look at the wretched captive whose hands had been again secured. There was a swift exchange of glances—malevolent and murderous on the part of the money-lender, and derisive on the part of the half-breed—then Retief swung his charger round, and, at the head of his men, galloped away out into the starry night.



CHAPTER XXI

HORROCKS LEARNS THE SECRET OF THE MUSKEG

The rope which brought Horrocks to the ground came near to strangling him. He struggled wildly as he fell, and, as he struggled, the grip of the rope tightened. He felt that the blood was ready to burst from his temples and eyes. Then everything seemed to swim about him and he believed consciousness was leaving him. Everything was done in a moment and yet he seemed to be passing through an eternity of time.

The lariat is a handy weapon, but to truly appreciate its merits one must be a prairie man. The Breeds are prairie men. They understand fully the uses to which a "rope" may be put. For criminal purposes they appreciate its silent merits, and the dexterity with which they can use it makes its value equal to, and even surpass, the noisier and more tell-tale pistol.

The next thing that the policeman knew was that he was stretched on his back upon the ground, disarmed, and with a great bandanna secured about his eyes and mouth, and his hands tied behind his back. Then a gruff voice bade him rise, and, as he silently obeyed, he was glad to feel that the gripping lariat was removed from his throat. Truly had the officer's pride gone before a fall. And his feelings were now of the deepest chagrin. He stood turning his head from side to side, blindly seeking to penetrate the bandage about his eyes. He knew where he was, of course, but he would have given half his year's salary for a sight of his assailants.

He was not given long for his futile efforts. The same rough voice which had bade him rise now ordered him to walk, and he found himself forced forward by the aid of a heavy hand which gripped one of his arms. The feeling of a blindfold walk is not a happy one, and the officer experienced a strange sensation of falling as he was urged he knew not whither. After a few steps he was again halted, and then he felt himself seized from behind and lifted bodily into a conveyance.

He quickly realized that he was in a buckboard. The slats which formed the body of it, as his feet lit upon them, told him this. Then two men jumped in after him and he found himself seated between them. And so he was driven off.

In justice to Horrocks it must be said that he experienced no fear. True, his chagrin was very great. He saw only too plainly what want of discretion he had displayed in trusting to the Breed's story, but he felt that his previous association with the rascal warranted his credulity, and the outcome must be regarded as the fortune of war. He only wondered what strange experience this blindfold journey was to forerun. There was not the least doubt in his mind as to whose was the devising of this well-laid and well-carried-out plot. Retief, he knew, must be answerable for the plan, and the method displayed in its execution plainly showed him that every detail had been carefully thought out, and administered by only too willing hands. That there was more than ordinary purpose in this blindfold journey he felt assured, and he racked his brains to discover the desperado's object. He even found time to speculate as to how it had fared with his men, only here he was even more at a loss than in the case of his own ultimate fate.

In less than half an hour from the time of his capture the buckboard drew up beside some bush. Horrocks knew it was a bluff. He could hear the rustle of the leaves as they fluttered in the gentle night air. Then he was unceremoniously hustled to the ground, and, equally unceremoniously, urged forward until his feet trod upon the stubbly, breaking undergrowth. Next he was brought to a stand and swung round, face about, his bonds were removed, and four powerful hands gripped his arms. By these he was drawn backwards until he bumped against a tree-trunk. His hands were then again made fast, but this time his arms embraced the tree behind him. In this manner he was securely trussed.

Now from behind—his captors were well behind him—a hand reached over, and, by a swift movement, removed the bandage from before his eyes. Then, before he had time to turn his head, he heard a scrambling through the bush, and, a moment later, the sound of the creaking buckboard rapidly receding. He was left alone; and, after one swift, comprehensive survey, to his surprise, he found himself facing the wire-spreading muskeg, at the very spot where he had given up further pursuit of the cattle whose "spur" he had traced down to the brink of the viscid mire.

His astonishment rendered him oblivious to all else. He merely gazed out across that deceptive flat and wondered. Why—why had this thing been done, and what strange freak had induced the "hustler" to conceive such a form of imprisonment for his captive? Horrocks struggled with his confusion, but he failed to fathom the mystery, and never was a man's confusion worse confounded than was his.

Presently he bethought him of his bonds, and he cautiously tried them. They were quite unyielding, and, at each turn of his arms, they caused him considerable pain. The Breeds had done their work well, and he realized that he must wait the raider's pleasure. He was certain of one thing, however, which brought him a slight amount of comfort. He had been brought here for a definite purpose. Moreover, he did not believe that he was to be left here alone for long. So, with resignation induced by necessity, he possessed himself of what patience he best could summon.

How long that solitary vigil lasted Horrocks had no idea. Time, in that predicament, was to him of little account. He merely wondered and waited. He considered himself more than fortunate that his captors had seen fit to remove the bandage from his eyes. In spite of his painful captivity he felt less helpless from the fact that he could see what might be about him.

From a general survey his attention soon became riveted upon the muskeg spread out before him, and, before long, his thoughts turned to the secret path which he knew, at some point near by, bridged the silent horror. All about him was lit by the starry splendor of the sky. The scent of the redolent grass of the great keg hung heavily upon the air and smelt sweet in his nostrils. He could see the ghostly outline of the distant peaks of the mountains, he could hear the haunting cries of nightfowl and coyote; but these things failed to interest him. Familiarity with the prairie made them, to him, commonplace. The path—the secret of the great keg. That was the absorbing thought which occupied his waiting moments. He felt that its discovery would more than compensate for any blunders he had made. He strained his keen eyes as he gazed at the tall waving grass of the mire, as though to tear from the bosom of the awful swamp the secret it so jealously guarded. He slowly surveyed its dark surface, almost inch by inch, in the hopes of discovering the smallest indication or difference which might lead to the desired end.

There was nothing in what he saw to guide him, nothing which offered the least suggestion of a path. In the darkness the tall waving grass took a nondescript hue which reached unbroken for miles around. Occasionally the greensward seemed to ripple in the breeze, like water swayed by a soft summer zephyr, but beyond this the outlook was uniform—darkly mysterious—inscrutable.

His arms cramped under the pressure of the restraining bonds and he moved uneasily. Now and again the rustling of the leaves overhead caused him to listen keenly. Gradually his fancy became slightly distorted, and, as time passed, the sounds which had struck so familiarly upon his ears, and which had hitherto passed unheeded, began to get upon his nerves.

By-and-by he found himself listening eagerly for the monotonous repetition of the prairie scavenger's dismal howl, and as the cries recurred they seemed to grow in power and become more plaintively horrible. Now, too, the sighing of the breeze drew more keen attention from the imprisoned man, and fancy magnified it into the sound of many approaching feet. These matters were the effect of solitude. At such times nerves play curious pranks.

In spite of his position, in spite of his anxiety of mind, the police-officer began to grow drowsy. The long night's vigil was telling, and nature rebelled, as she always will rebel when sleep is refused and bodily rest is unobtainable. A man may pace his bedroom for hours with the unmitigated pain of toothache. Even while the pain is almost unendurable his eyes will close and he will continue his peregrinations with tottering gait, awake, but with most of his faculties drowsily faltering. Horrocks found his head drooping forward, and, even against his will, his eyes would close. Time and again he pulled himself together, only the next instant to catch himself dozing off again.

Suddenly, however, he was electrified into life. He was awake now, and all drowsiness had vanished. A sound—distant, rumbling, but distinct—had fallen upon his, for the moment, dulled ears. For awhile it likened to the far-off growl of thunder, blending with a steady rush of wind. But it was not passing. The sound remained and grew steadily louder. A minute passed—then another and then another. Horrocks stared in the direction, listening with almost painful intensity. As the rumbling grew, and the sound became more distinct, a light of intelligence crept into the prisoner's face. He heard and recognized.

"Cattle!" he muttered, and in that pronouncement was an inflection of joy. "Cattle—and moving at a great pace."

He was alert now, as alert as he had ever been in his life. Was he at last going to discover the coveted secret? Cattle traveling fast at this time of night, and in the vicinity of the great keg. What could it mean? To his mind there could only be one construction which he could reasonably put upon the circumstance. The cattle were being "hustled," and the hustler must be the half-breed Retief.

Then, like a douche of cold water, followed the thought that he had been purposely made a prisoner at the edge of the muskeg. Surely he was not to be allowed to see the cattle pass over the mire and then be permitted to go free. Even Retief in his wildest moments of bravado could not meditate so reckless a proceeding. No, there was some subtle purpose underlying this new development—possibly the outcome was to be far more grim than he had supposed. He waited horrified, at his own thoughts, but fascinated in spite of himself.

The sound grew rapidly and Horrocks's face remained turned in the direction from which it proceeded. He fancied, even in the uncertain light, that he could see the distant crowd of beasts silhouetted against the sky-line. His post of imprisonment was upon the outskirts of the bush, and he had a perfect and uninterrupted view of the prairie along the brink of the keg, both to the north and south.

It was his fancy, however, which designed the silhouette, and he soon became aware that the herd was nearer than he had supposed. The noise had become a continuous roar as the driven beasts came on, and he saw them loom towards him a black patch on the dark background of the dimly-lit prairie. The bunch was large, but his straining eyes as yet could make no estimate of its numbers. He could see several herders, but these, too, were as yet beyond recognition.

Yet another surprise was in store for the waiting man. So fixed had his attention been upon the on-coming cattle that he had not once removed his eyes from the direction of their approach. Now, however, a prolonged bellow to the right of him caused him to turn abruptly. To his utter astonishment he saw, not fifty yards from him, a solitary horseman leading a couple of steers by ropes affixed to their horns. He wondered how long this strange apparition had been there. The horse was calmly nibbling at the grass, and the man was quietly resting himself with elbows propped upon the horn of his saddle. He, too, appeared to be gazing in the direction of the on-coming cattle. Horrocks tried hard to distinguish the man's appearance, but the light was too uncertain to give him more than the vaguest idea of his personality.

The horse seemed to be black or very dark brown. And the general outline of the rider was that of a short slight man, with rather long hair which flowed from beneath the brim of his Stetson hat. The most curious distinguishable feature was his slightness. The horse was big and the man, was so small that, as he sat astride of his charger, he looked to be little more than a boy of fifteen or sixteen.

Horrocks's survey was cut short, however, for now the herd of cattle was tearing down upon him at a desperate racing pace. He saw the solitary rider gather up his lines and move his horse further away from the edge of the muskeg. Then the herd of cattle came along. They raced past the bluff where the officer was stationed, accompanied by four swarthy drivers, one of which was mounted upon a great chestnut horse whose magnificent stride and proportions fixed the captive's attention. He had heard of "Golden Eagle," and he had no doubt in his mind that this was he and the rider was the celebrated cattle-thief. The band and its drovers swept by, and Horrocks estimated that the cattle numbered many hundreds.

After awhile he heard the sound of voices. Then the beasts were driven back again over their tracks, only at a more gentle pace. Several times the performance was gone through, and each time, as they passed him, Horrocks noticed that their pace was decreased, until by the sixth time they passed their gait had become a simple mouche, and they leisurely nipped up the grass as they went, with bovine unconcern. It was a masterly display of how cattle can be handled, and Horrocks forgot for a while his other troubles in his interest in the spectacle.

After passing him for the sixth time the cattle came to a halt; and then the strangest part of this strange scene was enacted. The horseman with the led steers, whom, by this time, Horrocks had almost forgotten, came leisurely upon the field of action. No instructions were given. The whole thing was done in almost absolute silence. It seemed as if long practice had perfected the method of procedure.

The horseman advanced to the brink of the muskeg, exactly opposite to the bluff where the captive was tied, and with him the two led steers. Horrocks held his breath—his excitement was intense. The swarthy drivers roused the tired cattle and headed them towards the captive steers. Horrocks saw the boyish rider urge his horse fearlessly on to the treacherous surface of the keg. The now docile and exhausted cattle followed leisurely. There was no undue bustle or haste. It was a veritable "follow my leader." Where it was good enough for the captive leaders to go it was good enough for the weary beasts to follow, and so, as the boy rider moved forward, the great herd followed in twos and threes. The four drivers remained until the end, and then, as the last steer set foot on the dreadful mire, they too joined in the silent procession.

Horrocks exerted all his prairie instinct as he watched the course of that silent band. He was committing to memory, as far as he was capable, the direction of the path across the keg, for, when opportunity offered, he was determined to follow up his discovery and attempt the journey himself. He fancied in his own secret heart that Retief had at last overreached himself, and in thus giving away his secret he was paving the way to his own capture.

It was not long before the cattle and their drivers passed out of sight, but Horrocks continued to watch, so that he should lose no chance detail of interest. At length, however, he found that his straining gaze was useless, and all further interest passed out of his lonely vigil.

Now he busied himself with plans for his future movements, when he should once more be free. And in such thought the long night passed, and the time drew on towards dawn.

The surprises of the night were not yet over, however, for just before the first streaks of daylight shot athwart the eastern sky he saw two horsemen returning across the muskeg. He quickly recognized them as being the raider himself and the boyish rider who had led the cattle across the mire. They came across at a good pace, and as they reached the bank the officer was disgusted to see the boy ride off in a direction away from the settlement, and the raider come straight towards the bluff. Horrocks was curious about the boy who seemed so conversant with the path across the mire, and was anxious to have obtained a clearer view of him.

The raider drew his horse up within a few yards of the captive. Horrocks had a good view of the man's commanding, eagle face. In spite of himself he could not help but feel a strange admiration for this lawless Breed.

There was something wonderfully fascinating and lofty in the hustler's direct, piercing gaze as, proudly disdainful, he looked down upon his discomfited prisoner.

He seemed in no hurry to speak. A shadowy smile hovered about his face as he eyed the officer. Then he turned away and looked over to the eastern horizon. He turned back again and drawled out a greeting. It was not cordial but it was characteristic of him.

"Wal?"

Horrocks made no reply. The Breed laughed mockingly, and leant forward upon the horn of his saddle.

"Guess you've satisfied your curiosity—some. Say, the boys didn't handle you too rough, I take it. I told 'em to go light."

Horrocks was constrained to retort.

"Not so rough as you'll be handled when you get the law about you."

"Now I call that unfriendly. Guess them's gopher's words. But say, pard, the law ain't got me yet. Wot d'ye think of the road across the keg? Mighty fine trail that." He laughed as though enjoying a good joke.

Horrocks felt that he must terminate this interview. The Breed had a most provoking way with him. His self-satisfaction annoyed his hearer.

"How much longer do you intend to keep me here?" Horrocks exclaimed bitterly. "I suppose you mean murder; you'd better get on with it and stop gassing. Men of your kidney don't generally take so much time over that sort of business."

Retief seemed quite unruffled.

"Murder? Why, man, I didn't bring you here to murder you. Guess ef I'd a notion that way you'd 'a' been done neat long ago. No, I jest wanted to show you what you wanted to find out. Now I'm goin' to let you go, so you, an' that skunk Lablache'll be able to chin-wag over this night's doin's. That's wot I'm here fer right now."

As he finished speaking the Breed circled Golden Eagle round behind the tree, and, bending low down from the saddle, he cut the rope which held the policeman's wrists. Horrocks, feeling himself freed, stepped quickly from the bush into the open, and faced about towards his liberator. As he did so he found himself looking up into the muzzle of Retief's revolver. He stood his ground unflinchingly.

"Now, see hyar, pard," said Retief, quietly, "I've a mighty fine respect for you. You ain't the cuckoo that many o' yer mates is. You've got grit, anyway. But that ain't all you need. 'Savee's' a mighty fine thing—on occasions. Now you need 'Savee.' I'll jest give yer a piece of advice right hyar. You go straight off down to Lablache's ranch. You'll find him thar. An' pesky uncomfortable you'll find him. You ken set him free, also his ranch boys, an' when you've done that jest make tracks for Stormy Cloud an' don't draw rein till you git thar. Ef ever you see Retief on one trail, jest hit right off on to another. That's good sound sense right through fur you. Say, work on that, an' you ain't like to come to no harm. But I swear, right hyar, ef you an' me ever come to close quarters I'll perforate you—'less you git the drop on me. An' to do that'll keep you humpin'. So long, pard. It's jest gettin' daylight, ah' I don't calc'late to slouch around hyar when the sun's shinin'. Don't go fur to forget my advice. I don't charge nothin' fur it, but it's good, pard—real good, for all that. So long."

He swung his horse round, and before Horrocks had time to collect himself, much less to speak, he was almost out of sight.

Half dazed and still wondering at the strangeness of the desperate Breed's manner he mechanically began to walk slowly in the direction of the Foss River Settlement.



CHAPTER XXII

THE DAY AFTER

Morning broke over a disturbed and restless community at Foss River. The chief residents who were not immediately concerned in the arrest of Retief—only deeply interested, and therefore skeptical—had gone to bed over-night eager for the morning light to bring them news. Their broken slumbers ceased as daylight broadened into sunrise, and, without waiting for their morning coffee, the majority set out to gather the earliest crumbs of news obtainable. There were others, of course, who were not in the know, or, at least, had only heard vague rumors. These were less interested, and therefore failed to rise so early.

Amongst the earliest abroad was Doctor Abbot. Aunt Margaret's interest was not sufficient to drag her from her downy couch thus early, but, with truly womanly logic, she saw no reason why the doctor should not glean for her the information she required. Therefore the doctor rose and shivered under the lightness of his summer apparel in the brisk morning air.

The market-place, upon which the doctor's house looked, was almost deserted when he passed out of his door. He glanced quickly around for some one whom he might recognize. He saw that the door of "Lord" Bill's shack was open, but it was too far off for him to see whether that lazy individual was yet up. A neche was leisurely cleaning up round Lablache's store, whilst the local butcher was already busy swabbing out the little shed which did duty for his shop. As yet there was no other sign of life abroad, and Doctor Abbot prepared to walk across to the butcher for a gossip, and thus wait for some one else to come along.

He stepped briskly from his house, for he was "schrammed" with cold in his white drill clothing. As he approached the energetic butcher, he saw a man entering the market-place from the southern extremity of the settlement. He paused to look closely at the new-comer. In a moment he recognized Thompson, one of the clerks from Lablache's store. He conjectured at once that this man might be able to supply him with the information he desired, and so changed his direction and went across to meet him.

"Mornin', Thompson," he said, peering keenly into the pale, haggard face of the money-lender's employee. "What's up with you? You look positively ill. Have you heard how the arrest went off last night?"

There was a blunt directness about the doctor which generally drove straight to the point. The clerk wearily passed his hand across his forehead. He seemed half asleep, and, as the doctor had asserted, thoroughly ill.

"Arrest, doctor? Precious little arrest there's been. I've been out on the prairie all night. What, haven't you heard about the governor? Good lor'! I don't know what's going to happen to us all. Do you think we're safe here?"

"Safe here? What do you mean, man?" the doctor answered, noting the other's fearful glances round. "Why, what ails you? What about Lablache?"

Others had now appeared upon the market-place and Doctor Abbot saw "Lord" Bill, dressed in a gray tweed suit, and looking as fresh as if he had just emerged from the proverbial bandbox, coming leisurely towards him.

"What about Lablache, eh?" replied Thompson, echoing the doctor's question ruefully. "A pretty nice thing Horrocks and his fellows have let themselves, and us, in for."

Bill had come up now and several others had joined the group. They stood by and listened while the clerk told his story. And what a story it was too. It was vividly sanguinary, and enough to strike terror into the hearts of his audience.

He told with great gusto of how Lablache had been abducted. How the police horses and the money-lender's had been stolen from the stables at the store. He dwelt on the frightful horrors committed up at the Breed camp. How he had seen the police shot down before his very eyes, and he became expansive on the fact that, with his own hands, Retief had carried off Horrocks, and how he had heard the raider declare his intention of hanging him. It was a terrible tale of woe, and his audience was thrilled and horrified. "Lord" Bill alone appeared unmoved. A close observer even might have noticed the faintest suspicion of a smile at the corners of his mouth. The smile broadened as the sharp doctor launched a question at the narrator of terrible facts.

"How came you to see all this, and escape?"

Thompson was at no loss. He told how he had been sent up by "Poker" John to find Horrocks and tell him about Lablache. How he arrived in time to see the horrors perpetrated, and how he only managed to escape with his own life by flight, under cover of the darkness, and how, pursued by the bloodthirsty Breeds, he had managed to hide on the prairie, where he remained until daylight, and then by a circuitous route got back to the settlement.

"I tell you what it is, doctor," he finished up consequentially, "the Breeds are in open rebellion, and, headed by that devil, Retief, intend to clear us whites out of the country. It's the starting of another Riel rebellion, and if we don't get help from the Government quickly, it's all up with us. That's my opinion," and he gazed patronizingly upon the crowd, which by this time had assembled.

"Nonsense, man," said the doctor sharply. "Your opinion's warped. Besides, you're in a blue funk. Come on over to 'old man' Smith's and have a 'freshener.' You want bucking-up. Coming, Bill?" he went on, turning to Bunning-Ford. "I want an 'eye-opener' myself. What say to a 'Collins'?"

The three moved away from the crowd, which they left horrified at what it had heard, and eagerly discussing and enlarging upon the sanguinary stories of Thompson.

"Poker" John was already at the saloon when the three reached the door of "old man" Smith's reeking den. The proprietor was sweeping the bar, in a vain effort to clear the atmosphere of the nauseating stench of stale tobacco and drink. John was propped against the bar mopping up his fourth "Collins." He usually had a thirst that took considerable quenching in the mornings now. His over-night potations were deep and strong. Morning "nibbling" had consequently become a disease with him. "Old man" Smith, with a keen eye to business, systematically mixed the rancher's morning drinks good and strong.

Bill and the doctor were not slow to detect the condition of their old friend, and each felt deeply on the subject. Their cheery greetings, however, were none the less hearty. Smith desisted in his dusty occupation and proceeded to serve his customers.

"We're having lively times, John," said the doctor, after emptying his "long sleever." "Guess Retief's making things 'hum' in Foss River."

"Hum? Shout is more like it," drawled Bill. "You've heard all the news, John?"

"I've enough news of my own," growled the rancher.

"Been up all night. I see you've got Thompson with you. What did Horrocks do after you told him about Lablache?" he went on, turning to the clerk.

Bill and the doctor exchanged meaning glances. The clerk having found a fresh audience again repeated his story. "Poker" John listened carefully. At the close of the narrative he snorted disdainfully and looked from the clerk to his two friends. Then he laughed loudly. The clerk became angry.

"Excuse me, Mr. Allandale, but if you doubt my word—"

"Doubt your word, boy?" he said, when his mirth had subsided. "I don't doubt your word. Only I've spent most of the night up at the Breed camp myself."

"And were you there, sir, when Horrocks was captured?"

"No, I was not. After you came to my place and went on to the camp, I was very uneasy. So, after a bit, I got my 'hands' together and prepared to follow you up there. Just as I was about to set out," he went on, turning to the doctor and Bill, "I met Jacky coming in. Bless you if she hadn't been to see the pusky herself. You know," with a slight frown, "that child is much too fond of those skulking Breeds. Well, anyway, she said everything was quiet enough while she was there and," turning again to Thompson, "she had seen nothing of Retief or Horrocks or any of the latter's men. We just put our heads together, and she convinced me that I was right, after what had occurred at the store, and had better go up. So up I went. We searched the whole camp. I guess we were there for nigh on three hours. The place was quiet enough. They were still dancing and drinking, but not a blessed sign of Horrocks could we find."

"I expect he'd gone before you got there, sir," put in Thompson.

"Did you find the bodies of the murdered police?" asked the doctor innocently.

"Not a sign of 'em," laughed John. "There were no dead policemen, and, what's more, there was no trace of any shooting."

The three men turned on the clerk, who felt that he must justify himself.

"There was shooting enough, sir; you mark my words. You'll hear of it to-day, sure."

"Lord" Bill walked away towards the window in disgust. The clerk annoyed him.

"No, boy, no. I'm thinking you are mistaken. I should have discovered some trace had there been any shooting. I don't deny that your story's true, but in the excitement of the moment I guess you got rattled—and saw things."

Old John laughed and turned away. At that instant Bill called them all over to the window. The bar window overlooked the market-place, and the front of Lablache's store was almost opposite to it.

Bill pointed towards the store as the three men gathered round. "Old man" Smith also ranged himself with the others.

"Look!" Bill smiled grimly.

A buckboard had just drawn up outside Lablache's emporium and two people were alighting. A crowd had gathered round the arrivals. There was no mistaking one of the figures. The doctor was the first to give expression to the thought that was in the mind of each of the interested spectators.

"Lablache!" he exclaimed in astonishment

"And Horrocks," added "Lord" Bill quietly.

"Guess he wasn't hung then after all," said "Poker" John, turning as he spoke. But Thompson had taken his departure. This last blow was too much. And he felt that it was an advantageous moment in which to retire to his employer's store, and hide his diminished head amongst the bales of dry goods and the monumental ledgers to be found there.

"That youth has a considerable imagination." The Hon. Bunning-Ford turned from the window and strolled leisurely towards the door.

"Where are you going?" exclaimed "Poker" John.

"To cook some breakfast."

"No, no, you must come up to the ranch with me. Let's go right over to the store first, and hear what Lablache has to say. Then we'll go and feed."

Bill shrugged. Then,—

"Lablache and I are not on the best of terms," he said doubtfully. He wished to go notwithstanding his demur. Besides he was anxious to go on to the ranch to see Jacky. The doubt in his tone gave John his cue, and the old man refused to be denied.

"Come along," he said, and linking his arm within the other's, he led the way over to the store; the doctor, equally eager, bringing up the rear.

Bill suffered himself to be thus led. He knew that in such company Lablache could not very well refuse him admission to his office. He had a decided wish to be present when the money-lender told his tale. However, in this he was doomed to disappointment. Lablache had already decided upon a plan of action.

At the store the three friends made their way through the crowd of curious people who had gathered on the unexpected return of the chief actors in last night's drama; they made their way quickly round to the back where the private door was.

Lablache was within, and with him Horrocks. The heavy voice of the money-lender answered "Poker" John's summons.

"Come in."

He was surprised when the door opened, and he saw who his visitors were. John and the doctor he was prepared for, but "Lord" Bill's coming was a different matter. For an instant he seriously meditated an angry objection. Then he altered his mind, a thing which was rare with him. After all the man's presence could do no harm, and he felt that to object to him, would be to quarrel with the rancher. On second thoughts he would tolerate what he considered the intrusion.

Lablache was ensconced in his basket chair, and Horrocks was at the great man's desk. Neither moved as their visitors entered. The troubles of the previous night were plainly written on both men's faces. There was a haggard look in their eyes, and a generally dishevelled appearance about their dress. Lablache in particular looked unwashed and untidy. Horrocks looked less troubled, and there was a strong air of determination about his face.

"Poker" John showed no niceness in broaching the subject of his visit. His libations had roused him to the proper pitch for plain speaking.

"Well, what happened to you last night, Lablache? I guess you're looking about as blue as they make 'em. Say, I thought sure Retief was going to do for you when I heard about it."

"Ah. Who told you about—about me?"

"Your clerk."

"Rodgers?"

"No, Thompson."

"Ah! Have you seen Rodgers at all?"

"No." John turned to the other two. "Have you?"

Neither of the men had seen the clerk, and old John turned again to Lablache.

"Why, what's happened to Rodgers?"

"Oh, nothing. I haven't seen him since I have been back—that's all."

"Well, now tell us all about last night," went on the rancher. "This matter is going to be cleared up. I have been thinking of a vigilance committee. We can't do better."

Lablache shook his great head. To the doctor and "Lord" Bill there seemed to be an utter hopelessness conveyed in the motion.

"I have nothing to tell. Neither has Horrocks. What happened last night concerns ourselves alone. You may possibly hear more later on, but the telling by us now will do no good, and probably a lot of harm. As for your vigilance committee, form it if you like, but I doubt that you will do any good with it."

This refusal riled the old rancher. He was just in that condition when it would take little to make him quarrel. He was about to rap out an angry retort when a knock came at the partition door. It was Thompson. He had come to say that the troopers had returned, and wanted to see the sergeant. Also to say that Rodgers was with them. Horrocks immediately went out to see them, and, before John could say a word, Lablache turned on him.

"Look here, John, for the present my lips are sealed. It is Horrocks's wish. He has a plan which he wishes to carry out quietly. The result of his plan largely depends upon silence. Retief seems to have sources of information everywhere. Walls have ears, man. Now, I shall be glad if you will leave me. I—I must get cleaned up."

John's anger died within him. He saw that Lablache was upset. He looked absolutely ill. The old man's good nature would not allow him to press this companion of his ranching life further. There was nothing left for him to do but leave.

As he rose to go, the money-lender unbent still further.

"I'll see you later, John, I may then be able to tell you more. Perhaps it may interest you to know that Horrocks has discovered the path across the keg, and—he's going to cross it. Good-by. So long, Doc."

"Very well, I shall be up at the ranch. Come along, Bill. Jacky, I expect, is waiting breakfast for us."

Lablache heard the old man's remark as the latter passed out, and a bitter feeling of resentment rose within him. He felt that everything was against him. His evil nature, however, would not let him remain long desponding. He ground his teeth and cursed bitterly. It had only wanted a fillip such as this to rouse him from the curious lethargic hopelessness into which the terrible night's doings had cast him.

The moment the three men got away from the store, Doctor Abbot drew attention to the money-lender's words.

"Going to cross the keg, eh? Well, if he's really discovered the path it's certainly the best thing to do. He's a sharp man is Horrocks."

"He's a fool!"

Bill's words were so emphatic that both men stared at him. If they were startled at his words, they were still more startled at the set expression of his face. Doctor Abbot thought he had never seen the insouciant Bill so roused out of himself.

"Why—how?"

"How? I tell you, man, that no one knows that path except—except—Retief, and, supposing Horrocks has discovered it, if he attempts to cross, there can only be one result to his mad folly. I tell you what it is, the man should be stopped. It's absolute suicide—nothing more nor less."

Something in the emphasis of "Lord" Bill's words kept the others silent until the doctor left them at his home. Then as the two men hurried out across the prairie towards the ranch, the conversation turned back to the events of the previous evening.

At the ranch they found Jacky awaiting the old man's return, on the veranda. She was surprised when she saw who was with him. Her surprise was a pleasant one, however, and she extended her hand in cordial welcome.

"Come right in, Bill. Gee, but you look fit—and slick."

The two young people smiled into each other's faces, and no onlooker, not even the observant Aunt Margaret, could have detected the understanding which passed in that look. Jacky was radiant. Her sweet, dark face was slightly flushed. There were no tell-tale rings about her dark eyes. For all sign she gave to the contrary she might have enjoyed the full measure of a night's rest. Her visit to the Breed camp, or, for that matter, any other adventures which had befallen her during the night, had left no trace on her beautiful face.

"I've brought the boy up to feed," said old John. "I guess we'll get right to it. I've got a 'twist' on me that'll take considerable to satisfy."

The meal passed pleasantly enough. The conversation naturally was chiefly confined to the events of the night. But somehow the others did not respond very eagerly to the old rancher's evident interest and concern. Most of the talking—most of the theorizing—most of the suggestions for the stamping out of the scourge, Retief, came from him, the others merely contenting themselves with agreeing to his suggestions with a lack of interest which, had the old man been perfectly sober, he could not have failed to observe. However, he was especially obtuse this morning, and was too absorbed in his own impracticable theories and suggestions to notice the others' lack of interest.

At the conclusion of the meal the rancher took himself off down to the settlement again. He must endeavor to draw Lablache, he said. He would not wait for him to come to the ranch.

Jacky and Bill went out on to the veranda, and watched the old man as he set out with unsteady gait for the settlement.

"Bill," said the girl, as soon as her uncle was out of earshot, "what news?"

"Two items of interest One, the very best, and the other—the very worst."

"Which means?"

"No one has the least suspicion of us; and Horrocks, the madman, intends to attempt the passage of the keg."

"Lord" Bill jaws shut with a snap as he ceased speaking. The look which accompanied his last announcement was one of utter dejection. Jacky did not reply for an instant, her great eyes had taken on a look of deep anxiety as she gazed towards the muskeg.

"Bill, can nothing be done to stop him?" She gazed appealingly up into the face of the tall figure beside her. "He is a brave man, if foolish."

"That's just it, dear. He's headstrong and means to see this thing through. Had I thought that he would ever dream of contemplating such a suicidal feat as attempting that path, I'd never have let him see the cattle cross last night. My God! it turns me sick to think of it."

"Hush, Bill, don't talk so loud. Do you think any one could dissuade him? Lablache, or—or uncle, for instance."

Bunning-Ford shook his head. His look was troubled.

"Horrocks is not the man to be turned from his purpose," he replied. "And besides, Lablache would not attempt such a thing. He is too keen to capture—Relief," with a bitter laugh. "A life more or less would not upset that scoundrel's resolve. As for your uncle," with a shrug, "I don't think he's the man for the task. No, Jacky," he went on, with a sigh, "we must let things take their course now. We have embarked on this business. We mustn't weaken. His blood be upon his own head."

They relapsed into silence for some moments. "Lord" Bill lit a cigarette, and leant himself against one of the veranda posts. He was worried at the turn events had taken. He had no grudge against Horrocks; the man was but doing his duty. But his meditated attempt he considered to be an exaggerated sense of that duty. Presently he spoke again.

"Jacky—do you know, I feel that somehow the end of this business is approaching. What the end is to be I cannot foretell. One thing, however, is clear. Sooner or later we must run foul of people, and when that occurs—well," throwing his cigarette from him viciously, "it simply means shooting. And—"

"Yes, Bill, I know what you would say. Shooting means killing, killing means murder, and murder means swinging. You're right, but," and the girl's eyes began to blaze, "before that, Lablache must go under. Whatever happens, Bill, before we decorate any tree with our bodies, if our object is not already obtained, I'll shoot him with my own pistol. I guess we're embarked on a game that we're going to see through."

"That's so. We'll see it through. Do you know what stock we've taken, all told? Close on twenty thousand head, and—all Lablache's. They're snug over at 'Bad Man's' Hollow, and a tidy fine bunch they are. The division with the boys is a twentieth each, and the balance is ours. Our share is ten thousand." He ceased speaking. Then presently he went on, harking back to the subject of Horrocks. "I wish that man could be stayed. His failure must precipitate matters. Should he drown, as he surely will, the whole countryside will join in the hue and cry. It is only his presence here that keeps the settlers in check. Well, so be it. It's a pity. But I'm not going to swing. They'll never take me alive."

"If it comes to that, Bill, you'll not be alone, I guess. You can gamble your soul, when it comes to open warfare I'm with you, an' I guess I can shoot straight."

Bill looked at the girl in astonishment. He noted the keen deep eyes, the set little mouth. The fearless expression on her beautiful face. Her words had fairly taken his breath away, but he saw that she had meant what she said.

"No, no, girlie. No one will suspect you. Besides, this is my affair. You have your uncle."

"Say, boy, I love my uncle—I love him real well. I'm working for him, we both are—and we'll work for him to the last. But our work together has taught me something, Bill, and when I cotton to teaching there's nothing that can knock what I learn out of my head. I've just learned to love you, Bill. And, as the Bible says, old Uncle John's got to take second place. That's all. If you go under—well, I guess I'll go under too."

Jacky gave her lover no chance to reply. As he opened his lips to expostulate and took a step towards her she darted away, and disappeared into the sitting-room. He followed her in, but the room was empty.

He paused. Then a smile spread over his face.

"I don't fancy we shall go under, little woman," he muttered, "at least, not if I can help it."

He turned back to the veranda and strolled away towards the settlement.



CHAPTER XXIII

THE PAW OF THE CAT

Lablache was alone. Horrocks had left him to set out on his final effort to discover Retief's hiding-place. The great man was eagerly waiting for his return. Evening was drawing on and the officer had not yet put in an appearance, neither had the money-lender received any word from him. In consequence he was beginning to hope that Horrocks had succeeded.

All day the wretched man had been tortured by horrid fears. And, as time passed and evening drew on, his mood became almost a panic. The money-lender was in a deplorable state of mind; his nerves were shaken, and he was racked by a dread of he scarce knew what. What he had gone through the night before had driven him to the verge of mental collapse. No bodily injury could have thus reduced him; for, whatever might have been his failings, physical cowardice was not amongst the number. Any moral weakness which might have been his had been so obscured by long years of success and prosperity, that no one knowing him would have believed him to be so afflicted. No, in spite of his present condition Lablache was a strong man.

But the frightful mental torture he had endured at Retief's hands had told its tale. The attack of the last twenty-four hours had been made against him alone; at least, so Lablache understood it. Retief's efforts were only in his direction; the raider had robbed him of twenty thousand head of cattle; he had burnt his beautiful ranch out, in sheer wantonness it seemed to the despairing man; what then would be his next move if he were not stopped? What else was there of his—Lablache's—that the Breed could attack? His store—yes—yes; his store! That was all that was left of his property in Foss River. And then—what then? There was nothing after that, except, perhaps—except his life.

Lablache stirred in his seat and wheezed heavily as he arrived at this conclusion. His horrified thoughts were expressed in the look of fear that was in his lashless eyes.

His life—yes! That must be the raider's culminating object. Or would he leave him that, so that he might further torture him by burning him out of Calford. He pondered fearfully, and hard, practical as was his nature, the money-lender allowed his imagination to run riot over possibilities which surely his cooler judgment would have scoffed at.

Lablache rose hurriedly from his chair. It only wanted a quarter to five. Putting his head through the partition doorway he ordered his astonished clerks to close up. He felt that he could not—dare not keep the store open longer. Then he inspected the private door of his office. The spring catch was fast. He locked his safe. All the time he moved about fearfully—like some hunted criminal. At last he returned to his seat. His bilious eyes roved over the various objects in the room. A hunted look was in them. His mind seemed fixed on one thought alone—the coming of Retief.

After this he grew more calm. Perhaps the knowledge that the store was secure now against any intruder helped to steady his nerves. Then he started—was the store secure? He rose again and went to the window to put up the shutter. He gazed out towards the Foss River Ranch, and, as he gazed, he saw some one riding fast towards the settlement.

The horseman came nearer; the sight fascinated the great man. Now the traveler had reached the market place, and was coming on towards the store. Suddenly the money-lender recognized in the horseman one of Horrocks's troopers, mounted on a horse from John Allandale's stable. A wild hope leapt up in his heart. Then, as the man drew nearer and Lablache saw the horrified expression of his face, hope went from him, and he feared the worst.

The clatter of hoofs ceased outside the office door. Lablache stepped heavily forward and threw it open. He stood framed in the doorway as the man gasped out his terrible news.

"He's drowned, sir, drowned before our eyes. We tried, but couldn't save him. He would go, sir; we tried to persuade him, but he would go. No more than fifty yards from the bank, and then down he went. He was out of sight in two minutes. It was horrible, sir, and him never uttered a sound. I'm going in to Stormy Cloud to report an' get instructions. Anything I can do, sir?"

So the worst was realized. For the moment the money-lender could find no words. His tongue clove to the roof of his mouth. His last hope—the last barrier between him and the man whom he considered his arch enemy, Retief, seemed to have been shattered. He thought not of the horror of the policeman's drowning; he felt no sorrow at the reckless man's ghastly end. He merely thought of himself. He saw only how the man's death affected his personal interests. At last he gurgled out some words. He scarce knew what he said.

"There's nothing to be done. Yes—no—yes, you'd better go up to the Allandales," he went on uncertainly. "They'll send a rescue party."

The trooper dashed off and Lablache securely fastened the door. Then he put the shutter over the window, and, notwithstanding that it was broad daylight still, he lit the lamp.

Once more he returned to his protesting chair, into which he almost fell. To him this last catastrophe was as the last straw. What was now to become of the settlement; what was to become of him? Horrocks gone; the troopers withdrawn, or, at least, without a guiding hand, what might Retief not be free to do while the settlement awaited the coming of a fresh detachment of police. He impotently cursed the raider. The craven weakness, induced by his condition of nervous prostration, was almost pitiable. All the selfishness which practically monopolized his entire nature displayed itself in his terror. He cared nothing for others. He believed that Retief was at war with him alone. He believed that the raider sought only his wealth—his wealth which his years of hard work and unscrupulous methods had laboriously piled up—the wealth he loved and lived for—the wealth which was to him as a god. He thought of all he had already lost. He counted it up in thousands, and his eyes grew wide with horror and despair as the figures mounted up, up, until they represented a great fortune.

The long-suffering chair creaked under him as he flung himself back in it, his pasty, heavy-jowled face was ghastly under the lash of despairing thought. Only a miser, one of those wretched creatures who live only for the contemplation of their hoarded wealth, could understand the feelings of the miserable man as he lay back in his chair.

The man who had thus reduced the money-lender must have understood his nature as did the inquisitors of old understand the weaknesses of their victims. For surely he could have found no other vulnerable spot in the great man's composition.

The first shock of the trooper's news began to pass. Lablache's mind began to balance itself again. Such a state of nerves as was his could not last and the man remain sane. Possibly the thought that he was still a rich man came to his aid. Possibly the thought of hundreds of thousands of dollars sunk in perfect securities, in various European centers, toned down the grievousness of his losses. Whatever it was he grew calmer, and with calmness his scheming nature reasserted itself.

He moved from his seat and helped himself liberally to the whisky which was in his cabinet. He needed the generous spirit, and drank it off at a gulp. His chair behind him creaked. He started. His ashen face became more ghastly in its hue. He looked round fearfully. Then he understood, and he wheezed heavily. Once more he sat himself down, and the warming spirit steadily did its work.

Suddenly his mind leapt forward, as it were, from its stagnatory condition of abject fear. It traveled swiftly, urged by a pursuing dread over plans for the future. The guiding star of his thought was safety. At all costs he must find safety for his property and himself. So long as Retief was at large there could be no safety for him in Foss River. He must get away. He must get away, bearing with him the fruits which yet remained to him of his life's toil. He had contemplated retiring before. His retirement from business would mean ruin to many of those who had borrowed from him he knew, and to those on whose property he held mortgages as security. But that could not be helped. He was not going to allow himself to suffer through what he considered any humanitarian weakness. Yes, he would retire—get away from the reach of Retief and his companions, and—ah!

His thoughts merged into another channel—a channel which, under the stress of his terrors, had for the moment been obscured. He suddenly thought of the Allandales. Here for the instant was a stumbling block. Or should he renounce his passion for Jacky? He drummed thoughtfully with his finger-tips upon the arms of his chair.

No, why should he give her up? Something of his old nerve was returning. He held all the cards. He knew he could, by foreclosing, ruin "Poker" John. Why should he give the girl up, and see her calmly secured by that cursed Bunning-Ford? His bilious eyes half closed and his sparse eyebrows drew together in a deep concentration of thought. Then presently his forehead smoothed, and his lashless eyes gleamed wickedly. He rose heavily to his feet and labored to and fro across the floor, with his beefy hands clasped behind his back.

"Excellent—excellent," he muttered. "The devil could not have designed it better." There was a grim, evil smile about his mouth. "Yes, a game—a game. It will tickle old John, and will carry out my purpose. The mortgages which I hold on his property are nothing to me. Most are gambling debts. For the rest the interest has covered the principal. I have seen to that. But he is in arrears now. Good—good. Their abandonment represents no loss to me—ha, ha." He chuckled mirthlessly. "A little game—a gentle flutter, friend John, and the stakes all in my favor. But I do not intend to lose. Oh, no. The girl might outwit me if I lost. I shall win, and on my wedding day I shall be magnanimous—good." He unclasped his hands and rubbed them together gleefully.

"The uncle's consent—his persuasion. She will do as he wishes or—ruin. It is capital—a flawless scheme. And then to leave Foss River forever. God, but I shall be glad," with a return to his nervous dread. He looked about him; eagerly, his great paunchy figure pictured grotesquely beneath the pasty, fearful face.

"Now to see John," he went on, after a moment's pause. "How—how? I wish I could get him here. It would be better here. There would be no chance of listening ears. Besides, there is the whisky." He paused again thinking. "Yes," he muttered presently. "Delay would be bad. I must not give my enemy time. At once—at once. Nothing like doing things at once. I must go to John. But—" and he looked dubiously at the darkened window—"when I return it will be dark." He picked up his other revolver and slipped it into his breast pocket. "Yes, yes, I am getting foolish—old. Come along, my friend, we will go."

He seized his hat and went to the office door. He paused with his hand upon the lock, and gave one final look round, then he turned the spring with a great show of determination and passed out.

It was a different man who left the little office on that evening to the man who had for so many years governed the destinies of the smaller ranching world of the Foss River district. He had truly said that he was getting old—but he did not quite realize how old. His enemies had done their work only too well. The terrible consequences of the night of terror were to have far-reaching results.

The money-lender set out for the ranch bristling with eagerness to put into execution his hastily conceived plan.

He found the old rancher in his sanctum. He was alone brooding over the calamity which had befallen the police-officer, and stimulating his thought with silent "nippings" at the whisky bottle. He was in a semi-maudlin condition when the money-lender entered, and greeted his visitor with almost childish effusion.

Lablache saw and understood, and a sense of satisfaction came to him. He hoped his task would be easier than he had anticipated. His evil nature rose to the occasion, and, for the moment, his own troubles and fears were forgotten. There was a cat-like licking of the lips as he contemplated the pitiful picture before him.

"Well?" said old John, looking into the other's face with a pair of bloodshot eyes, as he re-seated himself after rising to greet his visitor. "Well, poor Horrocks has gone—gone, a victim to his sense of duty. I guess, Lablache, there are few men would have shown his grit."

"Grit! Yes, that's so." The money-lender had been about to say "folly," but he checked himself. He did not want to offend "Poker" John—now.

"Yes. The poor fellow was too good for his work," he went on, in tones of commiseration. "'Tis indeed a catastrophe, John. And we are the losers by it. I regret now that I did not altogether agree with him when he first came amongst us."

John wagged his head. He looked to be near weeping. His companion's sympathetic tone was almost too much for his whisky-laden heart. But Lablache had not come here to discuss Horrocks, or, for that matter, to sympathize with the gray-headed wreck of manhood before him. He wished to find out first of all if anybody was about whom his plans concerned, and then to force his proposition upon his old companion. He carefully led the rancher to talk of other things.

"The man has gone into Stormy Cloud to report?"

"Yes."

"And who are they likely to send down in place—ah—of the unfortunate Horrocks, think you?"

"Can't say. I guess they'll send a good man. I've asked for more men."

The old man roused somewhat from his maudlin state.

"Ah, that's a good move, John," said the money-lender. "What does Jacky think about—these things?"

The question was put carelessly. John yawned, and poured out a "tot" of whisky for his friend.

"Guess I haven't seen the child since breakfast. She seemed to take it badly enough then."

"Thanks. Aren't you going to have one?" as John pushed the glass over to the other.

"Why, yes, man. Never shirk my liquor."

He dashed a quantity of raw spirit into his glass and drank it off. Lablache looked on with intense satisfaction. John rose unsteadily, and, supporting himself against the furniture as he went, moved over to the French window and closed it. Then he lurched heavily back into his chair again. His eyes half closed. But he roused at the sound of Lablache's guttural tones.

"John, old friend." Muddled as he was the rancher started at the term. "I've come to have a long chat with you. This morning I could not talk. I was too broken up—too, too ill. Now listen and you shall hear of all that happened last night, and then you will the better be able to judge of the wisdom of my decision."

John listened while Lablache told his tale. The money-lender embellished the facts slightly so as the further to emphasize them. Then, at the conclusion of the story of his night's doings, he went on to matters which concerned his future.

"Yes, John, there is nothing left for me but to get out of the country. Mind this is no sudden determination, but a conclusion I have long arrived at. These disastrous occurrences have merely hastened my plans. I am not so young as I was, you know," with an attempt at lightness, "I simply dare not stay. I fear that Retief will soon attempt my life."

He sighed and looked for sympathy. Old John seemed too amazed to respond. He had never realized that the raider's efforts were solely directed against Lablache. The money-lender went on.

"And that is why I have come to you, my oldest friend. I feel you should be the first to know, for with no one else in Foss River have I lived in such perfect harmony. And, besides, you are the most interested."

The latter was in the tone of an afterthought. Strangely enough the careless way in which it was spoken carried the words well home to the rancher's muddled brain.

"Interested?" he echoed blankly.

"Why, yes. Certainly, you are the most interested. I mean from a monetary point of view. You see, the winding up of my business will entail the settling up of—er—my books."

"Yes," said the rancher, with doubtful understanding.

"Then—er—you take my meaning as to how—er—how you are interested."

"You mean my arrears of interest," said the gray headed old man dazedly.

"Just so. You will have to meet your liabilities to me."

"But—but—man." The rancher spluttered for words to express himself. This was the money-lender's opportunity, and he seized it.

"You see, John, in retiring from business I am not altogether a free agent. My affairs are so mixed up with the affairs of the Calford Trust and Loan Co. The period of one of your mortgages, for instance—the heaviest by the way—has long expired. It has not been renewed. The interest is in arrears. This mortgage was arranged by me jointly with the Calford Trust and Loan Co. When I retire it will have to be settled up. Being my friend I have not troubled you, but doubtless the company will have no sentiment about it. As to the others—they are debts of honor. I am afraid these things will have to be settled, John. You will of course be able to meet them."

"God, man, but I can't," old John exclaimed. "I tell you I can't," he reiterated in a despairing voice.

Lablache shrugged his obese shoulders.

"That is unfortunate."

"But, Lablache," said the rancher, gazing with drunken earnestness into the other's face, "you will not press me?"

"Why no, John, of course not—as far as I am personally concerned. I have known you too long and have too much regard for you and—yours. No, no, John; of course I am a business man, but I am still your friend. Friend—eh, John—your friend."

The rancher looked relieved, and helped himself to more whisky. Lablache joined him and they silently drank. "Poker" John set his empty glass down first.

"Now Lablache, about these lia-liabilities," he said with a hiccup. "What is to be done?"

"Well, John, we are friends of such old standing that I don't like to retire from business and leave you inconvenienced by the process. Perhaps there is a way by which I can help you. I am very wealthy—and wealth is a great power—a very great power even in this wild region. Now, suppose I make a proposition to you."



CHAPTER XXIV

"POKER" JOHN ACCEPTS

"Ah!"

There was a tone of drunken suspicion about the exclamation which was not lost on Lablache.

"If you were suddenly called upon to meet your liabilities to me, John," said the money-lender, smiling, "how would it fix you?"

"It would mean ruin," replied John, hoarsely.

Lablache cleared his throat and snorted. Then he smiled benignly upon his old companion.

"That's just what I thought. Well, you're not going to be ruined—by me. I'm going to burn the mortgages and settle with the Calford Trust and Loan Co. myself—"

The rancher feared to trust his ears.

"That is if you are willing to do something for me."

In his eager hope John Allandale had leant forward so as not to miss a word the other said. Now, however, he threw himself back in his chair. Some suspicion was in his mind. It might have been intuition. He knew Lablache well. He laughed cynically.

"That's more like you," he said roughly.

"One moment," said the money-lender; the smile vanished from his lips. "Fair play's good medicine. We'll wipe out your debts if you'll tell your niece that you want her to marry me."

"I'll—I'll—"

"Hold on, John," with upraised hand, as the old man purpled with rage and started to shout.

"I'll see you damned first!" The rancher had lurched on to his feet and his fist came down with a crash upon the corner of the table. Lablache remained unmoved.

"Tut tut, man; now listen to me." The old man towered unsteadily over him. "I can't understand your antipathy to me as a husband for your niece. Give your consent—she'll do it for you—and, on my wedding day, I burn those mortgages and I'll settle 100,000 dollars upon Jacky. Besides this I'll put 200,000 dollars into your ranch to develop it, and only ask ten per cent, of the profits. Can I speak fairer? That girl of yours is a good girl, John; too good to kick about the prairie. I'll make her a good husband. She shall do as she pleases, live where she likes. You can always be with us if you choose. It's no use being riled, John, I'm making an honest proposition."

The rancher calmed. In the face of such a generous proposal he could not insult Lablache. He was determined, however. It was strange, perhaps, that any suggestion for his influence to be used in his niece's choice of a husband should have such a violent effect upon him. But "Poker" John was a curious mixture of weakness and honor. He loved his niece with a doting affection. She was the apple of his eye. To him the thought of personal benefit at the cost of her happiness was a sacrilege. Lablache understood this. He knew that on this point the rancher's feelings amounted to little short of mania. And yet he persisted. John's nature was purely obstinate, and obstinacy is weakness. The money-lender knew that obstinacy could be broken down by steady determination. However, time, with him, was now everything. He must clinch the deal with as little delay as possible if he would escape from Foss River and the ruinous attacks of Retief. This thought was ever present with him and urged him to press the old man hard. If John Allandale would not be reasonable, he, Lablache, must force an acceptance of his terms from him.

The rancher was mollified. His dulled brain suddenly saw a loop-hole of escape.

"I guess you mean well enough, Lablache. But say, ask the child yourself."

The other shook his massive head.

"I have—she has refused."

"Then why in thunder do you come to me?"

The angry light was again in the rancher's bloodshot eyes.

"Why? Because she will marry me if you choose. She can't refuse—she dare not."

"Then, by God, I'll refuse for her—"

He paused disconcertedly in his wrath. Lablache's cold eyes fixed him with their icy stare.

"Very well, John," said Lablache, with a contemptuous shrug. "You know the inevitable result of such a hasty decision. It means ruin to you—beggary to that poor child." His teeth snapped viciously. Then he smiled with his mouth. "I can only put your de—refusal down to utter, unworthy selfishness."

"Not selfishness, Lablache—not that. I would sacrifice everything in the world for that child—"

"Except your own pleasure—your own personal comforts. Bah, man!" with scathing contempt, "your object must be plain to the veriest fool. You do not wish to lose her. You fear to lose your best servant lest in consequence you find the work of the ranch thrust upon your own hands. You would have no time to indulge your love of play. You would no longer be able to spend three parts of your time in 'old man' Smith's filthy bar. Your conduct is laudable, John—it is worthy of you."

Lablache had expected another outburst of anger, but John only leered in response to the other's contempt. Drunk as he was, the rancher saw the absurdity of the attack.

"Piffle!" he exclaimed. "Now see, when Jacky comes in you shall hear what she has to say."

"Poker" John smiled with satisfaction at his own 'cuteness. He felt that he had outwitted the astute usurer. His simplicity, however, was of an infantile order.

"That would be useless." Lablache did not want to be confronted with Jacky. "My mind is quite made up. The Calford Trust will begin proceedings at once, unless—"

"Unless I give my consent."

The satisfaction had suddenly died out of John Allandale's face. Even in his maudlin condition he understood the relentless purpose which backed the money-lender's proposal. To his credit be it said that he was thinking only of Jacky—the one being who was dearer to him than all else in the world. For himself he had no thought—he did not care what happened. But he longed to save his niece from the threatened catastrophe. His seared old face worked in his distress. Lablache beheld the sign, and knew that he was weakening.

"Why force me to extremities, John?" he said presently. "If you would only be reasonable, I feel sure you would have no matter for regret. Now, suppose I went a step further."

"No—no," weakly. There followed a pause. John Allandale avoided the other's eyes. To the old man the silence of the room became intolerable. He opened his lips to speak. Then he closed them—only to open them again. "But—but what step do you propose? Is—is it honest?"

"Perfectly." Lablache was smiling in that indulgent manner he knew so well how to assume. "And it might appeal to you. Pressure is a thing I hate. Now—suppose we leave the matter to—to chance."

"Chance?" The rancher questioned the other doubtfully.

"Yes—why not?" The money-lender's smile broadened and he leaned forward to impress his hearer the more surely. "A little game—a game of poker, eh?"

John Allandale shook his head. He failed to grasp the other's meaning.

"I don't understand," he said, struggling with the liquor which fogged his dull brain.

"No, of course you don't," easily. "Now listen to me and I'll tell you what I mean." The money-lender spoke as though addressing a wayward child. "The stakes shall be my terms against your influence with Jacky. If you win you keep your girl, and I cancel your mortgages; if I win I marry your girl under the conditions I have already offered. It's wholly an arrangement for your benefit. All I can possibly gain is your girl. Whichever way the game goes I must pay. Saints alive—but what an old fool I am!" He laughed constrainedly. "For the sake of a pretty face I'm going to give you everything—but there," seriously, "I'd do more to win that sweet child for my wife. What d'you say, John?"

There could be no doubt that Lablache meant what he said, only he might have put it differently. Had he said that there was nothing at which he would stop to secure Jacky, it would have been more in keeping with the facts, He meant to marry the girl. His bilious eyes watered. There was a sensual look in them. His heavy lips parted and closed with a sucking smack as though expressing appreciation of a tasty morsel.

John remained silent, but into his eyes had leapt a gleam which told of the lust of gaming aroused. His look—his whole face spoke for him. Lablache had primed his hook with an irresistible bait. He knew his man.

"See," he went on, as the other remained silent, "this is the way we can arrange it. We will play 'Jackpots' only. The best seven out of thirteen. It will be a pretty game, in which, from an outsider's point of view, I alone can be the loser. If I win I shall consider myself amply repaid. If I lose—well," with an expressive movement of the hands, "I will take my chance—as a sportsman should. I love your niece, John, and will risk everything to win her. Now, think of it. It will be the sweetest, prettiest gamble. And, too, think of the stake. A fortune, John—a fortune for you. And for me a bare possibility of realizing my hopes."

The old gambler's last vestige of honor struggled to make itself apparent in a negative movement of the head. But the movement would not come. His thoughts were of the game, and ere yet the last words of the money-lender had ceased to sound, he was captured. The satanic cunning of the proposal was lost upon his sodden intellect. It was a contemptible, pitiable piece of chicanery with which Lablache sought to trap the old man into giving his consent and assistance. The money-lender had no intention of losing the game. He knew he must win. He was merely resorting to this means because he knew the gambling spirit of the rancher. He knew that "Poker" John's obstinacy was proof against any direct attack; that no persuasion would induce the consent he desired. The method of a boxer pounding the body of an opponent whom he knows to be afflicted with some organic weakness of the heart is no more cowardly than was Lablache's proposal.

The rancher still remained silent. Lablache moved in his chair; one of his great fat hands rested for a moment on John's coat sleeve.

"Now, old friend," he said, with a hoarse, whistling breath. "Shall you play—play the game? It will be a grand finale to the many—er—comfortable games we have played together. Well? Thirteen 'Jackpots,' John—yes?"

"And—and if I consented—mind, I only say 'if.'" The rancher's face twitched nervously.

"You would stand to win a fortune—and also one for your niece."

"Yes—yes. I might win. My luck may turn."

"It must—you cannot always lose."

"Quite right—I must win soon. It is a great offer—a splendid stake."

"It is."

"Yes—yes, Lablache, I will play. God, man! I will play you!"

Beads of sweat stood on John Allandale's forehead as he literally hurled his acceptance at his companion. He accepted in the manner of one who knows he is setting at defiance all honesty and right, urged to such a course by an all-mastering passion, which he is incapable of resisting.

Strange was the nature of this man. He knew himself as it is given to few weak men to know themselves. He knew that he wished to do this thing. He knew, also, that he was doing wrong. Moreover he knew that he wished to stand by Jacky and be true to his great affection for her. He was under the influence of potent spirit, and yet his thoughts and judgment were clear upon the subject. His mania had possessed him and he would play from choice; and all the while he could hear the voice of conscience rating him. He would have preferred to play now, but then he remembered the quantity of spirit he had consumed. He must take no chances. When he played Lablache he must be sober. The delay of one night, however, he knew would bring him agonies of remorse, therefore he would settle everything now so that in the throes of conscience he could not refuse to play. He feared delay. He feared the vacillation which the solitary hours of the night might bring to him. He leant forward and thickly urged the money-lender.

"When shall it be? Quick, man, let us have no delay. The time, Lablache—the time and place."

Lablache wheezed unctuously.

"That's the spirit I like, John," he said, fingering his watch-chain with his fat hands. "To business. The place—er—yes." A moment's thought whilst the rancher waited with impatience. "Ah, I know. That implement shed on your fifty-acre pasture. Excellent. There is a living room in it. You used to keep a man there. It is disused now. It will suit us admirably. We can use that room. And the time—"

"To-morrow, Lablache. It must be to-morrow. I could not wait longer," broke in the other, in a voice husky with eagerness and liquor. "After dark, when no one can see us going out to the shed. No one must know, Lablache, mind—no one. Jacky will not dream of what we are doing."

"Very well. To-morrow, then. At eleven o'clock at night, John. And as you say in the meantime—mum."

Lablache was pleased with the rancher's suggestion. It quite fell in with his own ideas. Everything must be done quickly now. He must get away from Foss River without delay.

"Yes—yes. Mum's the word." "Poker" John indicated his approval with an upward leer as Lablache rose from his chair, and a grotesque pursing of his lips and his forefinger at the side of his nose. Then he, too, struggled to his feet, and, with unsteady hand, poured out two stiff "horns" of whisky.

He held one out to the money-lender and took the other himself.

"I drink to the game," he said haltingly. "May—fortune come my way."

Lablache nodded comprehensively and slowly raised his glass.

"Fortune is yours anyhow. Therefore I trust that I win the game."

The two men silently drank. After which Lablache turned to go. He paused at the French window and plunged his hand into his coat pocket.

The night was dark outside, and again he became a prey to his moral terror of the half-breed raider. He drew out his revolver and opened the chamber. The weapon was loaded. Then he turned to old John who was staring at him.

"It's risky for me to move about at night, John. I fear Retief has not done with me yet. Good-night," and he passed out on to the veranda.

Lablache was the victim of a foreboding. It is a custom to laugh at forebodings and set them down to the vagaries of a disordered stomach. We laugh too at superstition. Yet how often do we find that the portentous significance of these things is actually realized in fact. Lablache dreaded Retief.

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