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The Story of the Foss River Ranch
by Ridgwell Cullum
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What would the next twenty-four hours bring forth?



CHAPTER XXV

UNCLE AND NIECE

"Poker" John's remorse came swiftly, but not swiftly or strongly enough to make him give up the game. After Lablache had taken his departure the old rancher sat drinking far into the night. With each fresh potation his conscience became less persistent in its protest. He sought no bed that night, for gradually his senses left him and he slept where he sat, until, towards daybreak he awoke, partially sober and shivering with cold. Then he arose, and, wrapping himself in a heavy overcoat, flung himself upon a couch, where he again sought sobriety in sleep.

He awoke again soon after daylight. His head was racked with pain. He, at first, had only a dim recollection of what had occurred the night before. There was a vague sense of something unpleasant having happened, but he did not attempt to recall it. He went to his bedroom and douched himself with cold water. Then he set out for the kitchen in search of coffee with which to slack his burning thirst. It was not until he had performed his ablutions that the whole truth of his interview with Lablache came back to him. Immediately, now that the effect of the liquor had passed off, he became a prey to terrible remorse.

Possibly had Jacky been at hand at that moment, the whole course of events might have been altered. Her presence, a good breakfast, and occupation might have given him strength to carry out the rejection of Lablache's challenge which his remorse suggested. However, none of these things were at hand, and John Allandale set out, from force of habit, to get his morning "Collins" down at "old man" Smith's. Something to pull him together before he encountered his niece, he told himself.

It was a fatal delusion. "Old man" Smith sold drink for gain. The more he sold the better he liked it. John Allandale's "Collins" developed, as it always did now, into three or four potent drinks. So that by the time he returned to the ranch for breakfast his remorse was pushed well into the background, and with feverish craving he lodged for the fateful game.

In spite of his devotion to the bottle John Allandale usually made a hearty breakfast. But this morning the sight of Jacky presiding at his table upset him, and he left his food almost untasted. Remorse was deadened but conscience was yet unsilenced within him. Every time she spoke to him, every time he encountered her piercing gray eyes he felt himself to be a worse than Judas. In his rough, exaggerated way he told himself that he was selling this girl as surely as did the old slave owners sell their slaves in bygone days. He endeavored to persuade himself that what he was doing was for the best, and certainly that it was forced upon him. He would not admit that his mania for poker was the main factor in his acceptance of Lablache's terms. Gradually, however, his thoughts became intolerable to him, and when Jacky at last remarked on the fact that he was eating nothing and drinking only his coffee, he could stand it no longer. He pushed his chair back and rose from the table, and, muttering an excuse, fled from the room.

Her uncle's precipitate flight alarmed Jacky. She had seen, as anybody with half an eye could see, that he had had a heavy night. The bleared eyes, the puffed lids, the working, nervous face were simple enough evidence. She knew, too, that he had already been drinking this morning. But these things were not new to her, only painful facts which she was unable to alter; but his strange behavior and lack of appetite were things to set her thinking.

She was a very active-minded girl. It was not her way to sit wondering and puzzling over anything she could not understand. She had a knack of setting herself to unravel problems which required explanation in the most common-sense way. After giving her uncle time to leave the house—intuition told her that he would do so—she rose and rang the bell. Then she moved to the window while she waited for an answer to her summons. She saw the burly figure of her uncle walking swiftly down towards the settlement and in the direction of the saloon.

She turned with a sigh as a servant entered.

"Did any one call last night while I was out?" she asked.

"Not for you, miss."

"Oh!"

"No, miss, but Mr. Lablache was here. He was with your uncle for a long time—in the office."

"Did he come in with Mr. Allandale?"

"Oh, no, miss, the master didn't go out. At least not that I know of. Mr. Lablache didn't call exactly. I think he just came straight to the office. I shouldn't have known he was there, only I was passing the door and heard his voice—and the master's."

"Oh, that will do—just wait a moment, though. Say, is Silas around? Just find him and send him right along. Tell him to come to the veranda."

The servant departed, and Jacky sat down at a writing-table and wrote a note to "Lord" Bill. The note was brief but direct in its tone.

"Can you see me this afternoon? Shall be in after tea."

That was all she put, and added her strong, bold signature to it. Silas came to the window and she gave him the note with instructions to deliver it into the hands of the Hon. Bunning-Ford.

The letter dispatched she felt easier in her mind.

What had Lablache been closeted with her uncle for? This was the question which puzzled—nay, alarmed her. She had seen her uncle early on the previous evening, and he had seemed happy enough. She wished now, when she had returned from visiting Mrs. Abbot, that she had thought to see if her uncle was in. It had become such a custom for him lately to be out all the evening that she had long ceased her childhood's custom of saying "Good-night" to him before retiring to bed. One thing was certain, she felt her uncle's strange behavior this morning was in some way due to Lablache's visit. She meant to find out what that visit meant.

To this end several plans occurred to her, but in each case were abandoned as unsuitable.

"No," she murmured at last, "I guess I'll tax him with it. He'll tell me. If Lablache means war, well—I've a notion he'll get a hustling he don't consider."

Then she left the sitting-room that she might set about her day's work. She would see her uncle at dinner-time.

Foss River had not yet risen to the civilized state of late dinners and indigestion. Early rising and hard work demanded early meals and hearty feeding. Dinner generally occurred at noon—an hour at which European society thinks of taking its dejeuner. By rising late society can thus avoid what little fresh, wholesome air there is to be obtained in a large city. Civilization jibs at early rising. Foss River was still a wild and savage country.

At noon Jacky came in to dinner. She had not seen her uncle since breakfast. The old man had not returned from the settlement. Truth to tell he wished to avoid his niece as much as possible for to-day. As dinner-time came round he grew nervous and uncomfortable, and was half inclined to accept "old man" Smith's invitation to dine at the saloon. Then he realized that this would only alarm Jacky and set her thinking. Therefore he plucked up the shattered remains of his moral courage and returned to the ranch. When a man looses his last grip on his self-respect he sinks with cruel rapidity. "Poker" John told himself that he was betraying his niece's affection, and with this assurance he told himself that he was the lowest-down cur in the country. The natural consequence to a man of his habit and propensity was—drink. The one time in his life when he should have refrained from indulgence he drank; and with each drink he made the fatal promise to himself that it should be the last.

When Jacky saw him swaying as he came up towards the house she could have cried out in very anguish. It smote her to the heart to see the old man whom she so loved in this condition. Yet when he lurched on to the veranda she smiled lovingly up into his face and gave no sign that she had any knowledge of his state.

"Come right along, uncle," she said gayly, linking her arm within his, "dinner is on. You must be good and hungry, you made such a poor breakfast this morning."

"Yes, child, I wasn't very well," he mumbled thickly. "Not very well—now."

"You poor dear, come along," and she led him in through the open window.

During the meal Jacky talked incessantly. She talked of everything but what had upset her uncle. She avoided any reference to Lablache with great care. But, in spite of her cheerfulness, she could not rouse the degenerate old man. Rather it seemed that, as the meal progressed, he became gloomier. The truth was the girl's apparent light-heartedness added to his self-revilings and made him feel more criminal than ever. He ate his food mechanically, and he drank glass after glass of ale.

Jacky heaved a sigh of relief when the meal was over. She felt that she could not much longer have kept up her light-hearted talk. Her uncle was about to move from the table. The girl stayed him with a gesture. He had eaten a good dinner and she was satisfied. Now she would question him.

It is strange how a woman, in whatever relationship she may stand, loves to see a man eat well. Possibly she understands the effect of a good dinner upon the man in whom she centers her affection; possibly it is the natural maternal instinct for his well-being.

"Uncle, what did Lablache come to see you for last night?"

The question was abrupt. It had the effect of bringing the rancher back to his seat with a drunken lurch.

"Eh?" he queried, blinking nervously.

"What did he come for?" Jacky persisted.

The girl could be relentless even with her uncle.

"Lablache—oh—er—talk bus—bus'ness, child—bus'ness," and he attempted to get up from his chair again.

But Jacky would not let him go.

"Wait a moment, uncle dear, I want to talk to you. I sha'n't keep you long." The old man looked anywhere but at his companion. A cold sweat was on his forehead, and his cheek twitched painfully under the steady gaze of the girl's somber eyes. "I don't often get a chance of talking to you now," she went on, with a slight touch of bitterness. "I just want to talk about that skunk, Lablache. I guess he didn't pass the evening talking of Retief—and what he intends to do towards his capture? Say, uncle, what was it about?"

The old man grasped at the suggestion.

"Yes—yes, child. It was Retief."

He kept his eyes averted. The girl was not deceived.

"All the time?"

"Poker" John remained silent. He would have lied but could not.

"Uncle!"

Her tone was a moral pressure. The old man turned for relief to his avuncular authority.

"I must go. You've no right—question me," he stuttered. "I refu—"

"No, uncle, you won't refuse me." The girl had risen and had moved round to where the old man sat. She fondled him lovingly and his attempt at angry protest died within him. "Come, dear, tell me all about it. You are worried and I can help you. What did he threaten you with? I suppose he wants money," contemptuously. "How much?"

The old drunkard was powerless to resist her loving appeal.

He was cornered. Another might have lied and so escaped, but John Allandale's weakness was such that he had not the courage to resort to subterfuge. Moreover, there was a faint spark of honor nickering deep down in his kindly heart. The girl's affectionate display was surely fanning that spark into a flame. Would the flame grow or would it sparkle up for one brief moment and then go out from pure lack of fuel? Suddenly something of the truth of the cause of her uncle's distress flashed across Jacky's mind. She knew Lablache's wishes in regard to herself. Perhaps she was the subject of that interview.

"Uncle, it is I who am causing you this trouble. What is it that Lablache wants of me?" She asked the question with her cheek pressed to the old man's face. His whisky-laden breath reeked in her nostrils.

Her question took him unawares, and he started up pushing her from him.

"Who—who told you, girl?" His bleared eyes were now turned upon her, and they gazed fearfully into hers.

"I thought so," she exclaimed, smiling back into the troubled face. "No one told me, uncle, I guess that beast wants to marry me. Say, uncle, you can tell me everything right here. I'll help you. He's smart, but he can't mate with me."

"But—but—" He struggled to collect his thoughts.

"No 'buts,' dear. I've refused Lablache once. I guess I can size up the racket he thinks to play. Money—money! He'd like to buy me, I take it. Say, uncle, can't we frolic him some? Now—what did he say?"

"I—can't tell you, child," the old man protested desperately. Then he weakened further before those deep, steadfast eyes. "Don't—press me. Don'—press me." His voice contained maudlin tears. "I'm a vill'n, girl. I'm worse. Don'—look a' me—like that. Ja'y—Ja'y—I've—sol'—you!"

The miserable old man flung himself back in his chair and his head bowed until his chin sank heavily upon his chest. Two great tears welled into his bloodshot eyes and trickled slowly down his seared old cheeks. It was a pitiable sight. Jacky looked on silently for a moment. Her eyes took in every detail of that picture of despair. She had heard the old man's words but took no heed of them. She was thinking very hard. Suddenly she seemed to arrive at a decision. Her laugh rang out, and she came and knelt at her uncle's side.

"So you've sold me, you old dear, and not a bad thing too. What's the price?"

Her uncle raised his bowed head. Her smiling face dried his tears and put fresh heart into him. He had expected bitter invective, but instead the girl smiled.

Jacky's task now became a simple one. A mere matter of pumping. Sharp questions and rambling replies. Bit by bit she learned the story of Lablache's proposal and the manner in which an acceptance had been forced upon her uncle. She did not relinquish her task until the minutest detail had been gleaned. At last she was satisfied with her cross-examination.

She rose to her feet and passed her hand with a caressing movement over her uncle's head, gazing the while out of the window. Her mind was made up. Her uncle needed her help now. That help should be his. She condoned his faults; she saw nothing but that which was lovable in his weakness. Hers was now the strength to protect him, who, in the days of his best manhood had sheltered her from the cruel struggles of a life in the half-breed camp, for such, at the death of her impecunious father, must otherwise have been her lot.

Now she looked down into that worn, old face, and her brisk, business-like tones roused him into new life.

"Uncle, you must meet Lablache and play—the game. For the rest, leave it to me. All I ask is—no more whisky to-day. Stay right here and have a sleep. Guess you might go an' lie down. I'll call you for supper. Then you'll be fit. One thing you must remember; watch that ugly-faced cur when you play. See he don't cheat any. I'll tell you more before you start out. Come right along now and have that sleep."

The old man got up and the girl led him from the room. She saw him to his bedroom and then left him. She decided that, for herself, she would not leave the house until she had seen Bill. She must get her uncle sober before he went to meet Lablache.



CHAPTER XXVI

IN WHICH MATTERS REACH A CLIMAX

Foss River Settlement was, at the time, a very small place, and of practically no importance. It was brought into existence by the neighborhood of one or two large ranches; these ranches employed considerable labor. Foss River might be visited by an earthquake, and, provided the earthquake was not felt elsewhere, the world would not be likely to hear of it for weeks. The newspapers of the Western cities were in their infancy, and contented themselves with the news of their own towns and feverish criticisms of politics which were beyond the understanding of their editors. Progress in the West was very slow—almost at a standstill.

After the death of Horrocks the police had withdrawn to report and to receive augmentation. No one felt alarm at their absence. The inhabitants of Foss River were a self-reliant people—accustomed to look to themselves for the remedy of a grievance. Besides, Horrocks, they said, had shown himself to be a duffer—merely a tracker, a prairie-man and not the man to bring Retief to justice. Already the younger members of the settlement and district were forming themselves into a vigilance committee. The elders—those to whom the younger looked for a lead in such matters—had chosen to go to the police; now the younger of the settlement decided to act for themselves.

This was the condition and feeling in Foss River at the time of the death of Horrocks; this was the state of affairs when the insouciant Bill leisurely strolled into the sitting-room at the Foss River Ranch, about the time that Joaquina Allandale had finished her tea. With the familiarity of the West, Bill entered by the French window. His lazy smile was undisturbed. He might have been paying an ordinary call instead of answering a summons which he knew must be a matter of emergency, for it was understood between these two that private meetings were tabooed, except when necessity demanded them.

Jacky's greeting was not reassuring, but her lover's expression remained unchanged, except that his weary eyelids further unclosed.

"Guess we're side-tracked, Bill," she said meaningly. "The line's blocked. Signals dead against us."

Bill looked into her eyes; then he turned and closed the window, latching it securely. The door was closed. His keen eyes noted this.

"What do you mean?"

The girl shrugged.

"The next twelve hours must finish our game."

"Ah!"

"Yes," the girl went on, "it is Lablache's doing. We must settle our reckoning with him to-night."

Bill flung himself into a chair.

"Will you explain?—I don't understand. May I smoke?"

Jacky smiled. The request was so unnecessary. She always liked Bill's nonchalance. It conveyed such a suggestion of latent power.

"Yes, smoke, Bill; smoke and get your thinking box in order. My yarn won't take a deal of time to tell. But it'll take a deal of thought to upset Lablache's last move, without—shootin'."

"Um—shooting's an evil, but sometimes—necessary. What's his racket?"

The girl told her story quickly. She forgot nothing. She never allowed herself to fall into the womanly mistake of omitting details, however small.

Bill fully appreciated her cleverness in this direction. He could trust what she said implicitly. At the conclusion of the story he sat up and rolled another cigarette.

"And your uncle is upstairs in bed?"

"Yes, when he wakes I guess he'll need a bracer. He'll be sober. He must play. Lablache means to win."

"Yes, he means to win. He has had a bad scare."

"What are we going to do?"

The girl eyed her lover keenly. She saw by his manner that he was thinking rapidly.

"The game must be interrupted—with another scare."

"What?"

Bill shrugged and laughed.

"What are you going to do?"

"Burn him out—his store. And then—"

"And then?" eagerly.

"Retief will be present at the game. Tell him what has happened and—if he doesn't leave Foss River—shoot him. Mortgages and all records of debts, etc., are in his store."

"Good."

After expressing her approval the girl sat gazing into her lover's face. They talked a little longer, then Bill rose to go.

"Eleven o'clock to-night you say is the appointed hour?"

"Yes. I shall meet you at the gate of the fifty-acre pasture."

"Better not."

"Yes, I am going to be there," with a decisive nod. "One cannot be sure. You may need me."

"Very well. Good-by, little woman." "Lord" Bill bent and kissed her. Then something very like a sigh escaped him. "I think with you this game is nearly up. To-night will settle things one way or the other."

"Yes. Trouble is not far off. Say, Bill, when it comes, I want to be with you."

Bill looked tenderly down into the upturned face.

"Is that why you insist on coming to-night?"

"Yes."

Another embrace and Bill left the house.

He sauntered leisurely down the avenue of pines. He kept straight on towards the muskeg. Then he turned away from the settlement, and was soon lost behind the rising ground which shored the great mire. Once out of sight of the house he quickened his pace, gradually swinging away from the keg, and heading towards the half-breed camp.

Foss River might have been deserted for all signs of life he encountered. The prairie was calmly silent. Not even the call of the birds broke the stillness around. The heat of the afternoon had lulled all nature to repose.

He strode on swiftly until he came to a small bluff. Here he halted and threw himself full length upon the ground in a welcome shade. He was within sight of the half-breed camp. He shifted his position until his head was in the sun. In this way he could see the scattered dwellings of the prairie outcasts. Then he drew a small piece of looking-glass from his pocket and held it out in the sun. Turning and twisting it in the direction of the camp, as might a child who wishes to dazzle a play-fellow's eyes. For several minutes he thus manipulated his impromptu heliograph. Then, as he suddenly beheld an answering flash in the distance, he desisted, and returned the glass to his pocket. Now he drew back in the shade and composed himself to smoke.

The half-closed eyes of the recumbent man gazed steadily out towards the camp. He had nearly finished his third cigarette when his quick ears caught the sound of footsteps. Instantly he sat up. The steps grew louder and then round the sheltering bush came the thick-set form of Gautier. He was accompanied by an evil-looking dog which growled sulkily as it espied the white man.

"Ugh! Hot walkin'," said the newcomer, by way of greeting.

"Not so hot as it'll be to-night," said the white man, quietly. "Sit down."

"More bonfires, boss?" said the half-breed, with a meaning grin, seating himself as he spoke.

"More bonfires. See you, I want six of the boys at Lablache's store to-night at eleven o'clock. We are going to burn his place. It will be quite easy. Lablache will be away, and only his clerks on the premises. The cellar underneath the building is lit by barred windows, two under the front, and two under the office at the back. All you have to do is to break the glass of the window at the back and pour in a couple of gallons of coal oil. Then push in some straw, and then light a piece of oil-soaked rope and drop it in. The cellar is full of cases of goods and barrels of oil. The fire will be unextinguishable. Directly it is well lit see that the clerks are warned. We want no lives lost. You understand? The stables are adjacent and will catch fire too. I sha'n't be there until later. There will be no risk and lots of loot. Savee?"

The cunning face of the half-breed was lit by an unholy grin. He rubbed his hands with the unctuous anticipation of a shop-walker. Truly, he thought, this white man was a man after his own heart. He wagged his head in approval.

"Easy—easy? It is childlike," he said in ecstasy. "I have long thought of it, sure. An' thar is a big store of whisky thar, eh, boss? Good—good! And what time will you come?"

"When the fire is lit. I go to deal with Lablache. Look you here, Gautier, you owe that man a grudge. You would kill him but you don't dare. I may pay off that grudge for you. Pay it by a means that is better than killing."

"Torture," grinned the half-breed.

Bill nodded.

"Now see and be off. And don't make any mistake, or we may all swing for it. Tell Baptiste he must go over the keg at once and bring Golden Eagle to my shack at about half-past ten. Tell him to be punctual. Now scoot. No mistakes, or—" and Bill made a significant gesture.

The man understood and hurried away. "Lord" Bill was satisfied that his orders would be carried out to the letter. The service he demanded of this man was congenial service, in so far that it promised loot in plenty and easily acquired. Moreover, the criminal side of the half-breed's nature was tickled. A liberal reward for honesty would be less likely to secure good service from such as Gautier than a chance of gain for shady work. It was the half-breed nature.

After the departure of the half-breed, Bill remained where he was for some time. He sat with his hands clasped round his knees, gazing thoughtfully out towards the camp. He was reviewing his forces and mentally struggling to penetrate the pall which obscured the future. He felt himself to be playing a winning game; at least, that his vengeance and chastisement of Lablache had been made ridiculously easy for him. But now he had come to that point when he wondered what must be the outcome of it all as regarded himself and the girl he loved. Would his persecution drive Lablache from Foss River to the security of Calford, Where he would be able to follow him and still further prosecute his inexorable vengeance? Or would he still choose to remain? He knew Lablache to be a strong man, but he also knew, by the money-lender's sudden determination to force Jacky into marriage with him, that he had received a scare. He could not decide on the point. But he inclined to the belief that Lablache must go after to-night. He would not spare him. He had yet a trump card to play. He would be present at the game of cards, and—well, time would show.

He threw away his mangled cigarette end and rose from the ground. One glance of his keen eyes told him that no one was in sight. He strolled out upon the prairie and made his way back to the settlement. He need not have troubled himself about the future. The future would work itself out, and no effort of his would be capable of directing its course. A higher power than man's was governing the actions of the participants in the Foss River drama.

For the rest of the day "Lord" Bill moved about the settlement in his customary idle fashion. He visited the saloon; he showed himself on the market-place. He discussed the doings of Retief with the butcher, the smith, Dr. Abbot. And, as the evening closed in and the sun's power lessened, he identified himself with others as idle as himself, and basked in the warmth of its feeble, dying rays.

When darkness closed in he went to his shack and prepared his evening meal with a simple directness which no thoughts of coming events could upset. Bill was always philosophical. He ate to live, and consequently was not particular about his food. He passed the evening between thought and tobacco, and only an occasional flashing of his lazy eyes gave any sign of the trend of his mental effort.

At a few minutes past ten he went into his bedroom and carefully locked the door. Then he drew from beneath his bed a small chest; it was an ammunition chest of very powerful make. The small sliding lid was securely padlocked. This he opened and drew from within several articles of apparel and a small cardboard box.

Next he divested himself of his own tweed clothes and donned the things he had taken from the box. These consisted of a pair of moleskin trousers, a pair of chaps, a buckskin shirt and a battered Stetson hat. From the cardboard box he took out a tin of greasy-looking stuff and a long black wig made of horse hair. Stepping to a glass he smeared his face with the grease, covering his own white flesh carefully right down to the chest and shoulders, also his hands. It was a brownish ocher and turned his skin to the copperish hue of the Indian. The wig was carefully adjusted and secured by sprigs to his own fair hair. This, with the hat well jammed down upon his head, completed the transformation, and out from the looking-glass peered the strong, eagle face of the redoubtable half-breed, Retief.

He then filled the chest with his own clothes and relocked it. Suddenly his quick ear caught the sound of some one approaching. He looked at his watch; it wanted two minutes to half-past ten. He waited.

Presently he heard the rattle of a stick down the featheredged boarding of the outer walls of the hut. He picked up his revolver belt and secured it about his waist, and then, putting out the light, unlocked the back door which opened out of his bedroom.

A horse was standing outside, and a man held the bridle reins looped upon his arm.

"That you, Baptiste?"

"Yup."

"Good, you are punctual."

"It's as well."

"Yes."

"I go to join the boys," the half-breed said slowly. "And you?"

"I—oh, I go to settle a last account with Lablache," replied Bill, with a mirthless laugh.

"Where?"

Bill looked sharply at the man. He understood the native distrust of the Breed. Then he nodded vaguely in the direction of the Foss River Ranch.

"Yonder. In old John's fifty-acre pasture. Lablache and John meet at the tool-shed there to-night. Why?"

"And you go not to the fire?" Baptiste's voice had a surprised ring in it.

"Not until later. I must be at the meeting soon after eleven."

The half-breed was silent for a minute. He seemed to be calculating. At length he spoke. His words conveyed resolve.

"It is good. Guess you may need assistance. I'll be there—and some of the boys. We ain't goin' ter interfere—if things goes smooth."

Bill shrugged.

"You need not come."

"No? Nuthin' more?"

"Nothing. Keep the boys steady. Don't burn the clerks in the store."

"No."

"S'long."

"S'long."

"Lord" Bill vaulted into the saddle, and Golden Eagle moved restively away.

It was as well that Foss River was a sleepy place. "Lord" Bill's precautions were not elaborate. But then he knew the ways of the settlement.

Dr. Abbot chanced to be standing in the doorway of the saloon. Bill's shack was little more than a hundred yards away. The doctor was about to step across to see if he were in, for the purpose of luring his friend into a game. Poker was not so plentiful with the doctor now since Bill had dropped out of Lablache's set.

He saw the dim outline of a horseman moving away from the back of "Lord" Bill's hut. His curiosity was aroused. He hastened across to the shack. He found it locked up, and in darkness. He turned away wondering. And as he turned away he found himself almost face to face with Baptiste. The doctor knew the man.

"Evening, Baptiste."

"Evening," the man growled.

The doctor was about to speak again but the man hurried away.

"Damned funny," the medical man muttered. Then he moved off towards his own home. Somehow he had forgotten his wish for poker.



CHAPTER XXVII

THE LAST GAMBLE

The fifty-acre pasture was situated nearly a quarter of a mile away to the left of John Allandale's house. Then, too, the whole length of it must be crossed before the implement shed be reached. This would add another half a mile to the distance, for the field was long and narrow, skirting as it did the hay slough which provided the ranch with hay. The pasture was on the sloping side of the slough, and on the top of the ridge stretched a natural fence of pines nearly two miles in extent.

The shed was erected for the accommodation of mowers, horse-rakes, and the necessary appurtenances for haying. At one end, as Lablache had said, was a living-room. It was called so by courtesy. It was little better than the rest of the building, except that there was a crazy door to it—also a window; a rusty iron stove, small, and—when a fire burned in it—fierce, was crowded into a corner. Now, however, the stove was dismantled, and lengths of stove pipe were littered about the floor around it. A rough bed, supported on trestles, and innocent of bedding, filled one end of this abode; a table made of packing cases, and two chairs of the Windsor type, one fairly sound and the other minus a back, completed the total of rude furniture necessary for a "hired man's" requirements.

A living-room, the money-lender had said, therefore we must accept his statement.

A reddish, yellow light from a dingy oil lamp glowed sullenly, and added to the cheerlessness of the apartment. At intervals black smoke belched from the chimney top of the lamp in response to the draughts which blew through the sieve-like boarding of the shed. One must feel sorry for the hired man whose lot is cast in such cheerless quarters.

It was past eleven. Lablache and John Allandale were seated at the table. The lurid light did not improve the expression of their faces.

"Poker" John was eager—keenly eager now that Jacky had urged him to the game. Moreover, he was sober—sober as the proverbial "judge." Also he was suspicious of his opponent. Jacky had warned him. He looked very old as he sat at that table. His senility appeared in every line of his face; in every movement of his shaking hands; in every glance of his bleared eyes.

Lablache, also, was changed slightly, but it was not in the direction of age; he showed signs of elation, triumph. He felt that he was about to accomplish the object which had long been his, and, at the same time, outwit the half-breed who had so lately come into his life, with such disastrous results to his, the money-lender's, peaceful enjoyment of his ill-gotten wealth.

Lablache turned his lashless eyes in the direction of the window. It was a square aperture of about two feet in extent.

"We are not likely to be interrupted," he said wheezily, "but it never does to chance anything. Shall we cover the window? A light in this room is unusual—"

"Yes, let us cover it." "Poker" John chafed at the delay. "No one is likely to come this way, though."

Lablache looked about for something which would answer his purpose. There was nothing handy. He drew out his great bandanna and tried it. It exactly covered the window. So he secured it. It would serve to darken the light to any one who might chance to be within sight of the shed. He returned to his seat. He bulged over it as he sat down, and its legs creaked ominously.

"I have brought three packs of cards," he said, laying them upon the table.

"So have I."

"Poker" John looked directly into the other's bilious eyes.

"Ah—then we have six packs."

"Yes—six."

"Whose shall we—" Lablache began.

"We'll cut for it. Ace low. Low wins."

The money-lender smiled at the rancher's eagerness. The two men cut in silence. Lablache cut a "three"; "Poker" John, a "queen."

"We will use your cards, John." The money-lender's face expressed an unctuous benignity.

The rancher was surprised, and his tell-tale cheek twitched uncomfortably.

"For deal," said Lablache, stripping one of John's packs and passing it to his companion. The rancher shuffled and cut—Lablache cut. The deal went to the latter.

"We want something to score on," the money-lender said. "My memorandum pad—"

"We'll have nothing on the table, please." John had been warned.

Lablache shrugged and smiled. He seemed to imply that the precaution was unnecessary. "Poker" John was in desperate earnest.

"A piece of chalk—on the wall." The rancher produced the chalk and set it on the floor close by the wall and returned to his seat.

Lablache shuffled clumsily. His fingers seemed too gross to handle cards. And yet he could shuffle well, and his fingers were, in reality, most sensitive. John Allandale looked on eagerly. The money-lender, contrary to his custom, dealt swiftly—so swiftly that the bleared eyes of his opponent could not follow his movements.

Both men picked up their cards. The old instincts of poker were not so pronounced in the rancher as they used to be. Doubtless the game he was now playing did not need such mask-like impassivity of expression as an ordinary game would. After all, the pot opened, it merely became a question of who held the best hand. There would be no betting. John's eyes lighted up as he glanced at the index numerals. He held two "Jacks."

"Can you?" Lablache's husky voice rasped in the stillness.

"Yes."

The dealer eyed his opponent for a second. His face was that of a graven image.

"How many?"

"Three."

The money-lender passed three cards across the table. Then he discarded two cards from his own hand and drew two more.

"What have you got?" he asked, with a grim pursing of his sagging lips.

"Two pairs. Jacks up."

Lablache laid his own cards on the table, spreading them out face upwards for the rancher to see. He held three "twos."

"One to you," said John Allandale; and he went and chalked the score upon the wall.

There was something very business-like about these two men when they played cards. And possibly it was only natural. The quiet way in which they played implied the deadly earnestness of their game. Their surroundings, too, were impressive when associated with the secrecy of their doings.

Each man meant to win, and in both were all the baser passions fully aroused. Neither would spare the other, each would do his utmost. Lablache was sure. John was consumed with a deadly nervousness. But John Allandale at cards was the soul of honor. Lablache was confident in his superior manipulation—not play—of cards. He knew that, bar accidents, he must win. The mystery of being able to deal himself "three of a kind" and even better was no mystery to him. He preferred his usual method—the method of "reflection," as he called it; but in the game he was now playing such a method would be useless for obvious reasons. First of all, knowing his opponent's cards would only be of advantage where betting was to ensue. Now he needed the clumsier, if more sure, method of dealing himself a hand. And he did not hesitate to adopt it.

"Poker" John dealt The pot was not opened. Lablache again dealt. Still the hand passed without the pot being opened. The next time John dealt Lablache opened the pot and was promptly beaten. He drew to two queens and missed. John drew to a pair of sevens and got a third. The game was one all. After this Lablache won three pots in succession and the game stood four—one, in favor of the money-lender.

The old rancher's face more than indicated the state of the game. His features were gray and drawn. Already he saw his girl married to the man opposite to him. For an instant his weakness led him to think of refusing to play further—to defy Lablache and bid him do his worst. Then he remembered that the girl herself had insisted that he must see the game through—besides, he might yet win. He forced his thoughts to the coming hand. He was to deal.

The deal, as far as he was concerned, was successful, His spirits rose.

Four—two.

Lablache took up the cards to deal. John was watching as though his life depended upon what he saw. Lablache's clumsy shuffle annoyed him. The lashless eyes of the money-lender were bent upon the cards, but he had no difficulty in observing the old man's attention. This unusual attention he set down to a natural excitement. He had not the smallest idea that the old man suspected him. He passed the cards to be cut. The rancher cut them carelessly. He had a natural cut. The pack was nearly halved. Lablache had prepared for this.

The hand was dealt, and the money-lender won with three aces, all of which he had drawn in a five-card draw. He had discarded a pair of nines to make the heavy draw. It was clumsy, but he had been forced to it. The position of the aces in the pack he had known, and—well, he meant to win.

Five—two.

The clumsiness of that deal was too palpable. Old John suspected, but held his tongue. His anger rose, and the drawn face flushed with the suddenness of lightning. He was in a dangerous mood. Lablache saw the flush, and a sudden fear gripped his heart. He passed the cards to the other, and then, involuntarily, his hand dropped into the right-hand pocket of his coat. It came in contact with his revolver—and stayed there.

The next hand passed without the pot being opened—and the next. Lablache was a little cautious. The next deal resulted in favor of the rancher.

Five—three.

Lablache again took the cards. This time he meant to get his hand in the deal. At that moment the money-lender would have given a cool thousand had a bottle of whisky been on the table. He had not calculated on John being sober. He shuffled deliberately and offered the pack to be cut. John cut in the same careless manner, but this time he did it purposely. Lablache picked up the bottom half of the cut. There was a terrible silence in the room, and a deadly purpose was expressed in "Poker" John's eyes.

The money-lender began to deal. In an instant John was on his feet and lurched across the table. His hand fell upon the first card which Lablache had dealt to himself.

"The ace of clubs," shouted the rancher, his eyes blazing and his body fairly shaking with fury. He turned the card over. It was the ace of clubs.

"Cheat!" he shouted.

He had seen the card at the bottom of the pack as the other had ceased to shuffle.

There was an instant's thrilling pause. Then Lablache's hand flew to his pocket. He had heard the click of a cocking revolver.

For the moment the rancher's old spirit rose superior to his senile debility.

"God in heaven! And this is how you've robbed me, you—you bastard!"

"Poker" John's seared face was at that moment the face of a maniac. He literally hurled his fury at the money-lender, who was now standing confronting him.

"It is the last time, if—if I swing for it. Prairie law you need, and, Hell take you, you shall have it!"

He swung himself half round. Simultaneously two reports rang out. They seemed to meet in one deafening peal, which was exaggerated by the smallness of the room. Then all was silence.

Lablache stood unmoved, his yellow eyeballs gleaming wickedly. For a second John Allandale swayed while his face assumed a ghastly hue. Then in deathly silence he slowly crumpled up, as it were. No sound passed his lips and he sank in a heap upon the floor. His still smoking pistol dropped beside him from his nerveless fingers.

The rancher had intended to kill Lablache, but the subtle money-lender had been too quick. The lashless eyes watched the deathly fall of the old man. There was no expression in them but that of vengeful coldness. He was accustomed to the unwritten laws of the prairie. He knew that he had saved his life by a hair's-breadth. His right hand was still in his coat pocket. He had fired through the cloth of the coat.

Some seconds passed. Still Lablache did not move. There was no remorse in his heart—only annoyance. He was thinking with the coolness of a callous nerve. He was swiftly calculating the effect of the catastrophe as regarded himself. It was the worst thing that could have happened to him. Shooting was held lightly on the prairie, he knew, but—Then he slowly drew his pistol from his pocket and looked thoughtfully at it. His caution warned him of something. He withdrew the empty cartridge case and cleaned out the barrel. Then he put a fresh cartridge in the chamber and returned the pistol to his pocket. He was very deliberate, and displayed no emotion. His asthmatical breathing, perhaps, might have been more pronounced than usual. Then he gathered up the cards from floor and table, and wiped out the score upon the wall. He put the cards in his pocket. After that he stirred the body of his old companion with his foot. There was no sound from the prostrate rancher. Then the money-lender gently lowered himself to his knees and placed his hand over his victim's heart. It was still. John Allandale was dead.

It was now for the first time that Lablache gave any sign of emotion. It was not the emotion of sorrow—merely fear—susperstitious fear. As he realized that the other was dead his head suddenly turned. It was an involuntary movement. And his fishy eyes gazed fearfully behind him. It was his first realization of guilt. The brand of Cain must inevitably carry with it a sense of horror to him who falls beneath its ban. He was a murderer—and he knew it.

Now his-movements became less deliberate. He felt that he must get away from that horrid sight. He rose swiftly, with a display of that agility which the unfortunate Horrocks had seen. He glanced about the room and took his bearings. He strode to the lamp and put it out. Then he groped his way to the window and took down his bandanna; stealthily, and with a certain horror, he felt his way in the darkness to the door. He opened it and passed out.



CHAPTER XXVIII

SETTLING THE RECKONING

Jacky stood at the gate of the fifty-acre pasture. She had been standing there for some minutes. The night was quite dark; there was no moon. Her horse, Nigger, was standing hitched to one of the fence posts a few yards away from her and inside the pasture. The girl was waiting for "Lord" Bill.

Not a sound broke the stillness of the night as she stood listening. A wonderful calmness was over all. From her position Jacky had seen the light shining through the window of the implement shed. Now the shed was quite dark—the window had been covered. She knew that her uncle and Lablache were there. She was growing impatient.

Every now and then she would turn her face from the contemplation of the blackness of the distant end of the field to the direction of the settlement, her ears straining to catch the sound of her dilatory lover's coming. The minutes passed all too swiftly. And her impatience grew and found vent in irritable movements and sighs of vexation.

Suddenly her ears caught the sound of distant cries coming from the settlement. She turned in the direction. A lurid gleam was in the sky. Then, as she watched, the glare grew brighter, and sparks shot up in a great wreathing cloud of smoke. The direction was unmistakable. She knew that Lablache's store had been fired.

"Good," she murmured, with a sigh of relief. "I guess Bill'll come right along now. I wish he'd come. They've been in that shack ten minutes or more. Why don't he come?"

The glare of the fire fascinated her, and her eyes remained glued in the direction of it. The reflection in the sky was widespread and she knew that the great building must be gutted, for there was no means of putting the fire out. Then her thoughts turned to Lablache, and she smiled as she thought of the surprise awaiting him. The sky in the distance grew brighter. She could only see the lurid reflection; a rising ground intervened between her and the settlement.

Suddenly against the very heart of the glare the figure of a horseman coming towards her was silhouetted as he rode over the rising ground. One glance sufficed the girl. That tall, thin figure was unmistakable—her lover was hastening towards her. She turned to her horse and unhitched the reins from the fence post.

Presently Bill came up and dismounted. He led Golden Eagle through the gate. The greeting was an almost silent one between these two. Doubtless their thoughts carried them beyond mere greetings. They stood for a second.

"Shall we ride?" said Jacky, inclining her head in the direction of the shed.

"No, we will walk. How long have they been there?"

"A quarter of an hour, I guess."

"Come along, then."

They walked down the pasture leading their two horses.

"I see no light," said Bill, looking straight ahead of him.

"It is covered—the window, I mean. What are you going to do, Bill?"

The man laughed.

"Lots—but I shall be guided by circumstances. You must remain outside, Jacky; you can see to the horses."

"P'r'aps."

The man turned sharply.

"P'r'aps?"

"Yes, one never knows. I guess it's no use fixing things when—guided by circumstances."

They relapsed into silence and walked steadily on. Half the distance was covered when Jacky halted.

"Will Golden Eagle stand 'knee-haltering,' Bill?"

"Yes, why?"

"We'll 'knee-halter' 'em."

Bill stood irresolute.

"It'll be better, I guess," the girl pursued. "We'll be freer."

"All right," replied Bill. "But," after a pause, "I'd rather you didn't come further, little woman—there may be shooting—"

"That's so. I like shootin'. What's that?"

The girl had secured her horse, Bill was in the act of securing his. Jacky raised her hand in an attitude of attention and turned her face to windward. Bill stood erect and listened.

"Ah!—it's the boys. Baptiste said they would come."

There was a faint rustling of grass near by. Jacky's keen ears had detected the stealing sound at once. To others it might have passed for the effect of the night breeze.

They listened for a few seconds longer, then Bill turned to the girl.

"Come—the horses are safe. The boys will not show themselves. I fancy they are here to watch only—me."

They continued on towards the shed. They were both wrapt in silent thought. Neither was prepared for what was to come. They were still nearly a quarter of a mile from the building. Its outline was dimly discernible in the darkness. And, too, now the light from the oil lamp could be seen dimly shining through the red bandanna which was stretched over the window.

Now the sound of "Poker" John's voice raised in anger reached them. They stood still with one accord. It was astonishing how the voice traveled all that distance. He must be shouting. A sudden fear gripped their hearts. Bill was the first to move. With a whispered "Wait here," he ran forward. For an instant Jacky waited, then, on a sudden impulse, she followed her lover.

The girl had just started. Suddenly the sharp report of firearms split the air. She came up with Bill, who had paused at the sound.

"Hustle, Bill. It's murder," the girl panted.

"Yes," and he ran forward with set face and gleaming eyes.

Murder—and who was the victim? Bill wondered, and his heart misgave him. There was no longer any sound of voices. The rancher had been silenced. He thought of the girl behind him. Then his whole mind suddenly centered itself upon Lablache. If he had killed the rancher no mercy should be shown to him.

Bill was rapidly nearing the building, and it was wrapped in an ominous silence.

For a second he again came to a stand. He wanted to make sure. He could hear Jacky's speeding footfalls from behind. And he could hear the stealthy movements of those others. These were the only sounds that reached him. He-went on again. He came to the building. The window was directly in front of him. He tried to look into the room but the handkerchief effectually hid the interior. Suddenly the light went out. He knew what this meant. Turning away from the window he crept towards the door. Jacky had come up. He motioned her into the shadow. Then he waited.

The door opened and a great figure came out. It was Lablache. Even in the darkness Bill recognized him. His heavy, asthmatical breathing must have betrayed the money-lender if there had been no other means of identification.

Lablache stepped out on to the prairie utterly unconscious of the figures crouching in the darkness. He stepped heavily forward. Four steps—that was all. A silent spring—an iron grip round the money-lender's throat, from behind. A short, sharp struggle—a great gasping for breath. Then Lablache reeled backwards and fell to the ground with Bill hanging to his throat like some tiger. In the fall the money-lender's pistol went off. There was a sharp report, and the bullet tore up the ground. But no harm was done. Bill held on. Then came the swish of a skirt. Jacky was at her lover's side. She dragged the money-lender's pistol from his pocket. Then Bill let go his hold and stood panting over the prostrate man. The whole thing was done in silence. No word was spoken.

Lablache sucked in a deep whistling breath. His eyes rolled and he struggled into a sitting posture. He was gazing into the muzzle of Bill's pistol.

"Get up!" The stern voice was unlike Bill's, but there was nothing of the twang of Retief about it.

The money-lender stared, but did not move—neither did he speak. Jacky had darted into the hut. She had gone to light the lamp and learn the truth.

"Get up!" The chilling command forced the money-lender to rise. He saw before him the tall, thin figure of his assailant.

"Retief!" he gasped, and then stood speechless.

Now the re-lighted lamp glowed through the doorway. Bill pointed towards the door.

"Go inside!" The relentless pistol was at Lablache's head.

"No—no! Not inside." The words whistled on a gasping breath.

"Go inside!"

Cowed and fearful, Lablache obeyed the mandate.

Bill followed the money-lender into the miserable room. His keen eyes took in the scene in one swift glance. He saw Jacky kneeling beside the prostrate form of her uncle. She was not weeping. Her beautiful face was stonily calm. She was just looking down at that still form, that drawn gray face, the staring eyes and dropped jaw. Bill saw and understood. Lablache might expect no mercy.

The murderer himself was now looking in the direction of—but not at—the body of his victim. He was gazing with eyes which expressed horrified amazement at the sight of the crouching figure of Jacky Allandale. He was trying to fathom the meaning of her association with Retief.

Bill closed the door. Now he came forward towards the table, always keeping Lablache in front of him.

"Is he dead?" Bill's voice was solemn.

Jacky looked up. There was a look as of stone in her somber eyes.

"He is dead—dead."

"Ah! For the moment we will leave the dead. Come, let us deal with the living. It is time for a final reckoning."

There was a deadly chill in the tone of Bill's voice—a chill which was infinitely more dreadful to Lablache's ears than could any passionate outburst have been.

The door opened gently. No one noticed it, so absorbed were they in the ghastly matter before them. Wider the door swung and several dusky faces appeared in the opening.

The money-lender stood motionless. His gaze ignored the dead. He watched the living. He wondered what "Lord" Bill's preamble portended. He shook himself like one rousing from some dreadful nightmare. He summoned his courage and tried to face the consequences of his act with an outward calm. Struggle as he might a deadly fear was ever present.

It was not the actual fear of death—it was the moral dread of something intangible. He feared at that moment not that which was to come. It was the presence of the dusky-visaged raider and—the girl. He feared mostly the icy look on Jacky's face. However, his mind was quite clear. He was watching for a loophole of escape. And he lost no detail of the scene before him.

A matter which puzzled him greatly was the familiar voice of the raider. Retief, as he knew him, spoke with a pronounced accent, but now he only heard the ordinary tones of an Englishman.

Bill had purposely abandoned his exaggerated Western drawl. Now he removed the scarf from his neck and proceeded to wipe the yellow grease from his face and neck. Lablache, with dismay in his heart, saw the white skin which had been concealed beneath the paint. The truth flashed upon him instantly. And before Bill had had time to remove his wig his name had passed the money-lender's lips.

"Bunning-Ford?" he gasped. And in that expression was a world of moral fear.

"Yes, Bunning-Ford, come to settle his last reckoning with you."

Bill eyed the murderer steadily and Lablache felt his last grip on his courage relax. A terrible fear crept upon him as his courage ebbed. Slowly Bill turned his eyes in the direction of the still kneeling Jacky. The girl's eyes met his, and, in response to some mute understanding which passed between them, she rose to her feet.

Bill did not speak. He merely looked at his pistol. Jacky spoke as if answering some remark of his.

"Yes, this is my affair."

Then she turned upon the money-lender. There was no wrath in her face, no anger in her tones; only that horrid, stony purpose which Lablache dreaded. He wished she would hurl invective at him. He felt that it would have been better so.

"The death which you have dealt to that poor old man is too good for you—murderer," she said, her deep, somber eyes seeming to pass through and through the mountain of flesh she was addressing. "I take small comfort in the thought that he had no time to suffer bodily pain. You will suffer—later." Bill gazed at her wonderingly. "Liar!—cheat!—you pollute the earth. You thought to cozen that poor, harmless old man out of his property—out of me. You thought to ruin him as you have ruined others. Your efforts will avail you nothing. From the moment Bill discovered the use of your memorandum pad"—Lablache started—"your fate was sealed. We swore to confiscate your property. For every dollar you took from us you should pay ten. But now the matter is different. There is a justice on the prairie—a rough, honest, uncorruptible justice. And that justice demands your life. You shall scourge Foss River no longer. You have murdered. You shall die!—"

Jacky was about to go further with her inexorable denunciation when the door of the shed was flung wide, and eight Breeds, headed by Gautier and Baptiste, came in. They came in almost noiselessly, their moccasined feet giving out scarcely any sound upon the floor of the room.

"Lord" Bill turned, startled at the sudden apparition. Jacky hesitated. Here was a contingency which none had reckoned upon. One glance at those dark, cruel faces warned all three that these prairie outcasts had been silent witnesses of everything that had taken place. It was a supreme moment, and the deadly pallor which had assumed a leadenish hue on Lablache's face told of one who appreciated the horror of that silent coming.

Baptiste stepped over to where Jacky stood. He looked at her, and then his gaze passed to the dead man upon the floor. His beady, black eyes turned fiercely upon the cowering money-lender.

"Ow!" he grunted. And his tone was the fierce expression of an Indian roused to homicidal purpose.

Then he turned back to Jacky, and the look on his face changed to one of sympathy and even love.

"Not you, missie—and the white man—no. The prairie is the land of the Breed and his forefathers—the Red Man. Guess the law of the prairie'll come best from such as he. You are one of us," he went on, surveying the girl's beautiful face in open admiration. "You've allus been mostly one of us—but I take it y'are too white. No, guess you ain't goin' ter muck yer pretty hands wi' the filthy blood of yonder," pointing to Lablache. "These things is fur the likes o' us. Jest leave this skunk to us. Death is the sentence, and death he's goin' ter git—an' it'll be somethin' ter remember by all who behold. An' the story shall go down to our children. This poor dead thing was our best frien'—an' he's dead—murdered. So, this is a matter for the Breed."

Then the half-breed turned away. Seeing the chalk upon the floor he stooped and picked it up.

"Let's have the formalities. It is but just—"

Bill suddenly interrupted. He was angry at the interference of Baptiste.

"Hold on!"

Baptiste swung round. The white man got no further. The Breed broke in upon him with animal ferocity.

"Who says hold on? Peace, white man, peace! This is for us. Dare to stop us, an'—"

Jacky sprang between her lover and the ferocious half-breed.

"Bill, leave well alone," she said. And she held up a warning finger.

She knew these men, of a race to which she, in part, belonged. As well baulk a tiger of its prey. She knew that if Bill interfered his life would pay the forfeit. The sanguinary lust of these human devils once aroused, they cared little how it be satisfied.

Bill turned away with a shrug, and he was startled to see that he had been noiselessly surrounded by the rest of the half-breeds. Had Jacky's command needed support, it would have found it in this ominous movement.

Fate had decreed that the final act in the Foss River drama should come from another source than the avenging hands of those who had sealed their compact in Bad Man's Hollow.

Baptiste turned away from "Lord" Bill, and, at a sign from him, Lablache was brought round to the other side of the table—to where the dead rancher was lying. Baptiste handed him the chalk and then pointed to the wall, on which had been written the score of old John's last gamble.

"Write!" he said, turning back to his prisoner.

Lablache gazed fearfully around. He essayed to speak, but his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth.

"Write—while I tell you." The Breed still pointed to the wall.

Lablache held out the chalk.

"I kill John Allandale," dictated Baptiste.

Lablache wrote.

"Now, sign. So."

Lablache signed. Jacky and Bill stood looking on silent and wondering.

"Now," said Baptiste, with all the solemnity of a court official, "the execution shall take place. Lead him out!"

At this instant Jacky laid her hand upon the half-breed's arm.

"What—what is it?" she asked. And from her expression something of the stony calmness had gone, leaving in its place a look of wondering not untouched with horror.

"The Devil's Keg!"



CHAPTER XXIX

THE MAW OF THE MUSKEG

Down the sloping shore to the level of the great keg, the party of Breeds—and in their midst the doomed money-lender—made their way. Jacky and "Lord" Bill, on their horses, brought up the rear.

The silent cortege moved slowly on, out on to the oozing path across the mire. Lablache was now beyond human aid.

The right and wrong of their determination troubled the Breeds not one whit. But it was different with the two white people. What thoughts Bill had upon the matter he kept to himself. He certainly felt that he ought to interfere, but he knew how worse than useless his interference would be. Besides, the man should die. The law of Judge Lynch was the only law for such as he. Let that law take its course. Bill would have preferred the stout tree and a raw-hide lariat. But—and he shrugged his shoulders.

Jacky felt more deeply upon the subject. She saw the horror in all its truest lights, and yet she had flouted her lover's suggestion that she should not witness the end. Bad and all as Lablache was—cruel as was his nature, murderer though he be, surely no crime, however heinous, could deserve the fate to which he was going. She had remonstrated—urged Baptiste to forego his wanton cruelty, to deal out justice tempered with a mercy which should hurl the money-lender to oblivion without suffering—with scarce time to realize the happening. Her efforts were unavailing. As well try to turn an ape from its mischief—a man-eater from its mania for human blood. The inherent love of cruelty had been too long fostered in these Breeds of Foss River. Lablache had too long swayed their destinies with his ruthless hand of extortion. All the pent-up hatred, stored in the back cells of memory, was now let loose. For all these years in Foss River they had been forced to look to Lablache as the ruler of their destinies. Was he not the great—the wealthy man of the place? When he held up his finger they must work—and his wage was the wage of a dog. When money was scarce among them, would he not drive them starving from his great store? When their children and women were sick, would he not refuse them drugs—food—nourishment of any sort, unless the money was down? They had not even the privilege of men who owned land. There was no credit for the Breeds—outcasts. Baptiste and his fellows remembered all these things. Their time had come. They would pay Lablache—and their score of interest should be heavy.

On their way from the shed to the muskeg Lablache had seen the reflection of the fire at his store in the sky. Gautier had taken devilish satisfaction in telling the wretched man of what had been done—mouthing the details in the manner of one who finds joy in cruelty. He remembered past injuries, and reveled in the money-lender's agony.

After a toilsome journey the Breeds halted at the point where the path divided into three. Jacky and Bill sat on their horses and watched the scene. Then, slowly, something of Baptiste's intention was borne in upon them.

Jacky reached out and touched her lover's arm.

"Bill, what are they going to do?"

She asked the question. But the answer was already with her. Her companion remained silent. She did not repeat her question.

Then she heard Baptiste's raucous tones as he issued his commands.

"Loose his hands!"

Jacky watched Lablache's face in the dim starlight. It was ghastly. The whole figure of the man seemed to have shrunk. The wretched man stood free, and yet more surely a prisoner than any criminal in a condemned cell.

The uncertain light of the stars showed only the dark expanse of the mire upon all sides. In the distance, ahead, the mountains were vaguely outlined against the sky; behind and around, nothing but that awful death-trap. Jacky had lived all her life beside the muskeg, but never, until that moment, had she realized the awful terror of its presence.

Now Baptiste again commanded.

"Prepare for death."

It seemed to the listening girl that a devilish tone of exultation rang in his words. She roused herself from her fascinated attention. She was about to urge her horse forward. But a thin, powerful hand reached out and gripped her by the arm. It was "Lord" Bill. His hoarse whisper sung in her ears.

"Your own words—Leave well alone."

And she allowed her horse to stand.

Now she leaned forward in her saddle and rested her elbows upon the horn in front of her. Again she heard Baptiste speak. He seemed to be in sole command.

"We'll give yer a chance fur yer life—"

Again the fiendish laugh underlaid the words.

"It's a chance of a dog—a yellow dog," he pursued. Jacky shuddered. "But such a chance is too good fur yer likes. Look—look, those hills. See the three tall peaks—yes, those three, taller than the rest. One straight in front; one to the right, an' one away to the left. Guess this path divides right hyar—in three, an' each path heads for one of those peaks. Say, jest one trail crosses the keg—one. Savee? The others end sudden, and then—the keg."

The full horror of the man's meaning now became plain to the girl. She heaved a great gasp, and turned to Bill. Her lover signed a warning. She turned again to the scene before her.

"Now, see hyar, you scum," Baptiste went on. "This is yer chance. Choose yer path and foller it. Guess yer can't see it no more than yer ken see this one we're on, but you've got the lay of it. Guess you'll travel the path yer choose to—the end. If yer don't move—an' move mighty slippy—you'll be dumped headlong into the muck. Ef yer git on to the right path an' cross the keg safe, yer ken sling off wi' a whole skin. Guess you'll fin' it a ticklish job—mebbe you'll git through. But I've a notion yer won't. Now, take yer dog's chance, an' remember, its death if yer don't, anyway."

The man ceased speaking. Jacky saw Lablache shake his great head. Then something made him look at the mountains beyond. There were the three dimly-outlined peaks. They were clear enough to guide him. Jacky, watching, saw the expression of his face change. It was as though a flicker of hope had risen within him. Then she saw him turn and eye Baptiste. He seemed to read in that cruel, dark face a vengeful purpose. He seemed to scent a trick. Presently he turned again to the hills.

How plainly the watching girl read the varying emotions which beset him. He was trying to face this chance calmly, but the dark expanse of the surrounding mire wrung his heart with terror. He could not choose, and yet he knew he must do so or—

Baptiste spoke again.

"Choose!"

Lablache again bent his eyes upon the hills. But his lashless lids would flicker, and his vision became impaired. He turned to the Breed with an imploring gesture. Baptiste made no movement. His relentless expression remained unchanged. The wretched man turned away to the rest of the Breeds.

A pistol was leveled at his head and he turned back to Baptiste. The only comfort he obtained was a monosyllabic command.

"Choose!"

"God, man, I can't." Lablache gasped out the words which seemed literally to be wrung from him.

"Choose!" The inexorable tone sent a shudder over the distraught man. Even in the starlight the expression of the villain's face was hideous to behold.

Baptiste's voice again rang out on the still night air.

"Move him!"

A pistol was pushed behind his ear.

"Do y' hear?"

"Mercy—mercy!" cried the distraught man. But he made no move.

There was an instant's pause. Then the loud report of the threatening pistol rang out. It had been fired through the lobe of his ear.

"Oh, God!"

The exclamation was forced from Jacky. The torture—the horror nearly drove her wild. She lifted her reins as though to ride to the villain's aid. Then something—some cruel recollection—stayed her. She remembered her uncle and her heart hardened.

The merciless torture of the Breed was allowed to pass.

To the wretched victim it seemed that his ear-drum must be split for the shot had left him almost stone deaf. The blood trickled from the wound. He almost leapt forward. Then he stood all of a tremble as he felt the ground shake beneath him. A cold sweat poured down his great face.

"Choose!" Baptiste followed the terror-stricken man up.

"No—no! Don't shoot! Yes, I'll go—only—don't shoot."

The abject cowardice the great man now displayed was almost pitiable. Bill's lip curled in disdain. He had expected that this man would have shown a bold front.

He had always believed Lablache to be, at least, a man of courage. But he did not allow for the circumstances—the surroundings. Lablache on the safe ground of the prairie would have faced disaster very differently. The thought of that sucking mire was too terrible. The oily maw of that death-trap was a thing to strike horror into the bravest heart.

"Which path?" Baptiste spoke, waving his hand in the direction of the mountains.

Lablache moved cautiously forward, testing the ground with his foot as he went. Then he paused again and eyed the mountains.

"The right path," he said at last, in a guttural whisper.

"Then start." The words rang out cuttingly upon the night air.

Lablache fixed his eyes upon the distant peak of the mountain which was to be his guide. He advanced slowly. The Breeds followed, Jacky and Bill bringing up the rear. The ground seemed firm and the money-lender moved heavily forward. His breath came in gasps. He was panting, not with exertion, but with terror. He could not test the ground until his weight was upon it. An outstretched foot pressed on the grassy path told him nothing. He knew that the crust would hold until the weight of his body was upon it. With every successful step his terror increased. What would the next bring forth?

His agony of mind was awful.

He covered about ten yards in this way. The sweat poured from him. His clothes stuck to him. He paused for a second and took fresh bearings. He turned his head and looked into the muzzle of Baptiste's revolver. He shuddered and turned again to the mountains. He pressed forward. Still the ground was firm. But this gave him no hope. Suddenly a frightful horror swept over him. It was something fresh; he had not thought of it before. The fact was strange, but it was so. The path—had he taken the wrong one? He had made his selection at haphazard and he knew that there was no turning back. Baptiste had said so and he had seen his resolve written in his face. A conviction stole over him that he was on the wrong path. He knew he was. He must be. Of course it was only natural. The center path must be the main one. He stood still. He could have cried out in his mental agony. Again he turned—and saw the pistol.

He put his foot out. The ground trembled at his touch. He drew back with a gurgling cry. He turned and tried another spot. It was firm until his weight rested upon it. Then it shook. He sought to return to the spot he had left. But now he could not be sure. His mind was uncertain. Suddenly he gave a jump. He felt the ground solid beneath him as he alighted. His face was streaming. He passed his hand across it in a dazed way. His terror increased a hundredfold. Now he endeavored to take his bearings afresh. He looked out at the three mountains. The right one—yes, that was it. The right one. He saw the peak, and made another step forward. The path held. Another step and his foot went through. He drew back with a cry. He tripped and fell heavily. The ground shook under him and he lay still, moaning.

Baptiste's voice roused him and urged him on.

"Git on, you skunk," he said. "Go to yer death."

Lablache sat up and looked about. He felt dazed. He knew he must go on. Death—death which ever way he turned. God! did ever a man suffer so? The name of John Allandale came to his mind and he gazed wildly about, fancying some one had whispered it to him in answer to his thoughts. He stood up. He took another step forward with reckless haste. He remembered the pistol behind him. The ground seemed to shake under him. His distorted fancy was playing tricks with him. Another step. Yes, the ground was solid—no, it shook. The weight of his body came down on the spot. His foot went through. He hurled himself backwards again and clutched wildly at the ground. He shuddered and cried out. Again came Baptiste's voice.

"Git on, or—"

The distraught man struggled to his feet. He was becoming delirious with terror. He stepped forward again. The ground seemed solid and he laughed a horrid, wild laugh. Another step and another. He paused, breathing hard. Then he started to mutter,—

"On—on. Yes, on again or they'll have me. The path—this is the right one. I'll cheat 'em yet."

He strode out boldly. His foot sank in something soft He did not seem to notice it. Another step and his foot sank again in the reeking muck. Suddenly he seemed to realize. He threw himself back and obtained a foothold. He stood trembling. He turned and tried another direction. Again he sank. Again he drew back. His knees tottered and he feared to move. Suddenly a ring of metal pressed against his head from behind. In a state of panic he stepped forward on the shaking ground. It held. He paused, then stepped again, his foot coming down on a reedy tuft. It shook, but still held. He took another step. His foot sunk quickly, till the soft muck oozed round his ankle. He cried out in terror and turned to come back.

Baptiste stood with leveled pistol.

"On—on, you gopher. Turn again an' I wing yer. On, you bastard. You've chosen yer path, keep to it."

"Mercy—I'm sinking."

"Git on—not one step back."

Lablache struggled to release his sinking limb. By a great effort he drew it out only to plunge it into another yielding spot. Again he struggled, and in his struggle his other foot slipped from its reedy hold. It, too, sank. With a terrible cry he plunged forward. He lurched heavily as he sought to drag his feet from the viscid muck. At every effort he sank deeper. At last he hurled himself full length upon the surface of the reeking mire. He cried aloud, but no one answered him. Under his body he felt the yielding crust cave. He clutched at the surface grass, but he only plucked the tufts from their roots. They gave him no hold.

The silent figures on the path watched his death-struggle. It was ghastly—horrible. The expression of their faces was fiendish. They watched with positive joy. There was no pity in the hearts of the Breeds.

They hearkened to the man's piteous cries with ears deafened to all entreaty. They simply watched—watched and reveled in the watching—for the terrible end which must come.

Already the murderer's vast proportions were half buried in the slimy ooze, and, at every fresh effort to save himself, he sank deeper. But the death which the Breeds awaited was slow to come. Slow—slow. And so they would have it.

Like some hungry monster the muskeg mouths its victims with oozing saliva, supping slowly, and seemingly revels in anticipation of the delicate morsel of human flesh. The watchers heard the gurgling mud, like to a great tongue licking, as it wrapped round the doomed man's body, sucking him down, down. The clutch of the keg seemed like something alive; something so all-powerful—like the twining feelers of the giant cuttle-fish. Slowly they saw the doomed man's legs disappear, and already the slimy muck was above his middle.

The minutes dragged along—the black slime rose—it was at Lablache's breast. His arms were outspread, and, for the moment, they offered resistance to the sucking strength of the mud. But the resistance was only momentary. Down, down he was drawn into that insatiable maw. The dying man's arms canted upwards as his shoulders were dragged under.

He cried—he shrieked—he raved. Down, down he went—the mud touched his chin. His head was thrown back in one last wild scream. The watchers saw the staring eyes—the wide-stretched, lashless lids.

His cries died down into gurgles as the mud oozed over into his gaping mouth. Down he went to his dreadful death, until his nostrils filled and only his awful eyes remained above the muck. The watchers did not move. Slowly—slowly and silently now—the last of him disappeared. Once his head was below the surface his limpened arms followed swiftly.

The Breeds reluctantly turned back from the horrid spectacle. The fearful torture was done. For a few moments no words were spoken. Then, at last, it was Baptiste who broke the silence. He looked round on the passion-distorted faces about him. Then his beady eyes rested on the horrified faces of Jacky and her lover. He eyed them, and presently his gaze dropped, and he turned back to his countrymen. He merely said two words.

"Scatter, boys."

The tragedy was over and his words brought down the curtain. In silence the half-breeds turned and slunk away. They passed back over their tracks. Each knew that the sooner he reached the camp again, the sooner would safety be assured. As the last man departed Baptiste stepped up to Jacky and Bill, who had not moved from their positions.

"Guess there's no cause to complain o' yer friends," he said, addressing Jacky, and leering up into her white, set face.

The girl shivered and turned away with a look of utter loathing on her face. She appealed to her lover.

"Bill—Bill, send him away. It's—it's too horrible."

"Lord" Bill fixed his gray eyes on the Breed.

"Scatter—we've had enough."

"Eh? Guess yer per-tickler."

There was a truculent tone in Baptiste's voice.

Bill's revolver was out like lightning.

"Scatter!"

And in that word Baptiste realized his dismissal.

His face looked very ugly, but he moved off under the covering muzzle of the white man's pistol.

Bill watched him until he was out of sight. Then he turned to Jacky.

"Well? Which way?"

Jacky did not answer for a moment. She gazed at the mountains. She shivered. It might have been the chill morning air—it might have been emotion. Then she looked back in the direction of Foss River. Dawn was already streaking the horizon.

She sighed like a weary child, and looked helplessly about. Her lover had never seen her vigorous nature so badly affected. But he realized the terrors she had been through.

Bill looked at her.

"Well?"

"Yonder." She pointed to the distant hills. "Foss River is no longer possible."

"The day that sees Lablache—"

"Yes—come."

Bill gazed lingeringly in the direction of the settlement. Jacky followed his gaze. Then she touched Nigger's flank with her spur. Golden Eagle cocked his ears, his head was turned towards Bad Man's Hollow. He needed no urging. He felt that he was going home.

Together they rode away across the keg.

* * * * *

Dr. Abbot had been up all night, as had most of Foss River. Everybody had been present at the fire. It was daylight when it was discovered that John Allandale and Jacky were missing. Lablache had been missed, but this had not so much interested people. They thought of Retief and waited for daylight.

Silas brought the news of "Poker" John's absence—also his niece's. Immediately was a "hue and cry" taken up. Foss River bustled in search.

It was noon before the rancher was found. Doctor Abbot and Silas had set out in search together. The fifty-acre pasture was Silas's suggestion. Dr. Abbot did not remember the implement shed.

They found the old man's body. They found Lablache's confession. Silas could not read. He took no stock in the writing and thought only of the dead man. The doctor had read, but he said nothing. He dispatched Silas for help.

When the foreman had gone Dr. Abbot picked up the black wig which Bill had used. He stood looking at it for a while, then he put it carefully into his pocket.

"Ah! I think I understand something now," he said, slowly fingering the wig. "Um—yes. I'll burn it when I get home."

Silas returned with help. John Allandale was buried quietly in the little piece of ground set aside for such purposes. The truth of the disappearance of Lablache, Jacky and "Lord" Bill was never known outside of the doctor's house.

How much or how little Dr. Abbot knew would be hard to tell. Possibly he guessed a great deal. Anyway, whatever he knew was doubtless shared with "Aunt" Margaret. For when the doctor had a secret it did not remain his long. "Aunt" Margaret had a way with her. However, she was the very essence of discretion.

Foss River settled down after its nine days' wonder. It was astonishing how quickly the affair was forgotten. But then, Foss River was not yet civilized. Its people had not yet learned to worry too much over their neighbors' affairs.

THE END

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