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Title: Raw Gold - A Novel
Author: Sinclair, Bertrand W., 1881-1972
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Raw Gold - A Novel" ***

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  [Illustration: HICKS DREW HIS AND SLAPPED ME OVER THE HEAD WITH IT, EVEN
  AS MY FINGER CURLED ON THE TRIGGER.

  _Frontispiece. Page 161._]



  RAW GOLD

  A NOVEL

  BY

  BERTRAND W. SINCLAIR

  _Illustrations by_
  CLARENCE H. ROWE

  G. W. DILLINGHAM COMPANY
  PUBLISHERS           NEW YORK

  Copyright, 1907, by
  STREET & SMITH

  Copyright, 1908, by
  G. W. DILLINGHAM COMPANY

  Issued June, 1908

  _Raw Gold_



  CONTENTS


  CHAPTER                                                           PAGE

      I. The Long Arm of the Law                                       7

     II. A Reminiscent Hour                                           18

    III. Birds of Prey                                                30

     IV. A Tale Half Told                                             59

      V. Mounted Again                                                50

     VI. Stony Crossing                                               58

    VII. Thirty Days in Irons                                         69

   VIII. Lyn                                                          85

     IX. An Idle Afternoon                                           103

      X. The Vanishing Act, and the Fruits Thereof                   116

     XI. The Gentleman Who Rode in the Lead                          130

    XII. We Lose Again                                               146

   XIII. Outlawed                                                    163

    XIV. A Close Call                                                179

     XV. Piegan Takes a Hand                                         197

    XVI. In the Camp of the Enemy                                    214

   XVII. A Master-stroke of Villainy                                 226

  XVIII. Honor Among Thieves                                         240

    XIX. The Bison                                                   251

     XX. The Mouth of Sage Creek                                     258

    XXI. An Elemental Ally                                           271

   XXII. Speechless Hicks                                            283

  XXIII. The Spoils of War                                           294

   XXIV. The Pipe of Peace                                           303



  ILLUSTRATIONS
                                                                 PAGE

  Hicks drew his and slapped me over the head with it, even as my
  finger curled on the trigger       Frontispiece                    161

  Bedded in the soft earth underneath lay the slim buckskin sacks    159

  "There's been too much blood shed over that wretched gold already.
  Let them have it"                                                  212

  A war for the open road against an enemy whose only weapon was
  his unswerving bulk                                                256



RAW GOLD.



CHAPTER I.

THE LONG ARM OF THE LAW.


How many of us, I wonder, can look back over the misty, half-forgotten
years and not see a few that stand out clear and golden, sharp-cut
against the sky-line of memory? Years that we wish we could live again,
so that we might revel in every full-blooded hour. For we so seldom get
the proper focus on things until we look at them through the clarifying
telescope of Time; and then one realizes with a pang that he can't
back-track into the past and take his old place in the passing show.

Would we, if we could? It's an idle question, I know; wise men and musty
philosophers say that regrets are foolish. But I speak for myself only
when I say that I would gladly wheedle old, gray-bearded _Tempus_ into
making the wheels click backward till I could see again the
buffalo-herds darkening the green of Northwestern prairies. They and the
blanket Indian have passed, and the cowpuncher and Texas longhorns that
replaced them will soon be little more than a vivid memory. Already the
man with the plow is tearing up the brown sod that was a stamping-ground
for each in turn; the wheat-fields have doomed the sage-brush, and
truck-farms line the rivers where the wild cattle and the elk came down
to drink.

It was a big life while it lasted--primitive, exhilarating, spiced with
dangers that added zest to the game; the petty, sordid things of life
only came in on the iron trail. There was no place for them in the old
West, the dead-and-gone West that will soon be forgotten.

I expect nearly everybody between the Arctic Circle and the Isthmus of
Panama has heard more or less of the Northwest Mounted Police. They're
changing with the years, like everything else in this one-time buffalo
country, but when Canada sent them out to keep law and order in a
territory that was a City of Refuge for a lot of tough people who had
played their string out south of the line, they were, as a dry old
codger said about the Indian as a scalp-lifter, naturally fitted for the
task. And it was no light task, then, for six hundred men to keep the
peace on a thousand miles of frontier.

It doesn't seem long ago, but it was in '74 that they filed down the
gangway of a Missouri River boat, walking as straight and stiff as if
every mother's son of them had a ramrod under his tunic, and out on a
rickety wharf that was groaning under the weight of a king's ransom in
baled buffalo-hides.

"Huh!" old Piegan Smith grunted in my ear. "Look at 'em, with their
solemn faces. There'll be heaps uh fun in the Cypress Hills country when
they get t' runnin' the whisky-jacks out. Ain't they a queer-lookin'
bunch?"

They were a queer-looking lot to more than Piegan. Their uniforms fitted
as if they had grown into them; scarlet jackets buttoned to the throat,
black riding-breeches with a yellow stripe running down the outer seam
of each leg, and funny little round caps like the lid of a big
baking-powder can set on one side of their heads, held there by a narrow
strap that ran around the chin. But for all their comic-opera get-up,
there was many a man that snickered at them that day in Benton who
learned later to dread the flash of a scarlet jacket on the distant
hills.

They didn't linger long at Benton, but got under way and marched
overland to the Cypress Hills. On Battle Creek they built the first
post, Fort Walsh, and though in time they located others, Walsh remained
headquarters for the Northwest so long as buffalo-hunting and the Indian
trade endured. And Benton and Walsh were linked together by great
freight-trails thereafter, for the Mounted Police supplies came up the
Missouri and traveled by way of long bull-trains to their destination;
there was no other way then; Canada was a wilderness, and Benton with
its boats from St. Louis was the gateway to the whole Northwest.

Two years from the time Fort Walsh was built the La Pere outfit sent me
across the line in charge of a bunch of saddle-horses the M. P.
quartermaster had said he'd buy if they were good. I turned them over
the afternoon I reached Walsh, and inside of forty-eight hours I was
headed home with the sale-money--ten thousand dollars--in big bills, so
that I could strap it round my middle. I remember that on the hill south
of the post the three of us, two horse-wranglers and myself, flipped a
dollar to see whether we kept to the Assiniboine trail or struck across
country. It was a mighty simple transaction, but it produced some
startling results for me, that same coin-spinning. The eagle came
uppermost, and the eagle meant the open prairie for us. So we aimed for
Stony Crossing, and let our horses jog; there were three of us, well
mounted, and we had plenty of grub on a pack-horse; it seemed that our
homeward trip should be a pleasant jaunt. It certainly never entered my
head that I should soon have ample opportunity to see how high the
"Riders of the Plains" stacked up when they undertook to enforce
Canadian law and keep intact the peace and dignity of the Crown.

We had started early that morning, and by the time we thought of camping
for dinner we saw ahead of us what we could tell was a white man's camp.
It wasn't far, so we kept on, and presently it developed that we had
accidentally come upon old Piegan Smith. He was lying there ostensibly
resting his stock from the hard buffalo-running of the past winter, but
I knew the old rascal's horses were more weary from a load of moonshine
whisky they had lately jerked into the heart of the territory. But he
was there, anyway, and half a dozen choice spirits with him, and when
we'd said "Howdy" all around they proceeded to spring a keg of whisky on
us.

Now, the whole Northwest groaned beneath a cast-iron prohibition law at
that time, and for some years thereafter. No booze of any description
was supposed to be sold in that portion of the Queen's domain. If you
got so thirsty you couldn't stand it any longer, you could petition the
governing power of the Territory for what was known as a "permit," which
same document granted you leave and license to have in your possession
one gallon of whisky. If you were a person of irreproachable character,
and your humble petition reached his excellency when he was amiably
disposed, you might, in the course of a few weeks, get the desired
permission--but, any way you figured it, whisky was hard to get, and
when you got it it came mighty high.

Naturally, that sort of thing didn't appeal to many of the
high-stomached children of fortune who ranged up and down the
Territory--being nearly all Americans, born with the notion that it is a
white man's incontestable right to drink whatever he pleases whenever it
pleases him. Consequently, every mother's son of them who knew how
rustled a "worm," took up his post in some well-hidden coulée close to
the line, and inaugurated a small-sized distillery. Others, with less
skill but just as much ambition, delivered it in four-horse loads to
the traders, who in turn "boot-legged" it to whosoever would buy. Some
of them got rich at it, too; which wasn't strange, when you consider
that everybody had a big thirst and plenty of money to gratify it. I've
seen barrels of moonshine whisky, so new and rank that two drinks of it
would make a jack-rabbit spit in a bull-dog's face, sold on the quiet
for six and seven dollars a quart--and a twenty-dollar gold piece was
small money for a gallon.

All this, of course, was strictly against the peace and dignity of the
powers that were, and so the red-coated men rode the high divides with
their eagle eye peeled for any one who looked like a whisky-runner. And
whenever they did locate a man with the contraband in his possession,
that gentleman was due to have his outfit confiscated and get a chance
to ponder the error of his ways in the seclusion of a Mounted Police
guardhouse if he didn't make an exceedingly fast getaway.

We all took a drink when these buffalo-hunters produced the "red-eye."
So far as the right or wrong of having contraband whisky was concerned,
I don't think any one gave it a second thought. The patriarchal decree
of the government was a good deal of a joke on the plains,
anyway--except when you were caught defying it! Then Piegan Smith set
the keg on the ground by the fire where everybody could help himself as
he took the notion, and I laid down by a wagon while dinner was being
cooked.

After six weeks of hard saddle-work, it struck me just right to lie
there in the shade with a cool breeze fanning my face, and before long I
was headed smoothly for the Dreamland pastures. I hadn't dozed very long
when somebody scattered my drowsiness with an angry yelp, and I raised
up on one elbow to see what was the trouble.

Most of the hunters were bunched on one side of the fire, and they were
looking pretty sour at a thin, trim-looking Mounted Policeman who was
standing with his back to me, holding the whisky-keg up to his nose. A
little way off stood his horse, bridle-reins dragging, surveying the
little group with his ears pricked up as if he, too, could smell the
whisky. The trooper sniffed a moment and set the keg down.

"Gentlemen," he asked, in a soft, drawly voice that had a mighty
familiar note that puzzled me, "have you a permit to have whisky in your
possession?"

Nobody said a word. There was really nothing they could say. He had them
dead to rights, for it was smuggled whisky, and they knew that policeman
was simply asking as a matter of form, and that his next move would be
to empty the refreshments on the ground; if they got rusty about it he
_might_ haze the whole bunch of us into Fort Walsh--and that meant each
of us contributing a big, fat fine to the Queen's exchequer.

"You know the law," he continued, in that same mild tone. "Where is your
authority to have this stuff?"

Then the clash almost came. If old Piegan Smith hadn't been sampling the
contents of that keg so industriously he would never have made a break.
For a hot-tempered, lawless sort of an old reprobate, he had good
judgment, which a man surely needed if he wanted to live out his
allotted span in the vicinity of the forty-ninth parallel those troubled
days. But he'd put enough of the fiery stuff under his belt to make him
touchy as a parlor-match, and when the trooper, getting no answer,
flipped the keg over on its side and the whisky trickled out among the
grass-roots, Piegan forgot that he was in an alien land where the law is
upheld to the last, least letter and the arm of it is long and
unrelenting.

"Here's my authority, yuh blasted runt," he yelled, and jerked his
six-shooter to a level with the policeman's breast. "Back off from that
keg, or I'll hang your hide to dry on my wagon-wheel in a holy minute!"



CHAPTER II.

A REMINISCENT HOUR.


The policeman's shoulders stiffened, and he put one foot on the keg. He
made no other move; but if ever a man's back was eloquent of
determination, his was. From where I lay I could see the fingers of his
left hand shut tight over his thumb, pressing till the knuckles were
white and the cords in the back of his hand stood out in little ridges.
I'd seen _that_ before, and I recalled with a start when and where I'd
heard that soft, drawly voice. I knew I wasn't mistaken in the man,
though his face was turned from me, and I likewise knew that old Piegan
Smith was nearer kingdom come than he'd been for many a day, if he did
have the drop on the man with the scarlet jacket. He was holding his
pistol on a double back-action, rapid-fire gun-fighter, and only the
fact that Piegan was half drunk and the other performing an impersonal
duty had so far prevented the opening of a large-sized package of
trouble. While on the surface Smith had all the best of it, he needed
that advantage, and more, to put himself on an even footing with Gordon
MacRae in any dispute that had to be arbitrated with a Colt; for MacRae
was the cool-headed, virile type of man that can keep his feet and burn
powder after you've planted enough lead in his system to sink him in
swimming water.

There was a minute of nasty silence. Smith glowered behind his cocked
pistol, and the policeman faced the frowning gun, motionless, waiting
for the flutter of Piegan's eye that meant action. The gurgling keg was
almost empty when he spoke again.

"Don't be a fool, Smith," he said quietly. "You can't buck the whole
Force, you know, even if you managed to kill me. You know the sort of
orders we have about this whisky business. Put up your gun."

Piegan heard him, all right, but his pistol never wavered. His thin
lips were pinched close, so tight the scrubby beard on his chin stood
straight out in front; his chest was heaving, and the angry blood stood
darkly red under his tanned cheeks. Altogether, he looked as if his
trigger finger might crook without warning. It was one of those long
moments that makes a fellow draw his breath sharp when he thinks about
it afterward. If any one had made an unexpected move just then, there
would have been sudden death in that camp. And while the lot of us sat
and stood about perfectly motionless, not daring to say a word one way
or the other, lest the wrathful old cuss squinting down the gun-barrel
_would_ shoot, the policeman took his foot off the empty cause of the
disturbance, and deliberately turning his back on Piegan's leveled
six-shooter, walked calmly over to his waiting horse.

Smith stared after him, frankly astonished. Then he lowered his gun.
"The nerve uh the darned----Say! don't go off mad," he yelled, his anger
evaporating, changing on the instant to admiration for the other's
cold-blooded courage. "Yuh spilled all the whisky, darn yuh--but then I
guess yuh don't know any better'n t' spoil good stuff that away. No hard
feelin's, anyhow. Stop an' eat dinner with us, an' we'll call it
square."

The policeman withdrew his foot from the stirrup and smiled at Piegan
Smith, and Piegan, to show that his intentions were good, impulsively
unbuckled his cartridge-belt and threw belt and six-shooters on the
ground.

"I don't hanker for trouble with a _hombre_ like you," he grunted. "I
guess I was a little bit hasty, anyhow."

"I call you," the policeman said, and stripping the saddle and bridle
from his sweaty horse, turned him loose to graze.

"Hello, Mac!" I hailed, as he walked up to the fire. He turned at the
sound of my voice with vastly more concern than he'd betrayed under the
muzzle of Piegan's gun.

"Sarge himself!" he exclaimed. "Beats the devil how old trails cross,
eh?"

"It sure does," I retorted, and our hands met.

He sat down beside me and began to roll a cigarette. You wouldn't call
that a very demonstrative greeting between two old _amigos_ who'd bucked
mesquite and hair-lifting Comanches together, all over the Southwest. It
had been many a moon since we took different roads, but MacRae hadn't
changed that I could see. That was his way--he never slopped over, no
matter how he felt. If ever a mortal had a firm grip on his emotions,
MacRae had, and yet there was a sleeping devil within him that was never
hard to wake. But his looks gave no hint of the real man under the
surface placidity; you'd never have guessed what possibilities lay
behind that immobile face, with its heavy-lashed hazel eyes and plain,
thin-lipped mouth that tilted up just a bit at the corners. We had
parted in the Texas Panhandle five years before--an unexpected,
involuntary separation that grew out of a poker game with a tough crowd.
The tumultuous events of that night sent me North in undignified haste,
for I am not warlike by nature, and Texas was no longer healthy for me
unless I cared to follow up a bloody feud. But I'd left Mac a
trail-boss for the whitest man in the South, likewise engaged to the
finest girl in any man's country; and it's a far cry from punching cows
in Texas to wearing the Queen's colors and keeping peace along the
border-line. I knew, though, that he'd tell me the how and why of it in
his own good time, if he meant that I should know.

One or two of the buffalo-hunters exchanged words with us while Mac was
building his cigarette and lighting it. Old Piegan stretched himself in
the grass, and in a few moments was snoring energetically, his grizzled
face bared to the cloudless sky. The camp grew still, except for the
rough and ready cook pottering about the fire, boiling buffalo-meat and
mixing biscuit-dough. The fire crackled around the Dutch ovens, and the
odor of coffee came floating by. Then Mac hunched himself against a
wagon-wheel and began to talk.

"I suppose it looks odd to you, Sarge, to see me in this rig?" he asked
whimsically. "It beats punching cows, though--that is, when a fellow
discovers that he isn't a successful cowpuncher."

"Does it?" I returned dryly. "You were making good in the cow business
last time I saw you. What did you see in the Mounted Police that took
your fancy?"

He shrugged his shoulders philosophically. "They're making history in
this neck of the woods," he said, "and I joined for lack of something
better to do. You'll find us a cosmopolitan lot, and not bad specimens
as men go. It's a tolerably satisfying life--once you get out of the
ranks."

"How about that?" I queried; and as I asked the question I noticed for
the first time the gilt bars on his coat sleeve. "You've got past the
buck trooper stage then? How long have you been in the force?"

"Joined the year they took over the Territory," he replied. "Yes, I've
prospered in the service. Got to be a sergeant; I'm in charge of a
line-post on Milk River--Pend d' Oreille. You'd better come on over and
stay with me a day or two, Sarge."

"I was heading in that direction," I answered, "only I expected to cross
the river farther up. But, man, I never thought to see you up here. I
thought you'd settled down for keeps; supposed you were playing
major-domo for the Double R down on the Canadian River, and the father
of a family by this time. How we do get switched around in this old
world."

"Don't we, though," he said reflectively. "It's a great game. You never
know when nor where your trail is liable to fork and lead you to new
countries and new faces, or maybe plumb over the big divide. Oh, well,
it'll be all the same a hundred years from now, as Bill Frayne used to
say."

"You've turned cynic," I told him, and he smiled.

"No," he declared, "I rather think I'd be classed as a philosopher; if
you could call a man a philosopher who can enjoy hammering over this
bald country, chasing up whisky-runners and hazing non-treaty Indians
onto reservations, and raising hell generally in the name of the law.
Still, I don't take life as seriously as I used to. What's the use? We
eat and drink and sleep and work and fight because it's the nature of us
two-legged brutes; but there's no use getting excited about it, because
things never turn out exactly the way you expect them to, anyhow."

"If that's your philosophy of life," I bantered, "you ought to make a
rattling good policeman. I can see where a calm, dispassionate front
would save a man a heap of trouble, at this sort of thing."

"Josh all you like," MacRae laughed, "but I tell you a man does save
himself a heap of trouble when he doesn't get too anxious whether things
come out just as he wants them to or not. Six or seven years ago I
couldn't have done this sort of work. I've changed, I reckon. There was
a time when I'd have felt that there was only one way to settle a row
like I just had. And the chances are that I would have wound up by
putting that old boy's light out. Which wouldn't have helped matters any
for me, and certainly would have been tough on old Piegan Smith--who
happens to be a pretty fair sort; only playing the opposite side of the
game."

As if the low-spoken sound of his name had reached his ears and
electrified him, Piegan sat up very suddenly, and at the same instant
the cook sounded the long call. So we broke off our chat, and getting a
tin plate and cup and a set of eating-implements, we helped ourselves
from the Dutch ovens and squatted in the grass to eat.

When we'd finished, one of the hunters rounded up the horses and we
caught our nags and saddled them. MacRae was going back to his post that
night, and I also was in haste to be traveling--that ten thousand
dollars of another man's money was a responsibility I wanted to be rid
of without the least possible delay. Pend d' Oreille was twenty-five or
thirty miles south of us--a long afternoon's ride, but MacRae and I were
glad of each other's company, and it was worth while straining a point
to have even one night's shelter at a Police camp in that semi-hostile
country. There were no road-agents to speak of, for sums of money large
enough to tempt gentry of that ilk seldom passed over those isolated
trails; but here and there stray parties of Stonies and Blackfeet, young
bucks in war-paint and breech-clout, hot on the trail of their first
medicine, skulked warily among the coulée-scarred ridges, keeping in
touch with the drifting buffalo-herds and alert for a chance to ambush a
straggling white man and lift his hair. They weren't particularly
dangerous, except to a lone man, still there was always the chance of
running slap into them, in which case they usually made a more or less
vigorous attempt to wipe you out. A red coat, however, was a passport to
safety; even so early in the game the copper-colored brother had learned
that the Mounted Police were a hard combination--an enemy who never
turned back when he took the war-trail.

When we were mounted Mac leaned over and muttered an admonitory word for
Piegan's ear alone. "Better lay low, Smith," he said, "and let the
boot-leggers go it on their own hook for a while. We are watching for
you. It's only a matter of time till somebody takes you in, because your
whisky is making lots of nasty work for us these days, and we've got
orders from the big chief to nail you if there's a show. I'm passing up
this little affair to-day. That doesn't count. But the next time you
cross the river with a four-horse load of it I'll be on you like a wolf.
If I don't, some other fellow will. _Sabe?_ Think it over."

Smith bit off a huge chew of tobacco, while he digested MacRae's
warning. Then he looked up with a smile that broadened to a grin.
"You're all right," he said cheerfully. "I like your style. If I get the
worst of the deal, I won't holler. So-long!"



CHAPTER III.

BIRDS OF PREY.


Once clear of the buffalo-hunters' camp, MacRae and I paired off and
speedily began to compare notes, where we had been, what we had done,
how the world had used us in the five years since we had seen each other
last. And although we gabbled freely enough, MacRae avoided all mention
of the persons of whom I most wished to hear. I didn't press him, for I
knew that something out of the common must have happened, else he would
not have been wearing the Queen's scarlet, and I didn't care to bring up
a subject that might prove a sore one with him. But men we had known and
trails we had followed furnished us plenty of grist for the
conversational mill. Our talk ranged from the Panhandle to the Canada
line, while our horses jogged steadily southward.

Dark came down on the four of us as we topped Manyberries Ridge, and
seven or eight miles of rolling prairie still lay between us and
Pend d' Oreille. If Mac had been alone he would have made the post by
sundown, for the Mounted Police rode picked horses, the best money could
buy. But it was a long jaunt to Benton, and the rest of us were inclined
to an easier pace, that we might husband the full strength of our
grass-fed mounts for any emergency that should arise on the way.

With the coming of night a pall of clouds blew out of the west,
blanketing the stars and shutting off their hazy light completely, and
when the sky was banked full from horizon to horizon, the dark enveloped
us like a black sea-mist. Once or twice we startled a little bunch of
buffalo, and listened to the thud of their hoofs as they fled through
the sultry, velvet gloom; but for the most our ride was attended by no
sounds save the night song of frogs in the upland sloughs and the hollow
clank of steel bits keeping time to the creak of saddle-leather.

Halfway down the long slope MacRae and I, riding in the lead, pulled up
to make a cigarette on the brink of a straight-walled coulée that we
could sense but not see. As I waited for Mac to strike a match my eyes
roved about, seeking to pierce the unnatural blackness that wrapped
itself about us, and while my gaze was for an instant fixed on the
night-enshrouded canyon, a red tongue of flame flashed out for a moment
in the inky shadow below. MacRae saw it also, and held the match
unstruck.

"Must be somebody camped down there," I hazarded.

"A camp-fire would hardly flash and die out like that, Sarge," he
answered thoughtfully. "At least, not an ordinary one. There are some
folk in this country, you know, who manifest a very retiring disposition
at times. That looks to me like a blind fire or a signal. Let's wait a
minute."

We sat there on our horses, grouped close together, a minute that
lengthened to five; then MacRae broke off in the middle of a sentence as
the flare leaped up, flickered an instant, and was blotted out again. I
could have sworn I heard a cry, and one of my men spoke in a tone that
assured me my imagination had not been playing a trick.

"Hear that?" he asked eagerly. "Somebody hollered down there."

"I don't much like that," MacRae said, in a low tone. "I have a hunch
that something crooked is going on, and I reckon I'll go down and see
what that fire means. You fellows better go a little farther and wait
for me."

"Not on your life," I protested. "You might run into most any kind of
formation. We'll go in a bunch, if we go at all."

"Might be Injuns," Bruce Haggin put in. "An', anyhow, whatever play
comes up, four men's a heap better'n one. If you're bound t' mix in,
why, lead the way. I'm kinda curious about what's down there m'self."

So near to the post it was that MacRae almost knew the feel of the
ground underfoot. He led us a hundred yards along the rim of the bank
and stopped again.

"This is as good a place as any, but you'll have to get down and lead
your horses," he warned. "It's a devil of a scramble from here to the
bottom."

We dismounted, and speedily found that MacRae hadn't exaggerated the
evil qualities of that descent. If there had been boulders on that
hillside the noise of our coming would have alarmed a deaf man; but the
soft dirt and slippery grass gave out no sound, though we slid and
tumbled and dug in our heels for a foothold till the sweat streamed down
our cheeks.

At the bottom we mounted again and followed MacRae in a cautious file
around clumps of willow and rustling quaking-asp to the place where the
blaze should have shown. But no glint of fire appeared in any direction;
the coulée-bottom lay more dark and silent, if that were possible, than
the gloomy hills above. Perplexed, MacRae halted, and we bunched
together, whispering, each of us straining his eyes and ears to catch
some sight or sound of life in that black, ghostly quiet. We might have
concluded that our senses had been playing pranks at our expense, that
the flame we had seen from the ridge was purely an imaginary thing, but
for the rank, unmistakable odor of burning wood--a smell no man bred in
a land of camp-fires can mistake. We were near it, wherever it was, but
how near we had no means of knowing.

After a bit of waiting, Mac decided that the smoke was floating from a
certain direction, and we began to edge carefully that way. Presently we
circled a clump of brush, to come near riding right into a banked fire,
barely visible, even at short range, under its covering of earth. A
dimly outlined bulk lay beside it, and leaning over in our saddles, the
faint glow of the coals revealed a man's body, half stripped of its
clothing, and--oh, well, such things are so utterly devilish you
wouldn't credit it. It's bad enough to kill, even when it's necessary;
but I never could understand how a white man could take a leaf out of
the Indian's torture-book.

The fire had been heaped over with earth--to screen it from prying eyes,
I suppose, while the good work went on. We got off our horses and
stooped over the man, forgetting for the moment that danger might lurk
in the surrounding thicket. Mac swore under his breath when he bent and
peered keenly at the man's face; then he straightened up and kicked a
part of the clay covering from the smoldering embers. As the bright glow
of a little cascade of sparks pierced the darkness, a voice in our rear
called sharply: "Hands up!" and we swung round to behold two masked
faces regarding us from behind steadily held Winchesters.

The very suddenness of the hold-up made it a complete success. Apart,
and moving, we might have scattered in the brush like young quail, and
so have been able to give the gentlemen a hard run for the money. But we
were bunched together, shocked out of all caution, staring at the
pitiful figure at our feet when MacRae unmasked the fire, and the flare
of it surrounded us with a yellow nimbus that made us fair marks for a
gun. With that dazzling light in our eyes and those ugly-looking
customers at the business end of the guns, it would have been out and
out suicide to reach for a six-shooter. For at that period in
Northwestern history, when a man had the drop on you under such
conditions, there was absolutely no question of what would happen if you
made a suspicious move. We were fairly caught, and there was nothing to
do but elevate our digits and paw the air as commanded.

It took one of those Western Turpins about a minute to relieve us of our
artillery, after which he silently proceeded to lead our horses out of
sight. When he did that I began to hope the horses were all they wanted,
that they had no knowledge of the money I carried; but my hopes died an
early death, for he was back in a moment, and the man behind the gun
indicated me with a motion of the Winchester.

"That long, stoop-shouldered gazabo's got the stuff on him," he growled.

There was half a second when I entertained a wild notion of getting
fractious. A fellow hates to make a bungle of the first decent trust
he's had in a long time; but I was in a tight place, and I couldn't
figure where I'd delay giving up beyond the length of time it would take
the gentleman with the Winchester to drill me. Under the circumstances
it didn't take long to decide that it was a heap better all around to be
robbed alive than dead--they'd get the money anyway, and if I got myself
shot up to no purpose that would spoil all chance of getting back at
them later.

The silent partner wasted no time in fruitless search of my person. He
seemed to know right where to look, which was another feature of the
play that I didn't _sabe_ at the time. He reached down inside my shirt,
with a none too gentle hand, and relieved me of the belt that held the
money. Then the pair of them backed up, still covering us, and faded
away in the gloom.



CHAPTER IV.

A TALE HALF TOLD.


When they were gone we let our hands down to their natural level and
drew a long breath.

"We appear to have got considerably the worst of this transaction," I
observed. "The La Pere outfit is shy something like ten thousand
dollars--we're afoot, minus everything but cigarette material. It's a
wonder they didn't take that, too. A damn good stroke of business, all
right," I finished, feeling mighty sore at myself. When it was too late,
I could think of half a dozen ways we might have avoided getting held
up.

"I got you into it, too," MacRae said calmly. "But don't get excited and
run on the rope this early in the game, Sarge; you'll only throw
yourself. Brace up. We've been in worse holes before." Never a word of
what it might mean to him; never even hinted that the high moguls at
Fort Walsh were more than likely to put him on the rack for letting any
such lawless work be carried out successfully, in his own district. A
Mounted Policeman can make no excuses for letting a tough customer slip
through his fingers; the only way he can escape censure is to be brought
in feet first.

He motioned to the poor devil lying by the fire.

"Look at him, Sarge," he went on, in a different tone. "You always had a
pretty good memory for faces. So have I, for that matter, but--go
ahead--look."

I bent over the man, looked closely at the still features, dropped on
one knee and turned his face toward the firelight to make sure. I
recognized him instantly, and I knew that MacRae had no doubts of his
identity, for each of us had broken bread and slept in the same blankets
with that quiet figure.

"It's Rutter," I whispered, and MacRae nodded silently.

"He's done for, too--no, by God, he isn't!" I cried, and shrank
involuntarily, for his eyeballs rolled till only the whites showed in a
way that made me shudder. "He's not dead, yet, Mac!"

"One of you fellows get some water," Mac commanded. He squatted beside
me, holding up Rutter's head. In a minute Bruce was back with his hat
full of water from the creek that whimpered just beyond the willow
patch. I peeled off my coat and spread it over the marred limbs, and
Bruce held the water so that I could dip in my hand and sprinkle
Rutter's face. After a little his mouth began to twitch. Queer gurgling
sounds issued from his throat. He moved his head slightly, looking from
me to MacRae. Presently he recognized us both; his face brightened.

"Gimme a drink," he whispered huskily.

Mac propped him up so that he could sip from the hat. He came near going
off again, but rallied, and in a second or two his lips framed a
question:

"Did yuh--get 'em?"

I shook my head. "You might say that they got us," I answered.

"Who were they, Hans?" MacRae questioned eagerly. "And why did they do
this to you? We'll make them sweat blood for this night's work. Did you
know them? Tell us if you can."

"No," Rutter spoke with a great effort. Each sentence came as if torn
piecemeal from his unwilling tongue; short, jerky phrases, conceived in
pain and delivered in agony. "We--me'n Hank Rowan--comin' from the
North--made a stake on the Peace. They started it--at the Stone--yuh
know--Writin'-Stone. Hank an' me--you'll find Hank in the
cottonwoods--Stony Crossin'. I tried--tried t' make Walsh. Two of
'em--masked--tried t' make me tell--tell 'em--where we made the _cache_.
I'm--I'm done--I guess. The dust, it's--it's--_a-a-ah_----"

The gnarled hands shut up into clenched fists, and the feeble voice
trailed off in an agonized moan.

I laved his pain-twisted face with the cool water and let a few drops
trickle into his open mouth. He gasped a few times, then, gathering
strength again, went on with that horrible spasmodic recitation.

"They were after us--a long time. Lyn's at Walsh. There's a--a good
stake. Get it--for her. It's _cached_--under the Stone--yuh
know--Writin'-Stone. Three sacks. That's what--they wanted.
You'll--you'll--on the rock above--marked--gold--raw gold--that's
it--gold--raw gold--Mac--I want--I want----"

That was all. The tense muscles relaxed. His head fell back limp on
MacRae's arm, and the rest of the message went with the game old
Dutchman across the big divide. We laid him down gently, folded his arms
on his breast, and for a moment held our peace in tribute to his
passing.

MacRae was first to speak.

"There's a lot back of this that I can't understand," he said, more to
himself than to the rest of us. "It beats me why these two old cowmen
should be here in this country, tangled up with buried gold-dust, and
being hunted like beasts for its possession. Old Hans was certainly in
his right mind or he wouldn't have known us; and if he told us right,
Hank Rowan has been murdered too. If Lyn is at Walsh, she may be able to
shed some light on this. But I'll swear I feel like a man groping in a
dark room."

"If Lyn is at Walsh," I asserted stoutly, "she got there since I left
this morning. I was there two days, and I wasn't in the background by
any means; and she's the sort of girl that isn't backward about hailing
a friend. We know one thing--the men that killed Rutter are the ones
that held us up, and got off with that money of mine. And say--how did
those fellows know I had that money and where I was carrying it? Good
Lord! it sounds like the plot of a dime novel."

It was a stubborn riddle for us to try and read. And our surroundings at
that particular moment were not the most favorable to coherent thought
or plausible theory-building. When a man has been robbed at the point of
a gun, and set afoot in the heart of an unpeopled waste, with a dead man
and a dying fire for company, his nerves are apt to get a little bit on
edge. Things that wouldn't tax your fortitude in daylight look like the
works of the devil when you have to face them in the black hours of the
night. None of us are so far removed from savagery that a few grains of
superstition don't lurk in our souls, all ready to bob up if the setting
is appropriate. If it should ever be my lot to take the Long Trail at
short notice, I hope it will be under a blue sky and a blazing sun. It
was hard to be philosophic, or even decently calm, standing there in the
sickly glow of the fading coals with old Hans mutely reminding us that
life is a tenuous thread, easily snipped.

A little night breeze rustling the willows about us brought into my mind
the fact that our masked acquaintances could easily sneak up and pot us
if, as an afterthought, they decided to do a really workmanlike job.
Doubt it? Wasn't the dead man stretched in the shadow convincing proof
of their capacity for pure devilishness? Read the history of those days
along the line, and you'll turn some red pages. There were no half-way
measures in the code of an outlaw then; the pair who held us up would
have taken our lives as nonchalantly as they relieved us of our material
possessions had we proved in the least degree troublesome.

I hinted what was in my mind to MacRae, and when he agreed that it was a
possible contingency, we filed out of the treacherous light and squatted
in the edge of a quaking-asp grove where we couldn't be seen, and where
a coyote, much less a man, couldn't steal up on us without the crackle
of dry brush betraying him.

"What do you think you'll do, Sarge?" Mac whispered to me, while we sat
there undecided as to our next move. "Go on to Benton, or stay here on
the chance of breaking even?"

"I've got to stick; it's the only thing I can do," I growled back. "I've
been sure enough whipsawed this deal, but I'm still in the game, and
when it comes to calling the last turn I'll be there with a stack of
blues. How in hell can I show my face in Benton while some other fellow
is packing the money La Pere trusted me to bring back? If I can rustle
horses I'll send these two boys on home, with a note to the old man
explaining how the play came up. If those jaspers flash any part of the
roll in the Territory before snowfall, I'll get them. I've got to get
them, to square myself."

"That would be my idea, if I were in your place," he answered. "If
they're like the average run of men that turn a trick of that kind,
they'll give themselves away in the long run. It's lucky, in a way, that
you had paper money instead of gold; the big bills will be their
downfall if they undertake to spend them in this country--and if old
Hans had it straight, they're not going to pull out with a measly ten
thousand dollars. It's an ugly mess, and liable to be worse before it's
cleaned up. If there is a stake like that _cached_ around the Stone,
these land pirates will camp mighty close on the trail of anybody that
goes looking for it. And it won't be any Sunday-school picnic dealing
with them--they showed a strong hand there," he motioned to the place
where Rutter lay.

"The best thing we can do," he continued, "is to drag it for Pend
d' Oreille, afoot. We have two extra horses there. We can get a little
sleep and move early in the morning. I'll have to report this thing in
person at Walsh, but before I do I want to know if Hank Rowan was really
killed at Stony Crossing. If we find him there as Rutter said, you can
gamble that trouble has camped in our dooryard for a lengthy stay. And
it might be a good idea for you to give your men a gentle hint to keep
their mouths closed about this affair--all of it. There's a slim chance
at the best of finding that gold, even if it's there, and it won't help
us nor the rest of the Force to run down the men who held us up, if
everybody on both sides of the line gets to talking about it."

"I'll tell them," I agreed. "I reckon you have the right idea. I think
it's a cinch that if we land the men that set us afoot and got away with
the money, we'll have the cold-blooded brutes that put Hans Rutter's
light out. But I don't _sabe_, Mac, why those old-timers should be mixed
into a deal of this kind. Their cattle and range on the Canadian had a
gold-mine beat to death for money-making; old men like them don't jump
two thousand miles from home without mighty strong reasons."

"They probably had, if we only knew," MacRae muttered. "I reckon we'd
better start; we can't do any good here."

Mac led the way. The four of us slipped through the brushy bottom as
silently as men unaccustomed to walking might go, for we had no
hankering, unarmed as we were, to bring those red-handed marauders after
us again, if they happened to be lurking in that canyon. Rutter's body
we had no choice but to leave undisturbed by the blackening fire. In the
morning we would come back and bury him, but for that night--well, he
was beyond any man's power to aid or injure, lying there alone in the
dark.



CHAPTER V.

MOUNTED AGAIN.


We stumbled along, close up, for the thick-piled clouds still hung their
light-obscuring banners over the sky. Three yards apart we became
invisible to each other. I followed behind MacRae more or less
mechanically, though I was, in a way, acutely conscious of the necessity
for stealthy going, one part of my mind busy turning over the quick
march of events and guessing haphazard at the future.

Striding along in this mental semi-detachment from the business in hand,
some three hundred yards down the coulée I tripped over a fallen
cottonwood and drove the point of a projecting limb clean through the
upper of my boot and into the calf of my leg--not a disabling wound, but
one that lacked nothing in the way of pain. The others stopped while I
pulled out the snag, which had broken off the trunk, and while I was
about this a familiar clattering noise uprose near-by. Ever hear a horse
shake himself, like a water-spaniel fresh from a dip, when he has been
tied for a long time in one place with the dead weight of a heavy stock
saddle on his back? There is a little by-play of grunting and clearing
of nostrils, then the slap of skirts and strings and stirrup-leathers--a
man never forgets or mistakes the sound of it, if he has ever slept in a
round-up camp with a dozen restless night-horses saddled and tied to a
wagon twenty feet from his bed. But it made us jump, welling up out of
the dark so unexpectedly and so near.

"Saddle-horse--tied," Mac tersely commented. We squatted in the long
grass and buck-brush, listening, and a few seconds later heard a horse
snort distinctly. This sound was immediately followed by the steady beat
of an impatient forefoot.

"Over yonder," I said. "And there's more than one, I think. Let's
investigate this. And we'd better not separate."

Fifty yards to the left we struck a cottonwood grove, and in the outer
edge of it loomed the vague outline of a horse--when we were almost
within reaching-distance of him. I ran my hand over the saddle and knew
it instantly for Bruce Haggin's rig. A half-minute of quiet prowling
revealed our full quota of livestock, even to the pack-horse that bore
our beds and grub, each one tied hard and fast to a tree. Also our
six-shooters reposed in their scabbards, the four belts hooked over the
horn of MacRae's saddle.

Maybe it didn't feel good to be on the hurricane deck of a good horse
once more! Whenever I have to walk any distance, I can always understand
why a horse-thief yields to temptation and finally becomes confirmed in
his habit. It was rather an odd thing for those outlaws to leave
everything, even to our guns, but I figured--and time proved the
correctness of my arithmetic--that they had bigger fish to fry.

Once in the saddle, with the comfortable weight of a cartridge-belt
around each man's middle, we experienced a revulsion of feeling. Primed
for trouble if we could jump it out of the brush, we rode the bottom
for half an hour. But our men were gone. At least, we could not locate
them. So we took to the upland again and loped toward Pend d' Oreille.

"I've been thinking it isn't so strange--those old fellows being in this
country--after all," Mac suddenly began, as we slowed our horses down to
take a hill. "I didn't remember at first, but two years ago, just after
I joined the Force, I ran across a bull-whacker on the Whoop Up trail,
and he told me that the Double R had closed out. He said Hank had got
into a ruction with Dick Feltz--you recollect there was considerable
feeling between them in our time down there--and killed him one day at
Fort Worth. Feltz had some folks that took it up, and Hank had to spend
a barrel of money to come clear. That, and a range war that grew out of
the killing, and some kind of a business deal just about broke them.
That's the way this fellow had it; said a trail-boss told him at
Ogalalla that spring. I didn't take much stock in the yarn at the time,
but I'm beginning to think he had it straight. You didn't hear anything
about it?"

"Not a word; it's news to me," I said. "When I left that country I kept
moving north all the time. The last three years I've been in the Judith
Basin, and southern outfits haven't begun to come in there yet. So I
haven't had much chance to hear from that part of the world. But I'm
framing up my think-works so I won't be surprised at anything I see or
hear after to-night. How long since you left that country, Mac?"

"Next spring after you did," he answered. "If they did go broke, I can
_sabe_ their being here. Rutter said, you know, that they'd made a stake
on the Peace--Peace River, I suppose he meant. There's been a lot of
placer mining in that north country the last three or four years. They
might have been up there and struck it good and plenty. They made their
start in the cow business off a placer in California, you know."

I knew that, for Rowan often spoke of it. And granting that we had
surmised rightly, it required no vivid imagination to picture what
might happen to men crossing those wide prairies with a fortune in
yellow dust. But my imagination was hardly equal to the task of
reconciling the fact that the evil pair had been busy at other deviltry
and yet knew I carried a large sum of money and where it was concealed
about my person. That brought me back to something else Rutter had told
us; something that I knew--or thought I knew--touched MacRae very
closely.

"Hans said Lyn was at Walsh," I remarked. "I don't think she was there,
this morning. But she might be due to arrive there. Hang it all, Mac,
what the dickens chased you away from the Canadian?"

"Looking back, I can't just say what it was," he presently replied, in a
hard, matter-of-fact tone. "You see, one's feelings can change, Sarge.
It looks different to me now than it did then. I reckon I could have
written essays on the futility of sentiment, and the damned silliness of
a man who thinks he cares for a woman. But I'm past that stage. And so
I can't say for sure just how it was or why. Something came up between
me and Lyn--and I drifted, and kept drifting. Went through Colorado,
Wyoming, Montana; finally rambled here, and went into the Force
because--well, because a man with anything to him can go to the top. A
man must play at something, and this looked like a good game."

There was a note of something that I'd never heard in MacRae's voice
before; neither bitterness nor anger nor sorrow nor lonesomeness, and
yet there was a hint of each, but so slight, so elusive I couldn't grasp
it. I remembered that the last sentence MacRae had spoken to me in the
South was a message to Lyn Rowan, a message that I never had the
pleasure of delivering, for my hasty flitting took me out other trails
than the one that led to the home ranch. And so they had parted--gone
different ways--probably in anger. Well, that's only another example of
the average human's cussedness. Lyn could be just as haughty as she was
sweet and gracious, which was natural enough, seeing she'd ruled a
cattle king and all his sunburned riders since she was big enough to
toddle alone; and Gordon MacRae wasn't the sort of man who would come to
heel at any woman's bidding--at least, he wasn't in the old days. Oh, I
could understand how it happened, all right. Each of them was chuck full
of that dubious sort of pride that has busted up more than one
love-_fiesta_.

Neither of us spoke again, and at length the squat log buildings of Pend
d' Oreille loomed ahead of us in the night. Tired and hungry, we stabled
our horses, ate a bite, and rolled into bed.



CHAPTER VI.

STONY CROSSING.


"There's Stony Crossing, Sarge; and over yonder, at the west end of that
blue ridge, is Writing-on-the-Stone."

At the foot of the long slope on which we stood Milk River glinted in
the sunshine, deceptively beautiful--a shining example of the truth of
that old saw about distance lending enchantment, for, looking down on
the placid stream slipping smoothly along between fringes of scrubby
timber, one would never guess that miles and miles of hungry quick-sands
lined the river-edge, an unseen trap for the feet of the unwary.

Stony Crossing I could see, even without Mac's guiding finger. The Whoop
Up trail, a brown streak against the vivid upland green, dipped down the
hillside to our right, down to the sage-grown flat, and into the river
by the great boulders that gave the ford its name. The blue ridge up
the river I gave scant heed to; the Writing-Stone was only a name to me,
for I'd never seen the place. My attention was all for the scene at
hand. The patch of soft green that I knew for the cottonwoods Rutter had
spoken of drew my roving gaze whether I would or no. I have ridden on
pleasanter missions than the one that took us to Stony Crossing that
day.

"It's sure tough," I voiced a thought that had been running in my mind
all morning, "to think that a good old fellow like Hank Rowan has been
murdered and left to rot on the prairie like a skinned buffalo. Hanged
if I can make myself really believe we'll find him down there."

"The more I think of it, the more I'm inclined to believe that we will,"
MacRae answered evenly. "We'll know beyond a doubt in the next hour. So
we might as well go on."

If I hadn't known him so well I might have thought he didn't care a damn
what we found at Stony Crossing, that he was as unmoved as the two
case-hardened troopers who rode with us. But that repression was just as
natural to him as emotional flare-ups are to some. Whatever he felt he
usually kept bottled up inside, no matter how it hurt. I never saw him
fly to pieces over anything. He was something of an anomaly to me, when
I first knew him. I was always so prone to do and say things according
to impulse that I thought him cold-blooded, a man without any particular
feeling except a certain pride in holding his own among his fellows.

But I revised my opinion when I came to know him better. Under the
surface he was sensitive as a girl; one could wound him with a word or a
look. Paradoxically, he was absolutely cold-blooded toward a declared
enemy. He would fight fair, but without mercy. Side by side with the
sensitive soul of him, and hidden always under an impassive mask of
self-control, lay the battling spirit, an indomitable fighting streak;
it cropped out in a cool, calculating manner of taking desperate chances
when the sleeping devil in him was roused. He would sidestep
trouble--and one met the weeping damsel at many turns of the road in
those raw days--if he could do it without loss of self-respect; but the
man who stirred him up needlessly, or crowded him into retaliation,
always regretted it--when he had time to indulge in vain regrets. And
you can bet your last, lone _peso_, and consider it won, that MacRae
meant every word when he said to old Hans Rutter: "We'll make them sweat
blood for this."

When we got down into the bottom Mac turned aside to the deep-worn trail
and glanced sharply down at the ruts. The dust in them lay smooth, and
the hoof-marks that showed were old and dim.

"I wondered if there had been any freight teams pass lately," he
explained. "But there hasn't--not for a day or two, anyway. Let's look
in the timber."

That was a long time ago, and since then I have seen much of life and
death in many countries, but I can recall as distinctly as if it were
yesterday the grim sight that met us when we rode in among the
whispering cottonwoods. We found Hank Rowan in a little open place,
where rifts of sunlight filtered through the tangled branches; one
yellow bar, full of quivering motes, rested on the wide-open eyes and
mouth, tinting the set features the ghastly color of a plaster cast. The
horse he had ridden lay dead across his legs, and just beyond, a
crumpled heap against the base of a tree, was the carcass of a mule,
half-hidden under a bulky pack. The thing that sickened me, that stirs
me even yet, was a circular, red patch that crowned his head where
should have been thick, iron-gray hair.

"The damned hounds!" MacRae muttered. "They tried to make it look like
an Indian job."

The pack-ropes had been cut and the pack searched. In the same manner
they had gone through his pockets and scattered a few papers and letters
on the ground. These we gathered carefully together, against the time of
meeting Lyn, and then--for time pressed, and a dead man, though he may
be your friend and his passing a sorrow, is out of the game forever--we
dragged him from beneath the dead horse, wrapped him in the canvas
pack-cover, and buried him in the soft leaf-mold where he lay, as we
had buried his lifetime partner early in the morning. When we had
finished, MacRae ordered his two troopers back to Pend d' Oreille, and we
mounted our horses and turned their heads toward Fort Walsh.

It is seventy miles in an air-line from Stony Crossing to the fort. That
night we laid out, sleeping without hardship in a dry buffalo-wallow,
and noon of the next day brought us to Walsh, a huddle of log buildings
clustering around a tall pole from which fluttered the union jack.

Off to one side of the fort a bunch of work-bulls fed peacefully. Down
in the creek bottom a tent or two flapped in the mid-day breeze, and in
their neighborhood uprose the smoke of half a dozen dinner fires. By the
post storeroom, waiting their turn to unload, was ranged a line of the
tarpaulin-covered wagons, wheeled galleons of the plains, that brought
food and raiment to the Northwest before the coming of steam and steel.

"That looks to me like Baker's outfit, from Benton," I said to MacRae,
as we swung off our horses before the building in which the officer of
the day held forth. "They must have come by way of Assiniboine."

"Probably," Mac answered. "And over yonder's the paymaster's train. At
least, he's due, and I can't account for a bunch of horses in charge of
a buck trooper any other way."

We clanked into the ante-room--that's what I call it, anyway. It
happened that I didn't stay around those police posts long enough to get
familiar with the technical terms for everything. Not that they wouldn't
have welcomed my presence; faith, their desire for my company was only
equaled by my reluctance to accept their hospitality. There was a while
when I developed a marvelous capacity for dodging invitations to Fort
Walsh. And if the men in scarlet had been a bit swifter, or I a little
slower, I'd have had ample leisure to observe life in the Force from the
inside--of the guardhouse. As I said, we went into the ante-room, and
there I got my first peep at the divinity that doth hedge--not a king,
but a commissioned officer in Her Majesty's N. W. M. P. An orderly held
us up, and when MacRae had convinced him that our business was urgent,
and not for his ears, he graciously allowed us to enter the
Presence--who proved to be a heavy-set person with sandy, mutton-chop
whiskers set bias on a vacuous, round, florid countenance. His
braid-trimmed uniform was cut to fit him like the skin of an exceedingly
well-stuffed sausage, and from his comfortable seat behind a flat-topped
desk he gazed upon us with the wisdom of a tree-full of owls and the
dignity of a stage emperor.

MacRae's heels clicked together and his right hand went up in the stiff
military salute. The red-faced one acknowledged it by a barely
perceptible flip of a fat paw, then put a little extra stiffening into
his spinal column and growled, in a voice that seemed to come booming up
from the region of his diaphragm, "Pro-ceed."

MacRae proceeded. But he didn't get very far. In fact, he'd barely
articulated, 'I have to report, sir, that----' when the human sausage
bethought himself of something more important, and held up one hand for
silence. He produced a watch and studied it frowningly, then dismissed
us and the recital of our troubles with a ponderous gesture.

"Repawt again," he rumbled, away down in his chest cavity, "at
hawf--pawst--one."

"Yes, sir," MacRae saluted again, and we withdrew.

"A beautiful specimen; a man of great force," I unburdened myself when
we got outside. "Have you many like him? I'd admire to see him cavorting
around on the pinnacles after horse-thieves or whisky-runners or a bunch
of bad Indians. A peaceable citizen would sure do well on the other side
of the line if sheriffs and marshals took a lay-off to feed themselves
when a man was in the middle of his complaint. How long do you suppose
it will take that fat slob to get a squad of these soldier-policemen on
the trail of that ten thousand?"

MacRae laughed dryly. "Old Dobson is harmless, all right, so far as
hunting outlaws is concerned. But he doesn't cut much figure around
here, one way or the other; no more than two or three other 'haw-haw'
Englishmen who got commissions in the Force on the strength of their
family connections. Lessard--the major in charge--is the brains of the
post. He gets out and does things while these fatheads stay in quarters
and untangle red tape. Personally, I don't like Lessard--he's a damned
autocrat. But he's the man to whip this unorganized country into shape.
I imagine he'll paw up the earth when he hears our story."

We mounted and rode to the stables. When we'd unsaddled and put up our
horses, Mac led the way toward a row of small, whitewashed cabins set
off by themselves, equidistant from barrack and officers' row.

"Sometimes I eat with the sergeants' mess," Mac said. "But generally I
camp with 'Bat' Perkins when I drop in here. Bat's an ex-stock-hand like
ourselves, and we'll be as welcome as payday. And he'll know if Lyn
Rowan has come to Walsh."

I wasn't in shape, financially, to have any choice in the matter of a
stopping-place. Forty or fifty dollars of expense money covered the
loose cash in my pockets when I left Walsh for Benton; and, while I may
have neglected to mention the fact, those two coin-collectors didn't
overlook the small change when they held me up for La Pere's roll. There
was a sort of sheebang--you couldn't call it a hotel if you had any
regard for the truth--on the outskirts of Walsh, for the accommodation
of wayfarers without a camp-outfit, but most of the time you couldn't
get anything fit to eat there. So I was mighty glad to hear about Bat
Perkins.



CHAPTER VII.

THIRTY DAYS IN IRONS!


It transpired, however, that before we reached Bat Perkins' cabin Mac
got an unexpected answer to one of the questions he intended to ask. As
we turned the corner of a rambling log house, which, from its
pretentiousness, I judged must house some Mounted Police dignitary, we
came face to face with a tall, keen-featured man in Police uniform, and
a girl. Even though Rutter had declared she would be at Walsh, I wasn't
prepared to believe it was Lyn Rowan. Sometimes five years will work a
wonderful change in a woman; or is it that time and distance work some
subtle transition in one's recollection? She didn't give me much time to
indulge in guesswork, though. While I wondered, for an instant, if there
could by any possibility be another woman on God's footstool with quite
the same tilt to her head, the same heavy coils of tawny hair and
unfathomable eyes that always met your own so frankly, she recognized
the pair of us; though MacRae in uniform must have puzzled her for an
instant.

"Gordon--and Sarge Flood! Where in the world did you come from?
And--and----" She stopped rather suddenly, a bit embarrassed. I knew
just as well as if she had spoken the words, that she had been on the
point of asking him what he was doing in the yellow-striped breeches and
scarlet jacket of a Mounted Policeman. Whatever had parted them, she
hadn't held it against him. There was an indefinable something in the
way she spoke his name and looked at him that told me there was still a
soft spot in her heart for the high-headed beggar by my side.

But MacRae--while I was wise to the fact that he was the only friend I
had in that country, and the sort of friend that sticks closer than a
brother, I experienced a sincere desire to beat him over the noodle with
my gun and thereby knock a little of the stiffness out of his
neck--simply saluted the officer, tipped his hat to her, and passed on.
I didn't _sabe_ the play, and when I saw the red flash up into her face
it made me hot, and there followed a few seconds when I took a very
uncharitable view of Mr. Gordon MacRae's distant manner.

The fellow with her, I noticed, seemed to draw himself up very stiff and
dignified when she stopped and spoke to us; and the look with which he
favored MacRae was a peculiar one. It was simply a vagrant expression,
but as it flitted over his face it lacked nothing in the way of
surprised disapproval; I might go farther and say it was malignant--the
kind of look that makes a man feel like reaching for a weapon. At least,
that's the impression it made on me.

"I might fire that question back at you, Miss Rowan," I replied. "We're
both a long way from the home range. I was here a day or two ago. How
did you manage to keep out of sight--or have you just got in?"

"Yesterday, only," she returned. "We--you remember old Mammy Thomas,
don't you?--came over from Benton with the Baker freight outfit. I
expect to meet dad here, in a few days."

Her last sentence froze the words that were all ready to slip off the
end of my tongue, and made my grouch against MacRae crystallize into a
feeling akin to anger. Why couldn't the beggar stand his ground and
deliver the ugly tidings himself? That bunch of cottonwoods with the
new-made grave close by the dead horses seemed to rise up between us,
and I became speechless. I hadn't the nerve to stand there and tell her
she'd never see her father again this side of the pearly gates. Not I.
That was a job for somebody who could put his arms around her and kiss
the tears away from her eyes. Unless I read her wrong, there was only
one man who could make it easier for her if he were by, and he was
walking away as if it were none of his concern.

Something of this must have shown in my face, for she was beginning to
regard me curiously. I gathered my scattered wits and started to make
some attempt at conversation, but the man with the shoulder-straps
forestalled me.

"Really, we must go, Miss Rowan, or we shall be late for luncheon," he
drawled. The insolent tone of him was like having one's face slapped,
and it didn't pass over Lyn's head by any means. I thought to myself
that if he had set out to entrench himself in her good graces, he was
taking the poorest of all methods to accomplish that desirable end.

"Just a moment, major," she said. "Are you going to be here any length
of time, Sarge?"

"A day or so," I responded shortly. I didn't feel overly cheerful
with all that bad news simmering in my brain-pan, and in addition
I had conceived a full-grown dislike for the "major" and his
I-am-superior-to-you attitude.

"Then come and see me this afternoon if you can. I'm staying with Mrs.
Stone. Don't forget, now--I have a thousand things I want to talk about.
Good-bye." And she smiled and turned away with the uniformed snob by her
side.

MacRae had loitered purposely, and I overtook him in a few rods.

"Well," I blurted out, as near angry as I ever got at MacRae in all the
years I'd known him, "you're a high-headed cuss, confound you! Is it a
part of your new philosophy of life to turn your back on every one that
you ever cared anything for?"

He shrugged his shoulders tolerantly. "What did you expect of me?"

"You might have--oh, well, I suppose you'll go your own gait,
regardless," I sputtered. "That's your privilege. But I don't see how
you had the nerve to pass _her_ up that way. Especially since that Stony
Crossing deal."

Mac took a dozen steps before he answered me.

"You don't understand the lay of things, Sarge," he said, rather
hesitatingly. "If I have the situation sized up right, Lyn is
practically alone here, and things are going to look pretty black to her
when she learns what has happened. Hank never had anything much to do
with his people. I doubt if Lyn has even a speaking acquaintance with
her nearest kin. She has friends in the South--plenty of them who'd be
more than glad to do as much for her as you or I. But we're a long way
from the Canadian River, now. And so if she has made friends among the
official set here, it's up to me to stand back--until that _cache_ is
found, anyway."

"Then you're not going to try and see her, and tell her about this thing
yourself?" I asked.

"I can't," he replied impatiently. "You'll have to do that, Sarge. Hang
it, can't you see where I stand? The mere fact that Lessard was taking
her about shows that these officers' women have received her with open
arms. They form a clique as exclusive as a quarantined smallpox patient,
and a 'non-com' like myself is barred out, until I win a pair of
shoulder-straps; when my rank would make me socially possible. Meantime,
I'm a sergeant, and if Lyn went to picking friends out of the ranks, I'm
not sure they wouldn't drop her like a hot potato. Sounds rotten, but
that's their style; and you've been through the mill at home enough to
know what it is to be knifed socially. It's different with you; you're
an American citizen, a countryman of hers. You understand?"

"Yes," I answered tartly. "But I don't understand how you can stomach
this sort of existence. What is there in it? Where is the profit or
satisfaction in this kind of thing, for you? Will the man in the ranks
get credit for taming the Northwest when his work is done? Why the devil
don't you quit the job? Cut loose and be a free agent again."

"It is a temptation, the way things have come up in the last day or
two," he mused. "I'd like to be foot-loose, so I could work it out
without any string attached to me. But there are only two ways I could
get out of the Force, and neither is open. I might desert, which would
be a dirty way to sneak out of a thing I went into deliberately; or, if
they were minded to allow me, I could buy my discharge--and I haven't
the price. Besides, I like the game and I don't know that I want to quit
it. The life isn't so bad. It's your rabidly independent point of view.
A man that can't obey orders is not likely to climb to a position where
he can give them. What the dickens would become of the cow-outfits," he
challenged, "if every stockhand refused to take orders from the foreman
and owners? Do you stand on your dignity when La Pere tells you to do
certain things in a certain way?"

I shrugged my shoulders. There was just enough truth in his words to
make them hard to confute, and, anyway, I was not in the mood for that
sort of argument. But I was very sure that I would rather be a
forty-dollar-a-month cowpuncher than a sergeant in the Mounted Police.

"That fellow with her is the big gun here, is he?" I reverted to Lyn and
her affairs.

"Yes," Mac answered shortly, "that was Lessard."

By this time we had come to the last cabin in the row. A whitewashed
fence enclosed a diminutive yard, and as we turned in the gate Bat
Perkins appeared in the doorway, both hands thrust deep in his trousers
pockets and a pipe sagging down one corner of his wide mouth. He was
rudely jovial in his greeting, as most of his type were. His wit was
labored, but his welcome was none the less genuine.

"I seen yuh ride in, Mac," he grinned, "an' I told the old woman t'
turn herself loose on the beefsteak an' spuds, for here comes that
hungry-lookin' jasper from Pend d' Oreille."

I was duly made acquainted with Bat, and later with his wife, who, if
she did have a trace of Indian blood in her, could certainly qualify as
the patron saint of hungry men. Good cooks were a scarce article on the
frontier then. Bat, I learned, was attached to the Force in a civilian
capacity.

We ate, smoked a cigarette apiece, and then it was time for us to
"repawt." So we betook ourselves to the seat of the mighty, to unload
our troubles on the men who directed the destinies of the turbulent
Northwest and see what they could do toward alleviating them.

This time the orderly passed us in without delay, and once more we faced
the man of rank, who, after taking our measure with a deliberate stare,
ordered MacRae to state his business.

As Mac related the unvarnished tale of the banked fire in the canyon,
the hold-up, and the double murder, a slight sound caused me to turn my
head, and I saw in a doorway that led to another room the erect figure
of Major Lessard listening intently, a black frown on his eagle face.
When MacRae had finished his story and the incapable blockhead behind
the desk sat there regarding the two of us as though he considered that
we had been the victims of a rank hallucination, Lessard slammed the
door shut behind him and strode into the room.

"I'll take charge of this, Captain Dobson," he brusquely informed the
red-faced numskull.

Taking his stand at the end of the desk, he made MacRae reiterate in
detail the grim happenings of that night. That over, he quizzed me for a
few minutes. Then he turned loose on MacRae with a battery of questions.
Could he give a description of the men? Would he be able to identify
them? Why did he not exercise more precaution when investigating
anything so suspicious as a concealed fire? Why this, why that? Why
didn't he send a trooper to report at once instead of wasting time in
going to Stony Crossing? And a dozen more.

With every word his thin-lipped mouth drew into harder lines, and the
cold, domineering tone, weighted heavy with sneering emphasis, grated on
me till I wanted to reach over and slap his handsome, smooth-shaven
face. But MacRae stood at "attention" and took his medicine dumbly. He
had to. He was in the presence, and answering the catechism, of a
superior officer, and his superior officer by virtue of a commission
from the Canadian government could insult his manhood and lash him
unmercifully with a viperish tongue, and if he dared to resent it by
word or deed there was the guardhouse and the shame of irons--for
discipline must be maintained at any cost! I thanked the star of destiny
then and there that no Mounted Police officer had a string attached to
me, by which he could force me to speak or be silent at his will. It was
a dirty piece of business on Lessard's part. Even Dobson eyed him
wonderingly.

"Why, damn it!" Lessard finally burst out, "you've handled this like a
green one, fresh from over the water. You are held up; this man is
robbed of ten thousand dollars; another man is murdered under your very
nose--and then you waste thirty-six hours blundering around the country
to satisfy your infernal curiosity. It's incredible, in a man of your
frontier experience, under any hypothesis except that you stood in with
the outlaws and held back to assure their escape!"

At first MacRae had looked puzzled, at a loss. Then under the lash of
Lessard's bitter tongue the dull red stole up into his weather-browned
cheeks, glowed there an instant and receded, leaving his face white
under the tan. His left hand was at its old, familiar trick--fingers
shut tight over the thumb till the cords stood tense between the
knuckles and wrist--a never-failing sign that internally he was close to
the boiling-point, no matter how calm he appeared on the surface. And
when Lessard flung out that last unthinkable accusation, the explosion
came.

"You lie, you----!" MacRae spoke in a cold impersonal tone, and only the
flat strained note betrayed his feeling; but the term applied to Lessard
was one to make a man's ears burn; it was the range-riders' gauntlet
thrown squarely in an enemy's face. "You lie when you say that, and you
know you lie. I don't know your object, but I call your bluff--you--you
blasted insect!"

Lessard, if he had been blind till then, saw what was patent to me--that
he had gone a bit too far, that the man he had baited so savagely was
primed to kill him if he made a crooked move. MacRae leaned forward, his
gray eyes twin coals, the thumb of his right hand hooked suggestively in
the cartridge-belt, close by the protruding handle of his six-shooter.
They were a well-matched pair; iron-nerved, both of them, the sort of
men to face sudden death open-eyed and unafraid.

A full minute they glared at each other across the desk corner. Then
Lessard, without moving a muscle or altering his steady gaze, spoke to
Dobson.

"Call the orderly," he said quietly.

Dobson, mouth agape, struck a little bell on the desk and the orderly
stepped in from the outer room.

"Orderly, disarm Sergeant MacRae."

Lessard uttered the command evenly, without a jarring note, his tone
almost a duplicate of MacRae's. He was a good judge of men, that
eagle-faced major; he knew that the slightest move with hostile intent
would mean a smoking gun. MacRae would have shot him dead in his tracks
if he'd tried to reach a weapon. But a man who is really game--which no
one who knew him could deny MacRae--won't, _can't_ shoot down another
unless that other shows _fight_; and a knowledge of that gun-fighters'
trait saved Major Lessard's hide from being thoroughly punctured that
day.

The orderly, a rather shaky orderly if the truth be told (I think he
must have listened through the keyhole!) stepped up to Mac.

"Give me your side-arms, sergeant," he said, nervously.

MacRae looked from one to the other, and for a breath I was as nervous
as the trooper. It was touch and go, just then, and if he'd gone the
wrong way it's altogether likely that I'd have felt called upon to back
his play, and there would have been a horrible mix-up in that two by
four room. But he didn't. Just smiled, a sardonic sort of grimace, and
unbuckled his belt and handed it over without a word. He'd begun to
cool.

"Reduced to the ranks--thirty days in irons--solitary confinement!"
Lessard snapped the words out with a wolfish satisfaction.

"Keep a close mouth, Sarge," MacRae spoke in Spanish with his eyes bent
on the floor, "and don't quit the country till I get out." Then he
turned at the orderly's command and marched out of the room.

When I again turned to Lessard he still stood at the end of the desk,
industriously paring his fingernails. An amused smile wrinkled the
corners of his mouth.



CHAPTER VIII.

LYN.


Whereas Lessard had acted the martinet with MacRae, he took another tack
and became the very essence of affability toward me. (I'd have enjoyed
punching his proud head, for all that; it was a dirty way to serve a man
who had done his level best.)

"Rather unfortunate happening for you, Flood," he began. "I think,
however, that we shall eventually get your money back."

"I hope so," I replied coolly. "But I must say that it begins to look
like a big undertaking."

"Well, yes; it is," he observed. "Still, we have a pretty thorough
system of keeping track of things like that. This is a big country, but
you can count on the fingers of one hand the places where a man can
spend money. Of course, you probably realize the difficulty of laying
hands on men who know they are wanted, and act accordingly. We can't
arrest on a description, because you wouldn't know the men if you saw
them. Our only chance is to be on the lookout for free spenders. It's a
certainty that they will be captured if they spend that money at any
trading-post within our jurisdiction. I'll find out if the quartermaster
knows the numbers and denomination of the bills. On the other hand, if
they go south, cross the line, you know, we won't get much of a show at
them. But we'll have to take chances on that."

"I've done all I can do in that direction," I said. "I've sent word to
La Pere."

"You had better stay hereabout for a while," he decided. "You can put up
at one of the troop-messes for a few days. I'll send a despatch to Whoop
Up and MacLeod, and we'll see what turns up. Also I think I shall send a
detail to bring in those bodies. The identification must be made
complete. No doubt it will be a trial for Miss Rowan, but I think she
would feel better to have her father buried here. By the way, you knew
the Rowans in the States, I believe."

"Was trail-boss three seasons for Hank Rowan and his partner," I
returned briefly. I didn't much like his offhand way of asking; not that
it wasn't a perfectly legitimate query. But I couldn't get rid of the
notion that he would hand me out the same dose he had given MacRae if
only he had the power.

"Ah," he remarked. "Then perhaps you would like to go out and help bring
in those bodies. It will save taking the Pend d' Oreille riders from
their regular patrol, and we are having considerable trouble with
whisky-runners these days."

I agreed to go, and that terminated the conversation. I didn't mind
going; in fact some sort of action appealed to me just then. I had no
idea of going back to Benton right away, and sitting around Fort Walsh
waiting for something to turn up was not my taste. It never struck me
till I was outside the office that Lessard had passed up the gold
episode altogether; he hadn't said whether he would send any one to
prognosticate around Writing-Stone or not. I wondered if he took any
stock in Rutter's story, or thought it merely one of the queer turns a
man's brain will sometimes take when he is dying. It had sounded
off-color to me, at first; but I knew old Hans pretty well, and he
always seemed to me a hard-headed, matter of fact sort of man, not at
all the flighty kind of pilgrim that gets mixed in his mental processes
when things go wrong. Besides, if there wasn't some powerful incentive,
why that double killing, to say nothing of the incredible devilishness
that accompanied it.

Once out of the official atmosphere, I hesitated over my next move.
Lessard's high-handed squelching of MacRae had thrown everything out of
focus. We'd planned to report at headquarters, see Lyn, if she were at
Walsh, and then with Pend d' Oreille as a base of operations go on a
still hunt for whatever the Writing-Stone might conceal. That scheme was
knocked galley-west and crooked, for even when MacRae's term expired
he'd get a long period of duty at the Fort; he'd lost his rank, and as a
private his coming and going would be according to barrack-rule instead
of the freedom allowed a sergeant in charge of an outpost like Pend
d' Oreille--I knew that much of the Mounted Police style of doing
business. And so far as my tackling single-handed a search for Hank
Rowan's _cache_--well, I decided to see Lyn before I took that
contract.

I hated that, too. It always went against my grain to be a bearer of ill
tidings. I hate to make a woman cry, especially one I like. Some one had
to tell her, though, and, much as I disliked the mission, I felt that I
ought not to hang back and let some stranger blurt it out. So I nailed
the first trooper I saw, and had him show me the domicile of Mrs.
Stone--who, I learned, was the wife of Lessard's favorite captain--and
thither I rambled, wishing mightily for a good stiff jolt out of the keg
that Piegan Smith and Mac had clashed over. But if there was any bottled
nerve-restorer around Fort Walsh it was tucked away in the officers'
cellars, and not for the benefit of the common herd; so I had to fall
back on a cigarette.

Lyn was sitting out in front when I reached the place. Another female
person, whom I put down as Madam Stone, arose and disappeared through
an open door at my approach. Lyn motioned me to a camp-stool close by. I
sat down, and immediately my tongue became petrified. My think-machinery
was running at a dizzy speed, but words--if silence is truly golden, I
was the richest man in Fort Walsh that afternoon, for a few minutes, at
least. And when my vocal organs did at last consent to fulfil their
natural office, they refused to deliver anything but empty commonplaces,
the kind one's tongue carries in stock for occasional moments of barren
speech. These oral inanities only served to make Lyn give me the benefit
of a look of amused wonder.

"Dear me," she laughed at last. "I wonder what weighty matter is
crushing you to the earth. If you've got anything on your conscience,
Sarge, for goodness' sake confess. I'll give you absolution, if you
like, and then perhaps you'll be a little more cheerful."

"No, there's nothing particular weighing me down," I lied flatly.
"Anyway, I don't aim to unload my personal troubles on you. I came over
here to acquire a little information. How came you away up here by your
lonesome, and what brought your father and old Hans----"

Her purple-shaded eyes widened, each one a question-mark.

"Who told you that Hans was up North? I know I didn't mention him," she
cut in quickly. "Have you seen them?"

It's a wonder my face didn't betray the fact that I was holding
something back. I know I must have looked guilty for a second. That was
a question I would gladly have passed up, but her eyes demanded an
answer.

"Well," I protested, "it occurred to me that if you expected to meet
your father here in a day or two, Rutter would naturally be with him,
seeing that they've paddled in the same canoe since a good many years
before you were born, my lady. What jarred you all loose from Texas? And
what the mischief did you do to MacRae that he quit the South next
spring after I did, and straightway went to soldiering in this
country?"

She shied away from that query, just as I expected. "We had oceans of
trouble after you left there, Sarge," she told me, turning her head from
me so that her gaze wandered over the barrack-square. "It really doesn't
make pleasant telling, but you'll understand better than some one that
didn't know the country. You remember Dick Feltz, and that old trouble
about the Conway brand that dad bought a long time back?"

I nodded; I remembered Mr. Feltz very well indeed, for the well-merited
killing of one of his hired assassins was the main cause of my hasty
departure from Texas.

"Well, it came to a head, one day, in Fort Worth. They shot each other
up terribly, and a week or so later Feltz died. His people in the East
got it into their heads that it was a case of murder. They stirred up
the county authorities till every one was taking sides. Of course, dad
was cleared; but that seemed to be the beginning of a steady run of bad
luck. The trial cost an awful lot of money, and made enemies, too. Feltz
had plenty of friends of his own calibre--you know that to your sorrow,
don't you, Sarge?--and they started trouble on the range. It was simply
terrible for a while. Dad can supply the details when he comes." ("when
he comes"--I tell you, that jarred me.) "Finally things got to such a
pass that dad had to quit. And what with a deal in some Mexican cattle
that didn't turn out well, and some other business troubles that I never
quite understood, we were just about finished when we closed out."

She let her eyes meet mine for an instant, and they were smiling, making
light of it all. Most women, I thought, would have had a good cry, or at
least pulled a long face, over a hard-luck story like that. But she was
really more of a woman than I had thought her, and I thanked the Lord
she was game when I remembered what I had to tell her before I was
through.

"Dad and Hans Rutter, as you know, weren't the sort of men to sit around
and mourn over anything like that," she laughed. "I don't know where
they got the idea of going to Peace River. But dad settled me and Mammy
Thomas in a little cottage in Austin, and they started. I wanted to go
along, but dad wouldn't hear of it. They've been gone a little over two
years. I'd get word from them about every three months, and early this
spring dad wrote that they had made a good stake and were coming home.
He said I could come as far as Benton to meet them, and we would take
the boat from there down to St. Louis. So I looked up the lay of the
country, and sent him word I would come as far as Walsh. He had said
they would come out by way of this place. And then I rounded up Mammy
Thomas and struck out. I've rather enjoyed the trip, too. They should be
here any day, now."

My conscience importuned me to tell her bluntly that they would only
come into Walsh feet first. But I dodged the unpleasant opening. There
was another matter I wanted to touch upon first.

"Look here, Lyn," I said--rather dubiously, it must be confessed, for I
didn't know how she would take it, "I'm going to tell you something on
my own responsibility, and you mustn't get the idea that I'm trying to
mix into your personal affairs without a warrant. But I have a hunch
that you're laboring under a mistaken impression, right now; that is, if
you care anything about an old friend like MacRae."

"I can't really say that I do, though," she assured me quickly, but she
colored in a way that convinced me that her feeling toward MacRae was of
the sort she would never admit to any one but himself.

"Well," I continued, "I imagined you would think it queer that he should
pass you up as he did a while ago. But here at Fort Walsh we're among a
class of people that are a heap different from Texas cow-punchers. These
redcoats move along social lines that don't look like much to a cowman;
but once in the Force you must abide by them. It was consideration for
you that forbade MacRae to stop. Any woman in the company of an officer
is taboo to an enlisted man, according----"

"I know all that," she interrupted impatiently. "Probably they'd cut me,
and all that sort of thing. I understand their point of view, exactly,
but I'm not here to play the social game, and I shall talk to whom it
pleases me. Do you or Gordon MacRae honestly believe I care a snap for
their petty conventions?"

"No, I know you better than that," I responded. "All the same, this is a
pretty rough country for a woman, and if you've made friends among the
people on top, they may come in handy. For that matter," I concluded,
"you won't get a chance to have the cold shoulder turned to you for
associating with MacRae; not for some time, anyway."

"What do you mean?" she demanded, in that answer-me-at-once way I knew
of old.

"MacRae has gotten into a bad hole," I told her plainly. "Major Lessard,
who happens to be the big chief in this neck of the woods, seems to have
developed a sudden grouch against him. There was a hold-up night before
last--in fact, I was the victim. I was separated from a big bunch of
money that belongs to the outfit I'm working for. Mac was with me at the
time. He had to come in here and report it, for it happened in his
district, and the major raked him over the coals in a way that was hard
to stand. You know MacRae, Lyn; it's mighty poor business for any man to
tread on his toes, much less go walking rough-shod all over him. Lessard
went the length of accusing him of being in with these hold-up men,
because he did a little investigating on his own account before coming
in to report. Mac took that pretty hard, and came mighty near making the
major eat his words with gunpowder sauce on the side. So, for having the
nerve to declare himself, he has lost his sergeant's stripes and has
likewise gone to the guardhouse to meditate over the foolishness of
taking issue with his superiors. If you don't see him for the next
thirty days, you'll have the consolation of knowing that he isn't
avoiding you purposely."

It was a rather flippant way to talk, but it was the best I could do
under the circumstances. The last three days hadn't been exactly
favorable to a normal state of mind, or well-considered speech.

But--who was the wise mortal that said: "No man knoweth the mind of a
maid"?--she sat there quite unmoved, her hands resting quietly in her
lap. "We all seem to be more or less under a cloud, Sarge," she said
slowly. "Maybe when dad comes he can furnish a silver lining for it. I
sometimes--what makes you look that way? You look as if you were
thinking it my fault that Gordon is in trouble."

"You're wrong there," I protested, truthfully enough.

"But you have that air," she declared. "And I'm not to blame. If he
hadn't been so--so--I'm sure he'd get out of the Mounted Police fast
enough if he didn't like it. I can't imagine him doing anything against
his will. I never knew him"--with a faint smile--"to stay anywhere or do
anything that didn't suit him." She took to staring out across the
grounds again, and one hand drew up slowly till it was doubled into a
tight-shut little fist.

"Well, he's in that very fix right now. And he's likely to continue so,
unless some one buys his release from the service and makes him a
present of it. You might play the good angel," I suggested, half in
earnest. "It only costs about five hundred dollars"--Mac had told me
that--"and I'm sure he'd be properly grateful."

The red flag waved in her cheeks again. "I don't particularly like the
idea," she said, rather crossly, still keeping her face turned away from
me, "and I'm very sure he wouldn't care to have me. But dad thinks a lot
of him; he might do something of the kind when he gets here. Dear, I
wish they'd hurry along."

She had me at the end of my rope at last, and I felt like breaking away
right there; any one not utterly calloused would, I think, have felt the
same squeamishness with that sort of a tale crowding close. If she had
been expecting bad news of any kind it wouldn't have been so hard to go
on; but I couldn't beat about the bush any longer, so I made the plunge
with what grace I could.

"Lyn, I've got something to tell you about your father and old Hans, and
I'm afraid it's going to hurt," I prefaced gently, and went on before
she could interrupt. "The fellows who held MacRae and me up had someway
got wind of the gold they were packing out. They tried to get it. So far
as I know, they haven't succeeded yet. Rutter tried to tell us where it
was _cached_. There was a fight over it, you see, and he was shot. Mac
and I came across him--but not soon enough." I stopped and got out
cigarette material in an absent sort of way. My lips, I remember, were
almighty dry just then.

"And dad?" Lyn was looking at me intently, and her voice was steady;
that squeezed kind of steadiness that is almost worse than tears.

"He wasn't with Rutter." I drew a long breath and hurried on, slurring
over the worst of it. "They had got separated. Hans was about done when
we found him--he died in a few minutes--but he told us where to go. Then
we went to look for your father. We found him; too late to do any good.
We buried him--both of them--and came on here."

I felt like a beast, as if I had struck her with my fist, but at any
rate, it was all told; all that she need ever know. I sat still and
watched her, wondering nervously what she would do.

It was a strain to sit there silent, for Lyn neither did or said
anything at first. Perhaps she cried afterward, when she got by herself,
but not then; just looked at me, through me, almost, her face white and
drawn into pained lines, and those purple-blue eyes perfectly black. I
got up at last, and put one hand on her shoulder.

"It's hell, little girl, I know." I said this hardly realizing that I
swore. "We can't bring the old man back to life, but we can surely run
down the cold-blooded devils that killed him. I have a crow to pick with
them myself; but that doesn't matter; I'd be in the game anyway. We'll
get them somehow, when Mac gets out and can play his hand again. It was
finding your father and giving him decent burial that kept us out so
long. I don't understand, yet, why Lessard should pitch into MacRae so
hard for doing that much. You know Mac, Lyn, and you know me--we'll do
what we can."

She didn't move for a minute, and the shocked, stricken look in her eyes
grew more intense. Then she dropped her head in the palms of her hands
with a little sobbing cry. "Sarge, I--I wish you'd go, now," she
whispered. "I want to--to be all by myself, for a while. I'll be all
right by and by."

I stood irresolute for a second. It may have been my fancy, but I seemed
to hear her whisper, "Oh, Gordon, Gordon!" Then I hesitated no longer,
but turned away and left her alone with her grief; it was not for me to
comfort her. And when I had walked a hundred yards or more, I looked
back. She was still sitting as I had left her, head bowed on her hands,
and the afternoon sun playing hide-and-seek in the heavy coils of her
tawny-gold hair.



CHAPTER IX.

AN IDLE AFTERNOON.


For the next hour or two I poked aimlessly around the post buildings,
chafing at the forced inaction and wondering what I would better do
after I'd gone with the squad of redcoats to those graves and helped
bring the bodies in. Even if I had a pack-horse and a grub-stake, it
would be on a par with chasing a rainbow for me to start on a lone hunt
for Hank Rowan's _cache_. I didn't know the Writing-Stone country, and a
man had no business wandering up and down those somber ridges alone,
away from the big freight-trails, unless he was anxious to be among the
"reported missing"--which he sure would be if a bunch of non-treaty
Indians ever got within gunshot of him. I damned Major Lessard earnestly
for what I considered his injustice to MacRae, and wondered if he would
send his troopers out to look for that hypothetical gold-dust. I didn't
see how he could avoid making a bluff at doing so, even if he secretly
classed Rutter's story as a fairy-tale, and I promised myself to find
out what he was going to do before I started in the morning.

While I was sitting with my back against the shaded wall of troop G's
barrack, turning this over in my mind, a Policeman with the insignia of
a sergeant on his sleeve came sauntering leisurely by. He took me in
with an appraising glance, and stopped.

"How d'ye do," he greeted, with a friendly nod. "You're the man that
came in with MacRae, aren't you?"

I laconically admitted that I was.

"The k. o. has detailed me to bring in the bodies of the two men who
were killed," he informed me. "He said that you were going along, and so
I thought I'd hunt you up and tell you that we'll start about seven in
the morning."

"I'll be ready," I assured him.

"Come on over to the bull-pen," he invited cordially. "Sorry we haven't
a canteen in connection, but it's more comfortable over there. Good
place to lop about, y' know; a decent place to sit, and a few books and
cards and that sort of thing. Come along."

I rather liked the man's style, and as he seemed to be really anxious to
make things pleasant for me, I shuffled off the pessimistic mood I was
drifting into, and fell in with his proposal. The "bull-pen" proved to
be a combination reading and lounging-room for the troopers not on duty.
My self-appointed host, whose name was Goodell, waved me to a chair, and
took one opposite. With his feet cocked up on a window-sill, and a
cigarette going, he leaned back in his chair, and our conversation
slackened so that I had a chance to observe my surroundings. It was a
big place, probably fifty feet by a hundred, and quite a number of
redcoats were sprinkled about, some reading, some writing letters, and
two or three groups playing cards. None of them paid any attention to
me, beyond an occasional disinterested glance, until my roving eyes
reached a point directly behind me. Then I became aware that one of a
bunch of four poker-players a few feet distant was regarding me with an
expression that puzzled me. I had turned my head rather quickly and
caught him staring straight at me. It was an odd look, sort of amused,
and speculative; at least, that was the way I read it. Twice in the next
ten minutes I glanced around quickly and caught him sizing me up, as it
were; and then I hitched my chair sidewise, and deliberately began
studying the gentleman to see if I could discover the source of his
interest in me.

I failed in that, but I stopped his confounded quizzical stare. He
wasn't the style of man that I'd care to stir up trouble with, judging
from his size and the shape of his head. He was about my height, but
half as broad again across the shoulders, and his thick, heavy-boned
wrists showed hairy as an ape's when he stretched his arms to deal the
cards. Aside from his physical proportions, there was nothing about the
man to set him apart from his fellows. Half a dozen men in that room had
the same shade of hair and mustache, and the same ordinary blue eyes. I
turned back to the window again, thinking that I was getting nervous as
an old maid, to let a curious look from a stranger stir me like that.

In a few minutes the trooper opposite my friend of the poker-game drew
out, and one of the players called loudly on Goodell to take his place.
Goodell lighted another cigarette and nonchalantly seated himself in the
vacant chair. Then I observed for the first time that the game was for
blood rather than pastime, for Goodell paid for his little pile of white
beans in good, gold coin of the realm. Next to playing a little "draw"
myself, I like to watch the game, and so I moved over where I could see
the bets made and the hands exhibited. And there I stuck till "stables"
sounded, watching the affable sergeant outgeneral his opponents, and
noting with some amusement the sulky look that grew more intensified on
the heavy face of Hicks (as they called the man who had favored me with
that peculiar stare) when Goodell finessed him out of two or three
generous-sized pots.

On my way to attend to my horse, Bat Perkins overtook me.

"Say, old-timer, is it right about Mac losing his stripes and getting
thirty days in the cooler?" he asked in lowered tone.

"It sure is," I answered emphatically.

"What in thunder for?" he inquired resentfully. And because I was aching
to express my candid opinion of Major Lessard and all his works to some
one who would understand my point of view, I told Bat all about
it--omitting any mention of the gold-dust. Only four men, Dobson the
fathead, Lessard, MacRae and myself, knew what little was known of that,
and I felt that I had no license to spread the knowledge further.

"Oh, they sure do hand it to a man if he makes the least break," Bat
sympathized. "Mac's one uh the best men they've got in the Force, an'
they know it, too. Darned if that don't sound queer t' me; what else
could he do? But Lessard's a overbearin' son-of-a-gun all round, and
he's always breakin' out in a new place. Say, you might as well come
over an' stay with me while you're round here. I don't reckon you'll
enjoy herdin' with these rough-necks."

Bat's offer was not one to be overlooked by a man in my circumstances,
so after supper found me sitting in his kitchen making gloomy forecasts
of the future, between cigarettes. Shortly before the moon-faced clock
nailed on the wall struck the hour of nine with a great internal
whirring, some one tapped lightly on the door. Bat himself answered the
knock. His body shut off sight of whoever stood outside. I could just
catch the murmur of a subdued voice. After a few seconds of listening
Bat nodded vigorously, and closed the door. He came back to his chair
grinning pleasantly, and handed me a little package. I tore it open and
found, wrapped tightly about three twenty-dollar gold pieces, an
unsigned note from MacRae. It ran:

     "Get after Lessard and see if he won't send an escort with you to
     Writing-Stone. If he does, and you find anything, I needn't warn
     you to be careful. I don't think he believed our yarn, at all. If
     he refuses to act, stay here till I get out. This money will hold
     you for a while. It's all I could rustle. If you need more, maybe
     Bat can stake you--he will if he can."

That was all. Not a word about Lyn. The stiff-necked devil!

"You know what this is, don't you?" I said to Bat. "How the dickens did
he manage it?"

Bat's grin became even more expansive. "There ain't a buck trooper on
the job," he replied, "that wouldn't help Mac if he got half a show;
he's a white man. It's easy for a prisoner t' slip a note to a friend
that happens t' be mountin' guard. He sent it t' me because I'd be apt
t' know where yuh was. _Sabe?_"

I did. Mac's suggestion was right in line with my own idea. Lessard
could scarcely refuse to do that much, I thought; and it would be rather
unhealthy for those prairie pirates to match themselves against a bunch
of Mounted Policemen who were on their guard--provided we found anything
that was worth fighting over.

A little later Bat spread a bed for me on the kitchen floor, and I
turned in. But my sleep resolved itself into a series of cat-naps. When
the first sunbeam gleamed through the window of Bat's tiny kitchen, I
arose, pulled on my boots and went to feed my horse. And when we had
eaten breakfast I headed straight for Lessard's private quarters. I
expected he would object to talking business out of business hours, but
I didn't care; I wanted to know what he was going to do, before I
started on that three-day trip. Fortunately Lessard was an early bird,
like myself. I met him striding toward the building that seemed to be a
clearing house for the official contingent.

"Good-morning, major," I said, mustering up a semblance of heartiness
that was far from being the genuine article--I didn't like the man and
it galled me to ask anything of him. "I want to ask you something before
I leave. Have you talked this affair over with Miss Rowan?"

"Yes. Why?" He was maddeningly curt, but I pocketed my feelings and
persisted.

"Then you must know beyond a doubt that there was some truth in
Rutter's story," I declared. "Hank Rowan was my friend. I'd go out of my
way any time to help his daughter. Will you send four or five of your
men with me to the Writing-Stone to look for that stuff?" I asked him
point-blank.

He looked me up and down curiously, and did not answer for a minute.
"How do you know where to look?" he suddenly demanded. "Writing-Stone
ridge is ten miles long. What chance would you have of finding anything
in a territory of that extent?" His cold eyes rested on me in a
disagreeable way. "I thought Rutter died before giving you the exact
location."

As a matter of fact, MacRae, in detailing the lurid happenings of that
night, did not repeat the words Rutter had gasped out with his last
breath. He simply said that Hans died after telling us that they had
been attacked, and that the gold was hidden at Writing-Stone. And
Lessard, as I said before, had passed up the gold episode at the time;
all his concern seemed to be for the robbers' apprehension, which was
natural enough since a crime had undoubtedly been committed and he bore
the responsibility of catching and punishing the perpetrators. The
restoration of stolen goods was probably dwarfed in his mind by the
importance of capturing the stealers.

I was vastly interested in that phase of it, too, for I realized that a
speedy gathering in of those men of the mask was my only chance to lay
hold of La Pere's ten thousand; and I had a theory that they were hardly
the sort to be content with that sum, and that Hank Rowan's _cached_
gold would be an excellent bait for them, if it could be uncovered.
Those steadily reiterated phrases, "raw gold--on the rock" might have
some understandable meaning if one were on the spot, but MacRae had kept
that to himself--and I wasn't running a bureau of information for
Lessard's benefit. The Canadian government might trust him, but I
wouldn't--not if he took oath on a stack of Bibles, and gave a cast-iron
bond to play fair. I couldn't give any sound reason for feeling that
way, beyond the shabby treatment he'd given MacRae. But somehow the
man's personality grated on me. Lessard was of the type, rare enough,
that can't be overlooked if one comes in contact with it; a big,
dominant, magnetic brute type that rouses either admiration or
resentment in other ordinary mortals; the kind of a man that women
become fascinated with, and other men invariably hate--and sometimes
fear. I didn't stop to analyze my feeling toward him, just then; but I
had the impulse to keep what little I knew to myself, and I obeyed the
promptings of the sixth sense.

"He did," I answered. "But we can take a chance. Send men that know the
country. Lyn Rowan's kinfolk are few and far between, now; that gold
means a good deal to her, in her present circumstances."

"H--m-m." He mused a few seconds. Then: "If I think there's any
possibility of finding it--well, I'll see what can be done, after those
bodies are brought in. You, I suppose, are ready to start?"

I nodded.

"Sergeant Goodell is in charge of the detail. You'll probably find him
about to go. That's all."

It was like being dismissed from parade; a right-about-face, march!
command straight from the shoulder. Again I was overwhelmed with
thankfulness that the N. W. M. P. had no string on me; I never took
orders from anybody in that tone of voice, and I wanted to shake a
defiant fist under the autocratic major's nose and tell him so. I had
sense enough to see that the time and place was unpropitious for
starting an argument of that sort, so I kept an unperturbed front and
went about my business.



CHAPTER X.

THE VANISHING ACT, AND THE FRUITS THEREOF.


Being aware that it was near the time Goodell had named for starting, I
returned to the stables, and, getting my horse, rode to the commissary.
There I found Goodell engineering the final preparations. Four men,
besides myself, made up the party: the sergeant, Hicks the
hairy-wristed, another private, and a half-breed scout. They were
lashing an allowance of food and blankets on a pack-horse, and two other
horses with bare _aparejos_ on their backs were tied to the horn of the
breed's saddle--for what purpose I could easily guess.

While I sat on my _caballo_ waiting for them to tie the last hitch a
rattle of wheels and the thud of hoofs drew near, and presently a blue
wagon, drawn by four big mules and flanked by half a dozen Mounted
Policemen, passed by the commissary building. The little cavalcade
struck a swinging trot as it cleared the barracks, swung down into the
bed of Battle Creek, up the farther bank, and away to the west. And a
little later we, too, left the post, following in the dusty wake of the
paymaster's wagon and its mounted escort.

For ten or twelve miles we kept to the MacLeod trail at an easy pace,
never more than a mile behind the "transient treasury," as Goodell
facetiously termed it. He was a pretty bright sort, that same Goodell,
quick-witted, nimble of tongue above the average Englishman. I don't
know that he was English; for that matter, none of the three carried the
stamp of his nationality on his face or in his speech. They were men of
white blood, but they might have been English, Irish, Scotch or Dutch
for all I could tell to the contrary. But each of them was broke to the
frontier; that showed in the way they sat their horses, the way they
bore themselves toward one another when clear of the post and its
atmosphere of rigidly enforced discipline. The breed I didn't take much
notice of at the time, except that when he spoke, which was seldom, he
was given to using better language than lots of white men I have known.

At a point where the trail seemed to bear north a few degrees, Goodell
angled away from the beaten track and headed straight across country for
Pend d' Oreille. At noon we camped, and cooked a bite of dinner while
the horses grazed; ate it, and went on again.

About three o'clock, as nearly as I could tell, we dipped into a wooded
creek bottom some two hundred yards in width. The creek itself went
brawling along in a deep-worn channel, and when my horse got knee deep
in the water he promptly stopped and plunged his muzzle into the stream.
I gave him slack rein, and let him drink his fill. The others kept on,
climbed the short, steep bank, and passed from sight over its rim. I
swung down from my horse on the brink of the creek, cinched the saddle
afresh, and rolled a cigarette. If I thought about them getting the
start of me at all, it was to reflect that they couldn't get a lead of
more than two or three hundred yards, at the gait they traveled. Judge
then of my surprise when I rode up out of the water-washed gully and
found them nowhere in sight. I pulled up and glanced about, but the
clumps of scrubby timber were just plentiful enough to cut off a clear
view of the flat. So I fell back on the simple methods of the plainsman
and Indian and jogged along on their trail.

Not for many days did I learn truly how I came to miss them, how and why
they had vanished from the face of the earth so completely in the few
minutes I lingered in the gulch. The print of steel-rimmed hoofs showed
in the soft loam as plainly as a moccasin-track in virgin snow. Around a
grove of quaking-aspens, eternally shivering in the deadest of calms,
their trail led through the long grass that carpeted the bottom, and
suddenly ended in a strip of gravelly land that ran out from the bed of
the creek. I could follow it no farther. If there was other mark of
their passing, it was hidden from me.

Wondering, and a bit exasperated, I spurred straight up the bank, and
when I had reached the high benchland loped to a point that overlooked
the little valley a full mile up and down. Cottonwood and willow,
cut-bank and crooning water, lay green and brown and silver-white
before, but no riders, no thing that moved in the shape of men came
within the scope of my eyes. But I wasn't done yet. I turned away from
the bank and raced up a long slope to a saw-backed ridge that promised
largely of unobstructed view. Dirty gray lather stood out in spumy rolls
around the edge of the saddle-blanket, and the wet flanks of my horse
heaved like the shoulders of a sobbing woman when I checked him on top
of a bald sandstone peak--and though as much of the Northwest as one
man's eye may hope to cover lay bared on every hand, yet the quartet
that rode with me from Fort Walsh occupied no part of the landscape. I
could look away to the horizon in every direction, and, except for one
little herd of buffalo feeding peacefully on the westward slant of the
ridge, I could see nothing but rolling prairie, a vast undulating spread
of grassland threaded here and there with darker lines that stood for
creeks and coulées, and off to the north the blue bulk of the Cypress
Hills.

I got off and sat me down upon a rock, rolled another cigarette, and
waited. The way to Pend d' Oreille led over the ridge, a half mile on
either side of me, as the spirit moved a traveler who followed an
approximately straight line. Whatever road they had taken, they could
not be more than three or four miles from that sentinel peak--for there
is a well-defined limit to the distance a mounted man may cover in a
given length of time. And from my roost I could note the passing of
anything bigger than a buffalo yearling, within a radius of at least six
miles. Therefore, I smoked my cigarette without misgiving, and kept
close watch for bobbing black dots against the far-flung green.

I might as well have laid down and gone to sleep on that pinnacle for
all the good my waiting and eye-straining did me. One hour slipped by
and then another, and still I did not abandon hope of their appearance.
Naturally, I argued with myself, they would turn back when I failed to
overtake them--especially if they had thoughtlessly followed some
depression in the prairie where I could not easily see them. And while I
lingered, loath to believe that they were hammering unconcernedly on
their way, the sun slid down its path in the western sky--slid down till
its lower edge rested on the rim of the world and long black shadows
began to creep mysteriously out of the low places, while buttes and
ridges gleamed with cloth of gold, the benediction of a dying day. Only
then did I own that by hook or by crook--and mostly by crook, I was
forced to suspect--they had purposely given me the slip.

A seasoned cowpuncher hates to admit that any man, or bunch of men, can
take him out into an open country and shake him off whenever it is
desired; but if I had been a rank tenderfoot they couldn't have jarred
me loose with greater ease. It was smooth work, and I couldn't guess the
object, unless it was a Mounted Policeman's idea of an excellent
practical joke on a supposedly capable citizen from over the line.
Anyway, they had left me holding the sack in a mighty poor snipe
country. Dark was close at hand, and I was a long way from shelter. So
when the creeping shadows blanketed pinnacle and lowland alike, and all
that remained of the sun was the flamboyant crimson-yellow on the
gathering clouds, I was astride of my dun _caballo_ and heading for Pend
d' Oreille.

But speedily another unforeseen complication arose. Before I'd gone five
miles the hoodoo that had been working overtime on my behalf got busy
again. The clouds that were rolling up from the east at sundown piled
thick and black overhead, and when dark was fairly upon me I was, for
all practical purposes, like a blind man in an unfamiliar room. It
didn't take me long to comprehend that I was merely wasting the strength
of my horse in bootless wandering; with moonlight I could have made it,
but in that murk I could not hope to find the post. So I had no choice
but to make camp in the first coulée that offered, and an exceeding lean
camp I found it--no grub, no fire, no rest, for though I hobbled my
horse I didn't dare let his rope out of my hands.

About midnight the combination of sultry heat and banked clouds produced
the usual results. Lightning first, lightning that ripped the sky open
from top to bottom in great blazing slits, and thunder that cracked and
boomed and rumbled in sharps and flats and naturals till a man could
scarcely hear himself think; then rain in flat chunks, as if some
malignant agency had yanked the bottom out of the sky and let the
accumulated moisture of centuries drop on that particular portion of the
Northwest. In fifteen minutes the only dry part of me was the crown of
my head--thanks be to a good Stetson hat. And my arms ached from the
strain of hanging onto my horse, for, hobbled as he was, he did his best
to get up and quit Canada in a gallop when the fireworks began. To make
it even more pleasant, when the clouds fell apart and the little stars
came blinking out one by one, a chill wind whistled up on the heels of
the storm, and I spent the rest of that night shivering forlornly in my
clammy clothes.

Still a-shiver at dawn, I saddled up and loped for the crest of the
nearest divide to get the benefit of the first sun-rays. But alas! the
hoodoo was still plodding diligently on my trail. I topped a little
rise, and almost rode plump into the hostile arms of a half-dozen
breech-clout warriors coming up the other side. I think there were about
half a dozen, but I wouldn't swear to it. I hadn't the time nor
inclination to make an exact count. The general ensemble of war-paint
and spotted ponies was enough for me; I didn't need to be told that it
was my move. My spurs fairly lifted the dun horse, and we scuttled in
the opposite direction like a scared antelope. The fact that the average
Indian is not a master hand with a gun except at short range was my
salvation. If they'd been white men I would probably have been curled in
a neat heap within two hundred yards. As it was, they shot altogether
too close for comfort, and the series of yells they turned loose in that
peaceful atmosphere made me feel that I was due to be forcibly separated
from the natural covering of my cranium if I lost any time in getting
out of their sphere of influence.

The persistent beggars chased me a good ten miles before they drew up,
concluding, I suppose, that I was too well mounted for them to overhaul.
But it might have been a lot worse; I still had my scalp intact; the
chase and its natural excitement had brought a comfortable warmth to my
chilled body; and I had made good time in the direction I wished to go.
On the whole, I felt that the red brother had done me rather a good
turn. But I kept on high ground, thereafter, where I could see a mile or
two, for I was very much alive to the fact that if another of those
surprise-parties jumped me now that my horse was tired they would have a
good deal of fun at my expense; and an Indian's idea of fun doesn't
coincide with mine--not by a long shot!

I made some pointed remarks to my horse about Mr. Goodell and his
companions, as I rode along. If Pend d' Oreille hadn't been the nearest
place, I'd have turned back to Walsh and made that bunch of exhumers
come back after me, if it were absolutely necessary that I should pilot
them to the graves. Personally, I thought those two old plainsmen
wouldn't thank Major Lessard or any one else for disturbing their last,
long sleep; the wide, unpeopled prairies had always been their choice in
life, and I felt that they would rather be laid away in some quiet
coulée, than in any conventional "city of the dead" with prim headstones
and iron fences to shut them in. A Western man likes lots of room; dead
or alive, it irks him to be crowded.

I fully expected to find the four waiting for me at Pend d' Oreille, and
I was prepared to hear a good deal of chaffing about getting lost. What
of my waiting on the ridge that afternoon, and bearing more or less away
from the proper direction at night, I did not reach the post till noon;
and I was a bit puzzled to find only the men who were on duty there. I
was digesting this along with the remains of the troopers' dinner, when
Goodell and his satellites popped over the hill that looked down on Pend
d' Oreille, and, a few minutes later, came riding nonchalantly up to the
mess-house.

"Well, you beat us in," Goodell greeted airily. "Did you find a short
cut?"

"Sure thing," I responded, with what irony I could command.

"Where the deuce _did_ you go, anyway, after you stopped in that
creek-bottom?" he asked, eying me with much curiosity. "We nearly played
our horses out galloping around looking for you--after we'd gone a mile
or so, and you didn't catch up."

"Then you must have kept damned close to the coulée-bottoms," I retorted
ungraciously, "for I burnt the earth getting up on a pinnacle where you
could see me, before you had time to go very far."

"Oh, well, it's easy to lose track of a lone man in a country as big as
this," he returned suavely. "We all got here, so what's the odds? I
guess we'll stick here till morning. We can't make the round trip this
afternoon, and I'm not camping on the hills when it's avoidable."

It struck me that he was uncommonly philosophical about it, so I merely
grunted and went on with my dinner.

That evening, when we went to the stable to fix up our horses for the
night, I got a clearer insight into his reason for laying over that
afternoon. They had been doing some tall riding, and their livestock was
simply unfit to go farther. The four saddle-horses looked as if they had
been dragged through a small-sized knothole; their gauntness, and the
dispirited droop of their heads, spelled complete fatigue to any man who
knew the symptoms of hard riding. By comparison, my sweat-grimed dun was
fresh as a morning breeze.



CHAPTER XI.

THE GENTLEMAN WHO RODE IN THE LEAD.


It took us all of the next day to make the trip to Stony Crossing and
back by way of the place where Rutter was buried. Goodell had no fancy,
he said, for a night camp on the prairie when it could be avoided. He
planned to make an early start from Pend d' Oreille, and thus reach Walsh
by riding late the next night. So, well toward evening, we swung back to
the river post. Goodell and his fellows were nowise troubled by the
presence of dead men; they might have been packing so much merchandise,
from their demeanor. But I was a long way from feeling cheerful. The
ghastly burdens, borne none too willingly by the extra horses, put a
damper on me, and I'm a pretty sanguine individual as a rule.

When we had unloaded the bodies from the uneasy horses, and laid them
carefully in a lean-to at the stable-end, we led our mounts inside.
Goodell paused in the doorway and emitted a whistle of surprise at sight
of a horse in one of the stalls. I looked over his shoulder and
recognized at a glance the rangy black MacRae had ridden.

"They must have given Mac's horse to another trooper," I hazarded.

"Not that you could notice," Goodell replied, going on in. "They don't
switch mounts in the Force. If they have now, it's the first time to my
knowledge. When a man's in clink, his nag gets nothing but mild exercise
till his rightful rider gets out. And MacRae got thirty days. Well,
we'll soon find out who rode him in."

I pulled the saddle off my horse, slapped it down on the dirt floor, and
went stalking up to the long cabin. The first man my eyes lighted upon
as I stepped inside was MacRae, humped disconsolately on the edge of a
bunk. I was mighty glad to see him, but I hadn't time to more than say
"hello" before Goodell and the others came in. Mac drew a letter from
his pocket and handed it to Goodell.

He glanced quickly through it, then swept the rest of us with a
quizzical smile. "By Jove! you must have a pull with the old man, Mac,"
he said to MacRae. "I suppose you know what's in this epistle?"

"Partly." Mac answered as though it were no particular concern of his.

"I'm to turn Hicks and Gregory over to you," he read the note again to
be sure of his words, "see that you get a week's supply of grub here,
and then leave you to your own devices. What's the excitement, now?
Piegans on the war-path? Bull-train missing, or whisky-runners getting
too fresh, or what? My word, the major has certainly established a
precedent; you're the first man I've known that got thirty days in clink
and didn't have to serve it to the last, least minute. How the deuce did
you manage it? Put me on, like a good fellow--I might want to get a
sentence suspended some day. Any of us are liable to get it, y'know."
Goodell's tone was full of gentle raillery.

"The high and mighty sent me out to lead a forlorn hope," Mac dryly
responded. "Does that look like a suspended sentence?" He turned his arm
so that we could see the ripped stitching where his sergeant's stripes
had been cut away.

"Tough--but most of us have been there, one time or another," Goodell
observed sympathetically; and with that the subject rested.

Though I was burning to know things, we hadn't the least chance to talk
that evening. Nine lusty-lunged adults in that one room prohibited
confidential speech. Not till next morning, when we rode away from Pend
d' Oreille with our backs to a sun that was lazily clearing the
hill-tops, did MacRae and I have an opportunity to unburden our souls.
When we were fairly under way in the direction of Writing-Stone, Hicks
and Gregory--the breed scout--lagged fifty or sixty yards behind, and
MacRae turned in his saddle and gave me a queer sort of look.

"I wasn't joking last night when I told Goodell that this was something
of a forlorn hope," he said. "Are you ready to take a chance on getting
your throat cut or being shot in the back, Sarge?"

I stared at him a second. It was certainly an astounding question,
coming from that source--more like the language of the villain in a
howling melodrama than a cold-blooded inquiry that called for a serious
answer. But he was looking at me soberly enough; and he wasn't in the
habit of saying startling things, unless there was a fairly solid basis
of truth in them. He was the last man in the world to accuse of saying
or doing anything merely for the sake of effect.

"That depends," I returned. "Why?"

"Because if we find what we're going after that's the sort of formation
we may have to buck against until we get that stuff to Walsh," he
replied coolly. "Beautiful prospect, eh? I reckon you'll understand
better if I tell you how it came about.

"The day you left, Lessard had me up on the carpet again. When he got
through cross-questioning me, he considered a while, and finally said
that under the circumstances he felt that losing my stripes would be
punishment enough for the rank insubordination I'd been guilty of, and
he would therefore revoke the thirty-day sentence. I pricked up my ears
at that, I can tell you, because Lessard isn't built that way at all.
When a man talks to any officer the way I did to him, he gets all that's
coming, and then some for good measure. I began to see light pretty
quick, though. He went on to say that he had spoken to Miss Rowan about
her father, and had learned that without doubt those two old fellows
were headed this way with between forty and fifty thousand dollars in
gold-dust, that they'd washed on Peace River. Since I'd been on the spot
when Rutter died, and knew the Writing-Stone country so well, he thought
I would stand a better show of finding their _cache_ than any one else
he could send out. He wanted to recover that stuff for Miss Rowan, if it
were possible. So he wrote that order to Goodell and started me out to
join you--with a warning to keep our eyes open, for undoubtedly the men
who killed Rutter and held you up would be watching for a chance at us
if we found that gold."

"Very acute reasoning on his part, I'm sure," I interrupted. "We knew
that without his telling. And if he thinks those fellows are hanging
about waiting for a whack at that dust, why doesn't he get out with a
bunch of his troopers and round them up?"

"That's what," Mac grinned. "But wait a minute. This was about three in
the afternoon, and he ordered me to start at once so as to catch you
fellows as soon as possible. I started a few minutes after three. You
remember the paymaster's train left that morning. He had a mounted
escort of six or seven besides his teamster. The MacLeod trail runs less
than twenty miles north of here, you know. I followed it, knowing about
where they'd camp for the night, thinking I'd make their outfit and get
something to eat and a chance to sleep an hour or two; then I could come
on here early in the morning. I got to the place where I had figured
they would stop, about eleven o'clock, but they had made better time
than usual and gone farther, so I quit the trail and struck across the
hills, for I didn't want to ride too far out of my way. When I got on
top of the first divide I ran onto a little spring and stopped to water
my horse and let him pick a bit of grass; I'd been riding eight hours,
and still had quite a jaunt to make. I must have been about three miles
south of the trail then."

He stopped to light the cigarette he had rolled while he talked, and I
kept still, wondering what would come next. MacRae wasn't the man to go
into detail like that unless he had something important to bring out.

"I sat there about an hour, I reckon," he continued. "By that time it
was darker than a stack of black cats, and fixing to storm. I thought I
might as well be moving as sit there and get soaked to the hide. While I
was tinkering with the cinch I thought I heard a couple of shots. Of
course, I craned my neck to listen, and in a second a regular fusillade
broke out--away off, you know; about like a stick of dry wood crackling
in the stove when you're outside the cabin. I loped out of the hollow
by the spring and looked down toward the trail. The red flashes were
breaking out like a bunch of firecrackers, and with pretty much the same
sound. It didn't last long--a minute or so, maybe. I listened for a
while, but there was nothing to be seen and I heard no more shooting.
Now, I knew the pay-wagon was somewhere on that road, and it struck me
that the bunch that got Hans and Rowan and held us up might have tried
the same game on it; and from the noise I judged it hadn't been a
walkaway. It was a wild guess; but I thought I ought to go down and see,
anyway. Single-handed, and in that dark you could almost feel, I knew I
was able to sidestep the trouble, if it should be Indians or anything I
didn't care to get mixed up in.

"I'd gone about a mile down the slope when the lightning began to tear
the sky open. In five minutes the worst of it was right over me, and one
flash came on top of the other so fast it was like a big eye winking
through the clouds. One second the hills and coulées would show plain as
day, and next you'd have to feel to find the ears of your horse. I
pulled up, for I didn't care to go down there with all that
lightning-play to make a shining mark of me, and while I sat there
wondering how long it was going to last, a long, sizzling streak went
zig-zagging up out of the north and another out of the east, and when
they met overhead and the white glare spread over the clouds, it was
like the sun breaking out over the whole country. It lit up every ridge
and hollow for two or three seconds, and showed me four riders tearing
up the slope at a high run. I don't think they saw me at all, for they
passed me, in the dark that shut down after that flash of lightning, so
close that I could hear the pat-a-pat of the hoofs. And when the next
flash came they were out of sight.

"Right after that the rain hit me like a cloudburst. That was over
quick, and by the time it had settled to a drizzle I was down in the
paymaster's camp. Things were sure in an uproar there. Two men killed,
two more crippled, and the paymaster raving like a maniac. I hadn't been
far wide of the mark. The men that passed me on the ridge had held up
the outfit--and looted fifty thousand dollars in cold cash."

"Fifty thousand--the devil!" I broke in. "And they got away with it?"

"With all the ease in the world," MacRae answered calmly. "They made a
sneak on the camp in the dark, clubbed both sentries, and had their guns
on the rest before they knew what was wrong. They got the money, and
every horse in camp. The shooting I heard came off as they started away
with the plunder. Some of the troopers grabbed up their guns and cut
loose at random, and these hold-up people returned the compliment with
deadly effect.

"That isn't all," he continued moodily. "I stayed there till daylight,
and then gathered up their stock. All the thieves wanted of the horses
was to set the outfit afoot for the time being--a trick which bears the
earmarks of the bunch that got in their work on us. They had turned the
horses loose a mile or so away, and I found them grazing together. When
I'd brought them in I got a bite to eat and came on about my own
business.

"Up on the ridge, close by the spring I had stopped at, I came slap on
their track; the four horses had pounded a trail in the wet sod that a
kid could follow. I tore back to the paymaster's camp and begged him to
get his men mounted and we would follow it up. But he wouldn't listen to
such a thing. I don't know why, unless he had some money they had
overlooked and was afraid they might come back for another try at him.
So I went back and hit the trail alone. It led south for a while, and
then east to Sage Creek. This was day before yesterday, you _sabe_. Near
noon I found a place where they'd _cached_ two extra horses in the brush
on Sage Creek. After that their track turned straight west again, and it
was hard to follow, for the ground was drying fast. Finally I had to
quit--couldn't make out hoof-marks any more. And it was so late I had to
lie out that night. I got to Pend d' Oreille yesterday morning two or
three hours after you fellows left for the crossing."

I haven't quite got a gambler's faith in a hunch, or presentiment, or
intuitive conclusion--whatever term one chooses to apply--but from the
moment he spoke of seeing four riders on a ridge during that frolic of
the elements, a crazy idea kept persistently turning over and over in my
mind; and when Mac got that far I blurted it out for what it was worth,
prefacing it with the happenings of the trip from Walsh to Pend
d' Oreille. He listened without manifesting the interest I looked for,
tapping idly on the saddle-horn, and staring straight ahead with an odd
pucker about his mouth.

"I was just going to ask you if you all came through together," he
observed, in a casual tone. "I neglected to say that I got a pretty fair
look at those fellows. In fact, I wouldn't hesitate to swear to the face
of the gentleman who rode in the lead of the four."

"You did? Was it--was my hunch right?" I demanded eagerly.

"I could turn in my saddle and shoot his eye out," MacRae responded
whimsically. "And I don't know but that would be more than justice. Of
course, the others were the men, but I'm positive of Gregory. You see
what we're up against, Sarge.

"That's why," he soberly concluded, "I think we'll have our hands full
if we do locate that stuff. It's a big chunk of money, and a little
thing like killing a man or two won't trouble them. We'll be watched
every minute of the time that we prowl around those painted rocks;
that's a cinch. And when we've pulled the chestnut out of the fire
they'll gobble it--if there's the ghost of a chance."

While I was digesting this unpalatable information, Hicks and Gregory
spurred abreast of us; for the remainder of the journey we four rode
elbow to elbow, and conversation was scant.

Mid-afternoon found us camped under the Stone. Once on the ground, I
began to think we were in no immediate danger of getting our throats cut
for the sake of the treasure. Rutter had said "under the Stone"--and the
vagueness of his words came home to me with considerable force, for the
Stone, roughly estimated, was a good mile in length. It paralleled the
river, a perpendicular wall of gray sandstone. An aptly-named place;
wherever a ledge offered foothold, and even in places that seemed wholly
beyond reach of human hands, the bald front of the cliff was chiseled
with rude traceries--the picture-writing of the Blackfoot tribe. The
history of a thousand battles and buffalo-hunts was written there. And
somewhere at the foot of that mile-long cliff, under the uncouth figures
carved by the red men in their hour of triumphant ease, rested that
which we had come to find. I sat with my back against a cottonwood and
smoked a cigarette while I considered the impassive front of
Writing-On-the-Stone; and the fruit of my consideration was that he who
sought for the needle in the haystack had no more difficult task than
ours.

In due time we ate supper, and dark spread its mantle over the land.
Then MacRae and I crawled up on a projecting ledge of rock to roll out
our blankets--in a place where we could not well be surprised. Not that
either of us anticipated anything of the sort so early in the game; when
we had found what we were after, that would come. But the mere fact
that we were all playing a part made us incline to caution. I don't know
if we betrayed our knowledge or suspicions to Hicks and Gregory, but it
was a good deal of an effort to treat those red-handed scoundrels as if
they were legitimate partners in a risky enterprise. We had to do it,
though. Until they showed their hand we could do nothing but stand pat
and wait for developments; and if they watched us unobtrusively, we did
the same by them. It is not exactly soothing to the nerves, however, to
be in touch all day and then lie down to sleep at night within a few
feet of men whom you imagine are only awaiting the proper moment to
introduce a chunk of lead into your system or slip a knife under your
fifth rib. I can't truthfully say that I slept soundly on that ledge.



CHAPTER XII.

WE LOSE AGAIN.


Three days later MacRae and I scaled the steep bank at the west end of
the cliff and threw ourselves, panting, on the level that ran up to the
sheer drop-off. When we had regained the breath we'd lost on that
Mansard-roof climb we drew near to the edge, where we could stare into
the valley three hundred feet below while we made us a cigarette apiece.
We were just a mite discouraged. Beginning that first morning at the
east end of the Writing-Stone we had worked west, conning the
weather-worn face of it for a mark that would give a clue to the
_cache_. Also we had scanned carefully the sandy soil patches along the
boulder-strewn base, seeking the tell-tale footprints of horse or man.
And we had found nothing. Each day the conviction grew stronger upon us
that finding that gold would be purely chance, a miracle of luck;
systematic search had so far resulted in nothing but blistered heels
from much walking. And unless we did find it, thereby giving the
gentlemen of the mask some incentive to match themselves against us once
more, we were not likely to have the opportunity of breaking up a nervy
bunch of murdering thieves.

We reasoned that the men whose guns we had looked into over Rutter's
body and those who robbed the paymaster on the MacLeod trail were tarred
with the same stick; likewise, that even now two of them ate out of the
same pot with us three times daily. The thing was to prove it.
Personally, the paymaster's trouble was none of my concern; what I
wanted was to get back that ten thousand dollars, or deal those hounds
ten thousand dollars' worth of misery. Not that I wasn't willing to take
a long chance to help Lyn to her own, but I was human enough to remember
that I had a good deal at stake myself. It was a rather depressed
stock-hand, name of Flood, who blew cigarette smoke out over the brow of
Writing-Stone that evening.

Mac finished smoking and ground the stub into the earth with his heel.
For another minute or two he sat there without speaking, absently
flipping pebbles over the bank.

"I reckon we might as well poke along the top to camp," he said at last,
getting to his feet. "I sent that breed back, down there, so we could
talk without having to keep cases on him. This is beginning to look like
a hopeless case, isn't it?"

"Somewhat," I admitted. "I did think that Rutter's description would put
us on the right track when we got there; but I can't see much meaning in
it now. I suppose we'll just have to keep on going it blind."

"We'll have to stay with it while there's any chance," he said
thoughtfully. "But I've been thinking that it might be a good plan to
take a fall out of those two." He jerked his thumb in the direction of
camp. "If we have sized things up right, they'll make some sort of move,
and if we're mistaken there will be no harm done. I'll tell you an idea
that popped into my head a minute ago. We can pretend to locate the
stuff. Fix up a couple of dummy sacks, you know, and get them to camp
and packed on the horse without letting them see what's inside. If Lyn
gave Lessard the right figures, there should be between a hundred and
forty or fifty pounds of dust. It's small in bulk, but weighty as a bad
conscience. If we had a couple of little sacks we could get around that
problem, easy enough--this black sand along the river would pass for
gold-dust in weight. We could make the proper sort of play, and give
them the chance they're looking for. If they make a break it'll be up to
us to get the best of the trouble."

"It might work," I replied. "If you think it would make them tip their
hand, I'm with you. This watch-the-other-fellow business is making me
nervous as an old woman. Once we had those two dead to rights they might
let out something that would enable us to land the whole bunch, and the
plunder besides; once we had them rounded up we could come back here and
hunt for Hank Rowan's gold-dust in peace."

"You've got the idea exactly, and we'll see what we can do in the
morning," Mac returned. "But don't get married to the notion that
they'll cough up all they know, right off the reel. Hicks might, if you
went at him hard enough. But not the other fellow. Gregory's game clear
through--he's demonstrated that in different ways since I've been in the
Force. You could carve him to pieces without hearing a cheep, if he
decided to keep his mouth shut. And he's about as dangerous a man in a
scrimmage as I know. If there's a row, don't overlook Mr. Gregory."

We hoofed it toward camp as briskly as our galled feet would permit, for
the sun was getting close to the sky line, and talked over Mac's scheme
as we went. There was no danger of being overheard on that bench. As a
matter of fact, Hicks and Gregory didn't know we were up there; at
least, they were not supposed to know. MacRae had made a practice of
leaving one or the other in camp, in case some prowling Indians should
spy our horses and attempt to run them off. That afternoon Hicks had
been on guard. When Mac started Gregory back he told him that we would
be along presently, then sat himself down on a rock and watched the
breed. When he was far enough up the flat to lose track of our movements
we dropped into a convenient washout and sneaked along it to the foot of
the bank, where a jutting point of rock hid sight of us climbing the
hill.

We had no thought of spying on them, at first--it was simply to be rid
of their onerous presence for a while, and getting on the bench was an
afterthought. But as we came opposite camp, MacRae took a notion to look
down and see what they were about. At a point which overlooked the
bottom some two hundred yards from the east end of the Stone, we got
down on our stomachs and wriggled carefully to the naked rim of the
cliff. For some time we laid there, peering down at the men below. Hicks
was puttering around the fire, evidently cooking supper, and Gregory was
moving the picket rope of his horse to fresh grass. There was nothing
out of the ordinary to be seen, and I drew back. But MacRae still kept
his place. When he did back away from the edge, he had the look of a man
who has made some important discovery.

"On my soul, I believe I've found it," he calmly announced.

"What!"

"I believe I have," he repeated, a trace of exultation in his tone. "At
least, it amounts to the same thing. Crawl up there again, Sarge, and
look straight down at the first ledge from the bottom. Hurry; you won't
see anything if the sun has left it. And be careful how you show your
head. We don't want to get them stirred up till we have to."

Cautiously I peeped over the brink, straight down as Mac had directed.
The shadow that follows on the heels of a setting sun was just creeping
over the ledge, but the slanting rays lingered long enough to give me
sight of a glittering patch on the gray stone shelf below. While I
stared the sun withdrew its fading beams from the whole face of the
cliff, but even in the duller light a glint of yellow showed dimly, a
pin point of gold in the deepening shadow.

Gold! I drew back from the rim of Writing-On-the-Stone, that set of
whispered phrases echoing in my ears. Mac caught my eye and grinned.
"_Gold--raw gold--on the rock--above._" I mouthed the words parrotlike,
and he nodded comprehendingly.

"Oh, thunder!" I exclaimed. "Do you reckon _that's_ what he meant?"

"What else?" Mac reasoned. "They'd mark the place somehow--and aren't
those his exact words? What dummies we were not to look on those ledges
before. You can't see the surface of them from the flat; and we might
have known they would hardly put a mark where it could be seen by any
pilgrim who happened to ride through that bottom."

"Hope you're right," I grunted optimistically.

"We'll know beyond a doubt, in the morning," Mac declared. "To-night we
won't do anything but eat, drink, and sleep as sound as possible, for
to-morrow we may have one hell of a time. I prefer to have a few hours
of daylight ahead of us when we raise that _cache_. Things are apt to
tighten, and I don't like a rumpus in the dark. Just now I'm hungry. If
that stuff is there, it will keep. Come on to camp; our troubles are
either nearly over or just about to begin in earnest."

We followed the upland past the end of the Stone till we found a slope
that didn't require wings for descent. If Hicks or Gregory wondered at
our arrival from the opposite direction in which we should have
appeared, they didn't betray any unseemly curiosity. Supper and a
cigarette or two consumed the twilight hour, and when dark shut down we
took to our blankets and dozed through the night.

At daybreak we breakfasted. Without a word to any one MacRae picked up
his carbine and walked out of camp. I followed, equally silent. It was
barely a hundred yards to the ledge, and I caught myself wishing it were
a good deal farther--out of range of those watchful eyes. I couldn't
help wondering how it would feel to be potted at the moment of
discovery.

"I thought I'd leave them both behind, and let them take it out in
guessing," Mac explained, when we stood under the rock shelf upon which
we had looked down the evening before. "We're right under their noses,
so they won't do anything till the stuff's actually in sight."

He studied the face of the cliff for a minute. The ledge jutted out from
the towering wall approximately twenty feet above our heads, but it
could be reached by a series of jagged points and knobs; a sort of
natural stairway--though some of the steps were a long way apart.
Boulders of all shapes and sizes lay bedded in the soft earth where we
stood.

"You shin up there, Sarge," Mac commanded, "and locate that mark. It
ought to be an easy climb."

I "shinned," and reached the ledge with a good deal of skin peeled from
various parts of my person. The first object my eye fell upon as I
hoisted myself above the four-foot shelf was a dull, yellow spot on the
gray rock, near enough so that I could lean forward and touch it with my
fingers. A two-inch circle of the real thing--I'd seen enough gold in
the raw to know it without any acid test--hammered into the coarse
sandstone. I pried it up with the blade of my knife and looked it over.
Originally it had been a fair-sized nugget. Hans or Rowan had pounded it
into place with the back of a hatchet (the corner-marks told me that),
flattening it to several times its natural diameter. I threw it down to
MacRae, and looked carefully along the ledge. There was no other mark
that I could see; I began to wonder if we were as hot on the scent as we
had thought.

"Is there a loose piece of rock up there?" Mac called presently. "If
there is, set it on the edge, in line with where this was."

I found a fragment about the size of my fist and set it on the rim of
the ledge. He squinted up at it a moment, then nodded, smiling.

"Come on down now, Sarge," he grinned; and, seating himself on a rock
with the carbine across his knees, he began to roll a cigarette, as if
the finding of Hank Rowan's gold-_cache_ were a thing of no importance
whatever.

"Well," I began, when I had negotiated that precarious succession of
knobs and notches and accumulated a fresh set of bruises, "why don't you
get busy? How much wiser are you now? Where's your gold-dust?"

He took a deliberate puff and squinted up at the ledge again. "I'm
sitting on it, as near as I can figure," he coolly asserted.

"Yes, you are," I fleered. "I'm from Missouri!"

"Oh, you're a doubting Thomas of the first water," he said. "Stand
behind me, you confounded unbeliever. Kink your back a little and look
over that stone you set for a mark. Do you see anything that catches
your attention?"

Getting in the position he suggested, I looked up. Away back in the days
before the white man was a power to be reckoned with in the Indian's
scheme of things, some warrior had stood upon that self-same ledge and
hacked out with a flint chisel what he and his fellows doubtless
considered a work of art. Uncanny-looking animals, and uncannier figures
that might have passed for anything from an articulated skeleton to a
Missing Link, cavorted in a long line across that tribal
picture-gallery. Between each group of figures the face of the rock was
scored with mysterious signs and rudely limned weapons of war and chase.
Right over the stone marker, a long-shafted war-lance was carved--the
blade pointing down. MacRae's seat, stone-marker, and aboriginal
spearhead; the three lined up like the sights of a modern rifle. The
conclusion, in the light of what we knew from Rutter, was obvious, even
to a lunkhead like myself.

"It looks like you might have struck it," I was constrained to admit.

Mac threw away his cigarette. "Here and now is where we find out," he
declared.

Worming our fingers under the edge of the boulder, we lifted with all
the strength that was in us. For a second it seemed that we could never
budge it. Then it began to rise slowly, so slowly that I thought the
muscles of my back would snap, and MacRae's face close by mine grew red
and then purple with the strain. But it moved, and presently a great
heave turned it over. Bedded in the soft earth underneath lay the slim
buckskin sacks. Our fingers, I remember, trembled a bit as we stood one
on end and loosened its mouth to make sure if we had found the treasure
for which two men had already lost their lives.

[Illustration: BEDDED IN THE SOFT EARTH UNDERNEATH LAY THE SLIM BUCKSKIN
SACKS.

_Page 159._]

"Here"--Mac handed me his carbine--"you stay with the yellow temptation.
From now on we'll have to keep a close eye on this stuff, and likewise
have our guns handy. I'll make those fellows pack up and bring the
horses here. Then we'll load this and pull for Walsh."

His first move was to saddle his black horse and my dun. These he led to
the fire, and thereafter stood a little to one side, placidly consuming
a cigarette while the other two packed the camp-outfit and saddled their
own mounts. Then they trailed across the flat toward me, MacRae blandly
bringing up the rear. He wasn't taking any chances.

Half an hour later, with the sacks of gold securely lashed on the
_aparejos_ of the pack-horse, we climbed out of Writing-Stone bottom and
swung away over the silent tablelands.

With Writing-on-the-Stone scarcely three miles behind, the
long-abandoned burrow of a badger betrayed us into the hands of the
enemy. (What a power for thwarting the plans of men little things
sometimes exercise!) We had contrived that Gregory should lead the
pack-horse, which gave MacRae and me both hands to use in case of a
hostile demonstration; that there would be such, neither of us doubted
from the moment those two laid eyes on the buckskin sacks. The sidelong,
covetous glance that passed between them bespoke what was in their
minds. And from that time on the four of us were like so many
open-headed casks of powder sitting by a fire; sooner or later a spark
would bring the explosion. We had them at a disadvantage trotting across
the level upland, Gregory in the lead and Hicks sandwiched between Mac
and myself--until MacRae's horse planted his foreleg to the knee in an
old badger-hole hidden under a rank accumulation of grass. The black
pitched forward so suddenly that Mac had no time to swing clear, and as
he went down under the horse Gregory's agile brain grasped the
opportunity of the situation, and his gun flashed out of its scabbard.

My hand flew to mine as I jerked the dun up short, but I wasn't fast
enough--and Hicks was too close. It was a trilogy of gun-drawing.
Gregory drew his and fired at MacRae with the devilish quickness of a
striking rattler; I drew with intent to get Mr. Gregory; and Hicks drew
his and slapped me over the head with it, even as my finger curled on
the trigger. My gun went off, I know--afterward I had a dim recollection
of a faint report--but whether the bullet went whistling into the blue
above or buried itself in the broad bosom of the Territory, I can't say.
Things ceased to happen, right then and there, so far as I was
concerned. And I haven't satisfied myself yet why Hicks struck instead
of shooting; unless he had learned the frontier lesson that a bullet in
a vital spot doesn't _always_ incapacitate a man for deadly gun-play,
while a hard rap on the head invariably does. It wasn't any scruple of
mercy, for Hicks was as cold-blooded a brute as ever glanced down a
gun-barrel.

When my powers of sight and speech and hearing returned, MacRae stood
over me, nowise harmed. The black horse lay where he had fallen. I sat
up and glanced about, thankful that I was still in the flesh, but in a
savage mood for all that. This, thought I, is a dismal-looking
outcome--two men and a dead horse left high and dry on the sun-flooded
prairie. And a rampant ache in my head, seconded by a medium-sized gash
in the scalp, didn't make for an access of optimism at that moment.

"Well," I burst out profanely, "we lose again, eh?"

"Looks like it," Mac answered laconically. Then he whirled about and
walked to a little point some distance away, where he stood with his
back to me, looking toward Lost River.



CHAPTER XIII.

OUTLAWED.


I sat where I was for a while, fingering my sore head and keeping my
thoughts to myself, for I had a keen sense of the mood he was in. For
the second time, through no fault of his own, he had failed to live up
to that tradition of the Force which accepts nothing short of
unqualified victory for a Mounted Policeman when he clashes with
breakers of the law. And, in addition, he had let slip through his
fingers a fortune that belonged to a woman for whom he cared a great
deal more than he was willing to admit. I felt pretty small and ashamed
myself, to think of the ease with which they had left us afoot on the
bald prairie after all our scheming, our precaution against something we
were sure would happen; and there was no responsibility on my
shoulders--except for that ten thousand of La Pere's, which I was
beginning to think I'd looked my last upon. Mac had not only the
knowledge of personal failure--bitter enough, itself, to a man of his
temperament--to gnaw at him, but the prospect of another grilling from
the powers in gold braid. It would have been strange if he hadn't felt
blue.

He came back, however, in a few minutes, and squatting beside me
abstractedly got out papers and tobacco.

"I suppose that bunch will quit the country now," he remarked at length.
"They've got their hands on a heap of money in the last ten days; all
they'll have a chance to grab for some time. And they've come out into
the open. So there's not much doubt of their next move--they'll be on
the wing."

"Well, we have a cinch on identifying them now," I commented. "We've got
that much out of the deal. If the Mounted Police are half as good
man-hunters as they are said to be, they ought to round up that bunch in
short order. Did the black hurt you when he fell?"

"Bruised my leg some," he returned indifferently. Then, scowling at the
remembrance: "If he hadn't caught me right under him I'd have got
action on those two. But the jar threw my six-shooter where I couldn't
reach it, and the carbine was jammed in the stirrup-leather on the wrong
side. I reckon Gregory thought he got me first shot. He would have, too,
only Crow threw up his head and stopped the bullet instead of me. They
had ducked into that coulée by the time I got clear. Hicks grabbed your
horse and took him along. I'm somewhat puzzled to know why they didn't
stand pat and make a clean job of us both. Blast them, anyway!"

"Same here, and more of it," I fervently exclaimed.

"Come on, let's get out of here," Mac abruptly proposed. "We'll have to
make Pend d' Oreille and send word to Walsh. It'll take the whole force
to catch them now."

My gun lay where it had fallen when Hicks whacked me over the head. I
picked it up, replaced the empty cartridge, and shoved it back into the
scabbard. MacRae hoisted the carbine to his shoulder, and we started.

We poked along slowly at first, for I was still a bit dizzy from that
blow. Before long we came to a spring seeping from the hillside, and
when I had bathed my head in the cool water I began to feel more like
myself. Thereafter, we tramped silently across high, dry benches, slid
and scrambled to the bottoms of an endless succession of coulées, and
wearily climbed the steep banks that lay beyond. The cool morning wind
died away; the sun reeled up on its appointed circle, glaring brazenly
into every nook and cranny in the land. Underfoot, the dry sod grew
warm, then hot, till the soles of our boots became instruments of
torture to feet that were sadly galled by fruitless tramping around the
Stone. When a man has grown up in the habit of mounting a horse to
travel any distance over three hundred yards, a walk of twenty
undulating miles over a network of bald ridges and yawning coulées makes
him think that a sulphur-and-brimstone hereafter can't possibly hold
much discomfort that he hasn't sampled. A cowpuncher in high-heeled
riding-boots is handicapped for pedestrianism by both training and
inclination--and that scarred and wrinkled portion of the Northwest is a
mighty poor strolling-ground for any man.

But we kept on, for the simple reason that there was nothing else we
could do. MacRae wasted no breath in words. If the heat and the ungodly
steepness of the hills and the luke-warm water that trickled along the
creek channels ruffled his temper, he made no noise about it, only
pressed doggedly toward Pend d' Oreille. I daresay he thought I was
attending to that part of it, registering a complaint for both of us.
And if I didn't rise to the occasion it was the fault of my limited
vocabulary. I kept a stiff backbone for a while, but presently a futile
rage against circumstances bubbled up and boiled over. I climbed each
succeeding canyon wall oozing perspiration and profanity, and when the
top was reached took fresh breath and damned the Northwest by sections
in a large, fluent manner of speech. In time, however, the foolishness
of this came home to me, and I subsided into spasmodic growling, saving
my wind for the miles yet to cover.

Well past noon we reached the summit of a hog-backed ridge that
overlooked the tortuous windings of Lost River, a waterless channel
between banks that were void of vegetation. The crest of the divide was
studded with great outcroppings of sand-stone, and in the shadow of one
giant rock we laid down to rest before we descended into that barren
valley where the heat-waves shimmered like crepon silk. The cool bit of
earth was good to stretch upon; for nearly an hour we laid there, beyond
reach of the glowing sun; it was worth almost the treasure we had lost
to ease our aching feet. Then reluctantly we started again.

As we stepped from behind the rock three riders came into sight on the
opposite slope of Lost River. A moment's scrutiny assured us that they
were Mounted Policemen. From habit our eyes swept the surrounding
country, and in a moment we observed other groups of mounted men, an
equal distance apart and traveling in the same general direction--like a
round-up sweeping over a cattle-range.

"They're out for somebody. I shouldn't be surprised if they have
smelled out our friends," said MacRae. "And seeing this bunch is heading
right toward us, we might as well take it easy here till they come up."

Returning to the cool shade, we waited till they crossed that miniature
desert. I looked once or twice, and hoped we would not have to walk over
it; I'd seen the Mohave and the Staked Plains, and I knew it was
sizzling hot in that ancient river-bed--it _is_ hot, and dry, when the
heat-waves play tricks with objects seen from afar. Those three riders
moved in a transparent haze, distorted, grotesque figures; now giants,
broad, uncouth shapes; now pigmies astride of horses that progressed
slowly on long, stiltlike legs, again losing form and waving like tall,
slender trees swayed by vagrant winds. After a time they ascended above
the level where the superheated atmosphere played its pranks, and came
riding up the ridge in their true presentment. When they got within
shouting distance we stepped into the sunlight and hailed them.

From the moment that they jerked up their horses at MacRae's call, I
had an odd sense of impending trouble. For an instant it seemed as if
they were about to break for cover; and when they approached us there
was a strained, expectant expression on each tanned face, a wariness in
their actions that looked unnatural to me. The nearer they came the more
did I feel keyed up for some emergency. I can't explain why; that's
something that I don't think will bear logical analysis. Who can explain
the sixth sense that warns a night-herder of a stampede a moment before
the herd jumps off the bed-ground? But that is how I felt--and
immediately it transpired that there was good reason.

They stopped their horses within ten feet of us and dismounted, all
three of them, a corporal and two privates, in the same breath that we
said "hello." The corporal, rather chalky-looking under his tan, stepped
forward and laid a hand on MacRae's shoulder.

"Gordon MacRae and Sarge Flood, in the Queen's name I arrest you for the
robbery of Paymaster Ingstram on the MacLeod trail and the murder of
two of his escort, and I warn you that anything you may say will be used
against you."

He poured it out without pause or inflection, like a lesson well
learned, a little ceremony of speech that it was well to hurry over; and
the two troopers edged nearer, the right hand of each stealing toward
the pistol that rested on his hip. It took nerve to beard us that way,
when one comes to think it over. If we had been guilty of that raid, it
was dollars to doughnuts that we would resist arrest, and according to
the rules and regulations of the Force, they were compelled to take a
long chance. A Mounted Policeman can't use his gun except in
self-defense. He isn't supposed to smoke up a fugitive unless the
fugitive begins to throw lead his way--which method of procedure gives a
man who is, in the vernacular, "on the dodge" all the best of a
situation like that; for it gives an outlaw a chance to take the
initiative, and the first shot often settles an argument of that kind.
The dominating idea, as I understood it, was that the majesty of the law
should prove a sufficiently powerful weapon; and in the main it did. No
thief, murderer, or smuggler ever yet successfully and systematically
defied it. Men have gone to the bad up there--robbed, murdered,
defrauded, killed a Policeman or two, maybe, but in the end were
gathered in by "the riders of the plains" and dealt with according to
their just deserts. So it has come to pass throughout the length and
breadth of the Northwest that "in the Queen's name" out of the mouth of
an unarmed redcoat, with one hand lightly on your shoulder, carries more
weight than a smoking gun.

None of this occurred to me, just then. The one thing that loomed big in
my mind's eye was the monstrous injustice of the accusation. Coming
right on top of what I'd lately experienced at the hands of the men who
had really done that dirty job--my head still tingled from the impact of
Hicks' pistol--it stirred up all the ugliness I was capable of, and a
lot that I had never suspected. No Fort Walsh guardhouse for me! No
lying behind barred windows, with my feet chain-hobbled like a straying
horse, while the slow-moving Canadian courts debated my guilt or
innocence! Not while I had the open prairie underfoot and the summer sky
above, and hands to strike a blow or pull a trigger.

Even had I been alone I think that I was crazy enough, for the moment,
to have matched myself single-handed against the three of them. In which
case I should likely have bidden a premature farewell to all earthly
interests--though I might, perhaps, have managed to take with me a
Policeman or two for company on the long trail. But a queer look that
flashed over MacRae's face, a suggestive drawing back of his arm,
intimated that something of the same was in his mind. Heavens, but a man
can think a lot in the space of time it takes to count three!

I jumped for the two troopers, with a frenzied notion that I could put
them both out of business if MacRae would only attend to the corporal.
The distance didn't permit of gun-play; and, hot as I was, I had the
sense to know that those men weren't responsible for my troubles; I
didn't want to kill them, if I could help it--what I desired above all
else was to get away, and burn powder with Hicks, Gregory and Co., if
powder-burning was to be on the programme. They did try to pull their
guns, but I was too close. I spoiled their good intentions by kicking
one with all the force I could muster, and throwing my arms in a fervent
embrace about the neck of the other.

A number eight box-toed riding-boot planted suddenly in the pit of one's
stomach brings about the same result as a kick from a vigorous Missouri
mule, I should imagine; anyway, that Mounted Policeman was eliminated as
a fighting unit from the instant my toe made connections with his
person. The other fellow and I went to the ground, and our struggle was
of short duration, for Mac bought into the ruction with his carbine for
a club, and under its soothing touch my wiry antagonist ceased from
troubling. I scrambled to my feet and glanced around. The corporal was
sprawled on the grass, his face to the sky.

"We've burned our bridges now, sure as fate," Mac broke out. "Here,
I'll peel the guns off the bunch, and you lead their horses up to the
rock out of sight of these other fellows. If they catch sight of us
milling around here they're apt to swing over this way to see what's
up."

I led the horses close to the boulder and left them standing there while
I hurried back. By that time the fellow I'd kicked had so far recovered
as to sit up, and the look he gave us was a scorcher. MacRae, with
cocked carbine to emphasize his command, ordered him to drag his comrade
to where the horses stood; and I followed after, lugging the insensible
corporal to the same shady place.

"I want to know the how of this," Mac demanded of the trooper. "Who
issued orders for our arrest on this damn fool charge? And when?"

"Lessard give us our orders," the Policeman growled. "He's been out with
a whole bloomin' troop ever since he got word the paymaster 'ad bin
stuck up. We got a commissary along, an' nooned about ten miles east o'
here. After dinner--about two or three hours ago--he lined us up an'
said as 'ow he'd got word that you two fellers 'ad bin identified as
bein' the chaps as pulled off that paymaster row, an' that he wanted
you. Said he 'ad reason t' believe you was some'ers between Lost River
an' the Stone, an' you was t' be captured without fail. An' that's all I
know about it," he concluded frankly, "except that you fellers is bloody
fools t' make a break like this. It'll go that much 'arder with
you--there ain't a bloomin' chance for you t' get away. You might just
as well give up peaceable."

"Oh, don't preach," MacRae protested. "I know all that as well as you
do. Great Scott! Burky, you've known me ever since I joined; do you
imagine for a minute that I was in on that hold-up? Why, you know
better. If I'd done anything so damned rotten, I'd have been out of the
country long before this."

"Orders is orders," Burky sententiously observed. "Headquarters sez
you're t' be took in, an' you'll be took in, no matter what a feller's
private opinion happens t' be. I ain't no bloomin' judge an' jury t'
set on your case, anyway. You'll get a square trial--same as everybody
gets. But you ain't a-helpin' yourself a-cuttin' of didoes like this."

"I haven't time to go into details," Mac told him, "and I don't suppose
you'd believe me if I did. But I've a blamed good reason for not wanting
to put in several months cooling my heels under guard while the men that
got the stuff get clear out of the country. We're going to take two of
these horses, because we'll need them in our business; and we'll leave
your guns at that big rock down the ridge. I don't want to hurt you,
Burky, but if you start making signals to the rest of the bunch before
we get out of sight, you'll go back to Walsh feet first. So be good.
You'll see us again before long."

When we were ready to mount, MacRae fired another question at Burky.
"Say, have you seen anything of Frank Hicks or Paul Gregory to-day?"

"They was both in camp at noon," the trooper replied.

"Huh! They were, eh?" MacRae swung up, and spoke from the saddle. "Well,
if you see them again, tell them we'll sure give them a hard run for
the money. And if you've got your month's pay on you, Burky, you'd
better keep your hand on it while those two pilgrims are about."

We took the third horse along as a precautionary measure. At a boulder
down the ridge we left him, together with their belts, as Mac had
promised. The only bit of their property we kept besides the horses was
a pair of field-glasses--something that we knew would be priceless to
men who were practically outlawed. For the next two hours we slunk like
coyotes in coulée-bottoms and deep washouts, until we saw the commissary
wagon cross the ridge west of Lost River, saw from a safe distance the
brown specks that were riders, casting in wide circles for sight of us
or our trail.

Then MacRae leaned over his saddle-horn and made a wry face at them.

"Hunt, confound you," he said, almost cheerfully. "We'll give you some
hunting to do before you're through with us."



CHAPTER XIV.

A CLOSE CALL.


We were standing in a brushy pocket on the side of a hill, and as there
was no immediate danger of our being seen, MacRae continued, by the aid
of the glasses, to follow the movements of our would-be captors.

"D'you know that plunder can't be far away; those fellows haven't had
much time to make their _cache_," he reflected, more to himself than to
me. "I wonder how they accounted to Lessard for us. Just think of
it--somewhere within twenty miles of us there's in the neighborhood of a
hundred thousand dollars of stolen money, planted till they can get it
safely; and the men that got away with it are helping the law to run us
down. That's a new feature of the case; one, I must say, that I didn't
look for."

He lowered the glasses, and regarded me soberly.

"They fight fire with fire in a grass country," he observed. "The
Mounted Police are a hard formation to buck against--but I've a mind to
see this thing to a finish. How do you feel about it, Sarge? Will you go
through?"

"All the way and back again," I promised recklessly. I wasn't sure of
what he had in mind, but I knew _him_--and seeing that we were in the
same boat, I thought it fitting that we should sink or swim together.

"We'll come out on top yet," he confidently asserted. "Meantime we'd
better locate some secluded spot and give our nags a chance to fill up
on grass and be fresh for to-morrow; we're apt to have a hard day."

"It wouldn't be a bad scheme to fill ourselves at the same time," I
suggested. "I'm feeling pretty vacant inside. The first bunch of buffalo
that has a fat calf along is going to hear from me."

"If we can get over this ridge without being seen, there's a canyon with
some cottonwoods and a spring in it. That will be as good a place to
hole up for the night as we can find," Mac decided. "And there will
likely be some buffalo near there."

So we ascended cautiously to the top of the divide, keeping in the
coulées as much as possible, for we knew that other field-glasses would
be focused on the hills. Once over the crest, we halted and watched for
riders coming our way. But none appeared. Once I thought I glimpsed a
moving speck on the farther bank of Lost River. MacRae brought the
glasses to bear, and said it was two Policemen jogging toward camp. Then
we were sure that our flight had not been observed, and we dropped into
a depression that gradually deepened to a narrow-bottomed canyon. Two
miles down this we came to the spring of which MacRae had spoken, a tiny
stream issuing from a crevice at the foot of the bank. What was equally
important, a thick clump of cottonwood and willow furnished tolerably
secure concealment.

The fates smiled on us in the matter of food very shortly. I'm not
enamored of a straight meat diet as a rule, but that evening I was in no
mood to carp at anything half-way eatable. While we were on our
stomachs gratefully stowing away a draught of the cool water, I heard a
buffalo bull lift his voice in challenge to another far down the canyon.
We tied our horses out of sight in the timber and stole in the direction
of the sound. A glorious bull-fight was taking place when we got within
shooting-distance, the cows and calves forming a noisy circle about the
combatants, each shaggy brown brute bawling with all the strength of
bovine lungs; in that pandemonium of bellowing and trampling I doubt if
the report of Mac's carbine could have been heard two hundred yards
away. The shot served to break up the fight and scatter the herd,
however, and we returned to the cottonwoods with the hind-quarter of a
fat calf.

Hungry as we were, we could hardly bolt raw meat, so, taking it for
granted that no one was likely to ride up on us, we built a fire in the
grove, being careful to feed it with dry twigs that would make little
smoke. Over this we toasted bits of meat on the end of a splinter, and
presently our hunger was appeased. Then we blotted out the fire, and,
stretching ourselves on the ground, had recourse to the solace of
tobacco.

The longer we laid there the more curious did I become as to what line
of action MacRae purposed to follow. He lay on his back, silent, staring
straight up at the bit of sky that showed through the branches above,
and I'd just reached the point of asking, when he sat up and forestalled
my questions.

"This is going to be risky business, Sarge," he began. "But so far as I
can see, there is only one way that we can hope to get the thing
straightened out. If we can get hold of Hicks or Bevans, any one of the
four, in fact, I think we can _make_ him tell us all we need to know.
It's the only chance for you and Lyn to get your money back, and for me
to square myself."

"I shouldn't think," I put in resentfully, "that you'd want to square
yourself, after the dirty way you've been treated. I'd as soon take to
herding sheep, or washing dirty clothes like a Chinaman, as be a member
of the Mounted Police if what I've seen in the last ten days is a fair
sample of what a man can expect."

"Fiddlesticks!" Mac impatiently exclaimed. "You don't know what you're
talking about. I tell you a man in the Police, if he has any head at
all, can control his own destiny. You'll be a heap more sane when you
get that old, wild-west notion, that every man should be a law unto
himself, out of your head. I'll venture to say that the Northwest will
be a safer and more law-abiding place five years from now than south of
the line will be in twenty--and the men in red coats will make it so.
Why, I wouldn't miss helping tame this country for half a dozen such
scrapes as I'm in now. This is merely the result of a rotten spot in the
personnel, a rotten spot that will soon be cut out if things come about
logically; it isn't the fault of the system. There never was any great
movement in developing a new country that didn't have a quota of damned
rascals to eliminate from within itself. If you didn't have such a
perverted idea of independence, you'd see that I'm in no danger of
losing either my identity or my self-respect simply because I've become
a unit in a body of six hundred fighting-men. I don't intend to remain
in the insignificant-unit class."

"Your intentions," I interrupted, "will cut a mighty small figure if
your friend Lessard gets hold of you in the next day or two."

"That's the melancholy truth," he returned seriously. "I imagine we'd
get a pretty rough deal; in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that troop
has received orders, by now, to shoot first and arrest afterward. Still,
I'm willing to gamble that if we rode into Fort Walsh and gave ourselves
up, it would only be a matter of a few weeks in the guardhouse for us
before the thing was cleared up."

"Maybe," I responded skeptically. "If that's your belief, why don't you
act accordingly?"

"Because, confound it, that's just where they want to get us," he
declared. "Once we were safely penned, they'll drift, and neither you
nor Lyn Rowan nor the government would ever lay eyes on that bundle of
money again. I have a theory--but what's vastly more important, I think
those fellows can hardly get out of the country with their plunder
without crossing trails with us. It was smooth business to set the dogs
on us. I don't quite _sabe_--well, I do, too. You can probably realize
just how headquarters would take the sort of yarn we'd spin if we dashed
in and told them the truth. But I think we're smart enough to upset
these fellows' calculations. Lord! wouldn't it be a stroke of business
if we could trap that collection of buccaneers? Frankly, that would be
the biggest thing that ever came my way."

"It would be equally a stroke of business if they happen to trap us," I
reminded.

"They won't," he asserted confidently. "We can't afford to let them.
We've inflicted a compound fracture on established law, and until we can
make the outcome justify our actions, we're compelled, in self-defense,
to avoid being caught. It may be a dubious undertaking, but as I see it
the only thing for us is to hang on the flank of these man-hunters till
we can lay hold of one of that red-handed quartette. According to Burky,
two of them, at least, are in that troop. Probably the others are. And
knowing that bunch as well as I do, I don't think they'll lift the
plunder and quit the country till they can go together. Even if we can't
get hold of one of them, we can keep track of their movements, and if
they _do_ lift their _cache_ and pull out, why, that would be as good as
we want. I wouldn't ask anything better than to get a fair chance at
that bunch with the stolen money on them."

I'll admit that, soberly considered, MacRae's plan did look exceeding
risky. No one could appreciate better than ourselves the unpleasant
possibilities that stared us in the face. But things had narrowed to a
point where only two courses were open to us--one, to throw up our hands
and quit the jurisdiction of the Mounted Police, which involved
desertion on MacRae's part, and on mine a chicken-hearted abandonment of
La Pere's trust in me (for, rightly or wrongly, I was given over to the
feeling that on me alone rested the responsibility for the loss or
recovery of La Pere's money); the other, to take any measure, no matter
how desperate, that would unravel the tangle. All things considered, the
latter was the logical choice. And the plan Mac had put forth seemed as
feasible as any.

"We'll have to proceed on the faro-bank formula that all bets go as they
lay," I said lightly. "There's no use anticipating things disagreeable
or otherwise; we'll simply have to take them as they come."

By this time dusk was upon us. We picketed the horses in the open bottom
where grass was more plentiful than in the brush, and settled ourselves
to sleep. Fortunately, the aftermath of that blistering day was a fairly
warm night. By spreading over us the heavy woolen blankets the Mounted
Police use under their saddles, we slept in comfort. Long before dawn,
however, we arose, built a fire, and breakfasted on buffalo veal, at the
same time broiling a good supply and stowing it in our pockets to serve
the rest of the day. Then, with darkness still obscuring our movements,
we saddled and rode over the ridge and down into Lost River, crossing
that ancient waterway before the first glimmer of light in the east.

Day found us dismounted in the head of a coulée where we could spy on
the Police camp from a distance of three miles, more or less. About
sunrise the troop left camp in a body, later spreading fanwise over the
prairies. Once a party trotted by within a half-mile of us, but no one
of the four men we wanted to see was in the squad.

Until after the noon hour we laid _perdu_ in the hollow, no wiser for
our watching. Then I saw a number of riders debouch from the camp, and
at once trained the glasses on them. At first I couldn't distinguish any
particular face among so many shifting forms, but presently they split
in two bodies, and these again subdivided; and in the bunch coming
toward us I recognized three men, Lessard, unmistakable in his black
uniform, Hicks, and Bevans. I turned the glasses over to MacRae then.

"I thought probably some more of our friends would show up," he said,
after a quick survey. "With those two in sight the chances are that all
four are with the troop. The other fellows in that squad are just plain
buck Policemen. Confound them, I wish----Aha, by Jupiter! the big chief
is turning off those two."

As Mac spoke I saw the two men I had spotted as Hicks and Bevans swing
away from the rest and angle toward Lost River. From our vantage point
we watched them come abreast and pass us at a distance well within a
mile. The others turned south, directly away from us.

"Now," Mac coolly declared, "here's where we get the chance we want, if
we're lucky. We'll keep parallel with these gentlemen, and if they get
out of touch with the rest we'll make a try at nailing them. Be careful,
though, how you show yourself; there's at least fifty of these
peacemakers within four or five miles, and a shot or a yell will bring
them on a high run."

Hicks and Bevans, whatever their destination, were in no haste. They
rode at a walk most of the time, and we were forced to keep the same
pace. It was slow work poking along those coulée-bottoms, now and then
making a risky sneak to ground, whence we could get a clear view of the
game we were stalking so assiduously.

Progressing in this manner we finally reached the breaks that ran down
to Lost River, not a great distance from where MacRae and I had kicked
over the traces of legally constituted authority the previous day. Here
we had to dodge over a stretch of ground barren of concealment, and to
do so waited till such time as Hicks and Bevans were themselves in the
depths of a coulée.

When next we caught sight of our men--well, to be exact, we saw only
one, and that was Bevans. He had stopped his horse on top of a knoll not
more than four hundred yards to the north of us, and was standing up in
his stirrups staring over the ears of his horse at a point down the
slope. Hicks had disappeared. Nor did we see aught of him during the
next few minutes that we spent glaring at Bevans and the surrounding
territory.

"I wonder if that square-jawed devil has got a glimpse of us and is
trying a lone-handed stalk himself?" I hazarded.

MacRae shook his head. "Not likely," he said. "If it was Paul Gregory,
now, that's the very thing he'd do. I don't quite _sabe_ this
performance."

We watched for sign of Hicks, but without result. Then Bevans got under
way and moved along at the same poky gait as before. When he had gone
some distance we took to the hollow. Twenty minutes jogging brought us
into a stretch of rough country, a series of knobs and ridges cut by
innumerable coulées. Here it became necessary to locate Mr. Bevans
again. Once more he was revealed on top of an elevation, studying the
surrounding landscape, and he was still alone.

"Where the mischief can Hicks have got to?" Mac growled. "We really
ought to smell him out before we do anything."

"Look, now," I said. "Don't you suppose Bevans is waiting for him?"

Bevans had dismounted and stretched himself on the ground in the shade
of his horse. But he was not napping; on the contrary, he was very much
on the alert, for his head turned slowly from side to side, quiescent as
he seemed; there would be little movement pass unobserved within range
of that pair of eyes.

"Maybe he is," MacRae replied. "Anyhow, I think we'd better wait a while
ourselves."

For nearly an hour Bevans kept his position. Hicks, if he were in the
vicinity, kept closely under cover. Bevans had all the best of the
situation, so far as being able to keep a lookout was a factor; the
opposite bank of the coulée we were in towered high above us, and shut
off our view in that direction. And we didn't dare risk showing
ourselves on high ground. Finally, after what seemed an interminable
period of waiting, Mac's patience frazzled out and he declared for
action.

"We're doing no good here," he said. "Hicks or no Hicks, I'm going to
have a try at making connections with his nibs on that hill. I think the
coulée right under his perch is an arm of the one we're in; runs in
somewhere below. Maybe we can get to him that way. It's worth trying."

As MacRae had surmised, our canyon forked below. We turned the point
after making sure that Bevans couldn't see us unless he moved. But the
uncertain beggar had moved, and moved to some purpose we quickly
learned; for when we next laid eyes on him he was out on the extreme
point of the little bench, opposite the mouth of the coulée we had
ascended, whirling his horse about in cramped circles. And in answer to
his signaling a full score of red-jacketed riders were galloping down
the ridges, a human comb that bade fair to rake us from our concealment
in a scant number of minutes.

"Looks bad for you and me, old boy," MacRae grinned. "I see now what
brother Hicks has been up to. But they haven't got us yet. Whatever
happens, Sarge, don't get excited and go to shooting. We can't win out
that way, against this combination. If we can't dodge and outrun them
we'll have to take our medicine. Down the coulée is our only chance.
There's only Bevans to stop us; and it won't really matter if we do put
his light out--be one thief less at the finish."

Bevans, however, made no demonstration. We just got a mere glimpse of
him, and I imagine he was nowise anxious to try heading us off, which he
could not do without coming into the open. Whipping around the crooked
bends at top speed, he had little chance to pot us, and I think he had
an idea that we would cheerfully pot him if he got in the way.

We mystified them somewhat, and gained considerable ground, by that
sudden dash, but it wasn't long before they were in full cry like a pack
of hounds, and the carbines began to pop in a futile sort of way. Mac
had not been far astray when he hazarded the guess that the troop would
have orders to shoot on sight, for they began to peck at us the moment
we came in view. We had just enough of a start, though, and our mounts
were just good enough and fresh enough to gradually draw away from them.
And as we were then out of the network of protecting coulées and
pattering over the comparative level of Lost River bottoms, I was very
glad that we were beyond carbine-range and that it was near sundown.

"Barring accidents, they can't get up on us now," Mac declared. "So I
think it'll be wise to keep south along the open bottoms. If they see us
splitting the breeze down Lost River, they won't look for us to bob up
from the opposite quarter to-morrow. When it gets dark and we're far
enough ahead, we can swing into the hills. That'll fool them plenty for
to-night. They'll probably try tracking us to-morrow, but I reckon
they'll find that a tough job."

They kept persistently after us, and we were more or less on the anxious
seat, till it did get dark. Then we turned sharp to the left and gained
high ground once more, congratulating ourselves on so easily getting out
of a ticklish place. If we hadn't moved up on Bevans they might have
surrounded us before we got wind of them. But we'd beaten them fairly,
and so we looked back through the dark and laughed; though I'm sure we
had no particular cause for merriment.



CHAPTER XV.

PIEGAN TAKES A HAND.


I don't believe a detailed account of how we spent that night would be
classed as wildly interesting; if memory serves me right, it was a
bleak, hungry, comfortless passage of time, and I am willing to let it
go at that. We managed to secure a buffalo steak for breakfast. No man
needed to starve in that country during those days of plentiful game;
but we were handicapped by the necessity of doing our hunting in a very
surreptitious manner. However, we didn't starve; the worst we
experienced was an occasional period of acute hunger, when we didn't
dare fire a shot for fear of revealing our whereabouts.

Nor can I see, now, where we accomplished anything beyond killing time
the following day. To be sure, we scouted faithfully, and once or twice
came perilously near being caught by squads of Mounted Police appearing
from unexpected quarters. Our scouting was so much wasted energy. We got
nowhere near the Police camp; we failed to get a glimpse of any of our
men; and so, for all we knew to the contrary, they might have loaded the
plunder and decamped for other regions. When night again spread its
concealing folds about us, we had only one tangible fact as a reward for
our exertions--Lessard had returned to Fort Walsh--presumably. Early
that morning, escorted by four troopers, he had crossed Lost River and
disappeared in the direction of the post. Of his identity the
field-glasses assured us. But that was the sum total of our acquired
knowledge, and it brought us no nearer the breaking up of the
Goodell-Gregory combination or the recovery of the loot.

So for a third night we were compelled to seek sanctuary in the silent
canyons. And the third day brought us no better luck. At evening we were
constrained to admit that we were simply butting our heads against a
wall--with an ever-present possibility of the wall toppling over and
crushing us flat.

Altogether, we spent five consecutive days hovering around that
collection of law-enforcers, in imminent risk of capture. Each night in
the open was more cheerless than the preceding one, and each day brought
the same sense of futile effort at its close. Twice during that time the
Police camp moved, and we had to be wary, for they scoured the
surrounding territory with painstaking thoroughness. But we felt that
there was yet a chance for us to turn the tables, for Goodell was still
with the troop, and also Gregory; we saw them both the morning of the
fifth day.

"It beats me why they're pecking around over the same ground so much,"
Mac observed. "I suppose they're looking for us, but I'm pretty sure
they haven't had a glimpse of us for three days, and so I don't see why
they should think we're still hanging around. Logically, if we'd got
that bunch of money, we'd be getting out of the country. Lord, I do wish
those four would show their hand--make a move of some kind."

"So do I," I seconded. "We're not doing much good that I can see. And I
think I could play the game with a heap more enthusiasm if I had some
coffee and white bread under my belt once or twice a day. We'll go
hungry, and likewise get a devilish good soaking to-night, or I'm badly
mistaken."

We had checked our horses on the summit of the divide that ran down to
Lost River on one side and on the other sloped away to the southeast.
The wind that was merely a breath at sundown had gathered strength to
itself and now swept across the hill-tops with a resonant roar, piling
layer on layer of murky low-flying clouds into a dense mass overhead.
Night, black as the bottomless pit, walled us in. A fifty-mile breeze
lashed us spitefully, tugging at our shirt-sleeves and drowning our
voices, while we halted on that pinnacle. By the dank breath of the
wind, the ominous overcasting of the sky, all the little signs that a
prairie-wise man learns to read, we knew that a storm was close at hand.
Shelter there was none, nor food, and we stood in need of both.

"You're right," MacRae admitted. "But how are we going to help it?
We'll just have to grin and tough it out."

"I'll tell you how we'll help it," I proposed recklessly, shouting to
make myself heard above the noisy wind. "We can go down and tackle that
bull-train we saw pulling along the foot of the ridge. They'll know
we're on the dodge, but that won't make any difference to them. I know
nearly every bull-whacker that freights out of Benton, and they're a
pretty white bunch. If it's Baker's outfit, especially, we'll be welcome
as flowers in May. You said they'd likely camp at that spring--Ten Mile,
isn't it? What d'ye think? Shall we go down and take a chance? I sure
don't like the look of things up here. It's going to be a rip-snorter of
a night, once it cuts loose."

"I'm ready to go against nearly anything, right now," MacRae frankly
owned. "If you think it's worth trying, why, it's a go with me."

"Let's drift, then," I declared; and straightway we turned our horses
broadside to the wind and tore away for Ten Mile Spring and the
creature comforts I knew were to be had at the white-sheeted wagons we
saw crawling slowly along the Stony Crossing trail late that afternoon.

As Mac had calculated, the freight-train was camped at the Spring; and
it was a mighty good thing for us that MacRae knew that country so well
or we would never have found them, short of riding our horses to a
standstill. Long before we got there the deep-throated thunder was
growling over us, and the clouds spat occasional flurries of rain.

We made the freight camp, however, just as the storm cut loose in deadly
earnest. Luckily for me, it was Baker's outfit. I took a long chance,
and stalked boldly in. And here I was treated to a surprise, one that
afforded both MacRae and me considerable food for thought; Horner, the
wagon-boss, a man I knew well, frankly declared that no one at Fort
Walsh had heard that we were accused of robbery and murder. For that
matter, he said, he didn't care a tinker's dam if we were; he had grub
and bedding and we were welcome to both.

So with this assurance of good-will we picketed our horses close by the
circle of wagons--where we could get to them quickly should any of
Lessard's troop happen into the camp--and prepared to devour the supper
Horner's good-natured cook bestirred himself to make ready. As we filled
our plates and squatted under the canvas that sheltered the cook's
Dutch-oven layout, a man under the hind end of the chuck-wagon propped
himself on elbow and shouted greeting to us. In the semi-dark I couldn't
see his face, but I recognized the voice. It was our friend of the
whisky-keg episode, Piegan Smith.

"Hello, thar, fellers!" he bellowed (Piegan always spoke to a man as if
he were a hundred yards away). "Say, Flood, yuh ain't been t' Benton an'
back already, have yuh?"

"Faith, no," I owned, between mouthfuls, "and it's hard telling when I
will get there. How come you to be pacing along this trail, Piegan? Gone
to freighting in your old age?"

"Not what yuh could notice, I ain't," he snorted. "Catch _me_ whackin'
bulls for a livin'! Naw, I sold my outfit to a goggle-eyed pilgrim that
has an idea buffalo hides is prime all summer. So I'm headed for Benton
to see if I kain't stir up a little excitement now an' then, to pass
away the time till the fall buffalo-run begins."

"If you're looking for excitement, Piegan," MacRae put in dryly, "you'd
better come along with us. We'll introduce you to more different brands
of it in the next few days than Benton could furnish in six months."

"Maybe," Piegan laughed. "But not the brand I'm a-thirstin' for."

Mac was on the point of replying when there came a most unexpected
interruption. I looked up at sound of a startled exclamation, and beheld
the round African physog of Lyn Rowan's colored mammy. But she had no
eyes for me; she stood like a black statue just within the firelight, a
tin bucket in one hand, staring over my head at MacRae.

"Lawd a-me!" she gulped out. "Ef Ah ain't sho'ly laid mah ol' eyes on
Marse Go'don. Is dat sho' 'nuf yo', wid yo' red coat an' all?"

"It sure is, Mammy," Mac answered. "How does it happen you're traveling
this way? I thought you were at Fort Walsh. Is Miss Lyn along?"

"She suttinly am," Mammy Thomas emphatically asserted. "Yo' doan catch
dis chile a-mosyin' obeh dese yeah plains by huh lonesome. Since dey
done brought Miss Lyn's paw in an' planted him, she say dey ain't no use
foh huh to stay in dis yeah redcoat country no longer; so we all packed
up an' sta'ted back foh de lan' ob de free."

MacRae, I am sure, was no more than half through his meal. But he
swallowed the coffee in his cup, and tossed his eating-implements into
the cook's wash-pan.

"I'll go with you, Mammy," he told her. "I want to see Miss Lyn myself."

"Jes' a minute, Marse Go'don," she said. "Ah's got to git some wa'm
watah f'om dis yeah Mr. Cook."

The cook signaled her to help herself from the kettle that bubbled over
the fire, and she filled her bucket and disappeared, chattering volubly,
MacRae at her heels.

I finished my supper more deliberately. There was no occasion for me to
gobble my food and rush off to talk with Lyn Rowan. MacRae, I suspected,
would be inclined to monopolize her for the rest of the evening. So I
ate leisurely, and when done crawled under the wagon beside Piegan Smith
and gave myself up to cigarettes and meditation, while over his pipe
Piegan expressed a most unflattering opinion of the weather.

It was a dirty night, beyond question; one that gave color to Piegan's
prophesy that Milk River would be out of its banks if the storm held
till morning, and that Baker's freight-train would be stalled by mud and
high water for three or four days. I was duly thankful for the shelter
we had found. A tarpaulin stretched from wheel to wheel of the wagon
shut out the driving rain that fled in sheets before the whooping wind.
The lightning-play was hidden behind the drifting cloud-bank, for no
glint of it penetrated the gloom; but the cavernous thunder-bellow
roared intermittently, and a fury of rain drove slantwise against sodden
earth and creaking wagon-tops.

If the next two hours were as slow in passing, to MacRae and Lyn, as
they seemed to me, the two of them had time to dissect and discuss the
hopes and fears and errors of their whole existence, and formulate a new
philosophy of life. Piegan broke a long silence to remark sagely that if
Mac was putting in all this time talking to that "yaller-headed fairy,"
he was a plumb good stayer.

"They're old friends," I told him. "Mac knew her long ago; and all her
people."

"Well, he's in darned agreeable company," Piegan observed. "She's a
mighty fine little woman, far's I've seen. I dunno's I'd know when t'
jar loose m'self, if I knowed her an' she didn't object t' me hangin'
around. But seein' we ain't in on the reception, we might as well get
under the covers, eh? I reckon most everybody in camp's turned in."

Piegan had a bulky roll of bedding under the wagon. Spread to its full
width, it was ample for three ordinary men. We had just got out of our
outside garments and were snuggling down between the blankets when Mac
came slopping through the puddles that were now gathering in every
depression. He crawled under the wagon, shed some of his clothing, and
got into bed with us. But he didn't lie down until he had rolled a
cigarette, and then instead of going to sleep he began talking to
Piegan, asking what seemed to me a lot of rather trifling questions. I
was nearly worn out, and their conversation was nowise interesting to
me, so listening to the monotonous drone of their voices and the steady
beat of falling rain, I went to sleep.

Before a great while I wakened; to speak truthfully, the ungentle voice
of Piegan Smith brought me out of dreamland with a guilty start. MacRae
was still sitting up in bed, and from that part of his speech which
filtered into my ears I gathered that he was recounting to Piegan the
tale of our adventures during the past week. I thought that odd, for Mac
was a close-mouthed beggar as a general thing; but there was no valid
reason why he should not proclaim the story from the hill-tops if he
chose, so I rolled over and pulled the blankets above my head--to
protect my ear-drums if Piegan's astonishment should again find verbal
expression.

The cook's battle-cry of "Grub _pi-i-ile_" wakened me next. A thin line
of yellowish-red in the east betokened the birth of another day, a day
born in elemental turmoil, for the fierce wind was no whit abated, nor
the sullen, driving rain.

"I've enlisted a recruit," MacRae told me in an undertone, as we ate
breakfast. "It struck me that if we had somebody along that we could
trust to ride into that Police camp with his mouth shut and his ears and
eyes open, we might find out something that would show us how the land
lay; even if he accomplished nothing else, he could learn if those
fellows are still with the troop."

"That was why you were making that talk to Piegan last night, was it?" I
said. "Well, from what little I've seen and heard of him, he'd be a
whole team if he's willing to throw in with us and take a chance." Which
was perfectly true. Old Piegan had the reputation, on both sides of the
line, of loving to jump into a one-sided fight for the pure joy of
evening up the odds. He was a boisterous, rough-spoken mortal, but his
heart was big, and set in the right place. And, though I didn't know it
then, he had a grouch against Hicks, who had once upon a time run him
into Fort Walsh in irons on an unjustified suspicion of whisky-running.
That was really what started Piegan in the smuggling business--a desire
to play even, after getting what he called a "damn rough deal."

"He's willing enough," Mac assured me. "Aside from the fact that most
any white man would go out of his way to help a girl like Lyn Rowan,
there's the certainty that the Canadian government will be pretty
generous to anybody who helps round up that crooked bunch and restore
the stolen money. Piegan snorted when I told him we were on the
dodge--that they were trying to nail us for holding up the paymaster.
That's the rottenest part of the whole thing. I think--but then we've
got to do more than think to get ourselves out of this jackpot."

He stopped abruptly, and went on with his breakfast. By the time we were
done eating, the gray light of a bedraggled morning revealed tiny lakes
in every hollow, and each coulée and washout was a miniature torrent of
muddy water--with a promise of more to come in the murky cloud-drift
that overcast the sky. Horner sent out two men to relieve the
night-herders, remarked philosophically "More rain, more rest," and
retired to the shelter of the cook's canvas. His drivers sought cover in
and under the wagons, where they had spent the night. But though mud and
swollen streams might hold back the cumbrous freight outfit, it did not
follow that heavy going would delay the flitting of the thieves, if they
planned such a move; nor would it prevent the Mounted Police from
descending on the Baker outfit if they thought we had taken refuge
there. So we held council of war with Piegan, after which we saddled up
and made ready to tackle the soaked prairies.

While we were packing grub and bedding on Piegan's extra horse, Lyn
joined us, wrapped from head to heel in a yellow slicker. And by the way
Mac greeted her I knew that they had bridged that gap of five years to
their mutual satisfaction; that she was loath to see him set out on a
hazardous mission she presently made plain.

"Let it go, Gordon," she begged. "There's been too much blood shed over
that wretched gold already. Let them have it. I know something dreadful
will happen if you follow it up."

MacRae smiled and shook his head stubbornly. "I'm too deep in, little
woman, to quit now," he told her patiently. "If it was only a matter of
your money, we could get along without it. But Sarge stands to lose a
lot, if we give up at this stage of the game. And besides, I'd always be
more or less on the dodge if this thing isn't cleared up. I've got to
see it through. You wouldn't have me sneak out of this country like a
whipped pup, would you? There's too big an account to settle with those
fellows, Lyn; it's up to us, if we're men. I can't draw back now, till
it's settled for good and all, one way or the other."

[Illustration: "THERE'S BEEN TOO MUCH BLOOD SHED OVER THAT WRETCHED GOLD
ALREADY. LET THEM HAVE IT."

_Page 212._]

"Oh, I know how you feel about it," she sighed. "But even if it comes
out all right, you're still tied here. You know they won't let you go."

"Don't you worry about that," he comforted. "I'll cross that bridge fast
enough when I come to it. You go on to Benton, like a good girl. I feel
it in my bones that we're going to have better luck from now on. And if
we do, you'll see us ride down the Benton hill one of these fine
mornings. Anyway, I'll send you word by Piegan before long."

Piegan was already mounted, watching us whimsically from under the
dripping brim of his hat. I shook hands with Lyn, and swung into my
saddle. And when Mac had kissed her, we crowded through a gap in the
circle of wagons, waved a last good-by, and rode away in the steadily
falling rain.



CHAPTER XVI.

IN THE CAMP OF THE ENEMY.


From then until near noon we worked our passage if ever men did. On the
high benches it was not so bad for the springy, porous turf soaked up
the excessive moisture and held its firmness tolerably well. But every
bank of any steepness meant a helter-skelter slide to its foot, with
either a bog-hole or swimming water when we got there, and getting up
the opposite hill was like climbing a greased pole--except that there
was no purse at the top to reward our perseverance. Between the
succeeding tablelands lay gumbo flats where the saturated clay hung to
the feet of our horses like so much glue, or opened under hoof-pressure
and swallowed them to the knees. So that our going was slow and
wearisome.

About mid-day the storm gradually changed from unceasing downpour to
squally outbursts, followed by banks of impenetrable fog that would
shut down on us solidly for a few minutes, then vanish like the good
intentions of yesterday; the wind switched a few points and settled to a
steady gale which lashed the spent clouds into hurrying ships of the
air, scudding full-sail before the droning breeze. Before long little
patches of blue began to peep warily through narrow spaces above. The
wind-blown rain-makers lost their leaden hue and became a soft
pearl-gray, all fleecy white around the edges. Then bars of warm
sunshine poured through the widening rifts and the whole rain-washed
land lay around us like a great checker-board whereon black
cloud-shadows chased each other madly over prairies yellow with the hot
August sun and gray-green in the hollows where the grass took on a new
lease of life.

That night we camped west of Lost River, lying prudently in a
brush-grown coulée, for we were within sight of the Police camp--by
grace of the field-glasses. At sundown the ground had dried to such a
degree that a horse could lift foot without raising with it an abnormal
portion of the Northwest. The wind veered still farther to the south,
blowing strong and warm, sucking greedily the surplus moisture from the
saturated earth. So we resolved ourselves into a committee of ways and
means and decided that since the footing promised to be normal in the
morning the troop would likely scatter out, might even move camp, and
therefore it behooved us to get in touch with them at once; accordingly
Piegan rode away to spend the night in the Police tents, with a tale of
horses strayed from Baker's outfit to account for his wandering. From
our nook in the ridge he could easily make it by riding a little after
dark.

"Goodell and Gregory and Hicks you know," said MacRae. "Bevans is a
second edition of Hicks, only not so tall by two or three inches--a
square-shouldered, good-looking brute, with light hair and steel-gray
eyes and a short brown mustache. He has an ugly scar--a
knife-cut--across the back of one hand; you can't mistake him if you get
sight of him. Stick around the camp in the morning if you can manage it,
till they start, and notice which way all those fellows go. The sooner
we get our hands on one or more of them the better we'll be able to get
at the bottom of this; I reckon we could find a way to make him talk. Of
course, if anything out of the ordinary comes up you'll have to use your
own judgment; you know just as much as we do, now. And we'll wait here
for you unless they jump us up. In that case we'll try and round up
somewhere between here and Ten Mile."

"Right yuh are, old-timer," Piegan responded. "I'll do the best I can.
Yuh want t' keep your eye glued t' that peep-glass in the mornin', and
not overlook no motions. Yuh kain't tell what might come up. So-long!"
And away he went.

When he was gone from sight we built a tiny fire in the scrub--for it
was twilight, at which time keen eyes are needed to detect either smoke
or fire, except at close range--and cooked our supper. That done, we
smothered what few embers remained and laid us down to sleep. That
wasn't much of a success, however. We had got into action again, with
more of a chance to bring about certain desired results, and inevitably
we laid awake reckoning up the chances for and against a happy
conclusion to our little expedition.

"It's a wonder," I said, as the thought occurred to me, "that Lyn quit
Walsh so soon. Why didn't she stay a while longer and see if these
famous preservers of the peace wouldn't manage to gather in the men who
killed her father? Why, hang it! she didn't even wait to see if you
found that stuff at the Stone--and Lessard must have told her that
somebody had gone to look for it."

Mac snapped out an oath in the dark. "Lessard simply lost his head," he
growled. "Damn him! He told her that he had sent us to look for it, and
that we had taken advantage of the opportunity to rob the paymaster. Oh,
he painted us good and black, I tell you. Then he had the nerve to ask
her to marry him. And he was so infernally insistent about it, that she
was forced to pull up and get away from the post in self-defense. That's
why she left so suddenly."

Well, I couldn't find it in my heart to blame Lessard for that last, so
long as he acted the gentleman about it. In fact, it was to be expected
of almost any man who happened to be thrown in contact with Lyn Rowan
for any length of time. I can't honestly lay claim to being absolutely
immune myself; only my attack had come years earlier, and had not been
virulent enough to make me indulge in any false hopes. It's no crime for
an unattached man to care for a woman; but naturally, MacRae would be
prejudiced against any one who laid siege to a castle he had marked for
his own. I had disliked that big, autocratic major, too, from our first
meeting, but it was pure instinctive antipathy on my part, sharpened,
perhaps, by his outrageous treatment of MacRae.

We dropped the subject forthwith. Lessard's relation to the problem was
a subject we had so far shied around. It was beside the point to indulge
in footless theory. We knew beyond a doubt who were the active agents in
every blow that had been struck, and the first move in the tangle we
sought to unravel was to lay hands on them, violently if necessary, and
through them recover the stolen money. Only by having that in our
possession--so MacRae argued--could we hope to gain credible hearing,
and when that was accomplished whatever part Lessard had played would
develop of itself.

By and by, my brain wearied with fruitless speculation, I began to doze,
and from then till daylight I slept in five-minute snatches.

Dawn brought an access of caution, and we forbore building a fire. Our
horses, which we had picketed in the open overnight, we saddled and tied
out of sight in the brush. Then we ate a cold breakfast and betook
ourselves to the nearest hill-top, where, screened by a huddle of rocks,
we could watch for the coming of Piegan Smith; and, incidentally, keep
an eye on the redcoat camp, though the distance was too great to observe
their movements with any degree of certainty. The most important thing
was to avoid letting a bunch of them ride up on us unheralded.

"They're not setting the earth afire looking for anybody," Mac declared,
when the sun was well started on its ante-meridian journey and there
was still no sign of riders leaving the cluster of tents. "Ah, there
they go."

A squad of mounted men in close formation, so that their scarlet jackets
stood out against the dun prairie like a flame in the dark, rode away
from the camp, halted on the first hill an instant, then scattered
north, south, and west. After that there was no visible stir around the
white-sheeted commissary.

"They're not apt to disturb us if they keep going the opposite
direction," Mac reflected, his eyes conning them through the glasses.
"And neither do they appear to be going to move camp. Therefore, we'll
be likely to see Piegan before long."

But it was some time ere we laid eyes on that gentleman. We didn't see
him leaving the camp--which occasioned us no uneasiness, because a lone
rider could very well get away from there unseen by us, especially if he
was circumspect in his choice of routes, as Piegan would probably be.
Only when two hours had dragged by, and then two more, did we begin to
get anxious. I was lying on my back, staring up at the sky, all sorts
of possible misfortune looming large on my mental horizon, when MacRae,
sweeping the hills with the glasses, grunted satisfaction, and I turned
my head in time to see Piegan appear momentarily on high ground a mile
to the south of us.

"What's he doing off there?" I wondered. "Do you suppose somebody's
following him, that he thinks it necessary to ride clear around us?"

"Hardly; but you can gamble that he isn't riding for his health," Mac
responded. "Anyway, you'll soon know; he's turning."

Piegan swung into the coulée at a fast lope, and we stole carefully down
to meet him. In the brush that concealed our horses Piegan dismounted,
and, seating himself tailor-fashion on the ground, began to fill his
pipe.

"First thing," said he, "we're a little behind the times. Your birds has
took wing and flew the coop."

"Took wing--how? And when?" we demanded.

"You'll _sabe_ better, I reckon, if I tell yuh just how I made out,"
Piegan answered, after a pause to light his pipe. "When I got there last
night they was most all asleep. But this mornin' I got a chance to size
up the whole bunch, and nary one uh them jaspers I wanted t' see was in
sight. So whilst we was eatin' breakfast I begins t' quiz, an', one way
an' another, lets on I wanted t' see that Injun scout. One feller up an'
tells me he guess I'll find the breed at Fort Walsh, most likely. After
a while I hears more talk, an' by askin' a few innocent questions I gets
next t' some more. Puttin' this an' that together, this here's the way
she stacks up: Lessard, as you fellers took notice, went in t' Walsh,
takin' several men with him, Gregory bein' among the lot. He leaves
orders that these fellers behind are t' comb the country till he calls
'em off. Yesterday mornin', in the thick uh the storm, a buck trooper
arrives from Walsh, bearin' instructions for Goodell, Hicks an' another
feller, which I reckon is Bevans. So when she clears up a little along
towards noon, these three takes a packadero layout an' starts,
presumable for Medicine Lodge. An' that's all I found out from the
Policemen."

"Scattered them around the country, eh?" Mac commented. "Damn it, we're
just as far behind as ever."

"Hold your hosses a minute," Piegan grinned knowingly. "I said that was
all I found out from the red jackets--but I did a little prognosticatin'
on my own hook. I figured that if them fellers hit the trail yesterday
afternoon as soon as the storm let up, they'd make one hell of a good
plain track in this sloppy goin' an' I was curious t' see if they lit
straight for the Lodge. So when the bunch got out quite a ways, I quits
the camp an' swings round in a wide circle--an' sure enough they'd left
their mark. Three riders an' two pack-hosses. Easy trackin'? Well, I
should say! They'd cut a trail in them doby flats like a bunch uh
gallopin' buffalo. Say, where _is_ Medicine Lodge?"

"Oh, break away, Piegan," Mac impatiently exclaimed. "What are you
trying to get at? You know where the Lodge is as well as I do."

"Well, I always thought I knowed where 'twas," Piegan retorted
spiritedly, a wicked twinkle in his shrewd old eyes. "But it must 'a'
changed location lately, for them fellers rode north a ways, an' then
kept swingin' round till they was headin' due southeast. I follered
their trail t' where yuh seen me turn this way, if yuh was watchin'.
Poor devils"--Piegan grinned covertly while voicing this mock
sympathy--"they must 'a' got lost, I reckon. It really ain't safe for
such pilgrims t' be cavortin' over the prairies with all that boodle in
their jeans. I reckon we'll just naturally have t' pike along after 'em
an' take care of it ourselves. They ain't got such a rip-roarin' start
of us--an' I'm the boy can foller that track from hell t' breakfast an'
back again. So let's eat a bite, an' then straddle our _caballos_ for
some tall ridin'."



CHAPTER XVII.

A MASTER-STROKE OF VILLAINY.


Piegan shortly proved that he made no vain boast when he asserted his
ability to follow their track. A lifetime on the plains, and a natural
fitness for the life, had made him own brother to the Indian in the
matter of nosing out dim trails. The crushing of a tuft of grass, a
broken twig, all the half-hidden signs that the feet of horses and men
leave behind, held a message for him; nothing, however slight, escaped
his eagle eye. And he did it subconsciously, without perceptible effort.
The surpassing skill of his tracking did not strike me forcibly at
first, for I can read an open trail as well as the average cowman, and
the mark of their passing lay plain before us; the veriest pilgrim, new
come from graded roads and fenced pastures, could have counted the
number of their steps--each hoof had stamped its impression in the soft
loam as clearly as a steel die-cut in soaked leather. But that was where
they had ridden while the land was still plastic from the rain. Farther,
wind and sun had dried the ridge-turf to its normal firmness and baked
the dobe flats till in places they were of their old flinty hardness.
Yet Piegan crossed at a lope places where neither MacRae nor I could
glimpse a sign--and when we would come again to soft ground the trail of
the three would rise up to confront us, and bid us marvel at the
keenness of his vision. He had a gift that we lacked.

We followed in the wake of Piegan Smith with what speed the
coulée-gashed prairie permitted, and about three o'clock halted for half
an hour to let our horses graze; we had been riding steadily over four
hours, and it behooved us to have some thought for our mounts. Within
ten minutes of starting again we dipped into a wide-bottomed coulée and
came on the place where the three had made their first night-camp--a
patch of dead ashes, a few half-burned sticks, and the close-cropped
grass-plots where each horse had circled a picket-pin.

Beyond these obvious signs, there was nothing to see. Nothing, at least,
that I could see except faint tracks leading away from the spot. These
we had followed but a short distance when Piegan, who was scrutinizing
the ground with more care than he had before shown, pulled up with an
exclamation.

"Blamed if they ain't got company, from the look uh things," he grunted,
squinting down. "I thought that was considerable of a trail for them t'
make. You fellers wait here a minute. I want t' find out which way them
tracks come in."

He loped back, swinging in north of the campground. While he was gone,
MacRae and I leaned over in our saddles and scanned closely the
grass-carpeted bottom-land. That the hoofs of passing horses had pressed
down the rank growth of grass was plain enough, but whether the hoofs of
six or a dozen we could only guess. Piegan turned, rode to where they
had built their fire, circled the place, then came back to us.

"All right," he said. "I was sure there was more livestock left that
campin'-place than we followed in. They come from the north--four
hosses, two uh them rode an' the other two led, I think, from the way
they heaved around a-crossin' a washout back yonder."

A mile or so farther we crossed a bare sandy stretch on the flat bottom
of another coulée, and on its receptive surface the trail lay like a
printed page--nine distinct, separate horse-tracks.

"Five riders an' four extra hosses, if I ain't read the sign wrong,"
Piegan casually remarked. "Say, we'll have our hands full if we bump
into this bunch unexpected, eh?"

"They'll make short work of us if they get half a chance," Mac agreed.
"But we'll make it a surprise party if we can."

From there on Piegan set a pace that taxed our horses' mettle--that was
one consolation--we were well mounted. All three of us were good for a
straightaway chase of a hundred miles if it came to a showdown. Piegan
knew that we must do our trailing in daylight, and rode accordingly. He
kept their trail with little effort, head cocked on one side like a
saucy meadowlark, and whistled snatches of "Hell Among the Yearlin's,"
as though the prospect of a sanguinary brush with thieves was pleasing
in the extreme.

The afternoon was on its last lap when we came in sight of Stony
Crossing. The trail we followed wound along the crest of a ridge midway
between the Crossing and Ten Mile Spring, where we had left Baker's
outfit that rainy morning. The freighters had moved camp, but the mud
and high water had held them, for we could see the white-sheeted wagons
and a blur of cattle by the cottonwood grove where Hank Rowan had made
his last stand. Presently we crossed the trail made by the string of
wagons; it was fresh; made that morning, I judged. A little farther, on
a line between the Crossing and the Spring, Piegan pulled up again, and
this time the cause of his halting needed no explanation. The bunch had
stopped and tarried there a few minutes, as the jumbled hoof-marks bore
witness, and the track of two horses led away toward Ten Mile Spring.

"Darn it all!" Piegan grumbled. "Now, what d'yuh reckon's the meanin' uh
that? Them two has lit straight for where Baker's layout was camped this
mornin'. What for? Are they pullin' out uh the country with the coin? Or
are they lookin' for you fellers?"

"Well"--MacRae thought a moment--"considering the care they've taken to
cover up their movements, I don't see what other object they could have
in view but making a smooth getaway. They've worked it nicely all
around. You know that if there was anything they wanted they weren't
taking any risk by going to any freight camp. We're the only men in the
country that know why they are pulling out this way--and _they_ know
that we daren't go in and report it, because they've managed to put us
on the dodge. They have reason to be sure that headquarters wouldn't for
a minute listen to a yarn like we'd have to tell--they'd have time to
ride to Mexico, while we sucked our thumbs in the guardhouse waiting for
the rest of the Police to get wise by degrees."

"Then I tell yuh what let's do," Piegan abruptly decided. "I like t'
know what's liable t' happen when I'm on a jaunt uh this kind. One of us
better head in for the Crossin' an' find out for sure if any uh them
fellers come t' the camp, an' what he wanted there. An' seein' nobody
outside uh Horner knows I'm in on this play, I reckon I better go
m'self. If there should happen t' be a stray trooper hangin' round
there, the same would be mighty awkward for you fellers. So I'll go. You
poke along the trail slow, an' I'll overhaul yuh."

"All right," MacRae agreed, and Piegan forthwith departed for the
Crossing.

After Piegan left us we rode at a walk, and even then it was something
of a task to follow the faint impression. In the course of an hour a
cluster of dark objects appeared on the bench, coming rapidly toward us.
MacRae brought the glasses to bear on them at once, for there was always
the unpleasant possibility of Mounted Policemen cutting in on our trail;
the riders of every post along the line were undoubtedly on the watch
for us.

"It's Piegan and another fellow," Mac announced shortly. "They're
leading two extra horses, and Piegan has changed mounts himself. I
wonder what's up--they seem to be in a dickens of a hurry."

We got off and waited for them, wondering what the change of horses
might portend. They swung down to us on a run, and it needed no second
glance at the features of Piegan Smith to know that he brought with him
a fresh supply of trouble. His scraggly beard was thrust forward
aggressively, and his deep-set eyes fairly blazed between narrowed lids.

"Slap your saddles on them fresh hosses," he grated harshly from the
back of a deep-chested, lean-flanked gray. "Let the others go--to hell
if they want to!"

"What's up?" I asked sharply, and MacRae flung the same query over one
shoulder as he fumbled at the tight-drawn latigo-knot.

Piegan rose in his stirrups and raised a clenched fist; the seamed face
of him grew purple under its tan, and the words came out like the
challenge of a range-bull.

"Them--them ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- has got your girl!" he roared.

The latigo dropped from MacRae's hand. "What?" he turned on Piegan
savagely, incredulously.

"I said it--I said it! Yuh heard me, didn't yuh!" Piegan shouted. "This
mornin' about sunrise. That Hicks--the damned ---- ---- ---- he come t'
Baker's as they hooked up t' leave the Spring. He had a note for her,
an' she dropped everything an' jumped on a hoss he'd brought an' rode
away with him, cryin' when she left. He told Horner you'd bin shot
resistin' arrest, an' wanted t' see her afore yuh cashed in. They ain't
seen hide nor hair uh her since. Aw, don't stand starin' at me thataway.
Hurry up! They ain't got twelve hours' start--an' by God I'll smell 'em
out in the dark for this!"

It was like a knife-thrust in the back; such a devilish and unexpected
turn of affairs that for half a second I had the same shuddery feeling
that came to me the night I stooped over Hans Rutter and gasped at sight
of what the fiends had done. MacRae whitened, but the full import of
Piegan's words stunned him to silence. The bare possibility of Lyn Rowan
being at the dubious mercy of those ruthless brutes was something that
called for more than mere words. He hesitated only a moment, nervously
twisting the saddle-strings with one hand, then straightened up and tore
loose the cinch fastening.

After that outburst of Piegan's no one spoke. While Mac and I
transferred our saddles to the Baker horses, Piegan swung down from his
gray and, opening the pack on the horse we had been leading, took out a
little bundle of flour and bacon and coffee and tied it behind the
cantle of his saddle. A frying-pan and coffee-pot he tossed to me. Then
we mounted and took to the trail again, stripped down to fighting-trim,
unhampered by a pack-horse.

Of daylight there yet remained a scant two hours in which we could hope
to distinguish a hoof-mark. Piegan leaned over his saddle-horn and took
hills and hollows, wherever the trail led, with a rush that unrolled the
miles behind us at a marvelous rate. For an hour we galloped silently,
matching the speed of fresh, wiry horses against the dying day, no sound
arising in that wilderness of brown coulée banks and dun-colored prairie
but the steady beat of hoofs, and the purr of a rising breeze from the
east. Then I became aware that Piegan, watching the ground through
half-closed eyelids, was speaking to us. From riding a little behind, to
give him room to trail, we urged our horses alongside.

"Them fellers at Baker's camp," he said, without looking up, "would 'a'
come in a holy minute if there'd been hosses for 'em t' ride. But they
only had enough saddle-stock along t' wrangle the bulls--an' I took
three uh the best they had. Three of us is enough, anyhow. We kain't
ride up on them fellers now an' go t' shootin'. They're all together
again. I seen, back a ways, where them two hoss-tracks angled back from
the spring. They must 'a' laid up at that camp we passed till sometime
before daylight--seein' that damned Hicks come t' Baker's early this
mornin'. An' if they didn't travel very fast t'-day--which ain't likely,
'cause they probably figure they're dead safe, and their track don't
show a fast gait--there's just a chance that we'll hit 'em by dark if we
burn the earth. We're good for thirty miles before night covers up their
track. Don't yuh worry none, old boy," he bellowed at MacRae. "Old Injun
Smith'll see yuh through. God! I could 'a' cried m'self when I hit that
camp an' the old nigger woman went t' bawlin' when I told her yuh was
both out on the bench, sound as a new dollar. That was the first they
suspicioned anythin' was wrong. Them dirty, low-lived ---- ---- ----!"

Piegan lapsed into a string of curses. MacRae, apparently unmoved,
nodded comprehension. But I knew what he was thinking, and I knew that
when once we got within striking distance of Hicks, Gregory & Co., there
would be new faces in hell without delay.

We slowed our horses to a walk to ascend an abrupt ridge. When we gained
the top a vast stretch of the Northwest spread away to the east and
north. Piegan lifted his eyes from the trail for an instant.

"Great Lord!" he said. "Look at the buffalo. It'll be good-by t' these
tracks before long."

As far as the eye could reach the prairie was speckled with the herds,
speckled with groups of buffalo as the sky is dotted with clusters of
bright stars on a clear night. They moved, drifting slowly, in a
southerly direction, here in sharply defined groups, there in long
lines, farther in indistinct masses. But they moved; and the air that
filled our nostrils was freighted with the tang of smoke.

We did not halt on the ridge. There was no need. We knew without
speculating what the buffalo-drift and the smoke-tinged air presaged;
and it bade us make haste before the tracks were quite obliterated.

So with the hill behind us, and each of us keeping his thoughts to
himself--none of them wholly pleasant, judging by my own--we galloped
down the long slope, a red sunset at our backs and in our faces a gale
of dry, warm wind, tainted with the smell of burning grass. And at the
bottom of the slope, in the depths of a high-walled coulée where the
evening shadows were mustering for their stealthy raid on the gilded
uplands, we circled a grove of rustling poplars and jerked our horses up
short at sight of a scarlet blotch among the gloom of the trees.



CHAPTER XVIII.

HONOR AMONG THIEVES.


We knew, even as our fingers instinctively closed on the handles of our
six-shooters, that we had not come upon the men we wanted; in such a
case there would have been an exchange of leaden courtesies long before
we managed to get in their immediate vicinity. It was unlikely that they
would cease to exercise the cunning and watchfulness that had, so far,
carried their infernal schemes through with flying colors. And a second
look showed us that the scarlet coat belonged to a man who half-sat,
half-lay on the ground, his shoulders braced against the trunk of a
fallen tree. We got off our horses and went cautiously up to him.

"Be not afraid; it is only I!" Goodell raised his head with an effort
and greeted us mockingly. "I am, as you can see, hors de combat. What is
your pleasure, gentlemen?"

The weakness of his tone and the pallid features of him vouched for the
truth of his statement. Stepping nearer, we saw that the light-colored
shirt showing between the open lapels of his jacket was stained a
tell-tale crimson. The hand he held against his breast was dabbled and
streaked with the blood that oozed from beneath the pressing fingers;
the leaf-mold under him was saturated with it.

"Where is the rest of the bunch?" MacRae asked him evenly. "You seem to
have got a part of what is coming to you, but your skirts aren't clear,
for all that."

"You have a bone to pick with me, eh?" Goodell murmured. "Well, I don't
blame you. But don't adopt the role of inquisitor--because I'm as good
as dead, and dead men tell no tales. My mouth will be closed forever in
a little while--and I can die as easily with it unopened. But if you'll
get me a drink of water, and be decent about it, I'll unfold a tale
that's worth while. I assure you it will be to your interest to give me
a hearing."

Piegan turned and strode out of the timber. He unfastened the
coffee-pot from my saddle, and made for the coulée channel we had
crossed, in which a buffalo-wallow still held water from the recent
rain.

Goodell coughed, and a red, frothy stream came from his lips. It isn't
in the average man to be utterly callous to the suffering of another,
even if that other richly deserves his pain. Notwithstanding the
deviltry he and his confederates had perpetrated, I couldn't help
feeling sorry for Goodell--what little I'd seen of him had been likable
enough. I found it hard to look at him there and believe him guilty of
murder, robbery, and kindred depredations. He was beyond reach of
earthly justice, anyway; and one can't help forgiving much to a man who
faces death with a smile.

"Are you in any pain, Goodell?" I asked.

"None whatever," he answered weakly. "But I'm a goner, for all that. I
have a very neat knife-thrust in the back. Also a bullet somewhere in my
lungs. You see in me," he drawled, "a victim of chivalry. I've played
for big stakes; I've robbed gaily, and killed a man or two in the way of
fighting; all of which sits lightly on my conscience. But there are two
things I haven't done. I want you to remember distinctly that I have
_not_ dragged that girl into this--nor had any hand in torturing a
wounded old man."

"You mean Lyn Rowan? Is she safe?" Mac squatted beside him, leaning
eagerly forward to catch the reply. Piegan returned with the water as
Goodell was about to answer. He swallowed thirstily, took breath, and
went on.

"Yes, I mean her," he said huskily. "I'll tell you quick, for I know I
won't last long, and when I'm done you'll know where to look for them. I
started this thing--this hold-up business--no matter why. Lessard was
away in the hole--gambling and other things--I hinted the idea to him;
he jumped at it, as I thought he would. And----"

"Lessard!" I interrupted. "He was in on this, then?"

"Was he?" Goodell echoed. "He is the whole thing."

I had suspected as much, but sometimes it is a surprise to have one's
suspicions confirmed. I glanced at Mac and Piegan.

"I was sure of it all along," Mac answered my unspoken thought. Piegan
merely shrugged his shoulders.

"I wanted to get that government money in the pay-wagon, that was
all--at first," Goodell continued. "We planned a long time ahead, and we
had to take in those three to make it go. Then Lessard found out about
those two old miners, and put Hicks and Gregory on their trail unknown
to me--I had no hand in that foul business. You know the result--the
finish--that night you lost the ten thousand--it was hellish work. I
wanted to kill Hicks and Gregory when they told me. Poor old Dutchman!
Lessard put Bevans on your trail, Flood. He followed you from Walsh that
day, and you played into his hands that night when you stirred up the
fire. Only for running into his partners, he would probably have
murdered you for that ten thousand some night while you slept. Give me
another drink."

I lifted the pot of water to his lips again, and he thanked me
courteously.

"Then Lessard conceived the theory that you fellows had learned more
than you told. We were fixed to get the paymaster on that trip. We shook
you, and did the job. MacRae was on the way--you know. He sent you to
the Stone with those devils to keep cases on you. It seemed a pity to
let slip that gold-dust after they had gone so far. You know how that
panned out. We had a stake then. Lessard was the brains, the guiding
genius; we did the work. The original plan was to make a clean-up,
divide with him, and get out of the country--while he used his authority
to throw the Force off the track till we were well away. Then the girl
appeared, and Lessard lost his head. She turned him down; and at the
last moment he upset our plans by deciding to cut loose and go with us.
I believe now that he hatched this latest scheme when she refused him. I
tell you he was fairly mad about her. He took advantage of this last
trip to loot the post of all the funds he could lay hands on. We
have--or, rather, _they_ have," he corrected, "about a hundred and fifty
thousand altogether.

"We couldn't ford Milk River on account of the storm. You tracked us?
You saw our last camp? Yes. Well, we left there early this morning. And
when Hicks turned off opposite Baker's outfit with an extra horse, I
thought nothing of it--it was perfectly safe, and we needed more
matches, Lessard said. Not until he joined us later with the girl did I
suspect that there were wheels within wheels; a kidnapping had never
occurred to me; I hadn't thought his infatuation would carry him that
far. She realized at once that she had been hoodwinked, and appealed to
Lessard. He laughed at her, and told her that he had abandoned the
modern method of winning a mate, and gone back to the primitive mode.

"I've put myself beyond the pale; outlaw, thief, what you like--I'm not
sensitive to harsh names. But a woman--a good woman! Well, I have my own
ideas about such things. And when we camped here, I had made up my mind.
I told Lessard she must go back. That was a foolish move. I should have
got the drop and killed him out of hand. While I argued with him, Hicks
slipped a knife into my back, and as I turned on him Lessard shot me.
Ah, well--it'll be all the same a hundred years from now. But I'd like
to put a spoke in their wheel for the sake of that blue-eyed girl.

"MacRae, you and Smith know the mouth of Sage Creek, and the ford there.
That's where they'll camp to-night. I doubt if they'll cross the river
till morning. If you ride you can make it in three hours. From there
they plan to follow Milk River to the Missouri and catch a down-stream
boat. But you'll get them to-night. You must. Now give me another
drink--and drift!"

"We'll get them, Goodell." MacRae rose to his feet as he spoke. "You're
white, if you did get off wrong. I'll remember what you did--for her. Is
there anything we can do for you?"

Goodell shook his head. "I tell you," he said, and turned his head to
look wistfully up at the eastern coulée-rim, all tinted with the blazing
sunset. "I'll go out over the hills with the shadows. An hour--maybe
two. It's my time. I've no complaint to make. All I want is a drink. You
can do no good for a dead man; and the living are sorely in need. It'll
be a bit lonesome, that's all."

"No message for anybody?" MacRae persisted.

"No--yes!" The old mocking, reckless tone crept into his voice again.
"If you should have speech with Lessard before you put his light out,
tell him I go to prepare a place for him--a superheated grid! Now
drift--_vamos_--hit the trail. Remember, the gorge at the mouth of Sage
Creek. Good-by."

Soberly we filed out from among the trees, now swaying in the grip of
the wind, their leafy boughs rustling sibilantly; as though the weird
sisters whispered in the nodding branches that here was another thread
full-spun and ready for the keen shears. Soberly we swung to the saddle
and rode slowly away, lest the quick beat of hoofs should bring a sudden
pang of loneliness to the intrepid soul calmly awaiting death under the
shivering trees. I think that one bold effort to right a wrong will
more than wipe out the black score against him when the Book of Life is
balanced.

A little way beyond the poplar-grove Piegan drew rein, and held up one
hand.

"Poor devil," he muttered. "He's a-calling us."

But he wasn't. He was fighting off the chill of loneliness that comes to
the strongest of us when we face the unknowable, the empty void that
there is no escaping. Dying there in the falling dusk, he was singing to
himself as an Indian brave chants his death-song when the red flame of
the torture-fire bites into his flesh.

  Sing heigh, sing ho, for the Cavalier!
    Sing heigh, sing ho, for the Crown.
  Gentlemen all, turn out, turn out;
    We'll keep these Roundheads down!
  Down--down--down--down.
  We'll ke--ep these Round--heads down!

Once--twice, the chorus of that old English Royalist song rose up out of
the grove. Then it died away, and we turned to go. And as we struck home
the spurs, remembering the mouth of Sage Creek and the dark that was
closing down, a six-shooter barked sharply, back among the trees.

I swung my horse around in his tracks and raced him back to the poplars,
knowing what I would find, and yet refusing to believe. I will not say
that his big heart had failed him; perhaps it did not seem to him worth
while to face the somber shadows to the bitter end, lying alone in that
deep hollow in the earth. It may be that the night looked long and
comfortless, and it was his wish to go out with the sun. He lay beside
the fallen tree, his eyes turned blankly to the darkening sky, the
six-shooter in his hand as he had held it for the last time. I
straightened his arms, and covered his face with the blood-stained coat
and left him to his long sleep. And even old Piegan lifted his hat and
murmured "Amen" in all sincerity as we turned away.



CHAPTER XIX.

THE BISON.


When we reached high ground again the twilight was fading to a
semicircle of bloodshot gray in the northwest. The wind still blew
squarely in our faces. Down in the coulée we had not noticed it so much,
but now every breath was rank with the smell of grass-smoke, and each
mile we traversed the stink of it grew stronger.

"We'll be blamed lucky if we don't run into a prairie-fire before
mornin'," Piegan grumbled. "If that wind don't let up, she'll come
a-whoopin'. It'll be a sure enough smoky one, too, with this mixture uh
dry grass an' the new growth springin' up. It didn't rain so hard down
in this country, I notice. Ain't that a lalla of a smell?"

Neither of us answered, and Piegan said no more. It grew dark--dark in
the full sense of the word. The smoke-burdened atmosphere was impervious
to the radiance of the stars. Only by Smith's instinctive sense of
direction did we make any headway toward the mouth of Sage Creek. Even
MacRae owned himself somewhat at fault, once we came among the buffalo.
They barred our path in dimly-seen masses that neither halted,
scattered, nor turned aside when we galloped upon them in the gloom. We
were the ones who gave the road, riding now before, now behind the
indistinct bulk of a herd, according as we judged the shorter way.

More dense became the brute mass. Whirled this way and that, as Piegan
led, I knew neither east, west, north or south from one moment to
another. Betimes we found a stretch of open country, and gave our horses
the steel, but always to bring up suddenly against the bison plodding in
groups, in ranks, in endless files. They were ubiquitous; stolid
obstructions that we could neither avoid nor ride down. Our progress
became monotonous, a succession of fruitless attempts to advance;
hopeless, like wandering in a subtle maze. Bison to the right of us,
bison to the left of us, an uncounted swarm behind us, and as many
before--but they neither bellowed nor thundered; they passed like
phantoms in the night, soundlessly save for the muffled trampling of
cloven hoofs, and here and there upon occasion hoarse coughings that
were strangled by the wind.

And we rode as silently as the bison marched. For each one of us had
seen that one-minded pilgrimage of the brown cattle take place in moons
gone by. I recalled a time when a trail-herd lay on the Platte and the
buffalo barred their passing for two days--even made fourteen riders and
three thousand Texas steers give ground. Is it not history that the St.
Louis-Benton river-boats backed water when the bison crossed the
Missouri in the spring and fall? Remembering these, and other times that
the herds had gathered and swept over the plains, a plague of monstrous
locusts, pushing aside men and freight-trains, I knew what would happen
should the buffalo close their ranks, marshal the scattered groups into
closer formation, quicken the pace of the multitude that poured down
from the north. And presently it happened.

Insensibly the number of moving bodies increased. The consolidation was
imperceptible in the murk, but nevertheless it took place. We ceased to
find clear spaces where we could gallop; a trot became impossible. We
were hemmed in. A rank animal odor mingled with the taint of smoke.
Gradually the muffled beat of hoofs grew more pronounced, a shuffling
monotone that filled the night. We were mere atoms in a vast wave of
horn and bone and flesh that bore us onward as the tide floats
driftwood.

The belated moon stole up from its lair, hovered above the sky-line, a
gaudy orange sphere in the haze of smoke. It shed a tenuous glimmer on
the sea of bison that had engulfed us; and at the half-revealed sight
MacRae lifted his clenched hands above his head and cursed the
circumstance that had brought us to such extremity. That was the first
and only time I knew him to lose his poise, his natural repression.
Still water runs deep, they say; and a glacial cap may conceal
subterranean fires. Trite similes, I grant you--but, ah, how true. The
good Lord help those phlegmatics who can stand by unmoved when a
self-contained man reveals the anguish of his soul in one passionate
outburst. Could the fury that quivered in his voice have wreaked itself
on the bison and the men we followed, the stench of their blasted
carcasses would have reached high heaven. But the bison surrounded us
impassively, bore us on as before; somewhere, miles beyond, Lessard
pursued the evil tenor of his way; and MacRae's futile passion, like a
wave that has battered itself to foam against a sullen cliff, subsided
and died. Later, while we three cast-aways drifted with the bovine tide,
he spoke to Piegan Smith.

"How are we going to get through?"

"Dunno. But we _will_ get through, yuh c'n gamble on that." Optimism
rampant was the dominating element in Piegan's philosophy of life.

As if to prove that he was a true prophet, the herd split against a
rocky pinnacle, and on this we stranded. So much, at least, we had
gained--we were no longer being carried willy-nilly out of our way.

"If they'd only scatter a little," MacRae muttered.

But for a long two hours the bison streamed by our island, dividing
before and closing behind the insensate peak that alone had power to
break their close-packed ranks. Then came an opening, a falling apart;
slight as it was, we plunged into it with joy. Thereafter we were
buffeted like chips in the swirling maw of a whirlpool; we fought our
way rod by rod. Here an opening, and we shot through; there a solid wall
of flesh for whose passing we halted, lashing out with quirts and
spurring desperately to hold our own--a war for the open road against an
enemy whose only weapon was his unswerving bulk. And we won. We pushed,
twisted, spurred our way through the ranks of a hundred thousand bison.
Jostling, cursing the brute swarm, we crowded our horses against the
press, and lo! of a sudden we reined up on open ground--the bison, like
a nightmare, were gone. Off in the gloom to one side of us a myriad of
hoofs beat the earth, the hoarse coughings continued, the animal odor
exhaled--but it was no longer a force to be reckoned with. We were free.
We had outflanked the herd.

[Illustration: A WAR FOR THE OPEN ROAD AGAINST AN ENEMY WHOSE ONLY
WEAPON WAS HIS UNSWERVING BULK.

_Page 256._]



CHAPTER XX.

THE MOUTH OF SAGE CREEK.


With that opposing force behind us, we bore away across the shrouded
benches, straight for the mouth of Sage Creek. What method we would
pursue when we got there was not altogether clear to me, and the same
thing evidently bothered Piegan, for, after a long interval, he
addressed himself pointedly to MacRae.

"We ought t' hit the river in an hour or so," he said. "It's time we
figured on how we're goin' t' work, eh? I wish t' the Lord it was
daylight."

"So do I," MacRae moodily responded. "For that matter, it won't be long.
I've been thinking that the best way would be to get down on the flat at
the north of the creek and _cache_ our horses in the timber. Then we can
sneak around without making any noise. If they're not camped on the
flat, we'll find them somewhere up the gorge. Of course, there's a
chance that they have crossed the river--but if they didn't get there
in daylight, and the river is still high, I hardly think they'd risk
fording in the dark."

"That's about the way I had sized it up," Piegan replied. "The flat
ain't bigger'n a good-sized flapjack, nohow, an' if they're on that or
up in Sage Creek canyon, we're bound t' locate 'em; kain't help hearin'
their hosses snort or cough or make some sort uh noise, if we go
careful. The worst of it is, we kain't start the ball a-rollin' till we
get that girl spotted--that's the hell of it! Like as not she'd be the
first one t' get hurt. An' if we get rambunctious an' stir 'em up in the
dark, an' _don't_ put the finishin' to 'em right then an' there--why,
they got all the show in the world t' make a hot-foot getaway. _Sabe?_
While I ain't lookin' for a chance t' sidestep the game, for I know how
yuh feel, I'd say locate 'em if we can, an' then back up a little and
wait for day."

"Oh, I know, I know!" Mac burst out. "That's sense. But it gives me the
creeps to think--to think----"

"Sure; we know it," Piegan answered softly. "We kain't tell till we get
there, anyway. Maybe we'll get 'em dead t' rights. No tellin' what'll
come up when we get into that canyon. When we get 'em spotted we c'n
make up our minds what t' do--if we have any time t' talk about it," he
finished, in an undertone.

As we rode, the crimson-yellow reflection of burning prairies began to
tint the eastern sky; once, from the crest of a hill, we saw the
wavering line of flame, rising and falling in beautiful undulations. And
presently we galloped across a mile or two of level grassland and pulled
up on the very brink of Sage Creek canyon.

"Easy, easy, from here on," Piegan whispered caution. "We may be right
above 'em, for all we know. We hit it a little too high up. How far
d'yuh reckon it is t' the mouth, Mac?"

"Not more than half a mile," MacRae returned. "We're not far out. I know
where there's a good place to get down."

We turned sharply to the right, coming out on a narrow point. Without
mishap we reached the foot of the steep hill. At the bottom the wind was
almost wholly shut off, so that sounds were easier to distinguish. The
moon had passed its zenith long since, and half of the flat lay in dense
shadow. Beyond the shadow a pall of smoke lay over everything, a
shifting haze that made objects near at hand indefinite of outline,
impossible to classify at a glance. A horse or a tree or a clump of
brush loomed up grotesquely in the vaporous blur.

Mac, to whom the topography of that gloomy place was perfectly familiar,
led the way. A black, menacing wall that rose before us suddenly
resolved itself into a grove of trees, great four-foot cottonwoods. He
stole into the heart of the grove and satisfied himself that our game
had not appropriated it as a camping-place. That assured, we followed
with our horses and tied them securely, removing saddles and bridles,
lest the clank of steel or creaking of leather betray our presence to
listening ears. On any noise our horses might make we had no choice but
to take a chance. Then we looked to our guns and set out on a stealthy
search.

A complete circle of that tiny bottom--it was only a shelf of sage-brown
land lying between the river and the steep bank--profited us nothing,
and Piegan whispered that now we must seek for them in the gorge.

Cautiously we retraced our steps from the lower end of the flat, and
turned into the narrow mouth of the canyon. We had no more than got
fairly between the straight-up-and-down walls of it than Piegan halted
us with a warning hand. We squatted in the sage-brush and listened.
Behind us, from the river, came a gentle plashing.

"Beaver," I hazarded.

"Too loud," Piegan murmured. "Let's go back an' see."

We reached the river-edge just in time to hear the splashing die away;
and though we strained our eyes looking, we could make out no movement
on the surface of the river or in the dimly-outlined scrub that fringed
the opposite bank. Piegan turned on the instant and ran to where we had
tied our horses; but they stood quietly as we had left them.

"I got a hunch they'd got onto us, an' maybe set us afoot for a
starter," Piegan explained. "I reckon that must 'a' been a deer or some
other wild critter."

Once more we turned into the canyon, and this time followed its narrow,
scrub-patched floor some three hundred yards up from the river. It was
dark enough for any kind of deviltry in that four-hundred foot gash in
the earth; the sinking moon lightened only a strip along the east wall,
near the top; lower down, smoke mingling with the natural gloom cast an
impenetrable veil from bank to bank; not a breath of air stirred the
tomblike stillness. Directly in front of us a horse coughed. We dropped
on all fours, listened a moment, then crept forward. Without warning, we
found ourselves foul of a picket-line, and the vague forms of grazing
horses loomed close by. Piegan halted us with a touch, and we lay flat;
then with our heads together he whispered softly:

"We must be right on top uh them. It's a cinch their camp ain't far from
their livestock. I wonder----"

To the left of us a horse snorted nervously; we heard him trot with
high, springy strides to the end of his rope, and snort again. Then a
voice cut the stillness that followed: "Here, you fool, what's the
matter with you?"

We hugged the ground like frightened rabbits. It hardly seemed possible
that we could be within speaking-distance of them--yet that was
Gregory's clear enunciation; I would know his speech in a jabberfest of
several nations.

"What's the matter?" That, by the curt inflection, the autocratic
peremptoriness, was Lessard. I had one hand on MacRae's shoulder, and I
felt a tremor run through his body, like the rising of a cat's fur at
sight of an adversary.

"Oh, nothing much," Gregory answered carelessly. "I was just speaking to
one of these fool horses. They seem to be as nervous as you are." And
we could hear him chuckle over this last remark.

After that there was nothing but the muffled tr-_up_, tr-_up_ of grazing
horses. Piegan or MacRae, I could not tell which, tugged gently at my
arm, and the three of us retreated slowly, crawling both literally and
figuratively. When we were well away from the camp of that ungodly
combination, Piegan rose to his feet and we proceeded a little faster
until we reached a distance that permitted of low-toned conversation.

"Now," Piegan declared, "we have 'em located. An' I'm here t' declare
that it's plumb foolish t' mix things with that layout till we can see
t' shoot tolerable straight. If we go against 'em now, it'll be all same
goin' blindfolded into a barn t' pick out the best hoss. The first gun
that pops they'll raise up an' quit the earth like a bunch uh antelope.
_They_ ain't got nothin' t' win in a fight--unless they're cornered. I
did think uh tryin' t' get off with their hosses, but I figured it
wouldn't pay with that sharp-eared cuss on the watch. Whenever it comes
day, we got all the best uh things--though I don't reckon we'll have a
walkaway. We want t' make a clean job once we start in, an' we kain't do
that in the dark. Furthermore, as I said before, if we go t' throwin'
lead when we kain't see ten feet in front of us, we'd just about hit
that girl first rattle out uh the box. She ain't comin' t' no harm just
now, or it wouldn't be so blamed peaceful around there. It's only a
matter of a couple uh hours t' daylight, anyhow. What d'yuh think?"

"Under the circumstances, the only thing we can do is to wait," MacRae
assented, and I fancied that there was a reluctant quiver in his usually
steady voice. "It's going to be smoky at daybreak, but we can see their
camp from this first point, I think. There's a big rock over here--I'll
show you--you and Sarge can get under cover there. I'll lie up on the
opposite side, so they'll have to come between us. Let them pack and get
started. When they get nearly abreast, cut loose. Shoot their
saddle-horses first, then we can fight it out. Come on, I'll show you
that rock."

MacRae's bump of location was nearly as well developed as Piegan's. He
picked his way through the sage-brush to the other side of the canyon,
bringing us in the deepest gloom to a great slab of sandstone that had
fallen from above, and lay a few feet from the base of the sheer wall.
It was a natural breastwork, all ready to our hand. There, without
another word, he left us. Crouching in the shelter of that rock, not
daring to speak above a whisper, denied the comforts of tobacco, it
seemed as if we were never to be released from the dusky embrace of
night. In reality it was less than two hours till daybreak, but they
were slow-footed ones to me. Then dawn flung itself impetuously across
the hills, and the naked rim of the canyon took form in a shifting whirl
of smoke. Down in the depths gloom and shadows vanished together, and
Piegan Smith and I peered over the top of our rock and saw the outlaw
camp--men and horses dim figures in the growing light. We scanned the
opposite side for sight of MacRae, but saw nothing of him; he kept close
under cover.

"They're packin' up," Piegan murmured, with a dry chuckle. "I reckon
things won't tighten nor nothin' in a few minutes, eh? But say, damn if
I see anything among that layout that resembles a female. Do you?"

I did not, even when I focused the field-glasses on that bunch at that
short distance. Certainly she was not there--at least she was not to be
seen, and I could almost read the expression on each man's features, so
close did the glasses draw them up. And failing to see her started me
thinking that after all she might have given them the slip. I hoped it
might be so. Lyn was no chicken-hearted weakling, to sit down and weep
unavailingly in time of peril. Bred on the range, on speaking-terms with
the turbulent frontier life, her wits weren't likely to forsake her in a
situation of that kind.

While the light of day grew stronger and the smoke eddied in heavier
wreaths above, one of them swung up on a horse and came down the bottom
at a fast lope. We had no means of knowing what his mission might be,
but I did know that the square shoulders, the lean eagle face, could
only belong to one man; and I dropped the glasses and drew a bead on his
breast. I hesitated a second, squinting along the barrel of the carbine;
I wanted him to round the point that jutted out from the other side of
the canyon, so that his partners could not see his finish. If they did
not see him go down, nor observe the puff of smoke from behind the rock,
they might think he had fired a shot himself. And while I waited,
grumbling at the combination of circumstances that made it necessary to
shoot down even a cold-blooded brute like him in such a way, Mac took
the matter out of my hands in his own characteristic fashion.

Lessard turned the point, and as the carbine-hammer clicked back under
the pull of my thumb, MacRae sprang to his feet from behind a squatty
clump of sage, right in Lessard's path. Nervy as men are made, MacRae
worshiped at the shrine of an even break, a square deal for friend or
foe. And Lessard got it. There among the sage-brush he got a fair chance
for his life, according to the code of men who settle their differences
at the business end of a six-shooter. But it wasn't Lessard's hour.
Piegan Smith and I saw his hand flash to his pistol, saw it come to a
level, heard the single report of MacRae's gun. It was a square
deal--which Lessard had not given us. He crumpled in the saddle;
sprawled a moment on the neck of his horse, and dropped to the ground.
MacRae sank behind the sage again, and we waited for the others.



CHAPTER XXI.

AN ELEMENTAL ALLY.


But they did not come. One of them must have seen Lessard fall, for at
the crack of MacRae's gun men and horses, already half-hidden by the
thickening smoke, vanished into the brush. Piegan fired one ineffectual
shot as they flicked out of sight. So far we had seen nothing of Lyn. I
was satisfied she was not in the party, unaccountable as that seemed to
be.

"Darn 'em," Piegan grunted disgustedly. "They're next, now. An' they
don't aim t' run the gantlet till they have t'. We got 'em penned,
anyway; they can't get out uh that patch uh brush without showin'
themselves."

"Oh, Piegan!" MacRae called to us. He lay within easy shouting-distance,
and managed to make himself heard without rising.

"Hello!" Piegan answered.

"Can you fellows keep them from going up the canyon?"

"I reckon we can," Smith called back, "unless this smoke gets so blame
thick we kain't see at all."

"All right. I'm going up on top, and throw it into them from above.
Maybe I can drive them out of the brush."

Piegan slapped me on the shoulder. "Darn our fool hearts," he exclaimed.
"We ought to 'a' thought uh that before. Why, he c'n pick 'em off like
blackbirds on a fence, from up there on the bench!"

We did not see MacRae go, but we knew that he must have crawled through
the sage-brush to the creek channel, where, by stooping, he could gain
the mouth of the canyon unseen. Anyway, our time was fully occupied in
watching the brush-patch that sheltered our plundering friends. They
held close to their concealment, however, nor did they waste any powder
on us--for that matter, I don't think they knew just where we were, and
they were familiar enough with the gentle art of bushwhacking to
realize that the open was a distinctly unhealthy place for either party
to prospect.

It was a long time till we heard from MacRae again, and, lying there
passively, we grew afraid that after all they would give us the slip;
for the smoke was now rolling in black clouds above the gorge. So far
the thickest of it had blown overhead, but any moment a change of wind
might whip it down the canyon bottom like an ocean fog, and that would
mean good-by to Hicks & Co.

"That fire's mighty close, an' comin' on the jump," Piegan remarked,
with an upward glance. "I wish she'd let up long enough for us t' finish
this job. That smoke's as good as they want, once it begins t' settle in
the gorge. What in thunder d'yuh s'pose Mac's doin' all this time. He
ought t' show pretty quick, now."

He showed, as Piegan put it, very shortly. From the top of the opposite
bank he fired a shot or two, and drew for the first time a return from
the enemy. Then he broke off, and when he next gave hint of his
whereabouts, it was to hail us from the nearest point on the canyon rim.

"Quit your hide-out and pull for the mouth of the gorge. Quick! I'll be
there."

"What the hell's up now!" Piegan muttered. "Well, I guess we'll have t'
take a chance. If they don't wing us before we get across this bald
place, we'll be all right. Run like yuh was plumb scairt t' death,
Flood."

We sprinted like a pair of quarter-horses across the thirty yards of
bare ground that spread in front of the rock, a narrow enough space, to
be sure, but barren of cover for a jack-rabbit, much less two
decent-sized men. My heart was pumping double-quick when we threw
ourselves headlong in the welcome sage-brush--they had done their level
best to stop us, and some of those forty-four caliber humming-birds
buzzed their leaden monotone perilously close to our heads. That is one
kind of music for which I have a profound respect.

From there to the creek-channel we crawled on all fours, as MacRae had
done. Stooping, lest our heads furnish a target, we splashed along in
the shallow water till we reached the mouth of the canyon. There we
slipped carefully to higher ground. MacRae was scrambling and sliding
down from above, barely distinguishable against the bank. Far up the
gorge dense clouds of black smoke swooped down from the benchland.
Already the patch of brush in which lay the renegade Policemen was
hidden in the smudge, shut away from our sight. We hailed MacRae when he
reached the foot of the hill, and he came crashing through sage and
buck-brush and threw himself, panting, on the ground.

"The fire," he gasped, "is coming down the gorge. They're cut off at the
other end. They've got to come out here in a little while--or roast. The
smoke would choke a salamander, on top, right now. We can't miss them in
this narrow place, no matter how thick it gets. Look yonder!"

A wavering red line licked its way to the canyon-edge on the east side,
wiped out the grass, and died on the bald rim-rock. Away up the creek a
faint crackling sounded.

"Dry timber," Piegan muttered. "It'll get warm 'round here pretty
directly."

The smoke, blacker now, more dense, hot as a whiff from a baker's oven,
swooped down upon us in choking eddies. It blew out of the canyon-mouth
like a gust from a chimney, rolling over and over in billowy masses. The
banks on either hand were almost invisible. We knew that our time of
waiting was short. The popping of dry, scrubby timber warned us that our
position would soon be untenable. The infernal vapors from the unholy
mixture of green and dry grass, berry bushes, willow scrub, and the
ubiquitous sage, made breathing a misery and brought unwilling tears to
our stinging eyes. And presently, above the subdued but menacing noises
of the fire, the beat of galloping hoofs uprose.

They burst out of the mouth of the canyon, a smoke-wreathed whirlwind,
heading for the protection of the river. The pack-horses, necked
together, galloped in the lead, and behind them Hicks, Gregory, and
Bevans leaned over the necks of their mounts. They knew that we were
waiting for them, but at the worst they had a fighting chance with us,
and none with what came behind. So thick hung the smoky veil that they
were right on top of us before they took tangible shape; and when we
rose to our knees and fired, the crack of their guns mingled with that
of our own. Gregory, so near that I could see every feature of his dark
face, the glittering black eyes, the wide mouth parted over white, even
teeth, wilted in his saddle as they swept by. Bevans and his horse went
down together. But Hicks the wily, a superb horseman, hung in his off
stirrup and swerved away from us, and the smoke closed behind him to the
tune of our guns.

It was done in less time than it has taken to tell of it. There was no
prolonged hand-to-hand struggle with buckets of blood marring the
surrounding scenery, and a beautiful heroine wringing her hands in
despair; merely a rush of horses and men out of the smoke, a brief spasm
of gun-fire--it was begun and ended in five seconds. But there were two
fallen men, and Piegan Smith with a hole through the big muscle of his
right arm, to show that we had fought.

The pack-horses, with no riders at their heels to guide them, had
tangled each other in the connecting-rope and stopped. Hicks was gone,
and likely to keep going. So we turned our attention to Gregory and
Bevans. Gregory was dead as the proverbial door-nail, but Bevans, on
investigation, proved to be very much alive--so much so that if he had
not been partly stunned by the fall, and thereafter pinned to the ground
by a thousand-pound horse, he would have potted one or two of us with a
good heart. As it was, we reached the gentleman in the same moment that
he made a heroic effort to lay hold of the carbine which had
luckily--for us--fallen beyond the length of his arm.

"Yuh lay down there an' be good!" Piegan, out of the fullness of his
heart, emphasized his command with the toe of his boot. "Where's that
girl, yuh swine?"

"Go to hell!" Bevans snarled.

"Here," MacRae broke in hastily, "we've got to move pretty _pronto_,
and get across the river. That fire will be on us in five minutes. Sarge
and I will gather up their horses. You keep an eye on Bevans, Piegan;
he'll answer questions fast enough when I get at him."

While Mac dashed across the creek I captured Gregory's horse, which had
stopped when his rider fell; and as I laid hand on the reins I thought I
heard a shot off beyond the river. But I couldn't be certain. The whine
of the wind that comes with a fire, the crackle of the fire itself, the
manifold sounds that echoed between the canyon walls and the pungent,
suffocating smoke, all conspired against clear thinking or hearing. I
listened a moment, but heard no more. Then, with time at a premium, I
hastened to straighten out the tangle of pack-animals. Mac loomed up in
the general blur with Lessard's body on his horse, as I led the others
back to where Piegan stood guard over Bevans.

"Ain't this hell!" he coughed. "That fire's right on top of us. We got
t' make the river in a hurry."

It was another minute's work to lash Gregory's body on one of the
pack-horses, and release the sullen Bevans from the weight of his dead
mount. As an afterthought, I looked in the pockets on his saddle, and
the first thing I discovered was a wad of paper money big enough to
choke an ox, as Piegan would say. I hadn't the time to investigate
further, so I simply cut the _anqueros_ off his saddle and flung them
across the horn of my own--and even in that swirl of smoke and sparks I
glowed with a sense of gratification, for it seemed that at last I was
about to shake hands with the ten thousand dollars I had mourned as
lost. Then Piegan and I drove Bevans ahead of us and moved the spoils of
war to the river brink, while MacRae hurried to the cottonwood grove
after our own neglected mounts; they had given us too good service to be
abandoned to the holocaust.

MacRae soon joined us with the three horses; out into the stream, wading
till the water gurgled around our waists, we led the bunch. Then we
were compelled to take our hats and slosh water over packs and saddles
till they were soaked--for the fire was ravaging the flat we had just
left, and showers of tiny sparks descended upon and around us. Thus
proof against the fiery baptism, though still half-strangled by the
smoke, our breathing a succession of coughs, we mounted and pushed
across.

The high water had abated and the river was now flowing at its normal
stage, some three hundred yards in width and nowhere swimming-deep on
the ford. We passed beyond spark-range and splashed out on a sand-bar
that jutted from the southern bank. Midway between the lapping water and
the brush that lined the edge of the flat, a dark object became
visualized in the shifting gray vapor. We rode to it and pulled up in
amaze. Patiently awaiting the pleasure of his master, as a good cavalry
horse should, was the bay gelding Hicks had ridden; and Hicks himself
sprawled in the sand at the end of the bridle-reins. I got down and
looked him over. He was not dead; far from it. But a bullet had scored
the side of his head above one ear, and he was down and out for the
time.

We stripped the pistol-belt off him, and a knife. At the same time we
rendered Bevans incapable of hostile movement by anchoring both hands
securely behind his back with a pack-rope. That done, Piegan's bleeding
arm came in for its share of attention. Then we held a council of war.



CHAPTER XXII.

SPEECHLESS HICKS.


When I spoke of holding a council of war, I did so largely in a
figurative sense. Literally, we set about reviving Hicks, with a view to
learning from him what had become of Lyn Rowan. He and Bevans
undoubtedly knew, and as Bevans persisted in his defiant sullenness,
refusing to open his mouth for other purpose than to curse us
vigorously, we turned to Hicks. A liberal amount of water dashed in his
face aided him to recover consciousness, and in a short time he sat up
and favored us with a scowl.

"What has become of that girl you took away from Baker's freight-train
yesterday morning?" MacRae dispassionately questioned.

Hicks glared at him by way of answer.

"Hurry up and find your tongue," MacRae prompted.

"I dunno what you're drivin' at," Hicks dissembled.

"You will know, in short order," MacRae retorted, "if you harp on that
tune. We've got you where we want you, and I rather think you'll be glad
to talk, before long. I ask you what became of that girl between the
time you knifed Goodell and this morning?"

Hicks started at mention of Goodell. His heavy face settled into
stubborn lines. He blinked under MacRae's steady look. Of a sudden he
sprang to his feet. I do not know what his intention may have been, but
he got little chance to carry out any desperate idea that took form in
his brain, for MacRae knocked him back on his haunches with a single
blow of his fist.

"Answer me," he shouted, "or by the Lord! I'll make you think hell is a
pleasure-garden compared to this sand-bar."

"Kick a few uh his ribs out uh place for a starter," Piegan coolly
advised. "That'll he'p him remember things."

Yet for all their threats Hicks obstinately refused to admit that he had
ever seen Lyn Rowan. What his object was in denying knowledge we knew he
possessed did not transpire till later. He knew the game was lost, so
far as he was concerned, and he was mustering his forces in a last
effort to save himself. And MacRae's patience snapped like a frayed
thread before many minutes of futile query.

"Get me a rope off one of those pack-horses, Sarge," he snapped.

I brought the rope; and I will brazenly admit that I should not have
balked at helping decorate the limb of a cottonwood with those two
red-handed scoundrels. But I was not prepared for the turn MacRae took.
Hicks evidently felt that there was something ominous to the fore, for
he fought like a fiend when we endeavored to apply the rope to his arms
and legs. There was an almost superhuman desperation in his resistance,
and while MacRae and I hammered and choked him into submission Piegan
gyrated about us with a gun in his left hand, begging us to let _him_
put the finishing touches to Hicks. That, however, was the very
antithesis of MacRae's purpose.

"I don't want to _kill_ him, Piegan," he said pointedly, when Hicks was
securely tied. "If I had, do you suppose I'd dirty my hands on him in
that sort of a scramble when I know how to use a gun? I want him to
talk--you understand?--and he _will_ talk before I'm through with him."

There was a peculiar inflection about that last sentence, a world of
meaning that was lost on me until I saw Mac go to the brush a few yards
distant, return with an armful of dry willows and place them on the sand
close by Hicks. Without audible comment I watched him, but I was
puzzled--at first. He broke the dry sticks into fragments across his
knee; when he had a fair-sized pile he took out his knife and whittled a
few shavings. Not till he snapped his knife shut and put it in his
pocket and began, none too gently, to remove the boots from Hicks' feet,
did I really comprehend what he was about. It sent a shiver through me,
and even old Piegan stood aghast at the malevolent determination of the
man. But we voiced no protest. That was neither the time nor place to
abide by the Golden Rule. Only the law of force, ruthless, inexorable,
would compel speech from Hicks. And since they would recognize no
authority save that of force, it seemed meet and just to deal with them
as they had dealt with us. So Piegan Smith and I stood aloof and watched
the grim play, for the fate of a woman hung in the balance. Hicks'
salient jaw was set, his expression unreadable.

MacRae stacked the dry wood in a neat pyramid twelve inches from the
bare soles of Hicks' feet. He placed the shavings in the edge of the
little pile. Then he stood up and began to talk, fingering a match with
horrible suggestiveness.

"Perhaps you think that by keeping a close mouth there's a chance to get
out of some of the deviltry you've had a hand in lately. But there
isn't. You'll get what's coming to you. And in case you're bolstering up
your nerve with false hopes in that direction, let me tell you that we
know exactly how you turned every trick. I don't particularly care to
take the law into my own hands; I'd rather take you in and turn you
over to the guard. But there's a woman to account for yet, and so you
can take your choice between the same deal you gave Hans Rutter and
telling me what became of her."

He paused for a moment. Hicks stared up at him calculatingly.

"I'll tell you all I know about it if you turn me loose," he said. "Give
me a horse and a chance to pull my freight, and I'll talk. Otherwise,
I'm dumb."

"I'll make no bargains with you," MacRae answered. "Talk or take the
consequences."

Hicks shook his head. MacRae coughed--the smoke was still rolling in
thick clouds from over the river--and went on.

"Perhaps it will make my meaning clearer if I tell you what happened to
Rutter, eh? You and Gregory got him after he was wounded, didn't you? He
wouldn't tell where that stuff had been _cached_. But you had a way of
loosening a man's tongue--I have you to thank for the idea. Oh, it was a
good one, but that old Dutchman was harder stuff than you're made of.
You built a fire and warmed his feet. Still he wouldn't talk, so you
warmed them some more. Fine! But you didn't suppose you'd ever get
_your_ feet warmed. I'm not asking much of you, and you'll be no deeper
in the mire when you answer. If you don't--well, there's plenty of wood
here. Will you tell me what I want to know, or shall I light the fire?"

Still no word from Hicks. MacRae bent and raked the match along a flat
stone.

"Oh, well," he said indifferently, "maybe you'll think better of it when
your toes begin to sizzle."

He thrust the flaring match among the shavings. As the flame crept in
among the broken willows, Hicks raised his head.

"If I tell you what become of her, will you let me go?" he proposed
again. "I'll quit the country."

"You'll tell me--or cook by inches, right here," Mac answered
deliberately. "You can't buy me off."

The blaze flickered higher. I watched it, with every fiber of my being
revolting against such savagery, and the need for it. I glanced at
Piegan and Bevans. The one looked on with grim repression, the other
with blanched face. And suddenly Hicks jerked up his knees and heaved
himself bodily aside with a scream of fear.

"Put it out! Put it out!" he cried. "I'll tell you. For God's
sake--anything but the fire!"

"Be quick, then," MacRae muttered, "before I move you back."

"Last night," Hicks gasped, "when we pulled into the gorge to camp, she
jerked the six-shooter out uh Lessard's belt and made a run for it. She
took to the brush. It was dark, and we couldn't follow her. I don't know
where she got to, except that she started down the creek. We hunted for
her half the night--didn't see nothin'. That's the truth, s'help me."

"Down the creek--say, by the great Jehosophat!" Piegan exclaimed. "D'yuh
remember that racket in the water this mornin'? Yuh wait." He turned
and ran down-stream. Almost instantly the smoke had swallowed him.

MacRae stood staring for a second or two, then turned and scattered the
fire broadcast on the sand with a movement of his foot. He lifted his
hat, and I saw that his forehead and hair was damp with sweat.

"That was a job I had mighty little stomach for," he said, catching my
eye and smiling faintly. "I thought that sulky brute would come through
if I made a strong bluff. I reckon I'd have weakened in another minute,
if he hadn't."

"Ugh!" I shuddered. "It gave me the creeps. I wouldn't make a good
Indian."

"Nor I," he agreed. "But I had to know. And I feel better now. I'm not
afraid for Lyn, since I know she got away from _them_."

Piegan, at this moment, set up a jubilant hallooing down the river, and
shortly came rushing back to us.

"Aha, I told yuh," he cried exultantly. "That was her crossed the river
this mornin'. I found her track in the sand. One uh yuh stand guard,
and the other feller come with me. We c'n trail her."

"Go ahead," I told MacRae--a superfluous command, for I could not have
kept him from going if I had tried.

So I was left on the sand-bar with two dead thieves, and two who should
have been dead, and a little knot of horses for company. Hicks and
Bevans gave me little concern. I had helped tie both of them, and I knew
they would not soon get loose. But it was a weary wait. An hour fled. I
paced the bar, a carbine in the crook of my arm and a vigilant eye for
incipient outbreaks for freedom on the part of those two wolves. The
horses stood about on three legs, heads drooping. The smoke-clouds
swayed and eddied, lifted a moment, and closed down again with the
varying spasms of the fire that was beating itself out on the farther
shore. I sat me down and rested a while, arose and resumed my nervous
tramping. The foglike haze began to thin. It became possible to breathe
without discomfort to the lungs; my eyes no longer stung and watered.
And after a period in which I seemed to have walked a thousand miles on
that sandy point, I heard voices in the distance. Presently MacRae and
Piegan Smith broke through the willow fringe on the higher ground--and
with them appeared a feminine figure that waved a hand to me.



CHAPTER XXIII.

THE SPOILS OF WAR.


All things considered, it was a joyous knot of humanity that gathered on
that sand-bar--if one excepts the two plunderers who were tied hard and
fast, their most cheerful outlook a speedy trial with a hangman's noose
at the finish. I recollect that we shook hands all around, and that our
tongues wagged extravagantly, regardless of whoever else might be
speaking. We settled down before long, however, remembering that we were
not altogether out of the woods.

The fire by this time had, to a great extent, beaten itself out on the
opposite bank, and with nothing left but a few smoldering brush-patches,
the smoke continued to lift and give us sundry glimpses of the black
desolation that spread to the north. So far as we knew, the wind had
carried no sparks across the river to fire the south side and drive us
back to the barrenness of the burned lands. And with the certainty that
Lyn was safe, and that we were beyond disputing masters of the
situation, came consciousness of hunger and great bodily weariness. It
was almost twenty-four hours since we had eaten, and we were simply
ravenous. As a start toward an orderly method of procedure, we began by
re-dressing Piegan's punctured arm, which had begun to bleed again;
though it was by no means as serious a hurt as it might have been.
Piegan himself seemed to consider it a good deal of a joke on him, and
when I remarked that I failed to see how a bullet-hole through any part
of one's person could be regarded in a humorous light, Piegan snorted,
and told me that I would know more when I grew up. A little ventilation,
he declared, was something a man's system needed every year or two.

Then we unsaddled and unpacked the horses, and moved them up on the
grassy flat. Piegan elected himself guard over the prisoners, while the
rest of us cooked a belated breakfast, and he assured them repeatedly
that he would be delighted to have them make a break, so that he could
have the pleasure of perforating their individual and collective hides.
I really believe the old rascal meant it, too; he succeeded, at least,
in giving that impression, and his crippled arm was no handicap to
him--he could juggle a six-shooter right or left-handed with amazing
dexterity.

Lyn substantiated Goodell's story in every detail, so far as it had
dealt with her, and she told me, while we pottered about the fire, how
she waited her chance when they made camp in Sage Creek, and, snatching
Lessard's gun, ran for it in the dark.

"I didn't really know where I was," she told me naively. "So I thought
I'd better hide till daylight and watch them go before I started. Then I
could try and make my way back to the freight outfit--I felt sure they
would either wait for me or send a man back to Walsh when I didn't come
back. I was hiding in those cottonwoods when you came stealing in there
this morning. You were so quiet, I couldn't tell who it was--I thought
perhaps they were still hunting for me; they did, you know--they were
rummaging around after me for a long time. But I never dreamed it could
be you and Gordon. So I sneaked down to the river and crossed; I was
deadly afraid they'd find me, and I thought once I was on the other side
I could hear them coming, and scuttle away in the brush. Then about
daylight I heard some shooting, and wondered if they had been followed.
I didn't dare cross the river and start over the hills with that fire
coming, and the smoke so thick I couldn't tell a hill from a hollow. I
waited a while longer--I was in this brush up here"--she pointed to a
place almost opposite--"and in a little while I heard more shooting, and
in a minute or so, he"--indicating Hicks--"came splashing through the
river. He was on the sand-bar before I could see him clearly, and coming
straight toward where I was huddled in the brush. Oh, but I was
frightened, and before I knew it, almost, I poked the gun between the
branches and fired at his head as straight as I could--and he fell off
his horse. Then I ran, before any more of them came. And that's really
all there is to it. I was plodding up the river, when I heard Gordon
shouting two or three hundred yards behind. Of course I knew his voice,
and stopped. But dear me! this seems like a bad dream, or maybe I ought
to say a good one. I hope you won't all disappear in the smoke."

"Don't you worry," MacRae assured her. "When we vanish in the smoke
we'll take you with us."

After we had eaten we made a systematic search of packs and
saddle-pockets, and when we had finished there was more of the root of
all evil in sight than I have laid my eyes on at any one time before or
since. The gold that had drawn us into the game was there in the same
long, buckskin sacks, a load for one horse. The government money, looted
from the paymaster, part gold coin and part bills, they had divided, and
it was stowed in various places. Lessard's saddle-pockets were crammed,
and likewise those of Hicks and Gregory. Bevans' _anqueros_, which I had
taken from his dead horse, yielded a goodly sum. Altogether, we counted
some seventy-odd thousand dollars, exclusive of the gold-dust in the
sacks.

"There's a good deal more than that, according to Goodell's figures,"
MacRae commented. "Lessard must have got away with quite a sum from the
post. I daresay the pockets of the combination hold the rest. But I
don't hanker to search a dead man, and that can wait till we get to
Walsh."

"Yuh goin' t' lug this coyote bait t' Fort Walsh?" Piegan inquired. "I'd
leave 'em right here without the ceremony uh plantin'. An' I vote right
here an' now t' neck these other two geesers together an' run 'em off'n
a high bank into deep water."

"I'd vote with you, so far as my personal feeling in the matter goes,"
MacRae replied. "But we've got a lot of mighty black marks against us,
right now, and we're going in there to relate a most amazing tale. Of
course, we can prove every word of it. But I reckon we'll have to take
these two carcasses along as a sort of corroborative evidence. Every
confounded captain in the Force will have to view them officially; they
wouldn't take our word for their being dead. So it would only delay the
clearing up of things to leave them here. These other jaspers will lend
a fine decorative effect to the noosed end of a three-quarter-inch rope
for their part in the play--unless Canadian justice miscarries, which
doesn't often happen if you give it time enough to get at the root of
things."

Much as we had accomplished, we still had a problem or two ahead of us.
While we didn't reckon on having to defend ourselves against the
preposterous charge of holding up the paymaster, there was that little
matter of violent assault on the persons of three uniformed
representatives of Northwestern law--assault, indeed, with deadly
weapons; also the forcible sequestration of government property in the
shape of three troop-horses with complete riding appurtenances; the
uttering of threats; all of which was strictly against the peace and
dignity of the Crown and the statutes made and provided. No man is
supposed, as MacRae had pointed out to me after we'd held up those three
troopers, to inflict a compound fracture on one law in his efforts to
preserve another. But it had been necessary for us to do so, and we had
justified our judgment in playing a lone hand and upsetting Lessard's
smoothly conceived plan to lay us by the heels while he and his thugs
got away with the plunder. We had broken up as hard a combination as
ever matched itself against the scarlet-coated keepers of the law; we
had gathered them in with the loot intact, and for this signal service
we had hopes that the powers that be would overlook the break we made on
Lost River ridge. Lessard had created a damnatory piece of evidence
against himself by lifting the post funds; that in itself would bear
witness to the truth of our story. It might take the authorities a while
to get the proper focus on the tangle, but we could stand that, seeing
that we had won against staggering odds.

From the mouth of Sage Creek to Fort Walsh it is a fraction over fifty
miles, across comparatively flat country. By the time our breakfast was
done we calculated it to be ten o'clock. We had the half of a long
mid-summer day to make it. So, partly because we might find the full
fifty miles an ash-strewn waste, fodderless, blackened, where an
afternoon halt would be a dreary sojourn, and partly for the sake of the
three good horses we had pushed so unmercifully through the early hours
of the night, we laid on the grassy river-bottom till noon. Then we
packed, placed the sullen captives in the saddle with hands lashed
stoutly, mounted our horses and recrossed the river. Once on the uplands
we struck the long trot--eight hours of daylight to make fifty miles.
And we made it.



CHAPTER XXIV.

THE PIPE OF PEACE.


Twenty minutes after the sunset gun awoke the echoes along Battle Creek
we slipped quietly into Fort Walsh and drew rein before the official
quarters of the officer of the day; a stiffened, saddle-weary group,
grimy with the sooty ash of burned prairies. From the near-by barracks
troopers craned through windows, and gathered in doorways. For a moment
I thought the office was deserted, but before we had time to dismount,
the captain ranking next to Lessard appeared from within, and behind him
came a medium-sized man, gray-haired and pleasant of countenance, at
sight of whom MacRae straightened in his saddle with a stifled
exclamation and repeated the military salute.

The captain stared in frank astonishment as MacRae got stiffly out of
his saddle and helped Lyn to the ground. Then he snapped out some sharp
question, but the gray-haired one silenced him with a gesture.

"Softly, softly, Stone," he said. "Let the man explain voluntarily."

"Beg to report, sir," MacRae began evenly, "that we have captured the
men who robbed Flood, murdered those two miners, and held up the
paymaster. Also that we have recovered all the stolen money."

"What sort of cock-and-bull story is this?" Stone broke in angrily.
"Preposterous! Orderly, call----"

"Easy, easy now, Captain Stone," the older man cut in sharply. "A man
doesn't make a statement like that without some proof. By the way," he
asked abruptly, "how did you manage to elude Major Lessard and get in
here?"

MacRae pointed to one of the horses. "We didn't elude him. You'll find
what's left of the black-hearted devil under that canvas," he answered
coolly. "Lessard was at the bottom of the crookedness. We've packed him
and Paul Gregory fifty miles for you to see."

"Ha!" the old fellow seemed not so surprised as I had expected. He
glanced over the lot of us and let another long-drawn "ha" escape.

"May I ask a favor, Colonel Allen?" MacRae continued. "This lady has had
a hard day. Will you excuse her, for the present? We have a story to
tell that you may find hard to credit."

The colonel (I'd heard of him before; I knew when MacRae spoke his name
that he was Commander-in-Chief of the Northwest Mounted Police, the
biggest gun of all) favored us with another appraising stare.

"These men, I take it, are prisoners?" he said, pointing to Hicks and
Bevans.

"You bet your sweet life them's prisoners," Piegan broke in with
cheerful assurance. "Them gentlemen is candidates for a rope necktie
apiece--nice perfessional assassins t' have in the Police!"

Allen turned to the orderly. "A detail of four from the guardhouse on
the double-quick," he commanded.

Captain Stone stood by gnawing his mustache while Allen listened
unmoved as MacRae pointed out the horse on which was packed the bulk of
the loot, and gave him a brief outline of the abduction and the
subsequent fight at the mouth of Sage Creek. The orderly returned with
the detail, and Allen courteously sent him to escort Lyn to the
hospitality of Bat Perkins' wife, as MacRae asked. After which the guard
marshaled Piegan, MacRae, and me, along with Hicks and Bevans, into the
room where MacRae and Lessard had clashed that memorable day. Then they
carried in the two bodies and laid them on the floor, and last of all
the pack that held Hank Rowan's gold and the government currency.

While this was being done an orderly flitted from house to house on
officers' row; the calm, pleasant-voiced, shrewd old Commissioner
gathered his captains about him for a semi-official hearing. The dusk
faded into night. Here and there about the post lights began to twinkle.
We stood about in the ante-room, silent under the vigilant eye of the
guard. After an uncertain period of waiting, the orderly called "Gordon
MacRae," and the inquisition began.

One at a time they put us on the rack--probing each man's story down to
the smallest detail. It was long after midnight when the questioning was
at an end. The finale came when a trooper searched the bodies of Lessard
and Gregory, and relieved Hicks and Bevans of the plunder that was still
concealed about their persons. They counted the money solemnly, on the
same desk by which Lessard stood when MacRae flung that hot challenge in
his teeth, and lost his stripes as the penalty. Outside, the wind arose
and whoo-_ee_-ed around the corner of the log building; inside, there
was a strained quiet, broken only by the occasional rattle of a loose
window, the steady chink--chink of coin slipping through fingers, the
crisp rustle of bills, like new silk. And when it was done Allen leaned
back in his chair, patting the arm of it with one hand, and surveyed the
neatly piled money and the three buckskin sacks on the desk before him.
Then he stood up, very erect and stern in the yellow lamplight.

"Take those men to the guardhouse," he ordered curtly, pointing an
accusing finger at Hicks and Bevans. "Iron them securely--securely!"

He turned to me. "I regret that it will be necessary for you to wait
some little time, Flood, before your money can be restored to you," he
said in a pleasanter tone. "There will be certain formalities to go
through, you understand. You will also be required as a witness at the
forthcoming trial. We shall be glad to furnish you and Smith with
comfortable quarters until then. It is late, but MacRae knows these
barracks, and doubtless he can find you a temporary sleeping place.
And, in conclusion, I wish to compliment all three of you on the
courage and resource you displayed in tracking down these damnable
scoundrels--_damnable_ scoundrels."

He fairly exploded that last phrase. I daresay it was something of a
blow to his pride in the Force to learn that such deviltry had actually
been fathered by one of his trusted officers; something the same
sorrowful anger that stirs a man when one of his own kin goes wrong.
Then, as if he were half-ashamed of his burst of feeling, he dismissed
us with a wave of his hand and a gruff "That's all, to-night."

       *       *       *       *       *

That practically was the finish of the thing. There was, of course, a
trial, at which Hicks and Bevans were convicted out of hand and duly
sentenced to be hung--a sentence that was carried out with neatness and
despatch in the near future. Also, I did manage, in the fullness of
time, to deliver La Pere's ten thousand dollars without further
gun-play.

Colonel Allen knew a good man when he saw one--he was not long in
demonstrating that fact. When everything was straightened out,
MacRae--urged thereto by Lyn--made a straightforward request for
honorable discharge But he did not get it. Instead, the gray-haired
Commissioner calmly offered him promotion to an Inspectorship, which is
equivalent to the rank of a captain, and carries pay of two thousand a
year. And MacRae, of course, accepted.

The day he cast off the old red jacket of the rank and file and put on
the black uniform with braid looped back and forth across the front of
it, and gold hieroglyphics on the collar, Piegan Smith and I stood up
with him and Lyn and helped them get fitted to double harness. Not that
there was any lack of other folk; indeed, it seemed to me that the
official contingent of Fort Walsh had turned out en masse to attend the
ceremony. But Piegan and I were the star guests.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ah, well, we can't always be young and full of the pure joy of living.
One must grow old. And inevitably one looks back with a pang, and sighs
for the vanished days. But Time keeps his scythe a-swinging, and we go
out--like a snuffed candle. We _lived_, though, we who frolicked along
the forty-ninth parallel when Civilization stood afar and viewed the
scene askance; but she came down upon us and took possession fast enough
when that wild land was partly tamed, and now few are left of those who
knew and loved the old West, its perils, its hardships, its bigness of
heart and readiness of hand. Such of us as remain are like the buffalo
penned in national parks--a sorry remnant of the days that were.


THE END.





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