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of them were the head man’s wives, six were his children, one was a grandchild. Who the rest of the party were or what relation they bore to him, the guests did not learn.

The place was filthy and the air was vile. Before morning both the young whites regretted they had not taken chances outside.

“Not ever again,” Beresford said with frank disgust after they had set out next day. “I’ll starve if I have to. I’ll freeze if I must. But, by Jove! I’ll not eat Injun stew or sleep in a pot-pourri of nitchies. Not good enough.”

Tom grinned. “While I was eatin’ the stew, I thought I could stand sleepin’ there even if I gagged at the eats, and while I was tryin’ to sleep, I made up my mind if I had to choose one it would be the stew. Next time we’re wrastlin’ with a blizzard, we’ll know enough to be thankful for our mercies. We’ll be able to figure it might be a lot worse.”

That afternoon they killed a caribou and got much-needed fresh meat for themselves and the dogs. Unfortunately, while carrying the hind-quarters to the sled, Beresford slipped and strained a tendon in the left leg. He did not notice it much at the time, but after an hour’s travel the pain increased. He found it difficult to keep pace with the dogs.

They were traversing a ten-mile lake. Morse proposed that they camp as soon as they reached the edge of it.

“Better get on the sled and ride till then,” he added.

Beresford shook his head. “No, I’ll carry on all right. Got to grin and bear it. The sled’s overloaded anyhow. You trot along and I’ll tag. Time you’ve got the fires built and all the work done, I’ll loaf into camp.”

Tom made no further protest. “All right. Take it easy. I’ll unload and run back for you.”

The Montanan found a good camp-site, dumped the supplies, and left Cuffy as a guard. With the other dogs he drove back and met the officer. Beresford was still limping doggedly forward. Every step sent a shoot of pain through him, but he set his teeth and kept moving.

None the less he was glad to see the empty sled. He tumbled on and let the others do the work.

At camp he scraped the snow away with a shoe while Morse cut spruce boughs and chopped wood for the fire.

Beresford suffered a good deal from his knee that night. He did not sleep much, and when day came it was plain he could not travel. The camp-site was a good one. There was plenty of wood, and the shape of the draw in which they were located was a protection from the cold wind. The dogs would be no worse for a day or two of rest. The travelers decided to remain here as long as might be necessary.

Tom went hunting. He brought back a bag of four ptarmigan late in the afternoon. Fried, they were delicious. The dogs stood round in a half-circle and caught the bones tossed to them. Crunch– crunch–crunch. The bones no longer were. The dogs, heads cocked on one side, waited expectantly for more tender tidbits.

“Saw deer tracks. To-morrow I’ll have a try for one,” Morse said.

The lame man hobbled down to the lake next day, broke the ice, and fished for jack pike. He took back to camp with him all he could carry.

On the fourth day his knee was so much improved that he was able to travel slowly. They were glad to see that night the lights of Fort Desolation, as one of the Mounted had dubbed the post on account of its loneliness.

CHAPTER XXXIV

THE MAN-HUNTERS READ SIGN

In the white North travelers are few and far. It is impossible for one to pass through the country without leaving a record of his progress written on the terrain and in the minds of the natives. The fugitive did not attempt concealment. He had with him now an Indian guide and was pushing into the Barren Lands. There was no uncertainty about his movements. From Fort Chippewayan he had swung to the northwest in the line of the great frozen lakes, skirting Athabasca and following the Great Slave River to the lake of the same name. This he crossed at the narrowest point, about where the river empties into it, and headed for the eastern extremity of Lake La Martre.

On his heels, still far behind, trod the two pursuers, patient, dogged, and inexorable. They had left far in the rear the out-forts of the Mounted and the little settlements of the free traders. Already they were deep in the Hudson’s Bay Company trapping-grounds. Ahead of them lay the Barrens, stretching to the inlets of the Arctic Ocean.

The days were drawing out and the nights getting shorter. The untempered sun of the Northland beat down on the cold snow crystals and reflected a million sparks of light. In that white field the glare was almost unbearable. Both of them wore smoked glasses, but even with these their eyes continually smarted. They grew red and swollen. If time had not been so great an element in their journey, they would have tried to travel only after sunset. But they could not afford this. West would keep going as long and as fast as he could.

Each of them dreaded snow-blindness. They knew the sign of it–a dreadful pain, a smarting of the eyeballs as though hot burning sand were being flung against them. In camp at night they bathed their swollen lids and applied a cool and healing salve.

Meanwhile the weeks slipped into months and still they held like bulldogs to the trail of the man they were after.

The silence of the wide, empty white wastes surrounded them, except for an occasional word, the whine of a dog, and the slithering crunch of the sled-runners. From unfriendly frozen deserts they passed, through eternal stillness, into the snow wilderness that seemed to stretch forever. When they came to forests, now thinner, smaller, and less frequent, they welcomed them as they would an old friend.

“He’s headin’ for Great Bear, looks like,” Morse suggested one morning after an hour in which neither of them had spoken.

“I was wondering when you’d chirp up, Tom,” Beresford grinned cheerfully. “Sometimes I think I’m fed up for life on the hissing of snowshoe runners. The human voice sure sounds good up here. Yes, Great Bear Lake. And after that, where?”

“Up the lake, across to the Mackenzie, and down it to the ocean, I’d say. He’s makin’ for the whaling waters. Herschel Island maybe. He’s hoping to bump into a whaler and get down on it to ‘Frisco.”

“Your guess is just as good as any,” the Canadian admitted. “He’s cut out a man-sized job for himself. I’ll say that for him. It’s a five-to-one bet he never gets through alive, even if we don’t nab him.”

“What else can he do? He’s got to keep going or be dragged back to be hanged. I’d travel too if I were in his place.”

“So would I. He’s certainly hitting her up. Wish he’d break his leg for a week or two,” the constable said airily.

They swung into a dense spruce swamp and jumped up a half-grown bear. He was so close to them that Tom, who was breaking trail, could see his little shining eyes. Morse was carrying his rifle, in the hope that he might see a lynx or a moose. The bear turned to scamper away, but the intention never became a fact. A bullet crashed through the head and brought the animal down.

An hour later they reached an Indian camp on the edge of a lake. On stages, built well up from the ground, drying fish were hanging out of reach of the dogs. These animals came charging toward the travelers as usual, lean, bristling, wolfish creatures that never had been half-tamed.

Beresford lashed them back with the whip. Indians came out from the huts, matted hair hanging over their eyes. After the usual greetings and small presents had been made, the man-hunters asked questions.

“Great Bear Lake–wah-he-o-che (how far)?”

The head man opened his eyes. Nobody in his right mind went to the great water at this time of year. It was maybe fifteen, maybe twenty days’ travel. Who could tell? Were all the fair skins mad? Only three days since another dog-train had passed through driven by a big shaggy man who had left them no presents after he had bought fish. Three whites in as many days, and before that none but voyageur half-breeds in twice that number of years.

The trooper let out a boyish whoop. “Gaining fast. Only three days behind him, Tom. If our luck stands up, he’ll never reach the Great Bear.”

There was reason back of Beresford’s exultant shout. At least one of West’s dogs had bleeding feet. This the stained snow on the trail told them. Either the big man had no shoes for the animals or was too careless to use them when needed, the constable had suggested to his friend.

“It’s not carelessness,” Morse said. “It’s his bullying nature. Likely he’s got the shoes, only he won’t put ’em on. He’ll beat the poor brute over the head instead and curse his luck when he breaks down. He’s too bull-headed to be a good driver.”

On the fourth day after this they came upon one of the minor tragedies of sub-Arctic travel. The skeleton of a dog lay beside the trail. Its bones had been picked clean by its ravenous cannibal companions.

“Three left,” Beresford commented. “He’ll be figuring on picking up another when he meets any Indians or Eskimos.”

“If he does it won’t be any good to work with his train. I believe we’ve got him. He isn’t twenty-five miles ahead of us right now.”

“I’d put it at twenty. In about three days now the fireworks will begin.”

It was the second day after this that they began to notice something peculiar about the trail they were following. Hitherto it had taken a straight line, except when the bad terrain had made a detour advisable. Now it swayed uncertainly, much as a drunken man staggers down a street.

“What’s wrong with him? It can’t be liquor. Yet if he’s not drunk, what’s got into him?” the soldier asked aloud, expecting no answer that explained this phenomenon.

Tom shook his head. “See. The Indian’s drivin’ now. He follows a straight enough line. You can tell he’s at the tail line by the shape of the webs. And West’s still lurchin’ along in a crazy way. He fell down here. Is he sick, d’ you reckon?”

“Give it up. Anyhow, he’s in trouble. We’ll know soon enough what it is. Before night now we’ll maybe see them.”

Before they had gone another mile, the trail in the snow showed another peculiarity. It made a wide half-circle and was heading south again.

“He’s given up. What’s that mean? Out of grub, d’ you think?” Beresford asked.

“No. If they had been, he’d have made camp and gone hunting. We crossed musk-ox sign to-day, you know.”

“Righto. Can’t be that. He must be sick.”

They kept their eyes open. At any moment now they were likely to make a discovery. Since they were in a country of scrubby brush they moved cautiously to prevent an ambush. There was just a possibility that the fugitive might have caught sight of them and be preparing an unwelcome surprise. But it was a possibility that did not look like a probability.

“Something gone ‘way off in his plans,” Morse said after they had mushed on the south trail for an hour. “Looks like he don’t know what he’s doing. Has he gone crazy?”

“Might be that. Men do in this country a lot. We don’t know what a tough time he’s been through.”

“I’ll bet he’s bucked blizzards aplenty in the last two months. Notice one thing. West’s trailin’ after the guide like a lamb. He’s makin’ a sure-enough drunk track. See how the point of his shoe caught the snow there an’ flung him down. The Cree stopped the sled right away so West could get up. Why did he do that? And why don’t West ever stray a foot outa the path that’s broke? That’s not like him. He’s always boss o’ the outfit–always leadin’.”

Beresford was puzzled, too. “I don’t get the situation. It’s been pretty nearly a thousand miles that we’ve been following this trail–eight hundred, anyhow. All the way Bully West has stamped his big foot on it as boss. Now he takes second place. The reason’s beyond me.”

His friend’s mind jumped at a conclusion. “I reckon I know why he’s followin’ the straight and narrow path. The guide’s got a line round his waist and West’s tied to it.”

“Why?”

The sun’s rays, reflected from the snow in a blinding, brilliant glare, smote Morse full in the eyes. For days the white fields had been very trying to the sight. There had been moments when black spots had flickered before him, when red-hot sand had been flung against his eyeballs if he could judge by the burning sensation.

He knew now, in a flash, what was wrong with West.

To Beresford he told it in two words.

The constable slapped his thigh. “Of course. That’s the answer.”

Night fell, the fugitives still not in sight. The country was so rough that they might be within a mile or two and yet not be seen.

“Better camp, I reckon,” Morse suggested.

“Yes. Here. We’ll come up with them to-morrow.”

They were treated that evening to an indescribably brilliant pyrotechnic display in the heavens. An aurora flashed across the sky such as neither of them had ever seen before. The vault was aglow with waves of red, violet, and purple that danced and whirled, with fickle, inconstant flashes of gold and green and yellow bars. A radiant incandescence of great power lit the arch and flooded it with light that poured through the cathedral windows of the Most High.

At daybreak they were up. Quickly they breakfasted and loaded. The trail they followed was before noon a rotten one, due to a sudden rise in the temperature, but it still bore south steadily.

They reached the camp where West and his guide had spent the night. Another chapter of the long story of the trail was written here. The sled and the guide had gone on south, but West had not been with them. His webs went wandering off at an angle, hesitant and uncertain. Sometimes they doubled across the track he had already made.

Beresford was breaking trail. His hand shot straight out. In the distance there was a tiny black speck in the waste of white. It moved.

Even yet the men who had come to bring the law into the Lone Lands did not relax their vigilance. They knew West’s crafty, cunning mind. This might be a ruse to trap them. When they left the sled and moved forward, it was with rules ready. The hunters stalked their prey as they would have done a musk ox. Slowly, noiselessly, they approached.

The figure was that of a huge man. He sat huddled in the snow, his back to them. Despair was in the droop of the head and the set of the bowed shoulders.

One of the dogs howled. The big torso straightened instantly. The shaggy head came up. Bully West was listening intently. He turned and looked straight at them, but he gave no sign of knowing they were there. The constable took a step and the hissing of the shoe-runner sounded.

“I’m watchin’ you, Stomak-o-sox,” the heavy voice of the convict growled. “Can’t fool me. I see every step you’re takin’.”

It was an empty boast, almost pathetic in its futility. Morse and Beresford moved closer, still without speech.

West broke into violent, impotent cursing. “You’re there, you damned wood Cree! Think I don’t know? Think I can’t see you? Well, I can. Plain as you can see me. You come here an’ get me, or I’ll skin you alive like I done last week. Hear me?”

The voice rose to a scream. It betrayed terror–the horrible deadly fear of being left alone to perish in the icy wastes of the North.

Beresford crept close and waved a hand in front of the big man’s eyes. West did not know it. He babbled vain and foolish threats at his guide.

The convict had gone blind–snow-blind, and Stomak-o-sox had left him alone to make a push for his own life while there was still time.

CHAPTER XXXV

SNOW-BLIND

West grinned up at the officer, his yellow canines showing like tusks. His matted face was an unlovely sight. In it stark, naked fear struggled with craftiness and cruelty.

“Good you came back–good for you. I ain’t blind. I been foolin’ you all along. Wanted, to try you out. Now we’ll mush. Straight for the big lake. North by west like we been going. Un’erstand, Stomak-o-sox? I’ll not beat yore head off this time, but if you ever try any monkey tricks with Bully West again–” He let the threat die out in a sound of grinding teeth.

Beresford spoke. His voice was gentle. Vile though this murderer was, there was something pitiable in his condition. One cannot see a Colossus of strength and energy stricken to helplessness without some sense of compassion.

“It’s not Stomak-o-sox. We’re two of the North-West Mounted. You’re under arrest for breaking prison and for killing Tim Kelly.”

The information stunned West. He stared up out of sightless eyes. So far as he had known, no member of the Mounted was within five hundred miles of him. Yet the law had stretched out its long arm to snatch him back from this Arctic waste after he had traveled nearly fifteen hundred miles. It was incredible that there could exist such a police force on earth.

“Got me, did you?” he growled. He added the boast that he could not keep back. “Well, you’d never ‘a’ got me if I hadn’t gone blind–never in this world. There ain’t any two of yore damned spies could land Bully West when he’s at himself.”

“Had breakfast?”

He broke into a string of curses. “No, our grub’s runnin’ low. That wood Cree slipped away with all we had. Wish I’d killed him last week when I skinned him with the dog-whip.”

“How long have you been blind?”

“It’s been comin’ on two-three days. This damned burnin’ glare from the snow. Yesterday they give out completely. I tied myself by a line to the Injun. Knew I couldn’t trust him. After all I done for him too.”

“Did you know he was traveling south with you–had been since yesterday afternoon?”

“No, was he?” Again West fell into his natural speech of invective. “When I meet up with him, I’ll sure enough fill him full o’ slugs,” he concluded savagely.

“You’re not likely to meet him again. We’ve come to take you back to prison.”

Morse brought the train up and the hungry man was fed. They treated his eyes with the simple remedies the North knows and bound them with a handkerchief to keep out the fierce light reflected from the snow.

Afterward, they attached him by a line to the driver. He stumbled along behind. Sometimes he caught his foot or slipped and plunged down into the snow. Nobody had ever called him a patient man. Whenever any mishap occurred, he polluted the air with his vile speech.

They made slow progress, for the pace had to be regulated to suit the prisoner.

Day succeeded day, each with its routine much the same as the one before. They made breakfast, broke camp, packed, and mushed. The swish of the runners sounded from morning till night fell. Food began to run scarce. Once they left the blind man at the camp while they hunted wood buffalo. It was a long, hard business. They came back empty-handed after a two-day chase, but less than a mile from camp they sighted a half-grown polar bear and dropped it before the animal had a chance to move.

One happy hour they got through the Land of Little Sticks and struck the forests again.

They had a blazing fire again for the first time in six weeks. Brush and sticks and logs went into it till it roared furiously.

Morse turned from replenishing it to notice that West had removed the bandage from his eyes.

“Better keep it on,” the young man advised.

“I was changin’ it. Too tight. Gives me a headache,” the convict answered sulkily.

“Can you see anything at all yet?”

“Not a thing. Looks to me like I never would.”

Tom turned his head for him, so that he faced the blaze squarely. “No light at all?”

“Nope. Don’t reckon I ever will see.”

“Maybe you will. I’ve known’ cases of snow-blindness where they couldn’t see for a month an’ came out all right.”

“Hurts like blazes,” growled the big fellow.

“I know. But not as bad as it did, does it? That salve has helped some.”

The two young fellows took care of the man as though he had been a brother. They bathed his eyes, fed him, guided him, encouraged him. He was a bad lot–the worst that either of them had known. But he was in trouble and filled with self-pity. Never ill before, a giant of strength and energy, his condition now apparently filled him with despair.

He would sit hunched down before the fire, head bowed in his hands, a mountain of dole and woe. Sometimes he talked, and he blamed every one but himself for his condition. He never had had a square deal. Every one was against him. It was a rotten world. Then he would fall to cursing God and man.

In some ways he was less trouble than if he had been able to see. He was helpless and had to trust to them. His safety depended on their safety. He could not strike at them without injuring himself. No matter how much he cringed at the thought of being dragged back to punishment, he shrank still more from the prospect of death in the snow wastes. The situation galled him. Every decent word he gave them came grudgingly, and he still snarled and complained and occasionally bullied as though he had the whip hand.

“A nice specimen of _ursus horribilis_,” Beresford murmured to his companion one day. “Thought he was game, anyhow, but he’s a yellow quitter. Acts as though we were to blame for his blindness and for what’s waiting for him at the end of the journey. I like a man to stand the gaff when it’s prodding him.”

Morse nodded. “Look out for him. I’ve got a notion in the back o’ my head that he’s beginning to see again. He’d kill us in a holy minute if he dared. Only his blindness keeps him from it. What do you say? Shall we handcuff him nights?”

“Not necessary,” the constable said. “He can’t see a thing. Watch him groping for that stick.”

“All his brains run to cunning. Don’t forget that. Why should he have to feel so long for that stick? He laid it down himself a minute ago. Tryin’ to slip one over on us maybe.”

The Canadian looked at the lean, brown face of his friend and grinned. “I’ve a notion our imaginations too are getting a bit jumpy. We’ve had one bully time on this trip–with the reverse English. It’s all in the day’s work to buck blizzards and starve and freeze, though I wouldn’t be surprised if our systems were pretty well fed up with grief before we caught Mr. Bully West. Since then–well, you couldn’t call him a cheerful traveling companion, could you? A dozen times a day I want to rip loose and tell him how much I don’t think of him.”

“Still–“

“We’ll keep an eye on him. If necessary, it’ll be the bracelets for him. I’d hate to have the Inspector send in a report to headquarters, ‘Constable Beresford missing in the line of duty.’ I’ve a prejudice against being shot in the back.”

“That’s one of the reasons I’m here–to see you’re not if I can help it.”

Beresford’s boyish face lit up. He understood what his friend meant. “Say, Faraway isn’t New York or London or even Toronto. But how’d you like to be sitting down to one of Jessie McRae’s suppers? A bit of broiled venison done to a juicy turn, potatoes, turnips, hot biscuits spread with raspberry jam. By jove, it makes the mouth water.”

“And a slice of plum puddin’ to top off with,” suggested Morse, bringing his own memory into play. “Don’t ask me how I’d like it. That’s a justifiable excuse for murder. Get busy on that rubaboo. Our guest’s howlin’ for his dinner.”

The faint suspicions of Morse made the officers more wary. They watched their prisoner a little closer. Neither of them quite believed that he was recovering his sight. It was merely a possibility to be guarded against.

But the guess of Morse had been true. It had been a week since flashes of light had first come to West faintly. He began to distinguish objects in a hazy way. Every day he could see better. Now he could tell Morse from Beresford, one dog from another. Give him a few more days and he would have as good vision as before he had gone blind.

All this he hid cunningly, as a miser does his gold. For his warped, cruel brain was planning death to these two men. After that, another plunge into the North for life and freedom.

CHAPTER XXXVI

THE WILD BEAST LEAPS

Tom Morse was chopping wood. He knew how to handle an axe. His strokes fell sure and strong, with the full circling sweep of the expert.

The young tree crashed down and he began to lop off its branches. Halfway up the trunk he stopped and raised his head to listen.

No sound had come to him. None came now. But dear as a bell he heard the voice of Win Beresford calling.

“_Help! Help!_”

It was not a cry that had issued from his friend’s throat. Tom knew that. But it was real. It had sprung out of his dire need from the heart, perhaps in the one instant of time left him, and it had leaped silently across space straight to the heart of his friend.

Tom kicked into his snowshoes and began to run. He held the axe in his hand, gripped near the haft. A couple of hundred yards, perhaps, lay between him and camp, which was just over the brow of a small hill. The bushes flew past as he swung to his stride. Never had he skimmed the crust faster, but his feet seemed to be weighted with lead. Then, as he topped the rise, he saw the disaster he had dreaded.

The constable was crumpling to the ground, his body slack and inert, while the giant slashed at him with a dub of firewood he had snatched from the ground. The upraised arm of the soldier broke the force of the blow, but Morse guessed by the way the arm fell that the bone had snapped.

At the sound of the scraping runners, West whirled. He lunged savagely. Even as Tom ducked, a sharp pain shot through his leg from the force of the glancing blow. The axe-head swung like a circle of steel. It struck the convict’s fur cap. The fellow went down like an ox in a slaughter-house.

Tom took one look at him and ran to his friend. Beresford was a sorry sight. He lay unconscious, head and face battered, the blood from his wounds staining the snow.

The man-hunters had come into the wilderness prepared for emergencies. Jessie McRae had prepared a small medicine case as a present for the constable. Morse ran to the sled and found this. He unrolled bandages and after he had washed the wounds bound them. As he was about to examine the arm, he glanced up.

For a fraction of a second West’s wolfish eyes glared at him before they took on again the stare of blindness. The man had moved. He had hitched himself several yards nearer a rifle which stood propped against a balsam.

The revolver of the deputy constable came to light. “Stop right where you’re at. Don’t take another step.”

The convict snarled rage, but he did not move. Some sure instinct warned him what the cold light in the eyes of his captor meant, that if he crept one inch farther toward the weapon he would die in his tracks.

“He–he jumped me,” the murderer said hoarsely.

“Liar! You’ve been shammin’ for a week to get a chance at us. I’d like to gun you now and be done with it.”

“Don’t.” West moistened dry lips. “Honest to God he jumped me. Got mad at somethin’ I said. I wouldn’t lie to you, Tom.”

Morse kept him covered, circled round him to the rifle, and from there to the sled. One eye still on the desperado, he searched for the steel handcuffs. They were gone. He knew instantly that some time within the past day or two West had got a chance to drop them in the snow.

He found rawhide thongs.

“Lie in the snow, face down,” he ordered. “Hands behind you and crossed at the wrists.”

Presently the prisoner was securely tied. Morse fastened him to the sled and returned to Beresford.

The arm was broken above the wrist, just as he had feared. He set it as best he could, binding it with splints.

The young officer groaned and opened his eyes. He made a motion to rise.

“Don’t get up,” said Morse. “You’ve been hurt.”

“Hurt?” Beresford’s puzzled gaze wandered to the prisoner. A flash of understanding lit it. “He asked me–to light–his pipe–and when I–turned–he hit–me–with a club,” the battered man whispered.

“About how I figured it.”

“Afraid–I’m–done–in.”

“Not yet, old pal. We’ll make a fight for it,” the Montanan answered.

“I’m sick.” The soldier’s head sank down. His eyes closed.

All the splendid, lithe strength of his athletic youth had been beaten out of him. To Morse it looked as though he were done for. Was it possible for one to take such a terrific mauling and not succumb? If he were at a hospital, under the care of expert surgeons and nurses, with proper food and attention, he might have a chance in a hundred. But in this Arctic waste, many hundred miles from the nearest doctor, no food but the coarsest to eat, it would be a miracle if he survived.

The bitter night was drawing in. Morse drove West in front of him to bring back the wood he had been cutting. He made the man prepare the rubaboo for their supper. After the convict had eaten, he bound his hands again and let him lie down in his blankets beside the fire.

Morse did not sleep. He sat beside his friend and watched the fever mount in him till he was wildly delirious. Such nursing as was possible he gave.

The prisoner, like a chained wild beast, glowered at him hungrily. Tom knew that if West found a chance to kill, he would strike. No scruple would deter him. The fellow was without conscience, driven by the fear of the fate that drew nearer with every step southward. His safety and the desire of revenge marched together. Beresford was out of the way. It would be his companion’s turn next.

After a time the great hulk of a man fell asleep and snored stertorously. But Tom did not sleep. He dared not. He had to keep vigilant guard to save both his friend’s life and his own. For though West’s hands were tied, it would be the work of only a minute to burn away with a live coal the thongs that bound them.

The night wore away. There was no question of travel. Beresford was in the grip of a raging fever and could not be moved. Morse made West chop wood while he stood over him, rifle in hand. They were short of food and had expected to go hunting next day. The supplies might last at best six or seven more meals. What was to be done then? Morse could not go and leave West where he could get at the man who had put him in prison and with a dog-train to carry him north. Nor could he let West have a rifle with which to go in search of game.

There were other problems that made the situation impossible. Another night was at hand, and again Tom must keep awake to save himself and his friend from the gorilla-man who watched him, gloated over him, waited for the moment to come when he could safely strike. And after that there would be other nights–many of them.

What should he do? What could he do? While he sat beside the delirious officer, Tom pondered that question. On the other side of the fire lay the prisoner. Triumph–a horrible, cruel, menacing triumph–rode in his eye and strutted in his straddling walk when he got up. His hour was coming. It was coming fast.

Once Tom fell asleep for a cat-nap. He caught himself nodding, and with a jerk flung back his head and himself to wakefulness. In the air was a burning odor.

Instinct told him what it was. West had been tampering with the rawhide thongs round his wrists, had been trying to burn them away.

He made sure that the fellow was still fast, then drank a tin cup of strong tea. After he had fed the sick man a little caribou broth, persuading him with infinite patience to take it, a spoonful at a time, Morse sat down again to wear out the hours of darkness.

The problem that pressed on him could no longer be evaded. A stark decision lay before him. To postpone it was to choose one of the alternatives. He knew now, almost beyond any possibility of doubt, that either West must die or else he and his friend. If he had not snatched himself awake so promptly an hour ago, Win and he would already be dead men. It might be that the constable was going to die, anyhow, but he had a right to his chance of life.

On the other hand there was one rigid rule of the North-West Mounted. The Force prided itself on living up to it literally. When a man was sent out to get a prisoner, _he brought him in alive_. It was a tradition. The Mounted did not choose the easy way of killing lawbreakers because of the difficulty of capturing them. They walked through danger, usually with aplomb, got their man, and brought him in.

That was what Beresford had done with Pierre Poulette after the Frenchman had killed Buckskin Jerry. He had followed the man for months, captured him, lived with him alone for a fourth of a year in the deep snows, and brought him back to punishment. It was easy enough to plead that this situation was a wholly different one. Pierre Poulette was no such dangerous wild beast as Bully West. Win did not have with him a companion wounded almost to death who had to be nursed back to health, one struck down by the prisoner treacherously. There was just a fighting chance for the officers to get back to Desolation if West was eliminated from the equation. Tom knew he would have a man’s work cut out for him to win through–without the handicap of the prisoner.

Deep in his heart he believed that it was West’s life or theirs. It wasn’t humanly possible, in addition to all the other difficulties that pressed on him, to guard this murderer and bring him back for punishment. There was no alternative, it seemed to Tom. Thinking could not change the conditions. It might be sooner, it might be later, but under existing circumstances the desperado would find his chance to attack, _if he were alive to take it_.

The fellow’s life was forfeit. As soon as he was turned over to the State, it would be exacted of him. Since his assault on Beresford, surely he had lost all claim to consideration as a human being.

Just now there were only three men in the world so far as they were concerned. These three constituted society. Beresford, his mind still wandering with incoherent mutterings, was a non-voting member. He, Tom Morse, must be judge and jury. He must, if the prisoner were convicted, play a much more horrible role. In the silence of the cold sub-Arctic night he fought the battle out while automatically he waited on his friend.

West snored on the other side of the fire.

CHAPTER XXXVII

NEAR THE END OF A LONG CROOKED TRAIL

When West awoke, Morse was whittling on a piece of wood with his sharp hunting-knife. It was a flat section from a spruce, and it had been trimmed with an axe till it resembled a shake in shape.

The outlaw’s curiosity overcame his sullenness at last. It made him jumpy, anyhow, to sit there in silence except for the muttering of the sick man.

“Whajamakin’?” he demanded.

Morse said nothing. He smoothed the board to his satisfaction, then began lettering on it with a pencil.

“I said whajadoin’,” growled West, after another silence.

The special constable looked at him, and in the young man’s eyes there was something that made the murderer shiver.

“I’m making a tombstone.”

“What?” West felt a drench of ice at his heart.

“A marker for a grave.”

“For–for him? Maybe he won’t die. Looks better to me. Fever ain’t so high.”

“It’s not for him.”

West moistened his dry lips with his tongue. “You will have yore li’l joke, eh? Who’s it for?”

“For you.”

“For me?” The man’s fear burst from him in a shriek. “Whajamean for me?”

From the lettering Morse read aloud. “‘Bully West, Executed, Some Time late in March, 1875.'” And beneath it, “‘May God Have Mercy on His Soul.'”

Tiny beads of sweat gathered on the convict’s clammy forehead. “You aimin’ to–to murder me?” he asked hoarsely.

“To execute you.”

“With–without a trial? My God, you can’t do that! I got a right to a trial.”

“You’ve been tried–and condemned. I settled all that in the night.”

“But–it ain’t legal. Goddlemighty, you got no _right_ to act thataway. All you can do is to take me back to the courts.” The heavy voice broke again to a scream.

Morse slipped the hunting-knife back into its case. He looked steadily at the prisoner. In his eyes there was no anger, no hatred. But back of the sadness in them was an implacable resolution.

“Courts and the law are a thousand miles away,” he said. “You know your crimes. You murdered Tim Kelly treacherously. You planned to spoil an innocent girl’s life by driving her to worse than death. You shot your partner in the back after he did his best to help you escape. You tortured Onistah and would have killed him if we hadn’t come in time. You assaulted my friend here and he’ll probably die from his wounds. It’s the end of the long trail for you, Bully West. Inside of half an hour you will be dead. If you’ve anything to say–if you can make your peace with heaven–don’t waste a moment.”

The face of West went gray. He stared at the other man, the horror-filled eyes held fascinated. “You–you’re tryin’ to scare me,” he faltered. “You wouldn’t do that. You couldn’t. It ain’t allowed by the Commissioner.” One of the bound arms twitched involuntarily. The convict knew that he was lost. He had a horrible conviction that this man meant to do as he had said.

The face of Morse was inexorable as fate itself, but inside he was a river of rushing sympathy. This man was bad. He himself had forced the circumstances that made it impossible to let him live. None the less Tom felt like a murderer. The thing he had to do was so horribly cold-blooded. If this had been a matter between the two of them, he could at least have given the fellow a chance for his life. But not now–not with Win Beresford in the condition he was. If he were going to save his friend, he could not take the chances of a duel.

“Ten minutes now,” Morse said. His voice was hoarse and low. He felt his nerves twitching, a tense aching in the throat.

“I always liked you fine, Tom,” the convict pleaded desperately. “Me ‘n’ you was always good pals. You wouldn’t do me dirt thataway now. If you knew the right o’ things–how that Kelly kep’ a-devilin’ me, how Whaley was layin’ to gun me when he got a chanct, how I stood up for the McRae girl an’ protected her against him. Goddlemighty, man, you ain’t aimin’ to kill me like a wolf!” The shriek of uncontrollable terror lifted into his voice once more. “I ain’t ready to die. Gimme a chance, Tom. I’ll change my ways. I swear I will. I’ll do like you say every minute. I’ll nurse Beresford. Me, I’m a fine nurse. If you’ll gimme a week–jus’ one more week. That ain’t much to ask. So’s I can git ready.”

The man slipped to his knees and began to crawl toward Morse. The young man got up, his teeth set. He could not stand much of this sort of thing without collapsing himself.

“Get up,” he said. “We’re going over the hill there.”

“No–no–no!”

It took Morse five minutes to get the condemned man to his feet. The fellow’s face was ashen. His knees shook.

Tom was in almost as bad a condition himself.

Beresford’s high voice cut in. In his delirium he was perhaps living over again his experience with Pierre Poulette.

“Maintiens le droit. Get your man and bring him in. Tough sledding. Never mind. Go through, old fellow. Bring him in. That’s what you’re sent for. Hogtie him. Drag him with a rope around his neck. Get him back somehow.”

The words struck Tom motionless. It was as though some voice were speaking to him through the sick man’s lips. He waited.

“Righto, sir,” the soldier droned on. “See what I can do, sir. Have a try at it, anyhow.” And again he murmured the motto of the Mounted Police.

Tom had excused himself for what he thought it was his duty to do on the ground that it was not humanly possible to save his friend and bring West back. It came to him in a flash that the Mounted Police were becoming so potent a power for law and order because they never asked whether the job assigned them was possible. They went ahead and did it or died trying to do it. It did not matter primarily whether Beresford and he got back alive or not. If West murdered them, other red-coats would take the trail and get him.

What he, Tom Morse, had to do was to carry on. He could not choose the easy way, even though it was a desperately hard one for him. He could not make himself a judge over this murderer, with power of life and death. The thing that had been given him to do was to bring West to Faraway. He had no choice in the matter. Win or lose, he had to play the hand out as it was dealt him.

CHAPTER XXXVIII

OVER A ROTTING TRAIL

Tom believed that Beresford’s delirious words had condemned them both to death. He could not nurse his friend, watch West night and day, keep the camp supplied with food, and cover the hundreds of miles of bleak snow fields which stretched between them and the nearest settlement. He did not think that any one man lived who was capable of succeeding in such a task.

Yet his first feeling was of immediate relief. The horrible duty that had seemed to be laid upon him was not a duty at all. He saw his course quite simply. All he had to do was to achieve the impossible. If he failed in it, he would go down like a soldier in the day’s work. He would have, anyhow, no torturings of conscience, no blight resting upon him till the day of his death.

“You’re reprieved, West,” he announced simply.

The desperado staggered to the sled and leaned against it faintly. His huge body swayed. The revulsion was almost too much for him.

“I–I–knowed you couldn’t treat an old pardner thataway, Tom,” he murmured.

Morse took the man out to a fir tree. He carried with him a blanket, a buffalo robe, and a part of the dog harness.

“Whad you aimin’ to do?” asked West uneasily. He was not sure yet that he was out of the woods.

“Roll up in the blankets,” ordered Morse.

The fellow looked at his grim face and did as he was told. Tom tied him to the tree, after making sure that his hands were fast behind him.

“I’ll freeze here,” the convict complained.

The two officers were lean and gaunt from hard work and insufficient nourishment, but West was still sleek and well padded with flesh. He had not missed a meal, and during the past weeks he had been a passenger. All the hard work, the packing at portages, the making of camp, the long, wearing days of hunting, had fallen upon the two whose prisoner he was. He could stand a bit of hardship, Tom decided.

“No such luck,” he said brusquely. “And I wouldn’t try to break away if I were you. I can’t kill you, but I’ll thrash you with the dog-whip if you make me any trouble.”

Morse called Cuffy and set the dog to watch the bound man. He did not know whether the St. Bernard would do this, but he was glad to see that the leader of the train understood at once and settled down in the snow to sleep with one eye watchful of West.

Tom returned to his friend. He knew he must concentrate his efforts to keep life in the battered body of the soldier. He must nurse and feed him judiciously until the fever wore itself out.

While he was feeding Win broth, he fell asleep with the spoon in his hand. He jerkily flung back his head and opened his eyes. Cuffy still lay close to the prisoner, evidently prepared for an all-night vigil with short light naps from which the least movement would instantly arouse him.

“I’m all in. Got to get some sleep,” Morse said to himself, half aloud.

He wrapped in his blankets. When his eyes opened, the sun was beating down from high in the heavens. He had slept from one day into the next. Even in his sleep he had been conscious of some sound drumming at his ears. It was the voice of West.

“You gonna sleep all day? Don’t we get any grub? Have I gotta starve while you pound yore ear?”

Hurriedly Tom flung aside his wraps. He leaped to his feet, a new man, his confidence and vitality all restored.

The fire had died to ashes. He could hear the yelping of the dogs in the distance. They were on a private rabbit hunt of their own, all of them but Cuffy. The St. Bernard still lay in the snow watching West.

Beresford’s delirium was gone and his fever was less. He was very weak, but Tom thought he saw a ghost of the old boyish grin flicker indomitably into his eyes. As Tom looked at the swathed and bandaged head, for the first time since the murderous attack he allowed himself to hope. The never-say-die spirit of the man and the splendid constitution built up by a clean outdoor life might pull him through yet.

“West was afraid you never were going to wake up, Tom. It worried him. You know how fond of you he is,” the constable said weakly.

Morse was penitent. “Why didn’t you wake me, Win? You must be dying of thirst.”

“I could do with a drink,” he admitted. “But you needed that sleep. Every minute of it.”

Tom built up the fire and thawed snow. He gave Beresford a drink and then fed more of the broth to him. He made breakfast for the prisoner and himself.

Afterward, he took stock of their larder. It was almost empty. “Enough flour and pemmican for another mess of rubaboo. Got to restock right away or our stomachs will be flat as a buffalo bull’s after a long stampede.”

He spoke cheerfully, yet he and Beresford both knew a hunt for game might be unsuccessful. Rabbits would not do. He had to provide enough to feed the dogs as well as themselves. If he did not get a moose, a bear, or caribou, they would face starvation.

Tom redressed the wounds of the trooper and examined the splints on the arm to make sure they had not become disarranged during the night in the delirium of the sick man.

“Got to leave you, Win. Maybe for a day or more. I’ll have plenty of wood piled handy for the fire–and broth all ready to heat. Think you can make out?”

The prospect could not have been an inviting one for the wounded man, but he nodded quite as a matter of course.

“I’ll be all right. Take your time. Don’t spoil your hunt worrying about me.”

Yet it was with extreme reluctance Tom had made up his mind to go. He would take the dog-train with him–and West, unarmed, of course. He had to take him on Beresford’s account, because he dared not leave him. But as he looked at his friend, all the supple strength stricken out of him, weak and helpless as a sick child, he felt a queer tug at the heart. What assurance had he that he would find him still alive on his return?

Beresford knew what he was thinking. He smiled, the gentle, affectionate smile of the very ill. “It’s all right, old fellow. Got to buck up and carry on, you know. Look out–for West. Don’t give him any show at you. Never trust him–not for a minute. Remember he’s–a wolf.” His weak hand gripped Tom’s in farewell.

The American turned away hurriedly, not to show the tears that unexpectedly brimmed his lids. Though he wore the hard surface of the frontier, his was a sensitive soul. He was very fond of this gay, gallant youth who went out to meet adventure as though it were a lover with whom he had an appointment. They had gone through hell together, and the fires of the furnace had proved the Canadian true gold. After all, Tom was himself scarcely more than a boy in years. He cherished, deep hidden in him, the dreams and illusions that long contact with the world is likely to dispel. At New Haven and Cambridge lads of his age were larking beneath the elms and playing childish pranks on each other.

West drove the team. Tom either broke trail or followed. He came across plenty of tracks, but most of them were old ones. He recognized the spoor of deer, bear, and innumerable rabbits. Toward noon fresh caribou tracks crossed their path. The slot pointed south. Over a soft and rotting trail Morse swung round in pursuit.

They made heavy going of it. He had to break trail through slushy snow. His shoes broke through the crust and clogged with the sludgy stuff so that his feet were greatly weighted. Fatigue pressed like a load on his shoulders. The dogs and West wallowed behind.

By night probably the trail would be much better, but they dared not wait till then. The caribou would not stop to suit the convenience of the hunters. This might be the last shot in the locker. Every dragging lift of the webs carried Morse farther from camp, but food had to be found and in quantity.

It was close to dusk when Tom guessed they were getting near the herd. He tied the train to a tree and pushed on with West. Just before nightfall he sighted the herd grazing on muskeg moss. There were about a dozen in all. The wind was fortunately right.

Tom motioned to West not to follow him. On hands and knees the hunter crept forward, taking advantage of such cover as he could find. It was a slow, cold business, but he was not here for pleasure. A mistake might mean the difference between life and death for him and Win Beresford.

For a stalker to determine the precise moment when to shoot is usually a nice decision. Perhaps he can gain another dozen yards on his prey. On the other hand, by moving closer he may startle them and lose his chance. With so much at stake Tom felt for the second time in his life the palsy that goes with buck fever.

A buck flung up his head and sniffed toward the hidden danger. Tom knew the sign of startled doubt. Instantly his trembling ceased. He aimed carefully and fired. The deer dropped in its tracks. Again he fired–twice–three times. The last shot was a wild one, sent on a hundredth chance. The herd vanished in the gathering darkness.

Tom swung forward exultant, his webs swishing swiftly over the snow. He had dropped two. A second buck had fallen, risen, run fifty yards, and come to earth again. The hunter’s rifle was ready in case either of the caribou sprang up. He found the first one dead, the other badly wounded. At once he put the buck out of its pain.

West came slouching out of the woods at Tom’s signal. Directed by the officer, he made a fire and prepared for business. The stars were out as they dressed the meat and cooked a large steak on the coals. Afterward they hung the caribou from the limb of a spruce, drawing them high enough so that no prowling wolves could reach the game.

With the coming of night the temperature had fallen and the snow hardened. The crust held beneath their webs as they returned to the sled. West wanted to camp where the deer had been killed. He protested, with oaths, in his usual savage growl, that he was dead tired and could not travel another step.

But he did. Beneath the stars the hunters mushed twenty miles back to camp. They made much better progress by reason of the frozen trail and the good meal they had eaten.

It was daybreak when Morse sighted the camp-fire smoke. His heart leaped. Beresford must have been able to keep it alive with fuel. Therefore he had been alive an hour or two ago at most.

Dogs and men trudged into camp ready to drop with fatigue.

Beresford, from where he lay, waved a hand at Tom. “Any luck?” he asked.

“Two caribou.”

“Good. I’ll be ready for a steak to-morrow.”

Morse looked at him anxiously. The glaze had left his eyes. He was no longer burning up with fever. Both voice and movements seemed stronger than they had been twenty-four hours earlier.

“Bully for you, Win,” he answered.

CHAPTER XXXIX

A CREE RUNNER BRINGS NEWS

“Don’t you worry about that lad, Jessie. He’s got as many lives as a cat–and then some. I’ve knew him ever since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.”

Brad Stearns was talking. He sat in the big family room at the McRae house and puffed clouds of tobacco, smoke to the rafters.

“Meaning Mr. Beresford?” asked Jessie demurely. She was patching a pair of leather trousers for Fergus and she did not raise her eyes from the work.

“Meanin’ Tom Morse,” the old-timer said. “Not but what Beresford’s a good lad too. Sand in his craw an’ a kick like a mule in his fist. But he was brought up somewheres in the East, an’ o’ course he’s a leetle mite less tough than Tom. No, sir. Tom’ll bob up one o’ these here days good as ever. Don’t you worry none about that. Why, he ain’t been gone but–lemme see, a week or so better’n four months. When a man’s got to go to the North Pole an’ back, four months–“

Beneath her long lashes the girl slanted a swift look at Brad. “That makes twice you’ve told me in two minutes not to worry about Mr. Morse. Do I look peaked? Am I lying awake nights thinking about him, do you think?” She held up the renewed trousers and surveyed her handiwork critically.

Brad gazed at her through narrowed lids. “I’ll be doggoned if I know whether you are or you ain’t. I’d bet a pair o’ red-topped boots it’s one of them lads. ‘Course Beresford’s got a red coat an’ spurs that jingle an’ a fine line o’ talk. Tom he ain’t got ary one o’ the three. But if it’s a man you’re lookin’ for, a two-fisted man who–“

A wave of mirth crossed Jessie’s face like a ripple on still water. Her voice mimicked his. “Why do you want to saw off an old maid on that two-fisted man you’ve knew ever since he was knee-high to a grasshopper? What did he ever do to you that was so doggoned mean?”

“Now looky here, you can laugh at me all you’ve a mind to. All I’m sayin’ is–“

“Oh, I’m not laughing at you,” she interposed hurriedly with an assumption of anxiety her bubbling eyes belied. “If you could show me how to get your two-fisted man when he comes back–or even the one with the red coat and the spurs and the fine line of talk–“

“I ain’t sayin’ he ain’t a man from the ground up too,” Brad broke in. “Considerin’ his opportunities he’s a right hefty young fellow. But Tom Morse he–“

“That’s it exactly. Tom Morse he–“

“Keep right on makin’ fun o’ me. Tom Morse he’s a man outa ten thousand, an’ I don’t know as I’m coverin’ enough population at that.”

“And you’re willing to make a squaw-man of him. Oh, Mr. Stearns!”

He looked at her severely. “You got no license to talk thataway, Jessie McRae. You’re Angus McRae’s daughter an’ you been to Winnipeg to school. Anyways, after what Lemoine found out–“

“What did he find out? Pierre Roubideaux couldn’t tell him anything about the locket and the ring. Makoye-kin said he got it from his brother who was one of a party that massacred an American outfit of trappers headed for Peace River. He doesn’t know whether the picture of the woman in the locket was that of one of the women in the camp. All we’ve learned is that I look like a picture of a white woman found in a locket nearly twenty years ago. That doesn’t take us very far, does it?”

“Well, Stokimatis may know something. When Onistah comes back with her, we’ll get the facts straight.”

McRae came into the room. “News, lass,” he cried, and his voice rang. “A Cree runner’s just down frae Northern Lights. He says the lads were picked up by some trappers near Desolation. One o’ them’s been badly hurt, but he’s on the mend. Which yin I dinna ken. What wi’ starvation an’ blizzards an’ battles they’ve had a tough time. But the word is they’re doing fine noo.”

“West?” asked Brad. “Did they get him?”

“They got him. Dragged him back to Desolation with a rope round his neck. Hung on to him while they were slam-bangin’ through blizzards an’ runnin’ a race wi’ death to get back before they starved. Found him up i’ the Barrens somewhere, the story is. He’ll be hangit at the proper time an’ place. It’s in the Word. ‘They that take the sword shall perish with the sword.’ Matthew 26:52.”

Brad let out the exultant rebel yell he had learned years before in the Confederate army. “What’d I tell you about that boy? Ain’t I knowed him since he was a li’l’ bit of a tad? He’s a go-getter, Tom is. Y’betcha!”

Jessie’s heart was singing too, but she could not forbear a friendly gibe at him. “I suppose Win Beresford wasn’t there at all. He hadn’t a thing to do with it, had he?”

The old cowpuncher raised a protesting hand. “I ain’t said a word against him. Now have I, McRae? Nothin’ a-tall. All I done said was that I been tellin’ everybody Tom would sure enough bring back Bully West with him.”

The girl laughed. “You’re daffy about that boy you brought up by hand. I’ll not argue with you.”

“They’re both good lads,” the Scotchman summed up, and passed to his second bit of news. “Onistah and Stokimatis are in frae the Blackfoot country. They stoppit at the store, but they’ll be alang presently. I had a word wi’ Onistah. We’ll wait for him here.”

“Did he say what he’d found out?” Jessie cried.

“Only that he had brought back the truth. That’ll be the lad knockin’ at the door.”

Jessie opened, to let in Onistah and his mother. Stokimatis and the girl gravitated into each other’s arms, as is the way with women who are fond of each other. The Indian is stolid, but Jessie had the habit of impetuosity, of letting her feelings sweep her into demonstration. Even the native women she loved were not proof against it.

McRae questioned Stokimatis.

Without waste of words the mother of Onistah told the story she had traveled hundreds of miles to tell.

Sleeping Dawn was not the child of her sister. When the attack had been made on the white trappers bound for Peace River, the mother of a baby had slipped the infant under an iron kettle. After the massacre her sister had found the wailing little atom of humanity. The Indian woman had recently lost her own child. She hid the babe and afterward was permitted to adopt it. When a few months later she died of smallpox, Stokimatis had inherited the care of the little one. She had named it Sleeping Dawn. Later, when the famine year came, she had sold the child to Angus McRae.

That was all she knew. But it was enough for Jessie. She did not know who her parents had been. She never would know, beyond the fact that they were Americans and that her mother had been a beautiful girl whose eyes laughed and danced. But this knowledge made a tremendous difference to her. She belonged to the ruling race and not to the metis, just as much as Win Beresford and Tom Morse did.

She tried to hide her joy, was indeed ashamed of it. For any expression of it seemed like a reproach to Matapi-Koma and Onistah and Stokimatis, to her brother Fergus and in a sense even to her father. None the less her blood beat fast. What she had just found out meant that she could aspire to the civilization of the whites, that she had before her an outlook, was not to be hampered by the limitations imposed upon her by race.

The heart in the girl sang a song of sunshine dancing on grass, of meadowlarks flinging out their carefree notes of joy. Through it like a golden thread ran for a motif little melodies that had to do with a man who had staggered into Fort Desolation out of the frozen North, sick and starved and perhaps wounded, but still indomitably captain of his soul.

CHAPTER XL

“MALBROUCK S’EN VA-T-EN GUERRE”

Inspector MacLean was present in person when the two man-hunters of the North-West Mounted returned to Faraway. Their reception was in the nature of a pageant. Gayly dressed voyageurs and trappers, singing old river songs that had been handed down to them from their fathers, unharnessed the dogs and dragged the cariole into town. In it sat Beresford, still unfit for long and heavy mushing. Beside it slouched West, head down, hands tied behind his back, the eyes from the matted face sending sidling messages of hate at the capering crowd. At his heels moved Morse, grim and tireless, an unromantic figure of dominant efficiency.

Long before the worn travelers and their escort reached the village, Jessie could hear the gay lilt of the chantey that heralded their coming:

“Malbrouck s’en va-t-en guerre,
Mironton-ton-ton, mirontaine.”

The girl hummed it herself, heart athrob with excitement. She found herself joining in the cheer of welcome that rose joyously when the cavalcade drew into sight. In her cheeks fluttered eager flags of greeting. Tears brimmed the soft eyes, so that she could hardly distinguish Tom Morse and Win Beresford, the one lean and gaunt and grim, the other pale and hollow-eyed from illness, but scattering smiles of largesse. For her heart was crying, in a paraphrase of the great parable, “He was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Beresford caught sight of the Inspector’s face and chuckled like a schoolboy caught in mischief. This gay procession, with its half-breeds in tri-colored woolen coats, its gay-plumed voyageurs suggesting gallant troubadours of old in slashed belts and tassels, was not quite the sort of return to set Inspector MacLean cheering. Externally, at least, he was a piece of military machinery. A trooper did his work, and that ended it. In the North-West Mounted it was not necessary to make a gala day of it because a constable brought in his man. If he didn’t bring him in–well, that would be another and a sadder story for the officer who fell down on the assignment.

As soon as Beresford and Morse had disposed of their prisoner and shaken off their exuberant friends, they reported to the Inspector. He sat at a desk and listened dryly to their story. Not till they had finished did he make any comment.

“You’ll have a week’s furlough to recuperate, Constable Beresford. After that report to the Writing-on-Stone detachment for orders. Here’s a voucher for your pay, Special Constable Morse. I’ll say to you both that it was a difficult job well done.” He hesitated a moment, then proceeded to free his mind. “As for this Roman triumph business–victory procession with prisoners chained to your chariot wheels–quite unnecessary, I call it.”

Beresford explained, smilingly. “We really couldn’t help it, sir. They were bound to make a Roman holiday out of us whether we wanted to or not. You know how excitable the French are. Had to have their little frolic out of it.”

“Not the way the Mounted does business. You know that, Beresford. We don’t want any fuss and feathers–any fol-de-rol–this mironton-ton-ton stuff. Damn it, sir, you liked it. I could see you eat it up. D’you s’pose I haven’t eyes in my head?”

The veneer of sobriety Beresford imposed on his countenance refused to stay put.

MacLean fumed on. “Hmp! Malbrouck s’en va-t-en guerre, eh? Very pretty. Very romantic, no doubt. But damned sentimental tommyrot, just the same.”

“Yes, sir,” agreed the constable, barking into a cough just in time to cut off a laugh.

“Get out!” ordered the Inspector, and there was the glimmer of a friendly smile in his own eyes. “And I’ll expect you both to dine with me to-night. Six o’clock sharp. I’ll hear that wonderful story in more detail. And take care of yourself, Beresford. You don’t look strong yet. I’ll make that week two or three if necessary.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Hmp! Don’t thank me. Earned it, didn’t you? What are you hanging around for? Get out!”

Constable Beresford had his revenge. As he passed the window, Inspector MacLean heard him singing. The words that drifted to the commissioned office! were familiar.

“Malbrouck s’en va-t-en guerre,
Mironton-ton-ton, mirontaine.”

MacLean smiled at the irrepressible youngster. Like most people, he responded to the charm of Winthrop Beresford. He could forgive him a touch of debonair impudence if necessary.

It happened that his heart was just now very warm toward both these young fellows. They had come through hell and had upheld the best traditions of the Force. Between the lines of the story they had told he gathered that they had shaved the edge of disaster a dozen times. But they had stuck to their guns like soldiers. They had fought it out week after week, hanging to their man with bulldog pluck. And when at last they were found almost starving in camp, they were dividing their last rabbit with the fellow they were bringing out to be hanged.

The Inspector walked to the window and looked down the street after them. His lips moved, but no sound came from them. The rhythmic motion of them might have suggested, if there had been anybody present to observe, that his mind was running on the old river song.

“Malbrouck s’en va-t-en guerre,
Mironton-ton-ton, mirontaine.”

CHAPTER XLI

SENSE AND NONSENSE

Beresford speaking, to an audience of one, who listened with soft dark eyes aglow and sparkling.

“He’s the best scout ever came over the border, Jessie. Trusty as steel, stands the gaff without whining, backs his friends to the limit, and plays the game out till the last card’s dealt and the last trick lost. Tom Morse is a man in fifty thousand.”

“I know another,” she murmured. “Every word you’ve said is true for him too.”

“He’s a wonder, that other.” admitted the soldier dryly. “But we’re talking about Tom now. I tell you that iron man dragged West and me out of the Barrens by the scruff of our necks. Wouldn’t give up. Wouldn’t quit. The yellow in West came out half a dozen times. When the ten-day blizzard caught us, he lay down and yelped like a cur. I wouldn’t have given a plugged six-pence for our chances. But Tom went out into it, during a little lull, and brought back with him a timber wolf. How he found it, how he killed it, Heaven alone knows. He was coated with ice from head to foot. That wolf kept us and the dogs alive for a week. Each day, when the howling of the blizzard died down a bit, Tom made West go down with him to the creek and get wood. It must have been a terrible hour. They’d come back so done up, so frozen, they could hardly stagger in with their jags of pine for the fire. I never heard the man complain–not once. He stood up to it the way Tom Sayers used to.”

The girl felt a warm current of life prickling swiftly through her. “I love to hear you talk so generously of him.”

“Of my rival?” he said, smiling. “How else can I talk? The scoundrel has been heaping on me those coals of fire we read about. I haven’t told you half of it–how he nursed me like a woman and looked after me so that I wouldn’t take cold, how he used to tuck me up in the sled with a hot stone at my feet and make short days’ runs in order not to wear out my strength. By Jove, it was a deucedly unfair advantage he took of me.”

“Is he your rival?” she asked.

“Isn’t he?”

“In business?”

“How demure Miss McRae is,” he commented. “Observe those long eyelashes flutter down to the soft cheeks.”

“In what book did you read that?” she wanted to know.

“In that book of suffering known as experience,” he sighed, eyes dancing.

“If you’re trying to tell me that you’re in love with some girl–“

“Haven’t I been trying to tell you for a year?”

Her eyes flashed a challenge at him. “Take care, sir. First thing you know you’ll be on thin ice. You might break through.”

“And if I did–“

“Of course I’d snap you up before you could bat an eye. Is there a girl living that wouldn’t? And I’m almost an old maid. Don’t forget that. I’m to gather rosebuds while I may, because time’s flying so fast, some poet says.”

“Time stands still for you, my dear,” he bowed, with a gay imitation of the grand manner.

“Thank you.” Her smile mocked him. She had flirted a good deal with this young man and understood him very well. He had no intention whatever of giving up the gay hazards of life for any adventure so enduring as matrimony. Moreover, he knew she knew it. “But let’s stick to the subject. While you’re proposing–“

“How you help a fellow along!” he laughed. “Am I proposing?”

“Of course you are. But I haven’t found out yet whether it’s for yourself or Mr. Morse.”

“A good suggestion–novel, too. For us both, let’s say. You take your choice.” He flung out a hand in a gay debonair gesture.

“You’ve told his merits, but I don’t think I ever heard yours mentioned,” she countered. “If you’d recite them, please.”

“It’s a subject I can do only slight justice.” He bowed again. “Sergeant Beresford, at your service, of the North-West Mounted.”

“Sergeant! Since when?”

“Since yesterday. Promoted for meritorious conduct in the line of duty. My pay is increased to one dollar and a quarter a day. In case happily your choice falls on me, don’t squander it on silks and satins, on trips to Paris and London–“

“If I choose you, it won’t be for your wealth,” she assured him.

“Reassured, fair lady. I proceed with the inventory of Sergeant Beresford’s equipment as a future husband. Fond, but, alas! fickle. A family black sheep, or if not black, at least striped. Likely not to plague you long, if he’s sent on many more jobs like the last. Said to be good-tempered, but not docile. Kind, as men go, but a ne’er-do-well, a prodigal, a waster. Something whispers in my ear that he’ll make a better friend than a husband.”

“A twin fairy is whispering the same in my ear,” the girl nodded. “At least a better friend to Jessie McRae. But I think he has a poor advocate in you. The description is not a flattering one. I don’t even recognize the portrait.”

“But Tom Morse–“

“Exactly, Tom Morse. Haven’t you rather taken the poor fellow for granted?” She felt an unexpected blush burn into her cheek. It stained the soft flesh to her throat. For she was discovering that the nonsense begun so lightly was embarrassing. She did not want to talk about the feelings of Tom Morse toward her. “It’s all very well to joke, but–“

“Shall I ask him?” he teased.

She flew into a mild near-panic. “If you dare, Win Beresford!” The flash in her eyes was no longer mirth. “We’ll talk about something else. I don’t think it’s very nice of us to–to–“

“Tom retired from conversational circulation,” he announced. “Shall we talk of cats or kings?”

“Tell me your plans, now you’ve been promoted.”

“Plans? Better men make ’em. I touch my hat, say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and help work ’em out. Coming back to Tom for a minute, have you heard that the Colonel has written him a letter of thanks for the distinguished service rendered by him to the Mounted and suggesting that a permanent place of importance can be found for him on the Force if he’ll take it?”

“No. Did he? Isn’t that just fine?” The soft glow had danced into her eyes again. “He won’t take it, will he?”

“What do you think?” His eyes challenged hers coolly. He was willing, if he could, to discover whether Jessie was in love with his friend.

“Oh, I don’t think he should,” she said quickly. “He has a good business. It’s getting better all the time. He’s a coming man. And of course he’d get hard jobs in the Mounted, the way you do.”

“That’s a compliment, if it’s true,” he grinned.

“I dare say, but that doesn’t make it any safer.”

“They couldn’t give him a harder one than you did when you sent him into the Barrens to bring back West.” His eyes, touched with humor and yet disconcertingly intent on information, were fixed steadily on hers.

The girl’s cheeks flew color signals. “Why do you say that? I didn’t ask him to go. He volunteered.”

“Wasn’t it because you wanted him to?”

“I should think you’d be the last man to say that,” she protested indignantly. “He was your friend, and he didn’t want you to run so great a risk alone.”

“Then you didn’t want him to go?”

“If I did, it was for you. Maybe he blames me for it, but I don’t see how _you_ can. You’ve just finished telling me he saved your life a dozen times.”

“Did I say I was blaming you?” His warm, affectionate smile begged pardon if he had given offense. “I was just trying to get it straight. You wanted him to go that time, but you wouldn’t want him to go again. Is that it?”

“I wouldn’t want either of you to go again. What are you driving at, Win Beresford?”

“Oh, nothing!” He laughed. “But if you think Tom’s too good to waste on the Mounted, you’d better tell him so while there’s still time. He’ll make up his mind within a day or two.”

“I don’t see him. He never comes here.”

“I wonder why.”

Jessie sometimes wondered why herself.

CHAPTER XLII

THE IMPERATIVE URGE

The reason why Tom did not go to see Jessie was that he longed to do so in every fiber of his being. His mind was never freed for a moment from the routine of the day’s work that it did not automatically turn toward her. If he saw a woman coming down the street with the free light step only one person in Faraway possessed, his heart would begin to beat faster. In short, he suffered that torment known as being in love.

He dared not go to see her for fear she might discover it. She was the sweetheart of his friend. It was as natural as the light of day that she turn to Win Beresford with the gift of her love. Nobody like him had ever come into her life. His gay courage, his debonair grace, the good manners of that outer world such a girl must crave, the affectionate touch of friendliness in his smile: how could any woman on this forsaken edge of the Arctic resist them?

She could not, of course, let alone one so full of the passionate longing for life as Jessie McRae.

If Tom could have looked on her unmoved, if he could have subdued or concealed the ardent fire inside him, he would have gone to call occasionally as though casually. But he could not trust himself. He was like a volcano ready for eruption. Already he was arranging with his uncle to put a subordinate here and let him return to Benton. Until that could be accomplished, he tried to see her as little as possible.

But Jessie was a child of the imperative urge. She told herself fifty times that it was none of her business if he did accept the offer of a place in the North-West Mounted. He could do as he pleased. Why should she interfere? And yet–and yet–

She found a shadow of excuse for herself in the fact that it had been through her that he had offered himself as a special constable. He might think she wanted him to enlist permanently. So many girls were foolish about the red coats of soldiers. She had noticed that among her school-girl friends at Winnipeg. If she had any influence with him at all, she did not want it thrown on that side of the scale.

But of course he probably did not care what she thought. Very likely it was her vanity that whispered to her he had gone North with Win Beresford partly to please her. Still, since she was his friend, ought she not to just drop an offhand hint that he was a more useful citizen where he was than in the Mounted? He couldn’t very well resent that, could he? Or think her officious? Or forward?

She contrived little plans to meet him when he would be alone and she could talk with him, but she rejected these because she was afraid he would see through them. It had become of first importance to her that Tom Morse should not think she had any but a superficial interest in him.

When at last she did meet him, it was by pure chance. Dusk was falling. She was passing the yard where his storehouse was. He wheeled out and came on her plumply face to face. Both were taken by surprise completely. Out of it neither could emerge instantly with casual words of greeting.

Jessie felt her pulses throb. A queer consternation paralyzed the faculties that ought to have come alertly to her rescue. She stood, awkwardly silent, in a shy panic to her pulsing finger-tips. Later she would flog herself scornfully for her folly, but this did not help in the least now.

“I–I was just going to Mr. Whaley’s with a little dress Mother made for the baby,” she said at last.

“It’s a nice baby,” was the best he could do.

“Yes. It’s funny. You know Mr. Whaley didn’t care anything about it before–while it was very little. But now he thinks it’s wonderful. I’m so glad he does.”

She was beginning to get hold of herself, to emerge from the emotional crisis into which this meeting had plunged her. It had come to her consciousness that he was as perturbed as she, and a discovery of this nature always brings a woman composure.

“He treats his wife a lot better too.”

“There was room for it,” he said dryly.

“She’s a nice little thing.”

“Yes.”

Conversation, which had been momentarily brisk, threatened to die out for lack of fuel. Anything was better than significant silences in which she could almost hear the hammering of her heart.

“Win Beresford told me about the offer you had to go into the Mounted,” she said, plunging.

“Yes?”

“Will you accept?”

He looked at her, surprised. “Didn’t Win tell you? I said right away I couldn’t accept. He knew that.”

“Oh! I don’t believe he did tell me. Perhaps you hadn’t decided then.” Privately she was determining to settle some day with Winthrop Beresford for leading her into this. He had purposely kept silent, she knew now, in the hope that she would talk to Tom Morse about it. “But I’m glad you’ve decided against going in.”

“Why?”

“It’s dangerous, and I don’t think it has much future.”

“Win likes it.”

“Yes, Win does. He’ll get a commission one of these days.”

“He deserves one. I–I hope you’ll both be very happy.”

He was walking beside her. Quickly her glance flashed up at him. Was that the reason he had held himself so aloof from her?

“I think we shall, very likely, if you mean Win and I. He’s always happy, isn’t he? And I try to be. I’m sorry he’s leaving this part of the country. Writing-on-Stone is a long way from here. He may never get back. I’ll miss him a good deal. Of course you will too.”

This was plain enough, but Tom could not accept it at face value. Perhaps she meant that she would miss him until Win got ready to send for her. An idea lodged firmly in the mind cannot be ejected at an instant’s notice.

“Yes, I’ll miss him. He’s a splendid fellow. I’ve never met one like him, so staunch and cheerful and game. Sometime I’d like to tell you about that trip we took. You’d be proud of him.”

“I’m sure all his friends are,” she said, smiling a queer little smile that was lost in the darkness.

“He was a very sick man, in a great deal of pain, and we had a rather dreadful time of it. Of course it hit him far harder than it did either West or me. But never a whimper out of him from first to last. Always cheerful, always hopeful, with a little joke or a snatch of a song, even when it looked as though we couldn’t go on another day. He’s one out of ten thousand.”

“I heard him say that about another man–only I think he said one in fifty thousand,” she made comment, almost in a murmur.

“Any girl would be lucky to have such a man for a husband,” he added fatuously.

“Yes. I hope he’ll find some nice one who will appreciate him.”

This left no room for misunderstanding. Tom’s brain whirled. “You–you and he haven’t had any–quarrel?”

“No. What made you think so?”

“I don’t know. I suppose I’m an idiot. But I thought–“

He stopped. She took up his unfinished sentence.

“You thought wrong.”