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   Chapter 4 IN THE BLUFF

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 21080

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It was very dark amid the birches where Trooper Shannon sat motionless in his saddle gazing down into the denser blackness of the river hollow. The stream ran deep below the level of the prairie, as the rivers of that country usually do, and the trees which there alone found shelter from the winds straggled, gnarled and stunted, up either side of the steep declivity. Close behind the trooper a sinuous trail seamed by ruts and the print of hoofs stretched away across the empty prairie. It forked on the outskirts of the bluff, and one arm dipped steeply to the river where, because the stream ran slow just there and the bottom was firm, a horseman might cross when the water was low, and heavy sledges make the passage on the ice in winter time. The other arm twisted in and out among the birches towards the bridge, but that detour increased the distance to any one traveling north or south by two leagues or so.

The ice, however, was not very thick as yet, and Shannon, who had heard it ring hollowly under him, surmised that while it might be possible to lead a laden horse across, there would be some risk attached to the operation. For that very reason, and although his opinion had not been asked, he agreed with Sergeant Stimson that the whisky-runners would attempt the passage. They were men who took the risks as they came, and that route would considerably shorten the journey it was especially desirable for them to make at night, while it would, Shannon fancied, appear probable to them that if the police had word of their intentions they would watch the bridge. Between it and the frozen ford the stream ran faster, and the trooper decided that no mounted man could cross the thinner ice.

It was very cold as well as dark, for although the snow which usually precedes the frost in that country had not come as yet, it was evidently not far away, and the trooper shivered in the blasts from the pole which cut through fur and leather with the keenness of steel. The temperature had fallen steadily since morning, and now there was a presage of a blizzard in the moaning wind and murky sky. If it broke and scattered its blinding whiteness upon the roaring blast there would be but little hope for any man or beast caught shelterless in the empty wilderness, for it is beyond the power of anything made of flesh and blood to withstand that cold.

Already a fine haze of snow swirled between the birch twigs every now and then, and stung the few patches of the trooper's unprotected skin as though they had been pricked with red-hot needles. It, however, seldom lasted more than a minute, and when it whirled away, a half-moon shone down for a moment between smoky clouds. The uncertain radiance showed the thrashing birches rising from the hollow, row on row, struck a faint sparkle from the ice beneath them, and then went out leaving the gloom intensified. It was evident to Shannon that his eyes would not be much use to him that night, for which reason he kept his ears uncovered at the risk of losing them, but though he had been born in the bush and all the sounds of the wilderness had for him a meaning, hearing did not promise to be of much assistance. The dim trees roared about him with a great thrashing of twigs, and when the wilder gusts had passed there was an eery moaning through which came the murmur of leagues of tormented grasses. The wind was rising rapidly, and it would, he fancied, drown the beat of approaching hoofs as well as any cry from his comrades.

Four of them were hidden amidst the birches where the trail wound steeply upwards through the bluff across the river, two on the nearer side not far below, and Trooper Shannon's watch would serve two purposes. He was to let the rustlers pass him if they rode for the ford, and then help to cut off the retreat of any who escaped the sergeant, while if they found the ice too thin for loaded beasts or rode towards the bridge, a flash from his carbine would bring his comrades across in time to join the others who were watching that trail. It had, as usual with Stimson's schemes, all been carefully thought out, and the plan was eminently workable, but unfortunately for the grizzled sergeant a better brain than his had foreseen the combination.

In the meanwhile the lad felt his limbs grow stiff and almost useless, and a lethargic numbness blunt the keenness of his faculties as the heat went out of him. He had more than usual endurance, and utter cold, thirst, and the hunger that most ably helps the frost, are not infrequently the portion of the wardens of the prairie, but there is a limit to what man can bear, and the troopers who watched by the frozen river that night had almost reached it. Shannon could not feel the stirrups with his feet. One of his ears was tingling horribly as the blood that had almost left it resumed its efforts to penetrate the congealing flesh, while the mittened hands he beat upon his breast fell solidly on his wrappings without separate motion of the fingers. Once or twice the horse stamped fretfully, but a touch of hand and heel quieted him, for though the frozen flesh may shrink, unwavering obedience is demanded equally from man and beast enrolled in the service of the Northwest police.

"Stiddy, now," said the lad, partly to discover if he still retained the power of speech. "Sure ye know the order that was given me, and if it's a funeral that comes of it the Government will bury ye."

He sighed as he beat his hands upon his breast again, and when a flicker of moonlight smote a passing track of brightness athwart the tossing birches his young face was very grim. Like many another trooper of the Northwest police, Shannon had his story, and he remembered the one trace of romance that had brightened his hard bare life that night as he waited for the man who had dissipated it.

When Larry Blake moved West from Ontario, Shannon, drawn by his sister's dark eyes, followed him, and took up a Government grant of prairie sod. His dollars were few, but he had a stout heart and two working oxen, and nothing seemed impossible while Ailly Blake smiled on him, and she smiled tolerably frequently, for Shannon was a well-favored lad. He had worked harder than most grown men could do, won one good harvest, and had a few dollars in the bank when Courthorne rode up to Blake's homestead on his big black horse. After that, all Shannon's hopes and ambitions came down with a crash; and the day he found Blake gray in face with shame and rage, he offered Sergeant Stimson his services. Now he was filled with an unholy content that he had done so, for he came of a race that does not forget an injury and has sufficient cause for a jealous pride in the virtue of its women. He and Larry might have forgiven a pistol shot, but they could not forget the shame.

Suddenly he stiffened to attention, for though a man of the cities would probably have heard nothing but the wailing of the wind, he caught a faint rhythmic drumming which might have been made by a galloping horse. It ceased, and he surmised, probably correctly, that it was trooper Payne returning. It was, however, his business to watch the forking of the trail, and when he could only hear the thrashing of the birches, he moved his mittened hand from the bridle, and patted the restive horse. Just then the bluff was filled with sound as a blast that drove a haze of snow before it roared down. It was followed by a sudden stillness that was almost bewildering, and when a blink of moonlight came streaming down, Trooper Shannon grabbed at his carbine, for a man stood close beside him in the trail. The lad, who had neither seen nor heard him come, looked down on the glinting barrel of a Marlin rifle and saw a set white face behind it.

"Hands up!" said a hoarse voice. "Throw that thing down."

Trooper Shannon recognized it, and all the fierce hate he was capable of flamed up. It shook him with a gust of passion, and it was not fear that caused his stiffened fingers to slip upon the carbine. It fell with a rattle, and while he sat still, almost breathless and livid in face, the man laughed a little.

"That's better, get down," he said.

Trooper Shannon flung himself from the saddle, and alighted heavily as a flung-off sack would have done, for his limbs refused to bend. Still it was not from lack of courage that he obeyed, and during one moment he had clutched the bridle with the purpose of riding over his enemy. He had, however, been taught to think for himself swiftly and shrewdly from his boyhood up, and realized instinctively that if he escaped scathless the ringing of the rifle would warn the rustlers who he surmised were close behind. He was also a police trooper broken to the iron bond of discipline, and if a bullet from the Marlin was to end his career, he determined it should if possible also terminate his enemy's liberty. The gust of rage had gone and left him with the cold vindictive cunning the Celt who has a grievous injury to remember is also capable of, and there was contempt but no fear in his voice as he turned to Courthorne quietly.

"Sure it's your turn now," he said. "The last time I put my mark on the divil's face of ye."

Courthorne laughed wickedly. "It was a bad day's work for you. I haven't forgotten yet," he said. "I'm only sorry you're not a trifle older, but it will teach Sergeant Stimson the folly of sending a lad to deal with me. Well, walk straight into the bush, and remember that the muzzle of the rifle is scarcely three feet behind you!"

Trooper Shannon did so with black rage in his heart, and his empty hands at his sides. He was a police trooper, and a bushman born, and knew that the rustlers' laden horses would find some difficulty in remounting the steep trail and could not escape to left or right, once they were entangled amidst the trees. Then it would be time to give the alarm, and go down with a bullet in his body, or by some contrivance evade the deadly rifle and come to grips with his enemy. He also knew Lance Courthorne, and remembering how the lash had seamed his face, expected no pity. One of them is was tolerably certain would have set out on the long trail before the morning, but they breed grim men in the bush of Ontario, and no other kind ride very long with the wardens of the prairie.

"Stop where you are," said Courthorne, presently. "Now then, turn round. Move a finger or open your lips, and I'll have great pleasure in shooting you. In the meanwhile you can endeavor to make favor

with whatever saint is honored by the charge of you."

Shannon smiled in a fashion that resembled a snarl as once more a blink of moonlight shone down upon them, and in place of showing apprehension, his young white face, from which the bronze had faded, was venomous.

"And my folks were Orange, but what does that matter now?" said he. "There'll be one of us in--to-morrow, but for the shame ye put on Larry ye'll carry my mark there with ye."

Courthorne looked at him with a little glow in his eyes. "You haven't felt mine yet," he said. "You will probably talk differently when you do."

It may have been youthful bravado, but Trooper Shannon laughed. "In the meanwhile," he said, "I'm wondering why you're wearing an honest man's coat and cap. Faith, if he saw them on ye, Winston would burn them."

Courthorne returned no answer, and the moonlight went out, but they stood scarcely three feet apart, and one of them knew that any move he made would be followed by the pressure of the other's finger on the trigger. He, however, did not move at all, and while the birches roared about them they stood silently face to face, the man of birth and pedigree with a past behind him and blood already upon his head, and the raw lad from the bush, his equal before the tribunal that would presently judge their quarrel.

In the meanwhile Trooper Shannon heard a drumming of hoofs that grew steadily louder before Courthorne apparently noticed the sound, and his trained ears told him that the rustlers' horses were coming down the trail. Now they had passed the forking, and when the branches ceased roaring again he knew they had floundered down the first of the declivity, and it would be well to wait a little until they had straggled out where the trail was narrow and deeply rutted. No one could turn them hastily there, and the men who drove them could scarcely escape the troopers who waited them, if they blundered on through the darkness of the bush. So five breathless minutes passed, Trooper Shannon standing tense and straight with every nerve tingling as he braced himself for an effort, Courthorne stooping a little with forefinger on the trigger, and the Marlin rifle at his hip. Then through a lull there rose a clearer thud of hoofs. It was lost in the thrashing of the twigs as a gust roared down again, and Trooper Shannon launched himself like a panther upon his enemy.

He might have succeeded, and the effort was gallantly made, but Courthorne had never moved his eyes from the shadowy object before him, and even as it sprang, his finger contracted further on the trigger. There was a red flash, and because he fired from the hip the trigger guard gashed his mitten. He sprang sideways scarcely feeling the bite of the steel, for the lad's hand brushed his shoulder. Then there was a crash as something went down heavily amidst the crackling twigs. Courthorne stooped a little, panting in the smoke that blew into his eyes, jerked the Marlin lever, and, as the moon came through again, had a blurred vision of a white drawn face that stared up at him, still with defiance in its eyes. He looked down into it as he drew the trigger once more.

Shannon quivered a moment, and then lay very still, and it was high time for Courthorne to look to himself, for there was a shouting in the bluff, and something came crashing through the undergrowth. Even then his cunning did not desert him, and flinging the Marlin down beside the trooper, he slipped almost silently in and out among the birches and swung himself into the saddle of a tethered horse. Unlooping the bridle from a branch, he pressed his heels home, realizing as he did it that there was no time to lose, for it was evident that one of the troopers was somewhat close behind him, and others were coming across the river. He knew the bluff well, and having no desire to be entangled in it was heading for the prairie, when a blink of moonlight showed him a lad in uniform riding at a gallop between him and the crest of the slope. It was Trooper Payne, and Courthorne knew him for a very bold horseman.

Now, it is possible that had one of the rustlers, who were simple men with primitive virtues as well as primitive passions, been similarly placed, he would have joined his comrades and taken his chance with them, but Courthorne kept faith with nobody unless it suited him, and was equally dangerous to his friends and enemies. Trooper Shannon had also been silenced forever, and if he could cross the frontier unrecognized, nobody would believe the story of the man he would leave to bear the brunt in place of him. Accordingly he headed at a gallop down the winding trail, while sharp orders and a drumming of hoofs grew louder behind him, and hoarse cries rose in front. Trooper Payne was, it seemed, at least keeping pace with him, and he glanced over his shoulder as he saw something dark and shadowy across the trail. It was apparently a horse from which two men were struggling to loose its burden.

Courthorne guessed that the trail was blocked in front of it by other loaded beasts, and he could not get past in time, for the half-seen trooper was closing with him fast, and another still rode between him and the edge of the bluff, cutting off his road to the prairie. It was evident he could not go on, while the crackle of twigs, roar of hoofs, and jingle of steel behind him, made it plain that to turn was to ride back upon the carbines of men who would be quite willing to use them. There alone remained the river. It ran fast below him, and the ice was thin, and for just a moment he tightened his grip on the bridle.

"We've got you!" a hoarse voice reached him. "You're taking steep chances if you go on."

Courthorne swung off from the trail. There was a flash above him, something whirred through the twigs above his head, and the horse plunged as he drove his heels in.

"One of them gone for the river," another shout rang out, and Courthorne was crashing through the undergrowth straight down the declivity, while thin snow whirled about him, and now and then he caught the faint glimmer flung back by the ice beneath.

Swaying boughs lashed him, his fur cap was whipped away, and he felt that his face was bleeding, but there was another crackle close behind him, for Trooper Payne was riding as daringly, and he carried a carbine. Had he desired it Courthorne could not turn. The bronco he bestrode was madly excited and less than half-broken, and it is probable no man could have pulled him up just then. It may also have been borne in upon Courthorne, that he owed a little to those he had left behind him in the old country, and he had not lost his pride. There was, it seemed, no escape, but he had at least a choice of endings, and with a little breathless laugh he rode straight for the river.

It was with difficulty Trooper Payne pulled his horse up on the steep bank a minute later. A white haze was now sliding down the hollow between the two dark walls of trees, and something seemed to move in the midst of it while the ice rang about it. Then as the trooper pitched up his carbine there was a crash that was followed by a horrible floundering and silence again. Payne sat still shivering a little in his saddle until the snow that whirled about him blotted out all the birches, and a roaring blast came down.

He knew there was now nothing that he could do, The current had evidently sucked the fugitive under, and, dismounting, he groped his way up the slope, leading the horse by the bridle, and only swung himself into the saddle when he found the trail again. A carbine flashed in front of him, two dim figures went by at a gallop, and a third one flung an order over his shoulder as he passed.

"Go back. The Sergeant's hurt and Shannon has got a bullet in him."

Trooper Payne had surmised as much already, and went back as fast as he could ride, while the beat of hoofs grew fainter down the trail. Ten minutes later, he drew bridle close by a man who held a lantern, and saw Sergeant Stimson sitting very grim in face on the ground. It transpired later that his horse had fallen and thrown him, and it was several weeks before he rode again.

"You lost your man?" he said. "Get down."

Payne dismounted. "Yes, sir, I fancy he is dead," he said. "He tried the river, and the ice wouldn't carry him. I saw him ride away from here just after the first shot, and fancied he fired at Shannon. Have you seen him, sir?"

The other trooper moved his lantern, and Payne gasped as he saw a third man stooping, with the white face of his comrade close by his feet. Shannon appeared to recognize him, for his eyes moved a little and the gray lips fell apart. Then Payne turned his head aside while the other trooper nodded compassionately in answer to his questioning glance.

"I've sent one of the boys to Graham's for a wagon," said the Sergeant. "You saw the man who fired at him?"

"Yes, sir," said Trooper Payne.

"You knew him?" and there was a ring in the Sergeant's voice.

"Yes, sir," said the trooper. "At least he was riding Winston's horse, and had on the old long coat of his."

Sergeant Stimson nodded, and pointed to the weapon lying with blackened muzzle at his feet. "And I think you could recognize that rifle? There's F. Winston cut on the stock of it."

Payne said nothing, for the trooper signed to him. "I fancy Shannon wants to talk to you," he said.

The lad knelt down, slipped one arm about his comrade's neck, and took the mittened hand in his own. Shannon smiled up at him feebly.

"Winston's horse, and his cap," he said, and then stopped, gasping horribly.

"You will remember that, boys," said the Sergeant.

Payne could say nothing. Trooper Shannon and he had ridden through icy blizzard and scorching heat together, and he felt his manhood melting as he looked down into his dimming eyes. There was a curious look in them which suggested a strenuous endeavor and an appeal, and the lips moved again.

"It was," said Shannon, and moved his head a little on Payne's arm, apparently in an agony of effort.

Then the birches roared about them, and drowned the feeble utterance, while when the gust passed all three, who had not heard what preceded it, caught only one word, "Winston."

Trooper Shannon's eyes closed, and his head fell back while the snow beat softly into his upturned face, and there was a very impressive silence intensified by the moaning of the wind, until the rattle of wheels came faintly down the trail.

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