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   Chapter 3 A Skull And A Flirtation

Philip Steele of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 16255

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

It was late afternoon when they came into Lac Bain, and as soon as Philip had turned over the colonel and his wife to Breed, he hurried to his own cabin. At the door he encountered Buck Nome. The two men had not met since a month before at Nelson House, and "there was but little cordiality in Steele to say howdy to 'em," explained Nome, pausing for a moment. "Deuce of a good joke on you, Steele! How do you like the job of bringing in an old colonel's frozen wife, or a frozen colonel's old wife, eh?"

Every fiber in Steele's body grew tense at the banter in the other's voice. He whirled upon Nome, who had partly turned away.

"You remember-you lied down there at Nelson to get just such a 'job' as this," he reminded. "Have you forgotten what happened-after that?"

"Don't get miffed about it, man," returned Nome with an irritating laugh. "All's fair in love and war. That was love down there, 'pon my word of honor it was, and this is about as near the other thing as I want to come."

There was something in his laugh that drew Steele's lips in a tight line as he entered the cabin. It was not the first time that he had listened to Nome's gloating chuckle at the mention of certain women. It was this more than anything else that made him hate the man.

Physically, Nome was a magnificent specimen, beyond doubt the handsomest man in the service north of Winnipeg; so that while other men despised him for what they knew, women admired and loved him-until, now and then too late for their own salvation, they discovered that his moral code was rotten to the core.

Such a thing had happened at Nelson House, and Philip felt himself burning with a desire to choke the life out of Nome as he recalled the tragedy there. And what would happen-now? The thought came to him like a dash of cold water, and yet, after a moment, his teeth gleamed in a smile as a vision rose before him of the love and purity which he had seen in the sweet face of the colonel's wife. He chuckled softly to himself as he dragged out a pack from under his bunk; but there was no humor in the chuckle. From it he took a bundle wrapped in soft birch-bark, and from this produced the skull that he had brought up with him from the South. There was a tremble of excitement in his low laugh as he glanced about the gloomy interior of the cabin.

From the log ceiling hung a big oil lamp with a tin reflector, and under this he hung the skull.

"You'll make a pretty ornament, M'sieur Janette," he exclaimed, standing off to contemplate the white thing leering and bobbing at him from the end of its string. "Mon Dieu, I tell you that when the lamp is lighted Bucky Nome must be blind if he doesn't recognize you, even though you're dead, M'sieur!"

He lighted a smaller lamp, shaved himself, and changed his clothes. It was dark when he was ready for supper, and Nome had not returned. He waited a quarter of an hour longer, then put on his cap and coat and lighted the big oil lamp. At the door he turned to look back. The cavernous sockets of the skull stared at him. From where he stood he could see the ragged hole above the ear.

"It's your game to-night, M'sieur Janette," he cried back softly, and closed the door behind him.

They were gathered before a huge fire of logs in the factor's big living-room when Philip joined the others. A glance told him why Nome had not returned to the cabin. Breed and the colonel were smoking cigars over a ragged ledger of stupendous size, which the factor had spread out upon a small table, and both were deeply absorbed. Mrs. Becker was facing the fire, and close beside her sat Nome, leaning toward her and talking in a voice so low that only a murmur of it came to Steele's ears. The man's face was flushed when he looked up, and his eyes shone with the old fire which made Philip hate him.

As the woman turned to greet him Steele felt a suddenly sickening sensation grip at his heart. Her cheeks, too, were flushed, and the color in them deepened still more when he bowed to her and joined the two men at the table. The colonel shook hands with him, and Philip noticed that once or twice after that his eyes shifted uneasily in the direction of the two before the fire, and that whenever the low laughter of Mrs. Becker and Nome came to them he paid less attention to the columns of figures which Breed was pointing out to him. When they rose to go into supper, Philip's blood boiled as Nome offered his arm to Mrs. Becker, who accepted it with a swift, laughing glance at the colonel. There was no response in the older man's pale face, and Philip's fingers dug hard into the palms of his hands. At the table Nome's attentions to Mrs. Becker were even more marked. Once, under pretext of helping her to a dish, he whispered words which brought a deeper flush to her cheeks, and when she looked at the colonel his eyes were fixed upon her in stern reproof. It was abominable! Was Nome mad? Was the woman-

Steele did not finish the thought in his own mind. His eyes encountered those of the colonel's wife across the table. He saw a sudden, quick catch of breath in her throat; even as he looked the flush faded from her face, and she rose from her seat, her gaze still upon him.

"I-I am not feeling well," she said. "Will you please excuse me?"

In an instant Nome was at her side, but she turned quickly from him to the colonel, who had risen from his chair.

"Please take me to my room," she begged. "Then-then you can come back."

Once more her face turned to Steele. There was a pallor in it now that startled him. For a few moments he stood alone, as Breed and Nome left the table. He listened, and heard the opening and closing of a second door.

Then a footstep, and Nome reappeared.

"By Heaven, but she's a beauty!" he exclaimed. "I tell you, Steele-"

Something in his companion's eyes stopped him. Two red spots burned in Steele's cheeks as he advanced and gripped the other fiercely by the arm.

"Yes, she is pretty-very pretty," he said quietly, his fingers sinking deeper into Nome's arm. "Get your hat and coat, Nome. I want to see you in the cabin."

Behind them the door opened and closed again, and Steele shoved past his associate to meet Breed.

"Buck and I have a little matter to attend to over at the cabin," he explained. "When they-when the colonel returns tell him we'll be over to smoke an after-supper pipe with him a little later, will you? And give our compliments to-her." With a half-sneer on his lips he rejoined Nome, who stared hard at him, and followed him through the outer door.

"Now, what the devil does this mean?" Nome demanded when they were outside. "If you have anything on your mind, Steele-"

"I have," interrupted Philip, "and I'm going to relieve myself of it. Pretty? She's as beautiful as an angel, Buck-the colonel's wife, I mean. And you-" He laughed harshly. "You're always the lucky dog, Buck Nome. You think she's half in love with you now. Too bad she was taken ill just at the psychological moment, as you might say, Buck. Wonder what was the matter?"

"Don't know," growled Nome, conscious of something in the other's voice which darkness concealed in his face.

"Of course, you don't," replied Steele.

"That's why I am bringing you over to the cabin. I am going to tell you just what happened when Mrs. Becker was taken ill, and when she turned a trifle pale, if you noticed sharply. Buck. It's a good joke, a mighty good joke, and I know you will thoroughly appreciate it."

He drew a step back when they came near the cabin, and Nome entered first. Very coolly Philip turned and bolted the door. Then, throwing off his coat, he pointed to the white skull dangling under the lamp.

"Allow me to introduce an old friend of mine, Buck-M'sieur Janette, of Nelson House."

With a sudden curse Nome leaped toward his companion, his face flaming, his hands clenched to strike-only to look into the shining muzzle of Steele's revolver, with Steele's cold gray eyes glittering dangerously behind it.

"Sit down, Nome-right there, under the man you killed!" he commanded. "Sit do

wn, or by the gods I'll blow your head off where you stand! There-and I'll sit here, like this, so that the cur's heart within you is a bull's-eye for this gun. It's M'sieur Janette's turn tonight," he went on, leaning over the little table, the red spots in his cheeks growing redder and brighter as Nome cringed before his revolver. "M'sieur Janette's-and the colonel's; but mostly Janette's. Remember that, Nome. It's for Janette. I'm not thinking much about Mrs. Becker-just now."

Steele's breath came quickly and his lips were almost snarling in his hatred of the man before him.

"It's a lie!" gasped Nome chokingly, his face ashen white. "You lie when you say I killed-Janette."

The fingers of Steele's pistol hand twitched.

"How I'd like to kill you!" he breathed. "You won his wife, Nome; you broke his heart-and after that he killed himself. You sent a report into headquarters that he killed himself by accident. You lied. It was you who killed him-by taking his wife. I got his skull because I thought I might need it against you to show that it was a pistol instead of a rifle that killed him. And this isn't the first man you've sent to hell, Nome, and is isn't the first woman. But your next won't be Mrs. Becker!"

He thrust his revolver almost into the other man's face as Nome opened his lips to speak.

"Shut up!" he cried. "If you open your dirty mouth again I'll be tempted to kill you where you sit! Don't you know what happened to-night? Don't you know that Mrs. Becker forgot herself, and remembered again, just in time, and that you've taken a little blood from the colonel's heart as you took all of it from-his?" He reached up and broke the string that held the skull, turning the empty face of the thing toward Nome. "Look at it, you scoundrel! That's the man you killed, as you would kill the colonel if you could. That's Janette!"

His voice fell to a hissing whisper as he shoved the skull slowly across the table, so close that a sudden movement would have sent it against the other's breast.

"We've been fixing this thing up between us, Bucky-M'sieur Janette and I," he went on, "and we've come to the conclusion that we won't kill you, but that you don't belong to the service. Understand?"

"You mean-to drive me out-" One of Nome's hands had stolen to his side, and Steele's pistol arm grew tense.

"On the table with your hands, Bucky! There, that's better," he laughed softly.

"Yes, we're going to drive you out. You're going to pack up a few things right away, Bucky, and you're going to run like the devil away from this place. I'd advise you to go straight back to headquarters and resign from the Northwest Mounted. MacGregor knows you pretty well, Bucky, and knows one or two things you've done, even though your whole record is not an open book to him. I don't believe he'll put any obstacles in the way of your discharge although your enlistment hasn't expired. Disability is an easy plea, you know. But if the inspector should think so much of you that he is loath to let you go, then M'sieur Janette and I will have to fix up the story for headquarters, and I don't mind telling you we'll add just a little for interest, and that the woman and the people at Nelson House will swear to it. You've the making of a good outlaw, Bucky," he smiled tauntingly, "and if you follow your natural bent you'll have some of your old friends after you, good and hard. You'd better steer clear of that though, and try your hand at being honest for once. M'sieur Janette wants to give you this chance, and you'd better make good time. So get a move on, Bucky. You'll need a blanket and a little grub, that's all."

"Steele, you don't mean this! Good God, man-" Nome had half risen to his feet. "You don't mean this!"

With his free hand Philip took out his watch.

"I mean that if you are not gone within fifteen minutes I'll march you over to Breed and the colonel, tell them the story of M'sieur Janette, here, and hold you until we hear from headquarters," he said quickly. "Which will it be, Nome?"

Like one stunned by a blow Nome rose slowly to his feet. He spoke no word as he carefully filled his pack with the necessities of a long journey. At the door, as he opened it to go, he turned for just an instant upon Steele, who was still holding the revolver in his hand.

"Remember, Bucky," admonished Philip in a quiet voice, "it's all for the good of yourself and the service."

Fear had gone from Nome's face. It was filled now with a hatred so intense that his teeth shone like the fangs of a snarling animal.

"To hell with you," he said, "and to hell with the service; but remember, Philip Steele, remember that some day we'll meet again."

"Some day," laughed Philip. "Good-by, Bucky Nome-deserter!"

The door closed and Nome was gone.

"Now, M'sieur Janette, it's our turn," cried Steele, smiling companionably upon the skull and loading his pipe. "It's our turn."

He laughed aloud, and for some time puffed out luxurious clouds of smoke in silence.

"It's the best day's work I've done in my life," he continued, with his eyes still upon the skull. "The very best, and it would be complete, M'sieur, if I could send you down to the woman who helped to kill you."

He stopped, and his eyes leaped with a sudden fire. "By George!" he exclaimed, under his breath. His pipe went out; for many minutes he stared with set face at the skull, as if it had spoken to him and its voice had transfixed him where he stood. Then he tossed his pipe upon the table, collected his service equipment and strapped it in his pack. After that he returned to the table with a pad of paper and a pencil and sat down. His face was strangely white as he took the skull in his hands.

"I'll do it, so help me all the gods, I'll do it!" he breathed excitedly. "M'sieur, a woman killed you--as much as Bucky Nome, a woman did it. You couldn't do her any good-but you might-another. I'm going to send you to her, M'sieur. You're a terrible lesson, and I may be a beast; but you're preaching a powerful sermon, and I guess-perhaps-you may do her good. I'll tell her your story, old man, and the story of the woman who made you so nice and white and clean. Perhaps she'll see the moral, M'sieur. Eh? Perhaps!"

For a long time he wrote, and when he had done he sealed the writing, put the envelope and the skull together in a box, and tied the whole with babiche string. On the outside he fastened another note to Breed, the factor, in which he explained that he and Bucky Nome had found it necessary to leave that very night for the West. And he heavily underscored the lines in which he directed the factor to see that the box was delivered to Mrs. Colonel Becker, and that, as he valued the honor and the friendship of the service, and especially of Philip Steele, all knowledge of it should be kept from the colonel himself.

It was eight o'clock when he went out into the night with his pack upon his back. He grunted approval when he found it was snowing, for the track of himself and Nome would be covered. Through the thickening gloom the two or three lights in the factor's home gleamed like distant stars. One of them was brighter than the others, and he knew that it came from the rooms which Breed had fitted up for the colonel and his wife. As Philip halted for a moment, his eyes drawn by a haunting fascination to that window, the light grew clearer and brighter, and he fancied that he saw a face looking out into the night-toward his cabin. A moment later he knew that it was the woman's face. Then a door opened, and a figure hurried across the open. He stepped back into the gloom of his own cabin and waited. It was the colonel. Three times he knocked loudly at the cabin door.

"I'd like to go out and shake his hand," muttered Steele. "I'd like to tell him that he isn't the only man who's had an idol broken, and that Mrs. B.'s little flirtation isn't a circumstance-to what might have happened."

Instead, he moved silently away, and turned his face into the thin trail that buried itself in the black forests of the West.

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