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   Chapter 9 CHAPTER VIII

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 25136

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


HELD UP

It was very dark. The wind had the coldness of death in it, and when the lights of Lone Hollow had faded behind the obscurity closed round me like a thick curtain. Still, trusting to an instinctive sense of direction men acquire in that land, I pushed on for the big coulée-one of those deep ravines that fissure the prairie and much resemble a railway cutting. This one was larger than the rest, and Carrington Manor stood near one end of it. The horse evidently had little liking for the journey, and did his best to shorten it, while I had hard work to keep my mittened hands from freezing as we swept onward through the night.

In places a thin carpet of snow-dust muffled the beat of hoofs, and there was no sound but the mournful shrilling of the wind, which emphasized the great emptiness and sense of desolation until I almost felt that I had ridden out of our busy life into primeval chaos. We are inclined to be superstitious on the prairie, which is not greatly to be wondered at. Fifty yards from the lighted homestead in wintertime there is only an overpowering loneliness, where Death with his ally the Frost King reigns supreme; while, living closer to nature, we learn that there are even yet many mysteries, and man plays but a small part in the business of the universe. Still, for a time the warmth within me kept out the frost; for Grace Carrington's hand had rested in mine, and I understood how the thought of service sustains 78 the Northwest troopers in their lonely vigil. They served the nation, but I was serving Grace.

Presently even this consolation grew fainter, and the spell of the white wilderness oppressed my spirits; for the air was filled with warning, and I knew that heavy snow was not far off. Sometimes very silently a dim shadow flitted past, and the horse started, snorting as he quickened his pace with the white steam whirling behind him. It may have been a coyote, or perhaps a timber wolf; for though the antelope had departed south, the settlers said that both from the bush of the Saskatchewan and beyond the Cypress hills the lean and grizzled beasts had come down into the prairie. Nevertheless, their noiseless passage harmonized with the surroundings; and at last I grew thankful for a slight drowsiness which blunted the imagination. But there were other riders out on the waste that night, and, with one hand on the slung rifle, I reined in the horse as three white-sprinkled figures came up at a gallop. Generally, as far as anything human is concerned, the prairie is as safe at midnight, if not safer, than a street in London town; but because game is plentiful there is generally a gun in the wagon, and when the settlers ride out they often carry a rifle at their back.

"Halt!" cried a voice I recognized; and there was a jingle of steel as two skin-wrapped troopers of the Northwest Police wheeled their horses on either side of me, while another, who spoke with authority, grasped my bridle. Even in that darkness I could see the ready carbines, and, knowing what manner of men these riders were, I was glad I could meet them peaceably.

"Your name and business," said the voice of Sergeant Macfarlane; and a disappointed laugh followed my reply as that worthy added, "Then if ye have no' been raiding Coombs lately ye can pass, friend. Seen no one on the 79 prairie? I'm sorry. Four cattle-lifting rustlers held up Clearwater Creek, and we're going south for the next post to head them off from the boundary. Well, time is precious. A fair journey til ye. It's a very bitter night, and snowing beyond."

With a faint clatter they vanished again; and I did not envy them their long ride to the next post, with a blizzard brewing. When his work is over or the snow comes down the settler may sleep snugly and sound, or lounge in tranquil contentment beside the twinkling stove, while, as the price of his security, the Northwest Police, snatching sometimes a few hours' rest under the gray cloud in a trench of snow, and sometimes riding a grim race with death, keep watch and ward over the vast territories. We do not rear desperadoes on the prairie, though some few are sent to us. Neither do they take root and flourish among us, because ours is a hard country and there are not many men in it worth robbing. However, there had been trouble over the border when the rich Cattle Barons strove to crowd out the poor man, and the hardest hit among the latter, with murderous Winchesters, lay in wait for the oppressor. I do not know the wrongs and rights of the whole question; neither were details of every skirmish published by the American press; but cruel things were done by each side, and it took a strong force of United States cavalry to restore order. Then broken men who had lost their livelihood, and some with a price upon their heads, made their name a terror on both sides of the frontier and kept the troopers busy.

So I was glad that those particular outlaws had journeyed south, and was even more pleased when I reached the coulée, for the cold was increasing and the ride had grown inexpressibly dreary. It was warmer down in the hollow among the trees, but so black that it was the horse rather 80 than I that avoided them, while now and then a branch lashed my forehead like a whip. There were cypress among them resembling solid masses of gloom, and the wind howled weirdly; but at last I blundered up the winding trail into sight of Carrington Manor. The big log-and-frame-built house was dark and silent, and though I knew that at least the majority of its inhabitants were at Lone Hollow the sight depressed me. Then, just as we drew clear of the trees, I checked the horse, for, silhouetted blackly against the sky, a single mounted figure kept watch over it. Perhaps it was instinctive caution, or it may have been that Grace's uneasiness had infected me, but I led Jasper's horse back into the coulée and hitched him to a tree, then, unslinging the rifle, stood still shivering as I watched the figure.

There was something sinister about it, and it might have been frozen stiff but for a faint rattle as the horse moved its head, while once I caught a rigid line across the saddle which suspiciously resembled a rifle. Then, recalling what Sergeant Macfarlane had said, I knew that while the police rode hot-foot toward the boundary the rustlers had doubled on their tracks to hold up Carrington Manor. It also struck me that as the main trail ran straight across the prairie the watcher knew nothing about the bridle-path through the coulée. In any case, it was plainly my duty to reach the homestead and render assistance if I could.

I made sure that the Winchester cylinder was filled with cartridges by pressing back the slide, and then I crept cautiously, with the dark trees for a background, toward the building, observing as I did so that the latter rendered the scout invisible to any one approaching by the direct trail. Then, stooping low, I crossed the bare space which divided me from the house, trusting that a humming bullet might not overtake me, and reached it safely with a heart that beat at twice its usual speed. It is one thing to face danger 81 in hot blood, but it is quite another and much more unpleasant matter to slink through the darkness wondering whether a foe one cannot see is following each movement with a rifle. Neither is there any chance of hitting back in such cases; for it is my opinion, from watching a stricken deer, that at short ranges the blow comes almost simultaneously as the optic nerve records the flash and before the ear has caught the explosion. All this I considered as I flattened myself against the wall-for I was by no means braver than my fellows-and presently, yard by yard, wormed myself along it until I passed a corner.

There a light shone out across the snow from a window, and I am perfectly willing to admit that I crawled toward it on hands and knees, for angry voices now reached me, and I knew that if I raised myself and the watcher had changed his position he could see me. I reached the sill at last with the rifle clenched in one mittened hand; and while I debated on my next procedure I heard Colonel Carrington say slowly and fiercely:

"I will neither sign nor tell you!"

Then, reflecting that while one can always see into a lighted room those inside it cannot see out, I determined to risk the scout's vigilance, and raised my head cautiously, for it was plain that something quite unusual went on inside. I looked into a kind of ante-room on one side of the entrance, which the ruler of Carrington used as an office or study. He sat in a basket chair with a frown on his face and disdain in his eyes, while a burly man muffled in wrappings leaned on the table opposite him, holding a rifle, the muzzle of which was turned toward the Colonel's breast. But there was no sign of fear about him, and I had heard the settlers say that nothing living could make Colonel Carrington flinch. An open check-book and some note-paper lay beside an inkstand on the table, and another armed 82 ruffian stood near the stove. The door of the hall close by stood partly open, and their voices were audible through it.

"I guess it's quite simple, but you make us tired," the latter said. "You'll tell us where the chest is, and just fill in that check, with a letter vouching for the bearer and explaining why you want so much in a hurry. Then, as I said before, you'll ride south with us a day or two while we arrange for cashing it, after which we'll let you go safely, on our honor."

Colonel Carrington laughed sardonically, and I could fancy his thin lips curling under the gray mustache before he answered:

"I hardly consider that a sufficient guarantee. Again, I will neither sign nor tell you where the chest is. Confusion to you!"

"You're a hard man," said the other almost admiringly. "If we'd had you to head us we'd have bluffed off Uncle Sam's troopers at the Cypress range. Still, we've no time for fooling, and if Jim finds the chest without you we'll risk putting up the price a thousand dollars or so. Jim is tolerably handy at finding things. See here, you have got to sign it, and sign it now, before this Winchester makes a mess of you!"

The Colonel glanced at the rifle coolly, as he answered: "I fail to see what good that would do. My handwriting is peculiar; you couldn't imitate it, while you would certainly be hanged when the troopers laid hands on you."

This was incontrovertible logic, and the two outlaws drawing apart conferred with each other softly, while I debated what I should do. The casement was a double one, but I felt sure I could drive a bullet through one of them. Still, even in the circumstances it looked too much like murder, and to this day I have never taken the 83 life of a man, though occasionally forced into handling one roughly. Before any decision could be arrived at a tramp of feet in the hall showed that somebody approached under a burden.

"Keep the muzzle on him," said one. "I guess Jim has found the coffer, and we'll make sure of that. I'll help him to cinch it on the horse if we can't open it. Colonel, we'll have to fine you the further thousand dollars."

I realized it was high time for me to vacate that position unless I wished the couple to discover me, and so I slipped back into the shadow, just in time, as they strode out carrying something. I watched them vanish into the blackness, heard the scout answer their hail, and then I crawled back swiftly-toward the door this time. A glance through the window in passing showed me that the remaining outlaw stood with his back toward the entrance, and his eyes fixed on the Colonel. The door was half closed when I reached it, and for a moment I stood there shortening my grip on the rifle and gathering my breath; then with a bound I drove it inward, and whirled aloft the butt of the Winchester.

The outlaw twisted round on his heels; but he moved an instant too late, for even as his fingers tightened on the trigger the steel heel-plate descended in the center of his face, and I felt something crunch in under it. He staggered sideways, there was a crash as the rifle exploded harmlessly, and before he could recover I had him by the neck and hurled him half-choked through the door. I had the sense to slam it and slip the bolt home; then, while I stood panting, the Colonel prepared to improve our position.

"Close those shutters and screw down the wing-nut hard," he said, hanging the lamp close beside the door. "Now, st

and here in the shadow. I am much obliged to you, but you should have made certain of that fellow." 84

It was only natural that he should feel resentment; but there was a cold vindictiveness in his tone which made me realize that it was as well for the outlaw that I had not left him in the room. Then he spoke again:

"We have two good weapons; that rascal's cylinder is charged-I saw him fill it out of my own bandolier, and there is an armory in the other room. They took me by surprise-in Western parlance, got the drop on me. Of course they'll come back, but all the doors and windows are fast, and we could hear them breaking in, while in this kind of work the risk is with the aggressor."

A pounding on the door cut him short, and a hoarse, partly muffled voice reached us:

"We're about sick of fooling, and mean solid business now," it said. "Open, and be quick about it, before we smash that door down and try moral suasion by roasting both of you."

"You should have stayed when you were in," was the ironical answer. "No doubt you have observed the light under the door. Well, the first man across the threshold will get a bullet through him before he even sees us. Haven't you realized yet that this undertaking is too big for you?"

"Curse him; he's busted my best teeth in. Hunt round and find something for a battering ram," cried another voice, but though the assailants had possibly not caught all the answer, they evidently understood the strength of our position, for we heard them moving away.

"Gone to open the chest in the stables; they won't find much in it," said Colonel Carrington. "They will try a fresh move next time. Mr. Lorimer, of Fairmead, are you not? I wish to express my obligations again."

He took it very coolly, as it appeared he took everything, and smiled curiously as, glancing at his watch, he said 85 half-aloud: "Well, there are worse things than a clean swift ending, and there was a time when I should not have stepped aside to let death pass. But I apologize, Mr. Lorimer, for inflicting such talk on you. Hope we shall be friends if we come out of this safely. The check?-yes, we'll put it away. It might have saved trouble to sign it, but you see it was her mother's money, and I only hold it in trust for my daughter. Neither are we as rich as some suppose us to be."

His grim face relaxed, and his voice sounded different when he spoke of Grace, while a few moments passed before he added:

"It cannot be far from dawn, and there's not a soul in Carrington except you and myself. Grace took all my people with her to help at Lone Hollow. So, unless you are inclined to stalk them, which I should hardly suggest, as they might be too clever for you, we must await our friends' arrival and make the best of it."

I had no inclination whatever to try the stalking. To take a kneeling shot at an unsuspecting man seemed in any circumstances almost a crime; so we sat each with a rifle laid across his knees, and for the first time in two years I tasted excellent tobacco. But the vigil grew trying. The house seemed filled with whispers and mysterious noises. My throat grew dry, and the Colonel laughed when once I moved sharply as a rat scurried behind the wainscot. Neither of us felt inclined to talk, and our eyes were fixed steadfastly upon the door, until at last the lamp seemed to rise and fall with each respiration. Then the Colonel approached the window as though listening, after glancing once more at his watch.

"It must be daybreak, and I hear something," he said. "There is probably one of them watching, but we must chance it," and he moved softly toward the door. When 86 we stood outside the cold of the morning went through me like a knife. Still a rapid beat of horse hoofs rose out of the big coulée, and it was evident that the outlaws had heard them, for we saw two men busy with the horses at the stable door, while two more disappeared behind the bank of sods that walled off the vegetable garden. What their purpose was, unless they meant to check any accession to our strength while their comrades escaped with the coffer, was not apparent. It was blowing strongly now, and the air was thick with falling snow, but I made out two riders who resembled Harry and Ormond coming toward us at a gallop, with another horseman some distance behind. Then a hoarse shout reached us-"Stop right there, and wheel your horses before we plug you!"

I could not see into the hollow beneath the wall because it was some distance off and the snow whirled about it, but I could imagine the Winchester barrel resting on the sods while a steady eye stared through the sights, and knew that neither Ormond nor Harry carried weapons. So I started at a flounder toward them, roaring as I went:

"Go back-for your life, go back!"

They evidently did not hear me, though we were afterwards to hear the reason for an apparent act of madness. Harry was always reckless, and Ormond coolly brave, while as I ran I saw the two horses flying at the wall. A streak of red flame blazed out low down in the snow, a mounted man passed me leading two horses, and I neither knew nor cared whether he noticed me, for I felt suddenly dizzy, wondering whether the bullet had gone home. Neither did I hear any report at all, for my whole attention was concentrated on the black shapes of the riders breast high beyond the wall. Then one beast rose into the air, and I saw Ormond swing a riding crop round backward as though for the sword cut from behind the shoulder. A soft thud 87 followed, Harry's horse cleared the sods like a bird, and I blazed off my rifle at a venture toward the hollow as they thundered neck and neck past me. It was clear that empty-handed they had ridden either over or through the foe.

After that events followed too rapidly to leave a clear impression. A pair of half-seen figures which appeared at the other end of the hollow scrambled for the empty saddles, and one seemed to help his companion. Then they vanished into the whirling haze, and Colonel Carrington's Winchester rapped as he emptied the magazine at the flying foe, while by the time the new arrivals had mastered their excited beasts there was only a narrow circle of prairie shut in by blinding snow.

"Very glad to find you safe, sir," said Ormond. "We met the Blackfoot who peddles moccasins, and he told us he had seen four men he thought were Stevens' gang heading for Carrington, so we pushed on as fast as we could. Perhaps if we three went on with rifles we might overtake them."

Harry looked eager, and I was willing, but Colonel Carrington was wisest:

"You have done gallantly," he said, "but it would only be throwing lives away. The snow is coming in earnest, and it strikes me they have gone to their account unless they find shelter in a coulée."

Then they dismounted, and a hired man, who had lagged behind through indifferent horseflesh and no fault of his own, was despatched to prepare breakfast, and it was a merry party that assembled round the table. Even the ruler of Carrington's grim face relaxed.

"I am glad to make the acquaintance of both of you," he said. "You will make the best of Carrington I hope for a day or two."

We were nothing loth, for twenty miles of deepening 88 snow lay between us and our homestead, where we had little to do, while to complete my satisfaction Grace and her train arrived in the Lone Hollow sleigh early the next morning, and on hearing the story her eyes glistened as she thanked me. "I am so glad I sent you," she said, "and I feel I owe my father's safety, perhaps his life, to you. It is a debt I can never repay."

It was late that afternoon when another sleigh drew up before the Carrington gate, and three white-sheeted troopers lifted a heavy burden out of it. The thing, which seemed a shapeless heap of snow and wrappings, hung limply between them as they carried it into the hall, while it was Sergeant Angus Macfarlane who explained their errand.

"Lay him down there gently, boys," he said. "No, stand back, Miss Carrington, these kind o' sights are no for you. We found him in a coulée after yon Blackfoot peddler had told us Stevens had fooled us, and ye'll mind it's no that easy to fool the Northwest Police. He's one o' the gang, but the poor soul's got several ribs broken, an' after lying out through the blizzard I'm thinking he's near his end. It's a long ride to the outpost, forbye we have no comforts. Maybe ye'll take him-ay, I ken he's a robber, but ye cannot leave him to perish in the snow."

He flung back the wrappings, and before I could stop her Grace bent down over the drawn white face with the red froth on the lips, while Ormond said quietly:

"Very bad, poor devil! I fancied Robin's hoofs struck something that yielded when he made a landing. You will take him in if it's only to oblige me, sir."

Grace stood upright with tender compassion shining in her wet eyes as she fixed them on the old man.

"I am a woman now, father," she said, "and I should like to help to cure him if it can be done. We shall do everything possible for him, anyway. Bring him 89 forward, Sergeant Angus. Geoffrey, you know something of surgery."

"I don't make war on dying men. You will do whatever pleases you, Grace," the ruler of Carrington answered, indifferently.

They carried their burden into another room, and I waited beside the stove, with two faces stamped on my memory. The one was that of the wounded man with its contraction of pain and glassy stare, and the other the countenance of Grace Carrington transfigured for a moment by a great pity that added to its loveliness. Still, the coming of this unexpected guest cast a gloom upon us, and we seldom saw Grace, while Ormond, who seemed to know a little of everything, once said on passing: "I have fixed him up as well as I could, but I think a broken rib has pierced his lung, and he's sinking rapidly. However, Miss Carrington is doing her best, and he could not have a more efficient nurse."

It was late in the afternoon when, on tapping at the door in search of tidings, Ormond called me in. The daylight was fading, but I could see the limp, suffering shape on the bed, and Grace sitting near the window, leaning forward as though listening.

"Light-headed at times!" said Ormond; "but he was asking for you. Do you feel any easier now? Here's another inquirer anxious to hear good news of you."

The man turned his drawn face toward me, and tried to smile as he said: "I guess you're very good. Hope you don't bear malice. You oughtn't to anyhow-nearly broke my neck when you fired me through the doorway. All in the way of business, and I'm corralled now."

I bent my head with a friendly gesture, for even I could read death in his face, and the outlaw, glancing toward Grace, added: 90

"If I'd known you, Missy, we'd never have held up this homestead. White people all through, and you're a prairie daisy. What made me do it? Well, I guess that's a long story, and some of it might scare you. A big man froze me off my land, and some one rebranded my few head of stock. Law! we don't count much on that; it's often the biggest rascals corral the offices, and we just laid for them with the rifle. They were too many for us-and this is the end of it."

Grace moved toward him whispering something I could not catch, but the man smiled feebly, and I heard the grim answer:

"No; I guess it's rather too late for that. I lived my own way, and I can die that way too. Don't back down on one's partners; kind of mean, isn't it? And if it's true what you're saying I'll just accept my sentence. Going out before the morning; but I sent two of the men who robbed me to perdition first."

Ormond raised his hand for silence, and again I could hear the shrilling of the bitter wind that was never still. Then he said softly: "You are only exciting him, and had better go," and with a last glance at Grace's slender figure stooping beside the bed I went out softly.

It was nearly midnight and a cold creepiness pervaded everything when he joined the rest of us round the stove.

"Gone!" he said simply. "Just clenched his hand and died. There was some fine material wasted in that man. Well, I think he was wronged somehow, and I'm sorry for him."

We turned away in silence, for a shadow rested upon Carrington, while the outlaw lay in state in the homestead he had helped to rob, until the Northwest Police bore what was left of him away. But before that time we rode back to Fairmead.

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