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   Chapter 24 CHAPTER XXII

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19358

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


A RACE WITH TIME

A dreary ride lay before us, for already the afternoon drew toward its close, and the light drifts were eddying under a bitter wind. The pale sun was still in the heavens, but a gray dimness crept up from the grass-land's verge toward it, against which the patches of snow gleamed lividly. However, I thought little about the cold, for with careless stupidity I had allowed a swindler to rob my partner, and a succession of blizzards would not have stopped me then. Heysham, though uninterested, seemed equally determined, and rode well, so the long miles of grass rolled behind us. Now a copse of birches flitted past, now a clump of willows, or the tall reeds of a sloo went down with a great crackling before us, then there were more swelling levels, for our course was straight as the crow flies from horizon to horizon, and we turned aside for no obstacle.

It was dusk when with lowered heads we charged through the scattered birches of a ravine bluff, and far down in the hollow beneath I caught the dull gleam of snow-sprinkled ice.

"It's a mean-looking gully," gasped Heysham. "I guess that creek's not frozen hard, and it's pretty deep. Say, hadn't we better lead our horses?" and I flung an answer over my shoulder:

"That will just make the difference between catching and missing the train. I'm going down in the saddle."

"Then of course I'm going too," said Heysham breathlessly. 243 "Your neck is worth as much as mine is anyway."

For the next few moments I saw nothing at all but the shadowy lines of birch stems that went reeling past. A branch struck Heysham's horse, and swerving, it jammed his leg against a tree; then there was a crash as my own beast, blundering, charged through a thicket where the brittle stems snapped like pistol-shots, but the salesman was close behind me, and with a shout of "No bridge for miles. I'll show you the way over," I drove my horse at the creek.

The quaggy banks were frozen hard now. They were also rough and ploughed up by the feet of cattle, which had come there to drink before the frost, and the leap looked horribly dangerous, for I dare not trust the ice; but the beast got safely off and came down with a great crackling amid thinly frozen mud and reeds. There was a splash and a flounder behind me, and then as we staggered forth Heysham came up abreast, with the water dripping from his horse, and I found breath to exclaim:

"Well done! I never should have thought a city man could bring a horse down there."

"Thanks!" said Heysham, with more than a suspicion of dryness. "In this enlightened country one must earn one's bread as one can, but I wasn't brought up to the drummer's calling. Used to ride with-but that has nothing to do with you, and I'm hoping you'll strike the railroad on the shortest possible line. It wouldn't be nice to spend to-night on the prairie."

There could be no doubt on this point, for when we reached the levels darkness had closed down and the air was thick with uplifted snow which smarted our eyes and made breathing difficult, while, for the first time, I commenced to have misgivings. Heysham had understated the case, for unless we struck the railroad we might very well freeze to death on the prairie. I explained this to him, and gave 244 him directions how he could find a farm by following the creek; but he laughed.

"It's an exciting run," he said, "and even life in Winnipeg grows monotonous. Lead on, I'm anxious to be in at the finish."

The snow came down in earnest before we had made two more leagues, and, steering partly by the wind and partly by instinct of direction, I held on half-choked and blinded, more and more slowly, until, when at last the case looked hopeless, Heysham shouted, for a telegraph post loomed up.

"You have reached the railroad, anyway," he said. "The only question is-how far from the station are we?"

We drew rein for a few moments beside the graded track, and shook the snow from our wrappings as we debated the simple question whose issues were momentous. The horses were worn out, we were nearly frozen, and the white flakes whirled more and more thickly about us.

"We can only go and see, and the track at least will guide us," I said at last. "I don't think the station can be many miles away."

The rest of the journey left but a blurred memory of an almost sightless struggle through a filmy haze, in which we occasionally lost each other and touch with the guiding poles, until at last, caked thick with wind-packed snow, we caught sight of a pale glimmer, and fell solidly, as it were, out of the saddle in the shelter of the station. Here, however, a crushing disappointment awaited us.

"Stopping train passed two hours ago," said the station agent. "Won't be another until the Montreal express comes through. Heard the stock cars passed Brandon by daylight-they'll be in Winnipeg now."

"You have one move left," said Heysham. "Hire a special! Comes high, of course, but it's cheaper than losing 245 your cattle. They can't sell before to-morrow; and you won't be hard on a plundered man, agent? That locomotive ought to take us through."

"Can't cut schedule prices," was the answer, after I had explained. "I haven't a single car, but I was saving Number Forty to haul in wheat, and if she doesn't strike a snow-block, and old Robertson's in the humor, she'll land you in Winnipeg before daylight to-morrow. It's cutting things fine, however."

We put our horses in the hotel stable, managed as a special favor to obtain some food in a basket, and then climbed into the locomotive cab, where the Ontario mechanic stood rubbing his hands with waste while a grimy subordinate flung fuel into the roaring furnace.

"She's the best machine for a hard run on this road," he said, as he clutched the lever with professional pride. "All you have to do is to sit tight, and I'll bring you in on time."

Then, panting heavily, Number Forty rolled out from the station on to the lonely waste, and when, as we jolted over the switches, the lights died out behind, Robertson became intent as he shoved the lever home. For a moment the big drivers whirred on the snow-greased line, then the wheel-treads bit the metals, and the plates commenced to tremble beneath our feet. Staring out through a quivering glass I could see a white haze rising and falling ahead as the wild gusts came down, driving an icy coldness through the vibrating cab, while, when these passed, there was only the glare of the huge head-lamp flickering like a comet down the straight-ruled track.

Robertson nodded to his fireman, for Heysham had told him the story, and presently the vibration grew yet sharper. The gaunt telegraph-posts no longer swept past in endless files, but reeled toward us under the fan-shaped blaze huddled all together in a fantastic dance, while willow bluffs 246 leaped up out of the whiteness and vanished again as by magic into the dim prairie. The snow from above had ceased temporarily. Then a screaming blast struck the engine, wrapping it about in a dense white cloud that glittered before the lamp, the glasses rattled, and an impalpable powder, that seemed to burn the skin, drove in through every opening. Robertson glanced at his pressure-gauge.

"She's doing her best," he said, "and she'll need to. I guess we'll find drifts in the hollows, and the snow will come down again presently. It's only coming up now."

I ought to have known better, but, although a British custom is more honored in the breach than the observance in Western Canada, I had met men who could pocket their pride, and, after fumbling in my wallet, I held out a slip of paper, saying, "She's doing splendidly. I wish you would buy Mrs. Robertson something with this."

"No, sir!" was the prompt answer. "You can keep your bill. If that fraud gets in ahead of you you'll probably want it. I get good pay, and I earn it, and you're not big enough to give presents to me."

A new arrival might have been astonished. I only felt that I had deserved the rebuke, and was thankful that Aline had slipped the flask and some of Martin Lorimer's cigars into my pocket, while Robertson smiled broadly as in defiance of his orders he emptied the silver cup. It was a gift from my cousin Alice.

"I apologize. Should have remembered it," I said bluntly.

Then we were racing through stiller air again, with the driving cloud behind; for each of the curious rushes of wind that precedes a prairie storm keeps to a definite path of its own. Several times, with a roar of wheels flung back to us, we swept through a sleeping town, where thin frame houses went rocking past until the tall elevators shut them 247 in, and again there was only a dim stretch of prairie that rolled up faster and faster under the front trailing-wheels.

At last, when the lights of Brandon glimmered ahead, Heysham fell over the fireman as the locomotive jumped to the checking of the brake, and a colored flicker blinked beside the track. The glare of another head-lamp beat upon us as we rolled through the station, while amid the clash of shocking wheat-cars that swept past I caught the warning:

"Look out for the snow-block east of Willow Lake! Freight-train on the single track; wires not working well!"

"I guess we'll take our chances," said Robertson; and Number Forty panted louder, hurling red sparks aloft as he rushed her at an up-grade. Still, his brows contracted when, some time later, he beckoned me, and I saw a wide lake draw near with silky drifts racing across its black ice. They also flowed across the track ahead, while beyond it the loom of what might be a flag stat

ion was faintly visible against a driving bank of cloud.

"Snow's coming off the ice," he said. "Hold fast! She may jump a little when I ram her through."

The pace grew even faster. We were racing down an incline, and now, ice, station, and prairie alike were blotted out by a blinding whiteness; while presently I was flung backward off my feet, and would have fallen but that I clutched a guard-rail. The whole cab rattled, the great locomotive lurched, and a white smother hurtled under the lamp glare, until once more the motion grew even, and we could feel the well-braced frame of iron and steel leap forward beneath us. Engineer Robertson swayed easily to the oscillation as, with one side of his intent face toward me, he clutched the throttle lever, until he called hoarsely as his fingers moved along it. Then, even while the steam roared in blown-down wreaths from the lifting valve, the lever was straight at wide-open again, and I caught my 248 breath as I made out another yellow halo with something that moved behind it in the snow ahead.

"It's the freight pulling out of the siding. I can't hold Number Forty up before she's over the switches. I guess we've got to race for it," he said.

The fireman did something, and, with a shower of half-burned cinders from her funnel and a mad blast of the whistle, Number Forty pounded on. Heysham's face was paler than before, and the disc of yellow radiance grew nearer and brighter. A faint flash appeared below it, a deeper whistle reached us brokenly, and I remembered two hoarse voices.

"They're opening the switches! That's come on," one of them said. "Trying to check the freighter! There'll be an almighty smash if they don't!"

The other was apparently Heysham's: "And two rascally confidence men will be skipping for the border with the proceeds of what should have been Ross & Grant's cattle."

I said nothing. It did not seem that talking would do any good, and the engineer might not have welcomed my advice. The great light was very close. I could see the cars behind it and hear the grind of brakes, while a man was bent double over a lever where the blaze of our head-lamp ran along the ground. The engine rocked beneath us; there was a heavy lurch as the fore-wheels struck the points; then Robertson laughed exultantly and wiped his greasy face. In front lay only the open prairie and flying snow, while the black shape of the freight-train grew indistinct behind.

"It was a pretty close call. Snow blurred the lights, and I guess the gale has broken a wire," he said. "Them folks never expected us, but they were smart with the switches. I'll say that for them." 249

"Good man!" said Heysham. "She's a grand machine. Next to riding home first in a steeplechase I'd like to have the running of a lightning express. Used to do the former once, but now Fate she says to me, 'You stop right there in Winnipeg, and sell other men's cattle for the best price you can.' Lorimer, I think Number Forty has saved that stock for you."

Then, shivering as the blasts struck the cab, we crouched, alternately frozen and roasted, in the most sheltered corner we could find, while, feeling the pulse of the great quivering machine with a grimy hand, Robertson hurled his engine along past Carberry and the slumbering Portage, until at last, just before the dawn, sheeted white from head-lamp to tank-rail and dripping below, she came pounding into Winnipeg.

"We'll let that slide. I don't like a fuss," said Robertson, when I thanked him. "Glad to do our best for you, Forty and me; and I guess the Company haven't another machine short of the inter-ocean racers that would have brought you in the time."

Then we interviewed the freight-traffic manager.

"That stock consignment came in hours ago," he informed us. "We haven't unloaded them yet. Anyway, you'll have to hurry and see the police, for we're bound to deliver against shipping bill. Don't know how you would square things after that; and it's not my business. Still, I'll have those cars side-tracked where they can't be got at readily."

Next we sought the police, and, after driving half across the city, obtained audience with a magistrate, the result of which was that a detective accompanied us to the station, and then round the hotels, inquiring for the conspirators under several different names. None of them, however, appeared on any hotel register, until we called at a certain 250 well-known hostelry, where our companion was recognized by the clerk.

"Yes, I guess we've got the men you want," he said, with unusual civility for a Western hotel clerk. "Just stood some big stock-buyers a high-class breakfast, and you'll find them upstairs. Say, if you want assistance send right down for me."

"We'll probably fix them without you," was the smiling answer. "Only two doors to the place, haven't you? I'll leave this man here with you, sending two more to the other one. Walk straight in, Mr. Lorimer, and see the end of the play."

We entered the bustling coffee-room, where, at the detective's suggestion, I ordered refreshment, and he placed us at a table behind two pillars. Heysham ate and chatted in high spirits; but, though hungry enough, I could scarcely eat at all, and sat still in irresolute impatience for what seemed an interminable time. I could not get Minnie's worn face out of my memory; and, though her husband's incarceration would probably be a boon to her, I knew she would not think so. Besides, this deliberate trapping of a man I had met on terms of friendship, even after what had happened, was repugnant; and the cattle were safe. There was, however, nothing to do but wait; for, alert and watchful, the representative of the law-who, nevertheless, made an excellent breakfast-kept his eyes fixed on the door, until I would have risen, but that he restrained me, as, followed by several others, Fletcher and a little dark man, besides the one who had cajoled the stock from me, came in.

"Stock-buyers!" whispered the detective, thrusting me further back. "Go slow. In the interests of justice, I want to see just what they're going to do."

The newcomers seated themselves not far from the other 251 side of the pillar, and I waited feverishly, catching snatches of somewhat vivid general chatter, until one of the party said more loudly: "Now let us come down to business. I've seen the beasts-had to crawl over the cars to do it-and they're mostly trash, though there are some that would suit me, marked hoop L. & J. Say, come down two dollars a head all around, and I'll give you a demand draft on the bank below for the lot."

What followed I did not hear, but by-and-by a voice broke through the confused murmuring: "It's a deal!" An individual scribbling in his pocket-book moved toward a writing table. Then the detective stepped forward, beckoning to me.

"Sorry to spoil trade, but I've saved your check, gentlemen," he said. "That stock's stolen. Thomas Gorst and other names, Will Stephens, and Thomas Fletcher, would you like to glance at this warrant? No! well, it's no use looking ugly, there are men at either door waiting for you. This is a new trick, Stephens, and you haven't played it neatly."

"Euchred!" gasped the little man, while the other scowled at me.

"Confusion to you! In another hour I'd have been rustling for the Great Republic. Still, I guess the game's up. Don't be a mule, Fletcher; I'm going quietly."

He held out his hands with a resigned air, but when, amid exclamations of wonder, another officer appeared mysteriously from somewhere to slip on the handcuffs, Fletcher hurled a decanter into his face and sprang wildly for the door. He passed within a yard of where I stood. I could have stopped him readily with an outstretched foot or hand, but I did neither, and there was an uproar as he plunged down the stairway with an officer close behind him. The detective saw his other prisoners handcuffed before he followed, 252 and though he said nothing he gazed at me reproachfully. When we stood at the head of the stairs he chuckled as he pointed below.

"Your friend hasn't got very far," he said dryly.

It was true enough, for in the hall a stalwart constable sat on the chest of a fallen man who apparently strove to bite him, and I saw that the latter was Thomas Fletcher. I had clearly been guilty of a dereliction of the honest citizen's duty, but for all that I did not like the manner in which he said, "Your friend."

We returned to the station, and later in the day I entertained Robertson and Heysham with the best luncheon I could procure, when for once we drank success to Number Forty in choice vintages.

"I can't sufficiently thank you, Heysham," I said when we shook hands. "Now, advise me about those cattle; and is there anything I can do for you?"

"Enjoyed the fun," was the answer, "and you gave me a free passage to Winnipeg. I didn't do it for that reason, but if you like to leave the disposal of those beasts to Ross & Grant, highest-class salesmen, promptest settlements, etc., I shall be pleased to trade with you. Sorry to intrude business, but after all I'm a drummer, and one must earn one's bread and butter-see?"

I had much pleasure in agreeing, and Ross & Grant sold those beasts to my complete satisfaction and Jasper's as well, while that was but the beginning of a profitable connection with them, and an acquaintance with Heysham, who was from the first a friend of Aline's and is now sole partner in the firm. Still, though I returned to Fairmead with the proceeds, satisfied, it transpired that Thomas Fletcher was not yet past doing me a further injury.

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