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   Chapter 29 CHAPTER XXVII

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19662

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


THE ROAD TO DAKOTA

Martin Lorimer returned to Vancouver promptly, for he found the prairie cold trying, and by-and-by I received a letter from Harry still reporting profitable work, in which he said: "Your uncle seems to have developed a craze for real estate. Buying land on a rising town boom is a somewhat risky amusement, especially if, as they express it here, the bottom drops out of the boom; but I suppose he can afford it, and he has been trailing around lately with two surveyors behind him. Laid hands on the timber lots about the Day Spring, which is sending up very low-grade, ore. Perhaps you know, though he won't tell any one, why he is doing it."

I showed the letter to Aline, and she looked remarkably wise; then, putting her head on one side, she nodded twice.

"I've a great respect for Uncle Martin's sagacity," she said. "He's planning something for the benefit of Colonel Carrington, and I've a faint inkling of what it may be. But don't worry me with questions. He won't show a single person what he means to do until he is ready."

I had no ideas at all on the subject, though I did not tell Aline so. For her age she was rather too vain of her superior perception, and it struck me as becoming that a younger sister should look up to her brother. I was proud of Aline, but she had her failings.

It was not long afterward, when returning from Jasper's 306 at night, I found the remains of a meal on the table, and my sister waiting with news for me.

"I'm glad you didn't come home earlier, Ralph," she said. "I am quite ashamed of my inconsistency. It's nice to think oneself inflexible, isn't it? And then it's humiliating to resolve on a certain course and do the opposite."

She paused, either to excite my curiosity or to afford an opportunity for considering the sentiment.

"Never mind all that. Come to the point, Aline," I said. But she stirred the stove, and dusted some plates that did not require it, before she continued:

"I had made up my mind to hate Mrs. Fletcher forever, and, do you know, I let her kiss me scarcely half an hour ago."

"Minnie here again! Oh, confound her!" I said, banging back my chair.

"It's wicked to lose your temper, Ralph," Aline answered sweetly, "and very unbecoming in an elder brother. It isn't poor Minnie's fault that her husband is what you call a bad egg, is it? Yes, she came here in a sleigh with two tired horses, and one was lame. She was going to meet her husband somewhere. He has become a teetotaler, and promises to turn out quite a virtuous character. She hinted at something which I didn't know about that happened at the trial-it was too bad of you to burn those papers-and said he was going to Dakota, across the border. She was almost frozen, had only fall clothes on, and she was very hungry. It wouldn't have been right to let her face an all-night drive in Arctic weather like that, and she put the horses into the stable, while I lent her all my wrappings, gave her food to take, and made her rest and eat. She said she felt she must call and tell me how very sorry she was. Then she cried on my head, and I let her kiss me. We should always be forgiving, Ralph, shouldn't we?" 307

"Tom Fletcher reformed!" I said astonished. "Oh, how foolish you women are! I've only met one who is always sensible;" and then an idea struck me, and I added quickly: "Are you quite sure Fletcher wasn't in the sleigh?"

"No, Fletcher wasn't there-at least, I'd had neuralgia, so I only looked out of the window. Minnie put up the horses."

Then I flung open a cupboard door, and what I saw confirmed a growing suspicion. For legal reasons whisky is scarce on portions of the prairie, but a timely dose of alcohol has saved many a man's life in the Canadian frost, and we always kept some spirits in case of emergency.

"Then Minnie is not a teetotaler," I said. "A bottle of whisky has gone."

Leaving Aline to consider this, I ran to the stable, and found that one of the splendid horses poor Ormond had bequeathed me was also gone. In its place stood a sorry beast, evidently dead lame, and it did not need the scrap of paper pinned to the manger to explain the visit.

"I am running a heavy risk, and you won't betray me," the pencil scrawl read. "Tetley of Coulée Rouge will send back the horse and robes. It is a last favor; we won't trouble you any more.-Minnie Fletcher."

I was troubled, however. We should need every available beast in the spring, and Tetley was rather more than suspected of being concerned in smuggling whisky and certain contraband commerce, including the shipping of Chinamen over the United States border. It seemed like tempting Providence to leave a horse of that kind in his hands, and yet Coulée Rouge was twenty long miles away. I was also considerably puzzled as to why Minnie should have interfered to save her husband, for it was evident some fresh charge had been brought against him, and he was seeking 308 safety in the republic. Extradition existed, but except in murder cases it was not often that a fugitive who had once crossed the boundary was ever brought back. It seemed impossible that she had not read the reports in the papers, and the charge Fletcher brought against her was a hard one to forgive. Still, papers were not plentiful on the prairie, and the people she lived with might out of kindness have concealed part of the news from her. However that might be, I determined to save the horse, and explained this to Aline, with a brotherly warning not to allow emotion to get the better of her judgment in future. She listened with a docility that promised future reprisals, and then, agreeing that it would be well to secure the horse, said that she should not mind being left alone. Indeed, unless something very unexpected happened, she would be as safe alone at Fairmead as in any town.

So I saddled the next best horse, donned my warmest skin coat, and started for a cold ride across the prairie. The snow was thin and fairly hard-it seldom lies deep about Fairmead; but in view of the return journey I did not urge the horse, and our sleigh had lost a runner. So when perhaps half the distance had been traversed a beat of hoofs grew louder behind me, and four horsemen, riding hard, came up. By the jingle of accouterments I knew they were the wardens of the prairie, and half expected what was to follow.

"Hold up!" the sharp summons came, while I recognized my old acquaintance, Sergeant Angus, as the speaker. "Lorimer o' Fairmead-good night to ye. Have ye seen a two-horse sleigh? We've news of it passing Green Hollow, south-bound, four hours ago!"

"Whom are you wanting?" I asked.

"Thomas Fletcher," the sergeant answered. "One of his late partners gave him away, and there's a warrant for him. 309 They wired us on to watch the stations, and a message came from Elktail that he'd been seen heading south in a sleigh. He's no friend o' yours; have ye met that sleigh, and where are ye riding at this unholy hour?"

"No," I said, "I haven't seen the sleigh; but a woman drove up to Fairmead, where my sister was alone, and borrowed my best horse. There are some business friends of yours on the trail to Dakota, and I'm going south in case they took a fancy to it."

"Ye're wise," said Sergeant Angus. "A woman, are ye sure?"

"My sister was sure, and she ought to know."

"I'm not quite understanding this," he said, "but meantime Thomas Fletcher is skipping for the boundary. Ride ye, boys, ride!"

I was thankful for the diversion, for I could not see my way clearly, and as we pressed on there was small opportunity for awkward questions. I wanted the horse and meant to get it, but that would have contented me, and I had no desire to assist in the capture of Fletcher. Another hour passed, and then far away on the edge of the white circle, which was lighted by the rays of a sinking moon, I saw a moving speck, and one of the troopers shouted. Thereupon the spurs went in, and when my beast shot forward I knew that the police horses were tired, and I could readily leave them behind. Still, I was not an officer of the law, and reflecting that my presence or absence would in no way affect the fugitives' chance of escape, while after recent events it was well to be careful, I held him in.

We were gaining, however, for the distant object developed into a sleigh; but the moon was sinking fast, and the dark line on the horizon, with a fretted edge, betokened the birches fringing Coulée Rouge, where the party before us might well escape. 310

"Ride ye, boys!" cried the sergeant; but the beasts were weary and the blundering gallop was a poor one, while I kept a firm hand on the good horse's rein, holding him behind the others and out of sight, lest Sergeant Angus should demand an exchange in the Queen's name. This was not easy, for Ormond had hunted coyotes on him with a very scratch pack of hounds, while one of the troopers kept dropping back toward me, and the beast seemed under the impression that I was wilfully throwing away my chance in the race. Meanwhile, the sleigh grew more and more visible, though I did not doubt that its occupants were doing their utmost to gain the shelter of the birches in the dark coulée, and that my other horse was suffering at their hands accordingly. Then there was a growl from the sergeant as the sleigh was lost on the edge of the fringe of trees, and presently we rode panting and more slowly beneath them, to the brink of the coulée, with the steam from the horses rising in white clouds about us. It was, of course, particularly steep, and as the moonlight only filtered through the matted branches dark shadow for the most part veiled the treacherous descent, which the troopers accomplished with many a stumble. They were excellent horsemen, but there is

a limit to equine endurance, and their beasts had nearly reached it. Presently, as we neared the very rude log bridge which spanned the inevitable creek, the last silvery patch of radiance faded, and thick darkness filled the ravine.

"Halt!" said the sergeant. "Confusion! It's pit dark!" and drawing rein we sat still a few moments, listening intently, but we heard only the branches moaning under the bitter breeze.

"There are two trails," said Sergeant Angus. "Yon one up the other side leads south away for Dakota; this follows the coulée to Jake Tetley's. Tom, ye're proud o' your tracking, ride on to Tetley's, an', for Jake's good at lyin', 311 look well for the scrape o' runners if he swears he has not seen them. Finding nothing, if ye strike southeast over the rises, ye'll head us off on the Dakota trail. I'm thinking they're hurrying that way for the border, and we'll wait for ye by the Blackfoot ridge."

He rubbed a fizzing sulphur match into sickly flame; but, as the banks were steep, and that bridge formed a favorite crossing, the snow showed the recent passage of many runners, and there was nothing to be learned from them. The wood was thicker than usual, and from what we could see there was no way a sleigh could traverse it quickly except by the two trails. So the trooper departed for Tetley's dwelling, which lay some distance up the coulée, while we breasted the opposite slope and proceeded more slowly through the darkness across the plain. Half an hour later we waited a while on the crest of one of the gradual rises which are common thereabout, until presently a hail answered the sergeant's cry, and the trooper rejoined us.

"They've not been near Tetley's," he said. "Must have pushed on straight ahead of us. I made him bring a lantern, and prospected down the trail, but nothing on four legs has come up it for a week at least."

"Where do you think they have gone?" I asked, and the sergeant answered wearily:

"The deil knows, but it will be south. Weel, we have our orders, an' their cattle are failing, while even if we miss them we'll strike their trail by daylight."

"I hope you will," I answered. "I'm anxious about my horse, but I can't go any further to-night. He's a big chestnut, branded small O inside the Carrington C. You'll be careful with him, won't you?"

"On with ye, boys," said the sergeant. "A fair passage home, Mr. Lorimer; I'm envying ye a warm seat by the stove to-night," and the mounted figures disappeared into 312 the gloom, while more leisurely I headed back toward the coulée. Orders were orders with the Northwest Police, and though they had ridden under Arctic cold most of the day they must also spend the night in the saddle if the horses could keep their footing much longer, which, however, seemed doubtful. The search might last several days, and I could not leave Aline so long, while a Brandon man of business had arranged to call on me the next afternoon, and I knew that if the troopers came upon it the horse would be in good hands. Still, the police at least were strong men, and I rather pitied Minnie Fletcher slowly freezing in the bitter darkness under Aline's furs. I was glad now that she had lent them to her. Minnie evidently had not expected that the troopers, being warned by telegraph, would take up the trail so soon.

Then for the first time I recollected that Tetley had been cutting building logs on a more level strip half-way up the side of the ravine, and had cleared a jumper trail toward it. The sergeant certainly did not know this, and it struck me that while his party searched the two forking trails Fletcher's sleigh might well have lain hidden in the blind one, and I turned the horse's head toward Tetley's dwelling. When I neared it my suspicions were confirmed, for a rough voice hailed me from under the trees:

"What are you wanting, stranger? Stop there!"

"I want Jim Tetley," I answered.

"He's way down to Dakota, and you can't see him," the unseen person said.

To this I replied at a venture: "I'm too cold for unnecessary fooling. Jim Tetley is inside there. Go right in, and tell him that Lorimer of Fairmead is waiting for his horse. He'll understand that message."

"Now you're talking," said the man showing himself. "Stay where you are until I come back." And when he 313 returned, he said: "You can have it on the promise you'll tell no one what you see. It's not healthy to break one's bargain, either, with Jim Tetley, while living in a wooden house with a straw-pile granary."

"I'm a friend of Mrs. Fletcher, and I'm in a hurry," I answered boldly, and when he ushered me into the dwelling I saw what I had expected. Minnie lay back limp and colorless in a big chair by the stove. Fletcher knelt close beside her chafing her wrists, and the table was littered with wrappings, while Tetley frowned at me from one end of the room.

"Fletcher," I said. "You and your advocate worked up a lying charge against me. Shall I ask your wife before you whether it's true? Do you know that in half an hour I could bring the police on you?"

"I guess you won't," said Tetley, laying his hand significantly on the rifle behind him; while Fletcher answered sullenly, "You needn't. I know now it isn't true. But I was mad, and believed it at first, and afterward it was either that or five years. There were other counts against me; and what could a poor man do?"

Minnie looked at him with disgust, and shivered as she snatched one of her hands from his grasp. "It was very good of your sister, Ralph," she said, "and I knew you would forgive me for borrowing the horse; he is there in the stable, and Tetley will find Tom another. It was an awful journey, even before we reached Fairmead, where I hid him in the bottom of the sleigh; and they brought me in here almost frozen stiff."

"I thought she was gone, poor thing!" said Mrs. Tetley, who was cooking something on the stove; and her husband broke in: "She looked like it. Cuss them police! But we euchred them. A young trooper rides up to the door and drives me round prospecting with a lantern. Of course, he 314 found nothing, and when he rode off I began to tumble. Found your friends in the log-trail and brought them in, knowing them blame troopers wouldn't come back again. Sergeant Angus is a smart man, but he doesn't know everything, and I'll see Fletcher and his missis safe in the hands of a friend who will slip them over the border."

"I'm not going," said Minnie. "Ralph-and you all can listen-my husband came to me desperate and hopeless in fear of the law. Oh, it's no secret, all the prairie knows that he used me scandalously-but he was my husband-and I could not give him up. So I took the few dollars I had and hired the sleigh, and when the horse fell dead lame we came to Fairmead. I knew, though we had wronged you, I could trust you. Now he's in safe hands; I'm going no further with him. There are some things one cannot forget. I shall tell the story to the people who employed me; they are kind-hearted folk, but it doesn't matter if they give me up. I'm sick of this life, and nothing matters now."

She broke out half-sobbing, half-laughing wildly, and though Fletcher growled something sullenly, hanging his head with the air of a whipped hound, I fancied that he seemed relieved at this decision, and was slightly surprised to see he had even the decency to appear ashamed of himself. Then, knowing that the people she worked for would do their best for Minnie, I determined to write to them, and I asked Tetley to bring out the horse.

"Can't I give you a shakedown in the stable until morning?" he said. "The missis will look after Mrs. Fletcher, and see she gets back safe," and he added so that the others could not hear him, "Fletcher's meaner than poison, and I'd let the troopers have him and welcome, only for the sake of the woman, and because he knows enough about some friends of mine to make things lively if he talked."

Tetley was of course a rascal, but there was a certain 315 warped honesty in his dealings with brother rogues-at least so rumor said-and I knew if he had given his promise he could be trusted, while a few of his perfectly honest neighbors were sorry when not long afterward Sergeant Angus proved too sharp for him.

"No, thanks," I answered. "My horse would be worth a great deal in Dakota, and I'll clear out while I'm sure of him."

"Good-bye, Ralph," said Minnie, when I donned the fur cap and mittens. "I don't suppose I shall ever see you again-no, of course you won't be sorry; but you and Jasper were the only two who ever showed me kindness in this hard, hard country. I wish, oh, how I wish I had never seen it! Tell my father to forget me, the sooner the better. I have chosen my own way, and must follow it. It's leading me to prison now."

She appeared about to relapse into hysterics, and knowing that I could not help her at the moment, and might only make matters worse, I stopped Fletcher with a threatening gesture as he prepared to address me, and hurried out with Tetley, who showed me the horse.

"You'll strike Cranton's heading, due east by the chain sloos, in a league," he said. "He deals with us sometimes, and you needn't fear his talking. Don't trouble about Mrs. Fletcher. She's all right."

I rode out leading one of the horses, and in due time reached Cranton's, though I nearly beat the door in before I roused him, and I left him the next morning with his curiosity unsatisfied. That was the last I ever saw of Thomas Fletcher. Neither did Sergeant Angus find his trail, for Tetley knew every foot of the prairie, and enjoyed the reputation of being unequaled in his own somewhat mysterious business, which I understood demanded a high proficiency in evading the watchfulness of the police.

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