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   Chapter 20 THE END

The La Chance Mine Mystery By Susan Morrow Jones Characters: 14255

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

The boy at the fire let out a yelp and dropped flat. Dudley and Baker, invisible somewhere, neither spoke nor stirred. And I stood like a fool, as near the death of Nicholas Dane Stretton as ever I wish to get.

But Macartney only stood there, looking so much as usual that I guessed he must have rested outside the mouth of our burrow before he wormed down to tackle me.

"You wouldn't have left any tracks," he said, picking up what I'd just said in his everyday manner, if it had not been for the dog's grin he always wore when he was angry, "if I hadn't run on single snowshoe tracks carrying double, where you crossed the Caraquet road. And if one of you hadn't trailed your shoe tails through Skunk's Misery-that doesn't wear them!"

"How did you get here?" said I slowly, because I was calculating my spring to Macartney's gun hand.

"I walked," and I thought he had not noticed I was half a step nearer him. "If you meant me to drown myself following you over your lake, I didn't-thanks to the kind warning you made of my men. But I didn't imagine you'd drowned yourselves either-after I looked through a field glass! Charliet had plenty of snowshoes cached away; I was always quick on my feet; and after I struck your track the rest was simple-especially as you were fool enough to bring a girl here. I--" but his level voice was suddenly thick with passion. "Get back! If you try to grab my gun I'll shoot you, and your boy too, like dogs! You'll stay still and listen-to what I've to say. I've an account to settle with you, Stretton; now that I've cleaned up Dudley's, and he's dead!"

You could have heard a pin drop on the dead silence of that underground hole. Neither Dudley nor Baker stirred, and it hit me like a hammer that Macartney didn't know they were alive; he didn't know!

I stood as though I had been struck dumb; so did Paulette. Neither of us even flickered an eyelash toward the shadows behind us, where Dudley must be crouching, anything but dead, with Baker beside him. Perhaps it struck both of us, simultaneously, that Dudley had heard Macartney coming before we did and disappeared on purpose, thinking Macartney might speak naked truth to Paulette and myself, where he would have varnished it up to a mysteriously resurrected employer whom he might yet bamboozle as he always had bamboozled him. Anyhow, neither of us saw fit to give Dudley away. Macartney sneered into our silent faces.

"There's not much fight in you," he commented contemptuously. "Though it was never any good to try to fight me! If you like to have it in black and white, I've been all the brains of the business here-single-handed! It was I got the secret of the wolf bait from the mother of your lame friend here," he pointed with his unoccupied hand to my grovelling boy, "when first I followed Paulette out from New York and laid up in Skunk's Misery to wait till I had a clear way to get to La Chance. That old ass Thompson gave me that, when I scooped him up on the road. After I'd used him, two of my men drowned him in Lac Tremblant-and you'd never have guessed a word about it, if it hadn't been for his cursed card they overlooked in the shack here, where you found it. It was I put that bottle in your wagon the day it broke there. I did it before I knew Paulette was going to drive with you; that was the only thing in the whole business that ever gave me a scare! It was I got rid of Collins and Dunn"-I saw that he believed it, just as he believed he was rid of Dudley-"and the most of your men who might have stuck by you if it came to a fight for the mine. I had to shoot the last four of them, as you didn't find out that night in the assay office! I baited the bush that rid me of Dudley Wilbraham, with his yells about emeralds and hunting down Thompson's murderer; and I've got your and his mine, in spite of your blowing up and drowning all the men I meant to hold it with. But you found out most of that, even if it was a little late. What you didn't find out, or Dudley either, was that he was right about Van Ruyne's emeralds!"

Paulette leapt up like a wildcat. "You mean you took them?"

"I took them," he nodded sneeringly, and I saw her eyes blaze. "I took them-to get you into a hole you'd have to come to me to get out of!"

"But I didn't have to come to you! I--" but she spoke with sudden cutting deliberation. "I don't believe you. You were never in the Houstons' house that night. I should have seen you."

"Oh, seen me!" Macartney grinned. I think the two of them forgot me, forgot everything but that they were facing each other at last with the masks off. I know neither of them heard a slow, creeping, nearing sound in the long burrow behind Macartney, a sound that swung my blood up with the wild, furious hope that Collins and Dunn-anyhow Collins-was hot on Macartney's trail, as Macartney had been on Paulette's and mine, and was creeping down the burrow behind him now, ready to take him in the rear when I jumped at him from the front. I waited till whoever it was came close up; waited for the moment to grab Macartney, watching his triumphant, passionate eyes as he stared victoriously at Paulette.

"Seen me?" he repeated, and I hoped the sound of his own voice would deafen him to that other sound, that was so loud to me. "You saw the Houstons' guests, and their servants! You never thought of seeing the expert who was down from New York about the heating of Mrs. Houston's new orchid houses! I left the real man dead drunk in New York, in a place he wouldn't leave in a hurry; and the week-end you spent at the Houstons' I, and my plans, had the run of Mrs. Houston's library, that neither she nor any one else ever goes into. And," he laughed outright, "it was next your sitting room, opening on the same upstairs balcony! I had only to put my hand through an open window to scoop Van Ruyne's emeralds out of their case while you had your back turned, writing the note you sent outside the case, instead of inside! Remember?" But this time he did not laugh. "I missed fire about getting you that night, thanks to that fool Wilbraham happening round with his car. But now I'll take all I did this whole business for-and that's you,-Paulette Valenka!"

Paulette never took her eyes from him. "That's a lie," she said quite evenly. "Oh, not that you took the emeralds; I believe that. But it was not only to get me into trouble. It was for themselves! You had to steal something. You hadn't one penny."

"Not then!" Even in the gloom I saw two scarlet spots flare out like sealing-wax on the always dead blondeness of Macartney's cheeks. I thought I could hear his heart beat where I stood. "But I have now! With the emeralds, your late friend Dudley's mine, and you,"-his voice was unspeakably, insultingly significant, but that unheard rustle behind him, growing nearer, more unmistakable, kept me motionless. "By heaven, a man might call himself rich! Did you suppose Stretton here could fight me? Why, I've been the secret wolf he never had the nous to guess at! I--" he swung around on me like light, his revolver six inches from my ear. "

Stand there," he shouted at me, "and die like Wilbraham, you--"

His hand dropped, his jaw fell with the half-spoken words in it; his eyes, all pupils, stared over my shoulder. I turned and saw Dudley,-Dudley, silent, watching us both; saw him even before I grabbed the gun out of Macartney's hanging, lax hand. But Macartney never so much as felt me do it. He stared paralyzed at Dudley-little, fat, with a face like a hard-boiled egg-standing silent against the dark of the inner cave.

Dudley had a nerve when you came through to it. "I've not died, yet," he snarled out suddenly.

I had the only gun in the place and the drop on Macartney; but I never stirred. That long-heard rustle in the burrow was close on me: was-

"My God, Marcia!" said I. I never even wondered about Collins and Dunn letting her get away. Marcia stood up in the entrance from the burrow, panting, purple-faced, exhausted. Marcia sprang to Macartney-not Dudley, I doubt if she even saw Dudley-with a cry out of her very soul.

"Mack, you're not Hutton-you never took those emeralds-and for that girl! Say it's a lie, and it's I you love! Mack, say you love me still!"

Macartney flung back a mechanical hand and swept her away from him like a fly. She fell and lay there. None of us had said a word since Dudley came out and faced Macartney. None of us said a word now. I saw, almost indifferently, Collins burst out of the burrow behind Macartney, as Marcia had burst out, and grab me. "Stretton," he gasped, "thank God-found your tracks. But that she-devil Marcia got away from me, and--" But in his turn he jerked taut where he stood, at sight of Dudley, and stood speechless.

But I never looked at him. I looked at nothing but Macartney's face.

It was rigid, as if it were a mask that had frozen on him. The sealing-wax scarlet on his cheeks had gone out like a turned-out lamp. His eyes went from Dudley to Collins and back again, as if they were the only living part of his deathly face.

"Ah," said Macartney, "A-ah!" He dropped on the floor all in one piece, like a cut-down tree.

Collins made a plunge for him. I sent Collins reeling.

"Let him alone, you young fool," I swore. "We've got him, and he's fainted. I've seen him like this before-the night he shot our own men in the assay office. It's only his old fainting fits."

"It's his new death," said Dudley, quite quietly. He came forward and bent over Macartney, laid a hand on his breast. "Can't you see the man's gone, Stretton? It killed him: the run here-the shock of seeing me. He must have had a heart like rotten quartz!"

Paulette, Collins, Baker, all of us, stood there blankly. We had not struck a blow, or raised a voice among the whole lot of us; Macartney's gun was still warm from his grasp whence I had snatched it; and Macartney-the secret wolf at La Chance, masquerader, thief, murderer-lay dead at our feet. I heard myself say out loud: "His heart was rotten: that was why he fainted in the assay office. But--Oh, the man was mad besides! He must have been." And over my words came another voice. It was Marcia's, and it made me sick.

"Macartney," she was screaming, "Macartney!" She ran round and round like a hen in a road, before me, Dudley, all of us; then flung herself on her brother as if she had only just realized him. "You're alive-you're not dead! Can't you see he never stole any emeralds nor loved that girl, any more than he killed you? You made up lies about him, all of you! And you stand here doing nothing for him. He--Oh, Mack, speak to me! Mack!"

She sprang to Macartney; dropped on her knees by the dead, handsome length of him; tore open his coat and shirt. But she knelt there, rigid, with her hand on his quiet heart.

Macartney had never stolen Van Ruyne's emeralds: she had just said it. There, around Macartney's bared throat, lying on the white skin of his chest, green lights in the dull fire-glow of the cave, were Van Ruyne's emeralds, that Paulette Brown-whose real name was Tatiana Paulina Valenka-had never seen or touched since she put them back into Van Ruyne's velvet case!

I will say Marcia Wilbraham knew when she was beaten. She cowered back to Dudley and began to cry; but it was with her arms round his neck. And the fat little man held her to his queer, kind heart. I turned my back sharply on the pair of them, and--My eyes met Paulette's!

There would be all sorts of fuss and unpleasantness to go through with the sheriff from Caraquet, over what was left of Macartney; there was old Thompson's death to be accounted for; Van Ruyne's emeralds to be returned to him, so that Tatiana Paulina Valenka, and not Paulette Brown, could marry that lucky, Indian-dark fool who was Nicky Stretton. There was Dudley's mine, too, all safe again, and such an incredible mine that even I would be passably rich out of it,-but I barely, just barely, thought of all those things. My dream girl's blue eyes were like stars in mine, under the burnt gold of her silk-soft hair. The clear carnation rose in her cheeks as I looked at her, where she stood close to me, all mine, as I had always dreamed she would be,-till I met her and was sick with doubt of it. She was mine! As far as I was concerned, this story had ended at Skunk's Misery,-where it had begun, if I had only guessed it. I gave an honest start as Collins jogged my elbow.

"We can't stay here, with that," he whispered, nodding at Macartney. "What do you think about getting out of this? We could leave-him-here, with Baker and the boy for a guard, till we can get the Caraquet people to come and see him. We've our snowshoes, and mine and the girls', besides Macartney's, that I guess he's done with. I think we could manage along as far as the Halfway in the morning, if we made a travois of boughs for Wilbraham!"

"But," I stared at him, "Macartney's picket's there!"

"Oh, Charliet and Dunn were going to clear them out with Miss Wilbraham's rifle, while I got after her, when she broke away on to Macartney's track here," Collins returned calmly. "I expect that's all right, and they've run. Anyhow, you've got Macartney's gun! You can go ahead and see."

But I had no need to. An abandoned picket has a way of knowing when the game is up, and Macartney's men had cleared out on the double, even before Charliet's first rifle bullet missed them. We caught them afterwards, half dead in the bush,-but that doesn't come in here. I walked into the Halfway with my dream girl beside me, and both of us jumped as Dudley suddenly poked his pig-eyed face between us.

"You needn't hop, you two," he commented irritably; "you can have your Old Nick, Paulette, for all me! What I'm thinking of's that boy-and Baker! I guess they saved my life all right between them, and I'm going to set them up for what's left of theirs. Got anything to say against that, hey?" with his old snarl.

"Not much," I returned soberly. But Paulette clasped both Dudley's podgy hands in hers.

"Oh, dear Dudley," she said softly. But there were tears in her eyes.

I know; for I kissed them away afterwards, when we were alone.


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