SERGEANT DONALD MACNAUGHT, B Section, Frontier Police, came out of the Superintendent's office with his head in the air and the assurance that the commission provisionally promised him was as good as in his pocket. True, he was a stranger in the Harris Fork district, having been moved there quite recently for a specific purpose, and this was undeniably a drawback out there in the wild, where local knowledge is a big asset in the tracking down of criminals. But then Macnaught had a proper conceit of himself, which usually goes with a Scotchman who happens to be born in Belfast. And, moreover, Superintendent Donovan had given him a free hand, so it was up to him to justify himself and, in the course of time, emerge triumphantly in the silver stripes that marked the higher rank.
And, so far as the ambitious Sergeant could see, the matter was pretty plain sailing. He had laid his plans before the Superintendent, after a careful study of the map, and the great man had been pleased to nod his approval. Beyond question, the quarry, in the shape of that reckless desperado Jimmy Hayes, had been marked down only the day before in the settlement on the far side of the foothills which were known as Eagle Ridge. Hayes had come there in one of his meteoric flights, ostensibly to bury his wife, but really to display himself in his most heroic light to an admiring community which, be it whispered, tendered to the desperado its entire sympathy. They were a wild, rather lawless lot out there, and brute force was a ritual. Besides, Jimmy Hayes was a man of undeniable courage and resource, a sort of Western Robin Hood, with a dash of Claude Duval, and in his more conventional days had been exceedingly popular. Then the wild blood in him had broken out, away down west at Dingo City, where he had found himself involved with a set of gamblers who had the temerity to try and rob him under the guise of a friendly game of poker. There had been trouble over that, and Hayes had got away, leaving one man for dead. That was merely an incident. He lay low till that was forgotten, then returned to Harris Fork, where he was in partnership with a sort of hybrid Jew called Marks—a partnership which for a time was exceedingly successful. This was owing almost entirely to Hayes's courage and resource, and it might have ended in fortune on both sides but for the fact that Hayes had journeyed once more to Dingo City, where there had been more trouble with his old antagonists, and where another of them had bitten the dust. There was a hue and cry after this, so that for many months it was impossible for Hayes to show himself at Harris Fork, and after a time rumour had it that he was dead.
At any rate, Harris Fork saw him no more for the best part of a year, during which his wife did not hear from him, though she always declared that he would come back one of these days.
She was a little, fragile flower of a woman, totally unfitted for those high, cold altitudes, with their terrible winter of snow and frost, but there was no denying her courage and her hopefulness that some day, when the partnership would be dissolved, she and Hayes could go down South. The partnership was dissolved, after Hayes's disappearance, by Marks, who cut it abruptly short with the statement that he had lost money over it, and that, so far as he was concerned, Mrs. Hayes could shift for herself. In other words, he robbed her in the most cold-blooded fashion, so that she had to go out into the settlement and get her own living. And this she did until the hard work became too much for her, and just as winter was setting in, she died—murdered, the women said, to put money in the pockets of a scoundrel.
And then, on the day of her funeral, Hayes put in a dramatic appearance. Where he came from and how he knew what had happened, nobody could tell. He just appeared out of nowhere by the side of the grave, and when the ceremony was over he set out, with a cold grey eye and a grim line between his brows, to look for Marks. But Marks had somehow got to know what had happened, and he was nowhere to be found. He was found at last, and what Hayes regarded as an ill-directed shot smashed his shoulder-blade. Hayes probably left him for dead, and promptly disappeared. He would have stayed, in the ordinary course of events, and faced the music, but as there was a warrant out against him on two other charges, he probably realised the slenderness of his chances and vanished.
Within an hour the Superintendent at Harris Fork was in full possession of the facts. He may have had his own ideas on the subject, but his duty was plain. He had to arrest Hayes, and, as he himself was wanted elsewhere, he had placed the matter in Macnaught's hands. The Sergeant worked it all out. He himself would ride over in the direction of Harris Fork, and two sections were telegraphed to meet him from the frontier on the far side of Eagle Ridge. They would thus take the criminal between them, and the rest would be easy.
So Macnaught mounted his horse and started out to cross fifteen miles of broken mountain country between the station and Eagle Ridge. He had his map in his hand, and a photograph of the criminal, together with his description. He glanced at it again as he jogged along. Hayes, according to the printed matter, was a big, well-knit man, apparently about forty, with a clean-shaven broad face. The characteristics were not particularly marked, but it was good enough for Sergeant Macnaught, and he was feeling on good terms with himself as he made his way between the rocky passes to the high ground, with its fringes of pine, and visions of promotion lay before him. He was a kindly man, was Macnaught, despite the grim current of blood in his veins, because, you see, his mother had been Irish, and there were times when the sentimental mood dominated him.
He was not thinking of that now—he was thinking what the Superintendent had said, and he was just a little uncertain in his mind as to the weather. For the first big snows of the year were due, there had been a hard frost last night, and the weather has a great deal to say to the puny schemes of men in that wild North-West Territory. In the ordinary way the ride to Eagle Ridge was in the nature of a picnic, but if the snow came, then it might end in a race for life.
And over the high ground beyond, at the back of the nodding pines which looked down on Eagle Ridge, there were broken ragged splashes of cloud that gradually marshalled themselves together till the blackness of the pines was no blacker than the sky beyond. And then, when Macnaught was about half-way, the snow came down in earnest.
It began with fine particles like spray; then, as the wind increased, it howled and swirled round Macnaught's head till his eyes were blind and he could see but a few feet in front of him. It was as if the whole world had been blotted out in a deluge of white—a howling, roaring world with a wind thrumming in the pines like harp-strings. It went on until the horse pul]ed up and, trembling in every muscle, refused to go any further. Macnaught dropped out of the saddle and sheltered himself as best he could behind his faithful beast. He stood there for an hour, until he was frozen to the very marrow, until every object in the dreary landscape was wiped out, and until he had not the remotest notion where he was. The white spindrift was knee-deep, and still creeping upwards like a tide, and then for the first time Macnaught recognised his peril. He turned his back to the wind and looked in the direction whence he had come—that was, as far as he could look any way. So far as he was concerned, he might have been inside the Arctic Circle. He dared not go back; to go forward was equal madness. But ever and again a torn wrack in the cloud showed the crest of pines on the distant hill, and he knew, at any rate, that Eagle Ridge lay over there. So he struggled on, walking his horse with increasing difficulty at every step, until he could move no further, then he fell helplessly to his knees, and the horse rolled over by his side.
How long this had been going on he did not know. He could only guess, by the fading light, that it was late in the afternoon, and that, unless a miracle happened, he would never see Harris Fork again. A certain dumb apathy filled him, a certain carelessness as to the future. Well, he had done his best, and there was an end of it. He would not be the first Mounted Policeman who had perished by the wayside in the execution of his duty.
It seemed to him that he slept a little, and that presently he woke with something calling him. The wreaths of snow were still volleying round his head, the white battalions of the gale were still screaming in his ears, and he was frozen to the very soul. But surely someone was calling to him, some voice in his ear beckoning him on? Then he recognised the sound as that of the bark of a dog.
A dog meant human companionship, a sledge, perhaps, and the thought of it galvanised Macnaught into life He struggled to his feet and yelled at the top of his voice. Then the dog barked again, and something that sounded like a faint "Hello!" was borne on the breast of the gale. Again Macnaught shouted, and this time a man unmistakably replied.
"Here we are," the voice said. "I'll find you."
It seemed an unconscionably long time— indeed, it was upwards of an hour—before two hands were placed under Macnaught's arms and he was dragged to his feet. As if conscious that help was at hand, the horse rose, too. And then followed a breathless struggle for life, which ended in another hour in front of a black cavity in the hillside —in other words, a cave with its back to the wind, into which Macnaught was dragged, together with his weary charger. Something trickled down his throat, he was conscious of warmth and the cuddling caress of furs, and then he realised that he was in a bit of a cave in which a fire was burning, and that a big man, with a careworn face and a brown beard streaked with grey, was looking at him in a kindly fashion.
"That was a close call," the stranger said.
"Aye, it was that," Macnaught replied. "But for you, I was down and out all right, and I'm not going to thank you. You must have had a bit of a struggle getting me here."
"Well, you are here," the stranger said. "And now let me give you something to eat. You snuggle up in those furs whilst I fry a rasher of bacon. This isn't going to last long; we'll have the frost back before daylight."
Macnaught ate presently and got his pipe going. Then he and his rescuer began to talk. The other man had been caught on his way through a pine path whence he was going down to the plain and the milder climate on the other side of the divide. He had been trading up at Eagle Ridge, and had, perhaps, been a little too anxious to get through the pass before the first snows fell. Luckily for him, he had his provisions and his dogs, and he had hit the cave in the hillside just at the psychological moment. His name, it appeared, was Prosser, and he was principally concerned in the fur trade. Then, under his eyes, he glanced casually at Macnaught's uniform.
"Policeman, ain't you?" he asked.
"That's so," Macnaught admitted. "I was on my way to Eagle Ridge on business."
The other man appeared to be interested.
"I think I can guess," he said. "After Jim Hayes, ain't you?"
There was no occasion to deny the fact, so Macnaught admitted it. He wanted to know if the other knew anything about the criminal.
"I have met him," Prosser said. "Fact is, Jim and I were quite good friends at one time. He's not a bad sort, but has a devil of a temper, and is quite reckless of consequences when he is roused. I was down at Dingo City, and saw both those troubles he was in there. And you can take it from me, stranger, that it wasn't his fault either time. And as to that poisonous scoundrel Marks, I ain't blamin' Jim in the least. When you know how he suffered at that man's hands, and how his wife's death was entirely due to that villain, you would have been sorry for Jim, policeman though you are."
"I am sorry for him now," Macnaught said. "But then my private opinion has got nothing to do with it. If half I hear is true, Marks asked for all he got."
"Aye, he did that," Prosser said. "I knew Mrs. Hayes well, and a dearer little woman But I'm not going into that. So you expect to get hold of Jim, eh?"
"Sure to," Macnaught said laconically. "He must have been mad to have come back like that."
"Well, I don't know," the other man drawled, as he sucked thoughtfully at his pipe. "Jim was sure fond of that pretty little wife of his. And I think, Sergeant, if you had ever seen her—"
Prosser broke off and stared intently into the stove as if he could see visions. He stroked his beard with the streaks of grey in it, and his eyes had a far-away look in them.
"I knew Jim Hayes pretty well," he went on, "and I knew what he had to put up with. A plucky little woman, she was, and never said a word when Jim made up his mind to come up here prospecting in the mines. Not as he ever meant to stay. His idea was to make a fortune and get South, and he was in a hurry, too, because he could see what the winters hereabouts were doing for his missus. And then he struck it, him and Marks together, and he did all the work and took all the risk—he had plenty of that, let me tell you—until he won through and made Marks's fortune. Then there was that trouble down in Dingo City. He ought never to have got into that by rights, but, as I am telling you, he was always a headlong, impulsive sort of fool, and he wasn't quite as good at poker as he thought he was. But he wasn't going to be robbed, all the same, and that was the cause of the trouble. Then he must needs go back there again, right amongst 'em, and that time he had to fight for his life, whatever folks may say. And if the Sheriff hadn't been in it, and hadn't been half afraid of the gang, no more would have been heard of it; but they made it out wilful murder, and Jim, he had to fly. Couldn't come back any more, couldn't see his wife, though he wrote to her—wrote her a letter that she never got, because Marks saw to that. And when he heard the truth, it was too late. He came back to attend his wife's funeral and kill Marks, and, if I know anything of Jim, he's plum sorry he didn't succeed. I am telling you all this, Sergeant, because I know you are after Jim—I knew it as soon as I saw your uniform. You were going to catch him between two fires the other side of Eagle Ridge, and, but for this storm, you probably would have done so. Now, isn't that right?"
"Perfectly right," Macnaught agreed. "But I doubt if we shall do it now. He's probably perished in this storm, and, after what you have told me, I am not sorry, though, mind you, there was promotion waiting for me."
"If you succeeded, eh? Well, perhaps you will yet."
"Oh, well, it's no pleasant job, mine," Macnaught said in half extenuation.
"I see—you have got to do as you are told?"
"That's right," Macnaught agreed. "But never mind about Hayes. You saved my life. It was a million to one against my getting through, and almost that against us finding our way here. And you must have known that, though you didn't mind taking your life in your hands with about as much chance of finding me as if I had been no more than a flake of snow. But you did it, and I don't know how to thank you."
"Oh, that's all right," Prosser said casually. "It's more thanks to the dog than to me."
He indicated the well-fed dog and the horse standing patiently in the corner, and refused to hear any more. So they sat there in the warmth, half buried in their furs, listening to the dying storm outside, and conscious presently of the increasing cold. Then Prosser rose and looked outside into a still white world where the wind had died to nothing, and overhead the stars, like spilt sheaves of golden grain, burned against a sky of granite.
"It will be fine going in the morning," Prosser said. "Hard as iron in an hour or two, by which time, with any luck, I'll be through the pass down on to the plains. But it will come back again. It will come again before noon."
With that he turned in, and the two men slept. It was broad daylight and well into the marrow of the morning before Macnaught crept out of his furs, only to find that Prosser and his team had gone. They must have been gone for some time, for the stove had burnt low, and the bacon which Prosser had cooked for his guest's breakfast lay tepid in its pan. Macnaught wondered at this sudden flight, until he recollected his host's prophecy that the storm would break again before long. Outside, the snow was frozen so hard that the tracks of the sledge were none too well marked. Over behind Eagle Ridge there was a violet haze, and near at hand a faint murmur within the pines that warned Macnaught of what was coming in the near future. So he hurried through his breakfast and slung himself on the back of his horse presently, and crossed the frozen plain in the direction of the settlement. He hurled along almost recklessly, for long before he reached Eagle Ridge the white cohorts were dancing about his head, so that he made the town and the big general store there with some difficulty. No sooner was he inside, seated in front of the stove, before the storm came down again in earnest. He sat there, turning over the events of the past few hours in his mind, and hoping that Prosser was through the pass before the demons of the air broke out again.
There were half a dozen men seated round the stove, members of the settlement, hard, lean settlers, miners and others, discussing the weather in their slow and deliberate way, when the door of the store was flung open and three men entered. Macnaught recognised them at a glance. They were the sergeant and two troopers who had been told off to help him. One look into their faces, and Macnaught knew that they had failed. And the other men seated round the stove looked, too. They wanted no one to tell them what this detachment of Mounted Police was doing in Eagle Ridge. Macnaught saw a smile pass from face to face, a smile of quiet triumph, as he knew, and an indication that these people here were all on the side of Hayes. And they knew that justice had been baffled.
"Hello! So you've got here?" Macnaught's fellow-sergeant greeted him. "Any luck?"
"Most infernally lucky to get here," Macnaught said.
"Same here," the other man responded. "The storm caught us last night, and we had to stop. Question, where is he now? Any of you men seen Jim Hayes?"
Again the slow smile went round the stove like a mental telegraphy. The police had failed, and every man listening rejoiced in the fact. A lean individual seated in a corner turned slowly to the questioner.
"Not since yesterday morning," he drawled. "Jim, he come unexpected, just out of nowhere, as it might be. And we 'uns here thinkin' him dead, and not one of us expecting him. He didn't come as you 'uns come now, sitting round the stove and passin' the time o' day. He come and stands by the side o' the grave where we was burying that wife o' his. It were yesterday mornin', an' most of us had turned out, because, you see, Jim's wife, she were sort o' popular, an' there wasn't one of us as wasn't ready to lend her a helpin' hand. She'd have died earlier, she would, but for some of us."
"Well, get on," the Sergeant said impatiently.
"You asked for facts an' I'm givin' 'em you, pard," the old man went on. "If ever a woman was murdered, it were Jim Hayes's wife. And who murdered her? It were that pesky skunk of a Marks—him as is lyin' in his hut now with a bullet through the shoulder that ought to have killed him, the dirty swab. Not as we knew it, because we didn't know as the claim had turned out so well. But we know it now, because yesterday, Jim he up and told us."
"Oh, do get on!" the Sergeant exclaimed.
"Oh, I'm comin' to it all right, mister. There we was round the grave of the whitest little woman in the State, and she done to death by Marks because he thought her husband was gone, and that he could rob her of what was her due, and she working to keep body and soul together, and half dying o' the cold! And if we'd only known it, we'd have had his black heart out o' him long ago!"
The Sergeant stirred impatiently, but nothing seemed to disturb the even tenor of the speaker.
"We was standin' round the grave," he said, "an' parson, he just spoke his last piece, when there comes a man pushing his way through the crowd, right and left, and he stands by the side o' the grave an' looks down at it sorrowful like, though his face was hard enough as if it had been frozen. And there 'e stands, and we wonderin', till I looks at 'im again, with his bowed head and bent shoulders, and that brown beard o' his with the streaks o' grey in it, an' I says to myself: 'By the livin' Moses, if it ain't Jim Hayes!' An' Jim Hayes it was—aye, Jim right enough."
The old man paused, with some sense of the dramatic values, and gazed triumphantly around him. Macnaught sat there, the illumination almost blinding him.
"Stop a moment," he said, in a voice that he hoped was steady. "How long had Jim Hayes had a beard? From our description of him—"
"I don't know nothin' about that," the old man said obstinately. "He used to be smooth-faced, but he's got a beard now right enough, and it was Jim, too. I calls out, and the others see I was right, an' Jim, he turns to us when it was all over, and he asks where Marks was, and when we'd heard his story we told him. So he lays out for Marks, an' late in the afternoon he got him. Left him for dead. Then he gets his team together and off he goes. And that's the truth, Sergeant, as any man around the stove will tell you."
A long silence followed, whilst every man was turning the problem over in his mind. Either Hayes had got away down the pass in the direction of the valleys on his way to the frontier, where he would be safe, or he had been caught in the big storm and had perished. As to this, they would know in time. But the one man there who could have told them everything sat sucking at his dead pipe and stared into the stove.
For Macnaught knew that Hayes had got away in safety, and, so far as he was concerned, there was one incident in the chronicles of the North-Western Police that would never be told.