HE lay there with his head on his hands, spent to the world and weary to the verge of collapse. He had drifted in, earlier in the evening, out of the whirl and flurry of the blizzard, and, though the snow had melted from his cap and the bulky fur coat about his shoulders, his heavy boots were still caked and white, for the heat of the stove struck upwards, and even those in the corner of the saloon playing euchre steamed and stewed in the moisture, though their feet were almost frozen as they sat. Outside, a white world tossed and moaned; outside, the gale volleyed and hissed against the window-panes, and the reeling world trembled and staggered before the force of the storm. Beyond the saloon was a clump of pines, that bent and tossed before the stress of it all, and groaned and shivered like human bodies in agony. For the time, at least, the little mining camp on the Ekon River was wiped out, everything was at a standstill, and the miners gathered in the saloon, driven there for warmth and company, had taken their lives in their hands in crossing the shoulder of the bluff that lay not a quarter of a mile away.
There were, perhaps, twenty-five of them altogether, rough and uncouth men gathered from all parts of the world in search of the grinning little yellow god for whom they were all prepared to pledge their souls. In the vernacular, it was a pretty tough crowd, and, for the most part, every man there was content to hide his name under some modest pseudonym. There were Jakes and Bills and Broncho Charlies, full of rough friendship for one another, and yet each prepared to cut the other's throat cheerfully for the sake of that same grinning little yellow god that sets men mad and fires all the worst instincts that beset poor humanity.
But for the time being, at any rate, the fitful fever of the chase had faded out of men's minds, and they were huddled together there in the saloon for warmth and sporting companionship, like so many wild beasts freshly fed and watered, and for the moment at peace with all the world. Half a dozen of them lounged against the bar, talking and smoking, whilst the rest, poring over their greasy and fly-blown cards, were lost to their surroundings in the tense excitement of the moment. So it had come about that the tired and sodden waif lying there with his head on the table had drifted into the saloon without exciting the least curiosity, and without a word of greeting from anyone. He had poured a measure of some fiery spirit down his throat, he had eaten wolfishly, like one who has fasted to the verge of collapse, then he had thrown his head forward upon his hands, and was sleeping now as if the end of the world had come, and as if he were no more than a microcosm floating in illimitable cosmos. Just now and again a miner flung a glance at him over his shoulder, and the bar-keeper smiled carelessly. No one wanted to disturb him—every man had been through the same thing himself more than once—and if the sleeper had a story to tell, then they would hear it all in good time. And so he slept and slept while the gale roared outside and the pines tossed like things in pain.
Then the door of the saloon opened again with a flurry of snow and a keen, icy draught that set the stinking kerosene lamps dancing, and three other men entered. They glanced carelessly about the room through the low, drifting smoke for some point where they might rest, for they, too, carried the marks of the storm, and for the most part seemed to be almost as spent and weary as the sodden fur-clad figure lying there with his head on the table. And it was to this table they drifted eventually, and sat down and were calling for drinks, which were brought to them, and paid for by the big man with the clean-shaven, hatchet face and the keen black eyes. The big man had come in with a smaller man by his side—a smaller man who walked close by him, so that their coat-sleeves seemed to touch—and a close observer might have observed that there was reason for this, inasmuch as a link of steel bound one left wrist to the right of the other. Still, there was no ostentation about this connection, and apparently the big man with the glittering eyes was doing his best to shield the fact from general observation. The third individual slouched behind the other two, looking repugnant and truculent enough, though his eyelids drooped ever and anon, and there was a nervous grin on his lips that bespoke a mind none too much at ease. Had a novelist who knew the ropes been present, he would have said that here was the sheriff in possession of a prisoner, and that the third man making up the group was the informant who had brought the arrest about, in which the novelist would have been entirely correct, for the Sheriff, Michel Thornton, had just arrested George Setro for the murder of Jim Cuddis, and the man with the shifty eyes stood as King's evidence. And Setro, as he dropped into his chair opposite the slumbering man, knew that his shrift was short, and that, unless a miracle happened, rude justice would be dealt him before daylight, and his place in the cosmic scheme know him no more. All of which was mighty hard upon Setro, for the man was innocent, black as the evidence was against him, and he was fighting hard for his life.
It was quite characteristic of that rough-and-ready locality that sheriff and prisoner and leading evidence for the prosecution should sit round the table and drink together much as if they were partners in some lawful enterprise. And as they sat they chatted, more or less in a friendly manner, taking no heed of the sodden stranger who snored upon the table. And as to the rest of the men gathered there, they hardly glanced up from their cards, and the new-comers were forgotten.
"What's the next move?" the prisoner asked indifferently.
He put the question carelessly, but he was far from feeling as indifferent as he appeared. Characteristically enough, he had no emotion of animosity against the man to whom he was linked by that slender steel chain. All the rage and fear and anger that boiled within him were kept for the other man with the uneasy grin, who had talked glibly enough as they had come along on that perilous journey through the snow, for Setro, the Englishman, had an uneasy sort of feeling that it was this third man who had brought about all the trouble. But for the moment, at any rate, he took a pull at himself as he turned eagerly to Thornton, the Sheriff.
"Waal, I hardly know," Thornton drawled. "You see, it all depends. Stands to reason as it is my duty to take you down to Carton City. But to get there, we've got to pass through the Gulch, and if the boys there take matters in their own hands—waal, I guess they'll save the State the trouble of putting you on trial. Because, you see, Jim Cuddis, he was some popular down there in the Gulch, and the boys are annoyed with you, Setro, and they ain't making no secret of the fact. So I calculate that they'll take matters in their own hands."
The prisoner was grimly of the same opinion. And the worst of it was that appearances were dead against him. For a year or more he and Cuddis had been partners up yonder on the snow-line, where they had lived, almost apart from the rest of humanity, working their successful claim, and merely going down to the Gulch from time to time in search of provisions. In that inclement region for long periods together the partners were cut off from the rest of the world by the ramparts of the winter snows, and when, in the early spring, the first break had come, the man with the shifty eyes had gone up into the hills to see Cuddis on business.
He had come back at the end of a month or two with a strange story. He had found the miners' shack deserted, and no sign of Cuddis or Setro to be seen, but he had discovered, half a mile from the hut, the skeleton of a man with a bullet-hole in the centre of his forehead, and, from certain bits of evidence picked up in the vicinity, he had been forced to the conclusion that this was the skeleton of Jim Cuddis, picked clean by the wolves and the birds of prey that hovered over the mountains. At the same time there was no trace of Setro to be seen, and for many months no man set eyes upon him. Beyond doubt he had murdered his partner and gone off East with the heavy burden of gold dust which had been cleaned in the claim during the past year or so. And the man with the shifty eyes was indignant. He professed to be on intimate terms with the murdered man, and, indeed, he was known to have transacted business with him on several occasions. According to his story, he had gone up to the mountain to meet Cuddis in connection with an investment that the latter was contemplating, and in conjunction with which he held the papers, and it was this action on the part of the man with the shifty eyes that had led to the discovery of the murder.
The strange part of it was that, knowing his own guilt, and having got safely away with the plunder, Setro should have the temerity to return. Very likely he had come back for more spoil which he had been forced to leave behind him at the time he had committed the crime. The excuse that he had gone to England on business in connection with his partner and himself was held to be weak and flimsy, and, indeed, the more Sheriff Thornton examined it, the more damning did the admission seem, especially as Setro obstinately declined to divulge precisely what that business was.
"Better own up," the man with the shifty eyes suggested. "And there ain't much time, for sure. When the boys down at the Gulch lay hands on you to-morrow, they won't give you another chance. Let's have it, Setro."
"You shut up, Philpin!" Setro said savagely. "It isn't as if your hands were too clean. It's the truth I'm telling you, Sheriff, whether you believe it or not. When I came down from the mountains about a year ago, my partner was alive and well, and I thought it was all right till you came and laid hands upon me yesterday. I don't care what Philpin says—he's a poisonous skunk, as everybody knows. And I'm not saying he didn't see my partner from time to time when I was away, and I'm not saying that he didn't put some of his affairs in Philpin's hands. Still, if you give me a chance, I can prove that I was in England the best part of last year."
"There won't be time, sonny," the Sheriff said grimly. "And, besides, that don't prove that you didn't bore a hole in your own partner. He must have been lying dead there in the snow months before he was found. Still—"
Setro shrugged his shoulders helplessly. It would take months to prove the truth of his story, and he knew the boys at the Gulch well enough to feel that they would not wait as many hours. And, again, what was there to gain by betraying the confidence of his old partner? What avail to tell these rough-and-ready men that Cuddis had been an Englishman who had left his country under a cloud in circumstances that precluded his return, and that he had a daughter in England who had just left school, and that he (Setro) had gone all those miles to see her and explain exactly how matters stood? Of what avail to tell them that he and his partner had been successful beyond their wildest dreams, and that he had managed to clear up the trouble at home, and had come back to take Cuddis to the Old Country once again? Or that a pair of dewy grey eyes had looked into his with something more than gratitude in them, and that those grey eyes were drawing him like a magnet even at that hour of his deadly peril? So he sat there shrugging his shoulders indifferently, with the bitterness of death in his heart, and a growing feeling at the back of his brain that the whole thing had been set up for him by the man with the shifty eyes, who could have told a good deal more if he had pleased, but who was bent upon getting him out of the way; and if once this was done, then Stella Cuddis would never see a brass farthing of that gold for which the partners had worked so hard. It was all over now, the Fates were against him, and it was useless to struggle any longer.
His mind had suddenly grown vividly tense and clear. He was conscious of the acrid smell of the smoke in the saloon, the heavy breathing of the gamblers as they bent over their filthy cards, the mingled smell of sour humanity and the reek of cheap spirit. And this he saw all the more clearly because he knew surely enough that this would be his last outlook on life, that had grown all the sweeter and cleaner since his visit to England. As he bent forward, he could feel the packet of letters— those warm, affectionate letters from Stella Cuddis—crackling in his. breast-pocket. He found himself, in his heart, envying the sodden wisp of humanity lying there with his head on the table, unconscious of the grim tragedy that was running its course within a few feet of the straggling grey hair fringed round the edge of his battered fur cap. And as Setro looked up and caught the nervous grin on Philpin's face, he had a wild desire to reach over and batter those repulsive features out of all human semblance. Then the Sheriff spoke again. There was no feeling in his speech.
"Yes, you'd better own up," he said. "The cards are all against you, Setro."
"Do you think so?" Setro asked. "Well, I don't know. Seems to me that it's only Philpin's word against mine."
"And the evidence," Thornton went on. "Don't you go forgetting that we found the body of your partner with a hole in his skull. I ain't denying he'd been dead for months, and I ain't sayin' as how he wasn't picked clean by the crows and the timber wolves. But there he was, and you'd cleared out without sayin' nothin' to a soul. An' you comes back in the same quiet way without goin' near the Gulch, an' it's bad, Setro, it's bad."
"I'm not denying it," Setro said curtly, "and I am not blind to what's likely to happen when we get back to the Gulch. But, as I said before, it's only Philpin's word against mine. And how long has he had a reputation to be proud of? Is there one of the boys would sit down and play a game of cards with him? Is there one of them who wonld trust him as far as they could throw him? And that's the creature who wants the world to believe that my good old partner trusted him, and told him that he was afraid of me!"
"And so he did," Philpin protested. "Sent for me, he did, in secret, when you was down at the Gulch. And what he says to me was this: 'I'm not trustin' my partner Setro no longer. He's plannin' to rob me, an', mark my words, one night he'll put a bullet into me and skip with the boodle. An' I wants you to be my friend, Philpin. I wants you to take all these papers and documents, an' act for my relations in case I meet with an accident. There ain't no one to know this but myself, an' if I do pass in my checks, an' Setro comes along, talking about accidents an' snivellin' over the dear departed, you can just confront him with this here letter wot I've written and signed for you, an' makin' you my executor.' An' that's wot he says, an' I've got the letter to prove it."
Setro listened calmly enough; he was holding himself in now, conscious of the new peril that lay before him.
"You've got that letter in your pocket?" he asked.
"You bet I have, sonny," Philpin replied.
"Written by Cuddis himself?"
"I see him do it. In my presence it were, and handed over to me in the exact words wot I told you."
For the first time since the men had been sitting round the table Setro smiled. He was about to speak, when the man seated there with his head on the table stirred uneasily, and his right hand lay exposed for a moment before it slipped down listlessly to his side. Setro seemed to gurgle in the back of his throat, and his whole body twitched convulsively as if something were choking him. Then he grew calm again.
"I am not denying that it sounds convincing," he said. "But if it comes to that, let me put it in another way. I told you just now that I went to England on business, and that's as true as anything I ever said. And no one knew I was going, and why, except my own partner. But you found it out, Philpin, and used the knowledge for your own purposes. And you had plenty of time to work out your scheme while I was away. I am not accusing you of anything yet, but I can make out a case, too, if the Sheriff isn't in a hurry, and I don't see how we can leave the saloon before daylight. You went up to the shack in the early part of the winter, and you lured poor old Cuddis up there over the back of the divide. And you left him there amongst the snows—left him in the cache where we had stored food for distant expeditions, left him there treacherously whilst he slept, and got away with the dogs and sledges in a snowstorm, so that the trail would be obliterated. I say you did all this deliberately, knowing full well that you had abandoned a good man and a good friend to certain death, and then you came down to the shack. You found Spotted Fox there "
"Spotted Fox!" Philpin stammered. "Who's he?"
"The Indian trapper who worked for us from time to time, and helped us in the summer. Oh, come, don't tell me you never heard of Spotted Fox!"
"I seem to sense the name, Setro."
"Of course you do. Now, what I suggest is this: You shot Spotted Fox before you came down to the Gulch, just on the heels of the first big snowfall of the year, and the trail was nigh wiped out, and you shot that Indian deliberately, knowing that his bare bones would be found after the long winter was over, and knowing that the boys would assume that it was the skeleton of my old friend and partner, Jim Cuddis. With that idea uppermost in your mind, you shot Spotted Fox through the brain, and left him there outside the hut, and waited for me to come back again. And all through a long winter you had the time to drop your poison by degrees into the ears of the boys, and build up your case against me, knowing perfectly well that I should come back again. Isn't that true, Sheriff? Hasn't this man been with you again and again with scraps of circumstantial evidence against me, and stirring up the boys to lynch me as soon as I showed my face in the settlement again?"
"I ain't denying it," Thornton drawled.
"Very well, then. Mind you, I'm not bringing this accusation deliberately against Philpin, but what I am trying to prove is that a case can be made out against him as black as his case against me. After all, it's a pure matter of surmise in either respect. And if it comes to clean records in the past, then I'll back mine against Philpin's any day."
"That's so," the Sheriff said impartially.
"I'm obliged to you," Setro said dryly. "And don't forget that the man who accuses me has admitted that he himself found the skeleton of my old partner. And he has declared that Cuddis left everything in his hands, and that in certain circumstances my partner's wealth belongs to him. And I'm not denying that there is plenty of that wealth. We worked hard, and, between us, Cuddis and myself must be worth close on a million dollars. My share is in England, but most of Cuddis's money is in the bank at Carton City. And this man claims that he has the right to deal with every penny of it."
"So I have," Philpin said parenthetically.
"The right conferred upon you by a letter written and signed by my partner, and handed over by him months ago."
"You've played the ace," Philpin grinned.
"Very well, then. For the moment I am prepared to admit that the statement is true. But now tell me, either of you, what has become of Spotted Fox? Where is the Indian who was always hanging around the shack, except for the month or two when the snow was frozen hard, and he was out looking after his traps? Where has Spotted Fox vanished? What has become of him? He knew the country well, he was a man of infinite resource, and no snow or cold had any terror for him. He was an honest man, too and gold had no temptation for that faithful Indian. Then where is he? What has become of him? Why isn't he here to give evidence? I'll tell you. Because he's dead. Because he was shot by that yellow-faced scoundrel grinning at me, for the reason I have told you, and my dear old partner is lying somewhere up in the mountains, where he was treacherously lured to his death by Philpin, and where some day he may be found. But not yet—not yet. Not till I have paid the penalty of a crime I never committed, and yonder greasy ruffian has got away with his ill-gotten gains beyond the reach of the rightful vengeance of the boys. And there's just a chance that Cuddis is not dead at all; there is just a chance there was food enough in the cache to keep him alive till the summer, when he may return too late to save the gold he has struggled so hard for. And I tell you why he has slaved and worked all these years, denying himself everything except the mere necessities of life. There's many a good man here has proved himself to be a man who dare not show his face where he was bred and born."
"That's so," Thornton said candidly. "I don't mind saying that I'm one of them myself."
"And that is Cuddis's case," Setro went on. "He didn't leave much in England behind him that he missed, but he had a child—a girl of whom he was very fond. And nothing was good enough for her. His one idea was to make her a lady, and, by Heaven, he did it! It was to see her and explain everything that I went to England last year. And when I saw her—well, I could understand my partner's feelings."
The Sheriff looked up eagerly, scenting romance.
"You don't mean to say," he asked, "that you and she—"
"What business is that of anybody's?" Setro asked fiercely. "But it's true, all the same. And if you lay violent hands upon me— Still, it's no use talking like this. And I've done. I've got no more to say."
"Because there ain't nothin' to be said," Philpin sneered. "I've got the letter in my pocket—the letter wot Cuddis give to me when he told me I was the best friend he had in the world, and asked me to look after his affairs."
"Written and signed by himself?"
"Yes, pard, and in my presence, too."
"You lie, you dirty dog, you lie!" Setro shouted. "Cuddis never wrote a letter in his life. He never learnt to write. He could only read simple words. Out of your own mouth you are convicted, you murderous reptile!"
The man sleeping on the table suddenly raised his head and smiled at Thornton.
"Guess that's true, Sheriff," he said. "I never could write, more shame to me. And it seems to me as if you've got that steel bracelet on the wrong wrist."