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Keith Marlow, fresh from training at the Mounted Police Barracks, Regina, finds himself heading for Kutchin Country and the Rockies to round up white dope peddlers. A long, torturous trail lies in front of Keith and many hardships have to be overcome, before his mission is successfully completed.
KEITH MARLOW had learned much during the twelve terrible days that he had been on the trail of Jake Dranner. Fresh from training at the Mounted Police Barracks at Regina, Keith was too young and too inexperienced for such a task as hunting down this killer who was vicious and dangerous as a timber wolf.
As it happened there was no choice, for Corporal Duncan Maclaine, Keith's senior at Sundance, was suffering from a sprained ankle and the business of catching Dranner was urgent. Dranner had shot down Joe Pelly in cold blood, murdered him for the sake of some fifty ounces of dust which the old man had spent the whole summer in painfully washing from the gravel of Caribou Creek. The killing had been done up in the lonely Glenlyon hills and it was by pure chance that François Armand, a breed trapper, had stumbled on the body within twenty-four hours of the murder. Armand had not only found Pelly's body, but had spotted the murderer's tracks to which he declared he could swear. One of the webs had been mended with string, and the prints had been plain on the new fallen snow.
It was now late October, the worst season of the year for a long trek through the back country. Winter was setting in and snow-storms frequent but, on the other hand, the swift streams were not yet firmly frozen. For the first week of his journey Keith had travelled more or less at random, merely following the direction in which he thought Dranner would move. He had begun to despair when, at last, the luck turned and he struck the trail of the fugitive. The mark of the mended web was unmistakable.
Even then it was not easy. Two nights later a snow-storm wiped out the tracks, but Keith found them again and followed them into a long valley leading through desolate unnamed hills.
"He's got all old Pelly's stores," Maclaine had told Keith, "and his dogs. Ah'm thinking he'll hole up for the winter in some deserted cabin, for he canna get oot till the spring. Ah'm dooting ye'll find him but, gin ye do, be careful. The mon will bushwhack ye and shoot ye down wi' as little compunction as if ye were a skunk."
Maclaine's warning was in Keith's mind as he drove his dogs up the faint trail on the afternoon of the twelfth day. The sky was overcast and a few flakes of hard-frozen snow were drifting down. Darkness would soon close on the desolate scene and Keith had to find a camping place for the night. The prospect was not promising for there was little timber at this height, and Keith needed not only firewood but shelter, for without doubt a fresh storm was brewing.
A tiny point of light showed through the gloom. Keith rubbed his tired eyes with the back of his mitt. There was no doubt about it: the light, faint as it was, remained steady and Keith knew that it came from a lamp behind a window. A surge of excitement ran through his veins. There must be a cabin to the right of the trail and it was all odds that this was where Dranner had taken refuge.
Now Keith had to remember all that he had been told, for any mistake on his part would be fatal. Instead of the triumph of handing over the murderer to justice his own death would be certain. Dranner was armed, watchful and desperate. Also he would have dogs which, at the approach of another team, would give tongue at once: so the first thing Keith did was to turn his own dogs off the trail and tie them under shelter of some large boulders. He examined his pistol to see that it was loaded, then walked forward, making a circle to windward, so that Dranner's dogs could not scent him.
The wind was getting stronger every minute, the snow thickening into a driving swirl of white. Keith shivered as he stood just to windward of the cabin and wondered what to do next. There was nothing about it in the book of rules, and Keith himself had no experience in the matter of arresting criminals. For a moment he felt an unpleasant sensation of loneliness, but this did not last. After all, he had done a good job in trailing Dranner. Surely he could crown it by capturing the brute.
He looked at the cabin. So far as he could see in the thickening snow and failing light, it was the usual one-room shack built of logs and chinked with clay. There was a lean-to at the back. It stood in a patch of wind-stunted spruce. It had a door in front and one window, the panes of which were filled with oiled paper, a usual substitute for glass in the far places of the north. To attempt to enter by the door was suicide, for if this were Dranner he would shoot first and talk afterwards. The window was the best bet so Keith advanced cautiously until he was able to peep through.
If the young constable had had any doubts about the identity of the occupant of the cabin these were at once dispelled. One glance at the face of the man who sat smoking by the almost red- hot stove was enough. The light of the small oil-lamp standing on the home-made table showed it to be long and narrow, with pinched nose, thin lips and cold greenish-grey eyes set deep under bony temples. It was not improved by the fact that its owner had not troubled to shave for at least a week. He wore a greasy mackinaw coat and his heavy trousers were tucked into high boots. Keith noticed that a blued automatic lay on the table and that a rifle leaned against the wall almost within arm's reach of the man.
"Not a nice gentleman," muttered Keith, with a ghost of a grin on his half-frozen lips. "It's no use looking at him. I have to get him." He drew his service revolver and all in one act smashed the window and thrust the muzzle through the opening.
"Hands up, Dranner!" he ordered sharply.
The results were not what Keith had anticipated. One of Dranner's hands went up but with the other he swept the lamp from the table, thereby plunging the little room into almost complete darkness.
This was the moment when Keith should have fired, but it is a point of honour with the Royal Regiment to bring in their prisoners alive. He hesitated and his hesitation almost cost him his life for Dranner, who had dropped to the floor, must have had a second gun about him. This bullet cut splinters from the side of the window, which stung Keith's face. Keith staggered back, uttered a realistic groan and dropped heavily to the ground. But he did not stay there. Crawling on hands and knees he made round the corner to the front door of the shack. It was his hope that Dranner would believe he had killed his visitor and would come out to view the body.
But Dranner was cautious. He did not relight the lamp. Keith, listening intently, heard him rise and go to the window. No doubt he was peering out to see the body but, by this time, the snow was so thick and driving so furiously that Keith was convinced the man could see nothing.
Keith was angry and disappointed. His attack had completely failed. All he had done was to warn his quarry. Now, if Dranner had sense to stay inside the shack, he was safe. Keith could not remain here long, exposed to this blizzard. He would have to go back to his dogs and camp. There was only one grain of comfort in the situation, so far as Keith was concerned. Dranner had no dogs. If he had had a team they would have started barking at the shot. What had happened to them Keith could not guess, but the result was that Dranner could not travel. At any rate he could not go far from this cabin, for he would not be able to carry enough food to last him more than a few days.
On the other hand he probably had a good stock in the cabin while Keith had enough for a week only and it meant five days' hard travelling to reach Sundance.
The cold bit through Keith's fur parka. If he stood here in the wind much longer he would be frost-bitten. He was on the point of giving up and returning to his dogs when he heard a faint click. The latch was being lifted. A fresh wave of excitement made Keith forget the cold, forget everything except that Dranner was coming out. With his body pressed against the wall he stood perfectly still, hardly breathing.
The door opened inwards and the strong draught rushing in made the stove roar. The result was that a faint glow of light thrown by the flaming wood through chinks in the rusty old firebox illuminated the interior of the cabin and showed Keith an arm and hand grasping a pistol in the opening. Keith was desperately tempted to chop down on that arm with the barrel of his own gun but he resisted the temptation. It was well for him that he did for next moment he realised that it was a clever trap. The arm was too thick to be natural and he saw that it was protected by pelts rolled around it. The heaviest blow that Keith could have dealt would have done little damage.
Keith smiled grimly to himself. This time at any rate he had outsmarted his enemy.
But would Dranner come out? That was the question. He did, but not in the way Keith had expected. Instead of moving out cautiously he came with a rush. He was past Keith before Keith could land the blow he had been saving for the fellow's skull. But Keith was on him before he could turn on him with such force that Dranner went flat on his face on the frozen ground, Keith on top of him. There was not enough snow to deaden the shock and Keith exulted as he heard the breath go out of the man's body with one great gasp.
Certain that he was master, Keith relaxed his hold to fumble in his pocket for the handcuffs. This was his second blunder for Dranner suddenly exploded. That at least was what it felt like to Keith who was flung off the other's body and only just saved himself from rolling over sideways. With a snarl Dranner swung his right hand in which he still held his pistol. One bullet would finish the business.
IT would have done so but for those skins wrapped around Dranner's forearm. They made him clumsy and the fraction of a second which he lost gave Keith a fresh chance. With his left hand he forced up Dranner's right arm; and the flaming gun flung its missile harmlessly into the air. At the same time Keith punched with his right and, though the blow lacked force owing to Keith being on his knees, it rocked Dranner's head back. Before he could recover, Keith had clamped a two-handed grip on Dranner's right arm.
Keith Marlow at twenty was five-foot-ten, weighed eleven and a half stone and was fit as hard training could make him. It gave him an ugly shock to find that Dranner, who was probably twenty years older than he, was able to withstand that grip and still hold on to the revolver. Not only that but the man managed to rise to his feet, dragging Keith up with him. Keith wrenched at Dranner's wrist in an effort to force him to drop the pistol. He failed and Dranner retaliated with a savage kick which almost numbed Keith's left leg. Keith closed; and the two, clenched in a death struggle for the possession of the gun, rolled to and fro in the gloom of the blizzard.
Their battle brought them nearer and nearer to the door of the cabin. Keith could see this but Dranner, with his back to the cabin, was unaware of it. Keith was beginning to feel that he could not last much longer. His leg was hurting horribly. He resolved to take a chance. He let go with his right hand and drove for Dranner's jaw. His fist landed high but the blow staggered Dranner. He stepped backwards and banged his head against the wall of the cabin. That was enough for Keith. Before Dranner could recover from the dazing crack on his skull, Keith let loose a second blow which caught Dranner on the chin. It was like hitting a rock, for Dranner's head was still pressed against the wall, but it did the trick. The vicious eyes of the murderer glazed and he slipped to the ground limp as a sack, the pistol dropping from his relaxed fist. Keith kicked the pistol aside, snapped the steel cuffs on Dranner's thick wrists, dragged him inside and tied his ankles with a length of raw hide. Then he closed the door, re-lit the lamp, and dropped on the bunk where he lay for several minutes, drawing deep breaths into his aching lungs.
When he got up, Dranner was still insensible but he was breathing easily and Keith let him lie. There was a pot on the stove with coffee in it. Keith found a mug, filled it with the strong black liquid, added three spoonfuls of sugar and drank it down. Then he looked at his damaged leg and was relieved to find that although the flesh was swollen and blue, there was nothing broken.
He remembered his dogs. He must bring them in. As he got up he glanced again at Dranner. Dranner's eyes were open and the look in them sent a shiver down Keith's spine. There was savage hate in them. That was to be expected; but there was more. A sort of cold, cruel calculation which made Keith wonder what fresh tricks this human fiend had in store for him. He did not hide from himself that he had a long march before him before reaching Sundance and that, during every moment of the journey, he would have to be on guard. With nothing but the rope in front of him, no chance would be too desperate for Dranner. Before leaving the cabin Keith removed Dranner's two pistols and the rifle. He found also an ugly-looking knife which he stuck in his own belt.
Although the distance to the boulders was less than half a mile it taxed Keith's strength to the uttermost to reach them. The storm was developing into a real blizzard but, luckily for Keith, the wind had not yet reached its full force. The return journey was not so bad for the wind was behind him. For all that, by the time Keith had tied his dogs in the lean-to and fed them he was pretty near the end of his tether.
The prospect of spending the night under cover should have been pleasant but, for Keith, was completely spoiled by the knowledge that he had to be under the same roof and in the same room with Dranner. There was something so sinister, so repulsive about the man that Keith hated breathing the same air with him. It was, however, useless to be squeamish so Keith carried his sleeping-bag into the cabin, built up the fire and set to cooking supper. There was plenty of food in the place but everything was filthy and, tired as he was, Keith had to melt snow and heat water to wash out the cooking pans. Since there was no bread, he made bannocks and these, with fried bacon and fresh coffee, were the first course. The second was a tin of peaches which Keith had been keeping for a special occasion.
All the time that he was cooking and while he ate Dranner lay on the floor watching him, but saying not a word. Even when Keith had his back to the man he could feel those narrow grey-green eyes fixed upon him.
Having finished his own meal Keith fed his prisoner. But before doing so he chained him to the heavy log forming the foot of the bunk. This light steel chain and padlock he was carrying by the advice of Duncan Maclaine, and very glad he was to have it. Dranner offered no resistance and ate his food in silence, but Keith could feel the waves of hatred that emanated from the man almost as clearly as if they were expressed in blows.
Keith's whole body was one ache. The fight at the end of a hard day's mush had drained his strength and he knew that he must sleep well before taking up the trail again.
"You can have the bunk," he told Dranner curtly. He went out and fetched in his lead dog, Koltag. Koltag was a magnificent beast, partly grey, partly black, fanged like a wolf. The moment he came into the room the hair on his back rose in a stiff ridge, his yellow eyes flamed and a low growl rumbled in his throat. Keith laid a hand on the dog's massive head.
"Quiet, boy!" he ordered and the rumble died, but Koltag's eyes remained fixed upon Dranner. "I don't think you will try any monkey business," Keith continued, speaking to Dranner. "I don't believe you can. But if you do it is a dead body I shall take back to Sundance, not a living man."
A slight sneer curled Dranner's lips, but that was all. Keith realized that the man, if all brute, had the courage of the brute and was more dangerous than any brute. Yet, confident that Koltag would rouse him if anything went wrong, he took off his boots, slipped into his bag and, within a couple of minutes, was dead asleep.
When he woke it was still dark, the fire in the stove had died down and the room was bitter cold. He looked at the luminous dial of his wrist-watch and saw that it was past six. He had had nine hours' sleep and felt immensely refreshed. His leg still pained him but that would wear off with movement. He lit the lamp, made up the fire, then went out to feed his dogs and look at the weather.
The snow had ceased, the wind fallen and there seemed prospect of a fairly fine day; but Keith was dismayed at the amount of snow that had fallen in the night. The stuff was fine as flour and as difficult to walk in. It meant breaking trail for the dogs every yard of the way and speed would be cut down to perhaps two miles an hour. It was going to be a rotten journey but, after all, Keith had his man and would not have been human if he had not felt a little glow of triumph at the thought that his first official mission had been successful.
He went back into the hut and got breakfast. As on the previous night Dranner made no trouble. After he had eaten Keith handcuffed him again and left him chained. He had a job to do before packing for the start. That was to find the gold which no doubt Dranner had hidden somewhere under the floor of the shack. Dranner watched Keith sardonically as he set to work then, to Keith's amazement, spoke.
"No need to waste time, constable. The dust's under the stove."
IT was a job to move the stove which was nearly red hot, but Keith did it and found a buckskin bag which held nearly five pounds weight of coarse gold. Keith made no sign of his astonishment that Dranner should have told him where it was but, at the same time, he did not like it. It seemed to him that Dranner must be very sure of escaping—and of taking the gold with him. Again Keith resolved that he would not give the murderer the least ghost of a chance.
A pale sun was rising in an icy sky as the two left the cabin. Keith made Dranner walk ahead and break trail. It was hard work for, at times, the man was thigh deep in the dry powdery stuff. But Dranner did not remonstrate and noon found them on lower ground where the snow was not so heavy. The midday meal was eaten under shelter of a bluff and, as the dogs were tired, Keith gave them a full hour's rest. Even so, Keith succeeded in reaching the spot where he had intended to camp, a grove of thick spruce where there was shelter from the wind and plenty of firewood. Again he chained his prisoner and left Koltag to guard him while he made camp. He did everything himself. He would not trust Dranner to do anything. The man sat smoking, watching the other work with the same sardonic look in his deep-set eyes. Keith would have given a good deal to be able to read his thoughts.
Next morning the sky was overcast and the clouds hung low. As the sun rose a wind came with it, a keen steady breeze from north-west. "Snow!" muttered Keith, and he was right. They had hardly finished breakfast before it began. Keith had not yet spent a winter in the north so had not the weather sense of more experienced men. He wondered if it would be wiser to remain in camp rather than risk travelling in what might be a blizzard. But the thought of being cooped up with Dranner for another twenty- four hours was so repulsive that he resolved to risk it. After breakfast he harnessed up.
It was fine driving snow. The particles, hard and sharp as sand, packed themselves into every fold of Keith's clothes and stung his face like pepper. It made the dogs look like white ghosts, while the pulling became constantly heavier. The snow- storm did not develop into a blizzard but it made travelling exceedingly difficult, and Keith was forced to direct his course almost entirely by compass.
To make matters worse he struck treacherous going: low land intersected with rivers and lakes. The lakes were fed by springs rising in their beds and these springs made thin places in the ice. Since the ice was covered with snow, it was most difficult to tell whether it was safe or not. Early in the afternoon they were crossing a lake when the ice cracked sharply beneath them. The noise was as loud as a pistol shot. Dranner, who was leading, swung to the right and sprinted. It was only this that saved them from disaster. Keith stopped his prisoner.
"Dranner, I'm taking off those cuffs. If you went in with them on, you could not help yourself. But remember that I'll be watching. I shan't take a chance in the world." Once more Keith saw that maddening half-smile on the murderer's face. And once more the man did not speak, did not utter a word of thanks. "Do you understand?" Keith asked sharply. Dranner merely nodded.
Again they mushed on. The snow fell relentlessly and they moved like ghosts through the everlasting harsh, hissing swirl. Heads bowed, they plodded on, the merciless cold biting through their furs. Fatigue was beginning to dull his senses and Keith decided that it was time to stop, camp, and call it a day. The trouble was that he could see no place fit for a camp. The stretches of land which lay between these endless lakes were flat and covered with low brush. It was absolutely necessary to find shelter and wood.
They reached the far shore of the lake on which they had experienced so narrow an escape and Keith was grateful to know that land, not water, was beneath his feet. Yet here again was nothing but brush through which the dogs toiled slowly.
The land dipped again and here was another lake or rather the arm of one. It was narrow, no more than three or four hundred yards in width. Keith paused a moment and studied the opposite shore. He could see it only dimly, the snow fog was so thick; but he could see enough to be sure that it was high and heavily wooded. Here at last was the spot for which he had been searching.
"Mush!" he cried and the dogs, sensing that their long toil was nearly over, tightened the traces and made on down the slight slope to the lake. Here the snow was not so deep, for the wind had swept it away. Presently the runners rang on bare ice and the pace quickened. Dranner was still in the lead only a few feet in advance of Koltag. They were within less than a hundred yards of the far bank when it happened. A report like that of a cannon shot rang out and Keith felt the ice moving, dropping beneath his feet.
"Mush!" he yelled to the dogs and saw them spring forward. But he plunged through a black hole into water cold as death.
AS he fell Keith managed to grasp the edge of the ice on the far side of the hole. His mittens slipped on the ice but he forced himself forward and got his elbows over the rim of the hole. The ice held and he began to struggle upwards. Then, as he raised his eyes, he saw Dranner standing, waiting for him. Through the loom of the drifting snow the murderer's grey-green eyes stared down at him, full of pitiless purpose.
So this was the end. Dranner would force him back into the water and, himself, escape with the dogs. Even so, Keith refused to give up. It seemed to him that, if Dranner came near enough, it would be possible to catch him by the legs and end his beastly life. If he could do so, Keith felt that he would not die in vain.
He dragged himself upwards. He had lost all feeling in his legs but the muscles of his back and arms still responded to his fierce effort. He got his body over the edge. The ice creaked and groaned, yet held. Dranner did not move. Now Keith saw that he had the rifle in his hands. It was not loaded, so he meant to use it as a club. In the thickening gloom Keith saw the man's thin lips twisted in a grin of anticipation. Hope died within him for it was plain that he could not reach Dranner in time to avoid the crashing butt of the rifle. Already his wet clothes were armoured with ice and his legs so helpless that he feared he could not rise to his feet.
Above the hiss of the wind-driven snow came a new sound. That of feet running across the ice.
"Hold on!" came a high clear voice. "I will help you."
With a bitter oath Dranner whirled and went off at full speed. Something came flashing into Keith's circle of vision. A human figure which threw itself flat on the ice, then flung forward a rope, the loose end of which came straight into Keith's hands.
"Be careful!" Keith cried, "the ice is rotten. Keep back."
"I know. Hold on to the rope. Have you a good grip?"
"All right. I'm running no risk." His rescuer was up again, tying the other end of the rope to the sledge.
"Hola! Hi ya! Mush!" came the quick command. The rope tightened and Keith heard the dogs' claws scratching on the ice as they lunged forward. A moment later he lay gasping and shivering on sound ice.
"Get up!" the voice ordered. Now for the first time Keith realized that his rescuer was a boy. He tried to scramble to his feet, but could only get to his knees. The cold had him now and he was rapidly losing all feeling.
The boy caught him under the arms and lifted him and he stood swaying, dazed.
"Run!" he ordered. "Straight ahead. The shore's only a hundred yards away. Run—while you can."
Keith staggered forwards. His legs were like dead sticks. They did not seem to belong to him. Even his brain was numbed by the intensity of the cold. The boy had him by the arm and pulled him forward. The dogs, led by Koltag, followed.
By the time they reached the shore Keith's blood was circulating again and the agony of it was beyond words. The boy heard him grit his teeth. He understood.
"Our camp is quite close," he said. "You can see the glow of the fire. I told Gil to keep it up. I heard the ice break and knew what had happened."
The red glow gave Keith fresh strength. Next minute he found himself close to a great pile of blazing logs while, behind him, a tarp rigged on posts kept off the bitter wind and reflected the heat.
"Strip him, Gil," said the boy. "I'll get coffee."
He hurried towards a tent, opposite which was a second fire and Keith found himself in the hands of a slim, dark-faced breed: capable hands, for they stripped him of his frozen clothes with amazing speed and wrapped him in a thick blanket.
The boy came back with a pot of coffee. He filled a metal mug, sweetened it with half a dozen lumps of sugar and handed the mug to Keith who swallowed it with gratitude. The boiling liquid sent a glow through his frozen body and cleared his head.
"Be careful," he warned. "My prisoner is loose, and he is dangerous!"
"He have gun?" Gil questioned.
"He has my rifle but I don't know whether he has cartridges." Gil frowned.
"Name of a dog, but he is a bad one. I will be careful, Monsieur. Now I see to dem dogs."
He went off and the boy returned to the tent. It was now snowing so heavily that it was impossible to see twenty yards in any direction. Keith wondered what Dranner was doing. He felt pretty sure that he had no cartridges for the one box of rifle cartridges was in the blanket roll strapped to the sledge and the only loose ones were in the pocket of his own tunic. Without cartridges, Dranner was like a toothless wolf. Yet the man was so savage, so desperate, that Keith was uneasy.
He leaned over and felt his clothes. They were drying fast and soon he would be able to put them on again. Meantime he dried his revolver carefully and reloaded it. Gil came back and with him Koltag.
"He say he come," said the breed with a smile. "He like you, I tink."
"He's a real good friend," Keith answered. "And I'm glad to have him. If Dranner comes anywhere near Koltag will warn us. I wish I knew where the fellow has gone. I'll have to be after him as soon as my clothes are dry."
"You have supper and sleep first," Gil said firmly. "I no tink Dranner he go very far in dis storm. You stay still. I fix supper."
Keith realized that he was savagely hungry—also that he was extremely lucky to be alive. He knew, too, that Gil was right. It was now pitch dark and travelling would be impossible before daylight. If Dranner had matches—and Keith believed he had—the man would build a fire and camp until morning. But he had no food and that would drive him desperate. It was on the cards that he might be lurking close at hand, waiting a chance for a treacherous attack. Had he been alone Keith would not have minded so much, but he hated the idea of exposing these kind friends to danger. Gil broke in upon Keith's thoughts.
"Supper ready. I tink your clothes, dey dry enough to put on."
Keith quickly got back into his uniform. Everything was dry except his footwear, but Gil fished out a pair of mukluks which were warm and comfortable.
THE boy came across from the tent with plates and knives and forks.
"You all right?" he asked of Keith and Keith spotted by his voice that he was English, not Canadian. He was about sixteen, tall, slim, distinctly good-looking, the last sort of boy that anyone could expect to meet in these Arctic wilds. He might have been a Public School boy home for the holidays, but Keith knew better than that. The way in which he had rescued Keith proved that he knew the north as well as, or probably better than, Keith himself.
"I'm right as rain, thanks to you," Keith answered warmly. "You did a mighty good job pulling me out of that ice-hole, and I don't even know your name."
"I'm Randolph Arden," the boy said quietly, but did not offer any more information.
"My name is Keith Marlow," said Keith. It seemed to him that the boy started slightly when he mentioned his name but he couldn't be certain. He was quite sure that he himself had never before seen the lad. Young Arden was far too striking to be easily forgotten. Again he wondered what he and this capable breed were doing in this wilderness and where they were bound.
"Who was the man that got away from you?" Randolph asked.
"His name is Jake Dranner. He—"
"I know. He murdered Joe Pelly." He looked at Keith and his eyes shone. "And you ran him down and arrested him?"
"And now I've lost him," said Keith with a shrug.
"You'll catch him again." Young Arden leaned forward eagerly. "He has no dogs or food."
"That's the trouble," said Keith. "He may raid this camp to- night. Gil and I will have to watch."
"You won't, Mr. Marlow," the boy said with a decision which surprised Keith. "You're all-in. Gil and I will take turns to watch. If you don't get a good sleep you'll never get him. Now we'll have supper."
Gil had a delicious stew of venison with onions and tinned vegetables. This, with coffee and bread, made the best meal that Keith had eaten for many a day. Keith could not keep his eyes off young Arden. The more he saw of him the more he wondered what he was doing here at the back of beyond. He ventured to suggest that it was late in the year for travelling so far north and to ask if he could be of any help. Randolph laughed.
"You needn't worry about me. I know this country better, I expect, than you do. Just now I'm on my way to join my father."
That was all he said about himself, and Keith was left to wonder where the father had settled and what he was about. Keith had the notion that Mr. Arden must have made a rich strike somewhere in these wilds. That would be good reason for his son keeping his mouth shut.
Supper finished, Gil took the dishes and Randolph turned to Keith.
"Gil will take first watch," he said. "You can sleep comfortably. If anything happens I promise to wake you."
Those agonizing minutes in the ice-hole on top of his hard day's journey, had taken more out of Keith than he would admit. He was grateful to creep into his sleeping-bag and had hardly closed his eyes before he was asleep. Next thing he knew, Gil was shaking him gently and he started up to see a fire blazing in clear windless darkness and the breed with a mug of steaming coffee in his mittened hand.
"You spoil me, Gil," said Keith.
"You make de most of him," replied the other. "You boil your own coffee to-morrow."
"If I'm alive to do it," was Keith's thought and then he saw young Arden standing beside him, ready dressed.
"The storm's over, Mr. Marlow," he said. "Gil and I have a long march to-day, so we're starting as soon as ever we can after breakfast."
Gil had flapjacks ready and a big pan of fried bacon. They ate quickly and almost in silence. As they finished Keith spoke.
"Which way do you go, Arden?"
"North-west," the boy told him and pointed. "And listen, Mr. Marlow. There's a trapper's cabin at the south end of this lake. If Dranner knows this country, as I expect he does, that's what he'll make for."
"Any food there?" Keith asked quickly.
"I don't know. A man called Masterman lived there last winter. He went out in the Spring, but whether he came back or not I haven't an idea. We didn't pass the place on our way up. But that is where you will be likely to pick up the trail. I do hope you'll catch the chap. I'd lend Gil to guide you, but Dad is terribly short of stores and we mustn't waste an hour."
"You have done enough for me, and more than enough," Keith said warmly. "You have saved my life, fed me, and given me the best night's rest I have had since I started. I can't begin to tell you how grateful I am."
"Then don't try," Randolph said, smiling. He held out his hand. "Gil has packed. I must say good-bye."
"You'll be coming out some time," Keith said. "If you're passing through Sundance, give me a call."
"I will if I can," said the boy slowly, "but it all depends on dad. Good-bye and good luck."
Keith felt uncommonly lonely as he watched young Arden and Gil, with their dogs and sledge, pass away and vanish among the serried ranks of tree-trunks. For as much as a minute he stood gazing after them, and it was not until they were quite out of sight that he turned to his dogs to make ready for his own start. The harness was in good condition but he went over every inch of it, then carefully examined the feet of his dogs. While he worked Koltag watched him keenly. It is not usual for an experienced husky to take to a tenderfoot yet, ever since the two had first met, Keith and his lead dog had been friends. Keith had been a dog lover all his life and Koltag had brains to understand and appreciate this. Keith had come to rely upon the great dog's courage and intelligence, even more than he would upon those qualities in a human companion.
Satisfied that all was correct, Keith packed his sleeping-bag on the sledge and harnessed his team but, before leaving, took one last glance around this camping ground. A scrap of paper attracted his attention, lying close to the ashes of the fire and he picked it up.
The paper was part of an envelope of which three-quarters had been burned and, if Keith was looking for sensation, he found it. Only one word and half of another were legible.
They were "Colin Ans—" Keith stared and stared.
"Colin Anson," he said. "It can't be anything else. But what does it mean? Colin has been dead for three years."
A RED sun was rising as Keith started his dogs south along the lake shore. The snow was so deep and powdery that travel was slow. The frost was keen but the wind had dropped, and conditions were a deal better than on the previous day. With his mind full of his recent discovery he moved mechanically, with the result that he drove right into a windfall and had to turn his team round in order to get out of trouble. This gave him a shock. A sweet chance he would have had if Dranner had happened to be anywhere near! Cursing himself for such wool-gathering, he put the scrap of paper out of his mind and gave all his attention to his surroundings.
Of course there was no trail. Snow had fallen for at least two hours after Dranner's escape. But Keith was not worried on that score. He felt certain that the man had made for Masterman's shack.
The ground rose and Keith entered a stand of spruce so thick that it cut off all sight of the sky. When he had passed through this he could see the end of the lake and, in a small clearing, a building. He focused his glasses and examined it carefully. It was a solid-looking cabin of a much better type than the shack where Keith had first found Dranner, but no smoke rose from the chimney and there was no sign of life about the place. Keith tied his dogs in shelter and, taking Koltag with him, made his careful way towards the place.
Pistol in hand, he crept through the trees until he was within a few yards of the shack. Koltag showed no sign of excitement until Keith, cautiously circling round the cabin, saw the marks of rackets on the new snow. Then the great dog growled low in his throat, and Keith saw at once that the tracks were those of Dranner. He had gone straight up the slope towards the west.
Keith hurried back to the cabin. He had to know whether Dranner had found food or, perhaps, firearms. One glance was enough. Dirty dishes stood on the table, ashes in the stove were still warm. On the floor lay Keith's own rifle. The stock was smashed. He saw at once that Dranner had been unable to find cartridges for the weapon.
He made a quick search and found flour, bacon, coffee and other stores but no sign of firearms or ammunition. It seemed unlikely that Masterman had left anything of the sort behind him. Whether that was so or not, one thing was clear. Dranner had all the food he could carry and was probably using his long legs to put as much distance as possible between himself and the Law, in the shape of Keith Marlow.
Dranner had some three hours' start but that didn't make much odds. With his dogs, Keith could travel faster than a man carrying a heavy pack. What did matter was the weather. Fresh snow would cover the murderer's tracks and already the sky was darkening. Keith hurried out, ran back to his sledge and at once got on the trail of the fugitive.
The gloom increased. With despair in his heart, Keith looked again at the sky and, as he did so, a chill flake stung his cheek. Within five minutes it was snowing as hard as on the previous evening. There was one gleam of hope: there was no wind so for the time Dranner's tracks remained visible.
They ran up a long slope among sparse trees and, at the top, turned slightly to the left and led through a deep hollow between two thick stands of spruce. The pass between these clumps was narrow and it came to Keith that here was the ideal spot for an ambush. If by any chance Dranner had found a gun in Masterman's shack, here was where he would hide ready to shoot down his pursuer.
Keith halted his dogs and they, tired with the long uphill pull, at once lay down in the snow. With Koltag at his heels and pistol in his hand, Keith went slowly forward. The cloud was passing, the snow thinning, but it was still too thick to see more than a few yards.
With an inch of new-fallen snow on top of Dranner's racket- marks, the trail was not easy to follow; yet Keith managed to do so, and was surprised and relieved to find that it went straight up the centre of the hollow.
Koltag stopped and growled. Keith looked round but could see nothing suspicious. He laid a hand on the dog's back.
"What is it, boy?" he asked.
Koltag was scratching in the snow and suddenly Keith saw a thin cord hidden beneath the surface. Instantly he knew what it was.
"Back!" he ordered sharply but he was just too late; the dog's paw touched the cord.
There was a heavy explosion, Keith was conscious of a violent blow on his head and down he went, flat on his face in the deep, soft snow.
KOLTAG'S warm, wet tongue upon his cheek roused Keith. He sat up. His head was ringing and, when he put his hand to his forehead, he found blood upon his fingers. Yet the wound was little more than a scratch. The missile that had hit Keith had expended most of its force on the fur of his hood which was cut.
He knew at once what had happened. He had fallen into a trap set by Dranner, but how he had escaped so lightly was beyond his imagining.
He followed the cord into the trees on the right of the pass. Fastened firmly to a log was an old ten-bore single-barrelled gun. Dranner had arranged it so that its muzzle pointed directly across the trail. The cord tied to the trigger had been carried under the snow and fastened to a peg opposite. Any person who touched the cord must pull the trigger and receive the whole charge in the lower part of his body.
Koltag had released the trigger and fired the gun. Why then was the dog unharmed and Keith only slightly injured?
One glance solved this problem. Dranner had carefully covered the trigger with a piece of birch bark, but it had not occurred to him to cover the muzzle also. Probably he had not reckoned on more snow falling. It was this last storm which had saved Koltag and Keith. Snow had drifted into the muzzle of the gun, plugging it, with the result that, when it was fired, the barrel, thinned by age and rust, had burst. It was a fragment of metal from the broken barrel that had hit Keith.
"And I was cursing that storm," Keith said slowly as he looked at the wreck of Dranner's deadly trap.
Koltag growled and instantly Keith knew the reason. He stepped swiftly back into the trail and flung himself down on his face. Koltag, puzzled at this performance, yet in no doubt whatever as to the identity of the man who was approaching, stood over him. Barely a minute passed before Dranner came into sight, at the head of the pass.
Keith, squinting out under the rim of his parka, saw that the man's only weapon was a club. His own right hand tightened on the butt of his service revolver. Dranner came slowly nearer and Keith saw his thin lips writhe in a grin of perfectly devilish glee.
"It worked!" Dranner gloated. "I got him. And the dogs, and the gold. Jake Dranner, your luck's in!"
Koltag's amber eyes were fixed upon the murderer. All his teeth showed and the rumble in his throat was terrifying.
"Shut that!" Dranner snarled. "Shut it or I'll crack your skull." Koltag tensed. Another moment and he would be at Dranner's throat. Dranner saw this, and raised his club. Keith's hand flashed up, his pistol crashed and the club flew from Dranner's hand. At the same instant Keith came to his feet like an uncoiled spring.
Dranner's pale eyes went wide with sudden fear. Yet with the savage ferocity of the brute he was, he made a rush at Keith. Keith was sorely tempted to finish the fellow with a single bullet. He had every justification for doing so. But he resisted the temptation. Instead, he chopped down upon Dranner's head with the barrel of his heavy pistol.
One blow was enough. Dranner sprawled forward and fell, with his arms stretched straight out upon the snow.
"And that's that," Keith remarked as he took out the cuffs and snapped them upon his would-be murderer's wrists. Then he rolled Dranner in a blanket to save him from freezing, filled his pipe and sat down to wait until his prisoner recovered consciousness.
In about five minutes he saw Dranner stir and open his eyes. Keith dragged him to his feet.
"Mush!" he ordered. "Mush, you treacherous brute. And one thing I'll tell you. Those bracelets don't leave your wrists again until you're in Sundance gaol. I don't care if you drown ten times over, you don't get a second chance."
Dranner mushed. He had no choice and, during the next four days, he paid heavily for his double attempt to murder Keith. Keith never gave him the ghost of a chance to try fresh tricks and in this was seconded by Koltag, who watched the murderer night and day and was ready to fall on him if he took one step out of the trail.
The weather was brutal and when, at last, Keith with his dogs and his prisoner trailed slowly into Sundance, he was a red-eyed wreck. Duncan Maclaine saw him coming and strode out to meet him. His ankle was sound again.
"So ye got him!" was his greeting.
"Thanks to your steel chain and the boy," Keith answered.
Duncan's grey eyes widened.
"The boy," he repeated softly. "Man, ye are all-in. Get to the fire. I'll lock up Dranner and see to the dogs. The whisky's in the cupboard. It's a good drink ye need and a hot meal, and I'm thinking ye have earned it."
When he had disposed of the prisoner and kennelled the dogs, Duncan came back to find Keith dead-asleep in a chair by the stove. He noticed the gaunt, frost-blackened cheeks and the new lines around Keith's eyes and nodded sagely.
"It's made a man of him," he remarked. He stooped, lifted Keith bodily, laid him on a bunk and covered him warmly, then set to work to cook an extra special supper. And while he cooked he was wondering what Keith had meant about the boy. He himself had been long enough in the north to know the odd illusions bred by loneliness and intense cold.
It was not until supper was on the table that he roused Keith; and Keith, mightily refreshed by three hours of unbroken sleep, got up and sniffed appreciatively.
"Venison steaks, fried spuds, pie!" he exclaimed. "Gosh, what a feast! And the first meal I haven't cooked for myself since I met the boy."
"Weel, ye had better be seeing if it tastes as good as it looks," said Duncan drily. "And when ye have satisfied your carnal appetite I'll be pleased to hear where ye found Dranner and about this young fellow ye talk of."
Keith had a quick wash, then wasted no time in getting to work on Duncan's cooking. While he ate, he talked and he did not spare the telling of his own blunder when he had first tackled Dranner in the hill shack. Duncan merely nodded. It was not until Keith came to the story of his rescue by Randolph Arden that the big stolid Scot showed real interest.
"Randolph Arden," he repeated. "No, I dinna ken the name. And English, ye say?"
"English as they make 'em, Duncan. And a well-educated lad. Might be a Public School boy except that he's been up here most of his life, I'd say. He certainly knows the woods. But here's the funny thing, Duncan. I believe he knew my name for he started when I told him I was Keith Marlow. And there's something else that's funnier still." He fished from his wallet the scrap of half-burnt paper and handed it to the other. "I found this by the fire after the two of them had gone." Duncan gazed at the paper.
"Who's this Colin?" he asked. "Do ye ken him?"
"I ought to. Colin Anson is my first cousin."
"And is this Colin in Canada?"
"He was but—wait! Colin's father, George Anson, is my mother's brother. He is a manufacturer of chemicals and a very rich man. Colin was his only son. Uncle George wanted Colin to go into the business but Colin hated towns and business. He was always mad on birds and beasts. He refused, and naturally there was an awful row.
"Colin had a little money of his own, left him by his mother. He cleared out and the next news was that he had a job as game warden in the Kootenay National Park where he was happy as a king, looking after the wild life. The only snag from his point of view was the invasion of trippers every summer."
Keith stopped to pour out another cup of coffee and Duncan remarked that Colin seemed to have more sense than his father. Keith sugared his coffee, drank half of it and went on.
"I don't know whether you'll say so when you hear what happened. Do you remember the Blackie Shard gang?"
"Blackie Shard. Aye, Blackie was hung at Regina aboot two years ago."
"Just so. He was hung for the murder of two game wardens and one of them was my cousin, Colin." Duncan pursed his lips.
"Weel, your cousin had the life that suited him. I'd have been main sorry for him gin he was still living in the smoke and dirt of they big chemical works."
"I believe you're right, Duncan," said Keith soberly. "But what puzzles me is how young Arden came to have that envelope, with Colin's name on it, two years after his death." Duncan pondered.
"I dinna think there's much to wonder at. Likely he knew him while he was warden." Keith looked thoughtful.
"But if he had known Colin, he would have been sure to hear of his people. Myself, I think he had done so, because, as I tell you, he started when I told him my name. Yet he did not say one word about Colin to me?"
"Aye, but he didna tell you anything of himself. It's plain he didna want anyone poking into his father's business. And gin his father has made a big strike yon's understandable." Keith shrugged.
"That must be it, I suppose. But I tell you, Duncan, I mean to get to the bottom of this business if I possibly can. My uncle will be keen for anything I can tell him about Colin. His death hit the old chap very hard."
"I wish ye luck, Keith," Duncan replied. He got up. "I'll be sending my report to headquarters. Light your pipe, and rest yourself." Keith laughed.
"I'm rested all right. I'll wash up. That's only fair after you've done all the cooking."
DUNCAN MACLAINE did not show Keith a copy of the report which he wirelessed to Regina, but the reply which came on the following day gave both Corporal and Constable a bit of a shock. They were told that Inspector Curtis was coming north by 'plane, that they were to hold Dranner against his arrival, and that Keith was to be ready to come south in charge of the prisoner.
"Ye are a lucky lad, Keith," said Duncan. "Ye will get a fortnight or maybe a month of civilization."
"But I thought you didn't like civilization," grinned Keith.
"I didna like the sort they keep in London or Glesca. Regina is well enough and the grub is good."
"I'm looking forward to the trip," said Keith. "Perhaps I can find out something about the Ardens." Duncan laughed.
"Noo ye can set to redding up the place. The Inspector has the eye of a hawk for a pinch of dirt."
It was three days before the 'plane, carrying Inspector Curtis, made its landing on the ice of Moose River at the edge of the town. The Inspector, a tall, slim, keen-eyed man of about thirty-five, who had the reputation of being a martinet, found no fault with the barracks and praised the supper that Keith and Duncan set before him. He made Keith tell the whole story of the capture of Dranner over again. When Keith had finished he nodded.
"You were lucky," he said drily. Then he smiled. "It was a good show. I hope you mean to stay with the Force, Marlow." Keith stared at the speaker.
"Why, of course, sir," he answered, and was amazed to hear his superior officer laugh.
"I may remind you of that promise later on," said Curtis. He paused, then spoke to Duncan.
"Maclaine, has there been any trouble among the Indians of late?"
"Not aboot this part, sir. But I'm hearing that they Kuchins are no very restful."
"You've heard the truth. Some swine has been selling liquor to the poor devils and I suspect dope. Very queer stories have been leaking down but one thing is certain, that they have been holding potlatch and devil dances. We have sent Harman and Bishop to investigate. I want you to keep your eyes open, Maclaine."
"But they willna come this way, sir."
"They might. The dope might come north by 'plane." Maclaine nodded.
"Aye, it might," he said briefly.
Next morning the Inspector, with Keith and the prisoner went south by air. It was snug enough in the enclosed cabin and, as Keith watched the frozen wilderness reel away beneath them at a speed of two miles a minute, he was devoutly grateful to be travelling in such comfort instead of the foot-slogging which had been his lot for the past weary weeks. Two nights later he supped in the well-warmed barracks at Regina and realized, with intense though well-concealed delight, that his fellows looked on him no longer as a raw recruit but as a man who had pulled off a difficult job and one which reflected credit on the Force.
He was made to tell the whole story of his arrest of Dranner and next day found that it had headlines in the local paper. On the following morning it figured in the Montreal, Toronto and Quebec papers and a lot of sly fun was poked at Keith.
But Keith had something else to think of. The kick on the shin which Dranner had given him had left a very sore place and when the police doctor examined it, he told Keith that the bone was bruised and that he must lie up for a month. So Keith went into hospital, where good feeding and rest put back on his bones the flesh which he had lost during his hard journey.
A fortnight later Keith had a letter with an English postmark and recognized the writing on the envelope as that of his uncle, George Anson.
Dear Keith [his uncle wrote],
With much pleasure I have read of your exploit in arresting this murderer, Dranner. I am not greatly surprised for I knew that you had the qualities necessary for such a task if you chose to cultivate and exert them. It seems plain to me that the discipline you have endured, as a member of the world's most-famous police force, has made a man of you.
As the son of my only sister, I had always intended to make some provision for your future, and my intention was to give you an allowance which would be paid by my trustees. I have now changed my mind and drawn up a new Will by which, at my death, you will become my heir. In the meantime you will receive an allowance of £200 a year paid quarterly, which, with your pay, should make you comfortable.
You see I take it for granted that you will remain in the Force for the present, but, if you desire to take up any other career, I shall be ready to help and finance you.
I shall be glad to hear from you if you have time to write.lett"
Your affectionate uncle,
KEITH read the letter through twice. He drew a long breath.
"The dear old chap," he said slowly.
He sat quite still, trying to realise his position. George Anson, he knew, was a very rich man. In spite of Death Duties he, Keith, would have an income on which he could live where he pleased. He could travel; in fact, do almost anything he liked.
"Poor old Colin!" he said aloud and just then the door opened and Inspector Curtis entered the ward, which at the moment was empty except for Keith. Keith stood up and saluted.
"Sit down, Marlow," said the Inspector kindly. "I have a piece of news for you. You are promoted to be Corporal." Keith flushed slightly.
"Thank you, sir," he said. Then, on the spur of the moment, he handed his letter to the officer. "Two pieces of good news in one day, sir," he added. "Would you mind reading this?" Curtis frowned as he finished the letter and gave it back.
"Then you are leaving the service, Marlow?"
"Not unless I'm thrown out, sir," Keith answered promptly. The frown changed to a smile.
"I'm glad, Marlow. We need men of your stamp. Stick to the Service and, with your qualities and education, you are safe for promotion. I'll see to it that you have your chance." Keith thanked him with real gratitude and Curtis left the room.
Keith's leg mended steadily and in less than a month he was on duty again. He had expected to be sent back to Sundance, but had to remain at Regina in order to give evidence at Dranner's trial which was fixed for January. So the weeks passed and when December came, he was still in barracks.
Then came a pleasant surprise. He was granted a month's leave and, since he had more than a hundred pounds in the bank, he decided to run across to Montreal. John Blanchard, who had been his great friend at school in England, was in a bank there. He sent Blanchard a wire and left by the next train.
Blanchard was delighted to see Keith, and introduced him all round. Everyone had heard of Keith's exploit and Keith was embarrassed to find himself looked upon as something of a hero. He had heaps of invitations and a thoroughly good time.
One evening Keith was one of a sleighing party which drove out to a road-house at Altamont for supper. It was a big place and others besides Keith's party were there.
At a table on the far side of the room sat a man who attracted Keith's attention. He was big, blond, handsome and perfectly dressed; but he had the coldest grey eyes Keith had ever seen in a human face. He sat alone and Keith could see that he was in an ugly mood.
"Who's that?" he asked of Blanchard. Blanchard glanced at the big man and frowned.
"Paul Marrable," he answered. "I don't know much about him personally, but the general opinion is that he's a nasty piece of goods."
"He looks it," Keith agreed, still gazing at the man. Just then a young fellow came hurrying past Marrable and stumbled over his foot, which was stretched out across the open space between the tables.
"I beg your pardon," Keith heard him say. Marrable glared at him.
"Clumsy young fool!" he retorted in a tone loud enough to be heard all over the room. The boy drew himself up.
"I have apologised," he said with a dignity that pleased Keith.
"And I have called you a clumsy fool," sneered the other. "What are you going to do about it?"
"This," said the boy and, picking up a napkin, flicked Marrable across the face. A dull flush rose to Marrable's cheeks. His great fist shot out; the boy crashed into the nearest table and fell limply to the floor.
Keith was across the room in six strides.
"I am a police officer," he said. "I arrest you for brawling in a public place."
"You'll have a job," sneered Marrable and struck out again with fearful force.
IT was unwise of Marrable to warn Keith that he meant to fight. It gave the latter time to duck the blow and close, Among the many things taught in modern police training, in which Keith had recently taken a course, are holds unknown to the ordinary fighter. Once Keith had obtained such a grip, Marrable, though he was three inches taller than Keith and far heavier, was helpless. He struggled desperately, but his face went white with pain and all of a sudden he fell back against the wall and slid to the floor.
"Get a rope, Jack," Keith called, but the ready-witted Blanchard had already ripped off a curtain cord.
"Ah right, Keith. You hold him. I'll tie him," he said and in a matter of moments Marrable's wrists and ankles were firmly bound. He glared up at Keith with shocking malevolence.
"I'll kill you for this," he threatened in a strangled voice.
"If you're not hung first," replied Keith drily as he got up and dusted the knees of his trousers. "How's the boy, Jack. That blow was enough to finish him."
Leech and a waiter had already lifted the young fellow on to a couch.
"He's still insensible," Leech said, "but he's breathing all right." Keith turned to the head-waiter who was standing by, with a shocked expression on his face.
"Ring up a police car and an ambulance," he ordered. "And don't worry," he added in a kinder tone. "This was no fault of yours and I'll see that there's no trouble."
"Thank you, sir," said the man gratefully, and hurried away.
The police car and the ambulance arrived together. Keith made himself known to burly Sergeant Dickson who was in charge and explained what had happened.
"Marrable," repeated Dickson. "He's a bad hat if ever there was one. Trouble is we never could get anything on him. All right, Corporal, I'll take him along. And if this lad will prosecute I reckon he'll get a stretch. Do you know his name?"
Leech spoke: "Wilson," he said, "Chet Wilson. He comes from Quebec." Dickson made a note of the names, then he and the constable hauled Marrable to his feet, cut the cord that tied his ankles, and marched him off. Marrable did not speak, but his eyes as he looked at Keith were as evil as the lidless orbs of a rattlesnake.
By this time Chet Wilson had recovered consciousness but was still in a half-dazed condition. Keith saw him into the ambulance and went with him to the hospital. He did not leave until he was told that young Wilson was not in any danger.
"He will be all right by morning," said the doctor to Keith. "The only trouble with him is slight concussion caused by the back of his head hitting the table or the floor."
Keith nodded. "Thank you, Doctor. Tell Wilson, please, that I shall be round to see him in the morning."
Before ten next morning Keith was back at the hospital to find that Chet Wilson was practically himself again. He was a good- looking youngster and Keith saw that, though slim, his muscles were finely developed. Chet put out his hand.
"I want to thank you for what you did last night, Mr. Marlow. I'm told you tackled Marrable, single-handed, and got him down. I can't think how you managed it."
"All in the way of business," said Keith with a smile. "They teach you that sort of thing in the police. Actually I enjoyed going for that big brute." He paused. "We want you to prosecute, Wilson," he added. Chet shook his head.
"I couldn't do that."
"He might have killed you," Keith reminded him.
"But he didn't, Mr. Marlow. You must see that I couldn't prosecute," he said firmly. Keith shrugged.
"I didn't think you would but we shall have him for brawling in a public place. And by the time we have finished with him he won't be able to show himself in any kind of society."
"I can't prevent your doing that," the boy answered, "but, so far as I'm concerned, this is a personal matter. I shall never rest happy until I've had it out with Marrable. One day we shall meet, each with a gun in hand. Then I shall kill him." Keith nodded.
"More unlikely things have happened but, personally, I hope that some day we shall get the goods on him and send him up for a long term. Now I must go, for Court opens at half-past ten. But I shall see you again soon."
"Do come again," the boy begged. "I may have talked like a fool but I'm really grateful to you."
When Keith saw Marrable in the dock he grinned inwardly. The big man was still in dress clothes but they were crumpled and dusty. He was unshaven. He looked as if he had not enjoyed a good night. Yet Keith had to hand it to him that he held himself well and showed little sign of the fury that must be boiling within him.
Keith, Leech, Blanchard and the Altamont head-waiter, were the witnesses, but Keith had to explain that Chetwood Wilson refused to prosecute.
The case came down to one of brawling in a public place and resisting the police. Possibly the Chief of Police had whispered a word to the judge before he took his seat for his comments were scathing and he sentenced Marrable to a month's imprisonment without the option of a fine.
"And a sweet time he'll have in prison," Keith remarked to Blanchard as Marrable was taken away.
"Nothing to what you'll have if that blighter ever gets his hooks in you," replied Blanchard. "Did you see the look he gave you before he left the dock? It was pure poison." Keith laughed.
"I'll take my chances," he said.
He was to remember that remark before he was many months older.
KEITH saw a good deal of Chet Wilson during the last few days of his leave and came to like him greatly.
On the day before Keith's leave was up, Chet came to see him in his room at the hotel and found him packing. The boy sat silent awhile smoking, then spoke suddenly.
"Keith, do you think they'd take me in the Force?" Keith laid a folded shirt in his suitcase and faced the other.
"No reason why they shouldn't unless the list is full. But this is a bit sudden, Chet."
"It isn't. I've been thinking of it for three days past and I spoke of it to my mother. She was quite pleased."
"It's a hard life," said Keith.
"It's a man's life," Chet answered. "I'd go to seed in an office. See here, my notion is to come to Regina with you and see if I can enlist right away." Keith nodded.
"So long as your mother approves I've no objection. Can you be ready for the night train?"
"I'll meet you at the depot," Chet said and went off.
There are always plenty of candidates for the Royal Regiment, which now numbers 2,500 men and 300 officers; but recruits of the quality of young Wilson are not too plentiful. On arrival at Regina, Keith went straight to Inspector Curtis and told him all about Chet. Curtis himself interviewed the boy and approved of him, and next day Chet was sworn in and began to learn his drill.
Chet had the advantage of having been a member of the cadet force at his university and of being able to ride well. He also had his pilot's certificate. The result was that within a few weeks he was out of the rookie class and put on regular duty. Keith was pleased to see that Chet was popular with the other men and that he was gaining weight and strength rapidly.
Even after Dranner's trial and conviction Keith was still kept at Regina and this puzzled him for he had expected to be sent back to Sundance. It was not until the end of March he learned the reason for the delay. Then Curtis told him that no news had come from Harman and Bishop and that he was to go up to the Kuchin country and find out what had become of them.
"I am sending you, Marlow," said the Inspector, "because you have been on the edge of that country while in pursuit of Dranner, and because I think you have the tact needed to deal with these Indians. I have no doubt whatever that they have been getting whisky and probably drugs. If you can discover and arrest the scoundrels who are trading with them, you will have done a very real service."
"I'll do my best, sir," Keith said quietly.
"I'm sure of that. Now you must have another man with you. Have you any preference?"
"May I have Wilson, sir?"
"Wilson! But he is still only a recruit."
"All the same I would rather have him than anyone else," said Keith earnestly. "I know I can depend on him." Curtis smiled.
"Yes, I know what you mean. Very good. You can take Wilson and the sooner you get off the better."
Chet's face glowed when he heard that he was to go with Keith.
"I never dreamed of such luck. It's frightfully good of you, Keith." Keith laughed.
"You may change your mind before you're much older, Chet. It's no fun travelling at this time of year. We shall be bucking the spring blizzards after we leave Edmonton."
"I won't let you down," Chet promised. Keith clapped him on the shoulder.
"I wouldn't have asked for you if I'd thought you couldn't stick it," he said. "Now pack up. We leave in the morning."
There was no flying this trip. The first part of the journey was by rail through Edmonton to a post called Mackay. There Keith and Chet spent three days making preparations for their journey. They left with a team of six good dogs and a well-loaded sledge, and pushed north-west on their way to Sundance.
For the first few days Keith took it easy. This was partly for the sake of the dogs and partly on Chet's account. March is one of the coldest months in the north-west and, with a temperature of 20° to 30° below zero, there is always the risk of a greenhand getting his lungs frozen if he is driven too hard. For another thing there is much trail lore that cannot be learned in barracks and Keith had to teach Chet a dozen lessons: how to handle the dogs, how to break trail in soft snow, how to choose the proper spot for a camp, how to build a cooking fire and another that will last all night.
He could not have found a better pupil. Chet had a quick brain and rarely forgot anything after once being shown. He was good with the dogs and, in spite of his rather slight physique, was tough and tireless. Keith found too, that he was a marksman. With a rifle he was better than Keith and he was distinctly useful with a revolver.
Best of all, from Keith's point of view, was the steady good nature of his companion. The discomforts of travelling in extreme cold are so great that tempers are apt to fray, and men quarrel easily and sometimes reach a point where they no longer speak to one another. Chet had naturally a quick temper but had self- control and a keen sense of humour, so he and Keith got on famously together.
In camp at night they sat over their fire and talked and so came to know each other extremely well. Chet was tremendously keen for the success of their expedition and asked endless questions about the Indians they were visiting and the scoundrels who sold spirits to them. He wanted to know what these white men got in return for the big risk they took in breaking the Liquor Control Act.
"Furs," Keith told him. "White men are not allowed to trap on Indian reservation and the Indians, who are usually good trappers, get a wealth of fur. A sober Indian knows the price of his furs as well as any white man and gets it either from travelling fur buyers or from the nearest Hudson Bay Post. But the average Indian will sell his soul for whisky; so, for the price of a sledge load of rotgut spirit, these dope merchants acquire twenty, thirty, even fifty times its value in furs." He stopped to relight his pipe, then went on.
"But the damage is worse than that. Give the Indians drink and they don't work. Then they face the winter without fuel or food. All suffer, especially the squaws and children. I've been told, and I believe it is true, that sometimes the wretched people are driven to cannibalism and eat their own children."
Chet shuddered. "How can men be such brutes?" he asked. He paused then went on. "Keith, they said that Marrable was mixed up in the dope traffic. Do you think it is possible that he has anything to do with this gang?" Keith took his pipe out of his mouth.
"It's possible, Chet. The police in Montreal told me that all this dope business in Canada is controlled by one ring. But don't get the idea in your head that we are going to run into Marrable up here in the wilds. That gentleman is too fond of his creature comforts to rough it up here."
"I'm not so sure," Chet said slowly. "Don't forget that they use aeroplanes. Remember, too, that Marrable can't live any longer in Montreal."
FROM headquarters at Edmonton North to the Arctic Sea and west to the borders of the Yukon territory lies the so-called "G" division of Northern Alberta. It covers an area larger than the British Isles, France and Germany put together, and is controlled by 120 Mounted Police whom Whites and Indians alike look to as the Law.
This is mainly a country of tundra, muskeg, lakes and rivers, but to the west it rises to the slopes of the Rockies in a tangle of hills, valleys and swiftly-running creeks.
It was in this direction that Keith and his partner marched through the cruel cold of the last part of the Arctic winter. Now and then they crossed the trails of other mushers and twice they stopped for the night at police posts. Apart from that, they never set eyes on a human being.
But on the very morning after the talk mentioned in the last chapter, a 'plane came over. A single-engined cabin monoplane fitted with skis for landing on ice. They stopped and gazed at her, expecting at least a wave from her occupants. But there was no sign and she soon dwindled to a dot, then swept out of sight.
"Think those are our dope merchants?" Chet asked. Keith laughed.
"You have those fellows on your brain, Chet. The odds are that the machine is taking stores and mail to some mining post."
"It wasn't a mail 'plane," was all that Chet said.
As the days passed they travelled faster. The dogs, as well as they themselves, had become trail-hardened and, with the diminishing of their supplies, the load on the long komatik sledge grew less. They came to the mountains, and the going grew worse. The snow was like powdered ice and every yard of trail had to be broken. Then came the first bad storm since leaving Mackay and they were forced to hole-up in a clump of willows for thirty hours until it blew over. That day they did not get started until afternoon so, as the moon was nearly full, decided to push on for a couple of hours after their usual camping time.
Progress was slow at first for the fresh snow was piled in great drifts along the hillsides, but presently they came to a slope where the wind had almost cleared the ground. Suddenly the lead dog, a steady old fellow called Starek, lifted his head and growled. Keith looked round sharply and saw two dark forms merge from the brush above the trail. Then a couple more showed on the other side.
"Wolves," Keith said to his companion as he stooped to get his rifle from the load.
"But only four," said Chet.
"Four!" Keith repeated. "More like forty. Look round!" Chet looked and, sure enough, many other slinking forms were now visible behind the sledge.
"Gosh, you're right. I say, are they going to tackle us?"
"Looks like it," Keith replied. "See how they're spreading out to head us off."
"Well, I'll be darned! I always thought these yarns about wolves attacking people were bunk."
"So did I until I had the real stuff from some of the old- timers."
"Then what do we do now?" Chet asked, and Keith was secretly pleased that the boy's voice was as steady as his own.
"Push on, I think. We can't stay here with all this bush round us. If we can make those rocks"—he pointed as he spoke to a mass of rough boulders lying at the foot of a bluff a mile or so ahead—"we ought to be able to hold them off."
"But won't they rush us if we run away?"
"They may, but I have a trick up my sleeve—one that Duncan Maclaine showed me." He began to uncoil a long rope to the loose end of which he attached a small piece of tarpaulin; the other he fastened to the sledge.
"Ugh, how the brutes howl!" Chet muttered, but as Keith called to the dogs and the sledge started, the wolves ceased howling and, bunching together, followed.
The way was downhill, the dogs travelled fast, but the wolf pack came on at an easy lope. Yet they kept their distance. A wolf is the most suspicious of beasts and that long rope twisting and curling over the snow held them off.
"It works!" Chet cried. Keith did not answer. He was not easy in his mind for now they were coming to lower ground where the snow was deep and soft. When the dogs struck this heavy snow the pace slackened and the rope dragged instead of dancing. The wolves came closer. They had fanned out in a wide semicircle and were yapping like hounds on a trail. Keith stopped and swiftly pulled off his gloves. The frost stung his bare hands and he wasted little time in aiming his rifle at the nearest wolf.
With the ringing report the brute shot up in the air, came down sprawling and instantly the rest of the pack gathered and fell upon him, tearing him to pieces.
"Good business!" Chet called out, but Keith said quickly:
"Save your breath. The worst is to come. Take the rifle and try to shoot a couple more. But don't get your hands frosted."
It was amazing how quickly the pack finished every fragment of the dead wolf, bolting even the bones. As Chet raised the rifle he could see the gleam of their eyes and the saliva dripping from their yellow fangs. He fired and a wolf rolled over. As the others mobbed it Chet shot two more.
Keith's whip snapped and this time they gained a good distance before their enemies came again. But the snow grew deeper and now it was all uphill to the rocks. The pack had gathered and were close on their heels. The wolves had tasted blood and were out for a kill. Chet pulled up and turned.
"Go ahead with the dogs, Keith. I'll hold them," he said.
"HOLD them! You're crazy," Keith retorted. "You'd need a machine-gun to stop them, once you were left alone, and I doubt if you'd do it with that. But if you'll use your pistol and fire spaced shots I'll show you a trick."
Keith had stopped the dogs and the wolves, which had already finished their dead companions, paused at sight of the two figures facing them. Yet they were closing in all the time, crawling up through the snow on their bellies. Chet began to shoot again and although the moonlight was treacherous he made good practice. He was cool as though target shooting and few of his cartridges were wasted. He noticed with inward dismay that the pack no longer wasted time or energy in devouring their dead; they were anticipating a sweeter meal.
Keith meanwhile was busy. He had taken from the load something that looked like a length of yellow cane and thrust this inside his clothes under his armpit. He then found a length of coarse, stiff string. It was fuse, and the stick was dynamite. But the dynamite was frozen hard and he had to wait until it was thawed.
Crang! Crang! Each explosion of Chet's revolver sent echoes crashing from the bluff beyond and almost every bullet reached its mark. Despite the slaughter the pack advanced and, for the first time since the beginning of this battle, Chet felt a chill of real fear. Such vicious and relentless pertinacity on the part of wild things was terrifying. Yet he kept his head, and when his own pistol was empty swiftly snatched Keith's and continued his measured firing.
"All right!" came Keith's voice. "Stand aside, Chet!" Keith had struck a match and touched it to the fuse. As the fuse began to sputter he drew back his arm and flung the missile right into the centre of the bunched pack. The beasts sprang aside but, before they could reach a safe distance, there was a glare of fight, a loud thump and up shot a column of yellow smoke mixed with flesh, hair and even whole bodies. With howls of terror and agony the survivors bolted at full speed. Chet drew a long breath.
"You're good at tricks, Keith. I think that one saved our bacon." Keith laughed.
"Don't talk of bacon until it's in the pan. I'm starving." He called to his dogs and presently the two were making camp among the boulders under the bluff. They kept a good fire going all night and saw no more of their late enemies.
Three days later they reached Bramble Lake, on the shore of which was a shack belonging to a trapper named Culver. Culver, a heavily-built, bearded man, lived alone and was delighted to see some company.
"You're the first chaps I've spoke to since the freeze-up," he told them. "Why, darn it, I'd have gone crazy if it hadn't been for my radio, and now the battery's plumb down. The last month I been talking to myself. Come right in," he added hospitably. "I've still got a moose steak and plenty flour and coffee. I'll throw up some flapjacks and fix a meal."
"To which we will contribute some tinned peaches," said Keith and Culver's eyes glowed.
"Peaches! Gee, I finished my last tin at Christmas! Makes my mouth fair water to think on 'em."
The dogs were put up and fed, Keith and Chet had a wash and a badly-needed shave and presently the three sat down to fried moose steak with fried potatoes, hot flapjacks, coffee and the promised peaches. It was real luxury to be in a well-warmed cabin out of the biting frost and, while they ate, Culver was full of questions. He had had no news of the outer world since the end of October.
"You haven't even seen a 'plane?" Keith asked. Culver looked round quickly.
"A 'plane came over about a week ago. It were just as that last blizzard started blowing. She come down on the lake and, of course, I reckoned the chaps would shelter along with me. They never came near me. Maybe they was scared. I seed 'em anchor the 'plane and there they stayed in her cabin till it was over. Just as I started out to say howdy to them I seed 'em take off again."
"Why, that must have been the 'plane we saw, Keith," said Chet quickly.
"It probably was," Keith answered. "They flew right over us," he told Culver. "They must have seen us but did not look out or wave."
"Durned unsociable, I'll say," growled Culver, "but there's all sorts nowadays flying over this country. Mining men as thinks they're too good to speak to an old sourdough."
"What beats me is how a 'plane can anchor on open ice in a blizzard," said Chet thoughtfully. "Grapnels won't hold on glare ice."
"Yet it's simple enough if you know how," Keith told him. "You bore a small hole in the ice, fill it with petrol and set light to it. In a very short time you have a big hole. Then all you have to do is to stick the loose end of your anchor rope into the hole and wait for it to freeze up. In a few minutes it's solid as rock." Chet nodded.
"Simple enough, as you say, but all these things have got to be learned." He turned to Culver.
"I'm a tenderfoot still," he explained with a laugh.
"We all got to be that way, to start," said Culver. "Some learns and some don't. I reckon you ain't one to forget your lessons." Chet laughed again.
"That's the first compliment I've had paid me since I joined up. And in return I'm going to wash these dishes, Culver. You sit still and smoke. You did the cooking."
"A right likely lad," Culver said aside to Keith as Chet took the dishes across the room. "Are you and him on a special job?"
"We are." Keith had no hesitation in telling the trapper about his mission, for no one hates these dope merchants more than a man of Culver's type. Culver scowled as he listened. "I've heard as there's trouble among them Kuchins. Gosh, I hope you get these sons of dogs!"
"We'll do our best," Keith promised him and, after chatting awhile, he and Chet turned in and slept in unusual comfort.
Next morning was dull and cloudy with a bitter wind from the north. Culver gave them a good breakfast and directions as to their road.
"You goes right up the lake," he said. "It narrows at the head with bluffs both sides, but the ice is all right. Then you'll find a creek running in a bit to the left and that's well frozen. You can keep along it three or four mile. Arter that you'll find my trail over the height of land to the north and then you'll go straight up the valley. You'd ought to make Sundance in three days."
Keith thanked him warmly for his hospitality, then he and Chet were off. You don't talk when you are mushing through the sub- Arctic; you have no breath to waste so, though Keith saw the marks on the ice where the stranger 'plane had been moored, he did not mention it to Chet. But as they swept up towards the Narrows, Keith was thinking a good deal about this machine and these thoughts perhaps made him keep a keener watch than usual.
Which, as it happened, was a lucky thing for him and his companion. The tail of his eye caught a movement on the summit of the high bluff to the left and instinctively he yelled a warning, at the same time swinging his team sharply to the right. There was a rumble, a roar, and a huge boulder came hurtling downwards and struck the ice at almost the exact spot which Keith and his dogs would have occupied had he not turned them.
THE weight of the stone was so great and its impetus so tremendous that it smashed right through the ice, though this was something like two feet in thickness. A column of water shot up and spray fell all over Keith and the dogs, instantly turning into ice. The dogs, terrified, crouched down and at that instant Chet Wilson was beside the sledge.
He snatched up the rifle which, since their tussle with the wolves, had always been kept on top of the pack, he ripped off its woollen cover and raised it to his shoulder with a speed that Keith could not possibly have matched. Hardly seeming to aim Chet pulled the trigger and, with the flat crack of the report, there came a scream from the top of the cliff.
"Got him," Chet said and Keith saw a man sliding down over the rim of the bluff. His body struck the raw scar which the boulder had made, shot outwards and dropped to the ice below.
"By Gad, you did get him!" Keith said. "That was a wonderful shot, Chet."
"He showed his head. I couldn't miss. Keith, that fellow was left here to finish us both."
"By the people in the 'plane, you mean? I dare say you are right." He shrugged. "Look after the dogs while I inspect the remains."
When Keith came back he looked rather white.
"Fall's made a mess of him," he said, "but he's no one I ever saw. He's a breed of sorts but not the sort we get up here."
"Any papers?" Chet asked.
"Not a thing, but he had a wallet with a hundred dollars in it."
"Blood money," Chet said.
"Exactly, and probably another hundred to come when he brought news we were finished. I'm keeping the wallet to show to his employer when we get him."
"It's Marrable," Chet stated with an odd air of certainty.
"Don't count on it," Keith said. "Now we must go back with the body and get Culver to bury it. We can't leave it there for the wolves."
"You do that," Chet said. "I'll go and look for the breed's camp. There might be some clue." Keith shrugged.
"That's hardly likely but it's worth trying. All right, Chet, but you'll have to go a long way round."
Culver had heard the shot and met Keith as he returned. He looked at the dead man but shook his head.
"Never seed him before, but Wilson made a good job of it. Plumb between the eyes. Aye," he added, "I'll bury him. Anyways I'll put the body in a safe place till the ground thaws. Maybe someone'll find out who he is. You better come back to my place and wait for Wilson. Likely he'll be some time."
Keith refused. He was anxious to get on for now he was sure that these dope merchants had got a start of him. So again he said goodbye to Culver and returned to the head of the lake where he stopped at the creek mouth and waited for Chet. He had not long to wait and, as Chet came striding across the snow-clad ice, Keith saw by his face that he had found something.
"A packet of dope," Chet told him breathlessly. "Cocaine, I think. And I found an empty flour-bag with a Montreal label. Keith, I'm getting more and more certain that Marrable is our man."
"If he is we have a chance of getting him," Keith said as he put a wet finger into the powder and touched it to his tongue. "Cocaine, all right," he agreed. "And now we must travel, Chet, travel like blazes. We want to catch up with this crowd before they know we're alive."
Travel they did and, since luckily there was no more snow, they reached Sundance on the afternoon of the third day. Duncan, who had been warned by radio that they were on their way, came to meet them, and with him the big wolf dog Koltag who was overjoyed to see Keith again. Duncan was surprised to see them so soon.
"Ye have na wasted much time, Keith," he remarked. "They do tell me ye are a corporal noo."
"Your doing mainly, you old sinner," grinned Keith. "And here's a new recruit I've brought along. Chet Wilson is his name and I hope you will like him as much as I do." Duncan shook hands with Chet and looked him over.
"Weel," he said, drily, "if ye can do ither things as weel as ye can mush there'll be no cause of complaint. Noo come in and I'll gie ye a hot drink. Ye look as if ye needed it."
"There's something I need more, Duncan," said Keith. "That's news. Have you heard anything of Harmon and Bishop?" Duncan shook his head.
"I have nae word of them." Keith looked grave then asked another question. "Have you seen a 'plane lately?"
"Aye, a 'plane landed here aboot ten days ago. She had three aboard, a pilot, a man named Wing and another called Lafitte."
"What was Wing like?"
"A big loon wi' dark hair and moustache."
"Dark," repeated Keith in a disappointed tone. "Then it's not the chap we are looking for."
"Why not?" Chet demanded. "Hair dye is cheap and he's had plenty of time to grow hair on his face. What colour were his eyes, Corporal?"
"Grey, lad. Hard eyes. He was a big, strong deevil." Chet looked at Keith.
"It was Marrable," he said sharply. "I told you so."
"And who is this Marrable?" Duncan asked as he led the way into the barracks. Over some excellent coffee Chet told about Marrable. He spoke, too, of the man left to ambush them and of his fate. "If we could only have warned you so that you could have stopped them," he ended. Duncan frowned.
"I had doots aboot them," he said slowly, "but their papers were right enough and the big fellow told a straight story aboot a visit to Manton to look over a copper find for the North- Eastern Syndicate. Next day I had to gang oot to Blue Springs where Butch Rawley was drunk and raising Cain and when I got back the 'plane was gone."
"You don't even know which way it went?" said Chet.
Keith cut in: "There's no doubt about that. They've flown up into the Kuchin country, and that's where you and I go to-morrow morning, Chet."
"Ye will have a cold trip," Duncan told them. "'Tis thirty below noo, and falling." Keith smiled.
"We are getting used to it, Duncan. Anyhow, we shall have one night in the warmth. That's something to be thankful for. Now, is there anything more you can tell me about this Kuchin business?"
"There's talk comes doon," said Duncan cautiously. "The big trouble-maker is a shaman they ca' Yethel. I'm thinking ye have a man-sized job, Keith. Maybe I'd best come wi ye."
"Your job is here, Duncan," Keith told him. "Chet and I will handle this Yethel fellow."
DUNCAN was right about the weather. Next morning the spirit thermometer marked 38° below—that is seventy degrees of frost. There was no wind but the still air was full of tiny spicules of ice which glinted in the sunlight. The days were lengthening but, as so often happens in the north, the late cold was strengthening.
"The last snap before the break-up," Keith told his partner as they pushed away to the north-west. Well fed and rested and with Koltag acting as lead, the dogs travelled fast. Keith thought of the time, six months ago, when he had first taken this trail. It was better now, for he not only had a companion on whom he could rely, he also knew the he of the land. The cold continued, but there was no wind or fresh snow so they made good time and the fourth day out found them in the Kuchin country.
"There should be a lake a bit ahead of us," Keith explained. "That's where the 'plane will have landed."
"But she'll hardly be there now," Chet said.
"No saying. It depends on whether Marrable was able to get the furs he wanted. It wouldn't pay him to pack out cheap furs in a 'plane. He'd be looking for silver fox and that sort of stuff."
"Then there's a chance we may get Marrable," said Chet eagerly.
"A chance, but don't count on it. And if we do find him we'll have to be mighty careful. There are three of them and they'll fight." Chet did not reply but, by the look on his face, Keith knew that he was asking for nothing better than a fight.
Just before dusk they found the lake. In summer it must, Keith thought, be a lovely spot, for the shores were high and craggy and fine timber grew on the hills above it. At present it was a sheet of ice about two miles long and half a mile wide, while woods and hills were covered deep in powder snow. Chet pulled up and his eyes roved over the frozen surface.
"The 'plane's not there," he said in a deeply-disappointed tone.
"But it may come back," Keith reminded him. "Meanwhile, look at that!" He pointed as he spoke to a thin column of smoke rising in the still air from the centre of a thick stand of spruce on the far side of the lake.
"Indian village?" Chet questioned.
"No. This lake is sacred and they wouldn't live on it or even fish in it. That will be the potlatch lodge." Chet's eyes brightened.
"And they're there now," he said keenly. "The Indians, I mean?"
"Looks like it by the smoke."
"Then I take it we go right over and see what they're up to." Keith shook his head.
"Softly, Chet. It's not as simple as that. Even if these Indians are filled up with hooch and dope you can be sure they've set a watch. We must wait till dark before we cross the lake. Surprise is everything in a case like this."
"Then we'd best camp here and make supper," Chet suggested. Keith nodded.
"We must find some spot where we can light a fire without being seen," he told the other. "There's a thick stand of spruce over to the left. We ought to be all right there."
They turned the dogs in among the spruce and were lucky enough to find a low bluff behind which they could light a fire without risk of being spotted. They unharnessed and fed the dogs, then cooked and ate a good supper. The cold was terrific and every now and then came a sharp crack as a tree, its sap frozen, split in the bitter frost. Once there rose a deep booming sound from the lake. The cause Keith did not know, but the sound is only heard when the temperature sinks to 40° below zero. Keith had no thermometer but reckoned that at present it might be ten degrees lower than that. They had to drink their tea almost as soon as it was poured out for within a couple of minutes of being taken from the fire it was beginning to skim with ice.
Daylight disappeared but the sky was clear and the stars shone with frosty radiance. Keith got up.
"Come on, Chet. And hurry. There's an Aurora starting and we must reach the lodge before it gets too bright."
A faint pinkish radiance which resembled the reflection of a distant fire was beginning to show in the northern sky, and as the two swung swiftly across the level ice of the lake the glow increased. They climbed the far bank and saw among the trees a long low building of heavy logs. Through the windows, which were made of animal parchment, a reddish light glowed and from within came a thump of drums, a roar of voices and the constant shuffle of feet stamping on the clay floor.
"Sounds like there was plenty of hooch inside," Chet remarked. Keith stopped behind a clump of trees and peeled off his parka, revealing his scarlet jacket underneath. Chet, feeling suddenly sobered, did the same. Keith hung his parka on a branch.
"I'm going in alone," he stated. "You stay outside, Chet, and await developments. If there's trouble use your own judgment. You know your way back."
"Very good," Chet answered curtly, but his heart was beating uncomfortably for he had suddenly realised that Keith was going into extreme danger.
Keith straightened his belt, saw that his pistol was loose in its holster and went quietly forward. The frost bit through his tunic but he hardly felt it. His whole mind was on the task before him.
As he had expected a man was on guard at the door of the lodge. He never saw Keith until Keith was within arm's length, then it was too late. Keith's fist shot out and caught the Indian on the point of the jaw. He was down and out without a sound. Chet dragged him aside and slipped a pair of cuffs on his wrists.
Keith pushed open the door and walked in. A reek of hot foul air met and half-choked him. It was a mixture of smoke, alcohol, and the stink of sweating bodies. Keith saw a great fire burning redly in the centre of the long building and, around it, scores of figures dancing and capering to the dull boom of skin-covered drums. He closed the door behind him and walked slowly forward.
The din was deafening. The men revolving around the fire in the ritual of the sacred dance were shouting Ya! Ya! Ya! with throats so hoarse from long yelling that the sound rasped like saws ripping through dry wood. Around the sides of the lodge shamans and chiefs thumped steadily on drums and others beat together wooden rattles. These were the old rites practised by these Indians for a thousand years past, but Keith saw in a moment that these jerking, swaying figures were not merely dance mad in the manner of their forefathers but crazed with the drink and drugs supplied to them by the white dope peddlers.
The dancers were painted in the weirdest fashion, some having their faces made up to resemble wolves, bears, owls and other beasts and birds. The shamans who sat at the drums wore masks cut out of cedar wood and painted with strange emblems.
In the roaring confusion Keith's presence was not noticed except by a few near the door who stared with amazed fury at the lone white man who dared to invade their secret shrine.
Nothing but his uniform saved Keith from being torn to pieces by these savages. He knew it, but the knowledge only stiffened his determination. Erect, bare-headed and with the glow of the firelight reflected on the bright buttons of his scarlet coat, he marched straight into the centre of the lodge and raised his hand.
"In the name of the King," he said in a loud, clear voice.
Silence fell. Every eye was fixed upon Keith. He could feel the waves of fear and hate beating upon him like something physical. He paused a moment and went on:
"This is against the law and all here know it. For this you are liable to fines and imprisonment. The white man gives you food when you are hungry, medicine when you are sick, but he also gives you the law." Again he paused a moment and now the silence was broken only by the spit and crackle of the fire logs. He went on.
"Because I know that this madness has been brought upon you by a man of evil heart you shall go to your homes and there shall be no arrests, but one. That man goes with me, dead or alive." His voice rang out hard and sharp. "Yethel, come forward."
No one moved. The silence was as complete as before and Keith had never yet set eyes on the shaman who might be any of those masked figures against the wall.
KEITH was watching that row of seated figures with eyes that lost no smallest detail. Stolid as Indians are, he felt certain that, though Yethel himself might not betray his identity, others would. He was right, for he caught quick, curious glances turned upon a masked man who sat stolidly in the centre of the long row.
"Yethel!" he said again, and his voice cracked like a pistol shot.
Still the man on whom his eyes were fixed did not move. Keith stepped forward.
He knew he was taking the most terrific risk. All these Indians were armed. They had knives, hatchets; some, it might be, pistols. And every mother's son was half-crazy from the effects of raw alcohol or drugs. The slightest spark would start an explosion which he himself had not a hope of surviving. He might shoot down four or five but the rest would overwhelm him, tear him to pieces. He was wondering whether Harman and Bishop had already suffered this fate.
But he was keyed up to a point when he had no fear. He felt to be what he actually was, the incarnation of the Law. These Indians knew that they had broken the law which forbids the Indian to drink spirits or to hold potlatch. And deep down in their minds was respect for the Law which had fed them in time of famine and brought them medicine when the influenza scourge raged among them. Keith spoke again.
"Yethel, stand up!"
A man stood up. But not the one whom Keith firmly believed to be the leader. He did not hesitate; he dared not, for hesitation meant death. Yet a blunder would be equally bad for it would mean defeat.
"Sit down!" he said curtly. "It is Yethel I need."
He saw the flash of surprise and dismay in the eyes of the man who had risen and was blissfully aware that he was right. At the same moment the man in the centre sprang up and dragged a sheath knife from his belt. Keith's pistol crashed and the bullet struck the floor at the shaman's feet. The knife dropped from his hand. Keith took three steps forward, jammed the muzzle of his revolver into the shaman's stomach.
"Put out your hands," he snapped, and as the man did so the cuffs snapped on his wrists.
"The rest of you can go," Keith said curtly. "But remember this. The powder this man has given you will rot your brains. You will no longer be able to hunt the caribou, to snare fur or catch fish. Those who sell it to white men are sent to prison; those who sell it to you will suffer a worse fate. I have spoken."
Holding his prisoner with his left hand, but with his revolver ready in his right, Keith walked steadily out between rows of staring faces, some sullen and scowling, others oddly blank. One or two muttered in their throats but not one dared withstand him. So he passed out of the lodge into the biting air of the winter night. There Chet joined him and, after Keith had put on his parka, fell into step on the other side of the prisoner. Together, the three went down to the lake shore and quickly across its frozen surface.
What the cold was Keith could only guess. Overhead the Aurora's streamers of coloured light danced and whispered with a sound like rustling silk. The stars glittered in a sky of steel. Nothing living but they three moved in a frozen world.
The fire was still burning when they reached the camp and Chet piled on more wood so that the blaze leaped upwards. Seated between the fire and the bluff, they had the heat reflected back from the rock. Even so, the cold was cruel. Keith gave the prisoner a blanket, then fastened him to a tree with the steel chain which he always carried. Chet made a fresh pot of tea and he and Keith drank it gratefully. Then Keith gave a mug to his prisoner.
"Keith," said Chet in a whisper. "Can that blighter understand English?"
"A little. How much I can't say."
"What about French?"
"No, not French."
"But you do, Keith." Keith grinned.
"Enough to understand you, anyhow."
"I wanted to tell you," said Chet in French, "that I was never so scared in my life and that I couldn't have done that job as you did, to save my soul."
"I will wager I was just as scared as you," Keith answered in the same language. "I never thought I'd get out, alive. Well, I was lucky and the best of it is that we have this old rascal."
"What are you going to do with him?"
"Make him talk," said Keith firmly. "The first thing he has to tell is what has become of Harman and Bishop; the second, where Marrable has gone. And I'm going to start right now before he's got over the shock of being lugged out of the lodge in front of all his brothers." He got up and stood over Yethel.
"Where are the two red coats who came here before the freeze up?" he demanded. The shaman looked up with sullen hate-filled eyes and shrugged.
"I not know," he said. Keith spoke again in slow, measured tones.
"Yethel, it was you who gave the white powder to your people. For that the punishment is worse than gaol. It is flogging. After you are tried and sentenced you will be tied to a post and flogged on your bare back. The story will go back to your people. Even if you are released you will never be able to face them again."
Watching the shaman's face he saw the muscles of his lips twitch slightly. For imprisonment the shaman cared little. It was on disgrace in the eyes of his tribe. Flogging was different. The prospect scared him badly. Keith went on.
"But the White Chief is merciful. If I can tell him that you have helped to repair the mischief you have done he will forgive the flogging. Now will you talk."
No words came from the shaman's lips. Even if he was scared he was not yet ready to talk. Keith ripped the blanket from the man's shoulders. He stooped to unlock the chain. As he did so Yethel sprang. His arms closed round Keith's neck and, snarling like a wolf, the shaman strove to fix his teeth in Keith's throat.
Chet sprang to the rescue but Keith's right fist came up with a short jabbing blow and Yethel's head jerked back. Keith tore loose from the clutching arms and drove in a second blow which sent the Indian sprawling in the snow.
"Are you hurt, Keith?" Chet asked anxiously.
"Yethel's the one who is hurt," Keith answered. "When he comes round he'll be ready to talk. And, Chet, we're going to hear something or I miss my guess."
KEITH had not missed his guess. When Yethel recovered from the stunning effects of the blow he was shivering with cold and terror. A blow of the fist terrifies an Indian worse than a bullet from a gun. He talked and, as Chet said, he talked plenty.
The first thing they learned was that Marrable—Godfrey Wing he called himself—was the man who had given the hooch and "snow" to Yethel for distribution among his tribe. His partner was named Lafitte, a man of mixed parentage but evidently of some education. It was he who, with the help of Yethel's men, had trapped Harman and Bishop. Yethel insisted that the two Mounties had not been killed but that Wing had taken them to his secret place where they were held prisoners.
Keith demanded to be told where this secret place was to be found. Yethel hesitated. There was no doubt that he was horribly afraid of Marrable's vengeance if he told. Keith assured him that he would be safe in prison long before Wing—or Marrable—knew of his information and presently the shaman said in a faltering voice that it was on Lost River.
"Do you know where that is, Keith?" Chet asked.
"I've heard of it," Keith answered. "It's north-west of this, up in the Kleet country." He frowned. "No country for a 'plane."
"There are probably lakes," Chet suggested. "Anyhow, it sounds to me as if Yethel was giving us good goods."
"He's too scared to do anything else," Keith agreed.
"Then we'd best push up there at once and get these fellows out." Keith shrugged.
"It's not as easy as that, Chet. It sounds as if Marrable had some sort of stronghold up there in the hills and he wont scare like these birds. Wait till I ask a few more questions." He spoke again to the shaman but the latter had come to the end of his knowledge. He had never been on Lost River and all he knew about it was that it rose in the Valley of No Echo. Questioned about this valley with the quaint name, all that Yethel could say was that it was where "The Tamer" lived. The Tamer, he added, was a white man and was so called because he could tame any wild creature.
"A sort of Grey Owl," Chet said. "Gee, but this is a rum country."
There was no more to be had out of Yethel so he was given his blanket again and another cup of tea, then Keith and Chet sat apart and chatted awhile in whispers. After which they got into their sleeping bags. There was no need to keep watch. Koltag did that.
Day had not dawned when Keith turned out. The aurora had died but the cold was as intense as ever. They made a hasty yet solid breakfast but, when Chet was about to harness up, Keith checked him.
"I've a job to do first," he said. "I'm going across the lake to the lodge." Chet's eyes widened.
"The dope, Chet."
"But if there was any there they will have taken it with them."
"The hooch, yes, but not the dope. That, I think, will be hidden, perhaps buried under the floor."
"You'll never find it. You can't dig the whole place up. You haven't even got a spade."
"I'm not doing any digging, Chet, and I don't suppose I shall find it. But I'm taking care that the Indians don't get it. My notion is to put a match to the building."
"I hadn't thought of that," said Chet slowly, "but it might be a good idea."
"It's the only idea. The place is evil and only fire will cleanse it." Chet looked anxious.
"Hadn't I better come along. There may be some of those chaps hanging about still."
"Not likely and, if there are, I can handle them. You stay and look after the prisoner. I won't be long."
"You'll take Koltag." Keith nodded and, calling to the dog, started on his errand.
Despite his boast that there would be no trouble, Keith approached the sinister lodge with caution. There was the chance that some of the Indians, too drunk to travel, might have spent the night in the building. Dawn was breaking pink and clear as he walked up the slope through the trees, but there was no smoke, no sign of life anywhere. He was within a few paces of the lodge when Koltag checked and growled softly.
Keith stopped short. Someone was inside the lodge and it behoved him to use caution. He loosened his revolver in its holster before moving quietly forward. The door was closed. Reaching the nearest window, Keith peered through. Though the parchment was frosted Keith was able to see into the interior. Two men were there. One was kneeling on the floor digging in the hard-packed clay with a hatchet, the other, armed with an ugly looking knife, stood over him. The man on the floor was a wizened little fellow who looked scared almost to death, the other was twice his size and as ugly a looking brute as Keith had ever set eyes on. His face was heavily pitted with smallpox scars and his right ear had completely gone, giving his head a lopsided appearance.
Keith needed no guessing cap to know exactly what was up. A search for the hidden cocaine was going on, the little man doing the work, the big one acting as taskmaster. A second glance at the big man made Keith certain that he was a dope fiend. The glassy glare in his beady eyes put this beyond doubt. He was probably suffering agonies for lack of the drug. A man in this condition is lost to all decent feeling. He will commit murder for just a sniff of cocaine.
The little man paused a moment. In spite of the intense cold, drops of sweat stood on his face. The big man's lips twisted with rage. He raised his knife and cursed the other savagely. An odd point was that he spoke in English. The wizened little fellow began digging again furiously. The trampled clay was almost as hard as brick but it flew before the hard-driven hatchet blade.
"He seems to know where it is," Keith said to himself, and decided to wait. He felt sure nothing would happen to the little digger until he had unearthed the cache.
He had not long to wait. The hatchet blade rang on metal and the big man swooped down. With a swing of one arm he sent his wretched little slave rolling over and over; with the other hand he lifted a small black box. He wrenched it open, took out a pinch of the powder, laid it on the back of his hand in the hollow between his thumb and forefinger and sniffed ecstatically. He closed the box carefully and started for the door.
So did Keith; and Keith, knowing the man he had to deal with, had his gun ready in his hand.
"Give me that box," he ordered.
The man raised his knife and came for him like a tiger. So sudden and furious was his attack that only a swift swerve saved Keith's life. As it was, the razor-edged blade gashed his parka. Keith pulled trigger. He had no choice. The bullet drove straight through the man's body and he fell back through the open door into the lodge. He was dead almost as he touched ground; shot through the heart.
This was the first man Keith had ever killed and for a moment he stood quite still, looking down at his victim, hardly able to believe that a life had been snuffed out so swiftly. Then he was aware that the little man was standing beside him and speaking.
"Zat very fine shot," he said. "Zat very bad man. You no come, he kill me." Keith pulled himself together.
"Who is he?" he asked.
"He One Ear. I not know any ozzer name. He come from Kleet country. He work for Lafitte." Keith nodded.
"And you—what's your name?"
"I called Tuzu. I work at ze Company post at Ten Mile."
"That's a long way from here," Keith suggested.
"I get tronk. Ze factor he t'row me out. I run ze trap line, I wash ze gold. I do anysing. Den zis One Ear, he make me cook for ze outfit. So I come here."
"Do you know this white man who calls himself Godfrey Wing?" Keith asked. He spoke very quietly but inwardly he was throbbing with excitement.
"De beeg man wiz ze eyes like cold stones. He ze boss ob Lafitte. I hab seen him come in ze 'plane."
"Do you know where he hangs out?"
"He got place up ze Lost River, but I nevaire been zere. I tink he shoot any who come zere."
"Could you guide me anywhere near it?" The little man looked doubtful.
"I no want to go zere any more. Lafitte, he raise ze Cain when he know One Ear dead."
"He'll never know how he came to his end," Keith said. "Wait, and I will show you. Lend me your axe."
He took the axe, cut some splinters from the dry logs of the wall, piled them inside the lodge and struck a match. Tuzu's eyes looked as if they would pop out of his wizened face.
"You no burn ze Medicine Lodge!" he gasped. He spun round and bolted.
KEITH was after him like a shot, but it was Koltag who caught Tuzu. He jumped on his back and knocked him down and the little man lay flat, too scared to move. Keith called the dog off.
"What's the matter with burning the lodge?" he demanded. "You ought to be glad."
"Lafitte he burn you—and me, too, if we do zat," chattered Tuzu.
"You and I are not doing it. The Law is burning the Lodge. The Law is bigger medicine than Lafitte. I am not afraid of Lafitte and you need not be if you stay with me."
"You take me wiz you?" Tuzu asked looking hard at Keith.
"Yes, and pay you, too, Tuzu. And we'll be far enough from here before nightfall. Will you come?"
"I bet I come," declared the little man, and Keith saw he meant it.
He went back and touched off his pile of splinters. He did not move One Ear's body. Cremation was as good as any other form of burial. The dry logs caught quickly and within five minutes flames were roaring inside the lodge, leaping hungrily towards the roof.
"That'll do," said Keith. "Now we'll mush." He struck a fast pace across the lake but Tuzu kept up. Keith looked at him and wondered, for even a skilled ethnologist would have been puzzled to say to what race the odd little man belonged. His high cheekbones and slanting eyes seemed to show Eskimo blood, but he was partly white and there was probably an Indian strain as well. Keith decided that he was not as old as he looked and it was easy to see that Tuzu's frame, small as it was, had the toughness to withstand the hardships of this northern country. Anyhow, it was great luck to get hold of a man who knew something about this Lost River country and the Dope Gang.
By the time they reached the far side of the lake the lodge was in full blaze. In the still air they could plainly hear the roaring of the flames and an immense column of inky smoke rose high against the clear sky.
"You've done the job properly," was Chet's greeting as Keith reached the camp; "They'll see that smoke for miles round." Then he saw Tuzu. "Who's this bird?" he asked in surprise.
Keith explained and Chet grinned.
"You're a lucky beggar, Keith. You've got your prisoner, the dope, and now a guide."
"We still have to get them to Sundance, Chet," Keith reminded him. "Let's be moving." Chet looked at Tuzu.
"You had any breakfast this morning?" he asked.
"I no eat to-day," Tuzu told him.
"I thought you looked hungry," said Chet and fished out a large sandwich made of a split bannock with cold fried bacon between. He handed this to Tuzu. "You'll have to make out with that for the present. You'll get a good feed at midday." Tuzu wolfed it, rubbed his stomach happily and declared himself ready to start.
Since there had been no recent snow, the trail they had broken on the way out was still open and they made good time. They did not spare themselves for Keith knew that the last of the spring blizzards were due, and hoped to reach Sundance before they broke.
Now and then Keith looked back over his shoulder. Chet was right. That smoke would advertise the end of the Medicine Lodge for a vast distance. The air was so still that the smoke had formed an immense black mushroom, the top of which was all of three hundred feet above the hills. And since the lodge had stood on high ground that smoke would be visible for at least twenty miles.
Not that Keith troubled his head about the advertisement. Even if the Indians were angry, by this time they were scattered on their way to their homes. And most of the poor devils would be feeling the effects of their debauch on the previous night. Most certainly they were not going to make trouble. So it came as a shock when Tuzu stopped short and said in a scared tone:
"'Plane, she come!" Keith checked the dogs and, as the rustle of their feet and of the sledge runners ceased, he, too, heard the distant beat of an aeroplane engine.
He glanced round. At that moment they were in the open but there was a heavy stand of spruce no more than two hundred yards to the left. Without wasting time in talking, Keith turned the dogs and drove full speed for the cover. The snow was deep and unbroken. Chet and Tuzu broke trail but, even so, it was impossible to go fast. Every moment the roar of the 'plane grew louder and they were still fifty paces from shelter when Keith saw the machine barely a mile away and flying at about 2,000 feet.
The dogs broke through a drift and beyond it the snow was not so deep. Just as the 'plane was almost overhead the sledge reached the trees. Keith did not stop. His whip cracked over the heads of his team as he forced them deeper among the close-set trunks.
The sound of the engine ceased, the machine came diving down at a steep angle and next moment the harsh rattle of a machine- gun broke out and a burst of bullets shredded snow-clad twigs overhead. Keith pulled up his dogs.
"Stand still, all of you," he ordered. "They can't see us." The 'plane's engine roared again as she rose.
"She's gone," said Chet.
"She'll be back," Keith told him.
Sure enough back she came and they caught glimpses of her, circling overhead. But there was no more firing. The man at the machine-gun knew it was useless to waste ammunition.
At last she flew away and the sound of her engine died in the distance. Chet looked at Keith.
"You did a bit too much advertising, old man."
"I'd no idea they were so close," Keith answered.
"Shall we push along?" Chet asked.
"Not an inch," Keith said emphatically. "From now on our travelling must be done by night." Chet looked dismayed.
"That's going to be tough."
"Not so tough as being wiped out as we shall be if we venture into the open in daylight. Marrable knows what we've done and probably suspects that we have evidence against him. He will do all he knows to keep us from reaching Sundance." Chet pursed his lips.
"What about those Barrens?" he asked. "We can't cross them in one night's march and there'll be no cover for us in the daytime."
KEITH looked thoughtful. What Chet had said was perfectly true. Before reaching Sundance they had nearly forty miles of open country to cross: empty country, too. However good the weather, it was out of the question to cover such a distance in a single night and there would be no trees to hide them if they were caught out in daylight.
Caught out they would be beyond the shadow of a doubt, for the two attacks made already by the gangsters were plain proof that Marrable meant to wipe them out. Probably, so Keith thought, Marrable knew who he was and his personal hatred had run away with him. Marrable was taking big risks in his efforts to murder police, for there is no other force in the world which has a finer reputation for getting its men than the Royal Mounted Regiment. Presently Keith turned to Chet and a slight smile curved his firm lips.
"All right," he said, "if they want to gun us they'll have to."
"You got another trick up your sleeve?" Chet demanded.
"A kind of a sort of one," Keith allowed, "but I'll have to think it out." He looked round. "We'd better camp right here and get some sleep. We shall have to stick here till dark." Chet frowned.
"Hang the fellow!" he growled. "To be hung up like this. Just when the going's good. We might have done another fifteen miles before night."
"We'll do more than that to-night," was all that Keith said as he unpacked his sleeping-bag and got into it.
They rested until near sunset, then cooked a solid meal, ate it and harnessed up. The night was clear and still but there was no moon, and Keith did not think that Marrable's pilot would risk night flying. They covered twenty miles without trouble, then Keith pulled up his dogs in a small glade surrounded by fairly- thick timber. Chet looked round and frowned.
"Surely you're not going to camp here!" he said.
"That was my idea," Keith answered mildly.
"If the 'plane comes over you'll wish you hadn't."
"I'm counting on its coming," Keith said. Chet scowled then grinned.
"I believe I get you. You want to lay a trap for this flying gent."
"Not quite that," Keith replied. "What I want is to make the fellow believe he's finished us. He knows which way we've gone and just about how far we shall have travelled in the night. I believe he will be here by daylight so let's get to it. You light a small fire. I'll attend to the rest."
Chet nodded and lit the fire. Keith quickly unpacked the sledge and, with dead branches and snow, constructed four dummies which, covered with blankets, strongly resembled four men gathered round the fire. The work took longer than he had expected and he was barely finished before dawn began to break.
"Zey come," cried Tuzu sharply. His keen ears had caught the distant drone before either of the white men. The dogs were already under cover of the trees and Yethel was fastened near them. The other three bolted for shelter and reached it just as the 'plane came roaring over.
"Do you reckon they saw us?" panted Chet as he crouched behind the ice-sheathed trunk of a tall spruce.
"Can't tell. Hope not. We'll soon know," was the answer.
The 'plane banked, turned and as her pilot cut out the engine he brought her swooping down low over the snow-clad glade. A machine-gun drummed and spurts of dry snow rose all around the fire. The fire itself was hit and red-hot embers sent flying.
"Good practice!" said Keith as the fusillade died and the 'plane's engine thundered again. "I'd give something to know if we fooled them or not." He took a step forward; Chet called to him sharply.
"Steady, you idiot. She's coming back."
Keith felt uneasy. The pilot was not satisfied and if he came low enough he would be almost sure to discover that he had been wasting ammunition on dummies. That would be fatal for there would be no hope of fooling him a second time and, sooner or later, he would be sure to get them. Keith was certain that this airman had a base not very far away where he could refuel, and the few miles that could be covered in a night's march meant only a few minutes to a 'plane.
Down the fellow came till his landing gear almost brushed the tree-tops on the south side of the glade. Keith saw him leaning out of the cabin window.
"That's finished it," he said aloud and at that instant a rifle cracked stunningly behind him. Keith saw the pilot's head sway out sideways and his body droop limply. The 'plane drove downwards at a steep angle, hit the snow three-quarters of the way down the glade, shot forward and struck the trees with a force that wrenched off both wings. The fuselage leaped like a bucking horse then crashed against the trunk of another tree. Keith swung on Chet.
"You young fool, what did you do that for?"
"I heard what you said," Chet answered stolidly.
"If you'd missed, it was a dead give-away."
"But I didn't miss," replied Chet. Keith grunted.
"We'd better go and see if there's anyone alive," he remarked as he ran towards the wreck.
He fully expected to see the smashed 'plane burst into flames, but by some miracle the petrol tank had not exploded and there was no fire. The machine itself was little better than matchwood. The dead pilot lay among the ruins of the cabin. Chet's bullet had hit him under the left ear and his head was a mess. He must have been dead before the 'plane hit the ground. A second man had been flung out through the roof of the cabin. He lay on his face with his arms stretched out and his head at such an angle that it needed only one glance to be certain that his neck was broken. Keith turned him over and shook his head.
"Never saw him before, did you, Chet?"
"No, and I never saw the pilot either. They're both strangers to me."
"But I know zem." Tuzu was staring at the dead men with a queer light in his muddy little eyes. "Zis one"—pointing to the pilot—"he Bolan, and ze ozzer his name—Harlow. Zey both bad men." Keith looked disappointed.
"I was hoping that one was Lafitte."
"He no Lafitte. Lafitte too smart get killed. He no take ze chances," said Tuzu.
"Looks as if we should have to do that," Keith observed. "All the same, we haven't done too badly," he went on. "Including the gentleman who rolled rocks and the one I got in the medicine lodge, we've shorn off four of this poison gang. I wonder how many more there are."
"Zere is plenty more," Tuzu informed him. "And this gives us a chance to handle them," Chet said. "The loss of his 'plane is going to cripple Marrable a whole lot and the beauty of it is he will never know what became of it." Keith turned to Chet.
"It was a rattling good shot," he said. "And it's ended our worst trouble. Now we can travel as we please."
"What about these bodies?" Chet asked.
"We can't get them back to Sundance, that's one thing sure," Keith answered. "And we can't bury them in this frozen ground. All we can do is take their descriptions and pile stones over them."
Stones were found along the edge of a little lake but it took half the day to complete the job. Then as they were very weary Keith decided that they would stay where they were until the following morning, then make the best of their way to Sundance.
KEITH, Chet, Duncan and odd little Tuzu sat in the living-room of the Sundance barracks, holding a council of war. Outside a spring blizzard raged, the wind roaring over the roof, shrieking in the chimney and plastering the windows with finely-powdered snow. Inside, however, the big stove glowing cherry-red, gave a cosy warmth. The long low room was snug and comfortable. Keith was restless.
"Confound this weather!" he grumbled. "I want to get along. I want to reach Marrable before he can get a new 'plane." Duncan took his pipe from his mouth.
"I'm thinking it will tak a long time for Marrable to get anither 'plane. And Tuzu here tells me that ye canna travel up this Lost River till the ice is oot." Tuzu nodded violently.
"Zat ees ze truth," he declared. "Ze river, she run so fast she no freeze all over and ze banks so high zat only ze squirrel can walk on zem. Ze spring she come, zen we go up in ze canoe."
"Ye go up in the canoe but do ye ken where ye are going to?" Duncan asked. "Ken" was a new word to Tuzu, but he got the Corporal's meaning.
"We go to Ze Bowl," he answered.
"And what will that be?" Duncan enquired.
"Eet is ze hole in ze hills. Beeg lak zere. Zat where ze 'plane she ride on ze water."
"Aye, but how do ye get there?"
"Troo ze passage in ze rocks." Duncan frowned.
"It dinna sound good to me. Will there no be a guard there?"
"Zere is guard but we feex him." Tuzu passed his hand across his throat with a gesture of horrid significance.
"Ye canna go cutting men's throats gin ye are working for the police," Duncan told him. "But ye can rap him over the head." He turned to Keith.
"It's lucky ye have someone to guide ye, Keith. It's mighty bad country. Nae doot Marrable found the lake from the air, but I take it that Tuzu here went up by water."
"Zat right," said Tuzu. "I go by ze river. We 'ave to portage many times and it take a week to reach ze Big Slit."
"The passage to the Bowl, you mean?" Chet put in.
"Zat ees right," the little man answered. Keith began to ask questions.
"What about this Valley of No Echo you talked of. Where is that?"
"Zat ees where ze Lost River come from. I told you. It is where ze Tamer live."
"Has he anything to do with Wing's gang?" Keith questioned. Tuzu shook his head vigorously.
"Nozzing—nozzing at all. Ze Tamer, he good man; Wing, he bad man."
"How far is it from this place you call The Bowl up to the Valley."
"It ees long way. I not know how far. I not been zere."
Chet had a bright idea. He got a sheet of paper and a pencil and asked Tuzu if he could make any sort of map of the Lost River Country. Tuzu could neither read nor write but he soon proved that he had the Indian's ability to draw. His map was rough but it showed that the Bowl, as he called it, lay to the east of the river, and was connected with it by a small tributary which broke through a deep canyon, evidently a very narrow one. Duncan got out the Ordnance Map and compared it with Tuzu's sketches.
"He's no so far wrong," he remarked. "Here's Lost River, but the top course is just a dotted line. They have na surveyed it yet. And here to the right are what they call the Organ Mountains."
"Any record of prospectors going up there?" Keith asked.
"Aye, Bob Trimble told me he tried it. But he didna get far. The place fair daunted him." Keith got up, went to a window and looked out, but all he could see was a white mist of whirling snow-flakes.
"Tuzu's right. We'll have to wait," he said. "But waiting is a drawback," he ended frowning.
"Ye will na help yourself by worrying," Duncan remarked. "And ye would do well to remember that if ye canna travel yourself it's the same for all the rest."
The blizzard blew out during the night and next day the temperature had risen nearly to freezing-point. It felt quite warm. Then more snow fell, great white flakes that clung. Within another week the thaw was on. The drifts caked instead of packing and the snow crust became so rotten that it was a job to walk the length of Sundance's one short street. Snow-shoes gathered weight with every step, for pounds of caked stuff clung to them. At midday pools of water glistened on the dulling surface of the snow, but there were still night frosts which hardened the spongy blanket for a few hours in the early morning.
Keith and Chet busied themselves with preparations for their trip. This time the whole journey would be done by water. They would go down the Tyson, the river on which Sundance stood, to its junction with the Slane; then up this to the mouth of Lost River. They knew their way so far; afterwards Tuzu would be the guide. Since the distance was considerable and they were going into unknown country, they took food for six weeks as well as a goodly supply of ammunition.
Keith went into M'Grath's store one morning to get some shot- gun cartridges and saw a small, slim man standing at the counter. Although his face was turned away there was something familiar about him. The man turned and Keith strode forward with outstretched hand.
"You, Gil! What brings you here?"
"De same I tink, dat brings you, Monsieur Marlow," Gil answered with a smile. "I buy de stores."
"You must have had the deuce of a time getting here," Keith said quickly.
"I travel by night," said the voyageur. "Den de snow is hard."
"And how is Randolph Arden? Is he here?"
"He no here," Gil told him, "but he vair well when I leave."
"Will he be in Sundance this summer?" he enquired.
"I cannot tell," Gil answered. "He no say when dey come out."
"Will you remember me to him, Gil. And tell him that I have not forgotten how he pulled me out of the ice." Gil showed his very white teeth in a pleased smile.
"I tell him, Monsieur Marlow. And now I ask you somesing. Did you get dat Dranner?"
"I got him. He was hung three months ago."
"Dat is good. I tell dat, too, to Monsieur Randolph. He say he sure you get him. I tell him, too, you now Corporal."
"You can tell him I'll be something better before I'm much older—either that or dead," Keith added grimly.
"You go get anozer killer?" Gil asked. Keith nodded.
"Leaving almost at once," he said.
He hesitated. He was half inclined to ask Gil if he knew anything of Marrable or his gang. He decided against the question for, though he knew Gil to be reliable, it was essential that no word should get out concerning his mission. He put out his hand.
"Good-bye, Gil. And remember that, if I can do anything for you or Monsieur Randolph, you have only to ask."
"I not forget. Good-bye, Corporal."
Next morning Gil was gone but no one had seen him leave.
FROM their camping place on a flat-topped ledge of rock above Lost River Chet surveyed the surrounding scenery.
"I don't know what you think of it, Keith," he said slowly, "but I call it the last word."
"I fully agree," replied Keith. "I never saw such a forsaken piece of country in all my born days."
This was their first camp on Lost River. All day the three had toiled desperately, fighting the fierce current of snow water that swirled down the narrow gorge. At times they had met rapids so fierce that there was nothing for it but to unload the canoe, portage the heavy cargo over broken ledges under the towering cliffs, then tail the canoe up, two towing, the third sitting in the light craft and fending her off the boulders with a pole. In eight hours desperate toil they had travelled no more than ten miles.
The rock ledge on which they had camped for the night was about ten feet above the surface of the river which, swollen by melted snow, raced down a gorge no more than fifty feet wide. Its roar filled the whole canyon with a steady thunder which every now and then changed slightly in tone as a wave, a yard or more high, came rushing down from above. Behind them a precipice rose sheer for several hundred feet but, opposite, the cliff was not so high and broke away in a steep slope streaked with snowdrifts which rose endlessly to the pale evening sky. The wind coming off this snow slope struck bitterly cold and the party had no wood to build a fire. They had to make their coffee and fry their bacon on a small oil-stove.
"Is it all like this?" Chet asked of Tuzu. Tuzu nodded.
"I sink we come too soon," he remarked.
"Too early in the season—is that what you mean?" Keith asked. Again the little man nodded.
"Ze snow water, she run too much," he said. Keith shrugged.
"Let's feed and get into our blankets. Looks like we've another big day to-morrow."
Food and sleep put them all in a more cheerful mood and they were afloat early next morning. All were expert watermen, which was just as well, for that day was, if anything, worse than the first. At times it was almost impossible to force the light craft against the mill-race force of the thundering torrent.
The chief danger was from the huge lumps of melting snow which now and then toppled from the cliff-tops. Even if these did not fall uncomfortably close to the canoe they threw up waves which threatened to swamp her. As on the previous day, they encountered rapids where they had to portage. The worst of this was that there was so little foothold. At times they had to climb thirty or forty feet above the river level, no joke when each was carrying a pack almost equal to his own weight.
Without Tuzu, Keith and Chet could never have managed at all. He knew the river and was able to tell them where a portage was necessary and on which side they must land to make it. Small as he was, he did his share manfully and never complained. Keith grew quite fond of the odd-looking little man.
Five days went by and on the fifth evening they found a camping place where a few stunted spruce gave wood. They were able to build a good fire and dry their soaking clothes. Not one had a dry stitch on him when they landed for there had been a heavy rainstorm that afternoon.
"To-morrow we get to ze Big Slit," Tuzu announced. Keith stiffened.
"The deuce we do! What time are we likely to get there?"
"It take half ze day." Keith turned to Chet. "We shall have to lie up somewhere. We can't tackle the guard until after dark." Tuzu nodded violently.
"I know ze good place to hide ze canoe. I show you." Keith clapped him on the back.
"We couldn't get along without you, Tuzu. If we smash up this gang I'll see that you are looked after for the rest of your life."
"I like work for you," Tuzu said simply. "You and Monsieur Wilson are ze first men who are kind to me." He turned to look after the fire; Keith and Chet exchanged glances but did not speak. They were more touched than they cared to admit.
Tuzu was right. Just before twelve next day they arrived at a bend in the river. On the east side the cliff was broken by a great landslide which, when it first fell years ago, must have blocked the whole stream. The water, pounding behind the rock dam, had broken it away but a great pile of rocks remained and, behind them, a small stretch of calm water with a narrow space under the cliff, where it was possible to land. Here they tied up the canoe and went ashore to eat their dinner.
The weather had turned mild and sunny but the peaks on both sides of the river shone dazzlingly white. This country was so high that the last of the snow would not melt until midsummer. While they ate Tuzu explained that the slit was about half a mile above. From there, he said, it was not more than five miles to the Bowl where the dope gang had their headquarters.
"And where are the guards?" Keith asked.
Tuzu told him that they had a shack a little way up the slit. They did not show themselves on the main river or interfere with anyone going up or down.
"That's common sense," said Chet. "Marrable's idea is to keep his hidy-hole secret. Gee, but he could hardly have found a better one!"
"That's a fact," Keith agreed. "So long as he has a 'plane he can distribute his rotgut all over the country. What I am wondering is whether he has a second 'plane."
"I'm more interested to know how many men he has," Chet said. "We aren't exactly an army and it won't help Harman and Bishop if we get scuppered."
"We shall have to be a bit careful," Keith answered, "but with Tuzu to guide us I'm reckoning on a surprise party." He stood up as he spoke and looked around. "Chet, it looks as if one could climb up this rock slide to the top of the cliff. In that case one might cut across to the slit and have a look-see. I'll try the climb and, if it's all right, I'll signal you to join me."
The climb turned out more easy than Keith had supposed and in about ten minutes he reached the top and poked his head over. He was on the edge of a grassy slope, but some distance ahead was a long ridge or rib of rock too high for him to see over the top. He turned and spoke to Chet.
"Wait a bit. I'll be back in a few minutes." Bent double, he reached the ridge and was crawling up it when a deep-toned roar broke the silence of the mountains.
"Another snowslide," Keith said to himself, but this was no slide. To his horror he saw a huge wave which looked to be ten feet high racing down the river. It was coming as fast as a horse could gallop.
He turned and ran, yet as he ran knew he was too late to give the warning which might save the lives of Chet and Tuzu.
THE flood wave reached the point of the landslide before Keith was anywhere near the rim of the cliff. Its roar rose to thunder as it smashed through the narrowed channel.
"Chet!" Keith shouted desperately, but the crash of the flood was so loud he could hardly hear his own voice. Yet Chet and Tuzu must have heard the wave. They would never be able to save the canoe but Keith hoped fiercely that they themselves were safe.
He reached the rim and looked down. The ledge on which they three had landed was covered with a swirl of yellow, foam- speckled water. Of Chet and Tuzu there was no sign. His gaze went out across the torrent and then he saw them. They were clinging to the canoe which was full of water and they and it were being swept down the rushing flood at frightful speed.
Keith did not waste a moment. He started along the cliff-top, running as fast as the ground allowed. In places the slope was steep as a house roof and the thin turf dangerously wet and slippery; here and there remains of half-melted snowdrifts barred his way; twice he had to climb across ridges of rock similar to that from which he had first seen the flood wave.
Struggle as he might, it was impossible to keep the canoe in sight and, before he had gone a hundred yards, it had been swept round a bend and he could see it no longer. Panting, slipping and stumbling, he forced himself on until suddenly he was on the edge of a ravine too wide to jump and with sides too deep and steep to climb. He tried to go round it only to meet with sheer cliff.
Completely spent, Keith dropped full length on the sopping grass and, for perhaps the first time in his life, gave way to despair. During the past weeks Chet had become almost as dear to him as a younger brother and little Tuzu had gained Keith's friendship by his unfailing cheerfulness and pluck. Now they both were gone for, even if the canoe kept them afloat for a little, they could not long survive the icy chill of the snow water. And, so far as Keith could remember, there was no possible landing place for two miles or more beyond the bend.
How long Keith lay there he never knew. When he dropped he had been wet with sweat from his furious exertions; the cold wind had chilled him to the bone when he struggled stiffly to his feet. By degrees he began to realise his own plight. He had no food, no weapon except his revolver. Matches he had but no fuel of which to make a fire.
Even if provided with food it was out of the question to return to the river mouth for sheer cliffs barred the way while, if he went upstream, the prospect was equally hopeless. True, Tuzu had spoken of the Valley at the head water where lived the mysterious "Tamer," but that could be reached only by water. The rims of the deep canyon through which Lost River flowed did not seem passable by a man on foot, however well-equipped.
Keith's thoughts turned to Marrable's guards posted, so Tuzu had said, a little way up the narrow gorge called "The Slit." They, at any rate, would have shelter and food. They certainly would not share these good things willingly. Yet their cabin was Keith's only hope for life, so he began to plan how to get the better of them. Tuzu had said that they were posted some little way up the sidestream, out of sight of the main river, and that one kept watch while the other rested. It seemed clear to Keith that his only chance was to wait until darkness fell, then crawl up to the cabin. What would happen after that was impossible to prophecy. He would have to take his chances and, at present, these looked remarkably slim.
He turned and made back along the edge of the cliff. As he picked his way over the perilous slopes he wondered how he had travelled down them at such speed without coming to grief. One slip meant a drop of a hundred feet or more into the racing river below.
Not that Keith cared. He was so utterly depressed at the loss of his companions that he was sorry he had not shared their fate. At last he won back to the rock ridge from which he had first seen the flood wave and climbing cautiously over it was able to look down into the Slit.
A ghastly place! It was a full hundred feet deep and not much more than that in breadth at the top. At the bottom its width was only about ten paces and the river that filled it looked black as ink except for the gouts of yellow foam that raced on its surface. One glance was enough to show that nothing living could climb down into its depths. Keith's spirits sank to their lowest, for it seemed to him that he was marooned on this bare slope without food or shelter. Strong as he was, he would hardly survive a night in this bitter cold and, to make matters even worse, the sky looked as if a fresh storm was sweeping down off the mountains.
A little way up, the Slit curved sharply to the left. Tuzu had said that Marrable's guards were stationed beyond that bend. Keeping far enough back from the rim rock to avoid anyone seeing him from below, Keith walked upstream. He reached the bend, passed beyond it and, going down on hands and knees, crawled to the edge. His eyes widened. This was such a change as he could hardly have believed possible, for here the canyon was four or five times as wide as at the entrance and on a broad ledge of rock immediately beneath him stood a small but solidly built shack, from the chimney of which a curl of smoke arose. Whoever was inside was cooking for, even at this height, Keith could plainly smell frying bacon and the rich scent of hot coffee. So poor Tuzu had been right and this was Marrable's guard-house.
Close to the shack, pulled up well from the river, was a canoe. A Peterborough, Keith saw. The paddles lay in it. That and a stack of cordwood were the only objects visible besides the shack. Keith looked at the cliff. It was steep enough, that was plain, but was broken with many small ledges. He had little doubt that he could climb down, always supposing that the occupants of the shack did not spot him and take pot-shots at him on the way.
He took a second look at the cliff and realized that he would need daylight to tackle it. It would be suicide to try it in the dark. But the climb would take some time and, while he was on the cliff face, he would be at the mercy of the guards. Once more it seemed to Keith that his case was hopeless.
A GREAT cold drop splashed on Keith's cheek. The storm which he had seen gathering on the heights had broken. Next minute the air was full of driving shafts of rain. Keith did not lose a moment. He went over the edge and started his perilous climb.
The rain beat upon him, little rivulets poured over the rim and fell in tiny waterfalls among the broken crags. The chill air was misty with spray and Keith's fingers grew numb as he lowered himself from one narrow shelf to another. He gave no thought to his discomfort. The storm would keep Marrable's men within doors and give him his chance to get down, unseen.
It was still pouring when he reached the bottom. He paused a moment to get breath and see that his revolver was safe, then glanced at the canoe. He was tempted to launch it and get away at once. But even with the stream it would take two full days to reach the mouth of Lost River and he had not a scrap of food, nor a rag to cover him during the bitter nights. The task was beyond him and he moved closer to the shack. If possible he wanted a peep through the window to see what the men inside looked like.
He was close under the side of the cabin when the rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Almost at the same moment Keith saw the door opening. Fortunately for him it opened towards the side where he was standing and with three quick, silent steps he was able to get behind it.
A man came out, a thick-set fellow, with greasy black hair and a coarse stubble of beard on his unpleasant face. As he turned the corner Keith's arm shot out and the muzzle of his revolver dug into the man's short ribs. His jaw dropped, his eyes bulged. Keith could almost have laughed at the ludicrous surprise depicted on the gangster's face. To him it must have seemed as though Keith had dropped from the moon.
"Raise your hands!" Keith ordered in a low voice. "Now turn round and walk in front of me through the door."
The other obeyed. Keith kept close behind him, his pistol ready for instant use. Inside the roughly furnished little place a man was busy over the stove turning rashers in a pan.
"Hurry up with that wood, Traynor," he said in a sharp, hard voice. "How the devil am I going to cook supper without fuel?"
Getting no reply, he turned. In a flash Keith saw that this man was a very different type from Traynor, and much more dangerous. He was sandy-haired with a long, narrow face, thin lips and very pale eyes. The moment he set eyes on Keith he reacted instantly. His right hand flashed to his holster and his draw was like lightning.
Traynor flung himself flat on the floor and two shots crashed out with only a fraction of a second between them. Keith's was the first and that was lucky for him for the sandy-haired man's bullet plucked at his left sleeve before thudding into the log- built wall of the cabin. His adversary's pistol arm dropped, an expression of extreme surprise showed for a moment on his hard face, then he folded up and collapsed with a thump on the rock floor.
Keith stood still for a moment to make certain that there was no deception, but the man was as dead as he ever would be, for Keith's bullet had hit him in the throat.
"It's all over," he said to Traynor. "Get up. And don't try anything or you'll be in the same box." Traynor's thick cheeks had a yellow pallor as he got to his feet. He looked at the dead man, then at Keith.
"I wouldn't be in your shoes when the Boss hears of this," he snarled.
"Don't worry your head about that," said Keith curtly. "I've thrashed your chief once and I can do it again, if necessary. Now get to work and finish cooking supper. But first you can put the body outside."
It wasn't like Keith to bluff but he knew very well the sort of man with whom he was dealing. The result was just what he had expected. A scared look wiped the truculence from Traynor's face. He lifted the body of his late companion and carried it outside. Keith seized the opportunity to look round the place for arms. He picked up the dead man's pistol then saw a rifle in the corner.
This was not loaded but there was a box of cartridges on a shelf. He pocketed these and some pistol cartridges as well. He found a second pistol which no doubt was Traynor's. This and the dead man's revolver he took to the door and threw both into the river. The rifle he decided to keep.
Traynor came back and went to the stove. Every now and then he glanced round at Keith in a queer furtive way. He seemed to have recovered from his fright and Keith wondered what was in his mind. He was planning something or else knew something which Keith did not know. Keith was sure of that and kept keen watch on the man all the time.
He himself was thinking and planning. He decided that he would stock some food in the canoe, launch it and make the best of his way down river. He would need help to tackle Marrable's stronghold and the sooner he got it the better.
Traynor put food on the table. Fried bacon, baked beans, sourdough bread and coffee. Keith ate mechanically. He was more than ever sure that Traynor had something up his sleeve and he was wondering whether he had not better start at once. But already dusk was closing and it was raining again in torrents. He decided that he had better remain under cover for the night and start early in the morning. He finished his supper and let Traynor take the plates and dishes and wash them.
When Traynor had finished this job and stoked up the stove he took a chair on the far side of the room from Keith, sat down and filled and lighted his pipe. There was no expression on his heavy face yet Keith was aware that the man watched him constantly. Keith shot a sudden question at him.
"How many men has Wing at the Bowl?"
"Plenty," said Traynor sullenly.
"I asked how many," Keith snapped.
"Twenty, I reckon," Traynor answered.
"How often are the guards relieved?" was Keith's next question.
"There ain't no set time," Traynor told him.
Keith knew he was lying, but there was no way to make him tell the truth. The two sat silent as the shadows deepened. At last Keith got up, lighted the lamp, took from his pocket the light steel chain which he always carried, and ordered Traynor to one of the bunks. Scowling, Traynor obeyed and Keith locked him to one of the solid uprights.
"Just in case you took the notion to stick a knife in me during the night," he said as he turned the key. Then, as he was very tired, he decided to turn in, but before doing so he went outside to make sure that all was right. He could not get Traynor's odd glances and queer behaviour out of his mind.
It was now well on in the Spring and there was still light in the sky. He could see a long way up this sidestream that came down from the lake called the Bowl, but there was nothing in sight. How could there be? No one in their senses would travel down a rapid like that except in broad daylight. He looked across the stream and noticed that the cliff on the far side was even more broken than that which he had recently descended. He went back into the cabin, pulled off his boots and tunic, turned the lamp low and lay down in the second bunk. He greatly wished that he had Koltag with him yet felt fairly sure that he was safe.
It was a long time before he could sleep. The picture of Chet Wilson and Tuzu clinging to the swamped canoe, sweeping to their death in that relentless flood, kept rising before his eyes. He was sick with the horror of it and with remorse that he had not been able to help them. At last, with a great effort of will, he put these thoughts from his mind and slept.
Pale dawn light was greying the one window of the cabin as Keith roused. He was up instantly. A glance across the cabin showed Traynor apparently asleep. Before rousing him Keith pulled on his boots and went out. The morning was fine but cold; there was nothing living in sight, not even a bird, and the only sound was the sullen roar of the swift stream.
Keith went back, released Traynor and ordered him to get breakfast. While the man did so Keith put up a package of food ready for his journey downstream. He carried this outside, picked up the canoe and put it in the water, tying it firmly under lee of a projecting spur of rock. He then took the two blankets from the bunk he had used, and from a nail on the wall the slicker belonging to the dead man. These he made into a bundle and carried outside. He also put the rifle in the canoe and the cartridges in his pocket.
Traynor seemed to be having difficulty with the fire and, when Keith bade him hurry, complained that the wood was wet. Keith, impatient to get away, ordered him aside and soon had the stove glowing. Happening to turn, he saw the man looking at him with just the same queer, gloating expression as on the previous evening. Keith's nerves, already badly strained, cracked. He whirled on Traynor.
"What are you thinking of? What dirty plot's in your mind?" he demanded. Traynor shrank away.
"I don't know what you're talking about?" he whined. Yet as he spoke Keith saw his glance wander towards the door. Keith sprang past him and flung open the door. Then he saw what Traynor had already seen through the window—a big canoe, with a crew of four, flashing down the centre of the Slit.
Almost before he had the details in his eyes Keith felt a shock from behind. Traynor had sprung upon him and was trying to get him down. Once more the drill learned in barracks stood Keith in good stead. He ducked, at the same time reaching out backwards and grasping the treacherous brute around the body. Then with a heave Keith flung him forward and Traynor's head struck the rocky ground with stunning force.
Without a moment's pause Keith sprang across to the canoe. He still had time to get clear though whether he, single-handed, could win the race that must follow seemed more than doubtful. He lifted the bundle of food to fling it into the canoe then stopped as if frozen. The canoe was half-full. She was leaking like a sieve.
Keith dropped the bundle, grasped the canoe, pulled it up by main force and emptied it. By this time the canoe carrying Marrable's men was less than two hundred yards away, and Keith realized that the flight down the river, which he had contemplated, was out of the question. Without waiting to stow either of his bundles he launched the canoe again, stepped in and, with powerful strokes drove it across the narrow river to the opposite bank.
Yells rose above the dull thunder of the racing stream, a shot cracked out but the bullet whistled high overhead. Before his pursuers could reach the landing Keith was ashore. Snatching up the rifle he ran hard for the shelter of the nearest rocks where he flung himself down and proceeded to thrust cartridges into the magazine. Peeping over the rim of the rock which protected him, he saw the canoe drive in behind the opposite spur. He fired, not at the men but at the canoe, and saw two bullets crash through the hull, sending splinters flying.
Her crew, who clearly gave Keith no credit for missing them, hurled themselves ashore and bolted for the shack. Keith took advantage of their panic to plunge into a deep crevasse where he was out of sight from the window of the shack. Once within its recesses he climbed fast, and saw with relief that he could gain the top of the cliff without risk of being shot.
Reaching the top he stepped nimbly over the edge and lay flat. He smiled grimly to see that the crew of the canoe were all under shelter. As for the canoe itself, it had sunk. More out of sheer devilment than anything else Keith put a rifle bullet into the door of the shack. He thought he heard a yell but could not be sure. The whole canyon was filled with the roar of water. He moved back a little, found a hiding place behind a boulder and took stock of his position.
He had got away, unhurt, he had made pursuit impossible until his enemies could mend their canoe, so for the present he was safe. That much was on the credit side. The debit was less pleasing. He had no food, no blankets, no canoe, no hope of help. In fact he was in almost the same position as on the previous afternoon, the only difference being that he was now on the far side of the Slit.
Here out of the wind and on the sunny side of the great boulder he was warm enough but there had been frost last night; there would be frost again to-night. You must have food and warmth in the north, if you don't you die.
Keith did not want to die. What he wanted was to live long enough to arrest Marrable to whom, fairly or unfairly, he attributed all his misfortunes. Once more he remembered what Tuzu had told him of the Valley. It was somewhere up-river beyond him. He did not know whether it was possible to reach it afoot. He thought it highly unlikely. Still, to reach it was his only hope so he picked himself up and started.
That was the beginning of the worst day Keith had ever known. The country he had to cross was rough beyond description. Sometimes he had to crawl on hands and knees on steep, slippery slopes; again he would have to go half a mile back from the river in order to round the end of some impassable ravine. Always he kept a sharp look-out for game of any kind, but all he saw was one rabbit which bolted before he could get a shot at it.
Just before dark he found a small cave in a hill-side. He crawled into it. Any cover was better than none, especially as it was raining again. The entrance was low, but inside there was a little more head room.
Something crackled under his boot-soles. He lit a match and found that he had stepped upon the leg bone of a human skeleton. A shudder ran through him for the sight seemed ominous of the fate which, within another few hours, must be his.
KEITH had not the heart to throw those poor bones out of the little refuge in which their unfortunate owner had died. He lit another match, cleared away the loose stones, lay down on the bare rock and almost at once fell asleep.
It was cold that woke him. Having had no food for more than twenty-four hours, there was no fuel in his body to keep warmth in him and, outside, it was freezing. He got up and beat his arms against his chest in an effort to get the blood flowing again, but sleep was out of the question and the rest of the long night was a misery of cold and hunger.
At earliest dawn he crawled out and set forth once more up the rim of these endless cliffs. Exercise restored a little warmth to his starved frame but hunger became an agony. He came to a rock pool and drank, but the icy water brought on a terrible attack of cramp. Hour after hour he moved onwards, aware that he was getting steadily weaker. He was fairly certain that the night would see his finish unless he could find food and fire.
An hour before midday he came to another tributary entering Lost River from the east. But this canyon was much wider than the Slit and the stream which flowed at the bottom was bordered with grass. A few small bushes grew on the flat. It was not difficult to get down into the valley, yet the climb took almost the last of Keith's energy and, when he reached the bottom, he dropped on a rock and sat panting for breath. He saw that, if he was to go farther, he would have to cross the river. It was not deep and it looked as if he could wade it, but the thought of struggling through that icy stream was terrifying to a man in his condition.
Something moved on the edge of one of the clumps of bush. A snow-shoe rabbit lopped out and, not seeing Keith, began to nibble the short turf. Hardly daring to breathe, Keith raised his rifle. His hands shook but, with a desperate effort of will, he steadied them and pulled trigger. He fairly yelled with joy when the rabbit, shot through the body, rolled over and lay still.
Food—food and fire, for there were dead sticks among the bushes. Keith made a little pile of them, scraped one into shavings with his knife and in a minute a fire was burning. By the time he had skinned the rabbit and cut it up a blaze was rising briskly. Keith stuck a hind leg on a pointed stick and held it over the fire. The smell of its roasting made his mouth water and, waiting only until the outside was slightly charred, he started on it.
No bread, no salt, but that did not matter. With every mouthful he felt strength coming back into him. The second leg he cooked thoroughly. He ate half the rabbit, the rest he wrapped carefully in his handkerchief, then, leaning back against his boulder, filled and fit his pipe.
The sun shone brightly, there was no wind down in this valley and for the first time in many hours Keith was warm and comfortable. Small blame to him that he fell asleep.
Waking with a start, he saw by the sun that he had slept for two hours. He did not grudge it for the rest had done him good and now he felt able to tackle the crossing of the stream. He found a spot where it was no more than knee deep, reached the far bank and began to climb the opposite cliff. At the top he stopped and looked back at the little green cleft. He hated to leave it, yet knew that he must do so. His one hope was the Valley and its mysterious inhabitant.
The heights above Lost River seemed bleaker than before, but the going was not quite so difficult. Towards dusk he came to a spot where a great landslide had fallen many years before and left a sort of giants' staircase leading down to the river. At the bottom Keith saw a quantity of driftwood which had been left there by some unusually high flood. The sight rejoiced him for it meant fire and warmth for the night. Also it proved that there must be growing timber somewhere upstream.
He climbed down. There was plenty of wood; the trouble was to find a flat space on which to build a fire. He got this at last and made up a blaze such as he had not seen for many days; then as the evening wind blew cold down the gorge he set to work to build a wall of loose stones, behind which he could sit in some sort of comfort. It was nearly dark by the time he had finished, but he had made himself good shelter and, with the fire in front and plenty of fuel, felt sure that he would not freeze as on the previous night. He toasted the rest of his rabbit, ate it slowly, then built up the fire again and lay back drowsily.
He was almost asleep when roused by a slight grating sound. He sat up sharply and saw a man standing over him, holding a gun pointed straight at his body.
"KEEP quite still," the man ordered sternly. "Don't reach for your pistol or it will be the worse for you."
Keith gazed at the stranger. He had never seen him before. Of that he was sure, yet there was something vaguely familiar about him. He looked to be forty-five to fifty, and had a broad face with high cheekbones. His eyes were brilliantly blue but at present extremely hard. He had a big, rather beaky nose, a strong chin and there was no grey in his fair hair. He was decently dressed and he had even shaved recently. He did not look like one of Marrable's men yet what else could he be?
"I'm keeping still," Keith remarked after a moment. "What comes next?" The other scowled uncertainly.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"Corporal Keith Marlow," was the answer. "Marlow," the big man repeated. "And a Mountie. What are you doing here?"
"I'm on police business," Keith said drily. "That's as much as I propose to tell you until I know more about you." The big man lowered his gun. He seemed satisfied that Keith was telling the truth. At the same time it was clear that he was still angry and upset. Silence fell between the two. Keith's police training had made him understand the advantage of letting the other man do the talking. His visitor's keen eyes took in Keith's ragged condition, his thin, unshaven face, his lack of blankets and kit.
"You seem to have lost your canoe," he said in a more reasonable tone. A spasm of pain twitched Keith's face.
"Yes," he said, "a flood wave two days ago. I was ashore. Both my companions were drowned." The big man nodded.
"It's a brute of a river. At this time of year the snow comes off the cliffs in avalanches which sometimes block the whole stream. Then, when it tears loose, there's a flood wave that would almost wreck a liner."
Keith listened with interest. This visitor of his was an educated man. None of the ordinary sourdoughs would speak of an avalanche. They would say snowslide. Keith decided that this man was not likely to have anything to do with Marrable and suddenly he believed he knew of his identity.
"Are you the man the Indians call 'The Tamer'?" he asked. Instantly the other was all abristle again.
"What have you heard of him?" he asked sharply. "How come you to know anything about him?"
"You forget that I am a policeman," Keith answered. "It is my business to hear and know what is going on in my district. Yet actually I know nothing except the Indian rumour."
"You are on your way to see," said the other harshly.
"Not to see," Keith told him quietly, "but to find food and shelter. Since it was impossible for me to get back downstream I was forced to go up." He paused a moment then spoke again. "You have not answered my question."
"I am not the man you speak of," said the visitor. "My name is Arden."
It was Keith's turn to be surprised.
"The father of Randolph Arden?" he exclaimed.
"Yes, and you are the man whom he helped out of an ice-hole last Fall. I knew who you were when you gave me your name." Keith was immensely relieved.
"I have not forgotten your son's pluck and kindness," he said warmly. "I never shall forget it. I met Gil in Sundance a fortnight ago and he told me that Randolph was well. I take it you have come to meet Gil."
"Yes," said Arden shortly. "He should have been back some days ago and at last I grew anxious and came to look for him. I found him in camp with a badly sprained wrist. He had a fall during a portage." He paused and looked at Keith. "You'd better come over to our camp," he suggested.
It struck Keith that Arden's invitation was reluctant and given only from a sense of duty. Yet he himself could not afford to refuse it. He pretended not to notice and got up at once.
"Thank you, Mr. Arden," he answered. "I am free to confess that I am sadly in need of a square meal and a blanket. All I have had to eat in the past forty-eight hours is a rabbit that I was lucky enough to knock over with my rifle."
Arden led the way down over the broken rocks to the water's edge where a canoe was tied. They got in and Arden drove the light craft upstream. Keith had been wondering why he had not seen Arden's camp fire, but that was soon explained for Arden's camp had been made in a gully a couple of hundred yards upstream from Keith's fire, and the gully wall hid the blaze. Gil, with his left arm in a sling, was waiting at the river's edge and with him a quiet-looking, middle-aged Indian. Dim as the light was, Keith saw a smile on Gil's dark face.
"So it is de Corporal!" he said. Keith shook hands.
"I am very glad to see you, Gil," he began, then before he could say more another figure stepped forward out of the gloom.
"Mr. Marlow!" said young Randolph in a tone full of amazement. "But how—how do you come here?"
"Police duty," Keith answered. Before he could say more Randolph cut in.
"You are half-starved," he exclaimed, "and half-frozen too, I think. Come to the fire. Gil, is there some hot coffee." Gil, who had already noticed Keith's condition, was filling a steaming mug. Keith drained it to the last drop.
"That's good," he said gratefully. "As I told your father, Arden, one rabbit is all I have had to eat during the past two days."
Randolph took charge. First he got a blanket for Keith!
"Now we'll give you some supper," he said. "After that you must tell us your story."
He and Gil dished out some excellent stew and this, with a fresh bannock, seemed to Keith the best meal he had ever eaten. While he ate Mr. Arden sat on the opposite side of the fire, smoking his pipe. He did not speak and Keith was puzzled by the grim look on the older man's face. Something was worrying him, but what it was Keith could not even guess.
"Now," said Randolph presently, "if you feel up to it, Mr. Marlow, we should like to hear about it."
It was easier to tell his story to the boy than to his father, yet even so it hurt Keith bitterly to recall the end of his two companions. Randolph saw it.
"Is there no hope for them, Mr. Marlow?" he asked. Keith shook his head.
"None that I can see." There was silence a minute, then Randolph spoke again.
"You got here afoot. But what beats me is how you crossed the Slit?"
Keith noticed that Randolph's father had taken his pipe out of his mouth and was leaning forward. An ugly suspicion entered his mind that Mr. Arden might have some connection with Marrable. Yet this did not seem possible. Arden might be a hard man, but he was certainly not the sort to sell dope to Indians. And Keith would have staked his life that Gil, too, was straight. After a moment's consideration he decided to tell the whole story.
"I crossed the Slit in a canoe," he said, "a canoe which I took from two men who had a guard hut on a ledge a little way up the stream." Randolph listened eagerly.
"A guard hut," he repeated. "But what is there to guard?"
"The headquarters of the most dangerous gang in the north," Keith said deliberately. "It's head is a man who calls himself Godfrey Wing and it makes its profits by selling rotgut liquor and dope to the Indians." As he spoke Keith's eyes were on Arden's face and he saw Arden's lips tighten. "He knows," was Keith's thought. Randolph spoke again.
"I've heard of trappers giving whiskey to Indians in exchange for furs," he said, "but I never imagined a whole gang engaged in such a business. Are you sure of this, Mr. Marlow?"
"Absolutely," Keith answered. "Wilson and I have already destroyed one centre of this traffic, we have shot down one of Wing's aeroplanes and either killed or arrested several of his men. We were on our way to finish the job when we came to grief as I have told you." Randolph drew a long breath.
"These men in the hut," he asked, "how on earth did you get the better of them?"
Keith told briefly and modestly how he had held up one guard and been forced to shoot the second, how he had spent the night in the hut and of his narrow escape next morning. The elder Arden spoke suddenly.
"Then these men know that you have escaped?"
"They know I got to the top of the cliff," Keith answered.
"Didn't they come after you?"
"I'd smashed up their canoe with rifle bullets and sunk it," said Keith. "There'd be no following me until they had made her sea-worthy again."
"And how long would that take?"
Keith looked at the other in some surprise.
"They might do it in a day if they had the tools, but personally I don't think they would waste time chasing me. They knew I had no food and would be fairly sure that I should play out from hunger and exposure."
"I'm not so sure. This man Wing must look on you as a danger to him and his gang. It is my belief that he would not rest until he was certain you were dead."
Suddenly Keith understood. Arden was afraid of Marrable's gang—afraid that they would interfere with his business, whatever it was. He spoke up sharply.
"If you can spare a canoe, Mr. Arden, and food for a couple of days, I will go straight back down river. Then you will not be embarrassed by my presence."
RANDOLPH started up.
"You're all wrong, Mr. Marlow. Dad has no such thought in his mind." He turned to his father. "Tell him, Dad. Make him understand."
"Randolph is right, Mr. Marlow," Arden said quickly. "I should not dream of letting you return, alone, especially in your present condition. In any case we could not spare a canoe for there are four of us as well as the stores which Gil and Indian Jim have brought."
Keith was certain that Arden was actually most anxious to be rid of his guest. On the other hand it was probably true that he could not spare a canoe. He made the only possible answer.
"I apologise if I mistook your meaning, Mr. Arden. But I should be extremely sorry to be the cause of running you and your people into danger. How would it be if I remained here while you return to—wherever you are going? I could watch the river and prevent any of these gangsters passing, and later you could send a canoe for me."
It was plain that this suggestion appealed to Arden but Randolph spoke up.
"Nonsense, Mr. Marlow! You will come back with us to the Valley and Indian Jim will go back with you. He was hired only to help Gil with the stores."
Jim looked at Arden. He could clearly see that the other was upset and anxious. But Arden could not well object to his son's decision.
"Randolph is right," he said. "That will be the best plan. Now we had better turn in. We must be away as early as possible in the morning. With Mr. Marlow to help, we need not wait for Gil's wrist to heal."
Even if partly crippled, Gil was competent as ever. He provided Keith with a sack stuffed with grass as mattress and under a couple of blankets Keith had an excellent night's rest and woke, feeling a new man.
The party ate their breakfast by firelight and the sun had not yet risen when they started upstream. Randolph, his father, and Gil, were in one canoe while Keith and Indian Jim took charge of the other which held the stores. The Indian was a silent man but knew his job and, now that Keith had got back his strength, the two managed the laden canoe easily enough. The river here was wider but more shallow than lower down, the current was not so swift and the only danger was from the rocks which here and there were dangerously near the surface.
Keith noticed that Arden frequently glanced back downstream. Clearly he was afraid of pursuit. The more Keith considered the matter, the more certain he became that Arden knew all about Marrable's gang but that he had not said a word to Randolph on the subject. Whether Gil knew, Keith could not tell; and, even if Gil did know, he certainly would not say.
As the morning went on the scenery began to change. The cliffs, though still high, were more broken. Here and there patches of grass and low bushes grew in the clefts. Far to the north-east Keith caught a glimpse of snowy summits floating like clouds against the blue sky. These, he felt sure, must be the boundaries of this secret valley and a thrill ran through him at the thought that before long he would set eyes on this unknown land.
Midday came and Arden turned his canoe and drove it into a small sidestream. Keith followed and was tying up at the mouth but Arden called to him to push in farther. He did so without comment and climbed out on to a rock terrace which was hidden from the main stream.
Paddling for hours on end is a cramping business and Keith was grateful to stretch his legs; but Gil, and Indian Jim wasted no time in setting out a meal and within a very few minutes dinner was ready.
"How long before we get to the Valley?" Keith asked of Randolph.
"Two days if the river does not rise again," he told him.
"And who is this man they call 'The Tamer?'" he enquired. Randolph gave him a curious look.
"You have heard of him?" he asked quickly.
"Tuzu spoke of him. I take it that he is a sort of Grey Owl?" Randolph nodded.
"Something of that sort. But I can't talk about him. He doesn't like it."
Keith's eyebrows rose a little. This was getting "curiouser and curiouser." Was this mysterious valley-dweller merely a hermit, or had he some more sinister reason for refusing to be known or talked about? Was it possible that he had something to do with Marrable & Co.?
While Keith was pondering over this problem Arden spoke.
"You said, Mr. Marlow, that you destroyed a 'plane belonging to this man, Wing. How long ago was this?"
"About three weeks. The men were trying to machine-gun us and Wilson, with a lucky shot, killed the pilot and the 'plane crashed." Arden nodded.
"Do you know if he has a second 'plane?" was his next question.
"I don't know, but on the whole I should rather think not or he would have used it to find out whether I was alive or dead."
Arden looked distinctly relieved and they finished their meal in silence.
Keith noticed that Gil, who had eaten quickly, had left them and climbed the rocks above the shelf on which they sat. Keith was helping Randolph to wash the dishes when Gil came rapidly back. He spoke to Arden.
"Canoe, she come. Three men. Dey have guns." Arden's face went grim.
"I knew it," he muttered and, snatched up his rifle. "These are some of your friends, Marlow," he added bitterly. "We must stop them. They can't be allowed to reach the Valley."
KEITH spoke to Gil.
"How far, this canoe?"
"She just round bend. Take five minutes maybe." Keith nodded.
"No hurry then. Mr. Arden, I'll stop them. There is no need for you or any of your party to show yourselves at all." He saw the relief on Arden's face and smiled inwardly. Randolph spoke.
"It's dangerous, Mr. Marlow. We must be there to back you if there is trouble."
"There'll be no trouble," Keith said quietly. "There are plenty of rocks to give me cover. If these fellows refuse to turn back I shall sink their canoe."
"If you finish the lot I shan't complain," Arden said harshly, and once more Keith realised how deeply the man was stirred. He picked up the rifle he had taken from Marrable's men and climbed the shoulder of rock. Peering cautiously over the top, he saw the canoe still a couple of hundred yards downstream but coming up at a brisk rate. Two men were paddling and one of these was Traynor. The third, a middle-sized man who had very broad shoulders and a dark, unshaven face sat amidships with a rifle in his hands, keeping a careful eye on the left-hand bank. Keith's lip curled as he watched them.
"Sort of Dilly Duck, come and be killed business," he remarked to himself. "Do they really fancy that I'm going to climb down the cliffs and give myself up?" Then it occurred to him that, after all, Marrable's men were not so foolish as he had at first believed for they would feel sure that by this time he, Keith, was starving, and a man in that condition might prefer a quick end, so long as he got a good feed before he died.
Keith waited until the canoe was within fifty yards, then, aiming carefully, plugged a bullet into the water just in front of it. In a flash the dark-skinned man flung his weapon to his shoulder and his bullet pinged off Keith's rock, sending splinters showering over him.
"The beggar can shoot," muttered Keith as he instinctively winced. "Strikes me I'd better not take chances." So saying he ducked down, crept to the shelter of a second boulder and, carefully pushing out his rifle barrel between that stone and another, fired again. This time the nickel-coated missile struck the canoe on the water line just in front of the rifle man and tore clean through. There was a yell of dismay from Traynor as he and the other paddler turned the canoe and drove furiously back down-stream.
The rifleman snapped another shot at Keith but Keith did not fire again. He could easily have sunk the canoe but then, in common decency, he and Arden would have been obliged to rescue her crew. As it was, she would be leaking so badly that it would be all her men could do to keep her afloat until she was out of range. Then they would have to spend several hours, repairing her.
Keith waited where he was until the canoe was out of sight, about half a mile below, then turned to find Arden close behind him.
"You could have sunk the canoe," said Arden.
"In which case we should have had three prisoners on our hands, Mr. Arden," replied Keith quietly.
"Prisoners! They'd have drowned."
"Which fate they no doubt richly deserved," said Keith drily, "but you must remember that a policeman's duty is to arrest, not execute." He changed the subject. "They're out of sight. It might be as well if we got away before they are able to follow."
Arden grunted. He was looking distinctly upset, yet he had to realise that Keith was right.
"Very well. We'll get on," he said. Keith gave him a word of comfort.
"I don't think they'll be in a hurry to follow, Mr. Arden. They can't know that you have picked me up. I think they will wait here in the hope of starving me out." Arden brightened at this.
"That seems likely enough," he allowed. "All the same we won't waste time."
They were all in their canoes in a matter of minutes and Arden and Randolph started upstream at a great pace. Keith, behind them, kept looking back over his shoulder. His canoe had nearly reached the next bend when he caught a glimpse of a man high on the cliff-top on the left bank. This man was so far off that he was barely visible. Yet if Keith had seen him it was clear that the fellow could also see the canoe. Keith's lips tightened.
"That's torn it," he muttered. "Now they know I've gone upriver they'll be after us. I'm beginning to wish I'd scuppered the lot."
He glanced at his companion hut the stolid Indian was busy with his paddle and did not seem to have noticed what Keith had seen.
All that long afternoon as they drove on up Lost River Keith was silent. He was trying to decide what was best to do. He knew that, if he told Arden that they had been spotted, Arden would be in a terrible fuss. Yet it did not seem fair to keep him in the dark. At last he decided to tell Randolph and let him decide as to whether his father should be told. The boy had a level head and Keith knew he could trust him.
Arden kept going until dusk and, when at last they landed on a gravel beach, Keith himself was tired.
Keith waited until the meal was over, then managed to give Randolph a hint that he wished to speak to him. It was only a look and a nod but Randolph understood at once, and presently moved away from the fire. Keith followed. Randolph perched himself on a rock and Keith sat on another stone just opposite. They were near enough to the fire to be seen by the others but out of earshot.
"They spotted us," Keith said abruptly. "One of them had climbed the cliff. The chap was too far off for me to recognise him, so he certainly couldn't tell whom I was with. But he knows I've gone up the river in a canoe and I'm fairly sure that he will go back and tell his chief. Then they'll come after me in force. My problem is whether or not to tell your father."
"It's a pretty big decision to put up to me."
"I know, but you've a good head, Randolph. I'd trust your judgment." Randolph paused a little, then spoke.
"Mr. Marlow, you say that you trust me. I'm going to trust you. I must so as to make you understand Dad's attitude which, of course, is puzzling you."
"DAD was the second son of Guy Arden who owned a big property called Holme in Yorkshire. My grandfather wanted him to go into the Army but he insisted on becoming an engineer. He did wonderfully well. He went into partnership with a man named Chase and by the time he was thirty was making a big income. He married and I was born. Then Chase disappeared and it was found that most of the money had gone with him. On top of that my mother was killed in a motor accident. Dad collected what was left and came out here, hoping to make a fresh start. He left me at School in Quebec and went, north." The boy paused again, then went on.
"I don't think any man could have had a harder time. Sometimes I believe he nearly starved yet always managed to pay for my schooling. Then some years ago he did a favour to the man whom the Indians call 'The Tamer.' Actually he saved his life. Two years later he had a message from this man, bidding him come to a certain valley, the one at the head of this river. He went and 'The Tamer' told him that he had chanced upon a stretch of alluvial ground rich in platinum.
"Out of gratitude he wished dad to have the platinum but he was urgent that only dad, Gil, and myself, should know of the find or work it. He was terrified of the news getting out and of a rush which would be one degree worse than a gold rush." Keith nodded.
"Didn't want his sanctuary disturbed, I take it."
"That's it. He is a bit crazy on the subject."
"Not a bad form of madness," Keith suggested. "We want our wild life preserved."
"Of course," said Randolph, "and since you are an officer of the Government I am hoping that he won't object to your presence. But I have told you this not so much on his account, as on Dad's. I want you to understand Dad's intense anxiety to dig his platinum in peace and collect sufficient money to live in comfort for the rest of his life." Again Keith nodded.
"I understand perfectly and sympathise. And I'll do all I can to help. But we have not yet decided whether your father is to be told that these gangsters are almost certain to be on my trail."
"How many are there?" Randolph asked.
"I haven't an idea, but the chances are that Wing, as he calls himself, has plenty of men. Tell me, is it possible to protect the entrance to the valley." Randolph shook his head.
"Not with our small force. The entrance is wide and the sides are not cliffs as they are lower down."
"How large is the valley?"
"Quite big. Several thousand acres."
"Then you could find some place to hide."
"You must. Meantime Indian Jim and I will get back to Sundance as fast as we can and fetch help." Randolph looked startled.
"You can't do it! These men would meet and kill you."
"Two can play at that game," Keith answered with a smile, "but I should take no risks. Until we're past the Slit I should travel by night."
"Travelling by night on this river would be suicide," Randolph declared.
"We must have help," Keith said, "and it is my job to fetch it. Remember I was sent here to break up that gang and arrest Marrable."
"Marrable," Randolph repeated, "is that Wing's real name?"
"Yes, and he is about as poisonous a beast as could be found. I have a private account to settle with him and I mean to do it."
Without knowing it, Keith's voice and face had gone suddenly hard. Randolph grinned boyishly.
"I shouldn't care to be in Marrable's shoes, Mr. Marlow," he said, "but we're getting away from our subject. The question before the house is, should Dad be told? Myself, I think he should. It will mean a jolly early start in the morning but we should have that in any case."
"I agree," said Keith. "He should be told and I will do it."
"There'll be an explosion," Randolph said, "but the sooner he is told, the sooner that will be over and the sooner we can get to bed. I'm free to admit I'm a bit fagged."
"Me, too," agreed Keith.
He went straight back to the fire and told Arden.
"You ought to have told me before," Arden said angrily.
"What good would that have done?" Keith asked him. "We couldn't have travelled any faster than we did this afternoon." Arden jumped up.
"I've a mind to start at once," he said harshly. Keith lost patience.
"Then you'll go alone, sir," he said. "And," he added drily, "I don't think you'll go far." Arden frowned.
"What do you mean?"
"That you, like the rest of us, have had a hard day and are tired out." He changed his tone. "Don't worry yourself too much, Mr. Arden. Those gangsters will hardly yet have finished repairing their canoe. Then they have to go all the way down to the Slit and up the sidestream to the Bowl. After that it will take their party a good two days to get back this far. We shall have plenty of time to reach the Valley and entrench ourselves before these people can arrive."
"Entrench ourselves," Arden repeated, alarmed. "What are you talking about?"
Keith explained and told the other of his intention to fetch help as quickly as possible, but Arden was not comforted.
"Once these fellows get into the Valley we shall never get them out," he declared in a voice of despair.
"You can leave that to us, sir," Keith told him. "So long as you and your party can hide yourselves for a few days all will be well Isn't there a cave where you could be safe?" Arden brightened a little.
"Yes, there are caves, I believe."
"Then," said Keith, "as soon as we get to the Valley we will provision one, then Indian Jim and I will waste no time in going back to Sundance and beating up reinforcements. Now I think the best thing we can do is to turn in. We have a hard day before us to-morrow."
KEITH had heard a good deal about the Valley but, when they reached it late on the third afternoon after their adventure with Marrable's men, he was amazed. As they passed the V-shaped gap through which Lost River poured, he saw a vast stretch of rich grassland dotted with clumps of trees. It was surrounded by mountains of which those opposite were topped with snow.
Through the trees in the distance Keith saw a large lake from which Lost River emerged. The Valley looked like an English park and the resemblance was increased by the herds of wild creatures grazing here and there. Keith saw huge ungainly moose, wapiti, woodland caribou and black-tailed deer. There were hundreds in sight and the marvellous part of it was that they were tame as cows in a field.
Arden and Randolph paddled on up the river into the lake and Keith followed. The lake was large and the crystal waters rippled under a light breeze. Arden turned to the right and Keith saw in the distance a landing place built of rough logs. Behind it thick forest climbed a steep slope. Keith's canoe reached the landing close behind Arden's and he stepped out. Randolph turned to him.
"Not so dusty, Mr. Marlow?" he said, with a wave of his arm.
"The half was not told me," Keith said with a smile.
"And you haven't seen half of it," Randolph declared. "There are big horn in the hills and mountain goats, there are beavers and bears, all sorts of fur-bearing creatures."
"There'll be time for a lecture on Natural History later on," said Arden drily. "At present we'd better get busy against the arrival of these raiders."
"Very good, sir," said Keith as he began to unload the canoe. "Where do we take this stuff?"
"To the house," Arden told him. "It's up among the trees."
"Well hidden," said Keith approvingly as he shouldered a heavy pack and followed the others up a steep path. A hundred yards up they reached a broad ledge on which stood a well-built cabin. Close to it was a storehouse built of heavy logs. He dumped his pack in there and went back for another load.
It took the three sound men and Gil half an hour to get their goods under cover. Then they lifted the two canoes out of the water and cached them among thick bushes some distance from the lake edge.
When at last the work was done and Keith entered the cabin, a fire was blazing on an open hearth and from the kitchen beyond came a savoury smell. Randolph was doing his share at the stove.
"What do you think of it?" asked the boy.
"It's just about perfect," Keith declared. "I couldn't believe that such a place existed in this wilderness. I can't imagine how your Tamer ever found it. By-the-by, has the gentleman got a name?"
"He has but I'm not allowed to tell. Not even you, Mr. Marlow."
"It isn't his name that matters," Keith answered. "What I want to know is whether he is a fighting man."
Randolph was stirring something in a saucepan. He glanced round.
"He hates fighting. I'm sure of that. But if it came to a pinch I believe he would fight like a tiger. He is a fine chap, Mr. Marlow."
"Can I see him?" Keith asked. "He ought to be told about Marrable's gang."
"Yes, he must be told. I'll go over in the morning and tell him."
"All right. You go in the morning and, while you are away I'll have a look at these caves. You couldn't defend this house against the number of men Marrable is likely to send."
Before Randolph could answer Arden's voice came from the living-room.
"What about supper? I'm getting infernally hungry."
"Ready in a minute, Dad," Randolph answered as he lifted the saucepan off the fire.
That night Keith enjoyed the comforts of a well-served meal and a real bed and was up early next morning to find that his host had provided him with a clean shirt and socks. All his own kit had been lost with the canoe. Immediately after breakfast he and Randolph went down to the landing. They launched the smaller canoe and Keith saw Randolph paddle away towards the head of the lake then returned to the house to meet Arden and go with him to the cave. Arden turned him over to Gil.
"Gil knows the place better than I," he said. "I have plenty to do here."
Keith did not mind. He much preferred Gil as a guide. He never could quite hit it off with Arden who seemed to consider that he, Keith, was responsible for all the trouble with Marrable.
Gil led the way up the slope through heavy timber. Half a mile from the lake they came upon a high limestone cliff broken and seamed by centuries of rain and frost. Without hesitating the breed led the way into a dark fissure. Once inside, he lit a small candle-lantern.
"Be vair careful, Corporal," he warned. "Dis is bad place."
He did not exaggerate for the way led along a ledge with a black abyss on their left. They passed this and came to a slope. Again Gil stopped and pointed to a chasm about twelve feet wide which stretched from one wall of the passage to the other. Across it was a flimsy bridge made of a couple of pine logs. From the depths came up the faint gurgle of a hidden stream. Gil raised the light and, beyond this great crack, Keith saw a large, irregularly shaped cave which seemed airy and dry.
"No need you go 'cross," said Gil. "You think dis good place?"
"A first-class place," Keith agreed. "Plenty of cover and, once the bridge is raised, no enemy can enter. But what about water?"
"Dere is anoder cave beyond. Plenty water dere," Keith nodded.
"Then the sooner we get some grub here the better. We'll tackle the job at once."
"Dat right," said Gil briefly and back they went again. They were half-way to the cabin when an ominous humming sound pulled them up short.
"A 'plane!" said Keith sharply and, as he spoke, the machine came into sight flying high over the lake.
"I tink him Wing," said Gil. Keith's lips tightened.
"And Randolph is on the lake," he said as he started to run.
DOWN the ravine, through the trees Keith raced at a speed which left Gil far behind. At last he was in the open and able to see the lake. There was no sign of Randolph's canoe, so it seemed that he must have reached his destination. "That's good," muttered Keith and looked up at the 'plane. It was a large cabin monoplane and was flying at about three thousand. At present it was over the lake, but as Keith watched, it circled and turned in his direction. The pilot must have spotted the house and wanted a closer view.
Keith slipped under cover of a tree and waited. The 'plane came down to about a thousand and passed over the cabin. The air was so clear that Keith was able to see a man's head and shoulders as he looked out of the cabin window. He bitterly regretted that he had not his rifle with him.
For a moment or two Keith thought that the pilot meant to come low enough to machine-gun the cabin. Instead, he headed the 'plane up again and turned her towards the head of the lake. The deer and the other animals grazing by the lake side were terrified. Clearly they had never before seen or heard a 'plane. They stampeded wildly. Gil came up alongside Keith.
"Dey go look at de other house," he said. "But dey not see him very easy. De trees, dey hide him."
"That's a blessing," said Keith. "And I suppose Randolph is indoors by this time."
"He safe from 'plane, I tink," Gil agreed, "but not if dey come down on de water."
Keith frowned. His eyes were fixed on the 'plane. Too well he knew what might happen if it came down, for there would be at least three men in it and Randolph had told him that this Tamer had no one with him but a Chinese cook.
But the 'plane did not come down. It kept the same height, flew over the spot where the Tamer's house was hidden among its trees, then swung away to the right. Now Keith saw that it was losing height. The pilot seemed to be making for the high hills which guarded the head of the Valley and presently it disappeared amid the gorges. Keith frowned.
"I wish I knew what those brutes were after," he muttered. Gil shook his head but said nothing. Keith roused.
"We'd better go back and see Mr. Arden," he said. Gil nodded and they hurried back to the house.
Arden had spotted the 'plane, made up his mind it belonged to Marrable, and was in a sweet state of mind. To do him justice, he was most anxious about Randolph, and welcomed Keith's offer to cross the lake and, if possible, accompany him back.
"Meantime," Keith said, "you and Jim had better get all the stuff you can into that cave. I'm fairly sure that the 'plane will be back to-morrow and that we shall have to hole up. You'll be perfectly safe there if you have sufficient food and you can remain there until Jim and I fetch help. Then I hope we can scupper the whole gang and after that there'll be no one to trouble you."
"You are a trifle optimistic, Mr. Marlow," said Arden. "The odds against your ever reaching Sundance seem to me very long."
"Don't worry," Keith said curtly. "We'll do it."
Just then Gil who had been outside came in.
"De 'plane, she go back. I see her over de mountains."
"That's good," Keith said. "Then I'll get on."
He got on, and did not waste time about it either. Unfortunately for him a strong breeze was now blowing down the lake and the passage took nearly an hour. His arms were aching when at last he saw the landing and Randolph's canoe pulled up on the beach. He drove his own ashore beside it, leaped out on to a gravelly beach and ran through the trees. He came to a fenced clearing, in the middle of which stood a plain but soundly-built cabin. He shouted but there was no reply. He opened the door and found himself in a large living-room. Though the furniture was all home-made the room had an air of comfort, but it was empty. There was a kitchen beyond. Keith went through but there was no one there either, though a fire was burning in the stove. Keith was badly puzzled. What had become of the mystery man and Randolph?
He turned and, as he again entered the living-room, a man came striding in from outside.
"Who are you and what do you want?" he demanded as he stared at Keith. Keith stared back. He saw a man some ten years older than himself, tall, lean yet splendidly muscled. He had piercing grey eyes, finely cut features and a mane of fair hair.
"Who are you?" this man repeated, and now his tone was distinctly hostile. Keith seemed tongue-tied. His eyes were fixed on the other man's face with an expression of complete amazement.
"Colin!" he got out at last. It was the newcomer's turn to express astonishment. He stiffened.
"Who are you that call me Colin?" he demanded.
"Then you are Colin Anson. I'm Keith—Keith Marlow."
Colin took a couple of steps forward, caught Keith by the shoulders and turned his face to the light.
"Keith," he repeated at last. "Yes, you are Keith, though I should never have known you." His face softened. "You can't blame me for not recognising you. Last time I saw you, you were a weedy schoolboy. Now you are a man and, I see, a Mounty. I congratulate you."
"Thanks, Colin. This is a bit of a shock, you know; for I, like your father, believed you to be dead."
"Colin Anson is dead," said the other with sudden fierceness. "Make no mistake about that. Only two people in the world, besides yourself, know of my identity. They are Stephen Arden and his son, and they are sworn to secrecy. I don't know how you got here but, since you are here, I'll ask you to give me your word that you will be equally silent."
"We'll talk of that later," said Keith. "At present there is something much more important on hand. Where is young Arden?"
"Randolph! I haven't seen him for at least a week. Not since he and his father went down river to find Gil."
"He started over here more than two hours ago."
"I've been out all the morning. Chan—that's my man—and I have been right up the valley to the beaver dam." He paused and looked round. "But if he came here he would have waited in the house for me. I can't understand this at all."
"YOU saw the 'plane," Keith said. Colin frowned.
"Do you know where it came from?"
"The Bowl, most likely."
"So you've heard of that gang?"
"I have. I was hoping they had not heard of me."
"They're not after you. I am the one they want."
"So you've been sent to hunt down Wing and Co."
"I have. It's a long story, Colin, and there's no time to tell it now. We have to find the boy."
"You are right." Colin turned. "Chan!" he called.
A man came in. He had a yellow skin, high cheekbones and slanting eyes. But he was by no means the ordinary type of Chinese. There was something keen and fierce about him. He looked like a hunter.
"This is my cousin, Mr. Keith Marlow," Colin said. "A police officer, as you see. He has been sent to hunt down the dope gang. He tells me that Randolph Arden came over the lake in his canoe early this morning. He is not in the house. We must find him." Chan gave Keith a quick, sharp glance.
"He went to look for us, master," he said in perfect English. "I saw his footprints coming into the gate and leaving again." Colin looked relieved.
"Then he will be here soon."
"Why didn't he meet you on your way back?" Keith asked. "He must have been following your trail."
"The woods are thick up that way and we did not take the same trail back," Colin answered. Keith was not happy.
"I'll go and look for him," he said. "That 'plane will be back for a certainty and I want everyone in the Valley to be safe under cover before it comes. We are provisioning a cave behind Arden's cabin."
"Wing, I suppose, will be dropping bombs," Colin said harshly. "Very well, Keith. Chan and I will go with you. You'll never find your way, alone."
"That's good of you," Keith said. "And while we go I can tell you what I know about this gang at the Bowl."
"I want to hear all I can," Colin answered. "Not that it will do much good," he added bitterly. "I have no way of fighting them and—I hate fighting."
Keith saw that Colin was very upset. He did not blame him. To have this paradise of his ruined by gangsters in aeroplanes was an absolute disaster.
"Don't worry about the fighting, Colin," he said. "That's our job. I'm going down the river for help as soon as you are all safe in the cave. Indian Jim and I are taking one of the canoes. Oh, we'll manage all right. We will travel by night until we are past the Slit."
They went out through the gate of the garden and Chan, eyes on ground, led the way. Keith saw at once that this yellow man was as good a tracker as any Indian and that he and Colin had nothing to do but follow him. So, as they walked, he told his cousin of his first meeting with Marrable, his journey north, of the loss of Chet and Tuzu and of how he had met and been rescued by the Ardens. Colin looked at him with increased respect.
"You've done well, Keith. I'm very sure that no one as yet has inflicted so much damage on Marrable as you have, and I don't wonder that he is out for your blood. It strikes me uncomfortably that he is extremely likely to get it."
"I've no doubt he will try," Keith answered drily. "I'm only sorry for your sake that this war has invaded your territory. You haven't told me yet how you came here."
"I heard of the place from Indian friends," Colin said simply. "Chan and I came up the river and found it. It was just what I'd always wanted, so I stayed."
"You make it sound simple," Keith said. "I've no doubt there's a lot more behind it. By-the-by, I suppose it was Arden who saved you from that poaching gang?"
"He didn't actually save me from the gang. They had left me for dead, and dead I should have been if Arden had not happened along. He acted the Good Samaritan, bandaged my wounds, put me to bed in his tent, and nursed and fed me for days. I've never forgotten it," he added, "and I have been only too glad of the chance to pay something off the debt I owe him."
"But you had your job as warden," Keith argued. "What made you chuck it?"
"I was sick of it," Colin said frankly. "My chief and I never got on. All my suggestions were turned down and I was on the point of handing in my resignation. When I recovered and saw in a newspaper that I was supposed to be dead I seized the chance of disappearing."
"Do you think that was fair to your father?" Keith asked bluntly.
"Why not?" Colin's voice was suddenly harsh. "My father never cared that for me." He snapped his fingers. "He knew I hated his business, yet tried to force me into it. When I refused he cut me off without a penny. If I had not had the few hundreds my mother left me I might have starved. Do you think I owe him anything?"
Before Keith could answer, Chan, who had been a little ahead, turned.
"Please come here, master," he said in his quiet voice. He pointed to marks in the soft soil. "Two men," he went on. "You see?"
"I see," said Colin and Keith, too, could plainly see the prints of two pairs of feet whose owners had worn rubber-soled shoes. The prints told their own story for there were signs of a struggle. Then they went on again but now three pairs abreast and the centre ones those of a boy.
"They've got Randolph," Keith said sharply.
COLIN turned a puzzled face to his cousin.
"Who has got Randolph?" he demanded.
"Marrable's men. Two or more have been landed—probably dropped by 'chute from the 'plane while it was out of sight behind the hills. They must have spotted Randolph from the air and decided to seize him as hostage."
"That, sir, is exactly what has happened," said Chan in his precise English. Colin let out a roar.
"Kidnapped Randolph, have they? They'll be sorry they ever lived before we've done with them."
Keith gazed at his cousin in amazement. Colin's eyes were blazing. He seemed to have grown bigger. A vein stood out throbbing on his forehead. He looked suddenly formidable and Keith remembered what Randolph had said about him—that, if stirred, Colin would become a fighting man. Colin's excitement calmed Keith.
"You know the country, Colin. Where have they taken him?"
"Into the hills. Probably a cave. But we can trail them."
"They'll be armed and watching for us," Keith said. "And the only weapon we have is my revolver."
"I'll go back and fetch rifles," Colin said. "You, Keith, with Chan will follow the trail. I shan't be long. We are only a mile from the house." He was off, running with great strides.
"He's on the war-path properly," Keith said.
"My master hates fighting," Chan said gravely. "Yet his enemies must beware of him." He turned to the trail. "Let us obey and go forward, sir," he added.
They came into the open. In front was the river widened into a lake by the beaver dam which stretched across in a wide semi- circle. But no beavers were visible or any game. The trail took them to the bank of the river just below the dam. The water was shallow and they had no difficulty in wading across. Chan found the tracks on the far side and they went on slowly across grassland. Beyond was a belt of wood and at the edge they stopped to let Colin catch up.
Colin must have run the whole two miles, but he was not winded. He carried two rifles and his pockets bulged with cartridges. Chan pointed to the trail.
"We must move with great care," he said. "If they have seen us they may be waiting in ambush."
"I don't fancy they've seen us," Keith answered. "They must have been well into the timber before we came into the open, and they have no reason to suppose that anyone is after them. All the same we'll go carefully."
The ground began to rise and presently they were climbing steeply. The surface became more rocky, the trees more scanty and scattered and the trail more difficult to follow. They came to a mountain brook which emerged from a deep ravine and fell in little cascades over shelves of rock.
"They have gone up that way," Chan said, pointing to the ravine.
"Then they've holed up in one of those caves at the foot of Spirit Mountain," Colin remarked.
"How far is that?" Keith asked.
"About a mile. This notch curves so you can't see the mountain till you're round the bend." Keith looked up at the steep, broken sides of the ravine.
"Plenty of cover there," he said. "If one of those swine has stayed behind on guard it's a poor show for us."
"Why should he?" Colin asked. "They can't suspect that we're after them. It seems to me they'd be in a hurry to hole-up where they'll be safe."
"You may be right," Keith allowed. "But is there any way round?"
"Yes, but it would take all day." Keith bit his lip.
"Then we must chance it." He stopped and carefully filled the magazine of his rifle. Chan did the same. "Now," said Keith, "we will string out. Chan, you lead. I'll go next, and you, Colin, had better keep a good distance behind. Then, if anyone does start shooting from the cliffs, you'll have a chance of spotting them."
Colin made no objection to taking orders from the younger man and they started up the ravine. It was hard travelling for the steep slope was covered with loose boulders, and along the stream grew thickets of alder and other bushes. Great cushions of moss, yellow and green, grew everywhere. They were very pretty but full of extremely cold water, and Keith got soaked and chilled as he crawled over them. To his left the stream roared in its narrow bed, making noise enough to drown any that the three men caused as they scrambled upwards.
They went slowly and Keith kept a constant watch on the grey cliffs which towered on either side. The place was a trap and he knew it and had a nasty suspicion that they were not going to pass it without trouble. Yet nothing happened and after a quarter of an hour of climbing they passed a high waterfall and gained more level ground.
Here the defile curved to the left and widened and, through a gap opposite, Keith got sight of a high and very beautiful mountain, the ice-clad cone of which glittered white against the intense blue of the sky. He paused and beckoned Colin to come up.
"I take it that's Spirit Mountain," he said.
"Yes," Colin told him "and there are at least a dozen caves along the base of the cliffs. This brook comes out of one of them."
"I suppose there's no telling in which they've hidden Randolph."
"Not unless Chan can find the tracks."
"And meantime they can plug us at their leisure," said Keith. "Isn't there any way round, Colin?" he asked despairingly.
Before Colin could answer the silence was broken by a loud thump. The ground quivered then, with a roar like thunder, a huge mass of rock broke away from the right-hand cliff and came crashing down.
At sound of the explosion Keith flung himself over the bank of the stream and dropped into the water. The others followed instantly. Even so, if the fall had come down opposite, nothing could have saved them. Actually it fell some little distance behind them.
"Dynamite!" Keith said harshly as he scrambled up and looked cautiously over the rim of the bank.
At first all he could see was a great cloud of dust. Through this cloud boulders were still falling, making a tremendous racket. By degrees these ceased and the dust cloud, clearing, revealed the gorge completely choked with a mass of raw rock and rubble twenty feet high.
"These people are more clever than I had supposed," Chan said in his perfect English. "Our retreat is completely cut off; for, if we attempt to climb that pile, they can shoot us from above."
"You sum up the situation admirably, Chan," Keith answered in a tone of extreme bitterness. "And no doubt, if we go forward, we are equally at their mercy. What I can't understand is why they delayed so long. If they had set off that cartridge five minutes earlier we should all be dead and buried."
"They want us alive, not dead," said Colin between set teeth and, as if in answer to his words, a voice hailed them from the cliff-top.
"If Keith Marlow comes out and gives himself up the other two can leave unharmed." Chan whirled quick as a cat but the speaker was out of sight. They heard him laugh and it was not a pleasant sound.
"I know you are armed," he went on. "I am not likely to offer myself as a target. Again I tell you that, if Marlow comes out, you others can save your lives. If he does not you all die." Keith answered.
"If I come out will you hand over Randolph Arden to The Tamer and let him go safe." There was a short pause, then came the reply from the unseen foe.
"I will even do that. Is it a bargain?" Colin seized Keith in a grasp from which even he could not release himself.
"You're not going, Keith. I know that swine. He will never keep his word."
"You know him!"
"Yes. I recognise his voice. He is one of the Blackie Shard gang, the same who laid me out in the Kootenay Park." Keith hesitated. He was so anxious about Randolph that he felt unable to think. All his usual clear common sense seemed to have deserted him.
"Are you coming out, Marlow?" called the unseen man on the cliff-top.
"He is not," shouted back Colin in a voice that Keith hardly recognised as that of his cousin. The gangster laughed again.
"Then none of you will ever come out. The next rock fall will bury the bunch. And the boy—I'm taking him down to the Bowl. I reckon the Boss will be pleased to see him."
"Colin, I have to go," said Keith in a voice that hissed through his lips. He was struggling to get away but Colin held him. Chan spoke in a whisper.
"Master, I have a plan. If I cannot go back down the brook I can go up. Once I am round the bend I am out of sight of these men. Then maybe I can find a way up the cliff. Meantime you keep this man talking."
Without waiting for Colin's permission Chan slung his rifle across his back, ducked down and set to crawling up the bed of the stream. The ice-cold water took him to the waist but he never hesitated. Bent double, he wormed his way upwards at astonishing speed.
"I'LL give you one minute more to make up your mind."
It was their unseen enemy on the cliff-top speaking again. The voice was that of a white man and Keith wondered who he was. Keith glanced up the stream-bed, but Chan was out of sight. He had got round the corner without being seen. Whether he could climb the cliff was another question and one with a very doubtful answer. Even if he could do so, it would take a long time. Keith tried to temporise.
"I'm ready to give myself up in exchange for Randolph Arden," he called, "but I've got to be sure first that he will be released."
"You'll have to take my word for it," was the answer.
"Where is he?" Keith asked.
"Don't you wish you knew," was the sneering reply.
"Fetch him. Let me see him," Keith demanded.
"Nothing doing," came the sharp retort. "Are you coming out or are you not? Time's up."
"Don't answer," Colin said in Keith's ear. "Crawl back down the stream-bed."
"Why not go up?"
"That fellow would spot us. We're not as small as Chan and the man is right above us."
"We can't go far down because of the fall," Keith whispered.
"Far enough to get some shelter," Colin insisted. "And every minute counts. Remember Chan is on the job."
"I'm lighting the second fuse," came the voice from above. "This is your last chance. You needn't fancy you can dodge out of it. If you go up I can see you; if you go down you can't pass the fall. The boss wants you alive, Marlow, but he'll be almost as pleased to know you're dead."
This time Keith made no answer. Following Colin, he was crawling downstream, hugging the bank as closely as possible. They heard the man above curse savagely, then his order.
"Put a match to it. Quick, you fool!" Colin stopped so suddenly that Keith bumped into him. Keith saw that they were standing beneath a blunt spur of rock which stuck out from the rim of the stream-bank and gave some sort of shelter.
They had reached it just in time. Again the ground quivered under the blast of explosive, again great rock masses roared from above. Boulders leaped over their heads and fell behind them but, barring blows from small fragments rebounding, they remained safe and unhurt.
"Back!" said Colin. "Quickly, before the dust clears." He started and Keith followed. The bed of the brook was almost choked with fallen rock over which the two scrambled frantically in an effort to round the corner before the dust-cloud had disappeared. It dropped fast and Keith realised despairingly that they would never do it.
Then from high above came the flat crack of a rifle shot, followed by a high-pitched scream. Colin stopped and chuckled harshly.
"Chan," he said. "That was my rifle. Chan's got one of them and I only hope it's the devil who's been trying to finish us. From their right came a frantic burst of firing. Two magazine rifles were blazing away. Colin laughed again.
"Those two have got the wind up properly. Come, Keith, they'll never see us. They're trying to get Chan but they might as well try to get the Man in the Moon."
Once past the rock-fall the going was easier. The cousins rounded the curve to the left and found themselves safe from rifle fire. Colin stopped and pointed to the break in the rocks on the far side through which the Spirit Mountain was visible.
"Are you game to cross, Keith? It looks as if we could climb up that way and get behind the enemy."
"Watch me," said Keith and was across the open so quickly that, even if Marrable's men had been watching, they might as well have shot at a shadow. A moment later Keith and Colin were going up a regular rock-staircase and reaching the top found themselves on the edge of a broad expanse of mountain turf dotted here and there with patches of bare rock. Keith lifted his head over the rim and pointed.
"Three of them," he whispered, "but one won't move again."
"And the other two are scared to move," Colin said. Even as he spoke an unseen rifle barked and dust sprayed from the turf close alongside one of Marrable's men.
"Getting a drop of their own medicine and they don't like it," grinned Keith. "Signal to Chan to stop firing, Colin. We'll take these fellows alive. We want to know where they have hidden Randolph."
Colin nodded and stood up. He waved his hand. A hat showed for a second above a large boulder opposite and instantly one of Marrable's men let loose. He emptied his magazine before he stopped firing and they saw him fumbling for fresh cartridges.
"Don't trouble to reload," remarked Keith as, pistol in hand, he stepped up softly behind the fellow. The man jerked round as if an electric charge had shocked him and the amazement on his ugly face was almost comic.
"Drop your gun," Keith ordered, "stand up and raise your hands." The man scowled but obeyed. He had no choice. While Colin covered them both with his rifle Keith searched them for arms and secured two pistols and two unpleasant looking knives. Next he handcuffed them both and, when he was sure they were harmless, examined the dead man.
The prisoners were both breeds, but the dead man was white.
"I was right," Colin said. "This is the fellow who shot me three years ago." He turned to the nearest prisoner. "What's his name?" he asked.
"He Shard," said the man sullenly.
"I thought so," said Colin. He turned to Keith. "We can't bury him now. It's getting late and we have to find Randolph." Keith nodded.
"Where is young Arden?" he demanded of the prisoner.
"I no tell," replied the man defiantly. Keith said nothing. He turned and walked away.
"Come, Colin," he said, and Colin at once followed. They went over the edge of the plateau and began scrambling down.
"Chan can find him, I suppose," Keith said.
"I expect so," replied Colin. "You mean to read those two a lesson?"
"They certainly can't get down this cliff in handcuffs," said Keith with a grin. "I want to get them so they'll talk," he added.
Chan met them in the valley.
"Good work, Chan!" said Keith. "You put that bullet plumb through his heart." Chan shook his head.
"I was very frightened. When the second blast came I thought you were both buried. But what have you done with the two prisoners?"
When Keith told him a gleam of approval showed in Chan's slanting eyes.
"Come then," he said. "I will try to find Master Randolph."
As Colin had said, there were a dozen or more caves along the base of the mountain and, since the ground was mostly rock, it beat Keith to tell how Chan found trail. Yet he kept on slowly until they reached a wide slope of limestone washed clean by winter storms. Then he stopped and shook his head.
"There is no track here," he said.
"And Randolph may be in any of those caves," Keith exclaimed in dismay. "What's more, it will be dark in an hour. Randolph!" he shouted but only echoes came back.
"THERE'S only one thing to do," said Colin grimly. "Get those breeds and make them talk. They'll be tame enough by now."
"I will fetch them," said Chan and strode away.
"He's a treasure, that fellow," Keith said.
"You're right," Colin answered warmly. "He comes from the hill country of South China and was educated in England. I couldn't have a better man to help me in this job."
"I hope Randolph is all right," Keith said uneasily.
"They are not likely to have hurt him. But he may be gagged. That's why he can't answer." He paused and stared. "Good Heavens! Look at this." A man was coming out of one of the caves and Randolph with him.
"It's Gil!" Keith shouted and ran.
"Are you all right, Randolph?" was his first eager question.
"I'm not hurt, a bit. But I'm jolly glad to see you again. I heard the shooting but I was tied and couldn't move. Then Gil came and let me loose and—" He stopped and glanced at Keith's scratched face. "You're not hurt, Mr. Marlow?"
"It's the other fellow who got hurt," Keith answered cheerfully. "One's dead and the other two are prisoners. But how do you come here, Gil?"
"Trough de trees, Corporal. When you go so long I tink someting wrong. I take de short cut. I see men put Randolph in de cave. Den I wait. I tink I 'ave to wait till dark but you come and all is well."
"All is well for the present," said Keith. "I'm not so sure about to-morrow. Let's get back to the lake. Chan will bring the prisoners."
It was dark when they reached the lake. Colin wanted to remain at his own place but Keith persuaded him that they had better all be together.
"Marrable hasn't finished with us," he said significantly. "I shouldn't wonder if he turns up in person to-morrow."
Stephen Arden was in a nice state of mind when they got back. It was odd, Keith thought, how a big, powerful man who had been knocking about in the north for years could go all to pieces like this. Even the story of how they had defeated the enemy and rescued Randolph did little to comfort him.
After supper Keith and Chan interviewed the prisoners who by this time were meek enough. Leaving them handcuffed on the cliff- top had scared them properly. They said that Marrable had at least a score of men at the Bowl, and that he had sworn to get Keith. They admitted that Marrable had made a great deal of money but was still building up his dirty business. He was furious at the losses Keith had already inflicted on him. The two breeds were clearly certain that Keith's fate was sealed.
The night passed quietly. All were up early and were busy transferring provisions, bedding, etc., to the cave. Gil showed Keith the inner cave where a small stream broke through a fissure in the wall and ran out through a hole in the floor.
Just as they came out they heard the distant roar of an aeroplane engine. The same machine that had come over on the previous day flew up the lake and settled near Colin's landing. Through glasses Keith saw three men landed, then the 'plane rose again and went back the way it had come. Colin was much upset, not so much at the prospect of these gangsters using his house, as at the terror inspired in the wild life of the valley by the 'plane.
"Don't worry. They'll soon get accustomed to it," Keith said. "I'm told that the animals in the Kruger Park don't even look up when a 'plane comes overhead."
"But the swine will be shooting," Colin growled.
"So shall we," Keith answered, "and once we clear out this gang I'll take good care that this Valley of yours is scheduled from Ottawa so that no one else can invade it."
An hour later the 'plane was back and three more men were landed. By one o'clock it had made four trips and Marrable's force had grown to twelve.
"A regular army," Randolph chuckled. Unlike his father he seemed to be rather enjoying himself.
"It's about time I was collecting my army," said Keith. "Jim and I will get off as soon as it's dark."
"I suppose," said Colin, "it hasn't occurred to you that Marrable will expect you to do exactly that thing. I'm sure as I stand here that he has a canoe full of men watching for you."
Keith looked blank. This idea had not occurred to him yet he felt suddenly certain that Colin was right. And if men were posted in the gap at the mouth of the Valley there wasn't a dog's chance of getting by even in a canoe. Colin went on.
"Keith, do you realise that you are the only trained fighting man among us. It's true that Chan and Gil are good men but there ought to be someone here to take command, and you are the only one."
"But we must have help," Keith said at last. "Five men—six if you count Jim—on our side, and Marrable has a dozen and more coming."
"We need help," said Colin gravely. "No one knows that better than I; but, even if you could get out of the Valley, it would be at least a fortnight before you could bring reinforcements and by that time I'm very much afraid it might be too late."
"But they can't reach you in the cave," Keith declared.
"They nearly finished us yesterday with dynamite. Supposing they blow down the mouth of the cave and suffocate us?"
"I think it's you who have the brains to lead us, Colin," Keith answered. "You've put a lot of new ideas in my head, and I must think them over. And I think I'll have a chat with Gil."
"You can't do better," Colin told him. "Gil knows this Valley better even than I do, and he has capital brains."
Keith went off at once to find Gil and beckoned him back among the trees out of sight and hearing of the rest. The first thing he asked of him was whether it would be possible for Jim and himself to get away down the river.
"Not in de canoe," Gil answered promptly. "Dey will light fire on de bank so you no can pass. You will see when de night come." Keith shrugged.
"If you are right, Gil, we're in a very tight place. It's all very well holing up in the cave, but our grub won't last for ever."
"Dat is true. I tink de only way is to fight dem before dey begin to fight us." Keith's eyes brightened.
"That's good strategy, but what would you suggest? How can we do it?"
Before Gil could answer the deep rumble of the 'plane's engine came again to their ears and they hurried out to see what it was bringing this time. Through his glasses Keith watched it land on the lake and taxi in until close to the landing. He saw two men on the landing handling a very heavy package. When they had lifted it out of the 'plane a tall man followed.
"Marrable, himself," said Keith sharply. "And if I'm not badly mistaken that was a machine-gun they've just put on the wharf."
Gil was watching the 'plane. Though he had no glasses his eyes were sharp enough to see that she was being moored just far enough out from the bank to swing easily.
"She stay dere all night," he said. "I tink I take de canoe and burn her in de dark."
KEITH gave a sudden chuckle.
"Gil, you've hit it. Talk of carrying the war into the enemy's camp! If we could knock a hole in one float she'd turn right over and sink. Then Marrable would be no better off than us—not so well, probably, because I don't suppose he has much food with him." He paused. "But will it be dark enough?"
"I tink de sky be cloudy."
"All right, Gil. Then we'll start just before midnight. Just you and I."
"I can do him, myself," Gil objected.
"Two are better than one. One will stand guard while the other does the trick. I take it we go afoot."
Gil nodded. He did not look altogether pleased and Keith had the idea that he would have preferred to go alone.
Before night they all moved into the cave. They had an oil stove for cooking and plenty of firewood. It was possible to light a fire in the inner cave for the smoke went out through a fissure in the roof.
Watch was set, Chan taking the first three hours. Keith, after his hard day, was glad to get some sleep. Chan, who had been told of the intended raid, roused Keith and Gil at half-past eleven and they slipped silently away.
As Gil had prophesied, the sky was overcast and it was very dark. But not cold. This valley was so shut in by mountains that it was warmer than much of the lower country. It was lucky for Keith that Gil knew the Valley. Many small brooks came down from the hills into the lake, some through deep channels which were not easy to cross.
The two were picking their way along the lake shore when a faint rustling sound reached them. Gil pulled Keith in under the spreading branches of a big tree and the two stood very quiet. The sound grew louder. At first Keith had thought it was caused by moose or elk, but soon he became sure that men were moving past them. Gil put his lips close to Keith's ear.
"Dey make de night attack," he whispered.
Keith peered out. He could just distinguish forms like shadows passing barely a score of paces from their hiding place.
"You're right, Gil. Can you tell how many?" But even Gil's keen eyes could not make sure of the number. It was too dark. He thought, however, there were ten or twelve.
"Ought we to follow them?" Keith muttered. "If we got them between two fires we could knock blazes out of them."
"Better we get de 'plane first," Gil said. "We never get so good chance. After we sink de 'plane den we go after dem."
It was sound sense and Keith had to admit it. Marrable's men could not know anything of the cave. They would waste time attacking the house. He and Gil could do their job and be back in time to tackle the enemy. They waited until the footfalls of the invaders died in the distance then hurried on as fast as the darkness allowed.
The clouds were breaking as they gained the far end of the lake, some stars showed and there was light enough to see the 'plane motionless on the calm surface. She lay a little more than her own length from the log-built landing and, since there was no canoe, Keith saw he would have to go into the water in order to reach her. But the water was quite shallow and the bottom firm gravel.
Keith had brought a big auger and was for getting to work at once, but Gil insisted that they should first inspect the house. Keith, who had great faith in the little breed, agreed and they crept through the trees to the edge of the clearing.
The house was utterly dark and silent and, after watching it for a good five minutes, Gil agreed that Marrable must have taken his whole force to the attack and that he and Keith had a clear field to finish the 'plane.
They went back to the lake and Gil hid behind a bush a little way back while Keith waded into the water. It was so cold it made him gasp. He took hold of the edge of the wharf and helped himself along. He was rather more than waist-deep when he reached the 'plane. He set his auger against the float and had taken the first turn when a slight sound made him pause. Before he could do anything to defend himself a heavy club crashed on his head. Completely knocked-out, he dropped limply back into the water.
* * * * *
Keith came back to life, conscious of two things, an aching head and a freezing body. As usually happens after a heavy blow on the skull, he found some difficulty in remembering what had happened. His eyelids felt heavy as lead. When he opened them he found that he was lying on the floor of Colin's living-room. A lamp was burning and by its light he saw a man sitting in Colin's armchair by the fire, smoking a cigarette.
This man was tall, dark, with good features, but his looks were spoiled by a thin-lipped mouth and narrow eyes. The scar of an old wound showed on his left cheek and drew up one corner of his mouth, giving him a most sinister expression. He took the cigarette from between his lips, knocked the ash into the grate and looked at Keith.
"That was one time you guessed wrong, Mister Marlow," he remarked. "You never reckoned there was anyone inside the 'plane."
Keith did not answer. There was nothing to say. The man was right. He himself had been completely fooled. The other went on.
"I told the Boss you'd be after the 'plane. Just what I'd have done if I'd been in your shoes. He didn't believe me, but I was right. You got to admit it."
Keith was seized with a violent fit of shivering. It doesn't do a man any good to lie on a bare floor after being hit on the head and half-drowned in icy water. The other got up, took a bottle from the table beside him, poured out a stiff tot of spirit and put it to Keith's lips.
"Got to keep you alive till the Boss comes," he remarked. "He wants you alive, not dead. Myself," he added casually, "I'd sooner be dead, but orders are orders."
The raw spirit stopped Keith's shivering then the man took a heavy skin rug from a couch and flung it over him. He went back to his chair and lit another cigarette.
"I don't reckon he'll be long," he said. "The Boss is leery. He knows you've had time to fort-up. He won't lose men running his head into a stone wall."
He stopped talking and lay back in his chair. Under the rug a little warmth came back into Keith's frozen body. He wondered what had become of Gil and greatly feared that he had been killed. Then he began to wonder if he could tackle this long brute in the chair. He knew he had not a hope, but had about made up his mind to try when he heard a sound outside. The door opened and Marrable himself stepped in.
He saw Keith on the floor and gazed as if he could not believe his eyes. He turned to the man in the chair.
"So you were right, Lafitte. You got him."
"I got him," said Lafitte. "What are you going to do with him?" The smile on Marrable's face sent a chill down Keith's spine.
"I'll have to think," he said with a kind of gloating intensity.
MARRABLE stood over Keith. Lafitte's blow had cut Keith's scalp and streaks of half-dried blood smeared his face and tunic. His eyes were bloodshot, his wet clothes clung to his body, he looked a wreck. Marrable continued to gloat over his helpless enemy.
"You may remember, Marlow, I told you that no one ever struck me and got away with it. Before you die you are going to be extremely sorry that you were fool enough to interfere with Paul Marrable."
"What are you going to do?" Keith asked drily, "burn me alive?"
Like most men of his type, Marrable had no sense of humour. He took Keith's question seriously.
"That," he said, "might be a useful warning to others who think they can behave as you have. But it would not satisfy me. I have something in store for you that will hurt you more than burning. Young Arden. He is a pal of yours. He is in my hands and I shall keep you alive until you have seen what I shall do with him."
Randolph a prisoner! Marrable's words gave Keith an ugly shock. Surely it was impossible that Randolph had been caught again. He had left him safe in the cave. Then in a flash it came to him that Marrable had heard of Randolph's capture by Shard on the previous day but that he was not aware of his release.
"I don't believe a word of it," he said scornfully, "You couldn't even catch me. You had to get Lafitte to do it."
Marrable's savage temper boiled up. He gave Keith a heavy kick in the ribs. Lafitte looked round.
"I thought you was going to keep him alive, boss," he remarked. "He ain't in very good shape, anyway."
"I'll keep him alive," Marrable snarled. "But first I'll teach him to curb that tongue of his. Now I'll send for the boy." He turned and strode out of the room.
"You take my advice, you wont aggravate him," Lafitte said to Keith and, lighting another cigarette, settled comfortably in his chair.
The heavy rug had saved Keith's ribs, he was getting warmer, but he did not move or speak. If he did they might tie him, which would cut off the last chance of escape. That is, if there was any chance at all, which at present seemed extremely doubtful.
Marrable came in again, leaving the door ajar. Keith lay with his eyes closed. Marrable bent over him.
"Curse the swine! He looks as if he were dying," he growled. "Give him some whiskey, Lafitte."
Lafitte got up leisurely, poured some whiskey into a glass and came across. Keith did not move.
"Raise his head, boss," said Lafitte. Marrable knelt down, put an arm under Keith's shoulders and lifted his head.
"Dat vill do nicely. Stay right like dat."
Silent as a shadow, Gil had slipped into the room. He had Keith's heavy police revolver in his fist and a glow of fierce determination in his dark eyes.
The surprise was so complete that Marrable and Lafitte were simply frozen. Keith seized his chance, made one leap and gained his feet. With a snarl of rage Marrable grasped at him. It was no time for niceties. Keith kicked him in the jaw and knocked him cold. Lafitte raised his hands.
"Guess I know when I'm licked," he said calmly.
"Quickly, Gil. We have to tie them up," Keith said. "Is anyone outside?"
"I no see anyone. I see two go 'way. Den I get de chance." He handed the pistol to Keith. "I get de cords," he said.
A rawhide rope hung on the wall. Gil had it down in a moment and slashed it into lengths with his knife. With incredible quickness he tied up Lafitte. Marrable was stunned so there was no difficulty in securing him.
"You might give me a cigarette," Lafitte suggested. The man had been half-way decent and Keith waited just long enough to light a cigarette and put it in his mouth, then turned to Marrable.
"We must take him with us," he said.
"You tink you carry him?" Gil asked sarcastically.
Keith bit his lip. Marrable was limp as a dead man and looked as if he would be out for an hour. Gil stiffened. He stepped quickly to the door, listened a moment, then turned to Keith.
"De oders, dey come. We go now or no time." Keith knew Gil too well to doubt him, yet it was a bitter pill to be forced to leave Marrable.
"De best way is to shoot him," Gil said, but even though he knew that leaving Marrable alive meant every kind of trouble, Keith could not bring himself to such a thing.
"Queek, dey come!" Gil urged and Keith and he slipped out into the night and gained the shelter of the trees just as a number of Marrable's men came into the clearing.
Once more Keith had to thank his stars that he had Gil as guide. Sure that there would be pursuit Gil led Keith far back from the lake shore. It was a long road and a hard one and dawn was pink in the East when at last they neared the cave. By this time Keith was so done he could hardly crawl. Gil left him under cover and went forward to see if any of Marrable's men were outside the cave.
Some time later he came back with news that several of the enemy had seized the cabin and made it their headquarters but had left only one man on guard at the entrance of the ravine leading up to the cave.
"Left a man on guard," Keith repeated, frowning. "How the mischief shall we get past him."
"We walk," said Gil. "He no guarding now." As he spoke he touched the hilt of his belt knife significantly. Keith drew a quick breath.
"Dead," he whispered.
"Dead like his boss would be eef you had said de word, Corporal."
Keith shivered slightly. It seemed beyond belief that this mild-mannered, courteous little man could kill with so little compunction. Yet in his heart he knew that it had been the only thing to do.
"Let's go," he said and followed Gil as the latter moved soundlessly down into the ravine.
RANDOLPH met them at the entrance to the cave. His face lit up.
"You got away, Mr. Marlow!"
"Thanks to Gil," Keith told him.
Randolph caught him by the arm and helped him across the bridge. And, just as on that bitter day when he and the boy had first met, Keith was glad of help. He was pretty nearly all-in. His head was splitting and he was only too glad to lie down, close his eyes and let someone else take charge. Gil brought coffee and food. Then they left him to sleep.
It was late in the afternoon when Keith awoke. He felt astonishingly better. Chan came to him and brought soap, water and a razor. While Keith shaved, Chan talked. He said that Marrable and his whole force had moved into the cabin below and appeared to be making ready to besiege the cave. The 'plane had been moved to the landing near the cabin.
"I ought to have sunk the 'plane last night, Chan," Keith said. "I made a mess of it."
"That," said Chan, "was unavoidable. You could not have imagined that anyone was hiding in it. The mistake you made, Mr. Marlow, if you will permit me to say so, was in not killing Marrable when you had the chance."
Keith was silent. Chan smiled slightly.
"If a rattlesnake had attempted to bite you, you would have had no compunction in destroying it. Marrable is worse than any rattlesnake and deserves no more mercy."
"I almost wish you had been with me, Chan," Keith said.
"If I had, our troubles would now be at an end instead of just beginning. Marrable will use every means in his power to destroy us. For so long as one of us remains alive to act as witness against him, he lives in danger of arrest."
What Chan said was all so deadly true that there was no arguing about it. Keith felt anything but happy. True, they were safe enough in the cave, but on the other hand they could not get out and there seemed no possible chance of sending for help. Marrable on the other hand had plenty of men and his 'plane to fetch in more men or stores whenever he needed them.
"I've a mind to attack," Keith said at last. Chan shook his head.
"That, sir, would be suicide. Gil tells me that Marrable has mounted his machine-gun in the mouth of the gorge. There is no possibility of getting out alive."
Keith's spirits fell another notch. He could not see a gleam of light anywhere. Chan went on.
"Gil and I have been discussing the situation. We have also been exploring the cave. Gil has found a passage which appears to lead out to the west. It is obstructed by stalagmites and at present impassable. It might, however, be possible to open it. If then we could get outside we might surprise the man with the machine-gun. Once that was done we could turn the gun upon Marrable's men and possibly kill enough of them to give us a chance of defeating the survivors." Keith's eyes brightened.
"That is something I should never have thought of. Take me to see the place."
The mouth of the passage was a mere crack but, beyond, it grew larger and trended upwards. About thirty paces in it was almost closed by a huge stalactite. But a long stick pushed through the opening proved that there was head-room beyond.
"We'll get to it at once," Keith said.
"Luckily we have a pick. We daren't use dynamite."
"Better not," Chan answered. "The roof might fall."
There was room for only one at the face and the stuff was hard as marble. The men relieved one another each hour but it took a whole day to get through. They found themselves in a small cave with two passages leading off it. The one to the left was a blind alley; they tackled the other. This went in the right direction but was badly blocked. For two exhausting days they worked on it and broke through only to find a third barrier. Keith was pounding away at this when Colin came to him.
"Keith," he said, "we're in a mess. They've cut off the water."
Keith went with him back to the second cave where all the others were gathered. The stream that had poured through the wall had ceased to run. Its channel was dry.
"It's plain enough what's happened," Colin said. "Marrable has realised that we had water here; he has found the source and dynamited it." Keith said nothing. The disaster was complete. Randolph spoke.
"Can't we dip some from the river under the bridge?" Colin shook his head.
"That's under fire from the machine-gun."
"But at night," Randolph said.
"Marrable installed a searchlight last night. No doubt to stop us."
"Have we any water left?" Keith asked.
"Two buckets," Chan told him. "That is all."
"Enough for two days with care," Keith said. "By that time we must break out."
"That's the way to talk," said Colin briskly. "And when we do get out we'll finish every last one of this gang of poisoners." He took the pick which Keith had brought out with him and went straight into the tunnel.
"He's a fighter all right," Randolph said to Keith.
For the next twenty-four hours work went on without ceasing. They suffered badly from thirst but could only allow themselves a little more than a pint apiece daily. At two in the morning on the second day after the water had been cut off they broke through and Chan, who had finished the job, announced that he could see light. Keith looked. The moon, just past the full, threw a patch of silver radiance through a good-sized opening.
KEITH looked out. The hole opened in the side of a low bluff. That, he saw, was why Marrable's men had not found it. He turned to Colin.
"We can get down easily but the moon is bright." Colin came alongside.
"We are all half-dead with thirst. I'm for trying it at once."
"All right," said Keith. "If Chan and Gil agree I'm game."
Chan and Gil were for instant action. It was agreed that they four and Indian Jim should form the attacking party. Randolph was mad to come but Keith persuaded him that someone had to remain in the cave. So he and his father stayed behind.
The little bluff faced into a small gully parallel with the ravine in which the cave lay. At the bottom was a tiny brook. The five stopped just long enough to drink, then went silently down the gully.
Gil touched Keith's arm and pointed. Smoke was rising over the ridge dividing the gully from the big ravine. Without speaking Keith beckoned the others to follow and scrambled up the steep bluff. Lying flat on the ridge, he looked over and saw the whole gully a fog of black smoke. Instantly he realised what was up.
"They're attacking," he whispered. "Marrable is fed up with waiting and is trying to rush us." He paused then went on swiftly. "They'll be carrying planks to bridge the gap. We follow, pull the planks away and have the lot like rats in a trap."
"But the Ardens," said Colin.
"I told them to go into the passage. They can follow us out, if necessary."
"Dey find our planks," Gil put in.
"No, for I pushed them into the gap," Colin told him.
"Den I tink you right, Corporal," said Gil. "Dis time we get dem."
"Wait!" Keith ordered. "Wait till they've passed."
The sound of feet shuffling softly rose from below. A minute later Keith gave the signal and they slid silently down into the ravine. They found themselves almost on top of the machine-gun. Keith waited just long enough to snatch up two spare belts of cartridges, then led his little force towards the cave.
The smoke hung so thick they could hardly see one another, but presently could hear the sound of planks being pushed across rock. Keith stopped. He wanted to be sure that all the enemy were across the bridge before moving forward.
"Dey are in de cave," Gil whispered in his ear.
"All right. Go ahead," said Keith. As he went forward a bright light showed in the cave. He heard a shout of alarm.
"Fire!" he snapped and five rifles spoke at once.
The surprise was complete. Yells of pain and terror rose, the fight went out and the invaders bolted into the interior of the cave. Keith dashed forward, stooped, grasped the heavy plank and with a great effort sent it clattering into the depths.
"Up the bank," he ordered and led the way up the bluff bordering the ravine. All were well out of danger before the enemy recovered enough to start shooting. Arrived at the top, Keith gave sharp orders.
"Gil, go back to the passage opening and take care of Monsieur Arden and Randolph. The rest of you follow me. We have to take Marrable for, if we fail, all our work is wasted."
He slid down into the gully and hurried towards the cabin. The survivors in the cave were blazing away down the ravine where the smoke still hung thick, and Keith feared greatly that Marrable would take alarm and bolt for the 'plane. He felt fairly sure that Marrable was not in the cave.
By this time dawn was breaking, dimming the moonlight. Keith's party moved cautiously round through the trees at the back of the cabin.
Suddenly came the spluttering roar of an aeroplane engine.
"He's tricked us!" cried Keith and ran for the lake.
There was no one at the cabin and they passed it and came into the open. There was the 'plane already in the air. All whipped up their rifles and fired but the range was too great and the 'plane already moving too fast. It circled upwards, quickly gaining height.
All were in despair. Marrable had more men at the Bowl. He would fetch them up and the work of the past days was wasted.
Chan cried out suddenly and pointed. A second 'plane, flying at a great height, had suddenly appeared, coming from the west.
"Who is it?" Colin demanded. Keith shook his head.
"I haven't the foggiest notion."
"Marrable's seen him," cried Colin. "He's trying to get away!"
Marrable who had not yet got height was driving full-power for the gap. The other 'plane, a small two-seater, came flashing down upon him like a hawk on a duck. The four men on the hill stood breathless, watching in awed silence. Within a very brief space the stranger 'plane was no more than five hundred feet above Marrable's.
Every moment Keith expected to hear the familiar hammer of a machine-gun. It did not come. The only sound was the roar of the two powerful engines.
Marrable was scared. He was dodging, ducking, trying to get away. The stranger 'plane nosed down, and headed for him, straight as an arrow. Its pilot was aiming his craft like a huge projectile at Marrable! The interval shrank. Still the stranger did not swerve an inch.
"He's ramming," breathed Keith and, as he spoke, the crash came. The stranger 'plane ploughed into the other, almost cutting it in two and tearing off both wings. Marrable's ship came plummeting downwards; the other, its propeller gone, went into a crazy dive. A burst of black smoke tailed out from Marrable's 'plane and instantly it was wrapped in fierce flame.
Keith hardly saw it. His eyes were on the other 'plane. A small object detached itself from the tumbling wreckage; for a second or two it toppled over and over, then a flash of white shot out and blossomed into a silken 'chute, beneath which the pilot swung safely. Marrable's 'plane, closely followed by the other, hit the lake with a tremendous splash and, with a shout, Keith leaped forward and raced for the canoes.
He and Colin together paddled furiously and reached the pilot just as his feet touched water.
"Hulloa, Keith!" came a familiar voice and Keith, speechless with surprise, gazed at the blackened face of Chet Wilson.
* * * * *
"Yes, Tuzu is safe," Chet told Keith after they had brought him to shore. "He and I had a wonderful bit of luck. We were swept into an eddy behind a big rock, got ashore and managed to save the canoe. We had lost all our grub and saved only one paddle. With one paddle we couldn't get back upstream so we decided to go down as quickly as possible and fetch help.
"We hit a rock, holed the canoe, mended her, carried on for three days without food, and were almost done when we met a prospector who gave us enough grub to get back to Sundance.
"By this time we were both crazy with anxiety for you, Keith. We reckoned that you could never have survived without food or shelter. Duncan, too, was worried sick.
"That same evening a 'plane came in, belonging to a prospector called Tuckett. We commandeered it. I told Tuckett he'd be paid for it if it crashed. I had a meal and a few hours' sleep and, as soon as the moon rose, started. I had to come alone for the machine was only a two-seater.
"I flew up and down over the place where I'd left you; I dropped a flare. No sign of you, so at last I pushed on upriver." He shrugged. "When I saw Marrable I knew what I had to do, and that's all there is to it." Keith spoke.
"You did a good job, Chet. And so they'll say at Headquarters when they hear."
Someone came running. It was Randolph.
The boy's eyes were shining.
"I saw it all," he cried. "Pluckiest thing I ever did see."
"This is Randolph Arden, Chet," Keith said. "The boy who helped me out with Dranner. Randolph, this is Chet Wilson." The two grasped hands.
"You don't know what you have done for us, Mr. Wilson," said Randolph. "Mr. Marlow has trapped Marrable's men in a cave but, if Marrable had got away, he would have brought more men and we should have been helpless. Now the Valley is safe and—"
"And we're all starving," added Keith. "What about going to the house and starting breakfast? Afterwards we can collect the prisoners and clean up."
"De Corporal am right," said Gil. "I go get breakfast." He hurried off and the rest followed more slowly. Colin walked with Keith.
"Keith," he said, "I want you to be sure of one thing. I'm never leaving the Valley."
"It's a lovely spot," said Keith. "I wouldn't mind living here, myself, if I did not mean to stick to the Force."
"There is no need for you to remain in the Police. What I'm trying to tell you is that I'm not taking a penny of my father's money. It's all yours."
"Nonsense—" began Keith, but Colin cut him short.
"I mean exactly what I say. I have here all I need. If I want money for stores all I have to do is dig a few ounces of platinum. There's more here than Arden will ever take out. My father believes me dead. Let him continue to do so. Again I tell you the money is all yours and I know you'll use it well."
Keith saw that Colin meant exactly what he said.
"Very good, Colin. I'll take the money but I'm not leaving the Regiment." Colin shrugged.
"That's your own look-out, Keith. And I don't know that I'm sorry. You'll be able to keep strangers out of my little paradise." Keith nodded.
"I'll do that. My chief will see to it. This place will be listed as a National Park and you as its Warden. That'll keep prospectors out and, as for tourists—"
"I'm not worrying about them," he said.