Read CHAPTER X - ON THE TRAIL of The Cattle-Baron's Daughter , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

Grant and Breckenridge sat together over their evening meal.  Outside the frost was almost arctic, but there was wood in plenty round Fremont ranch, and the great stove diffused a stuffy heat.  The two men had made the round of the small homesteads that were springing up, with difficulty, for the snow was too loose and powdery to bear a sleigh, and now they were content to lounge in the tranquil enjoyment of the rest and warmth that followed exposure to the stinging frost.

At last Breckenridge pushed his plate aside, and took out his pipe.

“You must have put a good many dollars into your ploughing, Larry, and the few I had have gone in the same way,” he said.  “You see, it’s a long while until harvest comes round, and a good many unexpected things seem to happen in this country.  To be quite straight, is there much probability of our getting any of those dollars back?”

Grant smiled.  “I think there is, though I can’t be sure.  The legislature must do something for us sooner or later, while the fact that the cattle-men and the Sheriff have left us alone of late shows that they don’t feel too secure.  Still, there may be trouble.  A good many hard cases have been coming in.”

“The cattle-men would get them.  It’s dollars they’re wanting, and the other men have a good many more than we have.  By the way, shouldn’t the man with the money you are waiting for turn up to-night?”

Grant nodded.  A number of almost indigent men ­small farmers ruined by frost in Dakota, and axe-men from Michigan with growing families ­had settled on the land in his neighbourhood, and as every hand and voice might be wanted, levies had been made on the richer homesteaders, and subscribed to here and there in the cities, for the purpose of enabling them to continue the struggle.

“We want the dollars badly,” he said.  “The cattle-men have cut off our credit at the railroad stores, and there are two or three of the Englishmen who have very little left to eat at the hollow.  You have seen what we have sent out from Fremont, and Muller has been feeding quite a few of the Dutchmen.”

He stopped abruptly, and Breckenridge drew back his chair.  “Hallo!” he said.  “You heard it, Larry?”

Grant had heard the windows jar, and a sound that resembled a faint tap.  “Yes,” he said quietly.  “I may have been mistaken, but it was quite like a rifle shot.”

They were at the door in another moment, shivering as the bitter cold met them in the face; but there was now no sound from the prairie, which rolled away before them white and silent under the moonlight.  Then, Breckenridge flung the door to, and crossed over to the rack where a Marlin rifle and two Winchesters hung.  He pressed back the magazine slide of one of them, and smiled somewhat grimly at Grant.

“Well,” he said, “we can only hope you’re wrong.  Where did you put the book I was reading?”

Grant, who told him, took out some accounts, and they lounged in big hide chairs beside the stove for at least half an hour, though it was significant that every now and then one of them would turn his head as though listening, and become suddenly intent upon his task again when he fancied his companion noticed him.  At last Breckenridge laughed.

“It’s all right, Larry.  There ­is ­somebody coming.  It will be the man with dollars, and I don’t mind admitting that I’ll be glad to see him.”

Five minutes later the door opened and Muller came in.  He looked round him inquiringly.

“Quilter is not come?  I his horse in der stable have not seen,” he said.

“No,” said Grant sharply.  “He would pass your place.”

Muller nodded.  “He come in und der supper take.  Why is he not here?  I, who ride by der hollow, one hour after him start make.”

Breckenridge glanced at Grant, and both sat silent for a second or two.  Then the former said, “I’m half afraid we’ll have to do without those dollars, Mr. Muller.  Shall I go round and roll the boys up, Larry?”

Grant only nodded, and, while Breckenridge, dragging on his fur coat, made for the stable, took down two of the rifles and handed one to Muller.

“So!” said the Teuton quietly.  “We der trail pick up?”

In less than five minutes the two were riding across the prairie towards Muller’s homestead at the fastest pace attainable in the loose, dusty snow, while Breckenridge rode from shanty to shanty to call out the men of the little community which had grown up not far away.  It was some time later when he and those who followed him came up with his comrade and Muller.  The moon still hung in the western sky and showed the blue-grey smear where horse-hoofs had scattered the snow.  It led straight towards a birch bluff across the whitened prairie, and Breckenridge stooped in his saddle and looked at it.

“Larry,” he said sharply, “there were two of them.”

“Yes,” said Grant.  “Only one left Muller’s.”

Breckenridge asked nothing further, but it was not the first time that night he felt a shiver run through him.  He fell behind, but he heard one of the rest answer a question Grant put to him.

“Yes,” he said.  “The last man was riding a good deal harder than the other fellow.”

Then there was silence, save for the soft trampling of hoofs, and Breckenridge fancied the others were gazing expectantly towards the shadowy blurr of the bluff, which rose a trifle clearer now against the skyline.  He felt, with instinctive shrinking, that their search would be rewarded there in the blackness beneath the trees.  The pace grew faster.  Men glanced at their neighbours now and then as well as ahead, and Breckenridge felt the silence grow oppressive as the bluff rose higher.  The snow dulled the beat of hoofs, and the flitting figures that rode with him passed on almost as noiselessly as the long black shadows that followed them.  His heart beat faster than usual when, as they reached the birches, Grant raised his hand.

“Ride wide and behind me,” he said.  “We’re going to find one of them inside of five minutes.”

There was an occasional crackle as a rotten twig or branch snapped beneath the hoofs.  Slender trees slid athwart the moonlight, closed on one another, and opened out, and still, though the snow was scanty and in places swept away, Grant and a big Michigan bushman rode straight on.  Breckenridge, who was young, felt the tension grow almost unendurable.  At last, when even the horses seemed to feel their masters’ uneasiness, the leader pulled up, and with a floundering of hoofs and jingle of bridles the line of shadowy figures came to a standstill.

“Get down, boys, and light the lantern.  Quilter’s here,” he said.

Breckenridge dismounting, looped his bridle round a bough, and by and by stood peering over the shoulders of the clustering men in front of him.  The moonlight shone in between the birches, and something dusky and rigid lay athwart it in the snow.  One man was lighting a lantern, and though his hands were mittened he seemed singularly clumsy.  At last, however, a pale light blinked out, and under it Breckenridge saw a white face and shadowy head, from which the fur cap had fallen.

“Yes,” said somebody, with a suspicion of hoarseness, “that’s Quilter.  It’s not going to be much use; but you had better go through his pockets, Larry!”

Grant knelt down, and his face also showed colourless in the lantern light as, with the help of another man, he gently moved the rigid form.  Then, opening the big fur-coat he laid his hand on a brown smear on the deerskin jacket under it.

“One shot,” he said.  “Couldn’t have been more than two or three yards off.”

“Get through,” said the bushman grimly.  “The man who did it can’t have more than an hour’s start of us, any way, and from the trail he left his horse is played out.”

In a minute or two Grant stood up with a little shiver.  “You have got to bring out a sledge for him somehow, Muller,” he said.  “Boys, the man who shot him has left nothing, and the instructions from our other executives would be worth more to the cattle-men than a good many dollars.”

“Well,” said the big bushman, “we’re going to get that man if we have to pull down Cedar Range or Clavering’s place before we do it.  Here’s his trail.  That one was made by Quilter’s horse.”

It scarcely seemed appropriate, and the whole scene was singularly undramatic, and in a curious fashion almost unimpressive; but Breckenridge, who came of a reticent stock, understood.  Unlike the Americans of the cities, these men were not addicted to improving the occasion, and only a slight hardening of their grim faces suggested what they felt.  They were almost as immobile in the faint moonlight as that frozen one with the lantern flickering beside it in the snow.  Yet Breckenridge long afterwards remembered them.

Two men went back with Muller and the rest swung themselves into the saddle, and reckless of the risk to beast and man brushed through the bluff.  Dry twigs crackled beneath them, rotten bough and withered bush went down, and a murmur went up when they rode out into the snow again.  It sounded more ominous to Breckenridge than any clamorous shout.  Then, bridles were shaken and heels went home as somebody found the trail, and the line tailed out farther and farther as blood and weight began to tell.  The men were riding so fiercely now, that a squadron of United States cavalry would scarcely have turned them from the trail.  Breckenridge laughed harshly as he and Grant floundered down into a hollow, stirrup by stirrup and neck to neck.

“I should be very sorry for any of the cattle-boys we came upon to-night,” he said.

Grant only nodded, and just then a shout went up from the head of the straggling line, and a man waved his hand.

“Heading for the river!” he said.  “We’ll find him in the timber.  He can’t cross the ice.”

The line divided, and Grant and Breckenridge rode on with the smaller portion, while the rest swung wide to the right.  In front of them the Cedar flowed through its birch-lined gully as yet but lightly bound with ice, and Breckenridge guessed that the men who had left them purposed cutting off the fugitive from the bridge.  It was long before the first dim birches rose up against the sky, and the white wilderness was very still and the frost intense when they floundered into the gloom of the bluff at the hour that man’s vitality sinks to its lowest.  Every crackle of a brittle branch rang with horrible distinctness, and now and then a man turned in his saddle and glanced at his neighbour when from the shadowy hollow beneath them rose the sound of rending ice.  The stream ran fast just there, and there had been but a few days’ frost.

They rode at a venture, looking about them with strained intentness, for they had left the guiding trail behind them now.  Suddenly a faint cry came out of the silence followed by a beat of hoofs that grew louder every second, until it seemed to swell into a roar.  Either there was clearer ground in the bluff, or the rider took his chances blindly so long as he made haste.

The men spread out at a low command, and Breckenridge smiled mirthlessly as he remembered the restrained eagerness with which he had waited outside English covers when the quarry was a fox.  He could feel his heart thumping furiously, and his mittened hands would tremble on the bridle.  It seemed that the fugitive kept them waiting a horribly long while.

Then, there was a shout close by him, Grant’s horse shot forward and he saw a shadowy object flash by amidst the trees.  Hand and heel moved together, and the former grew steady again as he felt the spring of the beast under him and the bitter draught upon his cheek.  His horse had rested, and the fugitive’s was spent.  Where he was going he scarcely noticed, save that it was down hill, for the birches seemed flying up to him, and the beast stumbled now and then.  He was only sure that he was closing with the flying form in front of him.

The trees grew blurred together; he had to lean forward to evade the thrashing branches.  His horse was blundering horribly, the slope grew steeper still, the ground beneath the dusty snow and fallen leaves was granite hard; but he was scarcely a length away, a few paces more would bring him level, and his right hand was stretched out for a grip of the stranger’s bridle.

A hoarse shout came ringing after him, and Breckenridge fancied it was a warning.  The river was close in front and only thinly frozen yet, but he drove his heels home again.  If the fugitive could risk the passage of the ice, he could risk it, too.  There was another sound that jarred across the hammering of the hoofs, a crash, and Breckenridge was alone, struggling with his horse.  They reeled, smashing through withered bushes and striking slender trees, but at last he gained the mastery, and swung himself down from the saddle.  Already several mounted men were clustered about something, while just before he joined them there was another crash, and a little thin smoke drifted among the trees.  Then, he saw one of them snap a cartridge out of his rifle, and that a horse lay quivering at his feet.  A man stood beside it, and Grant was speaking to him, but Breckenridge scarcely recognized his voice.

“We want everything you took from Quilter, the papers first,” he said.  “Light that lantern, Jake, and then the rest stand round.  I want you to notice what he gives me.”

The man, saying nothing, handed him a crumpled packet, and Grant, tearing it open, passed the cover to the rest.

“You know that writing?” he said.

There was a murmur of assent, and Grant took a paper from those in his hand, and gave it to a man who held it up in the blinking light of the lantern.  “Now,” he said, “we want to make sure the dollars he took from Quilter agree with it.  Hand them over.”

The prisoner took a wallet from his pocket and passed it across.  “I guess there’s no use in me objecting.  You’ll find them there,” he said.

“Count them,” said Grant to the other man.  “Two of you look over his shoulder and tell me if he’s right.”

It took some little time, for the man passed the roll of bills to a comrade, who, after turning them over, replaced them in the wallet.

“Yes, that’s right, boys; it’s quite plain, even if we hadn’t followed up his trail.  Those dollars and documents were handed Quilter.”

Grant touched Breckenridge.  “Get up and ride,” he said.  “They’ll send us six men from each of the two committees.  We’ll be waiting for them at Boston’s when they get there.  Now, there’s just another thing.  Look at the magazine of that fellow’s rifle.”

A man took up the rifle, and snapped out the cartridges into his hand.  “Usual 44 Winchester.  One of them gone,” he said.  “He wouldn’t have started out after Quilter without his magazine full.”

The man rubbed the fringe of his deerskin jacket upon the muzzle, and then held it up by the lantern where the rest could see the smear of the fouling upon it.

“I guess that’s convincing, but we’ll bring the rifle along,” he said.

Grant nodded and turned to the prisoner as a man led up a horse.  “Get up,” he said.  “You’ll have a fair trial, but if you have any defence to make you had better think it over.  You’ll walk back to Hanson’s, Jake.”

The prisoner mounted, and they slowly rode away into the darkness which, now the moon had sunk, preceded the coming day.

It was two days later when Breckenridge, who had ridden a long way in the meanwhile, rejoined them at a lonely ranch within a day’s journey of the railroad.  Twelve men, whose bronzed faces showed very intent and grave under the light of the big lamp, sat round the long bare room, and the prisoner at the foot of a table.  Grant stood at the head of it, with a roll of dollar bills and a rifle in front of him.

“Now,” he said, “you have heard the testimony.  Have you anything to tell us?”

“Well,” said the prisoner, “I guess it wouldn’t be much use.  Hadn’t you better get through with it?  I don’t like a fuss.”

Grant signed to the men, who silently filed out, and returned within a minute.  “The thing’s quite plain,” said one of them.  “He killed Quilter.”

Grant turned to the prisoner.  “There’s nothing that would warrant our showing any mercy, but if you have anything to urge we’ll listen now.  It’s your last opportunity.  You were heading for one of the cattle-men’s homesteads?”

The man smiled sardonically.  “I’m not going to talk,” he said.  “I guess I can see your faces, and that’s enough for me.”

Grant stood up and signed to a man, who led the prisoner away.  Then, he looked at the others questioningly, and a Michigan axe-man nodded.

“Only one thing,” he said.  “It has to be done.”

There was an approving murmur, and Grant glanced along the row of stern faces.  “Yes,” he said, “the law will do nothing for us ­the cattle-men have bought it up; but this work must be stopped.  Well, I guess you like what lies before us as little as I do, but if it warns off the others ­and there are more of his kind coming in ­it’s the most merciful thing.”

Once more the low murmur ran through the silence of the room; Grant raised his hand and a man brought in the prisoner.  He looked at the set faces, and made a little gesture of comprehension.

“I guess you needn’t tell me,” he said.  “When is it to be?”

“To-morrow,” said Grant, and it seemed to Breckenridge that his voice came from far away.  “At the town ­as soon as there is light enough to see by.”

The prisoner turned without a word, and when he had gone the men, as if prompted by one impulse, hastened out of the room, leaving Grant and Breckenridge alone.  The former sat very still at the head of the table, until Breckenridge laid his hand on his shoulder.

“Shake it off, Larry.  You couldn’t have done anything else,” he said.

“No,” said Grant, with a groan.  “Still, I could have wished this duty had not been laid on me.”

When they next stood side by side the early daylight was creeping across the little railroad town, and Breckenridge, whose young face was white, shivered with more than the bitter cold.  He never wished to recall it, but the details of that scene would return to him ­the square frame houses under the driving snow-cloud, the white waste they rose from, the grim, silent horsemen with the rifles across their saddles, and the intent faces beyond them in the close-packed street.  He saw the prisoner standing rigidly erect in a wagon drawn up beside a towering telegraph-pole, and heard a voice reading hoarsely.

A man raised his hand, somebody lashed the horses, the wagon lurched away, a dusky object cut against the sky, and Breckenridge turned his eyes away.  A sound that might have been a groan or murmur broke from the crowd and the momentary silence that followed it was rent by the crackle of riflery.  After that, Breckenridge only recollected riding across the prairie amidst a group of silent men, and feeling very cold.

In the meanwhile the citizens were gazing at a board nailed to the telegraph-pole:  “For murder and robbery.  Take warning!  Anyone offending in the same way will be treated similarly!”