Read CHAPTER XXXVI - THE WILD BEAST LEAPS of Man Size, free online book, by William MacLeod Raine, on ReadCentral.com.

Tom Morse was chopping wood.  He knew how to handle an axe.  His strokes fell sure and strong, with the full circling sweep of the expert.

The young tree crashed down and he began to lop off its branches.  Halfway up the trunk he stopped and raised his head to listen.

No sound had come to him.  None came now.  But dear as a bell he heard the voice of Win Beresford calling.

Help!  Help!

It was not a cry that had issued from his friend’s throat.  Tom knew that.  But it was real.  It had sprung out of his dire need from the heart, perhaps in the one instant of time left him, and it had leaped silently across space straight to the heart of his friend.

Tom kicked into his snowshoes and began to run.  He held the axe in his hand, gripped near the haft.  A couple of hundred yards, perhaps, lay between him and camp, which was just over the brow of a small hill.  The bushes flew past as he swung to his stride.  Never had he skimmed the crust faster, but his feet seemed to be weighted with lead.  Then, as he topped the rise, he saw the disaster he had dreaded.

The constable was crumpling to the ground, his body slack and inert, while the giant slashed at him with a dub of firewood he had snatched from the ground.  The upraised arm of the soldier broke the force of the blow, but Morse guessed by the way the arm fell that the bone had snapped.

At the sound of the scraping runners, West whirled.  He lunged savagely.  Even as Tom ducked, a sharp pain shot through his leg from the force of the glancing blow.  The axe-head swung like a circle of steel.  It struck the convict’s fur cap.  The fellow went down like an ox in a slaughter-house.

Tom took one look at him and ran to his friend.  Beresford was a sorry sight.  He lay unconscious, head and face battered, the blood from his wounds staining the snow.

The man-hunters had come into the wilderness prepared for emergencies.  Jessie McRae had prepared a small medicine case as a present for the constable.  Morse ran to the sled and found this.  He unrolled bandages and after he had washed the wounds bound them.  As he was about to examine the arm, he glanced up.

For a fraction of a second West’s wolfish eyes glared at him before they took on again the stare of blindness.  The man had moved.  He had hitched himself several yards nearer a rifle which stood propped against a balsam.

The revolver of the deputy constable came to light.  “Stop right where you’re at.  Don’t take another step.”

The convict snarled rage, but he did not move.  Some sure instinct warned him what the cold light in the eyes of his captor meant, that if he crept one inch farther toward the weapon he would die in his tracks.

“He - he jumped me,” the murderer said hoarsely.

“Liar!  You’ve been shammin’ for a week to get a chance at us.  I’d like to gun you now and be done with it.”

“Don’t.”  West moistened dry lips.  “Honest to God he jumped me.  Got mad at somethin’ I said.  I wouldn’t lie to you, Tom.”

Morse kept him covered, circled round him to the rifle, and from there to the sled.  One eye still on the desperado, he searched for the steel handcuffs.  They were gone.  He knew instantly that some time within the past day or two West had got a chance to drop them in the snow.

He found rawhide thongs.

“Lie in the snow, face down,” he ordered.  “Hands behind you and crossed at the wrists.”

Presently the prisoner was securely tied.  Morse fastened him to the sled and returned to Beresford.

The arm was broken above the wrist, just as he had feared.  He set it as best he could, binding it with splints.

The young officer groaned and opened his eyes.  He made a motion to rise.

“Don’t get up,” said Morse.  “You’ve been hurt.”

“Hurt?” Beresford’s puzzled gaze wandered to the prisoner.  A flash of understanding lit it.  “He asked me - to light - his pipe - and when I - turned - he hit - me - with a club,” the battered man whispered.

“About how I figured it.”

“Afraid - I’m - done - in.”

“Not yet, old pal.  We’ll make a fight for it,” the Montanan answered.

“I’m sick.”  The soldier’s head sank down.  His eyes closed.

All the splendid, lithe strength of his athletic youth had been beaten out of him.  To Morse it looked as though he were done for.  Was it possible for one to take such a terrific mauling and not succumb?  If he were at a hospital, under the care of expert surgeons and nurses, with proper food and attention, he might have a chance in a hundred.  But in this Arctic waste, many hundred miles from the nearest doctor, no food but the coarsest to eat, it would be a miracle if he survived.

The bitter night was drawing in.  Morse drove West in front of him to bring back the wood he had been cutting.  He made the man prepare the rubaboo for their supper.  After the convict had eaten, he bound his hands again and let him lie down in his blankets beside the fire.

Morse did not sleep.  He sat beside his friend and watched the fever mount in him till he was wildly delirious.  Such nursing as was possible he gave.

The prisoner, like a chained wild beast, glowered at him hungrily.  Tom knew that if West found a chance to kill, he would strike.  No scruple would deter him.  The fellow was without conscience, driven by the fear of the fate that drew nearer with every step southward.  His safety and the desire of revenge marched together.  Beresford was out of the way.  It would be his companion’s turn next.

After a time the great hulk of a man fell asleep and snored stertorously.  But Tom did not sleep.  He dared not.  He had to keep vigilant guard to save both his friend’s life and his own.  For though West’s hands were tied, it would be the work of only a minute to burn away with a live coal the thongs that bound them.

The night wore away.  There was no question of travel.  Beresford was in the grip of a raging fever and could not be moved.  Morse made West chop wood while he stood over him, rifle in hand.  They were short of food and had expected to go hunting next day.  The supplies might last at best six or seven more meals.  What was to be done then?  Morse could not go and leave West where he could get at the man who had put him in prison and with a dog-train to carry him north.  Nor could he let West have a rifle with which to go in search of game.

There were other problems that made the situation impossible.  Another night was at hand, and again Tom must keep awake to save himself and his friend from the gorilla-man who watched him, gloated over him, waited for the moment to come when he could safely strike.  And after that there would be other nights - many of them.

What should he do?  What could he do?  While he sat beside the delirious officer, Tom pondered that question.  On the other side of the fire lay the prisoner.  Triumph - a horrible, cruel, menacing triumph - rode in his eye and strutted in his straddling walk when he got up.  His hour was coming.  It was coming fast.

Once Tom fell asleep for a cat-nap.  He caught himself nodding, and with a jerk flung back his head and himself to wakefulness.  In the air was a burning odor.

Instinct told him what it was.  West had been tampering with the rawhide thongs round his wrists, had been trying to burn them away.

He made sure that the fellow was still fast, then drank a tin cup of strong tea.  After he had fed the sick man a little caribou broth, persuading him with infinite patience to take it, a spoonful at a time, Morse sat down again to wear out the hours of darkness.

The problem that pressed on him could no longer be evaded.  A stark decision lay before him.  To postpone it was to choose one of the alternatives.  He knew now, almost beyond any possibility of doubt, that either West must die or else he and his friend.  If he had not snatched himself awake so promptly an hour ago, Win and he would already be dead men.  It might be that the constable was going to die, anyhow, but he had a right to his chance of life.

On the other hand there was one rigid rule of the North-West Mounted.  The Force prided itself on living up to it literally.  When a man was sent out to get a prisoner, he brought him in alive.  It was a tradition.  The Mounted did not choose the easy way of killing lawbreakers because of the difficulty of capturing them.  They walked through danger, usually with aplomb, got their man, and brought him in.

That was what Beresford had done with Pierre Poulette after the Frenchman had killed Buckskin Jerry.  He had followed the man for months, captured him, lived with him alone for a fourth of a year in the deep snows, and brought him back to punishment.  It was easy enough to plead that this situation was a wholly different one.  Pierre Poulette was no such dangerous wild beast as Bully West.  Win did not have with him a companion wounded almost to death who had to be nursed back to health, one struck down by the prisoner treacherously.  There was just a fighting chance for the officers to get back to Desolation if West was eliminated from the equation.  Tom knew he would have a man’s work cut out for him to win through - without the handicap of the prisoner.

Deep in his heart he believed that it was West’s life or theirs.  It wasn’t humanly possible, in addition to all the other difficulties that pressed on him, to guard this murderer and bring him back for punishment.  There was no alternative, it seemed to Tom.  Thinking could not change the conditions.  It might be sooner, it might be later, but under existing circumstances the desperado would find his chance to attack, if he were alive to take it.

The fellow’s life was forfeit.  As soon as he was turned over to the State, it would be exacted of him.  Since his assault on Beresford, surely he had lost all claim to consideration as a human being.

Just now there were only three men in the world so far as they were concerned.  These three constituted society.  Beresford, his mind still wandering with incoherent mutterings, was a non-voting member.  He, Tom Morse, must be judge and jury.  He must, if the prisoner were convicted, play a much more horrible rôle.  In the silence of the cold sub-Arctic night he fought the battle out while automatically he waited on his friend.

West snored on the other side of the fire.