Fires of Fate/Chapter 5
A GUIDING LIGHT
BUD soon found that there was little road. It was more like a cross country, hit-or-miss proposition. The rain drifted into his face and he clung to the seat with both hands, but the team kept going steadily in spite of the fact that the wagon was never on an even keel.
There was nothing to show Bud where he was; nothing but the solid wall of blackness, out of which came the gusty spurts of rain, which drenched him and sent a chill racing up and down his spine.
“Gonna get down and walk pretty soon,” he told himself, slapping his arms dismally and almost falling off the wagon. “Better stayed in that cabin where it was dry.”
He wondered in a dull sort of a way whether the Indians were dead and whether he was being pursued by the men who owned the, wagon and team. For hours, it seemed to him, he drifted ahead, jolting over rocks, surging in and out of hollows.
Then he saw a light. It was a tiny flicker, which glowed for a moment and went out. He stopped the team. A light might mean a habitation, and Bud was badly in need of a habitation. But he could not see the light now. Prompted by a sudden idea, he got off the wagon and walked back, thinking that perhaps he had driven beyond the angle of the light.
Finally he picked it up again, but when he moved back toward the wagon it disappeared. He seemed to be in a more open country now, although it was difficult to tell just what the place did look like.
He stumbled back to the wagon and deliberated on his next move. He managed to light a match, which showed him that he was still on the road; so he led the team at right-angles, clearing the road and tied them to a jack-pine.
Taking his rifle he went back to where he could see the tiny light, and struck boldly across country toward it.
And he found the going very bad indeed. He could not see the ground, and, after he had picked himself up for the fifth time, he declared aloud that it was surely the rocky road to Dublin. His shoulder and his many bruises ached and he was chilled from the rain.
But he kept the light in sight, in spite of the underbrush, logs and rocks, which tripped and bruised him. He lost his rifle and had a difficult time finding it.
At times the rain descended in such torrents that the light was obliterated, but he stood still until it slackened. He was used to the rain now. Every muscle and joint in his body ached, but he gritted his teeth and laughed loudly at the misery within him.
Finally he reached the light, or close to it, and stopped. To all appearances it was a lantern, which was seemingly suspended in the air. He was standing in a little thicket of jack-pines within possibly six feet of the light.
As his eyes became more accustomed to it, he seemed to catch a faint glow of the light against rocks.
“Looks like it was against a hill,” he reflected, as the downpour slackened for a moment. “That lantern is hangin’ in a break in the hill.”
He was about to push forward to investigate, when he heard a faint noise like something walking in the mud. He drew back The sound was louder now. Then, out of the storm, came some bulky-looking objects, which, when they came into the glow of the lantern, proved to be two men and a horse.
They stopped, almost in reach of Bud, blocking him from the lantern, and began unpacking the horse. Neither of them spoke until their unpacking was done. The horse moved slightly ahead, and Bud saw one of them, the one on the further side, pick up a keg, balance it on his shoulder and disappear under the lantern.
“Put out the light when you come in,” ordered the man with the keg, and the one at the horse grunted a reply. As he lifted the keg, Bud shortened his grip on his rifle and swung it forward in a short arc.
The man collapsed without a sound and the heavy keg struck the ground with a thud. Bud grasped the lantern and examined him quickly. He was wearing a checked mackinaw coat and a moth-eaten fur cap. Swiftly Bud stripped these off and put them on himself. Then he hoisted the keg on his own shoulder, stumbled over to the entrance to what proved to be a tunnel, jerked the light from the lantern and went stumbling in through the darkness.
He had no idea of what was ahead of him, and swore at himself for being a fool, but kept on going. He had left his rifle outside and was unarmed. As near as he could tell he had gone about a hundred feet, when he turned a corner and saw the light shining through an open door.
A babble of voices came to him, the reek of liquor and stale tobacco smoke; but he ducked his head and went straight through the doorway and into a room, which was partly filled with men and entirely filled with conversation.
Someone cheered loudly and the keg was taken from him by willing hands. He was jostled aside and came to a stop with his back against a wall. Then he lifted his head and looked around cautiously.
He was in a room about twenty feet: wide by forty feet long; a low-ceiled place, with heavy, rough beams. On one side was a rough, bar-like counter, on which, the two kegs had been placed, and just beyond one end of the bar was a rough stairway, leading up to what appeared to be a trapdoor.
At the further end of the room was a small platform, on which sat a fiddler and a man with an accordeon. Nearly in the center of the room a crowd of men were packed around a card-table, over which hung a big, oil lamp, with huge circular shade. Over the bar was another, smaller lamp.
The room was foggy with smoke and there seemed to be no ventilation. The kegs of liquor seemed to be the center of interest just now; so Bud moved over toward the crowd at the card-table, taking pains to conceal his face.
Bud recognized several of the men around the table. There was Culp, a horse-thief from the Sweetgrass range; “Goat” Marlin, who got his nickname from his method of fighting; “Bull” Cook, who had served two years in the penitentiary for cattle rustling.
“A sweet aggregation,” reflected Bud, and hoped that none of these men might recognize him. Cook was very drunk and seemed anxious to get into the game, but the seats were all filled.
He leaned heavily on another man and made drunken remarks about the players. Bud moved in closer to him. Cook’s belt and holster had shifted around until the gun was hanging almost directly behind him, and by leaning in close and grasping the bottom of the holster, Bud was able to remove the gun without anyone seeing him.
Cook straightened up, still arguing, but did not notice the absence of weight on his belt. He yipped joyfully and staggered toward the bar. Bud concealed the gun in his mackinaw pocket and grinned softly.
The music started again and one of the cowboys essayed a drunken jig. Suddenly a bell tinkled and the music stopped. The cowboy continued his dance until someone grabbed him and forced him to stop. The room was as quiet as a tomb.
After a pause of about fifteen seconds the bell tinkled again and the tension was relaxed.
“A signal from upstairs,” observed Bud. “Now, what is upstairs?”
A man beside him was talking.
“Monk she’s scare h’all de time. Ho, ho, ho! H’every time somet’ing move—Monk she’s ring de bell.”
Another man laughed harshly, as he said, “I reckon we don’t need to worry about them red-bellies. There’s only two of ’em left in Eagle’s Nest, and one of them is the inspector.”
One of the men in the game looked up at them.
“The killin’ of that policeman and Indian in the street was a damn fool thing to do,” he declared. “You can buck the Mounties just so long, but they’ll git yuh in the end.”
“W’at you tink?” grunted the Frenchman. “Yo’ t’ink de boss want Monk to go to de jail?”
“He might at least ’a’ moved the bodies. Yuh can’t bluff the Mounties thataway. Killin’ ’em only makes the rest that much worse. I don’t like it.”
“I’m t’ink de boss know what she want.”
Bud averted his head while he thought over what he had heard. McKay and the Indian had arrested Magee and were killed in the street by the boss. Who was the boss, he wondered? If Monk Magee was ringing that warning bell, this must be Magee’s place. Then it suddenly dawned upon Bud that this room was beneath Magee’s hotel at Kingsburg.
This was where those men had gone that day they had disappeared so mysteriously. No wonder he failed to find them.
“And I didn’t have sense enough to keep away from the danged place,” he reflected bitterly. “I’m in a danged good place to lose my scalp.”
The crowd at the bar were laughing loudly, and Bud turned toward them. One of the kegs had been decorated with a red coat. A bottle had been placed atop the keg, and on the bottle dangled a service hat of the Mounted police.
And to this effigy of a Royal Northwest Mounted Policeman they were drinking vile toasts. The coat and hat were stiff with mud, but never before had they meant so much to Bud Conley, the Montana cow-puncher.
For a moment his eyes narrowed and he surged ahead, gripping the pistol in his pocket. He was going to show this howling mob of outlaws what it meant to insult the service. But he stopped. It suddenly dawned upon him that he was not a member of the force any longer. Why should he take up a challenge for the Mounted?
The noise at the bar stopped. Bud turned his head. Coming down the stairs was Joe Burgoyne, the half-breed, grinning widely. Bud moved further back against the wall, his hand still gripping the gun.
The men called loudly to Joe, who answered with a flash of his white teeth and a wave of his hand. A man shoved a cup of the raw liquor into his hands, while the others crowded around him.
“W’at about de police, Joe?” called one of the men at the card table.
The half-breed threw back his head and laughed mockingly.
“De police! Such a lot of fools! Ha, ha, ha! Listen,” Joe sobered quickly, and the place was stilled.
“Today, or rather las’ night, I am appointed to find out who kill one officer and one Injun. Everybody look out, because Joe Burgoyne is police spy.”
A roar of laughter greeted this statement, in which Joe joined heartily. Then his roving eye caught sight of the effigy on the bar and he simulated sudden exasperation.
“See?” he exploded, pointing at the effigy. “The police lie to poor Joe! They promise to not send any policeman to Kingsburg for three day. Ba gar!” Joe dashed down his cup of liquor. “I’m quit work for the police right now!”
The crowd roared their approval and surged to the bar. Bud knew that Joe was sober and that his keen eyes would search him out quickly. There was no question but what Joe was in league with Magee’s gang, and Bud smiled to himself at the thought of Grandon hiring Joe to spy on his own crowd.
Joe had mounted to the top of the bar and shouted for silence, as he held up a cupful of liquor.
“Listen to Joe Burgoyne!” he called. “Three days no police come to Kingsburg. Three days more and lots of them come. I know the police—me. I have not watched Eagle’s Nest all time for not’ing. I am goin’ to quit before the police come.
“When they come they find not’ing. I’m give this place to Magee, but he runs only hootch. Maybe we meet again some place and fool the police again, eh?”
The crowd roared and lifted their cups. Questions were flung at Joe, as to why he was closing his place of business, but Joe ignored them.
“Drink a toast to Joe Burgoyne,” he invited. “Tonight the liquor is free. I make money for you; I get you lots of whisky. Now drink toast to Joe Burgoyne and his new girl.”
The crowd drank noisily.
“W’at name, that girl?” yelled one of them.
“Name?” Joe laughed. “Bimeby be Burgoyne, Pierre. Just now she’s Irish. Ha, ha, ha!”
Bud gasped. What did he mean? Norah Clarey was the only Irish girl in that country. Or was it only a wild boast of the egotistical half-breed?
“I’m go long ways north,” explained Joe. “Go too far for police to follow. And Joe Burgoyne take his girl along. The police give me two more days, and I be long ways from here.”
“You get married, Joe?” asked one of the cowboys.
“You bet! Without priest. Ha, ha, ha, ha!”
Came the sound of the trap-door being violently thrown back, a sharp exchange of words and two muddy, half-exhausted men fairly tumbled down the stairs. Swiftly they looked around. Joe was coming toward them.
“Conley got away, Joe!” panted one of them. “He set fire to the cabin and got away. He killed one of the Injuns and damn near killed the other!”
“Diable!” swore Joe. “You say that Conley got away and——”
“Yes, yes! Not only that, but I think he stole the team and wagon. Me and Beaupre got there just after he escaped. We left the team about a hundred yards from the burnin’ cabin, and when we came back it was gone.”
“The team and wagon gone?” Joe screamed, shaking the man by the shoulders. “Mon dieu!” He struck the man full in the face and sent him reeling against the wall.
The room was in an uproar. Came a sound of someone hammering on the wall, almost directly behind Bud. One of the men shoved Bud aside and flung the door open.
A man fairly fell into the room; a man who was hatless, coatless, and whose face was streaked with blood. One of the men grabbed him and held him against the bar. It was the man Bud had knocked down at the entrance to the tunnel.
“Hell!” exploded a voice wonderingly. It was the other man who had carried a keg.
“What does this mean?” he yelled. “Campeau comes with me to carry the whisky, and now—what does it mean?”
He was peering into Campeau’s face.
“Somebody hit me,” whined Campeau. “I wake up outside. I never bring de keg.”
“You no bring in the keg?”
“No, I tell you. Somebody hit me——”
“Where is that other man?” roared one of the crowd, “who bring in the other keg?”
Bud knew that the crisis was at hand and prayed that he might shoot straight. Cautiously he moved over beside the card-table and almost directly under the light.
He had drawn his gun, but kept it concealed. Now he turned and looked deliberately at Joe, who was scanning the crowd. Joe’s eyes blinked wonderingly, as he saw Bud’s face, and a gasp of surprise burst from his lips.
But before he could cry a warning his voice was drowned in the deafening crash of the heavy revolver, which Bud had almost thrust against the big lamp.
Bud staggered back, swung up the gun and fired deliberately at the other lamp, with a prayer on his lips that it might be a dead-center shot. At the crash of the cartridge the room was plunged in darkness.
Bud had taken the only chance left—to escape in the dark. In a moment the room was a maelstrom of cursing, fighting men, who fought blindly, losing all sense of direction in their mad rush to lay hands on Bud Conley or to find an exit out of the place.
Tables were overturned, chairs smashed; but Bud was not in that whirl of frightened humanity. As he fired at the lamp he sprang sideways to avoid the rush of humanity and dove straight for the bar. Men crashed into him as he clawed his way to the top, but he held his place and smashed away merrily with his gun when ever anyone tried to share the bar-top with him.
Some of the crowd had fought their way to the stairway and were going out through the trap-door, while others were crowding into the tunnel exit.
“Don’t let him get away!” screamed Joe’s voice, “He’s police spy!”
Bud grinned. Joe knew that Bud was no longer with the service, but he wanted to frighten the crowd into killing Bud, if possible.