“That's funny!” he exclaimed, staring at the scrap of canvas. The girl glanced at it, then gave him a puzzled look.
“You know what it is?”
“Of course. It's the little flag left flying from a fish-trap to show its position.”
“Oh!” Hardrock laughed and tossed it aside. “I don't know what made me bring it—found it lying in that boat this morning, with a lot of other stuff.”
To his surprise, the girl's eyes dilated suddenly, excitement leaped into her face.
“What boat?” she demanded. “Not—”
“Yes, the one that ran me down. Why?”
Dropping her work, Nelly Callahan pounced on the bit of canvas, and lifted blazing eyes.
“Don't you see! It explains everything! Can't you remember seeing that flag in the water just before they ran you down?”
Hardrock stared at her, his gray eyes narrowed and glittering.
“Hm! Blamed if I can see why it amounts to much—come to think of it, I believe I did notice such a flag. Ran close to it. Not the same one, probably.”
“Of course it was the same one!” exclaimed the girl, excitedly. She was all animation. “Don't you see? This flag is painted to denote ownership, so each man will know his own traps! We don't use them much around here—don't need to. But the perch season is coming on, and fishermen from Charlevoix and Petoskey and even Cheboygan who work around here need to use marked traps. Now do you see? Hughie Dunlevy and his friends have been fighting the men from outside who come in on their grounds. Well, Marty Biddy Basset and Owen John, as soon as they ran you down, circled back to that fish-trap and probably started to rob it. They broke off this flag so the owners wouldn't find the trap again, and—”
Hardrock whistled. “And then the owners came along and opened fire! Upon my word, Nelly, I believe you've struck it! And nobody noticed this flag lying in the boat last night—”
They stared at each other, until suddenly the girl broke into a tremulous laugh.
“So all you have to do is to find who uses this flag!”
“Who does, then?”
“I don't know. Any of the men would know, probably.”
“Hm! Vesty said that Hughie and his friends had fought last with some Cheboygan men. He mentioned whisky-running—”
“Yes!” The girl flashed up indignantly. “And you know what they say about us over on the mainland—that everybody on the Beavers runs whisky from Canada! It's not so. None of us do that. Jimmy Basset, who's here with Father, makes whisky—that's true; but most of the time he's so crippled up with rheumatism that he can't fish and do any work, and it's the only way he has of supporting his family. So nobody else on Beaver makes whisky, and nobody runs it from Canada—it's those Cheboygan men who run it! And they hide up on one of the islands here until they can sneak it in to Ed Julot over at Harbor Springs for the summer resorters to buy—and then everybody blames the Beaver men! Look after that fish, or it'll burn—quick, it's in the fire! I'll get the coffee and bread.”
The girl was up and gone for her supplies.
HARDROCK rescued the planked whitefish from the encroaching blaze, smiling to himself as he did so, over the utterance of the indignant Nelly. He could appreciate her point of view and could even sympathize with it. There was something whimsically just about one half-crippled man being allowed a monopoly on moonshine liquor, by common consent, for his support.
“Thank heaven I'm no prohibition-enforcer!” reflected Hardrock. “I expect she's hit it right, however, as regards the runners who supply the resort towns from Mackinac to Traverse with booze. These islands are ideally located for their purpose, and the pretense of being honest fishermen—hm! By hemlock, I've got the answer to the whole thing! But not a word of it to her. No wonder those fellows opened fire, and shot to kill, when they saw their fish-trap being robbed! But I'd better go mighty slow until I'm sure. There's nothing on which to hang any legal peg, so far.”
Even though the girl's theory was right, even though he found the men who used this black-and-white flag, any accumulation of legal evidence as to the shooting was distinctly improbable. Hardrock recognized this clearly. At the same time, he felt confident that he had hit upon one solution of the whole enigma—a solution which promised to be highly interesting, even more so than writing a textbook for mining engineers.
Planked whitefish, fresh from the lake, and coffee, and thick bread; and over the bread, the rich juice of the eternal mulligan, made this time from the white small-mouth bass that swam around the wreck down the shore. Thus the two dined together, not gracefully but well, and by tacit consent avoided the matter of their early talk. Instead, Hardrock spoke of Danny Gallagher and Arizona, and the mines, and gradually fell silent and brought the girl to speak of herself and her life down State, where she had these two years taught school, and the world outside this narrow horizon of the Beavers. Two on an island together—and time was not.
“I stayed in St. James the other night for the dance,” said Hardrock, filling his pipe for the third time, “hoping you were there. I knew you down in Arizona, you see.”
“In Arizona?” Her level blue eyes searched his face, perplexed.
“Sure. Danny Gallagher had some pictures that were sent him. One was of you, standing on a wharf—”
“Oh!” exclaimed the girl. “Why, Hughie took that last summer—”
“You haven't changed. How'd you like to see Arizona?”
She looked at him, met his gravely steady gaze—then sprang suddenly to her feet and stood looking out at the point. Hardrock caught the deliberate thud-thud of an exhaust, then saw the big launch turning the point. He rose.
“Father's not in her—yes, he's lying in the bow!” she exclaimed. Hughie Dunlevy, at the tiller of the launch, waved his hand to her and lifted his strong voice as the launch rounded in toward the sandy stretch.
“Come aboard, Nelly! Get anything you want to bring—come quick! Your dad's hurt.”
The launch sputtered; her engine died; and she came to a halt with her nose on the sand a dozen feet from shore. The girl made a hesitant movement; then Hardrock caught her up in his arms and waded out to the launch. Dunlevy and the two other men took her from him. In the bow lay Matt Big Mary, eyes closed.
“Badly hurt?” asked Hardrock, as his eyes met the hard gaze of Hughie Dunlevy.
“No. Knee dislocated, I guess; we'll run him home. Got caught in a line and fell over the engine. You been to St. James already?”
“Yes.” Hardrock's gray eyes narrowed. “You'll find news waiting for you. Two of your friends shot up—one dead. Whisky-runners did it, some one said; nobody knows for sure, though.”
Dunlevy looked startled, then waved his hand.
“All right. You been havin' a good time here, I see. So long. When I come back, you'll be singin' another tune.”
“I'll expect you,” said Hardrock, and smiled.
The engine sputtered into life; the launch was shoved out, circled in a wide arc, and headed south, with Nelly Callahan crouched over the figure of her father. Once she looked back, lifted an arm, waved it in farewell to the man on the shore, as though in token of an unquenched spirit.
“She's all right,” said Hardrock to himself. “Independent—not afraid of 'em. No need to worry about her; real woman all through!”
He turned to the deserted camp, got the dishes attended to, left everything shipshape, kicked out the fire-embers, and then made his way through the brush along the point of land at this northwest tip of the island. Here, where the bushes thinned out and the land ran out in little islets, he sank down under cover of the greenery, filled and lighted his pipe, and lay motionless, watching the empty waters to north and west and south. Safely tucked away in his pocket was the little black-and-white pennant of painted canvas.
NOW as he watched the sun glinting on the waves between the point and Garden Island, where his motorboat had gone down, he reconstructed in the light of his present knowledge what had taken place there yesterday morning. He was quite certain, now, that he recalled seeing that little pennant of canvas sticking out from the water. Those two recklessly pursuing men from St. James must have seen it also, as they drove down upon him. Then, when he had vanished in the rain to leeward, when after his two shots they probably thought him dead or drowning, they had put back for that fish-trap flag. Why? Not because it marked a fish-trap alone, but because it marked something else of which they knew. And, drawing down upon that little flag, had been a third craft, unsuspected in the obscurity.
“They broke off the flag, were probably fishing up the trap, when the other chaps appeared and opened fire. Then what? The chances are a thousand to one that the murderers didn't wait to get what they had come for. One doesn't shoot down a couple of men and then stick around long. Besides, the flag was gone, and there were heavy rollers running, and the sheets of rain obscured everything. They couldn't hope to find the trap again in all that muck; they'd have to go away and come back in good weather, when they might locate the spot by means of landmarks and bearings from shore. Therefore, if my theory is correct, if they're really whisky-runners and that little flag marked a stock of whisky as well as a fish-trap—all I have to do is to wait. No boat has been up this way all morning. Either I'd have seen it, or Nelly would have seen it and remembered about it.”
Conviction grew upon him that he had the right steer by the tail. Fishermen would not be apt to open deadly fire, even if they caught other men robbing their traps; but liquor-runners take no chances. Again he was impressed with the absolutely ideal situation of the islands—many, like that on which he now lay, uninhabited. East-coast fishermen could bring in the stuff from the Canadian side and plant it, and go away again. Other fishermen from the adjacent mainland, from the upper peninsula, from the Wisconsin shore, could come and get it. Who would suspect? And if anyone did suspect, as Nelly Callahan had said, the island men would get the blame. The Beavers had a reputation for turbulency which was less justified than forced upon them.
The afternoon hours waned, and the sun sank, and nothing happened. Nothing broke the horizon save the big green-and-white fishboat belonging to the three Danes, coming in from the north and heading for the settlement on Garden Island, with a swarm of gulls wheeling and trailing be- hind her to tell of fish being gutted and nets being washed. She vanished, and Hardrock rose stiffly, went to his canoe, shoved out and paddled around the point.
He sought his own camp and found it undisturbed. As he rolled up in his blankets that evening, it came to him that he had not yet settled matters with Matt Big Mary.
“Good thing!” he murmured. “But I wonder—was he worse hurt than they said? That yarn didn't sound very plausible about his falling over the engine—hm! Should have thought of that before. I don't like that fellow Hughie Dunlevy. No matter. Tomorrow's Sunday, and I'll keep quiet—and watch. Good night, Nelly Callahan, and pleasant dreams!”
He fell asleep, smiling.