THE round ball of the sun was hanging low above the purple line of Garden Island in the west, and the breeze was down until there was hardly a ripple on the water. From cover of bushes along the point, Hardrock and Fulsom watched that green fishboat, a red stripe running broadly around her, spin past the point and round it, and head for the floating paddle that marked the whisky-cache.
“She's fast,” said the Sheriff appraisingly. “Built for the work. She came up from the south, all right, followed the channel through past Gray's Reef as though going to the straits, then cut straight west and headed here. She wasn't taking any chances by coming up past Beaver.”
“What's your program?” demanded Hardrock.
“Get out in that launch, and get quick. You got your shotgun, I've got my pistol. She'll let us come alongside, and we'll grab her, that's all. No time to waste. You're my deputy—swear!”
“I swear,” said Hardrock, and laughed. “Making a prisoner into a deputy—”
“Oh hell, shove along! We got to move fast. I aim to catch her with the goods.”
They hurried back along the shore and ran out the open launch. Fulsom gave his automatic pistol to Hardock, took the shotgun, and scrambled into the bow.
“You 'tend the engine. We'll get 'em back here and put 'em through the third degree separate. Don't say a word about the murder. Leave me to handle it.”
THE engine spat and coughed and puffed, and presently they were slipping out past the long point. The green fishboat had halted at the fish-trap. She was a boat of fair size, housed over except for foredeck, after-deck, and a narrow strip along the sides. The after end of this house was wide open. Forward on each side were wide openings where the lifter brought in nets and fish.
Just now, however, two men were at work forward in the bow, hauling in better prey than fish. Several cases were piled up, and they were getting another case aboard. A third man appeared in the stern, stared at the launch, and called to his companions. All three turned, watching her.
Hardrock headed as though to bear up past them for Beaver Island and waved his hand, to which they made no response. The man from aft had ducked out of sight, reappearing on the foredeck with the others. As Fulsom was apparently at work on something and not interested, the whisky-runners evinced no alarm. Then, when he was opposite their boat and a hundred feet distant, Hardrock shoved the tiller hard down and swung in toward her.
One of the three waved his arm and shouted:
“Git away! Sheer off! We don't want no visitors.”
Sheriff Fulsom straightened up, pointed down, and shouted something indistinguishable. Hardrock held on his course. Again the leader of the three waved them off, this time with added oaths. Fulsom grinned.
“Got something to show ye! Look here—look at this!”
The Sheriff leaned forward as though to drag something up to sight, then came up with the shotgun leveled. The other boat was now not thirty feet distant.
“Stand quiet and put your hands up! You're under arrest. Hands up, durn ye!”
The whisky-runners were caught entirely unawares. This boat, obviously an island boat, with only two men in her, had been unsuspected; while to lake-farers any talk of arrest among the Beavers was in itself ludicrous. There was nothing ludicrous about Fulsom or the way he handled his shotgun, however, and after one surprised oath the astonished and dismayed trio put up their hands.
“Run her alongside,” said the Sheriff to Hardrock. “Then go aboard and disarm 'em. Go through her for guns. You three gents roost high and quiet, or I'll blow daylight into ye.”
“What's this for, anyhow?” demanded the leader. He was a big, lantern-jawed fellow marked with a scar across his cheek. His two comrades were swarthy men, whom Hardrock took to be Greeks or kindred foreigners. “Who are you, holdin' us up this way?”
“Sheriff,” and Fulsom put up one hand to display his star. “All right, Hardrock.”
As the two craft came into each other, Hardrock jumped aboard the larger boat and made fast a line. The sight of the officer's badge had disconcerted the trio, and they offered only sullen curses as he swiftly went through them. From two of them he removed heavy automatics, which he tossed into his own craft. The third man was unarmed.
Crawling through the forward opening of the deck-house, Hardrock paused in surprise. There was no lifter in sight, no nets were aboard, nor fish. Under him was a pile of a dozen whisky-cases, the white wood all brown and soggy with water, which had evidently been picked up at some other point in the course of the afternoon. A quick search sufficed to show that no rifles or other weapons were in evidence, and he returned to the foredeck.
“Nothing aboard but whisky, Sheriff, and plenty of that,” he called. “They loaded another cache aboard before coming here.”
“Right thoughtful of 'em,” said Fulsom grimly, and moved back into the stern, after tossing the captured weapons ahead of him. “You three birds hop down into the bow, here. Come along, now, and no talk.”
“Can't we fix this up, Sheriff?” demanded the leader. “We got some money—”
“Now I'll soak you for attempted bribery,” snapped Fulsom. “Git down!”
CURSING anew, the scar-faced leader got into the bow of the open launch, and his two comrades followed him. Fulsom looked up at Hardrock.
“Cast off that anchor in her bows and make sure the line's fast. Give her the len'th. Good holdin' ground here, and she'll drift in toward the shore and set pretty. No wind comin' up tonight, anyhow. I got two pair o' handcuffs at camp, and when we get these birds fixed up and have supper, we can figger what to do next.”
The three “birds” looked decidedly unhappy. The two Greeks began to talk in their own language, until the Sheriff peremptorily shut them up. Hardrock, meantime, dumped the big anchor over the bows of the green fishboat, watched the line run out until it drew taut, and then climbed back into his own borrowed craft. The sun was just sinking from sight.
“Back to camp?” he asked, and Fulsom nodded assent.
The engine started up, and the boat circled out for the point, the Sheriff standing amidships with his shotgun ready. The three prisoners, crowded on the bow thwart, showed no symptoms of putting up any fight, however.
“Simplest thing on earth,” said Fulsom calmly, “is to handcuff a gent with his arms around a sapling. We'll do that with two of these birds, and interview the third—give 'em turn and turn about at it. And we'll keep 'em at far separated trees. And no supper. Make 'em talk better, hungry.”
As they were perhaps meant to do, these words reached and stung the trio. After a rapid-fire exchange of Greek, the leader turned around.
“This aint legal!” he exclaimed savagely. “You aint got no warrant—”
“I got a shotgun,” said the Sheriff, a cold glint in his eyes, “and you'll taste it if you get gay. So turn around there and set easy. We aint ready for you to talk yet awhile.”
The boat was around the point and heading in for the shore. Hardrock, one hand on the tiller, swept her directly in toward the clearing, threw out the clutch, and after a moment threw it into reverse. With hardly a jar, the prow of the boat came into the ground a couple of feet from shore, weighted down as it was by the three prisoners.
“Now, then,” ordered Fulsom, “you birds hop out and draw her up. Don't any of you make a break, or I'll pepper your hides!”
THE big leader, with a growled oath, obeyed the order. There was no sand at the water's edge, the beach being composed of small stones, which farther back ran into sand. The two Greeks likewise got out. The leader took the prow, each of the Greeks seized the gunnel, and they drew up the launch until the bow was on the shingle.
“Now you, Hardrock,” commanded the Sheriff. “Never mind the guns—I'll 'tend to 'em. Run over to my pile of stuff and fetch the handcuffs, will you?”
Hardrock stepped past the Sheriff and jumped ashore.
At the same instant, the big leader stooped; and the two Greeks shoved outward on the boat with all their power. Fulsom, caught unawares by the tremendous lurch of the boat, lost his balance, dropped the shotgun, and reeled for an instant. The leader hurled a chunk of rock that struck the staggering man squarely in the side of the head and sent him down like a shot.
The whole thing passed off swiftly, neatly, with increditable precision and accuracy. Even as Hardrock whirled about from his spring, Fulsom was down and the launch was darting out twenty feet from shore.
Then he found all three men on top of him. One of the Greeks came first, and went sprawling in the water as Hardrock's fist met his face. The second Greek lunged in from one side, a knife in his hand, and took a kick under the chin that laid him senseless, but the leader was hurling himself forward and Hardrock could not evade. Caught in a burly grip, arms locked, both men went down, thrashing. Even then, had matters been equal, Hardrock would have won out, for with a twist he came up on top and rammed a fist into the scarred face—but just then the first Greek swung a stone that laid the man from Arizona prostrate. Dazed and almost senseless from the blow, Hardrock keeled over, and before he could recover he was pinned down under both opponents.
“Tie him up!” growled the leader, and two minutes later Hardrock was bound hand and foot, while the Greek stooped over his unconscious comrade and the burly leader stood laughing and panting. He grinned down at Hardrock.
“So that's what we think of you and your blasted Sheriff!” he declared. “We'll let him float to Mackinac, if he aint dead. By the time he gits back here, we'll sure be on our way. Got a good camp here, aint you? Guess we'll git us a bite to, eat 'fore we bring up our boat and beat it.”
For a little, however, the man had his hands full. The groaning Greek, revived by his compatriot, retrieved his knife and flung himself on the bound captive; the leader interfered, and the trees resounded to bellowed oaths and orders and imprecations. Hardrock, helpless to move, watched and listened grimly. At length the arguments of the leader took effect.
“And ye don't want to be the same damned fools ye were before, do ye?” concluded the wrathful leader. “We don't want to be trailed for murder! Leave him be. We'll fix him so's he can't hurt us none—and we wont murder him neither. Ye may think ye can pull a stunt like that more'n once, and get away with it; but ye can't. How d'ye know that there Sheriff didn't want ye for the other shootin', hey?”
The sullen Greek acquiesced, put away his knife, and all three men stamped away up to the camp. Darkness was gathering upon the waters, but Hardrock no longer stared after the rapidly vanishing boat that was drifted off along the shore and toward the open lake. Those words of the leader were dinning in his brain. He knew now who had shot down those two boys from St. James.