SHORT STORIES

His Unmitigated Lie

HUGH KENNEDY August 1 1909
SHORT STORIES

His Unmitigated Lie

HUGH KENNEDY August 1 1909

His Unmitigated Lie

HUGH KENNEDY

From the Red Book

IF anywhere in "the forest primeval" there still linger the demons of ancient myth, the unhappy sprite bound up in cordwood fuel must have found along the line of the Lake Minnitaki Spur a congenial home. Cordwood was the alpha and omega, likewise the iota and kappa, of the spur. At a main-line camp five winters old it had its birth ; at another, whose first season’s cut was still green in the pile, it prematurely died.

Half-way down the spur was Five Mile Siding, where might have been the shrine of the demon. An oval of white, intagliated in a vast somber of level jackpine and tamarack and spruce, the little clearing was piled high, as with a votive offering, with cordwood ; and ringingly, with blows almost musical in the frosty air, a big, dark bearded teamster, like an officiating flagman, was ministering to the growth of the pile.

Toddling in the trampled area surrounding the wood-sleigh, was a child. A tiny figure, moccasined, furcapped, and mittened against the February cold, she played as if in covert rebellion against the spirit of the place. Only half-heartedly she added to her little pile of twigs and sticks.

She looked up presently.

“Daddy,” she importuned, “tell me : why can’t T have one?”

Scarcely pausing in his work, the father looked down on her indulgently.

“A bunny’s not an easy thing to catch, lassie,” he soothed.

She was not to be put off. The play appetite, too scantily fed in the wilderness, looked hungrily from the upturned eyes.

“Elsie could go to Bunny’s house, Daddy, an’ coax him. He’d come an' eat out of my hand like my little squirlie used to. Wouldn't he, Daddy ?”

The teamster leaned on the stick he had been in the act of lifting.

“No, no, lassie.”

The tone of his denial was warmed with compassion for his mateless little one. “Elsie mustna’ try to find Bunny. She might find old Gray Wolf instead."

A sound broke in on their talk. In slowly dwindling echoes it pulsed toward the farthest confines of the bush. It was the stop signal of an oncom-. ing locomotive. Once a week, picking up the loaded cars and leaving empty ones, it shrieked and rumbled down the spur, the only reminder for the isolated bushmen of the forsworn, far-distant hubbub of city life.

The father seized on the welcome diversion.

“Flear that, lass? You’ll see the big toot-toot in another minute, and the house that goes on wheels. Keep back from the track. There’s a good lass.”

The little face, wrinkling in disappointment, cleared at the promise of a new diversion.

The engine clacked over the switchfrog. Hissing, panting, half buried in a cloud of its own vapor, it brought; its train of cars to a standstill., A brakenian descended and waved a shunting signal to the engineer.

“Only three flats for you this trip,” he growled.

The teamster made no reply. His attention was divided between Ids restive horses and the figure of a man descending the steps of the caboose. Big, fur-coated, jaunty, self-satisfied, the stranger approached.

“I say, old timer," he boomed, a hint of patronage in his resonant and easy bass, “you don’t happen—”

At a nearer glimpse of the bushman's face, he checked himself.

“Duge McCaig!” he roared. “Well, I’ll be—e—”

In his amazement, and his haste to grasp the teamster’s hand, he neglected further to define his ultimate condition.

Duge’s surprise, if less demonstrative, was equally sincere.

“Dave Leashman !” he marvelled, and sprang forward to grasp the extended hand. “Why, man alive, it’s twenty years since I saw you last back East !”

The engine, after a parting shove that sent the three flat cars grinding along the side-track, clanked down the line to take water at the tank a half-mile distant. There was time for reminiscence.

Duge was in the bush as a camp teamster; his wife, Elspeth, as the camp cook. A bad season on their prairie homestead had driven them to making up thus the losses of the summer by the labors of the winter. They were no longer young, but were content and full of hope. Chiefly they felt the lack of church and school advantages for their child.

“The little one, hey? Well, well, well ! There was no little one in the old days back East, eh, Duge? Time flies, time flies. Is the wee girl coming over to shake hands with Daddy’s old friend, and give him a hug and a kiss?”

The little Elsie, sheltering behind her father, received the big stranger’s somewhat disconcerting advances, with the grave, shy scrutiny that precedes the giving of childish hearts.

Leashman’s account of himself was more dramatic than the bushman’s. Eor ten years he had been on the staff of the provincial police. He was at present giving chase to Jo Trapper.

“What! Not the notorious Trapper ?”

“The notorious Trapper, hold-up artist and outlaw, and no other.”

“"But wasn’t he—1 can't be mistaken—wasn’t he safe in Sandy Hill penitentiary ?”

“He was. I put the steel on him myself last May. That was after his big job you recollect, when he held up the Transcontinental Express. He got a life sentence, but he has managed to levant. There’s no end to his cunning and his nerve. A man answering his description was reported yesterday from Caspar, ten miles west on the main line. A brakeman put him off an eastbound freight. We figure that lie’s working towards Minnitaki. His Cree wife lives there, and it’s dollars to dumplings lie’s got a snug sum somewheres on deposit round there. He got ten thousand from the express company on that last job. Anyhow, on chances, I’m on my way to the lake.”

The engine, a growing blot against the white of the right-of-way, signaled her return from the water-tank.

“It’s this way,” the constable hastened to conclude. “There’s a thousand dollars on Trapper’s head. The man that gives information'll find it worth while.” He laid a fur gauntleted hand on the other’s shoulder. “You’re with me in this?”

With a crash and a rattle the engine coupled to her train.

The Scot was silent. It was not the silence of hesitation, but the deliberation with which he entered on every course where principle was involved.

“With you? Yes, reward or no reward. It’s the plain duty of every true man.”

“That’s right, that’s right. Glad you’ve promised. I’m not a religious man, like yourself, but I know when I’m dealing with one. The word of a McCaig, in the oid days, was good as another man’s bond.”

“It’s never been broken yet, thank God.”

Already the train was in motion. “Good-by, little girl,” called the officer.

From the caboose steps he waved a final parting.

“See you to-morrow,” he megaphoned through vaulted palms, “I’ll be down on the hand-car with the trackmen.”

The rumbling of the dwindling train died away to a singing that persisted long in the frosty rails.

Duge busied himself again with his load ; but his thoughts were of the hunted outlaw and his crimes. Exploit after exploit—all bold, original, successful, baffling—had thrown a glamor over the man’s name that even Duge, hater of all iniquity, could not but acknowledge.

The sleigh empty at last, he donned his mackinaw and took the child up beside him. Musing, he re-entered the bush. Surely the outlaw must soon be captured. The snow would hold his trail for days, tie dare not sleep in the bitter cold of the open. No more dare he trust himself behmd habited walls. The bush abounded with game; but the man must be without weapons—was himself a hunted thing. He must soon be starved into pulling some latch-string that would stiffen behind him to a bar of iron.

The sleigh runners purred over the bush road. The little Elsie, awed by her father’s moody abstraction, was silent for a time. Suddenly, however, her little blue-mittened hands were clasped in ecstacy.

“O-o Daddy !” she shrilled delightedly. “The pretty bunny ! Lo-ok ! Daddy.”

“Yes, yes, child”—the irritation of his broken reverie gave curtness to the father’s reply—“there’s no end of rabbits hereabouts. G’lang!” he urged his lagging team.

Then, softening before the trembling lip :

“There’s the bunny’s path. Sec', lassie?”

He pointed with his whipstock to the deep tracked rabbit-run.

“ I he path to Bunny’s house, Daddy ?”

“Yes, child,” he answered, absently. He drew aside to let Tim Kerrigan go by with his steaming horses and creaking high-piled load.

The breezy Tim was on foot behind his sleigh.

“Hello, Squirlie Girlie,” he shouted ; “bin out to see the Cordwood Limited ?”

His merry greeting drew from the child the answering smile of established friendship.

“Daddy,” she coaxed, “c’n I go back wif Tim?”

The impulsive Tim did not wait for the father’s assent. He took the little bundled figure in his arms.

“Sure, ye can that, girlie mine. It’s me that s needin’ the foine company like yoursilf.”

“Go right in to your mother,” Duge threw after the child, warninglv, “as soon as you get back to camp.”'

His last load for the day had been hauled. Behind his released team, he was trudging past the camp toward the stables when his wife’s voice hailed him. It was a plainly indignant voice.

“Dugald McCaig,” it upbraided him with the courage of righteous indignation, “whatever do you mean by keeping the child out to this hour? Do vou want her to catch her death o’ cold ?”

Her husband had reached the band of light that streamed past the woman s figure framed in the doorway. She saw he was alone. The hard accents of vexation gave way to the thick, convulsive utterance of panic fear.

“Where is she?”

“The child?” The absorbed Duge took a moment on it. “The child? She must be with Tim,” he commenced assuringlv. Then a sickening doubt clutched him. “Aint she?" he burst out helplessly.

“Aint she, aint she?” mocked the mother, in a passion of reproach.

"Hear the man!” Her voice thinned to a wail: My child! My little lamb!” The wail mounted to a chriek: “Lost! Frozen! Devoured!” Her figure straightened ; her eyes blazed. With steadied voice she flung the words like a club at her husband’s face : “Tim’s been in camp this hour. She left him to go back to you.”

“A grating sob rose in the man’s throat. Horror, self-denunciation, agonized prayer, the heart-wrung pang of fatherhood bereaved—all found a strangled utterance in that wordless nature-cry.

He heard no more of the woman’s renewed moaning. He saw nothing of the roused bushmen tumbling from the shanty like disturbed bees from a hive. Only the lantern in the hand of a man rushing up from the stable caught his eye. Scarcely conscious of his action, he snatched the light. Without a word he bounded up the trail toward the siding.

His moccasined feet padded steadily up the track. His lungs burned with the stinging impact of the frosty air.

He had no plan. His brain was too numb for thought. A blind impulse hurried his feet to the place where he had last seen the child.

Haste, haste, haste ! That was the thing—the only thing. It might not yet be too late. The little one was closely wrapped; she might still be safe. The icicles weighting his beard, his breath congealing on his lips, the sharp report from some bursting tree top—all mocked his faint hope with their cruel evidence of the frost fiend’s power. His wife’s frantic wail still rang in his ears. Blightingly the truth of it came home to him. First fatigue, then the frost, then the prowling lynx or fox. He sickened as he ran.

“Oh, my bairnie !” he moaned. “Why did you leave me ! Why did you go to Tim? My heart was forbidding you to go. Why, why—?” His thudding feet repeated it :— “Why—why—why—why ?”

In all the solemn, voiceless woods was no answer to his agony.

A snatch of her childish prattle came vividly to his mind: “Elsie would go to Bunny’s house, Daddy.” He himself had sent her to her death! She had gone down one of the thousand rabbit-runs—down, possibly, the one he had so absently pointed out to her. She had gone looking for a pet, for something to fill the gap her father’s cold aloofness had itself created.

His lungs were stinging, prickled by a thousand merciless needles. The taste of blood was in his throat. Yet even faster he urged his numbing limbs. The rabbit-run, the rabitt-run —once there he would be on her trail, a second gained might avert death, or—

It was here—here near the outstanding^ hemlock. He recognized the path among the net-work of similar tracks. He peered at the snow, stooping keenly over his lantern. Yes, it was here, the mark of the tiny moccasin. With mute pathos, it pointed toward the lowering gloom of the thicker bush. Here she had turned aside to clear a snowbound branch. There on the snow she had fallen, showing the mark of her little length. The print of the childish hands seemed piteously outstretched for help.

Into the thickness of the wood the father plunged. His eye missed not a sign on the tell-tale snow ; but the quick of his consciousness was all for the barren anguish of his heart.

He came upon a place where the wavering steps had halted. The original rabbit-track had long been lost. Back on themselves the steps had doubled, then zigzagged, then aimlessly struck off. The marks of the downfalls became more frequent ; the little legs were wearying of their hopeless task. Here she had sat ; again she had made off in a new direction. The yellow lantern-light ahead was broken by a spot of blue. The man dashed for it, as for a sign. It was a little woolen mit, now stiff and icy with its owner’s frozen tears. Blinded, the father stumbled on.

The resting places grew more frequent. The maze of doubling tracks unwound perplexingly. The end was close.

At the next halting place the snow was strangely trampled. With lowheld lantern the searcher peered. The child had circled—fallen. Was that—? Yes, a man’s footprint! From the puzzling bed of trampled marks it struck off in clean, unswerving strides —alone. The child was saved ! Some bushman had heard her cries and had carried her home. Even now, no doubt, she lay in her mother’s arms.

A dozen paces down the trail Duge halted. A subtle sense was stirred within him, a sense of some alien presence. Whose was this track? What bushman wore boots—he peered again —yes, worn hoots, too, instead of moccasins or shoepacks? Why had the man taken a direction opposite to that of the child’s well known home? The tracks must turn; the man had not yet got his bearings.

But they did not turn. They kept on, on into the thickest of the bush, where never an axe had yet been laid to tree. Farther on they were crossed by other tracks, similar but not so recent. Mysterious. On a rabbit-run, its neck encircled by a tight-drawn snare, a hare lay frozen stiff.

In one blighting flash Duge knew: Jo Trapper! Here the bandit had lurked through the day. To trap hares was his method of supporting life. All the revived hopes of the father died in him. The hunted man knew no degrees in crime : he who held gold at a higher price than human life was capable of any crime.

A sudden blood-lust swept every soft emotion from the heart of Duge AlcCaig. J he striking muscles behind his great shoulders clutched convulsively. He wanted no weapon ; his iron hands were enough. The builtup restraints of centuries of precept fell from him. In every tingling vein there welled the blood of fierce ancient clans that had never known sleep while yet there remained unavenged on the loathed Sassenach raider a single ravished hearth.

Close to the ground, like a bloodhound hot on the scent, Duge rushed down the outlaw’s trail. It threaded, for a time, the thickest growths; towards a long deserted trapper’s cabin, past it, undeviating. Down, finally, it dropped towards the swamp-fed stream that still ran free in defiance of the winter’s frost. Along this stream, with all a practised woodman’s craft, the fugitive had passed.

In this direction Duge knew he must soon reach the railroad, at the point where it trestled across the stream. There, it flashed on him, would come the end of his pursuit. He hid his lantern beneath his coat; he needed it no more on the trail and his quarry must have no warning of his approach. He recalled the watertank by the end of the trestle, beneath which was a fire fed daily by the trackmen from Minnitaki. There, he decided, skulked his quarry.

He found himself at last, his teeth set like the jaws of a sprung trap, on the oil stained, steel bordered snow strip of the railway. A gem-studded river of white between dark walls of spruce, the right-of-way streamed off toward Alinnitaki. The never stilled sighing of the woods was frozen to its faintest whisper. Only, above the tree tops, the idle wheel of the pump windmill caught a vagrant breeze and swayed with a ghostly creaking. Blurred, obscure, like a shadowy tower projected from a castle’s gloomy mass, the watertank took rounded form against the dark bulk of the woods. The pendant ice of its high-hung spout caught a gleam of light from a streamer in the northern sky. All else was dark, save where the two-paned window near the ground gave out a flickering glow from the light of the fire within.

Stealthily Duge opened the unlocked door. The light from the glowing coals of a stove met him squarely in the eyes and threw all the rest of the place into dense shadows. Crouching, ready for the spring, his right hand clutching the air as if it already felt the victim's throat, he uncovered his lantern. His eyes glared down its rays. His body went rigid. He stared long, unwinking.

On a discarded car-door, the only bed the place afforded, relaxed in sleep, a great figure huddled. The shoulders were coatless. The ropy throat was bare.

But Duge McCaig did not spring.

. His knees loosened; he sank to the ground. The lantern slipped from his fingers. His head fell into his circled arms. Prone on the floor, he melted into helpless sobs.

It was not the figure of the outlaw that arrested the spring. Snuggled in the coat of the gaunt frame so eivdently needed for itself, her head pillowed in the crook of an outflung arm, one, little bare hand lost in a great sinewy one, her face, teargrimed, but ruddily peaceful, showing above the coat’s lapel, little Elsie slept.

“Who’s there?” demanded a voice, alarmed, threatening. More controlled, it came again. “What’s the row, stranger ?”

Duge braced himself. His life-long habit of stifling emotional display helped him now to a measure of steadiness.

“The little one,” he faltered ; “you’ve saved her.”

“Oh, the kid?”

The man was visibly more at ease.

“She yours, partner? I heard her hollerin’. Lucky I did—got to her just in time. Don’t wake the little beggar ; she must be clean tuckered. She sure had a hard time of it. Scared? Lord, I don’t blame her! I’ve got a way, though, with kids an’ she come ’round. She’s a game sport, all right. How’d she get lost, oldtimer ?”

Unheeding the question, Duge, gazed at the chubby face and stretched his hand to the other.

“Shake?” divined the .outlaw. “Sure thing.”

He winced at the mighty grip that closed upon his hand.

“I wasn’t headin’ exactly this direction, partner, but I couldn’t see the kid snuff out. She had to be got to a

fire—an’ here we are. Look up her folks, thinks I, come morning.” With less assurance, rather lamely, he reiterated : “AH' here we are.”

His thought had a sudden disquieting turn :

“How’d ye find me?”

“Tracked you.”

Duge had himself in hand again. “Say, friend,” he added, “you must be hungry, and needing a rest. Come home with me. I’ve only a shanty, but what I’ve got is yours.”

The stranger grinned. “I’m all right, partner; don’t you worry about me. Say,” he announced, with sudden decision, “I better be hikin’. The kid don’t need me no more, an’ I’m a day behind schedule now. My old woman’ll be sendin’ out search-parties fer me if I don’t get a move on.

He waved aside Duge’s staying hand and turned to the sleepingchild. “Sorry, little woman,” he apologized, with awkward tenderness, as the child’s fretful murmur protested against disturbance, “but the old man’ll have to have the coat fer himself now. She’ll go to her Daddy, eh?”

The child did not awaken. Duge cuddled her beneath his coat He strained her to his breast with all the wordless passion of his slow-moving, deep-channeled nature. In that single moment of fatherhood supremely asserted, the hard crust of over-stern preecpt was melted from his soul like cavern ice laid open at last to the sun’s mellowing ray.

His arms half way in the sleeves of his coat, the outlaw suddenly stiffened.

“Hist!” he warned. “What’s that?”

He shot his arms home into their sleeves and dropped with a listening ear to the ground.

A purring sound took gentle possession of the resonant wooden walls and murmured in the pipes that fed the tank overhead.

“Train cornin’!” the stranger marveled. He sprang to his feet. “Naw ; train—nit ! There ain’t an engine on the spur. It’s a handcar. Leashman !” he scoffed. “Leashman on a handcar !

“The idiot, to think he could get me with a game like that. He might as well be blowin’ a trumpet. He's a mile away right now.”

He turned fiercely to Duge. “Here, you !” he barked. “I got to make my get-away. Savve? You know me— I can see it in your eye. There's money in it for you, if you've a mind. What’re ye goin’ to do—throw me done? Gimme a start. Gimme five minutes. Then ye can—” With one hand Duge pushed him toward the door. “Be off, man,” he urged. “Be at my shanty in an hour—the one next to the camp yonder,” he waved his free hand. “The latch’ll be always on the string for you. I’ll hide you somewhere. Go, now, go!”

The sound of the wheels on the frosty rails had ceased.

“H’mph!” commented the fugitive, cooly. “Stalkin’ up on foot, eh? No,' partner, don’t you go lookin' fer no Dnhealthy trouble. So long as the iroom wire holds out an’ the rabbits is runnin’ good, I'll play a lone hand fill I keep a date with my old woman. Be good to yourself—an’ the kid— Tod bless her !”

He was off, balancing deftly on he rail, to leave no tell-tale marks on lie snow. An instant he topped the Trade, then his body was swallowed n the darkness of the woods beyond.

Duge McCaig clasped his treasure tightly and turned to recover his lantern from the tank chamber.

“Hands up!” boomed a voice from the shadow opposite. A fur-coated figure drew out from the trees. Three other shadowy forms stole up the track. Ahead of each was the glimmer of leveled steel. All four closed in.

“Don't shoot. It's me, Duge McCaig. You know me, Dave. Don't shoot.”

The wondering four came close.

“Well—I’ll—be—!”

The big officer was a huge interrogation point.

“What brings you here at this time of night?”

“The child,” replied Duge quietly. “She got lost in the bush. I tracked her. The fire here saved her.”

“Lucky, my boy, to get her in time. The baby I’m looking for aint so easy to track. Thought we might surprise him warming up in the tank here. Ain’t seen anything of him, have you, Duge ?”

“Not a sign.”

Faintly there came from the distant woods the sharp cracking of a bough.

“What’s that?” demanded Leashman, sharply.

“Frost,” said Duge, laconically. He drew his coat about the child with studied solicitude. “It’s a keen night, a keen night.”

GET THE SUCCESS HABIT EARLY. - Every way becomes easier with traveling in it ; and the last stages are pleasantly run by him who accomplishes well the first. When near success we are encouraged by its sight, and little effort is required of one about to reach the goal. A man never feels tired when on the point of succeeding.—Austin Bier boteer.