Fear and hate, born of the haunting solitudes of the north, provoke a tragic sequel in the lives of three men
JOHN HUGH REGAN
FROM where he lay Chesney could watch old man Mahaffy at the table and Oliver in his bunk. For hours, now, it seemed, Mahaffy had sat in almost the one position, his elbows upon the bare, home-made table, his face buried in his calloused hands. At intervals a peculiar little sound escaped him ; part sigh, part a quick indrawing of breath; and he straightened in his chair, and his eyes darted to the bunks of his two partners, who were apparently fast asleep. Satisfied, Mahaffy would then return to his former position. The light from the lamp, only a few inches away, made the round, bald patch upon the crown of his head glisten, and turned the gray in his hair, not very noticeable by day, into gleaming threads.
Things had been bad enough between the three men before Mahaffy had taken to sitting at the table most of the night, and Chesney realized that they could not go on indefinitely as they were; that sooner or later something would happen; and he cursed his luck in picking two soreheads like Mahaffy and Oliver for partners. If only he could get shut of them!
Chesney turned slightly, and the bunk creaked beneath him. Instantly his eyes closed, and he breathed deeply. After a time he knew, that satisfied or not, Oliver was no longer looking at him, and cautiously opened his eyes— Mahaffy had not changed his position, and Oliver had returned to watching the old man.
It seemed to Chesney that Oliver’s almost unblinking watch of Mahaffy was sinister; that his eyes gleamed evily. Chesney wondered what was in his mind. For God’s sake why didn’t he turn over and go to sleep? Why didn’t Mahaffy get into his bunk? Why couldn’t he go to sleep himself? What was happening to them?
Except for an occasional movement of the heavy blocks of wood in the heater as they burned, and Mahaffy’s infrequent sigh, the silence was profound. Even the cattle in the nearby ravine were unusually quiet. Once a coyote howled, but there was no answering chorus, and, as if abashed at his temerity in disturbing so perfect a silence, he howled no more.
The clock seemed to tick very loudly: ‘tick-tock, ticktock. A Mouse commenced to gnaw, and the
sound rasped Chesney’s nerves. He knew that it had the same effect upon Oliver; saw h i s body twitch beneath the blankets. Just then Mahaffy gave his peculiar cry, and a second later Oliver was on the floor. His thick, long hair was all awry, and his eyes gleamed wildly. He pointed to the lamp: “Put that damned thing out!”
For a few moments Mahaffy appeared dazed, as if he failed to understand where he was, or to grasp Oliver s command. At last he answered with surprising meekness: “All right. I’ll put it out,” and smiled at Oliver in a friendly manner.
Oliver dropped his pointing finger, and returned Mahaffy’s grin; but there was nothing friendly about it, he appeared to be snarling—his teeth showed white between his parted lips.
“What are you up to, old man?” he asked. The question was ordinary enough, but the tone filled it with sinister suggestion.
“Up to?” repeated Mahaffy, plainly puzzled.
“Come off!” sneered Oliver. “Don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t you!”
Mahaffy stood up slowly.
He was a tall man, taller than Oliver, and much more powerfully built; and although his partners called him old, he was old only in comparison to their youth, being not more than fortyfive.
“What’s eating you,
Jack?” he inquired, mildly.
“You can’t bluff me,” retorted Oliver. “What are you figuring on doing, old man? What are you working out in that old bean of yours? Aiming to get me out of here?”
“Figuring on?” repeated Mahaffy.
“That’s what I said,” snarled Oliver. “You’re aiming to make it so’s I’ll get fed up, and get out, and leave all the stock, ain’t you? And let me tell you,” he shouted, “I’ll see you in hell first!”
“Come off!” sneered Oliver. “You ain’t fooling me any. I’m on to you.
What are you getting up for, and a-sitting at the table with that damned lamp going pretty well all night? Just because you think it’ll get my goat. And, just to make sure I won’t sleep, you have to grunt every so often.”
Instead of flying into a
rage as Chesney expected, Mahaffy seated himself again and the action evidently confounded Oliver. Yet Chesney could see that he was not in the least convinced that he was wrong in his suspicions—he had the air of one baffled by a cunning he cannot fathom.
The older man’s body appeared to sag. There was a drawn expression on his face, and he stared moodily before him. Presently he said:
“Maybe what you think of me you have been figuring on yourself.”
Oliver stared at Mahaffy for a moment without speaking. “Eh?” he gasped, at last.
“I said,” Mahaffy went on, the moodiness leaving him, “that maybe you thought I was thinking those things because you was thinking them yourself. Maybe you want meto get out. Y ou ain’t been so friendly.”
Chesney sat up, prepared to leap between them, but again Mahaffy behaved unaccountably. “I ain’t so sure. Maybe, maybe,” he returned, in a quiet tone, as if the matter were of no importance. Then laughing a little, he added: “But I ain’t going till I get good and ready. I’ll go then.” And began to unlace his moccasins.
Mahaffy presently went to his bunk, and Oliver suddenly glancing up saw Chesney looking on.
“Hallo, Reg!” he said. “Seen all you expected?”
Chesney could see that Oliver was prepared to quarrel. “Better go to bed, Jack,” he advised.
“Don’t get so friendly all at once,” scoffed Oliver. “Why have you been lying a-watching me? What’s on your mind? What are you figuring on? Think I can’t see? There’s the pair of you at it. You’re figuring on something.”
“You’re crazy!” said Chesney, startled that Oliver should suspect him.
“Crazy or not, you won’t find me so easy if you want to start anything,” Oliver warned.
CHESNEY was awake next morning before the alarm clock rang, and lay thinking over the events of the previous night, which now seemed to him to be bordering on the comic. Here were the three of them, each suspecting the other. He resolved that he, at least, would give his partners no cause for suspecting him further; he would do his best to get back to the old footing.
It was Mahaffy’s week to get up first, to see that the heater was functioning properly, and to prepare breakfast. As soon as the fire was roaring Chesney slid to the floor. Mahaffy was already sitting by the stove staring blankly before him, and Chesney pulled a chair close, and sat down without breaking the silence. At last he ventured:
“Anything wrong, Pete?”
Mahaffy straightened himself with a jerk, and the panic in his eyes was disconcerting. Yet a moment later he smiled. It was a kindly smile, reassuring; certainly not the smile of one who was plotting, Chesney thought: a smile conveying embarrassment at being discovered in an act of weakness more than anything else. “No,” he replied. Then asked, the faintest trace of anxiety in his voice: “What made you think so?”
“Just the way you were sitting, I guess.”
Mahaffy laughed, but not convincingly. “That ain’t nothing.” As if disinclined for further conversation he got up, and began to make a fire in the cook-stove.
Shortly afterward, Oliver, obviously in the bad temper that was usual with him now, took the empty chair. The fire did not please him, and he opened the door of the ash-pit to increase the draught, and a little ash fell out upon the floor. It was Mahaffy’s duty to empty the pan and Oliver began to curse; not at Mahaffy directly, but in a manner that left no doubt at whom his curses were
aimed. Mahaffy, however, took the pan away without a word.
“I wonder what’s come over him?” Chesney remarked to Oliver. “That ain’t like him to take what you said, and not come back at you.”
“He’s got something up his sleeve,” Oliver replied.
“Let’s go to the barn,” said Chesney impatiently.
There was not a breath of air stirring outside, but it was piercing cold, so cold that for a moment Chesney caught his breath, and his skin tingled as if stung by numberless darts. When he drew out the peg that held the stable door closed, a cloud of vapor, warm with animal heat, issued from the building.
Oliver hung the lantern on a post at the end of a stall, and began to clear the mangers, while Chesney took a seat on the oat-bin and rolled a cigarette.
“Say, Jack,” he began.
“I believe Pete’s sick.”
“Sick!” exclaimed Oliver contemptuously.
“I’m sure of it,” persisted Chesney. “He usen’t to act like he’s acting now. You know that. This getting up at night and making those funny noises, and running his hands over his head.”
“He’s doing that on purpose,” said Oliver stubbornly. “I’ve told you that before. He’s out to get my goat.”
Chesney treated the answer, as if it were a joke. “You don’t believe that, Jack. You know old Pete ain’t a bad sort. You used to like him well enough—well enough to come in with us on this cattle business.”
“I wish I’d burned the money first,” Oliver declared bitterly. “But I ain’t going to be driven out—be done out of my share.”
“No one’s trying to do you out of your share. I guess old Pete knows you well enough not to try anything like that.”
Oliver came to the end of the stall and faced Chesney, his expression sullen, bitter and suspicious. “Say, what’s the idea?” he inquired. “What are you up to now? What are you trying to put over? You’ve been hating me like hell; both me and Pete. Now you’re coming the soft stuff. What’s the big idea?”
“I ain’t got no idea,”
Chesney returned. “I don’t hate you and I don’t hate
Pete. You’re crazy to think the way you do. I’ll tell you this though: being shut away from everybody is sending us all crazy.”
“I ain’t crazy.” Oliver’s tone implied that he, only, was normal.
“I didn’t say you was,” Chesney replied, disregarding the implication. “It’s getting on your nerves though. It’s making all of us imagine things. Why, I began to
“Me!” cried Oliver startled.
“Oh, I got over it all right,” said Chesney. “I don’t fancy that no more. But why should you think that way of old Pete?”
“It’s the way he acts. I’ve seen you watching him, too, and looking as if you’d like to hit him over the head.”
“That’s before I knew he was sick.”
“Sick!” sneered Oliver again, but with less conviction.
Chesney continued more hopefully: “Look here, Jack. Let’s try and get him to town, and see a doctor. It’d be fierce if he was—if anything was to happen to him out here.”
“How are you going to make him go?” asked Oliver, weakening. “He wouldn’t go if he knew what he was going for.”
“I’ll fix him some way. You leave that to me. You go with him, and maybe the two of you will have a good time in town afterwards. Then maybe I’ll go for a spell. That’s what we need—to go away and have a good time. We’ll get over this stuff of suspecting each other then.”
Chesney could see that the idea appealed to Oliver. “How are you going to make old Pete go?” he inquired again.
“You leave that to me,” replied Chesney. “I’ll come right back here for you after I’ve cleared the waterhole, and we’ll go back to the shack together, and I’ll talk to him. Maybe you can help, and then he’ll see that we both want him to go; that neither of us want to do him any dirt.”
“All right. Go to it,” said Oliver, still doubtful; but Chesney could see that he was secretly excited at the thought of going away.
The cold seemed more penetrating than ever to Chesney after the damp warmth of the stable. At first, he had difficulty in following the narrow trail that wound through the slender poplars with which the sides of the ravine were clothed, but, as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he went on more surely. Arriving at the bottom of the ravine, he walked through the cattle, which lumbered clumsily to their feet at his approach. Chesney felt a glow of pride that they were partly his, and the slow quietness of them was soothing to him after the ceaseless jangling in the cabin. “If only men were as peaceful as cattle,” he thought.
A heavy, poplar log lay beside the waterhole, and into this was driven the axe used to free the hole of ice. It was a doubleedged axe, with a long, straight handle. One of the edges was sharp, while the other, that used for chopping the ice, was comparatively dull. Wrenching the blade from the log, Chesney cleared the hole, and forced the fragments of ice beneath the surface of the water for the swift current of the creek to sweep away, then drove the axe into the log again. The handle, when released, vibrated like a taut wire. Whistling, Chesney turned toward the barn, and when he had climbed the ravine, could see, far to the south-east, signs of the coming dawn. He was not an imaginative man, but the flashing colors reaching upward, engaged, it seemed, in combat with the apparently overwhelming mass of blackness overhead, stirred something in him akin to awe, and for a moment the sight humbled him. Then the dawn seemed to him an augury; everything was going to come out all right yet, and he went on his way whistling again, hungry for his breakfast.
Oliver was waiting at the stable, and the two went on together. The path broadened as it neared the shack, and close to the building the snow was tramped hard so that, as they approached the door, they were able to walk abreast. Their moccasined feet made no sound.
Oliver turned the handle of the door noiselessly and, followed by Chesney, stepped into the shack. Within, stood Mahaffy. As if paralyzed, he stared at his partners. There was a little box nailed to the wall, at about the height of a man’s head, in which were kept a few simple horse medicines, and among the bottles was one containing gopher poison. This bottle Mahaffy was in the act of either taking down or of replacing.
Fear, confusion, defiance, guilt, and at last cunning came and went in his face. His hand clutched the bottle as if he was unable to relax his grip. Then he broke the spell that held them all, by grinning. It was weak and inane, and he said:
“Well, what’re you sticking there for?” His tongue was thick in his mouth so that his tone was unnatural.
Without answering, Oliver went to his bunk, and from beneath the sack of hay which formed his pillow, took a revolver. His face was pale, and drawn lines had come about his mouth. Continued on page 53
Continued on page 53
Continued from page 11
“What’re you up to, old man?” he demanded, hoarsely.
“What d’you want with that gun?” Mahaffy replied.
Chesney’s perceptions were keyed to such an extraordinary acuteness at the moment that he could almost follow the workings of Mahaffy’s mind, and he saw that Oliver’s reason for arming himself was quite inexplicable to the old man. Gradually, however, comprehension came to Mahaffy, and he began to laugh. It was not a forced laugh, but one of real amusement.
“Oh, I ain’t going to poison you, Jack,” he cried. “You needn’t be scared. Doggone you!” he added, “you ought to be poisoned like a rotten little gopher, but it ain’t my job.”
Even Oliver could see that Mahaffy’s amusement was real. His impetuosity had been turned back on him, and he felt that, somehow, he had made himself ridiculous. He put the revolver into his pocket.
“What were you doing with that poison?” he demanded sullenly.
“You go to hell,” replied Mahaffy, but without enmity, and laughed again. Both Chesney and Oliver were conscious of an almost hysterical ring in it; a touch of wildness, as if the man were mentally unbalanced.
Unbalanced or not, he had prepared the breakfast, and now proceeded to spoon the porridge into the three plates. “All set, ” he announced, and replaced the saucepan on the stove. Chesney and Oliver seated themselves but neither offered to eat, and their eyes met with mutual understanding. Mahaffy, returning to the table looked at them, and grasped the situation at once. He broke into a guffaw of laugh* ter.
“Ain’t it a joke!” he cried, and swallowed a spoonful of porridge, first from Chesney’s plate, and then from Oliver’s. “Satisfied?” he sneered. Then, thrusting his face into Oliver’s he said: “I asked if you was satisfied, you poor fish!”
Oliver sprang to his feet, the revolver in his hand again. “Keep your face out of mine, or I’ll fix you!” he threatened.
“Shoot and be damned to you, you poor fish! And you,” Mahaffy continued, turning to Chesney, “you’re worse than Jack. You don’t say nothing, but you’re always a-egging him on. To hell with the two of you!”
“Some of the poison is gone from that bottle,” said Oliver. “There ain’t as much in it as there was.”
“Some gone, is there,” sneered Mahaffy. “Well, maybe there is.” He laughed again, a booming laugh, but mirthless.
“I know what you’re up to, the pair of you,” Oliver burst out. He turned to Chesney. “What was you trying to get me to go to town for, eh? Just because you thought I wouldn’t come back, eh? A slick scheme, wasn’t it? Damn you, I’m on to you! And Pete with his crazy stuff! Him and his poison! You—either of you, try to pull anything on me, and I’ll let daylight into you!”
Mahaffy roared with laughter. “Shoot! Shoot!” he cried, as if the whole affair were a joke, but again Oliver returned the revolver to his pocket.
AFTER breakfast, Chesney and Oliver hauled hay for the stock. In the afternoon, Chesney took his gun and went out, ostensibly for the purpose of shooting rabbits, but really to escape from the company of Mahaffy. Oliver had left the shack some time before, and Chesney wondered where he had gone, though he had no intention of looking for him.
On leaving, Chesney saw that Oliver who was wearing snowshoes, had walked beside the path that led to the barn, so ¡ he turned off along the crest of the ravine. >
It was very cold, and rapidly growing colder; the perfectly clear sky was a light green shade, a sure sign of a very low temperature, and Chesney’s breath froze upon his eyelashes and gathered upon the upturned collar of his coat. After some distance, thoroughly hot from his tramp through the snow, which in places reached his knees, he rested above the meadows where he and his partners had cut hay during the summer. He was standing on the highest spot for miles around, and the view was uninterrupted. It was as if he were on the summit of a white world, and the silence was so complete that he could hear the beating of his own heart.
When he turned homeward it was growing dusk, and the shadows were heavy in the ravine. As soon as he moved, Chesney realized that he had stood too long; had become chilled. He decided to return along the bottom of the ravine, and by the time he reached the ice, was quite warm again. The creek was tortuous so that Chesney could not see far before him, and it was unexpectedly dark down there. The course gradually narrowed, still further shutting out the light so that when he came in sight of the waterhole he saw what, at first, he took to be one of the cattle lying beside it. Perhaps, he thought, it has slipped on the clear ice, and been unable to get up. As he drew near, however, he saw that the bulky form was not that of a beast; that it was Mahaffy lying there, his head in a pool of already frozen blood. One glance at the face told Chesney that Mahaffy was dead.
Somehow Chesney felt no surprise; he knew than that he had been looking for something like this to happen; it had been inevitable. Now Oliver would hang! Chesney’s mind leaped to that on the instant, and it seemed much more horrible to him than that Mahaffy had been murdered. He felt that Mahaffy was more to blame than Oliver; he wassomuch older. Now Oliver was going to hang. “Going to hang, going to hang!” the thought beat through his brain. “Poor kid!”
Presently Chesney lifted one of Mahaffy’s arms. The body was quite limp; had not yet started to freeze, and, therefore, had not lain long. Next Chesney picked up the axe, which unquestionably had been the weapon used by the murderer. It was lying a few inches from Mahaffy’s head, and the blade was bloody. Blood, too, was over the handle. It occurred to Chesney that he had better leave the axe as he had found it; that the police would investigate. It struck him as being fortunate that it was so nearly dark; the cattle were settling down for the night, and were not likely to require water until the morning; before then he would cut a fresh hole. Although the light was very dim by this time, Chesney had no difficulty in seeing the snowshoe tracks Oliver had made going to and returning from the hole. He had come down the side of the ravine from the direction of the stable, but had returned to the shack beside the path, as if disdaining concealment. Chesney wondered how he had been able to surprise Mahaffy. Surely the old man would have heard him coming! But there might have been no attempt at surprise; the two had met at the waterhole and quarrelled, and Oliver had picked up the axe, ready to his hand.
Chesney began to plan how to get Oliver away, and by the time he reached the shack, had a scheme arranged. He knew that Oliver’s chances of escape were very slight; that, in fact, there was scarcely a chance. But this scheme was the only one that came to him offering even a remote possibility of success.
When Chesney entered the shack, Oliver was standing with one hand upon the table on which stood the lamp he had
evidently just lighted. His face was ghastly, and his eyes, unnaturally wide, were glowing. It struck Chesney that there was something peculiar in Oliver’s attitude; he appeared to be expecting attack, but he said nothing; simply watched Chesney with eyes that were far too brilliant.
“One of us will have to go to town to tell the police,” began Chesney. He drew off his mitts, and as he did so, noticed that they were blood-stained from handling the axe. He looked at them for a moment and turned them over before pitching them under the stove. “You’d better go,” he continued.
“Me!” ejaculated Oliver.
“We’ll have something to eat, and if you start right afterwards you can be in town before morning.” As if it were an afterthought; he added: “The train goes out about four.”
Oliver regarded Chesney steadily for some moments as if studying him. “All right, I’ll go,” he agreed at last.
Chesney prepared a meal, but neither he nor Oliver could do more than make a pretence of eating. Afterwards Chesney saddled a horse. Oliver seemed dazed; hardly to know what he was doing.
“Good luck!” Chesney said, when Oliver had mounted.
Oliver appeared to issue from the spell that held him. “Good luck, Reg,” he replied, his tone warm and friendly.
Chesney turned toward the shack; but a moment later was surprised to hear Oliver hailing him.
“Hello!” he returned.
“My packsack is under my mattress,” Oliver called.
“What do you want that for?”
“I don’t, but if you want'to use it, yo’v’ll know where it is.”
“Allright,” Chesney replied, wondering what use Oliver imagined he had for the sack; but there was no further speech between them, and Chesney returned to the shack for an axe, which he took to the ravine and erected a fence around the waterhole and the body to keep the cattle away. He tried not to look at the dead man, but it seemed to him, in the ghostly light of the lantern, that Mahaffy was reproaching him; protesting at being left out in the merciless cold.
Chesney set the alarm for six, but was up before it went off. He had not slept, though once or twice he had dozed. Most of the night he had thought of Oliver, watched the hands creep around the clock till they pointed to the hour of four. Now, if Oliver had taken his one chance of escape, he would be away.
Chesney considered his own procedure; began to plan. He had better not delay in going to town too long as that would show that he had connived at Oliver’s escape. He resolved to give Oliver a start of one day and a night.
BEFORE dawn Chesney had chopped a fresh hole through the three feet of ice on the creek. The rest of the day he spent hauling hay, so that there should be an abundance of feed to carry the stock over the time he expected to be away. When darkness canje, he cooked a meal, the first he had eaten since morning, and was then faced by his loneliness. He thought of writing down as clearly as he could all that had led up to the murder, but could not find the pad of writing paper. He remembered that only a leaf or two had been used from the pad, yet it had gone, and he wondered where. At last he fell into a doze, worn out by an almost sleepless night and his day’s work.
A hand upon his shoulder awakened him. He sprang to his feet, an exclamation bursting from his lips, and saw that it was Oliver who had touched him. He stared at him, as if he were a ghost.
“You!” he gasped.
“It’s me all right.”
Chesney then saw that a NorthWest Mounted policeman stood by the door, that he was unbuttoning his coat, had already discarded his fur cap and his
heavy mittens. Chesney turned again to his partner, and saw that one side of his face had been badly frozen, that the skin there was drawn and blistered as if by a red hot iron, and that his eyes were like balls of blood. “You damned fool!” he thought.
“Some trip,” Oliver remarked. He looked away as if unable to endure the blaze in Chesriey’s eyes.
The constable said to Chesney: “Kind of startling to be woke up that way— upsets a man for a bit, don’t it?” Chesney felt he was being studied.
“Sure does,” he agreed, then recovering from his confusion: “You’ll need some grub, I guess. I’ll cook you something.” The constable and Oliver drew chairs close to the heater which Chesney cleared and refilled,' so that the metal soon became red hot. The two men sat beside it absorbing the heat, while Chesney cobked a meal.
When they had finished eating they rolled cigarettes, and moved close to the heater again though the cabin was stifling hot. There was an air of unreality about it all to Chesney; the dimly lighted shack, the three of them quietly smoking apparently as if nothing unusual had happened, Mahaffy lying dead on the ice of the creek; but underneath the outward calmness, a sense that the air was charged. The constable finished one cigarette and rolled another, and as if making a casual inquiry, remarked: “You boys been
having trouble, I hear?”
Oliver at once started to speak, but the constable interrupted:
“Anything you say I shall use as evidence against you,” he warned. “You needn’t tell me anything.”
“I ain’t got nothing to hide,” Oliver declared, impetuously.
“Nor me,” said Chesney, and the policeman glanced at him through the smoke as if his remark were unexpected.
“All right,” he observed. “Go to it then. You first,” to Chesney.
As clearly as he could, now and then . prompted by a question, Chesney told all he knew. He spoke of the constant quarrels, glossing over, as much as possible, Oliver’s part in them. Then he told of the fatal afternoon; how he had left the cabin, of seeing the marks of Oliver’s snowshoes, and of how he had turned off at an angle; of following the crest of the ravine. Then he told of his return up the ice of the creek and the discovery of the body; of the snowshoe trail down the side of the ravine to the dead man’s side, and of the tracks, left without any attempt at concealment, back to the shack. When he had finished, not a loophole appeared to be left through which Oliver might escape.
Oliver had listened as if his eyes would start from his head. Several times he had interrupted, but had been silenced by a signal from the constable’s hand.
“Now you, if you like,” the policeman said when Chesney had finished. “Remember, you don’t have to say anything.” “I ain’t got nothing to hide,” repeated Oliver defiantly. He told much the same tale as Chesney until he came to the afternoon of the murder. “I went out,” he said, “because I couldn’t stand it inside the shack any more. They both had it in for me, although they hated each other. They wanted to get me to go away so they could have the cattle. I left them together, and I don’t know what happened between them. I didn’t aim to go any place. I just went out to wander about, and that was why I put on my snowshoes.
I don’t just know where I went, I didn’t pay any attention. Then, after a long while, I came back to the barn. I sat there for quite a time on some hay, and then fed the horses. When it was beginning to get dark, I went and looked down into the ravine, and saw something lying by the waterhole. At first I thought it was one of the cattle, and then I saw two legs stretched out, and knew that it was a man. I went right down. I didn’t bother about any trail. I just headed straight for the spot. When I got there I saw that it was Mahaffy, and that he had been
killed with the axe we always keep sticking in a log there. I wondered what todo. I couldn’t think. Then I came right back here and waited. Chesney came in after a time. He looked wild. I thought he might go for me, and I was ready for him with my gun in my pocket, but he didn’t offer to do anything. I’d have got him if he had. He had blood on his mitts and on his clothes. He looked like he had been through hell. And he says: ‘You’d better go for the police.’ I didn’t want to at first, and then I thought he wanted to pull out, get away North, and that if I didn’t give, him a chance, he would start something with me, and I made up my mind to shoot him if he did, and I didn’t want to do that.” Oliver came to a stop, then gasped, laboring under the most intense excitement: “And that’s God’s truth! Every word of it!”
Chesney sat as if dumbfounded. He saw the blackness of the case against him, saw that everything he had done after finding Mahaffy’s body pointed to him as the murderer. He could feel the rope around his neck. After a minute or two, he said in a tense voice: “I didn’t do it, but it looks as if I did, don’t it?”
The policeman dropped his cigarette into the stove. “It looks as if you both did it,” he observed dryly. “But one didn’t, that’s certain. You didn’t move anything down at the waterhole?” Chesney told of what he had done, and the constable suggested going there.
Chesney carried the lantern and led the way. At the fence around the waterhole Oliver hung back, as if dreading to look upon Mahaffy’s granite-like body. The scene was weird enough to have appalled anyone—the shadowy bulks of the cattle, the terrible silence, and the dead man lying stretched out.
The constable stood looking down at the corpse for a time, then suddenly asked: “You kept the axe stuck in that log, you say?”
“Yes,” replied Chesney.
“And you haven’t moved the body?” “No. It’s just as I found it.”
Silence again. The policeman’s eyes travelled from the dead man’s head to the bloody axe and from that to the log. His manner, so calm and unruffled, was more than Oliver could endure in silence.
“What d’you think of it?” he asked feverishly; but without waiting for an answer continued, his voice quavering with excitement: “He was hit from behind Some wallop!” he cried, his eyes blazing. “God! The axe went right through his skull!”
The constable turned to Oliver, and appeared to study him as he had studied the positions of the body and of the axe.
“You’re getting excited,” he said, slowly. “Better take a grip of yourself.” His voice was merely contemptuous, but to Oliver it conveyed suspicion.
He cried: “You don’t think I done that, do you? It wasn’t me. It was him!” His voice rose almost to a shriek. “It was him!” he cried again, pointing at Chesney.
But the policeman ignored him. “We’ll leave the body here to-night. In the morning I’ll make a little sketch showing the positions of things. Then we’ll all head for town,” addressing himself to Chesney.
“Not me,” ejaculated Oliver. “What do I have to go for?”
“You’ll come, too,” replied the policeman. “You’ll both have to come.”
Oliver’s eyes gleamed in the lantern light like those of a maniac. He seemed crazy with fear.
The three returned to the shack and sat by the stove for some time, Chesney and the policeman smoking, Oliver obviously too distraught for so rational an act. “Why doesn’t he confess,” thought Chesney, “and get it over.” Aloud he said, noticing that the policeman had finished his cigarette:
“Better climb into Mahaffy’s bunk for a bit. We can have a few hours before we start.”
“That’ll do me all right,” returned the
constable. “Could do with a sleep.” He continued, as he and Chesney arose: “I saw you’d got lots of hay hauled. It’ll do for a day, but if you’re kept in town tomorrow they’ll have to get someone out here to feed the stock.”
Chesney saw Oliver’s face alter at that. He had been sitting as if he were dazed, unconscious of his surroundings Now he leaped to his feet.
“Own up!” he cried to Chesney. “Damn you, confess!” His revolver was in his hand and covering Chesney. “Confess!” he cried again, but the sound that issued from his lips was little more than a whisper; as if his tongue were paralyzed. “Own up, or I’ll fix you!”
Chesney and the policeman leaped at the same time. The shock of their plunging bodies knocked the revolver from Oliver’s hand and carried him to the floor where the three rolled like fighting dogs. Twice Oliver had a grip of Chesney’s throat, and twice Chesney freed himself, but not for a moment did Oliver cease to gasp his exhortation to confess. Then agile as a cat, he sprang to his feet again, but it was only for a moment; the two were on him again, and their rush carried him into Mahaffy’s bunk, where they smothered him beneath the blankets. A second later the policeman snapped handcuffs upon him, and his body relaxed, as if at that moment he abandoned himself to his fate. His body lay so inert, so like a corpse, that although his head was buried beneath the heavy blankets, Chesney knew that he had fainted, overcome by terror.
“He’s out,” he gasped, as he and the policeman stood upright. “Fainted!”
“Do him good!” exclaimed the policeman. “I believe he did it after all.”
Then Chesney saw lying on the floor, where they had evidently fallen from Mahaffy’s bunk during the melee, the pad of writing paper for which he had searched earlier in the evening, and the bottle containing the gopher poison. He picked these up, and then saw that on the first leaf of the pad there was writing. His mind was too confused to grasp the import of what he read at once, and it was not until he had gone over the words three times that he realized their full significance.
“Read this,” he said to the policeman, handing him the pad.
Chesney pulled the blankets from about Oliver’s head, and shook him violently. “Wake up, Jack, you damned fool! Wake up! It’s all right,” he shouted exultingly. But it was some time before Oliver recovered sufficiently to understand what had happened. Then the policeman read aloud from the pad:
‘ “My head is bad, boys. It’s getting worse all the time. I’m going to fix it with the gopher poison. At night my head hurts like hell. You’ll be sure to find me at the waterhole. Split my cattle between you. So long. Pete.’”
“So it wasn’t you after all,” Oliver said dazedly. “Old Pete did it himself!”
The constable said: “It is pretty evident what happened. He took the poison, and was about all in when he got to the waterhole. He must have been too far gone to control his movements and fell, and his head struck the axe waiting for him in the log. I wondered how it was he was lying on his back, yet was hit from behind. I guess that lets you out—both of you. You’re lucky!”
Oliver sat up in the bunk, his eyes still dazed and heavy, and stared at the handcuffs upon his wrists. Realization came back to him in a flood.
“God!” he cried in horror. “I might have been hanged!”