Chapter XXVII
 

The news of Count Courteau's death traveled fast. 'Poleon Doret was not long in hearing of it, and of course he went at once in search of Rouletta. By the time he found her the girl's momentary panic had been succeeded by a quite unnatural self-possession; her perturbation had changed to an intense but governable agitation, and her mind was working with a clarity and a rapidity more than normal. This power of rising to an emergency she had doubtless inherited from her father. "One-armed" Kirby had been a man of resource, and, so long as he remained sober, he had never lost his head. Swiftly the girl told of the instant suspicion that had attached to Phillips and of his prompt apprehension.

"Who done dat shootin' if he don't?" Doret inquired, quickly.

"Joe McCaskey--or Frank," Rouletta answered with positiveness. 'Poleon started. Through the gloom he stared incredulously at the speaker.

"I'm sure of it, now that I've had time to think," the girl declared. "That's why I ran for you. Now listen! I promised not to tell this, but--I must. Courteau confessed to his wife that he and the McCaskeys trumped up that charge against Pierce. They paid Courteau well for his part--or they promised to--and he perjured himself, as did they. Hilda got the truth out of him while he was drunk. Of course he denied it later, but she broke him down, and this evening, just before we got home, he promised to go to Colonel Cavendish and make a clean breast of everything. He went out for that purpose, but--evidently he lacked courage to go through with it. Otherwise how did he come to be on the back streets? The McCaskeys live somewhere back yonder, don't they?"

"Sure!" 'Poleon meditated, briefly. "Mebbe so you're right," he said, finally.

"I know I'm right," Rouletta cried. "The first thing to do is find them. Where are they?"

"I don' see 'em no place."

"Then we must tell the colonel to look them up."

But Doret's brows remained puckered in thought. "Wait!" he exclaimed. "I got idea of my own. If dem feller kill Courteau dey ain't nowheres roun' here. Dey beat it, firs' t'ing."

"To Hunker? Perhaps--"

"No. For de Boun'ry." 'Poleon slapped his thigh in sudden enlightenment. "By golly! Dat's why I don' see 'em no place. You stay here. I mak' sure."

He turned and strode away, but Rouletta followed at his heels.

"I'm going, too," she stoutly asserted. "Don't argue. I'll bet ten to one we find their cabin empty."

Together they made their way rapidly out of the brightly illuminated portion of the town and into the maze of blank warehouses and snow-banked cabins which lay behind. At this hour of the night few lamps were burning even in private residences, and, inasmuch as these back streets were unlighted, the travelers had to feel their way. The wind was diminishing, but even yet the air was thick with flying flakes, and new drifts seriously impeded progress. Wading knee-deep in places, stumbling in and out of cuts where the late snow had been removed, clambering over treacherous slopes where other snows lay hard packed and slippery, the two pursued their course.

'Poleon came to a pause at length in the shelter of a pole provision-cache and indistinctly took his bearings. Silently he pointed to the premises and vigorously nodded his head; then he craned his neck for a view of the stove-pipe overhead. Neither sparks nor smoke nor heat was rising from it. After a cautious journey of exploration he returned to Rouletta and spoke aloud:

"Dey gone. Sled, dogs, ever't'ing gone."

He pushed open the cache door, and a moment later there came the sound of rending wood as he shouldered his way into the dark cabin, regardless of lock and bar. Rouletta was close behind him when he struck a match and held it to a candle which he discovered fixed in its own wax beside the window.

Curiously the interlopers surveyed the unfamiliar premises. Rouletta spoke first, with suppressed excitement:

"You were right. And they left in a hurry, too."

"Sure. Beddin' gone, an'--dey got plenty beddin' on Hunker. Here dey mak' grub-pack, see?" 'Poleon ran his finger through a white dust of flour which lay thick upon the table. Striding to the stove, he laid his hand upon it; he lifted the lid and felt of the ashes within. "Dey lef 'bout five hour' ago. Wal, dat's beeg start. I guess mebbe dey safe enough."

"Don't say that," Rouletta implored. "Rock can overtake them. He's a famous traveler."

"I dunno. Dey got good team--"

"He must catch them! Why, he has ninety miles to do it in! He must, 'Poleon, he must! Of course this is evidence, but it isn't proof. Remember, Pierce talked wildly. People are prejudiced against him and--you know the Police. They act on suspicion, and circumstances are certainly strong. Poor boy! If these men get away--who knows what may happen to him? I tell you his very life may be in danger, for the law is an awful thing. I--I've always been afraid of it. So was father, to his dying day. We must send Rock flying. Yes, and without a moment's delay."

"You still got deep feelin' for dat feller?" 'Poleon inquired, gravely. The quick look of anguish, the frank nod of assent that he received, were enough. "Bien!" he said, slowly. "I mak' satisfy, dat's all. I never see you so scare' as dis."

"You know how I feel," Rouletta said; then, more curiously: "Why do you need to make sure? Do you think I've changed--?" She hesitated for an instant; there came a faint pucker of apprehension between her brows; into her eyes crept a look of wonder which changed to astonishment, then to incredulity, fright. "Oh--h!" she exclaimed. She raised a faltering hand to her lips as if to stay a further betrayal of the knowledge that had suddenly come to her. "Oh, 'Poleon, my dear! My brother!"

The man smiled painfully as he met her shocked gaze. "I'm fonny feller, ma saeur; always dream-in' de mos' foolish t'ing. Don' pay no'tention."

"I am--I always will be that--your sister. Have I made you unhappy?"

Vigorously he shook his head; his face slowly cleared. "No, no. In dis life one t'ing is give me happiness--one t'ing alone--an' dat is bring you joy. Now come. De grass growin' on our feet."

Together and in silence they hurried back as they had come; then, on the plea that he could make better time alone, 'Poleon left his companion and headed for the Barracks.

Rouletta let him go without protest; her heart was heavier than lead; she could find no words whatever. A new tragedy, it seemed, had risen to face her, for she realized now that she had hurt the man who loved her best of all. That certainty filled her with such regret, such a feeling of guilt, that she could not bear to think of it. A very poignant sense of pain troubled her as she turned into the Rialto, and as a consequence the lively clatter of the place grated upon her sensibilities; she felt a miserable, sick desire to shut her ears to this sound of laughter which was like ribald applause for the death-blow she had dealt. Yes, she had dealt a death-blow, and to one most dear. But how could she have known? How could she have foreseen such a wretched complication as this? Who would have dreamed that gay, careless, laughing 'Poleon Doret was like other men? Rouletta felt the desire to bend her head and release those scalding tears that trembled on her lashes.

Lieutenant Rock was preparing for bed when 'Poleon, after some little difficulty, forced his way in upon him. The officer listened to his caller's recital, and even before it was finished he had begun to dress himself in his trail clothes.

"Courteau confessed, eh? And the McCaskeys have disappeared--taken French leave. Say! That changes the look of things, for a fact. Of course they may have merely gone back to Hunker--"

"In de middle of snow-storm? Dis tam de night? No. Dey makin' run for de Line an' it's goin' tak' fas' team for pull 'em down."

"Well, I've got the best dogs in town."

Rock's caller smiled. "M'sieu', dey goin' travel some if dey keep in sight of me."

"You?" Rock straightened himself. "Will you go along? Jove! I'd like that!" he cried, heartily. "I've heard you own a lively bunch of mutts."

"I give you tas'e of Injun travel. Better you dress light an' buckle up dat belt, for I got reason to fin' out who keel Courteau. I ain't goin' sleep no more till I know."

The officer smiled as he declared: "That suits me exactly. We may not catch them, but--they'll know they've been in a race before they thumb their noses at us from across the Boundary. Now see how fast you can harness up."

It was considerably after midnight when 'Poleon swung his dog-team into the lighted space in front of the Rialto; nevertheless, many people were about, for Dawson was a city of sleep-haters. The sight of a racing-team equipped for a flying trip at this hour of the night evoked instant interest and speculation, pointing, as it did, to a new gold discovery and a stampede. Stampedes were frequent, they never failed to create a sensation, therefore the woodsman was soon the center of an inquisitive crowd. Not until he had fully explained the nature of his business was suspicion allayed; then his word that Joe and Frank McCaskey had fled for the Boundary ran up and down the street and caused even greater excitement.

Rouletta came hurrying forth with the others, and to her 'Poleon made known his intention of accompanying the fleet-footed Rock.

"Nobody is able to catch dem feller but him an' me," he explained. "Dey got too long start."

"You think they may get across?" she queried, apprehensively.

"Five, six hour, dat's beeg edge. But me--" The speaker shrugged. "Forty Mile, Circle, Fort Yukon, Rampart, it mak' no differ. I get 'em some place, if I go plumb to St. Michael's. When I get goin' fas' it tak' me long tam for run down."

Rouletta's eyes opened. "But, 'Poleon--you can't! There's the Boundary. You're not an officer; you have no warrant."

"Dem t'ing is dam' nuisance," he declared. "I don' savvy dis law biznesse. You say get 'em. Bien! I do it."

Rouletta stared curiously, wonderingly into the big fellow's face; she was about to put her thoughts into words when a shout arose from the crowd as the Police team streamed into view. Down the street it came at a great pace, flashing through shadows and past glaring lighted fronts, snatching the light hickory sled along behind as if it were a thing of paper. Rock balanced himself upon the runner heels until, with a shout, he put his weight upon the sharp-toothed sled brake and came to a pause near 'Poleon. The rival teams plunged into their collars and set up a pandemonium of yelping, but willing hands held them from flying at one another's throats. Meanwhile, saloon doors were opening, the street was filling; dance-hall girls, white-aproned bartenders, bleary-eyed pedestrians, night-owls--all the queerly assorted devotees of Dawson's vivid and roisterous nocturnal life hastened thither; even the second-story windows framed heads, for this clamor put slumber to flight without delay.

The wind was no longer strong, and already a clearing sky was evidenced by an occasional winking star; nevertheless, it was bitterly cold and those who were not heavily clad were forced to stamp their feet and to whip their arms in order to keep their blood in motion.

Nothing is more exciting, more ominous, than a man-hunt; doubly portentous was this one, the hasty preparations for which went forward in the dead of night. Dawson had seen the start of more than one race for the Boundary and had awaited the outcome with breathless interest. Most of the fugitives overtaken had walked back into town, spent, famished, frost-blackened, but there were some who had returned on their backs, wrapped in robe or canvas and offering mute testimony to the speedy and relentless efficiency of the men from the Barracks. Of that small picked corps Lieutenant Rock was by long odds the favorite. Now, therefore, he was the center of attention, and wagers were laid that he would catch his men, however rapidly they traveled, however great their start. Only a few old-timers--"sour-doughs" from the distant reaches of the Yukon--knew 'Poleon Doret, but those few drew close to him and gave the lieutenant little notice. This French Canadian they regarded as the most tireless traveler in all the North; about him, therefore, they assembled, and to him they addressed their questions and offered their advice.

The dogs were inspired, now, with the full intoxication of the chase; they strained forward fretfully, their gray plumes waving, their tongues lolling, their staccato chorus adding to the general disturbance. When the word came to go, they leaped into their harness, and with a musical jingle of bells they swept down toward the river; over the steep bank they poured, and were gone. A shout of encouragement followed Rock as he was snapped into the blackness, then noisily the crowd bolted for the warm interiors behind them.

Rouletta was slow in leaving; for some time she stood harkening to the swift diminuendo of those tinkling sleigh-bells, staring into the night as if to fix in her mind's eye the picture of what she had last seen, the picture of a mighty man riding the rail of a plunging basket sled. In spite of the biting cold he was stripped down; a thin drill parka sufficed to break the temper of the wind, light fur boots were upon his feet, the cheek pieces of his otter cap were tied above his crown. He had turned to wave at her and to shout a word of encouragement just before he vanished. That was like him, she told herself--eager to spare her even the pain of undue apprehension. The shock of her discovery of an hour ago was still too fresh in Rouletta's memory; it was still too new and too agitating to permit of orderly thought, yet there it stood, stark and dismaying. This woodsman loved her, no longer as a sister, but as the one woman of his choice. As yet she could not reconcile herself to such a state of affairs; her attempts to do so filled her with mixed emotions. Poor 'Poleon! Why had this come to him? Rouletta's throat swelled; tears not of the wind or the cold stood in her eyes once again; an aching tenderness and pity welled up from her heart.

She became conscious finally that her body was growing numb, so she bestirred herself. She had taken but a step or two, however, when some movement in the shadows close at hand arrested her. Peering into the gloom, she discovered a figure. It was Laure.

The girl wore some sort of wrap, evidently snatched at random, but under it she was clad in her dance-hall finery, and she, too, was all but frozen.

Rouletta was about to move on, when the other addressed her through teeth that clicked like castanets.

"I got here--late. Is it true? Have they--gone after Joe and Frank?"

"Yes."

"What happened? I--I haven't heard. Don't they think--Pierce did it?"

"You know he didn't do it," Rouletta cried. "Neither did he steal Courteau's money."

"What do you mean, 'I know'?" Laure's voice was harsh, imperative. She clutched at the other girl; then, as Rouletta hesitated, she regained control of herself and ran on, in a tone bitterly resentful: "Oh, you'd like to get him out of it--save him for yourself--wouldn't you? But you can't. You can't have him. I won't let you. My God! Letty, he's the only thing I ever cared for! I never had even a dog or a cat or a canary of my own. Think a little bit of me."

Almost dazed by this mingled accusation and appeal, Rouletta at length responded by a question, "Then why haven't you done something to clear him?"

Laure drew her flimsy wrap closer; she was shaking wretchedly. When she spoke her words were spilled from her lips as if by the tremors of her body. "I could help. I would, but--you sha'n't have him. Nobody shall! I'd rather see him dead. I'd--No, no! I don't know what I'm saying. I'd sooner die than hurt him. I'd do my bit, only--McCaskey'd kill me. Say. Will Rock get him, d'you think? I hear he gets his man every time. But Joe's different; he's not the ordinary kind; he's got the devil in him. Frank--he's a dog, but Joe'll fight. He'll kill--at the drop of the hat. So will Rock, I suppose. Maybe he'll kill them both, eh? Or maybe they'll kill him and get away. I don't care which way it goes--"

"Don't talk like that!" Rouletta exclaimed.

"I mean it," Laure ran on, crazily. "Yes, Joe'd kill anybody that stood in his way or doublecrossed him. I guess I know. Why, he told me so himself! And Courteau knew it, perfectly well--the poor fool!--but look at him now. He got his, didn't he?"

Rouletta laid a cold hand upon the shivering, distracted creature before her. Sternly she said:

"I believe you know who committed that murder. You act as if you did."

"I'm a g-good guesser, but--I can keep my mouth shut. I know when I'm well off. That's more than the Count knew."

"And you probably know something about his robbery, too. I mean that gold-sack--"

Laure cast off the hand that rested upon her; she looked up quickly. "If I did, d'you think I'd tell you? Well, hardly. But I don't. I don't know anything, except that--Pierce is a thief. He stole and gave me the money. He did that regularly, and that's more than he'd do for you. You may as well know the truth. Cavendish knows it. You think he's too good for me, don't you? Well, he isn't. And you're no better than I am, either, for that matter. You've got a nerve to put on airs. God! How I hate you and your superior ways."

"Never mind me. I want to know who killed Count Courteau."

"All right. Wait till Rock comes back and ask him. He thinks he'll find out, but--we'll see. Joe McCaskey'll be over the Line and away, thank Heaven! If anything happens and they should overtake him--well, he'll fight. He'll never come in alive, never." Turning, the speaker stumbled toward the lights of the saloon, and as she went Rouletta heard her mutter again: "He'll never come in alive, never. Thank God for that!"