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High up on the hillside in the midst of a rugged group of jack pines the Union Jack shook out its folds gallantly in the breeze that swept down the Kicking Horse Pass. That gallant flag marked the headquarters of Superintendent Strong, of the North West Mounted Police, whose special duty it was to preserve law and order along the construction line of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, now pushed west some scores of miles.
Along the tote-road, which ran parallel to the steel, a man, dark of skin, slight but wiry, came running, his hard panting, his streaming face, his open mouth proclaiming his exhaustion. At a little trail that led to the left he paused, noted its course toward the flaunting flag, turned into it, then struggled up the rocky hillside till he came to the wooden shack, with a deep porch running round it, and surrounded by a rustic fence which enclosed a garden whose neatness illustrated a characteristic of the British soldier. The runner passed in through the gate and up the little gravel walk and began to ascend the steps.
"Halt!" A quick sharp voice arrested him. "What do you want here?" From the side of the shack an orderly appeared, neat, trim and dandified in appearance, from his polished boots to his wide cowboy hat.
"Beeg Chief," panted the runner. "Me--see--beeg Chief--queeck."
The orderly looked him over and hesitated.
"What do you want Big Chief for?"
"Me--want--say somet'ing," said the little man, fighting to recover his breath, "somet'ing beeg--sure beeg." He made a step toward the door.
"Halt there!" said the orderly sharply. "Keep out, you half- breed!"
"See--beeg Chief--queeck," panted the half-breed, for so he was, with fierce insistence.
The orderly hesitated. A year ago he would have hustled him off the porch in short order. But these days were anxious days. Rumors wild and terrifying were running through the trails of the dark forest. Everywhere were suspicion and unrest. The Indian tribes throughout the western territories and in the eastern part of British Columbia, under cover of an unwonted quiet, were in a state of excitement, and this none knew better than the North West Mounted Police. With stoical unconcern the Police patroled their beats, rode in upon the reserves, careless, cheery, but with eyes vigilant for signs and with ears alert for sounds of the coming storm. Only the Mounted Police, however, and a few old-timers who knew the Indians and their half-breed kindred gave a single moment's thought to the bare possibility of danger. The vast majority of the Canadian people knew nothing of the tempestuous gatherings of French half-breed settlers in little hamlets upon the northern plains along the Saskatchewan. The fiery resolutions reported now and then in the newspapers reciting the wrongs and proclaiming the rights of these remote, ignorant, insignificant, half-tamed pioneers of civilization roused but faint interest in the minds of the people of Canada. Formal resolutions and petitions of rights had been regularly sent during the past two years to Ottawa and there as regularly pigeon-holed above the desks of deputy ministers. The politicians had a somewhat dim notion that there was some sort of row on among the "breeds" about Prince Albert and Battleford, but this concerned them little. The members of the Opposition found in the resolutions and petitions of rights useful ammunition for attack upon the Government. In purple periods the leader arraigned the supineness and the indifference of the Premier and his Government to "the rights and wrongs of our fellow-citizens who, amid the hardships of a pioneer civilization, were laying broad and deep the foundations of Empire." But after the smoke and noise of the explosion had passed both Opposition and Government speedily forgot the half-breed and his tempestuous gatherings in the stores and schoolhouses, at church doors and in open camps, along the banks of the far away Saskatchewan.
There were a few men, however, that could not forget. An Indian agent here and there with a sense of responsibility beyond the pickings of his post, a Hudson Bay factor whose long experience in handling the affairs of half-breeds and Indians instructed him to read as from a printed page what to others were meaningless and incoherent happenings, and above all the officers of the Mounted Police, whose duty it was to preserve the "pax Britannica" over some three hundred thousand square miles of Her Majesty's dominions in this far northwest reach of Empire, these carried night and day an uneasiness in their minds which found vent from time to time in reports and telegraphic messages to members of Government and other officials at headquarters, who slept on, however, undisturbed. But the word was passed along the line of Police posts over the plains and far out into British Columbia to watch for signs and to be on guard. The Police paid little heed to the high-sounding resolutions of a few angry excitable half-breeds, who, daring though they were and thoroughly able to give a good account of themselves in any trouble that might arise, were quite insignificant in number; but there was another peril, so serious, so terrible, that the oldest officer on the force spoke of it with face growing grave and with lowered voice--the peril of an Indian uprising.
All this and more made the trim orderly hesitate. A runner with news was not to be kicked unceremoniously off the porch in these days, but to be considered.
"You want to see the Superintendent, eh?"
"Oui, for sure--queeck--run ten mile," replied the half-breed with angry impatience.
"All right," said the orderly, "what's your name?"
"Name? Me, Pinault--Pierre Pinault. Ah, sacr-r-e! Beeg Chief know me--Pinault." The little man drew himself up.
"All right! Wait!" replied the orderly, and passed into the shack. He had hardly disappeared when he was back again, obviously shaken out of his correct military form.
"Go in!" he said sharply. "Get a move on! What are you waiting for?"
The half-breed threw him a sidelong glance of contempt and passed quickly into the "Beeg Chief's" presence.
Superintendent Strong was a man prompt in decision and prompt in action, a man of courage, too, unquestioned, and with that bulldog spirit that sees things through to a finish. To these qualities it was that he owed his present command, for it was no insignificant business to keep the peace and to make the law run along the line of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Kicking Horse Pass during construction days.
The half-breed had been but a few minutes with the Chief when the orderly was again startled out of his military decorum by the bursting open of the Superintendent's door and the sharp rattle of the Superintendent's orders.
"Send Sergeant Ferry to me at once and have my horse and his brought round immediately!" The orderly sprang to attention and saluted.
"Yes, sir!" he replied, and swiftly departed.
A few minutes' conference with Sergeant Ferry, a few brief commands to the orderly, and the Superintendent and Sergeant were on their way down the steep hillside toward the tote-road that led eastward through the pass. A half-hour's ride brought them to a trail that led off to the south, into which the Superintendent, followed by the Sergeant, turned his horse. Not a word was spoken by either man. It was not the Superintendent's custom to share his plans with his subordinate officers until it became necessary. "What you keep behind your teeth," was a favorite maxim with the Superintendent, "will harm neither yourself nor any other man." They were on the old Kootenay Trail, for a hundred years and more the ancient pathway of barter and of war for the Indian tribes that hunted the western plains and the foothill country and brought their pelts to the coast by way of the Columbia River. Along the lower levels the old trail ran, avoiding, with the sure instinct of a skilled engineer, nature's obstacles, and taking full advantage of every sloping hillside and every open stretch of woods. Now and then, however, the trail must needs burrow through a deep thicket of spruce and jack pine and scramble up a rocky ridge, where the horses, trained as they were in mountain climbing, had all they could do to keep their feet.
Ten miles and more they followed the tortuous trail, skirting mountain peaks and burrowing through underbrush, scrambling up rocky ridges and sliding down their farther sides, till they came to a park-like country where from the grassy sward the big Douglas firs, trimmed clear of lower growth and standing spaced apart, lifted on red and glistening trunks their lofty crowns of tufted evergreen far above the lesser trees.
As they approached the open country the Superintendent proceeded with greater caution, pausing now and then to listen.
"There ought to be a big powwow going on somewhere near," he said to his Sergeant, "but I can hear nothing. Can you?"
The Sergeant leaned over his horse's ears.
"No, sir, not a sound."
"And yet it can't be far away," growled the Superintendent.
The trail led through the big firs and dipped into a little grassy valley set round with thickets on every side. Into this open glade they rode. The Superintendent was plainly disturbed and irritated; irritated because surprised and puzzled. Where he had expected to find a big Indian powwow he found only a quiet sunny glade in the midst of a silent forest. Sergeant Ferry waited behind him in respectful silence, too wise to offer any observation upon the situation. Hence in the Superintendent grew a deeper irritation.
"Well, I'll be--!" He paused abruptly. The Superintendent rarely used profanity. He reserved this form of emphasis for supreme moments. He was possessed of a dramatic temperament and appreciated at its full value the effect of a climax. The climax had not yet arrived, hence his self-control.
"Exactly so," said the Sergeant, determined to be agreeable.
"They don't seem to be here, sir," replied the Sergeant, staring up into the trees.
"Where?" cried the Superintendent, following the direction of the Sergeant's eyes. "Do you suppose they're a lot of confounded monkeys?"
"Exactly--that is--no, sir, not at all, sir. But--"
"They were to have been here," said the Superintendent angrily. "My information was most positive and trustworthy."
"Exactly so, sir," replied the Sergeant. "But they haven't been here at all!" The Superintendent impatiently glared at the Sergeant, as if he were somehow responsible for this inexplicable failure upon the part of the Indians.
"Exactly--that is--no, sir. No sign. Not a sign." The Sergeant was most emphatic.
"Well, then, where in--where--? The Superintendent felt himself rapidly approaching an emotional climax and took himself back with a jerk. "Well," be continued, with obvious self-control, "let's look about a bit."
With keen and practised eyes they searched the glade, and the forest round about it, and the trails leading to it.
"Not a sign," said the Superintendent emphatically, "and for the first time in my experience Pinault is wrong--the very first time. He was dead sure."
"Pinault--generally right, sir," observed the Sergeant.
"Exactly so. But this time--"
"He's been fooled," declared the Superintendent. "A big sun dance was planned for this identical spot. They were all to be here, every tribe represented, the Stonies even had been drawn into it, some of the young bloods I suppose. And, more than that, the Sioux from across the line."
"The Sioux, eh?" said the Sergeant. "I didn't know the Sioux were in this."
"Ah, perhaps not, but I have information that the Sioux--in fact--" here the Superintendent dropped his voice and unconsciously glanced about him, "the Sioux are very much in this, and old Copperhead himself is the moving spirit of the whole business."
"Copperhead!" exclaimed the Sergeant in an equally subdued tone.
"Yes, sir, that old devil is taking a hand in the game. My information was that he was to have been here to-day, and, by the Lord Harry! if he had been we would have put him where the dogs wouldn't bite him. The thing is growing serious."
"Serious!" exclaimed the Sergeant in unwonted excitement. "You just bet--that is exactly so, sir. Why the Sioux must be good for a thousand."
"A thousand!" exclaimed the Superintendent. "I've the most positive information that the Sioux could place in the war path two thousand fighting-men inside of a month. And old Copperhead is at the bottom of it all. We want that old snake, and we want him badly." And the Superintendent swung on to his horse and set off on the return trip.
"Well, sir, we generally get what we want in that way," volunteered the Sergeant, following his chief.
"We do--in the long run. But in this same old Copperhead we have the acutest Indian brain in all the western country. Sitting Bull was a fighter, Copperhead is a schemer."
They rode in silence, the Sergeant busy with a dozen schemes whereby he might lay old Copperhead by the heels; the Superintendent planning likewise. But in the Superintendent's plans the Sergeant had no place. The capture of the great Sioux schemer must be entrusted to a cooler head than that of the impulsive, daring, loyal-hearted Sergeant.
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