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The news brought by the Indian lad changed for Cameron all his plans. This cattle-raid was evidently a part of and preparation for the bigger thing, a general uprising and war of extermination on the part of the Indians. From his recent visit to the reserves he was convinced that the loyalty of even the great Chiefs was becoming somewhat brittle and would not bear any sudden strain put upon it. A successful raid of cattle such as was being proposed escaping the notice of the Police, or in the teeth of the Police, would have a disastrous effect upon the prestige of the whole Force, already shaken by the Duck Lake reverse. The effect of that skirmish was beyond belief. The victory of the half-breeds was exaggerated in the wildest degree. He must act and act quickly. His home and his family and those of his neighbors were in danger of the most horrible fate that could befall any human being. If the cattle-raid were carried through by the Piegan Indians its sweep would certainly include the Big Horn Ranch, and there was every likelihood that his home might be destroyed, for he was an object of special hate to Eagle Feather and to Little Thunder; and if Copperhead were in the business he had even greater cause for anxiety.
But what was to be done? The Indian boy had taken three days to bring the news. It would take a day and a night of hard riding to reach his home. Quickly he made his plans. He passed into the hotel, found the room of Billy the hostler and roused him up.
"Billy," he said, "get my horse out quick and hitch him up to the post where I can get him. And Billy, if you love me," he implored, "be quick!"
Billy sprang from his bed.
"Don't know what's eatin' you, boss," he said, "but quick's the word."
In another minute Cameron was pounding at Dr. Martin's door upstairs. Happily the doctor was in.
"Martin, old man," cried Cameron, gripping him hard by the shoulder. "Wake up and listen hard! That Indian boy you and Mandy pulled through has just come all the way from the Piegan Reserve to tell me of a proposed cattle-raid and a possible uprising of the Piegans in that South country. The cattle-raid is coming on at once. The uprising depends upon news from the Crees. Listen! I have promised Superintendent Strong to spend the next two days recruiting for his new troop. Explain to him why I cannot do this. He will understand. Then ride like blazes to Macleod and tell the Inspector all that I have told you and get him to send what men he can spare along with you. You can't get a man here. The raid starts from the Piegan Reserve. It will likely finish where the old Porcupine Trail joins the Sun Dance. At least so I judge. Ride by the ranch and get some of them there to show you the shortest trail. Both Mandy and Moira know it well."
"Hold on, Cameron! Let me get this clear," cried the doctor, holding him fast by the arm. "Two things I have gathered," said the doctor, speaking rapidly, "first, a cattle-raid, then a general uprising, the uprising dependent upon the news from the North. You want to block the cattle-raid? Is that right?"
"Right," said Cameron.
"Then you want me to settle with Superintendent Storm, ride to Macleod for men, then by your ranch and have them show me the shortest trail to the junction of the Porcupine and the Sun Dance?"
"You are right, Martin, old boy. It is a great thing to have a head like yours. I shall meet you somewhere at that point. I have been thinking this thing over and I believe they mean to make pemmican in preparation for their uprising, and if so they will make it somewhere on the Sun Dance Trail. Now I am off. Let me go, Martin."
"Tell me your own movements now."
"First, the ranch," said Cameron. "Then straight for the Sun Dance."
"All right, old boy. By-by and good-luck!"
Cameron found Billy waiting with Ginger at the door of the hotel.
"Thank you, Billy," he said, fumbling in his pocket. "Hang it, I can't find my purse."
"You go hang yourself!" said Billy. "Never mind your purse."
"All right, then," said Cameron, giving him his hand. "Good-by. You are a trump, Billy." He caught Ginger by the mane and threw himself on the saddle.
"Now, then, Ginger, you must not fail me this trip, if it is your last. A hundred and twenty miles, old boy, and you are none too fresh either. But, Ginger, we must beat them this time. A hundred and twenty miles to the Big Horn and twenty miles farther to the Sun Dance, that makes a hundred and forty, Ginger, and you are just in from a hard two days' ride. Steady, boy! Not too hard at the first." For Ginger was showing signs of eagerness beyond his wont. "At all costs this raid must be stopped," continued Cameron, speaking, after his manner, to his horse, "not for the sake of a few cattle--we could all stand that loss--but to balk at its beginning this scheme of old Copperhead's, for I believe in my soul he is at the bottom of it. Steady, old boy! We need every minute, but we cannot afford to make any miscalculations. The last quarter of an hour is likely to be the worst."
So on they went through the starry night. Steadily Ginger pounded the trail, knocking off the miles hour after hour. There was no pause for rest or for food. A few mouthfuls of water in the fording of a running stream, a pause to recover breath before plunging into an icy river, or on the taking of a steep coulee side, but no more. Hour after hour they pressed forward toward the Big Horn Ranch. The night passed into morning and the morning into the day, but still they pressed the trail.
Toward the close of the day Cameron found himself within an hour's ride of his own ranch with Ginger showing every sign of leg weariness and almost of collapse.
"Good old chap!" cried Cameron, leaning over him and patting his neck. "We must make it. We cannot let up, you know. Stick to it, old boy, a little longer."
A little snort and a little extra spurt of speed was the gallant Ginger's reply, but soon he was forced to sink back again into his stumbling stride.
"One hour more, Ginger, that is all--one hour only."
As he spoke he leapt from his saddle to ease his horse in climbing a long and lofty hill. As he surmounted the hill he stopped and swiftly backed his horse down the hill. Upon the distant skyline his eye had detected what he judged to be a horseman. His horse safely disposed of, he once more crawled to the top of the hill.
"An Indian, by Jove!" he cried. "I wonder if he has seen me."
Carefully his eye swept the intervening valley and the hillside beyond, but only this solitary figure could he see. As his eye rested on him the Indian began to move toward the west. Cameron lay watching him for some minutes. From his movements it was evident that the Indian's pace was being determined by some one on the other side of the hill, for he advanced now swiftly, now slowly. At times he halted and turned back upon his track, then went forward again.
"What the deuce is he doing?" said Cameron to himself. "By Jove! I have got it! The drive is begun. I am too late."
Swiftly he considered the whole situation. He was too late now to be of any service at his ranch. The raid had already swept past it. He wrung his hands in agony to think of what might have happened. He was torn with anxiety for his family--and yet here was the raid passing onward before his eyes. One hour would bring him to the ranch, but if this were the outside edge of the big cattle raid the loss of an hour would mean the loss of everything.
"Oh, my God! What shall I do?" he cried.
With his eyes still upon the Indian he forced himself to think more quietly. The secrecy with which the raid was planned made it altogether likely that the homes of the settlers would not at this time be interfered with. This consideration finally determined him. At all costs he must do what he could to head off the raid or to break the herd in some way. But that meant in the first place a ride of twenty or twenty-five miles over rough country. Could Ginger do it?
He crawled back to his horse and found him with his head close to the ground and trembling in every limb.
"If he goes this twenty miles," he said, "he will go no more. But it looks like our only hope, old boy. We must make for our old beat, the Sun Dance Trail."
He mounted his horse and set off toward the west, taking care never to appear above the skyline and riding as rapidly as the uncertain footing of the untrodden prairie would allow. At short intervals he would dismount and crawl to the top of the hill in order to keep in touch with the Indian, who was heading in pretty much the same direction as himself. A little further on his screening hill began to flatten itself out and finally it ran down into a wide valley which crossed his direction at right angles. He made his horse lie down, still in the shelter of the hill, and with most painful care he crawled on hands and knees out to the open and secured a point of vantage from which he could command the valley which ran southward for some miles till it, in turn, was shut in by a further range of hills.
He was rewarded for his patience and care. Far down before him at the bottom of the valley a line of cattle was visible and hurrying them along a couple of Indian horsemen. As he lay watching these Indians he observed that a little farther on this line was augmented by a similar line from the east driven by the Indian he had first observed, and by two others who emerged from a cross valley still further on. Prone upon his face he lay, with his eyes on that double line of cattle and its hustling drivers. The raid was surely on. What could one man do to check it? Similar lines of cattle were coming down the different valleys and would all mass upon the old Porcupine Trail and finally pour into the Sun Dance with its many caves and canyons. There was much that was mysterious in this movement still to Cameron. What could these Indians do with this herd of cattle? The mere killing of them was in itself a vast undertaking. He was perfectly familiar with the Indian's method of turning buffalo meat, and later beef, into pemmican, but the killing, and the dressing, and the rendering of the fat, and the preparing of the bags, all this was an elaborate and laborious process. But one thing was clear to his mind. At all costs he must get around the head of these converging lines.
He waited there till the valley was clear of cattle and Indians, then, mounting his horse, he pushed hard across the valley and struck a parallel trail upon the farther side of the hills. Pursuing this trail for some miles, he crossed still another range of hills farther to the west and so proceeded till he came within touch of the broken country that marks the division between the Foothills and the Mountains. He had not many miles before him now, but his horse was failing fast and he himself was half dazed with weariness and exhaustion. Night, too, was falling and the going was rough and even dangerous; for now hillsides suddenly broke off into sharp cut-banks, twenty, thirty, forty feet high.
It was one of these cut-banks that was his undoing, for in the dim light he failed to note that the sheep track he was following ended thus abruptly till it was too late. Had his horse been fresh he could easily have recovered himself, but, spent as he was, Ginger stumbled, slid and finally rolled headlong down the steep hillside and over the bank on to the rocks below. Cameron had just strength to throw himself from the saddle and, scrambling on his knees, to keep himself from following his horse. Around the cut-bank he painfully made his way to where his horse lay with his leg broken, groaning like a human being in his pain.
"Poor old boy! You are done at last," he said.
But there was no time to indulge regrets. Those lines of cattle were swiftly and steadily converging upon the Sun Dance. He had before him an almost impossible achievement. Well he knew that a man on foot could do little with the wild range cattle. They would speedily trample him into the ground. But he must go on. He must make the attempt.
But first there was a task that it wrung his heart to perform. His horse must be put out of pain. He took off his coat, rolled it over his horse's head, inserted his gun under its folds to deaden the sound and to hide those luminous eyes turned so entreatingly upon him.
"Old boy, you have done your duty, and so must I. Good-by, old chap!" He pulled the fatal trigger and Ginger's work was done.
He took up his coat and set off once more upon the winding sheep trail that he guessed would bring him to the Sun Dance. Dazed, half asleep, numbed with weariness and faint with hunger, he stumbled on, while the stars came out overhead and with their mild radiance lit up his rugged way.
Suddenly he found himself vividly awake. Diagonally across the face of the hill in front of him, a few score yards away and moving nearer, a horse came cantering. Quickly Cameron dropped behind a jutting rock. Easily, daintily, with never a slip or slide came the horse till he became clearly visible in the starlight. There was no mistaking that horse or that rider. No other horse in all the territories could take that slippery, slithery hill with a tread so light and sure, and no other rider in the Western country could handle his horse with such easy, steady grace among the rugged rocks of that treacherous hillside. It was Nighthawk and his master.
"Raven!" breathed Cameron to himself. "Raven! Is it possible? By Jove! I would not have believed it. The Superintendent was right after all. He is a villain, a black-hearted villain too. So, he is the brains behind this thing. I ought to have known it. Fool that I was! He pulled the wool over my eyes all right."
The rage that surged up through his heart stimulated his dormant energies into new life. With a deep oath Cameron pulled out both his guns and set off up the hill on the trail of the disappearing horseman. His weariness fell from him like a coat, the spring came back to his muscles, clearness to his brain. He was ready for his best fight and he knew it lay before him. Swiftly, lightly he ran up the hillside. At the top he paused amazed. Before him lay a large Indian encampment with rows upon rows of tents and camp fires with kettles swinging, and everywhere Indians and squaws moving about. Skirting the camp and still keeping to the side of the hill, he came upon a stout new-built fence that ran straight down an incline to a steep cut-bank with a sheer drop of thirty feet or more. Like a flash the meaning of it came upon him. This was to be the end of the drive. Here the cattle were to meet their death. Here it was that the pemmican was to be made. On the hillside opposite there was doubtless a similar fence and these two would constitute the fatal funnel down which the cattle were to be stampeded over the cut-bank to their destruction. This was the nefarious scheme planned by Raven and his treacherous allies.
Swiftly Cameron turned and followed the fence up the incline some three or four hundred yards from the cut-bank. At its upper end the fence curved outward for some distance upon a wide upland valley, then ceased altogether. Such was the slope of the hill that no living man could turn a herd of cattle once entered upon that steep incline.
Down the hill, across the valley and up the other side ran Cameron, keeping low and carefully picking his way among the loose stones till he came to the other fence which, curving similarly outward, made with its fellow a perfectly completed funnel. Once between the curving lips of this funnel nothing could save the rushing, crowding cattle from the deadly cut-bank below.
"Oh, if I only had my horse," groaned Cameron, "I might have a chance to turn them off just here."
At the point at which he stood the slope of the hillside fell somewhat toward the left and away slightly from the mouth of the funnel. A skilled cowboy with sufficient nerve, on a first-class horse, might turn the herd away from the cut-bank into the little coulee that led down from the end of the fence, but for a man on foot the thing was quite impossible. He determined, however, to make the effort. No man can certainly tell how cattle will behave when excited and at night.
As he stood there rapidly planning how to divert the rush of cattle from that deadly funnel, there rose on the still night air a soft rumbling sound like low and distant thunder. That sound Cameron knew only too well. It was the pounding of two hundred steers upon the resounding prairie. He rushed back again to the right side of the fenced runway, and then forward to meet the coming herd. A half moon rising over the round top of the hill revealed the black surging mass of steers, their hoofs pounding like distant artillery, their horns rattling like a continuous crash of riflery. Before them at a distance of a hundred yards or more a mounted Indian rode toward the farther side of the funnel and took his stand at the very spot at which there was some hope of diverting the rushing herd from the cut-bank down the side coulee to safety.
"That man has got to go," said Cameron to himself, drawing his gun. But before he could level it there shot out from the dim light behind the Indian a man on horseback. Like a lion on its prey the horse leaped with a wicked scream at the Indian pony. Before that furious leap both man and pony went down and rolled over and over in front of the pounding herd. Over the prostrate pony leaped the horse and up the hillside fair in the face of that rushing mass of maddened steers. Straight across their face sped the horse and his rider, galloping lightly, with never a swerve or hesitation, then swiftly wheeling as the steers drew almost level with him he darted furiously on their flank and rode close at their noses. "Crack! Crack!" rang the rider's revolver, and two steers in the far flank dropped to the earth while over them surged the following herd. Again the revolver rang out, once, twice, thrice, and at each crack a leader on the flank farthest away plunged down and was submerged by the rushing tide behind. For an instant the column faltered on its left and slowly began to swerve in that direction. Then upon the leaders of the right flank the black horse charged furiously, biting, kicking, plunging like a thing possessed of ten thousand devils. Steadily, surely the line continued to swerve.
"My God!" cried Cameron, unable to believe his eyes. "They are turning! They are turned!"
With wild cries and discharging his revolver fair in the face of the leaders, Cameron rushed out into the open and crossed the mouth of the funnel.
"Go back, you fool! Go back!" yelled the man on horseback. "Go back! I have them!" He was right. Cameron's sudden appearance gave the final and necessary touch to the swerving movement. Across the mouth of the funnel with its yawning deadly cut-bank, and down the side coulee, carrying part of the fence with them, the herd crashed onward, with the black horse hanging on their flank still biting and kicking with a kind of joyous fury.
"Raven! Raven!" cried Cameron in glad accents. "It is Raven! Thank God, he is straight after all!" A great tide of gratitude and admiration for the outlaw was welling up in his heart. But even as he ran there thundered past him an Indian on horseback, the reins flying loose and a rifle in his hands. As he flashed past a gleam of moonlight caught his face, the face of a demon.
"Little Thunder!" cried Cameron, whipping out his gun and firing, but with no apparent effect, at the flying figure.
With his gun still in his hand, Cameron ran on down the coulee in the wake of Little Thunder. Far away could be heard the roar of the rushing herd, but nothing could be seen of Raven. Running as he had never run in his life, Cameron followed hard upon the Indian's track, who was by this time some hundred yards in advance. Suddenly in the moonlight, and far down the coulee, Raven could be seen upon his black horse cantering easily up the slope and toward the swiftly approaching Indian.
"Raven! Raven!" shouted Cameron, firing his gun. "On guard! On guard!"
Raven heard, looked up and saw the Indian bearing down upon him. His horse, too, saw the approaching foe and, gathering himself, in two short leaps rushed like a whirlwind at him, but, swerving aside, the Indian avoided the charging stallion. Cameron saw his rifle go up to his shoulder, a shot reverberated through the coulee, Raven swayed in his saddle. A second shot and the black horse was fair upon the Indian pony, hurling him to the ground and falling himself upon him. As the Indian sprang to his feet Raven was upon him. He gripped him by the throat and shook him as a dog shakes a rat. Once, twice, his pistol fell upon the snarling face and the Indian crumpled up and lay still, battered to death.
"Thank God!" cried Cameron, as he came up, struggling with his sobbing breath. "You have got the beast."
"Yes, I have got him," said Raven, with his hand to his side, "but I guess he has got me too. And--" he paused. His eye fell upon his horse lying upon his side and feebly kicking--"ah, I fear he has got you as well, Nighthawk, old boy." As he staggered over toward his horse the sound of galloping hoofs was heard coming down the coulee.
"Here are some more of them!" cried Cameron, drawing out his guns.
"All right, Cameron, my boy, just back up here beside me," said Raven, as he coolly loaded his empty revolver. "We can send a few more of these devils to hell. You are a good sport, old chap, and I want to go out in no better company."
"Hold up!" cried Cameron. "There is a woman. Why, there is a Policeman. They are friends, Raven. It is the doctor and Moira. Hurrah! Here you are, Martin. Quick! Quick! Oh, my God! He is dying!"
Raven had sunk to his knees beside his horse. They gathered round him, a Mounted Police patrol picked up on the way by Dr. Martin, Moira who had come to show them the trail, and Smith.
"Nighthawk, old boy," they heard Raven say, his hand patting the shoulder of the noble animal, "he has done for you, I fear." His voice came in broken sobs. The great horse lifted his beautiful head and looked round toward his master. "Ah, my boy, we have done many a journey together!" cried Raven as he threw his arm around the glossy neck, "and on this last one too we shall not be far apart." The horse gave a slight whinny, nosed into his master's hand and laid his head down again. A slight quiver of the limbs and he was still for ever. "Ah, he has gone!" cried Raven, "my best, my only friend."
"No, no," cried Cameron, "you are with friends now, Raven, old man." He offered his hand. Raven took it wonderingly.
"You mean it, Cameron?"
"Yes, with all my heart. You are a true man, if God ever made one, and you have shown it to-night."
"Ah!" said Raven, with a kind of sigh as he sank back and leaned up against his horse. "That is good to hear. It is long since I have had a friend."
"Quick, Martin!" said Cameron. "He is wounded."
"What? Where?" said the doctor, kneeling down beside him and tearing open his coat and vest. "Oh, my God!" cried the doctor. "He is--" The doctor paused abruptly.
"What do you say? Oh, Dr. Martin, he is not badly wounded?" Moira threw herself on her knees beside the wounded man and caught his hand. "Oh, it is cold, cold," she cried through rushing tears. "Can you not help him? Oh, you must not let him die."
"Surely he is not dying?" said Cameron.
The doctor was silently and swiftly working with his syringe.
"How long, Doctor?" inquired Raven in a quiet voice.
"Half an hour, perhaps less," said the doctor brokenly. "Have you any pain?"
"No, very little. It is quite easy. Cameron," he said, his voice beginning to fail, "I want you to send a letter which you will find in my pocket addressed to my brother. Tell no one the name. And add this, that I forgive him. It was really not worth while," he added wearily, "to hate him so. And say to the Superintendent I was on the straight with him, with you all, with my country in this rebellion business. I heard about this raid; and I fancy I have rather spoiled their pemmican. I have run some cattle in my time, but you know, Cameron, a fellow who has worn the uniform could not mix in with these beastly breeds against the Queen, God bless her!"
"Oh, Dr. Martin," cried the girl piteously, shaking him by the arm, "do not tell me you can do nothing. Try--try something." She began again to chafe the cold hand, her tears falling upon it.
Raven looked up quickly at her.
"You are weeping for me, Miss Moira?" he said, surprise and wonder in his face. "For me? A horse-thief, an outlaw, for me? I thank you. And forgive me--may I kiss your hand?" He tried feebly to lift her hand to his lips.
"No, no," cried the girl. "Not my hand!" and leaning over him she kissed him on the brow. His eyes were still upon her.
"Thank you," he said feebly, a rare, beautiful smile lighting up the white face. "You make me believe in God's mercy."
There was a quick movement in the group and Smith was kneeling beside the dying man.
"God's mercy, Mr. Raven," he said in an eager voice, "is infinite. Why should you not believe in it?"
Raven looked at him curiously.
"Oh, yes," he said with a quaintly humorous smile, "you are the chap that chucked Jerry away from the door?"
Smith nodded, then said earnestly:
"Mr. Raven, you must believe in God's mercy."
"God's mercy," said the dying man slowly. "Yes, God's mercy. What is it again? 'God--be--merciful--to me--a sinner.'" Once more he opened his eyes and let them rest upon the face of the girl bending over him. "Yes," he said, "you helped me to believe in God's mercy." With a sigh as of content he settled himself quietly against the shoulders of his dead horse.
"Good old comrade," he said, "good-by!" He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. They waited for another, but there was no more.
"He is gone," said the doctor.
"Gone?" cried Moira. "Gone? Ochone, but he was the gallant gentleman!" she wailed, lapsing into her Highland speech. "Oh, but he had the brave heart and the true heart. Ochone! Ochone!" She swayed back and forth upon her knees with hands clasped and tears running down her cheeks, bending over the white face that lay so still in the moonlight and touched with the majesty of death.
"Come, Moira! Come, Moira!" said her brother surprised at her unwonted display of emotion. "You must control yourself."
"Leave her alone. Let her cry. She is in a hard spot," said Dr. Martin in a sharp voice in which grief and despair were mingled.
Cameron glanced at his friend's face. It was the face of a haggard old man.
"You are used up, old boy," he said kindly, putting his hand on the doctor's arm. "You need rest."
"Rest?" said the doctor. "Rest? Not I. But you do. And you too, Miss Moira," he added gently. "Come," giving her his hand, "you must get home." There was in his voice a tone of command that made the girl look up quickly and obey.
"And you?" she said. "You must be done."
"Done? Yes, but what matter? Take her home, Cameron."
"And what about you?" inquired Cameron.
"Smith, the constable and I will look after--him--and the horse. Send a wagon to-morrow morning."
Without further word the brother and sister mounted their horses.
"Good-by, old man. See you to-morrow," said Cameron.
"Good-night," said the doctor shortly.
The girl gave him her hand.
"Good-night," she said simply, her eyes full of a dumb pain.
"Good-by, Miss Moira," said the doctor, who held her hand for just a moment as if to speak again, then abruptly he turned his back on her without further word and so stood with never a glance more after her. It was for him a final farewell to hopes that had lived with him and had warmed his heart for the past three years. Now they were dead, dead as the dead man upon whose white still face he stood looking down.
"Thief, murderer, outlaw," he muttered to himself. "Sure enough-- sure enough. And yet you could not help it, nor could she." But he was not thinking of the dead man's record in the books of the Mounted Police.
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