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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIsobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 16. The Law-- Murderer Of Men
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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 16. The Law-- Murderer Of Men Post by :best4you Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1761

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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 16. The Law-- Murderer Of Men


Seated on the table, little Isobel looked up into Billy's face and laughed, and when the laugh ended in a half wail Billy found that his fingers had tightened on her little shoulder until they hurt. He tousled her hair to bring back her good-humor, and put her on the floor. Then he went back to the partly open door. It was quiet in the darkened room. He listened for a breath or a sob, and could hear neither. A curtain was drawn over the one window, and he could but indistinctly make out the darker shadow where Isobel lay on the bed. His heart beat faster as he softly called Isobel's name. There was no answer. He looked back. Little Isobel had found something on the floor and was amusing herself with it. Again he called the mother, and still there was no answer. He was filled with a sort of horror. He wanted to go over to the dark shadow and assure himself that she was breathing, but a hand seemed to thrust him back. And then, piercing him like a knife, there came again those low, moaning words of accusation:

"It was you-- it was you-- it was you--"

In that voice, low and moaning as it was, he recognized some of Pelliter's madness. It was the fever. He fell back a step and drew a hand across his forehead. It was damp, clammy with a cold perspiration. He felt a burning pain where he had been struck, and a momentary dizziness made him stagger. Then, with a tremendous effort, he threw himself together and turned to the little girl. As he carried her out through the door into the fresh air Isobel's feverish words still followed him:

"It was you-- you-- you-- you!"

The cold air did him good, and he hurried toward the tent with baby Isobel. As he deposited her among the blankets and bearskins the hopelessness of his position impressed itself swiftly upon him. The child could not remain in the cabin, and yet she would not be immune from danger in the tent, for he would have to spend a part of his time with her. He shuddered as he thought of what it might mean. For himself he had no fear of the dread disease that had stricken Isobel. He had run the risk of contagion several times before and had remained unscathed, but his soul trembled with fear as he looked into little Isobel's bright blue eyes and tenderly caressed the soft curls about her face, If Couchée and his wife had only taken her! At thought of them he sprang suddenly to his feet.

"Looky, little one, you've got to stay here!" he commanded. "Understand? I'm going to pin down the tent-flap, and you mustn't cry. If I don't get that damned half-breed, dead or alive, my name ain't Billy MacVeigh."

He fastened the tent-flap so that Isobel could not escape, and left her alone, quiet and wondering. Loneliness was not new to her. Solitude did not frighten her; and, listening with his ear close to the canvas, Billy soon heard her playing with the armful of things he had scattered about her. He hurried to the dogs and harnessed them to the sledge. Couchée and his wife did not have over half an hour the start of him-- three-quarters at the most. He would run the race of his life for an hour or two, overtake them, and bring them back at the point of his revolver. If there had to be a fight he would fight.

Where the trail struck into the forest he hesitated, wondering if he would not make better speed by leaving the team and sledge behind. The excited actions of the dogs decided him. They were sniffing at the scent left in the snow by the rival huskies, and were waiting eagerly for the command to pursue. Billy snapped his whip over their heads.

"You want a fight, do you, boys?" he cried. "So do I. Get on with you! M'hoosh! M'hoosh!"

Billy dropped upon his knees on the sledge as the dogs leaped ahead. They needed no guidance, but followed swiftly in Couchée's trail. Five minutes later they broke into thin timber, and then came out into a narrow plain, dotted with stunted scrub, through which ran the Beaver. Here the snow was soft and drifted, and Billy ran behind, hanging to the tail-rope to keep the sledge from leaving him if the dogs should develop an unexpected spurt. He could see that Couchée was exerting every effort to place distance between himself and the plague-stricken cabin, and it suddenly struck Billy that something besides fear of le mort rouge was adding speed to his heels. It was evident that the half-breed was spurred on by the thought of the blow he had struck in the cabin. Possibly he believed that he was a murderer, and Billy smiled as he observed where Couchée had whipped his dogs at a run through the soft drifts. He brought his own team down to a walk, convinced that the half-breed had lost his head, and that he would bush himself and his dogs within a few miles. He was confident, now that he would overtake them somewhere on the plain.

With the elation of this thought there came again the sudden, sickening pain in his head. It was over in an instant, but in that moment the snow had turned black, and he had flung out his arms to keep himself from falling. The babiche rope had slipped from his hand, and when things cleared before his eyes again the sledge was twenty yards ahead of him. He overtook it, and dropped upon it, panting as though he had run a race. He laughed as he recovered himself, and looked over the gray backs of the tugging dogs, but in the same breath the laugh was cut short on his lips. It was as if a knife-blade had run in one lightning thrust from the back of his neck to his brain, and he fell forward on his face with a cry of pain. After all, Couchée's blow had done the work. He realized that, and made an effort to call the dogs to a stop. For five minutes they went on, unheeding the half-dozen weak commands that he called out from the darkness that had fallen thickly about him. When at last he pulled himself up from his face and the snow turned white again, the dogs had halted. They were tangled in their traces and sniffing at the snow.

Billy sat up. Darkness and pain left him as swiftly as they had come. He saw Couchée's trail ahead, and then he looked at the dogs. They had swung at right angles to the sledge and had pulled the nose of it deep into a drift. With a sharp cry of command he sent the lash of his whip among them and went to the leader's head. The dogs slunk to their bellies, snarling at him.

"What the devil--" he began, and stopped.

He stared at the snow. Straight out from Couchée's trail there ran another-- a snow-shoe trail. For a moment he thought that Couchée or his wife had for some reason struck out a distance from their sledge. A second glance assured him that in this supposition he was wrong. Both the half-breed and his wife wore the long, narrow "bush" snow-shoes, and this second trail was made by the big, basket-shaped shoes worn by Indians and trappers on the Barrens. In addition to this, the trail was well beaten. Whoever had traveled it recently had gone over it many times before, and Billy gave utterance to his joy in a low cry. He had struck a trap line. The trapper's cabin could not be far away, and the trapper himself had passed that way not many minutes since. He examined the two trails and found where the blunt, round point of a snow-shoe had covered an imprint left by Couchée, and at this discovery Billy made a megaphone of his mittened hands and gave utterance to the long, wailing holloa of the forest man. It was a cry that would carry a mile. Twice he shouted, and the second time there came a reply. It was not far distant, and he responded with a third and still louder shout. In a flash there came again the terrible pain in his head, and he sank down on the sledge. This time he was roused from his stupor by the barking and snarling of the dogs and the voice of a man. When he lifted his head out of his arms he saw some one close to the dogs. He made an effort to rise, and staggered half to his feet. Then he fell back, and the darkness closed in about him more thickly than before. When he opened his eyes again he was in a cabin. He was conscious of warmth. The first sound that he heard was the crackling of a fire and the closing of a stove door. And then he heard some one say:

"S'help me God, if it ain't Billy MacVeigh!"

He stared up into the face that was looking down at him. It was a white man's face, covered with a scrubby red beard. The beard was new, but the eyes and the voice he would have recognized anywhere. For two years he had messed with Rookie McTabb down at Norway and Nelson House. McTabb had quit the Service because of a bad leg.

"Rookie!" he gasped.

He drew himself up, and McTabb's hands grasped his shoulders.

"S'help me, if it ain't Billy MacVeigh!" he exclaimed again, amazement in his voice and face. "Joe brought you in five minutes ago, and I ain't had a straight squint at you until now. Billy MacVeigh! Well, I'm--" He stopped to stare at Billy's forehead, where there was a stain of blood. "Hurt?" he demanded, sharply. "Was it that damned half-breed?"

Billy was gripping his hands now. Over near the stove, still kneeling before the closed door, he saw the dark face of an Indian turned toward him.

"It was Couchée," he said. "He hit me with the butt of his whip, and I've had funny spells ever since. Before I have another I want to tell you what I'm up against, Rookie. My Gawd, it's a funny chance that ran me up against you-- just in time! Listen."

He told McTabb briefly of Scottie Deane's death, of Couchée's flight from the cabin, and the present situation there.

"There isn't a minute to lose," he finished, tightening his hold on McTabb's hand. "There's the kid and the mother, and I've got to get back to them, Rookie. The rest is up to you. We've got to get a woman. If we don't-- soon--"

He rose to his feet and stood there looking at McTabb. The other nodded.

"I understand," he said. "You're in a bad fix, Billy. It's two hundred miles to the nearest white woman, away over near Du Brochet. You couldn't get an Indian to go within half a mile of a cabin that's struck by the plague, and I doubt if this white woman would come. The only game I can see is to send to Fort Churchill or Nelson House and have the force send up a nurse. It will take two weeks."

Billy gave a gesture of despair. Indian Joe had listened attentively, and now rose quietly from his position in front of the stove.

"There's Indian camp over on Arrow Lake," he said, facing Billy. "I know squaw there who not afraid of plague."

"Sure as fate!" cried McTabb, exultantly. "Joe's mother is over there, and if there is anything on earth she won't do for Joe I can't guess what it is. Early this winter she came a hundred and fifty miles-- alone-- to pay him a visit. She'll come. Go after her, Joe. I'll go Billy MacVeigh's bond to get the Service to pay her five dollars a day from the hour she starts!" He turned to Billy. "How's your head?" he asked.

"Better. It was the run that fixed me, I guess."

"Then we'll go over to Couchée's cabin and I'll bring back the kid."

They left Joe preparing for his three-day trip into the south and east, and outside the cabin McTabb insisted on Billy riding behind the dogs. They struck back for Couchée's trail, and when they came to it McTabb laughed.

"I'll bet they're running like rabbits," he said. "What in thunder did you expect to do if you caught 'em, Billy? Drag the woman back by the hair of 'er 'ead? I'm glad you tumbled where you did. You've got to beat a lynx to beat Couchée. He'd have perforated you from behind a snow-drift sure as your name's Billy MacVeigh."

Billy felt that an immense load had been lifted from him, and he was partly inclined to tell his companion more about Isobel and himself. This, however, he did not do. As McTabb strode ahead and urged on the dogs he figured on the chances of Joe and his mother returning within a week. During that time he would be alone with Isobel, and in spite of the horrible fear that never for a moment left his heart it was impossible for him not to feel a thrill of pleasure at the thought. Those would be days of agony for himself as well as for her, and yet he would be near, always near, the woman he loved. And little Isobel would be safe in Rookie's cabin. If anything happened--

His hands gripped the edges of the sledge at the thought that leaped into his brain. It was Pelliter's thought. If anything happened to Isobel the little girl would be his own, forever and forever. He thrust the thought from him as if it were the plague itself. Isobel would live. He would make her live, If she died--

McTabb heard the low cry that broke from his lips. He could not keep it back. Good God, if she went, how empty the world would be! He might never see her again after these days of terror that were ahead of him; but if she lived, and he knew that the sun was shining in her bright hair, and that her blue eyes still looked up at the stars, and that in her sweet prayers she sometimes thought of him-- along with Deane-- life could not be quite so lonely for him.

McTabb had dropped back to his side.

"Head hurt?" he asked.

"A little," lied Billy. "There's a level stretch ahead, Rookie. Hustle up the dogs!"

Half an hour later the sledge drew up in front of Couchée's cabin. Billy pointed to the tent.

"The little one is in there," he said. "Go over an' get acquainted, Rookie. I'm going to take a look inside to see if everything is all right."

He entered the cabin quietly and closed the door softly behind him. The inner door was as he had left it, partly open, and he looked in, with a wildly beating heart. He could no longer hesitate. He stepped in and spoke her name.


There was a movement on the bed, and he was startled by the suddenness with which Isobel sprang to her feet. She drew aside the heavy curtain from the window and stood in the light. For a moment Billy saw her blue eyes filled with a strange fire as she stared at him. There was a wild flush in her cheeks, and he could hear her dry breath as it came from between her parted lips. Her hair was still undone and covered her in a shimmering veil.

"I've found a trapper's cabin, Isobel, and we're taking the baby there," he went on. "She will be safe. And we're sending for help-- for a woman--"

He stopped, horror striking him dumb. He saw more plainly the feverish madness in Isobel's eyes. She dropped the curtain, and they were in gloom. The whispered words he heard were more terrible than the madness in her eyes.

"You won't kill her?" she pleaded. "You won't kill my baby? You won't kill her--"

She staggered, back toward the bed, whispering the words over and over again. Not until she had dropped upon it did Billy move. The blood in his body seemed to have turned cold. Be dropped upon his knees at her side. His hand buried itself in the soft smother of her hair, but he no longer felt the touch of it. He tried to speak, but words would not come. And then, suddenly, she thrust him back, and he could see the glow of her eyes in the half darkness. For a moment she seemed to have fought herself out of her delirium.

"It was you-- you-- who helped to kill him!" she panted. "It was the Law-- and you are the Law. It kills-- kills-- kills-- and it never gives back when it makes a mistake. He was innocent, but you and the Law hounded him until he died. You are the murderers. You killed him. You have killed me. And you will never be punished-- never-- never-- because you are the Law-- and because the Law can kill-- kill-- kill--"

She dropped back, moaning, and MacVeigh crouched at her side, his fingers buried in her hair, with no words to say. In a moment she breathed easier. He felt her tense body relax. He forced himself to his feet and dragged himself into the outer room, closing the door after him. Even in her delirium Isobel had spoken the truth. Forever she had digged for him a black abyss between them. The Law had killed Scottie Deane. And he was the Law. And for the Law there was no punishment, even though it took the life of an innocent man.

He went outside. McTabb was in the tent. The gloom of evening was closing in on a desolate world. Overhead the sky was thick, and suddenly, with a great cry, Billy flung his arms straight up over his head and cursed that Law which could not be punished, the Law that had killed Scottie Deane. For he was that Law, and Isobel had called him a murderer.

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