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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPhilip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 12. The Fight--And A Strange Visitor
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Philip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 12. The Fight--And A Strange Visitor Post by :andrewteg Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :3186

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Philip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 12. The Fight--And A Strange Visitor

Chapter XII. The Fight--And A Strange Visitor

At DeBar's words the blood leaped swiftly through Philip's veins, and he laughed as he flung the outlaw's hand from his arm.

"I'm not afraid of death," he cried angrily. "Don't take me for a child, William DeBar. How long since you found this God of yours?"

He spoke the words half tauntingly, and as soon regretted them, for in a voice that betrayed no anger at the slur DeBar said: "Ever since my mother taught me the first prayer, Phil. I've killed three men and I've helped to hang three others, and still I believe in a God, and I've halt a notion He believes a little bit in me, in spite of the laws made down in Ottawa."

The cabin loomed up amid a shelter of spruce like a black shadow, and when they climbed up the bank to it they found the snow drifted high under the window and against the door.

"He's gone--Pierre, I mean," said DeBar over his shoulder as he kicked the snow away. "He hasn't come back from New Year's at Fort Smith."

The door had no lock or bolt, and they entered. It was yet too dark for them to see distinctly, and DeBar struck a match. On the table was a tin oil lamp, which he lighted. It revealed a neatly kept interior about a dozen feet square, with two bunks, several chairs, a table, and a sheet iron stove behind which was piled a supply of wood. DeBar pointed to a shelf on which were a number of tin boxes, their covers weighted down by chunks of wood.

"Grub!" he said.

And Philip, pointing to the wood, added, "Fire--fire and grub."

There was something in his voice which the other could not fail to understand, and there was an uncomfortable silence as Philip put fuel into the stove and DeBar searched among the food cans.

"Here's bannock and cooked meat--frozen," he said, "and beans."

He placed tins of each on the stove and then sat down beside the roaring fire, which was already beginning to diffuse a heat. He held out his twisted and knotted hands, blue and shaking with cold, and looked up at Philip, who stood opposite him.

He spoke no words, and yet there was something in his eyes which made the latter cry out softly, and with a feeling which he tried to hide: "DeBar, I wish to God it was over!"

"So do I," said DeBar.

He rubbed his hands and twisted them until the knuckles cracked.

"I'm not afraid and I know that you're not, Phil," he went on, with his eyes on the top of the stove, "but I wish it was over, just the same. Somehow I'd a'most rather stay up here another year or two than--kill you."

"Kill me!" exclaimed Philip, the old fire leaping back into his veins.

DeBar's quiet voice, his extraordinary self-confidence, sent a flush of anger into Philip's face.

"You're talking to me again as if I were a child, DeBar. My instructions were to bring you back, dead or alive--and I'm going to!"

"We won't quarrel about it, Phil," replied the outlaw as quietly as before. "Only I wish it wasn't you I'm going to fight. I'd rather kill half-a-dozen like the others than you."

"I see," said Philip, with a perceptible sneer in his voice. "You're trying to work upon my sympathy so that I will follow your suggestion--and go back. Eh?"

"You'd be a coward if you did that," retorted DeBar quickly. "How are we going to settle it, Phil?"

Philip drew his frozen revolver from its holster and held it over the stove.

"If I wasn't a crack shot, and couldn't center a two-inch bull's-eye three times out of four at thirty paces, I'd say pistols."

"I can't do that," said DeBar unhesitatingly, "but I have hit a wolf twice out of five shots. It'll be a quick, easy way, and we'll settle it with our revolvers. Going to shoot to kill?"

"No, if I can help it. In the excitement a shot may kill, but I want to take you back alive, so I'll wing you once or twice first."

"I always shoot to kill," replied DeBar, without lifting his head. "Any word you'd like to have sent home, Phil?"

In the other's silence DeBar looked up.

"I mean it," he said, in a low earnest voice. "Even from your point of view it might happen, Phil, and you've got friends somewhere. It anything should happen to me you'll find a letter in my pocket. I want you to write to--to her--an' tell her I died in--an accident. Will you?"

"Yes," replied Philip. "As for me, you'll find addresses in my pocket, too. Let's shake!"

Over the stove they gripped hands.

"My eyes hurt," said DeBar. "It's the snow and wind, I guess. Do you mind a little sleep--after we eat? I haven't slept a wink in three days and nights."

"Sleep until you're ready," urged Philip. "I don't want to fight bad eyes."

They ate, mostly in silence, and when the meal was done Philip carefully cleaned his revolver and oiled it with bear grease, which he found in a bottle on the shelf.

DeBar watched him as he wiped his weapon and saw that Philip lubricated each of the five cartridges which he put in the chamber.

Afterward they smoked.

Then DeBar stretched himself out in one of the two bunks, and his heavy breathing soon gave evidence that he was sleeping.

For a time Philip sat beside the stove, his eyes upon the inanimate form of the outlaw. Drowsiness overcame him then, and he rolled into the other bunk. He was awakened several hours later by DeBar, who was filling the stove with wood.

"How's the eyes?" he asked, sitting up.

"Good," said the other. "Glad you're awake. The light will be bad inside of an hour."

He was rubbing and warming his hands, and Philip came to the opposite side of the stove and rubbed and warmed his hands. For some reason he found it difficult to look at DeBar, and he knew that DeBar was not looking at him.

It was the outlaw who broke the suspense.

"I've been outside," he said in a low voice. "There's an open in front of the cabin, just a hundred paces across. It wouldn't be a bad idea for us to stand at opposite sides of the open and at a given signal approach, firing as we want to."

"Couldn't be better," exclaimed Philip briskly, turning to pull his revolver from its holster.

DeBar watched him with tensely anxious eyes as he broke the breech, looked at the shining circle of cartridges, and closed it again.

Without a word he went to the door, opened it, and with his pistol arm trailing at his side, strode off to the right. For a moment Philip stood looking after him, a queer lump in his throat. He would have liked to shake hands, and yet at the same time he was glad that DeBar had gone in this way. He turned to the left--and saw at a glance that the outlaw had given him the best light. DeBar was facing him when he reached his ground.

"Are you ready?" he shouted.

"Ready!" cried Philip.

DeBar ran forward, shoulders hunched low, his pistol arm half extended, and Philip advanced to meet him. At seventy paces, without stopping in his half trot, the outlaw fired, and his bullet passed in a hissing warning three feet over Philip's head. The latter had planned to hold his fire until he was sure of hitting the outlaw in the arm or shoulder, but a second shot from him, which seemed to Philip almost to nip him in the face, stopped him short, and at fifty paces he returned the fire.

DeBar ducked low and Philip thought that he was hit.

Then with a fierce yell he darted forward, firing as he came.

Again, and still a third time Philip fired, and as DeBar advanced, unhurt, after each shot, a cry of amazement rose to his lips. At forty paces he could nip a four-inch bull's-eye three times out of five, and here he missed a man! At thirty he held an unbeaten record--and at thirty, here in the broad open, he still missed his man!

He had felt the breath of DeBar's fourth shot, and now with one cartridge each the men advanced foot by foot, until DeBar stopped and deliberately aimed at twenty paces. Their pistols rang out in one report, and, standing unhurt, a feeling of horror swept over Philip as he looked at the other. The outlaw's arms fell to his side. His empty pistol dropped to the snow, and for a moment he stood rigid, with his face half turned to the gloomy sky, while a low cry of grief burst from Philip's lips.

In that momentary posture of DeBar he saw, not the effect of a wound only, but the grim, terrible rigidity of death. He dropped his own weapon and ran forward, and in that instant DeBar leaped to meet him with the fierceness of a beast!

It was a terrible bit of play on DeBar's part, and for a moment took Philip off his guard. He stepped aside, and, with the cleverness of a trained boxer, he sent a straight cut to the outlaw's face as he closed in. But the blow lacked force, and he staggered back under the other's weight, boiling with rage at the advantage which DeBar had taken of him.

The outlaw's hands gripped at his throat and his fingers sank into his neck like cords of steel. With a choking gasp he clutched at DeBar's wrists, knowing that another minute--a half-minute of that death clutch would throttle him. He saw the triumph in DeBar's eyes, and with a last supreme effort drew back his arm and sent a terrific short-arm punch into the other's stomach.

The grip at his throat relaxed. A second, a third, and a fourth blow, his arm traveling swiftly in and out, like a piston-rod, and the triumph in DeBar's eyes was replaced by a look of agony. The fingers at his throat loosened still more, and with a sudden movement Philip freed himself and sprang back a step to gather force for the final blow.

The move was fatal. Behind him his heel caught in a snow-smothered log and he pitched backward with DeBar on top of him.

Again the iron fingers burned at his throat. But this time he made no resistance, and after a moment the outlaw rose to his feet and stared down into the white, still face half buried in the snow. Then he gently lifted Philip's head in his arms. There was a crimson blotch in the snow and close to it the black edge of a hidden rock.

As quickly as possible DeBar carried Philip into the cabin and placed him on one of the cots. Then he gathered certain articles of food from Pierre's stock and put them in his pack. He had carried the pack half way to the door when he stopped, dropped his load gently to the floor, and thrust a hand inside his coat pocket. From it he drew forth a letter. It was a woman's letter--and he read it now with bowed lead, a letter of infinite faith, and hope, and love, and when once more he turned toward Philip his face was filled with the flush of a great happiness.

"Mebby you don't just understand, Phil," he whispered, as if the other were listening to him. "I'm going to leave this."

With the stub of a pencil he scribbled a few words at the bottom of the crumpled letter.

He wrote in a crude, awkward hand:

You'd won if it hadn't been for the rock. But I guess mebby that it was God who put the rock there, Phil. While you was asleep I took the bullets out of your cartridges and put in damp-paper, for I didn't want to see any harm done with the guns. I didn't shoot to hit you, and after all, I'm glad it was the rock that hurt you instead of me.

He leaned over the cot to assure himself that Philip's breath was coming steadier and stronger, and then laid the letter on the young man's breast.

Five minutes later he was plodding steadily ahead of his big Mackenzie hound into the peopleless barrens to the south and west.

And still later Philip opened his eyes and saw what DeBar had left for him. He struggled into a sitting posture and read the few lines which the outlaw had written.

"Here's to you, Mr. Felix MacGregor," he chuckled feebly, balancing himself on the edge of the bunk. "You're right. It'll take two men to lay out Mr. William DeBar--if you ever get him at all!"

Three days later, still in the cabin, he raised a hand to his bandaged head with an odd grimace, half of pain, half of laughter.

"You're a good one, you are!" he said to himself, limping back and forth across the narrow space of the cabin. "You've got them all beaten to a rag when it comes to playing the chump, Phil Steele. Here you go up to Big Chief MacGregor, throw out your chest, and say to him, 'I can get that man,' and when the big chief says you can't, you call him a four-ply ignoramus in your mind, and get permission to go after him anyway--just because you're in love. You follow your man up here--four hundred miles or so--and what's the consequence? You lose all hope of finding her, and your 'man' does just what the big chief said he would do, and lays you out--though it wasn't your fault after all. Then you take possession of another man's shack when he isn't at home, eat his grub, nurse a broken head, and wonder why the devil you ever joined the glorious Royal Mounted when you've got money to burn. You're a wise one, you are, Phil Steele--but you've learned something new. You've learned there's never a man so good but there's a better one somewhere--even if he is a man-killer like Mr. William DeBar."

He lighted his pipe and went to the door. For the first time in days the sun was shining in a cold blaze of fire over the southeastern edge of the barrens, which swept away in a limitless waste of snow-dune and rock and stunted scrub among which occasional Indian and half-breed trappers set their dead-falls and poison baits for the northern fox. Sixty miles to the west was Fort Smith. A hundred miles to the south lay the Hudson's Bay Company's post at Chippewayan; a hundred and fifty miles to the south and east was the post at Fond du Lac, and to the north--nothing. A thousand miles or so up there one would have struck the polar sea and the Eskimo, and it was with this thought of the lifelessness and mystery of a dead and empty world that Philip turned his eyes from the sun into the gray desolation that reached from Pierre Thoreau's door to the end of the earth. Far off to the north he saw a black speck moving in the chaos of white. It might have been a fox coming over a snow-dune a rifle-shot away, for distances are elusive where the sky and the earth seem to meet in a cold gray rim about one; or it might have been a musk-ox or a caribou at a greater distance, but the longer he looked the more convinced he became that it was none of these--but a man. It moved slowly, disappeared for a few minutes in one of the dips of the plain, and came into view again much nearer. This time he made out a man, and behind, a sledge and dogs.

"It's Pierre," he shivered, closing the door and coming back to the stove. "I wonder what the deuce the breed will say when he finds a stranger here and his grub half gone."

After a little he heard the shrill creaking of a sledge on the crust outside and then a man's voice. The sounds stopped close to the cabin and were followed by a knock at the door.

"Come in!" cried Philip, and in the same breath it flashed upon him that it could not be the breed, and that it must be a mighty particular and unusual personage to knock at all.

The door opened and a man came in. He was a little man, and was bundled in a great beaver overcoat and a huge beaver cap that concealed all of his face but his eyes, the tip of his nose, and the frozen end of a beard which stuck out between the laps of his turned-up collar like a horn. For all the world he looked like a diminutive drum-major, and Philip rose speechless, his pipe still in his mouth, as his strange visitor closed the door behind him and approached.

"Beg pardon," said the stranger in a smothered voice, walking as though he were ice to the marrow and afraid of breaking himself. "It's so beastly cold that I have taken the liberty of dropping in to get warm."

"It is cold--beastly cold," replied Philip, emphasizing the word. "It was down to sixty last night. Take off your things."

"Devil of a country--this," shivered the man, unbuttoning his coat. "I'd rather roast of the fever than freeze to death." Philip limped forward to assist him, and the stranger eyed him sharply for a moment.

"Limp not natural," he said quickly, his voice freeing itself at last from the depths of his coat collar. "Bandage a little red, eyes feverish, lips too pale. Sick, or hurt?"

Philip laughed as the little man hopped to the stove and began rubbing his hands.

"Hurt," he said. "If you weren't four hundred miles from nowhere I'd say that you were a doctor."

"So I am," said the other. "Edward Wallace Boffin, M.D., 900 North Wabash Avenue, Chicago."

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