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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPhilip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 9. Philip Takes Up The Trail
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Philip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 9. Philip Takes Up The Trail Post by :sbeard Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2311

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Philip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 9. Philip Takes Up The Trail

Chapter IX. Philip Takes Up The Trail

The letter--the flowers--that one shining golden hair, wound in a glistening thread about their shriveled stems, seemed for a short space to lift Philip Steele from out of the world he was in, to another in which his mind was only vaguely conscious, stunned by this letter that had come with the unexpectedness of a thunderbolt to change, in a single instant, every current of life in his body. For a few moments he made no effort to grasp the individual significance of the letter, the flowers, the golden hair. One thought filled his brain--one great, overpowering truth, which excluded everything else--and this was the realization that the woman he loved was not Colonel Becker's wife. She was free. And for him--Philip Steele--there was hope--hope--Suddenly it dawned upon him what the flowers meant. The colonel had written the letter, and Isobel had sent the faded violets, with their golden thread. It was her message to him--a message without words, and yet with a deeper meaning for him than words could have expressed. In a flood there rushed back upon him all the old visions which he had fought against, and he saw her again in the glow of the campfire, and on the trail, glorious in her beauty, his ideal of all that a woman should be.

He rose to his feet and locked his door, fearing that some one might enter. He wanted to be alone, to realize fully what had happened, to regain control of his emotions. If Isobel Becker had merely written him a line or two, a note exculpating herself of what her father had already explained away, he would still have thought that a world lay between them. But, in place of that, she had sent him the faded flowers, with their golden thread!

For many minutes he paced back and forth across his narrow room, and never had a room looked more like a prison cell to him than this one did now. He was filled with but one impulse, and that was to return to Lac Bain, to humble himself at the feet of the woman he loved, and ask her forgiveness for the heinous thing he had done. He wanted to tell her that he had driven Bucky Nome into outlawry, that he had fought for her, and run away himself--because he loved her. It was Sergeant Moody's voice, vibrant with the rasping unpleasantness of a file, that jarred him back into his practical self. He thrust the letter and the flowers into his breast pocket, and opened the door.

Moody came in.

"What in blazes are you locked up for?" he demanded, his keen little eyes scrutinizing Philip's feverish face. "Afraid somebody'll walk in and steal you, Phil?"

"Headache," said Philip, patting a hand to his head. "One of the kind that makes you think your brain must be a hard ball bumping around inside your skull."

The sergeant laid his hand on Philip's arm.

"Go take a walk, Phil," he said, in a softer voice. "It will do you good. I just came in to tell you the news. They've got track of DeBar again, up near Lac la Biche. But we can talk about that later. Go take a walk."

"Thanks for the suggestion," said Philip. "I believe I'll do it."

He passed beyond the barracks, and hit the sleigh-worn road that led out of town, walking faster and faster, as his brain began working. He would return to Lac Bain. That was settled in his mind without argument. Nothing could hold him back after what he had received that afternoon. If the letter and the violet message had come to him from the end of the earth it would have made no difference; his determination would have been the same. He would return to Lac Bain--but how? That was the question which puzzled him. He still had thirteen months of service ahead of him. He was not in line for a furlough. It would take at least three months of official red tape to purchase his discharge. These facts rose like barriers in his way. It occurred to him that he might confide in MacGregor, and that the inspector would make an opportunity for him to return into the north immediately. MacGregor had the power to do that, and he believed that he would do it. But he hesitated to accept this last alternative.

And then, all at once. Sergeant Moody's words came back to him--"They've got track of DeBar again, up near Lac la Biche." The idea that burst upon him with the recalling of those words stopped Philip suddenly, and he turned back toward the barracks. He had heard a great deal about DeBar, the cleverest criminal in all the northland, and whom no man or combination of men had been clever enough to catch. And now this man was near Lac la Biche, in the Churchill and Lac Bain country. It he could get permission from MacGregor to go after DeBar his own difficulty would be settled in the easiest possible way. The assignment would take him for a long and indefinite time into the north. It would take him back to Isobel Becker.

He went immediately to his room upon reaching the barracks, and wrote out his request to MacGregor. He sent it over to headquarters by a rookie. After that he waited.

Not until the following morning did Moody bring him a summons to appear in MacGregor's office. Five minutes later the inspector greeted him with outstretched hand, gave him a grip that made his fingers snap, and locked the office door. He was holding Philip's communication when the young man entered.

"I don't know what to say to this, Steele," he began, seating himself at his desk and motioning Philip to a chair. "To be frank with you, this proposition of yours is entirely against my best judgment."

"In other words, you haven't sufficient confidence in me," added Philip.

"No, I don't mean that. There isn't a man on the force in whom I have greater confidence than you. But, if I was to gamble, I'd wager ten to one that you'd lose out if I sent you up to take this man DeBar."

"I'll accept that wager--only reverse the odds," said Philip daringly.

The inspector twisted one of his long red mustaches and smiled a little grimly at the other.

"If I were to follow my own judgment I'd not send one man, but two," he went on. "I don't mean to underestimate the value of my men when I say that our friend DeBar, who has evaded us for years, is equal to any two men I've got. I wouldn't care to go after him myself--alone. I'd want another hand with me, and a mighty good one--a man who was cool, cautious, and who knew all of the ins and outs of the game as well as myself. And here--" He interrupted himself, and chuckled audibly, "here you are asking permission to go after him alone! Why, man, it's the very next thing to inviting yourself to commit suicide! Now, if I were to send you, and along with you a good, level-headed man like Moody--"

"I have had enough of double-harness work, unless I am commanded to go, Mr. MacGregor," interrupted Philip. "I realize that DeBar is a dangerous man, but I believe that I can bring him down. Will you give me the opportunity?"

MacGregor laid his cigar on the edge of the desk and leaned across toward his companion, the long white fingers of his big hands clasped in front of him. He always took this position, with a cigar smoldering beside him, when about to say those things which he wished to be indelibly impressed on the memory of his listener.

"Yes, I'm going to give you the opportunity," he said slowly, "and I am also going to give you permission to change your mind after I have told you something about DeBar, whom we know as the Seventh Brother. I repeat that, if you go alone, it's just ten to one that you don't get him. Since '99 four men have gone out after him, and none has come back. There was Forbes, who went in that year; Bannock, who took up the trial in 1902; Fleisham in 1904, and Gresham in 1907. Since the time of Gresham's disappearance we have lost sight of DeBar, and only recently, as you know, have we got trace of him again. He is somewhere up on the edge of the Barren Lands. I have private information which leads me to believe that the factor at Fond du Lac can take you directly to him."

MacGregor unclasped his hands to pick up a worn paper from a small pile on the desk.

"He is the last of seven brothers," he added. "His father was hanged."

"A good beginning," interjected Philip.

"There's just the trouble," said the inspector quickly. "It wasn't a good beginning. This is one of those peculiar cases of outlawry for which the law itself is largely responsible, and I don't know of any one I would say this to but you. The father was hanged, as I have said. Six months later it was discovered, beyond a doubt, that the law had taken the life of an innocent man, and that DeBar had been sent to the gallows by a combination of evidence fabricated entirely by the perjury of enemies. The law should have vindicated itself. But it didn't. Two of those who had plotted against DeBar were arrested, tried--and acquitted, a fact which goes to prove the statement of a certain great man that half of the time law is not justice. There is no need of going into greater detail about the trials and the plled the three men chiefly instrumental in sending their father to his death, and fled into the North."

"Good!" exclaimed Philip.

The word shot from him before he had thought. At first he flushed, then sat bolt upright and smiled frankly into the inspector's face as he watched the effect of his indiscretion.

"So many people thought at the time," said MacGregor, eying him with curious sharpness. "Especially the women. For that reason the first three who were caught were merely convicted of manslaughter instead of murder. They served their sentences, were given two years each for good behavior, and are somewhere in South America. The fourth killed himself when he was taken near Moose Factory, and the other three went what the law calls 'bad.' Henry, the oldest of them all, killed the officer who was bringing him down from Prince Albert in '99, and was afterward executed. Paul, the sixth, returned to his native town seven years after the hanging of his father and was captured after wounding two of the officers who went in pursuit of him. He is now in an insane asylum."

The inspector paused, and ran his eyes over a fresh slip of paper.

"And all this," said Philip in a low voice, "because of a crime committed by the law itself. Five men hung, one a suicide, three in prison and one in an insane asylum--because of a blunder of the law!"

"The king can do no wrong," said MacGregor with gentle irony, "and neither can the law. Remember that, Philip, as long as you are in the service. The law may break up homes, ruin states, set itself a Nemesis on innocent men's heels--but it can do no wrong. It is the Juggernaut before which we all must bow our heads, even you and I, and when by any chance it makes a mistake, it is still law, and unassailable. It is the greatest weapon of the clever and the rich, so it bears a moral. Be clever, or be rich."

"And William DeBar, the seventh brother--" began Philip.

"Is tremendously clever, but not rich," finished the inspector. "He has caused us more trouble than any other man in Canada. He is the youngest of the seven brothers, and you know there are curious superstitions about seventh brothers. In the first pursuit after the private hanging he shot two men. He killed a third in an attempt to save his brother at Moose Factory. Since then, Forbes, Bannock, Fleisham and Gresham have disappeared, and they all went out after him. They were all good men, powerful physically, skilled in the ways of the wilderness, and as brave as tigers. Yet they all failed. And not only that, they lost their lives. Whether DeBar killed them, or led them on to a death for which his hands were not directly responsible, we have never known. The fact remains that they went out after De Bar--and died. I am not superstitious, but I am beginning to think that DeBar is more than a match for any one man. What do you say? Will you go with Moody, or--"

"I'll go alone, with your permission," said Philip.

The inspector's voice at once fell into its formal tone of command.

"Then you may prepare to leave at once," he said. "The factor at Fond du Lac will put you next to your man. Whatever else you require I will give you in writing some time to-day."

Philip accepted this as signifying that the interview was at an end, and rose from his seat.

That night he added a postscript to the letter which he had written home, saying that for a long time he would not be heard from again. The midnight train was bearing him toward Le Pas.

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