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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lookout Man - Chapter 20. Ignorance Taxes The Trail Of Danger
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The Lookout Man - Chapter 20. Ignorance Taxes The Trail Of Danger Post by :jazz434 Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :3257

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The Lookout Man - Chapter 20. Ignorance Taxes The Trail Of Danger


Mike, looking frequently over his shoulder, sought the sanctuary of his own cabin, slammed the door shut and pulled the heavy table as a barricade against it until he could find the hammer and some nails. His hands shook so that he struck his thumb twice, but he did not seem to notice the pain at all. When the door was nailed shut he pulled a side off a box and nailed the two boards over the window. Then he grabbed his rifle out of a corner and defied the spies to do their worst, and hang him if they dared.

A long time he waited, mumbling there in the middle of the room, the rifle pointed toward the door. Shadows flowed into the valley and filled it so that only the tops of the tallest pines were lighted by the sun. The lonesome gloom deepened and the pines swung their limber tops and talked with the sound of moving waters along a sandy shore.

An owl flapped heavily into a tall pine near by, settled his feet comfortably upon a smooth place in the limb, craned his neck and blinked into the wind, fluffed his feathers and in a deep baritone voice he called aloud upon his errant mate.

"Who! Who! Who-who!"

Mike jumped and swung his rifle toward the sound! "Oh, yuh needn't think yuh can fool me, makin' si'nals like an owl," he cried in his indistinct gobble. "I know what you're up to. Yuh can't fool me!"

Far across the basin the mate, in a lighter, more spirited tone, called reassuring reply:


"Who! Who! Who-who!" admonished the owl by the cabin, and flapped away to the other.

Mike's sandy hair lifted on the back of his neck. His face turned pasty gray in the deep gloom of the cabin. Spies they were, and they were laying their trap for him. The one who had called like an owl was Hank Brown. The one who had answered across the flat was the girl, maybe--or perhaps it was that other spy up on top of the mountain; Mike was not sure, but the menace to himself remained as great, whichever spy answered Hank Brown. Hank Brown had trailed him to the cabin, and was telling the others about it. Mike was so certain of it that he actually believed he had seen Hank's form dimly revealed beside a pine tree.

He waited, the gun in his hands. He did not think of supper. He did not realize that he was cold, or hungry, or that as the evening wore on his tortured muscles cried out for rest. The sight of Hank Brown talking intimately with Marion--allied with the spies, as Mike's warped reason interpreted the meeting--had given him the feeling that he was hedged about with deadly foes. The sudden eagerness which Marion had shown when she saw him, and the way she had run after him, to him meant nothing less than an attempt to capture him then and there. They would come to the cabin when he was asleep--he was sure of it. So he did not intend to sleep at all. He would watch for them with the gun. He guessed they didn't know he had a gun, because he never used it unless he went hunting. And since the county was filled up with spies on the government he was too cute to let them catch him hunting out of season.

He waited and he waited. After a long while he backed to the bed and sat down, but he kept the gun pointed toward the door and the window. A skunk came prowling through the trampled snow before the cabin, hunting food where Mike had thrown out slops from the cooking. It rattled a tin can against a half-buried rock, and Mike was on his feet, shaking with cold and excitement.

"Oh, I c'n hear yuh, all right!" he shouted fiercely, not because he was brave, but because he was scared and could not await calmly the next move. "Don't yuh come around here, er I'll shoot!"

In a minute he thought he heard stealthy footsteps nearing the door, and without taking any particular aim he lifted the hammer of the gun and pulled the trigger, in a panicky instinct to fight. The odor that assailed his nostrils reassured him suffocatingly. It was not the spies after all.

He put down the gun then, convinced that if the spies had been hanging around, they would know now that he was ready for them, and would not dare tackle him that night. He felt vaingloriously equal to them all. Let them come! He'd show 'em a thing or two.

Groping in the dark to the old cookstove, Mike raked together the handful of pitch-pine shavings which he had whittled that morning for his dinner fire. He reached up to the shelf where the matches were kept, lighted the shavings, laid them carefully in the firebox and fed the little blaze with dry splinters. He placed wood upon the crackling pile, rattled the stove-lids into place and crouched shivering beside the stove, trying to absorb some warmth into his chilled old bones. He opened the oven door, hitched himself closer and thrust his numbed feet into the oven. He sat there mumbling threats and puny warnings, and so coaxed a little warmth into his courage as well as his body.

So he passed the rest of that night, huddled close to the stove, hearing the murmur of his enemies in the uneasy swashing together of the pine branches overhead, reading a signal into every cry of the animals that prowled through the woods. The harsh squall of a mountain lion, somewhere down the creek, set him shivering. He did not believe it was a mountain lion, but the call of those who watched his cabin. So daylight found him mumbling beside the stove, his old rifle across his knees with the muzzle pointing toward the nailed door.

He wished that Murphy would come; and in the next moment he was cursing Murphy for being half in league with the plotters, and hoping Murphy never showed his face again in the cabin; making threats, too, of what he would do if Murphy came around sneering about the spies.

With daylight came a degree of sanity, and Mike built up the fire again and cooked his breakfast. Habit reasserted itself and he went off to his work, muttering his rambling thoughts as he shambled along the path he and Murphy had beaten in the snow. But he carried his rifle, which he had never done before, and he stood it close beside him while he worked. Also he kept an eye on the trail and on Toll-Gate cabin. He would have been as hard to catch unaware that day as a weasel.

Once or twice he saw the professor pottering around near the cabin, gathering pieces of bark off fallen trees to help out their scanty supply of dry wood. The pines still mourned and swayed to the wind, which hung in the storm quarter, and the clouds marched soddenly in the opposite direction or hung almost motionless for a space. The professor did not come within hailing distance, and seemed wholly occupied with gathering what bark he could carry home before the storm, but Mike was not reassured, nor was he thrown off his guard.

He waited until noon, expecting to see the girl come out for more plotting. When she did not, he went back and cooked a hot dinner, thinking that the way to get the best of spies on the government is to watch them closer than they watch you, and to be ready to follow them when they go off in the woods to plot. So he ate as much as he could swallow, and filled his pockets with bacon and bread. He meant to keep on their trail this time, and see just what they were up to.

Marion, however, did not venture out of the cabin. She was very much afraid that Hank Brown was suspicious of Jack and was trying to locate Jack's camp. She was also afraid of Hank on her own account, and she did not want to see him ever again. She was certain that he had tried hard to overtake her when she went running after Mike, and that she had escaped him only by being as swift-footed as he, and by having the start of him.

Then Kate could not walk at all, and with the professor busy outside, common decency kept Marion in the house. She would like to have sent Jack a heliograph message, but she did not dare with the professor prowling around hunting dry limbs and bark. She had no confidence in the professor's potential kindness toward a fellow in Jack's predicament--the professor was too good to be trusted. He would tell the police.

Normally she would have told Kate about Hank Brown, would have asked Kate's advice, for Kate was practical when she forgot herself long enough to be perfectly natural. But she and Kate were speaking only when it was absolutely necessary to speak, and discussion was therefore out of the question. She felt penned up, miserable. What if Hank Brown found out about Jack and set the sheriff on his trail? He would, she believed, if he knew--for he hated Jack because of that fight. Jack had told her about it, keeping the cause fogged in generalities.

All that night the wind howled up the mountainside and ranted through the forest so that Marion could not sleep. Twice she heard a tree go splitting down through the outstretched arms of its close neighbors, to fall with a crash that quivered the cabin. She was glad that Jack's camp was in a cave. She would have been terribly worried if he had to stay out where a tree might fall upon him. She pictured the horror of being abroad in the forest with the dark and that raging wind. She hoped that the morning would bring calm, because she wanted to see Jack again and take him some magazines, and tell him about Hank.

In the morning it was snowing and raining by turns, with gusty blasts of wind. Marion looked out, even opened the door and stood upon the step; but the storm dismayed her so that she gave up the thought of going, until a chance sentence overheard while she was making the professor's bed in the little lean-to changed her plan of waiting into one of swift action. She heard Douglas say to Kate that, if Fred did decide to inform the chief of police, they should be hearing something very soon now. With the trial probably started, they would certainly waste no time. They would wire up to the sheriff here.

"Oh, I wish you hadn't told Fred," Kate began to expostulate, when Marion burst in upon them furiously.

"You told, did you?" she accused Kate tempestuously. "Doug, of all people! You knew the little runt couldn't keep his hands off--you knew he'd be so darned righteous he'd make all the trouble he could for other people, because he hasn't got nerve enough to do anything wrong himself. You couldn't keep it to yourself, for all your promises and your crocodile tears! I ought to have known better than trust you with anything. But I'll tell you one thing more, you two nasty nice creatures that are worse than scrawling snakes--I'll tell you this: It won't do you one particle of good to set the police after Jack. So go ahead and tell, and be just as treacherous and mean as you like. You won't have the pleasure of sending him to jail--because they'll never catch him. My heavens, how I despise and loathe you two!"

While she spat venom at them she was stamping her feet into her overshoes, buttoning her sweater, snatching up this thing and that thing she wanted, drawing a woolly Tarn O'Shanter cap down over her ears, hooking a cheap fur neckpiece that she had to tug and twist because it fitted so tightly over her sweater collar. She took her six-shooter--she was still deadly afraid of Hank Brown--and she got her muff that matched the neck fur. Her eyes blazed whenever she looked at them.

"Marion, listen to reason! You _can't go out in this storm!" Kate began to whimper.

"Will you please shut up?" Marion whirled on her, primitive, fighting rage contorting her face. "I can go anywhere I like. I only wish I could go where I'd never see you again." She went out and pulled the door violently shut. Stood a minute to brace herself for what she had to do, and went into the storm as a swimmer breasts the breakers.

After her went Mike, scuttling away from his cabin with his rifle swinging from his right hand, his left fumbling the buttons on his coat.

At the fence corner Marion hesitated, standing with her back to the wind, the snow driving past her with that faint hiss of clashing particles which is the voice of a sleeting blizzard. She could take the old, abandoned road which led up over the ridge topped by Taylor Rock, and she would find the walking easier, perhaps. But the road followed the line of least resistance through the hills, and that line was by no means straight. Jack would probably be in the cave, out of the storm; she had no hope of meeting him over on the slope on such a day. Still, he might start down the mountain, and at any rate it would be the shortest way up there. She turned down along the fence, following the trail as she had done before, with Mike coming after her as though he was stalking game: warily, swiftly, his face set and eager, his eyes shining with the hunting lust.

Up the hill she went, bracing herself against the wind where it swept through open spaces, shivering with the cold of it, fearful of the great roaring overhead where the pinetops swayed drunkenly with clashing branches: Dead limbs broke and came crashing down, bringing showers of snow and bark and broken twigs and stripped needles from the resisting branches in their path. She was afraid, so she went as fast as she could, consoling her fear with the shrewd thought that the storm would serve to hold back the sheriff and give Jack time to get away somewhere. No one would dream of his traveling on such a day as this, she kept telling herself over and over. It was getting worse instead of better; the snow was coming thicker and the sleet was lessening. It was going to be quite a climb to the cave; the wind must be simply terrible up there, but she could see now that Jack would never expect her out in such weather, and so he would stay close to the camp fire.

At the top of the hill the wind swooped upon her and flung clouds of snow into her face so that she was half blinded. She turned her back upon it, blinked rapidly until her vision cleared again, and stood there panting, tempted to turn back. No one would be crazy enough to venture out today. They would wait until the storm cleared.

She looked back down the trail she had followed. Wherever the wind had a clean sweep her tracks were filling already with snow. If she did not wait, and if Jack got away now, they couldn't track him at all. She really owed him that much of a chance to beat them. She put up her muff, shielded her face from the sting of frozen snowflakes, and went on, buffeted down the steep slope where Kate had sprained her ankle, and thinking that she must be careful where she set her feet, because it would be frightful if she had such an accident herself.

She did not expect to meet Jack on the farther edge of the gulch, but she stood a minute beside the great pine, looking at the trampled snow and thinking of Hank Brown's leering insinuations. Whatever had started the fellow to suspecting such things? Uneasily she followed Hank's cunning reasoning: Because Jack had never once gone in to Quincy, except to settle with the Forest Service for his summer's work; because Jack had not filed upon any claim in the mountains, yet stayed there apart from his kind; because he avoided people--such little things they were that made up the sum of Hank's suspicions! Well, she was to blame for this present emergency, at any rate. If she had not told Kate something she had no right to tell, she would not have quite so much to worry about.

She turned and began to climb again, making her way through the thicket that fringed the long ridge beyond; like a great, swollen tongue reaching out toward the valley was this ridge, and she followed it in spite of the tangled masses of young trees and bushes which she must fight through to reach the more open timber. At least the danger of falling trees and branches was not so great here, and the wind was not quite so keen.

Behind her Mike followed doggedly, trailing her like a hound. Days spent in watching, nights spent crouched and waiting had brought him to the high pitch of desperation, that would stop at nothing which seemed to his crazed brain necessary to save his life and his freedom. Even the disdainful Murphy would have known the man was insane; but Murphy was sitting warm and snug beside a small table with a glass ready to his right hand, and Murphy was not worrying about Mike's sanity, but about the next card that would fall before him. Murphy thought how lucky he was to be in Quincy during this storm, instead of cooped up in the little cabin with Mike, who would sit all day and mumble, and never say anything worth listening to. So Mike kept to the hunt--like a gentle-natured dog gone mad and dangerous and taking the man-trail unhindered and unsuspected.

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