Saturday, October 03, 2009

BORDERTOWNS: Chapter 10

On New Year's Day Ian and Pete left St. Vincent, headed east across the ridge country toward the cabin of Henry Germaine. Ian had information that Germaine had a large cache of furs on hand. Pete was riding one of Ian's mules and was leading a second animal that carried their gear. They found the Métis' log cabin practically on the border, nestled on the south edge of heavy timber.

That night Ian examined and purchased a large number of beaver and mink pelts which had supposedly been trapped along the Two Rivers. Their host produced a sizeable jug of Hudson's Bay rum, prompting Ian to suspect the furs he was purchasing came from the Canadian side of the line. He queried Germaine, "Henry, you can't fool me. Your furs all came from across the border, probably caught along the Roseau and Rat Rivers."

Germaine belched prodigiously, and then laughed, exposing a small mouth concealed beneath a huge beard. "No matter where they from. They are here now." He thumped the table with his fist. "Damned Hudson's Bay, they want all furs but won't give anything for them, hardly no hard cash, want to give only trade goods!"

Ian exchanged a glance with Pete, who was already well into his cups. His hired man remarked judiciously, "Like he say, no matter now."

They slept on the floor of Germaine's cabin that night and awoke in the morning to find a strong northwest wind with new-falling snow. The mush Germaine fried for their breakfast was scorched, adding much to the foul odor of the cabin. A near whiteout storm was whipping up, forcing the two men to hurriedly pack up their furs and saddle-up. Ian was tempted to wait for the wind to diminish, but the thought of spending another day penned up in Henry's cabin was distasteful. While saddling the horses and putting the packs on the mule, Ian glanced out of the open-sided lean-to at the blowing snow. "It's going to be a humdinger, Pete."

Pete looked toward the west as he tightened the hitch on the mule's pack. He had a wry look on his face. "Long, cold ride home."

It was full daylight at 8:00 a.m. when they rode into the fine sifting snow, which was driven by an ever-increasing wind. Ian was forced to tighten his scarf around his high collar to prevent the snow from melting and running down his neck. After two hours on the trail he wished they had remained at Germaine's. Pete was morose and silent, evidently suffering from his over-indulgence of the previous evening.

Several times Ian surreptitiously consulted his pocket compass to reassure himself that they were headed directly west, primarily due to the fact that at times the visibility was zero. He was careful to hide his action from Pete, not wanting to show he distrusted his guide.

Near mid morning, just as they were paralleling a heavy poplar thicket on their right, the animals began to act up nervously, and then stopped. Seconds later, the two men became aware of a rumbling sound to their front. Suddenly a large group of trotting horses loomed out of the near white-out, almost colliding with them. The hard-pressed herd passed on either side of them, and momentarily they caught a brief glimpse of the two hunched figures. As they turned to watch the departing animals, they noted the herders swinging them to the north, into the bush.

Pete pulled his mule close and shouted to Ian. "Maybe twenty-thirty horse and mules. Something wrong!"

"Yes!" Ian yelled. "Did you recognize the herders?" Pete raised his hand to his mouth to deflect the strong wind. "No! Too quick!"

During the next two hours of cold, plodding travel into the angling wind, Ian puzzled over the incident. Who in his right mind would pick this day to drive horses any distance? Then a suspicion grew in his mind. Could they be stolen? Shucks! Can't be! The large number of animals precluded theft, he reasoned; even at the Pembina fort he doubted there were that many horses or mules. Still a reeling of mystery remained that he was unable to shake.

When they crossed the open sand ridge area at noon, the drifting snow thinned due to the predominance of high grass. There, coming directly toward them was a large group of horsemen. Ian noted those in the lead were soldiers; then he recognized Kirby Ralston. It was apparent the lieutenant was in command of the troops. Within moments Ian and Pete found themselves surrounded by an obviously hostile group of men. Fortunately, Kirby recognized Ian.

"What is hell are you doing out in this blizzard?" Kirby's scarf was encrusted with frost and his horse was breathing heavily, casting streams of vapor. He looked tense, almost angry.

"Are you looking for horses?" Ian suddenly realized his first suspicions were correct.

"Hell, yes, almost the entire herd from the fort. We've been following their tracks east, but we've lost them in this snow. How did you know?"

Ian became aware that several of the group were civilians from Pembina. Then he recognized Brogan and several other disreputable men.

He pointed to them. "Where did you get that crew?"

Kirby sounded disgusted. "I'm after the fort horses. This town bunch joined us after we crossed the river. They claim they lost some horses in Pembina. They aren't under my command, but, by golly, they better obey me!"

Brogan blustered, "We just came along to help." He pointed to Ian and Pete accusingly, "You'd better check that pair, Lieutenant. They're probably the thieves -- got the horses hidden away somewhere."

Ian ignored Brogan's remark. "A couple of hours ago we saw a bunch of horse -- maybe thirty. They swung north into the bush after passing by us. There were two men herding them."

"Will you backtrack and show us where they turned off?”

"Sure thing. Only trouble is, it's been blowing so hard our tracks may already be covered over." He turned to Pete. "Do you think we can find that bush where they turned?"

Pete nodded. "Sure thing! We find, and tracks still be plain in bush."

Some of the civilians crowded closely to Ian and Kirby, anxious to hear what was being said. Others were restless and began arguing. One burly, heavily bearded teamster, Eck Murphy, growled, "They cleaned out the fort corral last night after the storm blew up. We borrowed most of these horses in Pembina and St. Vincent for the chase."

Kirby questioned Pete, "You think we can catch them before they cross the border?"

Pete shrugged his shoulders questioningly, "Maybe."

A teamster spoke up angrily, "Border, hell! Maybe you soldiers can't cross it, but, by God, the rest of us can! And will! We're going to hang those bastards!"

Kirby shot back, "We're going to take them back alive if we can. Any of you with other ideas can head back home." He turned to Ian. "You ready?"

"Sure! I have my Winchester, but Pete is unarmed."

"I come too!" Pete looked around at the hard-looking group. "Lots of guns here, maybe too damn many."

Kirby turned to his men and motioned with his arm; the noise of the wind almost totally smothered his shouted command. The troopers fell into line behind him, forming a column of two's as their horses broke into a trot. The non-military men straggled behind.

The drifting snow was rapidly filling Ian and Pete's old tracks, leaving them barely discernible. It was nearly two hours later when the bush suddenly loomed up as a dark wall. Pete, who was riding beside Ian, shouted to Kirby.

Turning his horse alongside Ian, Kirby asked, "What's he want?"

A hurried conversation took place between Ian and Pete with a puzzled Kirby trying to make out Pete's broken shouting over the gusty wind noise.

Ian turned to Kirby. "He says for half of us to check along the edge of the bush for tracks where the thieves entered, then follow them slowly. The rest should swing around to the north of this bush, then spread out to cut them off on the other side. He says this is a big bush, maybe two or three miles across.

Kirby eyed the breed for moments, realizing the wisdom of his advice. "I'll take my men around to the north edge to cover it. I just hope they've stopped to rest; if they haven't, they're in Canada by now."

He turned to Murphy, one of the recently hired teamsters from the fort. "Take the fort workers and the Pembina men and find where they entered the scrub. Push them toward us if they're still in there, but give me plenty of time to get my men into place. Remember," he warned, "I want those men alive -- not dead!" From the scornful looks on the men's faces, Kirby felt a moment of distrust. He knew the teamsters and the civilians present possibly represented the dregs of the fort and the trash of the two towns. Still, he felt that his men would make the capture; surely the thieves would run from this pursuing bunch.

Turning away, Kirby and his platoon quickly broke away from the group and headed north along the west edge of the bush. Ian felt disappointed at not being asked to accompany Kirby, inasmuch as he had qualms about being left with this unsavory lot.

Minutes later, shouts indicated that one of the men had found where the stolen horses had been turned into the trees. Entering the thicket, and finally out of the wind, the men dismounted to give the soldiers time to get into position. As the bitter cold began to penetrate their clothing, the men began their drive. They were forced to lead the horses, each individual picking his own way through the tangle of deadfalls and heavy brush.

Ian estimated they had penetrated only one-half mile when the acrid odor of smoke became noticeable. Gathering together, the group discussed the possibilities of capturing the two men.

"They stop to rest," said Pete, "Build fire to eat and warm. Maybe spend the night."

Eck Murphy turned to his friends. "We'll split up and surround them. Three of us can move in on either side of them. The rest of you spread out in a line, keeping abreast. Push straight into them, but be damned careful to give us plenty of time to pen them up." He grinned, "Ralston isn't going to take this pair back to the fort if we get them!"

Ian's temper rose when he realized the men had no intention of taking the thieves alive. "You heard what the Lieutenant said, leave those men to the law if we find them. If you kill them, we'll all be in trouble."

The civilian posse exchanged sly grins. Brogan spoke up menacingly, "You keep your mouth shut, sonny! If you're not man enough to go along with us, take your breed and get the hell out of here! We don't need your advice." Under his black beard Brogan's lips curled in derision.

Ian noted the sudden look of hatred Pete gave Brogan. Having worked with Pete the past two months, he knew his hired man hated to be called a breed. He also knew Pete might be a dangerous man when crossed. To prevent an immediate confrontation, he said resignedly, "Well, we'll ride along with you, but remember, if anything untoward happens, it'll be on your heads."

Several of the men gave Ian a disgusted look. Brogan expressed his further contempt by spitting a stream of tobacco juice in Ian's direction before turning away. The men began tethering their horses to the trees around them, ignoring Ian and Pete, who obviously were not in accord with the plan.

The remaining men waited until after Eck Murphy's two flanking groups disappeared from sight. After a few minutes the penetrating cold forced the men into action. Spreading out abreast, yards apart, they began their silent drive.

Ian was hesitant to follow closely and consulted with Pete. "I wonder what will happen. Should we follow them?"

There was a stolid look on his helper's face as he nodded, and then began leading the two mules in the direction of the disappearing men.

Suddenly three rapid shots were heard some distance to their front, the signal of a rendezvous call. They could hear the crashing of brush ahead of them as the posse hurried to respond to the firing.

Following existing paths taken by the hunters, Ian and Pete caught up with the pursuers within minutes and found the men they had been following had rejoined Murphy's teamsters. The group was standing around a small fire, laughing and shouting boisterously, jeering at their two captives who had been caught in their sleeping robes. Two men were already preparing coffee at the small fire, the ingredients and pot probably garnered from the supplies carried by the thieves. Two saddled horses were tied to nearby trees. Near them other animals were standing, heads hanging with fatigue. Examining the captives closely as they lay on the ground, Ian could see the looks of despair on their faces.

Murphy's voice suddenly rang out over the clamor of conversation. "Let's get at it!"

Roughly rousting the two to their feet, the men of the posse quickly tied their hands behind their backs and hustled them under a tree. Two ropes were produced, slipknots tied, and nooses placed around the culprits' necks. Ian was forced to admire the courage of the two thieves, since neither uttered a word of protest. It seemed they accepted their obvious fate. Remembering Kirby's admonition, Ian stepped forward to protest the hanging, only to have Pete seize his arm.

"Stay, Ian. We can do nothing!"

Ian turned toward Pete and saw the drawn face and expression of disgust. In a low voice he asked, "Do you know the two men?"

"They live in the Hair Hills to the west. They are thieves." Pete looked angry. "Even so, not to hang them!"

A brief argument ensued among the men, one townsman insisting a proper hangman's knot be tied. Brogan countered, "What the hell? What's wrong with a slip knot? We're just stringing up these bastards."

Another brief argument began, some insisting they mount the prisoners on horseback. Someone else squelched that argument by throwing the end of one rope over a high out-jutting limb. The other rope end followed within seconds.

It was Murphy's voice that again rang out, "Grab the ends and hoist!" Gasping, choking sounds were heard as the ropes tightened and cut into the necks of the prisoners; they were mercilessly hoisted into the air, the rope ends tied off.

Ian felt bitter bile crawl into his mouth and the sour taste of it as the two victims jerked, kicked and twisted, slowly strangling. Many of the group laughed and joked as they watched the sickening sight; others were silent, almost as if regretting their participation.

The conversation ceased when the sound of approaching men and horses was heard from the north. Kirby and his men had heard the gunshots.

Emerging from the heavy poplar thicket into the small clearing, the lieutenant brushed the snow from his shoulders. Then he noticed the two victims. Boldly walking near the hanging men, he studied their faces. After pausing for long moments, he suddenly turned to face the civilians.

"You sons-of-bitches! Just couldn't wait, could you? I'll probably be blamed for this. He demanded vehemently, “Who’s idea was this?”

Brogan spoke up defiantly, "Shucks, just looks like two suicides to me."

Some of the guilty men pretended disinterest, turning their backs, as if busy at other things. Others were scornful, obviously siding with Brogan. Murphy interjected saucily, "Must be suicides, Lieutenant.

Kirby cast a scornful glance at the guilty men, finally turning to his platoon. "Gather up all the stolen horses and mules. We're going back to the fort tonight."

The fort soldiers approached a few of the animals to attach lead ropes in preparation for the move back to the fort. Kirby noted that Ian and Pete were standing well away from the main group of men, easing his fear that they had been involved. Addressing Ian, he said, "You two want to ride back with me?'

"You bet!" Ian felt relieved, glad to avoid any further unpleasantness.

"Wait a minute, Lieutenant. We'll all ride along with you." Brogan's voice carried a pleading tone.

"Like hell you will! I'm taking all of the stolen animals back to the fort; you can get back on your own." He pointed to the hanging bodies. "Murphy, you and the other fort teamsters pack those two bodies back to Dr. Appel's dispensary. They'll have to be accounted for."

"How about the Pembina and St. Vincent horses?" demanded Brogan. "You can't take them!"

"I can take them, and will!" Kirby replied caustically, "I doubt you men own any of them." He glared at the civilians contemptuously, "If I ever see you-all again, it will be too soon to suit me!"

When they left the woods, the wind had died; the crunching steps of the horses and creaking leather of the saddles were the only sounds. Darkness was already over-spreading the sky. The soldiers were cold, hungry and quiet.

It was long after dark when they arrived at St. Vincent, where Kirby halted the patrol briefly. Turning his horse toward Ian, he spoke in a soft voice. "Ian, will you come out to the fort in the morning and give Captain Collins your version of the hanging?" He continued speaking quietly so his men could not overhear. "I'll probably be blamed for the deaths of those two men, and in a way it was my fault. I shouldn't have trusted that bunch."

Ian nodded in agreement. "Sure, I'll come if it will help you." He added ruefully, "It's going to be mighty hard to get up in the morning. Judas! I'm cold and tired."

Breaking away from the line of troops as they resumed their way to the fort, Pete suggested, "You stay with me tonight. No sense going to Emerson, then to fort in morning."

Ian felt grateful for the offer, but apprehensive at being invited to spend the night at Grant's house. Then he thought of Susan's surprise at finding him there in the morning. An involuntary smile came as he said, "Good idea!" He turned his horse to follow Pete toward Grant's log barn near the edge of the road.

While he tended to the animals in the barn, Pete stored the purchased furs in the woodshed adjoining the house. Finally they entered the kitchen where Pete removed his heavy mittens to light a lamp. Within moments Annette appeared, dressed in a dark robe. She immediately began to converse with Pete in the Cree language. For moments Ian was totally ignored; Pete was evidently relating the happenings to her.

Ian gradually felt the pleasant warmth dissipating the long cold. He could feel his cheeks begin to burn, the numbness leaving his toes, causing them to ache. A lethargic feeling began to creep over him.

Annette finally turned to him. "Ian, I'll make coffee and fry eggs and pork. You men must be starved. Pete says neither of you has eaten since early morning. It's too late for you to go home. You can bunk with Pete." She stopped her bustling by the stove. Breaking into a smile, she pointed at Pete, saying, "If you can stand his snoring."

Ian found himself glancing at the stairs as he ate, all the while hoping Susan would awaken and join them. Evidently the remaining members of the family were sound sleepers for no one appeared.

The sound of wood being fed to the stove and the rattle of utensils awoke Ian the next morning. He became aware of the tantalizing odor of bannock being fried, and could tell oatmeal had been added to the flour and bacon fat. Swinging his legs to obtain a sitting position on the edge of the bed, he glanced at Pete, who appeared to be alternately snoring and gasping for breath. The quivering and vibrating of his lips as he exhaled brought a smile to Ian's face. Thinking he had overslept, he hurriedly dressed and entered the kitchen to find Annette cracking eggs into a frying pan. Marguerite, who was setting the table, turned to smile at him.

Grinning back guiltily, he tugged out his pocket watch to discover it was early, only a bit past six. Casting a glance out the window he noted it was still dark.

"The light of your life is primping for you," Marguerite teased. "If she'd known you stayed here last night, she'd have been the first in the kitchen this morning." Her manner then changed to a serious tone, "Mother told me about you and Pete helping the Army chase those horse thieves, and of the soldiers hanging them. I can't believe the men at the fort would do such a thing. They've always seemed so kind and polite."

"It wasn't the soldiers; they weren't the guilty ones. The dirty work was done by the fort teamsters and riff-raff from the local saloons." While he explained the details to Marguerite, Susan entered the kitchen and moved behind his chair. Her hand slipped to the back of his neck and he looked up at her longingly. Her long, shiny black hair was slowly slipping from behind one shoulder, gradually covering the side of her face as she smiled down at him.

"This is the first time you've seen her this early in the morning. She isn't always this neat." Marguerite was being mischievous.

Susan scrunched up her face at her sister. "How about you? Did you pretty-up for Ian?"

Marguerite shrugged her shoulders, raising her hand to regally smooth back her long hair. "Well, I didn't want to scare him to death. He might never come back."

Ian smiled as he turned to encircle Susan's waist with his arm. "No fear about that!"

The hinges of the bedroom door adjoining the kitchen squealed as Pete entered the room. He sat down heavily at the table, his face drawn with weariness. His hair was uncombed and his wool shirt only partially fastened, disclosing an expanse of grey wool underwear. He looked slowly around the room. Appraising the girls carefully, he turned to address Annette. "Woman, You're still the best- looking female in the house!"

The girls exchanged quick glances at this outburst, and Annette turned her face to the stove to hide her embarrassment. Ian detected, as Susan had previously implied, that there was more to their liaison than met the eye. He was glad Grant was still abed, remembering the man's sudden show of anger when Pete addressed Susan as daughter on Christmas day. Still, glancing at the faces of the two girls, he could detect no rancor.

After breakfast when Ian mentioned that Kirby had requested he go to the fort, Susan smiled. "Then you can give me a ride to Pembina. I have beds to make and rooms to clean at Geroux's hotel before school starts."

"You ride to Pembina with Ian, and I walk. That darned Charley has never given me a ride on his horse. Sometimes it seems he's ashamed of me." Marguerite seemed irritated.

Ian remained silent for he knew little of Sheriff Brown's personal life. Rather than remain for what might develop into involved talk, he went to the barn to saddle his horse. When Susan appeared, he held out his hand to ease her mount onto the horse. To his surprise she swung into the saddle instead, revealing the fact that she wore a long split skirt. She smiled down at him and reached for the reins. Shaking his head in feigned anger, he mounted behind her and kneed the horse into action. At Geroux's hotel she lightly slipped from the saddle and turned to him. "I'll be back here after school is out. I have to set the supper tables; but I'll be done before six. Will I see you again today?" There was a wistful look on her face.

"I'll see you then, and carry you home."

She smiled up at him as she turned to the hotel steps.