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Corporal Cameron
THE DULL RED STAIN


The minutes passed slowly.  The scene in the camp of the Stonies that he had just witnessed drove all sleep from Cameron.  He was firmly resolved that at the first opportunity he would make his break for liberty; for he was now fully aware that though not confessedly he was none the less really a prisoner.

As he lay intently thinking, forming and discarding plans of escape, two Indians, followed by Little Thunder, walked quietly within the circle of the firelight and with a nod and a grunt towards Raven sat down by the fire.  Raven passed his tobacco bag, which, without a word, they accepted; and, filling their pipes, they gravely began to smoke.

"White Cloud," grunted Little Thunder, waving his hand to the first Indian.  "Big Chief.  Him," pointing to the second Indian, "White Cloud brother."

"My brothers had good hunting this year," said Raven.

The Indians grunted for reply.

"Your packs are heavy?"

Another grunt made answer.

"We have much goods," continued Raven.  "But the time is short. Come and see."

Raven led them out into the dark towards the pack horse, Little Thunder remaining by the fire.  From the darkness Cameron could hear Raven's voice in low tones and the Indians' guttural replies mingled with unusual laughter.

When they returned the change in their appearance was plainly visible.  Their eyes were gleaming with an unnatural excitement, their grave and dignified demeanour had given place to an eager, almost childish excitement.  Cameron did not need the whiff that came to him from their breath to explain the cause of this sudden change.  The signs were to him only too familiar.

"My brothers will need to hurry," said Raven.  "We move when the moon is high."

"Good!" replied White Cloud.  "Go, quick."  He waved his hand toward the dark.  "Come."  He brought it back again.  "Heap quick." Without further word they vanished, silent as the shadows that swallowed them up.

"Now, then, Cameron, we have big business on foot.  Up and give us a hand.  Little Thunder, take the bunch down the trail a couple of miles and come back."

Selecting one of the pack ponies, he tied it to a pine tree and the others he hurried off with Little Thunder down the trail.

"Going to do some trading, are you?" enquired Cameron.

"Yes, if the price is right, though I'm not too keen," replied Raven, throwing himself down beside the fire.

"What are you after?  Furs?"

"Yes, furs mostly.  Anything they have to offer."

"What do you give in exchange?"

Raven threw him a sharp glance, but Cameron's face was turned toward the fire.

"Oh, various articles.  Wearing apparel, tobacco, finery.  Molasses too.  They are very fond of molasses."

"Molasses?" echoed Cameron, with a touch of scorn.  "It was not molasses they had to-night.  Why did you give them whiskey?" he asked boldly.

Raven started.  His eyes narrowed to two piercing points.

"Why?  That's my business, my friend.  I keep a flask to treat my guests occasionally.  Have you any objection?"

"It is against the law, I understand, and mighty bad for the Indians."

"Against the law?" echoed Raven in childlike surprise.  "You don't tell me!"

"So the Mounted Police declare," said Cameron, turning his eyes upon Raven's face.

"The Mounted Police!" exclaimed Raven, pouring forth a flood of oaths.  "That! for the Mounted Police!" he said, snapping his fingers.

"But," replied Cameron, "I understood you very especially to object to the operations of the whiskey runners?"

"Whiskey runners?  Who's speaking of whiskey runners?  I'm talking of the approved method of treating our friends in this country, and if the police should interfere between me and my friends they would be carrying things a little too far.  But all the same," he continued, hastily checking himself, "the police are all right. They put down a lot of lawlessness in this country.  But I may as well say to you here, Mr. Cameron," he continued, "that there are certain things it is best not to see, or, having seen, to speedily forget."  As he spoke these words his eyes narrowed again to two grey points that seemed to bore right through to Cameron's brain.

"This man is a very devil," thought Cameron to himself.  "I was a fool not to see it before."  But to the trader he said, "There are some things I would rather not see and some things I cannot forget."

Before another hour had passed the Stonies reappeared, this time on ponies.  The trader made no move to meet them.  He sat quietly smoking by the fire.  Silently the Indians approached the fire and threw down a pack of furs.

"Huh!" said White Cloud.  "Good!  Ver good!"  He opened his pack and spread out upon the rock with impressive deliberation its contents.  And good they were, even to Cameron's uncultured eye. Wolf skins and bear, cinnamon and black, beaver, fox, and mink, as well as some magnificent specimens of mountain goat and sheep. "Good!  Good!  Big--fine--heap good!"  White Cloud continued to exclaim as he displayed his collection.

Raven turned them over carelessly, feeling the furs, examining and weighing the pelts.  Then going to the pack horse he returned and spread out upon the rock beside the furs the goods which he proposed to offer in exchange.  And a pitiful display it was, gaudy calicoes and flimsy flannels, the brilliance of whose colour was only equalled by the shoddiness of the material, cheap domestic blankets, half wool half cotton, prepared especially for the Indian trade.  These, with beads and buttons, trinkets, whole strings of brass rings, rolls of tobacco, bags of shot and powder, pot metal knives, and other articles, all bearing the stamp of glittering fraud, constituted his stock for barter.  The Indians made strenuous efforts to maintain an air of dignified indifference, but the glitter in their eyes betrayed their eagerness.  White Cloud picked up a goat skin, heavy with its deep silky fur and with its rich splendour covered over the glittering mass of Raven's cheap and tawdry stuff.

"Good trade," said White Cloud.  "Him," pointing to the skin, "and," turning it back, "him," laying his hand upon the goods beneath.

Raven smiled carelessly, pulled out a flask from his pocket, took a drink and passed it to the others.  Desperately struggling to suppress his eagerness and to maintain his dignified bearing, White Cloud seized the flask and, drinking long and deep, passed it to his brother.

"Have a drink, Cameron," said Raven, as he received his flask again.

"No!" said Cameron shortly.  "And I would suggest to your friends that they complete the trade before they drink much more."

"My friend here says this is no good," said Raven to the Indians, tapping the flask with his finger.  "He says no more drink."

White Cloud shot a keen enquiring glance at Cameron, but he made no reply other than to stretch out his hand for Raven's flask again. Before many minutes the efficacy of Raven's methods of barter began to be apparent.  The Indians lost their grave and dignified demeanour.  They became curious, eager, garrulous, and demonstrative. With childish glee they began examining more closely Raven's supply of goods, trying on the rings, draping themselves in the gaudy calicoes and flannels.  At length Raven rolled up his articles of barter and set them upon one side.

"How much?" he said.

White Cloud selected the goat skin, laid upon it some half dozen beaver and mink, and a couple of foxes, and rolling them up in a pile laid them beside Raven's bundle.

The trader smiled and shook his head.  "No good.  No good."  So saying he took from his pack another flask and laid it upon his pile.

Instantly the Indian increased his pile by a bear skin, a grey wolf, and a mountain goat.  Then, without waiting for Raven's words, he reached for the flask.

"No, not yet," said Raven quietly, laying his hand down upon the flask.

The Indian with gleaming eyes threw on the pile some additional skins.

"Good!" said Raven, surrendering the flask.  Swiftly the Indian caught it up and, seizing the cork in his teeth, bit it off close to the neck of the flask.  Snatching his knife from his pocket with almost frantic energy, he proceeded to dig out the imbedded cork.

"Here," said Raven, taking the flask from him.  "Let me have it." From his pocket he took a knife containing a corkscrew and with this he drew the cork and handed the flask back to the Indian.

With shameless, bestial haste the Indian placed the bottle to his lips and after a long pull passed it to his waiting brother.

At this point Raven rose as if to close the negotiations and took out his own flask for a final drink, but found it empty.

"Aha!" he exclaimed, turning the empty flask upside down.  At once the Indian passed him his flask. Raven, however, waved him aside and, going to his pack, drew out a tin oil can which would contain about a gallon.  From this with great deliberation he filled his flask.

"Huh!" exclaimed the Indian, pointing to the can.  "How much?"

Raven shook his head.  "No sell.  For me," he answered, tapping himself on the breast.

"How much?" said the Indian fiercely.

Still Raven declined to sell.

Swiftly the Indian gathered up the remaining half of his pack of furs and, throwing them savagely at Raven's feet, seized the can.

Still Raven refused to let it go.

At this point the soft padding of a loping pony was heard coming up the trail and in a few minutes Little Thunder silently took his place in the circle about the fire.  Cameron's heart sank within him, for now it seemed as if his chance of escape had slipped from him.

Raven spoke a few rapid words to Little Thunder, who entered into conversation with the Stonies.  At length White Cloud drew from his coat a black fox skin.  In spite of himself Raven uttered a slight exclamation.  It was indeed a superb pelt.  With savage hate in every line of his face and in every movement of his body, the Indian flung the skin upon the pile of furs and without a "By your leave" seized the can and passed it to his brother.

At this point Raven, with a sudden display of reckless generosity, placed his own flask upon the Indian's pile of goods.

"Ask them if they want molasses," said Raven to Little Thunder.

"No," grunted the Indian contemptuously, preparing to depart.

"Ask them, Little Thunder."

Immediately as Little Thunder began to speak the contemptuous attitude of the Stonies gave place to one of keen interest and desire.  After some further talk Little Thunder went to the pack-pony, returned bearing a small keg and set it on the rock beside Raven's pile of furs.  Hastily the Stonies consulted together, White Cloud apparently reluctant, the brother recklessly eager to close the deal.  Finally with a gesture White Cloud put an end to the conversation, stepped out hastily into the dark and returned leading his pony into the light.  Cutting asunder the lashings with his knife, he released a bundle of furs and threw it down at Raven's feet.

"Same ting.  Good!" he said.

But Raven would not look at the bundle and proceeded to pack up the spoils of his barter.  Earnestly the Stonies appealed to Little Thunder, but in vain.  Angrily they remonstrated, but still without result.  At length Little Thunder pointed to the pony and without hesitation White Cloud placed the bridle rein in his hands.

Cameron could contain himself no longer.  Suddenly rising from his place he strode to the side of the Indians and cried, "Don't do it! Don't be such fools!  This no good," he said, kicking the keg. "What would Mr. Macdougall say?  Come!  I go with you.  Take back these furs."

He stepped forward to seize the second pack.  Swiftly Little Thunder leaped before him, knife in hand, and crouched to spring. The Stonies had no doubt as to his meaning.  Their hearts were filled with black rage against the unscrupulous trader, but their insane thirst for the "fire-water" swept from their minds every other consideration but that of determination to gratify this mad lust.  Unconsciously they ranged themselves beside Cameron, their hands going to their belts.  Quietly Raven spoke a few rapid words to Little Thunder, who, slowly putting up his knife, made a brief but vigourous harangue to the Stonies, the result of which was seen in the doubtful glances which they cast upon Cameron from time to time.

"Come on!" cried Cameron again, laying his hand upon the nearest Indian.  "Let's go to your camp.  Take your furs.  He is a thief, a robber, a bad man.  All that," sweeping his hand towards Raven's goods, "no good.  This," kicking the keg, "bad.  Kill you."

These words they could not entirely understand, but his gestures were sufficiently eloquent and significant.  There was an ugly gleam in Raven's eyes and an ugly curl to his thin lips, but he only smiled.

"Come," he said, waving his hand toward the furs, "take them away. Tell them we don't want to trade, Little Thunder."  He pulled out his flask, slowly took a drink, and passed it to Little Thunder, who greedily followed his example.  "Tell them we don't want to trade at all," insisted Raven.

Little Thunder volubly explained the trader's wishes.

"Good-bye," said Raven, offering his hand to White Cloud.  "Good friends," he added, once more passing him his flask.

"Don't!" said Cameron, laying his hand again upon the Indian's arm. For a single instant White Cloud paused.

"Huh!" grunted Little Thunder in contempt.  "Big chief scared."

Quickly the Stony shook off Cameron's hand, seized the flask and, putting it to his lips, drained it dry.

"Come," said Cameron to the other Stony.  "Come with me."

Raven uttered a warning word to Little Thunder.  The Indians stood for some moments uncertain, their heads bowed upon their breasts. Then White Cloud, throwing back his head and looking Cameron full in the face, said--"Good man.  Good man.  Me no go."

"Then I go alone," cried Cameron, springing off into the darkness.

As he turned his foot caught the pile of wood brought for the fire. He tripped and stumbled almost to the ground.  Before he could recover himself Little Thunder, swift as a wildcat, leaped upon his back with his ever-ready knife in his upraised hand, but before he could strike, Cameron had turned himself and throwing the Indian off had struggled to his feet.

"Hold there!" cried Raven with a terrible oath, flinging himself upon the struggling pair.

A moment or two the Stonies hesitated, then they too seized Cameron and between them all they bore him fighting to the ground.

"Keep back!  Keep back!" cried Raven in a terrible voice to Little Thunder, who, knife in hand, was dancing round, seeking an opportunity to strike.  "Will you lie still, or shall I knock your head in?" said Raven to Cameron through his clenched teeth, with one hand on his throat and the other poising a revolver over his head.  Cameron gave up the struggle.

"Speak and quick!" cried Raven, his face working with passion, his voice thick and husky, his breath coming in quick gasps from the fury that possessed him.

"All right," said Cameron.  "Let me up.  You have beaten me this time."

Raven sprang to his feet.

"Let him up!" he said.  "Now, then, Cameron, give me your word you won't try to escape."

"No, I will not!  I'll see you hanged first," said Cameron.

Raven deliberately drew his pistol and said slowly:

"I have saved your life twice already, but the time is past for any more trifling.  Now you've got to take it."

At this Little Thunder spoke a word, pointing toward the camp of the Stonies.  Raven hesitated, then with an oath he strode toward Cameron and thrusting his pistol in his face said in tones of cold and concentrated rage:

"Listen to me, you fool!  Your life is hanging by a hair trigger that goes off with a feather touch.  I give you one more chance. Move hand or foot and the bullet in this gun will pass neatly through your eye.  So help me God Almighty!"

He spoke to Little Thunder, still keeping Cameron covered with his gun.  The Indian slipped quietly behind Cameron and swiftly threw a line over his shoulders and, drawing it tight, bound his arms to his side.  Again and again he repeated this operation till Cameron stood swathed in the coils of the rope like a mummy, inwardly raging, not so much at his captor, but at himself and his stupid bungling of his break for liberty.  His helpless and absurd appearance seemed to restore Raven's good humour.

"Now, then," he said, turning to the Stonies and resuming his careless air, "we will finish our little business.  Sit down, Mr. Cameron," he continued, with a pleasant smile.  "It may be less dignified, but it is much more comfortable."

Once more he took out his flask and passed it round, forgetting to take it back from his Indian visitors, who continued to drink from it in turn.

"Listen," he said.  "I give you all you see here for your furs and a pony to pack them.  That is my last word.  Quick, yes or no? Tell them no more trifling, Little Thunder.  The moon is high.  We start in ten minutes."

There was no further haggling.  The Indians seemed to recognise that the time for that was past.  After a brief consultation they grunted their acceptance and proceeded to pack up their goods, but with no good will.  More vividly than any in the company they realised the immensity of the fraud that was being perpetrated upon them.  They were being robbed of their whole winter's kill and that of some of their friends as well, but they were helpless in the grip of their mad passion for the trader's fire-water.  Disgusted with themselves and filled with black rage against the man who had so pitilessly stripped them bare of the profits of a year's toil and privation, how gladly would they have put their knives into his back, but they knew his sort by only too bitter experience and they knew that at his hands they need expect no pity.

"Here," cried Raven, observing their black looks.  "A present for my brothers."  He handed them each a roll of tobacco.  "And a present for their squaws," adding a scarlet blanket apiece to their pack.

Without a word of thanks they took the gifts and, loading their stuff upon their remaining pony, disappeared down the trail.

"Now, Little Thunder, let's get out of this, for once their old man finds out he will be hot foot on our trail."

With furious haste they fell to their packing.  Cameron stood aghast at the amazing swiftness and dexterity with which the packs were roped and loaded.  When all was complete the trader turned to Cameron in gay good humour.

"Now, Mr. Cameron, will you go passenger or freight?"  Cameron made no reply.  "In other words, shall we pack you on your pony or will you ride like a gentleman, giving me your word not to attempt to escape?  Time presses, so answer quick!  Give me twenty-four hours. Give me your word for twenty-four hours, after which you can go when you like."

"I agree," said Cameron shortly.

"Cut him loose, Little Thunder."  Little Thunder hesitated. "Quick, you fool!  Cut him loose.  I know a gentleman when I see him.  He is tied tighter than with ropes."

"It is a great pity," he continued, addressing Cameron in a pleasant conversational tone as they rode down the trail together, "that you should have made an ass of yourself for those brutes. Bah!  What odds?  Old Macdougall or some one else would get their stuff sooner or later.  Why not I?  Come, cheer up.  You are jolly well out of it, for, God knows, you may live to look death in the face many a time, but never while you live will you be so near touching the old sport as you were a few minutes ago.  Why I have interfered to save you these three times blessed if I know!  Many a man's bones have been picked by the coyotes in these hills for a fraction of the provocation you have given me, not to speak of Little Thunder, who is properly thirsting for your blood.  But take advice from me," here he leaned over towards Cameron and touched him on the shoulder, while his voice took a sterner tone, "don't venture on any further liberties with him."

Suddenly Cameron's rage blazed forth.

"Now perhaps you will listen to me," he said in a voice thrilling with passion.  "First of all, keep your hands off me.  As for your comrade and partner in crime, I fear him no more than I would a dog and like a dog I shall treat him if he dares to attack me again. As for you, you are a coward and a cad.  You have me at a disadvantage.  But put down your guns and fight me on equal terms, and I will make you beg for your life!"

There was a gleam of amused admiration in Raven's eyes.

"By Jove!  It would be a pretty fight, I do believe, and one I should greatly enjoy.  At present, however, time is pressing and therefore that pleasure we must postpone.  Meantime I promise you that when it comes it will be on equal terms."

"I ask no more," said Cameron.

There was no further conversation, for Raven appeared intent on putting as large a space as possible between himself and the camp of the Stonies.  The discovery of the fraud he knew would be inevitable and he knew, too, that George Macdougall was not the man to allow his flock to be fleeced with impunity.

So before the grey light of morning began to steal over the mountaintops Raven, with his bunch of ponies and his loot, was many miles forward on his journey.  But the endurance even of bronchos and cayuses has its limit, and their desperate condition from hunger and fatigue rendered food and rest imperative.

The sun was fully up when Raven ordered a halt, and in a sunny valley, deep with grass, unsaddling the wearied animals, he turned them loose to feed and rest.  Apparently careless of danger and highly contented with their night's achievement, he and his Indian partner abandoned themselves to sleep.  Cameron, too, though his indignation and chagrin prevented sleep for a time, was finally forced to yield to the genial influences of the warm sun and the languid airs of the spring day, and, firmly resolving to keep awake, he fell into dreamless slumber.

The sun was riding high noon when he was awakened by a hand upon his arm.  It was Raven.

"Hush!" he said.  "Not a word.  Mount and quick!"

Looking about Cameron observed that the pack horses were ready loaded and Raven standing by his broncho ready to mount.  Little Thunder was nowhere to be seen.

"What's up?" said Cameron.

For answer Raven pointed up the long sloping trail down which they had come.  There three horsemen could be seen riding hard, but still distant more than half a mile.

"Saw them three miles away, luckily enough," said Raven.

"Where's Little Thunder?" enquired Cameron.

"Oh, rounding up the bunch," answered Raven carelessly, waving his hand toward the valley.  "Those men are coming some," he added, swinging into his saddle.

As he spoke a rifle shot shattered the stillness of the valley. The first of the riders threw up his hands, clutched wildly at the vacant air and pitched headlong out of the saddle.  "Good God! What's that?" gasped Cameron.  The other two wheeled in their course.  Before they could turn a second shot rang out and another of the riders fell upon his horse's neck, clung there for a moment, then gently slid to the ground.  The third, throwing himself over the side of his pony, rode back for dear life.

A third and a fourth shot were heard, but the fleeing rider escaped unhurt.

"What does that mean?" again asked Cameron, weak and sick with horror.

"Mount!" yelled Raven with a terrible oath and flourishing a revolver in his hand.  "Mount quick!"  His face was pale, his eyes burned with a fierce glare, while his voice rang with the blast of a bugle.

"Lead those pack horses down that trail!" he yelled, thrusting the line into Cameron's hand.  "Quick, I tell you!"

"Crack-crack!"  Twice a bullet sang savagely past Cameron's ears.

"Quicker!" shouted Raven, circling round the bunch of ponies with wild cries and oaths like a man gone mad.  Again and again the revolver spat wickedly and here and there a pony plunged recklessly forward, nicked in the ear by one of those venomous singing pellets.  Helpless to defend himself and expecting every moment to feel the sting of a bullet somewhere in his body, Cameron hurried his pony with all his might down the trail, dragging the pack animals after him.  In huddled confusion the terrified brutes followed after him in a mad rush, for hard upon their rear, like a beast devil-possessed, Nighthawk pressed, biting, kicking, squealing, to the accompaniment of his rider's oaths and yells and pistol shots.  Down the long sloping trail to the very end of the valley the mad rush continued.  There the ascent checked the fury of the speed and forced a quieter pace.  But through the afternoon there was no weakening of the pressure from the rear till the evening shadows and the frequent falling of the worn-out beasts forced a slackening of the pace and finally a halt.

Sick with horror and loathing, Cameron dismounted and unsaddled his broncho.  He had hardly finished this operation when Little Thunder rode up upon a strange pony, leading a beautiful white broncho behind.  Cameron could not repress an exclamation of disgust as the Indian drew near him.

"Beautiful beast that," said Raven carelessly, pointing to the white pony.

Cameron turned his eyes upon the pony and stood transfixed with horror.

"My God!" he exclaimed.  "Look at that!"  Across the beautiful white shoulders and reaching down clear to the fetlock there ran a broad stain, dull red and horrible.  Then through his teeth, hard clenched together, these words came forth:  "Some day, by God's help, I shall wipe out that stain."

The trader shrugged his shoulders carelessly, but made no reply.


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