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The Story of the Foss River Ranch

A Tale of the Northwest

By RIDGWELL CULLUM

Author of

"The Law Breakers," "The Way of the Strong,"
"The Watchers of the Plains." Etc.

A.L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York

Published by Arrangement with THE PAGE COMPANY

Published August, 1903




TO MY WIFE




CONTENTS

CHAP. PAGE

I THE POLO CLUB BALL 1

II THE BLIZZARD: ITS CONSEQUENCES 12

III A BIG GAME OF POKER 24

IV AT THE FOSS RIVER RANCH 32

V THE "STRAY" BEYOND THE MUSKEG 45

VI "WAYS THAT ARE DARK" 56

VII ACROSS THE GREAT MUSKEG 64

VIII TOLD IN BAD MAN'S HOLLOW 76

IX LABLACHE'S "COUP" 88

X "AUNT" MARGARET REFLECTS 96

XI THE CAMPAIGN OPENS 110

XII LABLACHE FORCES THE FIGHT 120

XIII THE FIRST CHECK 128

XIV THE HUE AND CRY 138

XV AMONG THE HALF-BREEDS 150

XVI GAUTIER CAUSES DISSENSION 163

XVII THE NIGHT OF THE PUSKY 176

XVIII THE PUSKY 188

XIX LABLACHE'S MIDNIGHT VISITOR 200

XX A NIGHT OF TERROR 210

XXI HORROCKS LEARNS THE SECRET OF THE MUSKEG 219

XXII THE DAY AFTER 230

XXIII THE PAW OF THE CAT 243

XXIV "POKER" JOHN ACCEPTS 253

XXV UNCLE AND NIECE 261

XXVI IN WHICH MATTERS REACH A CLIMAX 270

XXVII THE LAST GAMBLE 279

XXVIII SETTLING THE RECKONING 287

XXIX THE MAW OF THE MUSKEG 297




CHAPTER I

THE POLO CLUB BALL


It was a brilliant gathering - brilliant in every sense of the word. The
hall was a great effort of the decorator's art; the people were
faultlessly dressed; the faces were strong, handsome - fair or dark
complexioned as the case might be; those present represented the wealth
and fashion of the Western Canadian ranching world. Intellectually, too,
there was no more fault to find here than is usual in a ballroom in the
West End of London.

It was the annual ball of the Polo Club, and that was a social function
of the first water - in the eyes of the Calford world.

"My dear Mrs. Abbot, it is a matter which is quite out of my province,"
said John Allandale, in answer to a remark from his companion. He was
leaning over the cushioned back of the Chesterfield upon which an old
lady was seated, and gazing smilingly over at a group of young people
standing at the opposite end of the room. "Jacky is one of those young
ladies whose strength of character carries her beyond the control of
mere man. Yes, I know what you would say," as Mrs. Abbot glanced up into
his face with a look of mildly-expressed wonder; "it is true I am her
uncle and guardian, but, nevertheless, I should no more dream of
interfering with her - what shall we say? - love affairs, than suggest
her incapacity to 'boss' a 'round up' worked by a crowd of Mexican
greasers."

"Then all I can say is that your niece is a very unfortunate girl,"
replied the old lady, acidly. "How old is she?"

"Twenty-two."

John Allandale, or "Poker" John as he was more familiarly called by all
who knew him, was still looking over at the group, but an expression had
suddenly crept into his eyes which might, in a less robust-looking man,
have been taken for disquiet - even fear. His companion's words had
brought home to him a partial realization of a responsibility which was
his.

"Twenty-two," she repeated, "and not a relative living except a
good-hearted but thoroughly irresponsible uncle. That child is to be
pitied, John."

The old man sighed. He took no umbrage at his companion's
brusquely-expressed estimation of himself. He was still watching the
group at the other end of the room. His face was clouded, and a keen
observer might have detected a curious twitching of his bronzed right
cheek, just beneath the eye. His eyes followed the movement of a
beautiful girl surrounded by a cluster of men, immaculately dressed,
bronzed - and, for the most part, wholesome-looking. She was dark, almost
Eastern in her type of features. Her hair was black with the blackness
of the raven's wing, and coiled in an ample knot low upon her neck. Her
features, although Eastern, had scarcely the regularity one expects in
such a type, whilst her eyes quashed without mercy any idea of such
extraction for her nationality. They were gray, deeply ringed at the
pupil with black. They were keen eyes - fathomless in their suggestion of
strength - eyes which might easily mask a world of good or evil.

The music began, and the girl passed from amidst her group of admirers
upon the arm of a tall, fair man, and was soon lost in the midst of the
throng of dancers.

"Who is that she is dancing with now?" asked Mrs. Abbot, presently. "I
didn't see her go off; I was watching Mr. Lablache standing alone and
disconsolate over there against the door. He looks as if some one had
done him some terrible injury. See how he is glaring at the dancers."

"Jacky is dancing with 'Lord' Bill. Yes, you are right, Lablache does
not look very amiable. I think this would be a good opportunity to
suggest a little gamble in the smoking-room."

"Nothing of the sort," snapped Mrs. Abbot, with the assurance of an old
friend. "I haven't half finished talking to you yet. It is a most
extraordinary thing that all you people of the prairie love to call each
other by nicknames. Why should the Hon. William Bunning-Ford be dubbed
'Lord' Bill, and why should that sweet niece of yours, who is the
possessor of such a charming name as Joaquina, be hailed by every man
within one hundred miles of Calford as 'Jacky'? I think it is both
absurd and - vulgar."

"Possibly you are right, my dear lady. But you can never alter the ways
of the prairie. You might just as well try to stem the stream of our
Foss River in early spring as try to make the prairie man call people by
their legitimate names. For instance, do you ever hear me spoken of by
any other name than 'Poker' John?"

Mrs. Abbot looked up sharply. A malicious twinkle was in her eyes.

"There is reason in your sobriquet, John. A man who spends his substance
and time in playing that fascinating but degrading game called 'Draw
Poker' deserves no better title."

John Allandale made a "clucking" sound with his tongue. It was his way
of expressing irritation. Then he stood erect, and glanced round the
room in search of some one. He was a tall, well-built man and carried
his fifty odd years fairly well, in spite of his gray hair and the bald
patch at the crown of his head. Thirty years of a rancher's life had in
no way lessened the easy carriage and distinguished bearing acquired
during his upbringing. John Allandale's face and figure were redolent of
the free life of the prairie. And although, possibly, his fifty-five
years might have lain more easily upon him he was a man of commanding
appearance and one not to be passed unnoticed.

Mrs. Abbot was the wife of the doctor of the Foss River Settlement and
had known John Allandale from the first day he had taken up his abode on
the land which afterwards became known as the Foss River Ranch until
now, when he was acknowledged to be a power in the stock-raising world.
She was a woman of sound, practical, common sense; he was a man of
action rather than a thinker; she was a woman whose moral guide was an
invincible sense of duty; he was a man whose sense of responsibility and
duty was entirely governed by an unreliable inclination. Moreover, he
was obstinate without being possessed of great strength of will. They
were characters utterly opposed to one another, and yet they were the
greatest of friends.

The music had ceased again and once more the walls were lined with
heated dancers, breathing hard and fanning themselves. Suddenly John
Allandale saw a face he was looking for. Murmuring an excuse to Mrs.
Abbot, he strode across the room, just as his niece, leaning upon the
arm of the Hon. Bunning-Ford, approached where he had been standing.

Mrs. Abbot glanced admiringly up into Jacky's face.

"A successful evening, Joaquina?" she interrogated kindly.

"Lovely, Aunt Margaret, thanks." She always called the doctor's wife
"Aunt."

Mrs. Abbot nodded.

"I believe you have danced every dance. You must be tired, child. Come
and sit down."

Jacky was intensely fond of this old lady and looked upon her almost as
a mother. Her affection was reciprocated. The girl seated herself and
"Lord" Bill stood over her, fan in hand.

"Say, auntie," exclaimed Jacky, "I've made up my mind to dance every
dance on the program. And I guess I sha'n't Waste time on feeding."

The girl's beautiful face was aglow with excitement. Mrs. Abbot's face
indicated horrified amazement.

"My dear child, don't - don't talk like that. It is really dreadful."

"Lord" Bill smiled.

"I'm so sorry, auntie, I forgot," the girl replied, with an irresistible
smile. "I never can get away from the prairie. Do you know, this evening
old Lablache made me mad, and my hand went round to my hip to get a grip
on my six-shooter, and I was quite disappointed to feel nothing but
smooth silk to my touch. I'm not fit for town life, I guess. I'm a
prairie girl; you can bet your life on it, and nothing will civilize me.
Billy, do stop wagging that fan."

"Lord" Bill smiled a slow, twinkling smile and desisted. He was a tall,
slight man, with a faint stoop at the shoulders. He looked worthy of his
title.

"It is no use trying to treat Jacky to a becoming appreciation of social
requirements," he said, addressing himself with a sort of weary
deliberation to Mrs. Abbot. "I suggested an ice just now. She said she
got plenty on the ranch at this time of year," and he shrugged his
shoulders and laughed pleasantly.

"Well, of course. What does one want ices for?" asked the girl,
disdainfully. "I came here to dance. But, auntie, dear, where has uncle
gone? He dashed off as if he were afraid of us when we came up."

"I think he has set his mind on a game of poker, dear, and - "

"And that means he has gone in search of that detestable man, Lablache,"
Jacky put in sharply.

Her beautiful face flushed with anger as she spoke. But withal there was
a look of anxiety in her eyes.

"If he must play cards I wish he would play with some one else," she
pursued.

"Lord" Bill glanced round the room. He saw that Lablache had
disappeared.

"Well, you see, Lablache has taken a lot of money out of all of us.
Naturally we wish to get it back," he said quietly, as if in defense of
her uncle's doings.

"Yes, I know. And - do you?" The girl's tone was cutting.

"Lord" Bill shrugged. Then, -

"As yet I have not had that pleasure."

"And if I know anything of Lablache you never will," put in Mrs. Abbot,
curtly. "He is not given to parting easily. The qualification most
necessary amongst gentlemen in the days of our grandfathers was keen
gambling. You and John, had you lived in those days, might have aspired
to thrones."

"Yes - or taken to the road. You remember, even then, it was necessary to
be a 'gentleman' of the road."

"Lord" Bill laughed in his lazy fashion. His keen gray eyes were half
veiled with eyelids which, seemed too weary to lift themselves. He was a
handsome man, but his general air of weariness belied the somewhat eagle
cast of countenance which was his. Mrs. Abbot, watching him, thought
that the deplorable lassitude which he always exhibited masked a very
different nature. Jacky possibly had her own estimation of the man.
Whatever it was, her friendship for him was not to be doubted, and, on
his part, he never attempted to disguise his admiration of her.

A woman is often a much keener observer of men than she is given credit
for. A man is frequently disposed to judge another man by his mental
talents and his peculiarities of temper - or blatant self-advertisement.
A woman's first thought is for that vague, but comprehensive trait
"manliness. She drives straight home for the peg upon which to hang her
judgment. That is why in feminine regard the bookworm goes to the wall
to make room for the athlete. Possibly Jacky and Mrs. Abbot had probed
beneath "Lord" Bill's superficial weariness and discovered there a
nature worthy of their regard. They were both, in their several ways,
fond of this scion of a noble house.

"It is all very well for you good people to sit there and lecture - or,
at least, say 'things,'" "Lord" Bill went on. "A man must have
excitement. Life becomes a burden to the man who lives the humdrum
existence of ranch life. For the first few years it is all very well. He
can find a certain excitement in learning the business. The 'round-ups'
and branding and re-branding of cattle, these things are
fascinating - for a time. Breaking the wild and woolly broncho is
thrilling and he needs no other tonic; but when one has gone through all
this and he finds that no Broncho - or, for that matter, any other
horse - ever foaled cannot be ridden, it loses its charm and becomes
boring. On the prairie there are only two things left for him to
do - drink or gamble. The first is impossible. It is low, degrading.
Besides it only appeals to certain senses, and does not give one that
'hair-curling' thrill which makes life tolerable. Consequently the wily
pasteboard is brought forth - and we live again."

"Stuff," remarked Mrs. Abbot, uncompromisingly.

"Bill, you make me laugh," exclaimed Jacky, smiling up into his face.
"Your arguments are so characteristic of you. I believe it is nothing
but sheer indolence that makes you sit down night after night and hand
over your dollars to that - that Lablache. How much have you lost to him
this week?"

"Lord" Bill glanced quizzically down at the girl.

"I have purchased seven evenings' excitement at a fairly reasonable
price."

"Which means?"

The girl leant forward and in her eyes was a look of anxiety. She meant
to have the truth.

"I have enjoyed myself."

"But the price?"

"Ah - here comes your partner for the next dance," "Lord" Bill went on,
still smiling. "The band has struck up."

At that moment a broad-shouldered man, with a complexion speaking loudly
of the prairie, came up to claim the girl.

"Hallo, Pickles," said Bill, quietly turning upon the newcomer and
ignoring Jacky's question. "Thought you said you weren't coming in
to-night?"

"Neither was I," the man addressed as "Pickles" retorted, "but Miss
Jacky promised me two dances," he went on, in strong Irish brogue; "that
settled it. How d'ye do, Mrs. Abbot? Come along, Miss Jacky, we're
losing half our dance."

The girl took the proffered arm and was about to move off. She turned
and spoke to "Lord" Bill over her shoulder.

"How much?"

Bill shrugged his shoulders in a deprecating fashion. The same gentle
smile hovered round his sleepy eyes.

"Three thousand dollars."

Jacky glided off into the already dancing throng.

For a moment the Hon. Bunning-Ford and Mrs. Abbot watched the girl as
she glided in and out amongst the dancers, then, with a sigh, the old
lady turned to her companion. Her kindly wrinkled old face wore a sad
expression and a half tender look was in her eyes as they rested upon
the man's face. When she spoke, however, her tone was purely
conversational.

"Are you not going to dance?"

"No," abstractedly. "I think I've had enough."

"Then come and sit by me and help to cheer an old woman up."

"Lord" Bill smiled as he seated himself upon the lounge.

"I don't think there is much necessity for my cheering influence, Aunt
Margaret. Amongst your many other charming qualities cheerfulness is not
the least. Doesn't Jacky look lovely to-night?"

"To-night? - always."

"Yes, of course - but Jacky always seems to surpass herself under
excitement. One would scarcely expect it, knowing her as we do. But she
is as wildly delighted with dancing as any miss fresh from school."

"And why not? It is little pleasure that comes into her life. An
orphan - barely twenty-two - with the entire responsibility of her uncle's
ranch upon her shoulders. Living in a very hornet's nest of blacklegs
and - and - "

"Gamblers," put in the man, quietly.

"Yes," Aunt Margaret went on defiantly, "gamblers. With the certain
knowledge that the home she struggles for, through no fault of her own,
is passing into the hands of a man she hates and despises - "

"And who by the way is in love with her." "Lord" Bill's mouth was
curiously pursed.

"What pleasure can she have?" exclaimed Mrs. Abbot, vehemently.
"Sometimes, much as I am attached to John, I feel as if I should like
to - to bang him!"

"Poor old John!" Bill's bantering tone nettled the old lady, but she
said no more. Her anger against those she loved could not last long.

"'Poker' John loves his niece," the man went on, as his companion
remained silent. "There is nothing in the world he would not do for her,
if it lay within his power."

"Then let him leave poker alone. His gambling is breaking her heart."

The angry light was again in the old lady's eyes. Her companion did not
answer for a moment. His lips had assumed that curious pursing. When he
spoke it was with, great decision.

"Impossible, my dear lady - utterly impossible. Can the Foss River help
freezing in winter? Can Jacky help talking prairie slang? Can Lablache
help grubbing for money? Can you help caring for all of our worthless
selves who belong to the Foss River Settlement? Nothing can alter these
things. John would play poker on the lid of his own coffin, while the
undertakers were winding his shroud about him - if they'd lend him a pack
of cards."

"I believe you encourage him in it," said the old lady, mollified, but
still sticking to her guns. "There is little to choose between you."

The man shrugged his indolent shoulders. This dear old lady's loyalty to
Jacky, and, for that matter, to all her friends, pleased while it amused
him.

"Maybe." Then abruptly, "Let's talk of something else."

At that moment an elderly man was seen edging his way through the
dancers. He came directly over to Mrs. Abbot.

"It's getting late, Margaret," he said, pausing before her. "I am told
it is rather gusty outside. The weather prophets think we may have a
blizzard on us before morning."

"I shouldn't be at all surprised," put in the Hon. Bunning-Ford. "The
sun-dogs have been showing for the last two days. I'll see what Jacky
says, and then hunt out old John."

"Yes, for goodness' sake don't let us get caught in a blizzard,"
exclaimed Mrs. Abbot, fearfully. "If there is one thing I'm afraid of it
is one of those terrible storms. We have thirty-five miles to go."

The new-comer, Dr. Abbot, smiled at his wife's terrified look, but, as
he turned to urge Bill to hurry, there was a slightly anxious look on
his face.

"Hurry up, old man. I'll go and see about our sleigh." Then in an
undertone, "You can exaggerate a little to persuade them, for the storm
_is_ coming on and we must get away at once."

A moment or two later "Lord" Bill and Jacky were making their way to the
smoking-room. On the stairs they met "Poker" John. He was returning to
the ballroom.

"We were just coming to look for you, uncle," exclaimed Jacky. "They
tell us it is blowing outside."

"Just what I was coming to tell you, my dear. We must be going. Where
are the doctor and Aunt Margaret?"

"Getting ready," said Bill, quietly. "Have a good game?"

The old man smiled. His bronzed face indicated extreme satisfaction.

"Not half bad, boy - not half bad. Relieved Lablache of five hundred
dollars in the last jackpot. Held four deuces. He opened with full on
aces."

"Poker" John seemed to have forgotten the past heavy losses, and spoke
gleefully of the paltry five hundred he had just scooped in.

The girl looked relieved, and even the undemonstrative "Lord" Bill
allowed a scarcely audible sigh to escape him. Jacky returned at once to
the exigencies of the moment.

"Then, uncle, dear, let us hurry up. I guess none of us want to be
caught in a blizzard. Say, Bill, take me to the cloak-room, right
away."




CHAPTER II

THE BLIZZARD: ITS CONSEQUENCES


On the whole, Canada can boast of one of the most perfect health-giving
climates in the world, despite the two extremes of heat and cold of
which it is composed. But even so, the Canadian climate is cursed by an
evil which every now and again breaks loose from the bonds which fetter
it, and rages from east to west, carrying death and destruction in its
wake. I speak of the terrible - the raging Blizzard!

To appreciate the panic-like haste with which the Foss River Settlement
party left the ballroom, one must have lived a winter in the west of
Canada. The reader who sits snugly by his or her fireside, and who has
never experienced a Canadian winter, can have no conception of one of
those dread storms, the very name of which had drawn words of terror
from one who had lived the greater part of her life in the eastern
shadow of the Rockies. Hers was no timid, womanly fear for ordinary
inclemency of weather, but a deep-rooted dread of a life-and-death
struggle in a merciless storm, than which, in no part of the world, can
there be found a more fearful. Whence it comes - and why, surely no one
may say. A meteorological expert may endeavor to account for it, but his
argument is unconvincing and gains no credence from the dweller on the
prairies. And why? Because the storm does not come from above - neither
does it come from a specified direction. And only in the winter does
such a wind blow. The wind buffets from every direction at once. No snow
falls from above and yet a blinding gray wall of snow, swept up from the
white-clothed ground, encompasses the dazed traveller. His arm
outstretched in daylight and he cannot see the tips of his heavy fur
mitts. Bitter cold, a hundred times intensified by the merciless force
of the wind, and he is lost and freezing - slowly freezing to death.

As the sleigh dashed through the outskirts of Calford, on its way to the
south, there was not much doubt in the minds of any of its occupants as
to the prospects of the storm. The gusty, patchy wind, the sudden sweeps
of hissing, cutting snow, as it slithered up in a gray dust in the
moonlight, and lashed, with stinging force, into their faces, was a sure
herald of the coming "blizzard."

Bunning-Ford and Jacky occupied the front seat of the sleigh. The former
was driving the spanking team of blacks of which old "Poker" John was
justly proud. The sleigh was open, as in Canada all such sleighs are.
Mrs. Abbot and the doctor sat in a seat with their backs to Jacky and
her companion, and old John Allandale faced the wind in the back seat,
alone. Thirty-five miles the horses had to cover before the storm
thoroughly established itself, and "Lord" Bill was not a slow driver.

The figures of the travellers were hardly distinguishable so enwrapped
were they in beaver caps, buffalo coats and robes. Jacky, as she sat
silently beside her companion, might have been taken for an inanimate
bundle of furs, so lost was she within the ample folds of her buffalo.
But for the occasional turn of her head, as she measured with her eyes
the rising of the storm, she gave no sign of life.

"Lord" Bill seemed indifferent. His eyes were fixed upon the road ahead
and his hands, encased in fur mitts, were on the "lines" with a
tenacious grip. The horses needed no urging. They were high-mettled and
cold. The gushing quiver of their nostrils, as they drank in the crisp,
night air, had a comforting sound for the occupants of the sleigh.
Weather permitting, those beautiful "blacks" would do the distance in
under three hours.

The sleigh bells jangled musically in response to the high steps of the
horses as they sped over the hard, snow-covered trail. They were
climbing the long slope which was to take them out of the valley
wherein was Calford situate. Presently Jack's face appeared from amidst
the folds of the muffler which kept her storm collar fast round her neck
and ears.

"It's gaining on us, Billy."

"Yes, I know."

He understood her remark. He knew she referred to the storm. His lips
were curiously pursed. A knack he had when stirred out of himself.

"We shan't do it."

The girl spoke with conviction.

"No."

"Guess we'd better hit the trail for Norton's. Soldier Joe'll be glad to
welcome us."

"Lord" Bill did not answer. He merely chirruped at the horses. The
willing beasts increased their pace and the sleigh sped along with that
intoxicating smoothness only to be felt when travelling with double
"bobs" on a perfect trail.

The gray wind of the approaching blizzard was becoming fiercer. The moon


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