In a rock-bound gulch, half-buried under the sands of summer, covered beneath ten feet of snow in winter, six skeletons lie, grinning mockingly.
In the hollow skulls of two are smooth, round holes. In one a tiny, leaden pellet leaps and bumps with each heave and groan of the sun-kissed ice in spring. The whitened ribs of two are seamed and scarred as by a knife.
Upon the sixth there is no mark. Nor comes there any answering rattle when some loathsome reptile, scurrying from its lair amongst the rocks and crevices, jars against the whitened shell that once encased as foul a brain as e’er polluted God’s green footstool. It lies far apart from the others, denied, even in death, the solace of their companionship.
It is of the tenant of that sixth grim remnant, gazing, hollow-eyed, toward the heavens it can never enter, that this story is written. The flesh that once covered his weather-bleached bones has long since been carried away by carrion birds; his malignant soul is now frying in hell—unless, by chance, the devil, fearing the corruption of his powers of darkness, has denied the spirit admittance.
He mocked God and spit upon His Commandments. And the long arm of God reached out and found him—even in the chill, cold arctic hell where he had hidden himself away.
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The Ever-Mysterious North
Lee was the first to die.
They found him, a month after they had discovered that they were rich—cold and stiff, his face twisted into an indescribable grimace, as if he had died in awful agony. Yet there had been no outcry. Nor was there any mark upon his body to show how he had been struck down.
The six of them—Lee, the profane; Halligan, the religious; Mason, the student; Wentworth, ill-tempered and moody; Kelly, the hot-blooded Celt; and good-natured, plodding, old Drew—were from the same Mid-Western town. They had grown up together, attended the same school, soldiered in the same squad.
The same girl had driven them to the land of long winters to seek their fortune.
And, smarting under the same misfortune, they had been drawn together, forgetting, for the time, their differences, sharing one another’s dangers, living out of a common purse, laughing at hardships—yet each praying that he might be the one upon whom Fortune’s smile would fall—buoyed up by the memory of a beautiful girl far, far from their adopted home.
After a fashion, they were happy. They were filled with primitive vigor and pulsing with life. They lived constant romances and did not know it. For such is the way of the far countries.
And the lure of the North had gripped their heartstrings.
They had been prospecting, without results, all summer, when they chanced upon the unmapped, blind canyon which was destined to he their burial place. Following the noisy little creek up the gulch to the spot where it bubbled from * the side of the rocky wall which blocked the farther end of the canyon, between two gray, grim mountains, they decided to “hole in” for the winter.
There were signs of gold everywhere. A cabin, old and weatherbeaten—one of the unsolved mysteries of the ever-mysterious North—stood ready for their occupancy with a small amount of repairing. Near by were a dozen mounds —grim reminders of a tragic past. In the cabin were bags filled with nuggets, their coverings rotted away. The whole place breathed of mystery—of mystery and treasure untold. Wood was plentiful and game was abundant.
Halligan and Lee were sent back for supplies. The others divided their time between prospecting the gulch and putting in shape their shack —a four-roomed affair—for they intended spending the winter in comfort.
Two weeks after the return of the two,-the partners awoke to the realization that they were rich. Before they could even estimate the extent of their find winter arrived, with its long, cold nights, burying the old cabin almost to the eaves under a mass of snow which filled the gulch, tying them up effectually for the remainder of the season.
There is no stronger test of friendship than the placing of strong, vigorous men for several long, weary months in enforced confinement. With little to do save eat and sleep, forced to gaze at each other day after day, they are apt to fall into a physical lethargy which eventually creates a nervous tension like nothing else in the world. Petty quarrels become serious “matters. Molehills are magnified into mountains. They grow to hate the sight of each other— to become suspicious of what, under other circumstances, would not be noticed. And, when each looks upon his companions as his rivals for the hand of a beautiful woman, hell is bound to break loose sooner or later. It is as inevitable as fate.
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The Visitation Of God
When they found the grisly horror that was Lee, lying stark and stiff in his bunk, gazing, glassy-eyed, toward the ceiling, there was no thought of foul play. It was Halligan who, in straightening out the cold, clinched fingers, discovered the tiny thread of gray wool in the doubled-up fist and called the attention of the others to it.
Wentworth was the owner of the only gray shirt in the camp. The others wore khaki or blue. It had been a cold night and he had slept in it. Instantly all eyes were turned upon him, although no word was spoken.
He turned upon his silent accusers, his lips drawn back in a wolfish snarl.
“Damn it! If you think I done it, say so!” he growled. “If I killed him, how did I do it—and when? You, Halligan, slept in the same room with us.”
Halligan shook his head sadly:
“When I went to bed, the two of you, and Kelly, were soldering that hole in the old coffee-pot. I went to sleep before either of you turned in.”
Kelly looked at Halligan angrily, then cast a sympathetic glance at Wentworth.
“I’m sorry to say, boys, that I ‘hit the hay’ before the other two. I wish now that I hadn’t, because I’m confident that if Lee was killed—and I don’t think that he was—it wasn’t Wentworth that done it. He’s not that stripe. In fact.” he hastened on, “none of the bunch is.”
“Keep your blasted sympathy to yourself! I don’t want it!” he growled.
Halligan shook his head mournfully. <
“It’s the visitation of God upon Lee for his blasphemy,” he muttered. “I warned him against it many a time— poor boy.”
They sat around all day discussing their-companion’s sudden taking away— all but Wentworth. He sat alone in a corner, silently nursing his grievances. They had searched the body; there was not a mark upon it. The other four were loud in their statements that Lee must have died a natural death. But there was a feeling of coldness—an indescribable something that cast a pall over them all—a feeling toward their once-trusted comrade—a feeling that the long, lonely days of idleness and soundless nights of the past now magnified into an unspoken suspicion.
Late in the afternoon they carried Lee’s body up the gulch a few yards and buried it in a shallow grave dug in the ice .and snow, where it would have to lie until spring opened up again. The ground was frozen too hard to dig a grave being covered by a dozen feet of hard-packed snow and ice.
Only Wentworth remained away from the simple funeral, sitting glumly by himself inside the cabin while Halligan mumbled, brokenly, as much as he could remember of the burial service.
It was late when they retired that night. All but Wentworth. He refused to eat any supper, throwing himself onto his bunk immediately after the others had finished eating, where he lay, scowling, his eyes staring into vacancy.
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A Pall Of Acrid Smoke
They slept fitfully. It was nearly morning when they were awakened by the sharp explosion of a gun.
They leaped to their feet and one of them struck a match and lighted a, flickering tallow candle.
Wentworth lay dead in his blankets. Over him hung a pall of acrid smoke.
He lay upon his back, a bullet hole in his temple, his lips drawn back in the same wolfish snarl he had worn during the day. On the floor beside him, where it had dropped from his nerveless hand, lay his revolver.
Next morning they buried him in the snow beside the man who they were now sure had been his victim. And once more it was Halligan who was called upon to say a prayer.
Again he repeated his warning.
“Can’t you see, boys,” he mourned, “that the Lord visited his wrath upon Wentworth for his sins—just as he did upon Lee. A man’s evil deeds will find him out. It’s a warning for you all to repent before it’s too late.”
There was no work done that day. Even the dishes were allowed to go greasy and unwashed while they discussed again and again the various phases of the second tragedy that had befallen their little community.
Wentworth had never been popular with the others, his moroseness and general tone of surly indifference to everything keeping him from being the general favorite that the profane but good-natured Lee had been. Yet it was hard to believe that he had stooped to murder.
As usual, it was Halligan, the born leader, who aroused them from their apathy. Putting the others to cleaning up the dishes, he cooked a hasty supper and compelled the three to eat with him.
“There’s no use getting the doldrums,” he admonished them. “They’re dead, and sitting around mooning won’t bring ‘em back. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Of course, it’s up to us to see that their heirs get their share of the mine after we’ve taken our wages out for working it. When we’ve fed and cleaned up the shack we’ll have a game of cards and turn in early. I, for one, am sleepy.”
So were they all, for, within an hour after they had eaten, the four of them were yawning vigorously. They crawled into their bunks, Halligan, who refused to sleep in the room where Lee and Wentworth had met their deaths, climbing into a spare bunk with the others.
Mason was the first to awaken next morning. He shouted for the others as he leaped out of his blankets and crawled into his clothes. Replenishing the logs in the fireplace in the living-room, he again yelled at the other three and turned his attention to breakfast.
A second later a loud cry from Kelly brought Halligan to his feet, while Mason ran in from the outer room.
For Drew lay dead in his bunk. Between his ribs, buried to the hilt, was a hunting-knife. And it was Mason’s knife.
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The Girl And The Money
Kelly carefully drew the knife from the wound and looked at the initials carved on the handle.
“So, ‘twas you, after all, was it, you skunk?” he snarled at Mason. “You with your damned sneaking ways and your smooth, oily manner, eh? Though why you were fool enough to leave your knife stickin’ in him is what I can’t understand. Scared away, were you?”
Mason stepped back a pace, a look of amazement on his proud face.
“I swear by the ever-living God, boys, that I am innocent!” he declared. “Why would I kill Drew?”
“Why—yes, why?” snorted Kelly, his eyes glittering. “For the same reason that you killed Lee and threw the blame for it onto poor Wentworth, damn your soul! I suppose that Halligan and I were to be the next, eh ?” he went on. i tli us out of the way you’d be a rich man. And then you could go back and marry Cora Hunter. Oh, I’m no fool.”
Halligan, sitting on the edge of his bunk putting on his moccasins, said nothing. Kelly, his Celtic temper leaping to the surface, was intensely angry.
Mason, too, was a man of hot passions, although he held them under better restraint than did the Irishman. He took a half-step toward his accuser.
“Kelly—and Halligan,” he began in a level voice, “I didn’t kill Drew, nor had I a hand in the death of Lee. It’s just as much of a mystery to me how my knife got there as it is to you.”
“’Tis no mystery to me,” snapped Kelly. “You put it there, you cur.”
“You’re a damned liar!”
Kelly leaped upon him, the knife he still held in his hand upraised. Mason’s fist met him half-way, striking him squarely in the face, but failing to stop his rush.
With a lurid oath the burly Irishman jabbed the weapon into the other’s side half a dozen times.
With his bare fists Mason fought the other as best he could for a second or two. His fingers clutched weakly about his antagonist’s windpipe. He struggled blindly for a second, fumbling feebly for a hold. Then his knees doubled under him and, with a dull moan, he sank to the floor at Kelly’s feet.
Without a sign of undue haste, Halligan buckled his belt and holster about his waist. Coolly he unbuttoned the holster and drew the gun. He cocked the weapon and, with his finger on the trigger, waited for the others to settle their argument.
“Did you get him?” he asked, as Kelly stepped back and wiped the blood from his streaming nose.
“Yes, an’ I’m damned glad of it— the swine!”
Before he could turn around, Halligan placed the muzzle of his gun against the back of the Irishman’s head and pulled the trigger. A dazed expression crept over Kelly’s face. The knife dropped from his hand. Then he fell in a heap across the body of his late antagonist.
Halligan replaced the weapon in its holster and felt of the Irishman’s heart. Assuring himself that it had ceased to beat, he raised his eyes to Mason, who was staring at him dazedly.
“You saved my life, Halligan,” the wounded man muttered thickly; “but you took so long doing it that he got me anyway. Much obliged—just—same.”
“If I did, I’m sorry,” he remarked, cheerfully. “ ‘Cause then I’ll have to finish you myself. It wouldn’t do for you to live, you see, because you know too much. And, besides, I want everything for myself—the girl and the money both.”
The dying man looked at him curiously. “You don’t mean that it was you, Halligan? Great God! And I never suspected!”
Halligan sat down on the edge of his bunk and laughed good-humoredly as he unbuckled his gun and threw it across the foot of the bed.
“I don’t mind telling you about it,” he said quietly, “because you’ll soon be where you can never tell.”
He rolled a cigarette and, lighting it, inhaled a whiff before he continued: “You see, Mason, I figured out long ago that as soon as we struck it rich— and I felt sure that we would sooner or later—it would be a survival of the fittest. I knew that there was no chance for any of us with Cora until we had money. She’s a selfish little devil, but she’s worth fighting for. And, with all of us rich, we would be just where we started. But now it’ll be me alone— just me.
“When we struck pay here, you remember it was me that suggested putting in here for the winter. I knew that it would be easy for me to plant the seed of suspicion in all of you, for, deep down in your hearts, you all felt as I did and each one of you suspected the other. And you were as jealous as a bunch of chorus girls.
“Wentworth killed Lee all right. I watched him do it from the other room, where I was supposed to be asleep. I suggested the idea of it to him without him knowing it several days before. He and I were doing a job of soldering and I told him a story I got from my grandmother—about a man who had murdered his wife by pouring a drop of hot lead in her ear.
“After Kelly turned in that night, Lee and Wentworth sat up soldering, you remember. Finally Lee dropped off to sleep with his head on the table. It was too good an opportunity for Wentworth to miss—for he hated Lee’s guts—so he drops a bit of the hot solder into Lee’s ear. He died without a struggle, as I knew he would—for the infernal stuff paralyzes every faculty. Afterward Wentworth took off his boots and sneaked in to see if we were asleep. Finding that we were, he carried Lee in and laid him on his bunk.
“You remember how Wentworth tore his shirt on a nail there by the door? I recollected that there was a scrap of wool banging onto it. When Wentworth went back into the other room to put away his tools, I jumped out, took the little piece of wool from the nail and got it into Lee’s clenched fingers and jumped back into bed before Wentworth returned. Pretty smooth, eh?
“Wentworth couldn’t stand the gaff. He imagined that I knew that he had killed Lee, so he killed himself.”
“I killed Wentworth!” he blurted out. “You told me that he had—that he—he—about what he done to—to Cora. I saw that this was a good opportunity to get rid of him and let you fellows think he had done it himself.” You put me up to it, you devil!”
“So it was you, after all, eh?” he chuckled. “I knew that you had swallowed my little story, but I’ll confess that I didn’t think you would get busy so quick.”
“But the letter you showed me from her—from Cora?”
Halligan chuckled again. “Mason, I don’t mind telling you that when I went after supplies with Lee I fixed up five letters, all identical except the names. I put one of your names in each letter. I showed each one of you a different letter, playing each one of you against the other. That’s why Kelly knifed you. He didn’t care a cuss for Drew—he was itching for an opportunity to get you. See? I stuck Drew myself, using your knife to throw suspicion on you, knowing that it would start the Irishman. Where I miscalculated was in thinking that you’d be armed. I didn’t want to stain my own hands with murder any more than I had to. I put some dope in all of your grub last night when I got supper so that I could pull off the stunt without arousing you.
“That idea of mine of playing each one of you against the other was pretty slick, wasn’t it? No one knows of the existence of this blind gulch here. I’ll have a pretty good nest egg, and, after I marry Cora, I can always take a run back here for more if I need it. Of course, I’ll bury all of you fellows nice and shipshape and I’ll tell them back home about our separating and each going in a different direction. Oh, I’ve got a good yarn cooked up, all right.”
The wounded man glared at him malignantly.
“Damn you!” he cried. “God’s long arm will get you yet—even out here in the ice and snow of this God-forsaken country.”
Halligan smiled. “God? Bah! If I’d believed in such foolishness I’d never won out over the rest of you. But I made you think I did—and that’s how I got the best of you.”
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Beginning Of The End
He arose and stretched himself. Then, seizing the dead man, he dragged his victim out of doors and buried him alongside of the others.
Mason watched him at his work with glaring eyes. Then, as he left the room, the wounded man dragged himself across the few feet that separated him from the bunk.
Carefully, every movement filled with pain, he reached up and took the gun. He tried to lift himself to his feet and felt himself going.
“O God,” he murmured, “help me— help me—get him—don’t let him get— away with it. Help me for Cora’s sake.”
He succeeded in getting the weapon cocked—in hiding it inside his trousers pocket.
His jaw dropped and, with a convulsive twitch, he died.
Halligan finished burying Kelly and returned to the cabin for warmth. Replenishing the fire, he entered the other room and found Mason dead. Throwing him across his shoulder, he staggered out into the gulch again and laid him on the snow crust while he hastily scooped another shallow grave.
He bent over the body to roll it into the hole. As he did so there was a flash and a report. The bullet swept across his lids, searing them with its heat. His eyes were filled with the powder.
Blinded, sobbing with his misery, he tried to grope his way back to the cabin. He lost his sense of direction. He stumbled and fell, arose and stumbled again. His snowshoes dropped from his feet. Too miserable to care, he tried to go on without them. He broke through the crust to his waist. On and on he floundered his way, whimpering with pain—chilled to the marrow—thinking to reach the cabin, but ever getting farther from it.
And finally, exhausted, blinded, freezing, he fell into the stupor, which marks the beginning of the end in the Land of Eternal Snow.
For the sudden cold, grasping hold of the dead body of Mason, had hastened rigor mortis. The dead fingers, stiffening suddenly, had tightened about the trigger of the hidden revolver.
It was the long arm of God.
~ The End ~