That was what Beresford had done with Pierre Poulette after the Frenchman had killed Buckskin Jerry. He had followed the man for months, captured him, lived with him alone for a fourth of a year in the deep snows, and brought him back to punishment. It was easy enough to plead that this situation was a wholly different one. Pierre Poulette was no such dangerous wild beast as Bully West. Win did not have with him a companion wounded almost to death who had to be nursed back to health, one struck down by the prisoner treacherously. There was just a fighting chance for the officers to get back to Desolation if West was eliminated from the equation. Tom knew he would have a man’s work cut out for him to win through—without the handicap of the prisoner.
Deep in his heart he believed that it was West’s life or theirs. It wasn’t humanly possible, in addition to all the other difficulties that pressed on him, to guard this murderer and bring him back for punishment. There was no alternative, it seemed to Tom. Thinking could not change the conditions. It might be sooner, it might be later, but under existing circumstances the desperado would find his chance to attack, if he were alive to take it.
The fellow’s life was forfeit. As soon as he was turned over to the State, it would be exacted of him. Since his assault on Beresford, surely he had lost all claim to consideration as a human being.
Just now there were only three men in the world so far as they were concerned. These three constituted society. Beresford, his mind still wandering with incoherent mutterings, was a non-voting member. He, Tom Morse, must be judge and jury. He must, if the prisoner were convicted, play a much more horrible role. In the silence of the cold sub-Arctic night he fought the battle out while automatically he waited on his friend.
West snored on the other side of the fire.
NEAR THE END OF A LONG CROOKED TRAIL
When West awoke, Morse was whittling on a piece of wood with his sharp hunting-knife. It was a flat section from a spruce, and it had been trimmed with an axe till it resembled a shake in shape.
The outlaw’s curiosity overcame his sullenness at last. It made him jumpy, anyhow, to sit there in silence except for the muttering of the sick man.
“Whajamakin’?” he demanded.
Morse said nothing. He smoothed the board to his satisfaction, then began lettering on it with a pencil.
“I said whajadoin’,” growled West, after another silence.
The special constable looked at him, and in the young man’s eyes there was something that made the murderer shiver.
“I’m making a tombstone.”
“What?” West felt a drench of ice at his heart.
“A marker for a grave.”
“For—for him? Maybe he won’t die. Looks better to me. Fever ain’t so high.”