“I always liked you fine, Tom,” the convict pleaded desperately. “Me ‘n’ you was always good pals. You wouldn’t do me dirt thataway now. If you knew the right o’ things—how that Kelly kep’ a-devilin’ me, how Whaley was layin’ to gun me when he got a chanct, how I stood up for the McRae girl an’ protected her against him. Goddlemighty, man, you ain’t aimin’ to kill me like a wolf!” The shriek of uncontrollable terror lifted into his voice once more. “I ain’t ready to die. Gimme a chance, Tom. I’ll change my ways. I swear I will. I’ll do like you say every minute. I’ll nurse Beresford. Me, I’m a fine nurse. If you’ll gimme a week—jus’ one more week. That ain’t much to ask. So’s I can git ready.”
The man slipped to his knees and began to crawl toward Morse. The young man got up, his teeth set. He could not stand much of this sort of thing without collapsing himself.
“Get up,” he said. “We’re going over the hill there.”
It took Morse five minutes to get the condemned man to his feet. The fellow’s face was ashen. His knees shook.
Tom was in almost as bad a condition himself.
Beresford’s high voice cut in. In his delirium he was perhaps living over again his experience with Pierre Poulette.
“Maintiens le droit. Get your man and bring him in. Tough sledding. Never mind. Go through, old fellow. Bring him in. That’s what you’re sent for. Hogtie him. Drag him with a rope around his neck. Get him back somehow.”
The words struck Tom motionless. It was as though some voice were speaking to him through the sick man’s lips. He waited.
“Righto, sir,” the soldier droned on. “See what I can do, sir. Have a try at it, anyhow.” And again he murmured the motto of the Mounted Police.
Tom had excused himself for what he thought it was his duty to do on the ground that it was not humanly possible to save his friend and bring West back. It came to him in a flash that the Mounted Police were becoming so potent a power for law and order because they never asked whether the job assigned them was possible. They went ahead and did it or died trying to do it. It did not matter primarily whether Beresford and he got back alive or not. If West murdered them, other red-coats would take the trail and get him.
What he, Tom Morse, had to do was to carry on. He could not choose the easy way, even though it was a desperately hard one for him. He could not make himself a judge over this murderer, with power of life and death. The thing that had been given him to do was to bring West to Faraway. He had no choice in the matter. Win or lose, he had to play the hand out as it was dealt him.
OVER A ROTTING TRAIL
Tom believed that Beresford’s delirious words had condemned them both to death. He could not nurse his friend, watch West night and day, keep the camp supplied with food, and cover the hundreds of miles of bleak snow fields which stretched between them and the nearest settlement. He did not think that any one man lived who was capable of succeeding in such a task.