Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The Man in the Shack


The Man in the Shack

by Laurie York Erskine

Illustrator: FRANK E. SCHOONOVER

From American Boy magazine November 1936. Digital capture June 2008 by Doug Frizzle


TOM DRAYTON stepped out onto the porch of the Mounted Police office and looked appraisingly at the weather. It was Saturday morning, and clear. That meant Ross Hendry would be up at dawn and driving in from the McElstree ranch for the week's supplies. It also meant Ross would stop at the barracks before noon to take Tom off to the swimming hole.

This Saturday-morning swim was a ritual that had started early in the summer. Coming to Trumbull Mountain in May, fresh from the training depot in Regina, Tom Drayton had felt his way cautiously among the young cowboys and ranch hands who every Saturday evening crowded the little mountain town. He had found them a good-natured, boisterous crew, but he had sensed that they were mischievously curious about his ability to handle a situation.

The suggestion of strength and power conveyed by Tom's body as it towered among the crowd in the uniform of the Mounted, combined with the youthfulness of his frank, friendly manner, constituted an irresistible temptation to the hard-riding young men. They had watched him and studied him. Tom had watched them—and waited.

The showdown had come when Ross Hendry rode up to the barracks one Saturday morning with a dozen cavorting horsemen and invited Tom Drayton to go swimming. Gazing down at them from the porch of the barracks, Tom had realized that here was a challenge to stand upon his own feet, without the protective authority of his uniform. If he accepted he risked his reputation and his career with the Mounted; if he refused he lost his self-respect.

"Wait'll I saddle a horse," he said.

Ross Hendry exchanged glances with the gang. "We'll be here," he said. He was a strapping, black-haired, black-eyed young rider, tall and deep-chested, and like Tom, about twenty years old. He was renowned for the fury of his temper and the success with which he bulldogged steers.

The swimming hole was a pool of crystal water captured in the depths of the valley by a wall of granite. At its lower end a grass-carpeted ledge shadowed by white birches offered a pleasant dressing room and the rocks of various heights made diving platforms from which the swimmers could plunge into twenty feet of water clear as glass.

The young men had plunged and played there for more than an hour, and Tom had never ceased to be aware of the boisterous challenge in their constant, good-humored taunts. He knew that something was going to happen and wondered how it would start. Then it happened.

Standing on a rock, poised for a plunge into the pool, Tom was suddenly aware that the whole gang had gathered on the grass plot. He plunged and swam across. As he began the slippery climb to the grassy ledge, one of the gang who lolled at the edge gave him a playful shove with his foot.

"Slide back, cowboy!" he grinned.

Tom splashed back into the water, regained his balance and lunged up the bank again, laughing carefully. This time several of the gang made a game of shoving him back, but Tom had risen from the depths prepared. Two of them went spinning away from lightning straight-arm shoves, and Tom was battling on the slippery ground with the third when Ross Hendry snatched his wrist in a grip strong as a vise.

"Leave him alone!" grinned Ross. "Come on up, Drayton!"

The strong grip yanked Tom out of the pool as if he'd been a sack of grain, but his foot no sooner touched the grass than he was flung flat on his back as if kicked by a mule. A roar of derisive laughter followed as Ross Hendry, the undefeated bulldogger of steers, pounced on him. But the laughter stopped when Tom clamped a wristlock on Hendry's right arm, bridged, rolled free, let go his wristlock and came to his feet, laughing in sheer good spirits.

The cowboy followed him up instantly and made a football dive for Tom's legs. Tom jumped back just out of reach. When Hendry came up again, Tom caught the cowboy's right arm, jerked back hard and, as Hendry stumbled forward completely off balance, slipped behind, whirled him off his feet and dumped him in a startled heap on the ground.

Tom laughed again as Ross Hendry scrambled up, but the laugh faded as Ross plunged in to attack him. For an instant Tom saw the cowboy's face distorted by black fury. The dark eyes flamed, the red lips were a twisted gash across his face. Then Ross was upon him, striking with knee and fist and elbow, striking to hurt and bruise and stun.

There was an instant when Tom reeled back under the unexpected vicious attack; then he snatched at one flailing arm. Again Ross was swept from the ground. But this time he wheeled in a cartwheel, and was whipped to the grass with a thud that dashed the fight out of him. Tom was upon him like a tiger. The great arms locked about the hard, muscular shoulders and torso of the bulldogger, and the ripping muscles that swathed Tom's chest and shoulders swelled as he clamped tight.

Hendry wriggled vainly. His body twisted, strained and then stiffened. A long, grudging groan welled from between his teeth. "All right," he muttered. "Let up! . . . Aw, let up."

Tom rose to his feet, the remnant of a smile still curling his lips. Slowly Ross Hendry picked himself up. A conspiracy of silence reigned until the whole gang had dressed. They went about getting their horses as if much depended on haste, but none of them had ridden away when Ross Hendry turned to Tom Drayton and spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear.

"You're okay, soldier," he said. "I oughtn't to have lost my temper. I'm a fool, that way, and I'm sorry I showed myself up."

Tom grinned, embarrassed.

"Forget it," he said. "Let's get back and eat. I'm hungry."

Since then Tom and Ross Hendry had gone swimming every Saturday morning. It had become a ritual, between two friends.

Now it was Saturday morning again, and Tom went about his work whistling cheerfully. Ross came earlier than usual, yipping and galloping his horse. With him were the two Frampton boys, sons of a Trumbull Mountain rancher.

"Make for the woods, soldier!" Hendry cried, deftly twisting his horse into a series of intricate calisthenics before he started for the swimming hole at a wild gallop.

When Tom caught up with the others he rode silently, watching Ross Hendry with thoughtful eyes and feeling troubled. Ross had changed over the summer months. While his friendship for Tom had increased, his attitude toward the world had become queerly defiant. He had become harder and more reckless, his dark eyes flashing too frequently with anger. Tom noticed as they rode along how meekly the Frampton brothers, who were untested youngsters, took the overbearing humor of the big cowboy. And at the pool he scowled as he saw Ross Hendry's horseplay descend almost to bullying.

The Frampton boys left them after the swim and the two friends rode back toward town together.

"Those two kids," said Ross, "need toughening some. They're soft." Tom was silent. "Seems like," said Ross, "the tougher they come, the farther they get."

"The farther from home," said Tom.

"Meaning what?" Ross cocked a quizzical eyebrow.

"What I say. You don't ever know where the tough boys come from—they moved out of their home towns too many jumps back."

"That's all right, they move, don't they?"

"Sure they move. One jump ahead of the law."

It was Ross' turn to be silent.

"Take Clem Surtees," said Tom. "Where did he come from?"

"Why Surtees?" Ross spoke guardedly.

"You know why." Tom spoke straight to the point. "When I first came here they gave me a list of men who'd bear watching, and Surtees stood right at the top. He was chased out of Medicine Hat for running a gambling joint, and before that he was mixed up with a bad crowd over the border, the kind of crowd you don't belong with, Ross."

Ross stared straight ahead, over his pony's ears. "I play where I like," he said, shortly.

Tom pulled his horse over so that he came nearer Hendry's side. "Can't you see how it is, Ross? Surtees is out for loot. I've got to watch him, and some day, sure as shell fire, I'll have to take him."

"But what's all the shoot-in' about?" Ross Hendry's eyes glittered darkly. "Clem Surtees isn't any pal of mine."

"You can't run with him and not become one of his gang."

"Who's running with him?"

"All summer you've been joining the play over at his ranch, He's running farout there and a crap game, and he's got you hooked, Ross."

With a sudden savage twisting of the reins Ross wrenched his pony around, pulling up face to face with Tom.

"Who told you that?" Again Tom saw the blazing fury of Ross Hendry's temper out of hand. His face was darkened by the hot flush of anger, his voice was thick with it.

"It's the fact," said Tom. "That's all that matters."

"It isn't! McElstree's been squealing! That's what matters! Like a preacher, like a naggin' old woman, he's been naggin' and gnawing at me all the time— and now he's told the police! I'm going to get him for that! He can't run me like an unlicked kid. You tell him that. If he can talk and listen next time you see him, you tell him he galled me once too often."

Furiously he yanked his pony around and plied the spur, but as the animal plunged forward Tom's charger plunged as well, and Tom's hand was on Hendry's bridle rein, holding the pony's nose close to the charger's shoulder.

"Le' go!" roared Ross, but coolly Tom drew the two horses in.

He gazed calmly into the other's eyes. "Before you go, Ross, hear what I got to say. Whatever there is between you and Duncan McElstree's none of my business. I understand he's been like your dad since you were a kid in knee pants, but there's lots of fellers don't get on with their fathers. All I got to say is: what I know, I found out for myself. It's my business to. And all you've got to do is decide which side of the fence you're playing on. But you've got to decide now. You cut out Clem Surtees, or you cut out me. There can't be any other way—" He paused, dropping Hendry's bridle rein. "And I hope you don't cut out me," he said. Ross scowled into the distance. "You—" his voice faded. "I got to be riding," he said abruptly. His dark eyes glanced up and caught Tom's anxious gaze. "Don't worry," he cried, "about me!" Then he turned his pony away and went galloping up the trail.

Tom took a long way home, making a few official visits among the ranches of the valley before he returned to town. After lunch he walked across the town to visit Inspector Renfrew. Renfrew had come to Trumbull Mountain some weeks earlier to arrest some criminals at Coal Creek Canyon, near-by. In the execution of this duty he had been badly injured and, after two weeks in the railway infirmary, he was now convalescing at the home of Doctor Pritchard. Tom found Renfrew at a writing table in a sunny room on the second floor. His straight - backed, athletic figure was upright in the cane-seated chair. He wrote as he rode a horse, with no weight on his hands and arms, his wide shoulders unbowed, his body seemingly, even in relaxation, alert for immediate action. As Tom entered the room Renfrew rose to welcome him, and Tom saw the long wound that ran across one side of Renfrew's head. The stitches had only recently been taken out, and against the cropped, sandy hair the wound was an ugly gash. Tom found it somehow surprising that the pale, handsome face below it was smiling at him as he entered. "Just the man I wanted to see," said Renfrew. "I've got something from headquarters concerning you."

"Orders, sir?" asked Tom.

"Nothing so pleasant," said Renfrew sitting again at the table. "There's been some horse stealing going on in your district. The old story of collecting other men's colts and herding them over the border. There's a gang led by a man named Surtees who has had a lot of experience, I guess."

Tom flushed unhappily.

"How did you — how did headquarters hear of this, sir?" he asked.

"It seems there's been an amateur detective at work. He lost more horses than he could afford to, and started trailing Surtees. He's found all their hide-outs, their routes to the border and the men they deal with on both sides of the line. He feels that he's got enough to prove a case."

"But why didn't he tell me of the stealing?"

Renfrew looked up at Tom quizzically.

"That's what headquarters wants me to find out. It seems that you're pretty close friends with a young man named Hendry."

"That's right. Ross Hendry's one of the best friends I've got—I think." He saw Renfrew's face turn grave and his heart fell into his boots. "He's not mixed up with Surtees?" he cried.

"I don't know." Renfrew frowned at the letter from headquarters. "This amateur detective is a ranchman named McElstree. He writes about Hendry in a queer way. Says he has always regarded Hendry as his own son, brought him up since he was a kid; but that Hendry's been running around with Surtees in spite of all he could do to prevent it, and that his efforts have only created bad blood between him and the boy. And that's why he didn't report to you. He says you're too thick with Hendry."

"I see." Tom Drayton stood silent, gazing at Renfrew thoughtfully, wondering what was going on in his mind. He heard a car drive up outside and was dimly aware of someone hurriedly, almost violently entering the house downstairs, but he was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he was completely surprised when one of the Frampton boys burst into the room, his blue eyes wide with excitement.

"Mr. Drayton! You're wanted!"

"What's up?"

"Ross Hendry! He's killed Mr. McElstree! He shot him! Out at the ranch!" The words tumbled from the boy's mouth in spurts. For an instant Tom stared at him, dazed by the horrible announcement. Then he found tongue.

"When? How? What do you know about it?" he cried.

"I drove over with my father and Dade Haley— to McElstree's ranch—and Mr. McElstree was lying on the porch steps. He was dead! Shot!"

"But Ross! How do you know it was Ross?"

"Ross's buckboard was in the yard with the horses still in harness; and the supplies Ross'd got in town hadn't been unloaded. Then Ross had changed his clothes — his work clothes were on the floor of the room — and he'd taken McElstree's car and lit out. My father says they'd been quarrelling for a long time—"

"Lit out? Where?"

"To Surtees'. That's how my father figured-Ross had been working with Surtees and they've been stealing horses, Dad says. Mr. McElstree told him. The way he sees it, Ross came home and they quarreled, so Ross shot Mr. McElstree—"

"Where is your father now?" asked Renfrew suddenly.

"Out after Ross. We drove back to Dade's ranch and they got their guns. They're picking up men along the way and setting out to round Ross up at Surtees' place."

"How do you know that Hendry's at Surtees'?" demanded Renfrew.

"He couldn't have gone any other way. The horses were still hot in the buck-board, so he hadn't been gone for long, and we were stuck with a blowout on the way to McElstree's right on the road he'd have to take to get to town. So he must have taken the Tavistock road to Surtees, and Dad and the others will cut him off or get him there."

Tom Drayton was staring tragically at Renfrew. "It's his temper," he said. "He's got the temper of a demon and now I've got to go—and take him!"

"Yes." Renfrew nodded gravely. "You've got to go."

Renfrew sat as if he were listening to Tom's retreating footsteps, to the shutting of the outer door and the starting of the car outside; but his mind was working intently — like the mind of a mathematician, marshaling every known quantity of a problem and applying every formula to solving it.

Suddenly he picked up the transcript of McElstree's letter to the police. He studied it thoughtfully. Dropping it on the table he rose and paced the room; then, suddenly in the manner of a lost man who finds a desired trail, he strode briskly from the room and down the stairs, where he seated himself at the doctor's telephone.

He first called several businessmen of the village and obtained a description of the car owned and driven by Mr. Clement Surtees, its license number and distinguishing marks. He then proceeded to make calls all over the countryside, while the wound in his head throbbed and pounded and the weight of his body sagged more and more heavily upon the elbows he braced upon the table.

In the meantime Tom Drayton trod the accelerator of Bud Frampton's car to the floorboard, swaying at the turns and skidding recklessly in the gravel roads that wound through the mountains toward the Surtees ranch. From a rise he saw the squat building of the ranch house beyond the grove of woods which separated it from the road, and he set the car plunging down the grade in a passion of impatience. Bud Frampton cried out in alarm, but instead of slowing down Tom made the car leap forward, for under the sound of Bud's cry he heard the sharp staccato of distant rifle fire. It clattered unevenly, punctuated like the key of a telegraph, in lightning dots and dashes. Then an ominous silence as the car rattled down the road.

It seemed to Tom as if that run down the grade dragged on for miles. The car seemed to stand still, and time stood still, and the wide, spacious world seemed dead. Then he was plunging into woods which hedged the road, and he saw the point where the lane turned in to the ranch. A man jumped out in the road before him, waving a rifle, frantically calling on him to halt—it was Lige Frampton, Bud's father. Tom braked the car to a stop.

"You can't go in there!" yelled Frampton. "He's shooting it out! He shot Dade Haley, and the rest of 'em are in cover!"

Tom turned on Kim like an angry lion. "You fired on him!" he cried. "By what authority?"

"He killed Duncan McElstree!" cried Frampton. "We got him trapped in the house!"

"But you fired without authority!"

"We had to. He won't be taken alive! He got Dade Haley—"

"Where's Haley?"

"Up in the clearing."

"Dead?"

"I guess."

"We've got to get him into town."

"You can't. He's near the house. Hendry's a dead shot and plumb crazy. We don't dare break cover."

"Show me."

Gingerly Frampton took him through the woods. Three other men were lurking behind the outer trees.

"Don't go farther!" they warned. Tom peered out.

The house, a single story, two room frame building, stood out in a wide clearing. Beyond it were several sheds and at various distances from it were clumps of underbrush and occasional lone trees. Well out from the protection of the woods Tom saw two men who hugged the ground behind a brush-covered hump of earth. Another man crouched, rifle at rest, behind a chicken coop. A fourth man lay on his back, face upward, behind a stone pile some twenty yards from the house.

"That's Dade," whispered Frampton. "The boy picked him off like a partridge."

Tom stared at him soberly. "Who's in the house?" he demanded.

"Only Ross. Surtees ain't home."

"Don't fire without orders," said Tom curtly. Turning, he walked briskly toward the stone pile.

The courage with which Tom crossed the clearing was the sort that springs from a purpose so definite and impelling as to make the consideration of danger negligible. He was possessed by the terrific importance of knowing whether Ross Hendry had killed Dade Haley. He walked across the grass as if the house were completely unoccupied, and no sign or sound from the house denied it. Reaching Haley Tom found the man staring up at him with dazed eyes, his body sprawled painfully across the stones. Tom bent over him, searching for wounds.

"He shot me!" The words rasped from Haley's lips.

"Where're you hit?"

"The head," muttered Haley; but Tom could find no wound on his head. Then he saw the blood that had saturated Haley’s sleeve, and his heart leaped with relief.

"It's your arm," he said. "Up here, near the shoulder." He tore away the man's clothing. "Your head hit the rock when you fell." He investigated further. "Looks like a pretty clean wound." But Haley didn't hear him. He'd fainted. Tom stepped to the top of the rock pile. From the house cracked a sharp report and a bullet whined over his head. "Ross!" he cried.

Two shots howled past him in quick succession.

"Get back!" cried a voice from the house. "Get back, or I'll drop you!" Tom's blood chilled, for the voice was hard as steel, and cold as death.

"Put up your gun!" Tom took a step toward the house. Again the rifle cracked and a bullet splattered in the earth at his feet.

"You won't reach the house!" rang the icy voice and it was passionless with desperation. "Don't make me plug you, Tom!"

In a vivid, instant glance Tom took in the scene. To his right, some fifteen yards from the house stood a high wall of cut and split firewood, neatly piled. He ran for it. A bullet clipped the air behind him as he darted behind the woodpile.

"Ross!" he cried. "Listen! Drop your gun and walk out into the clearing!"

"It's too late!" The voice fell like the clang of metal across the quiet air. "You were right, Tom, this morning. I been a fool. But it's too late, now. I won't be taken alive!"

Hard laughter clattered from the house. "Only shooting now, or hanging after!" rang the terrible young voice. "They hunted me like a coyote. And now I've killed Dade Haley." "Dade Haley's only wounded!" cried Tom quickly.

"You lie! I don't miss at twenty yards."

"Put up your gun and I'll bring him in and show you."

"It's no use, Tom. You can't trick me. Just let me see your back. Let me see you go back into the woods."

"I can't, Ross. I came here to take you, and you know I've got to do it."

"Not alive!" The metallic voice turned harsh. "I can blow that wood away with a dozen shots. Get out from behind it."

"When I come out it will be to take you."

"If you do we shoot it out." The voice was deadened with a sound of doom. There flashed through Tom's mind the thought of the swimming hole; of the dark-haired youth with whom he had wrestled on the grass; of the high tempered, impulsive young cowboy who had sought his friendship and found it—as if seeking a retreat from the stern foster father who had governed him and from the stormy passions which he could not govern in himself.

"There's no question of shooting!" he cried. "I'm here in the name of the law, Ross! Drop your gun and come out!"

"Or else?"

"I come and get you." "Don't do it. I got to shoot." The words rang tense and strained, and at that point something snapped in Tom Drayton.

With a sudden, impulsive movement he hurled his body against the wall of wood. It fell with a crash, and Tom stood in the open, towering in his vividly colored uniform directly in front of the house.

“Shoot then! He roared “I’m coming!” And he made for the house in long, angry strides.

“Stay Back!” cried the warning voice. “Stay Back!”

“Baloney!” roared Tom; and in another stride he was at the door. A terrific kick, the full weight of his body with all his strength behind it, and he crashed into the dim room beyond. Ross Hendry stood in the window, his rifle muzzle pointed at Tom's chest. But he stood, staring and motionless, as if he were frozen.

"I can't!" he cried. "I can't do it!"

"You bet your life you can't!" cried Tom, and he snatched the rifle from Ross's hands and hurled it through the window. "Now, come with me!" he commanded.

They emerged from the house and saw the armed men moving in from their points of cover. Instantly the black eyes of Ross Hendry flamed into consuming wrath and he dashed at Lige Frampton's throat. Tom threw himself on him and dragged him back. "Drop your gun!" he yelled to Lige.

"He framed me!" roared Ross, struggling to get loose. "They said I killed Duncan McElstree. There ain't any man can say that and . . ."

A car roared up the lane, plunging into the midst of the excited men, and Renfrew got out as it jolted to a stop. He stood, white and drawn, the wound a livid streak across his head, and held the car door.

"Ross Hendry?" he said. Ross stared at him. "They picked Surtees up at Tavistock," said Renfrew, as if he were explaining something to Ross. "He was trying to make the evening train, but I managed to head him off."

"Head him off?" Tom stared in concern at the pallor of Renfrew's face.

"By telephone," explained Renfrew. "I figured that after killing McElstree, he'd make for the railway, so I phoned every house along every road he might take, and I finally found him heading for the end of the highway at Tavistock—so I phoned Corporal Tranch, and they picked him up. They're holding him for us."

"Surtees?" Tom turned to Ross. "Then you didn't—"

"Of course he didn't," said Renfrew. "If he'd done it he wouldn't have stopped till he reached the railway or the border. Why should he come to Surtees?"

"Because I wanted him!" cried Ross Hendry. His dark eyes flamed again. "Duncan McElstree was the best friend a kid ever had. He was hard with me, and I was fool enough to buck him— but he was square. And Surtees killed him for no reason at all."

"He killed him because McElstree had found out all about him and was reporting to the police," said Renfrew. "I realized that after Tom Drayton left me this afternoon. But how did you know it was Surtees?"

"Duncan told me. I found him crawling up onto the porch, and while I held him in my arms, he told me it was Surtees. That was all he said." Ross frowned unhappily at the ground before him. "I've been running with Surtees all summer to get the goods on him, and I didn't know Duncan was getting it, too. And then I let this happen. I let this happen while I was away—"

He turned on the crowd of men with blazing eyes. "And you said it was me!" he cried. "When I'd seen that I'd let this happen, and I came here to make Surtees pay, they said it was me that killed him!" His unhappy eyes fell upon Tom and the dark fire softened. "I went crazy, Tom! I wanted to kill them—and I'd have done it, too! . . . But you came!"

Tom gazed at him, flooded suddenly with embarrassment.

"I'm glad I turned up," he muttered sheepishly.

The End

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.