But she knew why she was worried. RCMP Sergeant Andy Grafton was forty-five years old. He was in great physical shape, had no health problems, but forty-five was ancient, for a Mountie. He had constantly refused promotions. “The field is my place,” he would say. “I’d die of boredom sitting at a desk!”
But his beloved ‘field’ could kill him more quickly. Besides the criminals he went after, the field also had the occasional grizzly bear, wolves or other wild animal, as well as the weather hazards.
Weather had made itself felt the day after Andy Grafton left. A blizzard swept through, loaded with wind-driven snow. Sometimes an overloaded branch would snap with the sound of a rifle shot. Snow piled up to the cabin’s thick-paned glass windows.
When the storm finally blew away, Sally put on a sweater, pulled a denim coverall over everything else, put on warm gloves and opened the door.
Packed snow stared back at her.
From long practice, Sally knew what to do. She got the spade, bent down and started tunneling through the snow, sure that it was packed solidly enough not to collapse in on her. Six feet out and the spade hit ice.
She had made it to the place where the snow sloped down. The ice was its frozen crust. Pushing hard with the pointed end of the spade, she broke through. Soon she was on her feet, looking back at the snowed-in cabin. Taking a deep breath, she attacked the snow, breaking its icy cover and shoveling the softer stuff away until she had the path open.
Satisfied, she went back inside and closed the door. The fireplace to the right of the door was radiating welcome heat, and she warmed herself there as she slipped out of the coveralls and gloves.
The cabin was solidly built in a clearing and backed up against a cliff. The rear wall of the cabin displayed a door opening to a cave that led down to a stream that always ran, regardless of the above-ground temperature. A milk container from a farm eight miles away sat in the stream. She knew the stream would keep the milk fresh for at least another week. Also in the cave was a ledge on which sat over a dozen eggs from the same farm, plus a slab of salt pork and another slab of bacon. In the room itself were flour and salt and beef jerky, plus glass jars of canned vegetables.
Food was no problem. But her father left with a two-day journey ahead of him. Had he survived the storm? Where had he taken shelter?
“Helluva time to break the sled’s rein,” Mountie Andy Grafton said to the stocky blacksmith, one of his many friends. “Guess it was my fault; I’m in a hurry and kept snapping it at the dogs. Broke in three places! Bad timing.”
Rummaging for a replacement, the big man nodded. “’Course, ain’t no such thing as a good time,” he commented in his amazingly tenor voice.
Worry wreathed the Mountie’s face. “Yeah, but now it’s really important. I mean, Sally always worries if I’m gone a week, and that would be enough to make me hurry – but there’s more, Jug, bad more.”
The smithy looked up. “Yeah?” Then he looked down and pulled out a satisfactory rein from the clutter.
“Prisoner escaped, last seen heading in the cabin’s general direction. Tough criminal, in for two murders. I nailed him, and I’m afraid he’s out to get even.”
Handing over the rein, Jug looked up. “Can’t you get word to her?” he asked, in his high voice.
Andy Grafton shook his head. “Tried to telegraph, but that blizzard still has lotsa lines down. Closest I could get was fifty miles away, and I’m nearer home than that.” He handed the smithy a bill. “Don’t offer me change,” he warned Jug, heading for his sled. “You found this fast, and I know it’s a good one. You don’t keep no other kind.” Looking down at the big man, he said, “See ya!” attached the new rein, snapped it, and the team of dogs pulled him away.
Sally Grafton looked out the window again, then shook her head. Worry can kill me as dead as bullets, she thought. Dad has made it through many storms.
Pal, her Siberian husky, whined and nudged his head against Sally’s calf. You know I’m worried, don’t you, Pal?
Pal’s presence had been a compromise. Three years ago, when she turned fifteen, Andy Grafton had kept hinting to her about attending dances. “You can’t live all your life in this cabin!” he’d said. “You nursed my dad two years. Only staying here because it was home. You need to get out, socialize, meet people.”
She had gone to a dance. It was boring. The fiddles didn’t stir her blood, the square dancing was too hectic for her tastes, and the only boy there who had interested her, Jake Johnson, seemed very interested in his date, the blonde and frizzy Mae Rafferty. As soon as she could get Andy’s attention, she talked him into leaving.
She eventually relented and went to one more dance. Jake was there, alone, and they did a waltz together. He seemed interesting. . .but then the frizzy Mae showed up and took him away.
Again, she went home and, after that, refused to go to any other dances.
She was surprised the day Jake showed up at the cabin with a husky puppy in his arms. “Got a broke leg, Sally,” he’d said. “Me, I got so much to do at the farm, I can’t take care of him. Any chance you’d have time?”
The dog’s wide brown eyes melted Sally Grafton’s heart. Carefully, she took the dog from Jake and nestled it in her arms. “I’ll make the time,” she said, scratching the pup’s ears.
So Pal became her constant companion, providing her with – to her father’s satisfaction – at least a modicum of social camaraderie. The broken leg didn’t mend right, so Pal couldn’t become a sled dog. Jake came over a time or two to see how the husky was doing, but Sally thought nothing had come of it.
Sally looked around the cabin. It was one big room, with beds on each side. Her bed had a curtain hung to give her privacy. On the table beside her bed was a kerosene lamp because she liked to read at night, read from the books stacked on the big shelf under the table. On a smaller table at the foot of her bed was her other interest, a concertina; “Squeeze box,” Andy Grafton called it, teasingly. But he liked to hear her play.
Sally went to pick up the concertina as the door suddenly opened. “Dad!” she exclaimed happily as she spun around – and then the happiness exploded into red fear.
It wasn’t Andy Grafton who came into the cabin.
A stocky, bearded man stood there, small eyes piercing her, an evil expression on what she could see of his face. His hair was in disarray, his clothes were worn, the heavy coat looking like it had seen better days.
In his hand he held a revolver.
“Where’s that Mountie?” he snarled.
“I. . .I don’t know,” Sally stammered nervously. “Do you. . .need help?”
Pal bared his teeth in a growl.
“Take care of that mutt or I’ll kill him!” the stranger snapped.
Sally patted Pal’s head. “Easy, boy,” she said. “Easy. Go to your bed.” When Pal hesitated, she said firmly, “Your bed, Pal!” Reluctantly, casting a glance back over his shoulder at the stranger as he went, Pal obeyed. “
That ain’t enough,” the stranger snapped. “Put him outdoors!”
“It’s so cold,” Sally objected. “Let me put him here,” she added, going to the far door. She whistled, and Pal came to her. She urged him inside the cave and then closed the door.
“Ain’t no point in anybody getting hurt,” the bearded man said, trying to sound reassuring. “I just wanta see the Mountie.”
Sally was not reassured. “He’s not here,” she told the man. “I’ll be glad to take a message for him.”
“You must be his daughter,” the stranger said, his small eyes burning into her.
“I am,” Sally admitted. “He’s on assignment, right now.”
The bulky stranger closed the door with the heel of his foot. “I’ll wait,” he said, giving the cabin a quick once-over. To his right was the fireplace with its steady fire heating the room. Hanging from the swivel arm was an iron pot with bubbling contents that spread a tantalizing aroma across the room.
“That stuff looks good. How ‘bout fixing me a plate?”
Hospitality came easy to Sally Grafton; she had fed her father and many of his friends at various times. Once Jake even stayed long enough to eat. But it wasn’t hospitality that caused her to cross to the fireplace and take a plate off the mantle; not hospitality, but desperation. She knew this man was dangerous, but she could think of nothing to do but stall, hoping her father would show up and handle things.
If this stranger didn’t kill him first!
Taking a ladle from its peg on the fireplace, she scooped up some of the deer stew that was simmering. Getting a fork from the mantle, she handed the stranger the plate.
She nodded at the small dining table. Well, it was really a multi-purpose table where her dad did paperwork and she sometimes spread sheets of music when she was learning new songs for the concertina. There were two chairs.
“You can eat there,” she said.
The man looked at her hesitantly, noted the concertina she had put on the table, and said, “You play that thing?”
He put his plate on the table, laid his gun beside it and ordered, “Play!”
Sally guessed that he wasn’t so much wanting music as he was wanting her occupied, doing something that wasn’t threatening to him. She started to pick up the concertina but was interrupted by a knock on the door.
The big man grabbed his revolver. “That ain’t your father,” he hissed. “He wouldn’t knock. Get rid of whoever it is!” He went and stood where the open door would hide him from the visitor.
Sally was surprised to see Jake when she opened the door. “Jake! What are you doing here?”
“Just wanted to check on you,” Jake said. “Quite a storm we had. You okay?”
Shaking her head violently, she said, “Oh, everything’s fine. Just waiting for Dad to get home.”
To her dismay, Jake didn’t seem to note her negative nod. He smiled and said, “Well, then I’m better get back home. Take care,” he added, turning away.
As Jake left the cabin, his mind was working furiously. He had caught Sally’s warning, but knew that someone hiding behind the door could see his face. What could he do? Whoever was behind the door probably had a gun, and Jake was unarmed. How could he help Sally? He had to think of something and, he thought, it had better be quick.
In the cabin, Sally closed the door and sagged against it. “Y’done good, little girl,” the stranger said, smiling. Going back to the table he sat himself down, revolver handy by the plate, and started eating. “Play!” he repeated.
Her heart wasn’t in it, but Sally picked up the concertina and began a concert of county songs, classic melodies, whatever she could think of. The bearded man nodded his head to the beat of the music. Then it occurred to her that the louder the music was, the less likely the stranger would be to hear anything Jake might try if he had gotten her message. She pumped out Loch Lomond as loudly as she could – and Pal started to bark.
The evil stranger looked up at her. “Shut that damn dog up!” he growled, sounding more like an animal than Pal. And then –
The door slammed open. Jake stood there, wild-eyed, a heavy branch in his hand. He looked at the cave door. The stranger snatched up his revolver and shot before Sally would do anything.
She gasped as Jake fell to the floor, blood coming from his arm.
The stranger glared at Sally. “Yer boyfriend?” he asked, as Sally stood there, eyes wide with terror. “I’ll kill ‘im,” he said, and leveled the pistol.
The cave door slammed open and Mountie Andy Grafton stood in the doorway, pistol in his hand. “Not now, Jonesy,” he corrected.
The stranger had quick reflexes. Holding his revolver, he dove to the side as the Mountie fired. His own gun came to bear on Grafton. . .just as Pal leaped forward and sunk his teeth into the man’s arm.
In moments, it was all over. To Sally’s surprise, Jake staggered to his feet. “Met your dad coming in,” Jake explained. “I warned him there was trouble.”
Grafton grinned at his daughter. “Loch Lomond was never played so loud before,” he said, hugging Sally. “He couldn’t’ve heard the cavalry coming!” Then he saw Jake’s bleeding arm. “Get the first aid kit, Sally,” he ordered, pulling Jake’s coat off and ripping the shirtsleeve open. After a moment’s examination, he added, “Went through just flesh, no broken bones.” When Sally handed him the first aid kit, he said, “Thanks!” and got to work cleaning the wound and bandaging it.
“Jake,” Sally said softly. “I’m so sorry. This is all my fault.”
“Hey, you aren’t the one who volunteered for the front door,” Jake said, smiling through clenched teeth.
“It’s my fault,” the Mountie said. “I slipped in through the cave’s hidden entrance. So much of a hurry that I slipped, otherwise I’d have been here sooner.” As he was speaking, he was tying up the escapee.
“Damn all of you!” Jonesy said, bitterly.
Jake looked both pleased and uncomfortable. “Well,” he stammered, “since you’re okay, and I’m bandaged up, I guess I’d better go.”
“No such thing!” the Mountie said. “There’s a good pot of stew there. You sit and eat it and keep Sally company while I take my prisoner in.”
Jake gave Sally a questioning look. “I’d like that,” she said, smiling, touching Jake’s undamaged arm in a friendly way.