The Snow Story by Chauncey Thomas

Posted on March 6, 2012

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[Most of the “Western” stories of the pulp magazine fall short of representing the West as it is. Many of them romance about the old West as the writers suppose it to have been or as Eastern readers want to believe it actually was. To find a well constructed short story about mountain life or ranch life in the Rocky Mountain West, written by one who knows the West by having lived in it long enough to get the “feel” of the country, is a rare thing. This story pictures Berthoud Pass as it then was, and as it essentially is today except for the wonderfully graded automobile road that makes possible a trip from Empire to Hot Sulphur Springs in an hour or two.

Mr. Thomas was born in Denver in 1872 and still lives there. His experience covers newspaper and magazine writing and the life as a cowboy and rancher. Needless to say, the incidents and observations in The Snow Story come out of personal experience. A peak in the Rocky Mountains is officially names Mt. Chauncey in honor of this story which drew admiring letters from a great many readers, including Rudyard Kipling. Mr. Thomas is an expert pistol shot, and is often called to court to testify as an expert witness on ballistics.

The Snow Story, under the title Why the Hot Sulphur Mail Was Late, first appeared in McClure’s Magazine (November, 1901). The final and considerably revised version of the story is reprinted here by permission of the author.]

One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin.—SHAKESPEARE.

BERTHOUD Pass is a mighty pass. It is the crest of a solid wave of granite two miles high, just at timber line. Berthoud is a vertebra in the backbone of the continent. It is the gigantic aerial gateway to Middle Park, Colorado—a park of one-fifth as large as all England. The mail for this empire is carried by one man—my friend Mason.

On Berthoud is a pebble. One summer a raindrop fell upon that pebble, splashed in two and each half rolled away; one danced down the Platte-Missouri-Mississippi, the longest river on the globe, to the thence though the greatest gorge on earth, the Grand Cañon of the Colorado, where the stars shine by day, to the Pacific. In the clasp of the Berthoud-born raindrop there were Europe and Asia one way, two oceans and the two Americas the other. Then from the two oceans the nebulized half-drops arose, sun-drawn, miles into the zenith and rode the upper winds straight back to Berthoud Pass. There they united and crystallized into a snow-flake. And with it came the Cold. There, far above the Pass, the frost spring hung in Damoclean deadliness over a creeping speck below—Mason, the mail carrier.

The rising sun glorified the snowflake; but away down there in Clear Creek canon, where other waters gurgled and strangled under the ice, it was still a blue dark. Mason and the sun began to climb. The morning light started down Berthoud just as Mason started up. The snow-flake watched the crawling atom, then blew across the Pass, and from all along the range gathered unto itself the storm.  On Berthoud was all the power of the Arctic. But the intelligent dot climbed on.

Eleven months of every year there is snow on Berthoud; only in July are the flowers safe. Even then, in shades that the sun cannot reach—packed by the centuries—is snow that fell on the rocks before they were cold. How black, how sharp the shadows are on the heights—and how cold! In them for ages has lurked ice from the continent-grinding glaciers of the North. Silent Christmas finds Berthoud hung with avalanches. At Easter these white thunderbolts come to life; and, leaning over the valleys, are so exquisitely held that they are launched even by an echo touch. Up there in long, wavering lines and tiny whirls the gritty snow blows like sugar. Shrub-like, the tops of pines bend under locks and beards of alabaster moss, their trunks frigid for seventy feet in the crusted depths. Airy crystals float as on the breath of Polar fairies; the sunlight is alive with the blue sparkles; the twig splitting in the cold sends a puff of frosty feathers; in the gale white shot sings in level volleys. Nature on Berthoud in the winter is not dead, but alive. She is congealed into a new life. The very air seemingly to snap, is thinner as if about to solidify. A mist, frozen to a transparent blue, quivers with its own chill. Water is not ice, but glass. When the black, solid lakes burst and shatter in the awful cold, ice splinters fly and burn like slivers of white-hot iron. Ice powder, hard, dry and sharp, grinds the web of snow-shoes like steel filings. On Berthoud at night the stars are near; they silently crackle and spit colors like electric sparks.

In the valley just then the morning star paled as if frozen, and with a spiteful snap winked out. The line of sunlight, halfway down the Pass, met Mason, halfway up. The blue-gray cold melted to a flood of heaven’s own warmth. It would be warmer soon, then hot, then blistering there on the snow. Mason stopped to rest, panting steam; peeled off his coat and put on his veil.

To climb Berthoud in winter is the work of a man. It is too much for an engine. The man was at his work. Up, slowly up, the east side, around the Big Bend, up to the now deserted mail barn, labored the mail carrier. The summit was a mile farther on and a quarter of mile farther up. No arranged postal car, warm, light and convenient, was the lot of Mason. The car was on his back, a bag of mail. Contrary to regulations, devised by easy-chair postal officials in far-off Washington, the papers and packages had been held at Empire. Only the letters went over.

“They’ll keep,” had said the Empire postmaster, a man of vast common sense, as he filled his pipe fro Mason’s pouch. Then he and Mason had hidden the bag of 2nd-class under the hay in the manger of the mail team back in Empire until the thaw was over. So Mason traveled light—only sixty-four pounds on his back and twenty pounds of wet snow on each web a foot beneath the surface. By the bleak, now empty, halfway station slouched Mason.

“Only zero! Hot. Whe-ew-w!” he gasped, as he wiped the sweat from his eyes with his shirt-sleeve. Mason meant it. Twelve feet of frigid white was between him and the earth; in the shadow of the mercury was solid in the split tubes, yet in the sunlight the surface was slush. Mason was in his shirt-sleeves with fur mittens on his hands. Icicles hung from his eyelashes, yet his cheeks were frying. His nose was a blister, though his face was veiled as heavily as Milady’s on an escapade. In the sun the snow was mush—in the shadow it was marble. Such is sunlight and shade on the southeastern snow banks at timberline. No wind. And the air was thin. Silence. The only sound was the carrier’s bellowsed breath, and the sock-rasp-splosh of the shoes. And Mason came to the summit—and the shadow. Noon. Here the mercury fails a degree a minute when the sun goes down. A hundred and four at noon, and inch of ice at sundown. The ground is frozen for five hundred and forty feet. Such is the summer summit.

But this was winter. Up the south gorge of the Fraser, from the Pacific side of the Pass, like the burst of a volcano, so cold that the smoke was snow-dust, roared the storm. Mason saw it—looked with the indifferent interest of long experience, and put on his short fur coat. As he retied his snowshoes he looked back—and down. Below him lay the west fork of Clear Creek, green in the coming spring. Mason stood on the rampart of winter. On either side the Pass towered pinnacles of storm-eaten rock, bleak as the Poles themselves. From their tops white powder streamed in the wind like crests, and floured down on the back-turned pigmy at their feet. The carrier was taking with his eyes from the Atlantic side a swift, silent good-bye of the infant summer. Straight to the south flamed the sun, so low in the clear sky that Mason, standing on Berthoud, felt that it was below him—infernal—and that he stood alone on the tip of the Universe. Behind him the swirling heavens were murky. The world was black, white and thin blue – silent, motionless, and cold, lit, but unwarmed, by the open furnace-door of hell.

But the cold was creeping for Mason’s heart, and he flung his arms

“Good for the legs,” he remarked to a stump that in summer was a dead pine tree. “Track looks like a hobbled elephant’s. Well— here goes.” And down into the gorge went Mason.

That gale had started in Alaska and swept two-thirds of a continent to the southwest. In Montana it had torn the anemometer, the official whirligig, from the signal station, but left the register, and the needle pointed to eighty-five miles an hour. It was faster now. Caught by the wide mouth of the south fork of the Fraser and jammed into the upright narrowing of the rocky defile, the white fiend roared straight into the air a league and back over itself—chaos with flying chains. Into this walked Mason.

A single snow-flake, a bunch of frozen needle points, struck his forehead, but glanced away into the white pandemonium. Snow-sand cut his veil as if blown from a gun. Instantly his breath was sucked from his lungs and sent twenty thousand feet—four miles above the sea. Mason whirled, his back to the flinty sleet, and the storm fell upon the United States mail. But no snow storm can stop the United States mail. With a belly-jerk Mason wrenched a breath from the torrent.

“Quite a Colorado zephyr,” he yelled, but could not hear himself. There was almost perfect silence around him, because he could hear nothing—only a leaden roar. No slush here; the surface was sand paper. Zip-zip-zip, with his head low, Mason butted down the gulch. Then it eased up. The wind dropped to a mile a minute, and cleared greatly. Mason could see ten feet ahead. Easier now, he loped over the crust, down, down, down, leaving no track—not even a whiff of snow was blown from the trail. The snow was as hard, sharp, and glittering in the white night as the surface of broken steel. A blast of snow-sand caught the flying, dropping carrier square in the face. The ground ice cut like powdered glass shot from a battery. Mason, his arms before his head, ran into and leaned against a crackling pine. Amid these convulsions of the Wilderness he seemed like a frightened child.

Suddenly the pine straightened with a snap, quivering as if tired. Mason lowered his arms; all was still, quiet, pleasant. The snow was smiling; the sun was shining; there was no wind. But a mile—now two—boiling in the air—white hell churned.

“Lovely, ain’t it? Snowslide gone off wrong end up,” said a voice.

Mason jumped. A quick sweep of the near distance showed nothing human but himself.

“Did I say that?” he muttered. “This bucking snow is about as good on man’s savey as herding sheep. I’ll be as locoed as a well-necked buck if I keep this up—Hello!”

“Howdy?” answered the voice, and from under a sheltering ledge, crusted over but filled soft and dry with icy down as if banked from featherbed, heaved a sheeted figure and shook itself. It fairly rattled.

“Nice little blow, wasn’t it? I had an idea I was the only pack animal of the long-eared breed on the Range—but I see I have company; baggage and all. Glad to see you, though. By-the-way, sorry to trouble you, but I’ll have to ask you for those shoes—and that coat; also any spare change you’ve got, your ticker, and that mail bag. Now don’t go off half-cocked and empty, or we’ll have trouble.”

He of the voice had leveled a long six-shooter, white with frost and snow, at the mail carrier.

Mason was not startled. What was the use? But he was annoyed—this lack of mountain courtesy. The he grinned.

“Not this trip, pardner. Your artillery’s as full of snow as the Arctic circle; while this instrument I have—“

A burst of flame, smoke and steam exploded between the two men. As it floated upward Mason saw the stranger bend double and squeeze his right hand between his knees. Blood was dripping over his felt boots and overshoes. A splintered six-shooter rang on the ice twenty feet away.

“I told you you’d have fireworks if you turned that ice jam loose. No wonder she exploded. What’d you expect? You’re too experienced a man by the looks of you to throw such a kid trick as that. Thought I wasn’t heeled, hey? And you’d work a bluff on me, did you? Going to spear me on an icicle. Now, you fool!” — Mason’s tone became dry, metallic—“you wiggle a hair and I’ll kill you. My gun has not been out all winter; it is ready for business. Just of the hip; hot as buckwheat. Now don’t do the stage-eye act on me, nor try any foot-ball dives—and leave that sticker of yours alone. You might cut somebody with it. No, thank you, I’ll help myself. Straighten up now; and turn your back. See here— Are you going to do as I tell you, or shall I fix your hide so that they’ll tan it for the chair bottoms? Jump lively now, or I’ll fill you so full of lead that you’ll assay for Georgetown ore and it’ll take the coroner’s jury twenty-four hours to count the holes. Still I don’t want to kill you. It’s a dirty job, and I would rather walk away into town than haul you there on your back. Oh, don’t forget go frothing now and sass me back like that. Of course I’m festive. Who wouldn’t be with a five-thousand-dollar winner—Hold on there. Five-thousand-dollar gold mine, as I was a say’en, in your own self as a standing reward for Salarado—N-No. My dear sir, a single jump into my latitude and I’ll plug you. Postoffice robber, ugh? And gathered in by Uncle Sam himself in the person of your humble striker. Lord. I ain’t talked so much since speech-makin’ over good luck come into fashion. Oh, yes: I know you. No; it isn’t any lie, either. I have your circular description here in my pocket, right next my heart, to tack up in every mail window in Empire and Hot Sulphur. You’re wanted, wanted bad; five thousand dollars’ worth of bad, too; and I’ve got you—and incidentally I intend to keep you. Now drop that cleaver of your’n and shinny on down the trail there, or we’ll have troub—“

A mile above a concussion jolted the cliff; a terrific echo to the pistolshot. Down came the slide—gently at first—so far away it seemed only as wide as one’s hand. In an instant the snow shot from under the two men. A mile of snow, bristling hairlike with root-torn pines, thundered down the slope. Mason and Salarado, forgetful of each other, were whirled into the air, and fell back on a huge slab of ice that crashed down that tumbling mountainside unbroken by the mass of fighting logs around it. This piece of ice on which they lay was thick and solid, laced and interlaced with tough brushwood frozen in. this woven acre rode the avalanche like a sled. A crag quarter of a mile, ten feet, ahead, passed with a roar. A huge pine whipped by faster yet. That rocky spur half a mile down—now behind—was a pain in the ear. Faster, faster, dropping, falling, sailing—they are standing still; but on either side, up from below, the air and the mountains pour—then blackness.

An hour later a mountain lion sneaked over the wreck. A hill of snow, ice, broken stone and splintered logs dammed the gulch. Away to the top of the Range the track of the slide lay like a scald. Miles away, high in the air, a cloud of white dust was floating. An eighth of a mile up the opposing slope had shot a huge piece of ice, and lay half buried in the debris. All Nature was hushed as if frightened. A screeching eagle went flapping far away. From under the ruin a wolf howled dismally; then weaker and weaker—a piteous whine—and silence. The frozen wind went up a gulch of naked, fire-blackened pine crooning a requiem. But the music from that wild cathedral breathed not of eternal rest and peace; it chilled the heart in icy triumph. Berthoud had struck a mountainous blow; and humanity—Where were the men?

The panther was hunting; his nose had found them, but not his jaws. Settling himself, he dug. As the famished brute raked a log to one side with his gaunt jaw, he heard a groan within an inch of his ear—whirling he flashed up the mountainside a streak of yellow. But his work was done.

From the shallow hole reared the mail sack, and the head and arms of Mason, all chalk white but his face, which was a ghastly blue. He struggled carefully, then desperately, to free himself; but when he stopped exhausted, only his head and shoulders appeared above the snow.

“Pinned down—dead—my last trip—and yet not hurt. Freeze like a cockroach in the ice-house. Cool, my boy, cool—keep cool. Don’t lose your head—don’t get rattled, or you’re a dead man. Now’s when you need all your brains. Keep cool—though you will be cool enough all too soon.”

Mason’s head disappeared in the panther-dug hole. Slowly the end of a small log ten feet away rose into the air and fell aside. Upstraightened the grizzly head of Salarado, one side daubed with a red slush.

“Well—I— be—damned. This don’t look much like hell; still it’s a pretty good imitation,” growled the desperado as he gazed around the piled confusion. He noticed the straining mail-sack. Salarado waited silently till Mason’s haggard face again came above the rim. The two men looked into each other’s eyes.

“Hurt?” asked Mason.

“Don’t think so. Both feet fast. How’s yourself?” answered Salarado.

“One leg in a vise—can’t move it. What d’you think?”

“We’re done for.”

“Guess you’re right. How’s the snow ‘round you?”

“None ‘t all—all ice. Solid.”

“Hold still. I’ve got one foot a little loose,” and Macon stamped on a log far below.

“Same log,” said the thief. “Got us both.”

Nothing more was said. They went to work. Mason unslung the mailsack and laid it carefully aside. For an hour both men strained, pulled, twisted, and dug at their white irons with bare fingers till the purple ends were raw. Great red finger scratches stained the snow around them. Human fingers are not panther claws. Both men were packed tight up to their arm-pits in solid snow. Four feet below the surface of the ruin their legs were fast between two parallel logs as in a steel trap. An inch closer and their ankles would have cracked like pipe-stems; an inch wider and the two men would have been free. They were not hurt; merely held. Berthoud had been kind only to be cruel.

“No use,” panted Mason. “My trail ends here.”

“Mine don’t. I wish it did,” murmured Salarado. The hard tone was gone; the voice was almost gentle. “Hell’s ahead of me. You are an honest man, Señor, and have nothing to fear from death; while I”—and there was silence for many minutes. “Many’s the time I’ve faced it, but not when I had to think it over—like this,” he continued to himself.

Then they waited. A camp-robber, that bird of winter timberline, came like the blue angel of death, and hopped and scolded within a yard of them, and mocked them.

“Lucky jay; you’ve got what I would give the world for,” mused Salarado. Mason said nothing. He was thinking of a little rawhide dugout down in the hot sands of New Mexico where Mexie lay basking in the sun; and over this picture like a haze crept the scene of a great fire in the night, with Indians about it, and a cauldron of boiling water steaming furiously. With a start Mason looked about him and recognized where he was. This was the canon where so many years before he had fought the Colorow Utes.

“What is it, Señor?” asked Salarado.

“Nothing,” answered Mason.

Mason was brave; yet he did not want to die. Life held so much for him to live and to work for, yet he waited calmly, his brain as cold as his freezing foot. At intervals the men struggled, wrenched their muscles with no hope of getting out, but to keep warm. The thirst-fever that comes from the pain had dried Mason’s tongue. He longed for water. A mouthful of snow burned like hot cinders; he spat it out and pressed his rigid jaw with stiff, bare hands to warm the aching teeth. He looked about for water. Fifty feet up the mountain, in the lee of a boulder, was a spring, but it was solid ink banked with crystal milk. The breeze was gently keen. Mason’s clothes grew cold. He felt nude and shrank from them. His skin became small and tight, and smarted as though blistered. A chill shook him. Blunt pains worked along the bones and met in the joints. Each particular finger and toe seemed about to burst. His scalp stiffened. His chin was numb. The cold, gnawing between his shoulders, was biting for his heart. Only the wedged foot was warm, and strangely comfortable. Webs of spidery ice floated and vanished in the cheerful sunlight. Flashing wiggles swarmed before the man’s angular eyes like joyous worms, and disappeared only to come again. Mason was freezing. Away in the sky loomed Berthoud Pass hoary with ice ermine and wrapped in fleecy clouds. To Mason’s hopeless eyes the wreath-veils seemed smoke and steam, curiously warm. He shuddered, locked his rattling jaws and grimly faced the end.

Up there on the summit the clouds were of gold; the very top was red. In obliviously majesty eternal rose the Pass; but over and about the two heads sticking in the snow a living spangle, a single snow-flake, flashing, dazzling, glittering, wafted like a dancing diamond. It tickled the cold flesh of Mason’s face, then tumbled into the air in a very ecstasy of whirls. The man’s head drooped, drooped, dipped, jerked back; drooped again; and hung pendulous. Mason was asleep, warm and comfortable. With a dull yell of pain he awoke. Salarado had hit him in the ear with a snowball.

“Hang on Señor. Keep a scrape’n. Don’t give up,” were the rough words of cheer.

Mason knotted his muscles, shook off the torpor as if it were the tightening coils of a cold snake, and rubbed his burning ear.

“What’s the use? We’ll both be stiff in three hours. Might as well have it over with,” replied Mason as if speaking of a card game.

Aroused, he freed his feet of the webs and pulled some feeling into the clutched one. From his pocket he took his lunch, until now forgotten, and silently tossed half to his fellow prisoner. The camp-robber captured a piece of meat in the air and flew squawking to a limb. Salarado swore at the bird in profane amusement. Mason re-divided his piece of pork and threw it over. The holdup protested, raked it in, and tossed it back. Mason chewed down his own share, but this piece of meat he put back in his pocket. Salarado looked at him:

“Say, pardner, you’re a man.”

The fires of life, rekindled, flamed up anew in the desperado.

“I will get loose,” he snarled with set teeth as he tore frightfully at the snow around his waist.

“Try this; my hands are too stiff to use it,” and Mason threw his watch to Salarado.

“Ah, Señor, a regular snow-plough,” grunted the other as he sprang open the lid with his teeth and began to scrape.

“Sa-ay”—the yell rang up the Pass—“here’s my knife.”

Buried tight in the snow was the knife—Life itself—within easy reach, yet frozen fast. Mason did not answer, but waited. Just then Salarado’s dead hands dropped the watch. It vanished along his leg into the black hole that held him, and then faintly clinked on a stone under the log-jam. With a curse the life-long criminal clawed viciously at the snow with scarlet fingers. Ten minutes of bloody scratching cleared the handle and hilt of the heavy bowie; and Salarado’s head and shoulders arose triumphant, his gory right hand flourishing the priceless steel. The light from that blade flashed to the very top of Berthoud. Mason writhed to keep warm.

The shadows were growing longer now. In another two hours the sun would be down, and their lives would go out like candles. Salarado jabbed, ripped, strained and from his burrow hurled ice, snow and splintered wood. Iron against water, with men for stakes. In thirty minutes he was free all but his feet. Both ankles were held between two logs; one thick as his waist, the other a mere pole. Hack, slice, split. In five minutes more Salarado crawled painfully, sweating and breathless, from the hole.

He tried to stand, but tottered and fell as if on stilts. He rubbed, he pounded, he rolled and twisted his numbed calves and feet; the thick, black blood turned bright and throbbed again. Salarado stood erect, danced sorely, and except for his skinless fingers and a scalp wound, now staunched with a frozen plaster of bloody hair, he was as well as ever. The bruised shoulder was unheeded. A lusterless snowflake dropped weakly at the man’s feet. He stepped on it as he picked up the knife and clambered over the snow and logs to Mason.

Salarado looked at Mason, and Mason looked at Salarado. Mason’s lips were without motion, but in his eyes was the look of a paw-fast grizzly. The multi-murderer seated himself on a broken spruce branch not six feet from Mason, rested his hands on his knees and thought. He stared at the carrier. Here was a man whom two hours before he had tried to kill him; and even started him at the muzzle of his six-shooter on that short, sure road to a living death, the penitentiary for life, or the noose. Leave him there—why not? No crime—he had not put him there. What if it were a crime? And what if they did? Far from being his first. In the spring—perhaps not for years—they would not find the skeleton; and fleshless jaws say little. Dig him out—then what? Was it not to set free a messenger sure to start all the machinery of the law to land the rescuer in a cage—a cage—where nothing could come but insanity and death? Why again seek from what he has just escaped? And entirely by his own efforts, too— The watch? But the other’s hands had been—still were—too cold to use it; so it could have done him no good. Salarado thought these things, seated there on the log-end in the snow-slide that frigid February day, facing his enemy—that enemy now harmless; but all-powerful when free. Why reverse their positions? Salarado looked at the Range ahead. In the setting sun the Pass was banked high with frozen blood. Hard, almost fatal it was. Why add a vindictive posse from behind? It was good just to be alive—and free. Then he looked once more at Mason, silent, waiting Mason—then at the empty hole, splotched with his own blood. Why not kill him quickly? One thrust and the cold-tortured man would be out of his misery—surely an act of mercy. Was not this enough? The stage-robber, murderer, desperado—reckless, careless of life and death, hunted by thirty millions, a bounty on his head—thoroughly understood the situation. So did his victim. The camp-robber flickered into the air and away homeward to a distant ranch. This winged freedom fascinated the criminal. He watched the bird float beyond the pine tops, looked again at the Range, stiffened to his feet, picked up the bowie, glanced behind him, and gazed down at the helpless, freezing man.

“I would not trade place with you,” curled from Mason’s lips, but Salarado was looking at the pocketed piece of meat. Then Salarado took the knife by the blade and handed it to Mason.

The light in Mason’s eyes cannot be put into words. He tried to speak. Salarado smiled, and with wooden fingers tried to roll a cigarette. Mason bent into his dead-fall to hide his tears—and to work. A half hour and Salarado pulled Mason from the hole. A minute more and the two men, the morally white with black spots, the morally black with white spots, stood face to face. Mason put out his hand. Salarado took it—still smoking.

“Pardner, you’re a square man. Thanks. Here—“ Mason peeled off his fur jacket, his cap and his overshoes, “take these, and this,” he added, as he handed the desperado two bills and some silver. Then he hesitated—but with a jerk unbuckled his cartridge belt and, with its dangling holster full of snow, handed it to Salarado. “You’ll find the gun in the hole; I felt it with my foot. Don’t use it unless you have to. She’s sighted to a hair and has a soft trigger—but I want this knife. Good-bye. Mexico is the place for you. Less snow there.” Both men smiled grimly. “Take straight down the gulch on the other side—it’ll be frozen by the time you get there—and a freight is due at Empire at two in the morning—usually late, though. You can make it if you hump yourself. The shoes are in the hole there. I kicked them off. Eat that bacon when you get on top. It’ll limber up your legs. Leave the tracks at the mouth of the cañon—she slows up there for the switch—for Golden is right ahead, and your picture is in the Post Office there. Cut to your right across the saddle-back you’ll see about four miles to the southeast; then straight on southeast fifteen or twenty miles till you cross the Platte, and you’ll hit the Santa Fe tracks going south. Jump ‘em, and a week from now you’ll cross the Rio Grande—quien sabe. Go to the Three Triangle outfit in Chihuahua; tell the foreman, Pete Miller, he is known down there, I sent you and he’ll give you a job punching. He’ll do it ‘cause I snaked him out of the Republican two years ago with his chaps on, and she was a boomin’—runnin’ ice. I’d help you fish out those webs, but I got a case of cold feet and guess I’ll have to quit ya.”

Salarado breathed a slow curl of smoke and murmured, “Your foot’s frozen, Señor? Maybeso I go with you—part way?”

“No. No need of that; only frosted; all right now. I can stump it in all right. These dutch socks’ll last me till I reach Chipmunk’s. You’ve no time to lose, pardner, so adios. Good luck to you. And—“ Mason stopped, embarassed—“and—if I were you, I’d quit this business. Don’t pay.”

“Si, Señor, you’re right. I made up my mind to that in that hole there—just before I found the knife. If I hadn’t—you—“ Salarado left the sentence as it was; but Mason knew. He gripped the desperado’s hand again, but its five bloody fingers made him think of five one-thousand-dollar bills and half a score of murdered men.

“Well, be good to yourself. The mail must go through,” Mason replied as he swung the sack to his shoulders. Then with the knife held like a sword, Mason saluted the other and left him. Salarado’s face gave a white-fanged smile, but said nothing.

On darkening Berthoud the snow had turned to ashes. At the edge of the timber Mason turned and once more waved the bowie. Salarado swung his cap. Then Mason passed beneath the pines. Looking back between the trunks, now out of the other’s sight, he saw a puff of snow and a piece of brush go into the air from the hole. It was Salarado digging for the shoes.

Three hours late Mason limped into Chipmunk’s. Ten feet on the level had buried the station in December. Only the plumed chimney showed. During that tramp Mason had been thinking; the inevitable reaction had set in, and he staggered under his load, for it seemed to him as if that sack held the mail of the nation; his brain was boiling with conflicting thoughts and warring emotions; and his conscience was divided against itself, for Mason was an honest man and Salarado was everything that was bad. One word to those in the cabin he was approaching and by midnight Salarado, the most dangerous criminal in the West, would be behind the bars—or lynched. Lynched? Mason shivered, and pushed open the hinge-complaining door. Gansen was swearing—had been for two hours.

“What’s the trouble?” he demanded. “Think I’m going to hold the team here a week and drive it all night? With the spirit thermometer fifty-two below at the Springs this morning? If I miss the Coulter connection, Glenn won’t do a thing but come up the line with a meat-ax for the whole outfit. The mails has got to go through. What’s the trouble? You look as if you and a mowing machine had been havin’ an argument.”

“Oh, nothing,” said Mason, “bucked into a little slide just above High Bridge. We mixed, and I lost my goods and chattels, but acquired a whole museum of bumps and such things, besides a choice set of refrigerated toes. But here’s the mail. No. No second-class at Empire at all. Guess it’s delayed in Denver, or else good people don’t mail papers in the winter time.”

“Where did you get that bowie?” grinned Gansen. “Regular yearling sword—some toothpick. Fine can opener. Will it cut anything? Overgrown rooster spur, isn’t it? Going to mow some hay? Better wait till the snow pulls out, and the grass comes up.”
“Ugh. Maybeso,” and Mason thumbed the still frosted edge. “Swapped my sixgun for it some time ago. Nothing to shoot on the Range now. Better to chop wood with. Might use it for a sawmill sometime. Or dig a prospect hole while I’m taking a siesta and letting the snowshoes cool off, or let the wind out of something. Questions break friendships, and comments are worse. That’s why angels go on the warpath.”

Gansen eyed that foot of chilled steel quizzically, opened his mouth to say something, then closed it.

“No noise,” chuckled old Chipmunk into his whiskers.

“See here, Chipmunk, you old gorilla,” continued Mason as he sheathed the knife, “I want you to let up on trappin’ along my trail. I don’t like it. Found a marten in one of your infernal machines, and I turned him loose. Threw the Newhouse about forty miles somewheres off into the timber. I don’t want any more of it. Savey?

“Well, adios, Jim. Give my apologies to the folks of Hot Sulphur ‘cause their mail is late. It won’t happen next time—perhaps not for a thousand years. Tell Mark I’ll be down to the dance sure. Ask the Coulter school-marm to save me a waltz. Sure, now, Ta-ta.”

“Say, Chip! Get a wiggle on ya. Got any coffee? I’m tired. W-whew.” And Mason lifted the pot off the stove. On the fire he put a bunch of circulars. They soon had the coffee boiling.

 

 

 

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