"It is true," he shouted, facing his countrymen. "I, Naharo, vow it the truth. For I saw this engineer take a young girl away from Ed Sorenson in the restaurant at Bowenville that the scoundrel intended to seduce. It is so, the truth; the engineer saved her. And are there not men among you"—his voice gained a savage, rasping note—"whose girls have been betrayed by the cattle-stealing Sorenson's son?"
"Where is he—where is he now?" some one shouted, angrily. It might have been a father who stood in Naharo's case.
"He lies crippled," Weir stated. "Last night he tried to steal yet another girl from San Mateo, and fleeing when overtaken was pitched from his car and crushed against a rock. He will steal no more daughters of San Mateo."
Sensation on sensation. The crowd fairly hummed with new excitement resulting from these disclosures. Ed Sorenson's ways were known to most and the revelations seemed true to his character; and from believing the statements of the son to accepting those concerning the father was but a step. Cattle—girls! It began to look as if this engineer was in the right.
With half of his attention Weir was harkening for the sound of starting automobiles. He had heard the scuffle of feet when the party slipped away from the jail door into the shadows. He had almost measured their passage to the alley. Ah, and now! There was a quick grind of gears, the pop of exhausts, then a dying of the sounds as the cars left the grounds.
"You wished to kill me when you came here, but I had not then and have not now any intention of dying," he stated. "For I have work to do—and work for you if you want it. Instead of stealing your cattle and daughters as the Sorensons did, I'll give you jobs. We are about to begin digging canals and ditches on the mesa; I want men and teams—you and yours at good pay for a good day's work. Our quarrel of the past need not be remembered. I have never been your enemy, only the enemy of the four men who deceived and oppressed you. And now they are gone, two dead and two off to be tried for their crimes."
Weir stood for a moment silent, while they as silently stared at him.
"Ha, bueno, we shall work!" Naharo exclaimed.
"We shall work and build your ditches, senor," cried a score of voices.
Then the cry swelled to a noisy chorus. The crowd began to stir and disintegrate and break into groups, gesticulating, talking, discussing all the astonishing items of news given by the engineer, from the particulars of the Sorensons' depravity to announcement of renewed hire.
"Senor, we hold you in greatest respect," said a man to Weir, smiling in friendly fashion.
"And also your pistol," said a companion, laughing.
"No one will need to wear pistols here in San Mateo from now on," was the answer. And he politely bade them good-night.
His belief was sincere. San Mateo had gained an end of violence, and henceforth his weapon would gather dust. He had triumphed. Not only had he subdued his enemies, but he had won the good will of the people.
One thing more alone remained to be won to bring him utter happiness.
As Weir drove his car homeward through the moonlight, he knew that at last the dark shadow upon his life had passed forever. Memories poignant and sad, memories bitter and stern, returned again and again to his mind; but these henceforth with time would soften and change. Of these his last visit to his father was most vivid, that day in spring that had proved their last together....
* * * * *
He had been there with his father for a week, and now must go. He was chopping wood that morning, with his father looking on. Steele had cast a measuring glance at the pile of wood cut, then wiped the fine dew of perspiration from his brow, buried the ax blade in the chopping-log and seated himself upon a sawn block. A smile shaped itself upon his lips. Though he never chopped wood now except on these rare visits to his recluse father's cabin here on the forested mountain side, his tall lean figure was as tough and wiry as ever, his arm as tireless, his eye as true to cut the exact line. There was yet no softening of his fibers or fat on his ribs, and there would be neither if he had anything to say about it.
From the little Idaho town in the valley below, which he viewed through the clearing before the cabin, his gaze came around to his father seated on the doorstep. Taciturn and brooding the latter had always been, but the pity and sorrow struck at the son's heart as he perceived what a mere shell of a man now sat there, gray-haired, bent, fleshless, consumed body and soul by the destroying acid of some dark secret. Even when a lad Steele Weir had sensed the mystery clouding his father's life. Like an evil spell it had condemned them to solitude here in the mountains, until Steele's youth at last rebelled and he had departed, hungry for schooling, for human society and for a wider field of action.
What that secret might be he had for years not allowed himself to speculate. Unbidden at times the memory of certain revealing looks or acts of his father's floated into his mind:—a dread if not terror that on occasion dilated the elder man's eyes, and a steadfast driving of himself at work as if to obliterate painful and despairing thoughts, and an uneasy, furtive vigilance when forced to visit town. Once when a stranger, a short heavy-set bearded man, had unexpectedly appeared at the door, his father had leaped for the revolver hanging in its holster on the wall.
On catching a second view of the chance visitor he had exclaimed, "Not Burkhardt after all!" With which he burst into a wild laugh, the shrill mirthless laugh of a man suddenly freed of a terrible fear. However, as he returned the gun-belt to its place, his hand shook so that he pawed all around the nail on which it was accustomed to hang.
Steele Weir would never forget that moment of panic, his father's spring to the wall and following laugh—the only laugh he had heard from those lips; and though but twelve years old at the time he could not misread the episode. On another occasion he found his father kneeling at the grave under the giant pine beyond the cabin—the grave of the gentle mother of whom Steele had but dim recollections—and his father's hands were clasped, his head bowed. With an infinite yearning he had longed to creep forward and comfort him by his presence, by a clasp of the hand, but the recollection of his father's habitual chill reserve daunted him and he stole away.
On his own life the mystery had left its gloomy impress. A solitary and joyless boyhood, overhung by he knew not what danger, haunted by a parent's lurking fear and anguish, had made him a silent, cold, ever watchful man, never entirely free from the expectation that his father's sealed past at some instant would open and confront him with the terrible facts. For that reason he felt that the success he had gained as an engineer, a success won by relentless toil and solid ability, rested on a quicksand. For that cause he had welcomed engineering projects full of danger and by his indifference to that danger gained his name "Cold Steel."
Now on this day with his father he once again put the question he always asked on his visits, and with no more hope of a consenting reply than before.
"I must be going to-morrow. Won't you come along with me this time, father? I want you to live with me, so that I can look after you and be with you. We can fix up a good cabin at the engineering camp. You're not so strong as you were; you could fall sick here and die and never a person know it. I doubt if you spend, making yourself comfortable, one dollar in ten of the money I send you. You would be interested in the building of this big irrigation project I'm to direct."
His father appeared to shudder.
"No, no," he muttered. "I've lived here and I'll die here."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Steele responded. "Afraid you may become sick and die for lack of care."
"No. I'll remain, my son."
That was conclusive. It was the answer of not only thirty years of living at the spot, but of his secret dread. Steele saw once more the stark fear in his eyes, the fear of contact with men, of venturing out into the world, of precipitating fate.
For a time his father plucked his white unkempt beard with unsteady hand.
"Where's the place you're going this time?" he presently inquired, without real interest.
On the elder's face appeared suddenly a gray shadow as if the blood were ebbing from his heart.
"Where in New Mexico?" he whispered.
"The town of San Mateo."
His father struggled to his feet. With one hand he clutched the doorframe for support. The skin of his cheeks had gone a sickly white.
"San Mateo—San Mateo!" he gasped. "Not there, not there, Steele! Keep away, keep away, keep away! My God, not San Mateo—you!"
He swayed as if about to fall full length, gesturing blindly before his face as if to sweep away the thought, while his son ran towards him.
"Father, you're sick," Steele exclaimed, putting an arm about the other. And, in truth, the elder man seemed fainting, ready to collapse. "Come, let me help you in so you can lie down. I must bring a doctor."
Steele almost carried him to the bed. On it his father sank, remaining with closed eyes and scarcely breathing.
"No doctor; bring no doctor," he said painfully, at last. "I feel—I feel as if dying."
"I must bring a doctor. And I have a flask of whiskey; let me pour you a little to revive your heart."
The change the words wrought from passivity to action was startling. The elder Weir arose suddenly on elbow, glaring fiercely.
"Whiskey, never! It brought me to this, it damned my life. If it had not been for whiskey——" Without finishing the words he fell back on the bed.
The loathing, the hatred, the utter horror of his exclamation, banished from his son's mind further thought of using this stimulant.
"But the doctor?" he inquired, gently.
"No use, Steele. I've been the same as a dead man for days. Just ashes. I want to die; I want to lie by your mother there under the big pine. And maybe I'll have peace—peace."
Steele took in his own the wasted hand hanging from the bed. He held it tight, with a feeling of infinite tragedy.
"You'll be yourself again soon," he said comfortingly, though without faith in the assurance.
His father's lips moved in a whisper.
"No; my time is here at last," said he. "But don't go to San Mateo, Steele,—don't go, don't go. Oh, my God, spare me that!"
"Would you have me break my word? I never have to any man, father. I accepted this offer and signed a contract. I'm morally bound; these men are depending on me. Were you ever at San Mateo? Was it something that happened there that makes you fearful to have me go? San Mateo is a thousand miles from here."
The face before him became like the face of a corpse. For an instant Steele's heart went cold in the belief that his father had died under the effect of his declaration. But at last the eyelids raised, the eyes gazed at him. And all at once the features of the harsh visage seemed softened, changed, lightened by a dim illumination.
"I see you now as you are, a man, stronger than I ever was," he murmured. "I lived in fear, but my fear was not for myself. Had I been alone, nothing would have mattered after your mother died. But my fear was for you—and of you. I was afraid your life would be blasted; I was in terror lest you should hate and despise me when you learned the truth. So I sought to conceal it."
"You had no need to fear that."
"I see it now. Tell me everything or nothing as you wish about your going to San Mateo to work; it will frighten me no longer."
Steele briefly spoke of his new work there, of the magnitude of the project and the desire he had had that his father might be with him.
"I'm proud of you," his father said. "God knows I have not been the parent I would or should have been."
"It's enough for me if your heart's easy now."
"I feel as if I were gaining peace at last and—and I must speak. In San Mateo—ah, Steele, you will hear of me there,—you may have to fight the damning influence of my name and past, but I know now you'll come through it. And all I pray for is that you can retain a little love for me despite everything."
"Whatever it is I shall hear of my father, I should rather hear it from his lips than from strangers'."
The hand in his closed spasmodically. For a long time nothing was said, and the only sound in the room was the ticking of the tin clock on the shelf busily measuring off the seconds of the old man's failing span. To Steele it was as if his father was slowly summoning the few remaining shreds of his fortitude to reveal the cancer of his past.
"I'm a branded murderer," he said at last, gasping.
"But you never killed a man out of mere wanton desire to slay," Steele responded firmly. "I too have killed men in fights in Mexico. That fact doesn't weight my mind."
"In the line of your duty, in the line of your duty. But I was drunk. He was a friend. When I became sober, I saw him with a bullet hole in his head."
"Do you remember nothing of shooting him?"
"How do you know you killed him?" his son demanded with inexorable logic. "What is the proof?"
A low groan escaped his father.
"Men said I had killed him. But my own mind was blank."
"Who were the men? Were they present at the time?"
"They were four—Sorenson, Vorse, Gordon, Burkhardt."
"Were you arrested and tried?"
"No. They helped me to escape. Because of your mother, they said, and because they said they were my friends. But I never felt they were really friends. For they were always against new-comers and wanted to keep things in their own hands. You were only three or four years old at that time, Steele, so you wouldn't remember anything about matters there."
"What were you doing at San Mateo, father?"
Now that the hideous past at last stood uncovered the son was able to turn upon it his incisive mind; he would drag out and scrutinize every bone of the skeleton which had terrorized his father and shadowed his own life Facts faced are never so dreadful as fears unmaterialized. And more, he sought with all the love of a son for circumstances that would mitigate, excuse, or even justify his father's act.
"I was ranching," was the low answer. "I had come to San Mateo two years before from the east, bringing you and your mother and considerable money. I bought a ranch and stocked it with cattle; I was doing well, in spite of the fact I was new to the country and the business. Also I was making friends, and I had been nominated for the legislature of the Territory to run against Gordon. But I had taken to drinking with the men I met, other cattlemen, because I fancied no harm in it. And then while in a drunken stupor I killed Jim Dent."
"Had you quarreled with him?"
"Never, never—till that moment I killed Jim. They said I quarreled with him then. But I remember nothing. Jim was my best friend; I would have trusted him with my life. Even now I can't make it seem real I shot him, though it must be true by those four witnesses."
"What of your ranch? Your political nomination?"
"I withdrew from the latter; that was one of the terms made by Gordon on which they were to help me escape instead of turning me over for prosecution. And my ranch and cattle, I had to deed them over to the four men too."
"Then their friendship wasn't disinterested," Steele said quickly, with suspicion dawning on his face.
"They weren't really friends, I knew that."
"How were they to arrange your escape?"
The senior Weir seemed to shudder at the question.
"By bribing the sheriff and county attorney. I was then to leave the country at once, never showing my face again, or I should be arrested. I was still half dazed by whiskey and terror; I took your mother and you and fled this far, when my money gave out. So here I've remained ever since, for here I could hide and here was her grave."
"What's the last thing you remember of the circumstance previous to learning Dent was dead?" he asked.
"Ah, though I had been drinking I can remember clearly up to the time I stopped playing poker with Jim and the four men, for we were losing and I felt they were working a crooked deal on us somehow. I asked Jim to quit also, for though I hadn't lost much he was losing fast and playing recklessly. But he wouldn't drop out of the game, and when Vorse and Sorenson cursed me and said for me to mind my own business I went back to a table near the rear door and laid my head on my arms and went to sleep. When I was awake again, Vorse and Gordon were holding me up by their table and Jim was dead on the floor. I had come forward, they said, begun a big row with Dent and finally shot him."
"Then the only witnesses were these four men who were gambling with him, who cursed you when you attempted to persuade him to drop his cards," Steele proceeded, "one of whom was your political adversary, men who were old-timers and opposed to new-comers, who pretended to be your friends but took your ranch and cattle. It begins to look to me as if they not only killed your friend Dent but double-crossed you in the bargain. Did you look in your gun afterwards?"
"No. I was sick with the horror of the accusation, I tell you, Steele. I had no way to deny it; it seemed indeed as if I must have killed him. And from that day until this I've never had the courage of soul to reload my pistol, or even clean it. It hangs there on the wall with the very shells, two empty, the rest unfired, that it carried that day in San Mateo."
Weir sprang up and crossed to the nail where hung the weapon. The latter he drew from the holster and broke open, so that the cartridges were ejected into his hand. For an instant he stared at them, but at length walked to the bed before which he extended his palm.
"Look—look for yourself!" he exclaimed hoarsely. "You never killed Jim Dent; drunk or sober, you never killed any one. You're not a murderer. You're the innocent victim of those four infamous scoundrels; they deceived you, they ruined your life; and their damnable fraud not only killed my mother in her youth, as I guess, by grief and despair, but has brought you now to your death too."
His father had raised himself on an arm to gaze incredulously at the six unfired cartridges lying in Weir's palm. Then all at once his bearded lips trembled and a great light of joy flashed upon his face.
"Innocent—innocent!" he whispered. "Steele, my son,—Helen, my wife! No stain on my soul!"
As he sank back Steele's arms caught him. He did not speak again, but his eyes rested radiantly on his boy's before they glazed in death. Fear had passed from them, forever.
UNDER THE MOON
Lights still were burning at headquarters when Steele Weir slowly drove his runabout up the hillside slope to the dam camp. The men who had acted as guards about the jail, except those who went with Madden, were somewhere on the road behind him, returning home in the wagons. A reaction of mind and body had set in for Weir; after the previous night's loss of sleep and prolonged exertions, after the swift succession of dramatic events, after the tremendous call that had been made upon his brain power, nervous force and will, he experienced a strange unrest of spirit. His triumph seemed yet incomplete, somehow unsatisfying.
It was as he approached the camp that he saw a slender girlish figure sitting on a rock in the moonlight. He swung his car off the road beside the spot where Janet Hosmer sat.
"What, you are still awake?" he asked, with a smile.
"Could I sleep while not knowing what was happening or what danger you might be in?" she returned. "Mr. Pollock said we must not think of returning home until quiet was restored in San Mateo. One of the engineer's houses was given to us by Mr. Meyers before he left, where Mary and I could sleep. But I could not close my eyes. So much had happened, so much was yet going on! So I came out here to be alone and to think and watch."
"And your father?"
"He's attending the wounded Mexicans in the store."
Steel alighted and tossing his hat upon the car seat gazed out over the mesa, misty in the moonlight.
"There will be no more trouble," said he. "Sorenson and Burkhardt are Madden's prisoners, and on their way to a place of safe-keeping in another county. Vorse is dead. The people in town have a fairly good understanding of matters now, I think."
"How in the world did such a change of opinion occur?" Janet exclaimed.
"I had a little talk with the crowd and made explanations. The feeling for me was almost friendly when I left; what enmity remains will soon die out, I'm sure."
Though unaware from Steele Weir's laconic statement of what had actually occurred, the girl divined that his words concealed vastly more than their surface purport. With the general hostility against the engineer that had existed, for him to swing the community to his side meant a dramatic moment and a remarkable moral conquest.
"Your friends have always known you would win," she said, smiling up at him.
He seated himself on the rock beside her.
"It's but a short time ago, Janet, that I had no friends, or so few they could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Business acquaintances, yes. Professional companions, yes. Men who perhaps respected my ability as an engineer, yes. But real friends, scarcely one. And now I think I have gained some, which is the greatest satisfaction I have from all that has happened. After years the pendulum has swung to my side. Do you know the hour my luck changed?"
Janet shook her head wonderingly.
"No, I can't even guess," said she.
"Well, it was that afternoon, and that moment, I found you sitting in your stalled car in the creek down there. That was the beginning. From that time things began to run in my favor and they haven't ceased to do so for a moment since, I now see looking back over events. You brought good luck to me that day in your car."
"What an extraordinary idea! Then at bottom you're superstitious," Janet replied. "I shall have to give you a new name; I must no longer call you 'Cold Steel.'"
"I really never liked that name," Weir said quickly. "Perhaps I was cold steel once, but I have changed along with everything else. And you're responsible for that too."
Janet leaned forward and looked into his eyes.
"You were never truly harsh to any one except those who deserved it," she said. "I know! You would never have been so quick to help Mary Johnson or me, or others who needed help, if your heart was not always generous and sympathetic. Only against evil were you as steel, and in moments requiring supreme courage and sacrifice. And that's how you gained the name before you ever came here."
"Anyway I've changed," said he. "I'm out from under the cloud which I felt always hung above me. As I say, you brought me good luck that day—and I see clearly that I shall continue to be superstitious."
"Why, all occasion for that is past now."
"No," said Steele Weir. "No, less than ever. For I'm certain you hold my good fortune in your hand yet, and will continue to hold it. And that means——"
He paused, regarding her so intensely that the blood beat up into her face. There was no mistaking that look and it thrilled her to the soul.
"Yes?" she managed to say.
"It means my happiness, now and for all time to come," he went on. "See, I shall have accomplished what I set out to do and what in justice had to be done, bringing these men to punishment—to punishment in one form or another. I shall have given my employer, the company, service worthy of the hire. I shall have rid you and San Mateo of an unscrupulous parasite in the person of Ed Sorenson, though my persecution of him now shall stop and I shall leave him enough out of the property recovered from his father to live in comfort somewhere with his mother.
"Mr. Pollock states I shall have no trouble in getting legal title and possession of most of the wealth of these four men,—I and any relatives of the dead Jim Dent who can be found. For thirty years' accumulated interest charges owing me will swallow up all the men's properties. That, however, is only a material victory. I shall have relieved Johnson of fear of financial constraint; and saved his daughter from a serious mistake. I shall have started Martinez on the road to success—and I should not be surprised if he prospered, became the leading attorney in this county, was elected judge and so on.
"In a way, too, I shall have helped to remove the oppressive weight of these men, Sorenson, Burkhardt, Judge Gordon and Vorse, with their sinister influence, from this community and region. They have always held the natives in more or less open subjection, financial, political, and moral. There should be a freer air in San Mateo henceforth. The people will have a chance to grow. They no longer will feel the threat of brutal masters always over them; and with the completion of the irrigation project and the infusion of new settlers they will become better citizens.
"I see all this," he concluded. "It pleases me; it gives me cause for satisfaction. But it doesn't give me the happiness I want, or the love. That is alone in your hands to bestow."
Janet felt herself trembling; she could not speak.
"I think I felt the stirring of love from the moment I saw you there at the ford," he exclaimed. "Last night when I knew that wretch had carried you off to the mountains, I could have torn him limb from limb. That was my love speaking, Janet. If I should have to go through life without you—oh, the thought is too bitter to dwell on!—then I should think life not worth living. But I have imagined that you might have for me a little——"
Janet swiftly clasped his hand with her own.
"I love you," she cried softly. "I was sitting here when you came because I loved you. If I am necessary to your happiness, you also are necessary to mine. I honor you for what you have done and love you for what you are, a strong true heart."
"Ah, Janet, you give me the greatest joy in the world," he whispered. "Love—that is more than all."
His arms drew her to his breast. Her lips went to his in consecration of that love. Their hearts beat the rapture of that love.
Over the silent peaceful mountains the moon spread its effulgent light. Over the mesa that was no more to know the fierce sound of strife. Over the town, at last free of its avaricious masters, free of the savage spirit of an outlaw time. Over the Burntwood River flowing in a shimmering band to the horizon. Over the camp where centered so many men's plans and labors. And over the lovers, chief of all, that light fell as in a silvery halo.