It was a slow, fatiguing process. A number of the original vendors, Gordon knew, had died, their families were scattered; others had removed from the County; logical substitutes had to be evolved. The mere comparison of the various entries, the tracing of the tracts to the amounts involved, was scarcely within Gordon's ability.
He labored through the swiftly-falling dusk into the night, and took up the task early the following morning. A large part of the work had to be done a second, third, time—his brain, unaccustomed to concentrated mental processes, soon grew weary; he repeated aloud a fact of figures without the least comprehension of the sounds formed by his lips, and he would say them again and again, until he had forced into his blurring mind some significance, some connection.
He would fall asleep over his table, his scattered papers, in the grey daylight, or in the radiance of a large glass lamp, and stay immobile for hours, while his dog lay at his feet, or, uneasy, nosed his sharp, relaxed knees.
No one would seek him, enter his house, break his exhausted slumbers. Lying on an outflung arm his head with its sunken, closed eyes, loose lips, seemed hardly more alive than the photographed clay of Mrs. Hollidew in the sitting room. He would wake slowly, confused; the dog would lick his inert hand, and they would go together in search of food to the kitchen.
On the occasions when he was forced to go to the post-office, the store, he went hurriedly, secretively, in a coat as green, as aged, as Pompey's own.
He was anxious to finish his labor, to be released from its responsibility, its weight. It appeared tremendously difficult to consummate; it had developed far beyond his expectation, his original conception. The thought pursued him that some needy individual would be overlooked, his claim neglected. No one must be defrauded; all, all, must have their own, must have their chance. He, Gordon Makimmon, was seeing that they had, with Lettice's money ... because ... because....
The leaves had been swept from the trees; the mountains were gaunt, rocky, against swift, low clouds. There was no sunlight except for a brief, sullen red fire in the west at the end of day. At night the winds blew bleakly down Greenstream valley. Shutters were locked, shades drawn, in the village; night obliterated it absolutely. No one passed, after dark, on the road above.
He seemed to be toiling alone at a hopeless, interminable task isolated in the midst of a vast, uninhabited desolation, in a black chasm filled with the sound of whirling leaves and threshing branches.
The morning, breaking late and grey and cold, appeared equally difficult, barren, in vain. The kitchen stove, continually neglected, went continually out, the grate became clogged with ashes, the chimney refused to draw. He relit it, on his knees, the dog patiently at his side; he fanned the kindling into flames, poured on the coal, the shining black dust coruscating in instant, gold tracery. He bedded the horse more warmly, fed him in a species of mechanical, inattentive regularity.
Finally the list of timber options he possessed was completed with the names of their original owners and the amounts for which they had been bought. A deep sense of satisfaction, of accomplishment, took the place of his late anxiety. Even the weather changed, became complacent—the valley was filled with the blue mirage of Indian summer, the apparent return of a warm, beneficent season. The decline of the year seemed to halt, relent, in still, sunny hours. It was as though nature, death, decay, had been arrested, set at naught; that man might dwell forever amid peaceful memories, slumberous vistas, lost in that valley hidden by shimmering veils from all the implacable forces that bring the alternation of cause and effect upon subservient worlds and men.
As customary on Saturday noon Gordon found his copy of the weekly Bugle projecting from his numbered compartment at the post-office. There were no letters. He thrust the paper into his pocket, and returned to the village street. The day was warm, but the mists that had enveloped the peaks were dissolving, the sky was sparkling, clear. By evening, Gordon decided, it would be cold again, and then the long, rigorous winter would close upon the valley and mountains.
He looked forward to it with relief, as a period of somnolence and prolonged rest—the mental stress and labor of the past days had wearied him of the active contact with men and events. He was glad that they were, practically, solved, at an end—the towering columns of figures, the perplexing problems of equity, the far-reaching decisions.
In rehearsing his course it seemed impossible to have hit upon a better, a more comprehensive, plan. There was hardly a family he knew of in the valley of which some member might not now have his chance. That, an opportunity for all, was what Gordon was providing.
A number of horses were already hitched along the rail outside Valentine Simmons' store; soon the rail would hardly afford room for another animal. He passed the Presbyterian Church, Dr. Pelliter's drugstore and dwelling, and approached his home. Seen from the road the long roof was variously colored from various additions; there were regions of rusty tar-paper, of tin with blistered remnants of dull red paint, of dark, irregular shingling.
It was a dwelling weather-beaten and worn, the latest addition already discolored by the elements, blended with the nondescript whole. It was like himself, Gordon Makimmon recognized; in him, as in the house below, things tedious or terrible had happened, the echoes of which lingered within the old walls, within his brain.... Now it was good that winter was coming, when they would lie through the long nights folded in snow, in beneficent quietude.
There were some final details to complete in his papers. He took off his overcoat, laid it upon the safe, and flung the Bugle on the table, where it fell half open and neglected. The names traced by his scratching pen brought clearly before him the individuals designated: Elias Wellbogast had a long, tangled grey beard and a gaze that peered anxiously through a settling blindness. Thirty acres—eight dollars an acre. P. Ville was a swarthy foreigner, called, in Greenstream, the Portugee; every crop he planted grew as if by magic. Old Matthew Zane would endeavor to borrow from Gordon the money with which to repurchase the option he had granted.
He worked steadily, while the rectangles of sunlight cast through the windows on the floor shortened and shifted their place. He worked until the figures swam before his eyes, when he laid aside the pen, and picked up the Bugle, glancing carelessly over the first page.
His attention immediately concentrated on the headlines of the left-hand column, his gaze had caught the words, "Tennessee and Northern."
"Goddy!" he exclaimed aloud; "they've got it in the Bugle, the railroad coming and all."
He was glad that the information had been printed, it would materially assist in the announcement and carrying out of his plan. He folded the paper more compactly, leaned back in his chair to read ... Why!... Why, damn it! they had it all wrong; they were entirely mistaken; they had printed a deliberate—a deliberate—
He stopped reading to marshal his surprised and scattered faculties. Then, with a rigid countenance, he pursued the article to the end. When he had finished his gaze remained subconsciously fastened upon the paper, upon the advertisement of a man who paid for and removed the bodies of dead animals.
Gordon Makimmon's lips formed, barely audibly, a name; he whispered, "Valentine Simmons."
At last the storekeeper had utterly ruined him. He raised the paper from where it had fallen and read the article once more. It was a floridly and violently written account of how a projected branch of the Tennessee and Northern System through Greenstream valley, long striven for by solid and public-spirited citizens of the County, had been prevented by the hidden avarice of a well-known local figure, an ex-stage driver.
The latter, the account proceeded, with a foreknowledge of the projected transportation, had secured for little or nothing an option on practically all the desirable timber of the valley, and had held it at such a high figure that the railroad had been forced to abandon the scheme.
"What Greenstream thus loses through blind gluttony cannot be enumerated by a justly incensed pen. The loss to us, to our sons and daughters.... This secret and sinister schemer hid his purpose, it now appears, in a cloak of seeming benevolence. We recall a feeling of doubt, which we generously and wrongfully suppressed at the time, concerning the motives of such ill-considered ..."
"Valentine Simmons," he repeated harshly. He controlled the Bugle in addition to countless other industries and interests of Greenstream. This article could not have been printed without Simmons' cognizance, his co-operation. It was the crown of his long and victorious struggle with Gordon Makimmon. The storekeeper had sold him the options knowing that the railroad was not coming to the valley—some inhibition had arisen in the negotiations—he had destroyed him with Gordon's own blindness, credulity. And he had walked like a rat into the trap.
The bitter irony of it rose in a wave of black mirth to his twisted lips; he, Gordon Makimmon, was exposed as an avaricious schemer with the prospects of Greenstream, with men's hopes, with their chances. While Simmons, it was plainly intimated, had labored faithfully and in vain for the people.
He rose and shook his clenched hands above his head. "If I had only shot him!" he cried. "If I had only shot him at first!"
It was too late now: nothing could be gained by crushing the flickering vitality from that aged, pinkish husk. It was, Gordon dimly realized, a greater power than that contained by a single individual, by Valentine Simmons, that had beaten him. It was a stupendous and materialistic force against the metallic sweep of which he had cast himself in vain—it was the power, the unconquerable godhead, of gold.
The thought of the storekeeper was lost in the realization of the collapse of all that he had laboriously planned. The destruction was absolute; not an inner desire nor need escaped; not a projection remained. The papers before him, so painfully comprehended, with such a determination of justice, were but the visible marks of the futility, the waste, of his dreaming.
He sank heavily into the chair before his table. He recalled the younger Entriken's smooth lies, the debauchery of his money by the Nickles; William Vibard's accordions mocked him again ... all, all, had been in vain, worthless. General Jackson rose, and laid his long, shaggy, heavy head upon Gordon's knee.
"We're done for," he told the dog; "we're finished this time. Everything has gone to hell."
He felt strangely lost in the sudden emptiness of his existence, an existence that, only a few hours before, had welcomed the prospect of release from its bewildering fullness. He had gathered the results of his slowly-formulating consciousness, his tragic memory, to a final resolve in the return of the options to a county enhanced by the coming of a railroad whose benefits he would distribute to all. And now the railroad was no more than a myth, it had vanished into thin, false air, carrying with it....
He swept his hand through the papers of his vain endeavor, bringing a sudden confusion upon their order. His arm struck the glass of shot, and, for a short space, there was a continuous sharp patter on the floor. He rose, and paced from wall to wall, a bent shape with open, hanging hands and a straggling grey wisp of hair across his dry, bony forehead.
Footsteps crossed the porch, a knock fell upon the door, and Gordon responded without raising his head.
It was Simeon Caley.
He had not been in the house since, together with his wife, he had left it after Lettice's death. Sim's stained felt hat was pushed back from a wet brow, his gestures were urgent.
"Get your horse in the buggy!" he exclaimed; "I'll help you. Light out."
"'Light out'?" Gordon's gaze centered upon the other's excitement, "where?"
"That doesn't make much difference, so's you light. The County's mad clear through, and it's pretty near all in the village." Sim turned to the door. "I'll help you, and then—drive."
"I ain't agoing to drive anywhere," Gordon told him; "I'm where I belong."
"You don't belong in Greenstream after that piece in the Bugle," his hand rested on the knob. "Tie up anything you need, I'll hitch the buggy."
"Don't you touch a strap," Gordon commanded; "because I won't put a foot in her."
"It'll all settle down in a little; then maybe you can come back."
"What'll settle down?"
"Why, the deal with the railroad."
"Sim," Gordon demanded sharply, "you never believed that in the paper?"
"I don't know what to b'lieve," the other replied evasively; "a good many say those are the facts, that you have the options."
"Get out of here!" Gordon shouted in a sudden moving rage; "and stay out; don't come back when you find what's what."
"I c'n do that. And I'll point out to you we just came for Lettice, we never took nothing of yours. I only stopped now to warn you away ... I'll hitch her up, Gordon; you get down the road."
"It's mine now, whose ever it was awhile back. I've paid for it. You go."
Simeon Caley lingered reluctantly at the door. Gordon stood rigidly; his eyes were bright points of wrath, his arm rose, with a finger indicating the world without. The former slowly opened the door, stepped out upon the porch; he stayed a moment more, then closed himself from sight.
The stir and heat of Sim's presence died quickly away; the house was without a sound; General Jackson lay like an effigy in ravelled black and buff wool. Gordon assembled the scattered papers on the table into an orderly pile. He moved into the kitchen, abstractedly surveyed the familiar walls; he walked through the house to the sitting room, where he stood lost in thought:
The County was "mad clear through"; Sim, supposing him guilty, had warned him to escape, advised him to run away.... That had never been a habit of the Makimmons, he would not form it now, at the end. He was not considering the mere probability of being shot, but of the greater disaster that had already smashed the spring of his living. His sensibilities were deadened to any catastrophe of the flesh.
At the same time he was conscious of a mounting rage at being so gigantically misunderstood, and his anger mingled with a bitter contempt for Simeon Caley, for a people so blind, so credulous, so helpless in the grasp of a single, shrewd individual.
He heard subdued voices without, and, through a window, saw that the sweep by the stream was filling with a sullen concourse of men; he saw their faces, grim and resentful, turned toward the house; the sun struck upon the dusty, black expanse of their hats.
He walked deliberately through the bedroom and out upon the porch. A sudden, profound silence met his appearance, a shifting of feet, a concerted, bald, inimical stare.
"Well?" Gordon Makimmon demanded; "you've read the Bugle, well?"
He heard a murmur from the back of the throng,
"Give it to him, we didn't come here to talk."
"'Give it to him,'" Gordon repeated thinly. "I see Ben Nickles there, behind that hulk from the South Fork; Nickles'll do it and glad. It will wipe off the two hundred dollars he had out of me for a new roof. Or there's Entriken if Nickles is afraid, his note falls due again soon."
"What about the railroad?"
"What about it? Greenstream's been settled for eighty years, why haven't you moved around and got one? Do you expect the President of the Tennessee and Northern to come up and beg you to let them lay tracks to your doors? If you'd been men you'd had one long ago, but you're just—just stock. I'd rather be an outlaw on the mountain than any of you; I'd ruther be what you think I am; by God!" he cried out of his bitterness of spirit, "but I'd ruther be Valentine Simmons!"
"Have you got the options?" Entriken demanded—"all them that Pompey had and you bought?"
Gordon vanished into the house, and reappeared with the original contracts in his grasp.
"Here they are," he exclaimed; "I paid eighty-nine thousand dollars to get them, and they're worth—that," he flung them with a quick gesture into the air, and the rising wind scattered them fluttering over the sere grass. "Scrabble for them in the dirt."
"You c'n throw them away now the railroad's left you."
"And before," Gordon Makimmon demanded, "do you think I couldn't have gutted you if I'd had a mind to? do you think anybody couldn't gut you? Why, you've been the mutton of every little storekeeper that let you off with a pound of coffee, of any note shaver that could write. The Bugle says I let out money to cover up the railway deal, but that'd be no better than giving it to stop the sight of the blind. God A'mighty! this transportation business you're only whining about now was laid out five years ago, the company's agents have driven in and out twenty times...."
"Let him have it!"
"Spite yourselves!" Gordon Makimmon cried; "it's all that's left for you."
General Jackson moved forward over the porch. He growled in response to the menace of the throng on the sod, and jumped down to their level. A sudden, dangerous murmur rose:
"The two hundred dollar dog! The joke on Greenstream!"
He walked alertly forward, his ears pricked up on his long skull.
"C'm here, General," Gordon called, suddenly urgent; "c'm back here."
The dog hesitated, turned toward his master, when a heavy stick, whirling out of the press of men, struck the animal across the upper forelegs. He fell forward, with a sharp whine, and attempted vainly to rise. Both legs were broken. He looked back again at Gordon, and then, growling, strove to reach their assailants.
Gordon Makimmon started forward with a rasping oath, but, before he could reach the ground, General Jackson had propelled himself to the fringe of humanity. He made a last, convulsive effort to rise, his jaws snapped.... A short, iron bar descended upon his head.
Gordon's face became instantly, irrevocably, the shrunken face of an old man.
The clustered men with the dead, mangled body of the dog before them; the serene, sliding stream beyond; the towering east range bathed in keen sunlight, blurred, mingled, in his vision. He put out a hand against one of the porch supports—a faded shape of final and irremediable sorrow.
He exhibited neither the courage of resistance nor the superiority of contempt; he offered, apparently, nothing material whatsoever to satisfy the vengeance of a populace cunningly defrauded of their just opportunities and profits; he seemed to be no more colored with life, no more instinct with sap, than the crackling leaves blown by the increasing wind about the uneasy feet on the grass.
He lipped a short, unintelligible period, gazing intent and troubled at the throng. He shivered perceptibly: under the hard blue sky the wind swept with the sting of an icy knout. Then, turning his obscure, infinitely dejected back upon the silent menace of the bitter, sallow countenances, the harsh angular forms, of Greenstream, he walked slowly to the door. He paused, his hand upon the knob, as if arrested by a memory, a realization. The door opened; the house absorbed him, presented unbroken its weather-worn face.
A deep, concerted sigh escaped from the men without, as though, with the vanishing of that bowed and shabby frame, they had seen vanish their last chance for reprisal, for hope.
The cold sharpened; the sky, toward evening, glittered like an emerald; the earth was black, it resembled a ball of iron spinning in the diffused green radiance of a dayless and glacial void. The stream before the Makimmon dwelling moved without a sound under banked ledges of ice.
A thread of light appeared against the facade of the house, it widened to an opening door, a brief glimpse of a bald interior, and then revealed the figure of a man with a lantern upon the porch. The light descended to the ground, wavered toward a spot where it disclosed the rigid, dead shape of a dog. An uncertain hand followed the swell of the ribs to the sunken side, attempted to free the clotted hair on a crushed skull. The body was carefully raised and enveloped in a sack, laboriously borne to the edge of the silent stream.
There it was lost in the dark as the light moved to where it cast a limited, swinging illumination over the wall of a shed. It returned to the stiffly distended sack, and there followed the ring of metal on the iron-like earth. In the pale circle of the lantern a figure stooped and rose, a figure with an intent, furrowed countenance.
The digging took a long while, the frozen clods of earth fell with a scattering thud, the shadow of the hole deepened by imperceptible degrees. Once the labor stopped, the sack was lowered into the ragged grave; but the opening was too shallow, and the rise and fall of the solitary figure recommenced.
The sack was finally covered from sight, from the appalling frigidity and space of the sky, from the frozen surface of the earth wrapped in stillness, in night. The clods were scraped back into the hole, stamped into an integral mass; the spade obliterated all trace of what lay hidden beneath, returned to the clay from which it had been momentarily animated by the enigmatic, flitting spark of life.
The lantern retraced its path to the shed, to the porch; where, in a brief thread of light, in the shutting of a door, it disappeared.
Gordon met Valentine Simmons squarely for the first time since the collapse of his laborious planning outside the post-office. The latter, with a senile and pleased chuckle, tapped him on the chest.
"Teach you to be provident, Gordon," he said in his high, rasping voice; "teach you to see further than another through a transaction; as far ain't near enough; most don't see at all."
The anger had evaporated from Gordon Makimmon's parched being: the storekeeper, he recognized, was sharper than all the rest of the County combined; even now the raddled old man was more acute than the young and active intelligences. He nodded, and would have passed on, but the storekeeper, with a ponderous furred glove, halted him.
"We haven't had any satisfaction lately with the Stenton stage," he shrilled; "and I made out to ask—you can take it or leave it—if you'd drive again? It might be a kind of—he! he!—relax from your securities and investments."
Gordon, without an immediate reply, regarded him. He thought, in sudden approbation of a part, at least, of the past, that he could drive a stage better than any other man in a hundred, in a thousand; there, at least, no humiliating failure had overtaken his prowess with whip and reins. The old occupation, the monotonous, restful miles of road sweeping back under the wheels, the pleasant, casual detachment of the passengers, the pride of accomplishment, irresistibly appealed to him.
Valentine Simmons' rheumy eyes interrogated him doubtfully above the fixed, dry color of his fallen cheeks.
"By God, Valentine!" Gordon exclaimed, "I'll do it, I'll drive her, and right, too. It takes experience to carry a stage fifty miles over these mountains, day and day; it takes a man that knows his horses, when to slack up on 'em and when to swing the leather ... I'm ready any time you say."
"The stage goes out from Greenstream to-morrow; you can take it the trip after. Money same as before. And, Gordon,—he! he!—don't you go and lend it out at four per cent; fifty's talking but seventy's good. Pompey knew the trick, he'd have dressed you down to an undershirt, Pompey would."
Gordon returned slowly, absorbed in new considerations, to his dwelling. It was obvious that he could not live there alone and drive the Stenton stage; formerly Clare had attended to the house for him, but now there was no one to keep the stoves lit, to attend to the countless daily necessities. This was Tuesday—he would take the stage out on Thursday: he might as well get together a few necessities and close the place at once.
"I'll shut her right in," he said aloud in the empty, echoing kitchen.
He decided to touch nothing within. In the sitting room the swift obscurity of the closing shutters obliterated its familiar features—the table with the lamp and pink celluloid thimble, the phonograph, the faded photograph of what had been Mrs. Hollidew. The darkness spread to the bedroom that had been Lettice's and his: the curtained wardrobe was drawn, the bed lay smoothly sheeted with the quilt folded brightly at the foot, one of the many small glass lamps of the house stood filled upon the bureau. The iron safe was eclipsed, the pens upright in the glass of shot, the kitchen and spaces beyond.
Finally, depositing an ancient bag of crumbling leather on the porch, he locked himself out. He moved the bag to the back of the buggy, and, hitching the horse into the worn gear, drove up the incline to the public road, to the village, without once turning his head.
He rose at five on Thursday and consumed a hasty breakfast by a blur of artificial light in the deserted hotel dining room. It was pitch black without, the air heavy with moisture, and penetrating. He led the horses from the shed under which he had hitched them to the stage, and climbed with his lantern into the long-familiar place by the whip. A light streamed from the filmy window of the post-office, falling upon tarnished nutcrackers and picks in a faded plush-lined box ranged behind the glass. Gordon could see the dark, moving bulk of the postmaster within. The leather mail bags, slippery in the wet atmosphere, were strapped in the rear, and Gordon was tightening the reins when he was hailed by a man running over the road. It was Simmons' clerk.
"The old man says," he shot between labored breaths, "to keep a watch on Buck. Buckley's coming back with you to-morrow. He's been down to the hospital for a spell. There ain't liable to be anybody else on the stage this time of year."
The horses walked swiftly, almost without guidance, over the obscured way. The stage mounted, turning over the long ascent to the crown of the east range. Gordon put out the lantern. A faint grey diluted the dark; the night sank thinly to morning, a morning overcast with sluggish clouds; the bare trees, growing slowly perceptible, dripped with moisture; a treacherous film of mud overlaid the adamantine road.
The day broke inexpressibly featureless and dreary. The stage dropped to bald, brown valleys, soggy fields and clear, hurrying streams; it rose deliberately to heights blurred in aqueous vapors. The moisture remained suspended throughout the day; the grey pall hid Stenton as he drove up to the tavern that formed his depot on the outskirts of the city.
Later, in the solitude of his room, he heard the hesitating patter of rain on the roof. He thought, stretching his weary frame on the rigorous bed, that if it turned cold through the night, the frozen road would be dangerous to-morrow.
Buckley Simmons was late in arriving from the hospital, and it was past seven before the stage departed for Greenstream. Buckley sat immediately back of Gordon Makimmon; the former's head, muffled in a long woolen scarf, showed only his dull, unwitting gaze.
They rapidly left the dank stone streets and houses. The smoke ascending from the waterworks was no greyer than the day. The rain fell in small, chill, gusty sweeps.
Gordon Makimmon settled resolutely to the long drive; he was oblivious of the miles of sodden road stretching out behind, he was not aware of the pale, dripping, wintry landscape—he was lost in a continuous train of memories wheeling bright and distant through his mind. He was looking back upon the features of the past as he might have looked at a series of dissolving pictures, his interest in which was solely that of spectator.
They were without unity, unintelligible in the light of any concerted purpose or result. They were, however, highly pleasant, or amazingly inexplicable. For example:
His wife, Lettice, how young she was smiling at him from the sunny grass! She walked happily toward him, with her shawl about her shoulders, but she didn't reach him; she was sitting in the rocking chair on the porch ... the day faded, she was singing a little throaty song, sewing upon a little square of white—she was gone as swiftly, as utterly, as a shadow. The shape of Meta Beggs, animated with incomprehensible gestures, took its place in the procession of his memories. She, grimacing, came alike to naught, vanished. All stopped for a moment and then disappeared, leaving no trace behind.
He mechanically arrested the horses before the isolated buildings that formed the midday halt.
Buckley Simmons, crouching low over the table, consumed his dinner with formless, guttural approbation. The place above his forehead, where he had been struck by the stone, was puckered and dark. He raised his eyes—the unquenchable hatred of Gordon Makimmon flared momentarily on his vacuous countenance like the flame of a match lit in the wind.
Once more on the road the rain stopped, the cold increased; high above the earth the masses of cloud gathered wind-herded in the south. The dripping from the trees ceased, the black branches took on a faint glitter; the distant crash of a falling limb sounded from the woods.
Gordon, doubting whether the horses' shoes had been lately roughed, descended, but, to his surprise, found that the scoring had been properly maintained, in spite of the fact that it had not had his attention. He had little cause to swing the heavy whip—the off horse, a raw-boned animal colored yellowish-white, never ceased pulling valiantly on the traces; he assumed not only his own share of the labor but was willing to accept that of his companion, and Gordon had continually to restrain him.
The glitter spread transparently over the road; the horses dug their hoofs firmly into the frozen ruts. Suddenly a burst of sunlight enveloped the land, and the land responded with an instant, intolerable brilliancy, a blinding sheet of white radiance. Every limb, every individual twig and blade of grass, was covered with a sparkling, transparent mail; every mound of brown earth scintillated in a crisp surface of ice like chocolate confections glazed in clear sugar. The clouds dissolved; the trees, encased in crystal pipes, rose dazzling against a pale, luminous blue expanse. Gigantic swords of incandescence shifted over the mountainside; shoals of frosty sparks filled the hollows; haloes immaculate and uncompassionate hung above the hills.
Viewed from the necessity of the driver of the Stenton stage this phenomenon was highly undesirable,—the glassy road enormously increased the labor of the horses; Gordon's vigilance might not for a minute be relaxed. The blazing sun blurred his vision, the cold crept insidiously into his bones. The stage slowly made its way into the valleys, over the ranges; and, with it, the sun made its way over valley and mountain toward the west.
At last the stage reached the foot of Buck Mountain; beyond lay the village, the end of day. The horses cautiously began the ascent, while Gordon, watching their progress, lent them the assistance of his judgment and voice. The road looped a cleared field against the mountain, on the left an icy slope fell away in a glittering tangle of underbrush. The stage turned and the opening dropped upon the right.
Gordon heard a thick, unintelligible sound from behind, and, looking about, saw Buckley Simmons clambering out over the wheel. He stopped the horses, but Buckley slipped, fell upon the road. However, he quickly scrambled erect, and walked beside the stage, over the incline. His head was completely hidden by the woollen scarf; in one hand he carried a heavy switch. The road swung about once more, and, at the turn, the fall was abrupt. Buckley Simmons stumbled across the space that separated him from the horses. And Gordon, with an exclamation of incredulous surprise, saw the other's arm sweep up.—The switch fell viciously across the back of the yellowish-white horse.
The animal plunged back, dragging his companion against the stage. Gordon rose, lashing out with his voice and whip; the horses struggled to regain their foothold ... slipped.... He felt the seat dropping away behind him. Then, with a violent wrench, a sliding crash, horses, stage and man lurched down the incline.
Gordon Makimmon rose to a sitting position on the glassy fall. Above him, to the right, the stage lay collapsed, its wheels broken in. Below the yellowish-white horse, upon his back, drew his legs together, kicked out convulsively, and then rolled over, lay still. From the round belly the broken end of a shaft squarely projected. The other horse was lost in a thrashing thicket below.
Gordon exclaimed, "God A'mighty!" Then the thought flashed through his mind that, extraordinarily, he had not been hurt—he had fallen away from the plunging hoofs, his heavy winter clothes had preserved him from serious bruises. His face was scratched, his teeth ached intolerably, but, beyond that....
He rose shakily to his feet. As he moved a swift, numbing pain shot from his right side, through his shoulder to his brain, where, apparently, it centered in a burning core of suffering. He choked unexpectedly on a warm, thick, salty tide welling into his throat. He said aloud, surprised, "Something's busted."
He swayed, but preserved himself from falling, and spat. Instantly there appeared before him on the shining ice a blot of vivid, living scarlet.
"That's bad," he added dully.
He must get up to the road, out of this damned mess. The stage, he, had not fallen far; the road was but a few yards above him, but the ascent, with the pain licking through him like a burning tongue, the unaccustomed, disconcerting choking in his throat, was incredibly toilsome, long.
Buckley Simmons was standing on the road with a lowered, vacant countenance, a face as empty of content, of the trace of any purpose, as a washed slate.
"You oughtn't to have done that, Buck," Gordon told him impotently; "you ought never to have done a thing like that. Why, just see...." Gordon Makimmon's voice was tremulous, his brain blurred from shock. "You went and killed that off horse, and a man never hitched a better. There's the mail, too; however it'll get to Greenstream on contract to-night I don't know. That was the hell of a thing to go and do!... off horse ... willing—"
The sky flamed in a transcendent glory of aureate light; the molten gold poured in streams over the land, dripped from the still branches. The crashing of falling limbs sounded everywhere.
They were, Gordon knew, not half way up Buck Mountain. There were no dwellings between them and Greenstream village, no houses immediately at their back. The road wound up before them toward the pure splendor of sheer space. The cold steadily increased. Gordon's jaw chattered, and he saw that Buckley's face was pinched and blue.
"Got to move," Gordon articulated; "freeze out here." He lifted his feet, stamped them on the hard earth, while the pain leaped and flamed in his side. He labored up the ascent, but Buckley Simmons remained where he was standing. I'll let him stay, Gordon decided, he can freeze to death and welcome, no loss ... after a thing like that. He moved forward once more, but once more stopped.
"C'm on," he called impatiently; "you'll take no good here." He retraced his steps, and roughly grasped the other's arm, urging him forward. Buckley Simmons whimpered, but obeyed the pressure.
The long, toilsome course began, a trail of frequent scarlet patches marking their way. Buckley lagged behind, shaking with exhaustion and chill, but Gordon commanded him on; he pulled him over deep ruts, cursed him into renewed energy. This dangerously delayed their progress.
"I got a good mind to leave you," Gordon told him; "something's busted and I want to make the village soon's I can; and here you drag and hang back. You did it all, too. C'm on, you dam' fool: I could get along twice as smart without you."
It seemed to Gordon Makimmon that, as he walked, the hurt within him was consuming flesh and bone; it was eating away his brain. The thick, salty taste persisted in his mouth, nauseating him.
The light faded swiftly to a mysterious violet glimmer in the sky, on the ground, a cold phosphorescence that seemed to emanate from the ice.
Buckley Simmons could scarcely proceed; he fell, and Gordon drew him sharply to his feet. Finally Gordon put an arm about his shoulder, steadying him, forcing him on. He must hurry, he realized, while the other held him back, delayed the assistance that Gordon so desperately needed.
"I tell you," he repeated querulously, "I got to get along; something's broke inside. I'll leave you," he threatened; "I'll let you sit right here and go cold." It was an empty threat; he struggled on, giving Buckley his support, his determination, sharing the ebbing store of his strength.
As they neared the top of the mountain a flood of light colder than the ice poured from behind. The moon had risen, transforming the world into a crystal miracle.... Far below them was the Greenstream valley, the village. They struggled forward, an uncouth, slipping bulk, under the soaring, dead planet. Gleams of light shot like quick-silver about their feet, quivered in the clear gloom like trails of pale fire igniting lakes of argent flame. It was magnificent and cruel, a superb fantasy rippling over treacherous rocks, rock-like earth.
"Y' dam' idiot," Gordon mumbled, "if I die out here where'll y' be then? I'd like to know that.... Don't sit down on me again, I don't know's I could get you up, don't b'lieve I could. Like as not we won't make her. That was an awful good horse. I'm under contract to—to ... government."
Buckley Simmons sank to his knees: once more Gordon kicked him erect. He spat and spat, constantly growing weaker. "That's an awful lot of blood for a man to lose," he complained.
Suddenly he saw upon the right the lighted square of a window.
"Why!" he exclaimed weakly, "here's the valley."
He pushed Buckley toward the door, and there was an answering stir within ... voices.
An overwhelming desire possessed Gordon Makimmon to go home. He forgot the pressing necessity for assistance, the searing hurt within ... he must go home. He stumbled forward, turning into an aside that led directly behind Dr. Pelliter's drug store to the road above the Makimmon dwelling. He moved blindly, instinctively, following the way bitten beneath his consciousness by a lifetime of usage.
The house was dark, but it was hardly darker than Gordon's brain. He climbed the steps to the porch; his hands fumbled among the keys in his pocket.
Feet tramped across the creaking boards, approaching him; a palm fell upon his shoulder; a crisp voice rang out uncomprehended at his ear. It said:
"I'd knocked on all the doors, and was just going. I wanted to see you at once—"
Gordon felt over the door in search of the place for the key.
"I say I wanted to see you," the voice persisted; "it's Edgar Crandall. You'll take pleasure from what I've got to tell."
The key slipped into its place and the bolt shot back.... Well, he was home. No other thought, no other consciousness, lingered in his mind; even the pain, the unsupportable white core of suffering in his brain, was dulled. He placed his foot upon the threshold, but the hand upon his shoulder arrested him:
"Greenstream's going to have a bank," the voice triumphantly declared; "it's settled—part outside capital, part guaranteed right here. Paper shaving, robbery, finished ... lawful rate ... chance—"
It was no more to Gordon Makimmon than the crackling of the forest branches, no more than an inexplicable hindrance to a desired consummation.
"If it hadn't been for you, what you did for me ... others ... new courage, example of bigness—Why! what's the matter with you, Makimmon? That's blood."
Gordon made a tremendous effort of will, of grim concentration. He freed himself from the detaining hand. "Moment," he pronounced. The single word was expelled as dryly, as lifelessly, as a projectile, from a throat insensate as the barrel of a gun. He vanished into the bitterly cold house.
The bare floors echoed to his plodding footsteps as he entered the bedroom beyond the dismantled chamber of the safe. A flickering desire to see led him to where, on the bureau, a lamp had been left. The chimney fell with a crash of splintering glass upon the floor, a match flared in his stiff fingers, and the unprotected wick burned with a choking, spectral blue light.
He saw, gazing at him from the black depths of the mirror above the bureau, a haggard face drained of all life, of all blood, with deep inky pools upon the eyes. A sudden emotion stirred in the chill immobility creeping upward through him.
"Lettice!" he cried in a voice as flat as a spent echo; "Lettice!"
He stumbled back, sinking.
Edgar Crandall found him kneeling at the bed, his arms outflung across the counterpane, his head bowed between, with a blackening stain beneath his clay-cold lips, beneath his face scarred with immeasurable suffering, fixed in a last surprise.