But presently he left the table, for Fyles came in, and he had been waiting for him. But the sheriff came by himself, and Tresler asked him the reason.
"Well, you see, Nelson is outside, Tresler," the burly man said, with something like a smile. "He wouldn't come in. Shall we go out to him?"
The other assented, and they passed out. Joe was sitting on his buckskin pony, gazing at the saloon with an infinite longing in his old eyes.
"Why are you sitting there?" Tresler asked at once. Then he regretted his question.
"Wal," Joe drawled, without the least hesitation, "I'm figgerin' you oughter know by this time. Ther's things born to live on liquid, an' they've mostly growed tails. Guess I ain't growed that—yet. Mebbe I'll git down at Doc. Osler's. An' I'll git on agin right ther'," he added, as an afterthought.
Joe smiled as much as his twisted face would permit, but Tresler was annoyed with himself for having forced such a confession from him.
"Well, I'm sorry I suggested it, Joe," he said quickly; "as you say, I ought to have known better. Never mind, I want you to do me a favor."
"Name it, an' I'll do it if I bust."
The little man brightened at the thought of this man asking a favor of him.
Tresler didn't respond at once. He didn't want to put the matter too bluntly. He didn't want to let Joe feel that he regarded him as a subordinate.
"Well, you see, I'm looking for some one of good experience to give me some friendly help. You see, I've bought a nice place, and—well, in fact, I'm setting up ranching on my own, and I want you to come and help me with it. That's all."
Joe looked out over the market-place, he looked away at the distant hills, his eyes turned on Doc. Osler's house; he cleared his throat and screwed his face into the most weird shape. His eyes sought the door of the saloon and finally came back to Tresler. He swallowed two or three times, then suddenly thrust out his hand as though he were going to strike his benefactor.
"Shake," he muttered hoarsely.
And Tresler gripped the proffered hand. "And perhaps you'll have that flower-garden, Joe," he said, "without the weeds."
"Mr. Tresler, sir, shake agin."
"Never mind the 'mister' or the 'sir,'" said Tresler. "We are old friends. Now, Fyles," he went on, turning to the officer, who had been looking on as an interested spectator, "have you any news for Miss Marbolt?"
"Yes, the decision's made. I've got the document here in my pocket."
"Good. But don't tell it me. Give me an hour's start of you. I'm going to see the lady myself. And, Joe," Tresler looked up into the old man's beaming face. "Will you come with the sheriff when he interviews—er—our client?"
"All right, Mis——"
"All right, Tresler," said the old man, in a strangely husky voice.
* * * * *
Diane was confronting her lover for the last interview. Mrs. Osler had discreetly left them, and now they were sitting in the diminutive parlor, the man, at the girl's expressed wish, sitting as far from her as the size of the room would permit. All his cheeriness had deserted him and a decided frown marred the open frankness of his face.
Diane, herself, looked a little older than when we saw her last at the ranch. The dark shadows round her pretty eyes were darker, and her face looked thinner and paler, while her eyes shone with a feverish brightness.
"You overruled my decision once, Jack," she was saying in a low tone that she had difficulty in keeping steady, "but this time it must not be."
"Well, look here, Danny, I can give you just an hour in which to ease your mind, but I tell you candidly, after that you'll have to say 'yes,' in spite of all your objections. So fire away. Here's the watch. I'm going to time you."
Tresler spoke lightly and finished up with a laugh. But he didn't feel like laughter. This objection came as a shock to him. He had pictured such a different meeting.
Diane shook her head. "I can say all I have to say in less time than that, Jack. Promise me that you will not misunderstand me. You know my heart, dear. It is all yours, but, but—Jack, I did not tell all I knew at the inquest."
She paused, but Tresler made no offer to help her out. "I knew father could see at night. He was what Mr. Osler calls a—Nyc—Nyctalops. That's it. It's some strange disease and not real blindness at all, as far as I can make out. He simply couldn't see in daylight because there was something about his eyes which let in so much light, that all sense of vision was paralyzed, and at such time he suffered intense pain. But when evening came, in the moonlight, or late twilight; in fact at any time when there was no glare of light, just a soft radiance, he could not only see but was possessed of peculiarly acute vision. How he kept his secret for so many years I don't know. I understand why he did, but, even now, I cannot understand what drove him to commit the dreadful deeds he did, so wealthy and all as he was."
Tresler thought he could guess pretty closely. But he waited for her to go on.
"Jack, I discovered that he could see at night when you were ill, just before you recovered consciousness," she went on, in a solemn, awestruck tone.
"Yes, while you were lying there insensible you narrowly escaped being murdered."
Again she paused, and shuddered visibly.
"I was afraid of something. His conduct when you were brought in warned me. He seemed to resent your existence; he certainly resented your being in the house, but most of all my attendance on you. I was very watchful, but the strain was too much, and, one night, feeling that the danger of sleep for me was very real, I barricaded the stairs. I did my utmost to keep awake, but foolishly sat down on my own bed and fell asleep. Then I awoke with a start; I can't say what woke me. Anyway, realizing I had slept, I became alarmed for you. I picked up the light and went out into the hall, where I found my barricade removed——"
"Yes, and your father at my bedside, with his hands at my throat."
"Loosening the bandage."
"To open the wound and let you bleed to death."
"I see. Yes, I remember. I dreamt the whole scene, except the bandage business. But you——"
"I had the lighted lamp, and the moment its light flashed on him he was as—as blind as a bat. His hands moved about your bandage fumbling and uncertain. Yes, he was blind enough then. I believe he would have attacked me, only I threatened him with the lamp, and with calling for help."
"Brave little woman—yes, I remember your words. They were in my dream. And that's how you knew what to do later on when Jake and he——"
The girl nodded.
"So Fyles was right," Tresler went on musingly. "You did know."
"Was I wrong, Jack, in not telling them at the inquest? You see he is dead, and——"
"On the contrary, you were right. It would have done no manner of good. You might have told me, though."
"Well, I didn't know what to do," the girl said, a little helplessly. "You see I never thought of cattle-stealing. It never entered my head that he was, or could be, Red Mask. I only looked upon it as a villainous attempt on your life, which would not be likely to occur again, and which it would serve no purpose to tell you of. Besides, the horror——"
"Yes, I see. Perhaps you were right. It would have put us on the right track though, as, later on, the fight with Jake and your action with regard to it did. Never mind; that's over. Julian Marbolt was an utter villain from the start. You may as well know that his trading in 'black ivory' was another name for slave-trading. His blindness had nothing to do with driving him to crime, nor had your mother's doings. He was a rogue before. His blindness only enabled him to play a deeper game, which was a matter likely to appeal to his nature. However, nothing can be altered by discussing him. I have bought a ranch adjoining Mosquito Bend, and secured Joe's assistance as foreman. I have given out contracts for rebuilding the house; also, I've sent orders east for furnishings. I am going to buy my stock at the fall round-up. All I want now is for you to say when you will marry me, sweetheart."
"But, Jack, you don't seem to understand. I can't marry you. Father was a—a murderer."
"I don't care what he was, Danny. It doesn't make the least difference to me. I'm not marrying your father."
Diane was distressed. The lightness of his treatment of the subject bothered her. But she was in deadly earnest.
"But, Jack, think of the disgrace! Your people! All the folk about here!"
"Now don't let us be silly, Danny," Tresler said, coming over to the girl's side and taking possession of her forcibly. In spite of protest his arm slipped round her waist, and he drew her to him and kissed her tenderly. "My people are not marrying you. Nor are the folk—who, by the way, can't, and have no desire to throw stones—doing so either. Now, you saved my life twice; once through your gentle nursing, once through your bravery. And I tell you no one has the right to save life and then proceed to do all in their power to make that life a burden to the miserable wretch on whom they've lavished such care. That would be a vile and unwomanly action, and quite foreign to your gentle heart. Sweetheart," he went on, kissing her again, "you must complete the good work. I am anything but well yet. In fact I am so weak that any shock might cause a relapse. In short, there is only one thing, as far as I can see, to save me from a horrid death—consumption or colic, or some fell disease—and that's marriage. I know you must be bored to death by——No," as the girl tried to stop him, "don't interrupt, you must know all the fearsome truth—a sort of chronic invalid, but if you don't marry me, well, I'll get Joe to bury me somewhere at the crossroads. Look at all the money I've spent in getting our home together. Think of it, Danny; our home! And old Joe to help us. And——"
"Oh, stop, stop, or you'll make me——"
"Marry me. Just exactly what I intend, darling. Now, seriously, let's forget the old past; Jake, your father, Anton, all of them—except Arizona."
Diane nestled closer to him in spite of her protests. There was something so strong, reliant, masterful about her Jack that made him irresistible to her. She knew she was wrong in allowing herself to think like this at such a moment, but, after all, she was a weak, loving woman, fighting in what she conceived to be the cause of right. If she found that her heart, so long starved of affection, overcame her sense of duty, was there much blame? Tresler felt the gentle clinging movement, and pressed her for her answer at once.
"Time's nearly up, dearest. See through that window, Fyles and Joe are coming over to you. Is it marry, or am I to go to the Arctic regions fishing for polar bears without an overcoat? I don't care which it is—I mean—no. Yes, quick! They're on the verandah."
The girl nodded. "Yes," she said, so low that his face came in contact with hers in his effort to hear, and stayed there until the burly sheriff knocked at the door.
He entered, followed by Joe. Tresler and Diane were standing side by side. He was still holding her hand.
"Fyles," Tresler said at once, beaming upon both men, "let me present you to the future Mrs. John Tresler. Joe," he added, turning on the little man who was twisting his slouch hat up unmercifully in his nervous hand, and grinning ferociously, "are the corrals prepared, and have you got my branding-irons ready? You see I've rounded her up."
The little man grinned worse than ever, and appeared to be in imminent peril of extending his torn mouth into the region of his ear. Diane listened to the horrible suggestion without misgiving, merely remarking in true wifely fashion—
"Don't be absurd, Jack!"
At which Fyles smiled with appreciation. Then he coughed to bring them to seriousness, and produced an official envelope from his tunic pocket.
"I've just brought you the verdict on your property, Miss Marbolt," he said deliberately. "Shall I read it to you, or would you——?"
"Never mind the reading," said Diane impulsively. "Tell me the contents."
"Well, I confess it's better so. The legal terms are confusing," said the officer emphatically. "You can read them later. I don't guess the government could have acted better by you than they've done. The property,"—he was careful to avoid the rancher's name—"the property is to remain yours, with this proviso. An inquiry has been arranged for, into all claims for property lost during the last ten years in the district. And all approved claims will have to be settled out of the estate. Five years is the time allowed for all such claims to be put forward. After that everything reverts to you."
Diane turned to her lover the moment the officer had finished speaking.
"And, Jack, when that time comes we'll sell it all and give the money to charity, and just live on in our own little home."
"Done!" exclaimed Tresler. And seizing her in his arms he picked her up and gave her a resounding kiss. The action caused the sheriff to cough loudly, while Joe flung his hat fiercely to the ground, and in a voice of wildest excitement, shouted—
"Gee, but I want to holler!"
When winter comes in Canada it shuts down with no uncertainty. The snow settles and remains. The sun shines, but without warmth. The still air bites through any clothing but furs, moccasins, or felt-lined overshoes. The farmers hug the shelter of their houses, and only that work which is known as "doing the chores" receives attention when once winter sets its seal upon the land. Little traffic passes over the drifted trails now; a horseman upon a social visit bent, a bobsleigh loaded with cord-wood for the wood-stoves at home, a cutter, drawn by a rattling team of young bronchos, as rancher and wife seek the alluring stores of some distant city to make their household purchases, even an occasional "jumper," one of those low-built, red-painted, one-horsed sleighs, which resemble nothing so much as a packing-case with a pair of shafts attached. But these are all; for work has practically ceased in the agricultural regions, and a period of hibernation has begun, when, like the dormouse, rancher and farmer alike pass their slack time in repose from the arduous labors of the open season.
Even the most brilliant sunlight cannot cheer the mournful outlook to any great extent. Out on the Edmonton trail, hundreds of miles to the north of Forks, at the crossroads where the Battule trail branches to the east, the cheerless prospect is intensified by the skeleton arms of a snow-crowned bluff. The shelter of trees is no longer a shelter against the wind, which now comes shrieking through the leafless branches and drives out any benighted creature foolish enough to seek its protection against the winter storm. But in winter the crossroads are usually deserted.
Contrary to custom, however, it is evident that a horseman has recently visited the bluff. For there are hoof-prints on one of the crossing trails; on the trail which comes from somewhere in the south. The marks are sharp indentations and look fresh, but they terminate as the crossing is reached. Here they have turned off into the bush and are lost to view. The matter is somewhat incomprehensible.
But there is something still more incomprehensible about the desolate place. Just beyond where the hoof-prints turn off a lightning-stricken pine tree stands alone, bare and blackened by the fiery ordeal through which it has passed, and, resting in the fork of one of its shriveled branches, about the height of a horseman's head, is a board—a black board, black as is the tree-trunk which supports it.
As we draw nearer to ascertain the object of so strange a phenomenon on a prairie trail we learn that some one has inscribed a message to those who may arrive at the crossing. A message of strange meaning and obscure. The characters are laboriously executed in chalk, and have been emphasized with repeated markings and an attempt at block capitals. Also there is a hand sketched roughly upon the board, with an outstretched finger pointing vaguely somewhere in the direction of the trail which leads to Battule.
"This is the One-Way Trail"
We read this and glance at the pointing finger which is so shaky of outline, and our first inclination is to laugh. But somehow before the laugh has well matured it dies away, leaving behind it a look of wonder not unmixed with awe. For there is something sinister in the message, which, though we do not understand it, still has power to move us. If we are prairie folk we shall have no inclination to laugh at all. Rather shall we frown and edge away from the ominous black board; and it is more than probable we shall avoid the trail indicated, and prefer to make a detour if our destination should chance to be Battule.
Why is that board there? Who has set it up? And "the one-way trail" is the trail over which there is no returning. The message is no jest.
The coldly gleaming sun has set, and at last a horse and rider enter the bluff. They turn off into the bush and are seen no more. The long night passes. Dawn comes again, and, as the daylight broadens, the horseman reappears and rides off down the trail. At evening he returns again; disappears into the bush again; and, with daylight, rides off again. Day after day this curious coming and going continues without any apparent object, unless it be that the man has no place but the skeleton bush in which to rest. And with each coming and going the man rides slower, he lounges wearily in his saddle, and before the end of a week looks a mere spectre of the man who first rode into the bluff. Starvation is in the emaciated features, the brilliant feverish eyes. His horse, too, appears little better.
At length one evening he enters the bush, and the following dawn fails to witness his departure. All that day there is the faint sound of a horse moving about amongst the trees with that limping gait which denotes the application of a knee-halter. But the man makes no sound.
As night comes on a solitary figure may be seen seated on a horse at a point which is sheltered from the trail by a screen of bushes. The man sits still, silent, but drooping. His tall gaunt frame is bent almost double over the horn of his saddle in his weakness. The horse's head is hanging heavy with sleep, but the man's great, wild eyes are wide open and alight with burning eagerness. The horse sleeps and frequently has to be awakened by its rider as it stumbles beneath its burden; but the man is as wakeful as the night-owl seeking its prey, and the grim set of his wasted face implies a purpose no less ruthless.
At dawn the position is unchanged. The man still droops over his saddle-horn, a little lower perhaps, but his general attitude is the same. As the daylight shoots athwart the horizon and lightens the darkness of the bush to a gray twilight the horse raises his head and pricks up his ears. The man's eyes glance swiftly toward the south and his alertness is intensified.
Now the soft rustle of flurrying snow becomes audible, and the muffled pounding of a horse's hoofs can be heard upon the trail. The look that leaps into the waiting man's eyes tells plainly that this is what he has so patiently awaited, that here, at last, is the key to his lonely vigil. He draws his horse back further into the bushes and his hand moves swiftly to one of the holsters upon his hips. His thin, drawn features are sternly set, and the sunken eyes are lit with a deep, hard light.
Daylight broadens and reveals the barren surroundings; the sound draws nearer. The silent horseman grips his gun and lays it across his lap with his forefinger ready upon the trigger. His quick ears tell him that the traveler has entered the bush and that he is walking his horse. The time seems endless, while the horseman waits, but his patience is not exhausted by any means. For more than a week, subsisting on the barest rations which an empty pocket has driven him to beg in that bleak country, he has looked for this meeting.
Now, through the bushes, he sees the traveler as his horse ambles down the trail toward him. It is a slight fur-clad figure much like his own, but, to judge by the grim smile that passes across his gaunt features, one which gives the waiting man eminent satisfaction. He notes the stranger's alert movements, the quick, flashing black eyes, the dark features, as he peers from side to side in the bush, over the edge of the down-turned storm-collar; the legs which set so close to the saddle, the clumsily mitted hands. Nor does he fail to observe the uneasy looks he casts about him, and he sees that, in spite of the solitude, the man is fearful of his surroundings.
The stranger draws abreast of the black sign-board. His sidelong glances cannot miss the irregular, chalked characters. His horse comes to a dead stand opposite them, and the rider's eyes become fixed upon the strange message. He reads; and while he reads his lips move like one who spells out the words he sees.
"This is the One-Way Trail," he reads. And then his eyes turn in the direction of the pointing finger.
He looks down the trail which leads to Battule, whither the finger is pointing, and, looking, a strange expression creeps over his dusky features. Instinctively, he understands that the warning is meant for him. And, in his heart, he believes that death for him lies somewhere out there. And yet he does not turn and flee. He simply sits looking and thinking.
Again, as if fascinated, his eyes wander back to the legend upon the board and he reads and rereads the message it conveys. And all the time he is a prey to a curious, uncertain feeling. For his mind goes back over many scenes that do him little credit. Even to his callous nature there is something strangely prophetic in that message, and its effect he cannot shake off. And while he stares his dark features change their hue, and he passes one mitted hand across his forehead.
There is a sudden crackling of breaking brushwood within a few yards of him; his horse bounds to one side and it is with difficulty he retains his seat in the saddle; then he flashes a look in the direction whence the noise proceeds, only to reel back as though to ward off a blow. He is looking into the muzzle of a heavy "six" with Arizona's blazing eyes running over the sight.
The silence of the bush remained unbroken as the two men looked into each other's faces. The gun did not belch forth its death-dealing pellet. It was simply there, leveled, to enforce its owner's will. Its compelling presence was a power not easily to be defied in a country where, in those days, the surest law was carried in the holster on the hip. The man recovered and submitted. His hands, encased in mitts, had placed him at a woeful disadvantage.
Arizona saw this and lowered his gun, but his eyes never lost sight of the fur-clad hands before him. He straightened himself up in the saddle, refusing to display any of his weakness to this man.
"Guess I've waited fer you, 'Tough' McCulloch, fer nigh on a week," he said slowly, in a thin, strident voice. "I've coaxed you some too, I guess. You wus hidden mighty tight, but not jest tight 'nuff. I 'lows I located you, an' I wa'n't goin' to lose sight o' you. When you quit Skitter Bend, like the whipped cur you wus, I wus right hot on your trail. An' I ain't never left it. See? Say, in all the hundreds o' miles you've traveled sence you quit the creek ther' ain't bin a move as you've took I ain't looked on at. I've trailed you, headed you, bin alongside you, an' located wher' you wus makin', an' come along an' waited on you. Ther's a score 'tween you an' me as wants squarin'. I'm right here fer to squar' that score."
Arizona's sombre face was unrelieved by any change of expression while he was speaking. There was no anger in his tone; just cold, calm purpose, and some contempt. And whatever feelings the half-breed may have had he seemed incapable of showing them, except in the sickly hue of his face.
The fascination of the message on the board still seemed to attract him, for, without heeding the other's words, he glanced over at the seared tree-trunk and nodded at it.
"See. Dat ting. It your work. Hah?"
"Yes; an' I take it the meanin's clear to you. You've struck the trail we all stan' on some time, pardner, an' that trail is mostly called the 'One-Way Trail.' It's a slick, broad trail, an' one as is that smooth to the foot as you're like to find anywheres. It's so dead easy you can't help goin' on, an' you on'y larn its cussedness when you kind o' notion gittin' back. I 'lows as one o' them glacier things on top o' yonder mountains is li'ble to be easier climbin' nor turnin' back on that trail. The bed o' that trail is blood, blood that's mostly shed in crime, an' its surface is dusted wi' all manner o' wrong doin's sech as you an' me's bin up to. Say, it ain't a long trail, I'm guessin', neither. It's dead short, in fac' the end comes sudden-like, an' vi'lent. But I 'lows the end ain't allus jest the same. Sometimes y'll find a rope hangin' in the air. Sometimes ther's a knife jabbin' around; sometimes ther's a gun wi' a light pull waitin' handy, same as mine. But I figger all them things mean jest 'bout the same. It's death, pardner; an' it ain't easy neither. Say, you an' me's pretty nigh that end. You 'special. Guess you're goin' to pass over fust. Mebbe I'll pass over when I'm ready. It ain't jest ne'sary fer the likes o' us to yarn Gospel wi' one another, but I'm goin' to tell you somethin' as mebbe you're worritin' over jest 'bout now. It's 'bout a feller's gal—his wife—which the same that feller never did you no harm. But fust y'll put up them mitts o' yours, I sees as they're gettin' oneasy, worritin' around as though they'd a notion to git a grip on suthin'."
The half-breed made no attempt to obey, but stared coldly into the lean face before him.
"Hands up!" roared Arizona, with such a dreadful change of tone that the man's hands were thrust above his head as though a shot had struck him.
Arizona moved over to him and removed a heavy pistol from the man's coat pocket, and then, having satisfied himself that he had no other weapons concealed about him, dropped back to his original position.
"Ah, I wus jest sayin', 'bout that feller's wife," he went on quietly. "Say, you acted the skunk t'ward that feller. An' that feller wus me. I don't say I wus jest a daisy husband fer that gal, but that wa'n't your consarn. Wot's troublin' wus your monkeyin' around, waitin' so he's out o' the way an' then vamoosin' wi' the wench an' all. Guess I'm goin' to kill you fer that sure. But ther' ain't none o' the skunk to me. I'm goin' to treat you as you wouldn't treat me ef I wus settin' wher' you are, which I ain't. You're goin' to hit the One-Way Trail. But you ken hit it like what you ain't, an' that's a man."
Arizona's calm, judicial tone goaded his hearer. But "Tough" McCulloch was not the man to shout. His was a deadlier composition such as the open American hated and despised, and hardly understood. He contented himself with a cynical remark which fired the other's volcanic temper so that he could scarcely hold his hand.
"Me good to her," he said, with a shrug.
"You wus good to her, wus you? You who knew her man wus livin'! You, as mebbe has ha'f a dozen wives livin'. You wus good to her! Wal, you're goin' to pay now. Savee? You're goin' to pay fer your flutter wi' chips, chips as drip wi' blood—your blood."
The half-breed shrugged again. He was outwardly unconcerned, but inwardly he was cursing the luck that he had been wearing mitts upon his hands when he entered the bluff. He watched Arizona as he climbed out of his saddle. He beheld the signs of weakness which the other could no longer disguise, but they meant nothing to him, at least, nothing that could serve him. He knew he must wait the cowpuncher's pleasure; and why? The ring of white metal which marks the muzzle of a gun has the power to hold brave man and coward alike. He dared not move, and he was wise enough not to attempt it.
Arizona drove his horse off into the bush, and stepped over to his prisoner, who still remained mounted, halting abreast of the man's stirrup and a few yards to one side of it. His features now wore the shadow of a grim smile as he paused and looked into the face which displayed so much assumed unconcern.
"See this gun," he said, drawing attention to the one he held in his right hand; "it's a forty-fi', an' I'm guessin' it's loaded in two chambers." Then he scraped the snow off a small patch of the road with his foot. "That gun I lay right here," he went on, stooping to deposit it, but still keeping his eyes fixed upon the horseman. "Then I step back, so," moving backward with long regular strides, "an' I reckon I count fifteen paces. Then I clear another space," he added grimly, like some fiendish conjurer describing the process of his tricks, "and stand ready. Now, 'Tough' McCulloch, or Anton, or wotever you notion best, skunk as you are, you're goin' to die decent. You're goin' to die as a gentleman in a square fought duel. You're goin' to die in a slap-up way as is a sight too good fer you, but don't go fer to make no mistake—you're goin' to die. Yes, you're goin' to get off'n that plug o' yours an' stand on that patch, an' I'm goin' to count three, nice an' steady, one-two-three! Just so. An' then we're goin' to grab up them guns an' let rip. I 'lows you'll fall first 'cause I'm goin' to kill you—sure. Say, you'll 'blige me by gittin' off'n that plug."
The half-breed made no move. His unconcern was leaving him under the deliberate purpose of this man.
"Git off o' that plug!" Arizona roared out his command with all the force of his suppressed passion.
The man obeyed instantly. And it was plain now that his courage was deserting him. But in proportion his cunning rose. He made a pitiful attempt at swagger as he walked up to his mark, and his fierce eyes watched every movement of his opponent. And Arizona's evident condition of starvation struck him forcibly, and the realization of it suggested to his scheming brain a possible means of escape.
"You mighty fine givin' chances, mister," he said, between his teeth. "Maybe you sing different later. Bah! you make me laff. Say, I ready."
"Yes, git right ahead an' laff," Arizona replied imperturbably. "An' meanwhiles while you're laffin', I'll trouble you to git out o' that sheep's hide. It ain't fit clothin' fer you noways. Howsum, it helps to thicken your hide. Take it off."
The half-breed obeyed and the two men now stood motionless. Arizona was an impressive figure in that world of snow. Never before had his personality been so marked. It may have been the purpose that moved him that raised him to something superior to the lean, volcanic cowboy he had hitherto been. His old slouching gait, in spite of his evident weakness, was quite gone; his shaggy head was held erect, and he gazed upon his enemy with eyes which the other could not face. For the time, at least, the indelible stamp of his disastrous life was disguised by the fire of his eyes and the set of his features. And this moral strength he conveyed in every action in a manner which no violence, no extent of vocabulary could have done. This man before him had robbed him of the woman he had loved. He should die.
His pistol was still in his hand.
"When I say 'three,' you'll jest grab for your gun—an' fire," he said solemnly.
He relapsed into silence, and, after a moment's pause, slowly stooped to deposit his weapon. His great roving eyes never relaxed their vigilance, and all the while he watched the man before him.
Lower he bent, and the pistol touched the ground. He straightened up swiftly and stood ready.
The half-breed started as though a sharp spasm of pain had convulsed his body. Then he stood as if about to spring.
McCulloch moved again. He stooped with almost incredible swiftness and seized his gun, and the next moment two loud reports rang out, and he threw his smoking weapon upon the ground.
Arizona had not moved, though his face had gone a shade paler. He knew he was wounded.
The American bent and seized his gun as the other made a dash for his horse. He stood up, and took deliberate aim. The half-breed was in the act of swinging himself into his saddle. A shot rang out, and the would-be fugitive's foot fell out of the stirrup, and his knees gave under him. Another shot split the air, and, without so much as a groan, the man fell in a heap upon the ground, while a thick red stream flowed from a wound at his left temple.
Then silence reigned once more.
After a while the sound of a slouching gait disturbed the grim peace of the lonely bluff. Arizona shuffled slowly off the road. He reached the edge of the bush; but he went no further. For he reeled, and his hands clasped his body somewhere about his chest. His eyes were half closed, and his face looked ghastly in the wintry light. By a great effort he steadied himself and abruptly sat down in the snow. He was just off the track and his back was against a bush.
Leaning forward he drew his knees up and clasped his arms about them, and remained rocking himself slowly to and fro. And, as he sat, he felt something moist and warm saturating his clothes about his chest. Several times he nodded and his lips moved, and his eyelids fell lower and lower until he saw nothing of what was about him. He knew it was over for him and he was satisfied.
He remained for some time in this attitude. Once he opened his eyes and looked round, but, somehow, he drew no satisfaction from what he beheld. The world about him seemed unsteady and strangely dark. The snow was no longer white, but had turned gray, and momentarily it grew darker. He thankfully reclosed his eyes and continued to nurse himself. Now, too, his limbs began to grow cold, and to feel useless. He had difficulty in keeping his hands fast about his knees, but he felt easy, and even comfortable. There was something soothing to him in that warm tide which he felt to be flowing from somewhere about his chest.
The minutes slipped away and the man's lips continued their silent movement. Was he praying for the soul which he knew to be passing from his body? It may have been so. It may have been that he was praying for a girl and a man whom he had learned to love in the old days of Mosquito Bend, and whom he was leaving behind him. This latter was more than likely, for his was not a selfish nature.
Again his eyes opened, and now they were quite unseeing; but the brain behind them was still clear, for words, which were intelligible, came slowly from his ashen lips.
"It's over, I guess," he muttered. "Maybe life ain't wi'out gold for some. I 'lows I ain't jest struck color right. Wal, I'm ready for the reckonin'."
His hands unclasped and his legs straightened themselves out. Like a weary man seeking repose he turned over and lay with his face buried in the snow. Nor did he move again. For Arizona had ended his journey over the One-Way Trail.
Minor changes have been made to correct typesetters' errors; otherwise, every effort has been made to remain true to the author's words and intent.