"I've—I've just canceled that order."
Jim turned on him irritably.
"Confound it, Peter, you heard what I said. I've canceled that order. Do you get it now?"
The large man nodded. The brains behind his mild eyes were working swiftly, shrewdly.
"Will's in town. Been in since yesterday morning," he said after a while. "Seen him?"
Jim suddenly sprang from his seat, the moody fire of his dark eyes blazing furiously.
"Seen him! Seen him!" he cried, with a sudden letting loose of all the bitterness and smouldering passion which had been so long pent up. "Seen him? I should say I have. I've seen him as he really is. I've seen——"
He broke off and began to pace the room. Peter was still at the table. His hands were still raking at the pile of dirt. His face was quite unmoved at the other's evident passion; only his eyes displayed his interest.
"God! but the thought of him sets me crazy," Jim went on furiously. Then he paused, and stood confronting the other. "Peter, I came in here without knowing why on earth I came. I came because something forced me, I s'pose. Now I know what made me come. I've got to get it off my chest, and you've got to listen to it."
Peter's smile was the gentlest thing imaginable.
"Guess that's easy," he said. "I knew there was something you'd got that wasn't good for you to hold. Sort of fancied you'd like to get rid of it—here."
The calm sincerity of the man was convincing. Jim felt its effect without appreciation, for the hot blood of bitterness still drove him. His wrongs were still heavy upon him, water-logging his better sense, and leaving it rudderless.
He hesitated. It was not that he did not know how to begin. It was not that he had any doubts in his mind. Just for a second he wondered at the strange influence which was forcing his story from him. It puzzled him—it almost angered him. And something of this anger appeared in his manner and tone when he spoke.
"Will Henderson's a damned traitor," he finally burst out.
"We're all that," he said gently: "if it's only to ourselves."
"Oh, I don't want your moralizing," the other cried roughly. "Listen, this is the low, mean story of it. You'll have little enough moralizing to do when you've heard it."
Then he told Peter of their meeting the day before, and of the friendly honesty of his purpose in the shooting match. How Will had accepted, shot, and lost. This part he told with a grim setting of his teeth, and it was not until he came to the story of the man's treachery that his manner became intemperate. Then he spoke with all the color of a strongly passionate temperament, when the heart is stirred beyond all reason. And the giant listened to it, silent and attentive. What thoughts the story inspired in the listener it would have been impossible to say. His face was calm. There was no sign of any enthralled attention. There was no light in his eyes beyond the kindliness that ever seemed to shine there. And at its conclusion Jim's underlying feeling, that almost subconscious thought which hitherto had found expression only in bitter feeling and the uncertain activities of his mind, broke out into raving.
"It's a curse that's on me, Peter!" he cried. "I tell you it's a curse! I've never had a chance. Everything from the start has been broken just when its completion was almost achieved. When I look back I can see it written all along the path I've trodden, in the ruins I've left behind me. Why, why, I ask, am I chosen for such persecution? What have I done to deserve it? I've played the game. I've worked. God knows how I've worked. And everything I've done has come to nothing, and not because I've always made mistakes, or committed foolishnesses. Every smash has been brought about by influences that could not have been humanly foreseen. I'm cursed. Cursed by an evil fate it is beyond my power to fight. God? It almost makes one question. Is there a God? A good God who permits such a fate to pursue a man? Is there an all-powerful God, ruling and guiding every human action? Is there? Is there a God, a merciful, loving God watching over us, such as kiddies are taught to believe in? Is there?"
Peter's answer so readily, so firmly spoken was arresting.
"Yes, Jim. There's a God," he went on, without any display. "There's a great big God—just such a God as you and I have knelt to when we were bits of kiddies. Maybe He's so big that our poor, weak brains can't understand Him. But He's there, right up above us, and for every poor mean atom we call 'man' He's set out a trail to walk on. It's called the One-way Trail. And the One-way Trail is just the trail of Life. It's chock full of pitfalls and stumbling-blocks, that make us cuss like mad. But it's good for us to walk over it. There are no turnings or by-paths, and no turning back. And, maybe, when we get to the end something will have been achieved in His scheme of things that our silly brains can't grasp. Yes, there is a God, Jim, and you're just hitting the trail He's set for you."
But Jim was in no reasonable mood.
"Then where's the cursed justice——" he began heatedly. But broke off as the other shrugged his great shoulders.
He waited for Peter to speak. He waited, stirred to a mad contentiousness, to tear his friend's arguments to ribbons, and fling their broken remains back in his face. But no arguments were forthcoming. Peter understood his temper, and saw the uselessness of argument. Besides, he could smell the reek of whiskey.
He thought swiftly with all the wisdom of a great understanding and experience. And finally his manner changed utterly. He suddenly became cordially sympathetic with the other's angry mood. He even agreed with him.
"Maybe you're right, though, Jim," he said. "Things have been mighty hard for you. You've had a heap of trouble. I can't say I wonder at you taking it bad, and thinking things. But—but what are you going to do now? Buck the game afresh?"
Jim did not pause to think. He jumped speedily at the bait held out to him so subtly.
"Yes," he cried, with a bitter laugh. "But it'll be a different game. A game most folks out here sure know how to play. We're most of us life's derelicts. I'll buck it, Peter, and set the devil dancing."
The other nodded.
"I know. I know. He's always ready to dance if we pay for the tune."
But Jim was lost in his own wild thoughts.
"Yes, and he's good company, too, Peter," he cried. "Devilish good." He laughed at his own humor. "The harder you play the harder and more merrily he'll dance. We've got one life. The trail's marked out for us. And, by gum, we'll live while we can. Why should we sweat and toil, and have it squeezed out of us whenever—they think fit? I'll spend every dollar I make. I'll have all that life can give me. I'll pick the fruit within my reach. I'll do as the devil, or my stomach, guides me. I'll have my time——"
Jim sat down. He was smiling, but the smile was unreal.
"Then? Why, I'll go right down and out, and they can kick my carcase out to the town 'dumps.'"
Peter nodded again.
"Let's begin now," he said, with staggering abruptness. And he pointed at the bottle in Jim's pocket.
"Eh?" the other was startled.
"Let's begin now," Peter said, with his calm smile. "You're good company, Jim. Where you go, I'll travel, too—if it's to hell."
The smile had vanished from Jim's eyes. For a moment he wondered stupidly, and during that moment, as Peter's hand was outstretched for the bottle, he passed it across to him.
The other took it, and looked at the label. It was a well-known brand of rye whiskey. And as he looked he seemed to gather warmth and enthusiasm. It was as though the sight of the whiskey were irresistible to him.
"Rye," he cried. "The juice for oiling the devil's joints." And his lips seemed to smack over the words.
Jim was watching. He didn't understand. Peter's offer to go with him to hell was staggering, and—— But the other went on in his own mildly enthusiastic way.
"We'll start right here. I'll get two glasses. We'll drink this up, and then we'll get some more at the saloon, and—we'll paint the town red." He rose and fetched two glasses from a cupboard and set them on the table. Then he took his sheath knife from his belt, and, with a skilful tap, knocked the neck off the bottle.
"No water," he said. "The stuff'll act quicker. We want it to get right up into our heads quick. We want the mad whirl of the devil's dance; we——"
"But why should you——!"
"Tut, man! Your gait's good enough for me. There's room for more fools than one in hell. Here! Here's your medicine."
He rose and passed a glass across to Jim, while the other he held aloft.
"Here, boy," he cried, smiling down into Jim's face "Here, I'll give you a toast." The stormy light in the ranchman's eyes had died out, and in them there lurked a question that had something like fear in it. But his glass was not raised, and Peter urged him. "A toast, lad huyk your glass right up, and we'll drink it standing."
Jim rose obediently but slowly to his feet, and his glass was lifted half-heartedly. There was no responsive enthusiasm in him now; it had gone utterly. Peter's voice suddenly filled the room with a mocking laugh, and his toast rang out in tones of sarcasm the more biting for their very mildness.
"The devil's abroad. Here's to the devil, because there's no God and the devil reigns. Nothing we see in the world is the work of anybody but the devil. The soil that yields us the good grain, the grass that feeds our stock, the warm, beneficent sun that ripens all the world, the beautiful flowers, the magnificent forests, the great hills, the seas, the rivers, the rain; everything in life. All the beautiful world, that thrills with a perfect life, that rolls its way through aeons of time held in space by a power that nothing can shake. All the myriads of worlds and universes we see shining in the limitless billions of miles of space at night, everything, everything. It is the arch-fiend's work, for there is no God. Here's to the mad, red, dancing devil, to whom we go!"
Jim's glass crashed to the floor. He seized the bottle of whiskey and served that in the same way.
"Stop it, you mad fool!" he cried in horror. And Peter slowly put his whiskey down untasted.
Then the dark, horror-stricken eyes looked into the smiling blue ones, and in a flash to Jim's troubled mind came inspiration. There was a long, long pause, during which eye met eye unflinchingly. Then Jim reached out a hand.
"Thanks, Peter," he said.
Peter shook his grizzled head as he gripped the outstretched hand.
"I'm glad," he said with a quaint smile, "real glad you came along—and stopped me drinking that toast. Going?"
Jim nodded. He, too, was smiling now, as he moved to the door.
"Well, I suppose you must," Peter went on. "I've got work, too." He pointed at his pile of dirt on the table. "You see, there's gold in all that muck, and—I've got to find it."
EVE AND WILL
Elia was staring at his sister with wide, expectant eyes. Suspense was evidently his dominant feeling at the moment. A suspense which gave him a sickly feeling in the pit of the stomach. It was the apprehension of a prisoner awaiting a verdict; the nauseating sensation of one who sees death facing him, with the chances a thousand to one against him. A half-plaited rawhide rope was lying in his lap; the hobby of making these his sister had persuaded him to turn to profitable account. He was expert in their manufacture, and found a ready market for his wares on the neighboring ranches.
Eve was staring out of the window considering, her pretty face seriously cast, her eyes far away. Will Henderson, his boyishly handsome face moodily set, was standing beside the work-table that occupied the centre of the living-room, the fingers of one hand restlessly groping among the litter of dress stuffs lying upon it. He was awaiting her answer to a question of his, awaiting it in suspense, like Elia, but with different feelings.
Nor did the girl seem inclined to hurry. To her mind a lot depended on her answer. Her acquiescence meant the giving up of all the little features that had crept into her struggling years of independence. There was her brother. She must think for his welfare. There was her business, worked up so laboriously. There was the possible removal from Barnriff to the world of hills and valleys, which was Will's world. There were so many things to think of,—yet—yet she knew her answer beforehand. She loved, and she was a woman, worldly-wise, but unworldly.
The evening was drawing in, and the soft shadows were creeping out of the corners of the little room. There was a gentle mellowness in the twilight which softened the darns in the patchwork picture the place presented. This room was before all things her shop; and, in consequence, comfort and the picturesque were sacrificed to utility. Yet there was a pleasant femininity about it. A femininity which never fails to act upon the opposite sex. It carries with it an influence that can best be likened, in a metaphoric sense, to a mental aroma which soothes the jagged edges of the rougher senses. It lulls them to a gentle feeling of seductive delight, a condition which lays men so often open to a bad woman's unscrupulousness, but also to a good woman's influence for bringing out all that is greatest and best in their nature.
The waiting was too long for Will. He was a lover of no great restraint.
"Well, Eve?" he demanded, almost sharply. "Two months to-day. Will you? We can get the parson feller that comes here from Rocky Springs to—marry us."
The dwarf brushed his rope out of his lap, and, rising, hobbled to Eve's side, and stood peering up into her face in his bird-like way. But he offered no word.
Eve's hand caressed his silky head. She nodded, nodded at the distant hills through the window.
"Yes, Will, dear."
The man was at her side in an instant, while Elia slunk away. The youth drew back and turned tail, slinking off as though driven by a cruel lash in the hand of one from whom kindness is expected. He did not return to his seat, but passed out of the house. And the girl and man, in their moment of rapture, forgot him. At that moment their lives, their happiness, their love, were the bounds of their whole thought.
For moments they stood locked in each other's arms, oblivious to all but the hot passion that ran through their veins. They were lost in the dream of love which was theirs. The world was nothing, life was nothing, except that it gave them this power to love. They drank in each other's kisses till the woman lay panting in the fierce embrace of the man, and he—he was devouring her with eyes which hungered for her, like the eyes of a starving man, while he crushed her in the arms of a man savage with the delicious pain of his passion.
At last it was the woman who stirred to release herself. It is ever the woman who leads where love dominates. She gently but firmly freed herself. She held his hands and looked up into his glowing eyes. She had something to say, something to ask him, and, reluctant though she be, she must abandon for the time the blissful moments when their mutual love was burning to the exclusion of all else. Will's passionate eyes held her, and for some moments she could not speak. Then, with an effort, she released his hands and defensively turned her eyes away.
"I—I want to speak to you about—Jim," she said at last, a little hesitatingly.
And the fire in the man's eyes abruptly died out.
"He was here this morning, and—he was a little strange."
Will propped himself against the table, and his face, strangely pale, was turned to the window. Nor did he see the snow-capped hills which bounded the entire view. Guilty thoughts filled his mind and crowded out everything else.
"Well?" he demanded, as Eve waited for him to speak.
"You are such friends, dear, that I wanted to ask you—Do you know why he came to see me?"
Will shook his head. Then a smile struggled round his clean shaven mouth.
"Maybe the same reason that makes most fellows crowd round a pretty girl."
It was a wistful smile that accompanied the girl's denial.
"I would like to think it was only that," she said. "Do you know I am very, very fond of Jim. No, no, not in the way you mean," she exclaimed hastily, as the man turned on her, hot with the jealousy which was so much a part of his Celtic nature. "I have always been fond of Jim. He's so generous; so kind and self-sacrificing. Do you know, Will, I believe he'd give up anything to you. It is my conviction that his first thought in life is for your welfare and happiness. And somehow, it—it doesn't seem right. No, I don't mean that you don't deserve it, but that—well, don't you think a man should fight every battle in which he finds himself on his own account? Don't you think, you who are so capable, that the struggles that every man must encounter in life demand the whole of his energies to bring them to a successful end? I do. It's not a matter of self exactly, but we are all so full of weaknesses that this unselfish way of dividing our energies is apt to weaken our own defenses. Thus the scheme for our own uplifting, our own purification, rather suffers. You see, I think we are here on this earth for the purpose of bettering ourselves and preparing for that future, which—I know what I am saying sounds selfish, but really, really, I don't think it is. Do you know, Jim came to ask me to marry him? I know he did. I avoided his direct question, and told him that you asked me last night, and that I had given you my promise. Well, he accepted it as though, as though he had no business to want what you wanted. And his only comment was that you were a 'good boy,' and that he thought you'd make me a good husband. Now, don't laugh"—the man showed not the slightest inclination to do so. His face was livid; there was something like horror in his eyes—"but if I'd been a man in his place I should have been just mad. Do you think I'd have said that? No, Will; my thoughts would have been murderous. But with him it was otherwise, I'm sure. Yet he loved me, and he was hurt. I could see it—oh, I could see it. The agony in his eyes nearly broke my heart. Will, I think we owe Jim something. I know we can't ever repay it. But we owe him surely. You do, even more than I. I can't bear to think of his hurt."
The girl ceased speaking. Will had made no attempt to stop her, yet every word she had spoken lashed him to a savage self-defense.
"I—I didn't know he loved you," he lied. Then he stopped with a sickening impulse. But in a moment he went on. He had taken the plunge, and his selfish nature came to his aid. "Poor Jim," he said, with apparent feeling. "It's hard luck—mighty hard luck. But, then, Eve, a feller can't expect a man to stand by where a woman's concerned. Not even a brother. You see, dear, I love you so bad. I'd lose anything but you, yes, even my life." He drew nearer to her, but the girl made no response. "Jim's got to take his 'medicine.' Same as I'd have taken mine, if you'd loved him. If Jim squeals, he's not——"
"Oh, don't be afraid of that," Eve exclaimed, with some warmth. "Jim won't 'squeal.' It's not in him to 'squeal.' He'll take his 'medicine' with any man. I'm not thinking of that. It's—oh, I don't know—only I think you're lucky to have such a friend, and I—oh, I wish we could do something for him."
Eve did not know how to express all she felt, and Will did not help her. He displayed no sympathy, but seemed absolutely indifferent, and she almost felt angry with him.
"There's nothing to be done." Then something prompted the man, and he went on harshly. "It was a fair fight and no favor. I love you, Eve; God knows how I love you. And I wouldn't give you up or lose you for fifty Jims. If Jim stood in the way between us I'd—I'd—push him out at—any cost."
"Will!" There was horror in the girl's exclamation. Then the woman in her rose at the contemplation of the man's love and passion for her. How could it be otherwise? She came to him, and was hugged in arms that almost set her gasping.
"I love you, Eve. I love you! I love you!"
Their lips met, and the woman clung to him in the rush of her responsive passion.
"Oh, Will," she cried at length. "It's good to be loved as you love. It's so good. Kiss me, dear, kiss me again. I am all yours."
The man needed no bidding. He had wronged his friend; had lied, lied in the worst way a man can lie, to make sure of her. He appreciated the cost, and its value made those moments all the more precious.
But he had no real regret for the wrong he had committed. And this was an unerring index to his nature. He would stand at nothing where his own desires were at stake.
An hour later Will left the house. He felt good. He felt that he wanted to shout aloud his good fortune. To a temperament like his there was only one outlet to such feelings. He would go down to the saloon and treat the boys. They should share in his good fortune—to the extent of drink. He cared nothing for them in reality. He cared nothing for anybody but himself. He wanted drink, and to treat the boys served as an excuse.
Since winning Eve he had debated with himself the matter of "straightening up" with regard to drink. It is the usual condition of mind upon such occasions amongst men who live hard. It is an upward moral tendency for the moment, and often the highest inclination of their life's moral switchback, the one that inevitably precedes the longest and severest drop. At no other time would he have needed an excuse to drink.
He hurried so as not to lose anything of the evening's entertainment at the saloon, but his way did not take him direct. He had left the bulk of his money secreted in the cupboard in his old hut, a place he still kept in which to sleep when business or pleasure brought him in from the hunting-grounds of the trade which was his.
But the deviation was considerable, nor had he the assistance of any outside influence to keep his mind in focus. Thus he found it drifting whithersoever it chose. It passed from Eve to the saloon, to the money he required to help him pass the evening, to a dozen and one things, and finally settled itself upon the one subject he would rather have avoided. It focused itself upon Jim Thorpe, and, try as he would to break away from this thrall, it clung tenaciously.
He could not get away from Eve's spoken sympathy for Jim, and every word he recollected stung him poisonously. His regard for Jim was of the frailest texture. He had always regarded him as something inevitable in his life, and that was all. Nor was he to be considered in the least where his own desires were concerned. Yet he cursed that shooting match. He cursed himself for going to see Jim at all. Why had he not gone to Eve in the first place? Then he promptly reassured himself that he had only gone to Jim out of a sense of honor. Yes, it was that shooting match. Jim had forced it on him. That was it. It was wholly Jim's fault. How was he to know he was going to lose? There was no doubt that Jim was a fine shot, but so was he.
Then through his brain flashed another thought. Maybe it had inspiration in the thought of Jim's shooting. What would happen when he met Jim, as, sooner or later, he knew he must? What would Jim's attitude be? He frowned heavily. This had not occurred to him before. Would there be trouble? Well, if there were it might be easier, at least less complicated. On the other hand, what else could Jim do? It was uncomfortably puzzling. His own disposition made it impossible for him to probe the possibilities of such a nature as Jim's.
He could not answer his question, and it left him with a feeling of apprehension which no prospect of violence could have inspired in him. He told himself he was sorry, regretted the whole occurrence, but there was less truth in his mental apology than in the feelings which his thoughts had inspired. Though in his heart he knew he had done wrong, he had acted with the grossest dishonor toward Jim, he would not admit it; consequently he experienced the nervous apprehension which every wrong-doer, however hardened, always feels at the thought of being confronted with his crime.
By the time he reached his hut he was in a bad mood. He not only rebelled against the worry of his thought, but wanted to vent his feelings. He probably hated Jim just then, and a meeting with him at that moment would undoubtedly have provoked a quarrel.
He was approaching his hut from the back. The place was in darkness, and he groped in his pockets for matches. He had to pass the old hen-roost, which, in their early days in Barnriff, had kept him and Jim supplied with fresh eggs. As he drew abreast of this he suddenly halted and stood listening. There was a commotion going on inside, and it startled him. He could hear the flapping of wings, the scuffling and clucking of the frightened hens.
For the moment he thought of the coyote, that thieving scavenger of the prairie which is ever on the prowl at night. But the next instant he remembered the chicken killing going on in the village. He ran to the door of the roost and flung it wide open. Without waiting for a light he stooped down and made his way in. And that act of stooping probably saved his life. Something whistled over his bent body, splitting the air like a well-swung sword. He knew instinctively it was a knife aimed at him. But the next moment he had grappled with his assailant, and held him fast in his two strong arms.
From that moment there was no further struggle. As he dragged his prisoner out he wondered. Then, in a moment, his wonder passed, as he felt a set of sharp, strong human teeth fasten themselves upon the flesh of his forearm. He dropped his hold and with his free hand seized his captive by the throat and choked him until the teeth released their grip.
To rush his prisoner along before him to the door of the hut and thrust him inside was curiously easy. There was no resistance or struggle for freedom. The captive seemed even anxious to avoid all further effort. Nor was there a word spoken until Will had struck a match and lit the guttered candle stuck in the neck of a whiskey bottle. Then, with the revealing light, he uttered an exclamation of blank astonishment.
Elia, Eve's brother, stood cowering before him with his usually mild eyes filled with such a glare of abject terror that it might well have inspired pity in the hardest heart.
But Will was not given to pity. The boy's terror meant nothing to him. All he remembered was his unutterable dislike of the boy, and his satisfaction at having caught the chicken-killer of Barnriff. And, to judge by the boy's blood-stained hands, in the thick of his fell work.
"So, I've caught you, my lad, have I?" he said, with a cold grin of appreciation. "It's you who spend your time killing the chickens? Well, you're going to pay for it, you—you wretched deformity."
The boy cowered back. His curious mind was filled with hatred, but his fear was all-mastering. Will suddenly reached forward and dragged him further into the feeble rays of the candle-light.
"Come here, you young demon!" he cried. "You're not going to escape punishment because of your sister. You haven't got her here to protect you. You've got a man to deal with. Do you understand, eh? A man."
"A devil," Elia muttered, his eyes gleaming.
"Well, at this moment, perhaps, a devil!" Will retorted, giving the boy's arm a cruel twist. "How's that?" he inquired, as the boy gave one of those curious cries of pain of his, which had so much likeness to an animal's yelp.
"Oh, that's nothing to what you're going to get," his persecutor went on. "We do the same here to boys who kill chickens as we do to those who kill and steal cattle. We hang 'em, Elia, we hang 'em. How would you like to be hanged?"
Will watched the working features. He saw and appreciated the terror he was causing, the suffering. But he could draw no further retort.
As a matter of fact he had no definite idea yet as to what he should do with his captive. He was Eve's brother, but that did not influence him. He probably disliked the boy all the more for it, because one day he would be his brother, and he knew that Elia came before all else in the world in Eve's thoughts. His jealousy and hatred were well blended, and, in a man of his mind, this was a dangerous combination.
He released his hold on his captive and looked at his bleeding arm. The boy's teeth had left an ugly wound, and the blood was flowing freely. He turned his eyes again to Elia's face and a devil lurked in them.
"I've a good mind to thrash you, you piece of deformity!" he cried angrily. And he made a move as though to fulfil his threat.
Then that cruel grin gathered round his lips again.
"That's a good idea," he said. "Thrash you for myself, and hand you over to those others, after."
But his words had not the effect which his physical force had. Perhaps the boy, with that peculiar twist he possessed, was reading the indecision, the uncertainty in his captor's mind. Anyway, the terror in his eyes was becoming less, and a defiant light was taking its place. But Will could see none of this, and he went on.
"I'd hate to be handed over to the boys for hanging——"
Elia suddenly shook his head.
"There's no hangin'!" he cried, "and you know it. You send me to—the others an' see what happens to you. I tell you, sis 'ud see you dead before she married you. Guess you best let me go right quick, an' no more bulldozing."
The boy had suddenly tacked to windward of him, and Will was confronted with an ugly "lee shore." The trap he had fallen into was difficult, and he stood thinking. The dwarf had recovered himself, and his bland look of innocence returned to his eyes.
"I killed 'em nigh all—your chickens," he said earnestly. "I'll kill the rest later, because they're yours. I can't kill you because you are stronger than me, but I hate you. I'm goin' right out of here now, an' you won't stop me."
But the boy had overreached himself. Will was not easy when at bay.
He took a step forward and seized him by his two arms.
"You hate me, eh?" he said cruelly. "I can't hand you over to the boys, eh?" He wrenched the arms with a twist at each question, and, at each twist, the boy uttered that weird cry that was scarcely human. "Well, if I can't," Will went on through his clenched teeth, wrenching his arms as he spoke, "it cuts both ways; you'll get your med'cine here instead, and you daren't speak of it—see, see, see!"
The boy's cries were louder and more prolonged. Terror had again taken its place in his eyes. Yet he seemed to have no power for resistance. He was held in a paralysis of unutterable fear. With each of Will's three final words the lad's arms were nearly wrenched from their sockets, and, as the victim's final cry broke louder than the rest, the door was flung open and the candle set flickering.
"Stop that!" cried a voice, directly behind Will, and the man turned to find the burly form of Peter Blunt filling the doorway.
But Will was beside himself with rage and hatred.
"Eh?" he demanded. "Who says to stop? He's the chicken-killer. I got him red-handed." He held up one of the boy's blood-stained hands.
"I don't care what he is. If you don't loose him instantly I'll throw you out of this shack." The big man's voice was calm, but his eyes were blazing.
Will released the boy, but only to turn fiercely upon the intruder.
"And who in thunder-are you to interfere?" he cried savagely.
Without a moment's hesitation Peter walked straight up to him. For a second he stood towering over him, eye to eye. Then he turned his back, and thrust out one great arm horizontally across the other's body, as though to warn him back while he spoke to Elia. There was nothing blustering in his attitude, nothing even forceful. There was a simplicity, a directness that was strangely compelling. And Will found himself obeying the silent command in spite of his fury.
"Get out, laddie," said Peter gently. "Get out, quick."
And in those moments while Will watched his prey hobbling to freedom, he remembered Eve and what it would mean if the story of his doings reached her.
As the boy vanished through the doorway Peter turned.
"Thanks, Will," he said, in his amiable way. "You'd far best let him go. When you hurt that boy you hurt Eve—ter'ble."
Swift protest leaped to Will's lips.
"But the chickens. He killed 'em. I caught him red-handed."
"Just so, Will," responded the big man easily. "He'll answer for it—somewhere. There's things we've been caught doing 'red-handed' by—some one. And we'll answer for 'em sure—somewhere."
THE "BOYS" OF THE VILLAGE
The saloon was well filled, and it was evident from the atmosphere pervading the place that something unusually welcome was afoot.
As a rule evenings spent in the saloon at Barnriff were not gatherings one would readily describe as being "gay." At least it would require a strong imagination to do so. A slight modification would be best. The Barnriff men were rarely lightsome, and when they disported themselves it was generally with a sombre sort of joy. That was their attitude just now. There was a peculiar earnestness about them, even in the fact of living. They seemed to be actuated by a deadly thoroughness which had a tendency to kill, not so much levity as lightness, and leave them mourning.
To-night such an atmosphere of sombre joy was prevailing. It was a similar attitude to that which they adopted on election day, Independence Day, at a funeral, or a wedding. It was the way anything out of the ordinary always affected them.
The fact of the matter was Doc Crombie, who was doctor, veterinary surgeon, horse dealer, and a sort of self-elected mayor of the place, was going to hold a meeting in the saloon. He was going to make a formal speech, and the speech was the point.
Now, if there was one thing Barnriff bowed the knee to it was the man who could, and would, make a speech. It had all the masses' love for oratory, and was as easily swayed by it as a crowd of ignorant political voters. Besides, Doc Crombie was a tried orator in Barnriff. He had addressed a meeting once before, and, speaking on behalf of a church mission, and asking for support of the cause, he had created a great impression by his stern denunciation of the ungodly life in Barnriff, and his flowery laudation of those who allowed themselves to respond to the call of "religion."
On that occasion he said with all the dignity and consequence of his position at the moment—
"It ain't your dogone dollars we want. It's your souls. D'you git that? An' when we've sure got 'em wot'll we do with 'em, you ast? Wal, I don't guess we're doin' a cannibal line o' business. Nor ain't we goin' to stuff 'em an' set 'em up as objec's o' ridicool to the ungodly hogs wot wallers in the swill o' no adulteratin' son-of-a-moose of a dealer in liver pizen. No, gents, that ain't us. We're goin' to save 'em. An' I personal guarantees that savin' racket goes. Did I hear any mangy son-of-a-coyote guess he didn't believe no such guarantee? No, an' I guess he best not. I'm a man of peace, as all knows in this yer city, but I'd hate to try an' shut out a blizzard in winter by stuffin' that gopher's perforated carkis under the doorjamb when I was thro' with it. I say right here we're out to save carkises—I mean souls. An', say, fellers, jest think. Gettin' your souls saved for a few measly cents. Ain't that elegant? No argyment, no kickin'. Them souls is jest goin' to be dipped, an' they'll come up white an' shinin' out of the waters of righteousness a sight cleaner than you ever got your faces at Christmas, washin' in Silas Rocket's hoss trough, even when his hoss soap was plenty. Think of it, fellers, and I speak speshul to you whiskey souses wot ain't breathed pure air sence you was let loose on the same gent's bowel picklin' sperrit. You'll get right to Meetin' on Sundays with your boots greased elegant, an' your pants darned reg'lar by your wimmin-folk wot's proud of yer, an' don't kick when you blow into a natty game o' 'draw.' You'll have your kids lookin' up at your fancy iled locks, an' your bow-tie, an' in their little minds they'll wonder an' wonder how it come your mouths ain't drippin' t'baccer juice, an' how they ain't got cow-hided 'fore the breakfast they mostly have to guess at, an' how it come you're leadin' them, 'stead o' them leadin' you, an' how their little bellies is blown out with grub like a litter o' prize hogs. Think of it, fellers, an' pass up your measly cents. It ain't the coin, it's the sperrit we want, an' when I think of all these yer blessin's I'm personal guaranteein' to the flower o' Barnriff's manhood I almost feel as though I wus goin' to turn on the hose pipe like a spanked kid."
He talked till he had half of Barnriff's "flower" blubbering, and he had emptied the last cent out of their pockets, and the mission was set on a sound financial basis. But as to his guarantee—well, the doctor was well understood by his fellow citizens, and no one was ever heard to question its fulfilment.
It was wonderful what a power of persuasion he had in Barnriff. But then he was an awe-inspiring figure, with his large luminous eyes and eagle cast of feature. And, too, words flowed from his lips like words from the pen of a yellow journal reporter, and his phraseology was almost as picturesque.
The boys were gathered waiting for him. There was anticipatory pleasure in their hang-dog faces. One of them almost laughed at a light sally from the cheery Gay, but luckily it was nipped in time by the interposition of the mean-minded Smallbones.
"I sez it right here, boys," the latter observed, leaning with his back against the bar, and speaking with the air of having just arrived at a grave decision. "Old Sally Morby hadn't no right to burry her man in oak. Now I ast you, Gay, as man to man, if you'd know'd we was goin' to be ast to ante up fer her grub stake, wot could you ha' done him handsome an' moderate fer?"
Gay squared his fat shoulders. For the moment he was important. Moments of importance are always precious, even in places like Barnriff.
"Wal, I can't rightly give it you down to cents without considerin' Restless some," he replied unctuously. "But we did Toby Randall slap-up in ash fer fifty odd dollars. Then ther' was Sadie O'Brien. We did her elegant in soft pine for twenty-eight odd. It 'ud sure have been twenty-five on'y fer her weight. Y'see the planks under her had to be two inch or she'd ha' fell through."
He produced his note-book and rapidly glanced over the greasy pages.
"Y'see," he observed, pausing at the entry he had been looking for, "Sally paid us a hundred an' forty-seven dollars an' seventy-five cents. I 'lows that's handsome fer buryin' a hop-headed skite like Charlie Morby was. But that wus her order, an' bein' a business man, an' takin' pride in my work, I sez to Restless, I sez, 'It's oak, boy, oak with silver plate trimmin's, an' a real elegant inscription to Charlie on it, tellin' folks o' virtues he didn't never handle when he was livin'.' He sure didn't deserve nothin' better than an apple bar'l, leavin' the head open so he had a chance to dodge the devil when he come along. An' I guess, knowin' Charlie, he'd 'a' given him an elegant run fer it."
"That's it," exclaimed Smallbones, peevishly. "That's it. She goes an' blows in her wad on a buzzock what ought to bin drownded in yaller mud, an' we've got to ante her grub stake. Psha! I ain't givin' a cent."
Lean Wilkes, the baker, was watching the trust schemer with baleful eye, and now his slow tongue evolved a pretty retort.
"No one sed you was—nor thought it likely."
"The duff puncher wakin' up," sneered Smallbones, angrily.
"Guess it's your voice hurtin' my ear drums," replied Jake, ponderously.
At that moment Abe Horsley joined the group. He called for drinks before adding his bit to the talk. He had an axe to grind and wanted a sympathetic audience. While Rocket, observing his customers with shrewd unfriendly eyes, set out the glasses and the accompanying bottles—he never needed to inquire what these men would take; he knew the tipple of every soul in Barnriff by heart—Abe opened out. He was unctuous and careful of his diction. He was Barnriff's lay-preacher, and felt that this attitude was "up to him."
"I do sure agree with the generality of opinion in this yer city," he said largely. "I consider that the largeness of heart for which our brothers in this important town—it has a great future, gentlemen, believe me; I mention this in parenthesis—are held in excellent esteem——" He broke off to nod to Jim Thorpe who entered the saloon at that moment—"should be—er fostered. I think, brethren—pardon me, 'gentlemen'—that we should give, and give liberally to Sally Morby, but—but I do not see why Doc Crombie should make the occasion the opportunity for a speech. Any of us could do it quite as well. Perhaps, who knows, some of us even better——"
"Smallbones," murmured the dissatisfied Wilkes, drinking his gin at a gulp.
"Yes, even Smallbones," shrugged Abe, sipping his whiskey.
Angel Gay bolted his whiskey and laid a gentle hand firmly on Horsley's shoulder.
"No," he said, "not Smallbones; not even Doc Crombie, both deadgut fellers sure. But you are the man, Abe. For elegance o' langwidge, an' flow—mark you—you—you are a born speaker, sure. Say, I believe that rye of Rocket's was in a gin bottle. It tasted like—like——"
"Have another?" suggested Abe, cordially.
"I won't say 'no,'" Gay promptly acquiesced.
But Rocket was serving drink to Jim Thorpe at one of the little poker tables on the far side of the room, and the butcher had to wait.
"How much are you givin'?" Smallbones inquired cautiously of Gay.
He was still worrying over the forthcoming demand on his charity. Gay Promptly puffed himself up.
"Wal," he said, with some dignity. "Y'see she's got six kiddies, each smaller nor the other. They mustn't starve for sure. Guess I'm givin' twenty-fi' dollars."
"Wot?" almost shrieked the disgusted Smallbones.
"Yes," said the butcher-undertaker coldly. "An' I ain't no trust magnate."
"That's right up to you, Smallbones," remarked Abe, passing his friend Gay his drink. "You'll natcherly give fifty."
But Abe's ponderous levity was too much for Smallbones.
"An' if I did it wouldn't be in answer to the hogwash preachin' you ladle out. Anyways I'll give as it pleases me."
"Then I guess them kiddies'll starve, sure," remarked Wilkes heavily.
How much further the ruffled tempers of these men might have been tried it is impossible to say, but at that moment a diversion was created by the advent of the redoubtable doctor. And it was easy to see at a glance how it was this man was able to sway the Barnriff crowd. He was an aggressive specimen of unyielding force, lean, but powerful of frame, with the light of overwhelming determination in a pair of swift, bright eyes.
He glanced round the vast dingy bar-room. There were two tables of poker going in opposite corners of the room, and a joyous collection of variegated uncleanness "bucking" a bank in another corner. Then there was the flower of Barnriff propping up the bar like a row of daisies in a window box—only they lacked the purity of that simple flower. He stepped at once to the centre of the room.
"Boys," he said in a hoarse, rasping voice, "I'm in a hurry. Guess natur' don't wait fer nuthin' when she gits busy on matters wot interest her; an' seein' Barnriff needs all the population that's comin' to it with so energetic a funeral maker as our friend, Angel Gay, around, I'll git goin'. I'm right here fer dollars fer pore Sally Morby. She's broke, dead broke, an' she's got six kiddies, all with their pore little bellies flappin' in the wind for want of a squar' feed. Say, I ain't hyar to git gassin', I ain't hyar to make flowery talk fer the sake o' them pore kiddies. I'm here to git dollars, an' I'm goin' to git 'em. Cents won't do. Come on. Ther's six pore kiddles, six pore lone little kiddies with their faces gapin' fer food like a nest o' unfledged chicks in the early frosts o' spring. Now every mother's son o' you 'ante' right here. Natur' busy or no natur' busy, I don't quit till you've dipped into your wads. Now you, Smallbones," he cried, fixing the little man with his desperate eyes. "How much?"
Every eye was on the trust manipulator. He hated it. He hated them all, but Doc Crombie most of all. But the tall, lean man was impatient. He knew it was a race between him and a baby in a distant quarter of the village.
"How much?" he threatened the hesitating man.
"A dollar," Smallbones muttered in the midst of profound silence. Even the chips of the poker players had ceased to rattle.
A faint light of amusement crept into every eye, every eye except the doctor's.
Suddenly his lean figure pounced forward and stood before the beflustered speaker.
"I said 'how much?'" he rasped, "'cause Barnriff knows its manners. Wal, the social etiquette o' Barnriff is satisfied, so I ken talk straight. Say, you an' me have piled a tidy heap in this yer city, so I guess you're goin' to match my hundred dollars right here. An' I tel you squar', an' I'm a man o' my word, if you don't you'll get a bath in Rocket's hoss-trough which'll do you till the next Presidential Election—if it pizens every hoss for miles around Barnriff. Guess I'll take that hundred dollars."
And he did. The furious Smallbones "weighed out" amid a circle of smiles, which suddenly seemed to light up the entire bar-room. Nor had he a single spoken word of protest. But he yielded himself up to the demands of the masterful doctor only to save himself the ducking he was certain awaited his refusal.
The rest was play to Doc Crombie. As he had pointed out, Barnriff's social demands had been satisfied by his giving Smallbones the option of stating the amount of his contribution, and, as the result had not come up to requirements, he dispensed with further delicacy, and assessed each man present with the cool arbitrariness of a Socialist Chancellor. But in this case the process was not without justification. He knew just how much each man could afford, and he took not one cent more—or less.
This fact was exampled when he came to Jim's table. Jim looked up from his cards. He understood Crombie.
"Well, Doc," he said, "how much?"
Crombie eyed him with shrewd amusement.
"Wal, Jim, I'll take on'y ten dollars from you, seein's your contrac's out for buildin', an' you need ev'rything that's comin' your way."
Jim laughed. It was a boisterous laugh that had little mirth in it.
"Guess I'll treble that," he said. "I've cut the contract."
But the laugh had irritated the doctor.
"I'll take ten from you;" he said, with an incisive clipping of his teeth. "Not a cent more, nor a cent less."
And Jim yielded to him promptly. The doctor passed on. Neither he nor those around him had understood the bitter humor underlying Jim's laugh. Only, perhaps, Peter Blunt, who had entered the room with Will Henderson a moment or two before, and whose sympathetic ears had caught the sound, could possibly have interpreted it aright.
The "whip round" was completed, and the doctor read out the total. Five hundred and forty dollars was to be handed over to the widow, to ease the burden Fate had inflicted upon her. And it said something for the big hearts of this prairie folk, that, in the large majority at least, the memory of their charity left them with the departure of the doctor to complete his race with Nature at the far extremity of the village.
The saloon settled down to its evening's entertainment as though nothing unusual had happened. The majority gathered into various games of "draw," for which the great room was half filled with small tables. The few that resisted the seductive charms of the national card game continued to support the bar. Of these, Smallbones only remained long enough to air his spleen at the doctor's expense. But even he found it incumbent upon him to modify his tone. For one thing he received an unmerciful baiting from his companions, and besides, he knew, if he allowed his tongue to riot too far, how easy it would be for his denunciation to reach the strenuous doctor's ears. Gay and Wilkes left shortly after the trust magnate, and soon Abe Horsley was forced to seek a fresh gossip. He found one in Will Henderson, as soon as Peter Blunt had moved away to watch the games at the tables. Will's mood at the moment suited the lay-preacher. He wanted to drink, and Abe was possessed of a chronic thirst.
So, with the exception of these two, Silas Rocket, ever rapacious for custom, was left free to see that the games did not detract from the men's drinking powers. He had an eye like a hawk for possible custom. Wherever there was a big pot just won his rasping voice was always at the elbow of the winner, with his monotonous "Any drinks, gents?" If a table was slow to require his services he never left it alone. He drove the men at it to drink in self-defense. It was a skilful display—though not as uncommon as one might think, even in the best restaurants in a big metropolis.
So the night wore on. Every man drank. They drank when they won. They drank when they lost. In the former case it was out of the buoyancy of their spirits, in the latter because they wished to elevate them. Whatever excuse they required they found, and when difficulty in that direction arose, there was always Silas Rocket on hand to coax them.
Jim, huddled away in a corner behind the great stove used for heating the place in winter, was busy with his game. He had shown no recognition of Will Henderson's coming. He had probably seen him, because, though hidden from it himself, he had a full view of the bar, and any time he looked up, his eyes must have encountered the two figures now left alone beside it.
He was drinking, and drinking hard. He was also losing. The cards were running consistently against him. But then, he was always an unlucky player. He rarely protested against it, for in reality he had little interest in the play, and to-night less than usual. He played because it saved him thinking or talking, and he wanted to sit there and drink until Silas turned them out. Then he intended returning to the ranch. He meant to have one night's forgetfulness, at least, even if he had to stupefy his senses in bad whiskey.
Abe and Will had reached the confidential stage. They were full of friendliness for each other, and ready to fall on each other's necks. For some time Will had desired an opportunity to open his heart to this man. He would have opened it to anybody. His Celtic temperament was a fire of enthusiasm. He felt that all the world was his, and he wanted to open his arms and embrace it. But so far Abe had given him little opportunity. His own voice pleased the lay-preacher, and he had orated on every subject from politics to street-paving, giving his companion little chance for anything but monosyllabic comments. But finally Will's chance came. Abe had abruptly questioned the propriety of permitting marriage in their village, where the burden of keeping the offspring of the union was likely to fall upon the public shoulders. Will plunged into the midst of the man's oratory, and would not be denied.
"Marriage," he said, "is not for regulation by law. No one has the right," he declared, with an emphatic thump on the bar, "to dictate to the individual on the subject." He went on at high pressure in a heated crescendo for some moments, denouncing any interference by public bodies. Then of a sudden he laid a hand on Abe's shoulder and abruptly dropped his voice to a confidential whisper. His eyes were smiling and shining with the feelings which stirred him. Everything was forgotten except the fact of his engagement to Eve. Jim was obscured from his mental vision by the uplifting spirit vapors which supported his thoughts. Eve, and Eve alone, was in his mind, that—and the fact that she was to be—his.
"Listen to me, Abe," he said, a little thickly. "All this talk of yours don't hold water—no, nor spirit either," he laughed. "Say, I'm goin' to get married, and so I know."
Quite how he knew didn't seem clear; but he paused for the impression. Abe whistled interestedly and edged nearer, turning his ear so as not to miss what the youngster had to say.
"Who?" he demanded.
"A-ah!" Will prolonged the exclamation knowingly, and waited for the man to guess.
"You wus allus sweet on Eve Marsham—you and Jim Thorpe."
Will suddenly ceased to smile. He drank his whiskey at a gulp and banged his glass on the counter.
"By G——!" he exclaimed harshly, while Abe wondered at his changed tone. "Yes, it's Eve—Eve Marsham; and I'm going to marry her—not Jim. D'you git that? By heaven!—yes. Here, Rocket——!" He lurched round on the bar. "Here, you old Sky-Rocket, get drinks, quick! For everybody! I'll pay! See, here's the wad," and he slammed a thick roll of bills on the counter. "I've got money, sure, and I'm—hic—goin' to burn it. Boys," he cried, swinging about and facing the tables, supporting himself against the bar, "you'll drink with me. Si—Silas here'll take your orders, an' serve you. You, too, Abe, ole pal."
Jim looked up from his cards the moment Will addressed the room, and now he watched him swaying against the bar. The light in his dark eyes was peculiar. He seemed to be speculating, and his thoughts were uneasy. Will yawned drunkenly. Peter Blunt, from across the room, was watching Jim, and moved abruptly clear of the tables, but not ostentatiously so.
Will's eyes watched Silas passing round the drinks. He was smiling in the futile manner of a drunken man, and his fingers were clutching nervously at the moulded edge of the bar. Rocket came back and handed him and Abe their whiskey. The former promptly clutched his glass and raised it aloft, spilling the neat spirit as he did so. Then, with drunken solemnity, he called for order.
"Boys," he cried, "you'll—you'll drink a to—toast. Sure you will. Every one of you'll drink it. My fu—sher wife, Eve—Eve Marsham. Jim Th—Thorpe thought he'd best—me, but——"
A table was suddenly sent flying in the crowd. A man's figure leaped out from behind the stove and rushed up to the speaker. It was Jim Thorpe. His eyes were blazing, and a demon of fury glared out upon the drunken man.
"Another word, and I'll shoot you like a dog! You liar! You thieving——!"
But his sentence was never completed. Peter Blunt stood between them, one of his great hands gripping Jim's arm like a vice.
"Shut up!" he cried, in a hoarse whisper. "You'll have the whole story all over the village."
But the mischief was done. Everybody present was on their feet agog with excitement, and came gathering round to see the only possible finish to the scene, as they understood it. But, quick as lightning, Peter took in the situation. Flinging Jim aside as though he were a baby, he hugged the drunken Will Henderson in his two great arms, and carried him bodily out of the saloon.
The men looked after him wondering. Then some one laughed. It was an odd, dissatisfied laugh, but it had the effect of relieving the tension. And one by one they turned back to Jim, who was standing moodily leaning on the bar; his right hand was still resting on the gun on his hip.
There was a moment of suspense. Then Jim's hand left the gun, and he straightened himself up. He tried to smile, but the attempt was a failure.
"I'm sorry for upsetting your game, boys," he said stupidly.
Then Rocket came effectively to the rescue.
"Gents," he cried, "you'll all honor me by drinkin' with the house."
A WOMAN'S CARE
"He's right now, Eve, dear—right as right. He'll sleep till morning, and then he'll wake up, an'—an' forget about being ill."
It was not so much the words as the tone that brought comfort to Eve. She was leaning over her brother's bed watching the beautiful face, so waxen now, and listening to his heavy breathing, which was steadily moderating to a normal ease. The boy was sleeping the result of a dose administered to him by Doc Crombie who had been urgently summoned immediately after winning his race with Nature in another part of the village. Elia had been prostrated with a nervous attack which ended in a terrible fit, and Eve, all unaware of what had gone before between her brother and Will, had been hard put to it, in her grief and anxiety.
When the boy first showed signs of illness she sent for Mrs. Gay to find the doctor, and the bright, busy little woman was still with her. Annie Gay was quite the antithesis of her husband. She was practical, energetic and, above all things, bright. She was quite young and pretty, and Eve and she were considerable friends. She answered the girl's summons without a moment's delay, and, to her utmost distress, when she arrived, she found Elia in a fierce paroxysm of convulsions.
"You think so, Annie?" Eve's eyes lifted hungrily to her friend's face. They were full of almost painful yearning. This boy's welfare meant more to her than any one knew.
Annie took her arm, and gently drew her from the bedside, nodding her pretty head sagely.
"Sure." Then she added with a great assumption of knowledge, "You see those weakly creatures like poor Elia have got a lot o' life in them. You can't kill 'em. Angel allus says that, an' he's sure to know. Elia's body ain't worth two cents as you might say, but he's got—what's the word—vi—vi——"
"Vitality," suggested Eve.
"Yes, sure. That's it. Now he'll just sleep and sleep. And then he'll be bully when he wakes. So come you and sit down while I make you a drop of hot coffee. Pore girl, you're wore out. There's no end to the troubles o' this world for sure," she added cheerfully, as she hustled off to the kitchen to get the promised coffee.
Eve sat down in her workroom. She was comforted in spite of herself. Annie Gay's manner was of an order that few could resist; it was illogical, and, perhaps, foolishly optimistic, yet it had that blessed quality of carrying conviction to all who were fortunate enough to lean on her warm, strong heart. And on Eve she practiced her best efforts.
But Eve's anxiety only lay dormant for the time. It was still there gnawing at her heart. She knew the danger of the fits Elia was subject to and a brooding thought clung to her that one day one of these would prove fatal. The least emotion, the least temper, fear, excitement, brought them on. This one—it was the worst she had known. Supposing he had died—she shuddered. Like a saving angel Annie reentered with the coffee in time to interrupt her thoughts.
"Now, dear, you drink this at once," she said. Then she went on, in response to a mute inquiry, "Oh, yes, there's plenty here for me. And when I come back I'm going to make some more, and cook a nice light supper, while you watch the boy, and we can sit here together with his door open until morning."
"But you're not going to stop, Annie," Eve protested. "I can't have that. You must get your sleep. It's very kind of you——"
"Now look right here, Eve," the busy woman said decidedly, "you've got nothing to say about it, please. Do you think I could sleep in my bed with you fretting and worrying your poor, simple heart out? What if he woke up in the night an'—an' had another? Who's to go and fetch Doc? Now wot I says is duty's duty, and Angel Gay can just snore his head off by himself for once, and I'm not sure but what I shall be glad to be shut of the noise."
The genuine sympathy and kindliness were quite touching, and Eve responded to it as only a woman can.
"Annie," she said, with a wistful smile, "you are the kindest, dearest thing——"
"Now don't you call me a 'thing,' Eve Marsham," the other broke in with a laugh, "or we'll quarrel. I'm just a plain woman with sense enough to say nothing when Gay gets home with more whiskey aboard than is good for his vitals. And don't you think I'm not putting a good value on myself when I say that. Not that Gay's given to sousing a heap. No, he's a good feller, sure, an' wouldn't swap him for—for your Will—on'y when he snores. So you see it's a kindness to me letting me stop to-night."
"You're a dear," Eve cried warmly,—"and I won't say 'thing.' Where are you going now?"
"Why, I'm going to set Angel's cheese an' pickles, and put his coffee on the stove. If he's to home when I get around, maybe I'll sit with him ten minutes or so, an' then I'll come right along back."
She had reached the door, which stood open, and now she paused, looking back.
"When are you gettin' married, Eve?" she demanded abruptly.
"Two months to-day," the other replied. She was surprised out of herself, and for a moment a warm glow swept over her as she realized that there was something still in the world which made for other than unhappiness.
"Two months," said Annie, thoughtfully. "Two months, eh?" Then she suddenly became mysterious and smiled into the other's face. "That'll be nice time for Gay to think about something that ain't—a coffin."
She hurried out on her mission of duty and affection. Gay was her all, but she had room in her heart for a good deal more than the worthy butcher-undertaker's great, fat image. She had no children of her own yet, but, as she often said, in her cheery, optimistic way, "time enough."
It was her attitude toward all things, and it carried her through life a heaven-sent blessing to all those who could number her amongst their friends. To Eve she had certainly been all this and more, for when a woman, alone in the world, is set the appalling task of facing the struggle for existence which is called Life, without the necessary moral and physical equipment for such a battle, the support of a strong heart generously given surely becomes the very acme of all charity.
After drinking her coffee, Eve went to the open door and stood looking out upon the village. It was a warm summer night, and the scent of the prairie was strong upon the air. As yet Barnriff was neither large enough, nor shut in enough by its own buildings to hold to itself that stale, stifling atmosphere which cities obtain. The air was the pure breath which swept over the vast green rollers of the grass world in the midst of which it stood.
The velvet heavens, clad in their perfect tinsel of a glorious night, spread a softness over the world upon which she gazed. An odd light or two twinkled from a tiny window here and there; and, then, like a vulgar centerpiece, the lights of the saloon stared out harshly. There was no moon, but the mellow sheen of the stars hid the roughness from the mind, and conveyed an added peace.
The girl breathed a deep sigh. It was an expression of relief, of something almost like content. And it told of what Annie Gay's coming had meant to her. As though suddenly released from an insufferable burden her heart cheered, and hope told her that her brother would recover; and, in her relief, she gazed up at the starlit sky and thanked the great God who controlled those billions of sparkling worlds.
With each passing moment her mood lightened, and her thoughts inevitably turned upon those happier things which had been nearly obscured. She was thinking of Will, and wondering what he was doing. Was he in bed? Was he sleeping and dreaming of her? Or was he awake and thinking of their love, planning for their joint future? Her eyes drifted in the direction of his old hut, where she knew he was to pass the night. It was in darkness. Yes, he was a-bed, she told herself. Then she smiled. An idea had flashed through her mind. Should she walk over to the hut, and—and listen at the open window for the sound of his breathing?
Her smile brought with it a blush of modesty, and the idea passed. Then with its going her eyes turned away, and, suddenly, they became fixed upon the indistinct outline of the gate in the fencing of her vegetable patch. She could just make out the figure of a man standing on the far side of it. For the moment the joyous thought that it was Will came to her. Then she negatived the idea. The outline was too large. She thought for a moment, and then, in a low voice, called the man by name.
"Peter? That you?"
The gate opened, and the man's heavy tread came up the narrow path.
"Yes," he said, as he came. "I was just passing, and I thought I saw you in the doorway." He had reached the house, and with Eve standing on the door-sill, his rugged face was on a level with hers. "You're kind of late up, Eve," he went on doubtfully. "That's what made me stop. There's nothing amiss with—Elia?" he asked, shrewdly.
It was by no means a haphazard question. He knew what the lad had been through that night. He knew, too, the boy's peculiar nervous temperament and its possibilities.
"What makes you ask?" Eve retorted sharply. She knew something must have happened to the boy, and was wondering if Peter knew what it was. "Why should Elia be ill?"
Peter scratched his rough, gray head. His mild, blue eyes twinkled gently in the lamplight from within the house.
"Well, seeing you were up—— But there, I'm glad it's nothing. I'll pass on." Then he added: "You see, when a pretty girl gets standing in the doorway late at night—and such a lovely summer night—and she's just—just engaged, I don't guess she wants the company of six foot three of a misspent life. Good-night, Eve, my dear. My best congratulations."
But the girl wanted him. Now he was here she wanted to talk to him particularly.
"Don't go, Peter," she said. "Something is the matter with Elia. He is ill—very ill. He's had the worst fit I've ever known him to have, and—and I don't know if he's going to pull round when he wakes up. He was out late this evening, and I don't know where he's been, or—or what happened to him while he was out. Something must have happened to him. I mean something to upset him—either to anger him, or to terrify him. I wish I knew. It would help me perhaps when he wakes."
Peter's smile had gone. His eyes were full of sympathy. There was also a shadow of trouble in them, too. But Eve did not see it, or, if she did, her understanding was at fault. They stood there for some moments in silence, he so massive yet so gentle, she so slight and pretty, yet so filled with a concern which harassed her mind and heart. Peter was thinking very hard, and though he could have told her all she wanted to know, though his great heart ached for her at the knowledge which was his, he refrained from saying a word that could have betrayed the boy's secret, and the hideous aspect he had witnessed of the man she was going to marry.
"You had the Doc to him?" he inquired.
"Yes, oh yes. Doc dosed him to make him sleep. Annie Gay's been with me helping."
"Ah, she's a good woman."
"Yes, she's more than that. She's as near an angel as human nature will let her be." Then Eve abruptly changed her tone, and it became almost appealing. "Tell me, Peter, what do you think could have happened to Elia? I mean, to shock him so. I've tried and tried, but I can't think—nor can Annie. You know all the boys, you go amongst them, you may have heard?"
But Peter was ready, and answered her with such simple sincerity that she could not question him further.
"I guess, Eve, if the boy has had any trouble, or shock, he'll tell you of it when he wakes—if he wants you to know. I don't reckon if I did know that I'd have a right to speak while he—he was asleep. I say—if I did know."
"I see." Then the girl smiled up into his face a little whimsically. "You men have a curious code of honor in your dealings with each other. Quite different to us women."
"Yep," he said, "we haven't the same perspective."
The eastern horizon was lighting with a golden shadow and the sky-line was faintly silhouetted against it. It was the soft, effulgent light which heralded the full, rising moon. Eve watched it in silence for some moments. Peter followed the direction of her eyes while he went on speaking.
"When are you getting married, Eve?"
The question came hesitatingly.
"Then you know. Of course you know. You always seem to know, and yet you don't seem to nose about like Anthony Smallbones. I'm going to be married in two months."
The man's mild eyes were kept intently fixed on the lightening horizon.
"Two months," he said, pondering. "And Elia? What of him?"
The girl started. She turned on him, and her pretty eyes were wide with astonishment.
"It will make no difference," she said, with a sudden coldness she could not have accounted for. "What do you mean?"
Peter's great shoulders shrugged.
"Why, nothing," he said. "It kind of seemed a natural question."
The tone brought immediate contrition to the girl's warm heart. This man was always kind to her. It would have been difficult to remember a single week since she had lived in Barnriff which had not witnessed at least one small kindness from him. Her eyes wandered over her garden. He had not long finished digging it over for her.
"Of course it was a natural question," she exclaimed, "only I—well, it doesn't seem to me as if there could be any question about Elia. Wherever I am, he will be."
"Just so, just so. He'll still live with you—you and Will. Y'see, I was only thinking. If—if you wanted a home for him for a while, while you and Will were—honeymooning, now. Why, he'd be real welcome in my shack. He'd want for nothing, and I'd look after him same as—well, not perhaps as well as you could, but I'd do my best. Y'see, Eve, I like the boy. And, and his very weakness makes me want to help him. You know he'd get good food. I'm rather particular about my food, and I cook it myself. He'd have eggs for breakfast, and good bacon, not sow-belly. And there's no hash in my shanty. The best meat Gay sells, and he could have all the canned truck he liked. Oh, I'd feed him well. And I've always got a few dollars for pocket money. Y'see, Eve, folks honeymooning don't want a third party around, even if he's a sick boy. I'd take it a real favor if you said 'yes,' I would, true. I can look after——"
The man felt one of her warm hands squeezing his arm with the tenderest pressure. There was a moisture in her eyes as she sought his, but she shook her head.
"Peter, Peter, I don't know where you come from, I don't know why you're here, unless it is to help us all to be better folks. I know why you want to take Elia off my hands. I know, and the matter has troubled me some. Elia doesn't like Will. I know that. But Elia is my care, he's more—he's my life. He will be with me as long as we both live, even—yes, even if I had to give Will up. I can't tell you, Peter, what my poor weakly brother is to me. If anything happened to him I think it would break my heart. And it seems so strange to me that everybody, that is everybody but Jim Thorpe and you, dislikes him. Even Will does a little, I—I'm afraid."
"Yes. You can't say how it is," Peter nodded. "But folks can't be blamed for their likes and dislikes. Maybe Will will get over it. Y'see he's just a wild sort of Irish boy. He's just quicksilver. Yes, yes, he'll maybe grow to be as fond of the lad as you, Eve. But any time you find you'd like me to have him for a bit—I mean—sort of—two's company, you know—you'll just be making me a happy man—eh?"
It was a cheery voice behind him that caused his exclamation. Annie Gay stepped briskly up the path.
"Why, it's Peter!" she declared. "Now if it had been Will," she added slyly. "But there, young engaged girls think they're safe from scandalous tongues like mine. Going, Peter? I've just been down to the meat store and stolen an elegant bit of tripe. Now, if Eve's only sensible and got some onions, why there's a lunch fit for the President."
"Oh yes, I've got onions," Eve reassured her. Then she turned to the man. "Good-bye, Peter," she said, as he edged away, "and thank you——"
But Peter would have no thanks.
"No thanks, Eve, I'd take it a favor."
And he vanished in the darkness leaving Annie looking at Eve, who instantly began to explain as they went indoors.
"He thinks Elia will be in the way when Will and I are married," she said. "He wants to look after him. Isn't he kind?"
"Well?" Annie's merry eyes were deadly serious.
"Of course I couldn't think of it. I could never let him go. I——"
"Eve Marsham, you're a—fool, and now I've said it. Do you know why Peter wants——?"
She broke off in confusion. But she had successfully aroused Eve's curiosity.
"Well? Go on," she demanded.
But Annie shook a decided head.
"It don't matter. I was only thinking my own thoughts, and they began one way and finished another."
"How did they finish?" Annie's manner was quaintly amusing and Eve found herself smiling.
"I'd just called you a fool, an'—I'd forgot to include myself."
Nor could she be induced to speak further on the matter.
AN EVIL NIGHT
Peter lumbered heavily away from the house. He had known the futility of his request beforehand. Yet he had to make it even on the smallest chance. And now, more than ever, in spite of his disappointment, he saw how imperative it was that some one should stand by to help any one of these three. Old "saws" were not for him. The world-old advice to the would-be interferer might be for those of less thought, less tact. Besides, he had no intention of interfering. He only meant to "stand by." That was the key-note of his whole nature, his whole life.
And the night had revealed so much to him. His horizon was bounded by storm-clouds threatening unconscious lives. There they were banking, banking, low down, so as to be almost invisible, and he knew that they were only waiting a favoring breeze to mount up into the heavens into one vast black mass. And then the breaking of the storm. His calm brain was for once feverishly at work. Those three must somehow be herded to shelter; and he wondered how. His first play had proved abortive, and now he wondered.
It was his intention to return to his hut for the night, and he stood for a moment contemplating the dark village. His busy thoughts decided for him that there was nothing further to be done to-night. He told himself that opportunity must be his guide in the riddle with which he was confronted. He must rush nothing, and he felt, somehow, that the opportunity would come. He turned his eyes in the direction of his home, and as he was about to move off he became aware of a footstep crossing the market-place toward him. He waited. The sound came from the direction of the saloon, and, as he gazed that way, he saw the lights in the building go out one by one. The person approaching was one of the "boys" homeward bound.
He was half inclined to continue on his way and thus avoid the probably drunken man, but something held him, and a moment later he was glad when he saw the figure of Jim Thorpe loom up. As they came into view of each other Thorpe hesitated. Nor was it till he recognized the huge outline of Peter that he came close up.
"That you, Peter?" he said.
And Peter, listening, recognized that Jim was sober.
"Yes," he replied, "just going home."
There was a brief pause after that, and both men were thinking of the same thing. It was of the scene recently enacted at the saloon. Peter was the one to break the silence, and he ignored that which was in his thoughts.
"Goin' to the ranch on foot, and by way of Eve's shack," he said in his gently humorous fashion.
"Ye-es," responded Jim after a moment's thought. Then he added with a conscious laugh, "My 'plug' is back there at Rocket's tie-post, waiting, saddled." Then he went on, becoming suddenly earnest. "Peter, I'm going for good. That is, I'm going to quit McLagan's, and get out. You see, I just wanted to have a look at her shack—for the last time. I—I don't feel I can go without that. She won't see me, and——"
"Sort of final look round before you quit the—sinking ship, eh?"
The quiet seriousness of the big man's tone sounded keenly incisive in the stillness of the dark night. Jim started, and hot blood mounted to his head. He had been through so much that day that his nerves were still on edge.
"What d'ye mean?" he demanded sharply. "Who's deserting a sinking ship—where's the sinking ship?"
Peter pointed back at Eve's home.
"There," he said.
But Jim shook his head.
"I've drunk a lot to-day. Maybe my head's not clear. Maybe——"
Peter's voice broke in.
"It doesn't need much clearness to understand, if you know all the facts. I'm not going to tell all I've seen and heard to-day either. But I'm going to say a few words to you, Jim, because I know you and like you, and because, in spite of a few cranks in your head, you're a man. Just now you're feeling reckless. Nothing much matters to you. You're telling yourself that there's no particular reason keeping straight. You have no interest, and when the end comes you'll just shut out your lights and—well, there's nothing more to it. That's how you're thinking."
"And what's my thoughts to do with quitting a sinking ship?" Jim asked a trifle impatiently. "I don't deny you're likely right. I confess I don't see that there's much incentive to—well, to stick to a straight and narrow course. I'll certainly strike a gait of my own, and I don't know that it'll be a slow one. It'll be honest though. It'll be honest as far as the laws of man go. As for the other laws, well, they're for my personal consideration as far as my life is concerned. But this sinking ship. I'd like to know."
"You love Eve?" Peter abruptly demanded.
"For G——'s sake, what are you driving at?"
"You love her?" Peter's demand would admit of no avoidance.
"Better than my life."
Jim's answer was deep down in his voice; his whole soul was in his reply.
"Then don't quit McLagan's, boy," Peter went on earnestly. "Don't quit Barnriff. Jim, boy, you can't have her, but you can help her to happiness by standing by. I'm going to stand by, too, for she's going to need all the help we can both give her."
"But how can I 'stand by' with Will—her husband?"
"You must stand by because he's her husband."
"Jim, can't you try to forget things where he's concerned? Can't you try to forget that shooting match and its result? Can't you? Think well. Can't you, outwardly at least, make things up with him? It'll help to keep him right, and help toward her happiness. Jim, I ask you to do this for her sake, lad. I know what you don't know, and I can't tell you. It's best I don't tell you. It would do worse than no good. You say you love her better than life. Well, boy, if Eve's to be made happy we must help to keep Will right. He's got a devil in him somewhere, and anything that goes awry with him sets that devil raging. Are you going to help Eve, Jim?"
It was some moments before any answer was forthcoming. It was the old battle going on of the man against himself. All that was human in Jim was tearing him in one direction, while his better side—his love for Eve—was pulling him in the opposite. He hated Will now. He had given way in this direction completely. The man's final outrage at the saloon had killed his last grain of feeling for him. And now he was called upon to—outwardly, at least—take up his old attitude toward him, a course that would help Will to give the woman he had robbed him of the happiness which he himself was not allowed to bestow. Was ever so outrageous a demand upon a man? He laughed bitterly, and aloud.
"No, no, Peter; it can't be done. I'm no saint. I'd hate to be a saint. Will can go hang—he can go to the devil! And I say that because I love Eve better than all else in the world."
"And the first sacrifice for that love you refuse?"
"Yes. I refuse to give my friendship to Will."
"You love her, yet you will not help her to happiness?"
"She shall never lack for happiness through me."
Peter smiled in the darkness. A sigh of something like satisfaction escaped him. He knew that, in spite of the man's spoken refusal, his appeal was not entirely unavailing.
"You won't leave McLagan's then?" he said.
"Not if Eve needs me."
But Jim became suddenly impatient.
"For G——'s sake, man, can't you speak out?"
"For Eve's sake, I won't," was the quiet rejoinder.
"Then, Peter, I'm going right on to the ranch now. I'll remain. But, remember, I am no longer a friend of Will's—and never will be again. I'll never even pretend. But if I can help Eve you can call on me. And—I put no limit on the hand I play. So long."
A WEDDING-DAY IN BARNRIFF
If signs and omens meant anything at all, Eve Marsham and Will Henderson were about to embark on a happy and prosperous married life. So said the women of Barnriff on the day fixed for the wedding. The feminine heart of Barnriff was a superstitious organ. It loved and hugged to itself its belief in forebodings and portents. It never failed to find the promise of disaster or good-fortune in the trivialities of its daily life. It was so saturated with superstition that, on the morning of the wedding, every woman in the place was on the lookout for some recognized sign, and, finding none, probably invented one.
And the excitement of it all. The single-minded, wholesome delight in the thought of this wedding was as refreshing as the crisp breezes of a first bright spring day. To a woman they reveled in the thought. It was the first wedding actually to take place in the village for over seven years. Everybody marrying during that period had elected to seek the consummation of their happiness elsewhere. And as a consequence of this enthusiasm, there was a surplus of help in getting the meeting-room suitably clad for the occasion, and the preparations for the "sociable" and dance which were to follow the ceremony.
Was there ever such a day in Barnriff? the women asked each other. None of them remembered one. Then look at the day itself. True it was the height of summer; but then who had not seen miserable weather in summer? Look at the sun gleaming out of a perfect azure.
Mrs. Crombie, a florid dame of adequate size, if of doubtful dignity to fill her position as spouse of Barnriff's first citizen, dragged Mrs. Horsley, the lay preacher's wife, through the door of the Mission Room, in which, with the others, they were both working at the decorations, to view the sky.
"Look at it, my dear!" she cried enthusiastically. "Was there ever a better omen for the poor dear? Not a cloud anywhere. Not one. And it's deep blue, too; none of your steel blues, or one of them fady blues running to white. Say, ain't she lucky? Now, when Crombie took me the heavens was just pouring. Everybody said 'Tears' prompt enough, and with reason. That's what they said. But me and Crombie has never shed a tear; no, not one. We've just laffed our way clear through to this day, we have. Well, I won't say Crombie does a heap of laffing, but you'll take my meaning."
And Carrie Horsley took it. She would have agreed to anything so long as she could get a chance to empty her reservoirs of enthusiasm into the Barnriff sea.
"You sure are a lucky woman, Kate. Maybe the rain wasn't an omen for you at all. Maybe it was for the folks that didn't marry on that day. You see, it's easy reading these things wrong. Now I never read omens wrong, an' the one I see this morning when I was bathin' my little Sammy boy was dead sure. You see, I got to bathe him every morning for his spots, which is a heap better now. And I'm real glad, for Abe has got them spots on his mind. He guessed it was my blood out of order. Said I needed sulphur in my tea. I kicked at that, an' said he'd need to drink it, too. An', as he allowed he'd given up tea on account of his digestion, nothing come of it. Of course I knew Sammy boy's spots was on'y a teething rash, but men is so queer; spechully if the child's the first, and a boy. Now what——"
"And the omen, dear?" inquired Mrs. Crombie, who had all a woman's interest in babies, but was just then ensnared in the net of superstition which held all Barnriff.
"The omen? Oh, yes, I was coming to that. You see, as I said I can read them, an' this is one that never fails, never. I've proved it. When you prove an omen, stick to it, I says—and it pays. Now, this morning I set my stockings on the wrong—ahem—legs, and not one, but both of them was inside out. There's bad luck, as you might say. And folks say that to escape it you must keep 'em that ways all day. But I changed 'em! Yes, mam, I changed 'em right in the face of misfortune, as you might say. And why? you ask. Because I've done it before, and nothing come of it. And how did I change 'em? you ask. Why, I stood to my knees in Sammy's bath water, an' then told Abe I'd got my feet wet bathing him. He says change 'em right away, Carrie, he says, and, him being my man, why I just changed 'em, seein' I swore to obey him at the altar."
"Very wise," observed Kate Crombie, sapiently. "But this omen for Eve——?"
"To be sure. I was just coming to it. Well, it wasn't much, as you might say, but I've proved it before. It come when I was ladling out Abe's cereal—he always has a cereal for breakfast. He says it eases his tubes when he preaches for the minister—well, it come as I was ladling out his cereal; it was oatmeal porridge, Scotch—something come over me, an' my arm shook. It was most unusual. Well, some of the cereal dropped right on to the floor. Kate Crombie, that porridge dropped, an' when I looked there was a ring on the floor, a ring, my dear. A wedding-ring of porridge, as you might say. Did I call Abe's attention to it? I says, 'Abe,' I says, 'look!' He looked. And not getting my meaning proper, he says, 'Call the dog an' let him lick it up!' With that I says, 'Abe, ain't you got eyes?' And he being slow in some things guessed he had. Then seeing I was put about some, he says, 'Carrie,' he says, 'what d'ye mean?' I see he was all of a quiver then, and feeling kind of sorry for his ignorance I just shrugged at him. 'Marriage bed!' says I. 'And,' I says, feeling he hadn't quite got it, 'in Barnriff.' If that wasn't Eve's good luck, why, I ask you."
"And when you were bathing——"
"Oh, that—that was another," Carrie replied hastily. "I'll tell you——"
But Kate heard herself called away at that moment, and hurried back into the hall. Her genius for administration was the ruling power in the work of decoration, and the enthusiasm of the helpers needed her controlling hand to get the work done by noon, which was the time fixed for the wedding.
But omen was the talk everywhere; it was impossible to avoid it. Every soul in the place had her omen. Jane Restless had a magpie. That very morning the bird had stolen a leaden plummet belonging to Restless and carried it to her cage, where she promptly set to work to hatch it out. And she fought when Zac went to take it away. She made such a racket when it was gone that Jane was sorry, and picked out a small chicken's egg and put it into the bird's cage. "And, my dears," she concluded triumphantly, "the langwidge that bird used trying to cover up all that egg was simply awful. What about that for luck? A magpie sittin' on a wedding-day!"
But, perhaps, of the whole list of omens that happened that morning, Pretty Wilkes, the baker's wife, held the greatest interest for them all. She was a woman whose austerity was renowned in the village, and Wilkes was generally considered something of a hero. Her man had won seventy dollars at poker the previous night, and had got very drunk in the process. And being well aware of the vagaries of his wife's sense of conjugal honor, had, with a desperate drunken cunning, bestowed it over night in the coal-box, well knowing that it was one of his many domestic pleasures to have the honor of lighting the cook-stove for his spouse every morning. "And would you believe it, girls?" she cried ecstatically. "If it hadn't have been Eve's wedding-day, and I'd got to bake cakes for the sociable, and so had to be up at three this very morning, while he was still dreaming he was a whiskey trust or some other drunken delusion, I'd sure never have seen that wad nor touched five cents of it, he's that close. Say, girls," she beamed, "I never said a word to Jake for getting soused, not a word. And I let him sleep right on, an' when he woke to light fires, and start baking, I just give him a real elegant breakfast with cream in his coffee, an' asked him if he'd like a bottle of rye for his head. But say, I never see him shovel coal harder in my life than he did in that coal-box after breakfast. I'd like to gamble he's still shovelin' it."
It certainly was a gala day in Barnriff. The festivity had even penetrated to the veins of Silas Rocket, and possessed him of an atmosphere which "let him in" to the extent of three rounds of drinks to the boys before eleven o'clock. The men for the most part took a long time with their morning ablutions. But the effect was really impressive and quite worth the extra trouble. The result so lightened up the dingy village, that some of them, one realized, had considerable pretensions to good looks. And a further curious thing about this cleansing process was that it affected their attitude toward each other. Their talk became less familiar, a wave of something almost like politeness set in. It suggested a clean starched shirt just home from the laundry. They walked about without their customary slouch, and each man radiated an atmosphere of conscious rectitude that became almost importance. Peter Blunt, talking to Doc Crombie, said he'd never seen so many precise creases in broadcloth since he'd lived in Barnriff.
There was no business to be done that day. Even Smallbones was forced to keep his doors shut, though not without audible protest. He asserted loudly that Congress should be asked to pass a law preventing marriages taking place in mercantile centres.
No one saw the bride and bridegroom that morning except Peter Blunt and Annie Gay. Annie was acting as Eve's maid for the occasion. She positively refused to let the girl dress herself, and though she could not be her bridesmaid, had expressed her deliberate intention of being her strong support. She and Eve had worked together on the wedding dress, which was of simple white lawn. They had discussed together the trousseau, and made it. They had talked and talked together over the whole thing for two months, and she had handed Eve so much advice out of her store of connubial wisdom, that she was not going to give up her place now.
So it was arranged that Gay was to give Eve away, and Annie was to be ready at the girl's elbow. That was how Annie put it. And no one but herself knew quite what she meant. However, it seemed to be perfectly satisfactory to Eve, and their preparations continued, a whirl of delight to them both.
Peter Blunt was Will's best man. And he found himself left with nothing much to do but smile upon inquirers after the bridegroom on the eventful day. His other duties were wrested from him by anybody and everybody in the place, which was a matter of considerable relief, although he was willing enough. But there was one other duty which could not be snatched from him, and it was one that weighed seriously on his kindly mind. It was the care of the wedding-ring. That, and the fear lest he should not produce it at exactly the right moment, gave him much cause for anxiety. Mrs. Gay had done her duty by him. She had marked the place in the service which he must study. And he had studied earnestly. But as the hour of the wedding approached his nerves tried him, and between fingering the ring in his waistcoat pocket and repeating his "cues" over to himself, he reached a painful condition of mental confusion which bordered closely on a breakdown.
At half-past eleven the village was abustle with people emerging from their houses. It was Gay who sighed as he surveyed the throng. Not a soul but had a broad smile on his or her face. And what with that, and the liberal use of soap, such an atmosphere of health had been arrived at that he pictured in his mind the final winding up of his affairs as an undertaker.
Then came the saunter over to the Mission Room. Everybody sauntered; it was as if they desired to prolong the sensation. Besides, the women required to look about them—at other women—and the men followed in their wake, feeling that in all such affairs they acknowledged the feminine leadership. They felt that somehow they were there only on sufferance, a necessary evil to be pushed into the background, like any other domestic skeleton.
The Mission Room was packed, and the rustle of starched skirts, and the cleanly laundry atmosphere that pervaded the place was wonderfully wholesome. The gathering suggested nothing so much as simple human nature dipped well in the purifying soap-suds of sympathy, rubbed out on the washing board of religious emotion, and ironed and goffered to a proper sheen of wholesome curiosity. They were assembled there to witness the launching of a sister's bark upon the matrimonial waters, and in each and every woman's mind there were thoughts picturing themselves in a similar position. The married women reflected on past scenes, while the maids among them possibly contemplated the time when that ceremonial would be performed with them as the central interest.
The happiness was not all Eve's, it was probably shared by the majority of the women present. She was the object that conjured their minds from the dull monotony of their daily routine to realms of happy fancy. And the picture was drawn in a setting of Romance, with Love well in the foreground, and the guardian angel of Perfect Happiness hovering over all. No doubt somewhere in the picture a man was skulking, but even in the light of matrimonial experience this was not sufficient to spoil the full enjoyment of those moments.
The bridegroom arrived. Yes, he was certainly good-looking in his new suit from "down East." Dressed as he was he did not belong to Barnriff. He looked what he had been brought up, of an altogether different class to the folks gathered in the room.
One or two of the matrons shook their heads. They did not altogether approve of him. He was well enough known for a certain unsteadiness; then, too, there was a boyishness about his look, an irresponsibility which was not general among the hard features of the men they knew. Most of these thought that Eve was rather throwing herself away. They all believed that she would have done far better to have chosen Jim Thorpe.
Then came the bride, and necks craned and skirts rustled, and audible whisperings were in the air. Annie Gay, following behind, heard and saw, and a thrill of delight brought tears to her sympathetic eyes. She knew how pretty Eve was. Had she not dressed her? Had she not feasted her eyes on her all the morning? Had she not been a prey to a good honest feminine envy?
And Eve's dress was almost as pretty as herself. There were just a few touches of a delicate pink on the white lawn to match her own warmth of coloring. Her gentle eyes were lowered modestly as she walked through the crowd, but if their pretty brown was hidden from the public gaze her wealth of rich, warm hair was not, and Eve's hair was the delight and envy of every woman in Barnriff. Yes, they were all very, very pleased with her, particularly as she, being a dressmaker with all sorts of possibilities in the way of a wedding-dress within her reach, had elected to wear a dress which any one of them could have afforded, any one of them had possibly worn in her time.
The ceremony proceeded with due solemnity. The minister was all sympathetic unction, and was further a perfect model of dignified patience when Peter Blunt finally scrambled the ring into the bridegroom's hand several lines later than was his "cue," but in time to save himself from utter disgrace. And the end came emotionally, as was only to be expected in such a community. Kate Crombie, being leader of the village society, started it. She promptly laid her head on Jake Wilkes' shoulder and sniveled. Nor was it until he turned his head and fumbled out awkward words of consolation to her, that the reek of stale rye warned her of her mistake, and she promptly came to and looked for her husband to finish it out on.
Annie Gay wept happy tears, and laughed and cried joyously. Jane Restless borrowed her man's bandana and blew her nose like a steam siren, declaring that the heat always gave her catarrh. Carrie Horsley guessed she'd never seen so pretty a bride so elegantly dressed, and wept down the front of Eve's spotless lawn the moment she got near enough. Mrs. Rust sniffed audibly, and hoped she would be happy, but warned her strongly against the tribulations of an ever-increasing family, and finally flopped heavily into a chair calling loudly for brandy.
It was, in Doc Crombie's words, "the old hens who got emotions." It was only the younger women, the spinsters, who laughed and flirted with the men, giggling hysterically at the sallies ever dear at a matrimonial function which flew from lip to lip. But then, as Pretty Wilkes told her particular crony Mrs. Rust later on at the sociable—
"It was the same with us, my dear," she said feelingly. "Speaking personal, before I was married, I'd got the notion, foolish-like, that every man had kind o' got loose out of heaven, an' we women orter set up a gilded cage around 'em, an' feed 'em cookies, an' any other elegant fancy truck we could get our idiot hands on. They was a sort of idol to be bowed an' scraped to. They was the rulers of our destiny, the lords of the earth. But now I'm of the opinion that the best man among 'em couldn't run a low down hog ranch without disgracin' hisself."