It was not till after the ceremony was over, and before the "sociable," which was to precede the bride and bridegroom's departure for Will's shack up in the hills, where she was to spend a fortnight's honeymoon before returning to Barnriff to take up again the work of her dressmaking business, that Peter Blunt had time to think of other things. He was not required in the ordering of the "sociable." The women would look to that.
Before he left the Mission Room, to return to his hut to see that his preparations were complete for Elia to take up his abode with him for the next fortnight—he had finally obtained Eve's consent to this arrangement—he scanned the faces of the assembled crowd closely. He had seen nothing of Jim Thorpe during the last two months, except on the rare occasions when the foreman of the "AZ's" had visited the saloon. And at these times neither had mentioned Eve's wedding. Now he was anxious to find out if Jim had been amongst the spectators at the wedding, a matter which to his mind was of some importance. It was impossible to ascertain from where he stood, and finally he made his way to the bottom of the hall where the door had been opened and people were beginning to move out. As he reached the back row benches he bumped into the burly Gay.
"Seen Thorpe?" he inquired quickly.
Gay pointed through the door.
"Yonder," he said. "Say, let's get a drink. This dogone marryin' racket's calc'lated to set a camel dry."
But Peter wanted Thorpe and refused the man's invitation. He was glad Jim had come in for the wedding, and hurried out in pursuit. He caught his man in the act of mounting his broncho.
"Say, Jim!" he exclaimed, as he hastened up.
Nor did he continue as the ranchman turned and faced him. He had never seen quite such an expression on Jim's face before. The dark eyes were fiercely alight, the clean-cut brows were drawn together in an expression that might have indicated either pain or rage. His jaws were hard set. And the pallor of his skin was plainly visible through the rich tanning of his face.
The monosyllable was jerked out through clenched teeth, and had something of defiance in it. Peter fumbled.
"I'm glad you came in," he said, a little helplessly.
The reply he received was a laugh so harsh, so bitter, that the other was startled. It was the laugh of a beaten man who strives vainly to hide his hurt. It was an expression of tense nerves, and told of the agony of a heart laboring under its insufferable burden. It was the sign of a man driven to the extremity of endurance, telling, only too surely, of the thousand and one dangers threatening him. Peter understood, and his own manner steadied into that calm strength which was so much the man's real personality.
"I was just going over to my shack," he said. "You'd best walk your horse over."
Jim shook his head.
"I'm getting back right away."
"Well, I won't press you," Peter went on, his mild eyes glancing swiftly at the door of the Mission Room, where the villagers were scrambling out with a great chattering and bustle. "Just bring your plug out of the crowd, Jim," he went on. "I'd like a word before you go." Without waiting for his friend's consent, he took the horse's bridle and led the animal on one side. And, oddly enough, his direction was toward the Mission Room door. Jim submitted without much patience.
"What is it?" he demanded, as they halted within three yards of the door. "Guess I haven't a heap of time. McLagan's busy breaking horses, and he told me to get right out after the—ceremony."
"Sure," nodded Peter, "I won't keep you long. I'd heard there was breaking on the 'AZ's.' That's just it. Now, I'm looking for a couple of plugs. One for saddle, and the other to carry a pack. You see, I've struck color in a curious place, and it promises good. But it's away off, near twenty miles in the foot-hills. It's an outcrop I've been tracing for quite a while, and if my calculations are right, the reef comes right along down here through Barnriff. You see, I've been working on those old Indian stories."
He paused, and his quick eyes saw that the crowd was lining the doorway waiting for Eve and her husband to come out. Jim was interested in his tale in spite of himself, yet fidgeting to get away.
"Well?" he demanded.
"Well, I need two horses to carry myself and camp outfit. And—— Say, here's Eve," he cried, his large hand suddenly gripping Jim's arm and detaining him. The ranchman shook him off and made to mount his horse. But Peter had no idea of letting him go.
"Jim," he said in a tone for the man's ear alone, "you can't go yet. You can't push a horse through the crowd till she's gone. Say, boy—you can't go. Here she is. Just look at her. Look at her sweet, smiling eyes. Jim, look. That gal's real happy—now. Jim, there ain't much happiness in this world. We're all chasing it. You and me, too—and we don't often find it. Say, boy, you don't grudge her her bit, do you? You'd rather see her happy, if it ain't with you, wouldn't you? Ah, look at those eyes. She's seen us, you and me. That's me being such a lumbering feller. And she's coming over to us; Will, too." His grip on the man's arm tightened, and his voice dropped to a low whisper. "Jim, you can't go, now. You've got to speak to her. You're a man, a real live man; get a grip on that—and don't forget."
Then he released his hold, and Eve and Will came up. Eve's radiant eyes smiled on him, but passed at once to Jim. And she left Will's arm to move nearer to him. Peter's eyes were on the darkening brows of her husband, and the moment Eve's hand slipped from his arm, he gave the latter no choice but to speak to him. He began at once, and with all his resource held him talking, while Eve demanded Jim's congratulations.
"Jim," she said, "I haven't seen you since—since——"
"No, Eve." Then the man cleared his throat. It was parching, and he felt that words were impossible. What trick was this Peter had played on him? He longed to flee, yet in the face of all that crowd he could not. He knew he must smile, and with all the power of his body he set himself to the task.
"You see we've been up to our necks in work. I—I just snatched the morning to see you—you married."
"And no congratulations? Oh, Jim! And I've always looked on you and Peter as—as my best friends."
Every word she uttered struck home through the worn armor of his restraint. He longed madly to seize this woman in his arms and tear her from the side of his rival. The madness of his love cried out to him, and sent the blood surging to his brain. But he fought—fought himself with almost demoniac fury, and won.
"Eve," he said, with an intensity that must have struck her had she not been so exalted by her own emotions, "I wish you the greatest happiness that ever fell to a woman's lot. I hope, from the bottom of my heart, this world'll give you everything you most wish for. And, further, you are right to reckon Peter and me your best friends. As a favor, I ask you that whenever our friendship can be of service to you you'll call upon it. Good-bye and—bless you."
He had his reward, if reward it could be called. Eve thrust out one white-gloved hand and seized his, squeezing it with a gentle pressure that set his blood throbbing through his veins afresh.
Then the agony passed, and left him cold. The warm hand was withdrawn, and the girl turned back to her husband. Peter relinquished his ward. The big man's end had been accomplished. As husband and wife walked away, and the crowd dispersed, he turned to Jim, who stood gazing straight in front of him. He looked into his face, and the smile in his eyes disappeared. The expression of Jim's face had changed, and where before storm had raged in every pulse, now there was a growing peace.
"Jim," he said gently, "about those horses——"
"Guess you won't need them now?"
Thorpe looked up into the grizzled face with a half ironical smile, but without displeasure.
"Peter, you had me beat from the start."
But Peter shook his head.
"It's you who've won to-day, boy. Guess you've beat the devil in you to a hash. Yes; I need those horses, an' you can get 'em for me from McLagan."
THE QUEST OF PETER BLUNT
The crisp air of summer early morning, so fragrant, so invigorating, eddied across the plains, wafting new life to the lungs, and increased vigor to jaded muscles. The sun was lifting above the horizon, bringing with it that expansion to the mind which only those whose lives are passed in the open, and whose waking hours are such as Nature intended, may know.
The rustling grass, long, lean at the waving tops, but rich and succulent in its undergrowth, spoke of awakening life, obeying that law which man, in his superiority, sets aside to suit his own artificial pleasures. The sparkling morning haze shrouding the foot-hills was lifting, yielding a vision of natural beauty unsurpassed at any other time of the day. The earth was good—it was clean, wholesome, purified by the long restful hours of night, and ready to yield, as ever, those benefits to animal life which Nature so generously showers upon an ungrateful world.
Peter Blunt straightened up from his camp-fire which he had just set going. He stretched his great frame and drank in the nectar of the air in deep gulps. The impish figure of Elia sat on a box to windward of the fire, watching his companion with calm eyes. He was enjoying himself as he had rarely ever enjoyed himself. He was free from the trammels of his sister's loving, guiding hand—trammels which were ever irksome to him, and which, somewhere inside him, he despised as a bondage to which his sex had no right to submit. He was with his friend Peter, helping him in his never-ending quest for gold. Hunting for gold. It sounded good in the boy's ears. Gold. Everybody dreamed of gold; everybody sought it—even his sister. But this—this was a new life.
There were Peter's tools, there was their camp, there was the work in process. There was his own little A tent, which Peter insisted that he should sleep in, while, for himself, he required only the starry sky as a roofing, and good thick blankets, to prevent the heat going out of his body while he slept. Yes; the boy was happy in his own curious way. He was living on "sow-belly" and "hardtack," and extras in the way of "canned truck," and none of the good things which his sister had ever made for him had tasted half so sweet as the rough cooking of this wholesome food by Peter. Something like happiness was his just now; but he regretted that it could only last until his sister returned to Barnriff. The boy's interest in the coming day's work now inspired his words.
"We go on with this sinking?" he inquired; and there was a boyish pride in the use of the plural.
Peter nodded. His eyes were watching the fire, to see that it played no trick on him.
"Yep, laddie," he said, in his kindly way. "We've got a bully prospect here. We'll see it through after we've had breakfast. Sleepy?"
Elia returned him an unsmiling negative. Smiling was apparently unnatural to him. The lack of it and the lack of expression in his eyes, except when stirred by terror, showed something of the warp of his mind.
"You aren't damp, or—or anything? There's a heap of dew around." The man was throwing strips of "sow-belly" into the pan, and the coffee water was already set upon the flaming wood.
"You needn't to worry 'bout them things for me, Peter," Elia declared peevishly. "Wimmin folks are like that, an' it sure makes me sick."
The other laughed good-naturedly as he took a couple of handfuls of the "hardtack" out of a sack.
"You'd be a man only they won't let you, eh? You've the grit, laddie, there's no denying."
The boy felt pleased. Peter understood him. He liked Peter, only sometimes he wished the man wasn't so big and strong. Why wasn't he hump-backed with a bent neck and a "game" leg? Why wasn't he afraid of things? Then he never remembered seeing Peter hurt anything, and he loved to hurt. He felt as if he'd like to thrust a burning brand on Peter's hand while he was cooking, and see if he was afraid of the hurt, the same as he would be. Then his mind came back to things of the moment. This gold prospecting interested him more than anything else.
"How far are we from Barnriff?" he asked abruptly.
"Twenty odd miles west. Why?"
"I was kind o' wonderin'. Seems we've been headin' clear thro' fer Barnriff since we started from way back there on the head waters. We sunk nine holes, hain't we? Say, if we keep right on we'll hit Barnriff on this line?"
"Sure." The man's blue eyes were watching the boy's face interestedly.
"You found the color o' gold, an' the ledge o' quartz in each o' them holes, ain't you?"
"Well, if we keep on, an' we find right along, we're goin' to find some around Barnriff."
"Good, laddie," Peter replied, approving his obvious reasoning. "I'm working on those old Indian yarns, and, according to them, Barnriff must be set right on a mighty rich gold mine."
The calm eyes of the boy brightened. Barnriff on a gold mine!
"An' when you find it?"
Peter's eyes dropped before the other's inquiring gaze. That was the question always before him, but it did not apply to material gold. And when he should find it, what then? Simply his quest would have closed at another chapter. His work for the moment would be finished; and he would once more have to set out on a fresh quest to appease his restless soul. He shook his head.
"We haven't found it yet," he said.
"But when you do?" the boy persisted.
Peter handed him his plate and his coffee, and sat down to his own breakfast. But the boy insisted on an answer.
"Well, laddie, it's kind of tough answering that. I can't rightly tell you."
"But a gold mine. Gee! You'll be like a Noo York millionaire, with dollars an' dollars to blow in at the saloon."
Again Peter shook his head. His face seemed suddenly to have grown old. His eyes seemed to lack their wonted lustre. He sighed.
"I don't want the dollars," he said. "I've got dollars enough; so many that I hate 'em."
Elia gaped at him.
"You got dollars in heaps?" he almost gasped. "Then why are you lookin' for more?"
Peter buried his face in a large pannikin of coffee, and when it emerged the questioning eyes were still upon him.
"Folks guess you're cranked on gold, an' need it bad," the puzzled boy went on. "They reckon you're foolish, too, allus lookin' around where you don't need, 'cause there ain't any there. I've heerd fellers say you're crazy."
Peter laughed right out.
"Maybe they're right," he said, lighting his pipe.
But Elia shook his head shrewdly.
"You ain't crazy. I'd sure know it. Same as I know when a feller's bad—like Will Henderson. But say, Peter," he went on persuasively, "I'd be real glad fer you to tell me 'bout that gold. What you'd do, an' why? I'm real quick understanding things. It kind o' seems to me you're good. You don't never scare me like most folks. I can't see right why——"
"Here, laddie"—Peter leaned his head back on his two locked hands, and propped himself against the pack saddle—"don't you worry your head with those things. But I'll tell you something, if you're quick understanding. Maybe, if other folks heard it—grown folks—they'd sure say I was crazy. But you're right, I'm not crazy, only—only maybe tired of things a bit. It's not gold I'm looking for—that is, in a way. I'm looking for something that all the gold in the world can't buy."
His tone became reflective. He was talking to the boy, but his thoughts seemed suddenly to have drifted miles away, lost in a contemplation of something which belonged to the soul in him alone. He was like a man who sees a picture in his mind which absorbs his whole attention, and drifts him into channels of thought which belong to his solitary moments.
"I'm looking for it day in day out, weeks and years. Sometimes I think I find it, and then it's gone again. Sometimes I think it don't exist; then again I'm sure it does. Yes, there've been moments when I know I've found it, but it gets out of my hand so quick I can't rightly believe I've ever had it. I go on looking, on and on, and I'll go on to my dying day, I s'pose. Other folks are doing much the same, I guess, but they don't know they're doing it, and they're the luckier for it. What's the use, anyway—and yet, I s'pose, we must all work out our little share in the scheme of things. Seems to me we've all got our little 'piece' to say, all got our little bit to do. And we've just got to go on doing it to the end. Sometimes it's hard, sometimes it's so mighty easy it sets you wondering. Ah, psha!"
Then he roused out of his mood, and addressed himself more definitely to the boy.
"You see, laddie, I don't belong to this country. But I stay right here till I've searched all I know, and so done my 'piece.' Then I'll up stakes and move on. You see, it's no use going back where I belong, because what I'm looking for don't exist there. Maybe I'll never find what I'm looking for—that is to keep and hold it. Maybe, as I say, I'll get it in driblets, and it'll fly away again. It don't much matter. Meanwhile I find gold—in those places folks don't guess it's any use looking. Do you get my meaning?"
The quizzical smile that accompanied his final question was very gentle, and revealed something of the soul of the man.
Elia didn't answer for some moments. He was trying to straighten out the threads of light which his twisted mind perceived. Finally he shook his head. And when he spoke his words showed only too plainly how little he was interested in the other's meaning, and how much his cupidity was stirred.
"And that gold—in Barnriff? When you've found it?"
Peter laughed to think that he had expected the boy to understand him. How could he—at his age?
"I'll give it to you, laddie—all of it."
Elia's cold eyes lit with sudden greed.
"But you'd best say nothing to the folks," Peter added slyly. "Don't let 'em know we're looking for anything."
"Sure," cried the boy quickly, with a cunning painful to behold. "They'd steal it. Will Henderson would."
Peter thought for a moment, and relit his pipe, which had gone out while he was talking.
"You don't like Will, laddie," he said presently, and so blundered into the midst of the boy's greedy reverie.
"I hate him!"
Any joy that the thought of the promised gold might have given him suddenly died out of the dwarf's vindictive heart, and in its place was a raging storm of hatred. Such savage passion was his dominating feature. At the best there was little that was gentle in him.
"You hate him because of that night—about the chickens?"
But no answer was forthcoming. Peter waited, and then went on.
"There's something else, eh?"
But the eyes of the boy were fixed upon the now smouldering fire, nor could the other draw them. So he went on.
"Will's your sister's husband now. Sort of your—brother. Your sister's been desperate good to you. You've had everything she could give you, and mind, she's had to work for it—hard. She loves you so bad, she'd hate to see you hurt your little finger—she's mighty good to you. Gee, I wish I had such a sister. Well, now she's got a husband, and she loves him bad, too. I was wondering if you'd ever thought how bad she'd feel if she knew you two were at loggerheads? You've never thought, have you? Say, laddie, it would break her up the back. It would surely. She'd feel she'd done you a harm—and that in itself is sufficient—and she'd feel she was upsetting Will. And between the two she'd be most unhappy. Say, can't you like him? Can't you make up your mind to get on with him right when he comes back? Can't you, laddie?"
The boy's eyes suddenly lifted from the fire, and the storm was still in them.
"I hate him!" he snarled like a fierce beast.
"I'm sorry—real sorry."
"Don't you go fer to be sorry," cried the boy, with that strange quickening of all that was evil in him. "I tell you Will's bad. He's bad, an' he sure don't need to be, 'cause it's in him to be good. He ain't like me, I guess. I'm bad 'cause I'm made bad. I don't never think good. I can't. I hate—hate—allus hate. That's how I'm made, see? Will ain't like that. He's made good, but he's bad because he'd rather be bad. He's married my sister because she's a fool, an' can't see where Jim Thorpe's a better man. Jim Thorpe wanted to marry her. He never said, but I can see. An' she'd have married him, on'y fer Will comin' along. She was kind o' struck on Jim like, an' then Will butts in, an' he's younger, an' better lookin', an' so she marries him. An'—an' I hate him!"
"But your sister? What's poor Eve going to do with you always hating Will? She'll get no happiness, laddie, and you'd rather see her happy. Say, if you can't help hating Will, sure you can hide it. You needn't to run foul of him. You go your way, and he can go his. Do you know I'm pretty sure he'll try and do right by you, because of Eve——"
"Say, Peter, you're foolish." The boy had calmed, and now spoke with a shrewd decision that was curiously convincing. "Will'll go his way, and Eve won't figger wuth a cent with him. I know. Eve'll jest have to git her toes right on the mark, same as me. He's a devil, and I know. Will'll make Eve hate herself, same as he'll make me. Say, an' I'll tell you this, Eve'll hev to work for him as well as me. I know. I can see. You can't tell me of Will, nor of nobody that's bad—'cause I ken see into 'em. I'm bad, an' I ken see into folks who 're bad."
There was no argument against such an attitude as the boy took. Besides, Peter began to understand. Here was an unique study in psychology. The boy either fancied he possessed—or did possess—such unusual powers of observation that they almost amounted to the prophetic, where that which was bad was concerned. He saw Will in a light in which no one else saw him, although already he, Peter, and Jim had witnessed unpleasant dashes of that side of the man's character which Elia seemed to read like an open book. However, he could not abandon his task yet, but he changed his tactics.
"Maybe you're right, laddie," he said. "I was thinking of poor Eve. I was wondering if you wouldn't like to try and make her happy, seeing she's always been so good to you. I do believe you'd rather she was happy."
The boy nodded his head, and an impish light crept into his eyes.
"And you're going to try and make her—happy?"
Peter was smiling with simple eager hope. The impish light deepened in the boy's eyes.
"Maybe," he said. "Guess I'll do what I ken. When Will treats me fair I'll treat him fair. I can't do a heap of work, seein' I'm as I am, but if he wants me to do things I'll do 'em—if he treats me fair. I'll do what I ken, but I hate him. Maybe you're guessin' that'll be makin' things fair for Eve. You best guess agin." Then the impish light left his eyes, and they became quite serious again. "Say, tell me some more 'bout that gold?"
But Peter laughed and shook his head.
"Time enough, laddie," he said, pleased with the result of his first essay on behalf of peace between Elia and Will. "You're going to get that gold when we find it, sure, so come right along and let's get to work—and find it."
AFTER ONE YEAR
Scandal was rampant in Barnriff. But it was not of an open nature. That is to say, it was scandal that passed surreptitiously from lip to lip, and was rarely spoken where more than two people foregathered. For small as Barnriff was, ignorant as were the majority of its people, scandal was generally tabooed, and it was only in bad cases where it was allowed to riot.
The reason of this restraint was simple enough. It was not that the people of the village were any different to those of other small places. They loved gossip as dearly as anybody else—when to gossip was safe. But years ago Barnriff had learned that gossip was not always safe in its midst.
The fact was that the peace laws of the place were largely enforced by a process which might be called the "survival of the strong." There were no duly authorized peace officers, and the process had evolved out of this condition of things. Quarrels and bloodshed were by no means frequent in the village, rather the reverse, and this was due to the regulations governing peace.
If two men quarreled it was on the full understanding of the possible and probable consequences; namely, a brief and effective life and death struggle, followed by a sudden and immediate departure from the fold of the survivor. Hence, scandal was held in close check, and traveled slowly, with the slow twistings and windings of a venemous snake. But for this very reason it was the more deadly, and was the more surely based upon undeniable fact. The place was just now a-simmer with suppressed scandal.
And its object. It was only a year since Eve and Will Henderson's marriage. A sufficiently right and proper affair, said public opinion. There were of course protestors. Many of the women had expected Eve to marry Jim Thorpe. But then they were of the more mature section of the population, those whose own marriages had taught them worldly wisdom, and blotted out the early romance of their youths. It had been a love match, a match where youth runs riot, and the madness of it sweeps its victims along upon its hot tide. Now the tide was cooling, some said it was already cold.
After their brief honeymoon the young people had returned to the village. The understanding was that Eve should again take up her business, while Will continued his season up in the hills, hunting with his traps and gun. He was to visit Barnriff at intervals during the season, and finally return and stay with Eve during the months when the furs he might take would be unfit for the market. This was the understanding, and in theory it was good, and might well have been carried out satisfactorily. All went passably well until the close of the fur season.
Eve returned to the village a bright and happy woman. She took up her business again, and, perhaps, the novelty of her married state was the reason that at first her trade increased. Then came Will's visits. At first they were infrequent, with the arranged-for laps of time between them. But gradually they became more frequent and their duration longer. The women wagged their heads. "He is so deeply in love, he can't stay away," they said. And they smiled approval, for they were women, and women can never look on unmoved at the sight of a happy love match. But against this the men shrugged their shoulders. "He's wastin' a heap o' time," they said; "pelts needs chasin' some, an' y' can't chase pelts an' make love to your own wife or any one else's, for that matter." And this was their way of expressing a kindly interest.
The men were right and the women were wrong. Will did more than waste time. He literally pitched it away. He prolonged his stays in the village beyond all reason, and as Eve, dutifully engaged upon her business, could not give him any of her working hours, he was forced to seek his pleasures elsewhere. That elsewhere, in a man prone to drink, of necessity became the saloon. And the saloon meant gambling, gambling meant money. Sometimes he won a little, but more often he lost.
Being a reckless player, fired by the false stimulation of Rocket's bad whiskey, he began to plunge to recoup himself, and, as ever happens in such circumstances, he got deeper into the mire. At first these heavy losses had a salutary effect upon him, and he would "hit the trail" for the hills, and once more ply his trade with a feverish zest.
This sort of thing went on until the close of his fur season. Then he made up his bales of pelts, and, to his horror, discovered that his year's "catch" was reduced by over fifty per cent., while, in place of a wad of good United States currency in his hip pocket, he had floated a perfect fleet of I. O. U.'s, each in itself for a comparatively small amount, but collectively a total of no inconsiderable magnitude. And each I. O. U. was dated for payment immediately after he had marketed his pelts.
This stress, and the life he had been living in Barnriff, caused his mercurial temper to suffer. And as his nature soured, so all that was worst in him began to rise to the surface. He did not blame himself. Did ever one hear of a man blaming himself when things went wrong? No. He blamed the fur season. The hills were getting played out. The furs were traveling north, and, in consequence were scarce. Besides, how could he be in Barnriff and the hills at the same time? The position was absurd. Eve must join him and give up her business, and they must make their home up in the hills where she could learn to trap. Or they must live in Barnriff and he must find fresh employment.
Yes, he would certainly find out how Eve's business was prospering. If she had shown a better turnover than he, perhaps it would be as well for him to go into Barnriff for good. The idea rather pleased him. Nor could he see any drawback to it except those confounded I. O. U.'s.
The next news that Barnriff had was that Will and Eve were settled for good in the village, and that he had no intention of returning to the hills. Barnriff's comment was mixed. The women said, "Poor dears, they can't live apart." Again the men disagreed. Their charity was less kind, especially amongst those who had yet to collect the payment of their I. O. U.'s. They said with sarcastic smile, "Wants to live on his woman, and play 'draw.'" And time soon showed them to be somewhere near the mark.
Will sold his furs, paid his debts, sighed his relief, and settled down to a life in Barnriff. A month later he found to his profound chagrin that the small margin of dollars left over after paying off his I. O. U.'s had vanished, and a fresh crop of paper was beginning to circulate. Whiskey and "draw" had got into his blood, and all unconsciously he found himself pledged to it.
It was during this time that scandal definitely laid its clutch upon the village. But it was not until later that its forked tongue grew vicious. It was at the time that word got round the village that there was trouble in Eve's little home that the caldron began to seethe. No one knew how it got round; yet it surely did. Scandal said that Eve and Will quarreled, that they quarreled violently, that Will had struck her, that money was the bottom of the trouble, that Will had none to meet his gambling debts, and that Eve, who had been steadily supplying him out of her slender purse, had at last refused to do so any more.
It went on to say that Will was a drunken sot, that his methods at cards were not above suspicion, and that altogether he was rapidly becoming an undesirable.
Peter Blunt heard the scandal; he had watched things himself very closely. Jim Thorpe heard, but, curiously enough, rumor about these two did not seem to reach the "AZ" ranch easily.
However, what did reach Jim infuriated him almost beyond words. It was this last rumor that sent him riding furiously into the village late one night, and drew him up at Peter Blunt's hut.
He found the gold seeker reading a well-known history of the Peruvian Aztecs, but without hesitation broke in upon his studies.
"What's this I hear, Peter?" he demanded, without any preamble. "I mean about the—the Hendersons."
His dark eyes were fierce. His clean-cut features were set and angry. But these signs didn't seem to hurry Peter's answer. He laid his book aside and folded his hands behind his head, while he searched the other's face with his calm blue eyes.
"We've just got it out on the ranch," Jim went on. "He's—he's knocking her about—they say."
"And so you've come in. What for?"
The big man's words had a calming effect.
"Peter, can't you tell me?" Jim went on, with a sudden change of manner that became almost pleading. "It's awful. I can't bear to think of Eve suffering. Is it, as they say, money? Has he—gone to the dogs with drink and gambling? Peter," he said, with sudden sternness, his feelings once more getting the better of him, "I feel like killing him if——"
But the other's face was cold, and he shook his head.
"I'm not going to talk this scandal," he said. "You've no right to feel like that—yet." And his words were an admission of his own feelings on the subject.
Peter's eyes wandered thoughtfully from his friend to the book shelves; and after a moment the other stirred impatiently. Then his eyes came back to Jim's face. He watched the passionate straining in them, that told of the spirit working within. Nor could he help thinking what a difference there might have been had Eve only married this man.
"You better go back to the ranch," he said presently.
But the light that suddenly leaped to Jim's eyes gave him answer without the words which followed swiftly.
"I can't," he cried. "I can't without seeing her, and learning the truth from her own lips."
"That you'll never do, boy, if I know Eve."
But Jim became obstinate.
"I'll try," he declared, with an ugly threat in his passionate eyes. "And if it's Will—if he's——"
"You're talking foolish." The sharpness of Peter's voice silenced him. But it was only for a moment, and later he broke out afresh.
"It's no use, Peter, I can't and won't listen to reason on this matter. Eve is before all things in my life. I can't help loving her, even if she is another's wife, and I wouldn't if I could. See here," he went on, letting himself go as his feelings took fresh hold of him, "if Eve's unhappy there must be some way of helping her. If he's ruining her life he must be dealt with. If he's brutal to her, if he's hurting her, I mean knocking her about, Peter, I'll—I'll—smash him, if I swing for it! She's all the world to me, and by Heavens I'll rid her of him!"
Peter suddenly drew out his watch; he seemed wholly indifferent to the other's storming.
"We'll go and see her now," he said. "Will 'll be down at the saloon playing 'draw.' He don't generally get home till Rocket closes down. Come on."
And the two passed out into the night.
THE BREAKING POINT
Eve and Will were at supper. The girl's brown eyes had lost their old gentle smile. Their soft depths no longer contained that well of girlish hope, that trusting joy of life. It seemed as if the curtain of romance had been torn aside, and the mouldering skeleton of life had been laid bare to her. There was trouble and pain in her look, there was fear, too; nor was it quite plain the nature of her fear. It may have been that fear of the future which comes to natures where love is the mainspring of responsibility. It may have been the fear of the weaker vessel, where harshness and brutality are threatened. It may have been a fear inspired by health already undermined by anxiety and worry. The old happy light was utterly gone from her eyes as she silently partook of the frugal supper her own hands had prepared.
Will Henderson moodily devoured his food at the opposite end of the table. The third of their household was not there. Elia rarely took his meals with them. He preferred them by himself, for he hated and dreaded Will's tongue, which, though held in some check when he was sober, never failed to sting the boy when Silas Rocket's whiskey had done its work.
The meal was nearly finished, and husband and wife had exchanged not a single word. Eve wished to talk; there was so much she wanted to say to him. The flame of her love still burned in her gentle bosom, but it was a flame sorely blown about by the storm winds of their brief married life. But somehow she could not utter the words she wanted to. There was no encouragement. There was a definite but intangible bar to their expression. The brutal silence of the man chilled her, and frightened her.
Finally it was he who spoke, and he made some sort of effort to hide the determination lying behind his words.
"How much money have you got, Eve?" he demanded, pushing his plate away with a movement which belied his tone. It was a question which had a familiar ring to the ears of the troubled girl.
"Thirty dollars," she said patiently. Then she sighed.
The man promptly threw aside all further mask.
"For God's sake don't sigh like that! You'll be sniveling directly. One would think I was doin' you an injury asking you a simple question."
"It's not that, Will. I'm thinking of what's going to happen when that's gone. It's got to last us a month. Then I get my money from Carrie Horsley and Mrs. Crombie. They owe me seventy dollars between them for their summer suits. I've got several orders, but folks are tight here for money, and it's always a matter of waiting."
"Can't you get an advance from 'em?"
That frightened look suddenly leaped again into the girl's eyes.
"Oh, don't start that game!" the man retorted savagely. "We've got to live, I s'pose. You'll earn the money. That sort of thing is done in every business. You make me sick." He lit his pipe and blew great clouds of smoke across the table. "I tell you what it is, we can't afford to keep your brother doing nothing all the time. If you insist on keeping him you must find the money—somewhere. It's no use being proud. We're hard up, and if people owe you money, well—dun 'em for it. I don't know how it is, but this darned business of yours seems to have gone to pieces."
"It's not gone to pieces, Will," Eve protested. "I've made more money this last four months than ever before." The girl's manner had a patience in it that came from her brief but bitter experiences.
"Then what's become of the money?"
But Eve's patience had its limits. The cruel injustice of his sneering question drove her beyond endurance.
"Oh, Will," she cried, "and you can sit there and ask such a question! Where has it gone?" She laughed without any mirth. "It's gone with the rest, down at the saloon, where you've gambled it away. It's gone because I've been a weak fool and listened to your talk of gambling schemes which have never once come off. Oh, Will, I don't want to throw this all up at you. Indeed, indeed, I don't. But you drive me to it with your unkindness, which—which I can't understand. Don't you see, dear, that I want to make you happy, that I want to help you? You must see it, and yet you treat me worse—oh, worse than a nigger! Why is it? What have I done? God knows you can have all, everything I possess in the world. I would do anything for you, but—but—you—— Sometimes I think you have learned to hate me. Sometimes I think the very sight of me rouses all that is worst in you. What is it, dear? What is it that has come between us? What have I done to make you like this?"
She paused, her eyes full of that pain and misery which her tongue could never adequately express. She wanted to open her heart to him, to let him see all the gold of her feelings for him, but his moody unresponsiveness set her tongue faltering and left her groping blindly for the cause of the trouble between them.
It was some moments before Will answered her. He sat glaring at the table, the smoke of his pipe clouding the still air of the neat kitchen. He knew he was facing a critical moment in their lives. He saw dimly that he had, for his own interests, gone a shade too far. Eve was not a weakling, she was a woman of distinct character, and even in his dull, besotted way he detected at last that note of rebellion underlying her appeal. Suddenly he looked up and smiled. But it was not altogether a pleasant smile. It was against his inclination, and was ready to vanish on the smallest provocation.
"You're taking things wrong, Eve," he said, and the strain of attempting a conciliatory attitude made the words come sharply. "What do I want your money for, but to try and make more with it? Do you think I want you to keep me? I haven't come to that yet." His tone was rapidly losing its veneer of restraint. "Guess I can work all right. No, no, my girl, you haven't got to keep me yet. But money gets money, and you ought to realize it. I admit my luck at 'draw' has been bad—rotten!" He violently knocked his pipe out on a plate. "But it's got to change. I can play with the best of 'em, an' they play a straight game. What's losing a few nights, if, in the end, I get a big stake? Why Restless helped himself to a hundred dollars last night. And I'm going to to-night."
"But, Will, you've said that every night for the last month. Why not be fair with yourself? Your luck is out; give it up. Will, give up the saloon for—for my sake. Do, dear." Eve rose and went round to the man's side, and laid a tenderly persuasive hand upon his shoulder. She was only waiting for a fraction of encouragement. But that fraction was not forthcoming. Instead he shook her off. But he tried to do it pleasantly.
"Here, sit you down, Eve, and listen to me. I'm going to tell you something that I hadn't intended to, only—only you're bothering such a hell of a lot."
His language passed. She was used to it now. And she sat shrinking at his rebuff, but curious and half fearful at what he might have to tell her.
"I'm going to have a flutter to-night, no matter what comes, make your mind up to that. And, win or lose, it's my last. Get that? But I've got a definite reason for it. You see I haven't been as idle as you think. I've been hunting around on the trail of Peter Blunt. Folks all think him a fool, and cranky some. I never did. He's been a gold prospector most of his life. And it's not likely he don't know. Well, I'm not giving you a long yarn, and to cut it short, I'm right on to a big find. At least I've got color in a placer up at the head waters, and to-morrow I go out to work it for all it's worth. No, I'm not going to tell even you where it is. You see it's a placer, and anybody could work it, and I'd be cut clean out if others got to know where it was. You savvee?"
Eve nodded, but without conviction. The man detected her lack of belief, and that brutal light which was so often in his eyes now suddenly flamed up. But after a moment of effort he banished it, and resorted to an imitation of jocularity.
"So now, old girl, hand over that thirty dollars. I'm going to make a 'coup,' and to-morrow begins a period of—gold. I give you my word you shall get it—sure as I'm a living man. I'm not talking foolish. The shining yellow stuff is there for the taking. And so easy, too."
He waited with a grin of cunning on his lips. He was intoxicated with his own surety. And, curiously, well as Eve knew him, that certainty communicated itself to her in spite of her reason. But the matter of handing over the thirty dollars was different.
A hard light crept into her eyes as she looked down at him from where she stood. Though he did not know it, he was rapidly killing all the love she had for him. Eve was one of those women who can love with every throb of their being. Self had no place in her. The man she loved was, as a natural consequence, her all. Kill her love and she could be as cold and indifferent as marble. At one time in their brief married life those dollars would never have been considered. They would have been his without the asking. Now——
She shook her head decidedly.
"You can't have them," she said firmly. "They've got to keep us for a month. If you depend on them for a game, you had better wait till you get the gold from your placer." She moved away, talking as she went. "There's not only ourselves to consider. There's Elia. I——"
But she got no further. The mention of her brother's name suddenly infuriated the man.
"Don't talk to me of that little devil!" he cried. "I want those thirty dollars, d'you understand?" He crashed his fist on the table and set the supper things clattering. "You talk to me of Elia! That devil's imp has been in the way ever since we got married. And d'you think I'm going to stand for him now?" He sprang to his feet, his eyes blazing with that fury which of late he rarely took the trouble to keep in check. "See here," he cried, "you've preached to me enough for one night, and, fool-like, I've listened to you. I listen to no more. So, just get busy and hand over those dollars."
But if he was in a fury, he had contrived to stir Eve as he had never stirred her before.
"You'll not get a cent of them," she cried, her eyes lighting with sudden cold anger.
For a moment they stood eyeing each other. There was no flinching in Eve now, no appeal, no fear. And the man's fury was driving him whither it would. He was gathering himself for a final outburst, and when it came it was evident he had lost all control of himself.
"You ——! I'll have those dollars if I have to take 'em!"
"You shall not!"
Will flung his pipe to the ground and dashed at Eve like a madman. He caught her by the shoulders, and gripped the warm rounded flesh until the pain made her writhe under his clutch.
"Where are they?" he demanded, with another furious oath. "I'm going to have 'em. Speak! Speak, you —— or I'll——"
But Eve was obdurate. Her courage was greater than her strength. He shook her violently, clutching at her shoulders as though to squeeze the information he needed out of her. But he got no answer, and, in a sudden access of demoniacal rage, he swung her round and hurled her across the room with all his strength. She fell with a thud, and beyond a low moan lay quite still. Her head had struck the sharp angle of the coal box.
In a moment the man had passed into the bedroom in search of the money. Nor did he have to search far. Eve kept her money in one place always, and he knew where it was. Having possessed himself of the roll of bills he came out into the kitchen. He looked about him, and his furious eyes fell upon the prostrate form of his wife. She was lying beside the coal box in the attitude in which she had fallen. He went over to her, and stood for a second gazing down at the result of his handiwork.
But there was neither pity nor remorse in his heart. For the time at least he hated her. She had dared to defy him, she had twitted him with his gaming, she had refused him—in favor of Elia. He told himself all this, and, as he looked down at the still figure, he told himself it served her right, and that she would know better in the future. But he waited until he detected the feeble rise and fall of her bosom. Then he went out, conscious of a certain feeling of relief in spite of his rage.
A "PARTY CALL"
Peter led the way up the path from the gate of Eve's garden. He had taken the lead in this visit; he felt it was necessary. Jim Thorpe's frame of mind was not to be trusted, should they encounter Henderson. He knocked at the door, reassured that Eve was within by the light in her parlor window.
At first he received no reply, and in silence the two men waited. Then Peter knocked again. This time Elia's voice was heard answering his summons.
Peter raised the latch, and, closely followed by Jim, passed directly into the parlor. He glanced swiftly round at the litter of dressmaking, but Eve was not there. Jim's eyes, too, wandered over the familiar little room. It was the first time he had entered it since the day he had ridden over to ask her to marry him.
He saw Eve now in every detail of the furnishing; he saw her in the work he had watched her at so often; he saw her in the very atmosphere of the place, and the realization of all he had lost smote him sorely. Then there came to him the object of his present visit, and he grew sick with the intensity of his feelings.
But the room was empty, and yet it had been Elia's voice that summoned them to enter. With only the briefest hesitation Peter started toward the kitchen door, and Jim, his thoughts running riot over the past, mechanically followed him. And as they reached it, and Peter's great bulk filled up the opening, it was the latter's sharp exclamation that brought Jim to matters of the moment. He drew close up behind his companion and looked over his shoulder, and a startled, horror-stricken cry broke from him.
"Look!" he cried, and the horror in his voice was in his eyes, and the expression of his face.
The scene held them both for a second, and for years it lived in Jim's memory. The ill-lit kitchen with its single lamp; the yellow rays lighting up little more than the untidy supper-table with the misshapen figure of Elia sitting on the far side of it, calmly devouring his evening meal. The rest of the room was shadowy, except where the light from the cook-stove threw its lurid rays upon the white face and crumpled figure of Eve lying close beside it upon the floor. Her eyes were closed, and a great wound upon her forehead, with blood oozing slowly from it, suggested death to the horrified men.
In an instant Jim was at Eve's side, bending over her, seeking some signs of life. Then, as Peter came up, he turned to him with a look of unutterable relief.
"She's alive," he said.
"Quick," Jim hurried on, "water and a sponge, or towel or something."
Peter crossed the room to the barrel, and dipped out some water; and, further, he procured a washing flannel, and hastened back with them to Jim, who was kneeling supporting the girl's wounded head upon his hand.
And all the time Elia, as though in sheer idle curiosity, watched the scene, steadily continuing his meal the while. There was no sort of feeling expressed in his cold eyes. Nor did he display the least relief when Jim assured him Eve was alive. Peter watched the boy, and while Jim bathed her wounded forehead with a tenderness which was something almost maternal, he questioned him with some exasperation.
"How did it happen?" he demanded, his steady eyes fixed disapprovingly on the lad's face.
"Don't know. Guess she must ha' fell some. Ther's suthin' red on the edge o' the coal box. Mebbe it's her blood."
The cold indifference angered even Peter.
"And you sit there with her, maybe, dying. Say, you're pretty mean."
The boy's indifference suddenly passed. He glanced at Eve, then at the door, and he stirred uneasily.
"I didn't know wher' Will 'ud be. If I'd called folks, an' he'd got around an' found 'em here——"
"Why didn't you fetch him?" Peter broke in.
"I come in jest after he'd gone out, an'——"
"Found—this?" Peter indicated Eve.
Jim suddenly looked up, and his fierce eyes encountered Peter's. The latter's tone promptly changed.
"How is she?" he asked gently, and it was evident he was trying to banish the thoughts which Elia's statement had stirred in Jim's mind.
"Coming to," he said shortly, and turned again to his task of bathing the injured woman's forehead.
But it was still some minutes before the flicker of the girl's eyelids proved Jim's words. Then he sighed his relief and for a moment ceased the bathing and examined the wound. Then he reached a cushion from one of the kitchen chairs and folded it under her head.
The wound on her forehead was an ugly place just over her right temple, and there was no doubt in his mind had it been half an inch lower it would have proved fatal. He knelt there staring at it, wondering and speculating. He glanced at the corner of the box, and the thought of Eve's height suggested the impossibility of a tumble causing such a wound. Suspicion stirred him to a cold, hard rage. This was no accident, he told himself, and his mind flew at once to the only person who, to his way of thinking, could have caused it. Will had left her just as Elia came in; but Peter's voice called him to himself.
"Best keep on with the bathing," he said.
And without a sign Jim bent to his task once more. A moment later Eve stirred, and her eyes opened. At first there was no meaning in her upward stare. Then the eyes began to move, and settled themselves on Jim's face. In a moment consciousness returned, and she struggled to sit up. It was then the man's arm was thrust under her shoulders, and he gently lifted her.
"Feeling better, Eve?" he asked gently.
There was a moment's pause; then a whispered, "Yes," came from her lips. But her wound began to bleed afresh, and Jim turned at once to Elia.
"Go you and hunt up Doc Crombie," he said hastily. And as the boy stirred to depart, he added in a tone that was curiously sharp set, "Then go on to the saloon and tell Will Henderson to come right up here."
But Peter interfered.
"Let him get the Doc," he said. "I'll see to him—later."
The two men exchanged glances, and Jim gave way.
"Very well. But hurry for Crombie."
After that Eve's voice demanding water held all Jim's attention. And while Peter procured a cupful, he lifted her gently in his arms and carried her into the parlor, and laid her on an old horsehair settee, propping her carefully into a sitting position. When the water was brought she drank thirstily, and then, closing her eyes, sank back with something like a sigh of contentment.
But with the first touch of the wet flannel which Jim again applied to her head she looked up.
"I fell on the coal box," she said hastily. And before Jim could answer Peter spoke.
"That's how we guessed," he said kindly. "Maybe you were stooping for coal—sure."
"Yes, yes. I was stooping for coal for the kitchen stove. I must have got dizzy. You needn't send for the doctor. I'm all right, and the bleeding will stop. I've just got a headache. Please don't send for Will; I'm glad you haven't. He'd only be alarmed for—for nothing—and really I'm all right. Thank you, Jim, and you too, Peter. You can't do anything more. Really you can't and I don't want to spoil your evening. I——"
"We're going to wait for the Doc, Eve," said Jim, firmly.
Her eagerness to be rid of them was painfully evident, and so unlike her.
"Yes," agreed Peter, "we better wait for the Doc, Eve. You see we came down to pay you a party call."
"A party call?"
"Yes. Y'see Jim rode in from the 'AZ's' to pay you a—party call."
The girl's eyes steadied themselves on Jim's face. He had drawn himself up a chair, and was sitting opposite her. Peter was still standing, his great bulk shutting the glare of the lamplight out of her eyes. She looked long and earnestly into the man's face, as though she would fathom the meaning of his visit before she in any way committed herself. But she learned nothing from it.
"A party call—after all this time, Jim?" she asked, with something like a wistful smile.
Jim turned away. He could not face the pathos in her expression. His eyes wandered round the little room. Not one detail of it was forgotten, yet it seemed ages and ages since he had seen it all. He nodded.
"You see," he said lamely, "new married folks don't——"
Eve checked his explanation quickly. She didn't want any. All she wanted was for them to go before Will returned.
"Yes; I know. And, besides, the ranch is a long way. Yet—why did you come to-night?" She pressed her hand to her forehead lest the fear in her eyes should betray her.
The pause which followed was awkward. Somehow neither of the men was prepared for it. Neither had thought that such a question would be put to him. Peter looked at Jim, who turned deliberately away. He was struggling vainly for a way of approaching all he had to say to this girl, and now that he was face to face with it he realized the impossibility of his position. Finally it was the girl herself who helped him out.
"It's very, very kind of you, anyway," she said, in a low voice. "It's good to think that I've got friends thinking about me——"
"That's just it, Eve," cried Jim, seizing his opportunity with a clumsy rush. "I've been thinking a heap—lately. You see—Will Henderson's not working and—and—folks say——"
"And gossip says we're 'hard up,'" Eve added bitterly. She knew well enough the talk that was rife. "So you've come in to see—if it is true." She again pressed a hand to her forehead. This time it was the pain of her head which had become excruciating.
Jim nodded, and Peter's smiling eyes continued to watch him.
"But it wasn't exactly that," the former went on in his straightforward way. "Yet it's so blazing hard to put it so you can understand. You see, I've been doing very well, and—you know I've got a big bunch of cattle running up in the foot-hills now—I thought, maybe, seeing Will isn't working, money might be a bit tight with you. You see, we're folks of the world, and there's no fool sentiment about us in these things; I mean no ridiculous pride. Now, if I was down, and you'd offered to help me out, I'd just take it as a real friendly act. And I just thought—maybe——"
How much longer he would have continued to flounder on it was impossible to tell, but Peter saw his trouble and cut him short.
"You see, Eve," he said, "Jim wants to help you out. Some folks have got busy, and he's heard that you're hard pushed for ready dollars. That's how it is."
Jim frowned at his bluntness, but was in reality immensely relieved. Eve had been listening with closed eyes, but now opened them, and they were full of a friendliness.
"Thanks, Peter; thanks, Jim," she said softly. "You're both very good to me, but—don't worry about money. If things go right we have enough."
"That's it, Eve," Jim exclaimed eagerly. "If things go right. Are they going right? Will they go right? That's just it. Say, can't you see it hurts bad to think you've got to pinch, and that sort of thing? You can surely take a loan from me. You——"
But Eve shook her head decidedly.
"Things will go right, believe me. Will has got something up—in the hills. He says it's going to bring us in a lot." She turned wistful eyes upon Peter's rugged face. "It's something in your line," she said. "Gold. And he says——" She broke off with a look of sudden distress. "I forgot. I wasn't to say anything to—to anybody. Please—please forget about it. But I only wanted to show you that—we are going to do very well."
"So Will's struck it rich." It was Peter's astonished voice that answered her. The news had a peculiar interest for him. "Placer?" he inquired.
"Yes—and easy to work. But you won't say a word about it, will you? He told me not to speak of it. And if he knew he would be so angry. I——"
"Don't worry, Eve," broke in Jim, gently. "Your secret is safe with us—quite safe."
Peter said nothing. The news had staggered him for a moment, and he was vainly trying to digest it. Jim rose from his seat and leaned against the table. His attempt had failed. She would have none of his help. But his coming to that house had told him, in spite of Eve's reassurance, that the gossip was well founded. There was trouble in Eve's home, and it was worse than he had anticipated.
The girl eyed them both for a moment with a return of that fear in her eyes.
"Are you going now?" she inquired, with an anxiety she no longer tried to conceal. She felt so ill that it didn't seem to matter what she said.
"We're going to wait till Doc Crombie's fixed you up," said Peter, steadily. Then he added thoughtfully, "After that I'm going to fetch Will."
Eve gasped. Swift protest rose to her lips, but it remained unspoken, for at that moment there came the sound of footsteps outside, and Elia led the forceful doctor into the room.
"Hey, Mrs. Henderson," he cried, nodding at the two men. "Winged your head some. Let's have a look," he added, crossing to Eve's side and glancing keenly at her wound. "Whew!" he whistled. "How did you do it? Eh?" he demanded, and Peter explained. The explanation was made to save Eve what both he and Jim knew to be a lie.
The doctor's blunt scorn was withering.
"Pooh! Leanin' over the coal box? Fell on the corner? Nonsense! Say, if you'd fell clear off o' the roof on to that dogone box, mebbe you could ha' done that amount o' damage. But——"
Eve's eyes flashed indignantly.
"I'd be glad if you'd fix me up," she said coldly.
The rough doctor grinned and got to work. She had made him suddenly realize that he was dealing with a woman, and not one of the men of the village. He promptly waived what had, in the course of years, become a sort of prerogative of his: the right to bully. In half an hour he had finished and the three prepared to take their departure.
"Guess you'll be all right now," Crombie said, in his gruff but not unkindly way. Then, unable to check entirely his hectoring, he went on with a sarcastic grin. "An', say, ma'm, if you've a habit o' leanin' so heavy over the coal box, I'd advise you to git the corners rounded some. When falls sech as you've jest bin takin' happen around they don't generly end with the first of 'em. I wish you good-night."
Peter also bade her good-night, and he and the doctor passed out. Jim was about to follow when Eve stayed him. She waited to speak till the others had passed out of ear-shot.
"Jim, you're real good," she said in a low voice. "And I can never thank you enough. No," as he made an attempt to stop her, "I must speak. I didn't want to, but—but I must. It isn't money we want—truth. Not yet. But maybe you can help me. I don't rightly know. You do want to, don't you? Sure—sure?"
Jim nodded. His eyes told her. At that moment he would have done anything for her.
"Well, if you want to help me there's only one way. Help him. Oh, Jim, he needs it. I don't know how it's to be done, but—for my sake—help him. Jim, it's drink—drink and poker. They're ruining him. You can only help me—by helping him. No, don't promise anything. Good-night, Jim. God bless you!"
She held out her hand to him and, in a paroxysm of ardent feeling, he clutched it and kissed it passionately. A moment later he was gone.
As the door closed Elia stepped into the light. The girl had forgotten all about him. Now she was startled.
"Eve, wot fer did you lie about that?" he said, pointing at her bandaged head.
The girl's head was aching so that it seemed it would split, and she closed her eyes. But the boy would not be denied.
"You lied, sis," he exclaimed vehemently, though his face and eyes were quite calm. "Will did that, 'cause you wouldn't give him thirty dollars. I see him throw you 'crost the room. I hate him."
Eve was wide-eyed now.
"You saw him?" she cried in alarm. Then she paused. Suddenly her tone changed. "Come here, Elia," she said gently.
The boy came toward her and she took one of his hands and fondled it.
"How did you see him?" she went on.
"Through the window. I was waitin' fer supper." In spite of her caress the boy was sulky.
"Well, promise me you won't tell anybody. You haven't, have you?"
The boy shook his head.
"I won't tell, sis, if you don't want me. But—but why don't you kill him?"
* * * * *
The three men were walking across the market-place.
"That's Will Henderson's work," exclaimed Crombie with a fierce oath, nodding his head back at Eve's house.
Jim and Peter offered no comment. Both had long since realized the fact.
"Gol durn him!" cried the fiery doctor. "He'll kill her—if he don't get killed instead."
Jim said nothing. Eve's passionate appeal to him was still ringing in his ears. It was Peter who answered.
"You goin' to home, Doc? I'm goin' down to the saloon—to fetch Will."
"You are?" It was Jim's startled inquiry. "What for?"
"I'm going to yarn some—mebbe. You get right out to the ranch, boy. An' don't get around here till I send you word."
The doctor stood for a moment.
"He needs hangin'," he declared. Then, in the cheery starlight, he looked into the two men's faces and grinned. He had a great knowledge of the men of his village. "Well, so long," he added, and abruptly strode away.
The moment he had gone Jim protested.
"Peter," he said, "we've got to help him; we've got to get him clear of that saloon. It's not because I like him or want——"
"Just so. But we got to help him. So, you get right out to the ranch, an'—leave him to me."
The saloon was full and Rocket was busy. His face glowed with funereal happiness. He was sombrely delighted at the rapidity with which the tide of dollars was flowing across his dingy counter. He was more than ordinarily interested, too, which was somewhat remarkable.
The fact was Barnriff's scandal had received a fillip in a fresh and unprecedented direction. McLagan had been in, bringing two of his cow-punchers with him. The hot-headed Irishman had crashed into the midst of Barnriff with such a splash that it set the store of public comment hissing and spluttering, and raised a perfect roar of astonishment and outraged rectitude.
He had arrived late, after the usual evening game had started. His first inquiry was for Jim Thorpe, and he cursed liberally when told that nobody had seen him. Then he fired his angry story at the assembled company of villagers, and passed on to make camp at a rival ranch five miles to the northwest.
It was a rapidly told story full of lurid trimmings, and, judging by its force, came from his heart.
"It's duffing, boys," he cried, with an oath, and a thump on the bar which set the glasses, filled at his expense, rattling. "Dogone cattle-duffing! Can you beat it? The first in five year, since Curly Sanders got gay, and then spent a vacation treadin' air. We got first wind of it nigh a week back, Jim an' me. We missed a bunch o' backward calves. We let 'em run this spring round-up, guessin' we'd round 'em up come the fall. Well, say, Jim went to git a look at 'em—they was way back there by the foot-hills, in a low hollow—an' not a blame trace or track of 'em could he locate. We just guessed they was 'stray,' and started in to round 'em up. Well, the boys has been busy nigh on a week, an' here, this sundown, Nat Pauley an' Jim Beason come riding in, till their bronchos was nigh foundered, sayin' a bunch of twenty cows on the Bandy Creek station has gone too. D'you git that? Those blamed calves was on the Bandy Creek range, too. It's darnation cattle-thievin', an' I'm hot on the trail."
And Barnriff was stirred. It was more. It was up in arms. There was no stronger appeal to its sympathies than the cry of "cattle-thief!" As a village it lived on the support of the surrounding ranches, and their ills became the scourge of this hornet's nest of sharp traders. McLagan had raised the cry here knowing full well the hatred he would stir, and the support that would be accorded him should he need it.
He had come and gone a veritable firebrand, and the hot trail he had left behind him was smouldering in a manner unhealthy for the cattle-thieves.
When Peter Blunt entered the saloon it was to receive McLagan's tale from all sides. And while he listened to the story, now garbled out of all semblance of its original form by the whiskey-stimulated imaginations, he found himself wondering how it came that Jim Thorpe had given him no word of it. And he said so.
"Say, boys," he observed, when he got a chance to speak, "I only left Jim Thorpe a while back. He rode in to see me. He didn't give me word of this."
It was Abe Horsley who explained.
"McLagan came in looking for him. Jim's only got the week old stuff. The news hit the ranch at sundown to-day."
"You'll see more, Peter," broke in Smallbones viciously. "You'll see a vigilance committee right here, if this gambol don't quit. Barnriff don't stand for cattle-duffin' worth a cent."
"Upsets trade," lumbered Jake Wilkes, with the tail of his eye on the busy Smallbones.
Gay laughed ponderously.
"Smallbones'll show us how to form a corporation o' vigilantes. Though it ain't a finance job."
"Ay, that I will. I'm live anyways. I've had to do with 'em before."
"You didn't get hanged," protested Jake, after heavy thought. "Guess you ain't got no kick coming."
Smallbones purpled to the roots of his bristly hair. Jake irritated him to a degree, and the roar of laughter which greeted the slow-witted baker's sally set him completely on edge.
"Guess I was on the other end of the rope," he retorted, trying to turn the laugh, but the baker, with grave deliberation, added to his score.
"Which was a real mean trick o' fortune on us folks o' Barnriff," he murmured.
In the midst of the laughter Peter moved away to the tables. He looked on here and there watching the varying fortunes with all the interest of his intensely human mind. The weaknesses of human nature appealed to his kindly sympathy as they can only to those of large heart. He begrudged no man moments when the cares of everyday life might be pushed into the background, however they might be obtained.
He argued that the judgment of Nature needed no human condemnation added to it. Human penalty must be reserved for the administration of social laws. To his mind the broad road of evil would automatically claim its own without the augmentation of the loads of human freight borne thither on the dump-carts of the self-righteous. Rather it was his delight to hold out a hand to a poor soul in distress, even if his own ground were none too secure.
At one table he saw the winnings almost entirely in one corner, and the expressive yet grim faces of the other players only too plainly showed their feelings. He noticed the greedy manner in which the losers clutched up their cards at each fresh deal. Their hope was invincible, and he loved them for it. It may have been the hope such as a drowning man is credited with. It may have been the sportsman's instinct seeking a fresh turn in fortune's wheel. It may have been inspired by the malicious hope of the winner's downfall. But he felt it was healthy, in spite of the ethical pronouncements of those who repose on the pedestal of their own virtues. It was, to his mind, the spirit of the fighter in the game of life, a spirit, which, even though misdirected, must never be unreservedly deplored. To his mind it were better to fight a battle, however wrong be the prompting instinct, than to run for the shelter of supine ineptitude.
He moved slowly round the room till he came to the table where Will Henderson was playing. He had reached his goal, and his self-imposed task had begun. His eyes quickly scanned the table and the faces of the five players. The other four were men he knew, not actually of the village, but hard-faced, lean ranchmen, men who came from heaven alone knew where, and whose earthly career was scarcely likely to bring about the final completion of the circle.
For the moment they mattered little. It was Will he was concerned with; nor was it with his fortunes in the game. The hand had just finished, and he saw one of the men rake in a small pot of "ante's" without a challenge. While the fresh dealer was shuffling the cards he caught Will's eye. He read there the anxiety of a gambler whose luck is out. He glanced at his attenuated pile of chips, and took his opportunity.
"Feel like missing the deal, Will?" he asked casually.
But the set of the face lifted to him warned him of the negative which swiftly followed.
"Guess I'm not yearning."
Peter followed it up while the cards were being cut.
"I've got to speak to you particular."
A look of doubt suddenly leaped into Will's eyes, and he hesitated.
"What d'you want?"
Peter eyed the tumbler of whiskey at the man's elbow. He noted the heavy eyes in the good-looking young face. But the cards were dealt, and he waited for the finish of the hand. He saw Will bet, and lose on a "full-house." His pile was reduced to four fifty-cent chips and the man's language was full of venom at his opponent's luck. The moment he ceased speaking Peter began again.
"Your wife's hurt bad," he said. "Doc Crombie's only just left her."
Will started. He had forgotten. A sudden fear held him silent, while he waited for more. But no more was forthcoming. Only the blue eyes of his informant searched his face, and, to the guilty man, they seemed to be reading to the very depths of his soul. Something urged him, and he suddenly stood up.
"You best deal four hands," he said hastily to his companions. "I'll be back directly."
Then he moved away from the table unsteadily, and Peter made a guess at the quantity of bad whiskey he had consumed. He led the way from the tables, and, once clear of them, glanced over his shoulder.
"We best get outside," he said.
But Will was already regretting his game. The feeling of guilt was passing. It had only been roused by the suddenness of Peter's announcement. A look of resentment accompanied his reply.
"I ain't going to miss more than a couple of hands," he protested.
"Then we best hurry."
Peter led the way through the crowd, and the two passed out. With the glare and reek of the bar behind them he dropped abreast of Will, and walked him steadily in the direction of his own hut. At first Henderson failed to notice the intention; he was waiting for Peter to speak. He was waiting for the "particular" he had spoken of. Then, as it did not seem to be forthcoming, he promptly rebelled.
"You can tell me right here," he said, with distinct truculence, and coming to a dead standstill.
Peter reached out, and his powerful hand closed about the other's upper arm.
"What I've got to tell you can be told in my shack. You best come right on."
"Take your darned hand off me!" cried Will, angrily. "You'll tell me here, or I get back to my game." He tried to twist himself free. But Peter's hand tightened its hold.
"You're quitting that saloon for to-night, Will," he said quietly.
The other laughed, but he had a curiously uncomfortable feeling under his anger. Suddenly he put more exertion into his efforts to release himself, and his fury rose in proportion.
"Darn your soul, let me go!" he cried.
But Peter suddenly seized his wrist with his other hand, and it closed on it like a vice.
"Don't drive me to force," he warned. "That saloon is closed to you to-night. Do you understand? I've got to say things that'll likely change your way of thinking. Don't be a fool; come on up to my shack."
There was something so full of calm strength, so full of conviction in Peter's tone that it was not without its effect. That guilty thought rose again in Will's mind, and it weakened his power of resistance. His rage was no less, but now there was something else with it, an undermining fear, and in a moment he ceased to struggle.
"All right," he said, and moved forward at the other's side.
Peter released his wrist, but kept his hold on his arm.
And they walked in silence to the "shack." Will had long known the gold prospector, and had become so accustomed to the mildness of his manner, as had all the village, that this sudden display of physical and moral force brought with it an awakening that had an unpleasant flavor. Then, too, his own thoughts were none too easy, and the picture of Eve as he had last seen her would obtrude itself, and created, if no gentler feeling, at least a guilty nervousness that sickened his stomach.
Peter said that Doc Crombie had only just left her. What did that mean? Only just left her, and—it had occurred nearly two hours ago. He was troubled. But his trouble was in no way touched with either remorse or pity. He was thinking purely of himself.
Of course she had recovered, he told himself. He had watched her breathing before he left her. Yes, he had ascertained that. She had been merely stunned. Ah, a sudden thought! Perhaps she had told them what had happened. A black rage against her suddenly took hold of him. If she had—but no. Even though he was—as he was, he realized, as bad natures often will realize in others better than themselves, Eve's loyalty and high-mindedness. It could not be that. He wondered. And wondering they reached their destination.
Peter let him pass into the hut, and, following quickly, lit the lamp. Then he pointed at the only comfortable seat, and propped himself against the table, with the light shining full on Will's face.
"Will," he began, without any preamble, "you've got to take a fall—quick. You've got to get such a big fall that maybe it'll hurt some—at first. But you'll get better—later."
"I don't get you."
The man assumed indifference. He felt that he must steady himself. He wanted to get the measure of the other before giving vent to those feelings which were natural to him since drink had undermined all that was best in him.
"You've nearly killed your wife to-night," Peter went on, with a new note of harshness in his voice. "Look you, I'm not going to preach. It's not our way here, and none of us are such a heap good that preaching comes right from us. I'm warning you, and it's a warning you'll take right here, or worse'll come. Now I don't know the rights of what has happened between you and Eve, but I'll sort of reconstruct it to you in my own way, and it matters nothing if I am right or wrong. Eve and you had words. What about I can only guess at. Maybe it was money, maybe the saloon, maybe poker. You two must have got to words, which ended by you brutally pitching her on to the edge of the coal box, and nearly killing her. After that you went out, leaving her to die—by your act—if it took her that way. Mark you, she didn't fall. She couldn't have—and smashed her forehead as she did. She told us she did, but that, I guess, was to shield you."
"Then she didn't give you this pretty yarn?" inquired Will, sarcastically. He was feeling better. He gathered that Eve was not going to die. "You kind of made it up on your own?"
"Just so," replied Peter, quite unmoved. "I—we—Doc Crombie, Jim Thorpe, and I. We made it up, as you choose to call it, because we've eyes and ears and common sense. And Doc Crombie knows just about how much force it would take to smash her head as it was smashed."
"And what were you fellows doing in my house?" Will demanded, his anger gaining ground in proportion to the abatement of his fears.
"We were in Eve's house," answered Peter, drily, "for the reason that we wished to have a chat with her. That is, Jim and I. Doc Crombie came because we'd a notion we were sorry for Eve, and didn't want her to die on our hands. That's why we were there."
"Jim Thorpe was there, eh? And who's to say that you and he didn't do the mischief? Guess Jim hates things enough, seeing I married Eve. She'd got no broken head when I left her."
"You needn't to lie about it, Will," Peter said calmly. "Least of all to me. But that makes no odds. As I said, you've got to take a fall. Barnriff's got ears and eyes that puts it wise to a lot. It's wise to how things have been going with you and Eve. It's wise to the fact you're bumming your living out of her, that you're a drunken, poker-playing loafer, and that you're doing it on her earnings. And Barnriff, headed by a few of us, and Doc Crombie, aren't going to stand for it. If you don't get busy you'll find there's trouble for you, and if, from this out, Barnriff gets wise to your ill-treatment of Eve, in any way—God help you. You'll get less mercy shown you than you showed that poor girl to-night. That's what I brought you here to say. And I'd like to add a piece of friendly advice. Don't you show your face in Rocket's saloon to get a drink or deal a hand at poker for a month or—well, I needn't warn you further of what's going to happen. If you've got savvee you'll read through the lines. Maybe you'll take this hard—I can see it in your face. But you're a man, and you've got some grit—well, get right out and do things. That's your chance here in Barnriff."
Will Henderson's face was a study while he listened to his arraignment and final sentence by the mild Peter Blunt. At first rage was his dominant emotion, but it gave way before the mild but resolute fashion in which the large man poured out the inexorable flow of the sentence. And somehow for a moment those calm words got hold of all that was vital in him, and he shrank before them. But neither did this feeling last. A bitter hatred rose up in his heart, a black, overmastering, passionate desire for vengeance fired him, and proportionate with its strength a cunning stirred which held it in check. He put an abrupt question, nor could he keep his angry feelings out of his voice.
"So Jim Thorpe's helped in this?" he said savagely. "No need to ask his reason. Gee, it's a mean man that can't take his med'cine."
"You needn't bark up that tree, Will," said Peter, patiently. "We're all responsible for this—the whole of Barnriff." Then he smiled. "You see, Doc Crombie has approved."
Then it was that Henderson saw fit to change his manner. It seemed almost as if the enormity of his offense had been suddenly brought home to him, and contrition had begun to stir.
"Seems to me, Peter, as if the ways of things were queer," he said, after a long pause. "I've got something that'll keep me out of Barnriff a good deal in future. I've had it a week an' more back. I've struck a good thing up in the hills." He laughed. "A real good thing—and it's easy, too."
"I'm glad," the other said genuinely.
"It's gold. Something in your line, eh? Placer. Gee, I'll make things hum when I've taken the stuff out of it. S'truth, I'll buy some of 'em! And sell 'em, too, for that matter."
Peter was interested.
"Gold, eh? Well, good luck to you. I'm glad—if it's to make a man of you."
For a second Will's eyes flashed.
"Yes, you're right; it'll make a man of me. And, being a man, there are some things I'm not likely to forget. Say, you've passed sentence—you and your friends, which include Jim Thorpe. You won't have to carry it out. I'll knuckle down, because I know you all. But, by gee! I've struck what you're looking for, and when I've gathered the dust I'll make some folks jump to my own tune! Get that, Peter Blunt."
Peter smiled at the sudden outburst of malicious rage. Then his face grew cold, and his even tone checked the tide of the other's impotent rage.
"I get it," he said. "But meanwhile Barnriff is top dog, an' you best write that down in big letters, and set it where you can read it easily. Now you can go home and look after your poor wife. And remember, as sure as there's a God in heaven, if you make that girl's life a misery, or in any way hurt her, you'll sicken at the thought of Barnriff. Now you can go."
Peter's quiet manner carried unpleasant conviction to the departing man. The conviction was so strong that he obeyed him to the letter. He walked without hesitation, without any desire to do otherwise, in the direction of his home. But this was an almost mechanical result. His mind was occupied in a way that would have astonished the men of Barnriff.
His fury had gone. His brain was filled with cold, hard thoughts, the more cruel for their lack of heat. His thoughts were of that which he had struck in the hills, and of a revenge which he felt he could play off on these people who demanded that he should guide his life as they dictated. He saw subtle possibilities which gave him enjoyment. He would work, and work hard. And then the manner of the revenge he would take! He laughed.
Then his laugh died out, for Jim Thorpe wholly occupied his thoughts, and there was no room for laughter where Jim was concerned. He remembered Jim was making money—and how. Suddenly he paused in his walk, and a delighted exclamation broke from him.