Annie's loyalty to him stood the test, and she waited for the rest. It came with his recounting of the details of their exploits. He told her of their journey, of the race. Then he passed on to the story of the Little Bluff River, as he had been told it by Smallbones. He assured her that now everybody, urged on by Smallbones, wanted to hang somebody, and, as far as he could make out, unless they quickly laid hands on the real culprit, Jim Thorpe was likely violently to terminate his checkered career over the one-way trail.
He was convinced that the venom of Smallbones, added to the tongues of the women, which were beginning to wag loudly at what they believed was Jim's clandestine intimacy with Eve during her husband's absence, would finally overcome the scruples of Doc Crombie and force him to yield to the popular cry.
He gave her much detail, all of which she added to her own knowledge. And, with her husband's approval, decided to go to Eve, and, in her own phraseology, "do what she could." Her husband really sent her, for he liked Jim Thorpe.
So, on the third morning, Annie set out on her errand of kindly warning. The position was difficult. But she realized that this was no time to let her feelings hinder her. She loved Eve, and, like her husband, she had a great friendliness for Jim.
Then she was convinced that there was nothing between these two yet, other than had always existed, a liking on the woman's part and a deep, wholesome, self-sacrificing love on the man's. She saw the danger for Eve well enough, since her husband had turned out so badly; but her sympathetic heart went out to her, and she would never have opened her mouth to say one word to her detriment, even if she knew the women's accusations to be true. In fact, in a wave of sentimental emotion, she rather hoped they were true. Eve deserved a little happiness, and, if it lay in her power to help her to any, she would certainly not hesitate to offer her services.
To Eve, fighting her lonely battle in the solitude of her small home, amidst the cloth and trimmings of her trade, the sight of Annie's cheerful, friendly face always had a rousing effect. She lived from day to day in a world of grinding fear. Her mind was never clear of it now. And she clung to her work as being the only possible thing. She dared not go out more than she was actually obliged for fear of hearing the news she dreaded. There was nothing to be done but wait for the sword to fall.
But these last three days her fears had been divided, and she found herself torn in two different directions by them. Where before it had always been her husband, now, ever since the night of Jim Thorpe's going, he was rarely out of her thoughts. Now, even more than at the time when she first understood the sacrifice he was about to make for her. And the nobleness of it appealed to her simple woman's mind as something sublime. He was a branded man before, but now, so long as he remained in Barnriff, or wherever he met a man who had lived in Barnriff at this time, so long as Will escaped capture, the pointing finger would be able to mark honest Jim Thorpe as a—cattle-thief. He was powerless to do more than deny it. The horror of it was dreadful.
He had done it for her. And her woman's heart told her why. Her thoughts flew back to those days, such a little way back, yet, to her, so far, far away, when his kind serious eyes used to look into hers in their gentle caressing fashion, when his unready tongue used to halt over speaking those nice things a woman, in her simple vanity, loves to hear from a man she likes. She thought of the little presents he used to make her so awkwardly, all prompted by his great, golden, loving heart.
And she had passed him by for that other. The man with the ready, specious tongue, with the buoyant, self-satisfied air, with the bright, merry eyes of one who knows his power with women, who rarely fails to win, and, having won easily, no longer cares for his plaything. But she had loved Will then, and had Jim been an angel sent straight from heaven he could not then have taken her from him.
But now? Ah, well, now everything was different. She was older. She was, perhaps, sadly wiser. She was also married, and Jim was, could be, nothing to her. His nobleness to her was the nobleness which was not the result of a selfish love that looks and hopes for its reward, she told herself. It was part of the man. He would have acted that way whatever his feelings for her. He was a great, loyal friend, she told herself again and again, and her feeling for him was friendliness, a friendliness she thanked God for, and nothing more. She told herself all this, as many a woman has told herself before, and she fancied, as many another good and virtuous woman has fancied, that she believed it.
When Annie entered her workroom she looked up with a wistful smile of welcome, but the sight of the clouds obscuring the sunshine of the girl's face stopped her sewing-machine at once, and ready sympathy found prompt expression in her gentle voice.
"What is it, dear?" she inquired. "You look—you look as if you, too, were in trouble."
Annie tried to smile back in response. But it was a poor attempt. She had been thinking so hard on her way to Eve. She had been calculating and figuring so keenly in her woman's way. And curiously enough she had managed to make the addition of two and two into four. She felt that she must not hesitate now, or the courage to display the accuracy of her calculation, and at the same time help her friend, would evaporate.
"Trouble?" she echoed absently. "Trouble enough for sure, but not for me, Eve," she stepped round to the girl's side and laid a protecting arm about her shoulders. "You can quit those fears you once told me of. I—think he's safe away."
Had Annie needed confirmation of her deductive logic she had it. The look of absolute horror which suddenly leaped into Eve's drawn face was overwhelming. Annie's arm tightened round her shoulders, for she thought the distraught woman was about to faint.
"Don't say a word, Eve, dear. Don't you—now don't you," she cried. "I'm going to do the talking. But first I'll just shut the door." She crossed to the door, speaking as she went. "You've just got to sit an' listen, while I tell you all about it. An' when we've finished, dear," she said, coming back to her place beside her, "ther's just one thing, an' only one person we've got to think an' speak about. It's Jim Thorpe."
Annie's intuition must have been something approaching the abnormal, for she gave Eve no chance whatever to reply. She promptly sat down at the table, and, gazing straight into the stricken woman's face, told her all that her husband had told her, and all that she had gleaned for herself, elsewhere. She linked everything together in such a manner as to carry absolute conviction, showing the jeopardy in which Jim stood.
Never once did she refer to Will, or hint again that she had discovered Eve's secret, the secret which Doc Crombie and the whole of Barnriff would have given worlds to possess, but she told her story from the point of view of Jim's peril as a suspected cattle-thief, and his apparent interest in her, Eve, which the whole of the village women were beginning so virtuously to resent.
"An' if all that wasn't sufficient to set a wretched lot o' scallywags hanging him, along comes this business of the Little Bluff River," she finished up.
Eve's face was a study in emotion during the girl's recital. From terror it passed to indignation, from horror to the shrinking of outraged wifehood. Now she stammered her request for Annie to go on.
"I—I don't understand," she declared, "what has that——?"
"What's it got to do with it?" cried Annie, with hot anger at the thought. "Why, just this. It's that mean Smallbones for sure. It's him at the bottom of it. They're saying that Jim did see the rustler, an' helped him get clear away while he pretended to be chasin' him. That's what the mildest of 'em sez. But ther's others swear, an' Smallbones is one of 'em, that Jim himself was the rustler, an' they rec'nized him from the start. But someways he jest managed to fool Doc, 'cause his horse was cool, and didn't show no signs of the chase."
The girl's pretty eyes were wide with anger at these accusers. But her anger was nothing to compare with the fury which now stirred Eve.
"Oh, they're wicked, cruel monsters! They hate him, and they only want to hang him because they hate him. It's—it's nothing to do with the cattle stealing. Smallbones has always hated Jim, because—because Jim's better educated and comes from good people. Jim a cattle-thief? Jim wouldn't steal a—a—blade of grass. He's too noble, and good, and—and honest. Oh, I hate these people! I hate them all—all!"
Annie sat aghast at the storm she had roused. But her woman's wit at once told her the nature of the real feeling underlying the girl's words. She had suspected before, but now she understood what, perhaps, Eve herself had no definite understanding of. With the wrecking of her love for her husband it had been salved and safely anchored elsewhere. And Jim was the man who had—anchored it.
However, she wisely refrained from revealing her discovery. She was delighted, sentimentally, foolishly delighted, but unhesitatingly continued with the purpose of her coming.
"Yes, dear," she agreed, nodding her pretty head sagely. "And so do I. But we've sure got to think of Jim Thorpe. And—and that's why I came along. Gay knows why I came, too. You know how queer Gay is 'bout some things. He said to me, 'You best get along. Y'see, I got Jim down fer buryin' proper when his time comes, an' I don't figger to get fooled by any low-down hanging.' That's what Gay said, an' I didn't think it quite elegant of him at the time. But there," with a sigh, "men are curious folk 'bout things. Still," she bustled on alertly, "we got to give him warning. We got to make him keep away for a while anyway. He hasn't been seen in the village since, and there's folks say we ain't likely to see him again. I—I almost hope they're right, for his sake. It won't never do for him to come along—true—true it won't."
The girl's earnestness and alarm were reflected in Eve's face. She saw the necessity, the emergency. But how—how to get word to him? That was the difficulty. How? Neither of them knew where he was, and certainly none of the villagers did.
Eve shook her head desperately.
"I—I don't seem to be able to think," she said piteously. "I've done so much thinking, and—and scheming, that my head feels silly, and I—I—don't know what to suggest."
But Annie was paying only slight attention. Now her round eyes suddenly brightened.
"I've got it," she cried. "There's—there's Peter Blunt. He's sure to know where Jim is, or be able to find him. Yes, and there's your Elia—if Peter fails."
But Eve shook her head at the latter suggestion.
"Peter, yes. He'll help us, surely. But we must not think of Elia. He's—he's too—delicate."
"Then it's Peter," cried Annie, impulsively. "Now I'll tell you what we'll do. I'll find Peter some time to-day, and—and tell him to come along and see you to-night, after dark. You see," she added naively, "he best not be seen visitin' you in daylight. Then you can tell him all I've told you, and he'll sure know the best to do. He likes Jim."
"Yes, yes," agreed Eve, brightening visibly and catching something of Annie's confidence in her scheme. "Peter will help me, I know. Oh, Annie, you are a dear, good thing! I don't know how I'd get through all this without you. But—but—you'll be secret, won't you, dear? You see, I'm quite helpless, and—and you know so much."
"You can trust me, Eve, you can trust me like you can trust—Jim Thorpe. Good-bye, dear, an' keep bright. I'll come along after you've seen Peter. Yes, we've got to help Jim out—that's how my man said, too. Good-bye."
She hurriedly kissed her friend and bustled out of the house. All this scheming had got hold of her busy brain, and she was eager to get to work on it.
It was a long day of suspense for Eve. There was so little to distract her mind from the things which troubled. A few household duties, that was all. There was Elia's food to be prepared when he came in from Peter's new cutting, just outside the village limits. There was her dressmaking. But this last left her so much room for thought, and only helped to lengthen the dragging hours.
At dinner-time Elia informed her that there were some jack-rabbits in a bluff just outside the village, and declared his intention of snaring them for her that night. But she paid only the slightest attention to him, and gave him permission to go almost without thinking. Since Will had escaped there was only one thing of any consequence. It was Jim's safety from the angry villagers.
That afternoon, as she sat over her work, he alone occupied her thoughts and troubled her to a degree that would have startled her had she been less concerned in his danger. She saw now how the cowardly part she had played in accepting his help to save her worthless husband had thrown the burden of his crime upon Jim's willing shoulders. And now they wanted to hang him. She was to blame and she alone. She who would not willingly hurt one hair of his head.
Hurt him? Oh, no, no! And yet, how she had hurt him already. She had never meant to. It had been rushed upon her. She had acted upon the impulse of the moment. And then—then he had refused to listen when she realized the meaning of what she had done. Hurt him? No. Now she felt that nothing else mattered if only she could see a way to clear his name.
She thought long and hopelessly. Then, of a sudden, she sprang to her feet with a cry. Yes, yes, there was a way. They should not hang him. She still had it in her power to save him. She still had it in her power to tell the whole miserable, pitiful truth. She had been a coward, but she would be a coward no longer. This was for Jim. The other had been for herself. Yes, she would tell the truth. She would tell them that Will Henderson—her husband—was the thief. They would believe—yes——
But her hope suddenly dropped from her. Would they believe? She remembered what Annie had told her. She had been seen with Jim several times in the village since he had left McLagan's. How many times? Once—twice—— Yes, three times in all. And already the women of the place had started scandalous stories. Would they believe her? If she denounced Will, what then? Their retort would promptly be that she was trying to rid herself of her husband, for—her own ends. Oh, it was cruel!
She flung herself into her chair, and buried her face in her hands. She could do nothing. Nothing but wait for help from others. And God alone knew into what trouble she might not plunge them.
But gradually she became calmer. She began to think in a different channel. She was thinking of these scandalous tongues, and searching for an answer to them. She began to question her feelings. She told herself that Jim was nothing but a friend. A well-liked friend. She told herself this several times, and thought she believed it. Why should it be otherwise? She had only seen him three times since he came in from McLagan's. So why should it be otherwise? No, it was not otherwise.
Slowly, as she thought, and the hours drifted on, her fears fell away into the background. Her heart grew very tender, and her denial less decided. She wondered where Jim was. She longed to go to him. She would have loved to carry the warning to him herself. Somehow, she wanted to be at his side, to tell him all she felt at the trouble she had brought upon him. At the wrong she had so thoughtlessly, unintentionally done him. She wanted to show him how she had only done as her weak woman's conscience had prompted her. She had not thought beyond what she believed to be her duty. She had not paused to think what trouble she was bringing on others—on him. Had she only realized at the time, that, with all her might, she was driving the searing brand deeper into his flesh, she would rather have faced the rope herself. She wanted to tell him all this, to open her heart to him, and let him see that she was not the cruel, selfish creature he must think her for having accepted his sacrifice in bearing the warning to Will.
The fascination of her self-abnegating thought held her, and she drifted on to more personal details. She pictured his kind eyes, and heard his deep, gentle voice telling her that he forgave her, that he preferred to carry the warning rather than she should suffer. She felt in her heart that this was what he would say, for she knew, as most women know these things, that the old love of a year ago was still as it was then. And the thought of it was sweet and comforting now in her trouble.
She remained in her wondrously seductive dreamland while the minutes crept on. And, as the dusky shadows of evening gathered, she sat silent in her woman's dream of the man. It was gentle, soothing, irresistible. It was the natural reaction after long hours of mental struggle, when a merciful Providence brings relief to the suffering mind, the saving sedative of a few restful moments in the realms of a gentle dreaming of subconsciousness.
But perhaps this respite was something in the nature of an inversion of the tempering of the wind. Perhaps a strange Providence was giving her a few moments in which to strengthen herself for the blow that was to follow so quickly. It is of small consequence, however. These things pass in a lifetime almost unobserved. It is only on subsequent reflection that they become apparent.
The darkness had closed down, and for once the usually brilliant summer evening was clouded, and the twilight quickly lost. The woman's introspective gaze was smiling, the drawn lines about her pretty mouth, the shadows under her eyes seemed to have fallen from her. It almost seemed as though the happiness of her dreams had entirely banished the trouble that had so long weighed her down.
Then suddenly the latch of her door lifted with a rattle. She started at once into perfect consciousness. At last. It was Peter Blunt come with his ready help. She started to her feet, all her dream-castles tumbling about her. The door was pushed roughly open, and Will, her husband, came hurriedly in:
Eve's exclamation was the last thing in horror, the last thing in unconscious detestation. But his eyes held hers as one fascinated by the eyes of some cruel reptile. Nor was it until he nodded his reply that the spell was broken.
"Yes—and I guess you ain't too pleased."
There was a harsh sarcasm in his tone, which added to the steely horror in the woman's heart. Now her eyes glanced swiftly over his body. He was dressed differently to anything she had ever seen him in. He was wearing a suit of store clothes, and a soft cotton shirt with a collar. His whole appearance suggested the Sunday costume of any of the villagers, which they generally wore when setting out on a visit to a town of some importance. Just for a moment she wondered if this was Will's intention. Was he about to make a bolt out of the country?
He shut the door carefully, and glanced round the darkened room. There was just sufficient glow from the stove to tell him there was no one else in the place.
"Where's Elia? Are you alone?"
His tone was peremptory and suspicious. His furtive eyes told Eve that he was apprehensive. She nodded.
"Elia's gone snaring jack-rabbits on the bluff, out back," she said unsuspiciously. "Shall I light a lamp?"
"No." His negative came emphatically.
He came round to the stove, and stood looking down at her for some moments. There was a dark, sullen frown in his eyes which might well have suggested possibilities to the most unsuspicious. But she was not suspicious, just then. She was wondering and fearful that he had returned to the village instead of getting away. Why had he come? she asked herself. But her question found no voice.
"Well?" he said at last, with such a sneer that she lifted a pair of startled eyes to his face. Her heart was hammering in her bosom. She had suddenly realized his temper.
"I'm going away," he said sharply. "I've got to get out. I came in for money. Have you got any of my money?"
"All of it."
"Ah, good. You're more use than I thought you. How much?"
"Over a thousand dollars."
Eve's voice was icy. Her whole attitude seemed almost mechanical. Yet a wild terror was slowly creeping over her, mounting steadily to her brain. Nor was the reason for it quite apparent yet.
The man's eyes sparkled, and for a moment his frown lightened.
"Good. You can hand it over." And his voice was almost friendly.
Eve went into her bedroom and returned with a pile of bills. Will held out his hand for them, but she ignored it, and laid them on the table. He seized upon them greedily, glancing queerly at her as he pocketed them.
"Good," he said thoughtfully, "now I can get busy." He lifted his eyes to his wife's face again, and stared at her malevolently, and the woman shivered under his scrutiny. She had shrunk from coming into contact with the hand that had shot down one of the boys, and now she was thinking of this man as the murderer.
"You best go," she said, vainly trying to keep her voice steady.
But the man made no move. His malevolent stare had become more intense. Suddenly he laughed, his teeth baring, but his eyes remaining unchanged.
"So that's it, eh?" he said. Then the malevolence of his eyes changed to an angry fire. "I'm going sure, but not till I've done what I came to do. Y'see, there's no great hurry. Folks aren't chasin' me here. Here, I'm a respectable, hard-working gold prospector. An' I've been down at the saloon an' talked with the folks. Bluff, eh? Gold prospector. Gee! We know differently, eh? Don't we? Oh, yes, I'm goin'—when it suits me. Not when it suits you. Guess you'd be glad to be rid of me, eh? So it would leave room for Jim Thorpe. Oh, I've heard. All the folks are talking."
The girl started. An angry flush slowly mounted to her cheeks, and a sudden sparkle lit her eyes.
"But he don't cut any ice with me," the man went on with a laugh. "You won't get him. Nor will any other woman. They're goin' to hang him. Say, what was his price for riding out to me? Did you pay it beforehand, or do you reckon to pay it before they hang him? Ha, ha! guess you ain't paid it yet. Men don't work for women after they get their pay. I'd say you're shrewd enough someways."
Eve's fury at the man's loathsome suggestion drove her beyond all caution. And she flung her answer at him with a hatred that was wholly infuriating to the man.
"You best go. Remember, I know the truth of you," she cried. "We've saved you from the rope, once. I still have it in my power to——"
He stepped up to her and stood, his face within a few inches of hers.
"So that's it, is it? You'd give me away. You!" He shook his head slowly, all his purpose plainly written in his furious eyes. "You won't give me away. I'll see to that. For two pins I'd silence you now, only—only it isn't what I want. But don't make a mistake, you won't give me away. Sit down. Sit down right there in the chair behind you."
He stood over her, compelling her with the force behind his command, and the terrified woman found herself obeying him against her will. She almost fell into the chair. Then the man turned back to the door and secured it.
"We don't want any one buttin' in," he said. "I've got to do a big talk first, then I get goin'."
He came back and stood beside the stove, opposite her, so that he could look right down into her face and watch the effect of his words. He was brimful of a merciless project, which was to be carried out partly for her edification, partly for his own revenge, and wholly for the satisfaction of the devilish nature within him, which now, let fully loose, swayed him beyond any thought of consequences.
"See here, you've been my Jonah right along. I never had a cent's worth of luck since I got scratching around your fence," he began, almost quietly. Only was the threat in his eyes. "I don't guess I can say just how things happened—I mean how things got going wrong with me, unless it was you. I'm going to tell you straight when it happened. I got mean when I was fool enough to guess I was sweet on you. Jim Thorpe was sweet on you too. I got mean toward him. We shot a target for first chance to ask you to marry. He won. I got in ahead, and, like a fool, married you. That was the beginning. An' I didn't feel any less mean after. Yes, you were my Jonah, sure. I couldn't work those first days 'cos of you, an' after I didn't guess I wanted to. But it set me savage I didn't want to. Well, I'm not here to tell you all the things that followed. You know them as well as me. But there's things you don't know. After you got hurt that night it was Peter Blunt who drove me out of Barnriff with threats of kicking me out, and setting the townsfolk on me for the way I'd treated you. But Jim was behind it. He didn't do the talkin' to me—Peter did that. But Jim came in that night to see you. I found that out. Say, I was mad. I was mad at Jim Thorpe, and not Peter, for I read his doing in my own way. Y'see I was still a fool, an' still sweet on you. But I saw how I could get back on him. I'd been at work some time on the cattle-duffing, an' I saw just how I could hurt him too.
"Say, cattle-duffing's a great gambol, an' I don't regret it. I'm going to keep on at it—only elsewhere. Well, I got hold of Master Jim's brand. I got kit as like he wears as two cents, in case I was located. We're alike in figure——"
"But, thank God, there's no other resemblance."
Eve's scathing comment came with startling suddenness. Her terror was passing, and only she felt a great loathing for this man.
"Keep all that till I've finished," Will said coolly. "Maybe you won't be so ready then. Well, I used his brand, and set a bunch of cattle running amongst his—McLagan's cattle, as you know. Then I waited for developments. They came—oh, yes, they came. Jim was the cattle-thief. I the lucky gold prospector. Good, eh?" He laughed heartily.
"But, say, I was still a fool," he went on, after a slight pause. "I was still sweet on you. Then I heard every time Jim came into the village he'd always call to see you. That set me mad—so mad you came mighty near to passing in your checks, and Jim too. I'm glad those things didn't happen now. Y'see, I didn't reckon on Elia. I'd forgotten him. That imp of hell can hate, and it was me he hated, eh? Y'see, I've heard how he tracked me. I hear most things doing in Barnriff. Then you did your fool stunt sending Jim out to warn me. He got me clear, and—and I hate him worse for it; but not so bad as I hate you now. I see how it was done. I'm no fool. Jim did it for you, and I guess you'll pay his price. That's how you're both thinking. But you won't. They're goin' to hang him. There's only one person who can put them wise about this cattle stealing, that's Elia. And I'm going to kill him to-night. That's why I came in—that an' to get money. When I've finished him I'll see to you——"
But Eve was on her feet in a frenzy of horror and fear for the brother she loved. All her mother's instinct was roused to a fighting pitch.
"You shan't touch him!" she cried fiercely. "You shall kill me first! I swear it! Oh, you wretched murderer! You filth! Ha, ha—nobody but Elia knows. Peter knows, and—and others. You touch Elia, and I swear you shan't escape!"
"Peter knows, eh? Ho, ho, my girl," the man mocked. Then he shook his head. "It doesn't matter—not a little bit. What I'm going to do will be done to-night. Elia will get his med'cine, and then I'll come back, and—well, you shan't get a chance of paying Jim his price. Oh, no," as Eve opened her lips to speak again, "I'll take no chances. I'll leave you safe here. I could settle you first, but I want you to know your beloved brother is dead before—you join him. Get my meaning? You see, Peter and those others knowing have altered my plans some. You'll join your angel brother when I come back."
He had been bending over her, to impress his cruel words upon her more forcibly. Now he suddenly straightened up and snatched some dress material from the table. Before the wretched woman was aware of his intentions he had flung it over her head. She tried to scream, but instantly he had her by the throat with one hand and choked her cries back. With the other he thrust the cloth into her mouth till she was effectually gagged. Then he secured it in place with a long binding of braid. But the moment this was done, and he released her throat, she began to struggle violently, and he was forced to exert all his strength to crush her down into the chair. Here he knelt on her, while he lashed her hands together, and then her feet. Then he tied the two bindings together, so that her arms were locked immovable round her knees. Now, at his leisure, he took the table cover and securely bound her into the chair.
This accomplished, he stood up and surveyed his handiwork carefully. He was breathing hard with his exertion. Yes, she was well secured, and he smiled sardonically. He watched her thus for some moments. Then he glanced round the darkened room. It was the haunted look of the man engaged in crime.
Suddenly he stepped softly to her side, and, stooping, lifted the cloth with which she was gagged from before the upper part of her face. He looked into the hunted, terrified eyes and grinned. Then he put his lips close to one of her ears.
"Now I'm going to the bluff out back to—kill your brother, your beloved Elia. Then I'm coming back to—kill you," he whispered. And the next moment he was gone.
It was with no very cheerful feelings that Jim Thorpe approached Barnriff once more. He had delayed his return as long as possible, not from any fear for himself, but for the sake of giving color to his final protestations to Doc Crombie, when they parted company at the Little Bluff River.
After resting his horse in the river woods for a full twenty-four hours—and, in that time, the tough beast had fully recovered from his journey—he then, with simple strategy, hunted up Will's tracks where the fugitive had left the river, and steadily trailed him to the northern hills. There he gave up further pursuit, having fully satisfied himself that the man's escape had been accomplished. So he turned his horse's head toward Barnriff, and prepared himself to face the trouble that he knew would be awaiting him.
It was a cheerless journey, harassed by thoughts and speculations that could be hardly considered illuminating. Curiously enough he had no thought of making a run for it to a district where he was still unknown. Why should he? There was not a guilty thought in his mind, unless it were the recollection of the trick he had played on the lynching party to save Will from the rope.
No, his set purpose was to return to Barnriff and fight the public feeling he knew there was against him, and to live it down. Besides, there was Eve. Who could tell, with such a husband as Will, when she might not need the help of a strong, willing arm? His love for her was stronger than his discretion, it was more powerful than any selfish consideration.
He had but one real friend in Barnriff that he knew of. There were several, he believed, who, at a crisis, would vote in his favor, but that was all. Peter Blunt he knew he could rely on to the last. And, somehow, this man, to his mind, was an even more powerful factor than Doc Crombie. It was not that Peter held any great appeal with the people, but somehow there was a reserve of mental strength in the man that lifted him far above his fellows, in his capacity to do in emergency. He felt that, with the great shadow of Peter standing by, he had little to fear from such jackals as Smallbones.
Yet the outlook was depressing enough as he drew near his destination. He no longer had the possibility of clearing his name. That was past. A hope abandoned with many others in his short life. All thought of establishing his innocence must be wiped out forever. He had enlisted himself in Eve's service for good or evil, and the only thing remaining to him was, by facing the yelping of the Barnriff pack, with a dogged, defiant front, to attempt to live down his disgrace. In this, to his simple mind, there was one great thing in his favor. The cattle stealing was at an end. There would be no further depredations. And this alone would be of incalculable help to him. He knew the cattle world well enough to understand that the ethics of the case were not of paramount importance with these people. It was the loss of stock which rankled. It was the definite, material loss and injury to the commerce of the district.
But to a man of his honor and love of fair play the position was desperately hard. Fate was driving him at a pace that threatened to wreck in no uncertain manner. The downward path looked so easy—was so easy. Lately he had frequently found himself wondering why he didn't go with the tide and head straight for the vortex that he felt would be only too ready to engulf him. He had been so near it once. That moment was indelibly fixed on his memory. He doubted that but for Peter Blunt he would never have resisted the temptation. He knew himself, he was honest with himself. That day when he first discovered Will's treachery Peter had saved him.
Now everything seemed somehow different. His thoughts were frequently desperate enough, but, whereas a year ago he would have cried out against Heaven, against everything in Heaven or on earth, now he wanted to set his back to the wall and fight. He felt it in him to fight, let the odds be what they might. And he knew that he owed this new spirit to the big-hearted Peter, who had once shown him how wrong he was.
But though less acknowledged, there was another influence at work within him. Eve was there alone, far more alone than if she had never married Will. He only guessed what her feelings must be, for she was still in doubt as to Will's safety. Yes, he would at least have the privilege of carrying her the glad tidings.
He laughed bitterly. He could not help it. Yes, she would be the happier for his tidings, and with that he must be content. Now, no one would ever know. Her disgrace would be hidden, and she would be able to live on quietly in the village with her young brother until such time as she felt it safe to join her husband.
Try as he would to appreciate the comparative happiness he was conveying to the woman, he felt the sharp pricks of the thorny burden he was bearing. He smiled in the growing darkness, and told himself that there was no disaster that brought happiness to any one but must be counted as a good work.
He could see the twinkling lights of the village less than half a mile ahead, and he glanced over them carefully. There was the saloon. Who could mistake it, with its flamboyant brilliance against the lesser twinkle of the smaller houses? His eyes searched for the lights of Eve's home. He could not see them. Possibly she was in her kitchen, that snug little room, where, up to a year ago, he had many a time taken tea with her. Yes, it would be about her supper-time. He looked back at the western sky to verify the hour. The last faint sheen of sunset was slipping away into the soft velvet of night.
He thought for a moment as to his best course. Should he wait until morning to bear his tidings to her? No, that would leave her unnecessary time for worry and anxiety. Best go to her to-night—at once.
He shook up his horse into a better gait. It were best to hurry. He did not want to be seen visiting her late in the evening. He knew the scandalous tongues of the village only too well.
In a few minutes he was nearing the saloon. He would pass within fifty yards of it. As he came abreast of it he turned his head curiously in its direction. There was a great din of voices coming from its frowzy interior, and he wondered. The men seemed to have begun their nightly orgie early. Then it occurred to him that perhaps Crombie's men had returned, and were out to make a night of it. He smiled to himself. They would need a good deal of drink to wash out the taste of the bitter pill of Will's escape.
Had he but known it, the occasion was a meeting of the townsmen to decide his fate. Had he but known it, Peter Blunt was there watching his interests and ready to fight with both brains and muscle on his behalf. But then, had he known it, it might have altered the whole complexion of the events which happened in Barnriff that night.
He did not know it, so he rode straight on to Eve's house. Nor did it occur to him as strange, at that hour in the evening, that he did not encounter a single soul on his way.
Arrived at her gate he dismounted and off-saddled. He would not need his horse again that night, so he turned the animal loose to graze at its leisure. It would find its way to the water when it wanted to, and when he had seen Eve he would carry his saddle back to Peter's hut, where he was going to sleep.
Just for a moment he paused before opening the gate. The house was still in darkness. He had half a mind to go round the back and see if there were lights in the kitchen. But it seemed like spying to him, and so he refrained.
But somehow the place suggested that there was no one within, and eventually he started up the path with a feeling of keen disappointment. At the door he paused and felt for the latch. Then, just as his hand came into contact with it, and he was about to lift it, he started, and, motionless, stood listening.
What was that? He thought he heard a peculiar moaning beyond the door. No, he was mistaken. There was no sound now. At least—— Ah, there it was again. He pressed one ear against the door and immediately started back. He had not been mistaken.
He no longer hesitated, but, lifting the latch noisily, pressed against the door. It was fast. And now the moaning suddenly became louder. Without a thought, without a scruple, he promptly thrust his toe against the foot of the door and pressed heavily. Then, lifting the latch, he threw all the weight of his powerful shoulder against the lock. The door gave before him, nearly precipitating him headlong into the room.
He managed to save himself and stepped hurriedly within. Then he again stood listening. The room was quite dark, but now he had no difficulty in placing the moaning. It came from just across the room beside Eve's stove.
"Eve," he called softly. "Eve!" But as no answer came a great fear gripped his heart. Was this a repetition of—— No, Will was away out in the mountains.
Now the moaning was louder, and there was a distinct rustling whence the sound came. He fumbled a match from his pocket and struck it. One glance toward the stove set him rushing across to the parlor lamp.
He lit the lamp and hurried back to the chair beside the stove. He needed but one glance to realize Eve's condition, and his heart was filled with a great rage. Who? Who had done this thing? was the question that ran through his mind as he set to work to undo the cruel bonds that held her to her chair.
It was the work of a few moments to remove the gag that was nearly choking her. Then the knots about her wrists and feet were swiftly undone. Released at last, Eve sank back in a semi-fainting condition, and Jim looked on helplessly. And in those moments he made up his mind that some one was going to pay dearly for this.
Then it occurred to him that no time must be lost, so he hurried into the kitchen and came back with a dipper of drinking water. He held it to the girl's lips, and after she had drunk he soaked his handkerchief in what remained, and bathed her forehead and temples with a wonderful tenderness and silent sympathy.
But suddenly Eve opened her eyes. And at once he saw that her weakness had passed. The horror of recollection was alive once more within her, and her terrified eyes sought his. When she saw who he was she sprang to her feet with a great cry.
"Jim!" she cried. And, staggering in her weakness, she would have fallen.
He caught her just in time, and gently returned her to her seat. But with a great effort she overcame her faintness.
"For God's sake, save him!" she cried wildly. "Oh, Jim, he's gone to kill him! Save him for me! Only save him!"
The position was difficult. Jim's heart bled for the distraught woman. But he realized that he must calm her at once, or she would break out into shrieking hysterics.
"Be calm, Eve," he said almost roughly. "How can I understand when you talk like that? Don't let's have any foolishness. Now quietly. Who's gone to kill—who?"
His manner had its effect. Eve choked back her rising emotion with an effort, and her eyes lost some of their straining.
"It's Will," she said, with a sort of deliberate measuring of her words. "He's gone to kill Elia. Out there, back at the bluff. It's for setting the men after him. And—then, and then he's coming back——"
Jim was staggered. He looked at the woman wondering if she had suddenly lost her senses.
"And I came back to tell you he'd got clear away. By Heaven! And he did this?" He indicated the bonds he had just removed, and his eyes darkened with sudden fury.
The woman nodded. She was holding herself with all her might.
"Yes, but—that's nothing." Suddenly she let herself go. All the old terror surged uppermost again. "But don't wait! Jim, save him for my sake! Save him for me! Oh, my poor, helpless brother! Jim—Jim, you are the only one I can look to. Oh, save him! He's all I have—all I have."
It was a dreadful moment for the man. The woman he loved half dead with terror and the cruel handling dealt her by her husband. Now she was appealing to him as the only man in the world she could appeal to. His love rushed to his head and came near to driving him to the one thing in the world he knew he must not do. He longed to crush her in his strong arms, and proclaim his right to protect her against the world. He loved her so that he wanted to defy everybody, all the world, that he might claim her for his own. But she was not his. And he almost spoke the words aloud to convince himself and drive back the demon surging through his blood.
"Where did you say he was?" he demanded, almost savagely in his tremendous self-repression.
"At the bluff, out back. Hurry, hurry, for—God's sake!"
That was better. The less personal appeal helped him to calm himself.
"How long's he been gone?" he asked, turning his eyes from her terror-stricken face to help himself regain his own control.
"About a quarter of an hour, or even a half," she cried.
"It's a quarter of a mile, isn't it?"
"More. Nearly a mile."
"Right. You stay here." He threw a pistol on the table. "Keep that to protect yourself," he added, brusquely. "And—Eve, if I get there in time, I'll save your brother. If I don't, your husband shall die, as sure as——"
But his sentence remained unfinished. He rushed out of the house and sought his horse. The animal was still grazing near by. He slipped the bit into its mouth. Then he sprang on to its bare back and galloped off.
And as he rushed out Eve fell back into a chair laughing and crying at the same time.
WILL HENDERSON REACHES THE END
Will Henderson stalked his prey with a caution, a deliberateness, as though he were dealing with a grown man, a man who could resist, one whose power to retaliate was as great as was his to attack. But nothing of this was in his thoughts. It was the fell intent to murder that now cast its furtive, suspicious, even apprehensive spell over his mind, and so influenced his actions.
As Elia at one time had trailed him, so he was now tracking Elia. From bush to bush and shadow to shadow he searched the bluff for the hunter of jack-rabbits. But the bluff was extensive, the night dark, and the movements of the snarer as silent as those of the man hunting him. There was black murder in Will's heart, the cruel purpose of a mind turned suddenly malignant with a desire for adequate revenge. His was nothing of the fiery rage which drives a man spontaneously. He meant to kill his victim after he had satisfied his lust for torture, and no one knew better than he how easy his task was, and how cruelly he could torture this brother of Eve.
The starlit night yielded up the bluff a wide black patch amidst a shadowed world. There was no moon, but the wealth of stars shed a faint glimmer of soft light on the surrounding plains. The conditions could not have been more favorable for his purpose, and they gave him a fiendish satisfaction.
He had skirted the bluff all round. He had passed through its length. And still no sign of his quarry. Twice he started up a jack-rabbit, but the snarer did not seem to be in the vicinity. Now, with much care and calculation, he began to traverse the breadth of the bush in a zigzag fashion which was to continue its whole length. His old trapping instincts served him, and none but perhaps an Indian would have guessed that a human being was searching every inch of the woodland shadow.
The man had already traversed a third of the bush in this fashion when the unexpected happened. For the tenth time he approached the southern fringe of the bluff and stood half hidden in the shadow of one of the large, scattered bushes outlying. And in the starlight he beheld a familiar figure out in the open, watching intently the very spot at which he had emerged.
There was no mistaking the figure, even in that dim light. Did not everybody know that head, bent so deliberately on one side? The hunched shoulders? The drawn-up hip? It was Elia, and, in the darkness, a fierce grin of satisfaction lit the murderer's face. He realized that the snarer must have heard his approach, and, believing it to be a jack-rabbit, had waited to make sure. The thought tickled his cruel senses, and he wanted to laugh aloud. But he refrained, and, instead, moved stealthily forward.
The bush hid him while he had a good view of his victim through its upper branches. And he calculated that if the boy remained standing where he was, with a little care he could approach to within a yard or two of him without being discovered. So he moved forward, circling the bush without any sound. It was wonderful how his training as a trapper had taught him the science of silent woodcraft.
As he reached the limits of his shelter he dropped upon his stomach and began to wriggle through the grass. It pleased him to do this. It gave him a sense of delight at the thought of the horrible awakening the cowardly boy was presently to receive.
A yard—two yards, he slid through the grass. Three. One more, and he would be near enough for his purpose. Suddenly and silently he stood erect, like a figure rising out of the ground. He was directly in front of the boy, and within arm's length of him. He stood thus for a second that his victim might realize his identity thoroughly, and fully digest the meaning of the sudden apparition.
He had full satisfaction. Elia recognized him and stood petrified with terror. So awful to him was the meaning of that silent figure that he had not even the power to cry out. He shook convulsively and stood waiting.
The murderer raised one hand slowly and reached out toward the boy. His hand touched his clothing, and moved up to his throat. The powerful fingers came into contact with the soft flesh, and closed upon it. Then it was that the moment of paralysis passed. The boy fell back with a terrible cry.
But Will followed him up, and again his hand reached his throat. He grasped it, and tightened his fingers upon it. A gurgling cry of abject terror was the response. Again Will's hand released its hold. But now he seized one of the boy's outstretched arms, and, with a sudden movement, twisted it behind his back so hard that a third cry, this time of pain alone, was wrung from the terrified lad.
He held him thus and looked into the beautiful face now so pitifully distorted with fear.
"Guess I've done the tracking this time," Will said through his clenched teeth. "You put me to a lot of trouble coming all this way. Still, I don't guess I mind much. Most folks get their med'cine. You're going to get yours to-night. How d'you like it?"
He wrenched the weakly arm till the boy cried out again, and dropped to his knees in anguish. But, with a ruthless jolt, Will jerked him to his feet, nearly dislocating his arm in the process.
"Oh, you're squealing, now, eh? You're squealing," he repeated, striking the boy on the hump of his back with his clenched first. "That hurts too, eh?" As a fresh cry broke from his victim. "I always heard that the hump was tender in a dog-ghasted cripple. Is it? Is it?" he inquired, at each question repeating the blow with increased force.
He released his hold, and the boy fell to the ground. He stood looking down at him with diabolical purpose in his eyes.
"Say, you figgered to hand me over to the rope, eh? You guessed you'd stand by watching me slowly strangle, eh? So you trailed me, and went on to Doc Crombie and told him. Ah—h. You like hurting things. You like seeing folks hurt. But you're scared to death being hurt yourself. That's how I know. I could kill you with the grip of one hand. But it wouldn't hurt you enough. At least not to suit me. You must be hurt first. You must know what it's like being hurt, you rotten, loathsome earthworm!"
He dealt the lad a terrific kick on his sickly, sunken chest, and a terrible cry broke the silence. It was almost like the cry of a pig being slaughtered, so piercing and shrill a squeak was it.
The noise of his cry startled his torturer. After all they were not far from the village. Then he laughed. A cry like that from the prairie must sound like a hungry coyote calling to its mate. Yes, no one would recognize it for a human cry. He would try it again.
He dealt the prostrate boy another furious kick, and he had his wish. A third time the blow was repeated to satisfy his savage lust, and he laughed aloud at the hideous resulting cry. Again and again he kicked. And the cries pleased him, and they sent a joyous thrill through him at the thought of the pain the lad was suffering. He would continue it until the cries weakened, then he would cease for a while to let his victim recover. Then again he would resume the fiendish kicking, and continue it at intervals, until he had kicked the life out of the deformed body.
He drew his foot back for another blow. But the blow remained undelivered. There was a rush of horse's hoofs, a clatter as they ceased, the sound of running feet, and a smashing blow took the torturer on the side of the jaw. He dropped like a log beside his victim. The whole thing was the work of an instant. So swift had come the avenging blow that, in the darkness, he had no time to realize its coming.
Jim Thorpe stood over his man waiting for him to rise, or show some sign of life. But there was neither movement nor apparent life in him. In the avenger's heart there was a wild hope that the man was dead. He had hit him with such a feeling in his frenzy of passion. But he knew he had only knocked the brute out.
As Will remained still where he had fallen, Jim turned away with a sigh. It would have been difficult to interpret his sigh. Maybe it was the sigh of a man who suddenly relaxes himself from a tremendous physical effort; maybe it was at the thought that his momentary desire had been accomplished; maybe it was for the poor lad whose terrible cries were still ringing in his ears.
Thinking only of Elia, he now dropped on his knees beside him. There was sufficient light from the stars to show him the lad's pallid upturned face and staring, agonized eyes. In a second his arms were about his misformed body, and he tenderly raised him up and spoke to him.
"Look up, laddie," he said gently. "You aren't hurt too bad, are you? I got here quick as I could. Say, he hasn't smashed you, has he? God! if he has!" He looked round at the fallen man with blazing eyes, as the thought flashed through his mind.
But suddenly he felt Elia's body writhe, and he turned to him again with eager words of encouragement.
"Buck up, laddie," he said, without much conviction. "Guess you aren't smashed as bad as you think. It's Jim. I'll look after you. He won't hit you again. I've fixed him."
Elia's staring eyes suddenly lost their tension. He moved his head and tried to free his arms. Jim picked him up and set him on his feet, and noted that he breathed more freely. Yes, he had been in time.
Elia steadied himself for a moment against his arm. He was silent, and still breathing hard. His body was racked with fierce pain, but his poor distorted mind was suffering greater. Jim waited patiently. He understood. It was the awful shock that the boy, in his helpless fashion, was struggling with.
Some moments passed thus, and at last the words which Jim was waiting for came. But they shocked him strangely.
"Did you kill him?" Elia asked, with a struggle controlling his halting tongue.
"No, boy, he's only knocked out—I think."
"You're a fule," whispered the lad viciously.
Jim had no answer to this, and the boy, recovering slowly, spoke again.
"Best kill him now," he said. "He's a devil. He's smashed me all up. He's smashed my sick body, and things feel queer inside me. Kill him, Jim! Kill him!"
Watching the working face, the man sickened at the inhuman desire of the boy. Where did he ever get such a frightful nature from? It was monstrous.
"Here," he said almost sternly, "can you walk?"
"I guess." The tone had that peculiar sullenness which generally portended an outbreak of the most vicious side of the boy's temper.
"Then get over there by my horse and wait till I come. I'll put you on him, and you can ride back home."
"What you going to do?"
The demand was an eager whisper. It suggested the hope that Jim was perhaps after all going to do as he asked—and kill Will Henderson.
"I'm going to see—how bad Will is. Be off now."
"Can't I stay—an' watch you?"
"No. Get on after that horse."
Elia turned away, and Jim watched his painful gait. Once he thought he saw him stagger, but, as he continued to hobble on, he turned again to the injured man. One glance at his face showed him the extent of his handiwork. He was ripped open right along the jaw, and the bone itself was badly broken.
He instantly whipped out his sheath-knife and a handkerchief. The latter he cut up into a bandage. Then, removing the silk scarf at his neck, he folded it into a soft pad, and bound it over the wound. Curiously he felt he must lend what aid he could first, and then send out adequate help from the village.
He stood up, took a final glance at the wounded face, and turned coldly away toward his horse.
But now events took an unexpected and disconcerting turn. When he reached his horse Elia was nowhere to be seen. He called, but received no answer. He called again, but still no answer. And suddenly he became alarmed. He remembered the boy's condition. He must have collapsed somewhere.
He promptly began to search. Taking his horse as a central point he moved round it in ever widening circles, calling at intervals, and with his eyes glued to the long grass which swished under his feet. For more than ten minutes he searched in vain; and then, once more, he found himself beside the man he had knocked out.
He was thoroughly alarmed now. Eve was still anxiously awaiting news of her brother. The thing was quite inexplicable. He could never have attempted to walk home. Why should he? Finally he decided that he must have strolled into the bush and sat down, and——
His glance fell upon the man lying at his feet. How still he lay. How—— Hello, what was this? He had left him lying on his side. Now his pale face was turned directly up at the sky. And—he dropped on his knees at his side—his bandage had been removed. He glanced about. There it was, a yard away in the grass. In wondering astonishment his eyes came back to the ghastly face of the unconscious man. Somehow it looked different, yet——
A glance at his body drew an exclamation of horror from his lips. For a moment every drop of blood seemed to recede from his brain, leaving him cold. A clammy moisture broke out upon his forehead at what he beheld. The man's clothing had been torn open leaving his chest bare, and he now beheld his own knife plunged to the hilt in the white flesh. Will Henderson was dead—stabbed through the heart by——
He sprang to his feet with a cry of horror, and his eyes flashed right and left as though in search of the murderer. Who had done this thing? Who——? As though in answer to his thought, Elia's voice reached him from out of the bushes.
"He's sure dead. I hate him."
Then followed a rustling of the brushwood, as though the boy had taken himself off.
Jim made no attempt to follow him. He remained staring into the black woods whence that voice had proceeded. He was petrified with the horror of the boy's deed.
He stood for some minutes thus. Then thought became active once more. And curiously enough it was cool, calm, and debating. The possibilities that had so suddenly opened up were tremendous. Tremendous and—hideous. Yet they stirred him far less than might have been expected. Black, foul murder had been committed, and in a way that threw the entire blame on himself.
He saw it all in a flash. It needed but the smallest intelligence to do so. There was no mind in Barnriff but would inevitably fix on his guilt—even his friend Peter. How could it be otherwise? There was his knife. There were his handkerchiefs. The white one had his name on it. The knife had his initials branded on its handle. His last words to Eve had been a threat to kill her husband.
And Elia had done this hideous thing. A weak, sickly boy. It was terrible, and he shuddered. What hatred he must have had for the dead man. He found himself almost sympathizing with the lad's feelings. Yes, Will had certainly brought this thing upon himself. He—deserved his fate. Yet Elia—the thought revolted him.
But suddenly a fresh significance came to him. He had missed it before. What would this mean to Eve? Elia's guilt. What would Will's death mean to her? But now his thoughts ran faster. Elia's guilt? Eve would never believe it. Besides, if she did it would break her heart. The boy was something like a passion to her. He was almost as though he were part of herself. She loved him as though he were flesh of her own flesh.
No, even if it were possible to convince her, she must never be told. His crime must be covered up someway. But how?
The man stood lost in thought for nearly half an hour. They were the thoughts of a man who at last sees the end of all things earthly looming heavily upon his horizon. There was no cowardly shrinking, there was very little regret. What he must do he felt was being forced upon him by an invincible fate, but the sting of it was far less poignant than would have been the case a few months ago. In fact the sting was hardly there at all.
At all costs Eve must be protected. She must never know the truth. It was bad enough that her husband was dead. He wondered vaguely how far her love had survived the man's outrages. Yes, she loved him still. He could never forget her the night he had volunteered to carry the warning to Will. Strange, he thought, how a woman will cling to the man who has once possessed her love.
Ah, well, he had never known the possession of such a priceless jewel as a good woman's love. And now he was never likely to have the chance, he admitted with a simple regret. It seemed pretty hard. And yet—he almost smiled—it would be all the same after a few painful moments.
And only a brief hour ago he had been yearning to fight, with his back to the wall, against the suspicion and feeling against him in the village. He smiled with a shadow of bitterness and shook his head. Useless—quite useless. The one-way trail was well marked for him, and he had traveled it as best he knew how. As Peter said, there were no side paths. Just a narrow road, and the obstructions and perils on the way were set there for each to face. Well, he would face this last one with a "stiff upper-lip."
One thing he was irrevocably determined upon, never by word or action would he add to Eve's unhappiness. And, if the cruel fate that had always dogged him demanded this final sacrifice, he would at least have the trifling satisfaction of knowing, as he went out of the world, that her future had been rendered the smoother by the blow that had removed Will from his sphere of crime.
He walked briskly back to his horse and leaped upon its back. Then, turning its head, he sat for a moment thinking. There was still a way out. Still a means of escape without Eve's learning the truth. But it was a coward's way, it was the way of the guilty. It was quite simple, too. He only had to go back and withdraw the knife from the man's body, and gather up the two handkerchiefs, and—ride away. It sounded easy; it was easy. A new country. A fresh people who did not know him. Another start in life. There was hope in the thought. Yes, a little, but not much. The accusing finger would follow him pointing, the shadow of the rope would haunt him wherever he went in spite of his innocence.
"Psha! No!" he exclaimed, and rode away toward the village.
THE DISCOMFITURE OF SMALLBONES
Never in all his recollection had Silas Rocket had such a profitable night. From sundown on, his saloon was packed almost to suffocation, and he scarcely had time to wipe a single glass between drinks, so rapidly were the orders shouted across his bar. All the male portion of Barnriff were present, with the addition of nearly thirty men from the outlying ranges. It was a sort of mass meeting summoned by Doc Crombie, who had finally, but reluctantly, been driven to yield to the public cry against Jim Thorpe.
The doctor understood his people, and knew just how far his authority would carry him. He had exerted that authority to the breaking point to protect a man, whom, in his heart, he believed to be innocent of the charges laid at his door. But now the popular voice was too strong for him, and he yielded with an ill-grace.
Smallbones was the man responsible for this rebellion against a long-recognized authority. He was at the bottom of the campaign against Jim Thorpe. Whether he was himself convinced of the man's guilt it would have been difficult to say. For some reason, which was scarcely apparent, he meant to hang him. And, with all the persistence of a venomous nature, he shouted his denunciation, until at last his arguments gained credence, and his charges found echo in the deep throats of men who originally had little or nothing to say in the matter.
The meeting was in full swing, tempers were roused in proportion to the arguments flung about at haphazard, and the quantities of liquor consumed in the process of the debate. At first the centre of the floor had been kept clear for the speakers, and the audience was lined up around the walls, but as the discussion warmed there was less order, and Doc Crombie, in spite of his sternest language, was powerless to keep the judicial atmosphere necessary to treat the matter in a dignified manner. Smallbones kept up a fiery run of comment and spleenful argument on every individual who backed the doctor in his demand for moderation. He ridiculed, he cursed, he showered personal abuse, until he had everybody by the ears, and by the sheer power of his venom herded the majority to side with him.
One of the men he could not influence was Peter Blunt. He did his utmost to provoke the big man to a personal attack upon himself that he might turn loose personalities against him, and charge him with complicity in some of Jim's doings, however absurdly untrue they might be. He had all a demagogue's gift for carrying an audience with him. He never failed to seize upon an opportunity to launch a poisonous shaft, or sneer at the class to which Jim and such men as Peter belonged. Before he left that saloon he meant to obtain a verdict against his man.
Doc Crombie's anger was hot against the hardware dealer. He meant ruling against him in the end, but he was not quite sure how that ruling would be generally received. He was now listening to a final appeal from Peter in the hopes of gleaning something that might help him when he finally set his foot on the neck of Smallbones' charges.
"See here, fellers," Peter said, with a quiet directness of manner, but in a voice that rose above the hum of general talk, and at once silenced it, "you've heard a whole heap of 'tosh' from Smallbones and his gang. I tell you that feller's got a mind as big as a pea, and with just about as much wind in it. You've heard him accuse Jim Thorpe of cattle stealing on evidence which we all know, and which wouldn't convince a kid of ten, by reason of its absurd simplicity. Do I need to ask sensible men such as you if any sane rustler is going to do the things which you're trying to say Jim Thorpe did? Is any sane rustler going to use his own brand, and run stolen cattle with his legitimate stock, in a place where folks can always see 'em? Sure, sure you don't need to ask yourselves even. Jim Thorpe's been a straight man all his days in Barnriff. 'Honest Jim Thorpe' you've all many a time called him. I tell you this thing is a put-up job. Some dirty, mean skunk has set out to ruin him for some reason unknown. There are mean folks," he went on, with his keen eyes fixed on Smallbones, "here in Barnriff. They're mean enough to do this if they only hated Jim enough. I'd hate to cast reflections, but I believe from the bottom of my heart that Smallbones, if he hated enough, would do such a trick. I——"
"Are you accusin' me, you durned hulk?" shrieked the hardware dealer fiercely.
"I wasn't," remarked Peter, calmly. "But if you like, I will. I'm not a heap particular. And there'd be just about as much sense in doing so as there is in your accusations against Jim."
"Hark at him, fellers," cried the furious Smallbones, pointing at the big man. "He's his friend—he'd sell his stinkin' soul for him. He'd——"
"I'd sell my soul for no man," Peter replied, cutting him short. "But I'd like to keep it as decently clean as such folks as you will let me. Now listen to me. You've no right to condemn this man in the way you're trying to. I don't know what your ultimate intentions are about him. I dare say some of you would like to hang him, but there's too many sane men who'd stop such as Smallbones at tricks like that. But you've no right to banish him out of the district, or even censure him. He's done nothing——"
"What about the Henderson woman?" cried Smallbones.
"Yes, yes," cried several voices, standing near their little leader.
Peter's eyes lit.
"Don't you dare to mention her name in here, Smallbones," he cried, with a sudden fierceness, "or, small as you are, I'll smash you to a pulp, and kick you from here to your store. In your wretched gossip, and in your scandal-loving hearts you must say and think what you please, but don't do it here, for I won't stand for it."
A murmur applauded him from Doc Crombie's direction, and even Smallbones was silenced for the moment. Peter went on.
"See here, I'm known to everybody. I'm known in most places where the grass of the prairie grows, and my name's mostly good. Well, I want to say right here, on my oath, Jim Thorpe's no cattle-thief, and, as God is my judge, I know that to be true. Jim Thorpe hasn't an evil thought in his——"
"Hold on," cried Doc Crombie, excitedly, as the swing doors were pushed suddenly open. "Here's some one who'll mebbe have a word to say fer himself. You're jest in time to say a word or two, Jim Thorpe," he smiled, as the man's pale face appeared in their midst.
"Here he is," cried Smallbones, his wicked eyes sparkling. "Here he is, fellers. Here is the man I accuse right here of bein' a low-down cattle-thief. That's your charge, Jim Thorpe. An' don't ferget we hang cattle——"
"Shut your rotten face, you worm!" cried Jim, contemptuously. He was standing in the centre of the room. Everybody had made way for him, and now he confronted a circle of accusing faces. He glanced swiftly round till his dark eyes rested on the hawk-like visage of the doctor.
"Say, Will Henderson's dead," he said, in a quiet, solemn voice. "He's been murdered. He's lying up there on the south side of the eastern bluff. Guess you'd best send up and—see to him."
His words produced a sudden and deathly silence. Every eye was upon his pale face in excited, incredulous wonderment. Will Henderson dead? Their questioning eyes asked plainly for more information, while their tongues were silent with something like awe. Smallbones reached his glass from the counter and drank its contents at a gulp, but his eyes never left Jim's face. His astonishment didn't interfere with the rapid working of his mean brain. To him Jim looked a sick man. There was something defiant in the dark eyes. The man, to his swift imagination, was unduly perturbed. He glanced down at his clothes, and his eyes fixed themselves greedily upon the fingers of the hand nearest to him. A flash of triumph shot into his eyes as he heard Doc Crombie's voice suddenly break the silence.
"How'd it happen? Who did it?" he asked sharply.
Jim's answer came promptly.
"He's up there stabbed to death. Stabbed through the heart. As to who did it, that's to be found out." He shrugged. His eyes were on the doctor without shrinking.
But he turned swiftly as Smallbones' harsh tones drew every one's attention.
"Say, hold up your left hand, Jim Thorpe," he cried gleefully. "Hold it right up an' tell us what that red is on it. Say, I don't guess we'll need to puzzle a heap over how Will Henderson come by his death."
Jim raised his hand. There was nothing else to be done. For a second he gazed at it ruefully. But it was only the sight of the murdered man's blood on it that disturbed him, and not any thought of the consequences of its discovery.
"It's Will Henderson's blood," he said frankly. "It was necessary for me to touch him."
The frankness of his admission was not without its effect upon those who did not belong to Smallbones' extremist party, but to them it passed as a mere subterfuge. They promptly gave voice to an ominous murmur which momentarily threatened to break out into violence. But Smallbones saw fresh possibilities. He suddenly changed his frenzied tactics, and entirely moderated his tone.
"You've come straight in?" he inquired.
"Yep." Jim's face wore something approaching a smile. He knew exactly what to expect before the night was out, and Smallbones' questions had no terrors for him. He had nothing to gain, and nothing to lose, except that which he had already made up his mind to lose—if necessary.
"What wer' you doin' out by that bluff?" Smallbones demanded.
"That's my business."
The little man snarled furiously. All eyes were set curiously upon Jim's face, but there were several smiles at the manner of the snub. Peter Blunt standing beside Angel Gay was hopelessly wondering at the sudden turn of events.
But now Doc Crombie once more took the lead.
"We'll send up six boys and bring him in. I'll go myself." He turned and gave his orders. Then his luminous eyes settled themselves steadily upon Jim's face. "We want the rights o' this, sure. Do you know anything more?"
But Jim was tired of the questioning. He shrugged his shoulders.
"I've told all I've got to tell you. For Heaven's sake, go and fetch in the man's body. It'll maybe tell you more than it told me."
He turned to the bar and called for a drink, which he devoured thirstily.
But Doc Crombie was not to be dealt with in so cavalier a fashion.
"You'll come along up an' show us just wher' Henderson is," he said sharply. "It'll make it easier findin'." He stepped up to him, and tapped him on the shoulder. "Do you get me? Ther's been murder done, an'——"
"I'll stay right here," said Jim, flashing round on him. "I've seen all I want to see up there. You'll have no difficulty locating him. He's on the south side."
"You'll come——" Doc began.
But Smallbones, still smarting under his snub, could no longer keep silent.
"Take him prisoner," he demanded. "Get him now. Are you goin' to let him get away? Once he's on his horse he'll—— Say, he's got blood on his hands, and he's the on'y man with reason to wish Will Henderson dead. Gee, get his guns away an' strap him fast."
But the doctor ignored the interruption.
"You're coming out there, Jim Thorpe," he said deliberately, "or you'll hand over your guns, and——"
"Consider myself under your arrest, eh?" Jim promptly removed both of his guns from their holsters, and handed them, butt first, to the doctor. "Guess I'll stay right here," he said easily. "And I'm glad to hand you those; it'll save me using them on Smallbones."
The furious hardware dealer now bristled up, and his mean face was thrust up so that he stared into Jim's with all the cruelty of his hatred laid bare in his eyes.
"Yes, you ken stay right here an' we'll look after you, me an' a few o' the boys. You're a prisoner, Jim Thorpe, and if you attempt to escape, we'll blow you to bits. We'll look after you, sure. You shan't escape, don't you mistake. It 'ud do me good to hand you a little lead pizenin'."
"I've no doubt," was all the answer Jim vouchsafed.
But before Smallbones could retort, Peter Blunt, followed by Jake Wilkes and Angel Gay, approached.
"We'll stay here too, Doc," he said. "Guess Smallbones'll need help. You see he isn't much of a man to look after a prisoner. Anyway, Jim Thorpe's a friend of ours."
"Right, Peter, an' you two fellers," cried the relieved doctor. "I ken hear the buckboard I sent over for comin' along. I'll start right out." Then he added pointedly, "I guess I'll leave him in your charge."
The doctor passed out and was followed at once by most of Rocket's customers, all eager to investigate the murder for their own morbid satisfaction. And thus only the three friends of Jim Thorpe, with Smallbones and two others, were left with the prisoner.
The moment the doors had swung to behind the last of the departures, Peter Blunt suddenly strode across the room to where Smallbones stood, staring at his intended victim with snapping eyes. So sudden was his approach that the little man was taken quite unawares. He seized him by the collar with one hand, and with the other deprived him of the guns with which he was still armed, as a result of his service on the vigilance committee, and, though he struggled and cursed violently, he carried him bodily to the door and deliberately flung him outside.
"If you attempt to get in here again till Doc returns I'll throw you out just the same again, if I have to do it twenty times," Peter declared. Then he turned back to the men at the bar.
"I feel mean havin' to do it," he said, almost shamefacedly. "Only I guess things'll be more comfortable all round now."
"Thanks, Peter," said Jim simply, holding out his hand.
Peter took it and wrung it.
"You see he wants to—hang you, Jim," he said by way of explanation.
"And he'll do it."
Jim's words came so solemnly that the men beside him were startled.
"But—but you didn't—kill him?" Peter stammered.
Jim shook his head.
"No," he said decidedly. "But—he'll hang me—sure."
"Will he?" cried Peter emphatically. "We'll see."
And the startled look in his eyes was again replaced by the shrewd, kindly expression Jim knew so well.
THE TRIUMPH OF SMALLBONES
Peter had been talking. Now he paused listening. Jake and Gay turned their eyes toward the swing doors. Silas Rocket, who had availed himself of the respite to wipe a few glasses, paused in his work. He, too, was listening. But the almost mechanical process of cleaning glasses was resumed at once. Not even life or death could long interfere with his scheme of money-making. He had seen too much of the forceful side of his customers in his time to let such a thing as a simple murder interfere with his long established routine.
It was Jim who now spoke. He was the calmest of those present, except perhaps Silas Rocket. He appeared to have no fear of the consequences of this affair to himself. Perhaps it was the confidence of innocence. Perhaps it was the great courage of a brave man for whom death—even a disgraceful death—has no terrors. Perhaps it was the knowledge of what he was saving the woman he loved, which served to inspire him. His eyes were even smiling as he looked into Peter's.
"They're coming along," he said, with one ear turned toward the door.
"It's them, sure," he said.
"I ken hear the buckboard. It's movin' slow," said Gay solemnly.
"Which means they got him," added Jake conclusively.
"We'll have a drink first," said Jim. Then he added whimsically, "Maybe we'll need it."
The silent acceptance of his invitation was due to the significance of their host's position. And afterward the glasses were set down empty upon the counter, without a word. Then Jim turned to Peter, and his manner was a trifle regretful. But that was all. An invincible purpose shone in his dark eyes.
"They'll be here in a minute, Peter," he said, with a shadowy smile. "I've got a word to say before they get around. We've been good friends, and now, at the last, I'd hate you to get a wrong notion of things. I call God to witness that I did not kill Will Henderson. It's because we're friends I tell you this, now. It's because these folk are going to hang me. You can stake your last cent on that being the truth, and if you don't get paid in this world, I sure guess you will in the next. Well—here they are."
As he finished speaking the doors were pushed open and men began to stream in. It was a curiously silent crowd. For these men a death, even a murder, had little awe. They understood too well the forceful methods of the back countries, where the laws of civilization had difficulty in reaching. They had too long governed their own social affairs without appeal to the parent government. What could Washington know of their requirements? What could a judge of the circuit know of the conditions in which they lived? They preferred their own methods, drastic as they were and often wrong in their judgments. Yet, on the whole, they were efficacious and salutary. Life and death were small enough matters to them, but the career of a criminal, and its swift termination, short, sharp and violent, was of paramount importance. It was the thought that they believed there was justice, their own justice, to be dealt out to a criminal that night, that now depressed them to an awed silence.
Three or four men placed several of the small tables together, forming them into a sort of bier. Then they stood by while others pushed their way in through the swing doors. Finally, two men stood just inside, holding the doors open, while two of the ranchmen carried in their ominous, silent burden. Doc Crombie was the last but one to enter. The man who came last was the evil-minded hardware dealer. His eyes were sparkling, and his thin lips were tightly compressed. Now he had an added score to pay off. Nor was he particular to whom he paid it.
The body of the murdered man was laid upon the tables, and Silas Rocket provided a shroud.
Jim Thorpe watched these proceedings with the keenest interest. Never for a moment did he remove his eyes from the dead man, until the dirty white tablecloth had been carelessly thrown over him. He had in his mind many things during those moments. At first he had looked for his own telltale knife. But evidently it had been removed. There was no sign of its hideous projecting handle as he had last seen it. Neither had he noticed any one bearing his blood-stained handkerchiefs. He thought that Doc Crombie had possessed himself of these things, and expected he would produce them at the proper moment.
Somehow he felt a curious regret that Will was dead. It was not a mawkish sentimentality; he made no pretension, even to himself, that the regard that had once been his for Will still existed. But he was sorry. Sorry that the man's road had carried him to such disaster. He remembered Peter's definition of the one-way trail. Will's path had certainly been a hard one, and he had traveled every inch of it with—well, he had traveled it.
Then came the thought, the ironical thought, that after all their paths were not so very wide apart now. They had grown up together, and now, at the end, in spite of everything, death was bringing them very near together again.
But his reflections were cut short by the sharp voice of the doctor. His authority was once more undisputed. He stood out in the centre of the room, a lean, harsh figure. His eagle face, with its luminous eyes, was full of power, full of a stern purpose.
"Folks," he began, "murder has been done—sheer, bloody murder. When fellers gits busy with guns, an' each has his chance, an' one of 'em gits it bad, we call that killing. Fair, square killing, an' I guess we treat it accordin'. But this is low-down murder. We was told it was a stabbing, but I've cast my eyes over the body, an' I seem to see a different story. Judging by what I found, I'd say Will Henderson was hit a smashin' blow by something heavy, which must sure 'a' knocked him senseless, an' then the lousy skunk did the rest of his work with a knife. Gents, I allow this murder was the work of a dirty, cowardly, mean-spirited skunk who hadn't the grit to face his enemy decently with a gun, and who doesn't need a heap of mercy when we get him. That's how I read the case. All of you have seen the body, so I need say no more on this."
Then he turned his keen eyes on Jim Thorpe, who had listened closely.
"You, Jim Thorpe, brought us word of this doing. An' in the interests of justice to his widow, to your feller citizens, your duty's clear. You got to tell us right here everything you know about Will Henderson's death."
There was an ominous pause when the doctor finished speaking, while all eyes were focused upon Jim's face. There was no doubt but that the majority were looking for signs of that guilt which in their hearts they believed to be his.
But they were doomed to disappointment. They certainly saw a change of expression, for Jim was puzzled. Why had Doc Crombie not produced the knife and the handkerchiefs? But perhaps he wanted his story first, and then would confront him with the evidence against him. Yet his manner was purely judicial. It in no way suggested that he possessed damning evidence.
He looked fearlessly around, and his gaze finally settled upon the doctor's face.
"I'm puzzled, Doc," he said quietly. "There's certainly something I can't make out. I told you all I had to tell," he went on. "I was out on the south side of that bluff, for reasons which I told Anthony Smallbones were my own business, when I found Will Henderson lying dead in the grass, a few feet from some bushes. I did not at first realize he was dead. I saw the wound on his jaw, and, touching it, discovered the bone was broken. Then I discovered that his clothes were torn open, his chest bare, and a large knife, such as any prairie man carries in his belt, was sticking in his chest, plunged right up to the hilt." There was a stir, and a murmur of astonishment went round the room. "Wait a moment," he continued, holding up his hand for silence. "I discovered more than that. I found two handkerchiefs, a white one, ripped into a rough bandage, and a silk neck scarf, such as many of us wear, was folded up into a sort of pad. Both were blood-stained, and looked as though they had been used as bandages for his face. They were lying a yard away from the body. Have you got those things, because, if so, they ought to be a handsome clue for sure?"
But by the expression of blank astonishment, even incredulity on the doctor's face, and a similar response from most of the onlookers, it was obvious that this was all news to them.
Doc shook his head.
"Ther' was no knife—no scarves. But say," he asked sharply, "why didn't you speak of 'em before?"
"It didn't occur to me. I thought you'd sure find 'em. So—I guess they've been removed since. Probably the murderer thought them incriminating——"
"A hell of a fine yarn." It was Smallbones' voice that now made itself heard. "Say, don't you'se fellows see his drift? It's a yarn to put you off, an' make you think the murderer's been around while he's been in here. Guess him an' his friend Peter's made it up while I——"
"After I threw you out of here," interjected Peter coldly. "Keep your tongue easy, or I'll have to handle you again."
But Smallbones' fury got the better of him, and he meant to annoy Peter all he could.
"Yes, I dessay you would. But you can't blind us like a lot of gophers with a dogone child's yarn like that. If those things had been there they'd ha' been there when Will was found by Doc—— Say," he cried, turning with inspiration upon Jim, "wher's your knife? You mostly carry one. I see your sheath, but ther' ain't no knife in it."
He pointed at the back of Jim's waist, which was turned toward him. Every eye that could see the sheath followed the direction of the accusing finger, and a profound sensation stirred those who beheld. The sheath was empty.
Smallbones' triumph urged him on.
"Say, an' where's your neck-scarf? You allus wear one, sure. An' mebbe you ain't got your dandy white han'k'chief. I 'lows you're 'bout the on'y man in these parts 'cep' Abe Horsley as fancies hisself enough to wear one. Wher's them things, I ask you? Say," he went on after a moment's pause, during which Jim still remained silent, "I accuse this lousy skunk publicly of murderin' Will Henderson. He's convicted hisself out o' his own mouth, an' he's got the man's blood on his hands. Jim Thorpe, you killed Will Henderson!"
The little man's fervor, his boldness, his shrewd argument carried his audience with him, as he stood pointing dramatically at the accused but unflinching man. Doc Crombie was carried along with the rest even against his own judgment. Peter Blunt and Angel Gay, with Jake Wilkes, were the only men present who were left unconvinced. Peter's eyes were sternly fixed on the beady eyes of Smallbones. Gay, too, in his slow way, was furious. But Jake would not have believed Jim had committed the murder even if he had seen him do it, he detested Smallbones so much.
But everybody was waiting for Jim's reply to the challenge. And it came amidst a deathly silence. It came with a straightforwardness that carried conviction to three of his hearers at least, and set the redoubtable doctor wondering if he were dreaming.
"You're quite right I usually wear all those things you say, but I haven't got them with me now, because"—he smiled into the little man's eyes, "the particular articles I spoke of were all mine, and, apparently, now they've been stolen."
"Guilty, by Gad!" roared Smallbones.
And some one near him added—
"Lynch him! Lynch him!"
How that cry might have been taken up and acted upon, it needs little imagination to guess. But quick as thought Doc Crombie came to Jim's rescue. He silenced the crowd with a roar like some infuriated lion.
"The first man that moves I'll shoot!" he cried, behind the brace of leveled pistols he was now holding at arm's length.
He stood for a few seconds thus till order was restored, then he quietly returned one of his guns to its holster, while the other he retained in his hand. He turned at once to Jim.
"You're accused of the murder of Will Henderson by Smallbones," he said simply. "You've got more of this story back of your head. You've now got your chance of ladlin' it out to clear yourself. You'd best speak. An' the quicker the better. You say the knife that killed him was yours. Yes?"
The man's honest intention was obvious. He wanted to give Jim a chance. He was doing his utmost. But he knew the temper of these men, and he knew that they were not to be played with. It was up to the accused man to clear himself.
Peter Blunt anxiously watched Jim's face. There was something like despair in his honest eyes. But he could do nothing without the other's help.
Jim looked straight into the doctor's eyes. There was no defiance in his look, neither was there anything of the guilty man in it. It was simply honest.
"I've told you all I have to tell," he said. "The knife that killed Will Henderson was my knife. But I swear before God that I am innocent of his death!"
The doctor turned from him with an oath. And curiously enough his oath was purely at the man's obstinacy.
"Fellers," he said, addressing the assembly, "I've been your leader for a goodish bit, an' I don't guess I'm goin' back on you now. We got a code of laws right here in Barnriff with which we handle sech cases as this. Those laws'll take their course. We'll try the case right here an' now. You, Smallbones, will establish your case." Then he turned to Jim. "If there's any feller you'd like——"
"I'll stand by Jim Thorpe," cried Peter Blunt, in a voice that echoed throughout the building.
Doc Crombie nodded.
"Gentlemen, the court is open."
AFTER THE VERDICT
Peter Blunt stared helplessly up at the eastern sky. His brain was whirling, and he stared without being conscious of the reason.
He breathed heavily, like a man saturating his lungs with pure air after long confinement in a foul atmosphere. Then it almost seemed as if his great frame shrank in stature, and became suddenly a wreck of itself. As if age and decay had suddenly come upon him. As if the weight of his body had become too heavy for him, and set his great limbs tottering under it as he walked.
The excitement, the straining of thought and nerve had passed, leaving him hopelessly oppressed, twenty years older.
The din and clamor of the final scenes in the saloon were still ringing in his ears. It was all over. The farce of Jim Thorpe's trial had been played out. But the shouts of men, hungering for the life of a fellow man, still haunted him. The voice of the accuser was still shrieking through his brain. The memory of the stern condemnation of Doc Crombie left his great heart crushed and helpless.
His brain was still whirling with all the strain he had gone through, his pulses were still hammering with the consuming anger which had raged in him as he stood beside his friend defending him to the last. And it had all proved useless. Jim Thorpe had been condemned by the ballot of his fellow citizens. Death—a hideous, disgraceful death was to be his, at the moment when the gray dawn should first lift the eastern corner of the pall of night.
The saloon was behind Peter now. Its lights were still burning. For the condemned man was to remain there with his guards until the appointed time.
Peter remembered Jim's look when he finally bade him leave him. Could he ever forget it? He had seen death in many forms in his time. He had seen many men face it, each in his own way. But never in his life had he seen such calmness, such apparent indifference as Jim Thorpe had displayed.