When the ballot was taken and the doctor pronounced sentence, there was never a tremor of an eyelid. There was not even one quick-drawn breath. Nor was there a suggestion of any emotion—save that of indifference.
Then when the doctor had named the manner of his death—a rawhide rope on the bough of a tree—Jim had turned with a smile to Peter.
"I'd prefer to be shot," he said quietly. "But there, I s'pose this thing must proceed by custom."
So Jim received the pronouncement of the final penalty for a crime of which Peter was convinced he was innocent.
It had suddenly set his loyal heart longing with a mad, passionate longing to have his great hands about the mean throat of the man Smallbones. It had set him wild with rebellion against the merciless customs which permitted such an outrage upon justice. He had even challenged the doctor in his fury, on his right to administer justice and accept the condemnation of the men gathered there for the purpose.
In his desire to serve his friend he passed beyond the bounds of all discretion, of all safety for himself. He threatened that he would move the whole world to bring just retribution upon those who had participated in that night's work. And his threats and violence had been received with a tolerant laughter. A derision more stinging and ominous than the most furious outbreak.
The work would go on. The death penalty would be carried out. He knew it. He knew it.
Then when it was all over, and the prisoner's guards had been appointed, Jim had begged him to leave him.
"Thanks, Peter, old friend," he said. And then added with a whimsical touch: "I'm tired to death of hearing your dear old voice. You've said such a heap to-night. Get along. I don't want you any more. You see you're too big, and you sure take up too much room—in my heart. So long."
So he had been driven from his friend's side, and out into the blackest night he had ever known.
Yes, it was an old, old man that now lurched his way across the market-place toward his hut. He was weary, so weary in mind and spirit. There was nothing now left for him to do but to go home and—and sit there till the dawn. Was there no hope, none? There was none. No earthly force could save Jim now. It wanted less than an hour to dawn, and, between now and then——
And yet he believed Jim could have saved himself. There was not a man in that room, from Doc Crombie downward, but knew that Jim was holding back something. What was it? And why did he not speak? Peter had asked him while the farce of a trial was at its height. He had begged and implored him to speak out, but the answer he received was the same as had been given to the doctor. Jim had told all he had to tell. Oh, the whole thing was madness—madness.
But there was no madness in Jim, he admitted. Once when his importunities tried him Jim had shown him just one brief glimpse of the heart which no death penalty had the power to reveal.
Peter remembered his words now; they would live in his memory to his dying day.
"You sure make me angry, Peter," he had said. "Even to you, old friend, I have nothing more to say of this killing than I have said to Doc, and the rest of 'em. I've done many a fool trick in my time, and maybe I'm doing another now. But I'm doing it with my eyes wide open. There's the rope ahead, a nasty, ugly, curly rope; maybe plaited by a half-breed with dirty hands. But what's the odds? Perhaps there's a stray bit of comfort in that rope, in the thought of it. You know the old prairie saw: 'It isn't always the sunniest day makes the best picnic.' Which means, I take it, choose your company of girls and boys well, and, rain or shine, you'll have a bully time. Maybe there's a deal I could say if I so chose, but, in the meantime, I kind of believe there's worse things in the world than—a rawhide rope."
It was just a glimpse of the man behind his mask of indifference, and Peter wondered.
But there was no key to the riddle in his words, no key at all. Somehow, in a vague sort of way, it seemed to him that Eve Henderson was in a measure the influence behind Jim. But he could not see how. He was well aware of Jim's love for her, and he believed that she was less indifferent to him now than when Will had been running straight. But for the life of him he could see no definite connection between such a matter and the murder. It was all so obscure—so obscure.
And now there was nothing left but to wait for the hideous end. He lurched into his hut, and, without even troubling to light his lamp, flung himself upon his bed.
The moment Peter Blunt left the saloon, a lurking figure stole out from the shadow of one of the side walls, where it had been standing close under a window, listening to all that passed within the building. It followed on a few yards behind the preoccupied man with a stealthy but clumsy gait. Peter heard nothing and saw nothing. His mind and heart were too full to care in the least for anything that was going on about him now.
So it was that Elia, for it was he, laboriously followed him up until he saw the man's burly figure disappear into his hut. Then he turned away with something of relief, and hobbled in the direction of his own house. He had been anxious lest Peter should be on his way to carry the news to Eve. He had very definite reasons for wishing to give her the news himself. He felt that Peter was too convinced of Jim's innocence, judging by his defense of him in the saloon, to be a safe person to carry Eve the news. He was thinking of his own safety, and his distorted mind was at work gauging Peter from his own standpoint. He felt he must avoid Peter for the present. Peter was too shrewd. Peter might—yes, he must certainly avoid him until after—dawn. Then it would not matter.
Sick in body as well as in mind after the evening's events, the low, cruel cunning which possessed him was still hard at work scheming to fulfil both his vicious desires and to hedge himself round in safety.
This was the first time he had been near home since he had returned from the bluff. He had painfully followed Jim into the village and shadowed him down to the saloon. He was in an extremity of terror the whole time, from the moment he realized Jim's intention to notify the villagers of what had happened until the end of the trial, when he heard the sentence passed. Then, curiously enough, his terror only abated the slightest degree.
But he was very sick, nearly dropping with fatigue and bodily suffering. Something was wrong in his chest, and the pain of it was excruciating. There were moments when the shooting pains in his poor curved spine set him almost shrieking. Will's blows had done their work on his weakly frame, and it felt to him to be all broken up.
When he reached his sister's gate, he stood for some moments leaning on it gasping for breath. His strength was well-nigh expended, leaving him faint and dizzy. Slowly his breathing eased, and he glanced at the windows. The lamps were still burning inside. Evidently Eve was waiting for something. Had she heard? He wondered. Was she now waiting for the verdict? Perhaps she was only waiting for his own return.
And while he considered a flash of the devil, that was always busy within him, stirred once more. He had come to tell her of it all. And the thought pleased him. For the moment he forgot something of his bodily sufferings in the joy of the thought of the pain he was about to inflict upon her. He groped his hand in his jacket pocket. Yes, they were all there, the knife and the handkerchief that had so puzzled the doctor and those others.
He stealthily opened the gate and walked up the path. At the door he stood listening. Some one was stirring within. Hark! That sounded like Eve sobbing. Now she was speaking. Was she speaking to herself—or to some one else? He listened acutely. He could only hear the murmur of her voice. There was no other sound within.
Suddenly he drew back from the door. He heard her footsteps approaching. Wondering what she was going to do he withdrew out of sight. The door opened, and Eve stood leaning against the casing. He could only see her outline against the lamplight behind her, for her face was lost in the shadow. It seemed to him that she was staring out at the saloon. Maybe she was waiting till the lights were put out, and so she would know the trial was over. Maybe, even, she was contemplating going down there in search of the news she was so fearfully awaiting. These suggestions occurred to Elia, for he had a tremendously shrewd knowledge of his sister, as he had of most people with whom he came into contact.
It occurred to him now that it was time he showed himself. The grinding pains in his body would no longer be denied. He must get inside and rest.
"Sis," he called in a low voice. "Ho, sis!"
The woman started as the boy hobbled out into the light.
"Elia!" she cried. And the next moment she would have clasped him in her arms, and hugged him to her bosom. But he drew back. He feared her embraces. Nor was he in the mood to submit to them.
"Don't be a fule, sis. I'm tired—dog tired. I'm sick, too. I believe somethin's broken inside me."
He pushed her on one side and hurried into the room.
"Come in an' shut that gol-durned door," he cried, without turning, as he made his way to the rocking-chair. He dropped into it, his face contorting hideously with the awful pain the process caused him.
But the spasm passed after a few moments, and when he looked up Eve was standing before him. He eyed her silently for some time. He was wondering just how much she knew.
There was little doubt in his mind that she knew a great deal. Horror and suffering were so deeply lined upon her young face, and in her beautiful eyes was such a wild, hunted look, that there was very little doubt in his mind that she knew what most of the village knew by this time. But she didn't know all he knew, not by a lot. And she wasn't going to know it all. Only some of it. She was suffering. So was he—in a different way. He would help her to suffer more yet. It was good to see other folks suffering.
"Who's bin here, sis?" he demanded.
"Only Annie. But, Elia, tell me you—you didn't meet Will?"
The boy chuckled without any visible sign. Even the pain of his body could not rob him of his cruel love of inflicting pain. He ignored her question for the moment.
"Annie?" he responded. "Did she tell you, sis? Did she tell you your Will was dead? Eh?" He leaned forward, his eyes sparkling. "I'm glad—real glad. He was sure bad, an' no use to you. She told you?"
But suddenly the poor woman buried her face in her hands, as though to shut out the hideous thoughts his words brought back to her.
"Yes, yes," she cried, "I know he's dead, and they're trying Jim for it. Oh, God, it's awful! They say he did it. But he didn't, I know he didn't. He only said he'd do it if Will had killed you. He didn't kill you, so Jim didn't do it. He wouldn't. He couldn't. And I sent him out there to the bluff. And if they hang him it's my doing. Oh, Jim, Jim!" She fell to moaning and rocking herself as she stood. "But they mustn't kill him. They won't. Will they? Say they won't, Elia. Oh, Jim, Jim! I want you so badly. I—I——"
"You're sweet on him, sis?" Elia said, with a gleam of fiendish satisfaction in his wonderful eyes.
"I sent him," reiterated the woman, ignoring his question, and lost in her own misery. "Oh, Jim, Jim!"
For a time at least the boy had quite forgotten his bodily sufferings. His enjoyment was monstrous, unholy.
"Say, sis," he went on, "the trial's over. I've just come from there."
Eve looked up, startled. Every nerve in her body was quivering with a sudden tension.
"Yes, yes?" she cried.
"Yes, it's sure over," the boy added, prolonging his sister's agony.
"Well? They—they acquitted him?" There was something absolutely imploring in her manner. It might well have moved a heart of stone.
But Elia's heart, if he possessed such an organ, bore the brand of the fiend. He nodded first. Then, as he saw the joy leap to his sister's eyes he shook his head vigorously, and the result pleased him.
"He's got to die," he said.
The woman suddenly reeled, and fell on her knees at the table, with her face buried on her outstretched arms. Elia watched her for some moments. He felt that here was some recompense for what he had gone through.
"You was kind o' sweet on him, sis," he said presently. "That's why I tried to help him some. I kind o' like him, too. I feel sort o' queer Jim's goin' to get hanged—hanged, sis, at dawn." He paused, but beyond the racking sobs that shook the woman's frame she made no movement. "I sure feel queer about it, tho'. Y'see he came right up when Will had nigh kicked the life out o' me, an' he hit Will a smash that knocked him cold. Gee, it was a smash! Jim hurt Will bad, an' it was for me. Say, that's why I feel queer they're goin' to—hang him at dawn. Somehow, it don't seem good stretchin' Jim's neck. I don't seem to feel I'd like to see Jim hurted. Must be because he hurted Will fer me. Will 'ud 'a' killed me, sure, but fer Jim."
His words had become a sort of soliloquy. He had forgotten his sister for the moment. But now, as she looked up, he remembered.
"You tried to—to save him?" she demanded. "You told them what Will was doing? You told them how—how it all happened?"
The boy shook his head, and again his eyes lit with malice.
"I ain't been inside the saloon. I—I was scared. Y'see Will wasn't killed by the blow Jim give him. Guess that on'y jest knocked him out. Y'see he was killed with Jim's knife—after. Y'see Jim's a fule. After he'd hit him he fixed his face up with his han'k'chiefs, an' after he was good an' dead he went fer to leave his knife stickin' in his chest. That's wher' I helped him some. I took that knife out—an' them rags. Here they are, right here."
He suddenly produced the blood-stained knife and the handkerchiefs, and held them out toward her. But the woman shrank away from them.
"I guessed if I took 'em right away no one 'ud know how he come by his death, an' who did it. Y'see Jim had helped me some."
But Eve was not heeding the explanation.
"Then he did—kill him?" Her question was a low, horrified whisper.
"After he had—struck him senseless?"
"I don't believe it. You are lying to me, Elia." The woman's voice was strident, even harsh.
Elia understood. It was her desire to convince herself of Jim's innocence that set her accusing him. It was not that she really disbelieved. Had it been otherwise he would have been afraid. As it was he gloated over her suffering instead.
"Yes, he's a fule, an' he's sure got to hang," he said mildly. "Guess it'll be dawn come half an hour. Then they're goin' to take him right out ther' wher' he killed your Will—an' hang him. Smallbones is goin' out to find the tree. Say, sis, Smallbones is goin' to get busy pullin' the rope. I wish it wa'n't Jim, sure I do. I'd sooner it was Peter, on'y he's goin' to give me that gold. Guess it wouldn't matter if——"
"They shan't hang him! I don't believe it. I can't believe it. I don't believe you. Oh, God, this is awful! Elia, say it isn't so; say you are only——"
"Don't be a fule, sis," the boy cried, brutally. "Guess if you can't b'lieve me go an' ast Peter. He's in his hut. He helped defend Jim, an' said a heap o' fule things 'bout gettin' the law on Doc. Ast him if you don't b'lieve me."
But whereas he had only intended to force her belief by his challenge, Eve took him literally. She snatched at his words, and he suddenly became afraid. She picked up the knife and the rags, which before she had refused to touch, and grasped him by one wrist.
"Yes, yes, we'll go over to Peter, and I'll have the truth from him. I can't trust you, Elia. You were there when Will was murdered; you've been down to the saloon, outside it. You must have seen the killing, and you've not said one word in his defense, not one word as to the reason of Will's death. Jim did it in your defense, and you're letting him hang without a word to help him. You shall tell Peter what you've told me, and maybe it isn't too late to do something yet. Come along."
But the boy tried to drag free. His guilty conscience made him fear Peter, and in a frenzy he struggled to release himself.
But Eve was no longer the gentle, indulgent woman he had always known. She was fighting for a life perhaps dearer to her than Elia's. She saw a barely possible chance that through Elia she might yet save Jim. Will's brutal attack upon a cripple had met with perhaps something more than its deserts, but these men were men, and maybe the extenuation of the provocation might at least save Jim the rope.
Elia quickly gave up the struggle. His bodily hurts had robbed him of what little physical strength he possessed at the best of times; and Eve, for all her slightness, was by no means a weak woman. She literally forced him to go, half dragging him, and never for a moment relaxing her hold upon him.
And so they came to Peter's hut. She knocked loudly at the door, and called to him, fearing, because she saw no light, that the man had gone out again. But Peter was there, and his astonished voice answered her summons at once.
"Eve?" he cried, in something like consternation, for he was thinking of the news he must now give her. Then he appeared in the doorway.
"Quick, light a lamp," the woman cried. "Elia has told me all about it. He says Jim is to die at—dawn." She glanced involuntarily at the eastern horizon, and to her horror beheld the first pale reflection of morning light, hovering, an almost milky lightening, where all else was still jet black.
Peter had no words with which to answer her. He had dreaded seeing her, and now—she knew. He lit the lamp, and Eve dragged the unwilling boy in with her; and as she passed him over to Peter's bed he fell back on it groaning.
"Peter," she cried now, speaking with a rush, since dawn was so near. "Can't something be done? Surely, surely, there is extenuation! He did it all to defend Elia. Will was killing him out there at the bluff. Look at him! Can't you see his suffering? That's why Jim killed him. Elia's just told me so. He even took these things from—from the body after—thinking it might save Jim. He brought them to me just now; and he says he's been down at the saloon, and never said a word to help Jim. He said he was frightened to go in. Did Jim tell them it was to save Elia? Oh, surely they can be made to understand it was not wilful—wilful murder! They can't hang him. It's—it's—horrible!"
But as the astonished Peter listened to her words, words which told him a side of the story he had never even dreamed of before, his eyes drifted and fixed themselves on the now ghastly face of the boy. He compelled the terror-stricken eyes and held them with his own. And when Eve ceased speaking he answered her without turning. He was reading, reading through the insane mind of the boy, right down into his very soul. In the long days he had had Elia working with him he had studied him closely. And he had learned the twists and warps of his nature as no one else understood them.
"Jim said nothing at all!" Peter said slowly.
"Nothing? What do you mean? He—he must have told them of—of Elia?"
Suddenly Peter's eyes shot in the direction of the door. A faint, distant sound reached them. It was a sound of bustle from the direction of the saloon. Eve heard too. They both understood.
"Oh, God!" she cried.
But Peter's eyes were on Elia's face once more. They were stern, and a curious light was in them.
"I seem to see it now," he said slowly. "Jim denied his guilt because he was innocent. But he admitted that the knife which killed Will was his, although no knife was found. He spoke the truth the whole time. He would not stoop to a lie, because he was innocent. Eve, that man was shielding the real culprit. Do you know any one that Jim would be likely to give his life for? I do." Suddenly he swung round on Elia, and, with an arm outstretched, and a great finger pointing, he cried, "Why did you kill Will Henderson?"
Inspiration had come. A great light of hope shone in his eyes. His demand was irresistible to the suffering, demented boy. Elia's eyes gleamed with a sudden cruel frenzy. There was the light of madness in them, a vicious, furious madness in them. Hatred of Will surged through his fevered brain, a furious triumph at the thought of having paid Will for all his cruelties to him swept away any guilty fears as he blurted out his reply.
"Because I hate him. Because he's kicked me till I'm nigh dead. Because—I—I hate him."
It was a tremendous moment, and fraught with such possibilities as a few minutes ago would have seemed impossible. There was a silence of horror in the room. The shock had left Eve staggered. Peter was calculating what seemed almost impossible chances. Elia—Elia was in the agonies of realizing what he had done, and battling with an overwhelming physical weakness.
The sounds of commotion at the saloon were more decided. There was the ominous galloping of horses, and the rattle of the wheels of a buckboard. Peter glanced at the window. The sky outside was lightening. Suddenly he shivered.
"You killed him. How? How?" His voice was tense and harsh, though he strove to soften it.
But Elia had turned sullen. A fierce resentment held him silent, resentment and fear.
And in that moment of waiting for his answer Peter heard again the movements of the cavalcade at the saloon. It seemed to be under way for—the bluff.
Now he leaned toward the boy, and his great honest brow was sweating with apprehension.
"Elia," he said. "If I go and tell them they'll hang you, too. Do you understand? I'm not going to bluff you. This is just fact. They'll hang you if I tell them. And I'm going to tell them, sure, if you don't do as I say. If you do as I say they won't touch you. You've got to come along with me and tell them you killed Will, and just why. They're men, those fellers, and they'll be real sorry for you. You've got to tell the whole truth just as it happened, and I give you my word they won't touch you. You'll save Jim's life. Jim who was always good to you. Jim who went out to the bluff to save you from Will. You needn't to be scared," as signs of fresh terror broke out upon the boy's face, "you needn't to be scared any. I'll be there with you——"
"And so will I," cried Eve, her eyes suddenly lighting with hope.
"Will you come, boy? You'll save Jim, who never did you anything but good. Will you come?"
But there was no answer.
"Say, laddie," Peter went on, his eyes straining with fear, "they're moving now. Can you hear them? That's the men who're taking Jim out to kill him—and when they've killed him they'll kill you, because I shall tell them 'bout you. Will you help us save Jim—Jim who was always good to you, or will you let them kill him—an' then you? Hark, they're crossing toward us now. Soon, and they'll be gone, and then it'll be too late. They'll then have to come back for you, and—you won't be able to get that gold I promised you."
Eve sat breathlessly watching. Peter's steady persistence was something to marvel at. She wanted to shriek out and seize the suffering cripple, and shake what little life there yet remained out of him. The suspense was dreadful. She looked for a sign of the lightening of that cloud of horror and suffering on the boy's face. She looked for that sign of yielding they both hoped and prayed for.
But Peter went on, and it seemed to the woman he must win out.
"Come, speak up, laddie," he said gently. "Play the man. They shan't hurt you, I swear it. Ther's all that gold waiting. You've seen it on the reef in the cutting, right here in Barnriff. It's yours when you've done this thing, but you won't be here to get it if you don't. Will you come?"
"They won't—won't hang me?" the boy whispered, in dreadful fear.
The death party were quite near now. Peter heard them. He felt that they were nearly across the market-place. He glanced out of the window. Yes, there they were. Jim was sitting in the buckboard beside Doc Crombie. The rest of the crowd were in the saddle.
"I swear it, laddie," he cried in a fear.
"An'—an'—you got that gold?" The boy's face was suddenly contorted with fierce bodily pain.
"Yes, yes, and it's yours when we come back."
Another glance showed the hanging party on the outskirts of the village. They were passing slowly. Peter knew they would travel faster when the last house was passed. Eve saw them, too, and her hands writhed in silent agony as they clasped each other in her lap. She turned again to stare helplessly at Elia. She must leave him to Peter. Instinctively she knew that one word from her might spoil all.
"Wher' are they now?" asked the boy, his ghastly face cold as marble after his seizure of pain.
"They're gettin' out of the village. We'll be too late in a minute."
Then of a sudden the boy cried out. His voice was shrill with a desperate fear, but there was a note of determination in it.
"I'll tell 'em—I'll tell 'em. Come on, I ken walk. But it's only for Jim, an'—an' I don't want that gold." And for the first time in her life Eve saw the boy's eyes flood with tears, which promptly streamed down his ghastly cheeks.
Peter's eyes glowed. There was just time, he believed. But he was thinking of the boy. At last—at last. It was for Jim Elia was doing it. For Jim, and not for the gold. He had delved and delved until at last he had struck the real color, where the soil had long been given up as barren.
"Come, laddie." He stepped up to the boy with a great kindness, and, stretching out his herculean arms, he lifted him bodily from the bed. "You can't walk, you're too ill. I'll jest carry you."
And he bore him out of the house.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE GALLOWS TREE
The creak of a saddle; the shuffling and rustle of horses moving at a walk through the long prairie grass; the sudden jolt of a wheel as it dropped from a tufty wad to the barren sand intersecting the clumps of grass of which the prairie is largely made up; the half-hearted neigh of a horse, as though it were striving to break from under the spell of gloomy depression which seemed to weigh heavily upon the very atmosphere; these were the only sounds which broke the gray stillness of dawn.
No one seemed to have words to offer. No one seemed to have sufficient lightness even to smoke a morning pipe. There were few amongst those riding out from Barnriff who would not far sooner have remained in their beds, amidst the easy dreams of healthy, tired nature, now that the last moments of a man's life were at hand. There were few, now that the heat and excitement of accusation were past, but would far rather have had the easy thought that they had been on the other side of the ballot. But this was mere human sentimentality at the thought of the passing of one man's life. This thing was necessary, necessary for example and precept. A man had slain another. He was guilty; he must die. The argument was as old as the world.
Yet life is very precious. It is so precious that these men could not rid themselves of the haunting ghost of self-consciousness. They placed themselves in the position of the condemned, and at once depression wrapped them in its pall, and, shrinking within themselves, all buoyancy left them. A man had to die, and each man felt he was instrumental in wresting from him that which of all the world must be most prized. And in many the thought was painful.
The gray world looked grayer for their mission. The daylight seemed to grow far more slowly than was its wont. Where was the ruddy splendor of the day's awakening, where the glory of dawning hope? Lost, lost. For the minds of these men could not grasp that which lay beyond the object of their journey.
The long-drawn howl of the prairie scavenger broke the stillness. It was answered by its kind. It was a fitting chorus for the situation. But ears were deaf to such things, for they were too closely in harmony with the doings of the moment. The gray owls fluttered by, weary with their night's vigil, but with appetites amply satisfied after the long chase, seeking their daylight repose in sparse and distant woodland hidings. But there were no eyes for them. Eyes were on the distant bluff to the exclusion of all else.
Six men rode ahead of the buckboard. Smallbones was on the lead. It was his place, and he triumphantly held it. His was the office. Jim Thorpe had reached the end of the one-way trail. And it was his to speed him on—beyond. The rope hung coiled over the horn of his saddle. It was a good rope, a strong, well-seasoned rope. He had seen to that, for he had selected it himself from a number of others. The men with him were those who would act under his orders, men whose senses were quite deadened to the finer emotions of life.
Those behind the buckboard were there to witness the administration of the sentence passed upon the prisoner by his fellow townsmen.
Doc Crombie drove the buckboard. And he watched the condemned man beside him out of the tail of his eye. Jim's attitude gave him relief, but it made him feel regret.
They had passed the limits of the village when his prisoner suddenly pointed with his bound hands at a pile of soil rising amidst the level of the prairie grass.
"Peter Blunt's cutting," he said, with curious interest. "He's tracked the gold ledge from the head waters down to here." His tone was half musing. It almost seemed as though he had no concern with the object of their journey.
"Peter's crazy on that gold," said the doctor. "He guesses too much."
Jim shook his head. And for some moments there was silence. Finally his answer came with a smile of understanding.
"He's not crazy. You fellers are all wrong. Peter's got the gold all right."
"He's welcome, sure."
The doctor had no sympathy with any gold find at that moment, and presently he looked round at his prisoner. The man's indifference almost staggered him. He chewed his wad of tobacco viciously. At that moment he hated himself, he hated Jim, he hated everybody—but most of all he hated Smallbones.
After a while he spoke, and though his manner was sharp he meant kindly—
"You ain't told what, I'm guessin', you could tell, Jim," he said. Then he added significantly, "We've nigh a mile to go."
But Jim was gazing out at the great arc of rosy light growing in the eastern sky, and the doctor stirred impatiently. At last the condemned man turned to him with a grave smile—
"Guess there's nothing so beautiful in nature as a perfect summer dawn," he said. "It makes a man feel strong, and—good. I'm glad it's dawn," he added, with a sigh.
The doctor spat out his tobacco, and his lean hands clenched tight on the reins.
"Maybe it makes you fool-headed, too."
"Maybe it does," Jim agreed, thoughtfully. "Maybe it's good to be fool-headed once in a while. The fool's generally a happy man." Then his eyes looked away in the direction of Peter's cutting. "And happiness, like Peter's gold, takes a heap of finding," he continued a moment later. "Guess the wiser you are the harder things hit you. And as you grow older it's so easy to be wise, and so hard to be fool-headed. That bluff we're riding to. Maybe it's foolish me riding to it. That's what you're thinking—because you're wise. It makes me glad I'm fool-headed."
The doctor unnecessarily slashed the horses with his whip. But he was careful not to increase the pace.
Jim went on after a moment's pause, while he watched the hawk-like mould of his companion's profile.
"Peter's a good friend," he said. "Last night, if I'd said the word, he'd have fought for me. He'd have fought for me till the boys shot him down in his tracks. And he'd have thought no more of giving his life for me than—than Smallbones would think of taking mine. And some of the gold he's looking for would—have come his way."
The doctor looked round sharply. He began to wonder if Jim were getting light-headed.
"You're talkin' foolish," he said.
But the other shook his head.
"You see, I don't guess you know Peter as I do—now. I didn't quite know him—before. I do now. Life's so mighty full of—well, the things we don't want, that it's well to get out and look for something that don't seem to be lying around. And every time you find one of those things, it seems to set the things life wants you to have farther and farther away. That's what Peter's doing." He smiled ever so gently. "He's looking for what he calls gold. Guess I'll find some of Peter's gold—in yonder bluff."
The doctor's eyes were staring out at their destination. He had no answer. He caught something of Jim's meaning, but his hard mind had not the proper power of assimilation.
"If that bluff was a thousand miles off, Doc, I still shouldn't have anything in my fool-head to tell. Seems to me a bit chilly. Couldn't we drive faster?"
"No. By Gad, we couldn't!"
The driver's words came with a sudden outburst of passion. If half the silent curses he was hurling at the head of the venomous Smallbones at that moment took effect, the man would surely have then and there been blotted out of the history of Barnriff.
Jim had no more to say, and the other had no power to frame the thoughts which filled his mind. And so a silence fell upon them as they approached the woods.
Through the perfect fretwork of the upper branches the eastern light shone cold and pure; in the lower depths the gray gloom had not yet lifted. The dark aisles between the trees offered a gloomy welcome. They suggested just such an ending as was intended for their journey.
The leaders had passed round the southern limits, and were no longer in view. The doctor headed his horses upon their course. Something of the eagle light had gone out of his eyes. He stared just ahead of his horses, but no farther. As they came to the bend, where Barnriff would be shut off from their view, Jim turned in his seat, and who can tell what was in his mind at the moment? He knew it was his last glimpse of the place, which for him had held so many disappointments, so many heartaches. Yet—he wanted to see it.
But his eyes never reached the village. They encountered two objects upon the prairie, and fastened themselves upon them, startled, even horrified. A large man was running, bearing in his arms a strange burden, and behind him, trailing wearily, but still running, was a woman. He could have cried out at the sight, and his cry would have been one of horror. Instead, he turned to his companion.
"No reasonable request is denied a—dying man, Doc," he said, eagerly. "Drive faster."
Without a word the other touched his horses with the whip, and they broke from their amble into a brisk trot.
In half a minute they drew up in the shadow of a great overhanging tree.
Jim was promptly assisted to the ground by the waiting men, for he was bound hand and foot. Now his bonds were removed, and immediately he stepped forward to where Smallbones had just succeeded in throwing his rope into position overhead, and was testing it with his own weight.
As the prisoner came up he turned, and a malicious sparkle shone in his eyes as he confronted the calm face.
"It'll bear my weight?" Jim inquired, coldly. "It wouldn't be pleasant to go through it twice." He glanced up at the tree as though interested.
"It's built fer ropin' 'outlaws,'" Smallbones grinned. "I sure don't guess a low-down skunk of a murderer'll——"
But the man never finished his sentence. Doc Crombie had him by the throat in a clutch that threatened to add another and more welcome crime to the records.
"Another word from your lousy tongue an' I'll strangle you!" roared the doctor, venting at last all the pent-up wrath gathered on the journey out.
But Jim was impatient. He remembered those two toiling figures behind.
"Let up, Doc," he said sharply. "His words don't hurt. Let's finish things."
The doctor's hand fell from the man's throat and he drew back.
"Fix the ropes," he said shortly.
In silence four of the men advanced, while the evil eyes of Smallbones savagely glowered at the doctor. In a few moments Jim's arms were pinioned, and his ankles bound fast. Then the rope was loosely thrown about his neck. And after that a man advanced with a large silk handkerchief, already folded, and with which to blindfold him.
But suddenly the doctor bethought him of something.
"Wait!" he cried. Then he addressed himself directly to the condemned man. "Jim Thorpe, you sure got friends present. You sure got friends ready to hear anything you got to tell. You're goin' out o' this world right now, actin' a lie if not speakin' one. Ther' are folks among us dead sure, or I wouldn't say it. Mebbe you ain't thought that if this thing is done, an' what I suspicion is true, you're makin' murderers of us all—an' in pertickler Smallbones. Say, you got your chance. Speak."
The men round the tree stood hushed in awe, waiting. There was not a sound to break the stillness except the soft rustle of the trees in the morning breeze.
"I have told you all, I am innocent," Jim said firmly. Then he shrugged. "Guess you must take your own chances what you are when this is done. We don't need to wait any longer."
For answer the doctor signed to the man with the handkerchief. The prisoner's face was pale, but his eyes were steady and his lips firm. There was no weakness in him, and the wondering crowd were troubled. Most of them had seen hangings in their time, but they had never seen a man face death in cold blood quite like this.
Suddenly, while the bandage was being secured, one of the younger men in the front rank threw up his arm as though to ward off a blow. He covered his eyes, and fled precipitately behind his comrades, where he could no longer see. Several others turned their backs deliberately. The whole thing was too terrible. It was hideous.
Doc Crombie stood with folded arms within two yards of the prisoner. Behind the prisoner Smallbones and the rest of his men stood, their hands grasping the plaited rope. They were only awaiting the silent signal from the doctor.
When the handkerchief had been adjusted the man fell in beside his comrades on the rope. The awful moment had arrived when the signal must be given. The tension amongst the onlookers was breathless, and the agony of the man about to die must have been appalling, in spite of his apparent calm.
The moments passed. It almost seemed as though the hardened nerve of the doctor needed support. At last he stiffened. He raised his head, and looked squarely at the pinioned man.
"Jim Thorpe," he cried, in a harsh, unyielding voice. "You are condemned to die by the ballot of your fellow citizens, for the murder of Will——"
"Ho! Ho, Doc! Hold on! For God's sake, hold your hand, Doc!"
A great hoarse voice split the deathly stillness with a roar that suddenly electrified the assembly. Everybody swung round in the direction whence it came. That is, everybody but the doctor. He had recognized the voice, and he had caught Smallbones' gleaming eye. With a spring he was at Jim's side, and threw the noose clear of his neck. He had no idea of the reason of the interruption, but he had caught Smallbones' eye.
He turned about in time to see Peter Blunt break through the crowd bearing in his arms the crippled brother of Eve Henderson. Following close upon his heels was Eve herself, gasping and almost fainting with her exertion.
THE PASSING OF ELIA
Peter Blunt paused, staggered, then with a great effort pulled himself together. Mighty man as he was, he had reached the limits of his strength, for he had run nearly a mile, carrying Elia in his arms. Eve now clung to his great arm for support.
Peter set the boy on his feet and supported him. A great fear was in him that a perverse fate would yet rob them of justice. Elia was dying, and he knew it. He needed no examination to tell him so. It was there, written in the glazing eyes, in the hideous blue pallor stealing over the lad's face.
"We're in time, laddie," he said hoarsely, with his mouth close to Elia's ear. "Speak up and say the truth."
Then he looked up to encounter the keen eyes of the doctor.
"What's all this?" the latter demanded harshly. But there was a sudden light of hope in his fierce eyes.
"It's him. He's got something to say. It's the truth about the killing." Peter indicated the boy. "Speak up, laddie, they're all friends. Speak up—for Jim's sake." Eve looked on with hands clasped. She was still breathing painfully from her exertions.
The crowd gathered round. All but Smallbones, who never for a moment removed his eyes from Jim's face. It was a bitter moment for him. He felt he was about to be robbed of his prey, and he resented it with all that was mean in him. But Elia did not speak. His eyes were half closed, and a terrible helplessness seemed to have suddenly seized hold of him.
Peter urged him again with a sinking heart.
"Aren't you going to tell them, laddie? Aren't you going to tell them all you've told me—and save Jim?"
It was Jim's voice that answered him.
"Don't bother the lad," he said. He could not see, but instinctively he knew that Elia was in a bad way.
Peter caught at his words.
"Do you hear, laddie? That's Jim talking. You've come to tell the truth and save him. They've got him all bound up, and the rope's hanging over him. Eh? I didn't rightly hear."
He had seen the boy's lips move, and he strove by every means in his power to encourage him to a dying effort.
But in the pause that followed Smallbones' mean voice was suddenly heard.
"This ain't no sort o' justice. Wot's these folks buttin' in fer? They've stuffed him full o' lies 'cause he's sick an' dying. I tell yer it's a trick, an' when he speaks it'll be to tell his usual lies——"
"It ain't lies, I tell yer it ain't lies." It was Elia speaking, suddenly roused from his stupor by the vicious charge. His words came in a high, shrill voice. "I don't need to tell no lies. I killed Will Henderson. I killed him! I killed him! He's kicked me to death, an' I killed him with Jim's knife. It was lyin' ther' wher' he'd left it after he'd fixed them rags on his face. I killed him, I tell yer. An' I'm glad. 'Cos I—I—hate him, an'—he's—killed—me."
The boy's voice had risen to a shriek, and then died suddenly away to a whisper as he fell back into Peter's arms. It was the final effort, which Peter had been unable to rouse him to, but which, to his own chagrin, Smallbones had achieved.
The boy was dead. The one honest action of his life had been performed with his last breath. Such was the overmastering cruelty of his nature that, in comparative health, and with all his faculties alert, the one spark of good, somewhere deep down in his heart, had had no power to shine. The flesh had been too strong for him—and now, now perhaps he had fulfilled his mission, and that one little step forward would carry him beyond the jaws of evil which had been so tightly shut about his poor, weakly spirit. Peter laid him gently upon the ground.
Then he stood up about to speak. There were tears in his eyes, and without shame he dashed them away with the back of his hand. But Eve stayed him with a gesture. She took a step forward. Her eyes were shining as she glanced round upon the familiar faces. Her mind was made up. There was no shrinking now at the disgrace she had in her cowardice so feared before. Jim had shown her the way to a loyal courage. She understood now why he had gone to his death shielding the real murderer. He had done it to save her, he had done it as once before he had sought to help her. She loved him, and no longer feared to tread the path he had so willingly, so readily trodden for her sake.
"I want to tell you all the things that I should have told you long ago," she began, in clear ringing tones, "but I couldn't, because—because he was my husband."
A startled sound went round the listeners. The doctor's eyes flashed suddenly in Jim's direction. But before she could continue, the latter suddenly urged her to silence.
"There's no need to speak of him, Eve," he cried. "Leave it to me, and I'll tell them how Will came by his death—now."
But the doctor interfered. He signed to one of the men to release the prisoner.
"We'll have Mrs. Henderson's story first," he said decidedly. "You'll please get right ahead, ma'am."
There was just the briefest possible hesitation. For a second Eve's eyes wandered over the faces now gathered so closely about. It was not that she was any longer afraid. It was merely that she looked for one friendly glance. She found it in the round face of Angel Gay. He was smiling on her. And at once she plunged into her story.
"Will Henderson—my husband, was the cattle-thief," she said. And for a moment she could go no further. Had she desired to create a sensation, she amply succeeded. The doctor had to call for silence so that she might proceed.
Having made the plunge, her story came clearly and concisely. She told everything without sparing either herself or her husband. She began from the time when Will had been ordered out of Barnriff, and told all the pitiful, sordid details, right down to his final return after escaping from the doctor's men at the Little Bluff River. Everything she told as she knew it, except the part Jim had played in his actual escape. This she could not bring herself to speak of.
The story took some time in the telling, but there was not a man amongst those assembled that did not hungrily take in every detail of it. And as it unrolled, to the final scene of Will's return, when again he ill-used her and departed in search of Elia to kill him, and his final promise to return later and kill her, a fierce light of understanding grew on the swarthy, rough faces, and muttered imprecations flew from lip to lip. All bitterness for Jim had passed from their thoughts, all except, perhaps, from the thoughts of Smallbones.
And Jim remained silent all the time. He, too, was listening. He, too, shared again in the thoughts which now assailed the others. The hideous brutality, as it appeared, told in Eve's simple words, set his blood boiling afresh against the dead man. Though he knew it all only too well, it still had power to rouse the worst side of his nature.
At the conclusion, Doc Crombie suddenly turned to Jim. He offered no comment, no sympathy.
"Now, I guess, you'll talk some," he said, in his usual harsh tone. But somehow his words seemed to contain a smile.
"The boy has told you who killed Will Henderson," Jim answered at once. "I can't, because I didn't see him killed. I'll tell you the part I had in the affair. It's not pretty." He paused, but went on almost at once. "I happened along to Mrs. Henderson's house directly I came in to town. I had news for her. You know the news. Will had escaped."
"Yes," cried Smallbones, unable to keep silent longer, "because you helped him, an' bluffed the Doc. Oh, I'm wise to you."
"You look wise to a good deal," retorted Jim, with a cold smile. Then without further concern he went on with his story. "I came to her house and found her bound and gagged. Will had not long left her. She told me what had happened, that he had gone off to kill Elia, and I rode out at once to the bluff. I found Will kicking the life out of the poor boy. I jumped from my horse and hit him with my fist. I frankly admit I desired to kill him, and my whole intent was in that blow. He fell to the ground with his jaw badly smashed, and—and I was glad. I left him there and looked to Elia. He was in a pretty bad way, but he did not seem so bad as I now realize he must have been. However, when I saw that I had been in time to save him, my anger began to pass, and I felt I could not leave the wretched man lying there with his wound dripping, and—well, I thought I'd better do what I could for him. So I sent Elia over to my horse—I intended that he should ride home—while I fixed Will's face up some.
"Well, I had nothing much to do it with except my handkerchiefs," he went on, "so I knelt down beside him, took out my sheath-knife and ripped up my white handkerchief into a bandage and folded my neck-scarf into a pad, and bound it on his broken jaw. Then I got up, and now I know I must have left my knife on the ground beside him. I didn't know it at the time. Anyway, I left him and went back to my horse expecting to find Elia. But he was not there. I was alarmed at once, and began to search round for him, calling at the same time. You see, I thought he'd maybe collapsed somewhere near by. But I got no answer, and so circling round and round I again came to where Will Henderson was lying. At first I didn't notice anything, it was fairly dark; then, of a sudden, I saw he was lying on his back, where before he had been on his side. The next thing was that I realized the bandages were off his face. Then, as I knelt down beside him again, I found that—other. My knife was sticking up in his chest. Then I knew the reason of Elia's absence, and—what he had done."
Jim ceased speaking, and presently his eyes sought Eve's face with a look of trouble in their dark depths. He had wanted to spare her all this, and now—
The doctor's voice was questioning him.
"And you come right into the village, wher' your flavor was mighty strong, to tell us he was dead?" he asked almost incredulously.
Jim shrugged. All eyes were upon him, silently echoing their leader's question.
"Why not?" he said. "I hadn't killed him. Besides, what else was there to do? The evidence was damning anyway. And I sure couldn't run away. I guessed I'd best trust to circumstances. Y'see my last words to Mrs. Henderson were a threat to kill her husband—if he'd killed Elia."
The doctor shook his head.
"Them things sure may have influenced you, but——"
"I think I can tell you."
Doc Crombie turned at the interruption. It was Eve who spoke. Her eyes were shining, and she looked fearlessly into his face.
"Yes," she cried, with rising emotion, "I think I can see the rest. It was to shield Elia, and, shielding him, to save me from pain and the disgrace which he knew I was too cowardly to face. He did it as he did that other thing, when he set out to carry a warning to Will, simply to help me, and save me from my troubles. Oh, doctor, haven't you heard and seen sufficient? Must you stand here demanding all the inmost secrets and motives of two people's lives? Let us go. Let Jim go. I have yet to bury my dead."
The woman suddenly turned to Peter and buried her face against his rough flannel shirt, while the long-pent tears at last broke forth, and her body shook with sobs. Peter put his arm about her shoulders and patted her gently with his great rough hand.
"This thing is played right out, Doc," he said. "You've got the facts. Let them be sufficient." He turned to the boys, and his great kindly face was lit with something like a derisive smile. "Do you want a hanging, lads?" he asked them. "Because, out of all this racket, it seems to me there's only one needs the rope, an' that's Smallbones."
He needed no other answer than the harsh laugh which greeted his words. He had done it purposely. He meant to clip Smallbones' wings for him, and, at the same time, put an end to the scene for Eve and his friend.
His success was ample. Doc Crombie walked straight up to Jim Thorpe and held out his hand.
"I'm sorry for things, Jim," he said, "but you can't rightly blame us. Not even Smallbones."
Jim wrung his hand cordially, but silently. His eyes were still on Eve at Peter's side. The doctor saw his look and understood.
"Guess I'm gettin' right back to the city," he said. "And," he added, authoritatively, "I guess all you'se folks had best git busy that way, too." Then he turned sharply and walked over to his buckboard. "Smallbones," he said, as he mounted to his seat, "you'll come right along in with me—an' bring that rope."
The gray of dawn had passed. Now the rosy light of day was spreading its fresh beauty across the heavens, and gladdening the warming air, and painting afresh with generous brush the rolling, open world below.
Yes, the drab of dawn was past, and, as it was with all Nature about them, the rosy light of hope brushed lightly the weary hearts of those who had just passed through the fiery trials of the furnace of despair.
There were three people only standing beneath the tree, under whose shadow a man's life so recently was to have been offered a sacrifice to human justice—two men and a woman. There was something else there, but life had passed from it, and it lay there waiting, in the calm patience of the last, long sleep, to return to the clay from which it sprang.
Eve was kneeling beside the deformed body of her poor brother. Her tears were falling fast as she bent over the pale upturned face, even more beautiful still since Death had hugged him to its harsh bosom. All the woman's passionate love and regrets were pouring out over the unconscious clay. His cruelties, his weaknesses were forgotten, brushed away by an infinite love that had no power nor inclination to judge.
She loved him, and he was dead. He was gone beyond her ken; and for the moment in her grief she longed to be with him. In the midst of her tears she prayed—prayed for the poor weak soul, winging its way in the mysterious Beyond. She asked Him that his sins might be forgiven. She prayed Him that the great loving forbearance, so readily yielded to suffering humanity, might be shed upon that weak, benighted soul. She poured out all the longings of her simple woman's heart in a passionate prayer that the Great Christ, who had shed His blood for all sinners, would stretch out His saving hand, and take her brother's erring spirit once again to His bosom.
The two men stood by in silence. Their heads were bowed in reverence. They, too, felt something of the woman's grief.
But presently Peter Blunt raised his head. His kindly blue eyes were full of sympathy. He moved across the intervening grass, and laid a hand with infinite tenderness upon the woman's shoulder.
"We must take him with us," he said gently.
The woman started, and looked up through her tears.
"Take him? Take him?" she questioned, without understanding.
"We'll take him to—his new home."
Eve bowed her head and covered her eyes with her hands.
"He's yours, Eve," the man went on softly. "Shall I?"
The woman nodded silently and rose to her feet. Peter stooped and picked the boy up in his arms to carry him as he had carried him before. Then he moved off and Eve followed him.
Jim hesitated for a moment. It almost seemed as though he had no right to force himself upon the woman's grief. It seemed to him like sacrilege, and yet—— Finally he, too, joined in the silent procession.
They followed whither Peter chose to lead. There was no question. It was not a moment for question. The kindly heart dictated. It was only for the others to acquiesce. Peter, too, perhaps in lesser degree, had loved the boy. But then it was in his nature to love all suffering humanity. He had never had anything but kindness for Elia in life. Now that he was dead his feelings were no less.
So they trailed across the prairie—on, slowly and solemnly on. Their course was marked straight as an arrow's flight in Peter's mind. Nor did he pause till the mound of gravel beside his cutting was reached.
He stood at the brink of the shallow pit. There in its depths lay a broad, jagged, soil-stained ridge. Here and there on its rough surface patches of dazzling white, streaked with the more generous tints of deep red, and blue, and green, showed where the hard-driven pick had split the gold-bearing quartz.
Eve stared wonderingly down. Jim looked on in silent awe. He knew something of that which was in Peter's mind. Peter had found the deposits for which he had so long searched. Here—here was the great reef, round which the Indian stories had been woven.
He laid his burden on the edge of the pit. Then he clambered down into it. He signed to Jim, and the waiting man understood. He carefully passed the boy's body to the man below.
Then he stood up, and Eve came to his side. Silently she rested one hand upon his shoulder, and together they watched the other at his work.
With the utmost tenderness Peter laid the boy down on his gravelly bed. They saw that the dead lad's face was turned so that its cheek rested against the cold, auriferous quartz. Then the man untied the silk scarf about his own neck and laid it over the waxen face. Then he stood up and stripped the shoring planks from the walls of the pit, and placed them a solid covering over the boy's body, resting them on two large stones, one at his head and one at his feet. Finally he tested their solidity, and climbed out of the grave.
Now he joined the others, and gazed silently down into the pit. For some moments he stood thus, until presently he glanced across at the eastern sky. A fiery line, like the light of a distant prairie fire, hovered upon the horizon. He knew it was the rising of the sun.
He turned to the still weeping woman.
"Little Eve," he said gently, pointing into the pit. "There's gold lies there. He wanted it, and—and I promised he should have it. Jim," he turned, and looked into the dark eyes of his friend, "that poor, weak, suffering lad saved you, because—because you'd been good to him. Well, old lad, I guess now that we've found some of the gold that lies here in Barnriff, we—we must be content. We mustn't take it with us, we mustn't rob those who need. We've found it, so we'll just cover it up again, and hope and pray that it may multiply and bear fruit. Then we'll mark it with a headstone, so that others may know that this gold is to be found if folks will only seek long enough, and hard enough beneath the surface."
Jim nodded. He understood.
Then, as the great arc of the morning sun lifted above the horizon, both men picked up the shovels lying close by them, and buried forever the treasure Peter had found.
ON, OVER THE ONE-WAY TRAIL
Eve's door was suddenly pushed open. She did not look up from her sewing-machine. She guessed who her visitor was.
"Sit down, Annie, dear," she said, cordially. "I'll be through with this in a moment."
Her visitor took the proffered chair and smiled, while the busy machine rattled down the last seam of the skirt on which the other was busy.
Eve was very good to look upon, as she bent over her work, and her visitor was well content to wait. Her slight figure was delightfully gracious; her pretty hair, loosely dressed, looked to have all the velvet softness and lustre of spun silk. Her face was hidden, but the beautifully moulded outline of her cheek was visible. There was such a wholesome air of purpose in her attitude that it was quite easy to imagine that the shadows of the past had long since faded from her gentle eyes, that youth had again conquered, now that those gray days had lightened to the rosy summer of peace.
Something of this was passing through the man's mind as he hungrily devoured the beauty, which for so long had held him its slave.
It was nearly two months since the happenings which had so nearly ended Jim Thorpe's earthly career. Two months during which he had honestly struggled to regain that footing he had once held in the district. And now the fall was advancing, and the hopes of winning through with the people of the place seemed as far off as ever.
Prejudice still clung. Barnriff, willing enough to accept his actual innocence on the double charges made against him, still could not forget that he had helped the real thief to escape. It mattered nothing to them that in the end the man had died a violent death. He had been helped to escape—their justice. So there was no employment of any sort in Barnriff for Jim Thorpe. And Eve, too, was only completing orders which had been placed with her weeks before.
"There," she said, raising her needle and removing the stuff from beneath it. "I hate it, and I'm glad it's done."
She looked up with a smile to encounter the dark eyes of Jim Thorpe.
"You?" she cried, in a tone that should have made him glad. "Why, I thought surely it was Annie. But there, I might have known. Annie would not have sat silent so long. You see she was coming over for a gossip. But I s'pose it's too early for her."
Jim noticed now that something of the old happy light was in her eyes again. That joyous light which he had not seen in them for nearly a year. What a wonderful thing was youth.
"I saw her as I came along," he said slowly. "She said she'd come after supper. She sent her love, and said she was going to bring a shirt-waist to get fixed."
"The dear thing! It's the one thing that makes my life here possible, Jim. I mean her friendship. She's the only one in all the village that can forget things. I mean among the women." She came round the table and sat on its edge facing him, staring out of the window at the ruddy sunset with eyes that had suddenly become shadowed with regret. "Men aren't like that, it seems to me. They're fierce, and violent, and all that, but most of them have pretty big hearts when their anger is past."
Jim's eyes smiled whimsically.
"Do you think so?" he said. "Guess maybe I won't contradict you, but it seems to me I've learned pretty well how large their hearts are—in the last two months."
"You mean—you can get no work?"
The man nodded. But he had no bitterness now. He had learned his lesson from Peter Blunt. He had no blame for the weaknesses of human nature. Why should he have? Who was he to judge?
There was a silence for some moments. Eve continued to gaze at the sunset. The glorious ever-changing lights held her physical vision, but her mind was traveling in that realm of woman's thought, whither no mere man can follow it.
It was Jim who spoke at last.
"But I didn't come to—to air troubles," he said thoughtfully. "I came to tell you of two things. One of 'em is Peter. He's packing his wagon. He goes at sun-up to-morrow. He says he must move on—keep moving. He says all that held him to Barnriff is finished with, so now there's nothing left but to hit the trail."
"Poor old Peter!" Eve murmured softly. "I s'pose he means the gold business?"
"Maybe," replied the man, without conviction.
"Why—what do you mean?"
Eve's eyes were widely questioning. The other shrugged.
"You can't tell. It's hard to get at what's passing through his quaint mind. I don't think gold interests him as much as you'd think. Peter has plenty of money. Do you know, he offered to advance me ten thousand dollars to buy up a ranch around here. He pressed it on me, and tried to make out it would be a favor to him if I took it. Said I didn't know how much I'd be obliging him. He's a good man. A—a wonderful man. I tried to get him to stop on—but——"
"I don't blame him for going," said Eve, regretfully.
"Nor do I."
Again that silence fell, and each was busy with thoughts they neither could easily have expressed.
"What's the other?" Eve inquired presently. "You said—two things."
"Did I? Oh, yes, of course."
But Jim did not at once tell her the other reason for his visit. Instead he sat thinking of many things, and all his thoughts were centred round her. He was thinking the honest thoughts of a man who loves a woman so well that he shrinks from offering her so little of worldly goods as he possesses. He had come there, as a man will come, to hover round and burn his fingers at the fire which he has not the courage to turn his back upon. He had come there to tell her that he was going away, even as Peter was going—going away to make one more of those many starts which it had been his lot to make in the past.
"Well?" Eve faced him with smiling eyes. She understood that his second reason was troubling him, and she wanted to encourage him.
He shook his head.
"It isn't a scrap 'well,'" he said, with an attempt at a lightness he did not feel.
"Nothing can be so bad, as—as some things," she said. Her eyes had become serious again. She was thinking of those two short months ago.
"No," he breathed, with a sigh. "I—I suppose not." Then with a desperate effort he blurted out his resolve. "I'm going away, too," he said clumsily.
His announcement cost him more than he knew. But Eve showed not the least bit of astonishment.
"I knew you would," she said. Then she added, as though following out a thought which had been hers for a long time, "You see there are some things nobody can put up with—for long. Barnriff, for instance, when it turns against you."
Jim nodded. Her understanding delighted him, and he went on more easily.
"I've one hundred and fifty head of stock, and a thousand odd dollars," he said deliberately. "I'm going to make a fresh start."
He laughed, and somehow his laugh hurt the woman. She understood.
"Don't laugh like that, Jim," she said gently. "It's—it's not like you."
"I'm sorry, Eve," he replied in swift contrition. "But—but it's not much, is it?"
"I seem to fancy it's quite a deal." The girl's face wore a delightful smile. "Where are you thinking of?"
"Canada. Edmonton. It's a longish piece off, but it's good land—and cheap."
"It's not under the 'stars and stripes.'"
"Most flags are made of bunting."
The girl nodded her head.
"A monarchy, too," she said.
"Monarchs and presidents are both men."
Jim's love for his flag was a sore point with him, and he gathered that Eve disapproved. He wanted her approval. He wanted it more than anything else, because—— Suddenly he remembered something.
"Peter's English," he said slyly.
"God bless him!"
The fervor of the woman's response was unmistakable.
"I must see him to-night before he goes," she went on, "because—I've got something to tell him."
She looked down at the table on which the dress she had just finished making was lying.
"That's the last of them," she said, pointing at it.
The man knew what she meant. She had completed her last order.
"I'm going to do no more—here."
Jim's eyes lit.
Eve shook her head.
"I'm going away," she said, with a shamefaced smile. "That's—that's what I want to tell—Peter."
Jim sprang to his feet, and looked into the bright smiling eyes.
"I've got a sewing-machine," Eve went on, deliberately mimicking him, "and—and some dollars. And I'm going to make a fresh start."
Her manner of detailing her stock-in-trade, and the smile that accompanied her words were good to see. Jim's heart beat hard beneath his buckskin shirt, and the light in his eyes was one of a hope such as he rarely permitted himself.
"Where?" he demanded. But he knew before she said the words.
"Canada, Edmonton. It's—it's a longish piece off—but——"
Eve never finished her mimicry. In a moment she was in his arms, and her lips were silenced with his kisses.
Some minutes later she protested.
"You haven't let me finish, Jim," she cried.
But he shook his head.
"No need. I'll tell you the rest. We'll start in together, up there, and—we'll keep the sewing-machine for home use. You see my socks 'll sure need darning."
"Silly. You don't do that with a sewing-machine."
* * * * *
Peter's spring wagon was standing outside his door. It was a quaint, old-fashioned vehicle—just such a conveyance as one would expect him to possess. It had lain idle during most of his time in Barnriff, and had suffered much from the stress of bitter winters and the blistering sun of summers. But it still possessed four clattering wheels, even though the woodwork and the tires looked conspicuously like parting company.
The last of his household goods, with the exception of his blankets, had been loaded up. There was a confused pile of gold-prospecting tools and domestic chattels. Books and "washing" pans, pictures and steel drills, jostled with each other in a manner thoroughly characteristic of his disregard for the comforts of life. These material matters concerned him so little.
He was scraping out a large frying-pan, the one utensil which shared with his "billy" the privilege of supplying him with a means of cooking his food. The work he was engaged upon was something of a strain. It seemed so unnecessary. Still, the process was his habit of years, so he did not attempt to shirk it. But he looked up with relief when he heard voices, and a glad smile of welcome greeted Jim and Eve as they came up.
Jim and Eve both began to speak at the same time. And both broke off to let the other go on.
Peter glanced swiftly from one to the other. His shrewd eyes took in the situation at once.
"I'm glad," he said, "real glad. Jim," he went on, "I guess your luck's set in. Eve, my dear, your luck's running, too. I'm just glad."
The culprits exchanged swift glances of astonishment. Eve blushed, but it was Jim who answered him.
"Guess you see things easy, Peter," he said. "But you aren't as glad as I am."
"We are," corrected Eve.
Peter bent over his work again, smiling at the friendly pan with renewed interest. He scraped some long congealed black grease from its shoulder and gazed at it ruefully.
"Look at that," he said, with his quaint smile, holding up the knife with the unwholesome fat sticking to it. "Guess your pans won't get like that, eh, Eve?" Then he added with a sigh, "It's sure time I hit the trail. It's been accumulating too long already. Y'see," he went on simply, "it's a good thing moving at times. Things need cleaning once in a while."
He threw the pan into the wagon-box with a sigh of relief, and turned again to his two friends.
"I'd ask you to sit," he began. But Jim cut him short.
"There's no need, old friend. We've just come over to say we, too, are going to hit the trail. We're going to hit it together."
"We're going to get the parson to marry us," Jim went on eagerly, "and then we're going to hit out for Canada—Edmonton—and start up a bit of a one-eyed ranch."
Peter stood lost in thought, and Jim grew impatient.
"Well?" he inquired. "What do you think of it?"
The other nodded slowly, his eyes twinkling.
"Bully, but you'll need a wagon to drive you out—when you're getting married," he said. "That's how I was thinking. Guess I'll drive you out in mine, eh?"
"But you're going at sun-up," cried Eve, in dismay. "We—we can't get married so soon."
"Guess I'll wait over," Peter answered easily. "It just means off-loading—and then loading up again. My frying-pan can have another cleaning."
"Thanks, old friend," cried Jim, linking his arm in Eve's. "You're a great feller. You'll see us—married." He squeezed the girl's arm. "And then?"
Peter looked away at the dying light. His eyes were full of the kindly thought his two friends knew so well.
"Why, I'll just hit the trail again," he said.
The big man turned his face slowly toward them, and his gentle humor was largely written in his expressive eyes.
"Why, Canada, I guess," he said. "Edmonton—it seems to me."