"Of course," the latter answered quickly. "Of course—of course!" He seemed groping for a fresh beginning, then gave up suddenly all attempt at circuity and blurted it out much as though he had lived with the thought too long to endure it longer alone.
"I'm in up to my last dollar," he stated. "And Ainnesley—why, Ainnesley wouldn't have a roof over his head if we failed in our obligations! You must know as well as I do why the banking interests took our paper to those amounts which made it possible for us to drive the first spike."
When he failed to go on Steve understood that the last sentence had been a question.
"Mr. Allison, I suppose." His voice became utterly impersonal. "Without doubt you mean Mr. Allison?"
"They would have laughed at us," the older man came back instantly. "And what is more, they did! They wouldn't touch the proposition, until Allison came in with us. And then—but you know what Dexter Allison has done already in this country. I don't know what he started with. I do know that all that Ainnesley and I had scraped up between us looked like a shoe-string to him.
"We couldn't move until he, of his own accord, expressed his enthusiasm for the plan and asked for a share in the holdings. You know, perhaps, how he can laugh, too. Well, he laughed that way and confessed that we had just beaten him to it. He said it would tap a gold mine—this 'strip of steel,' as he called it. He even told us that he'd parallel our road with a competitor, jokingly to be sure, if we hadn't tied up the only available and practicable right of way.
"He came in. He opened up, merely through his own name and all there is behind it, loan possibilities for which we might have struggled uselessly the rest of our lives without his help. Between us Mr. Ainnesley and I just managed to hold the balance of stock control and—and that's how deep we are in, Mr. O'Mara."
Both men sat and smoked, each avoiding, elaborately, the other's eyes. After a long pause, Elliott cleared his throat, laboriously.
"This morning," he continued slowly, "this morning I am in receipt of a communication from Mr. Ainnesley himself, advising me that another right of way has been applied for, for a single track road here in the north. The gossip which chanced to come his way was rather obscure. Little could be learned about the whole affair save that it was being put forward with a view to tapping the ore and timber lands all the way to and beyond the border. But as nearly as he could ascertain the southern terminus of such a road would seem to be about—about at the mouth of that valley southernmost in the Reserve Company's timber holdings. Rather a remarkable choice for a railroad terminus, Mr. O'Mara—wouldn't you say so?"
Steve leaned toward him.
"Do you mean that they've thrown out your earlier application for just such a grant?"
"That would be a rather harshly definite way of putting it," Elliott smiled wryly. "Ours is apparently just tabled—oh, tabled pending certain immaterial changes in the form! You asked me a moment ago—or did I offer to guess who might be responsible for the report which is costing us our men? I wonder if I need to tell you who controls this new northern route?"
"Maybe you've been telling me," Steve came back coolly. "You have already mentioned——"
"Wickersham!" Hardwick Elliott corrected. "Wickersham—that is, through allied interests which he represents or controls. O'Mara, I doubt if I would even insinuate this to anyone else; I haven't even intimated it to Ainnesley as yet. Wickersham is reputed to represent huge moneyed foreign interests. But have you ever stopped to wonder whether he might not represent big local interests as well?"
The tanned face opposite him was so gravely blank that Elliott once more laughed nervously, deprecatingly.
"Doubt of any man's loyalty such as that query would imply is not one of my characteristics. I would rather have left this thing unattempted than to have undertaken it in partnership with any man whom I felt I had to watch. But I just thought that I'd better put it all on the table for you to consider. I'd like to ask you—what do you think?"
The man in blue flannel and corduroy tapped the sodden heel from his pipe and loaded it afresh.
"Yesterday," he answered, "yesterday—Well I couldn't guarantee just what I might have thought, twenty-four hours back. But doesn't one fact remain unchanged still, no matter what we think? Suppose we admit that some one else does want this stretch of track we're laying? Suppose somebody is figuring on picking it up cheap, at a bankruptcy price, if we forfeit to the Reserve Company? You know yourself that you would never have begun it simply for the profit there will be in moving the Reserve logs and the millions on millions of feet of lumber both to the east and west, which can't be touched at anything but a prohibitive figure, without this road. We were going through to the border, too. And if some one else is betting that we don't; if some one else is betting that we can't yank a trainload of logs down to this end of the line, before the first of May, that doesn't alter our case any, does it? Even though we suspect that some man is playing us to lose, do we have to know exactly who he is?"
Slowly but very surely the older man's face began to smooth.
"Once or twice," he stated, "I've thought to anticipate you, perhaps because I have it on you a little, as they say, in the matter of years. I'm not going to attempt it any more. For I thought that this conversation would be at least a surprise to you. You sit there and take it very quietly, for a man who has been badly startled."
"Fat Joe has been preaching it for a month." Oddly enough, Stephen O'Mara chose that point at which to laugh, softly. "And I, for a month, have been ridiculing him. That's one of Fat Joe's pet diversions, you know. When all other excitement fails Joe invariably falls back upon an imagination too totally vivid to be wasted on technical things. I laughed at him, until last night. Do you—but of course you know Garry Devereau?" he finished.
"Knew his father," Elliott answered succinctly. "Know him well! Good blood—good brains—big hearts! Why?"
And then, for the second time that day, Steve related the salient points of that episode which had opened with the trio of owls along the trail and ended with the first gray streaks of returning day. During the recital the expressions which chased across Elliot's face were as varied as they were full of concern.
"Then I wasn't merely hysterical, was I?" he brooded after Steve had finished. "Who—who did you say you thought might be behind the man who would have had your plans, had it not been for Mr. Devereau?"
"I didn't say," replied Steve, and for the first time since his entrance there was mirth in the unison of their laughter.
"It all brings us back to the point from which we started," the younger man went on when they were grave again. "It's a plain enough issue, so far as we are concerned. We've got to be at the mouth of that lower valley by May. We're going to be! And as I see it, wasting time and energy in—shall we call it sleuthing, Mr. Elliott?—won't help us much. We thought that lack of time and the general nature of this country were going to be handicap enough. But now your money is in and I—I never did like to be beaten. Can't we let it stand like that, at least until some one else makes a plainer move? We know the cards we hold. If others care to sit in, perhaps we'll all come to a show-down, next spring at Thirty Mile. It'll be easy enough to explain just how we did it. Alibis based on veiled opposition wouldn't interest the Reserve people much, if we left their timber there to rot. . . . And I'm trying not to overlook any bets, Mr. Elliott."
Hastily the iron-gray man thrust his hat back from his forehead. He came to his feet and crossed and clapped one hand upon Steve's shoulder.
"Next May!" he barked. "O'Mara, I'm glad you came down this morning. I've been carrying a lot of those ideas around in my head until they had become nightmarish. But I'm through now. You won't hear me croak again. I staked what I had on you, months ago; I'd do it again this minute. What's the odds, after all, who it is that's playing us to lose. It's only the fact that somebody may be fighting us that needs to occupy our attention. I'm done worrying, do you hear? But what about those men who are quitting us? You are sure it would be unwise to import labor? It's cheaper, you know."
Steve, too, had risen.
"We'd have the prettiest kind of a scrap on our hands, the first day we tried to use them," he explained. "It would be dear enough before we got through. I guess I'd better run right out and have a talk with McLean. He knows these men even better than I do, and I'm almost one of them, you know. And I'll get a line on some of these delinquents who are crying calamity for the countryside. I'd better, because we'll need them. They simply haven't become thoroughly interested yet, that's all. It will take something to jolt them; something to set them on fire. And then—then just watch my plaid-shirted boys go! They'll eat up your sledge-swingers!"
Something of that promised fire was reflected now in Hardwick Elliott's eyes.
"By Gad," he exclaimed, "by Gad, if it wasn't for Ainnesley I'd say the thing was worth it, win or lose, just for the game itself. You go ahead and see McLean. I'll be out there later, myself. I promised Allison that I'd show the works to some of the young folks up there on the hill. His daughter—but I keep forgetting that you've known her longer than I have. There's quite a party of them. She announced her engagement to Mr. Wickersham last night, I believe. Heard that this morning—was too busy to go up last night myself. Maybe you'll find time to help me play the host."
Steve turned toward the door.
"So I heard," he replied, without facing around. "I'll try to be on hand."
He stood for another instant on the threshold.
"I'm going to ask you to see that my horse is fed and watered," he requested evenly. "And I reckon you'd better eat your own lunch, yourself."
But the man behind him had already anticipated that suggestion. Through a generous bite of sandwich he made answer.
"I'll see that he is taken care of," he called cheerfully. "See you later, Mr. O'Mara—— Pshaw, the coffee's cold!"
Between Dexter Allison's monopoly of his time and the persistence with which Miriam Burrell clung to Stephen O'Mara, Barbara Allison had opportunity for little more than a perfunctory word or two of greeting that afternoon, during the first hour or two that followed a jolting ride on the flat car which trundled them to the head of operations. Almost as soon as her feet touched the ground Miriam's eager survey singled out a tall figure at the edge of the farthest embankment; and in spite of the fact that he was at the moment in sober conversation with white-haired, white-bearded McLean, she crossed instantly to take possession of both Steve's arms and his undivided attention. Barbara, at Wickersham's side, glancing now and then in their direction, knew well what subject was engrossing them to the exclusion of all else. But Allison's acceptance of that arrangement as time passed grew less patient.
For a time he was content to stroll along with the rest—content with his facetious comments on Elliott's explanation of this matter or that. Yet whenever his eyes strayed toward Miriam and that other figure whom a week or two before he had designated as "my man, O'Mara," his jovialty faltered a little, his manner grew restive. After a time he, too, detached himself and sauntered in the direction of that wholly preoccupied pair.
"See here, my lady," he accosted the girl, who turned extremely bright eyes upon his approach. "This won't do at all. How do you suppose I am going to get a minute with Mr. O'Mara, here, if you persist in clinging to his elbow? You'll have to run along—you run over and listen, with the rest, to Elliott's heroic tale of this scarring of the face of nature. I've waited a good many days to talk business with Mr. O'Mara; I'm not going to lose him, now I've got him cornered."
Had Dexter Allison been less occupied with other thoughts, the face which Miriam Burrell turned toward him would have surprised him, if only because of the unusual color burning in her cheeks. At that he was vaguely aware that he had never before seen that quiet, self-contained girl so pulsingly happy. She stood and gazed at him a moment, then made him a low and mocking obeisance.
"Don't flatter yourself that I haven't noted your covetous glances," she flashed. "I've been talking very fast, because I knew this interruption was coming. But we've finished, thank you, so I'll leave you to—to bore him now!"
She turned back toward O'Mara. "And thank you," she murmured not very audibly. "Thank you, more than I ever thanked anybody before in my life. You've made me very, very happy."
No one could have missed the depth of real thankfulness in those last words. Even Allison stood astonished at it, mouth open, following her rapid withdrawal toward the group fifty yards away.
"Huh-h-h," he snorted. "Huh-h-h. A mighty strange girl!" And then, as abruptly as he had interrupted their low conversation, "Well, how does it go, Chief? How does it look to you, as far as you've gone?"
No man's good humor could be more infectious than was that of this big, noisily garbed man. Steve smiled and met his cordiality more than half way.
"Not too bad," he answered. "Not too bad." He swept the ground before them with a short gesture. "You aren't beginning to worry, too, are you?"
"Worry?" Allison's frown was barely perceptible. "Why should I? I never let anything worry me. Who is beginning to fret? You aren't, are you? You don't look—much disturbed."
"Not a particle!" Steve still smiled. "I never do either, unless that there is something worth while to make me. I just thought perhaps you might have contracted it from Mr. Elliott. He's been bothered, you see, by the way some of the men are acting. We're short a lot of labor this week."
The big man wheeled and squinted at the droves of men sweating under the unseasonably hot sun; he peered keenly at each clump of laborers, some of them scarcely distinguishable knots of humanity in the distance.
"Not very short," he stated comfortably. "I don't claim to be a wholly competent judge, but it looks to me as though they would be in one another's way if there were any more of them. What's wrong?"
The chief engineer's answer was drawling in its deliberation.
"I wish I knew," he replied. "I wish I could be positive. And there aren't too many of them; they are altogether too few. We're going to need them, and more, too, before we finish, Mr. Allison. Perhaps I'd better figure on—perhaps if they continue to quit on us, by twos and threes, as they have in the last week—I'll have to——"
His pause seemed almost an invitation that the other suggest a remedy; and whether it was or not Dexter Allison was quick to seize the opening. His suggested solution was heartily bluff.
"Import some more," he said. "When you've employed these men as long as I have—the type of man who has worked all his life on the river—you'll know as well as I do just how uncertain and unreliable they are. What you need is a gang that doesn't want to think for itself. This crowd has too much imagination for a grind like this."
Steve nodded very thoughtfully.
"If it is all imagination," he wondered. "But they're not merely discontented, you see, Mr. Allison. They—they are misleading themselves. They seem to think, from what I've gathered from McLean and a few with whom I have talked, that they are working themselves out of a job for good, when they help to build this strip of railroad. They think so—they have been convinced that such is the truth. Personally, however, I feel sure that between us, we can correct that impression."
Even though he was looking in the direction of a heavy smoke-cloud that had followed a sharp blast to the north of them, Steve felt the weight of Allison's questioning glance.
"We," he echoed. "Where do I figure in it?"
The younger man's upward glance was seemingly surprised.
"You? Why, you're a stockholder. It means as much to you as it does to Mr. Ainnesley and Mr. Elliott."
Allison interrupted him.
"Of course," he exclaimed. "Surely! I see! What I mean was how in the world can I make them understand that such a fool idea is all wrong? So far as this constructive work is concerned, I'm not an active member. I—I had that understood with Elliott when I went into this thing!"
"Of course," Steve in turn broke in. "I understand that. But they know you; they know that Morrison would be nothing more than a street of well-kept lawns and cow-pastures, if you hadn't seen its possibilities. And so I've already told some of them, Mr. Allison; I've gone even further, and given a lot of them my word that you'll guarantee, yourself, that this is the biggest thing for the good of this section that has yet happened."
The speaker smiled frankly into the bigger man's eyes.
"And that was all they needed, was it?" Allison queried, at length. "That fixed it, did it?"
"Absolutely!" Steve's cheeriness should have been infectious. "Absolutely, Mr. Allison. A lot of people have come to look on your word as law in this country, you know—a lot of them!"
"Hum-m-m," replied Allison. "Hum-m-m."
Both of them were quiet for a time. Steve's next remark brought Allison's head up sharply.
"I meant to bring some of my estimates and plans down with me, when I came," he told him. "You spoke of wanting to run over the whole proposition with me, you'll remember, the first day you arrived."
Allison nodded shortly.
"I'll bring them, next trip," Steve finished. "I came so near to losing them last night that I'm taking no chances until they're in duplicate. We can run over them later?"
Allison wheeled and gazed meditatingly toward the group who were slowly moving their way. His daughter Barbara, with Wickersham at her side, was in the lead.
"Any time," he agreed. "There's no particular hurry."
And then a moment later, just when she was beginning to wonder whether he was purposely avoiding her, Barbara was surprised at the calm ease with which Steve took her away from her tall escort. She had noticed that Wickersham and Steve had not touched hands when they first met, an hour or two before, nor even hinted at such a salute. But now, as earlier in the day when her dash toward the stables had left him standing rigid in the middle of the lawn, she failed to see the expression that settled upon Wickersham's long face. It was Dexter Allison this time who noticed it, and hours later, when he and Wickersham sat and faced each other in the downstairs room in the house on the hill, which served as Allison's office, he remembered and recognized it.
"You wanted to talk with me?" Wickersham inquired as he entered the room that evening.
Somehow Wickersham's unending politeness had always irritated Allison. That night his smoothly infectionless question nettled him.
"Your damned fool, Harrigan, bungled last night!" he blurted out. "He messed things up, beautifully. He not only failed, but he failed to get away without being seen. That's what comes of entrusting a job like that to a drunken sot."
Wickersham seated himself—sat and caressed a cigarette. Coolly he waited and blinked his eyelids.
"My man?" he murmured. "My man?"
"Ours then," Allison corrected sharply. "Ours." Then he seemed to recollect himself and his voice became less abrupt. "Listen. This afternoon I had a talk with O'Mara. That is, I started to have a talk with him, but—but he beat me to it. And in just about three minutes he told me that he'd caught Harrigan on the job—not mentioning any names, I don't mean—but he didn't need to, And he told me more than that. He as good as gave me to understand that he'd know where to place the blame, if there was any more interference with his men."
Wickersham crossed a long leg and blew a thin blue streamer of smoke.
"Yes?" he intoned bodilessly.
It brought a blaze to Allison's eyes—that nerveless monosyllable.
"That doesn't interest you, eh?" he snapped. "Doesn't interest you at all! Well, it does me. Three months ago I bought into this affair because I was as sure as any man could be that I'd collect a hundred per cent on my money, next spring. Elliott and Ainnesley? Pah!—Nice gentle old ladies, when it comes to a game like this. They're anachronists; they are honest business men, twenty years behind the times. You've heard of taking candy from children. Well, that's what it looked like then. But it doesn't look that way any longer. Talk with you? Yes, I did want to talk. I wanted to tell you that if you'd like to switch I'm willing, right now. I wanted to tell you that if you'd rather be a good little boy and get into line, I'm willing and more than willing. Because I can promise you, since I talked it over with O'Mara this afternoon, that we haven't any nice, dead-sure thing on our hands any longer.
"Oh, you can sit there and smile your cold-blooded smile! And if you think I'm experiencing pangs of conscience you're mistaken. All I have, I got from other men who—who weren't strong enough to hang on to it. There isn't any friendship in business—or if there is I never played it that way. I'm just telling you that now is our one opportunity, if we want to join hands and hurrah with the rest of them for the completion of this job by next May. We lose a railroad at a bargain, perhaps, but we've still got a mighty good right-of-way to the border, that will insure our welcome in the ranks. Maybe we lose and—and maybe—well, I never did like to be beaten! Nor do I say that such an argument will have any weight with you, but it's a chance to be on the dead level, for once. What do you say? Do we switch?"
Then Allison remembered the expression which had flitted over Wickersham's face when Stephen O'Mara coolly appropriated Barbara. But that expression had been a totally gentle thing beside the pale fury which now slowly overspread his features. Wickersham twisted the cigarette to fragments—flung them from him, and the very gesture was vicious.
"Switch," he snarled. And he leaned forward, face bloodless, and beat upon a chair arm. "Switch now!" He laughed shrilly. "Why, I'm going to beat that damned woods-rat in his matinee-idol costume so bad between now and next May that he'll be walking the roads for his next job. Switch? I'm going to brand him as the worst incompetent that ever dragged two poor fools down into pauperism. I'll see him broke. I'll wipe that damned smooth smile from his lips, by God, if I have to——"
Wickersham gasped; he came to his feet panting all in an instant with the rage that set his dry lips writhing. But at that point he, too, remembered himself. He swallowed and faced Allison, and the latter, sitting pop-eyed before his outbreak, gaped now at the change that came back over that twisted face. Wickersham smiled. Once more his bearing was the very essence of perfect poise and self-control.
"If you—if you are afraid——" he inferred. "If you——"
Allison's laugh was big and booming, for all that the astonishment had not yet left his eyes.
"Cold feet," he rumbled. "Cold feet! Me!" And suddenly his gust of mirthless laughter made petty the other's insolence. "Wickersham, I've broken better crooks than you'll ever be. A man has to have a big heart to be a big crook and you—and you—well, sometimes I wonder whether there wasn't some sort of an oversight in that line, when they put you together."
He couldn't have explained why the thought came to him at that moment any more than he understood his swiftly malicious impulse to use it; but all in a flash there came back to him a recollection of that day when he and Caleb had burst through the hedge to find the boy, Stephen O'Mara, pummeling a bigger prostrate boy who shrieked under the earnest thoroughness of that pummeling. Allison, too, rose to his feet.
"I only wanted to give you a chance," he stated dryly. "I reckon I can take care of myself. I always could. And you—well, you know as well as I do what sort of a scrap that—that woods-rat can put up, or you ought to. He gave you a sort of a demonstration, once, if I remember correctly. I stick! I never was overly squeamish. But don't fool yourself, Archie, don't fool yourself. If we light, we're fighting with a regular guy, your insinuation to the contrary. I merely wanted you to realize what I know now. We'll think we've been in a battle before we come to a finish!"
His hand was on the door knob when the door itself flashed open. Dexter Allison's daughter hesitated, surprised, on the threshold. Her eyes, brilliantly alight, leaped from her father's face to that of the man half toward her and back again.
"Oh," she exclaimed uncertainly, "I didn't know you were busy. I saw the light. I'd been over to Uncle Cal's, just for a minute. I wanted to tell you—good night!"
THIS LITERARY THING
It was dark, the night of that second day, when Stephen O'Mara came quietly up to the open door of his own lighted shack and stopped for a moment to gaze in at the two men whose faces were touched by the glow of the lamp on the table. There had been more than one moment in those forty-eight hours which had elapsed since he had lifted that black-robed, inert figure from the floor in which Steve had wondered whether Garry Devereau would even await his return to Thirty-Mile; more than once he had smiled whimsically to himself, during the trip back up-river, over the scene which he was certain would meet his eyes, had Garry chosen to wait.
But there were no poker chips in front of Fat Joe that night. Round face propped upon one hand, the latter was staring motionless at a thick pad of yellow paper flat before his eyes. And Garry himself was sitting with his back toward the light, staring as motionlessly into the cold fireplace. Merely from their attitudes, Steve knew that they had been a long time silent; he knew that Fat Joe would have been making conversation, no matter how desperately footless it might have been, had he been conscious of the quality of the other's moody quiet. And then, as he was himself about to go forward, barely in time to check the word of greeting on his lips, Joe lifted pensive eyes to the other's back. When Joe spoke his words were none too plain; he was gnawing a pencil tip in most evident perplexity.
"Say," he broke that heavy silence, "say, Garry, how do you spell reconciliation?"
Immediately the man outside in the dark decided not to announce himself just yet. And much of his own puzzlement was mirrored in the worn face which Garry turned toward his questioner.
"Reconciliation?" Garry repeated blankly. "What in thunder——"
"Of course I'd ought to be able to handle it," Joe cut in blandly apologetic. "I just dismember whether it goes with a 'c' or a 'k.'"
Garry tried not to grin; but outside in the dark Steve allowed his appreciation to spread and spread across his face.
"With a 'c,'" the man before the fireplace told him soberly. "Are you—what are you doing, Joe, making out reports?"
With much care Joe transcribed it upon the virgin sheet before him; with a painful precision that brought the tip of his tongue beyond one corner of his lips, he rounded out the letters to his complete satisfaction.
"No," his answer was mumbled in his abstraction. "No, I ain't writing a report. I'm—I'm just beginning my novel."
Steve heard Garry gasp; he saw a gleam of pleased anticipation flash into his eyes, and knew instantly at what degree of friendship those two had already arrived.
"Will you—will you please say that again, Joe?" Garry begged him, very earnestly. "I wasn't paying attention. I'm afraid I was thinking of something else too hard to hear you correctly."
Joe's smile as he looked up had in it all of that quality which at times made it almost seraphic. His answer seemed irrelevant at first.
"I wonder if you know that Cecile person who works down to that big plaster house at Morrison—Allison's place on the hill?" he inquired.
"Dexter Allison's?" Garry thought a moment. "Why, you must mean Miss Allison's little French maid, don't you, Joe? Yes, I know who she is, if she's the one. But what has she to do with it?"
Joe laid down his pencil and set himself to be frankly explanatory.
"Well, it's like this," he stated. "She and I, now—we've got more or less acquainted in the last week or two, so to speak. And that ain't bad progress when you figure out that she can't understand more'n a dozen or two of all the words I speak to her, and as for me—well, when she gets to talking back it just makes me dizzy, that's all. But we're pretty good friends, when you consider that handicap. The thing that really bothers me is that the only folks she seemed to have been real neighborly with, back in Paree—that's the way you say it, ain't it?—was mostly sculptors and painters and writers, and such lot. So that would let me out of the running, right at the start, you see.
"I figured I didn't class at all, at first, because about the best thing I can say for myself is that there ain't a man on the river who ever rode white water better. I'm mostly a lumber jack, coming or going, whichever way you take me, although I've punched cattle and placer mined for variety. But to-night—to-night since you been setting there quiet—I got to thinking, too. She's a real nice girl. We get along fine together. And I kind of think we would, anyhow, even if we could understand each other better. I got to thinking to-night that maybe I'd better not quit cold, just yet. Now—I can't sculp, and somehow I never was strong for them guys who sit straddle of a little chair and paint cows and posies and things on a strip of muslin hooked over a frame. But, say, I've seen lots of writers who didn't look a whole lot more intelligent than me! I—I just got to thinking, to-night, that I'd take a fall out of this literary thing!"
Steve always held it to his friend's credit that he did not laugh. Indeed, Garry's soberness at that moment was almost woebegone.
"I see, Joe," he answered. "Not a bad idea. May I ask what your story—your novel is to deal with?"
"Deal with? What do you mean?"
"Why, they always deal with some problem, Joe," Garry squared around. "They always attack the rottenness of the rich, or sob over the rottenness of the poor. They always expound the crime of divorce, or attack the error of matrimony. Now which of——"
"Then I ain't dealing with nothing," stated Joe. "What I'm figurin' on doing is a regular love story. I thought maybe I'd have a nice young chap who—who's building a railroad or something, fall in love with a real nice girl who's the daughter of a fat man who's a crook. I mean the fat man's the crook, not the daughter. And—and——"
"And then what?" asked Garry Devereau.
Fat Joe, unlike the man outside, did not notice that a new note, dangerously hard and wickedly edged with ridicule, had replaced the amusement in Garry's voice. He grew a little more enthusiastic.
"Well, that's as far as I've got, right up to now," he admitted with an explosive sigh. "But it looks like a good enough beginning, at that. All I got to do now is run 'em through three or four hundred pages, with him a-talkin' to her and her a-talkin' at him. All I got to do, accordin' to all the books I've ever read, is see that it don't all come too easy for him, and still turns out all right. I expect I'll run 'em into a clinch with another guy standin' around eatin' his heart out with jealousy. It'll serve him right; he's just that mean sort, you know. Oh, I'll just marry 'em, along toward the end of the last chapter, and that'll kind of close it up."
Stephen O'Mara had been watching Joe's face while the latter talked, and therefore he was no more prepared than was Joe himself for the burst of harsh laughter that came from Garry's lips. It seemed utterly illogical that all actual humor should so swiftly fade from that situation with the first really audible expression of mirth. Steve himself believed it was only simulated, until his eyes swung to Garry's face. But he knew then what thoughts had been with Garret Devereau, all evening, before he had come up unheard to the door.
"Why, you poor simple scholar of nature!" The wan-faced one's lips curled. "You're years behind your day! If you submitted such a screed to a publisher now, he'd think you'd written a history of archaic American types."
He stopped to sneer.
"Listen," he went on. "Listen, and I'll give you a plot, gratis, which, if you handle it right, will make you, overnight! Take your girl—a nice girl, to be sure, sweet and unsophisticated and—and childishly innocent, Joe, and—and well, you'll have to describe her, first, won't you? Let's dress her up, then—dress her up in an evening confection that leaves little to the imagination in front and—and ground for amazement in back. That's a fair starter. If you care to be analytical you can insist that the reason she dresses like that is—oh, just because she's so innocent that she doesn't know any better, eh!
"All right! That establishes her very well. And then we can do just what you planned to do with your dear lady. We'll run her through three or four hundred pages, but with just a trifling change or two. Every chapter or so I'd leave her, Joe, in a situation that ends with a gasp—no pause even for a caramel! Three or four hundred pages, and then, if you have to marry her off why, let's be honest about it—no? Marry her off to the sort of a chap whom you'd man-handle to a pulp, Joe, if he came near—say a sister of yours. A nice, white-skinned, red-lipped, sweet, innocent sort of a little girl, Joe—and—and that finish will keep her true to type!"
At the beginning Fat Joe had been all eager attention. His face became heavy with amazement long before Garry's hard voice was still.
"But—but that ain't the kind of a yarn I'm figurin' on," he argued, his high voice faint but dogged. "This ain't going to be any of that tabasco stuff. Nope, I like it better the way I've got it planned. It—it leaves a better taste in your mouth, too."
Again Garry laughed, to himself it seemed, this time.
"Have your own way," he muttered. "But if you're going to stick to it you'd better label it a romance! Because there's only one kind of a woman, Joe, in reality. Just the kind who's killed what used to be a demand for decent men."
And then, outside in the dark, Stephen O'Mara forgot how sick the other man had been. He was across the threshold in a single stride, and Fat Joe came lightly to his feet as he saw his chief's set face that night. It wiped, the smile from Garry's lips, too. Squarely in front of the latter Steve halted and spoke with monotonous lack of haste.
"You're going to tell me that you didn't mean that, Garry," he said quietly. "For I'm going to marry one of those women myself."
Garret Devereau's face had been white. It went whiter now. He too came squarely to his feet, his body stiff but very frail in the oversize garments from Steve's wardrobe which he was wearing. He stood and stared emptily into his friend's eyes until something close akin to dreary defiance rose and marked his numbed comprehension.
"What I said," he answered as quietly, "I'd alter for no man. My opinions are my own."
He turned and passed outside.
For longer than he realized Steve stood gazing down into the burnt-out fireplace, until another thought, swifter even than the impulse that had lifted him across the threshold and thrust him into speech which, already, he would have given much to recall, whirled him around again. There was a light in the near end of the storehouse building just above his own cabin, and as he hurried toward it he knew Fat Joe must have fitted it up for the third man's quarters. He knocked at the door, and when there came no response, unbidden he lifted the latch and entered.
Garry was sitting on the edge of his blanketed bunk—sitting with shoulders slumped forward and head bowed low. He did not look up, for he had not heard Steve's entrance. He was pondering over the cylinder of a heavy, blued revolver, spinning beneath his transparent fingers. But Steve's first inarticulate effort at speech brought his head around. Garry smiled up at him—a smile reminiscent of his rare smile of years before.
"I didn't mean anything, Steve," he said in a hushed voice. "I'm damned sorry I spoke as I did. You see—you see, I just didn't know it would hit you, that's all."
Again Steve swallowed. Dumbly he pointed at the gun.
"What are you doing with that?" he demanded hoarsely.
Garry's eyes dropped. He stared at the revolver in his hand in mild perplexity, much as though he, too, were surprised to find it there.
"Why, nothing—nothing. I often take a notion to—to look at it like this."
Then his face went crimson.
"You've heard the news, I see." He tried to hide the bitterness behind the words, but one lip corner twitched and quivered. "They posted you in advance, did they? But you did not believe I was as bad as that, did you? You didn't think, did you, Steve, that I—I'd go out leaving you to blame yourself even a little bit?"
His question was curiously wistful—wistful and as unsteady as the hand which now proffered that blunt-barreled, huge-bore gun.
"Here, you take it, if—if you'll sleep the sounder. And don't you worry over me. I'll see you in the morning, Steve."
A GIRL LIKE HER
Save for a short and casual "see you in the morning, Garry," Stephen O'Mara turned without a word that night and left the improvised sleeping-quarters in the storehouse shack. It was a man's leave-taking, short to abruptness, so badly stereotyped that it denied utterly any consciousness of threatened, reckless tragedy and cordially intimate only because in all man-to-man speech there is less and less of actual sincerity in a multiplicity of words. But he might have talked till daylight and still have failed to register the binding acceptance of Garry's promise, which his silence, unaided, achieved.
Soundlessly, unemotionally, Steve closed the door on that figure on the bunk edge which, suddenly slack of limb and shoulder, had averted its face. But then, there in the darkness, with the gun swinging heavily between loose fingers, he hesitated in his very first step back from the threshold. And twice, head bowed in indecision, he halted in his slow progress from that door to the lighted one of his own cabin which framed Fat Joe's immobile form—halted each time as though he would return—and each time went slowly forward again. Fat Joe's eyes barely flitted over Steve's face that night; they clung in a fixed, pale blue stare of fear to the weapon in his hand. And long after Steve had drawn up a chair next the one which Garry had vacated and fallen to filling his pipe, he stood, shifting from foot to foot in awkward, uncomfortable silence. He crossed after a time and slipped into the empty seat. His tongue was as haltingly guilty as his face was pink with shame when he began to speak.
"Steve," he stammered, "Say, Steve, I—I didn't know I was going to start anything like that when I begun talking my ideas of art and literature and such like. I didn't see where it was leading us to—not for a minute. Why, Steve, every blessed hour of the days and nights since you've been away, I've been dodgin' every topic of conversation I thought might hit him hard. I'm just several assorted kinds of fool—and you followed him that quick and quiet!" The apology was tinged with pride. "I just didn't think—— But ain't he got a poor opinion of women folks, though? Was it—a close decision?"
Steve shook his head; he smiled and the returning surety in his face did much to clear Joe's features.
"No," Steve answered, "not very. Somehow I know already that I needn't have followed at all, so far as that contingency was concerned. And it was my fault, Joe, not yours. I should have told you exactly how such things stood in Garry's mind—would have, if I had had the time. His opinion of women isn't very high. And it's odd, too, isn't it, that both the very highest and very lowest of such opinions are always held by men who base them upon what they have been taught by one woman alone. Tell me, Joe, what's happened? How have you and Garry hit it off, since I went down river? . . . Trouble?"
The fat man's eager denial was still self-consciously defensive.
"Not a bit!" he stated. "Not one little wrangle, even. Of course I was expectin' it. I've watched 'em come around too many times not to know how they can cuss a man cold one minute, and then make him plumb ashamed of mankind in general, with beggin' and pleadin'. I just beat him to it the morning he woke up; I told him what he could have, and what he couldn't, and he took it calmly enough. He just set there, pretty blue and shaky, and not quite clear in his head, and smiled that slow grin of his that's hardly any smile at all.
"I don't mean that he didn't swear! O my—O my! It's nice, ain't it, to have the gift of ease and eloquence in speech? He made me feel sort of amateurish and inadequate—me! But he didn't beg. Not—one—peep—out—of—him! He told me what he thought of me just as polite and cool as could be and let it go at that. He said he guessed I was boss, for a while at least, and asked for chopped fine!" Fat Joe hesitated. His color grew higher again. "After what's just happened," he added, "I'm almost ashamed to mention it, but—but ain't this friend of yours one of them chaps they call 'thoroughbreds' in novels?"
Steve flashed a glance at that earnest face. For a moment he had forgotten the first glimpse he had caught of Joe that evening, bent double over the block of yellow paper—a glimpse which still seemed funny and yet not very funny either.
"He comes of a very old family," he replied. "Old as they are reckoned in this country." And his answer held a question.
Joe shook his head.
"That ain't quite what I mean. I've seen lots of the younger sons of them old families. I've run into them in Yokohoma and Buenos Ayres; I've met up with them along the Yukon and down on the Mexican border. They're scattered all around, out through the Panhandle, ridin' calico ponies, with jingly spurs and more than a bushel of doo-dads on the saddle. They all come from old families, and I suppose after all it was a blessing that they had that much in their favor. Because if most of them hadn't had a family tree to lean up against at times, they never could have kept their feet at all."
"No, that wasn't what I meant, Steve. I figured he was kind of a regular chap—the hero guy that's too hot proud to bat an eye, you know, even when he's—well, I just can't get it straight in words, but this is what I'm driving at. The first night after you had gone he was settin' right here where I'm settin' now, looking quiet into the fire. I didn't ask him what was on his mind, not because I've learned not to go trackin' across other men's mental preserves, but simply because I didn't even have to guess more than once. He's a nice lookin' boy, ain't he? Sort of fine cut and tight built, and clean and decent looking. I'd been thinkin' of that, too; thinkin' he didn't look like the others I've seen drop off so sudden it left me gasping. Nor like them who went over so screamin' mad it left my palms wet and clammy from hangin' on to myself while they were going. He looked different, settin' here and staring into the fire, and hell burning inside him, and saying nothing. I sort of got to figurin' over him about then—sort of begun to wonder, even before I hunted up a deck of cards.
"Oh, you can smile if you want to, but you'll have to admit, just the same, that it's helped you stay sane once or twice yourself, figurin' whether or not I had an ace in the hole. Lonesomeness like what we've both seen ain't so very different from what he was fightin' at that very moment—not if the thing you're lonesome for and the thing you're thirsty for are things you know you can't have.
"I invited him to set in for a bit of intellectual pastime; I had to invite him twice, but he smiled then and agreed just as though he was glad to. And then, careless and off-hand, I asked him would he care to name the stakes.
"He waited quite a while before he answered me. You know how quiet it can be here in the timber, Steve, when it starts out to be quiet. Well, I could just feel the silence right here in this room. And then he laughed! It wasn't hardly any sound at all he made, and yet it might have been a blast, it hit me that sudden. I don't like that kind of laughter.
"'Stakes?' he says after me, just as precise as could be. 'Why, surely! I should be happy to back my play, but I'm afraid that my present supply of cash would hardly stand a very heavy drain.'
"He didn't have to explain even that much. Right along I'd been certain enough that he didn't have a copper with him. I'd put his watch away where he couldn't find it and—and maybe swap it with one of the hands for a half a pint. But I let on to be thinkin' for a while, until I brightened up as if the idea just hit me.
"It wasn't exactly fair, I'll admit. It wasn't what either of us would call a straight play, but—but—oh, I'd been watching him, just as I've told you. I knew he would about pay his soul for the drink that was due him in fifteen or twenty minutes; he was eyein' the bottle on the shelf right that minute. But I'd never seen a man's face give the lie to his spirit, either, the way his did, if he was the kind that would quit cold.
"'Cash ain't no consideration with me,' I told him, generous enough. 'But, personally, I've reached that degree of excellence where I can't play the game just for the sake of the technique of it any more. It's a quarter to nine,' says I, 'and in just fifteen minutes you get your gill of Three Star. Now, how much—how much, figurin' on the present state of supply and demand—would you reckon that drink appeals to you, in dollars and cents, U. S. A.?"
"Steve, you know he wasn't too steady. His hands were shaking—oh, you've seen 'em, too. But there he sits and looks back across the table at me, monkeyin' with a stack of chips, and giving me smile for smile.
"'I wouldn't sell that drink,' he murmured, 'I wouldn't sell it for . . . well'—and he licked his lips that were dry as leather.
"That was enough! I knew as well as he did how much he wanted it, but I was kind of disappointed, too. I'd been hopin'—I thought maybe—Say, don't you just naturally hate to have your judgment of human nature miss the whole blamed target, just when you think you've scored a bulls-eye? I do. It hurts my self-confidence; makes me wonder if I ain't growin' careless of details. And then, right there, I found out how close I'd come, and shootin' off-hand at that, mind you! Right there he gave me my next lesson. The nice, gentle way he cussed me out, that morning, was the first. Maybe he'd read the disappointment in my face, because he laughed again, not quite so sudden this time.
"'I wouldn't sell that drink for any price,' he repeats. 'But when it resolves itself to a gamble, I suppose, Joe, no gentleman should refuse the issue. If I understand you correctly, if cash is no consideration, then suppose we say that one drink against the rest of the bottle, chip for chip and stack for stack. Your confidence is not entirely reassuring to me, and yet perhaps I should tell you beforehand that I've always thought I could play this game half way well myself.'"
Fat Joe rose and crossed to the table for a match.
"Now wasn't that meeting me half way?" he continued, when he was seated again. "Wasn't it neatly done? Why, for a moment I was most ashamed to go through with it. I wouldn't have, only he sat there, smilin' so easy and confident. But we played. We played until daylight came around. And accordin' to the way he scored it, just before we went down to the works in the morning, he didn't have a drink comin' to him for the next forty-eight hours! I play a real involved and scientific game, Steve—but that ain't what I'm drivin' at. When we'd got done—when we'd finished—I tried to make him take the glass that had been comin' to him at nine. And he needed it, don't doubt that. He needed it and could have had it, for I made it just as easy as anybody could. . . . Steve, he ain't had a drink since that first night. That was what I meant when I spoke about him being what they call a thoroughbred."
They sat for a time in silence after Joe had finished.
"Pride!" Stephen O'Mara exploded softly. "Pride! And Garry thinks his is dead; he thinks he has killed it himself. But it was there on his face to-night, too, laughing up at me, Joe, just as it did at you—laughing at me, all amused at itself, out of that crooked smile of his. And it'll never die. It'll live as long as he does!"
He looked down at the gun on his knee.
"That's all, Joe?"
Fat Joe cleared his throat.
"I—I gave him a job the next morning," lamely. "We seemed to be getting along together fine so I—— Shucks, I was just afraid to have him go! That's the flat truth of it. And you told me to keep him, if I could. So I set him to checking up the stock in the storeroom and put him on keepin' time for the squad up here. He's drawin' eighteen a week, Steve. Was that all right? You were figurin' on keeping him here?"
And then Joe Morgan saw Steve's eyes light up. He saw a swift something flash out from within, which, once or twice before in the years of their friendship, had set his face to burning.
"Joe," Steve exclaimed, "you're right about that matter of family trees. I know a man right now who doesn't have to go back one minute in his pedigree to prove that he's a gentleman. I've left some tough propositions for you to solve, Joe. Lots of times, when I couldn't see the way out, I've put it up to you. If I merely say 'thanks, Joe,' and let it go at that, do you think it will do?"
"Suits me!" Joe's jauntiness was large. "And it goes double on the rebound. But how—how do you suppose any woman ever came to set a—boy like that to slipping? Or why didn't he sit down where it was quiet and figure it all out for himself? One bad guess don't make the whole world wrong. And say, wouldn't it be lucky, though, if he could meet a real nice girl about now?"
Steve leaned back and gave way to rare and subdued laughter. It was much as though he did not want the sound to penetrate to that dark end room in the shack beyond. And then he was quickly sober-faced again.
"I think he is going to, Joe. I think I may promise that he is likely to, very, very soon. And it will make a difference—a mighty big difference for Garry. For, if you don't mind my mentioning the matter again, in spite of the preachments of many of your novelists to the contrary, it's just about as Garry has argued it to be. Most men are just as fine—just as decent—as women demand they shall be."
He lifted the revolver and tossed it negligently across the room. It struck with a thud in the middle of his own bunk.
"Where did he get that six-shooter? It looks like one of yours?"
"It is," said Joe. "Nothing gaudy nor ornamental, but a right handy thing. And, there! That's another error I made, ain't it? I reckon it's going to be difficult for me to get used to the idea of any man being a dangerous enemy to himself. I gave it to him the first day he went to work."
Joe's eyes traveled across to the object under discussion.
"Harrigan came back before you did," his explanation seemed to veer to another quarter. "He was most punctual, I'd say, wouldn't you? He came in tuned up real melodious on the last load with Big Louie. He sung big-voiced that night; he's been talkin' big-voiced since, I'm led to understand." Again that mental shift. "Gun-play always did seem awful foolish to me—to talk about! When men start to advertisin' trouble to come, by word o' mouth, it never does worry me particularly. I just gave your friend the gun to keep around handy, if he should happen to need it. Did you know he could make the ace of spades look shopworn and weary at thirty paces with one of those toys? Well, he can."
"You're not totin' one of them yourself, yet, I see?" he remarked lazily.
Fat Joe spat in vast contempt. He clenched one pudgy hand and sat watching the knuckles pale, iron-hard, beneath the seeming softness.
"Are you?" he countered.
This time Steve's laughter was soundless.
"Scarcely! We're going to hear some of them yap lots louder than they do now, before the winter is over. But you might give that one back to Garry in the morning. And, as for the rest of it, I suppose we'll be quite likely to forget, won't we, Joe, that either of us has so much as seen or thought of a gun to-night?"
Both of them had risen. Joe puckered his lips.
"Forget it? How can we," he demanded, "when we don't even know anything to forget! Why, as I reckon it, we'll both get up in the morning and regard it as a dream just too foolish even to bother to relate."
Their eyes held for a moment, before Steve turned again toward the door. And perhaps his manner was a little too unconcerned that evening, a little too carefully careless, for almost before he had lifted the latch Fat Joe stepped forward, one quick, protesting step, and then stopped on second thought.
"You ain't goin'——" he began, and suffered that spoken protest also to remain uncompleted.
"It's not late," Steve's voice was thoughtful. "It's not late, but it's surely very quiet." He stood gazing out into the gloom. "Maybe I'd best run down and see what ails our soloist to-night. Somehow, the more I've thought about it, the more I've come to fear that he is temperamental, Joe—too temperamental, for such a wearing proposition as this one is likely to be. And you haven't slept much since I've been gone. Oh, that was easy, just from your eyes! So you'd better turn in. I'll just stroll down and let them know that I'm back home."
It is odd how much of finality there can be in the quietest of statements. Eyes narrowed, Joe stood in the middle of the floor and watched him depart without further objection. But the moment the blackness had swallowed him up he backed to the bunk, fumbled for the gun which Steve had tossed upon the blankets, and followed out into the dark.
Stephen O'Mara stood a long time outside the door of the men's bunkhouse that night, fingers upon the latch, before he made any move to enter. But neither a wish to eavesdrop nor a desire to frame, experimentally, the words he meant to speak was the reason behind that pause. It was in itself a new thing to find the long, low building lighted at that hour, even though, as he had himself put it to Joe an instant before, it was hours from being late. That night the almost absolute silence beyond the closed door was an even more unusual state of affairs. The voice of one man only was audible; the words he spoke indistinguishable altogether. But sudden bursts of laughter, punctuating the recital which he could not clearly follow, were indication enough to the man outside of what manner of tale was holding the ears of that roomful of rivermen. Stephen O'Mara, who had long ceased to wonder at the discovery in them, of new and impulsive finenesses which bordered close upon inherent nobility, knew fully as well how utterly and unspeakably gross could be the premeditated coarseness of those same men.
There was no movement to mark his entrance when he finally pressed the latch and swung the door open; not so much as a single glance to indicate that his presence was noted. Under the yellow light of flickering oil lamps the eyes of all those scores of gaudy-shirted figures lounging against the walls were fixed eagerly upon the face of him who held the middle of their stage—him who talked from where he half-lay, propped on one elbow, in his bunk at the end of the room. Harrigan, red-shirted, red-headed, was lounging at case, waiting for the last gurgle of appreciation to subside, before he gave them the close of the story—the last titbit, the savor of which already had set him noisily to licking his lips. And in the doorway Steve, rigid of a sudden, sensed what that climax was to be.
"—Her fi-an-say inside," the droningly indistinguishable words were very plain now, "her fi-an-say inside, consoomed with pr-ride and anticipation, tellin' all who had come to dance that she had pr-romised to be his, for-river more! And her, at that same minute outside with him—and both av thim. . . ."
Harrigan did not hurry it in the telling. And if his portrayal of Archibald Wickersham was unmistakably deliberate, neither did he fail for want of sufficient detail, to make the other picture clear. Vilely he gave them the complete imagery of his vile brain.
A shout went up, a louder, hoarser outcry of applause which rocked the room. And then that rigid figure in the doorway had started forward. Between those lanes of suddenly silent men Steve passed in silence, to stand before him who had achieved his climax a breath before. And at his coming Harrigan slid from the bunk, started to reach within the blanket pack at the head of what had been his bed, and then thought better of such impulse. Bravado intermingled with blank surprise, he came haltingly to his feet. The voices of few men have been as unhurriedly deadly as was that of him who Harrigan that night.
"That was wise, Harrigan," Steve told him slowly—far too gently. "That was wise to let your knife lie safe within your pack. For if you'd touched it, I'd have killed you—as I ought to kill you now. But you're drunk, Harrigan! You were drunk a minute ago when you lied your lie. . . . You're soberer now. You're sober enough to start again and tell me you're a liar!"
They waited—the roomful of rivermen. Nothing stirred save the clouds of filmy blue smoke floating against the rafters—that and a bulky blot of shadow outside which shifted a little, noiselessly, just beyond the patch of light that streamed through the door. They waited, heavy-breathed, while Harrigan began to recover from the disconcertment into which O'Mara's coming had flung him. Slowly the former's lips twisted into a mocking leer; mockery rose and swam with the hatred in his inflamed eyes. He would have spoken, sparring for time, when Steve's hand leapt in and made of the joking effort only a rattle in his throat. Beneath the stiff red stubble the flesh was livid where those fingers had been, when he was able to draw breath again.
"'Twas only a bit av a joke," he gasped, and gulped and swallowed hard. "'Twas only a bit av a joke I was tellin' the bhoys, about seein' you an'——"
Steve's voice bit in and cut him short.
"Your turkey's ready, Harrigan!" He pointed at the pack toward which the other had groped and then thought better of the impulse. "You were going, of your own accord, I see. Well, I'm telling you to go, now! The door's open; I left it so for you, when I came in. And I'm telling you too, before you leave, that you'll do well not to come back. There's not room for both of us on this river any more, Harrigan!"
The riverman's eyes shifted. Furtively they flitted from face to face in those rows of faces at the walls. But whatever he thought or hoped to find—fleeting flash of support or encouragement—was hidden behind a common mask of astonishment as blank as had been his own. They were waiting for his answer; he knew they were waiting for that as he crossed to the door. And when he paused there, to turn in sudden savagery, he realized that his tardiness had robbed him of his chance. It was too late to talk back then.
"You're tellin' me," he rasped out, "and I was going—sur-re! But things ar-re not yet finished between you and me. For I'm pr-romisin' you that I'll be back; I'm pr-romisin' you I'll be wid ye again. I'll be wid ye again, come spring!"
He disappeared. And hard upon his going Steve wheeled and fronted those scores of silent men. His eyes leaped from point to point, as Harrigan's had craftily flitted. Briefly, crisply, he accompanied the sweeping survey with a voice that was loud enough for all of them to hear.
"Big Louie! . . . Fallon! . . . Shayne! This is your chance to say so, if you're going to be lonesome, now that your song-bird has flown. Speak up! I came down tonight just to hear you talk."
Nothing but an indistinguishable murmur answered him, a low growl that was neither argument nor evasion. For those hottest partisans, whose names had been called aloud, knew with Harrigan's going toward whom the chill finger had been pointed, even though Death had entered and stalked through their ranks and slipped back out at the door almost before they realised its nearness.
Rebellion was still a long way ahead for most of them. They had not yet had time to talk themselves to the pitch of open revolt. They had merely begun to listen to Harrigan whose disciples in dissatisfaction they were. And now, in his absence, they stirred uncomfortably under the gaze of him who remained; they dropped their heads and searched for matches. But Steve felt the weight of unspoken thoughts when he, too, faced back in the doorway. This time there was no naming of names; he embraced the whole room when he spoke.
"They tell me, boys," he said, "that there's talk among you of no more work on the river when we've put this railroad through. I've heard it said that some of you think you are cutting the ground out from under your feet with every shovelful of earth you lift. You ought to know better than that; you ought to know for yourselves that there'll be need for more men in these woods than there has ever been before. But if you don't; if you can't see it that way, why not come around and let me have a fair chance to talk things over with you, myself, before you decide to turn on this job? I want you to remember that a man who is a liar in one thing is mighty likely to talk loose-tongued, no matter what he preaches."
And there, without lifting his eyes from the floor, Big Louie cleared his throat and made answer.
"Maybe," he retorted. "Maybe. And maybe not so sure, either! I have listened to big words before now, me, that have put no food under my belt, no coat to my back."
Steve's smile was unruffled and kind. No matter what the hidden verdict of the rest of that room might be, he had known already that Big Louie was past saving. For there were not so many like him among those hills but what the type was instantly recognizable, wherever it was encountered. He had the frame of a giant—Big Louie—the splendid legacy of generations of men who had lived out of doors. But there was no depth in his seal-brown eyes which always seemed to brood; no decision in any move of his ponderous body. He had little chin; he had no name, save Big Louie which his size alone had sired. And Steve was very patient in making answer.
"If it's only food and shelter, and clothes for your back, Big Louie, you'll not have to worry. But I'm not promising either, mind, that there'll be easy money to blow on white whiskey. Were you expecting any?"
That brain which could cope with but one idea at a time was fertile ground for seed which such a one as Harrigan might sow. Big Louie failed to reply. He sat quiet, deep in thought when Stephen O'Mara closed the door noiselessly behind him.
* * * * * *
It was minutes after Steve had gone back up the hill before Garry Devereau reached out a hand in the darkness and touched, experimentally, what had seemed to be only a shapeless black blotch at the edge of light, a rod or two from the door. And instantly at his touch the shadow was galvanized into life. It reared and plunged and enveloped the slighter man in a crushing embrace and bore him over backward. With the muzzle of a revolver chafing his ear Garry managed to worry his head high enough to free his mouth and nostrils from dirt.
"Get off me! Get off me, you fat romancer, you!" he whispered fiercely.
An explosive grunt of dismay answered him, before Fat Joe let him rise. In a thin and profane tenor he was bidden to explain his presence there.
"I couldn't sleep," Garry replied, his voice still peevish, "so I came out for a breath of air. I saw him start this way—saw you following him with that gun in your hand. I just slipped over, too, in case there might be doings. What's the row, Joe?"
Joe took him ungently by the elbow, turned him about and started him up the rise.
"An old grudge," he deigned an ungracious explanation. "It's years and years old. Steve licked him once. Once when they were boys the folks that live down next to Allison's dressed Steve up like a picture-book, the nearest I can make out, and sent him to town a-shoppin'. Harrigan, he——"
"I know! I remember!" Garry's eager whisper interrupted. "That is, I didn't know that Harrigan was one of the mob Steve whipped that day. But that wasn't what I meant. Who was the—the girl Harrigan was talking about, when Steve—when Steve——"
Joe's fingers tightened a little as the other evinced a tendency to lag.
"Hurry a bit, will you?" he urged complainingly.
"Show a little speed! I'm supposed to be up there asleep." And then, gruffly: "It was the Allison girl, of course."
In spite of the hand upon his elbow Garrett Devereau stopped short in his tracks.
"Barbara!" he stammered. "Barbara Allison? Joe, was that the girl he meant to-night, when he said he was going to 'marry one of those women himself?'"
Joe peered at him, trying to make out the expression upon his face.
"Why not?" he wanted to know. "Why not? Ain't he good enough for her?"
There came a pause—then Garry's stunned rejoinder.
"Good enough!" he repeated senselessly. "Good enough?" He laughed half wildly, as though he had suddenly hit upon a very funny thought indeed. "That man in love with a girl like her. . . . Good Lord!"
And Fat Joe, who had failed to understand, swore again beneath his breath because there was no time left in which to argue the matter. His face was still very red from his struggle for self-restraint, and his whole mental balance so disturbed that he forgot entirely to conceal the blued revolver dangling in one hand when he re-entered the cabin a moment later. The latter object ruined the effect of his insouciant rendition of "Home, Sweet Home."
"Thought you were going to retire, Joe?"
Steve was already undressed and crawling into bed. His question was slow-worded and a trifle stifled.
"I was," Joe assured him hastily. "I was. I just stepped out to see that everything was tight and tidy for the night, that's all."
Quizzical eyes contemplated the revolver now.
"Taken to carrying a weapon, after all, eh? Well, perhaps that's wisest. And blow out the light, will you, Joe? I'm tired. You'll have to undress in the dark."
Then Steve buried his face in his pillow. But sundry sounds, escaping, were unmistakably hysterical. Joe's mouth opened and closed, fishlike. He stood and stared down at his side, in beautifully eloquent profanity, if a stare can be both eloquent and profane.
"You need a nurse," he stated sulkily at last. He finished the light with a vicious blast. "You need a chaperon!"
But once again, just before he slept, Steve heard him mutter to himself, less injuredly, as he heaved over in his bunk.
"This has been a very busy evening," he opined.
LAW AND LUMBER
Rain fell the following fortnight in a steady downpour that did not cease, even for an hour. Ragged, smokelike clouds hung over the valley at Thirty-Mile, dragged so low by their own weight that they not only hid the upper peaks but shrouded the lower ridges as well. They drove by in interminable files of grey, making sluiceways of every cut and drenching continually the men of the construction gang who, in spite of the chill of that downfall, still sweated at their labor. But both Steve and Fat Joe, for all that they caught each day a deeper note in the hoarse complaints of those same men—a note no less ominous than was that newer, hoarser one of the swollen river—nevertheless were duly thankful that the leaden sky had at least a tinsel lining. It might have snowed.
Each morning now as he stepped outside the shack Joe turned methodically toward the north, to cock his head and squint and sniff, questioningly. He was waiting for the first flurry which would herald those months of bitter whiteness to follow; and each morning his short nod was a brief of satisfaction at the continued height of the mercury. They made the most of that open fall, bad as was the weather. Without pause they toiled forward those wet days, or rather backward, for they had stopped, there at the edge of the river, in the work on that section of the rail-bed which, none too even-surfaced but almost arrow-straight, ran from the upper end of their valley to the very mouth of the Reserve Company's country.
A month earlier it had been Steve's plan to span that mile or so of swamp and bridge the river before the cold weather set in. Nor was his altered order of campaign due in any way to the storm which had raised the river and made of the alder-dotted stretch of flat bog-meadow an oozing, quaking morass. It no longer represented merely a positive not too alluring problem in engineering—that strip of swamp and open water. It had taken on a newer, strategic importance. And the change in Steve's plans, so far as the work at Thirty-Mile was concerned, was as much due to the news which Fat Joe brought home with him, one night toward the end of the next week, as it was the result of the interview which he had held with Hardwick Elliott himself.
Joe had been a whole day absent on the north end of the line. Alone he had been over every foot of that all but completed stretch which ended at the border of swampland, there at headquarters, troubling himself not at all over the unevenness of the roadbed, satisfied entirely with the surety he gained with every inspected mile, that a train-load of logs or a dozen train-loads, would stay on the rails when the rails were laid, and the day came to set wheels rolling. But the further report he brought back with him was far less reassuring.
"I wonder," Joe mused aloud that night, "I wonder, now, why any man who knows anything about handling timber should go to work bothering himself with skidways leadin' down to the river, when he knows, as well as Harrigan should know, that it ain't comin' out that way? It don't seem good sense nor logic to me, unless——"
He stopped there and left his own opinion unfinished. Since the evening Harrigan had stepped out of the main bunkhouse and disappeared, black rage in his face and a promise to return upon his lips, that lumberman's red head had been conspicuous only because it was absent from the landscape. So far Harrigan had failed to reappear and Fat Joe's method of apprising his chief of his return to the Reserve Company's pay-roll was distinctly characteristic. But Steve's reception of the news was little more than listless. He seemed to change the subject entirely.
"I don't see why it wouldn't be just as easy, or easier," he replied, "to cross here on pilings, practically the whole distance, as it would be to fill and bridge, too. And if we were to look at it in that light, then why wouldn't it be still easier to drive those piles, say next February or March, while the swamp is still crusted over and hard. It would afford us some sort of a footing to work on then, other than black ooze and lilypads. Wouldn't it seem so to you?"
Garry Devereau's agreement was quick with enthusiasm, but Fat Joe who was better schooled in those slow-syllabled discussions, barely nodded his head.
"We'd still have that track north of here to lay," he advised, "when we work in from the south with steel."
"Surely," Steve admitted. "Of course. But wouldn't that be a better bet than to stand to see our embankment and bridge——"
He broke off there, just as Joe had hesitated a moment before. The undercurrent of meaning for which the latter's ears were waiting came to the surface, however, when Steve began again.
"Suppose, Joe," he pursued lazily, "suppose you had contracted with a railroad—an infant road too young even to be named—to move for you more timber than either of us will ever own; contracted in apparent good faith, when all along in your heart you were certain that the railroad itself would never be able to fulfill its half of the bargain? Granting such a state of affairs, Joe, what do you suppose you would do?"
Garry was not quite certain that evening which was uppermost—the earnestness or quiet amusement which surely underlay that question. He only knew that both existed. But Fat Joe understood. As he had done many times before now he wrinkled his forehead and pondered.
"Maybe I'd hire me a red-headed river-dog," came his answer pat. "Maybe I'd hire me a bully-boy boss of white water, to build me some skidways to the nearest floodwater, so's I could teach the infant railroad you mention that business was business, contract or no contract."
"Of course you would!" Steve agreed instantly, and he might have been complimenting a first primer favorite so pleased was his tone. "Of course you would. I'm afraid that was too easy for you, wasn't it, Joe? But now suppose you were bent on proving to everybody, and particularly to those who had fathered it, what an unfortunate weakling this immature, unnamed child of constructive silence really was. In that event how do you figure you'd conduct yourself?"
Joe smiled oddly, a little balefully. It was magic-quick, that change in his expression—as swift as was the thought behind it.
"I'd have my logs all cut and ready to haul as an excuse, wouldn't I?" he inquired with simulated anxiety. "Could I tell folks, through the newspapers for instance, that I wasn't strong for letting my timber lie for the grubs to lunch on, if I had to square myself?"
"Quite naturally." Until then Steve's face had kept its preternatural gravity. He grinned ever so faintly now. "Very naturally you'd want to save your winter cut."
"Then I'd like to have 'em build a bridge somewheres along the river I aimed to drive—a bridge and a nice dirt embankment, all dressed up with rails and ties and things on top. I'm allowed to suppose I've got an awful long standin' score, ain't I, along with all this timber? Well, that's what I'd like to have 'em do, then. And when I opened her up, a few miles up river, and she began to roar; when that first head of water hit the bridge and the sticks begun to grind, I suppose I'd take up my position on the bank where I could watch real well. I'd light me a long, black cigar and murmur, sort of languid and sympathetic, 'There goes your railroad, gents!'"
Before the finish of that speech was reached Garry had begun to follow. When Joe drew down one corner of his mouth and puffed aloft an imaginary cloud of smoke by way of added vividness, his own laughter mingled with Steve's quieter appreciation. But his contribution to the conversation was not as complacent as Fat Joe's had been.
"Such a move in itself would be outside the letter of the contract," he expostulated. "Why, they wouldn't dare do anything; they wouldn't dare to begin driving the river before your time was up, much less do damage to your completed work. What excuse—what legal excuse—could they give, even though they were morally certain that you were bound to fail?"
Very slowly, almost pityingly, Joe turned toward him.
"Legal!" he droned. "Moral?" And then he laughed his clear tenor outburst which barely escaped being a giggle. "Dear child, judiciously speaking, law and lumber and morals and mill-feet don't mix. They don't mix at all, in this section of the country. If they wanted to bother their heads with an alibi, they could say it was top of flood, and they weren't eager to be hung up, just because a brass-buttoned conductor promised 'em a through express in the morning. They could say— But what good would explanations do us, huh, if they sent a half million logs sky-hootin' into our bridge? It wouldn't save our construction, would it?"
He wheeled back to Steve, his manner brisk.
"Do we leave that stretch open?" he asked. "Is that the way you have it figured?"
"I'm afraid we'd better," Steve said.
And from the very deliberation of that reply Garry Devereau realized how vital was the point which they had been weighing so irresponsibly.
That was as close as they came to anything resembling a discussion of the change which was growing more and more noticeable in the bearing of the men at Thirty-Mile. As far as all outward evidence was concerned, Steve seemed to ignore it utterly, to retreat oftener and oftener behind his habit of silence which even Fat Joe, after several unsuccessful, garrulous attempts, gave over trying to penetrate. And even Garry, who had greater respect for the other man's preoccupation because he felt that he understood it better, tried also to hide all evidence of the bitterness which it was re-awakening in him. Yet, at that, Garry's surmise was erroneous; his conclusion wide of the mark.
For it was not the hunger of his own heart; it was neither intolerance of restraint nor mental rebellion against the duties which were holding him so close up-river, that had caused the chief engineer of the East Coast work to withdraw so completely within himself, although, many times each day, his eyes did wander toward the south and Morrison. During that bleak period, as Garry had guessed, Steve's thoughts were often of Barbara, but they were not sombre thoughts. The very hardness of his life schooling had taught him too well how little of wisdom there is in fretting against the day of action, when that day cannot be hurried nor controlled. Steadfastedly he refused to let himself brood. If he could not go to her he would not, nevertheless, allow himself to dwell upon that impossibility. Instead his spirit ranged ahead to a hopeful, more or less indefinite and not too distant date when his absence might not seem to threaten too great a cost to those whose matters lay in his trust.
Garry's conclusion, borne of his own lesson in doubt, was wide of the mark. It was not heartache. The thoughts Steve had of her were his serenest thoughts, those days during which his body labored prodigiously and his brain groped for the solution of an affair that had not been his own, until he had chosen to make it so. It was the problem of Garrett Devereau which lay behind Stephen O'Mara's hours of gravity—that perplexing problem which Miriam Burrell, level of eye and brave of tongue, had brought to him for help. And in the end, as is usually the way, events of themselves finally gave Steve the opportunity to say all that he knew could not be introduced by him. Time showed the way just when he had reached the point of acknowledging that such an opportunity was beyond his own power to bring about.
He had had little chance for conversation with Garry in those days, except for a word or two over a hastily snatched breakfast, or perhaps at supper at night, and at night he was usually too tired to talk. But the other's growing restlessness had not escaped his notice. For a while Garry had seemed to accept his continuance there at camp as a matter of course, and for that very reason neither Fat Joe nor Steve had dignified the thought of his possible departure by so much as a single spoken word. Garry's own actions first began to indicate how incessantly he was debating that question within his own brain.
There came, times without number, an uneasy, far-focused look into his eyes; came hours on end when he would sit, every debonaire effort at lightness abandoned, staring moodily into the fire, motionless save for his nervous hands which never seemed to rest. Joe found it harder to entice him with the poker deck; oftener than not Steve had to repeat his question a second time, seeking to inveigle him into a discussion of what-not, before Garry even heard. And one night toward the end of the week the latter finally reached the point of voicing for their ears a decision which was old in anticipation to them. They were on the point of going to bed. Garry had risen, and then paused. He hesitated and crooked his arms and yawned, a trifle too carelessly that evening.
"Well, this finishes another day," he remarked, nor did he realize how soulful were the words. "And I cleaned up the last of the stock-room to-day, Joe. A swift but accurate workman, eh? I'll leave behind a record unblemished by oversight or sloth. And now—now it's about time, I suppose, I was going back to town."
It was out, nor could the yawn conceal his eagerness. His back was turned, but Steve knew what light was in his eyes. Steve's carelessness was a far neater thing than Garry's had been.
"What's your hurry?" he inquired easily. "Why rush away? And if you think your industry has betrayed you into idleness, you're reasoning poorly to-night. Want another job?"
Bantering indifference was the keynote of that reply. Mutually they had adopted it from the very first. It smacked of the free-masonry which always marked Steve's conversations with Fat Joe, were they earnest or frivolous beneath the surface. It is always recognizable in the speech of friends such as they, differentiated from actual indifference by an intimacy of inference between the lines which makes such discourse almost foreign to uninitiated ears. But Garry's answer was not in kind. Steve was caught so far off his guard by the question which came flinging back at him that he was glad Garry had not turned.
"What else is there I could do?"
No man save one who was very, very tired could have spoken in such a tone; no man except one who has tried himself in the highest of courts—his own opinion of himself—could have put such a degree of contempt into so simple a query.
"Why—why——" Steve faltered, and then he took command of his own wits again. "There's work enough, don't doubt that," he exclaimed, and laughed a little. "Joe, here, will be another week or ten days finishing with the fill up yonder; he'll do well if he manages it by then, and that too with every available hand we have. I don't want to rob him of a single man, if I can help it, but I've got to go ahead with the line to the south. To put it concretely, I'm in need of a rodman. Do you think you'd care to oblige?"
Again the hint of banter persisted, but Garry's jaw was tight when he faced suddenly around.
"I will!" he flashed back, hoarsely. "I will, if it's a man's job. But I'm done with filling a dinky pad with rows of figures, all day long. I'm finished with this damned tallying of cans of beans and soap and yards of rope! Do you understand? What work would I have to do?"
Out of the corners of his eyes Steve saw consternation o'erspread Fat Joe's face. His own was only amused.
"You'll have to swing an axe," he enumerated slowly, "and you'll have to lug a rod and tripod. You'll wade through bog and fight your way through underbrush. And then, for variety, swing an axe some more. If you've never learned yet what it is to be really tired, Garry; if you've never known what it is to go to bed wishing morning would never come, you'll find out what that's like, too."
As soon as it was spoken Steve recognized the slip. Watching Garry's eyes widen he knew that Garry had caught it also. For a moment a torrent of words trembled on the latter's lips. And then he swallowed and nodded shortly. The vague dreariness of his acceptance was fully as electrical as the threatened outburst might have been.
"I'll try it," he said, very simply. "I'll have a try at it, to-morrow."
And he pivoted on his heel and passed out.
Some minutes after he had gone Fat Joe, still a little dazed, rose softly and unostentatiously, crossed to a shelf shoulder-high on the wall and reached to remove a quart bottle of brandy which Steve, returning home soaked through and through, had brought out and left standing there. But Steve checked him in the very middle of that act.
"Let it stand, Joe," he directed. "Leave it where it is."
As slowly as he had reached for it Joe started to put the bottle back. The very briefness of that order should have been warning enough, but Joe found it impossible to keep to himself his disapproval.
"All right," he acquiesced, "only I can't help remindin' you, just the same, that when a horse is runnin' his heart out it's kind of superfluous to lay on the whip."
And then the whole accumulation of those days of silent perplexity, of indecision and fruitless mental forays, spilled over upon Fat Joe's entirely innocent head. Steve shot around and levelled a pre-emptory finger.
"Whip—hell!" he barked. "Put that bottle back!"
Joe's fingers came away as though the glass had blistered them.
"Lands' sakes!" he exclaimed; and in a voice that was chastened and meek when he had caught his breath: "Please, and it's back!"
Chronic ill-temper could hardly have persisted in the face of that reply, and Steve's had been but a mood. His first chuckle was in itself a plea for pardon. He supplemented it, aloud.
"I'm sorry, Joe—I'm worried. I've got a job on my hands that bothers me. It appears to be simple enough, until I get to planning how to tackle it, and then I can't make any headway at all. But there isn't anything to be gained in hiding that stuff; that's one of the things I need to know. It's better where it is."
Joe waved a hand in bland dismissal of the apology.
"My mistake," he averred, "though your harsh words have hurt me sore. I don't quite savvy it yet, but it's your affair, not mine. You're dealin' and bankin' the chips. And before now I've seen lots of well-meanin' bystanders get all mussed up from trying to horn into another man's pastime. At my age I'd ought to have knowed better!"
ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN
In itself that decision of Garry's to remain a little longer at Thirty-Mile was scarcely significant enough to be called sensational, and yet it proved to be the first of a series of events which, growing more and more sensational as they progressed, finally resulted in the hour for which Steve was biding his time.
Garry entered upon his new duties the following morning in a spirit anything but reassuring to his companion. Up to that time he had made his own industry the butt of much good-natured ridicule, viewing it apparently as a sort of vacation novelty amusing enough while the novelty lasted. But he went from task to task that next day in a methodical, dogged fashion that was farthest of all from amiability. Two or three times Steve, trying to spare him needless effort, attempting to show him how to favor blistered hands and aching back, met with rebuffs so curt that he learned to keep his advice to himself. He knew what end Garry was working to achieve; he would have allowed himself to smile over the thought that the other man would be tired enough, before night came, without trying to make that work any harder, only he did not dare venture that smile.
Times without number there were when Garry's monumental fit of sulks bordered close on the ridiculous, but the needed triviality which would have precipitated the whole fabric to a terra-firma of absurdity failed to materialize. He cursed the rain, cursed it with his fluent precision which already had earned Fat Joe's admiring comment. He complained, querulously, like a half-aged boy, over the treacherous footing which the flooded alder brakes afforded. And once when he had felled a tree and narrowly missed being pinned beneath it, in spite of Steve's quick leap that dragged him aside, he plunged into an incisive diatribe concerning the perversity of inanimate things—a short discussion in many-syllabled words which would have awakened Steve's admiration by its very brilliance, had he not already been fully concerned with the light of triumph which had flared and then died out in Garry's eyes when the hemlock only grazed him.
Now and again Steve saw his lips move and then crook in cynical amusement, and knew that Garry was talking to himself and finding such communion most absorbing. But he waited, outwardly patient at least, nor tried to hurry the issue. He knew the woods; he knew what the silence and solitude could do. For no man endures mutely the spell of the wilderness. He talks, or he goes mad. Put two men on a two-months trail and, be they the worst of enemies, they will still find a topic which each may approach. Trap them for a winter in a snow-buttressed valley where no other man can penetrate and they will have bared jealous secrets before spring sets them free to go again their roads of doubled hatred. And when dusk came—dusk and a fatigue which made it difficult to drag one foot after the other on the homeward journey—Garry had reached the point where he had to speak his thoughts aloud.
The woods were new to that paler, slighter man. He had to talk, but his beginning was circuitous. He had been gazing down at his rain-soaked length, grotesquely thin in the flapping garments borrowed from Steve's wardrobe, to look up at last and smile, wryly.
"I was just thinking," he began. "I was just thinking if they could only see me now—the crowd down at Morrison for instance. They used to gibe me. They called me the immaculate Garry, once. Aren't you a lot heavier than you look?"
Plodding along beside him Steve nodded as though the whole day had been common with just such conversation.
"No. Those clothes were built with an eye to largeness of movement which scarcely insured shape or draping, even upon me."
It was irrelevant, but it was a beginning. And the reference to the crowd at Morrison made Garry's next remark clear.
"Wouldn't it jolt them, if they could see me? I thought of it this morning when I was walking a log without so much as a waver. That phrase relative to walking a chalk-line is weak and inadequate, after a man has tried to work his way along a peeled hemlock. If anyone wants to measure sobriety by word of mouth, there's his standard. It involves the last degree in sure-footedness."
Again Steve bowed his head, but not so immediately this time. For already he realized that this was not to be the opportunity for which he was waiting. And the other man was quick to catch that uncertainty.
"The other evening——" he laughed unpleasantly—"that night when you came back to camp in time to hear of Joe's proposed novelistic effort, I think I mentioned it to you. I'm not sure. But whether I did or not, it was, no doubt, scarcely introduced in the spirit in which I should ask it now. . . . I suppose they have given you a fairly thorough report of my—career, since we were knights bold and ladies fair, haven't they?"
Without waiting for a reply he answered the question himself.
"Of course they have," he exclaimed, "because I recognized your fine hand in Joe's attitude toward me, the very minute I waked up, back a week or so ago, the morning after I'd done my Phil Sheridan stunt from Allison's to your shack. But do you mind telling me what your own opinion is?"
Stephen O'Mara knew they were not going to get far if they followed that lead. There was a challenge in Garry's voice which too closely resembled a snarl.
"Why—no." The pre-occupied note was uppermost in his answer. "I'd not mind at all."
But he offered no more than that.
"Nor the reason why you've been so insistent that I stay on up here?"
"Why not? I've not forgotten my manners, even though I've lived some months in the back-brush!"
No attempt at levity, however, could parry the other's deliberate insolence. Garry worked nearer to what had lain all day behind his bad silence.
"A man is wasting his time trying to reform another man," he vouchsafed, "if that other man has no desire for reformation."
"That is very, very true," Steve agreed with even gravity.
"Unless that man has the desire within himself, he need never waste his time even hoping to come back!"
"I'm forced to admit that there is no room for argument in that, either," said Steve. "Only it has to be more than a desire. It must have become determination."
He hesitated, and the whimsical note crept in and dulled the threatened edge of hardness in his voice.
"I know of a case in point, that happened right here in these woods. One of the finest sportsmen who ever hunted or fished over this country had a favorite guide—Long John LeClaire was his name. In fact, he never went into camp without him, for upward of a score of years, and he claimed there never was a better cook, between here and the border. But Long John had one bad failing. As long as one kept to the timber with him it was plain sailing, but strike a town and it meant a week's delay in sobering that guide up. Town and a spree were synonymous in Long John's mind; and after trying both mental and physical suasion the sportsman I mentioned finally hit upon another plan. He persuaded Long John to take the 'cure'; more than that, he put him on a train himself and saw him off. But there was nothing enthusiastic about John's departure. You see, way down deep in his heart, he was just a little afraid this proposed treatment would be successful.
"He went, but his going was reluctant. And then, a month later he came back again, and, oh, what a difference there was in his return! It took the conductor and two train-men to put him off at the station; they were considerably marked up in the operation. Once safely landed on the platform, however, Long John spread out his feet to steady his wavering body and waved a hand in hearty greeting to the crowd which had assembled to welcome him home. His hat was gone; he had a discolored eye, but the reluctance was gone from his carriage. And he made a speech which for expressive briefness surpasses anything I've ever heard, before or since:
"'There!' he declared his triumph. 'There! And now I guess I've showed 'em no sanatorium could ever cure me!'"
But Garry did not laugh. His smile was mirthlessly sardonic.
"Then why the devil have you tried to keep me up here?"
Any man might well have objected to the manner of that question; many men would have spoken too hastily, forgetting that there are worse ills than those of the body. But Steve was not ready to hit back yet. He was thinking of Miriam Burrell; he lied with skillful smoothness.
"I told you last night," he said. "I need men. And then, too, it's a long time since I've seen you. I've not made so many friends, you know, Garry."
Garrett Devereau would have stopped there, dripping as he was, in the middle of the timber, had not Steve held to his stride. And he must have caught a momentary glimpse of that self which he was exhibiting to his companion, for his next words were a little mollified.
"Perspective is an excellent thing," he murmured. "It's been said before, but I'm repeating it. It's not only illuminating in just the matter of view, but it unsettles one's sense of values, doesn't it? I mean the Bignesses and Smallnesses of things—and creatures. When I went away, or rather when you did, back I don't remember how many years, you were tugging at the bit to be up and at things. That used to perplex me, although you may not have known it; I never really caught your angle or viewpoint. But now that you are in the thick of it I'm puzzled to know whether you find it—well, sufficient in itself."
O'Mara laughed softly over his shoulder.
"Sufficient!" he echoed. "Wouldn't you, if you were fact [Transcriber's note: face?] to face every day with some problem or other that had you stumped? Wouldn't you, if you were playing a game that shifted so rapidly from point to point that it kept you dodging and ducking and swearing to hold your feet?"
Garry drew a deep breath.
"That's what I've been trying to establish in my own mind," he faltered. "I've been thinking perhaps—but, pah!" He spat out a fragment of laughter as though it were bitter to his tongue. "I tried one job—I tried once! I ought to know better than to wonder even, now. And if a man can see no reason for living his life, it's his to quit, if he wants to!"
And then Steve abandoned his air of tolerance; he changed his style of play. The contempt in his retort could not have been more measured, even had it been other than a premeditated thing.
"Quit is the right word," he came back coolly. "I wasn't quite sure until now. You asked me if the others had told me what sort of man you had become. And if silence is affirmation, you had your answer. You inquired concerning my own opinion and I withheld it. Whatever it was doesn't matter now. Maybe I was guilty of bad judgment, but you have set me right."
Each word was tipped with scorn. Again, with deliberate intent, Stephen O'Mara lied.
"And I tell you now that had I been sure you wanted that hemlock to get you, I'd have left you where you stood. The world is all cluttered up with fools, as it is."
It came so quickly that Garry was not immediately aware of the attack. He smiled, covertly.
"Accidents will happen," he feigned a protest.
Abruptly the taller man wheeled, lids a-droop.
"—Fools, and quitters, too," he supplemented, levelly. "Quitters and men who show a streak of yellow that doesn't assay even a little bit of pure gold. A minute ago I gave you one reason for my attempt to keep you here. But I made a bad mistake there, too. It's men I need!"
He couldn't have straightened the other any more quickly had he swung and slapped his face. Garrett Devereau went paper white. They reached the edge of the heavier timber and came out upon the soggy sod of the clearing in the hush which followed that wickedly barbed speech. Steve always stopped there, whenever he came back to the cabin alone. He liked to look up at Joe's light, waiting in the window. And now, a pace or two in the lead, Garry turned back and stared widely into Steve's cold eyes. It had taken heat lightning to clear that brain which had been all day befogged.
"That was frank, and altogether plain," he said. "Joe took it upon himself to hire me, during your absence—the figure mentioned was eighteen a week. Now, quite as frankly, I am admitting his lack of authority."
Dusk comes quickly in the woods; twilight is only the briefest of pauses between daylight and dark. In the half-light as he stood there it would have been very easy to have mistaken Garry Devereau for the man whose clothes he wore. And while they waited, strained and tense, facing each other, a lone sapling between them and the eastern fringe of the clearing swung frantically earthward as if stricken by an invisible hand, and then thrashed upright again. A fragment of green bark flew aloft. They heard the deflected bullet go whining away. Then the tardy bark of a rifle.