"You'd have despised him for it if he had," said Violet.
"But he wouldn't do it, and now this has happened, and he's a man-killer like the rest of them. Oh it's terrible to think about!"
"Not like the rest of them," Violet corrected, in her firm, gentle way. "He had to stand up like a man for what he was sworn to do, or run like a dog. Mr. Morgan wouldn't run. Right or wrong, he wouldn't run from any man!"
"No," said Rhetta, sadly, "he wouldn't run."
"You talk like you wanted him to!"
"I don't think I would," said Rhetta.
"Then what do you expect of a man?" impatiently. "If he stands up and fights he's either got to kill or be killed."
"Don't—don't, Violet! It seems like killing is all I hear—the sound of those guns—I hear them all the time, I can't get them out of my ears!"
"Suppose," said Violet, looking off across the runlet sparkling, gurgling like an infant across the bar, "it was him you saw when you looked in there, instead of the others. You'd have been satisfied then, I suppose?"
"Violet! how can you say such awful things!"
"Well, somebody had to be killed. Do you suppose Mr. Morgan killed them just for fun?"
"They say, they were talking all over town that night—last night—and saying the same thing this morning, that he didn't give them a show, that he just turned his rifle on them and killed them before he knew whether they were going to shoot or not!"
"Well, they lie," said Violet, with the calmness of conviction.
"I suppose he had a right to do what he did, but he doesn't seem like the same man to me now. I feel like I'd lost something—some friendship that I valued, I mean, Violet—you know what I mean."
"I know as well as anything," said Violet, smiling to herself, head turned away, the moonlight on her good, kind face.
"I feel like somebody had died, and that he—they—that he——"
"And you ought to be thankful it isn't so!" said Violet, sharply, "but I don't believe you are."
"I never want to see him again, I'll always think of him standing there with that terrible gun in his hands, those dead men around him on the floor!"
"You may have to go to him on your knees yet, and I hope to God you will Rhetta Thayer!" Violet said.
"If you'd seen somebody—somebody that you—that was—if you'd seen him like I saw him, you wouldn't blame me so," Rhetta defended, beginning again to cry, and bend her head upon her hands and moan like a mother who had lost a child.
Violet was moved out of her harshness at once. She put her arm around the weeping girl, whose sorrow was too genuine to admit a doubt of its great depth, and consoled her with soft words.
"And he looked so big to me, and he was so clean, before that," Rhetta wailed.
"He's bigger than ever, he's as blameless as a lamb," said Violet. "After a little while you'll see it different, he'll be the same to you."
"I couldn't touch his hand!" said Rhetta, shuddering at the thought.
"Never mind," said Violet, soothingly; "never mind."
Violet said no more, but took Rhetta by the hand, and it was wet with tears from her streaming cheeks. There was peace in the night around them, for all the turmoil there might be in human hearts, for night had eased the throbbing, drouth-cursed earth of its burning, and called the trumpeters of the greenery out along the riverside.
"I'm afraid he'll come," said Rhetta by and by.
"Why should he come?" asked Violet, stroking back the other's hair.
"He's got one of your horses—I'm afraid he'll come to bring it home."
"You only hope he will," said Violet, in her assured, calm way.
"Violet!" But there was not so much chiding in the word as a cry of pain, a confession of despair. He would not come; and she knew he would not come.
WHINERS AT THE FUNERAL
Joe Lynch, the bone man, stopped at the well in the public square to pour water on his wagon tires. A man was pestered clean out of his senses by his tires coming off, his felloes shrinking up like a fried bacon rind in that dry weather, Joe said. It beat his time, that drouth. He had been through some hot and dry spells in the Arkansaw Valley, but never one as dry and hot as this.
He told Morgan this as he poured water slowly on his wheels to swell the wood and tighten the tires, there at the town well in the mid-morning of that summer day. It was so hot already, the ceaseless day wind blowing as if it trailed across a fire, that one felt shivers of heat go over the skin; so hot that the heat was bitter to the taste, and shade was only an aggravation.
This was almost a week after Morgan's forceful assertion of the law's supremacy in Ascalon, when Peden and his assassins fell in their insolence. It seemed that day as if Ascalon itself had fallen with Peden, and the blood of life had drained out of its body. There was a quietude over it that seemed the peace of death.
"I never thought, the day I hauled you into this town," said Joe, his high rasping voice harmonizing well with his surroundings, like a katydid on a dead limb, "you'd be the man to put the kibosh on 'em and close 'em up like you done. I never saw the bottom drop out of no place as quick as it's fell out of this town, and I've saw a good many go up in my day. The last of them gamblers pulled out a couple of days ago, I hauled his trunk over to the depot. He went a cussin', and he pulled the hole in after him, I guess, on all the high-kickin' this town'll ever do. Well, I ain't a carin'; I've been waitin' my time."
"You were wiser than some of them, you knew it would come," Morgan said, glad to meet this bone-gathering philosopher in the desert he had made of Ascalon, and stand talking with him, foot on his hub in friendly way.
"Not so much bones," said Joe reflectively, as if he had weighed the possibilities long ago and now found them coming out according to calculation, "as bottles. Thousands of bottles, every boy in this town's out a pickin' up bottles for me. I reckon I'll have a couple of carloads of nothing but bottles. Oh-h-h, they'll be some bones, but the skeleton of this town is bottles. That's why I tell 'em it never will pick up no more. You've got to build a town on something solider'n a bottle if you want it to stand up."
"I believe you," Morgan said.
"You've worked yourself out of a job. They won't no more need a marshal here'n they will a fish net."
Morgan shook his head, got out his pipe, struck a match on the bleached forehead of a buffalo skull in Joe's wagon.
"No. I'm leaving town in a week or two—when I make sure it is dead, that they'll never come back and start the games again."
"They never will," said Joe, shaking a positive head. "Peden was the guts of this town; it can't never be what it was without him. So you're goin' to leave the country, air you?"
"Give up that fool notion you had about raising wheat out here on this pe-rairie, heh?"
"Gave it up," Morgan replied, nodding in his solemn, expressive way.
"Well, you got some sense hammered into you, anyhow. I told you right at the jump, any man that thought he could farm in this here country should be bored for the simples. Look at that range, look at them cattle that's droppin' dead of starvation and want of water all over it. Look at them cattlemen shippin' out thousands of head that ain't ready for market all along this railroad every day. This range'll be as bare of stock by fall, I tell you, as the pa'm of my hand's bare of hairs. Bones? I'll have more bones to pick up than ever was in this country before. Ascalon ain't all that's dead—the whole range's gone up. This'll clean 'em all out. It's the hottest summer and the longest dry spell that ever was."
"It couldn't be much worse."
"Worse!" Joe looked up from his pouring in his reprovingly surprised way, stopping his dribbling stream on the wagon wheel. "You hang around here a month longer and see what worse is! I'm goin' to begin pickin' up bones over on Stilwell's range in about a week; I'm givin' them wolves and buzzards time to clean 'em up a little better. About then you'll see the cattlemen begin to fight for range along the river where their stock can eat the leaves off of the bushes and find a bunch of bluestem once in a while that ain't frizzled and burnt up. You'll begin to see the wolf side to some of these fellers in this country then."
Joe rumbled on to the car that he was loading, his tires being tight enough to hold him that far. Morgan sauntered down the shady side of the street, meeting few, getting what ease he could out of life with his pipe. He had put off his cowboy dress only that morning, feeling it out of place in the uneventful quiet of the town. He had not carried his rifle since the night of his battle in Peden's hall. Today he was beginning to consider leaving off his revolver. A pocketknife for whittling would be about all the armament a man would need in Ascalon from that time forward.
Earl Gray was leaning on one long leg in the door of his drug-store, oil on his fluffy brown hair. He was melancholy and downcast, plainly resentful in his bearing toward Morgan as the contriver of this business stagnation. He swept his hand around the emptiness of the town as Morgan drew near, giving voice to his contemplation.
"Look at it—not a dime been spent around this square this morning! I ain't sold but one box of pills in two days! If it wasn't for the little trade in t'backer and cigars of a night when the cowboys come in, I'd have to lock up and leave. I will anyhow—I can see it a-comin'."
Morgan leaned against the building close by the door, the indolence of the day over him. There was nothing to do but hear the dying town's complaint. He was not a doctor; he had nothing to prescribe. He realized that the merchants had been hit hard by this sudden paralysis. It would not have been so much like disaster if the town had been left to die in its own way, as time and change would have attended to more slowly.
Morgan could not tell Druggist Gray, whose trade in pills had come to a standstill; he could not tell the hardware merchant, whose traffic in firearms and ammunition had fallen away; he could not explain to the proprietor of the Santa Fe cafe, or any of the other merchants of the town who had come to regret their one spasm of virtue, induced by fear, that he had not considered either their prosperity or their loss when he closed up the saloons and gambling-houses and drove the proscribed of the law away. They were squealing now, exactly as he had known they would squeal in spite of their assurance before the event. Let them squeal, let them stagnate, let dust settle on their wares that no man came to buy.
For the security of somebody's sleep, for the tranquillity of somebody's dreams; for the peace of two brown eyes, for the safety of a short little white hand, strong and comforting just to see—for these, for these alone, he had closed up the riotous places and swept away like a purging fire the chaff and pestilence of Ascalon. He could not tell them this. Even her he could not tell.
Earl Gray, giving off perfume to the hot winds, was pursuing his complaint.
"The undertaker's packin' up to leave, goin' to ship his stock today. I wish I could go with him, but a man's got to have a place to light before he starts out with a drug stock."
"I don't suppose anybody's sorry to see him go," Morgan said. "I think it's a good sign."
"They'll bury each other, as I told him, and they'll drug each other with mullein tea, as I told him the other day," Gray said, acrimoniously. "Yes, and they'll be eatin' each other before spring! I'd like to know what they're goin' to live on, the few that's left in this town—a little cow-punchin', a little clerkin' in the courthouse and gittin' jury and witness fees. That won't keep no town alive."
"Judge Thayer's got a big colonization project going that looks good, he says. If he puts it through things will begin to pick up."
"Them Mennonites, I guess. They ain't the kind of people a man wants to see come in here—whiskers all over 'em, never sell 'em a cake of shavin' soap or a razor from Christmas to doomsday. Them fellers don't shave, they never shave; they grow up from the cradle with whiskers all over 'em."
"They'll need horse liniment, and stuff like that."
"There might be a livin' here for a drug-store if settlers begun to come in," Gray admitted, picking up a little hope. "They say this sod gives off fevers and chills when it's broke up. Something poison in it."
Tom Conboy was on the sidewalk before his door, casting his eyes up and down the street as if on the lookout for somebody that owed him a bill. He was in bed when Morgan left the hotel on his early round, and there was a look about him still of fustiness and the cobwebs of sleep.
"If a man was to take a sack of meal and empty it, and spread the sack down flat, he'd have something like this man's town's got to be," Conboy complained. "Dead, not a breath left in it. I saw a couple of buzzards sailin' around over the square a while ago. I've been lookin' to see them light on the courthouse tower."
"It is a little quiet, but they all say it will begin to pick up in a day or two," Morgan prevaricated, with a view to reeling him out, having no other diversion.
"I don't know what it's goin' to pick up on," Conboy sighed. "Two for breakfast outside of the regulars. I used to have twenty to thirty-five up to a week ago."
"Court will convene next month," Morgan reminded him by way of cheer.
"It'll bring a few," Conboy allowed, "not many, and all of them big eaters. You don't make anything off of a man that rides thirty or forty miles before breakfast when you sit him down to a twenty-five cent meal."
Morgan said he was not a hotel man, but it seemed pretty plain even to him that there could be no wide border of profit in any such transaction.
"No, it was those night-working men, dealers, bartenders, and that crowd, that were the light and profitable eaters. A man that drinks heavy all night don't get up with a thirty-mile appetite in him next day. Well, they're gone; they'll never come back to this man's town."
"You were one of the men that wanted the town cleaned up."
"No niggers in Ireland, now, Morgan—no-o-o niggers in Ireland!"
Conboy made a warning of his peculiar expression, as if he halted Morgan on ground that was dangerous to advance over as far as another word. It was impressive, almost threatening, given in his deep voice, with grave eye and face suddenly stern, but Morgan knew that it was all on the outside.
"Cowboys don't any more than hit the ground here till they hop on their horses and leave," Conboy continued. "Nothing to entertain them, no interest for a live man in a dead town, where the only drink he can get is out of the well. There was just three horses tied along the square last night, where there used to be fifty or a hundred. I'll have to leave this man's town; I can't stand the pressure."
"A man with a little nerve ought to swallow his present losses for his future gains," Morgan said, beginning to grow tired of this whining.
"If I could see any future gains comin' my way I'd gamble on them with any man," Conboy returned with some spirit. "I'm goin' over to Glenmore this afternoon and see what it looks like there. That's the comin' town, it seems to me; good crops over there in the valley, no cattle starvin'. They may bend the railroad around to touch that town, too—they're talkin' of it. That's sure to happen if Glenmore wins the county seat this fall. Then you'll see skids put under every house in this town and moved over there. Ascalon will be a name some of us old-timers will remember twenty years from now, and that's all."
"If Judge Thayer and the railroad colonization agent put through a big deal they've got going, I don't see why this town shouldn't pick up again on a healthy business foundation," Morgan said.
"Them Pennsylvania Dutch?" Conboy scoffed. "They're not the kind of people that ever stay in a hotel, they carry their blankets with 'em and flop down under their wagons like Indians. When they come to town they bring a basket of grub along, they don't spend money for a meal in any man's hotel. You put Pennsylvania Dutch into this country and there'll never be another coroner's jury called!"
Morgan knocked the ashes out of his short, clubby little pipe, put it in his shirt pocket behind his badge, and went on. He paused at the door of the Headlight office to look within, hoping to see a face that had been missing since the night of his great tragedy. Only Riley Caldwell, the printer, was there, working furiously, as if fired by an ambition that Ascalon, dead or alive, could not much longer contain. The droop-shouldered alpaca coat once worn by the editor now dead, hung beside the desk, like the hull he had cast when he took flight away from the troubles of his much-harassed life.
Only the day before Judge Thayer had told Morgan that Rhetta was still at Stilwell's ranch, whither she had gone to compose herself after the strain of so much turmoil. Morgan could only feel that she had gone there to avoid him, shrinking from the sight of his face.
There was not much warmth in Morgan's reception by the business men of Ascalon around the square that morning, hot as the weather was. It seemed as if some messenger had gone before him crying his coming, as a jaybird goes setting up an alarm from tree to tree before the squirrel hunter in the woods.
Earnest as their solicitations had been for him to assume the office of marshal, voluble as their protestations in the face of fear and insecurity of life and property that they would accept the result without a whimper, there were only a few who stood by their pledges like men. These were the merchants of solider character, whose dealings were with the cattlemen and homesteaders. The hope of these merchants was in the coming of more homesteaders, according to Judge Thayer's dream. They were the true patriots and pioneers.
While these few commended Morgan's stringent application of the letter and spirit of the state and town laws, their encouragement was only a flickering candle in the general gloom of the place. Morgan knew the grunters were saying behind his back that he had gone too far, farther than their expectations or instructions. All they had expected of him was that he knock off the raw edges, suppress the too evident, abate the promiscuous banging around of guns by every bunch of cowboys that arrived or left, and to cut down a little on the killing, at least confine it to the unprofitable class.
They admitted they didn't want the cowboys killed off the way Craddock had been doing it, giving the town a bad name. But to shut the saloons all up, to go and shoot Peden down that way and kill the town with him, that was more than they had given him license for. So they growled behind his back, afraid of him as they feared lightning, without any ground for such fear in the world.
Judge Thayer appeared to be the only man in town who was genuinely happy over the result of Morgan's sweeping out the encumbering rubbish that blocked the country's progress by its noisome notoriety. But through all the judge's glow of gratitude for duty well done, Morgan was conscious of a peculiar aloofness, not exactly fear such as was unmistakable in many others, but a withdrawing, as if something had fallen between them and changed their relations man to man.
Morgan knew that it was the blood of slain men. He was to this man, and to another of far greater consequence to Morgan's peace and happiness, like a pitcher that had been defiled.
Judge Thayer's friendliness was unabated, but it was the sort of friendliness that did not offer the hand, or touch the arm when walking by Morgan's side, as in the early hours of their acquaintance. Useful this man, to the work that must be done in this place to make it fit, and safe, and secure for property and life, but unclean. That was what Judge Thayer's attitude proclaimed, as plainly as printed words.
This morning when Judge Thayer encountered Morgan on the street, not far from the little catalpa tree that was having a bitter struggle against wind and drouth, he invited the city marshal to accompany him to his office. News that would tickle his ears, he said; big news.
The biggest of this big news was that the railroad company was going to establish a division point there at once. The railroad officials had given Judge Thayer to understand, directly, that this decision had come as a result of the town waking up and shedding its leprous skin. They felt that it would be a safe place for their employees to live now, with the pitfalls closed, the temptations removed. And the credit, Judge Thayer owned, was Morgan's alone.
But there was more news. The eastern immigration agents of the railroad were spreading the news of Ascalon's pacification with gratifying result. Already parties of Illinois and Indiana farmers, who had been looking to that country for a good while, were preparing to come out and scout for locations.
"They're getting tired of farming that high-priced land, Morgan. They're wearing it out, it costs them more for fertilizers than they take off of it. They're coming here, where a man can plow a furrow forty miles long, we tell them—and it's the gospel truth, a hundred miles, or two hundred if he wanted to—and never hit a stump."
Judge Thayer got up at that point, and stood in his door looking at the dull sky sullen with heat; looking at the glimmer that rose like impalpable smoke from the hard surface of the cracked, baked earth.
"But I wish we could get a good rain before they begin to come," he sighed, "and I think—" cautiously, with a sly wink at Morgan—"we're going to get it. I've got a man here right now working on it, along scientific principles, Morgan—entirely scientific."
"A rainmaker?" said Morgan, his incredulity plain in his tone.
"He came to me highly recommended by bankers and others in Nebraska, where he undoubtedly brought rain, and in Texas, where the proof is indisputable. But I'm doing it solely on my own account," Judge Thayer hastened to explain, "carrying the cost alone. He's under contract to bring a copious rain not later than seven days from today."
"What's the bill?" Morgan asked, amused by this man's eager credulity.
"One hundred dollars on account, four hundred to be paid the day he delivers the rain—provided that he delivers it within the specified time. I've bound him up in a contract."
"I think he'll win," said Morgan, drily, looking meaningly at the murky sky.
"It's founded on science, pure science, Morgan," Judge Thayer declared, warmly. "I'm telling you this in confidence, not another soul in town knows it outside of my own family. We'll keep it a pleasant secret—I want to give the farmers and cattlemen of this valley the present of a surprise. When the proper time comes I'll announce the responsible agency, I'll show that crowd over at Glenmore where the progressive people of this county live, I'll prove to the doubters and knockers where the county seat belongs!"
"It's a great scheme," Morgan admitted. "How does the weather doctor work?"
"Chemicals," Judge Thayer whispered, mysteriously; "sends up vapors day and night, invisible, mainly, but potent, causing, as near as I can come to it from his explanation—which is technical and thoroughly scientific, Morgan—" this severely, as if to rebuke the grin that dawned on Morgan's face. "Causing, as near as I can come to it, a dispersion of the hot belt of atmosphere, this superheated belt that encircles the globe in this spot like a flame of fire, causing a break in this belt, so to speak, drilling a hole in it, bringing down the upper frigid air."
Judge Thayer looked with triumph at Morgan when he delivered this, sweating a great deal, as if the effort to elucidate this scientific man's methods of conspiring against nature to beat it out of a rain were equal to a ten-mile walk in the summer sun.
"Yes, sir," said Morgan, with more respect in his voice and manner than he felt. "And then what happens?"
"Why, when the cold and the hot currents meet, condensation is the natural result," said the judge. "Plain, simple, scientific as a fiddle."
"Just about," said Morgan.
Judge Thayer passed it, either ignoring it as a fling beneath the notice of a scientific man, or not catching the note of ridicule.
"He's at work in my garden now," he said, "sending up his invisible vapors. I want to center the downpour from the heavens over this God-favored spot, right over this God-favored spot of Ascalon."
ASCALON CURLS ITS LIP
It was the marvel and regret of people who made their adventures vicariously, and lived the thrill of them by reading the newspapers, that Ascalon had come to a so sudden and unmistakable end of its romance. For a little while there was hope that it might rise against this Cromwell who had reached out a long arm and silenced it; for a few days there was satisfaction in reading of this man's exploits in this wickedest of all wicked towns, for newspapers sent men to study him, and interview him, and write of his conquest of Ascalon on the very battle ground.
Little enough they got out of Morgan, who met them kindly and talked of the agricultural future of the country lying almost unpeopled beyond the notorious little city's door. Such as they learned of his methods of taming a lawless community they got from looser tongues than the city marshal's.
Even from Chicago and St. Louis these explorers among the fallen temples of adventure came, some of them veterans who had talked with Jesse James in his day but recently come to a close. They waited around a few days for the shot that would remove this picturesque crusader, not believing, any more than the rest of the world, including Ascalon itself, believed that this state of quiescence could prevail without end.
While they waited, sending off long stories by telegraph to their papers every night, they saw the exodus of the proscribed begin, increase, and end. The night-flitting women went first, urged away by the necessities of the flaccid fish which lived upon their shame. The gamblers and gamekeepers followed close behind.
A little while the small saloon-keepers who had nosed the floor and licked up the crumbs which fell from Peden's bar hung around, hoping that it was a flurry that would soon subside. They had big eyes for future prosperity, the overlord being now out of the way, and talked excitedly among themselves, even approached Morgan through an emissary with proposals of a handsome subsidy.
But when they saw a Kansas City gambler come and strip Peden's hall of its long bar and furnishings, of its faro tables and doctored roulette wheels, load them all on a car and ship them to his less notorious but safer town, they knew it was the end. Ascalon had fallen with its most notable man, never to rise up again.
The last of the correspondents left on the evening of the day that Judge Thayer set the rainmaker to work. He sent the obituary of Ascalon, as he believed, ahead of him by wire.
Not that Ascalon was as dead as it appeared on the surface, or the gamblers would make it out to be. True, the undertaker's business had gone, and he with it; Druggist Gray's trade in the bromides and restoratives in demand after debauches, and repairs for bunged heads after the nightly carousels, had fallen away to nothing; the Elkhorn hotel and the Santa Fe cafe were feeding few, and the dealers in vanities and fancies, punctured hosiery, lacy waists, must pack up and follow those upon whom they had prospered.
But there was as much business as before in lumber and hardware, implements, groceries, and supplies for the cattle ranches and the many settlers who were arriving without solicitation or proclamation and establishing themselves to build success upon the ruins of failure left by those who had gone before.
It was only the absence of the wastrels and those who preyed upon them, and the quiet of nights after raucous revelry, that made the place seem dead. Ascalon was as much alive as any town of its kind that had no more justification for being in the beginning. It had more houses than it could use now, since so many of its population had gone; empty stores were numerous around the square, and more would be seen very soon. The fair was over, the holiday crowd was gone. That was all.
Rhetta Thayer came back the same evening the last correspondent faced away from Ascalon. Morgan saw her in the Headlight office, where she worked late that night to overtake her accumulated affairs, her pretty head bent over a litter of proofs. Her door stood open as he passed, but he hastened by softly, and did not return that way again.
He felt that she had gone away from Ascalon on his account, fearful that she would meet him with blood fresh upon his hands. The attitude of Judge Thayer was but a faint reflection of her own, he was sure. It was best that they should not meet again, for blood had blotted out what had seemed the beginning of a tender regard between them. That was at an end.
During the next few days little was seen of Morgan in Ascalon. When he was not riding on long excursions into the outlying country he could have been found, if occasion had arisen demanding his presence on the square, in the station agent's office at the depot. There he spent hours hearing the little agent, whose head was as bald as a grasshopper's, nothing but a pale fringe from ear to ear at the back of his neck, recount the experiences that had fallen in his way during his five-years' occupancy of that place.
This period covered the most notorious history of the town. In that time, according to the check the agent had kept on them, no fewer than fifty-nine men had met violent death on the street and in the caves of vice in Ascalon. This man also noted keenly every arrival in these slack days, duly reporting them all to Morgan, for whom he had a genuine friendship and respect. So there was little chance of anybody slipping in to set a new brewing of trouble over the dying embers of that stamped-out fire.
Morgan avoided the Headlight office, for there was a sensitive spot in his heart that Rhetta's abhorrence of him hurt keenly. But more than that he had the thought of sparing her the embarrassment of a meeting, even of his shadow passing her door.
Twice he saw her at a distance in the street, and once she stood waiting as if to speak to him. But the memory of her face at Peden's door that night was with him always; he could not believe she would seek a meeting out of a spontaneous and honest desire to see him. Only because their lives were thrown together for a little while in that dice-box of fate, and avoidance seemed studied and a thing that might set foolish tongues clapping, she paused and looked his way as if waiting for him to approach. She was serving convention, not with a wish of her heart. So he believed, and turned the other way.
Cattlemen from the range at hand, and several from Texas who had driven their herds to finish on the far-famed Kansas grass for the fall market, were loading great numbers of cattle in Ascalon every day. The drouth was driving them to this sacrifice. Lean as their cattle were, they would be leaner in a short time.
This activity brought scores of cowboys to town daily. Under the old order business would have been lively at night, when most of the herdsmen were at leisure. As it was, they trooped curiously around the square, some of them who had looked forward on the long drive to a hilarious blowout at the trail's end resentfully sarcastic, but the greater number humorously disposed to make the most of it.
Sober, these men of the range were very much like reservation Indians in town on a holiday. They walked slowly around and around the square, looking at everything closely, saying little, to dispose themselves along the edge of the sidewalk after a while and smoke. There were no fights, nobody let off a gun. When Morgan passed them on his quiet rounds, they nudged each other, and looked after him with low comments, for his fame had gone far in a little while.
These men had no quarrel with Morgan, disappointed of their revelry, thirsty after their long waiting, sour as some of them were over finding this oasis of their desert dry. They only looked on him with silent respect. Nobody cared to provoke him; it was wise to give the road when a fellow met that man. So they talked among themselves, somewhat disappointed to find that Morgan was not carrying his rifle about with him these peaceful days, unusual weapon for a gun-fighting man in that country.
In this way, with considerable coming and going through its doors, yet all in sobriety and peace, Ascalon passed the burning, rainless summer days. But not without a little cheer in the hard glare of the parching range, not without a laugh and a chuckle, and a grin behind the hand. The town knew all about the rainmaker at work behind the shielding rows of tall corn in Judge Thayer's garden. An undertaking of such scope was too big to sequester in any man's back yard.
Whether the rainmaker believed in his formula, or whether he was a plain fraud who was a little sharper on weather conditions than most men, and good on an estimate of a drouth's duration, he seemed to be doing something to earn his money. Day and night he kept something burning in a little tin stove with a length of pipe that came just above the corn, sending up a smoke that went high toward the cloudless sky before the wind began to blow in the early morning hours, and after it ceased at evening, after its established plan. During the day this smoke dispersed very generally over town, causing some coughing and sneezing, and not a little swearing and scoffing.
Sulphur, mainly, the doctor and Druggist Gray pronounced the chemical to be. It was a sacrilege, the Baptist preacher declared, an offering to Satan, from the smell of it, rather than a scientific assault upon the locked heavens to burst open the windows and let out a dash of rain. If the effort of the mysterious stranger brought anything at all, it would bring disaster, the preacher declared. A cyclone, very likely, and lightning, in expression of the Almighty's wrath.
Those who did not accept it wrathfully, as the preacher, or resentfully, as Druggist Gray, from whom the experimenter bought none of his chemicals, or humorously, as the doctor and many of higher intelligence, had a sort of sneaking hope that something might come of it. If the rain man could stir up a commotion and fetch a soaker, it would be the salvation of that country. The range would revive, streams would flow, water would come again into dry wells, and the new farmers who had come in would be given hope to hang on another year and by their trade keep Ascalon from perishing utterly.
But mainly the disposition was to laugh. Judge Thayer was a well-meaning man, but easy. He believed he was bringing a doctor in to cure the country's sickness, where all of his hopes were staked out in town lots, when he had brought only a quack. A hundred dollars, even if the faker made no more, was pretty good pay for seven days' work, they said. A dollar's worth of sulphur would cover his expenses. And if it happened to turn out a good guess, and a rain did blow up on time, Judge Thayer was just fool enough to give the fellow a letter that would help him put his fraud through in another place.
It did not appear, as the days passed, that the rainmaker was driving much of a hole in the hot air that pressed down upon that tortured land. No commotion was apparent in the upper regions, no cloud lifted to cut off for an hour the shafts of the fierce sun. Ascalon lay panting, exhausted, dry as tow, the dust of driven herds blowing through its bare, bleak streets.
Gradually, as dry burning day succeeded the one in all particulars like it that had gone before, what little hope the few had in Judge Thayer's weather doctor evaporated and passed away. Those who had scoffed at the beginning jeered louder now, making a triumph of it. The Baptist preacher said the evil of meddling in the works of the Almighty was becoming apparent in the increasing severity of the hot wind. Ascalon, for its sins past and its sacrilege of the present, was to writhe and scorch and wither from the face of the earth.
For all this, interest in the rainmaker's efforts did not lax. People sniffed his smoke, noting every change in its flavor, and pressed around Judge Thayer's garden fence trying to get a look at the operations. Judge Thayer was not a little indignant over the scoffings and denunciations, and this impertinent curiosity to pry upon what he gave them to understand was his own private venture.
Keep off a safe distance from this iniquitous business, he warned with sarcasm; don't lean on the fence and risk the wrath of the Almighty. Let the correction of Providence fall on his own shoulders, which had been carrying the sins of Ascalon a long time; don't get so close as to endanger their wise heads under the blow. At the same time he gave them to understand that if any rain came of the efforts of his weather doctor it would be his, the judge's, own private and individual rain, wrung from denying nature by science, and that science paid for by the judge's own money.
The scoffers laughed louder at this, the sniffers wrinkled their noses a little more. But the Baptist preacher only shook his head, the hot wind blowing his wide overalls against his thin legs.
Morgan stood aloof from doubters, hopers, scoffers, and all, saying no word for or against the rainmaker. Every morning now he took a ride into the country, to the mystification of the town, coming back before the heat mounted to its fiercest, always on hand at night to guard against any outbreak of violence among the visitors.
There were not a few in town who watched him away each morning in the hope that something would overtake him and prevent his return; many more who felt their hearts sink as he rode by their doors with the fear that each ride would be his last. Out there in the open some enemy might be lying behind a clump of tangled briars. These women's prayers went with the city marshal as he rode.
On a certain morning Morgan overtook Joe Lynch, driving toward town with his customary load of bones. Morgan walked his horse beside Joe's wagon to chat with him, finding always a charm of originality and rather more than superficial thinking about the old fellow that was refreshing in the intellectual stagnation of the town.
"Is that rain-crow feller still workin' over in town?" Joe inquired as soon as greetings had passed.
"I suppose he is, I don't believe his seven days are up yet."
"This is his sixth, I'm keepin' notches on him. I thought maybe he'd skinned out. Do you think he'll be able to fetch it?"
"I hope he can, but I've got my doubts, Joe."
"Yes, and I've got more than doubts. Science is all right, I reckon, as fur as I ever heard, but no science ain't able to rake up clouds in the sky like you'd rake up hay in a field and fetch on a rain. Even if they did git the clouds together, how're they goin' to split 'em open and let the rain out?"
"That would be something of a job," Morgan admitted.
"You've got to have lightnin' to bust 'em, and no science that ever was can't make lightnin', I'm here to tell you, son. If some feller did happen on how it was done, what do you reckon'd become of that man?"
"Why, they do make it, Joe—they make it right over at Ascalon, keep it in jars under that table at the depot. Didn't you ever see it?"
"That ain't the same stuff," Joe said, with high disdain, almost contempt. "Wire lightnin' and sky lightnin' ain't no more alike than milk's like whisky. Well, say that science did make up a batch of sky lightnin'—but I ain't givin' in it can be done—how air they goin' to git up to the clouds, how're they goin' to make it do the bustin' at the right time?"
"That's more than I can tell you, Joe. It's too deep for me."
"Yes, or any other man. They'd let it go all at once and cause a waterspout, that's about what they'd do, and between a waterspout and a dry spell, give me the dry spell!"
"I never was in one, but I've seen 'em tearin' up the hills."
"Then you know what they air. It'd suit me right up to the han'le if this feller could bring a rain, for I tell you I never saw so much sufferin' and misery as these settlers are goin' through out here on this cussid pe-rairie right now. Some of these folks is haulin' water from the river as much as thirty mile!"
"I notice all the creeks and branches are dry. But it's only a little way to plenty of water all over this country if they'll dig. Some of them have put down wells during this dry spell and hit all the water they need. There's a sheet of water flowing under this country from the mountains in Colorado."
"Oh, you git out!"
"Just the same as the Arkansas River, only spread out for miles," Morgan insisted. "A drouth here doesn't mean anything to that water supply; I've been riding around over this country trying to show people that. Most of them think I'm crazy—till they dig."
"I don't guess you're cracked yit," Joe allowed, "but you will be if you stay in this country. If it wasn't for the bones you wouldn't find me hangin' around here—I'd make for Wyoming. They tell me there's any amount of bones that's never been touched up in that country."
"I noticed several other wagons out gathering bones. They'll soon clean them up here, Joe."
"They're all takin' to it," Joe said, with the resentment of a man who feels competition, "hornin' in on my business, what's mine by rights of bein' the first man to go into it in this blame country. Let 'em—let 'em run their teams down scourin' around after bones—I'll be here to pick up the remains of 'em all. I was here first, I've stuck through the rushes of them fellers that's come into this country and dried up, and I'll be here when this crowd of 'em dries up. Them fellers haul in bones and trade 'em at the store for flour and meal, they don't git half out of 'em what I do out of mine, and they're hurtin' the business, drivin' it down to nothin'."
"Hotter than usual this morning," Morgan remarked, not so much interested in bones and the competition of bones.
"Wind's dying down; I noticed that some time ago. Goin' to leave us to sizzle without any fannin'. Ruther have it that way, myself. This eternal wind dries a man's brains up after a while. I'd say, if I was anywhere else, it was fixin' up to rain."
"Or for a cyclone."
"Too late in the season for 'em," Joe declared, not willing to grant even that diversion to the drouth-plagued land of bones.
Joe reverted to the bones; he could not keep away from bones. There was not much philosophy in him today, not much of anything but a plaint and a denunciation of competition in bones. Morgan thought the wind must be having its effect on Joe's brains; they seemed to be so hydrated that morning they would have rattled against his skull. Morgan considered riding on and leaving him, at the risk of giving offense, dismissing the notion when they rose a hill and looked down on Ascalon not more than a mile away.
"I believe there's a cloud coming up over there," said Morgan, pointing to the southwest.
"Which?" said Joe, rousing as briskly as if he had been doused with a bucket of water. "Cloud? No, that ain't no cloud. That's dust. More wind behind that, a regular sand storm. Ever been through one of 'em?"
"In Nebraska," Morgan replied, with detached attention, watching what he still believed to be a cloud lifting above the hazy horizon.
"Nothin' like the sand storms in this country," Joe discounted, never willing to yield one point in derogative comparison between that land and any other. "Feller told me one time he saw it blow sand so hard here it started in wearin' a knot hole in the side of his shanty in the evenin', and by mornin' the whole blame shack was gone. Eat them boards up clean, that feller said. Didn't leave nothin' but the nails. But I always thought he was stretchin' it a little," Joe added, not a gleam of humor to be seen anywhere in the whole surface of his wind-dried face.
"That's a cloud, all right," Morgan insisted, passing the reduction by attrition of the settler's shack.
"Cloud?" said Joe, throwing up his head with renewed alertness. He squinted a little while into the southwest. "Bust my hub if it ain't a cloud! Comin' up, too—comin' right along. Say, do you reckon that rain-crow feller brought that cloud up from somewheres?"
"He didn't have anything to do with it," Morgan assured him, grinning a little over the quick shift in the old man's attitude, for there was awe in his voice.
"No, I don't reckon," said Joe thoughtfully, "but it looks kind of suspicious."
The cloud was lifting rapidly, as summer storms usually come upon that unprotected land, sullen in its threat of destruction rather than promise of relief. A great dark fleece rolled ahead of the green-hued rain curtain, the sun bright upon it, the hush of its oncoming over the waiting earth. No breath of wind stirred, no movement of nature disturbed the silent waiting of the dusty land, save the lunging of foolish grasshoppers among the drooping, withered sunflowers beside the road as the travelers passed.
"I'm goin' to see if I can make it to town before she hits," said Joe, lashing out with his whip. "Lordy! ain't it a comin'!"
"I think I'll ride on," said Morgan, feeling a natural desire for shelter against that grim-faced storm.
The oncoming cloud had swept its flank across the sun before Morgan rode into town, and in the purple shadow of its threat people stood before their houses, watching it unfold. In Judge Thayer's garden—it was the house Morgan had fixed on that first morning of his exploration—the rainmaker was firing up vigorously, sending up a smoke of such density as he had not employed in his labors before. This black column rose but a little way, where it flattened against the cool current that was setting in ahead of the storm, and whirled off over the roofs of Ascalon to mock the scoffers who had laughed in their day.
Morgan stabled his horse and went to the square, where many of the town's inhabitants were gathered, all faces tilted to watch the storm. Judge Thayer was there, glorifying in the success of his undertaking, sparing none of those who had mocked him for a sucker and a fool. A cool breath of reviving wind was moving, fresh, sweet, rain-scented; as hopeful, as life-giving, as a reprieve to one chained among faggots at the stake of intolerance.
"It looks like you're going to win, Judge," Morgan said.
"Win? I've won! Look at it, pourin' rain over at Glenmore, the advance of it not three miles from here! It'll be here inside of five minutes, rainin' pitchforks."
But it did not happen so. The rain appeared to have taken to dallying on the way, in spite of the thickening of clouds over Ascalon. Straining faces, green-tinted in the gloomy shadow of the overhanging cloud, waited uplifted for the first drops of rain; the dark outriders of the storm wheeled and mingled, turned and rolled, low over the dusty roofs; lightning rived the rain curtain that swept the famished earth, so near at hand that the sensitive could feel it in their hair; deep thunder sent its tremor through the ground, jarring the windows of Ascalon that had looked in their day upon storms of human passion which were but insect strife to this.
Yet not a drop of rain fell on roof, on trampled way, on waiting face, on outstretched hand, in all of Ascalon.
Judge Thayer was seen hurrying from the square, making for home and the weather doctor, who was about to let the rain escape.
"He's goin' to head it off," said one of the scoffers to Morgan, beginning to feel a return of his exultation.
"It's goin' to miss us," said Druggist Gray, his head thrown back, his Adam's apple like an elbow of stovepipe in his thin neck.
"We may get a good shower out of one end of it," Conboy still hoped, pulling for the rain as he might have boosted for a losing horse.
"Nothing more than a sprinkle, if that much," said the station agent, shaking his head, which he had bared to the cool wind.
"He's got him firin' up like he was tryin' to hive a swarm of bees," one reported, coming from the seat of scientific labors.
"It's breakin', it's passin' by us—we'll not get a drop of it!"
So it appeared. Overhead the swirling clouds were passing on; in the distance the thunder was fainter. The wind began to freshen from the track of the rain, the pigeons came out of the courthouse tower for a look around, light broke through the thinning clouds.
Not more than a mile or two southward of Ascalon the rain was falling in a torrent, the roar of it still quite plain in the ears of those whose thirst for its cooling balm was to be denied. The rain was going on, after soaking and reviving Glenmore, which place Judge Thayer would have given a quarter of his possessions to have had it miss.
A mockery, it seemed, a rebuke, a chastisement, the way nature conducted that rain storm. Judge Thayer urged the rainmaker to his greatest efforts to stop it, turn it, bring it back; smoke green and black went up in volumes, to stream away on the cool, refreshing wind. Sulphur and rosin and pitch were identified in that smoke as surely as the spectrum reveals the composition of the sun. But the wind was against the rainmaker; nature conspired to mock him before men as the quack that he was.
The gloom of storm cleared from the streets of Ascalon, the worn and tired look came back into faces that had been illumined for a little while with hope. Farther away, fainter, the thunder sounded, dimmer the murmur of the withdrawing rain.
The cool wind still blew like whispered consolation for a great, a pangful loss, but it could not soften the hard hearts of those who had stood with lips to the fountain of life and been denied. The people turned again to their pursuits, their planning, their gathering of courage to hold them up against the blaze of sun which soon must break upon them for a parching season again. The dust lay deep under their feet, gray on their roofs where shingles curled like autumn leaves in the sun. The rainmaker sent up his vain, his fatuous, foolish, infinitesimal breath of smoke. The rain went on its way.
"Aw, hell!" said Ascalon, in its derisive, impious way; "Aw, hell!"
MADNESS OF THE WINDS
Ascalon's temper was not improved by the close passing of the rain, which had refreshed but a small strip of that almost limitless land. The sun came out as hot as before, the withering wind blew from the southwest plaguing and distorting the fancy of men. Everybody in town seemed sulky and surly, ready to snap at a word. The blight of contention and strife seemed to be its heritage, the seed of violence and destruction to be sown in the drouth-cursed soil.
The judgment of men warped in that ceaseless wind, untempered by green of bough overhead or refreshing turf under foot. There was no justice in their hearts, and no mercy. Morgan himself did not escape this infection of ill humor that rose out of the hard-burned earth, streamed on the hot wind, struck into men's brains with the rays of the penetrating sun. Not conscious of it, certainly, any more than the rest of them in Ascalon were aware of their red-eyed resentment of every other man's foot upon the earth. Yet Morgan was drilled by the boring sun until his view upon life was aslant. Resentment, a stranger to him in his normal state, grew in him, hard as a disintegrated stone; scorn for the ingratitude of these people for whom he had imperiled his life rose in his eyes like a flame.
More than that, Morgan brooded a great deal on the defilement of blood he had suffered there, and the alienation, real or fancied, that it had brought of such friends as he valued in that town. By an avoidance now unmistakably mutual, Morgan and Rhetta Thayer had not met since the night of Peden's fall.
One thing only kept Morgan there in the position that had become thankless in the eyes of those who had urged it upon him in the beginning. That was the threatened vengeance of Peden's friends. He was giving them time to come for their settlement; he felt that he could not afford to be placed in the light of one who had fled before a threat. But it seemed to him, on the evening of the second day after the rain storm's passing, that he had waited long enough. The time had come for him to go.
There were a few cowboys in town that evening, and these as quiet as buzzards on a fence as they sat along the sidewalk near the hotel smoking their cigarettes. The wind had fallen, leaving a peace in the ears like the cessation of a hateful turmoil. There was the promise of a cool night in the unusual clearness of the stars. Morgan rode away into the moonless night, leaving the town to take care of its own dignity and peace.
Morgan's thought was, as he rode away into the early night, to return Stilwell's horse, come back to Ascalon next day, resign his office and leave the country. Not that his faith in its resources, its future greatness and productivity when men should have learned how to subdue it, was broken or changed. His mind was of the same bent, but circumstances had revised his plans. There was with him always, even in his dreams, a white, horror-stricken face looking at him in the pain of accusation, repulsion, complete abhorrence, where he stood in that place of blood.
This was driving him away from the hopes he had warmed in his heart for a day. Without the sweet flower he had hoped to fend and enjoy, that land would be a waste to him. He could not forget in going away, but distance and time might exorcise the spirit that attended him, and dim away the accusing pain of that terrified face.
Ascalon's curse of blood had descended to him; it was no mitigation in her eyes that he had slain for her. But he had brought her security. Although he had paid the tremendous price, he had given her nights of peace.
Even as this thought returned to him with its comfort, as it came always like a cool breath to preserve his balance in the heat and turmoil of his regret and pain, Rhetta Thayer came riding up the dim road.
Her presence on that road at night was a greater testimonial to her confidence in the security he had brought to Ascalon and its borders than her tongue might have owned. She was riding unattended where, ten days ago, she would not have ventured with a guard. It gave Morgan a thrill of comfort to know how completely she trusted in the security he had given her.
"Mr. Morgan!" she said, recognizing him with evident relief. Then, quickly, in lively concern. "Who's looking after things in town tonight?"
"I left things to run themselves," he told her quietly, but with something in his voice that said things might go right or wrong for any further concern he had of them.
"Well," she said, after a little silence, "I don't suppose you're needed very much."
"That's what the business men are saying," he told her, sarcasm in his dry tone.
"I don't mean it that way," she hastened to amend. "You've done us a great service—we'll never be able to pay you——"
"There isn't any pay involved," he interposed, almost roughly. "That's what's worrying those nits around the square, they say they can't carry a marshal's pay with business going to the devil since the town's closed. Somebody ought to tell them. There never will be any bill."
"You're too generous," she said, a little spontaneous warmth in her voice.
"Maybe I can live it down," he returned.
"It's such a lovely cool night I couldn't stay in," she chatted on, still laboring to be natural and at ease, not deceiving him by her constraint at all, "after such a hard day fussing with that old paper. We missed an issue the week—last week—we're getting out two in one this time. Why haven't you been in? you seem to be in such a hurry always."
"I wanted to spare you what you can't see in the dark," he said, the vindictive spirit of Ascalon's insanity upon him.
"What I can't see in the dark?" she repeated, as if perplexed.
"You shouldn't say that," she chided, but not with the hearty sincerity that a friend would like to hear. "Are you going back to town?"
"I'll ride with you," he granted, feeling that for all her friendly advances the shadow of his taint lay between them.
They were three miles or more from town, the road running as straight as a plumbline before them. A little way they jogged on slowly, nothing said. Rhetta was the first to speak.
"What made you run away from me that day I wanted to speak to you, Mr. Morgan?"
"Did you want to, or were you just—did you want to speak to me that day, Miss Thayer?" Morgan's heart began to labor, his forehead to sweat, so hard was the rebirth of hope.
"And you turned right around and walked off!"
"You can tell me now," he suggested, half choking on the commonplace words, the tremor of his springing hope was so great.
"I don't remember—oh, nothing in particular. But it looks so strange for us—for you—to be dodging me—each other—that way, after we'd started being friends before everybody."
"Only for the sake of appearances," he said sadly. "I hoped—but you ran away and hid for a week, you thought I was a monster."
Foolish, perhaps, to cut down the little shoot of hope again, when a gentle breath, a soft word, might have encouraged and supported it. But it was out of his mouth, the fruit of his brooding days, in his resentfulness of her injustice, her ingratitude for his sacrifice, as he believed. He saw her turn from him, as if a revulsion of the old feeling swept her.
"Don't judge me too harshly, Mr. Morgan," she appealed, still looking away.
Morgan was melted by her gentle word; the severity of the moment was dissolved in a breath.
"If we could go on as we began," he suggested, almost pleading in his great desire.
"Why, aren't we?" she asked, succeeding well, as a woman always can in such a situation, in giving it a discouraging artlessness.
"You know how they're kicking and complaining all around the square because I've shut up the town, ruined business, brought calamity to their doors as they see it?"
"Yes, I know."
"They forget that they came to me with their hats in their hands and asked me to do it. Joe Lynch says the hot wind has dried their reason up like these prairie springs. I believe he's right. But I didn't shut the town up for them, I didn't go out there with my gun like a savage and shoot men down for them, Miss Thayer. If you knew how much you were——"
"Don't—don't—Mr. Morgan, please!"
"I think there's something in what Joe Lynch says about the wind," he told her, leaning toward her, hand on the horn of her saddle. "It warps men, it opens cracks in their minds like the shrunk lumber in the houses of Ascalon. I think sometimes it's getting its work in on me, when I'm lonesome and disappointed."
"You ought to come in and talk with me and Riley sometimes."
"I've often felt like going to them, whining around about the town being killed," he went on, pursuing his theme as if she had not spoken, "and telling them they didn't figure in my calculations at the beginning nor come in for any of my consideration at the end—if this is the end. There was only one person in my thoughts, that one person was Ascalon, and all there was in it, and that was you. When I took the job that day, I took it for you."
"Not for me alone!" she hastened to disclaim, as one putting off an unwelcome responsibility, unfriendly denial in her voice.
"For you, and only you," he told her, earnestly. "If you knew how much you were to me——"
"Not for me alone—I was only one among all of them," she said, spurring her horse in the vehemence of her disclaimer, causing it to start away from Morgan with quick bound. She checked it, waiting for him to draw up beside her again. "I'd hate to think, Mr. Morgan—oh, you can't want me alone to take the responsibility for the killing of those men!"
Morgan rode on in silence, head bent in humiliation, in the sad disappointment that fell on him like a blow.
"If it could have been done, if I could have brought peace and safety to the women of Ascalon without bloodshed, I'd have done it. I wanted to tell you, I tried to tell you——"
"Don't—don't tell me any more, Mr. Morgan—please!"
She drew across the road, widening the space between them as she spoke. Perhaps this was due to the unconscious pressure on the rein following her shrinking from his side, from the thought of his touch upon her hand, but it wounded Morgan's humiliated soul deeper than a thousand unkind words.
"No, I'll never tell you," he said sadly, but with dignity that made the renunciation noble.
Rhetta seemed touched. She drew near him again, reaching out her hand as if to ease his hurt.
"It was different before—before that night! you were different, all of us, everything. I can't help it, ungrateful as I seem. You'll forgive me, you'll understand. But you were different to me before then."
"Yes, I was different," Morgan returned, not without bitterness in his slow, deep, gentle voice. "I never killed a man for—I never had killed a man; there was no curse of blood on my soul."
"Why is it always necessary to kill in Ascalon?" she asked, wildly, rebelliously. "Why can't anything be done without that horrible ending!"
"If I knew; if I had known," he answered her, sadly.
"Forgive me, Mr. Morgan. You know how I feel about it all."
"I know how you feel," he said, offering no word of forgiveness, as he had spoken no word of reminder where a less generous soul might have spoken, nor raised a word of blame. If he had a thought that she must have known when she urged him to the defense of the defenseless in Ascalon, what the price of such guardianship must be, he kept it sealed in his heart.
They rode on. The lights of Ascalon came up out of the night to meet their eyes as they raised the last ridge. There Morgan stopped, so abruptly that she rode on a little way. When he came up to her where she waited, he was holding out his hand.
"Here is my badge—the city marshal's badge," he said. "If you can bear the thought of touching it, or touch it without a thought, I wish you would return it to Judge Thayer for me. I'm not needed in Ascalon any longer, I'm quitting the job tonight. Good-bye."
Morgan laid the badge in her hand as he spoke the last word, turned his horse quickly, rode back upon their trail. Rhetta wheeled her horse about, a protest on her lips, a sudden pang in her heart that clamored to call him back. But no cry rose to summon him to her side, and Morgan, gloomy as the night around him, went on his way.
But the lights of Ascalon were blurred as if she looked on them through a rain-drenched pane when Rhetta faced again to go her way alone, the marshal's badge clutched in her hand. Remorse was roiling in her breast; the corrosive poison of regret for too much said, depressed her generous heart.
If he had known how to accomplish what he had wrought without blood, he had said; if he had known. Neither had she known, but she had expected it of him, she had set him to the task with an unreasonable condition. Blood was the price. Ascalon exacted blood, always blood.
The curse of blood, he had said, was on his soul, his voice trembling with the deep, sad vibration that might have risen from a broken heart. Yes, there was madness in the wind, in the warping sun, in the hard earth that denied and mocked the dearest desires of men. It had struck her, this madness that hollowed out the heart of a man like a worm, leaving it an unfeeling shell.
Rhetta had time for reflection when she reached home, and deeper reflection than had troubled the well of her remorse as she rode. For there in the light of her room she saw the bullet-mark on the dented badge, which never had come quite straight for all Morgan's pains to hammer out its battle scars. A little lead from the bullet still clung in the grooves of letters, unmistakable evidence of what had marred its nickled front.
Conboy had regarded Morgan's warning to keep that matter under his hat, for he had learned the value of silence at the right time in his long experience in that town. Nobody else knew of the city marshal's close escape the night of his great fight. The discovery now came to Rhetta Thayer with a cold shudder, a constriction of the heart. She stared with newly awakened eyes at the badge where it lay in her palm, her pale cheeks cold, her lips apart, shocked by the sudden realization of his past peril as no word could have expressed.
Hot thoughts ran in thronging turmoil through her brain, thoughts before repressed and chilled in her abhorrence of that flood of blood. For her he had gone into that lair of murderous, defiant men, for her he had borne the crash of that ball just over his heart. For there he had worn the badge—just over his honest heart. Perhaps because she had thought his terrible work had been unjustified, as the spiteful and vicious told, she had recoiled from him, and the recollection of him standing on grim guard among the sanguinary wreckage of that awful place. If he had known any other way, he had said; if he had known!
Not for the mothers of Ascalon, of whom he had spoken tenderly; not for the men who came cringing to beg their redemption from the terror and oppression of the lawless at his hand. Not for them. But for her. So he had said not half an hour past.
But he had said no word to remind her where reminder was needed, not an accusation had he uttered where accusation was so much deserved, that would bring back to her the plain, hard fact that it was at her earnest appeal he had undertaken the regeneration of that place.
On the other hand, he had spoken as if he had assumed the task voluntarily, to give her the security that she now enjoyed. She had sent him to this work, expecting him to escape the curse of blood that had fallen. But she had not shown him the means. And when it fell on him, saddening his generous heart, she had fled like an ingrate from the sight of his stern face. Now he was gone, leaving her to the consideration of these truths, which came rushing in like false reserves, too late.
She put out the light and sat by the open window, the scarred badge between her hands, warming it tenderly as if to console the hurt he had suffered, wondering if this were indeed the end. This evidence in her hand was like an absolution; it left him without a stain. The justification was there presented that removed her deep-seated abhorrence of his deed. In defense of his own life he had struck them down. His life; most precious and most dear. And he was gone.
Was this, indeed, the end? For her romance that had lifted like a bright flower in an unexpected place for a little day, perhaps; for Ascalon, not the end. Something of unrest, as an impending storm, something of the night's insecurity, troubled her as she sat by the window and told her this. The sense of peace that had made her nights sweet was gone; a vague terror seemed growing in the silent dark.
This feeling attended her when she went to bed, harassed her sleep like a fever, woke her at early dawn and drew her to the window, where she leaned and listened, straining to define in the stillness the thing that seemed to whisper a warning to her heart.
There was nothing in the face of nature to account for this; not a cloud was on the sky. The town, too, lay still in the mists of breaking morning, its houses dim, its ways deserted. Alarm seemed unreasonable, but her heart quivered with it, and shrunk within her as from a chilling wind. There was no warder at the gate of Ascalon; the sentry was gone.
Rhetta turned back to her bed, neither quieted of her indefinable uneasiness nor inclined to resume her troubled sleep. After a little while she rose again, and dressed. Dread attended her, dread had brooded on her bosom while she slept uneasily, like a cat breathing its poisoned breath into her face.
Dawn had widened when she went to the window again, the mist that clung to the ground that morning in the unusual coolness was lifting. A horseman rode past the corner at the bank, stopped his horse in the middle of the street, turned in his saddle and looked around the quiet square.
Other riders followed, slipping in like wolves from the range, seven or eight of them, their horses jaded as if they had been long upon the road. Cowboys in with another herd to load, she thought. And with the thought the first horseman, who had remained this little while in the middle of the street gazing around the town, rode up to the hitching rack beside the bank and dismounted. Rhetta gasped, drawing back from the window, her heart jumping in sudden alarm.
There could be no mistaking the man, slow-moving when he dismounted, tall and sinewy, watchful as a battered old eagle upon its crag. With these ruffians at his back, gathered from the sweepings of no knowing how many outlawed camps, he had come in the vengeance that had gathered like a storm in his evil heart, to punish Ascalon and its marshal for his downfall and disgrace.
A SUMMONS AT SUNRISE
Three horses were standing in Stilwell's yard, bridle reins on the ground, as three horses had stood on the morning that Morgan first found his tortured way to that hospitable door. In the house the Stilwell family and Morgan were at breakfast, attended by Violet, who bore on biscuits and ham to go with the coffee that sent its cheer out through the open door as if to find a traveler and lead him to refreshment. Behind the cottonwoods along the river, sunrise was about to break.
"I'm gittin' so I can't wake up of a morning when I sleep in a house," Stilwell complained, his broad face radiating humor. "I guess I'll have to take the blankets ag'in, old lady."
"I guess you can afford to sleep till half-past three in the morning once in a while," Mrs. Stilwell said complacently. "Why, Mr. Morgan, that man didn't sleep under a roof once a month the first five or six years we were on this range! He just laid out like a coyote anywhere night overtook him, watchin' them cattle like they were children. Now, what's come of it!"
This last bitter note, ranging back to their recent loss from Texas fever, took the cheer out of Stilwell's face. A brooding cloud came over it; his merry chaff was stilled.
"Yes, and Drumm'll pay for them eight hundred head of stock he killed for us, if I have to trail him to his hole in Texas!" Fred declared. "Suit or no suit, that man's goin' to pay."
"I don't like to hear you talk that way, honey," his mother chided.
"Suit!" Fred scoffed; "what does that man care about a suit? He'll never show his head in this country any more, the next drive he makes he'll load west of here and we'll never know anything about it. There's just one way to fix a man like him, and I know the receipt that'll cure his hide!"
"If he ever drives another head of stock into this state I'll hear of it, and I'll attach him. It'll be four or five years before the railroad's built down into that country, he'll have to drive here or nowheres. I'll set right here on this range till he comes."
"Did the rain strike any of your range?" Morgan inquired, eager to turn them away from this gloomy matter of loss and revenge.
"Yes, we got a good soakin' over the biggest part of it. Plenty of water now, grass jumpin' up like spring. It's the purtiest country, Cal, a man ever set eyes on after a rain."
"And in the spring," said Mrs. Stilwell, wistfully.
"And when the wild roses bloom along in May," said Violet. "There's no place in the world as pretty as this country then."
"I believe you," Morgan told them, nodding his head in undivided assent. "Even dry as it is around Ascalon and that country north, it gets hold of a man."
"You buy along on the river here somewhere, Cal, and put in a nice little herd. It won't take you long to make a start, and a good start. This country ain't begun to see the cattle it will——"
"Somebody comin'," said Violet, running to the door to see, a plate of hot biscuits in her hand.
"Seems to be in a hurry for this early in the day," Stilwell commented, listening to the approach of a galloping horse. He was not much interested; horsemen came and went past that door at all hours of the day and night, generally in a gallop.
"It's Rhetta!" Violet announced from the door, turning hurriedly to put the plate of biscuits on the table, where it stood before unheeding eyes.
"Rhetta?" Mrs. Stilwell repeated, getting up in excitement. "I wonder what——"
Rhetta was at the door, the dust of her arrival making her indistinct to those who hurried from the unfinished breakfast to learn the cause of this precipitous visit. Morgan saw her leaning from the saddle, her loosely confined hair half falling down.
"Is Mr. Morgan here?" she inquired.
The girl's voice trembled, her breath came so hard Morgan could hear its suspiration where he stood. It was evident that she labored under a tremendous strain of anxiety, arising out of a trouble that Morgan was at no loss to understand. Yet he remained in the background as Stilwell and Fred crowded to the door.
"Why, Rhetty! what's happened?" Stilwell inquired, hurrying out, followed by his wife and son. Violet was already beside her perturbed visitor, looking up into her terror-blanched face.
"Oh, they've come, they've come!" Rhetta gasped.
"Who?" Stilwell asked, mystified, laying hold of her bridle, shaking it as if to set her senses right. "Who's come, Rhetty?"
"I came for Mr. Morgan!" she panted, as weak, it seemed, as a wounded bird. "I thought he came here—he had your horse."
"He's here, honey," Mrs. Stilwell told her, consoling her like a hurt child.
Morgan did not come forward. He stood as he had risen from his chair at the table, one hand on the cloth, his head bent as if in a travail of deepest thought. The shaft of tender new sunlight reaching in through the open door struck his shoulders and breast, leaving his face in the shadow that well suited the mood darkening over his soul like a storm. A thousand thoughts rose up and swirled within him, a thousand harsh charges, a thousand seeds of bitterness. Rhetta, leaning to peer under the lintel of the low door, could see him there, and she reached out her hand, appealing without a word.
"He is here, honey," Mrs. Stilwell repeated, assuringly, comfortingly.
"Tell him—tell him—Craddock's come!" Rhetta said.
"Craddock?" said Stilwell, pronouncing the name with inflection of surprise. "Oh, I thought something awful had happened to somebody." He turned with the ease of indifference in his manner, to go back and finish his meal. "Well, didn't you look for him to come back? I knew all the time he'd come."
Morgan lifted his head. The sun, broken by Rhetta's shadow, brightened on the floor at his feet, and spread its beam upon his breast like a golden stole. The old wound on his check bone was a scar now, irregular, broad from the crude surgery that had bound it but illy. Its dark disfigurement increased the somber gravity of his face, sunburned and wind-hardened as any ranger's who rode that prairie waste. From where he stood Morgan could not see the girl's face, only her restless hand on the bridle rein, the brown of her riding skirt, the beginning of white at her waist.
"There ought to be men enough in Ascalon to take care of Craddock," Violet said.
"He's not alone, some of those Texas cowboys are with him," Rhetta explained, her voice firmer, her words quicker. "Mr. Morgan is still marshal—he gave me his badge, but please tell him I didn't—I forgot to turn it in with his resignation."
"I don't see that it's Cal's fight this time, Rhetty," Stilwell said. "He's done enough for them yellow pups over in Ascalon, to be yelped at and cussed for savin' their dirty hides."
"They're looking for him, they think he's hiding!"
"Well, let 'em look. If they come over here they'll find him—Cal ain't makin' no secret of where he's at. And they'll find somebody standin' back to back with him, any time they want to come." Stilwell's resentment of Ascalon's ingratitude toward his friend was plainer in his mouth than print.
"They're going to burn the town to drive him out!" Rhetta said, gasping in the terror that shook her heart.
"I guess it'll be big enough to hold all the people that's in it when they're through," said Stilwell, unfeelingly.
"Here's his badge," said Rhetta, offering it frantically. "Tell him he's still marshal!"
"Yes, you can come for him—now!" said Violet, accusingly. "I told you—you remember now what I told you!"
"O Violet, Violet! If you knew what I've paid for that—if you knew!"
"Not as much as you owe him, if it was the last drop of blood in your heart!" said Violet. And she turned away, and went and stood by the door.
"They'll burn the town!" Rhetta moaned. "Oh, isn't anybody going to help me—won't you call him, Violet?"
"No," said Violet. "He can hear you—he'll come if he wants to—if he's fool enough to do it again!"
"Violet!" her mother cautioned.
"How many are with him?" Fred inquired.
"Seven or eight—I didn't see them all. Pa's collecting a posse to guard the bank—they're going to rob it!"
"They're welcome to all I've got in it," Stilwell said. "You better come in and have a cup of coffee, Rhetty, before——"
"The one they call the Dutchman's there, and Drumm——"
"Drumm?" Fred and his father spoke like a chorus, both of them jumping to alertness.
"And some others of that gang Mr. Morgan drove out of town. They were setting the hotel afire when I left!"
Stilwell did not wait for all of it. He was in the house at a jump, reaching down his guns which hung beside the door. Close after him Fred came rushing in, snatching his weapons from the buffalo horns on the wall.
"I'm goin' to git service on that man!" Stilwell said. "Are you goin' with us, Cal?"
But Cal Morgan did not reply. He went to the bedroom where he had slept, took up his gun, stood looking at it a moment as if considering something, snatched his hat from the bedpost and turned back, buckling his belt. Mrs. Stilwell and Violet were struggling with husband and brother to restrain them from rushing off to this battle, raising a turmoil of pleading and protesting at the door.
As Morgan passed Stilwell, who was greatly impeded in his efforts to buckle on his guns by his wife's clinging arms and passionate pleadings to remain at home, Fred broke away from his sister and ran for the kitchen door.
"Let Drumm go—let all of them go—let the cattle go, let everything go! none of it's worth riskin' your life for!" Stilwell's affectionate good wife pleaded with him.
"Now, Mother, I'm not goin' to git killed," Morgan heard Stilwell say, his very assurance calming. But the poor woman, who perhaps had recollections of past battles and perils which he had gone through, burst out again, weeping, and clung to him as if she could not let him go.
Morgan paused a moment at the threshold, as if reconsidering something. Violet, who had stood leaning her head on her bent arm, weeping that Fred was rushing to throw his life away, lifted her tearful face, reached out and touched his arm.
"Must you go?" she asked.
For reply Morgan put out his hand as if to say farewell. She took it, pressed it a moment to her breast, and ran away, choked on the grief she could not utter. Morgan stepped out into the sun.
Rhetta Thayer stood at the door, a little aside, as if waiting for him, as if knowing he would come. She was agitated by the anxious hope that spoke out of her white face, but restrained by a fear that could not hide in her wide-straining eyes. She moved almost imperceptibly toward him, her lips parted as if to speak, but said nothing.
As Morgan lifted his hand to his hat in grave salute, passing on, she offered him the badge of his office which she had held gripped in her hand. He took it, inclining his head as in acknowledgment of its safe keeping through the night, and hastened on to one of the horses that stood dozing on three legs in the early sun.
As he left her, Rhetta followed a few quick steps, a cry rising in her heart for him to stay a moment, to spare her one word of forgiveness out of his grim, sealed lips. But the cry faltered away to a great, stifling sob, while tears rose hot in her eyes, making him dim in her sight as he threw the rein over the horse's head, starting the animal out of its sleep with a little squatting jump. She stood so, stretching out her hands to him, while he, unbending in his stern answer to the challenge of duty, unseeing in the hard bitterness of his heart, swung into the saddle and rode away.
Rhetta groped for her saddle, blind in her tears. Morgan was hidden by the dust that hung in the quiet morning behind him as she mounted and followed.
Half a mile or so along the road, Fred passed her, bending low as he rode, as if his desire left the saddle and carried him ahead of his horse; a little while, and Stilwell thundered by, leaving her last and alone on that road leading to what adventures her heart shrunk in her bosom to contemplate.
Ahead of her the smoke of Ascalon's destruction rose high.
IN THE SQUARE AT ASCALON
Morgan had time for a bitter train of reflection as he rode, never looking behind him to see who came after. Whether Stilwell would yield to his wife's appeal and remain at home, whether Fred could be bent from his fiery desire to be avenged on the author of their calamity, he took no trouble to surmise. He only knew that he, Calvin Morgan, was rushing again to combat at the call of this girl whose only appeal was in the face of dreadful peril, whose only service was that of blood.
She had come again, this time like a messenger bearing a command, to call him back to a duty which he believed he had relinquished and put down forever. And solely because it would be treasonable to that duty which still clung to him like a tenacious cobweb, he was riding into the smoke of the burning town.
So he told himself as he galloped on, but never believing for a moment in the core of his heart that it was true. Deep within him there was a response to a more tender call than the stern trumpeting of duty—the answer to an appeal of remorseful eyes, of a pleading heart that could not bear the shame of the charge that he was hiding and afraid. For her, and his place of honor in her eyes, he was riding to Ascalon that hour. Not for Ascalon, and those in it who had snarled at his heels. For her, not the larger duty of a sworn officer of the law riding to defend and protect the lives and property under his jurisdiction.
Morgan pulled up his horse at the edge of town, to consider his situation. He had left Stilwell's in such haste, and in the midst of such domestic anguish, that he had neglected to bring one of the rancher's rifles with him. His only weapon was his revolver, and the ammunition at his belt was scant, due to the foolish security of the days when he believed Seth Craddock never would return. He must pick up a gun somewhere, and ammunition.
There was some scattered shooting going on in the direction of the square, but whether the citizens were gathering to the defense of the town, or the raiders were firing admonitory shots to keep them indoors, Morgan could not at that distance tell. He rode on, considering his most urgent necessity of more arms, concluding to ride straight for Judge Thayer's house and borrow his buffalo rifle.
He swung into the road that led past Judge Thayer's house, which thoroughfare entered the square at the bank corner, still about a quarter of a mile away. As he came round the turn of the road he saw, a few hundred yards ahead of him, a man hurrying toward the square with a gun in his hand. A spurt of speed and Morgan was beside him, leaning over, demanding the gun.
It was the old man who had jumped out of his reverie on the morning of Morgan's first return to Ascalon, and menaced him with the crook of his hickory stick. The veteran was going now without the comfort of his stick, making pretty good time, eager in the rousing of fires long stilled in his cooling heart. He began trotting on when he recognized Morgan, shouting for him to hurry.
"Lend me your gun, Uncle John—I left mine in the hotel," Morgan said.
"Hell, what'll I do then?" said Uncle John, unwilling to give it up.
Morgan was insistent. He commandeered the weapon in the name of the law. That being the case, Uncle John handed it up to him, with a word of affection for it, and a little swearing over his bad luck.
It was a double-barreled buffalo rifle, a cap-and-ball gun of very old pattern, belonging back in the days of Parkman and the California Trail, and the two charges which it bore were all that Morgan could hope to expend, for Uncle John carried neither pouch nor horn. But Morgan was thankful for even that much, and rode on.
A little way ahead a man, hatless, wild-haired, came running out from his dooryard, having witnessed Morgan's levying on Uncle John's gun and read his reason for it. This citizen rushed into the road and offered a large revolver, which Morgan leaned and snatched from his hand as he galloped by. But it hadn't a cartridge in its chambers, and its caliber was not of Morgan's ammunition. Still, he rode on with it in his hand, hoping that it might serve its turn.