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ERNEST HAYCOX

A BURNT CREEK YULETIDE

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First published in Western Story Magazine, 20 December 1924

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-12-23
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Western Story Magazine, 20 December 1924,
with "A Burnt Creek Yuletide"



BY day the scooped-out clearing that formed Burnt Creek seemed rather bleak. The surrounding jack pines were drooped under a niggardly coat of snow, and the ground was a streaked white across which the Bend-Klamath Road straggled, taking brief respite from the forest. In truth, the first inch of snow in the desert country makes the land resemble nothing so much as a molting hen minus all but tail feathers.

As darkness closed down and Christmas Eve came, the snow drifted heavier and the kitchen lamp of the solitary crossroads store cast a mellow gleam through the window and upon the ground. Old man Budd, having attended to his night meal, stood on the front porch and watched the air grow dizzy with flakes—quite strange and quite beautiful to this lonesome storekeeper. He struck a match to his pipe and wrapped the Mackinaw tighter about him. The lamplight managed to push its rays through the white flurry and faintly illumine the snow-encrusted branches of the dwarf pines. They looked ever so much like Christmas trees, and Budd, drawing sharply on the pipe, was aware of an old, old memory that would not be brushed aside. It was the sweet and mellow thought of his far-away boyhood home in a Pennsylvania village. On just such an eve as this they would be sleigh riding, and the windows of the neighboring houses would be warm with light and silhouetted with tinseled and glittering trees—pleasant, cheery houses. And he would fall asleep with the utter relaxation of youth in his own feather bed, to wake on Christmas morn with the church bells sounding across the frosty air. He had never cared much for those bells as a boy. Middle age, somehow, made their chimes infinitely peaceful, infinitely poignant.

He drew at the pipe with harsher strength. All day he had been plagued with depression, and now the night with its weird shadows and white silence caused him to move aimlessly up and down the porch. Emotion did not easily break through his strong, inscrutable face, so he stared at the drifting snow, at the dark outline of the pines, while the church bells of far-off Pennsylvania haunted his brain.

"Christmas evenin'," he murmured. "Just like another night, only there's a difference. Somethin' wrong with you, old-timer. Too much of your own company, I guess."

A flurry of snow obscured the pines entirely. Budd had the impression that someone was coming toward him from the Bend-Klamath Road. The impression was verified when horse and rider bulked through the white storm and approached the edge of the porch. Budd moved back. The rider slid from his saddle and under the roofs protection, beating the flakes from his coat and stamping heavy boots against the floor boards. It was entirely too dark to make out features, but the storekeeper, who knew every homesteader and cow hand for fifty miles around, welcomed this unknown visitor gladly. Here was companionship for Christmas Eve.

"Bad time to be out," he said. "Lead your horse in back to the barn an' I'll throw up a little snack meanwhile. Who is it? My eyes ain't so good as they was once." He stared through the velvet shadows.

The newcomer leaned against one of the two-by-fours which supported the porch roof. For a moment he said nothing at all. Then a grunt of amusement, which was half a whine and half an essay at contempt, issued from him. "Never could see very well. Dunno your own son, I reckon. Bad egg rolled back to smell up the place for a bit."

Budd's head jerked up. "Dan?" he challenged.

"The same. An' I'm in a powerful hurry. Got somethin' to eat?"

The answer came as an explosion of temper. "Nothin' fer you, my lad! You wore out your welcome long ago! I told you to git away an' stay! You're no son of mine. Git off this porch!" He finished the declaration with a bellow, striding forward with a forbidding arm. The younger man was but a dwarf in front of the storekeeper's massive bulk and seemed even smaller when he huddled back against the two-by-four.

"Aw, cut it out," he growled, and again a whine tinged his words. "I didn't come because I wanted. They're after me, an' I ain't had a bite of grub since mornin'. Gimme that an' I'll leave right off."

"In trouble again, huh? Like a yellow dog you run for cover with your tail atween your legs. Well, I've given you my last boost. Ain't goin' to fish you out of any more scrapes. You made your bed. Now you sleep in it!"

"It wasn't my fault this time," protested his son. "The gang did it an' framed me! Honest...I'm clean. They framed me, I tell you. Sheriffs on the way here, too! Lemme have a bite of something and a cup of hot coffee! Fer heaven's sake, don't let a man freeze out here!"

Budd dropped his arm. Here was his wayward son come back to bring him sorrow on Christmas Eve. The boy had left five years before, choosing wilder company in spite of all that Budd might do to dissuade him. And so, after many bitter quarrels and much forgiveness, he had disowned him, had closed the last sober, belated chapter of what had once been—twenty-five years back—bright romance. No one ever mentioned Budd's son in his presence.

The younger man shifted, whimpering. "Aw, lemme in. It wasn't my fault. And I ain't askin' for protection. Just gimme something to eat, and I'll beat it." The apparent hopelessness of his request turned him to childish rage. "Who wants your protection, anyhow!" he shouted. "I don't! Don't want a thing you can give me! It's your fault. Maybe if you'd handled me like a white man when I was a kid, I'd been decent!"

All of a sudden those church bells began to ring again in the storekeeper's ear. Maybe the kid was right. Maybe it was partly his fault. It takes a mother to bring up children, and the kid had never had a mother but had grown piecemeal in the pines and on the desert while he, Budd, strove to make a living from the harsh land. This was Christmas. What was Christmas for but the giving of gifts? Not just packages wrapped in white tissue paper but other things. So the storekeeper, who knew his son to be worthless yet wished to believe there was in him a redeeming spark, moved aside.

"All right, Danny," he said in a gentler tone. "Go in."

The younger man brushed by, teeth chattering, and ran to the stove. "Shut the door!" he ordered sharply. "Don't be a fool! Sheriff might be lookin' from the road right now!"

Budd did as requested and walked into the kitchen. When his son turned around and faced the lamplight, the store-keeper was startled by the change he saw. Once there had been a certain youthfulness on Danny's face, a certain handsomeness to hide the petulant mouth and the greedy eyes. It was no longer present. An unwholesome wisdom was imprinted on the face now, broken by lines of reckless living. The mouth which formerly had curved in a too-frequent pout was set in a perpetual sneer. If he knew anything, the storekeeper told himself, he knew that his son was wholly bad. It took but a glance at the prematurely hardened face—Dan was twenty-five and looked ten years older—to reveal that.

And yet this was Christmas! Here was his prodigal son. For good or bad, he had come back. Budd's lonesome heart was eased at the thought. He went to the cupboard and took from there bits of food he had recently put away.

"What's wrong now?" he asked.

"Aw, it wouldn't be any use to tell," replied Danny. He saw that his trick had worked and, like some mongrel cur, grew bold and sullen. "Don't worry about it. Just pass out the grub."

A dish slammed on the table, followed by Budd's angry fist. "You snippet! Don't give me any of your tongue! I'm askin' you once more! What happened?"

Dan slid into a chair and attacked the victuals. Either from fear or hunger he would not raise his head, but between wolfish gulps he told his story. "Was playin' pool in Bend with Mike Reilly an' Toots' Billmire..."

"Eghh! Herdin' with cow thieves now, huh?"

"Who can prove they're cow thieves?" cried Dan passionately. It seemed to touch a very raw spot, and he dared face his father. But the crafty eyes were not accustomed to so direct a meeting, and slid quickly away. "Anyhow we was playin' when Mike got in a fight with the house man, kicked the lights out, and pulled his gun. Mike was some drunk, I guess. There was a great ruckus. Then somebody donged me on the head and down I went. When the lights come on, there was the house man on the floor...dead. Mike did it, I swear. But the double crosser had clipped me in the dark and transferred guns. I saw it in a minute. The sheriff come on the run. Mike an' Toots starts for the rear. What was I to do, hold the sack? Not on your life! I couldn't explain those two empty shells. I dusted. Sheriff saw which way we went an' he knows where we'll be headin' for, I reckon."

Budd's eyes never left the furtive, pinched face. Every word he seemed to weigh, listening for that ring of truth which, though often very faint, accompanies the sincere at heart. He could not hear it and, after a dismal silence, shook his head.

"Dan, you're lyin' to me."

"I ain't!" yelled the son, white with rage. He kicked back the chair and stood up. "I tell you they framed me! Oh, I know I ain't no saint! It don't make no difference what I say, I guess. You never believed me, and nobody else ever has. I'll clear out now. You can go jump in the creek for all I care. Sweet father you've been!"

Budd was shaken mightily. This was a greater bitterness than he had ever heard in a man. Almost unreasoning. Perhaps he had misjudged. Perhaps he had been harsh. If there had only been a mother to care for his boy. Anyhow, this was Christmas, and those sweet, far-off bells mellowed his thoughts. He wanted to believe that Danny spoke the truth for once. He wanted to believe it more whole-heartedly than he had ever wanted to believe anything. A tenderness, strange and unfamiliar emotion, clutched his heart.

"All right, Dan, I ain't goin' to argue. I'll believe it. Now where you aim to go? This is a powerful bad night."

A greedy flash illumined the furtive eyes. "Across the line, I reckon. 'Tain't so far. But I'll need some money. Flat busted."

Budd was slouched over, his double chin rolling against the folds of the Mackinaw.

"If you only had a mother," he murmured, "things might have been different."

"Aw, cut that out!" rasped out Dan. "No more slush. I've heard it too many times."

"All right, Dan. Don't aim to quarrel. This is Christmas night."

"Christmas? Well, what about it? Just like any other night, 'cept it's a rotten cold desert to cross."

"Why, no," answered Budd, "that ain't all. It's a night they give things. Sort of a time to wipe out debts and mend the holes in the roof, you might say. Time to undo bad things, an'..."

It was more than the younger man could endure, and his rat-like temper broke into a shrill squall. "Will you cut that crap? I ain't gonna stand it!" But he checked the rest of his turbulent objection; in his father's sober, lonesome face was the opportunity for which he had been waiting. "Gimme some money now, an'..."

The snow, seen through the window, came down in a solid mass, a wind rattled the panes, and the sun-warped boards slatted boisterously. Beyond and above these sounds was another that swung Dan around like a cornered animal, arm raised instinctively to the front door. There was a voice, then another, subdued, followed by the scrape of feet on the porch.

"Sheriff," whispered Dan in a gust of fear. "I'll slide out the back. Put 'em off while I get clear."

A moment later he had disappeared while a heavy fist pounded at the front door. Budd passed a hand across his face as if waking from a stupor. For a few moments this fateful evening the load of care had left him, or at least he had forgotten it. Now it was back, bringing greater weight, greater depression. He fumbled with his pipe and walked toward the door. He hadn't reached it when Cal Emmons and a deputy broke through, strode past the littered counter, and shook the snow from their garments. The sheriff stopped on the kitchen threshold and shot a glance about the room. Budd waited gravely.

"It's a hard night," offered the sheriff, seeming embarrassed.

"That's right, Cal."

The sheriff thrust his finger toward the table where the empty dishes stood as witness to a recent diner. "You eat late, Dave."

Budd crossed his hands behind him and stared at the flaring stove grate. It seemed to him those mellow church bells chimed louder, more persistently. The sheriff turned to his deputy and muttered something in a low voice then began anew, obviously struggling after the appropriate words. He had been old man Budd's friend through twenty years, and the present mission held as much sorrow for him as for the storekeeper.

"That horse out in front...it ought to be stabled, Dave," he essayed. "Oh, by golly, there ain't no use in beatin' about the bush! Reckon you know what I'm after. It's an awful thing he did, Dave, an' I can't overlook it. You understand that, don't you?" Receiving no answer, he stumbled on. "But mebbe he's scooted already. Now, Dave, you speak up an' tell me. Is your son hidin' here, or ain't he? If he's gone, we'll not waste any more time. If he's here, why...why I reckon we'll have to ask you to give him up, old-timer."

Budd drew at the cold pipe, tamping down the ashes with a finger that trembled slightly. "You ain't expectin' me to lie, Cal, so I guess mebbe I can't. Dan was here a mite ago. He went out the back way."

Emmons and his deputy strode toward the rear door while Budd watched, the pipe dipping between his clenched teeth, and a blaze of unexpected light shining from beneath his heavy brows. The sheriff reached the door first and put a hand to the knob. Simultaneously a draft of air struck them in the back and Dan's petulant voice issued warning. "Stay right there, gents. Claw air, pronto. Don't aim to fool with you people at all."

The officers swung around. Dan came through the front door, plucked their guns from the holsters, and tossed them behind a far counter.

"You two boobs sailed in here like you thought I was easy to take. Like I wouldn't make a fight. Don't you think it! When you take me, you'll know it." He appeared to be lashing himself into a rage. "Stand over in that corner. Now, Paw, I got to have some grub. That's why I come back. An' some money."

"Take what grub you want from the shelves," answered Budd. "There's a gunny sack on the counter. You'll find a little change in that tin box below the tobacco case." The storekeeper hardly moved a muscle of his face.

Dan worked swiftly.

"You're makin' a big mistake," warned the sheriff. "Better give in peaceable, Dan. I know your dad...else I wouldn't have walked in here so free an' easy. Better give up an' take what's comin'. We'll hunt you down if you don't."

He got no answer save a scornful laugh. The younger man was busy with the tin box.

"Leave a little of that money," said Budd. "Just take what you need." But this, too, invoked a malicious chuckle.

A moment later the fugitive was at the front door, gunny sack on his shoulder. "Don't you birds be in too much of a hurry," he advised. "As long as I'm in the clearin', you'll make good targets. I don't aim to be taken." The gust of wind struck them again, the door slammed, and he was gone.

Emmons stepped to the stove. The deputy rushed to the rear door. "I'll cut around the side of the house," he whispered.

The sheriff was surprisingly calm. "No. Never mind, Buck. He'll be gone, and there's a hundred places in the trees he could hide. It's pitch dark...and snowin' like blazes. The mornin's soon enough to follow. He won't get far." He looked toward Budd and clucked his tongue in sympathy. There was something so bitterly sorrowful on his friend's face. The storekeeper raised his head.

"It wasn't a trick, Cal," he protested. "I didn't know he was comin' back. Didn't think he'd have the nerve. But you couldn't expect me to take sides with you when he did come in. You couldn't expect that, could you, Cal? I'm his paw, and I could have walked up and took that gun right from him. But you wouldn't expect that...would you?"

"That's all right, Dave. I know how it is. Never mind that."

"I'm his paw. I couldn't do that," muttered Budd. His eyes caught sight of the tin box. He walked to it and stared. A shadow passed over his face, and he turned the receptacle open side down. There was nothing left.

"I told him to leave a little. And he didn't." A long minute later when he had moved back to the stove, he added slowly: "I don't begrudge it. The poor little fellow just ain't got the sand in him. But he didn't kill that fellow in the pool room, Cal. He said he didn't, an' I believed him."

"That's mebbe what he told you," replied the sheriff. "It wasn't in no pool room. He an' Toots Billmire an' Mike Reilly held up a homesteader who was supposed to have a little money, twenty miles north of Bend. Homesteader put up a scrap, and Dan shot him, cold blooded. They got his money and pulled stakes. The poor devil lasted long enough to tell a passing neighbor. Cold blooded, Dave. I'm sorry, but it was that."

Budd's head came up, and the mildness forsook his face. "Then he lied? There was no fight in the pool room?"

"Dave, it was like I told you. Toots and Mike went south on the Prineville Road. I got a couple men scoutin' that a-way. I figger Dan'll join 'em tonight or tomorrow."

Still the storekeeper was unbelieving. He had placed a last faith in the boy, and he could not see it so abruptly shattered. He turned to question the deputy, but he saw no different story in that officer's face, and a shudder of distaste moved his big shoulders.

"Murder, was it? Out-an'-out murder. 'Thout givin' a man a chance to help himself? Oh, Cal!" And the storekeeper was utterly stricken, utterly ruined of spirit. A pinched, bleak look settled in his mouth; a misery inhabited his eyes. "A plain murderer!"

"'Twa'n't your fault, Dave," protested the sheriff. But his friend would not be comforted.

"He is my son," he muttered. "My son. An' he did that." The sheriff got up. "Well, we'll stay here overnight. Got some blankets extra, Dave? We'll flop by the stove."

"Take my bed."

"Oh, no. That'd put you out. Just give us a blanket an' we'll do fine."

"Take it," persisted Budd. "You think I could sleep, Cal? Reckon I won't move from that chair tonight."

So the two officers turned in while the storekeeper stoked the stove, extinguished the light, and settled in his chair. The rising wind howled about the corners of the house. Through the window could be seen the relentless, diagonal sweep of the snow, increasing in fury each hour. It was very bleak, very cold out there, and the warm rays of the fire rendered it all the more uncomfortable to look upon. But such a storm, with blasts that were equally devastating, shook old man Budd's mind, drained the ruddy blood from his face, and left it very, very tired. From time to time his paw-like hands clutched the chair. Again he would lean forward, and the glare of the flames revealed lines that were savage, unrelenting. Once, during such a movement, he muttered: "I'll have to do it, so help me God." And thereafter he seemed to find a rest of spirit.


WHEN morning came, the sheriff and deputy found breakfast before them, with Budd wrapped in his Mackinaw and smoking imperturbably.

"Two foot of snow on the ground," he announced. "But we can travel just the same."

The sheriff protested immediately. "Now don't be foolish, Dave. We'll do this alone. I promise we won't shoot him down. We'll bring him back."

"Aim to go," answered Budd. There was no more argument. They saddled and set off down the Bend-Klamath Road, toward the California line. There were, of course, no tracks left in the snow, but Emmons seemed quite sure of his way and pressed on. "Dan ain't goin' to turn back," he said. "He'll meet up with the others and scoot over the desert. Wouldn't be surprised if they'd holed up in some cabin overnight."

So they traveled for two hours or more, breaking a trail in the crusted snow. The sun came out but brought no warmth. Dead silence pervaded the cold, crisp air. The earth seemed wrapped in peace; the men, when they spoke at all, hushed their words, conscious of the bell-like echo which floated in crystal clarity down the ribbon of road and rebounded from the pines. There was no place along the first part of the route, any lesser way or by-path, no break in the trees. But, around mid-morning, the glittering highway suddenly thrust two branches from its main course into a startled forest. The sheriff halted here to arrange his tactics.

"Main way is shortest to the border," he said. "If a man traveled alone, that'd be his path. But Toots an' Mike went by the Prineville Road an', if Dan aimed to meet them, he'd switch to the left here. Guess we'd better split. You go straight ahead, Buck. I'll take the left road. Dave, you do like you want."

"Take the right," said Budd. "If I find him...I ain't likely to shield him."

They split. Budd pursued the narrow, tortuous trail that was hardly wide enough to accommodate a wagon as it ran away from the central highway, lost vigor, and curved back again like a truant finally become afraid of its freedom. Budd went steadily for better than half an hour and at a fault in the trees struck to the left, leaving the road.

He seemed to have some plan or some knowledge which had been withheld from the officers for, when a few moments later he came to the main way, he was cautious enough to stop and sweep the vista with his shrewd eyes. The snow told of the deputy's already having passed by, and Budd urged his animal across the road and into the forest again, still maintaining his direction due east. This would bring him, in time, to the left fork of the Bend-Klamath Road and within shouting distance of Cal Emmons.

The pines grew smaller here, and the underbrush became very scanty. Budd picked his route without hesitation. He seemed on familiar ground.

Finally he stopped and dismounted, going on with remarkable celerity of movement for one possessed of so much avoirdupois. Within a hundred yards the pines gave way to a natural clearing fifty feet in circumference in the center of which huddled a small shanty. From and to the door of this place ran the fresh trail of men and horses. The forehoofs of one such horse was even then visible from a rear corner of the place.

Budd leaned against a sapling and drew his revolver. There had been a sort of rugged determination on his face all during the ride. It was, at this moment, even stronger, although he held the pistol in his hand for a long interval, staring at the dull metal very somberly. This was Christmas morn, the day on which men gave and received holiday greetings and presents—were happy. And he, Dave Budd, held a revolver in his hand and hunted his son.

A certain intuition had brought him to this cabin in the woods. Many years before he and his son had stopped overnight here on one of their camping trips. It had become a regular resting spot, and he knew that, if Dan had sought refuge in the storm, this would be the place. The footprints indicated more than one man, and it behooved the storekeeper to be watchful. He stepped forward, gun advanced, regarding the door.

He had gone ten feet when a shot broke the silence of the jack pines, coming from nearby on his right. The deputy, then, had met one of the desperadoes. A shout of pain followed at a close interval, and Budd stepped quickly forward. But, if he aimed at surprise, he was to be disappointed. The noise had been a warning. The door of the shanty popped open, and Dan ran out, struggling into his Mackinaw. He was followed by a red-jowled fellow Budd knew as Mike Reilly. They saw him instantly. Dan, trapped by his half-donned Mackinaw, backed against the wall of the place and poured out a wealth of curses. Reilly put his arms behind him.

"Stay fast, both of you," ordered Budd. A gust of anger set his words on harsh edge, and then the pent-up feeling of the long night's vigil spilled over, like water rushing from a dam's floodgates, like lava erupting from a crater. "You dog!" he cried, leveling the gun at his son. "Thought you'd get away, eh? Kill a man in cold blood and then use me fer shelter! Bearin' my name an' actin' like a rattlesnake! You're no son of mine, an' I'll not have you runnin' loose to bring sorrow on me! Stand up, you cussed murderer, an' take what I'm goin' to give you!"

He leveled the gun directly at his son's breast.

So this was the result of the bitter night's travail of spirit. Old man Budd had meant to do the world's justice by his own hand—to show people that the skulking cur who bore his name held no bonds of affection from him. The pistol's muzzle slid toward the earth, following the young man who collapsed, inch by inch, from sheer terror. And at last the gun was aimed at the base of the shanty. Budd's face turned the color of dead ashes as he watched his son grovel and gibber for mercy, issuing words that could not, for charity's sake, be repeated. The words were so panic stricken that they carried no meaning, nothing but abject fear. The storekeeper's mouth quivered in disgust. Many years had he endured, but this last spectacle was the sharpest, most cruel experience of all his life.

"Get up!" he bellowed, breathing fast. "Get up, you yaller cur! Ain't there a mite of spunk in you? Get up, I say!"

Reilly had backed a little aside and was now on the storekeeper's left, nearly out of vision's range. Budd had no eyes for him, being bent on infusing a little of his own dogged fatalism into the corrupt clay that was his son. Dan crawled to his knees and thence upright, a sense of shame at last giving him ballast to face his father's wrath. The gun's muzzle came up. Budd's trigger finger crooked, drew back the hammer. Then, quite slowly, quite impotently the hammer slid back, and the gun wavered. Strength seemed to leave the big arm. It dropped.

He could not do this thing! Murder was murder, and he had meant that Danny Budd should fully expiate so terrible, so unmanly a crime. But at that last moment when the front sight of the gun stood against the white flesh of Dan's forehead in startling clearness, and Budd's eye met it evenly through the rear sight notch, the weakness of the blood was too great. It seemed to him that the crisp air was filled with the sweet resonance of church bells.

Was there a chance to save the soul of Dan? Even yet a chance? Something choked him, and a film covered his eyes.

"I can't do it!" he muttered. "I jest can't do it!"

Dan's cry ran across the clearing, and Budd jerked up his head in time to see Mike Reilly's hand streak for a gun. He had paid no attention to Mike. Now he swung a bit and waited a full breath. There was a double explosion which seemed to break the clear air into a million bits and send a great fury to the sky. His shoulder was punched back, the gun slid from his fingers, and he found himself sagging to the cold snow. Mike Reilly had strangely disappeared and, when he looked closer, he saw the man had fallen face downward.

Dan scurried up and stooped over his father. There was, in his ratty face, a most curious look, an expression that might come to one who had seen and felt an unusual thing and labored mightily to understand it. Mechanically he kicked the pistol behind his father's reach. "Well," he grunted, almost dispassionately, "I never thought you was a gunfighter. Got him plumb center through the heart. Guess it was an accident. But you was goin' to kill me, wasn't you? And changed your mind. What for?"

Budd supported himself on one hand. "Go on," he said thickly. "Get away. I can't stop you, nor wouldn't. Go on now. Some day, mebbe, you'll have spunk to be a man...jest fer a minute or so before you die...a whole, grown man just fer a minute. Git out now."

There was a sound of a body crashing through the brush on the right. It might be the deputy or Toots Billmire. On the left, too, was a sound, fainter but coming up hurriedly. Dan moved uneasily, seeming unable to shake off the lethargy.

"It's mighty funny," he said. "Sure is funny."

"Get out!" roared Budd, and turned away. He no longer wished to see his son. After he had struggled to his feet, Dan had gone. The shanty door stood open, and the horse still was tethered behind. Tracks led across the fresh snow and disappeared in the pines. Budd groped for the pistol and got it just as the deputy ran into the clearing, with a smear of crimson running down one side of his face and a pistol swinging loosely in one hand.

"Where'd they go?" he shouted. "I got Billmire! Where's the others?"

Budd nodded to the east, and the deputy turned off. He hadn't reached the fringe of the pines before another blast of gunfire was flung in his face. Two shots that stung the eardrums, disturbing the balance of the forest, singing sharply for an interval in echo then dying to a sinister silence. Budd charged after the deputy, regardless of wounded shoulder, regardless of whipping branches and shrubs that plucked at his legs. Fifty yards brought him to the left-hand road, and here he saw Dan crumpled in a heap with the sheriff bending over him. Budd ran on and, pushing the sheriff back, knelt beside Dan and raised him up with the one good arm. And there came from him at that moment the oldest, saddest cry in the human tongue.

"My son...Dan...sonny!"

Dan snuffled like a broken-spirited child and opened his eyes. A rack and a rumble welled in his throat, significant of the advancing tide of death. But the same surprised expression he had carried from his father was still on his face and a brief, weak phrase explained it. "Why, it ain't a bit hard to die, is it?"

"I guess not, son," muttered Budd. "I guess it ain't...fer a man."

"I'm a man," whispered Dan. "It's funny what come over me when Mike winged you. It's funny...I dunno...but I faced the sheriff fair an' square...dunno what made me do that...you ask him...Dad..." And with that last inarticulate, futile cry, he died.

The sheriff bent down. "That's so, Dave. He come bustin' through the pines just as I ran up the road. He saw me and figgered he was cornered. I called fer him to give in, but he said he guessed not. Queer, too, the way he said it, straightenin' and facin' me like he aimed to make a good target. He sort of drew a hand across his face like he was dizzy. Then he says: 'I'll count three an' draw.' Danged if he didn't. I beat him to it."

Budd's face turned to stone. "He fought fair, then? He stood an' faced it?"

"He sure did, Dave. Like I told you. Never flinched."

"Thank heaven," said Budd very softly, and laid an arm affectionately across the boy's grimed forehead. A single tragic tear sparkled in his eye and fell. Peace had come to Danny Budd, and he had given his father, in departing, the greatest of gifts. He had died in a man's way. The erratic heart might never have had the same fair impulse again, but some inexplicable emotion carried him to the high limit of his courage, and at that moment fate had chosen to fashion a crisis. And Danny Budd had faced it like a man.

"Thank heaven," said Budd. It seemed to him that the bells were filling the air with a resonant beauty, a swelling glory. There was a great sorrow in those sweet chimes, but greater than sorrow was the promise of enduring peace.


THE END