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Non sibi sed omnibus
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ON an October night, Sue Markham saw him first. October nights in the mountains are not the October nights of the plains. In the lowlands the air is crisp, but the frost is not yet in it; in the mountains winter has already come, and on this night the cold was given teeth by a howling wind.
She preferred these windy, biting nights. For, when the trains reached that little station of Derby and paused to put on the extra engine that would tug them up the long grade and over the shoulder of Derby Mountain, the crews darted in for a piece of pie and a cup of hot coffee. For five minutes, she would be kept busy serving like lightning, and the cash drawer was constantly banging open and shut. Sometimes a passenger hurried in to swallow a morsel of food, listening with a haunted look in his eyes for the cry of "All aboard!" She had glimpses of ladies and gentlemen, in this way. She saw their fine clothes, their train-weary faces. And, usually, they left tips.
At first she used to return those tips to them. But she found that it was hard to make them take the money back. So, after a time, she merely swallowed her pride and kept the tips for old Pete Allison, who had lost his right arm in the sawmill and spent his days, since that time, waiting for death and hating the world—hating even the girl and the charity from her that he was forced to accept.
She made a scant living in this way. For three years, since the death of her father, she had kept on with the little lunch counter. It was the only cheerful spot near the station and therefore it was patronized heavily by the train population. She knew, too, that they came into the lunch counter, those oily, greasy, blackened firemen and brakies and engineers, more for the sake of her pretty face than for the sake of the food. So she had learned to smile, as vaudeville actors and actresses learn to smile. Except that she had to put more meaning into those smiles, for an audience of half a dozen is more critical than an audience of half a thousand or more.
At odd moments, when there was nothing else to do, they used to propose to her. It was always interesting, although never important. And they had various ways of going about it.
"I got a raise on the first. Suppose we get hooked up, Sue?"
"Single harness is dog-gone' lonesome, Sue. Let's try to make the grade together."
"You got to marry somebody, Sue. Why not me?"
"Sue, old dear, you're made to order for an engineer's wife."
Almost always there was a note of banter in these proposals, and their eyes remained humorous, no matter how serious their voices might be. She learned that this was because they expected to be refused, and she found out that they compared notes afterward and told one another how she had declined them. It came to be a regular thing. Every youngster who came on the division was expected to lose his heart to Sue and ask for her hand. And afterward he had to tell what had happened. It was a sort of initiation ceremony. She took it as much for granted as they did, of course. But she could never keep from blushing and smiling at them and she usually told them that she intended to be an old maid.
They took these rejections easily enough, and went back into the night to their work, or else they sat down around the stove at the end of the room and let their wet clothes steam out, perhaps. Her life consisted of nothing but men. There was not another woman in Derby. There was not even a girl child. On that side of the mountain she and she alone represented femininity.
On this October evening, a southwester that had been blowing strong but warm all day pulled around into the north and instantly there was ice in the air. She had to send old Pete Allison out for more wood and fill the stove and open the draft until great, ominous red places appeared on the top and along the sides of the stove. Even so, prying drafts continually slid into the room and stabbed one with invisible daggers of ice. The lunch counter, of course, was busier than ever. She burned her fingers with the overflow from coffee cups. Her stock of pie—baked in her own oven in dull times of the day or even at night—was nine-tenths consumed.
Then he came into the place.
There was an arresting air about him. He came in entirely surrounded by a group of four brakies, but she found herself craning her neck at him. He was a big young man, dressed in a lumberman's Mackinaw of a brilliant plaid, but all the looseness of that comfortable garment was plumped out by the swelling muscles of his shoulders.
He took off his hat to her as he went by. The lower part of his face was covered with the stiff, upturned collar of his Mackinaw, but she could see that he was a handsome youngster in his early twenties, with a rather pale face and a pair of bright black eyes. Also, although he greeted her so pleasantly, she knew that she had never seen him before. No matter how thronged the counter might have been, she never could have seen that face before and forgotten it.
He did not pause at the counter, but he went straight back toward the stove and there sat down on an overturned box in a corner so dark that she could not make him out any more, except as a shadow among the shadows.
After a time the others went out. The train was pulling away up the grade. Its stertorous coughing became less thunderous in the distance; the floor ceased to tremble with the vibrations from the ponderous driving wheels. The trucks of the coaches rolled slowly, heavily past the station with a more and more rapid cadence in their rattling.
There was not a soul remaining except Pete Allison and the stranger.
Something like fear came into the girl. She was amazed at herself. Surely there was not a man in all the world she needed to fear. In the pocket of her dress there was a little police whistle that one of the firemen had given her; one blast on that whistle would bring them up to her. Twice she had had to use it; once when a new brakie full of tequila came into the place, and once when a vicious tramp troubled her. And, on each occasion, there had been a rush like a cavalry charge that had ended with her fighting to save the lives of the offenders.
Certainly here was protection enough to have satisfied the most timid of women, but still there was an uneasy feeling in her heart, a sort of tremulous lightness. It bewildered her. As she worked among the dishes, washing them in haste, she found her glances drawn sidelong toward the stranger again and again. He had not moved from his place, except to lean back a little more heavily against the wall. His head had fallen on his breast—perhaps he was sleeping?
She paused with a cup half dried. There had been no rain, and yet she had heard most distinctly the dripping of something on the floor of the room. She listened again, intently. There was no doubt about it—a drop, and then another.
She turned sharply toward the stove, bewildered, in time to see something drop glistening in a dim streak from the hand of the stranger, where it had fallen across his knee.
A little chill of horror crept through the flesh of the girl—and again she could not tell why. She took the lamp from above the counter and carried it to the counter table. The broad, dull circle of its light now covered the lower part of the man's body, his feet and the floor on which they rested, and on the wood there was a little gleaming spot, of a dark color. Of a dark color, but surely not red! Surely not red!
She flashed a glance in terror toward the door. Then she assured herself with a great effort that there was no danger, and she raised the lamp. It showed her the stranger slumped far down on the box, his head deeply inclined, the very picture of a weary man asleep, but at that moment the drop of liquid hung again at the tip of his fingers and dropped once more, a gleaming streak of red, toward the little dark spot beside his foot.
It was blood—was the stranger dead? All the gleaming life in those black eyes—was it gone forever? She put down the lamp and ran hastily toward him. She caught him beneath the chin and rolled back his head. It turned loosely—a horrible looseness. It lay back against the wall, but now the eyes opened and looked stupidly up to her. Surprise showed in them, then alarm. He lurched to his feet and scowled down at her.
"Well," he asked sharply, "what'll you have?"
"Man, man!" cried Sue Markham. "Where are you hurt? You're bleedin' to death!"
He jerked up his left hand at that and exposed the palm covered with a great black clot, while a tiny rivulet ran down on the inner side of his arm.
"The bandage slipped a little, I guess," he said. "That's all..." He attempted to make a step, and stumbled.
"Sit down!" cried Sue.
"I can't stop," he muttered.
She pointed at him in horror. "Do you see? Do you see? You're all soaked through with blood."
"Stand away, girl. I got to get on."
"You'll be a dead man in an hour if I let you go! Sit down here... let me look at that arm."
She caught at him and he strove to push her away. To her astonishment, she found she could master that great hulk of manhood. He was helpless before her, shaking his head, muttering savagely. She thrust him into a chair.
"I'll rest for a little spell longer," he declared, trying to cover up his weakness by scowling at her.
She waved his words away and quickly drew off his coat. The mischief was plainly in view then. A long gash crossed the inside of his left arm, and from the cut the blood was flowing through a crudely made bandage that had been twisted from place.
"What under heaven made that cut?" she cried softly to him. "No knife..." For it was a broad, rough-edged slash.
"A bullet," said the big man finally. "Will you let me get on now?"
"A bullet!" cried Sue Markham. "Who?"
The other leaned weakly back in his chair. "The sheriff," he said. "And there he's comin'!" He jerked his thumb with a feeble gesture over his shoulder, and in fact, through a lull of the wind, she heard the beating of hoofs down the mountainside, sweeping through the little town of Derby.
"Where'll I hide you?"
"Leave me be. This ain't no business for a girl."
"Here behind the counter... they'll never look..."
"I'll see 'em in hell before I sneak behind a girl's petticoats to hide from 'em. You," he added, with a sudden and hysterical return of strength, "what's your name?"
"Sue," he said, "you're as game as there is in the world. But this room ain't gonna be a place where a woman will want to be. Run along outdoors... or upstairs..."
"What'll you do?"
"Set here, easy. Now, run along."
He caught her arm and turned her around. His hand for the moment was iron, irresistible, but in the same instant the strength faded out of it and his arm dropped helplessly to his knees. His whole great body began to sag. But still he tried to keep his head up, and his jaw was set. He apologized, mumbling over the words. "I figgered on goin' straight on. But I was fagged. I only meant to set here a moment. Didn't think that I'd need to rest more'n a minute. Then... I got dizzy..."
"What do they want you for?"
"Something that ain't pretty. Run along, Sue Markham. Leave me be, here."
"You're going to try to fight them when they come. Why, you aren't strong enough to draw out a gun."
"I'll manage myself."
"What do they want you for? Is it serious? Will you tell me? Will you stop staring and tell me?"
His eyes rolled wildly up to her, and something like a hideous smile parted his lips. "Murder," he said huskily.
She had caught him by the shoulders, feeling him go limp beneath her touch. Now she stared down into his black eyes, deep and deep, trying to read the truth about his soul, but finding herself baffled.
"It was a fair fight," she insisted, trembling. "You killed someone in a fair fight."
He shook his head. "Stabbed," he said. "Behind."
A wave of actual physical sickness swept over her. "You mean stabbed in the back?"
"You didn't do it, then."
"Tell the sheriff that," he said, and he smiled again up to her. Even as he sat there on the verge of collapse, that smile gave a touch of something ominous, something alert to his presence. There was a sort of self-sufficient mockery of the world in it.
"I must get you out of the room," she said hurriedly.
He was so near collapse that he talked like a drunkard, with thick, stumbling lips.
"Murder. Y'understand? Murder. Want me for murder. Stand away from me, girl."
"Get up!" she cried, for she could hear the sound of horses pouring up the street.
"Show me the door," he said. "If you won't lemme sit here alone to meet 'em... I'll go out. It ain't right you should see what's gonna happen... show me the door... there's a fog rolled into this room, Sue."
"It will clear up," she told him. "I'll show you the way to the door. Stand up."
He made a wavering effort. She hooked his arm over her shoulder and lifted with all her strength. So he was drawn from the chair. He towered above her, immense, flabby, with his head rolling idiotically on his shoulders.
"Soon as I get to the door... the fresh air'll fix me up," he was saying.
"Steady. You'll be there in a minute."
She heard him whisper: "God gimme strength... to face 'em." He gasped aloud: "The door?"
His weight slumped suddenly upon her. His head fell upon hers. She saw his great knees bend. He had fainted. And the rush of the horses filled the street just before the old saloon with thundering echoes, empty, thundering echoes.
It was like having a sack of crushing weight, but only half filled, thrown upon her. She could never have lifted this weight. Even now that it was propped against her, she went reeling beneath it, and his legs trailed out, and his feet dragged side-wise behind her.
So she got him to the counter and lowered his length behind it just as the door from the street was cast open. Had they seen her and her burden?
SHE stood up from lowering the wounded man to that shelter in time to see young Tom Kitchin, the sheriff, stride through the door with half a dozen men shouldering after him. They came stamping their feet for warmth, their heavy coats powdered with snow. But there was an eagerness in their faces that made her heart shrink. Surely they had seen. Their first words reassured her.
"The boys tell me that they seen a chap that answered his description come in here... Billy Angel... we want him, Sue."
She leaned on the counter, resting both her elbows on it. She took all her courage in her hands, so to speak, and she made herself smile back at handsome young Tom Kitchin.
"I've never met anyone called Billy Angel. Is this a joke, Tommy?"
He shook his head, too serious for jest. "A great big chap. Looks strong enough for two. Wore a heavy Mackinaw. Got a devil-take-the-next-man look to him. Couldn't mistake him once you set eyes on him. Old Pete Allison says he was here and that he ain't seen him leave."
"Did Pete say that?" said the girl, silently registering a grudge against the old man.
"He went out the back door about fifteen minutes ago."
"Back through here?"
"We're off, boys!" cried the sheriff. "We'll run the dog down in an hour."
"Wait a minute, Sheriff," said Jack Hopper, the engineer, who was the rearmost of the party. "Wait a minute. If he cut back through the back door, he's headed for the hills."
"Weather like this? You're wild, Jack," answered the sheriff. "He'll cut for cover!"
"What's weather to him? He's got something inside him that'll make him warm."
Another broke in: "You'll never get him. It's blowing up a hundred-percent storm. Let him go for a while, Sheriff. After he's run around through the snow all night, tryin' to keep his blood goin'... he'll be spent pretty bad. We'll go out and ride him down in the morning."
The sheriff, growling deep in his throat and scowling, stepped to the back door of the room and cast it open. A great white hand of snow struck in at him. The flame leaped in the throat of the lamp, and the fire roared in the stove. He closed the door with a bang and turned his head down, shaking off the snowflakes.
"You're right, Jack," he said. "He's gone for the hills. And we'd never find him in this weather. Maybe he'll freeze before morning, at that. I hope not. I want to see the hanging of that rat." He came back to the lunch counter. "Coffee all around, Sue. We're cold to the marrow."
Her heart sank. Under her feet lay the wounded man. Perhaps at this very moment he was dying! His face was a dull white, his eyes were partly opened, and showed a narrow, glassy slit. She could not repress a shudder. But there was nothing to do except to obey the order. She went about it as cheerfully as possible.
From the big percolator, the polished, gleaming pride of the counter, she drew the cups rapidly, one after another, and then held them under the hot-milk faucet until they were filled. She set them out; she produced the sugar bowls and sent them rattling down the counter, where they came to a pause at an appropriate interval before the line.
They were beginning to grow comfortable, making little pilgrimages to the stove to spread their hands before the fire, and then returning in haste. Their faces grew fiery red, and the blood rushed up to the skin. The frowns of effort began to melt from their foreheads.
She was showered with orders.
"Lemon pie, Sue."
"That custard, Sue, under that glass case."
"Some of that coconut cake, Sue. Make it a double wedge."
"When are you gonna leave off cooking for the world and center on one man, Sue?"
"I'm waiting for a silent man, Harry."
"I'm silent by nacher and education, Sue."
"We won't know till you've growed up, Harry."
"Sue, gimme a dash of that Carnation cream, will you? This here milk ain't thick enough."
"It's real cow's milk, Bud."
"The only kind of cows I like are canned, Sue. This here fresh milk, it ain't got no taste to it."
She opened a can of condensed milk and set it before Bud.
"Another slice of apple pie, Sue."
"There ain't any more." This to the engineer, Jack Hopper.
"Didn't I see some back of the counter on that shelf?"
"No, Jack! Really!"
But she spoke too late. He had already leaned far across the high counter, lifting himself on his elbows, and so his glance commanded everything that was behind it—everything including the pale, upturned face of the wounded man who was stretched along the floor.
Her hand froze on the edge of the counter. Before her eyes, the lighted lamp became a long swirl of yellow flame. When her sight cleared again, she found that Jack Hopper was standing back a little from the counter, saying slowly: "Well, Sue, I guess I'll change my mind about having another piece. Let it go." He turned his back and went to the stove, and there he stood with his hands spread out to the blaze. Why had he not cried out? Because he thought that she had some profound reason for wishing to shelter the fugitive—and because Jack Hopper loved her.
The rest gave her a sentimental kindness, but Jack was different. He was no foolish boy, but a grown and hardened man, with a man's firmness, a man's singleness of thought and purpose. For two years he had been campaigning quietly to win her. And in turn, if she did not love him, she respected him as a rock of strength and of honesty. What passed in his mind now as he turned from the counter and stood by the stove?
The sheriff followed him with some question. How calamities rain one upon the other. His foot slipped; he looked down with a cry: "Blood, by the heavens! There's blood on the floor!" Then: "How did this stuff come here, Sue?"
They turned to her, but none with eyes so piercingly intent as those of Jack Hopper. In that crisis she felt herself perfectly calm. There was a stir beside her. She saw from the corner of her eye how Billy Angel was propping himself feebly upon one elbow. He was listening, too.
"One of the brakies off of Three Seventeen was whittling wood by the stove," she said. "He cut his finger."
"Where's the shavings, then?" snapped out the sheriff, frowning at her.
She saw the flush run up the face of Jack Hopper—saw him frown in a belligerent manner at the sheriff.
"He said it would dry up and stop bleeding," Sue said. "He sat there like a fool, letting it drip on my floor until I made him stop."
"Is that it?"
"Yes. I swept up the shavings. But I hadn't time to clean up that mess."
The sheriff nodded. "I'll tell you, fellows," he said to his companions, "I figgered for a minute that maybe that bullet of mine had nicked Billy Angel. He twisted around like it might've stung him a mite. Have you heard about the murder, Sue?"
"I don't want to hear," she said. "These horror stories put my nerves on edge."
"Since when?" The sheriff chuckled. "Well, Sue, you're a queer one. You've always been hunting for all the shooting stories. This was a bad case. Young Charlie Ormond... the son of that rich Ormond... he was stabbed in the back by his cousin... this Billy Angel. A darned black case, I'd say. Angel was taken in by old Ormond and raised by him the same as Charlie."
She gaped at that recital of horror. "Are you sure he did it, Tom?"
"Wasn't he seen? Oh, there ain't any doubt of it. And he ran for it. An honest man always takes the chance of bein' arrested. This here Billy Angel, he turned and cut for it like a streak." He said to his companions: "Rustle around, boys. See if you can figger it out so's you get the best hosses around the town and have 'em ready by the mornin'. Surefooted ones are what you'll want after this snow. It's gonna be sloppy work tomorrow if the wind pulls around to the south ag'in."
They went out, calling back to her as they passed through the door, each with some foolish thing to add to what the others said. But she waved to them all with the same fixed, meaningless smile. Then she looked down at Billy Angel.
He was sitting up with his back against the wall. Even while they were calling their farewells to her, he was calmly straightening the bandage on his arm where the bleeding had ceased entirely. Now he looked up calmly at her.
"Well?" she said, feeling that her heart had turned to iron in her breast.
"You could have saved the sheriff a pile of work by pointing behind the counter."
She answered coldly: "They never do things that way in my family. If the dogs were after it... I wouldn't show even a rat to 'em."
He watched her quietly. "I understand," he said.
SHE would have given a great deal to have recalled that last speech of hers in the face of this perfect poise of the fugitive. For the steadiness with which his eyes held upon her seemed to tell her that, no matter what the sheriff had said, and no matter what the man himself confessed, he never could have been guilty of that dastardly crime of which he was accused. Moreover, there was a sense of a scornful curiosity with which he examined her, and seemed, behind those bright black eyes of his, to be weighing her. And finding her, no doubt, wanting.
Still, she could not unbend at once, and she was full of the revolt that had recently swept over her. There was iron in her voice when she said: "Can you walk?"
"I figger that I can," he said. "Anyway, I aim to try." He laid hold upon the supporting post that held up the counter, and, pulling with the one hand and thrusting himself up with the other, he managed to sway to his knees. There he paused. She could hear his panting, and his breast worked with the cost of the labor. There came to her a disgusting suspicion that he was overdoing the fatigue and acting a part for the sake of imposing upon her. She did not stir to help him. Now he strove again, and came to his feet by degrees, and stood with his big hand spread on the counter, leaning over it, breathing hard.
There was no sham here. She could see a tremor in those large hands, and that was proof enough. No acting could counterfeit the reality so perfectly. Once again there was a sudden and hot melting of the girl's heart.
"Billy Angel," she said fiercely, "did you do it? Did you really do it?"
Even in that moment of near collapse, his caustic humor did not desert him. "Are you aimin' to believe what I say?" he asked her.
"I shall believe it."
"Why, then, sure I didn't." He grinned at her again, as though part in mockery and part asking her to step inside a more intimate understanding of this affair. There was no way in which she could come close to him. Still he thrust her away to arm's length and seemed to laugh at her attempts to know him and the truth about him. Something about that grim independence made her admire him; something about it made her fear him. He seemed capable of anything, of facing one hundred men with guns in their hands—or, indeed, of stabbing one helpless man in the back by stealth. She would have paid down without an afterthought the treasures of a Croesus to have known the truth. She would have paid down that much to win from him one serious, open, frank- hearted answer.
"You didn't do it," she said. "Well, God knows, I hope you didn't. Now I got to get you upstairs where I can have a look at that wound."
He pointed up and over his shoulder. "Up to your room?"
He shook his head with a half-scornful, half-mirthful smile. "I'll be off."
"You'll freeze to death in an hour. Look at the windows."
They were clouded with thick white, quite opaque.
"Sue," he said, "I dunno but what you're an ace-high trump, but when it comes to hidin' in your room..." His smile disappeared; a wild and vacant look crossed his face, and he reeled, holding tight to the edge of the counter while his knees sagged. Only a giant effort of the will had kept him erect, she could see. She caught at him as she had done before, passing his unwounded arm over her shoulder, taking him around the triple-corded muscles of the waist with her free arm.
"Come along," she commanded, and dragged him toward the door that led to the upstairs room.
Then his bravado deserted him. "Sue," he said, "for heaven's sake, lemme go. I don't deserve the good treatment a dog..."
"I'm doin' no more for you than I would for a hurt dog."
"Lemme rest one minute more," he gasped out, "and then I can get outside..."
"I'll find... ay..." He reeled, and the weight of his body sent them both staggering.
In that moment she brought him through the door. "Now up the stairs. You've got to work for me, and with me, Billy Angel!"
"Lemme rest... one minute..."
She let him lean against the wall, his head fallen back, his wounded arm hanging limply, the other loosely over her, pressing close to him with its powerless weight. She could count the beating of his heart, feeble and fluttering, with pauses in the beats. It seemed that mere loss of blood could not so affect him. In that great bulk of muscle and bone there was only the faintest winking light of life, ready to snap out and leave all cold and dark forever. And it must be she, with an uninstructed wisdom, who should cherish that flame and keep it fluttering until it burned up strong again.
"Can you try now, Billy?"
"I'll try now."
"There's one step up." She lifted him with a fearful effort. "No, the other leg... the right leg, Billy. Steady. Now another step. Lean on me... I'm strong."
"I got to go..."
"In a little while. When you've had half an hour's sleep."
He muttered with a drunken thickness: "That's it... a mite of sleep will set me up... I'll... I'll sleep here... right on the stairs... it's good enough."
It meant all his power every moment of that nightmare of a climb—and more than all her strength when he reeled and wavered—which was at every other step. But at last he reached the head of the stairs, and she brought him safely into her room. When she brought him into it, for the first time it seemed to her a mere corner—so small it was. They reached the bed—he slipped from her shoulder, and the bed groaned under his weight. There he lay on his back with his arms cast out clumsily.
Once more there was that look of death in his face. The eyelids were slightly opened, and the glazed pupils glimmered with the suggestion of departed life. Only, as she watched him with dread in her throat, she saw a faint twitching of his lips. Then she hurried about the proper bandaging of the wound. She brought warm water and washed it. Then, with care, she closed the rough edges of the wound, still oozing blood. It was no easy task. The great, twisted muscles of the forearm were as firm and tough as the thigh of an ordinary man, but she fixed the bandage in place. She had half a bottle of rye whiskey. She brought it for him and sat on the bed, lifting his head. His head alone, limp as it was, was a burden. It seemed a miracle now that she had been able to support that tottering, wavering bulk of a man. At last the glass was at his lips, they parted, tasted the stuff, and then swallowed it down.
Almost immediately a faint flush came into his face, and then his eyes fluttered open. They looked blankly up to her. "What's wrong? What's up?" he asked, half frowning.
"Nothing," she said very softly.
"Nothing wrong? I thought... I dreamed... all right, then. I'll sleep. I got work... tomorrow..." He sighed and instantly he was sound asleep.
She watched him for a moment, and then, hearing the jingle of her store bell, she rose hurriedly. She passed the mirror, and, catching a glimpse of her face, she found that it still wore a faint smile, half-wistful, half- contented.
She was wondering at herself as she ran down the stairs. In the lunchroom she found the last man in the world she wanted to confront at that moment—Jack Hopper himself. She wanted to appear perfectly calm, perfectly cheerful, but, instead, she knew that she had turned white and that she was staring at him.
"I thought," he said stiffly, "that maybe you might need something done... for your friend."
"Friend?" she answered. "Why, Jack, I never saw the poor fellow before tonight."
The raising of his eyebrows stopped her. He quivered with a passion of disbelief and of scorn. "He looked pretty bad hurt," said Jack Hopper. "If there was anything that I could do..."
"He's gone, Jack. I only kept him here until the sheriff was gone..."
"Billy Angel is gone?" exclaimed the engineer.
"Yes. Right after the sheriff went away... and the rest of the boys."
"Did he sneak out the back way?"
"No," she said, lying desperately. "He walked right out the front door..."
He turned a dark red, and she knew, at once, that he must have been keeping a close watch upon that door and that he was certain no Billy Angel had passed that way.
"Well," said Hopper coldly, "I s'pose that there ain't much I can do then?"
"I guess not," she answered, full of wretchedness, and hating Billy Angel with all her heart for the miserable tangle in which he had involved her.
Twice Jack Hopper turned his hat in his hands; twice words came to the verge of his compressed lips. Then—"Good night!" he snapped out at her, and turned on his heel. The closing of the door behind him seemed to the girl the definite act that separated her from the rest of the law-abiding world.
SHE closed the counter for the night now, then she went up to bed. There was a second room in the story above. It was hardly a room. It was rather a mere corner with a cot in it and a bit of cracked glass for a mirror on the wall, with a tiny dormer window peering out over the roof.
There she lay down, but she had hardly closed her eyes when she heard talking in the building. She wakened and sat up, her heart thundering. It was Billy Angel, then, that they had come for. Jack Hopper, after all, had not been able to keep the terrible secret. She hastened to the door of her room in time to hear the speaking again, and this time she made it out as coming from her own chamber. It was a strange voice, raised high one moment, sinking the next, almost like two men in rapid conversation, yet she could tell that there was only one speaker. It was not Sheriff Tom Kitchin. Certainly it was not Jack Hopper, or any other man she knew. Who could it be, then?
She crouched outside the door, listening. She heard the voice rumble on:
"Take the second road and ride along half a mile... talk straight to him. Talk like you didn't fear him none. Talk like you expect to get a square deal, and most likely you'll get one. Steady! Steady! Look here, I've come talkin' business, Charlie. Will you hear me? Go to the second house. Throw a stone up through the window. It'll be open. I'll do that."
The voice died with a groan. It was Billy Angel in helpless delirium. In the silence that followed, she strove to unravel the babbling and bring sense out of it, but she strove vainly.
Suddenly the voice resumed: "Now, Charlie, here we are together, and there ain't nobody likely to step in between us."
At this, a chill of deadly apprehension ran through the blood of the girl. For was this not a rehearsal of the murder scene in which he had struck down Charles Ormond? She had a wild desire to turn and flee, a terror lest she should hear him condemn himself with his own mouth.
"A knife, old son, will do the trick as well. A knife is a handy thing. Look what a wolf can do with his teeth. Suppose that he had a tooth as long as this... made of steel... and with the strength of a man's arm behind it... why, Charlie, he'd crawl into the caves of mountain lions and rip their bellies open when they jumped at him. And the best thing is... a knife don't make a sound... only a whisper when it sinks into you and asks the soul out of you. If you..."
There was no need of anything more convincing than this. To have denied his guilt after this would have been uttermost blindness, she felt. But, in the meantime, that voice was rising every moment. Murderer though he was, he was helpless, and, moreover, she had gone too far to draw back now. She must bring back his strength to him if she could, keeping him secretly in her house.
She opened the door and went hastily in. The lamp was turned so low that only a tiny yellow new moon of flame showed and turned the room into a sea of dark, on which bulky shadows rode and stirred with the flickering of the flame. Only the mirror looked back at her with a dim, ghostly face.
On the bed Billy Angel was a black giant. He was humped against the headboard, his chin on his breast, his enormous arms thrown wide. He spoke not a word, but, while she watched him, filled with terror, she saw one great hand rise and fall, and it seemed to the girl that she was watching the knife driven home into the back of dead Charles Ormond.
She wanted to flee then. The company of a dog, even, would have been a treasure, but she must remain there and do the work that lay before her. If his voice were raised again to its last pitch, it would be strange if someone did not hear it as they passed in the street. And if a man's voice were heard in her house at this hour, every man in Derby would come to the rescue with weapon in hand.
She sat on the edge of the bed. The strength of his hurried, uneven panting made a slight tremor run continually through the room. There was no intelligence in the roving of his eyes. It was the blank, wild glare of delirium that had given him for the moment a false strength. That glare became fixed upon her now, and the head of Billy Angel thrust out toward her a little.
"Is it you, Charlie?" he asked loudly. "And are you ready?"
"It's Sue Markham," said the girl, trembling. "Billy Angel, talk soft. They'll hear you in the street!"
"You're not Charlie?"
"You lie!" snarled out Billy Angel. "I've been waitin' a tiresome time, Charlie. But I got you here now, Charlie, and I'm gonna leave you to rot here, in this cave where no man'll ever find you..."
A hand fixed on her arm with a grip like iron; she was drawn slowly inside the reach of his other hand. Billy Angel had begun to laugh like a devil incarnate.
"Now, Charlie," he said, "what you got to say? I have you here. I can break you to pieces like an orange. Where's your strength, Charlie? Have you turned yaller? Has the nerve gone out of you? You're tremblin' like a woman..."
"Billy Angel!" cried the girl. "Don't you hear me?"
"I'll hear you beg like a coward and a sneak and a cur. Will you beg like a dog for your life, Charlie? Will you beg?" His right hand fumbled at her throat. It was a hand of ice, and it brought the chill dread of death into her soul.
"Billy, Billy," she gasped out, "don't kill me!"
His hand fell away. He sank back on the bed. "I knew all the time," he said, "that you was yaller inside." His voice fell to a mumble: "But if you say you're beat... you're safe from me this time. Until one day I'll corner you, and make you..." The strength crumbled out of him. He fell sidewise on the bed and lay motionlessly.
After that, half reeling with weakness and with relief, she turned up the flame of the lamp. And then she went toward him as one might go toward a sleeping tiger. He was quite unconscious. His hands, she knew, were icy cold, but his head was fiery hot to the touch. A new fear came to her. If she called a physician, she might make sure of helping him from the fever, but would she not certainly be fitting a rope around his neck?
She sat down by the bed to watch, telling herself that only if the delirium returned would she send for the doctor. And there she watched the hours out. It was a broken sleep. Often he stirred and stared and muttered to himself. Once he sat bolt erect and stared at her with terrible eyes, but he sank back again and slept once more.
It was after midnight, well after, before he settled into a quiet slumber, the muscles of his forehead quite relaxed, and his breathing regular. Then she tried his pulse, and found it firmer and more regular. She laid her hand lightly on his face, and it was no longer of such burning heat. So she stole back to her attic room and slept out the remainder of the night.
But there was little sleep in Derby that night. Men had something to think about in the recent murder, and the northwester had settled to a howling demon that wailed and screamed with double force between midnight and morning. With the dawn it sank in force, but it was still whistling fitfully when Sue Markham awakened and looked out her window upon a dull gray sky stretched across with blacker, low- hanging clouds that threatened more snow. With what had already fallen, the hollows were already filled, although the gale had scoured all away from the highlands and the exposed places. All was stark mud, black rocks, or the crusted snow in the hollows. A miserable world to waken into, surely.
She went down to the lunchroom. It was a grisly sight to her. For some reason the squalor of the place had never struck home in her before. Cigarette butts were everywhere, some mere streaks of ashes and black charred places in the wood where the butts had been dropped by careless hands. Others had been fairly ground into the very texture of the floor by wet, heavy heels. There were new smudges on the counter where the thickly oiled jacket sleeves of the trainmen had rested. There were half-washed dishes, too.
Then there was a trip before her to the woodshed, wading through the gripping cold of the morning and through the snow, drifted knee deep behind the fence. As she came back, her arms aching with the weight of wood, she turned her head to the east and looked down to the great valley below her. There was a break in the leaden color of the sky there to the east. There was a streak of shining sun and gentle blue along that eastern horizon, and in the big valley itself was not the sun shining brightly?
No doubt to those dwellers in a better land, looking out from their cozy homes, old Derby Mountain was a pure and a grand picture on this morning, his white cape lower around his shoulders, and with a wreath of smoky clouds around his brow. How little did they know of the miseries of mountain life.
She built the fire in the stove. It sent up first a fume of smoke, until the draft cleared and began to pull on the flames. In the meantime, she jerked all the windows wide, and with the pure wind scouring through the place, she set to work sweeping and scrubbing with might and main, loathing herself for the work that she was compelled to do, hating the world for the fate that it had unjustly bestowed upon her.
Even while she worked, she wondered at herself. This humor had never come upon her before. She had gone cheerfully to the dull beginning of every day. But now, all was sad effort. She told herself, mournfully, that blue days must follow such a night as the last one had been. But that explanation was not satisfactory. Something had been added or subtracted from her existence since yesterday dawned, and she could not yet tell what it was. But was it not, perhaps, the consciousness of the rift that had come in her old friendship with Jack Hopper?
So, half dreamily, half wearily she went to the kitchen and started to cook breakfast.
BUT when the water was boiling and the coffee steaming and pouring its thin, piercing fragrance through the room, a joy came back to her. By the time that she had finished setting out the breakfast on the tray, she told herself that this was a game worth playing more than anything she had ever done before in her life.
She bore up the tray to Billy Angel and found him lying, pale and weak, on the bed, hardly able to lift his head while he watched her out of dull eyes.
"Where am I?" he asked. "This ain't the jail."
"This is my room," she told him. "And I'm gonna keep care of you till you can handle yourself."
She expected a tide of protestation to come from him. But he merely turned a dark red and said not a word. He did not even thank her for bringing the breakfast to him, but worked himself slowly up on the pillows and ate the food that was before him. She was half angered, half amused by his pride, and, with the amusement, there was mingled a sting of fear. As she watched his set and gloomy face she told herself, more than ever, that here was a man capable of anything.
She went back to the lunch counter. Already, about the stove, half a dozen laborers in the yards were gathered, blinking sleepily at her. She served their orders in silence, knowing well that men do not wish to talk in the morning when the steel edge of the curse of Adam is eating into their souls.
In the mid-morning, the wind swung sharply around to the southwest again, and in an hour the mountainside was covered with rivulets of water running down from the melting snow. By noon the report had come in that the fugitive had probably escaped. If he had been able to live through the bitterness of the night, he was now far away. For the horses were unable to make any progress through the slippery slush. The sheriff, to be sure, and three helpers were working rather blindly through the mountains, trying to pick up some sign of Billy Angel. But there was little hope of that. All that remained was that some outlying town might catch a glimpse of Angel as he fled toward safety.
Old Pete Allison, tending the fire in the big stove and vainly trying to make himself useful, offered a target for conversation when the breakfast time was done.
"How long'll it take them to catch this Billy Angel?" she said.
"Not for a long time," said Pete Allison. "Folks can't hope to run down a gent like that right offhand."
"Well, we all got something comin' to us. Some folks live quiet lives for a short time. But everything is balanced up. God plans it all, I reckon."
A man must be old and must have passed through great sorrows before he can speak of the Creator as Pete Allison did, with a sort of gloomy surety and understanding.
"But, Pete, think of the men who simply run into a bullet... and that's the end of them!"
"Because there wasn't anything left in 'em," declared Pete Allison with conviction. "When you light a candle, it's gonna keep right on burning until the wax is all used up. Same as with a man. The minute he's born, the wax begins to be used up. If the flame burns high, he's gonna die young. If the flame burns slow, he's gonna die old. Or, if there ain't much wax, he'll die soon. If they's a lot of wax, he'll die late."
"But when a bullet hits...?"
"Every bullet," said the old man, "is sent by the Almighty. Dog-goned if He don't direct everything. The sin of the killin' lies with the gent that pulled the trigger, but the death is by the orderin' o' Him." He made these strange pronouncements in a quiet voice, not as one who prophesied, but as one who was acquainted with the facts of the case.
"There was Sam Lever," said the girl. "Never was such a big, strong fellow as Sam. He fell off the cliff last winter..."
"He was ready to die, then. God was done with him. You can't tell by the outsides of a gent. The wax is on the inside. It's the heart and the soul that counts. The wax must have been burned out of Sam Lever without us knowin' it. Look at this here Billy Angel. He's loaded with wax. Maybe he ain't gonna last long, but he'll make a darned bright light while he's burnin'."
"Do you know him, Uncle Pete?" she asked eagerly.
"Ah," said the old man, "you're took a lot with him, ain't you? Girls is like moths. Them that burn with a bright light attract the calico to 'em. No matter whether the flame is red or white. Well, yes, I know Billy Angel."
"What do you know about him?"
"This was ten years back. I had two arms, then, and I was a piece of a man, anyways. I come ridin' down that trail along Old Timber to..."
"You mean the narrow trail?"
"Six inches of rock for a hoss to walk on, and next to that, hell is only two thousand feet away, air line! I come around a elbow turn, with my mule steppin' halfway out into the next world, and I come bang into a kid ridin' a mustang. Says I... 'Son, back up your pony.'
"'It ain't a pony,' says he. 'It's a hoss.'
"'Back up your hoss,' says I, 'to that wide stretch behind you, where I can pass, and hurry it up. This here mule of mine is gettin' plumb restless.'
"'This here mustang of mine,' says he, 'don't know how to back up.' And he adds, givin' me a ugly look... 'Nor neither do I!'
"I looks this young brat over. He had an eye like a fightin' dog's eye, sort of bright and sad-lookin', as if wonderin' where he would get a whole handful of trouble in the world. He has an old gun strapped onto him, and he begins to play with the butt of it, sort of beggin' me to start some trouble.
"'Kid,' says I, 'I'll teach your hoss to back up.'
"'Old man,' says he, 'this here hoss don't take to nobody's teachin' except mine.'
"'What d'you aim to do?' says I, sort of wonderin'.
"'Never give no inch to nobody in the world,' says he through his teeth.
"I couldn't help grinning, and, at that, he got white, he got so mad. Nothin' makes a proud kid so mad as not to be took serious.
"'Do we have to fight about this?' says I to him.
"'Are you scared to?' he says to me, sneerin'.
"'Why, you little rat,' says I, gettin' sort of mad, 'hop offen your hoss, so's, when you drop, you ain't sure to splash yourself all over the bottom of that ravine.'
"He just tucks in his chin and laughs at me. And then I seen red. After all, he was man-sized, and he had a man's meanness. I got hot and grabs my gun.
"'You young fool!' says I, and jerks out my gun. What I mean to say is, that I jerked at it. But the front sight caught in the holster and didn't come free. And, quick as a wink, I found myself lookin' straight into the muzzle of a Colt, and that kid's hand was as steady as murder, lemme tell you! I could see myse'f about an inch from kingdom come. Then, he drops his gun back into the holster.
"'Partner,' says he, as sweet as you please, 'you had a mite of bad luck. I guess that's a new gun.' And, sayin' that, he backs his mustang as slick as a circus rider over a ledge that wasn't fit for the hoss to walk forward on. So he comes to the wide place and waits for me to pass.
"'There ain't no bad feelin's?' I says, goin' past him.
"He gives me a grin as broad as the moon. 'None in the world!' says he, and I knew that he meant it.
"Well, sir, he was a fine-lookin' kid, straight as a young pine, strong as the devil, quick as a lightnin' flash. I never seen a pair of black eyes that looked so straight and had so much fire in 'em. And that was Billy Angel. Ever since then, I been waitin' for an explosion back in the hills. And now it's come."
She listened to this tale with a painful interest, dwelling upon every word of it. "But what else do you know about him?"
"That's all. That's enough. You could live elbow to elbow with a gent for a year and never know as much about him as I found out about Billy Angel in them thirty seconds. After that I knew he was mean and proud enough to fight a army of giants, and kind enough to jump into a river to save a cat that was drownin'. I knew that he was able to burn a town, if he had a spite at the folks in it, or else he was capable of riskin' his life to keep it from burning. That's enough to know. The rest is only that he was an orphan and that he was brung up by his uncle, Ormond."
"But to have killed his own cousin!"
"Girl, I ain't said that he was a good man. I been sayin' that he was a strong one."
"Stabbin' him in the back?"
"That sort of looks like a stickler for me. But, after all, he looked pretty near ready for anything even when he was a kid. He might have turned sort of sour when he growed up. But what I say is that they ain't gonna capture him none too easy. His wax ain't burned out yet."
"Tom Kitchin is a smart man," said the girl tentatively.
"Him? He'll break Tom Kitchin between his fingers... like that. Tom Kitchin? He ain't nothin' to a gent like that young feller."
Such was the opinion of Pete Allison. And he was not a talkative old man, which gave the more weight to his ideas. As for the girl, she locked up each one of his words in her breast and pored upon his sayings in her spare moments as if they had been Bible talk.
Those spare moments came few and far between to her. In the days that followed she was extraordinarily busy. For work is slowly accomplished when half of one's mind is on something else, and that was the case with Sue Markham. She could not help thinking of her gigantic protégé in the room upstairs—her own room, brightly touched up with color here and there, an incongruous setting for huge Billy Angel.
For three days he did not seem to gain at all. He grew actually thinner in the face. But then he changed. Every hour, almost, made an alteration in him for the better.
In those days, she found that she was not taking a single step toward a better understanding of him. When she came into the room, he did not speak, and he answered her direct questions with monosyllables. He took the food that she gave him without thanks. He refused the books that she brought to him to pass away the long hours of his imprisonment. Instead, he seemed to prefer to lie flat on his back, staring at the ceiling.
What thoughts went through his mind at such times as these? In the dull, weary hours of the day, was he determining to leave the course of lawbreaking on which he had embarked, or was he resolving more wickedness? In spite of herself, she could not help feeling that the latter was the truth. Silence is always more or less dreadful, and his silences seemed particularly so. She never went through the door into that room without a paling of her cheeks and a quickening of her heart, as though she were stepping into a tiger's lair. A dozen times, when she passed the cheerful face of Tom Kitchin or the thoughtful one of Jack Hopper, the engineer, she was on the verge of calling in the law to take this ominous care off her hands.
Then all her fears were redoubled by a most strange happening.
STEVE CARNEY returned to town. Steve was the brightest star in the village of Derby. His father had been a fireman of long standing whose wits were a little too dull for him to advance to the trusted post of engineer in charge of a train. However, he was a man full of honest labor, and to the day of his death he had a great compensation for his own lack of brains, and that was the surpassing intelligence of his son, young Steven. In the school, Steve stood at the head of his class, and, when he had finished the grammar school's eight terms, he went on to high school, and, when high school was ended, it was the plan of the honest fireman to send Steve to college. For that purpose he had saved a considerable sum of money, but, in the very summer after the boy's graduation, the father died—a death brought on, to some extent, by the wretched life to which he had condemned himself in order to lay by the more money for the sake of his son.
When that money came into the hands of Steve himself, he decided that he would take the rest of his education by a short cut in the ways of the world. He left Derby, therefore, in the beginning of his eighteenth year and was gone nearly a twelvemonth, at the end of which time he returned somewhat out at elbow but with a new light in his eyes. The very first night after his arrival, falling into a poker game, he walked away with all the money in the party, and the town of Derby was forced to admit that Steve's year of education had been by no means wasted. The admirable Steven then remained only a short time in Derby in order, as the old stories have it, to recruit his spirits, before adventuring further.
But when he had renewed his depleted stock of money and when he had engaged in a knife fight and a gunfight, in both of which he came out unscathed, something prompted him to leave Derby for parts unknown. He left half an hour after a band of determined men with shotguns under their arms and with lariats handy for various uses called at the door of his father's shack, which Steve had inherited, of course. He was not seen in town again for another year, and this time, when he returned, it was in a condition that made men forget his errors of the previous visit. Money flowed like water from his hands, and he brought a warmth of good cheer with him that penetrated to the farthest limits of the town.
He remained a mere fortnight, and then left as suddenly as he had come. Two years later he was back, this time out at elbow again, with a leaner, harder face, but still with an air of deathless, boyish good nature in his eyes. Even men who shook their heads at him could not but admire him. He stayed in Derby on this occasion long enough to join the sheriff—Tom Kitchin, serving his first term—and run to earth those famous Greening brothers, whose atrocious murders had terrorized the mountains for two years. In their capture, the quick gun and the steady aim and the cool courage of young Steven Carney had taken the leading part, as even the sheriff was the first to admit. Then, after a profitable evening of poker, Steve was away again.
He was gone for a year and a half, and now, at last, he came back, and the noise of his coming was the first news that greeted the ears of Sue Markham when she came down in the morning to clean up the lunch counter and build the fire in the stove.
"He got in around midnight," said Pete Allison, stretching his one hand toward the humming stove.
"Who got in?" asked the girl.
"But he woke up some of the boys and they had a powwow together."
"Who was it, Pete?"
"He's been around a good bit of the world this time," declared the old man, still disregarding her direct question in an irritating fashion. "This time he took a drop out into the ocean. He's seen Samoa. He's seen New Zealand. He's been over to the Solomons, too. Lookin' mighty brown and thin, but handsome and clever as ever."
"Pete Allison, who might you be talkin' about?"
"Wonder to me," said Pete Allison, "that nobody don't marry him. He's the sort that turns the heads of the girls. I guess he ain't found a nobody yet with money enough to suit him. And he'd take a pretty rich one to bring him more money'n he could spend, I reckon."
"Ah," murmured the girl, "you're talking about Steve Carney."
"Who else? You look like you'd sort of be glad to see him ag'in?" queried Allison sharply.
"He'd never remember me," she said, and blushed.
"There it is, there it is!" The veteran sighed. "He ain't been hung yet, and so all the girls is anxious to throw themselves at his head. If he was an honest clerk in an office, or if he was a conductor on a train, or an engineer takin' Two Forty-Nine over the grade every other day, would they be settin' their caps at him so much? Not they. But he's all afire, and he's all a-burnin' up, so the girls can see him, and bust their hearts out to get to him and burn their wings on the flame."
"Nonsense," said the girl haughtily. "I've looked twice at him... and I never will!"
Pete Allison shook his head. He added: "They say that Steve has a roll of bills that would make a meal for a cow."
Steve himself came into the lunch counter at noon. He sat on a stool with his hat pushed back on his head and his mischievous blue eyes laughing at her. And when she asked after his travels, he told her absurd fables.
"What's in the Solomon Islands, Steve?" she asked him.
"They got their name after the king of them. He's an old bronco with a bald head and a white beard that comes down to the fat wrinkles in his waist."
"Wrinkles in his waist?" she cried.
"He's bare to his middle," said Steve Carney. "And he looks so much like Solomon must have looked that people call him King Solomon and the islands are the Solomon Islands."
"Steve Carney!" she exclaimed. "What a thing to say! But what sort of people are there on the islands, really?"
"Steve!" She threw up her hands, and he grinned and chuckled at her. "I don't believe that you were ever near the islands," she declared.
"I was, though. The king and me was pals."
"Did you really know him?"
"Of course I did. He gave me this for a souvenir the day I left." He pulled out a long knife with a blade of beautiful steel, worked into wavy curves, a marvelous and a dreadful weapon. It was fitted with a hilt of antique gold work and set with a multitude of small pearls to roughen the handle.
"Why, it must be worth a lot, Steve."
"He would've given me more than that. He wanted to give me a couple of his wives, Sue. All I would have to do the rest of my life was to lie on the flat of my back under a palm tree while one wife waved the flies away with a branch and the other fed me coconuts."
"Every word is made up. Why should he want to do so much for you?"
"Because I brought in more than any missionary ever did."
"You mean you gave him something?"
"Yep. Something that keeps all the natives busy every evening."
"What was it?"
"Dice," said the incorrigible.
They laughed together over this.
"Did you like it?"
"It was a good place to swim," said Steve thoughtfully. "But I got lonely there."
"You're never lonely, Steve. You make company wherever you go. I've heard a hundred men say that."
"Men are the small half of things, Sue. I was lonely for a girl, d'you see? A girl back here in the mountains."
She was hushed with interest. One did not readily imagine the unconquerable Steve Carney falling in love. It was very, very strange. She lowered her voice as she asked: "Does she live near Derby?"
He thought a moment: "Pretty near," he said at last, nodding.
"Steve! Do I know her?"
"I think you do, pretty well."
"But what's her name, Steve?"
"Sort of an ordinary name. It's Sue."
She started; she stared. But no, this could not be, and his blue eye was fastened upon her with a perfect indifference, a perfect gravity.
"Really? Sue? I don't know anybody else by that name, I think. What's her last name, Steve?"
"Her last name is Markham."
"Stupid!" she cried, growing very red. "I was an idiot not to see... you'll never stop your joking, Steve!"
"Does it sound like a joke?"
"A mighty poor one."
"Ah," he said, "I think it's a mighty poor joke. But if you'd take it more serious and sort of let it trickle into the insides of you... would it be so bad?"
He made no effort to touch her, or even to lean closer to her. There was nothing of the melted calf in his eyes. They were as bright, as cold, as blue as ever. But all of the sardonic mirth was gone from around his mouth. He became, for the moment, nothing of the mischievous boy, but all man, eager, purposeful.
"I've only seen you a few times, Sue," he said. "And still we know each other pretty well, I guess. I know you. God understands that there ain't much that's hard to read in you. It's all clear as a crystal. And you know one half of me. The whole world does. That's the bad half. I never sneaked behind corners and tried to hide myself. I let them see me the way that I am. Well, Sue, there's something in me besides the fool and the cardsharper. I've been playing, you understand? While Dad was living, I had to work hard for him. He wanted to see me get on. He wanted to see me advance a lot. He wanted to see me talk book English and lead my classes and get to be a lawyer or something indoors and soft-handed, like that. His idea of a gentleman was spats and a cane.
"Well, I swallered what was really in me till he died. Then it all busted out. I didn't even know that it was there. But I would have exploded, I think. I had to break loose. I did break loose. I've been runnin' around ever since. Well, finally I'm through with my fling. I've made a little pile. A good many thousands, Sue. I got it here with me. Someday I want you to count it. I got enough here to settle down to some kind of business. I don't care what, so long as it keeps me up here in the mountains, you see? Y'understand, Sue? I don't want you to say a thing now. But if you don't mind, put this thought in your pocket and, when I'm gone, take it out and look it over. Maybe you'll take it more serious. Then in a couple of days, I'll come back and talk to you again. Most likely you'll say... 'It's a bad idea, I'm afraid. I could never love you, Steve.' Well, I'll not cry. But whatever happens, I know that you ain't gonna laugh at me or talk about me behind my back. That's why I could come straight to you and talk out without no dodging around corners. I'd hate to do that. A fellow has to do what they want. He has to laugh when they want to laugh. He has to dance when they want to dance, and sit down when they want to sit. He pleases them till he gets 'em under lock and key, and, after that, they got to do the steppin' around. But, Sue, if you was ever to come into my house, you and me would be partners fair and square. Well, so long."
He stood up; he raised his hat. But presently he came back from the door to where she was tracing invisible patterns on the surface of the counter with the tip of her finger.
"About the way that I've been roaming around," he said. "I've done some pretty bad things. The money I've got in my pocket is gambled money. But I've taken my chances fair and square. I've never beat a man out of a penny with crooked cards, no matter what they say about me. And, Sue, if you was to ask me, serious, I'd tell you every step I've taken since I first left Derby... every step!"
With that, he walked out of the lunch counter and was whistling and turning up the collar of his coat as she watched him dimly through the frosted windowpane working his way down the street against a half gale.
He was gone, but his work remained behind him. It seemed to the girl that the four walls of the room had been broken out, and that her eye now roamed across the world through a vast perspective, seeing all things clearly, heart and body and soul. She roamed in spirit as Steve Carney had roamed. She did not know whether or not she loved him; she did know that his frank homage made her feel like a queen.
IN such times, women cannot think. They can only pass pictures through their minds, and compare them, feature by feature. So it was with Sue Markham. The keen, handsome face of Steven Carney she kept, as it were, in the one eye, and the dark and honest countenance of Jack Hopper arose in the other. But Jack Hopper could maintain that comparison for a very instant only. Then he faded, truly, into nothingness, and never again could his eyes trouble the eyes of Sue.
She knew it with a little shudder. For Jack Hopper, during these recent years, had been looming larger and larger upon her mental horizon, walking big upon her mind, like a figure with a low sun behind it. He had cast the shadow of his presence about her feet like fate, and she had been on the point of surrendering to him, not because she loved him, but because she felt, oddly, that he deserved this and more—that she was honored unduly by the love of such a man. He had a right to a good home. If he chose her to make it, she must not resist his will. For six months, now, she had known that, if he asked her to be his wife, she would have to say yes. She had never seen him without the dread of that approaching moment falling upon her.
But now the danger was gone. Jack Hopper did not exist, and the fire in the clear, steady eyes of the gambler was the thing that had banished him. For that, she was grateful to Steven. She cast about her for a second figure by which she should compare Steve Carney with that which her soul demanded of a man. And of all the scores who had met her and known her and flirted with her, some gaily, some sadly, some sternly, there was only one, she found, who had stepped far enough past the gates of her heart to be worth the counting. To her own astonishment, it was the face and the form of Billy Angel who arose in her mind's eye, now, to be contrasted, little by little, with Steve Carney himself. It was the big man who lay in her room at this very moment.
It staggered her, this revelation of herself. It was as though she had turned the corner of a familiar street and found that a palace or a pit was revealed in the well-known path before her. So was it to Sue Markham, finding this unsuspected thing in herself.
Yes, there was Billy Angel strongly entrenched in her imagination. His bold, black eyes looked keenly back to her, looked cruelly back to her, looked with a scorn and with a mockery, so it seemed, that made a little flush of anger rise to her face. It could not be, indeed. She could never seriously consider this brute.
Yet, in spite of herself, she must. She closed her eyes. If Billy Angel had sat before her at the counter and spoken to her as Steven Carney had done, what would she have answered? She could not tell. But of this she was certain, that she could not have maintained perfect silence, as she had done with Steve. She would have been too much afraid of him.
She went up to her room to see the man face to face, and to convince herself that there was nothing godlike about him—that there was only a great physical strength in the man—that and no more. When she entered, she found that he was seated before her mirror, shaving himself. By that, she knew that he had been prying through her effects until he had come, at last, to the little old chest in the closet where the last mementoes of her father were kept and, among other things, this old, horn-handled razor.
She flushed and bit her lip with shame and anger. As though, indeed, the search of Billy Angel could have revealed something shameful concerning herself—as though that search of his hands could have given him too great an insight into the hidden corners of her very mind.
He was only half shaven. He turned to her, looked at her in silence, and then faced the glass again, intent upon his work. It was as though she were not in the room! There was no apology for the thing that he had done, unforgivable and crude as that had been. He took it for granted—took everything for granted—as he had done since the first moment when she brought him to succor.
She had read, somewhere, of kings who performed their very toilet in public—to whose dressing and undressing great nobles lent their reverent attention and their silent interest. The big-backed man in front of the mirror was like that. He proceeded with his work as though there were nothing better or more absorbingly worthwhile for her to do than to stand patiently by and watch him.
She flushed again; again she bit her lip. He was humming as he worked. Then he paused to wipe some of the lather from the razor blade on a bit of paper. Without turning to her, he said: "D'you know that song?"
"I never heard it before."
"Sam Curran brought it up from Mexico. I dunno what it means, either. But it's a funny lingo, eh? And a funny tune."
She had never seen him so gay and so communicative. Now, she thought to herself, I shall draw from him all of the colors out of which I shall draw a picture of him so black that I shall never again be troubled comparing him with that wild and knightly spirit, Steven Carney!
"What Curran is that?" she asked.
"You must have heard of him. He was pretty well known, I guess, before he died."
"How did he die?"
"Hank Lang got him in a wheat field down in the valley and killed him with a load of buckshot. You remember?"
"I remember. Did you know him, Billy?"
"Know him? I'd tell a man. He was a friend of mine. He taught me how to use a knife." With that, he puffed out his upper lip, and began the critical work of running the razor edge over the curved, stiff surface. But all her blood had turned to ice. That he should have dared to mention such a thing—he the murderer—he the man who had stabbed the son of his benefactor in the back with a knife!
"Curran," she said, "murdered Chuck Marshall?"
The big man nodded. His answer was half stifled, for the shaving still went on. Nothing could have been more noncommittal than his tone. "He done it on a bet. It was easy, I guess."
She went to the window and looked out. She dared not face this man for fear some of her anger and her disgust should appear in her eyes. So she looked forth upon the world, playing with the string of the window shade and aware that Billy Angel had cleansed the blade of the razor again and that he was now stropping it upon the large, pale palm of his hand. How white it seemed—how soft. Yet she knew that hand could be iron, filled with the strength of a giant. And the old fear thrilled through her, the half terrible, half delightful fear.
"Billy Angel!" she cried. And she whipped around upon him. He did not turn. Only, in the mirror, she could see him lift his lordly brows a little.
"Well?" he said.
She swallowed her fury. "Nothing," she said, and turned hastily back to the window.
Now, in a stroke, he finished the shaving. He had been going slowly ahead with it, the moment before. Each bit of the work had seemed to require the utmost care and patience. It had been like sculptor's work when the outer shell of stone is off, and he is working near the very flesh of his subject. But now, at his will, without the slightest hurry, but with a certain large ease, the shaving was finished—in a gesture, so to speak.
He dipped the end of his towel in the pail of water and began to cleanse his face. She had seen him, recently, only through a blackening stubble of whiskers, but now she saw his real self. How like a very god of beauty the man was! Sickness and weakness had refined the lines of his countenance. All was largely and yet precisely drawn. No, compared with this fellow, so far as the mere looks went, Steve Carney did not exist.
"You was aimin' to tell me something," said Billy Angel.
"I heard you start. You was peeved about something."
"I? Not at all!"
"Well," he said, "all right. I ain't curious."
"You're not fit to get out of bed like this," she told him.
"What I'm not fit for don't count," he told her. "What I got to do is the important thing."
"Such as what?"
"Nothin' but leavin' this house today."
"You... why, it's turning to a storm today."
"Is it? That's no matter."
"Leave this house?"
"I said that."
"A little job that needs doin', that's all."
"Billy, are you crazy? You... you can hardly walk!"
"I can walk fine," he told her calmly.
"Let me see you, then."
"Yes. I dare you to walk across the room... without staggering. I dare you to walk straight across the room!"
He shook his head, smiling, and then a little shadow of perversity crossed his face. "Why," he said, "I'll do it, then." He paused for a moment, serious, almost abstracted, and she could almost feel the effort by which he gathered his will, and with that will controlled and summoned the strength of his body. After that, he stood up from the chair, walked with a light step across the room, and stood above her. She was amazed. It was, indeed, like a work of enchantment.
"Now," he said, "what's been worryin' you?"
"Speak out true," he commanded. When she turned from him, shaking her head, he took her by the shoulder and made her confront him again. Once again, her anger flamed furiously, and once again, and as always, the anger turned cold in fear. "You come here to say something. You busted in like you had something on your mind."
"I wondered, after I came in, how you happened to find Dad's razor."
"I seen his box... I opened it, and I got what I needed. But that ain't what I asked."
"Why... there was only a bit of news, I thought you might like to know."
"What's that? Has anything been found out?"
"No, no! Not about me. God knows that I don't matter. But about... well, nothing."
Here was a new sidelight thrown upon his mind, and it fairly dazzled her by all of its connotations. There was something, then, in spite of his nature that seemed so purely self-centered that had actually responded to the troubles of another. There was something in this world that he valued more than he valued the safety and the comfort of himself. She would not have believed it from any other lips.
"There's no news about you," she said slowly, and wondering at him.
"Well, well," he said, sighing. "About what, then?" He lowered himself into the chair beside the window. The power in his legs seemed to have gone, first of all. He had gripped the back of the chair with his large hand, and so, the floor creaking under his weight, he had lowered himself to the seat.
She could realize, now, by exactly what an immense effort of the will he had been able to bring himself to do this thing. By such an effort did men rise from the cockpit and rush to work the guns of a sinking battleship. By such an effort the dying avoided death!
"Why," said the girl, with a thrill of admiration and of disarming pity creeping through her, "I only thought that you'd be glad to know that Steve Carney is back. But maybe you don't even know him."
"I know him. Yes, I've heard of Steve Carney."
"He's come back rich, they say."
"D'you know him well enough to really care?"
"They's money in cards," said the big man grimly. "More money than there is in dynamite... or in guns, I guess. How much did he get this time? Do you know?"
"Enough to buy a ranch and fix it up in style. Enough to marry and settle down... they say."
"Enough to marry?" said Billy Angel. "Well, for a gent like Steve Carney I s'pose that's quite a lot."
"His poor dad," she said, hastily turning the question, "it's a good thing that he's not alive to see what Steve has become. I remember how he used to stand there..."
"Is that little shack... the Carney cottage?"
"Well," said the other, and, turning his back on her, he rose, struggled feebly across the room, and lay down on the bed—rather, he fell along with the crash.
She ran to him, filled with terror. "Billy Angel!"
He did not answer her. His face was perfectly white. Utter exhaustion had taken all the blood from it and left him a deadly mask to look upon.
"Billy, do you hear me?"
He made a little gesture with his hand, as though to signify that he heard her, but that he did not wish to be disturbed at this moment.
"Can I get you anything?"
He shook his head a little. "I'm comin' through fine. Only... don't bother me now. Lemme be alone in peace."
Such an answer for her kindness. She flung out of the room, but at the door she paused again. No, no matter what happened to him, she would not waste further time and further thought upon such a brute. But when she was downstairs again, her soul melted suddenly. She filled a cup of hot black coffee—it was the dregs of the pot—the sort of coffee that he liked—a brew that would have taken the lining from the throat of an ordinary man. Up the stairs she scurried with the cup until she reached the door of her room, and tried the knob. It was locked!
"Billy!" she called guardedly.
But there was not a sound from the room.
IN the first moment of panic, she felt sure that he had collapsed along the floor—after locking the door. Perhaps at that very moment he was dead, for he was very weak—terribly weak. Nothing but the most dauntless strength of mind had enabled him to rise from the bed and do such a simple thing as shave himself. The blood he had lost from the wound in his arm had been a far more vital drain than she had dreamed.
Yet, as she stood there, balancing in her mind pity for him and fear, there was almost an equal fire of anger in her. How had he dared to treat her as he had done, as though she were simply an unnecessary encumbrance upon him. She reviewed, little by little, his actions since she had entered his room that morning, and she found them all equally intolerable. A devil either of impudence or of brutality possessed the man. Only one genial recollection remained of him, and that was the manner in which he had vigorously protested and even resisted with all of his dying strength, when she had first told him that he must stay with her until he was healed. What he had said then, however, seemed like a voice from the grave. The living reality of him spoke in far other terms.
In the meantime, there was nothing to do but let him have his own way. If he chose to remain there with the door locked, through some idiotic notion of the brain, she would let him be. Hunger, before long, would make him set wide the door.
Several hours, however, passed, and there was no sign from him. Then she went up to the door again and pounded upon it. There was no answer. Or if there were one, it was so faint that it was lost in the steady roaring of the rain. A southeast wind had brought the rain in the mid-morning, and since that time it had increased momentarily, falling as only mountain rains can fall. That is to say, it came bucketing down in headlong torrents, one moment; the next, the wind seemed to have eddied to another and opposite point of the compass from which it threw a spray, driving and stinging.
Or, again, the rain rushed down in immense, horizontal drifts, each smashing against the roofs of the town with thunder, then walking away and leaving a moment of comparative silence before the next crashing downpour. The girl listened for a time to the steady progress of this walking storm. But still there was not a murmur from the room. She even squinted through the keyhole, but all she could see, at the farther side of the room, was a flashing bit of the mirror, with nothing before it. She put her ear to the rather deep crack at the bottom of the door. She could hear nothing except the strange and ghostly echoes that the rain sent to and fro in the chamber within, like wandering, senseless steps.
She went down to the main floor of the building, again, full of trouble. This convinced her that, in spite of herself, she cared a great deal for this Billy Angel. For the sake of the work and the care that she had invested in him, if for no other reason—and she vowed to herself that there could be no other reason—she could not see him cast away without a pang. And the two images had never left her from the early morning. She saw the faces sharply contrasted—the gambler and the alleged murderer. Although all her reason told her that there was no comparison between Steve Carney and this wild man out of the mountains, yet she knew that he had as great a grip upon her as Carney himself. The more she strove to argue herself out of this emotion, the deeper it settled in her.
There was no pause in the rain. Instead, it actually increased, dropping in thick torrents that penciled the air with even lines of gray and turned midday into deepest twilight. When the mist was rubbed from the windows, she looked out upon mountains from which every vestige of the snow was gone. From the windows of the nearest house, she saw the yellow shining of the lamps.
There were half a dozen people in the room, not lunchers, but gossips gathered around the stove—and then the next crash struck Derby. Trouble was about this month. The announcer of this stroke of misfortune was none other than Steven Carney. He came quietly into the lunchroom. One hand was wrapped in his handkerchief. He had a faint little smile on his lips. But his eyes were brilliant with a threatening light.
"Partners," he said in his quiet way, but with his glance going over them swiftly and steadily, "is there anybody here that knows a tall fellow... about six feet three... with shoulders big enough for two... a fast man with a gun... with a very pale face and a sort of a sick look about him?"
"Billy Angel!" cried Sue Markham, the words bursting from her lips of their own force.
"Ah," said Steve. "You know him, Sue?"
"Billy Angel!" cried the others, getting their breath again.
"What about him?" asked Steve Carney.
"He's the man who murdered Charlie Ormond!"
"Murdered?" repeated Carney, lifting his brows a little.
"Stabbed him in the back!"
"It's not the same man, then. This gent don't have to stab in the back. He stood up to me and beat me to the draw... and, when he might've sent a slug of lead through my head, he simply shot the gun out of my hand!" He raised his bandaged hand, spotted with significant red. "Then," he added, "he cleaned me out. What I want to know is... where can I find him? I want another word with him. My hand ain't hurt too bad to handle a gun right now."
"He robbed you, Steve?" cried the girl.
"Clean as a whistle," said Steve Carney. He set his teeth, but still he forced himself to smile at her.
"The sheriff will be a wild man when he hears about this," said someone. "Get Tom Kitchin now. Tom will nab him... he can't get far away through all of this mud."
Three or four hurried out to find Tom Kitchin. The rest drew in a close group around Steve Carney to inquire after more details of the affair. He told them smoothly, without undue excitement.
"I was trying to fix a lamp so's I could read by it... the morning was so dark. Something stepped into my doorway. I looked up and seen this big fellow that you call Billy Angel. A fine-looking man, I'll tell you! He nodded to me.
"'You're Steve Carney?' he says to me.
"'I'm Carney,' says I. 'Who might you be, stranger?'
"'The rest of 'em,' says he, 'will tell you my name afterward, if there's any afterwards for you, Carney. I rather doubt it.'
"'You've got a grudge ag'in' me?' says I.
"'Ag'in' your pocketbook,' says he. 'I hear it's pretty fat.'
"'Robbery, then?' says I, and I looked across the room where my gun was hanging on the wall... no more use to me than if it had been a hoe. He seen where I'd looked.
"'This'll be a fair break for you, Carney,' says he. 'You've got your money by crooked cards.'
"'That's a lie,' says I, making a jump for him.
"'Maybe so,' says he, flashing a weapon on me. 'I'm here to let my gun do the talkin' for me. Not to argue a point with you. This is a fairer break than you ever give anybody with your cards. Go get your gun. We'll fight fair.'
"He says this with the chimin' of the clock in the McGoortys' house just bustin' in once to say the half hour. I went over to the wall and got my gun out of the holster. I figgered on what my chance would be in makin' a quick turn and tryin' a snap shot at him. But somehow I figgered out that it wouldn't be no use. He looked like the kind that ain't took by surprise easy. I turned around to him.
"'Are you ready?' says I.
"'We heard that clock strike pretty clear,' says he. 'We'll wait till it strikes the hour. At the first noise of it, you're free to blaze away, son.'
"He says that, and then he slides down into a chair and lets his head fall back against the wall. His eyes was half closed. He looked pretty sick, just then. His face got whiter, too. I wouldn't've been surprised if he'd fainted. I sat down opposite him. So long as he wanted to fight fair, when he could've sent a bullet through my back plumb easy a little while back, there wasn't anything for me to do except to stand pat and give him his second chance at me, with an even break.
"That half hour took as long in rolling by as though it had been half a year. Ten times I thought it was strikin', and ten times I made a pass for my gun, but Billy Angel, if that's his name, he didn't pay no attention. He just lay there in his chair, watchin' me with a sick sort of a smile, not sayin' a word, with his eyes only a slit open. Mighty weak and flabby was how he looked just then.
"Then the clock struck, and the sound of it sort of gave me a shock, I can tell you. I jerked out my gun. I'm not slow on a draw. I spend my time practicing the same as most of you boys do, and I've never left off that practice no matter where in the world I might be. But I had no choice ag'in' him. I might as well tell you plain and frank... he beat me to the draw as easy as I'd snap my fingers. And when he shot, he shot at the gun in my hand, not at me. It knocked the gun clean across the room.
"'I certainly do hope I ain't smashed up your hand,' he says as cool as the devil.
"I looked down and seen that there was only a small cut between the thumb and the forefinger.
"'I'm all right,' says I.
"'You can hand over your wallet, then,' says he.
"I gave it to him.
"'Now,' says he, 'there's two things left for me to do. One is that I can tie you hand and foot so's you can't move, and the other is for you to give me your word that you won't make a move out of this shack for five minutes.'
"It sort of took me back, hearin' him talk about trusting me.
"'Do you mean that?' I says.
"'I mean it,' says he.
"'Well, then,' says I, 'I don't hanker to be tied up like a chicken for market. I'll give you my word.'
"I took out a watch and laid it on the table.
"'All right,' says he. 'In five minutes you can raise a noise. That's all I need for fadin' away.'
"And that was the way he left me. Except that, when he started away through the mud, it seemed to me that he sort of wobbled a mite, as though he found the goin' pretty hard for him. If that's Billy Angel, I'll lay you a hundred dollars to a nickel that he's been sick pretty recent."
Such was the narrative of the gambler, concluded just as the sheriff rushed into the room. He went straight to Carney. "Is this true, Steve?" he asked. "Is this true, that that devil, Billy Angel, went in and cleaned you out?"
"As true as I'm standing here."
"We'll have him in half an hour!" cried the sheriff. "He can't have gotten far. Boys, are you with me?"
They were already in their slickers. Now they stormed out of the room behind the sheriff. In the street they were joined by other voices. The whole town was up to apprehend the criminal. And the girl remained alone, listening, again, to the rain. It would not have been difficult, after all, she decided. Angel had simply climbed out of the window and then down the roof over the kitchen until he could drop from the lower edge of it to the ground. She must get into the room and make sure. She took a hammer and ran up the stairs, determined to batter in the lock to her door, but when she laid her hand upon the knob, it yielded at once, and, stepping into the room, she found Billy Angel in person stretched upon her bed.
IMPULSES of rage and of scorn rushed through her brain so fast that she could not act upon one of them. First she decided to denounce him to his face. Then she was of a mind to run down the stairs and call back the men of Derby to come at once and capture the fellow. After that, she decided to get only one man, Steven Carney himself, to come to the room and destroy the villain.
No, for one man could not do it. She realized, looking down on him, that even limp and weak as he was, he was dangerous, and the steady black eyes looked up to her now without a trace of emotion. He showed neither shame nor remorse. His color, which was a very sick white, did not alter in the least. At this, something of awe came over her.
"Billy Angel," she said to him, "you've robbed my friend, Steve Carney."
"You've robbed him because I told you that he had money!"
He nodded again, and his complaisance infuriated her.
"Why don't I call them up here to take you? I shall call them in." She turned toward the door.
"Nope," he said, "I guess that you won't call 'em in."
She turned back to hear his reasons. "Why not? I've treated you like a brother. And now you turn on me like... like a traitor! What keeps me from turning you over to the law?"
"About three things, I figger," he said.
"Really? What three, if you please!"
"First, because it would mean a lot of shootin' and bloodshed, and this here furniture would get pretty badly spoiled... that's the reason."
"It's no reason at all!"
"Then you ain't so anxious to have folks know that you been takin' care of a murderer all these days."
"Ah, coward!" she cried. "Do you count on my shame and take advantage of that?"
"I take advantage of anything," he said, watching her without emotion. "The third thing is that you've sort of a kindly feeling to me, in spite of what you say."
She was paralyzed with fury. It is odd that one should guard the emotions as such sacred things. It is pleasant to reveal them oneself; it is hideous sacrilege to have them revealed by another. That he should have discovered her weakness for him immediately wiped out any virtue that he might have. She told herself in a white rage that she hated him and everything about him. So, staring at him for an instant, wide-eyed, she hesitated, trying to find words. Words would not do, she decided. She whirled to the door, but, as she reached it, a long arm, thick with muscle stretched before it. Her rush carried her against it. It was like striking against a wall. In some mysterious manner he had managed to slip from the bed and reach the door in a single leap. A noiseless movement, like a cat's.
"Let me go!" she cried.
He brushed her back, gently, irresistibly. He closed the door behind him, locked it, and took out the key, which he dropped in his pocket.
"I'll shout out the window," she assured him, her voice low and earnest with her passion.
"Would they hear you through the rain?" he asked her.
That terse, unsympathetic word broke down all of her strength, for like a rush of light it revealed to her perfectly her own impotence. She broke into tears and leaned against the wall with her face cupped in her hands.
"All right," he said. "I was sort of worried for a moment."
She heard a jingle on the floor. Then he recrossed the room and, reaching the bed, lay down on it. She discovered that he had thrown the key at her feet. It bewildered her. Why he should have thrust her back from the door one instant, and the next presented to her the means of leaving the room at her will, was most strange. It was as though he had dared to look into her heart once more and had seen that there was nothing remaining to be feared in her.
And she, looking inward into her soul of souls, saw that he was right. Her fury had changed to sorrow that any man could so repay good with evil as he had repaid her. That the very friend she had pointed out to him should have been selected as the next prey, and that then he should have had the effrontery to return to her very room for shelter!
She had no longer the sharp fury at her command that could make her betray even this evildoer. He had seen it. Perhaps her very tears had been enough to reveal to him all that he cared to know. She looked across at him as he lay stretched on the bed. Wonder and hatred and awe and grief were mingled so inextricably in her mind that she could only snatch up the key and flee from the room. Before she went down, she stood at a window and let the cold, wet air blow in upon her face. Then she went down.
Of course, Billy Angel had not been found, and the trail that had been picked up from the shack of Steven Carney had merely led back into the town, a strange thing that dumbfounded everyone. For, with only five minutes to escape before the alarm was raised, certainly it seemed that every minute was very precious to him and he would try to put a mile between him and the pursuit in that interval. However, as Steve Carney himself suggested, that move back into the village was a mere feint. The instant he was out of sight he had doubled back for the hills. Yet there were some incredulous ones who swore that someone in the village must be playing the friend to Billy Angel and shielding him from discovery.
The sheriff was a desperate man. Never before in his reign had the law been so openly defied. He made the lunchroom of pretty Sue Markham the center. Beginning there, he searched every house in the town for the person of the ruffian. Through every nook they passed, and through every cellar, every garret, and every closet, and every shed, barn, and lean-to. But there was not a sign of big Billy Angel. They came back wet with the rain, chilled with wet and wind, utterly downhearted.
"Well," said the sheriff, and he stood steaming in front of Sue Markham's stove, "he ain't in Derby. That's pretty clear, I guess."
"Have you searched every house?" asked someone.
"Every house in town."
Jack Hopper stood out from a corner, where he had stood gloomily silent. He raised his head. "Every house except this one," he suggested.
The sheriff merely tilted his head and laughed.
Never in the world was there such music to the ears of Sue as in that laughter.
"If Sue," the sheriff said, "wants to keep a man-killer hid, I guess that we'll let her do it. She'd have better reasons for it than we'd have for hangin' him."
He grinned at Sue to give a point to his jest. Half an hour later, he and the others were working through the country around the town, having ridden off with such a terrible zest and eagerness that she almost feared that on the broad, wild breast of the mountain they might find their man—as though he could exist both there and in her room at the same time.
All the rest of the day they labored. And when the evening came, they were still working in the distance when Steve Carney himself came into the lunch counter.
"Steve!" she gasped out at him. "They've found Billy Angel, then?"
"Found Angel? Found the devil, and a black, wet one! Nope, they ain't found Billy Angel."
"But why are you back?"
"Something sort of told me that there wasn't any use keeping it up. A man has to work by hunches half of the time, you know. That's the way I do, at least. So I turned around and came home. No use riding through mud and wind when they's a fire in town with an empty chair beside it, eh?"
He smiled at her so cheerfully that her heart went out to him with a rush.
"Oh, Steve," she said to him, "there's not a mite of malice in you for all that he's done to you."
He shook his head. "When a gent stands up and fights fair for a thing, I aim to say that he's won it and deserves to keep it... unless it can be took away from him by force. I wouldn't've called in the law to help me, except that I didn't want to waste a lot more years tearin' around to get together another stock of coin. Well," he added, "I don't know that the money would make any difference, though, to a girl like you, Sue."
She stamped her foot a little, in the strength of her affirmation. "Not a mite in the world!"
At this, he shook his head, watching her still in his half-smiling, half-derisive manner. "Ah, well, Sue, I'd feel a lot more hopeful if you'd only blushed and said nothing. If you come right down to it, I guess there ain't much hope for me with you, Sue."
"There is!" she said stormily. "I like you more'n I like anybody, Steve!"
He shook his head again. "That doesn't fool me," he said. "It's the sort of thing that doesn't come with waiting. I fool myself thinking that if I stay around a while, maybe you'll get to know me well enough to marry me. But doggone it, Sue, that sort of knowing ain't what counts. The sort of knowing that makes love is rigged up with lightning. That's the way I learned to love you. I seen you a couple of years back, polishing up the top of that counter with a rag in your hand and listening to some lumberman flirting with you, and trying to keep from laughing at him, and only letting the smiles get as far as your eyes. Well, it didn't strike me at the time. But, a year later, when I was off by myself, holding the wheel of a little sloop that was smashing through a crazy head sea and near washing me off my feet every other jump, with a lee shore looking as tall as Derby Mountain and all rigged up with white teeth at its feet, and with one scared nigger to work the ropes for me... when I was out there, watching the clouds sashaying across the face of the moon, all at once I remembered the picture of how you'd stood back of the counter, here. And it was lightning, Sue. That let the picture of you into my heart, and it'll never get out again. If that sort of lightning had ever struck you, you couldn't help but talk right back to me when I told you that I love you. You wouldn't have to talk, because I'd feel it before you spoke."
She could not speak. He stood up and went to the window. That window was crusted with mist and framed with sheerest, thickest black of the night. He had not gone there to look out but to cover emotion of which he was ashamed, she knew.
"However," he said, without turning his head, "I s'pose that I'll stay around for a while, and wait to see what my luck might bring. If I can't get you to marry me out of love, maybe I'll get you to marry me out of pity, eh?" He looked at her with a mirthless, twisted smile. Then he went hastily out into the night.
Although she tried with all of her might, she was not able to say a word to him. It was a wretched evening that followed. When the last of the posse came in, at midnight, she had to rake up enthusiasm and interest and shakings of the head over the tales that they had to tell her. They had not found Billy Angel. That mysterious fellow seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. She listened with an aching heart. How happy, she told herself, she would be if she had never seen that man. And in the first place of all, if she had never seen Billy Angel, she would have promised to marry Steve Carney. She was sure of it now.
She pondered it at the end of the dreary day's work, when she sat in her room with her chin in her hand and her eyes sightless with thought. Not that she loved Billy Angel, instead. Indeed, what she felt for him was the strangest mixture of loathing, dread, horror, awe, scorn, and actual sharp-edged hatred. But the very strength of the emotion that stirred her when she thought of Billy Angel made her understand that the thrill that Steve Carney brought into her life was not real love. It was a pleasant feeling. It was compounded of various elements, not the least of which was pride that Steve, after all of his travels and his voyaging around the world, should have come back to her and offered her his heart.
But there was something else, something stronger, she told herself. If she could be so moved with hatred and all the rest toward Billy Angel, there must be the converse of those feelings tied together in one soul-stirring harmony—and that thing could be called love. If there were a man as pleasantly conversational as Billy Angel was blunt and terse, if there were a man as open-hearted as Billy Angel was secretive, if there were a man as genial and kind and generous as Billy Angel was cold and self-centered, then, added to these things, if there were a man as truly lion-hearted and indomitable as Billy was, she knew that she would feel for him a true love that would sweep her off her feet.
There, after all, she had been able to put her finger upon the one attractive feature in the character of Angel—and that was his giant will, his giant courage that enabled him to go out, sick as he was, and strike down such a practiced fighter as Steve Carney. This was all.
But the moment she had come to this decision, she shook her head. There was something else in him—but what it was she could not tell.
STEVE CARNEY did not wait for his fortune to be recovered from the hands of the mysterious Billy Angel. Instead, he disappeared from the town of Derby for thirty-six hours and came back again, affluent. Sue Markham blushed with shame when she heard of his success. Only the cards could explain it. No doubt, the cards had also explained the money that he brought back from overseas, for no matter in what land he worked, his tools were sure to be the same, always. The gold that he dug was brought to the surface in the same manner, at some silent table circled by grim-faced men watching the fall of the cards. But it seemed more honorable to have brought back his money from strange lands that were filled, perhaps, with strange crimes.
Only the sheriff still retained a hope that Billy Angel would be caught. He had worked himself to exhaustion and become a thin-faced, tight-lipped man. If he met Billy Angel, there would be no attempt to arrest a live man; it would be a swift and bitter battle to the death, and everyone knew it.
In the meantime, the girl watched a constant and very rapid change in Billy Angel. She had not spoken of the time of departure. Neither had he ever referred to it. But each of them knew that the mind of the other was full of it. It seemed as though, by putting forth an extra effort of the mind, he was able to control the healing of his body, which went on apace. His color changed. His face filled a little. The strain was going from his expression. The wound on his arm had closed and was healing with amazing rapidity. A little longer and he would be himself.
The weather had changed again, for the tenth time in as many weeks. South winds prevailed. It seemed that the last wild rainstorm had drained every bit of moisture from the air. Every morning dawned crystal clear with the pale, blue mountain sky arched impalpably above the head of Derby. The wind was warm and dry, the surface of the ground drained. The riders down the street of Derby raised a little cloud of dust behind the heels of their horses.
It was on account of this still weather that she knew of the next move of Billy Angel. For, in the middle of the night, wakening suddenly, she was aware that someone was stirring in the house. Some noise had sounded. Some noise was sounding now, something felt rather than actually heard. But the faintest of tremors shook this upper floor of the house, as the effect of a soft but weighty footfall.
She waited only an instant. Instinct was working fast in her, not reason. She slipped from bed and dressed like lightning—dressed in time to hear the same sound go steadily down the stairs. Then a creak announced the footfall passing down the kitchen steps to the outdoors. She went to the window and craned her neck out to look down. There, below her, clearly in the starlight, she could see the broad back and the lofty form of Billy Angel. He went straight back to the barn. Then she saw him go into the corral.
There were two horses there, the one that had belonged to her father and the dainty little mare that Tom Kitchin had given her from his uncle's ranch the year before, a thing all spirit and speed and no strength. If the criminal wanted a horse, there was no choice left to him. The mare would not sustain his bulk. He had to take the big, strong, slow gelding.
She went down the stairs in haste, and yet softly. From the back door she spied on him and saw him catch and saddle the gelding. No doubt he was merely stealing the horse as a sort of grace note after the selfishness and thanklessness of his treatment of her.
Anger burned with a quiet, deep warmth in her heart. There was no time to call for help. Presently the great bulk of horse and man swept out past the barn and went up the northern trail out of Derby.
She did not pause to consider. She ran out blindly, tossed a saddle onto the back of the mare, and instantly pursued him. If he clung to the northern trail, she would catch him, to be sure. For the mare could run all day at the rate of two to one, compared with the gelding. But she had no hope that he would remain on that trail. He was far too clever for that. Deep in her heart, there was planted a conviction that, no matter how she tried, she could never succeed in overreaching him in anything on which his heart was set.
Yet, a scant mile out of the town, with the wind blowing hard into her face with the speed of the mare's galloping, she saw on the rise just before her the great form of Billy Angel on the tall brown gelding. She drew rein with a gasp of astonishment. Now that she had caught up with him, what would she do about it? What could she accomplish by accosting him? He would simply fail to answer, and, if she chose to rail at him, his calm silence would turn her biting words like the merest water from a stone.
However, she could at least see in what direction he traveled. It would be into the higher mountains, of course, there to seek for a secure cover until the hunt for him should have grown less intense, and she vowed to herself that, if she could follow him far enough and securely enough to make sure he intended to hide, she would ride straight back to Derby and send the sheriff on his trail.
He did not hold on for the upper mountains, however, but turned presently down out of the hills toward the flat of the valley, and there he directed his course straight toward the far-off lights of Three Rivers.
It was wonderful to her; unless, indeed, he possessed in Three Rivers some friend who would give him shelter, just as she had done before. It was not hard to keep behind him with little likelihood of being discovered. The wind blew constantly and briskly from him to her, and, while it would strongly stifle the sound of the hoofs of her horse, it carried the sound of the gelding's hoofs clearly back to her.
He did not go straight on to Three Rivers, but turned off toward a farmhouse on the right of the road. That byroad twisted through a grove of young poplars, all trembling and sparkling faintly in the starlight, and brought the fugitive under the side of a broad, low-built house.
From the edge of the copse, the girl saw him dismount, pick up something, and make a gesture to throw toward one of the windows that gaped open above him. There was a moment of pause. She had been chilled by the ride through the sharp wind, and now, in this sheltered place, her blood began to stir with a grateful activity again. She felt herself growing more and more curious.
Presently a light glimmered through a window above Billy Angel. A head showed for a moment with the light dimly behind it, so dimly that she could not make out the outline. There was a soft-spoken interchange of words, a gasp from above, and the head was withdrawn.
But that gasp had been in the voice of a woman, and the blood of the girl ran cold with disgust and with anger. It was from women then that this great, hulking, handsome brute found shelter wherever he went.
Billy Angel now tied his horse to a young sapling and went around to the back of the house. At the same time another light showed in a lower window. It was enough to tell the girl that the woman in the house and the man outside of it expected to meet one another where that light was shining. She dismounted in turn and went close to the window, ashamed of the impulse that drove her, but overcome with an intense curiosity to see the face of the girl to whom Billy Angel had entrusted his safety.
The shade was not drawn. She could look plainly through the glass and see everything in the room—a big living room, roughly but comfortably furnished, the sort of a room where men would be a good deal more at ease than would women. There were elk and deer horns mounted along the walls. There were big, deep-seated chairs. There was a yawning fireplace in which a few embers of the evening's logs were still smoldering. The man who owned that house and furnished that room was prosperous, uncultured; so much she could read with her active eye.
And the girl? She came back into the room at that moment, and behind her was the towering bulk of big Billy Angel. She looked a mere child, at first, with low-heeled slippers on her feet, and a rose-colored kimono with long, flowered sleeves, swaying about her as she retreated backward before Angel, inviting him in. She closed the door behind him. She turned—and Sue Markham sighed. No, this was not a girl. She was among women what Billy Angel was among men. As he was handsome in a glorious way that raised him above his fellows, so she was wonderfully lovely. And, like Billy, she had black hair, black eyes beneath level, beautifully penciled brows. She was small, but she was full of dignity as she was full of grace. To be sure, she was young, but at nineteen or twenty she had an air of maturity—she was old enough to have turned the head of any king in the world.
The girl, who stood beside the window, made a swift comparison between herself and the other woman. She could not stand for an instant contrasted with the beauty of the girl. She had not the grace, she had not the regal, confident manner, she had not that commanding air that goes with a perfect loveliness. At least, if Billy Angel had been indifferent to Sue and had treated her as he might have treated any man, here was a good reason for it. She did not need an introduction. That delicately lovely face had been photographed a thousand times. Her picture was everywhere in the towns through the valley and through the mountains. It was the daughter of the rich rancher; it was Elizabeth Wainwright herself!
If one is despised, it is a little soothing to have been despised for the sake of a queen, and a queen was Elizabeth Wainwright!
But what did the queen do now? She flung her arms about his neck; she drew down his head and kissed him! If Sue Markham, red with shame and with scorn of herself for having remained to be spy—witness of such a scene, turned away in haste, she as hastily turned back again.
It's my right! It's my right! she thought savagely to herself. Why it was her right, she could not for the life of her have said. But, in turning back to the window once more and pressing closer to it, she felt that she would have given ten of the richest years of her life to have heard the words that passed between these two. But she could not. The window was closed, and the wind kept up a constant sighing through the trees. Only occasionally she heard a hint of the high, sweet voice of Elizabeth Wainwright, and now and then she felt a tremor of the deep, strong bass of Billy Angel.
TEARS clouded her eyes, although why they should be there she could not know. Burning tears, that blinded her, and, when she had wiped them hastily away and looked again, she saw a thing that stopped her heart with shame and with rage. For big Billy Angel had drawn out a wallet, took from it a whole handful of money, and offered it to Elizabeth Wainwright.
She who stood in the night, watching and wondering, could not believe the thing, but there it was before her eyes, most palpably. She saw Elizabeth push back the money and shake her head—saw Billy Angel persist, speaking gravely, almost with a frown—and at last the girl took the greenbacks in her hand.
Sue Markham could wait to see no more. She hurried back to her mare and swung into the saddle. She reined back among the poplars, wondering what she should do now. There was no question about it in her mind. Billy Angel was a villain and must be destroyed. He had won the heart of this lovely girl by his good looks, and he was bribing her further with money. Oh, incredible thing, that the daughter of the rich rancher, Wainwright, famous for his prodigality, should have fallen so low that she accepted money at the hand of a shameless fellow.
She had no chance to carry on the burden of her thoughts. There was a guarded sound of a door closing; then Billy Angel came back, striding swiftly, mounted the gelding, and rode quickly away. He took the road by which he had come, and the girl only waited to make sure that he was fairly committed to it. Then she herself went back by a different route.
He was taking the upland course. She herself followed the longer road over the easier country, knowing that the mare would take three swift strides at full gallop to every labored stride of the gelding over the rough country. Through the night she flew on the back of the willing horse, and with every stride of the mare she told herself that she would not weaken in her determination. She would press straight on, until she had seen, as a result of her work, Billy Angel locked in strong fetters and in the hands of the law.
Very strange, indeed, that she had known him as a murderer, that she had seen him as a thief, but that it was a tender scene with a girl that convinced her that he was worthless. She thought of everything but this, however. And, with a swelling heart, she rode on, pressing the mare relentlessly until she reached the last long pitch up that carried on to the town of Derby, winding back and forth among the giant boulders.
She gained the outskirts of the village with the horse staggering beneath her, and she went straight to the house of Tom Kitchin. With the handle of her loaded quirt, she banged against the front door. Instantly there was a stir inside; the door was jerked open, and Tom Kitchin was saying hastily: "Well, what's up?"
He changed instantly when he made out, in the dimness of the starlight, who his visitor was. She broke in sharply: "Tom, get all the men you can... go down the upper valley road. Hide there and wait. Billy Angel is coming up that way! Billy Angel!"
"Don't ask me how I know... go! Go! Quick, Tom, or he'll get to the mountains... he'll..."
He turned on his heel without a word and sprinted for the paddock behind his house where he kept four fast, strong horses. Even these were worn down constantly by his unusually hard riding.
She did not wait to see him saddled. She felt that, if she remained, she would have to speak again and say things that should never have been spoken. So she turned the mare homeward. At the corral, she dragged off the saddle and turned the mare into the little fenced enclosure. That tired animal did not even go at once to the watering trough, but stood with her head down, panting hard.
As for Sue, she felt as the horse felt—broken in strength, broken in spirit. She went back to the house. But there she stood in the open doorway, waiting with her heart in her mouth. Then she heard the thing for which she had been waiting. Here, there, and again, voices sounded. She could distinguish the clear tones of Tom Kitchin as he called his chosen men, then a banging of doors. Other voices were calling from windows and doors many inquiries, but those inquiries were not answered. There was only the bustle of saddling and catching horses.
All that while a wild spirit was swelling in her to rush down to them, to reach the sheriff, to tell him that it was only a joke—that Billy Angel was not on that road—tell him anything rather than let him go and set the trap. She saw, as in a painted picture, the bulky outlines of Billy Angel against the stars as he rode calmly, confidently up the path, talking to the gelding, or whistling to the wind. Men started out before him. He drew a gun. Harsh challenges rang across the stillness. Guns began to speak in barking voices. Here, there, and again men fell, and at last the big rider swayed and toppled from his saddle.
She ran out suddenly into the night, crying at the top of her power: "Tom! Tom Kitchin!"
For answer, she heard the rapid thundering of hoofs begin down the street and sweep away toward the hills. They were gone! Tom Kitchin and the rest were gone past her recall.
So she went wearily, slowly back to the lunchroom. She built the fire in the stove, not because of the chill of the night, but because she must have something to do to employ her hands, if her mind were to be kept from maddening her with pictures of bloodshed.
The fire burned hot; it cast a widening circle of warmth through the room, but still she could not be quiet. She went on with the work of cleaning the place—hating the work, hating the place, but forced to be busy.
It was all in vain, for every instant new pictures darted into her brain and made her shrink. She saw Billy Angel once more enter her place, lift his hat to her, and pass on. She saw him collapse in his chair. She saw the struggle by which she had brought him, at last, up the stairs to her room. She saw him in the madness of delirium catch at her and hold her with hands of iron. She saw his gradual progress from day to day. She felt again his silence and his steady, brilliant black eyes fixed upon her.
How slowly, slowly the time went on. Then a new thought struck her. He had broken through the cordon of the men of the law. Long before this, if they had succeeded in shooting him down, they should have returned, bearing his dead body lashed on the back of a horse. But still there was no sign of him. Perhaps he had smashed through them, leaving dead and injured men on either side and had plunged away through the night, his pistol flashing back death at the sheriff's posse.
That thought in her was not a fear—it was a burning hope. She felt that, if she could unsay the words she had spoken to the sheriff, she would have laid down her life, smiling. Not for the sake of Billy Angel. No, not that, but because it was treason, low treachery to spy on a man and betray him in this fashion.
Then, down the street, she thought she heard voices. She went to the door, and leaned there, panting. Yes, they were coming. She heard them more clearly. They came on slowly. Why at such a snail's pace? Because the dead man was with them? Because they were bringing back their own wounded and dead? That was it! A hot triumph shot through her. They were bearing away their injured and their dead, and their slowness was the slowness of defeat, which has a snail's foot.
"Hello!" called someone, for in the pale dawn the town was wakening. "How did it go?"
"We got him! We got Billy Angel!"
She shrank back from the door. She fumbled for a support, and, finding the edge of the counter, she clung to it. Gradually the mist cleared from before her eyes. She was weak and sick with horror. Billy Angel lay strapped on the back of a horse. His great arms hung feebly down the shoulders of the animal. This was the end and it was she who had put out that light.
There was a pause. Then men came to the door and passed in. What a cheerful lot they were, and how she hated them for their joy. Their faces were lighted. They were smiling upon one another. Not one bore the brand of Cain upon his brow. Then they were crowding around the counter. They wanted food. They wanted hot coffee, black, and lots of it. Still they laughed, she thought, like madmen. And still, as they talked, they smote one another upon the shoulder.
But where were the dead? Surely he had not fallen without striking one blow in self-defense. If he struck, it must be fatal. He was not the kind to deal small wounds.
Then two stragglers came in, each fumbling at a bandage on his face. One was plastered across the upper lip. The other had a great patch over one eye and the other was discolored.
She said finally: "Tell me what happened."
"Tell her, Sam," they said to one of their number. "You could talk it up the best."
"Well," he said, "we got him. That's the whole of it!"
"You got him," she repeated with stiff lips. "But how?"
"The sheriff had a tip from somebody. He wouldn't say from who. He got us out on the upper valley road. Then he put up behind the brush. Joe Smythe took all the hosses down the hill and kept 'em there. We waited twenty minutes, and then we seen him comin', lookin' twice as big as a man."
"He did that," broke in a second.
"The sheriff, he gave the word, and we busted out at Angel when he was right on top of us. Somebody just showed himself in front. The rest of us dived at him from behind. It was in the pass, where there wasn't much light, and there was as much chance of hitting one of our own boys as there was of hitting Angel. We didn't use guns. We went at him with our hands."
"He killed... who?" she breathed.
"Killed? What chance did he have for killing? There was six men at him from behind before he could say Jack Robinson. They pulled him off the hoss and got him down."
"Ah," she cried, "then who...?"
"He was up again in a jiffy. I seen the boys spill away from him like he was a stone, and they was drops of water. Think of that! I reckon there wasn't one of us that wasn't able-bodied as much as most men. But he shook us off like we was nothin'. In another minute he was jumpin' out of the heap of the men that he'd knocked down. And the sheriff, runnin' in behind with his gun..."
"Ah, heaven forgive Tom Kitchin!" moaned the girl, covering her face with her hands.
"For what? He slammed him along the side of the head with the gun. He didn't have no chance to get his finger on the trigger. And down went big Billy Angel. He was clean out, but by the time we reached him, he was half recovered again. He started for his feet. He took a couple of the boys and knocked their heads together. But after that we hit him solid. Everybody cottoned onto some part of him... a couple of us on each of his legs, a man or two on each arm, and the rest catchin' where they could. Well, not even Billy Angel could make much headway with a ton of gents hangin' onto him. Down he went, and in a jiffy we had him tied so's he couldn't move. We strung him on a hoss and brung him back."
"Alive?" she gasped out.
"Sure. That's the best part of it. But say, Sue, d'you know what hoss he was ridin'? The skunk had stole your brown geldin' that your father used to ride."
She did not hear. She was merely saying over and over again in a sort of intoxication of joy: "Thank God! Thank God!"
ALL of Derby was awake in a moment. They thronged about Tom Kitchin's house, where the prisoner was kept tied hand and foot, and still under a strong guard. The overflow of the crowd washed back into the lunch counter for coffee and pie to talk over the details as they had heard them and to quiz the members of the posse.
But the girl left them to help themselves and pay as they pleased. She went to Tom Kitchin, and, when he heard her voice, he broke through the crowd of congratulating admirers. He was a made man, was the sheriff. He had done well before, but nothing had been a success as great as this. The county would never have another sheriff so long as he chose to continue running for office.
"I want to talk to you... alone," she breathed to Tom Kitchin.
He brushed the others aside and took her into a little front room in his house that served him as a sort of informal office, with saddles and bridles and guns hanging from the walls.
"It's all due to you, Sue," he told her. "If you say that I can, I'll let the boys know that you get the credit."
"Credit? I don't want it! I don't want it! But... tell me what's going to happen to him?"
"To Billy Angel?"
"Why, there ain't a jury in the mountains that would let him off with anything less than hangin'. A rope is too good for a dog that'd stab another man in the back!"
"You're sure, Tom?"
"Mighty sure of that. A gent that helped to acquit Mister Angel wouldn't lead no happy life around these parts ever afterward!"
"Oh, Tom, mightn't a lawyer help him? Lawyers can do queer things."
At this, he took her strongly by the shoulders and turned her face suddenly to the light.
"Lemme see," he said, "why you're so all-fired particular about what a lawyer could do for him. Why, Sue, heaven help me if it don't look like you want to help him."
"I'd never be able to sleep," she whispered to him, "if I knew that I'd been the means of a man's death."
He tried to smile at her and shake his head, but the smile died. "Sue," he said sternly, "what d'you know about this Billy Angel? How come you to care what happens to him?"
"Don't ask me... but a lawyer..."
"He's broke. He wouldn't have a cent to hire a good lawyer. There's no chance of that. Some young kid right out of law school with nothin' much on his hands, he'll step out and try to rig up some sort of a defense. That's all there'll be to it. Just a form, you see, that they'll go through. Then they'll hang him."
She cried out, and the sheriff started a little. "Sue," he said, "by the Lord I figger that there's something else in your mind."
"I've got to see him," she said. "I've got to see Billy Angel, and see him alone where nobody'll overhear what I have to say to him."
The sheriff flushed. "Sue," he said slowly, "I owe him to you. But I got a queer sort of an idea that if you was to see him now you might..."
"Might what? What could I do?"
"Touch a knife to the ropes, and the devil would be loose again!"
"My word of honor."
"Will you shake on that, Sue?"
"There." She gave him her hand and he took it with a long, firm pressure, looking hard at her, as though he were still full of doubts that he was ashamed to put into words.
"Sue," he said, "will you tell me why you turned him over to me, and now you...?"
"Don't ask me. I'm half mad. I can't talk. But I have to see him, Tom!"
He drew a long breath, and plainly it was much against his will. "Stay here," he said, and left the room.
He came back at the end of a few moments and, opening the door, showed Billy Angel in before him. She half expected to see on the face of the man some sign of the desperate adventure that he had been through that night. But there was absolutely no token. There was not a mark on his face. It seemed that the united force of the posse, although it had been enough to overwhelm him, at last, had not been able to injure him in the slightest. His hands were tied together before him. His legs were secured with irons. He could only move his feet a few inches at a time.
The sheriff closed the door. "Angel," he said, "Miss Markham has asked me to let you come in here for a little while because she's got something to say to you. It ain't regular. I hadn't ought to do it, but I'll let you stay, I guess. She's given me her word that she ain't gonna cut those ropes. Will you gimme your word, Angel, that you won't try to escape while you're here?"
Billy Angel smiled. "I'll give you my word about nothin'," he said. "I haven't asked to be brought in here. You take all the chances if I'm left. That's all."
At the brutal curtness of this speech, the color of the sheriff became high. He hesitated, wavering in his angry impulse. But a glance at the girl decided. "I'll trust it all to you, Sue," he said. "I'll stand outside the door... if you want me to keep from hearin' your voices, you'll have to talk soft. But the first queer noise that I hear, I'll be back through that door with a gun. That's for you, Angel. Lemme tell you that I brought you in alive because it was my duty to try it. But if they's trouble, remember that you mean as much to me dead as you do alive... or a mite more, my friend. Sue, it's up to you." So, curtly, he turned his back and left them.
The prisoner sat down in a chair and leaned his head against the wall. Without embarrassment, he watched the face of the girl. He seemed more interested in her than he was in his own fate. Was he, then, merely a brute?
"Billy," she said, trembling as she spoke, "I want to know what I can do for you?"
"You can make me a cigarette," Billy said calmly.
"I mean..." She broke off. After all, no matter what her aspirations might be now, what was there that she could do for him more important, truly, than some such small service as this? She took the sack from his vest pocket, together with the package of brown papers that accompanied it. Then, with clumsy, inexpert fingers, she slowly fashioned the smoke and handed it to him.
"A match," said Billy.
She took his box of matches and lighted the cigarette. Drawing a great breath, he closed his eyes, allowed the smoke to circulate through his lungs, and then blew forth a thin blue-brown cloud.
"I've come to ask if I couldn't do something more than this for you, Billy."
He nodded. "Sure," he said. "Jail grub ain't the best. You might send in some fruit, and such stuff."
It amazed her. Iron-nerved though she knew that he was, still this exhibition of animal disinterest staggered her.
"Oh, Billy Angel," she said, "heaven help you!"
"Heaven's not showed much interest so far," returned Billy. "But there ain't anything else that you can do."
"I can get a lawyer for you."
"Lawyers cost money, Sue."
"I have a little saved up. I could get it from the bank and make a first payment to the lawyer and pay the rest to him little by little."
He raised his hands in protest.
"Why not? Why not?" cried the girl.
He looked fixedly down to the floor. There was no frown of thought on his brow, but she could tell that he was intensely fixed upon some problem. At length he looked up to her with a quick, half-sidelong glance.
"I see," he said at length. "It was you."
"That told them where to camp for me."
She was struck mute, striving to speak, although she knew that her white face and her staring eyes convicted her.
He nodded again. "How did you know?" he went on, thinking aloud, and watching the confirmation of all he said appear in her face. "You saddled the mare and follered me when I left. That was it. And you follered me on until I came... by the heavens, you was outside, lookin' in!"
She shrank from him.
"You saw!" he said huskily.
It would not have been a great deal in any other man.
But when he raised his head and looked at her with glittering eyes and with a set jaw, it seemed to the girl that a very devil sat before her.
"I...," she began, and there paused, unable to speak again.
"Then you followed back," he went on, "until you seen me take the upper road, and you cut straight back to town... was that it?" He paused, then said: "It was the hoss! You was scared that I'd take the hoss along with me! Why, Sue, if I'd wanted that wooden hoss, I'd never've rode back by that trail, would I?"
"It wasn't that, Billy... only..."
"Well, there ain't any use talking about it. I ain't complaining. Only, why did you ever put out a hand for me in the first place? Well, I won't ask you even that. I'm through talkin'."
"It came all over me in a sweep, Billy Angel. I had to come back to the town and tell the sheriff. I had to tell him."
"For whose sake?"
"For the sake of Elizabeth Wainwright," she whispered.
At that, she thought that his eyes drew to two points of light. He stared at her and said not a word.
"Do you understand, Billy Angel?"
He uttered not a syllable in reply; a cold dread entered her soul.
"Billy, will you speak to me?"
There was not a word.
"Tom!" she cried in a sudden panic.
The sheriff was instantly in the room, a gun in his hand, his faced covered with perspiration—a mute testimony of the agony of spirit and of suspense through which he had been passing. "What's wrong?" he asked sharply. "What's he been doin' to you, Sue?"
"Nothing... only, I want to go and... and... I was afraid, Tom."
"Angel," said the sheriff bitterly, "hangin' is a sight too good for you. Sue, come away with me." He showed her through the door, and, as she fled away, she heard his voice continuing to his prisoner: "Now, you stand up, young feller. Stand up, Angel, and march. Faster! Why God ever made rats like you, I dunno. It sure beats me. It sure does."
She went on as fast as she could, eager to get where that voice would not follow, yet knowing to the day of her death she would never stop hearing it.
SOMETIMES conscience has no voice at all. Sometimes it forms itself into a small, dull chant, endlessly repeated. Into such a monotony it framed itself in the mind of the girl, and she went down the winding street saying to herself over and over, endlessly, helplessly, hopelessly: "I have killed a man! I have killed a man!"
She passed the Hinchman place. Oliver Hinchman was in the pasture riding his new cutting horse and trying to work the big roan stallion out into the paddock. A dangerous task, for the roan was a devil, ready to use teeth, heels, or two fore hoofs like steel stamps. Oliver waved cheerfully to her, and she paused to wave back and to watch him, for in some mysterious manner it eased her mind to watch the skill of his horsemanship and the cunning with which he drove the stallion before him. Most of all, the stallion himself was beautiful to see, terrible, useless, but glorious as he was, no man had been able to stay on his back for more than a few minutes at a time. Eventually he would be destroyed as not worth his keep. But she wondered if merely to live and be beautiful was not worth something to the world, even though the heart is wicked.
And if that were true of a dumb beast, was it not trebly true of big Billy Angel? A glorious form among men was his. Herculean strength, lion-like courage was his. And even if his soul was one compact of evil, there might well be a reason for his existence. But she had chosen to slay him, with her own hand. She could not think of it in any other way. The hand that fitted the rope around his neck was hers.
She went back to her place again. It was like entering a dungeon, and like a dungeon it remained all the day. For between her hands and the things she strove to do, shadows arose and filled her with sadness. Before noon she went to Humphrey Wraxall, the lawyer, and carried with her $115. She put it down on his desk.
"Mister Wraxall," she said, "I've got this much to begin paying you. I could save a lot of money by putting it away every week. Instead of putting it away, I'd give it to you. I could give you a share of everything I take in, at the end of every day, if you want it that way and..."
Mr. Wraxall took out his old fountain pen that was to him what the marshal's baton is to the general. He began to pass it through his pale fingers. "Now, what's the trouble?" he said. "What's the money for?"
"Billy Angel...," she began.
"Ah!" said the lawyer. "Ah!"
There was something so full of suggestion in the way he raised his eyebrows and looked at her, there was something so sinister, almost, that she quaked and then grew crimson. "I'm only interested...," she began.
"In seeing justice done, of course," said the lawyer.
But still his voice was rich with undertones of suggestion. She hated him. But he was clever. He had a reputation. Such brains as his must be enlisted if Billy Angel were to be saved.
Mr. Wraxall became serious. He tapped the fountain pen against the desk. "If you employ me," he said, "I must know everything." The fox was in his eyes.
"There is nothing to know," she said, "except that I want to see Billy Angel... free."
"Because he's innocent? Because you are sure he's innocent?"
She could not answer. Putting the question, in turn, to herself, what was her pushing reason? What did she think of Billy Angel? What was he to her?
"Innocent of what?" asked the lawyer's smooth voice. "Of robbing Steven Carney? Of stealing your horse? Or... innocent of murder, Miss Markham?"
She was transfixed. She could not answer.
"Ah," said the lawyer. "Then it's not because you feel he is innocent... but because you... admire this man? Because you respect him? Is that it? I must know everything, Miss Markham!"
"I'll come again tomorrow," she murmured, and fled from the office with an impression that he was left, smiling and triumphant, behind her.
But the questions that he had put remained in her mind all the rest of that day and all of the morrow, while she worked in a dream at the lunch counter, serving men who talked of one thing only—and that was Billy Angel, his career, and the probable end of it all.
Steve Carney came to her that evening at a moment when the room was empty. "Have you had a chance to think things over, Sue?" he asked.
She regarded him vaguely. It seemed a thousand years ago and another self that he had asked to marry him. Then she flushed a little. "I've thought it over, Steve," she said gently.
"It's no go," he said. "I could see what was coming. Well, that's done for, then. That's done." He took a breath. He made a little gesture in which he seemed to be casting away one half of his life. "There's no hope of staying around, Sue, I suppose?"
"There's no hope, Steve. I'm sorry."
"You're a kind sort of a girl, Sue," he said. "But, that's that." He settled his hat on his head firmly, as though he were about to walk out into a storm, even though the sun was shining brightly and the air was soft for that October day. Then he left the room, and she knew, as well as though she had heard him vow it, that the town of Derby would never see him again.
THERE was no meeting place in Derby except for the lunch counter. And in this time of excitement, there was a greater call for coffee and for pie than ever before since she had opened the place. She was glad of it. The baking, the brewing of the coffee, the endless cleaning of the cups and plates, the serving, the necessity of making some reply to the chatter that went on around her, kept her from going distraught with all that was sweeping ceaselessly through her mind.
She had only glimpses of the sheriff, now and then. He was busy keeping guard over his prisoner, who was about to be removed to a stronger place of safekeeping. Besides, she felt that Tom Kitchin had avoided her since the day of her interview with Billy Angel. Yet Tom was in her place when the revelation came.
He had come in to find his deputy, Jerry Saunders, and, while he was there, conversing heatedly with Jerry in a corner of the room that the loungers had generously left to them, a big man, well advanced in years, but still strong as an oak, came striding into the place.
"I want to see Sheriff Kitchin," he said.
His strong bull's voice brought every eye to him. They saw a rough, red face, beetling brows, a wide, thin-lipped mouth. He was clad in a linen duster, and he was stamping the dust out of the wrinkles of his boots. Plainly he had traveled some distance that day.
"I'm the sheriff," said Tom, turning to him.
"I'm Wainwright," said the big, rough man. "I'm Wainwright, from down the valley way. Maybe you've heard of me?"
"I have," said Tom.
"Most folks have up this way," said the cattleman, running his glance swiftly over the faces of the others, like a politician anxious lest he neglect a vote. "Well," he said, "I've come to see you about this here Billy Angel."
"Billy Angel?" said the sheriff. "If you have a complaint against him... if you've found some sort of a clue... just step over to my office."
The girl behind the counter listened, unimpressed. So much had fallen upon the head of Billy Angel, that she merely wondered, dimly, why men chose to torment him still.
"I got nothin' ag'in' him," said the cowman. "I got something for him."
"What?" exclaimed the sheriff.
"That's it. Something for him. I'm gonna set him free!"
The sheriff started. Then he smiled. He shook his head. "That sort of a joke don't get many laughs in Derby, Mister Wainwright," he said.
"Laughs ain't what I'm after," said Wainwright. "What I want to know is, first, what's ag'in' this here Billy Angel?"
"Stealing horses, robbery, and murder, that's all," said the sheriff with a very faint smile.
"What hoss did he steal?" boomed Wainwright. "Damn my heart if a gent like him would be low enough skunk to steal a hoss. But I dunno. When his mind is made up, he'd do most things, I s'pose, that stood in his way. Whose hoss did he steal?"
Sue had found her way out from behind the counter, in some way.
Wainwright turned upon her. "He stole your hoss, ma'am?"
"I make no charges against him," poor Sue said.
"Ah! You don't? You ain't steppin' on him now he's down?"
Tears of pity—for herself, for Billy Angel—crowded her eyes.
"Well," said the rancher, "you're Sue Markham?"
He nodded. "He told my daughter something about you. That cuts down the crimes by one. It's only robbery and murder, now. Who did he rob? A gent named Carney, I think. Find Carney, and I got the money here to pay him and enough money to shut his mouth. And that, Sheriff, will leave one charge left."
"Only the murder, I suppose," said Tom Kitchin slowly. "Are you going to buy him off from that?"
"I am," said Wainwright.
"With what, Mister Wainwright? Money?"
"With the blood of my own son!" exclaimed the big man in a voice of thunder. "For it was him that murdered Charles Ormond. It'll be known. It's got to be known. I'm here to talk it out where folks can hear me. It was my fool girl Betty that went out to see Charles Ormond... that handsome, useless young rat. It was my boy that went along with her. But she knowed that there might be trouble. She's been engaged... sort of under her hat... to Charlie. She wanted to break it off. And he was aimin' to be nasty about it. She took her brother along. But she took another man, too. She took along the strongest fightin' man that she knowed, and that was Billy Angel, that she asked to trail the rest and be around handy in case there was bad work on foot. And he done it. Well, there was bad work. The end of it was that Charlie Ormond and my boy got to passin' language. And finally Charlie out with a gun. It misfired. My boy had a knife in his hand. He made a pass at Charlie... Charlie turned around to get away... the knife stabbed him through the back to the heart. There stood Betty and her brother in a mess, but here slips in Billy Angel, tells 'em to hop on their hosses and ride home... he knows a way out of this. Life is dull for him. He needs excitement.
"They're too rattled to stop and talk about it. They jump on their hosses and ride for it. When they get home, they find out that Billy Angel has been found on the scene of the crime, ain't stood when he was challenged, and has been hounded through the mountains by a sheriff's posse." He paused, and then he roared: "You blockheads, can't you see that the girl is nigh dead? Get me water for her, somebody!"
He himself caught Sue and lowered her into a chair. Water was brought, but she waved it away. She wanted neither food nor drink, but only more words from the mouth of this homely angel and bringer of strange tidings.
"That was all for a while. Then down comes Billy Angel on a night that some of you can remember. He calls for my girl and talks to her in the house. He tells her that he knows that it's a hard thing to ask, but that, when he took the blame of that killing and got the chase after him, he figgered that he was foot-free, but, since that time, he'd met up with a girl in the mountains and fallen in love with her... a girl that had been nursing him and sheltering him since the first day when he was wounded." He pointed. "Sue Markham, was it you?"
What a shout from the men! In a dizzy whirl she made out the grim face of Jack Hopper from a corner, the amazed sheriff, and all the rest gaping at her.
"He wanted to be free from his bargain. He knew my boy had had trouble with his father because he ran through his allowance too quick. And Billy Angel had brought down coin for my son to run away on, if he didn't want to stay and face the music. But first he wanted my boy to talk up and take the blame for the killing of Charlie Ormond. Whatever blame there was... and my lawyer is gonna show that there was damned little! Well, sir, that's the story. I've told it brief. But if there was ever a romantic young fool, it's this here Billy Angel. I want to see him. You might have thought that he was in love with my daughter? The devil, no! He was in love with trouble, and that was all that there was to it. A trouble lover! Love of danger for the sake of danger. Well, all I can say is that he got it. But my boy ain't runnin'. He's standin' his ground. He's told all the story to me. Now, what I want is Billy Angel out of your hands, Sheriff!"
IT could not be done at once. But it suddenly appeared that there were no charges to be pressed against Billy Angel. The state had nothing to say against him. Indeed, the state was very glad to shut its mouth tight, for Billy Angel had suddenly been borne aloft on an immense wave of notorious popularity.
The wild and improbable tale of what he had done was on the tongue of every man, a story that men could appreciate because of the danger in it, and that women could understand because of Sue.
She did not rush to the sheriff's house with all the others to congratulate Billy Angel on his deliverance. She remained behind in the lunch counter, sick-hearted, crushed. It only remained for Billy, as a free man, to come to her, and pour forth his scorn upon her! But now, as she looked back over all the days he had been in love with her, she could understand. It had been love. Indeed, that chained his tongue and kept him silent. It was more an agony of sorrow than of rage that had burned in his eyes when he had discovered her betrayal. But love, at last, had been killed by her own hand.
There were only two days before the meeting. Two dreary eternities they were to poor Sue Markham.
And then he stood in the doorway, and filled it up from side to side. There were half a dozen other men in the room. Instantly they picked up their hats. They grinned at one another and at Sue. And they walked out.
Oh, fools! Fools! Little they knew the terror and the sorrow with which she looked forward to this meeting with him! Now he was coming straight toward her. She shrank behind the counter. He followed her and loomed, enormous, above her. He took one of her hands and held her fast. She closed her eyes and said through her teeth:
"You bought the right to say what you want... you can scorn me and hate me and rage at me, Billy. I got to listen!"
He said: "What I got to say won't take long. I've come to say that I love you, Sue. And I've come to say that you love me, or else you'd never have sent the sheriff for me."
She had no strength to deny it even for a single moment. She let him take both hands and all of her.