Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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EVERY man has a special country that is fitted into his heart so snugly that it fills every corner. I know fellows who talk pretty nearly with tears in their eyes of the seashore, and the white curving of the surf, and the boom and the step of it; but they never can outtalk the lads from the high mountains, where the head and shoulders of things is lifted up so high that it almost breaks loose.
Then I’ve heard the real Kentuckian mention blue grass and big hills that never stop rolling from one edge of the sky to the other; yes, I’ve heard ’em mention blue grass, and horses, too.
Up there in New England things are smaller and put together more closely, but summer mugginess and flies and winter chilblains and wind can’t stop the New Englander from talking. He’ll tell you about a second growth forest, and the smell of the moldering stumps in it, and the autumn colors slashed through it like paint flung off a brush; and he’ll talk of the brook where it runs, and the brook where it stands still and lets a couple of silver birches look down into it to see how much sky is there.
Then you’ll hear people even rave a lot about sagebrush, and the smell of the wind that comes off from it when it’s wet, but for me there’s only one land that I feel God made when He was working in real earnest. The other parts of the world—well, He just made ’em for practice, but finally He got really interested, and then He made Nevada.
Yes, I mean that. Maybe I’m not talking about the part you know, because a lot of people are loaded right down to the water line with wrong information about that State. There’s a sort of a general impression that there’s some silver mining and sage hens in it, but they’ve got to scratch their heads to remember anything else.
Well, there’s too much Nevada for the people who live there to talk about. There’s about a couple of square miles of space for every hombre in that country—yes, man, woman, and child. And when you realize that mostly everybody is raked together in a few towns and mining camps, you’ll see that it’s possible to bump right into a lot of open space out in that direction.
I’ve bumped into it, boys. I’ve ridden it from the Opal Mountains to Massacre Lakes, and from Goose Greek Range to Lake Tahoe, and wondered how there could be that much real, fresh, sweet cold water in the world. And I know the ranges that sink their claws into the hide of Nevada, like the Monitor and Pancake and Hot Creek and Toiyabe and Shoshone and Augusta. I know that whole State. I know the dry feel of it on the skin, and the red hurt of it in the eyes. And I love it. There’s salt in my throat when I think of Nevada, but I love it, and I hope that I’ll live there and die there, God bless it!
But now I’ve got to particularize a little. You may have sage flats in your mind, but that’s not the part of Nevada that I mean. No, sir; I mean the place where God really turned Himself loose and did His best. He didn’t waste any time picking and choosing. He just reached out with both hands, and He piled up all kinds of slates and limestones and quartzites and granites, and for color He piled in some volcanic rocks that are some of them as blue as the sky, and some of them as red as fire.
He worked with this stuff and threw it up into great ridges and He chopped out the valley with the edge of His palm. He made things ragged, and He made things grand. He didn’t want to dull the outlines He had drawn with forests and such things. He wanted no beard on the face that He’d made; He preferred it clean-shaven, so He reached over to the westward, and He ridged up the Sierra Nevadas. There’s quite a lot of people in the State of Oranges and Hot Air—California, I mean—that think that the Sierra Nevadas were built up for their own special satisfaction, a kind of a wall and a turning of the back on the rest of the world; but really the only reason that the Sierras are up so high is to catch all the rain winds out of the westerly and pick out the mists and the clouds so that only a pure, dry air can blow over Nevada. God didn’t want those Nevada mountains and valleys to rust in the rain.
Well, when He’d finished off the main outlines, He says to Himself that He might give a few finishing touches, so He paved the valleys with fine white sand, and He polished up the mountains so that they’d shine, night and day. And then He says to Himself that this is the finest spot on earth, and what will He put into it?
Well, He finally picked out the jack rabbit that was biggest and fastest, and it could clear a mountain in its stride; and then He hunted up some coyotes that could run the rabbits down; and after that He got the wisest beast in the world, a big frame and a loose hide, and an eye like a man’s eye, and He put the gray wolf into the picture and yellowed and grayed it a good deal to make it fit in with the landscape better. Here and there He let a four-footed streak of greased lightning step through those valleys on tiptoe, and those antelope are the fastest and the wisest of their silly, beautiful kind. On the ground He laid rattlesnakes to catch fools, such as you and I, and in the air He put the sage thrasher and the Texas nighthawk, and the mourning dove, and in every sky He hung one buzzard.
Now He wanted to get some people in there to see all this picture, but He didn’t want many. So He just sifted into the rocks of His mountains some gold and silver, here and there. It wasn’t much. It was a trace. Just enough to make your mouth water, and not hardly enough to swallow. But the prospectors got the wind of it, and they came ten thousand miles across the world to have a look. Mostly they turned back on the rim of the picture—it was too black and white for them, and all the white was fire. The thermometer was ranging a hundred and fifty degrees in the year, and some had their hearts burned out, and some had their feet frozen. But a few went on in.
They climbed up onto the shoulders of those mountains and thanked God for a piñon, now and then; even the greasewood, and the creosote bushes and the sage seemed like company out there. They found their leads, and they sank their shafts into hard ground and banged and hammered all day long. They got mighty little, and they knew, mostly, that there wasn’t much hope. But still they felt mighty contented.
Well, it might have been because of the mornings, before they started to work and let their eyes go sinking over the white valleys, or the mountains beginning to tremble and blush in the early light. Or it might have been because of the evenings, when they sat dead tired and smoked their pipes, and looked at the evening rising just like a blue smoke out of the bottom of the rifts.
That was what I was doing.
I was just sitting there in front of my claim and figuring out that I had used up my last can of tomatoes, and sort of cussing a little, quietly and comfortably, all to myself; but my brain didn’t hear what my lips were muttering, do you see, because I was too really busy taking gun shots down one ravine filled with that blue smoke, and then down another choked with fire. And the white of the valley floor was still pure and very little clouded, and away off on the vanishing edge of things I could see a slowly moving cloud.
It was a dust cloud. It was raised by wild horses. I had seen them that morning, looking through that glass-clear air. During the night they would pass me, but on the following morning I would be able to see them again, traveling on at their unfailing lope in a two-day run to the water holes of the Shoe Horn Valley, away beyond.
I remember thinking of the wild horses, that I’d like to be out on the back of one of them, the wildest stallion of the lot, and go flowing on with the dusty stream of their march, and stay with them forever, contented. I mean to say, I felt that I was only sitting still on the bank of the river, looking; but those horses were in the river, they were in the picture, they were a part of it.
While I was thinking these things over, a voice says behind me:
“Why, hello, old Joe!”
I just pulled myself a little closer together. I looked up, but I was afraid to look behind.
“I’ve got them!” I said to myself.
I mean, when you’re out all alone for too long a stretch, sometimes the brain wabbles a little, and you’ll find a prospector turn as batty as a sheep-herder. For surely that voice I heard could not have come from any human lips. That boy Chip was likely to be anywhere, but he simply couldn’t have materialized there at my back.
I laughed a little, with a quiver in my voice. “I’ve certainly got ’em!” said I aloud.
“Look around, Joe,” said the voice again.
So I turned around and looked, and by thunder, there was the freckled face and the fire-red hair of Chip, sure enough! My heart jumped at the sight of him.
Also, my heart fell!
“YOU little sawed-off son of salt,” I said to him. “Where did you drop from?”
He hooked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the mountainside that leaned back into the sky.
“Aw, over that way,” said he.
We shook hands. He had the same hands that I remembered so well. They hadn’t changed a bit; there seemed to be the same dirt darkening them around the first joints, if you know what I mean. No, all of him was just the same. He had sixteen years of growth on him, and a hundred years of sense, and a thousand years of meanness. All mixed and rolled and stewed together. Nobody ever talked down to Chip. Not more than once, I mean. One try was usually enough.
“Sit down,” said I. “You just walked out here a few hunderd miles and found me, eh? No trouble to you. What did you do? Learn the buzzard language and ask the birds which way to go?”
He sat down on the ground, laid his back against a rock, and folded his arms under his head. He was facing partly away from me, so that he could look at the same picture which I was seeing.
“Make me a smoke, Joe, will you?” says he.
I was about to throw him the makings and tell him to roll his own, when I saw that he was dead tired. There were violet shadows thumbed out under his eyes. Besides, just the asking for a cigarette was enough to show that he was beat. He didn’t smoke them often.
So I rolled him tobacco and wheat straw, and stuck it in his mouth and lighted it for him; and he didn’t budge a hand, but just lay there with his eyes half closed and looked at the picture in front of us.
The poor kid was almost all in. I said nothing for a time. I simply watched him, do you see? He smoked that cigarette to a butt and jerked it out, and he breathed deep three times before the smoke was entirely out of his lungs.
Then I said: “You’ve gone and got yourself a whole flock of new clothes since I saw you last.”
“Yeah,” said he, “you know the way Dug is. He’s always trying to dress me up.”
“Yeah. I know,” said I.
“That’s the trouble with Dug,” said the kid. “He’s kind of a dude.”
“Yeah. He’s kind of a dude,” said I, “but he’s all right.”
“Yeah, sure, he’s all right,” said the kid. “But he’s a dude. He’s always fixing himself up and dressing up. You know what he did down in Tahuila?”
“What did he go and do there?” I asked.
“He done himself up in Mexican clothes. All velvet and such stuff. And he went and got a big plume to curl around his head. He thought he looked fine. He was always standing around and spreading his legs and looking at himself in the mirror and curling his whiskers with one hand.”
“I bet you handed him something,” said I.
“Yeah. I handed him something,” said Chip. “But he didn’t care. He’s getting so he don’t care what I say to him.”
“He knows you kind of like him,” said I.
“Think that’s it?” said he.
“Yeah. That’s it,” said I.
“Well, maybe,” said Chip.
I swallowed a smile. He and Dug Waters were closer than brothers. I was pretty thick with them, too. But what they meant to one another was real blood. They’d owed their lives, each to each, I don’t know how many times.
“What did he do when he got all dressed up?” said I.
“Aw, he goes and crashes into a dance,” said Chip.
“Did they try to throw him out?” said I.
“Yeah, they tried,” said Chip, and yawned heartily. He went on: “He stayed quite a while, though. The furniture got sort of busted up, and his fine clothes were spoiled, but he kept the music playing, and he kept on dancing. I gave him the sign when the cops were coming, and then he left. But that’s the trouble with him. He’s always dressing up. You know how it is. You always get into trouble when you’re dressed up.”
“How’d you lose half of those suspenders?” I asked him.
“That was a shack,” said Chip. “He reached for me as I was getting off the back end of the caboose on a grade. He got half the suspenders, but he didn’t get me.”
“That’s good,” said I. “How about the sleeve of the shirt? What happened to that?”
“A funny thing about that,” said Chip. “The railroad cop, when he grabbed me, he grabbed so hard that when I popped out of my coat I had to tear that sleeve right out of the shirt, too, before I could shake him. You never seen a guy with a grip like that cop had.”
“Where was this?” I asked.
“Aw, in a railroad yard,” said Chip. “This was one of them mean cops. You know the real mean ones?”
“Yeah. I know.”
“He comes cruising up to me in the dark,” said Chip. “He makes a pass at me, and all his fingers are fishhooks, what I mean to say. He grabs me and he holds me. I have to peel out of the coat and the shirt sleeve. The talking that cop done as he heeled after me, you’d’ve laughed to’ve heard it, Joe.”
He himself smiled faintly, a little wearily, at the memory.
“That was hard on the shirt, all right,” said I. “You got a pretty bad rip in those trousers too.”
One side of them was almost torn away, and had been loosely patched together with sack twine.
“You know how it is about a window?” said Chip. “I mean, the nails that are always sticking out around a window? That was what happened. I was clean through and ready to drop for the ground, and nobody had heard a thing, and then I got hung up on a nail. It makes me pretty dog-gone sore, Joe, the way carpenters make a window. Dog-gone me, if I was a carpenter and called myself a carpenter, and set up for being a carpenter, I’d be one, and I’d hammer in my nails, and I’d countersink ’em—around a window, anyways.”
He was very indignant. His anger helped to take his weariness away.
“Yeah,” I said. “Carpenters are no good. Who’d want to be a carpenter, anyway? But what window were you climbing out of?”
“Aw, it was nothing,” said he carelessly. “It was just a bet I had on with Dug Waters. He said I couldn’t break into a house. I said I could.”
I began to perspire a little.
“What did you get, Chip?” said I.
He turned his head quickly and glanced at me.
“Whatcha think?” said he. “I ain’t in that line. I never ain’t going to be in it, either, what’s more.”
“That’s right,” said I. “You’re a good kid, Chip.”
“Aw, go on. I ain’t a good kid, either,” said he. “But I ain’t a thief. I don’t go around stealing. That’s all I don’t do.”
“Just a chicken now and then?” said I.
“That’s lifting. That ain’t stealing,” said Chip calmly. “You oughta know the difference between lifting and stealing, oughtn’t you?”
“Sure,” said I. “There’s a lot of difference. How do you feel, now?”
“Me? I always feel good,” said he. “How about you?”
“I’m all right. I’m just kind of down now, because I’ve used up my tomatoes.”
“Have you?” said Chip. “Well, you’re gonna get some more.”
“When?” I asked him.
“Pronto,” said he.
And he held up one finger to make me listen. I heard it, then. It was the thin, silver music of a bell, beyond the shoulder of the hill.
“What’s that?” I asked him.
“That’s my hoss and mule,” said Chip.
“Oh,” said I. “Then Dug Waters is coming after you, is he?”
“No,” said Chip.
“Who’s with ’em, then?” I asked.
“Nobody’s with ’em,” said he. “There’re by themselves.”
I looked at him pretty hard, but he paid no attention, as though there were nothing really worthy of attention in what he had said. He merely looked off across the blue and red of the evening, toward one great polished face of granite which took the light and gave it back as a mirror would.
“Maybe you’ve worked a charm on ’em?” said I. “And they can’t help following you?”
“I got a charm, all right,” said he. “I got the meanest mustang in the world, all right. He’s a charm! But he’ll follow me. He’ll follow me around like a dog, because he gets pretty lonely without me. He don’t feel nacheral at all without somebody in the saddle that he can annoy a little. If it ain’t bucking, it’s reaching around and taking a bite at my foot; and if there’s a cliff handy, he likes to walk right out onto the edge of nothing and bite a couple of chunks out of it, and he don’t turn back until the cliff is crumblin’ under his feet, and even then, he don’t hurry. Then he likes to give me a rub against a handy boulder along the way, that cayuse does. And if he ain’t bucking, he’s always humping his back like he was about to begin, so’s your nerves never get good and settled down.
“He’s so fond of makin’ me miserable that he can’t do without me. I’m his kicking post, and he certainly likes to kick. He’s lammed me three times on this trip, and he’s gonna lam me three times more; and I’ve seen the air around my head all full of his heels. That’s the kind of a mustang that he is! He can’t do without me. So I know that he’ll follow me, because he’s got a gift of scenting like a wolf, and so I hang a bell around his neck; and the mule is an old train mule, and follows that bell like it was a bag of oats. And when I get tired of fighting the cayuse, I hop off and take a walk ahead, like now, and he’s sure to come after me. First he balks, and pretends that he ain’t coming, but when he remembers what a lot of fun he’s had pounding me, he always gives in and comes along after.”
When Chip got through with this explanation, over the shoulder of the mountain, between two runty piñons, I saw the procession coming, the little mustang first, and a longlegged, knock-kneed, pot-bellied mule behind him.
That cayuse came up, and my burro began to bray, it was so glad of having company. Right up to Chip that mustang came, and reaches down and takes off the battered old felt hat that Chip is wearing.
“Aw, quit it,” says Chip, without turning his head, and sort of tired. “Quit it, and go off and lay down, or I’ll get up and slam you one.”
Well, it amused me a good deal to see the mustang drop the hat and go off to the side to pick at some bunch grass. It amused me, because it seemed as though he had understood.
He was the meanest-looking horse that I ever saw, with a Roman nose, and a red look about the eye; and there was that hump in the back that always means a hard gait and a mighty good bucker.
“How’d you come to pick out that horse, Chip?” said I.
“Out of a hundred,” said Chip. “I could have had my pick of the whole bunch; but while I was looking, there was a fight started in the corral between a great big sixteen-hand bay, with quarters like a dray horse, and this little runt. And they just backed up against one another and let drive. Every time the bay kicked I looked to see the runt exploded right off the face of the earth, like gunpowder. But every time it kicked, its fool heels flew over the back of the cayuse, and every time the cayuse kicked, its feet went into the big fat quarters of that bay like a clapping of hands. After a while the bay had enough, begun to squeal and run away, and this little wild cat run after him, and took out a chunk with his teeth while the bay was running. ‘Shoot that blankety-blank hoss-eating mustang!’ yells the boss. ‘No,’ I says, ‘sell it to me!’ So that’s how I got him.”
I got through laughing, and I said: “Where are you bound, and what for, Chip?”
“I’m bound to you from Waters,” said he. “Take off that saddlebag and you’ll see why.”
I went over and navigated around the bronco until I got the saddlebag off. I brought it back and opened it, and dumped out the contents on the ground; and what I saw was a whole stack of packs of cards, except that they were bigger than packs of cards, and at the ends of them I could see the figures.
And all at once I threw up my hands and let out a howl, because I knew that all that stuff was United States green-backs, lying there on the rocks before me!
SOMETIMES I had daydreamed about how good it would be if I could run into a flock of money like that—sort of have it poured down before me by the dropping of the tailpiece of a government truck, or something like that. I had always felt that the joy would run up through my veins as bright as silver.
But I was wrong.
At least, out there in the center of the Nevada desert, the first thing that I did was to throw a look around over both shoulders, and the second thing was to go and grab my rifle and shove some cartridges into it.
Even then I didn’t feel very easy, because my hands were shaking, and I was as cold as ice all around my mouth. My voice quaked when I came back to Chip and stood over him.
“You little son of torment!” said I to him.
He only grinned at me.
“Gimme the makings, Joe,” says he.
“You don’t smoke till you’ve done some talking,” says I.
He grinned again. He settled himself back against the rock as though it were a pillow and folded his arms under his head, with his skinny elbows sticking out on either side.
“Go on,” said he. “What d’you wanta know?”
“Everything,” said I.
“That’s easy,” says the kid. “Once upon a time there was a bank, and inside of the bank there was a president that knew how to suck the gold out of people like a spider does blood out of flies, and inside of the president’s office there was a safe all bright and shining and new and guaranteed, where the president laid up the gold. And now there’s the same bank, and the same president, and the same safe. But there ain’t any door onto the safe. Leastwise, there wasn’t the last time I saw it. And a couple hundred thousand dollars’ worth of lining is gone, too, right out of the president’s safekeeping.”
All the rocks and the mountains shifted and wavered a little as I heard this. I looked down at the little pile I had turned out of the saddlebag.
“Two—hundred—thousand!” said I.
“Yeah. Or nigher onto a quarter of a million,” says the kid.
I looked at the loot again.
It didn’t seem to me like stolen money. It seemed different; I can’t say why. Because there was so much of it, that it seemed almost right and good to have taken it. I thought of a lump of gold weighing eight hundred pounds. It would load down two mules solid. And that was what that little stack of paper meant. It was a treasure. That’s what I thought of it.
Murder came hot up in me. I want to be honest and tell the horrible truth about it. I had half of a mind to tap the boy over the head with the butt of the rifle and then all of this money would be mine. I took my knuckles a good hard swipe across my forehead, and then my brain was clear, and I was able to think and see right again.
I found that Chip was stretched out there in just the same position, looking up at me with a funny little smile.
He nodded. “Yeah, I know,” said he.
“Do you?” said I, and I stared down, and saw that his bright, wise eyes were full of information and understanding.
“Yeah,” went on Chip. “I had the same idea. When I started away, I was a mind to cut and run, and never see Waters again if I could help it. But then I remembered, and didn’t.”
“Remembered that he’d track you down?” I asked.
“No. I remembered that he wouldn’t try,” said Chip.
I let this idea go through me with an electric jump, and I saw that it was true. After all that Chip had done for Waters, Dug never would lay a hand on him, no matter what else he did. Not for a quarter of a million in hard cash.
“How did he do the trick?” I asked the boy.
“How did he do it? Oh, that was easy. He just chloroformed a watchman and cut his way in, and cut his way out. It was an easy job. That bank had plate-glass windows, and you could look through them into the lighted insides of the bank, day and night, and see the safe. And the light was still shining inside the bank all that night; but Dug, he just washed a couple of the panes of the window glass with soapy water, and after that, everything you could see from the street was a mist. And he worked inside as easy as you please.”
I nodded. I could see Waters, cool and easy and calm, doing his work inside the bank, with no other screen to protect him than a film of mist through which the passersby could half see. I thought of the cleverness of it, too—people who wandered down the street that night would never give the soapy windows a thought. But a curtain or a shade drawn would have been a different matter.
“Go on,” said I.
“To what?” asked Chip.
“To where you start and Dug stays back.”
“Well, they guessed at Dug, and he knew that they’d guess at him,” said Chip, “and just then they didn’t have anything on him, but they were pretty sure to lay a slick job like that to his door. So he sat still and let them grab him and third-degree him, if they wanted to. And while they were working over him, there was me, all dressed up in a new suit of clothes, and with a good saddlebag crammed with the stuff, hiking it down the railroad. I lost some of the clothes, but I come through with the loot.”
“How did you find me?” I asked.
“Well, I dropped in at Newbold’s place. And Marian Newbold, she went and cried all over me. And she was going to reform me and get me sure jammed into a school this time. But I managed to find out that you were off in this direction, so I slid out at night and barged along, and the next day I bought me this outfit and hit the desert up this way. I happened onto the place where you bought your own outfit, and they gave me enough of a lead to follow along for quite a ways. The rest was luck.”
I considered this for a moment. I mean to say, I thought of the nerve of Waters in trusting that fortune into the hands of the boy, and the dangers that the kid had gone through, beating his way a thousand miles, I suppose, to find me. But here he was, true as a homing pigeon, arrived at me!
It was an amazing thing. It was so amazing that I went over and unsaddled his horse and mule while I thought it over still longer. He got to his feet to help me, but I saw the waver of him through the dusk, and I told him to sit still. He could be the guest, tonight, and I’d take care of things.
I did. I dragged in the packs and the saddles under the boarding about the mouth of the shaft, and under the lean-to where I lived, though there wasn’t much room in that.
Chip had brought along all the supplies in the world. There was no reason why he should have bought both a horse and a mule; but he said that he really did not know how long he would have to cruise before he found me, and so he had prepared for a voyage of any length. With his pockets full of cash, he did not spare his funds, but he laid in the best of everything.
There were the cans of tomatoes that he had promised. And I don’t know anything better than canned tomatoes on a trip. They put seasoning into even the toughest old sage hen, and they make you a drink that beats beer, even—there’s a good, sour bite to it. He had jams, and the best kind of white flour, and the finest bacon you ever saw, and plenty of coffee, and the little runt actually put in some pickles, too. He sure was a regular food caravan, that kid!
We ate a supper that nearly burst us both, and then we laid back, and I stoked up on my pipe and pulled off my boots, and wriggled my toes in the cool of the night breeze, and saw the stars drifting and drifting up over the mountain heads, and showing through the valley rifts, until it seemed as though they were rising out of the ground and setting into it again like undying sparks from a fire.
“Now you tell me why you’re here, son,” said I.
“Because it’s a long time since I seen you, and I had to go somewhere,” said he.
I shook my head. I looked across the deadness of the firelight to the face of the kid, and the bright glint of his eyes.
“You liar, you come clean with me,” said I.
“Yeah, I’m coming clean,” said Chip. “The fact is that everything looked pretty good. And then I heard that Tug Murphy had hooked into the traces and was going to work on this job.”
It was not the first time that they had tried wits against one another. And it was not the first time that Chip had thrown his weight decisively into the scale.
That Irish sheriff was not the cleverest fellow in the world, but he was a bulldog on a trail, and he was likely to get by persistence what smarter men missed, in spite of their brains. It gave me a stir to hear that name. I could see the red fighting face once more. I could hear the rasp of his voice against my ear.
“What has Murphy got to do with this game?” I asked.
“He’s on the trail,” said the boy. “I didn’t mind the others. I would have stayed put. They wouldn’t suspect me of anything. But Tug Murphy is different. He’s got brains, and he knows where to look for the most trouble. So, sometimes, he might give me a look. And a whole saddlebag full of stuff ain’t so easy to hide.”
“He’s a mean man to handle,” I admitted, “and he’s a hard one to get away from. There’s no doubt about that. Still, old son, I don’t quite know what brought you out here.”
“It’s like this,” said the kid gravely. “There was Dug Waters all surrounded night and day, with the dicks watching him and every move that he made. I couldn’t get to him to ask him what to do. And when I heard that Murphy was taking the trail, then I knew that I’d have to get close to somebody a little older and with more sense than me. And, of course, I thought about our partner. I thought about you, Joe. So here I am.”
“Hold on,” said I. “You thought about me?”
“Why, of course I did,” he answered quickly.
“But look here, son,” said I. “I don’t have any share in deals like this. I don’t work—in this line.”
“Yeah, but you’re a friend,” said Chip.
I stared at him. I saw his meaning. A friend is a friend, no matter what the strain.
“But, suffering Moses, Chip!” said I. “Don’t you realize that Tug Murphy knows that I’m a friend of yours and Waters’s? Isn’t he likely as not to come for me, if he hears that you’ve disappeared in this direction?”
THIS idea of mine had not occurred to Chip, it appeared. He scratched his head for a time and then nodded across the dimness of the firelight.
“It was a wrong steer that I had,” said he. “I ought to’ve remembered that the sheriff knew you were in with us in the jail break when we got Waters loose. I just forgot, kind of. I was a fool, Joe, I guess. But tomorrow I’ll start along.”
It made me feel sorry to see the boy repentant. That was a humor one didn’t often spot in him. Generally he was fighting back if you tried to corner him.
So I said: “Look here, Chip. It’s all right. Don’t you worry about the thing. I’ll manage it, all right. And after all, this is a tolerable big country for even the sheriff to find us in.”
“Aye,” said Chip, “but I’ve blazed the trail out here the second time. And just supposing that he should turn up!” His shoulders twitched. I saw him shudder.
“Well, it’s all right,” I said vaguely.
“It ain’t all right,” said Chip. “Because if he seen you with that saddlebag loaded with coin, what would he be thinking? Nothing at all, except that you were in on the deal.”
“Oh, I can easily prove that I was out here when the robbery took place,” said I.
“Yeah, but there’s receivers of stolen goods, and all of that,” said Chip.
“Yes,” said I. “There are those, all right.” I added: “You know a good deal about this stuff, it seems to me, Chip.”
He sighed, and then he answered: “You know how it is, Joe. I hear a lot from Dug Waters. And I hear a lot from his pals, too.”
“What pals has he got now?” I asked. “He was playing a lone hand, mostly, when I last heard about things.”
“You know how it is,” said Chip. “When a gent has played the game for a while, he gets sort of careless. I mean to say, he gets to thinking that he will always be able to beat it. And that’s the way with Dug. He’s nearly always beaten the law. And now he thinks that the law is a pup. He used never to trust nobody but me. Now he begins to trust everybody, it seems. He’s softening up a good deal, I guess!”
I could have sighed, myself.
It was a wonderful thing, the way that boy had stuck to Dug Waters. They loved each other. They would have died for one another. And Dug Waters kept the hands of the kid clean all the while that he himself was going from gun fight to robbery to knife brawls. He watched out for the lad all the while, and the lad watched out for him. I was mighty fond of Dug. He was a little elegant, and had his eyebrows in the air a good part of the time, but he was the real stuff, and a friend that never forgot you. And that last thing is the most important in the world, I think.
So I stared through the dull of the firelight toward the boy, and I wondered what would come of him, and how he could possibly live that life of companionship with Waters without eventually becoming as outlawed as Waters was. Waters was having a free spell. He had been cornered. He had stood trial. And one of the smartest lawyers in the Southwest had freed him. It cost Waters a fortune, but now his record was smudged. The herring had been pulled across the trail, and he could come and go with all the other legal-minded people of the world.
It was all right for Waters. But what about the boy?
I said: “What are you going to do about settling down, Chip, one of these days?”
“Settling down?” said he.
“I mean going to school, and all that,” I suggested.
“Oh, I dunno,” he answered gloomily. “Don’t be so dog-gone sour, Joe, will you?”
“All right,” said I. “We won’t talk about it.”
“I think about it plenty,” he went on. “But I can’t cut away from Dug. He needs me. He gets pretty crazy when he’s left to himself. He gets to acting like a lord, or something. He orders his ham and eggs on a gold plate, you might say. There ain’t any sense in that. And Dug needs me. I sort of straighten him out. He’ll listen to me—a little!”
He sighed again.
“You go to bed, son,” said I. “You’ve been up a long while, and you’ve had a long march.”
He nodded, stood up, stretched, and rolled down his blankets. But before he turned in, dead tired as he was, he went off and found the mustang and rubbed its nose with his fist.
“Good night, you old son of a gun,” said he. “I’m gonna be braining you one of these days.”
Then he came back and turned in.
But I sat up a while. I was bothered by several things. One was pity for Chip, and wondering what was to come of him. One was thinking of that saddlebag loaded with a fortune. And one was of Sheriff Tug Murphy, somewhere out in the desert, most likely, and very apt to be headed my way.
Well, it was a bad business, it seemed to me. But finally I turned in myself, and lay there for a while until the stars grew misty and dull; that was the moment I went to sleep.
I woke up with something tapping the sole of my foot. I didn’t open my eyes. I just said: “Don’t be a dang fool, burro. Get out of here!”
He used to have a way of doing that, that fool burro I had with me. I mean, he’d come and paw at my foot, or maybe at my hand, in the middle of the night. Just for meanness, or for company; I never could make out.
That tapping at my foot kept on. So I opened my eyes and looked up to the sky, and there I saw the moon riding well above the eastern mountains, and the cold of the night air was on my face and eyes, so that I knew I had been sleeping for quite a time.
Then I looked a little lower, and I saw the sombrero and the shoulders of a man standing below me.
I didn’t need another tap at my foot. I woke up pronto. And I sat up, too, and saw a burly fellow standing there with the moon over his right shoulder.
“Hello, Joe,” said he.
I recognized the voice. I recognized the iron rasp in it, I mean to say. It was Sheriff Tug Murphy!
“Hello, Tug,” said I. “This is a lucky kind of a surprise.”
I stood up.
“Yeah, I guess it’s kind of a surprise,” said Tug Murphy. “Just mind your hands a little. Don’t make no funny moves.”
“I won’t make any funny moves,” said I. I added: “What’s up? You’re not trying to hang anything on me?”
“I dunno that I’m gonna hang anything on you,” said the sheriff. “I’m just hankering after a little of your conversation.”
“That’s the way with bein’ bright,” said I to him. “People enjoy your talk so much that they just can’t get along without it. They gotta ride a coupla hundred miles across the desert to hear some more of it. Sit down and rest your feet, Tug. I’ll wake up the fire and get some coffee started for you.”
“You just step into your boots,” said Tug. “We’ll let the fire and the coffee take care of itself for a while.”
I dressed. And all the time I was looking out of the corner of my eye at the shine of the leather of the saddlebag that lay beside the dead embers of my fire. And in that bag there was enough to soak me into prison for ten years, I guessed.
I looked a little farther to the left toward the blankets of the kid. The blankets were there, but the kid wasn’t. There was no sign of him.
He must have heard a noise and waked and got away. I took it pretty hard of him that he hadn’t given me a sign, or taken away that danged saddlebag, at the least.
I dressed, as I say, and then I threw some wood onto the fire, and it began to fume and smoke. I filled the coffeepot with water out of the bucket. That water in the bucket was standing so still that a star had dropped down into it, I remember. And after the water got through slopping around, the image of the star came shuddering back again, all split and shattered into pieces. But settling down into its old self.
I was pretty thoughtful as I raked that fire together and put the pot on top of two rocks, where the flame started to lick at it and curl around it.
“A funny thing about a coffeepot,” said the sheriff. “It draws the fire to it, sort of. Ever notice that?”
“Yeah,” said I. “That’s a funny thing, but I could tell you a lot of funnier ones.”
“Like you being out here,” said I. “What kind of a brain storm have you got, boy?”
Tug Murphy laughed.
“You mean you’re too dog-gone virtuous to be suspected, eh?” says he.
“Well, you know me, Tug,” said I.
“I know you, all right,” said he.
“And what have I ever pulled except a wad of tobacco out of a hip pocket?”
“That may be a true thing,” says he. “I dunno. That may be a pretty true thing. But you know how it is, old son.”
“What way?” said I.
“I mean, you know that rocks don’t melt very easy.”
“Yes,” said I. “I know that pretty well.”
“But still, there is fires that can melt ’em.”
“Go on, Tug,” said I. “I’m getting sort of tired of all this. What are you talking about, anyway?”
“I’m talking about two hundred and fifty-three thousand dollars!” says the sheriff.
I whistled. “That’s enough for me,” I said. “I’ll take that much. But what are you driving at?”
“That money’s missing from the bank,” said the sheriff. “And I’m out here after it. You see that I’m playing my cards all on the table in front of you, boy?”
“Yeah, I see that,” said I. “That’s a compliment that you’re paying to me, Tug. I’ve gone and wished a quarter of a million out of a bank and laid it up here. Is that it?”
I grinned across the fire at him, and he was still as serious as could be.
“I know that the kid trekked in this direction,” said he. “And I know that he must have been heading for you with the cash. Now I’ll tell you this. Turn over the boodle and there’s not a word more said. The bank wants it too bad. Turn it over, and there’ll never be a word said to you about the job, son!”
IT gave me a jump to hear him talk, and that I’ll admit. I mean to say, there was the saddlebag, still in the corner of my eye, and if the sheriff should open it—out would come penitentiary for me. And if I turned over the stolen goods, there was an end of the trouble. I tell you that I was tingling to tell him and just point out the saddlebag.
But then I thought of Dug Waters. He had been true blue with me. He had had my life in the palm of his hand once and he had let me go. He had saved me.
You can’t forget things like that. And there were other things between us—a lot of them. It’s true that I never had worked with him on any of his crooked jobs, because that’s not my line. But nevertheless, there had been a good deal between us, and I was mighty fond of Waters. There was the kid, too. What would Chip do if I let the saddlebag slip through my fingers into the hands of the law? He would never forgive me, and that was plain!
Well, during about a tenth part of a second I thoroughly sifted every one of these questions, and then I decided that, law or no law, danger or no danger, friends came first, and I couldn’t blab.
“Tug,” said I, “it’s a sort of inspiring thing to hear you ask me for a quarter of a million. It shows the kind of faith that you have in me. There may be a quarter of a million in these mountains, but my luck is so bad that it would take me a thousand years to get it. Right now I’m taking about four or five dollars a day out of this here ground, and breaking my back, at that.”
When he heard this he laughed a little.
“You know what I mean, old son,” said he. “I’m talking about cash from a bank. And the kid must have brought it here.”
“You mean Chip?”
“Who else would I mean?” said he.
The coffee was beginning to simmer and to throw up the nose of its steam straight out of the spout, and the fragrance spread around over the place and smelled pretty good.
“Chip’s not been here,” said I.
He lurched his shoulders forward and stuck out his jaw.
“He’s not been here?” he echoed.
“No,” said I, as steadily as I could. “He’s not been here.”
And I looked straight back across the fire into the eyes of the sheriff.
I could see the savage twist of his lips and the evil in his eyes. A mean man was Tug Murphy when his blood was up, and it didn’t take much to get it up.
“Have a can of coffee,” said I. “There’s no poison in it. Here’s some sugar, too.” I handed the things over.
He stirred in the sugar, still staring at me as though he could eat me.
“What you doin’ with sugar this long out?” said he. “How come it lasted so long?”
“You know,” said I, “that I’ve always had a sort of sweet tooth. So I take along a good supply. But the fact is that this isn’t my sugar.”
“No,” said he, “I’ll bet that it’s not your sugar. It’s the stuff that Chip brought.”
“Chip?” said I. “You’ve got Chip on the brain.”
“I got reason to have him on the brain,” said he. “He’s laid me the trickiest trail that I’ve ever followed—and I’ve rode after Indians, son!”
“Yeah, Chip could lay you a hard trail to follow,” I agreed. “But I guess you won’t find him here, Tug.”
He shrugged his heavy shoulders. The coffee was very hot, so he sipped it noisily. And then, breathing up it, he sipped it again. He was not a pretty man to watch, I can tell you, and he was staring at me as though I were red meat.
“Old son Joe,” said he, “I reckon that you’re lyin’ to me.”
“All right,” said I. “You go on reckonin’. And the real crook will be getting miles away from you.”
He only grinned. “You out here all alone?” he said.
“Me?” said I.
“Yeah. They told me back yonder that you’d come out all alone.”
I remembered the rumpled blankets of the kid, and I answered:
“No, I’m not alone. I was alone when I started, but I’m not alone now. A funny thing happened. You know old Chris Winter?”
“Yeah. I know old Chris,” said he. “I used to, anyway.”
“Well,” said I, “old Chris, he got it into his head that he’d strike out in this direction, and when he heard where I intended to prospect, he came along and found me, and we teamed up. It’s pretty good to have somebody to talk to, you know, even if it’s no more than old Chris.”
“Sour old sinner, ain’t he?” said the sheriff.
“Yeah. He’s sort of sour, but he’s all right,” said I.
“Where is he now?” asked the sheriff. “Does he smell sheriffs a long distance off and get restless and go walking?”
“You know how it is,” said I. “He’s got insomnia.”
“No, I don’t know how it is,” said he. “He’s got ‘in’ what?”
“’Somnia,” said I. “He can’t sleep very good.”
“Can’t he?” said the sheriff. “Maybe he ain’t got the words, but he certainly can play the tune. I recollect makin’ a trip through Inyo County in California, and old Chris Winter was along, and dog-gone his heart if he didn’t make the mountains tremble all night long, he snored so loud! I never heard such snorin’.”
“It must’ve busted down his nerves,” I suggested. “Anyway, he’s a pretty light sleeper now.”
“Dog-gone me, but I’m glad to hear it,” said Tug Murphy.
“So he gets up,” said I, “and he goes off for a walk in the middle of the night when he finds out he can’t sleep. It’s hard lines on the old feller, all right. But he don’t whimper much.”
“How long has he been out here with you?” says the sheriff.
“Quite a spell,” says I. “Let’s see: yeah—it’s quite a while, now, that the old boy has been out here with me.”
“That’s a mighty interesting thing,” said the sheriff. “Does he look kind of nacheral, too?”
“Why, sure he does,” said I. “That face of his couldn’t look anyway but natural. It would break, otherwise.”
I thought this was a pretty good joke, so I laughed a little, but I couldn’t help noticing that the sheriff did not seem to be in the least amused.
Then he says: “There’s a lot of interest in this for me. I’ve always been pretty interested in ghosts and spirits and things.”
“What do you mean?” says I.
“Why, man,” says he, “ain’t Chris been dead for three months and more?”
It was a hard jolt for me. It was a punch on the point of the chin, so to speak. I got my breath and my wits back as well as I could.
The sheriff went on: “Chris was workin’ on the Morgan and Rister crew, and he goes and falls down a shaft. Now, wasn’t that a fool thing for an old hand like him to do? But I’m glad to see that his ghost has come out here to carry on with the drill. He was always a wonderful good hand with a single jack, was Chris Winter.”
I let the sheriff carry along. I was trying to think. But I couldn’t make much progress. He was grinning and chuckling all the while.
“Well, Tug,” I said at last, “the fellow who’s out here as my partner is not Chris Winter. Though I wish that name had gone down. He is a light sleeper, though, and he don’t want to see you.”
“I’ll bet he don’t,” said the sheriff. “In a word, you might as well admit that it’s the kid.”
I shook my head. I grinned at the sheriff. I poured out another can of coffee for him; but all the while he was studying me with a lowering look, and presently he said:
“You know, Joe, that you’re stepping pretty deep into this business. I don’t want to do you no harm. So far as I know, you’ve always been straight. But if I have to take you back to town with me, they’ll slam you into the pen for a pretty long term. The judges and the juries around here in Nevada are getting pretty mean. You gotta fish and drag about fifty or a hundred square mile to get yourself a jury, in the first place; and all that riding the jurymen have got to do, day after day, it riles them a lot. They vote you guilty because they’re saddle-sore! Now, Joe, you straighten up and tell me the truth, and it’ll be all right. But if you don’t, I start trouble right pronto.”
I admired to hear the way that the sheriff put the case. It showed that he was a pretty straight fellow, at heart. I liked Tug Murphy before. I liked him better than ever, now.
But what could I do?
I already had thought the thing back and forth. He had proved me a liar, on the jump, and now what was I to do?
Well, finally I shook my head. I said:
“Tug, suppose that everything you think were true—which it isn’t—still, I wouldn’t help you any. You ought to know that I couldn’t.”
“Because the kid’s your friend, and Waters is your friend,” said he.
“Put it any way you like,” said I.
“Then—stick your hands out!” says he.
He took out a pair of handcuffs and held them on his left hand.
“Aw, come along, Tug,” said I. “D’you think that I’m going to try any gun play?”
“I don’t like to put irons on you, Joe,” said he. “I’ve seen you to be too dang decent for that. I don’t want to do it. Will you give me your word that you’ll sit tight and make no move while I take a look around this here camp?”
“Well, I’ll do that,” said I.
“Not make no move at all?” he insisted.
“No, I’ll sit tight,” said I.
He hesitated, and then he nodded. He dropped the things back into his pocket, and I was glad to see them go. Then he stood up and looked around the camp. There was not much to it, I know, but the mischief told him where to go. He walked out, first, and found the mule, and rubbed his hand along the side of it.
“The pack saddle come off this mule no later than tonight, Joe,” said he. “I can tell by the salt that ain’t rubbed out of the hair yet.”
I said nothing, because there was really nothing to say. I felt like a fool because I hadn’t rubbed the mule and the bronco down.
Then Tug came back toward the fire, stubbed his toe against the saddlebag—and opened it up!
He just pulled one handful out of that bag and stood there looking not at what he held, but across the fire, toward my face.
WELL, to make a pretty long story short, we started on the march for jail. We only waited for the morning, and then we lighted out together. The sheriff had come out with a change of horses. He had two good, tough mustangs, rather lumpy in the heads, and with hips like the hips of cows. But they could keep going through fire. And that’s the sort of horse one wants for riding through Nevada.
Tug Murphy was pretty decent to me. He just arranged a rope that run from one of my wrists to the other, and left about a foot of play between my hands. That way, I could make a smoke, light a match, and even do my share of work around camp when he halted. It was only, as you might say, a short hobble for my hands. The sheriff apologized for it. I’ll never forget his apology. He said:
“Look here, Joe. I could take you in with irons on, which would make you feel like a dog. Or else I could put nothing on you at all. But that would mean taking your word for honor first that you wouldn’t escape. And I’ve got no right to take your word on that. If you have a right good chance to bust me over the head and make away, you go ahead and do it. It’s your right. Because, as sure as tarnation, I’m takin’ you in for a long stretch up the river. But now I’ve got the rope on you, it makes me easier; it makes you more comfortable; and it’s better all around. Only, it makes me feel pretty mean to rope a man like a calf. And a he-man, and a real man, like you, Joe!”
I appreciated that compliment, coming from the sheriff. He didn’t drop many like it in his conversation, you may be sure!
Well, of course I couldn’t blame the sheriff. I only wondered what the deuce would become of me, and now and then, inside my mind, I certainly danged that boy Chip. For he had known that the sheriff was on his trail, and yet he had led right out to me. Well, now the thing was ended, and I was due for prison, and I groaned as I thought about it.
What shall I say about that inland voyage? I’ll only say this, that all the beauty went out of Nevada, as I rode along. All the beauty went out, and the ugliness came in.
The blue went out of the sky and the color went out of the distances.
For one thing, just as we started, the Old Nick stoked up in his furnace and turned on an extra blast. Perhaps I was not so used to the heat of the valleys, I had been working such a height up the side of the mountain; but when we dropped into the bottom, it was like dropping into a white road. The glare shot up through the eyes and came out at the top of the head.
I knocked along pretty much like a mule, with my head down. Sometimes a hot wind came shooting at us and the mustangs put their heads down and just shuddered and endured it. But they could not take a step until that wind had gone by, in a whoop. One of those blasts would take every drop of moisture out of the clothes and off the face, and just leave salt traces where the perspiration had been. When the horses were dripping with moisture, they would be wiped dry in ten seconds, and the salt lay all over their hides in little lines, like those the waves leave on the shore.
I’ve seen it hot in other places. Perhaps humid heat is worse. But I’ve never hankered after living on the hot side of an oven, and that was what we were riding through.
The sheriff didn’t mind it so much.
I wouldn’t have minded, either, if I’d been in his boots. He was pretty sure to get at least a ten-thousand-dollar reward from the bank, unless the bank was a set of pikers. Besides, there was the fame.
Tug used to talk over the possibilities of what he would get. It was his favorite theme all the way we rode together.
The first night we camped out in the naked flat, a dry camp. Tug wanted to shoot the burro and the mule. He said that he would charge the expenses off to his personal account. But I wouldn’t let him shoot the burro. That mean little beast had been company for me too long up there by the mine. It had seen me through some lovely spots, and I liked the cock of its long, wise ears. That burro could carry his own weight on a cupful of water and a ham sandwich, so to speak. I’ve heard the camel praised for powers of endurance, but the camel is a regular parlor exhibit compared with a real, hundred-per-cent Mexican burro. As for the mule, that belonged to Chip. I couldn’t tell the sheriff that—no matter how sure he was—but I gathered that it wouldn’t be a good idea to put a bullet through anything that belonged to that boy. I said so, and the sheriff saw the light.
“He’s Irish,” said the sheriff. “He’s Irish, like me. And you never can tell where an Irishman will put his heart. Might put his heart on a woman, a horse, or a stone. But when he does, that woman, that horse, and that stone he’s ready to die for. No, I guess that I’d better not shoot the mule. It might be Chip’s favorite.”
It was a strange speech to listen to, that.
So we slogged along right out into the flat middle of the desert. That was not a dry camp, thank goodness. There was a little pool of alkali water. It was scummed around the edges, and it was bitter as aloes. But it tasted good enough when it was made into coffee. We drank our coffee, and ate our flapjacks and bacon, and felt the heat still rising from the ground like steam.
Great Scott, how hot it was!
Then the night breeze wakened and came softly about us, flowing like water, and we took off our clothes mostly, and let it blow. And while we were lying there in the blankets, for a while, cooling and trying to forget that the next day’s march would be a lot worse than this one, the sheriff said:
“We’ll have decent water, at the end of that march. I know where the pool is. It’s fenced all around with rocks. It comes up and starts to flowing, and it goes about twenty feet and then goes down under the sand again. But it flows enough to keep it sweet, and it’s cool, too, and there’s a couple of specks of blue that fall into it out of the sky; but all the rest of the face of it is kept dark by the shadow of the rocks. It’s the kind of a water hole that a man could dream about.”
“Shut up, Tug,” said I. “I’m dreamin’ about it already. I’m thinkin’ how it will wash the road down my throat. That’s what I’m thinkin’ about. And the alkali—there ain’t any alkali in it, you say?”
“It’s as sweet,” said Tug, after a moment, “as heaven! As sweet as heaven with stars in it. And that’s what I mean! It’s a dog-gone honest spring, that’s what it is!”
All at once, I felt the whole lining of my throat go dry and crack with yearning, but I didn’t get up to take a drink from our pool of this evening. I knew a little too much for that. The more you drink of alkali water, the worse off you are, and all the sicker. It only keeps you from dying of thirst, and that’s all.
Says the sheriff: “Maybe they’ll make it twenty-five.”
I knew that he was thinking about how big his reward would be. I said nothing. Just then, the mule gives a snort, and then starts into a loud braying.
“What’s the matter with that fool mule?” said the sheriff, and sits up. “What’s it seen?”
“Nothing,” said I. “You know the way it is with a mule, Tug. You know why it starts in to braying, once in a while, like it was crying for help?”
“Yeah. I know what you mean,” said he. “You tell me why?”
“Sure,” said I. “It’s because even a mule gets so dog-gone tired of its own mean nature that it wants a change. And when you hear a mule bawling like that, it’s just up and asking heaven for a second chance.”
Tug Murphy lay back again onto his blankets, slowly.
“Maybe you’re right,” says he. “I never knew a mule very well without beginning to pity it, finally. They’re just sons of torment, Joe.”
“They are,” said I. “And that reminds me of a story about the—”
“They might even make it thirty,” says the sheriff.
I saw that he was back on the question of the reward, again. I said nothing. I’d heard enough on that subject.
“But then again,” said the sheriff, “you take a mean man like President Ranger of that bank, and he’s as likely as not to say that I done no more than what I was paid by the county for doing.”
This time I put in my word.
“Yeah, as likely as not,” said I.
The sheriff grunted.
“It’s a cool quarter of a million,” said he. “They oughta by rights pay me ten per cent, if they got any heart.”
“Uh-hunh,” says I.
“And even if they make it only five per cent, that’s twelve thousand five hundred.”
“Uh-hunh,” says I.
“But they wouldn’t be short sports. They’d have to make it a round figure. Say, fifteen thousand.”
“Or ten,” says I.
“Yeah. Or even cut it down as far as ten,” says the sheriff. “You talk like a regular banker, Joe. I bet you’d do fine behind the rails of a bank, collecting interest, and things.”
“Uh-hunh,” says I.
“Well, that ought to be rock bottom,” says the sheriff. “And on ten thousand, a man could do a lot. There’s Pig Weller has set himself up with a pretty good layout, all that a man would ask to have; and his whole outfit, land, and stock, and all, it only set him back eight thousand.”
“He didn’t get much stock for that,” says I.
“No, but he part paid on ’em, and they’ll turn into hard cash for him.”
“Uh-hunh,” says I.
“The old woman, she’d like to settle down,” says he.
Then he sat up again.
“What’s the matter?” says I.
“That fool of a mule,” says he, “where’s it walking to? And it’s got the horses right along after it.”
“Well, maybe it smells good grass,” said I.
“They’re stepping right out,” says he. “And yet I hobbled ’em pretty short. They’re stepping right out, for hobbled stock—”
Suddenly he jumped up to his feet.
“By the eternal nation,” he says, soft as you please, so that it sent a chill down my spine, “them hobbles have been cut!”
That got me to my feet, too, and I was in time to see some figure—it looked small—jump on the back of the sheriff’s best mustang and start off at a trot, and then at a canter, with all the rest of the live stock on lead ropes behind, and the burro last of all pulling back hard on its line!
I HEARD the sheriff groan. Then he grabbed his rifle and started pumping bullets at the disappearing caravan of horses, and mules, and what not.
But he had no luck. You could tell beforehand that he would have no luck. The cause being that moonlight is the worst light in the world for shooting. Everything seems clear, but at a little distance, and no one in the world can judge the distances.
I knew that he would miss, and he did miss.
And I saw our transportation wander off into the distance.
“Indians!” I yelled. “And this is why people that steal horses are hanged.”
“Indians your foot,” said the sheriff, strangely calm. “It’s Chip. That’s what it is.”
“Chip?” I shouted. “Chip leave me stranded like this? Never in a thousand years!”
“Who does he like better?” said the sheriff. “You or Waters?”
“He may like Waters better,” said I, “but he’d never do a trick like this to me—not in the middle of the desert!”
“You don’t know him,” said the sheriff. “But I do. Because he’s Irish, and the Irish blood is all red and black. There ain’t any blue in it. I’m Irish, too. But we’ll win through to Freshwater Springs!”
You can imagine that we didn’t wait. If we had to hoof it through those shifting sands, that slid back six inches under every step, there was no sense in waiting for the sun to come up and broil us. It was better to start tired than to start hot.
We sifted down our packs to almost nothing. We just kept one rifle, some food, and the saddlebag that had the quarter of a million dollars. Then we started across the gloom and silver of the moonlit desert.
I can’t tell you how the loss of our horses had widened that desert. The place had seemed big enough, before, but now it seemed a lot bigger. I can tell you. It was multiplied by ten.
Off we went, and I listened to the sand gritting and sliding under my feet, and I listened to the sand gritting and sliding under the feet of the sheriff.
He was very calm about it. Now and then he would break out into a short speech, but mostly he saved his breath.
“About fifteen years in jail,” he said several times. “That’s about all that he’ll get. And I hope that they make him perspire from morning to night for fifteen years, the way that I’m doing now. I hope that they keep the whip on him. Dog-gone his miserable hide!”
I was very fond of Chip, but if he really were guilty of this business I hoped that he would get plenty of punishment, and not have to wait for a future life to receive it, either.
Well, we slogged along. I don’t know how many of you have walked across blow sand. I hope for your own sakes that not many have. It’s lighter than water and a good deal more slippery. There’s no way of planting your feet that gives a good purchase. The best way is to turn your toes out and your foot on a bias. That way, you get more to push against. Well, even at the best it’s a bad business. It’s wading, and slipping, and sliding. Every pound that you carry counts for ten, in blow sand.
Pretty soon, we talked no more, but just buckled down, and laid into the work, and set our teeth, and hoped that Chip, or the Indian or whoever had stolen our horses, might land in the hot place.
Then the sun came up.
It didn’t waste any time warming up. It just slugged us in the head with about ninety degrees for a beginning. The instant that it got its eye above the horizon mist, it was blazing hot, and it kept right on blazing. You have no idea how the desert sun starts its business with the first signal and keeps right on until it sinks. It shoots from the hip, without a waste motion, and it keeps on shooting, all day long.
Our canteens lasted until the middle of the morning. Then we made a halt in the lee side of some rocks, and the sheriff swallowed a couple of times to ease his throat, and he said:
“Well, we’ll make the Freshwater Springs, all right. But it’s going to be tough.”
He was right.
He generally was right, but particularly about this. We slogged along through that blow sand with the sun getting hotter and hotter. It seared through a man’s shirt and burned the shoulders. It blistered the rims of the ears. It scorched the end of the nose. Now and then I raised my heavy, broad-brimmed sombrero, and tried to get some air on my head in that way. But it was no good. It let the steam off, so to speak, but it didn’t let any air in.
Well, I went along and endured it. Once you’ve got used to desert travel, you can remember other times when it seemed eternal, and yet it ended, some time.
But the worst part about the Nevada deserts is that there’s often a blue pile of mountains off somewhere on the rim of the horizon telling you about cold running water, and shade under trees, and winds blowing, and all such things.
I dreamed of palaces of ice. And I could have eaten the whole dog-gone palace!
Then we hove over a rise, and the sheriff laughed in a horrible, soundless way, and he pointed and said:
“There’s the Freshwater Springs. Down there, where the rocks are shining!”
Well, suddenly my feet were light, and my heart was light, and I stepped along free and gay and bold and could almost have sung, except that my throat was hurting me too badly.
We stepped along pretty briskly on that stretch, and then as we came closer to the rocks, the sheriff he gives a queer, choked yell, and then he breaks into a run.
I watched him. I thought that the heat and the thirst had driven him a little crazy.
But then I saw something that made me start running, also. For those rocks didn’t look the way rocks should look. They seemed to have been turned every which way, and their pale bellies were turned to the sun.
I ran as hard as I could, but I couldn’t keep up with the sheriff. He was a heavy-built man, but that day he fairly had the foot of me; and when I came up, puffing, and groaning, he was standing with both hands spread out, as though he were making an explanation, silently, to some one who could understand silence.
Then I saw for myself.
Freshwater Springs had been blown up!
Yes, there were the rocks, as I have said, scattered about, and now one could see how they were scorched and blackened, here and there. But the main thing was that the water was gone—all gone!
The rim markings of the pool were there. The sand was still almost damp enough to chew, if you know what I mean. But the water was gone.
Some fiend had dropped a charge away down the throat of the springs and had blown it, and the flow of the water had been stopped.
What could one do? Well, the next prospector who happened along might drop down another charge of powder and blow it again, and then the water would likely start running. But now it was lost.
And we had no powder!
I looked at the sheriff, and the sheriff, he looked back at me. He grinned, and his smile was a bad thing to see.
“Chip!” said he.
“Not Chip,” said I. “Chip would never do such a thing. Not Chip! Chip’s a partner of mine.”
Said the sheriff: “Am I Irish?”
“Yes,” said I.
“Do I know the Irish?” said he.
“You ought to,” I admitted.
“Did I say that Irish blood was all red and black?” he asked me fiercely.
“You said that.”
“And no blue in it?”
“No,” said I.
“That’s Chip,” said the sheriff. “He’s all red and black. The red in him is the way that he loves his friend, Waters. And the black is the way that he feels about everybody else.”
I shook my head. “He’s only a kid,” said I. “He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t have the heart in him to do it.”
“Aye, he could,” said the sheriff. “He’s got an Irish heart!”
I listened to him talking, and it seemed to me that there must be some other answer, but still my mind turned back again and again to the same thought. It was Chip. He had the reason to want to plague the sheriff, and if he plagued me at the same time—well, what difference did it make?
Anger came into me like steel, and I gritted my teeth, and wished that I had the neck of that boy in my hands. I would give it a twisting that would end Chip’s days of mischief.
“Chip done it,” said the sheriff, over and over. “Chip went and done it. He never stopped to reckon the time when I was pretty easy on him. I mean the time that I pinched Waters and could’ve pinched Chip, too. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to send an Irish spark like that to the penitentiary. Well, this is the way that he pays me back.”
It was an interesting thing to hear the sheriff talk like that, slowly, quietly, with a voice rusted and grating with emotion, and thirst. I listened to him, and I watched the bulldog working in his face, and I almost forgot my own thirst, I was so keen to see what was in the sheriff’s mind.
Well, after a time we thought the thing over, and we talked it over in just a few words, because not many words were necessary. The nature of the deed stood up and looked us in the face.
We had to get from Freshwater Springs—the very name was a torture, now—to the next water hole. And that water hole was a good seventy miles away.
Seventy miles, and sand to trudge through! Seventy miles! We would have to go slogging all through this day, and all the night we would have to keep marching, and most of the following day. And, at the end of our march, we’d come to a few swallows of muddy alkali water, if we were lucky.
I wanted to lick my lips, but I didn’t. I just pressed them in a little, and made the saliva flow a bit.
We sat there in the scanty shadow of one of the overturned rocks, and we decided what direction we would have to take. I knew that country pretty well, and we picked out the valley where I knew of a water hole that was said never to go dry—perhaps.
Then we got up and buried the saddlebag, and started off.
WHEN I put the saddlebag in so casually, I meant it.
It didn’t matter to the sheriff, either. All that mattered to us was seventy miles of desert sand—and how were we going to last out? We both had been through the grind before. We knew the desert. We weren’t romantic about it. But a few touches of that dry, hot wind would simply soak up the blood from our bodies; and we’d die.
It wasn’t so much body, either. It was mind that the heat worked on. It was well enough for the sun to scorch the body, but it was a different thing to let the thought of it start to campaigning in the brain. That was what drove men crazy.
So you can believe me when I say that we put away a quarter of a million dollars under the broken rocks of Freshwater Springs and gave it not a thought. And we marched on without once looking back. The rifle was there with the saddlebag, too. We had no use for that weight. We carried with us some salt, and a little jerked beef; and the sheriff kept his hunting knife on, not that he wanted it, I dare say, but because he would have felt undressed and strange without its handle to fumble as we went along.
Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars lay there under the rocks, and we would have changed the whole sum, believe me, for a single runt of a mustang to ride by turns, and to hang onto, to help us forward over the terrible stretch that lay ahead.
We had only one thing to be glad of, and that was that we had company. I think, for my part, that if I had been alone I would simply have stretched out there in the shade of the rocks and waited for death. Or perhaps I could have helped it on the way a little. But with a companion, a man doesn’t give in. The last thing that remains to us, it appears, is pride and a sense of audience. The sheriff was my audience. I was his audience. And so we just headed away for the cleft in the distant mountains where I knew that water could be found.
I think that the most awful part of it was the knowledge that the hours would crawl away before us like a worm, and that always we would be looking at that picture of blue distance, and that always we would seem to be as far away as ever, and that even when the picture turned from blue to brown, we would still have a ghastly march ahead of us, and that even when we could see individual rocks and trees, still there would remain terrible miles before us.
The clear air would take care of that.
Yes, the moment would come when we would suck our own blood to ease the horrible pain in our cracking throats.
And we both knew all these things. And we both knew that it was touch and go for us. That was the reason that we wasted no breath in talk.
The sheriff simply cut the cord that tied my hands. And I felt no particular gratitude for the act. It might be I who would hang onto reason the longest and be able to slap him on the back at the right moment, and clear his own wits, or curse him into a greater manhood.
On the other hand, it might be he.
So we left the rocks, and we started our voyage, and we walked all the rest of that day.
I don’t want to dwell on it. I don’t want to recall the horror of that sun, or the way it laid its red-hot hand against the backs of our heads and fried the brains. I don’t want to think of that day, because it makes my throat dry and crack—the mere thought. Now I can go and fill a glass with ice and pour in enough water to fill the interstices, and drink that water, and fill up the ice again, and sip once more, and let the blessed cold of it trickle slowly down my throat. But still it seems that the thirst can never be taken out of me. The water famine has its claws in my vitals once more, and I burn with it, in imagination, almost as badly as I burned on that day.
Before night came, I knew that we couldn’t succeed.
Already my tongue was badly swollen, and my lips were cracking till the blood ran down my chin. It was a painful thing to have to move my eyes, because the balls of them seemed to be lined and set in sharp crystals of quartz.
But we marched on.
The sheriff must have known we were beaten, too. His case was worse than mine, because he was a larger and a grosser man, and I could tell by his staring look, long before sundown, that he was looking his death in the face. But, you see, he would not be the first to weaken, and neither would I.
There was the strange picture of two men walking straight on toward inevitable death and never speaking about it, because each of us wished to break down the pride of the other and force him to be the first to whine. Twenty times complaints came pouring up into my throat and twenty times I ate those complaints and said no word of them. And once—once only—I heard the sheriff curse, and his curse was a groan.
Now, it was about the sunset time, when the next part of that adventure started. I mean to say, the sun was lying on its side in the west as hot and terrible as ever, nearly, but its cheeks were swelling, and it was plain that before long we would have the dark. And even that thought was no comfort because, some time during the dark of that night, the knees would fail under one of us, and that man would sink, and the other would turn and give him one look, and then drop in turn because of the bitter comfort of dying beside a friend.
But, as this sunset began, and the sky was starting to redden in the west, I saw the sheriff pause sharply and stretch out his arm.
“It’s begun,” I said to myself. “The madness is at him, and eating his brain like a mouse nibbling at cheese. It’s started on him, and he’ll be raving, in another moment.”
But he stood there like a statue, just pointing, and saying nothing until I turned my eyes with pain in the same direction.
Then I saw it.
Animals of some sort were coming toward us, strung out in a long string, etched strongly against the background of the western light, and dyed and blackened by the contrast. And while I watched them, and saw the nodding heads of the horses, I groaned aloud with joy.
They were not wild horses. No, now I could see a rider upon the first of the lot, and I thought that that must be the luckiest man in the entire universe, because he was in this desert, but he had a horse beneath him.
Suppose he were thirsty. Suppose he ran out of water. Suppose he had to drink. Then he could cut the throat of one of his lead animals—mules or horses—and he could drink the blood. And what a delicious drink that seemed to me, at the time!
The sheriff dropped his arm.
“Chip!” said he.
It rather staggered me, that idea. I stared again—one small rider, with several horses or mules behind—yes, and at the tail of all, the little outline of the burro, pressed against the ground, as it were.
“It’s Chip,” I yelled, as though I had made the discovery first.
The sheriff grinned, and as he smiled, the blood ran down his face from his broken lips.
But he nodded, and side by side, we turned toward that procession. It was Chip, and after all, he cared for us enough to want to give us a hand.
We marched toward him. The sun sank in the west. All was red fire behind, when we came within shouting distance of that youngster. And we saw him wave an arm to make us halt.
We walked straight on. The wave of an arm could not stop us. Suddenly something struck the sand at my feet, and a shower of that sand was scattered over my legs. Then the clang of a rifle dinted on my ears.
He was shooting to make us halt!
Well, bullets have a persuasive power of their own, and we stood still.
Then I heard Chip’s voice, not raised and strained but easy and cool as you please.
“You want water, you fellows?”
Want water? The very sound of the word worked at my saliva glands and made my throat crack again, and widen in hope.
We merely stood still and waved at him, like fools. But we had no voice to carry across that distance.
“I’ve got plenty of water here for you,” came the voice of Chip again, “but before you get it, you make a bargain with me.”
He paused. We both waved. What was the use of words? Of course, he could make his bargain on his own terms. If he had water, he was the king of the world, so far as we were concerned.
Then came the thin crowing of his voice again:
“I’ve picked up the whole show that you left behind you. I’ve picked up the saddlebag, and all your packs. I’ve got the money. And I want to know if I keep it easy and safe, or do I ride on and let you sizzle and stew here?”
Do you see the idea? He would offer us rescue, but he would only do so under the condition that we should agree not to touch him and the possessions which he had taken.
I began to laugh, the laughter sounding like a whisper. Heaven, how my throat hurt!
Then I looked at the sheriff and saw that he was shaking his head from side to side with a long, slow swing, the way a bullock does, if you’ve ever seen one under a yoke.
I was amazed, and I stared at him again. Refusing? Saying no to this offer of water—of life! By heaven, that was what he was doing! He was saying no!
He put out his hand and gave my arm a grip.
“You go on,” says this amazing sheriff. “You go on and get the water. But me—you know the way it is.”
“I know that you’re crazy in the head,” said I. “That’s what I know. I don’t know how else it is. What do you mean when you ask me if I know how it is?”
I shook him. He kept on swaying his head from side to side, saying “No,” not to me but to something in himself. Yes, saying “No” to the infernal heat and wretchedness of thirst that was in him.
“You know how it is,” said the croaking voice of the sheriff. “I wouldn’t mind giving in. But I took a dog-gone oath when I took my office. You know how it is, Joe. I swore that I’d serve the people to the best of my ability. That means what? That means with my life, if I got to. That’s what it means now. You go on and get your drink. Get it good and deep. You go on, and you forget about me. I’ve got my job to do.”
No, it was not craziness. It was greatness. That big rough-neck of a sheriff, he was great. It hit me between the eyes.
And, while I stood there gaping, almost forgetting my thirst, by thunder, Tug Murphy turned around and marched away with a good, long, swinging step, putting distance with his last strength between himself and temptation!
WELL, I was no sheriff, and I had taken no oath. But all at once I wanted to read one of those oaths that public men take before they get into office. I think, with most of them, that what they swear to do doesn’t ride them very hard. No, I think that they take it pretty easy. They just have the words read off to them by a judge, or something, and they put their fat, pink hands on a book, and they say “I do,” and that’s all there is to it.
But Tug Murphy was different.
I could somehow see him with his head canted over to one side, listening, and nodding, and frowning, as he listened to the reading. I could see him go and take the book out of the hand of the judge and then follow the words for himself, underlining them with one blunt forefinger, with a cracked and black and broken finger nail. He wasn’t a pretty man, Tug Murphy. But he was a great man. Just then it seemed to me that he made everything else shrink—even the desert, even the thirst of it.
However, what tied him did not tie me.
I went straight on toward Chip, and I went at a run, stumbling a little, my knees pretty loose.
When I got there, Chip was off his horse and waiting for me. He had a canteen that was wrapped up in a sacking, and he had so much water that he had been able to afford to use some of it to wet the sacking, and the evaporation had kept that water cool.
He shoved that canteen at me, and I grabbed it.
I didn’t just swig it down. No, sir, I sat on the sand, and Chip, he kneeled behind me and made a brace for my back. He kept saying:
“Joe, old partner, you’ll never forgive me. Heaven’ll never forgive me for what I’ve done to you. And Dug Waters, he’ll give me what for. He’ll give me a regular lambasting. But somehow, I didn’t know what else to do. And I been suffering for you, Joe. And I’ve kept this here water cool for you, as good as I could. D’you think that you could ever forgive me, Joe?”
I hardly heard him. The words he spoke sounded far off and dim as the sunset on the borders of my mind. What mattered to me was that canteen which was shaking in my hands, and the tin lip of it rattling against my teeth.
I didn’t pour it down.
No, no! A thirst like that was a treasure, and I intended to use up every penny of it. So first I let a thin trickle flow over my broken, dead lips. And some of that water ran down my chin and dropped onto my chest. And I took the canteen away from my lips before I ever had swallowed a drop, and I just sat there, leaning back against the knees of Chip, and I let that water soak through to the skin, and then I laughed a little, in spite of the hurt of laughter, to think that my skin was drinking before my throat had tasted a drop.
Yes, I laughed a little, and Chip, he grabbed me hard and said:
“Steady there, Joe. Steady, partner. Don’t you let yourself go! Don’t you let yourself go—”
And he began to blubber a little.
I mean, Chip was about as hard as they make them. Rawhide and whalebone was what he was made of. But still, he began to cry a little, through his teeth, fighting it down—crying in a high whine, because he thought that my brain was gone, and that the long drought had about finished me.
But my brain wasn’t gone. No, no, I was only thinking the thing out—and laughing because the water had touched my body before it touched my throat.
Then I raised the canteen again, and Chip put around one brown dirty hand and steadied it for me, and this time I let a thin trickle go floating right straight down my throat.
Down my throat? I tell you, it percolated all through me, and I could feel it work. The strongest red-eye in the world never worked as sure and steady and straight as that water did, soaking around through my veins and telling me what life was all about.
I don’t want to exaggerate, but while I sat there and slowly sipped that canteen full of water, it seemed to me that the desert had changed, and that the green grass was pushing up all around us, and that trees were putting down root and lifting their heads. And it was pretty good to me, I tell you, to sit there and think of all that, and feel that I was in the middle of a land drenched with water to the core, and ripe and rich and flowing with green.
Perhaps I was a little twisted in the mind, after all. I don’t know. I only know that before that canteen was gone, my head seemed to clear, and I sat up and made myself a cigarette, and Chip lighted it for me, and I began to smoke. And I laughed as I smoked, because I thought of what a torture smoke would have been to me ten minutes before this!
No, I sat there and smoked, and put a hand on my knee, and wondered why it was shaking so badly.
Then I felt a tapping at my shoulder, and a voice tapping at my ear.
Pretty soon the voice got in to where I could understand what it was saying:
“What’s the matter with poor old Tug Murphy? What’s the matter with him? Is he dippy? Why didn’t he come in with you? Shall I go and get him now? Is it all right for me to leave you now and go and get him, Joe?”
Gradually, I realized everything all over again. I shook my head.
“It’s not all right. It’s not safe for you,” said I. “He’s sworn his oath that he’ll serve the people. And he won’t go back on the oath. He knows that you’ve got the money. He came out to get it. And now that he can’t get it, he’ll go and die. That’s all there is to it. If you go near him, he’ll grab you.”
Chip groaned. It was like the groan of a man. His heart was all in it.
“Now I know what Waters meant!” said he.
“Waters meant what?” said I. “What did Waters say?”
“That Murphy was kind of stupid, but that he was a great man, all right.”
“Aye,” said I. “He’s a great man. I never saw a greater. He makes me feel like a puling baby.”
“What’re we gunna do?” asks Chip.
“We’re just gunna think,” said I. “We’re gunna think it over and see what to do. Where away is the sheriff now?”
“You can see the head and shoulders of him, marching off there,” said Chip, pointing.
“Aye,” said I. “He’s thinking of his death. Every step he’s taking is deeper into the ground, Chip.”
The kid began to blubber again. He wrung his hands.
“I dunno what to do,” said he. “I meant it right. It took me time to get up to Freshwater Springs after I’d blown it, and after you came. It took me a lot of time. And then one of the mustangs threw half a shoe, and I had to wrestle with the part that was left, to get it off. And that was why I didn’t come up to you quicker, Joe. I never meant that you should have to march half a day, thinking of water all the way.”
“It’s done,” said I. “It’s over with.”
But I was wrong. It wasn’t over with. No, sir, the ache, and the misery, and the burn of it, still come back to me, and they always will, and make a groaning in my throat that sometimes wakes me up at night. However, I could understand what had been the way with Chip. He was playing his game against two grown men, and part of the time those two grown men had a rifle.
There was a little nick in Chip’s left ear. It was a fresh cut. And it was clipped out by one of the sheriff’s rifle bullets. After all, he had been able to shoot pretty well, even by moonlight, and that was how close Chip had come to paying for his trick with his life.
“The sheriff—” Chip kept saying. “What’ll I do? If you take him water and a horse, he’ll light out after me, and he’ll likely catch me. Because I’m mighty tired, Joe. Jiminy, I never seem to’ve known what being tired was like before!” And he shook his head and sighed.
I nodded. It wasn’t easy.
“You could cache the saddlebag somewhere. Then it wouldn’t matter if he caught you,” said I.
“I couldn’t do that,” said Chip. “The saddlebag ain’t mine. It’s Waters’s. It belongs to him, and he left it in my keeping. I don’t dare to let it go.”
“Then what’ll we do for the sheriff?” said I. “He’s got to have water, and food, and a horse, or he’ll never pull through. Because he’s on his last legs!”
There was a little silence between us.
Then Chip said:
“My Jiminy, I wish that he was a Chinaman, or something. Then I wouldn’t care. But he ain’t. He’s a man. Even Dug Waters ain’t a much bigger man than the sheriff is. He kind of beats me, I mean to say!”
“Aye, and he beats me, too,” said I. “But help he’s gotta have, or you’ll never forget this day, Chip. I can’t force you to it, because I’ve given you my word before I came in.”
“You don’t have to force me,” says Chip. “I’m only thinking. That’s all that I’m doing. I’m only thinking. I’m trying to work out the right way.”
And he sat quietly again. I could see the size of his problem. If the sheriff got the help that he needed, he would use that help to turn around and chase Chip. And Chip, as he himself admitted, was a pretty tired boy. He was tired when he joined me at my mine, and he hadn’t had a full night’s sleep since that time. He was shaking with weariness, and when fatigue gets into the nerves, it rots them.
“Well,” said Chip at last, in a dead, solemn voice, “I’ve got it, now.”
“What have you got?” said I.
“He’s got to have back what he had when he started,” said Chip. “Because he’s played the game straight, and so I’m gunna play it straight with him. I’m not gunna have no cards up my sleeve when I play it with him, partner.”
“That’s right, Chip,” said I. “What will you do?”
“I’ll send him back his two horses, and his pack—and some water. Water!” says Chip, breaking out in a mournful way. “Look what I done to the springs, too! I’ve gotta go back and try to blast it out deeper than ever, and make the water flow again, and build the rocks up around it again, to keep the water cool. Oh, what a lot I’ve got on my mind, Joe!”
“I’ll help,” said I.
“Good old Joe,” said Chip, and puts his hand on my hand. It was like a woman’s gesture.
“You go,” says Chip, “and take the stuff to the sheriff. Just ask him if he’ll give me an hour’s start, for the sport of the thing. And I’ll tie myself into the saddle, and try to last it out!”
I FOUND the sheriff, spread-eagled on the sand, absolutely senseless. That final effort he had made to get away from the sight of us had been too much for him. But the mere touch of the wet lips of the canteen upon his mouth was enough to rouse him again. There was a world of vitality in that man. It surged up now. I stood by and heard him gasping, and the sound of the water gurgling down his throat.
Then he got to his feet, swaying a little, pressing his hands against his temples, and I suppose that the temples were bursting.
“Where is he?” he growled.
“Look here, Tug,” said I, “that kid has played fair with you. He’s sent you this water. He’s giving you your chance. You’re not going after him now, are you?”
“I’d pretty near rather cut off a leg,” said Tug. “But I’ve got my duty before me, and I’m going to do it. I’ve taken my oath; I’m going to stick to it. I’ve swore on a Bible, son, that I’d keep the laws in force.”
I saw that he was as fixed as iron.
“He didn’t beg,” said I. “He only asked for an hour’s start. You’ll give him that, Tug. You’re not the man to refuse him that!”
“I’ll see him danged,” said the sheriff, “before I’ll give him an hour’s start.”
“You’ll be danged,” said I, feeling pretty hot, as he swung into the saddle on one of his horses, which I had brought up to him from Chip’s captured string. “You’ll be danged, Tug, when people find out how you’ve handled this. You’ve got water, and you’ve got a horse and saddle from the kid, and still you’re going after him!”
I was about ready to fight, though I’m not much of a fighting man, but the sheriff tamed me down with his answer.
He said: “It ain’t me that’s after poor little Chip. It’s the law. I’m only one finger in the grip of the law, Joe. But I’ve got to go where she sends me, and close where she tells me to close. I’ve got no kindness, no friendship, and nothing to give a partner until the law gets me. It don’t let me now, and Heaven help my unhappy soul!”
It was a good deal of a speech, coming from a fellow like Tug Murphy, who did most of his thinking by fits and starts, and dished up his ideas in little portions. I had no answer to it, and as the sheriff rode off, I got onto the other mustang which belonged to him and followed.
Out there in front of us, a small, moving finger of shadow, we could see where Chip was riding. Well behind him was the burro.
We passed that burro at the trot. It only shook its long ears at us as though to say that it comprehended what we were up to and was only glad to have man go on his way.
Well, I was sorry to see that burro drift behind me. He was the small ship that had brought my fortune out there into the desert. I had sighted my course for a good many days between his ears. Somehow, he seemed to me just then like my tangible road to ordinary, law-abiding humanity.
I fairly hated Dug Waters. I had very little affection for Chip, even. I only heartily wished that I had been allowed to stay on at my daily grind, chewing out the hard quartzite and taking its gold away in morsels. I never would get very rich at that work. But I’d get on from day to day, with the taste of the calm, lonely life deepening all the while in my mind. For the best company a fellow can have is the stuff that comes up in his own mind during long silences.
Now I saw the burro soaked up by the night that followed us, and far away before me I could now see the outline of the boy swaying up and down a little among the horizon stars—so I knew that he had his mustang at a canter.
“He’ll beat me tonight,” said the sheriff. “But I’ll get him tomorrow. I just wanta keep fairly close.”
He spoke with great surety, and he was not a man to be overconfident at that.
He certainly did not catch the boy that night. My brain was staggering with exhaustion. My thoughts would not run in a smooth flow. But the sheriff, like a bulldog, hung on. And, in front of us, the boy faded out of view. He was too light in the saddle for us to catch him. And that mustang kept on at a steady, good rate.
I was mightily relieved when the outline of the kid melted away from our eyes, wavered back into view, and then was lost again. But the sheriff did not seem disturbed.
“I know where he’s going,” said he. “I’ll catch him tomorrow.”
I wondered that he could be so sure of himself, but he held to a steady course, pointing a little west of north all the while. I sighted this course on a star and saw that he kept to it. But after a time I let my head sag. I grabbed the pommel of the saddle with both hands, and so I sat the saddle, more than half asleep, surging to this side, and to that, as the sleep over-mastered me for a moment.
And the mustang followed along behind the sheriff, head down, almost as tired as its rider. Now and then my head cleared a little, and my eyes, and then I looked ahead and saw that the sheriff was pushing along with his head high and his shoulders squared. It made me sick at heart to think of the will power that man was using—and on a job which he hated!
It was the strangest ride I ever had taken. It was the strangest ride that I ever will make!
In the dawn, we saw thunderheads around the mountains before us.
“The kid’s in my hand,” said the sheriff. He said it without enthusiasm.
And then we climbed through a dizzy pass and dropped into a narrow valley; and at last we saw the boy.
He was going down the slope before us, very slowly. He was riding the mule now, and the mustang followed, and the body of the youngster was all slewed around to one side, so that I guessed he was sleeping in the saddle, held by the rope with which he had tied himself in place.
Now, if you had seen the trail that he was riding, you would have caught your breath. A mule has extra brains in its feet. But even that mule was navigating the trail slowly, step by step. And now and again it stumbled, and rocks rolled before it and went bounding and beating down the sheer fall of the mountainside. But still the boy did not move. He was like a limp, dead thing.
The sheriff set his teeth, and pushed ahead.
He dismounted, and leading the mustang, he went on foot, because that way of going was both safer and faster, for the moment. I never saw a man look worse than the sheriff did this morning. The black about his eyes seemed to be painted on the skin. The skin itself was wrinkled deep with chisel strokes about the corners of the eyes. And the muscles about the base of his jaw were always bulging. He reminded me of a violin, tuned too high, tuned so high that the strings are about to break.
I dismounted behind and went on down that horrible trail and we gained rather fast on Chip.
I began to think of shouting a warning to him, but there was no need of that, for in another moment one of the rocks we dislodged went leaping like a jack rabbit down the trail. It was a good fifty-pounder, and it went like a cannon ball, after a moment. It jumped to this side, and it jumped to that, and finally it went by the mule, and missed it by inches.
The whir of it wakened the boy. Up in the saddle sat Chip, and he swayed violently from side to side. Then he looked back and saw the sheriff coming.
It seemed that he could not make the thing out. I suppose he had been traveling so steadily all the night that he could not imagine we were anything less than miles behind him. I saw him rub his eyes and stare again.
Then he went out of the mule’s saddle and whipped onto the back of the mustang. He moved like a young cat.
He pulled out a rifle from the saddle holster and turned and scanned us again, with the air of a man about to shoot. But shooting was not really in his mind. He shoved the rifle back again, and then he gave us an exhibition of horsemanship that to this day makes my heart stand still.
For he pushed that mustang into a trot, and once that was accomplished, gravity did the rest. The little horse could not stop. It began to careen and stagger, and slide, from side to side. Sometimes it swiveled halfway around. It was fighting for its life. And Chip’s life was in the saddle.
I stood still and watched, my eyes aching with the nerve strain, and there was a sort of disbelief in me, as though this thing could not be.
And there was something about the dazzling brightness of that morning, and the sheen of the rocks, and the voice of the river in the bottom of the valley, that made my senses reel. It was a dreamlike moment, with all of its horror and its vividness.
I say that the river was sounding in the bottom of the valley. It was running white and brown—not the brown of mud, but the brown of the multitude of rocks which were taken bounding along by the current. It was one of those rivers which flow perhaps two months in two years. Sometimes a year would go by without a favorable rain to more than moisten its bed. And then a torrent poured, and the little river became a giant, and a mad giant, at that, and ran all foam and thunder, and shouting, and leaping, and tearing its hair, so to speak.
That was the way it ran this morning. Not very far away, the current would widen out on the desert, and those swift waters would run slowly and more slowly, and finally they would stumble out in a frothing, muddy tide, and one would hear the sands drinking, and so all that dashing water would sink away into the desert and be lost.
I knew that that was what happened to the stream; but looking at it now, I found it hard to think of that final picture, but all my eye was crowded by the actual strength of the little river and the uproar it made, like an army fighting on the ground, and an answering army bellowing and threatening in the upper air.
Half hypnotically that confusion of noises worked on me; that was the greater part in the dreamlike quality of the morning. But there before me, scurrying down the trail, went poor little Chip, and the sheriff was moving more slowly behind him.
I heard the sheriff cursing furiously, and I knew that it was in admiration of the boy’s courage. Just then, as he was prepared to make every possible effort to catch Chip, I knew that the sheriff admired the boy more than he admired any other thing in the world.
But that was the bulldog beauty of the sheriff’s character. Now young Chip got to the bottom of the slope, and I saw him hesitate, looking first to one side and then to the other.
At the same moment, I could see his dilemma.
I COULD see, also, why the sheriff had been so sure of the capture of Chip, even long hours before. He had guessed what trail the boy would take, and he had known what the trap was at the farther end of the line.
There was no getting upstream. A cliff came down there in a plumb line to the rim of the water. And the way downstream was blocked by vast masses of rubble which had pitched down the mountainside in an avalanche. Half the breast of the height had been torn away to furnish this thundering confusion, and the boulders lay there as big as houses and piled on one another like stacks of chipped dice. I shall never forget the sheen of the raw edges of them, picked out with glints and wire-streaks of metal ores, here and there.
So there, between the two arms of the mountain, poor Chip was riding down to that singing and yelling river.
Now that we got lower in the valley, nearer to the face of the water, more and more there seemed to be one stream raging across the earth, and another roaring through the sky above us, the echoes flung down so loudly from the rim rock. And I had a horrible sense of something great about to happen, something that would overwhelm ordinary human nerves.
The thing seemed impossible, too. Just as when you’ve hunted the same grizzly for a fortnight, studying the sign, measuring the prints, learning the wits of the old campaigner—so after a thousand trail problems solved and as many thousand disappointments, at last you see the rascal before you, unaware of you, and in easy shooting distance, and the thing appears impossible, and you say that it must be another bear—well, in just that manner I looked down there toward little Chip and could not believe that the sheriff was drawing up on him and driving him into a corner.
I had seen that youngster too often at his tricks. He had baffled grown men too many times. But there he was, against the wall, as it were.
And all at once he looked pretty small, I can tell you, what with the cliff on one side and the great building blocks of the avalanche on the other. Behind him was the sheriff’s rifle—and the mountain trail. And in front of him was the mighty roar and the foam of the creek.
In a sense, of course, that was the smallest of his barriers, but it was a living one. It was beating and smashing to pieces boulders the size of a man almost. And what would it do to a horse and rider?
In the middle of that arena, I saw Chip, like a wild animal, turn to this side and to that; and then he looked back toward the sheriff, who was coming on fast.
He threw off the lead rope that tied the mule to the bronco, and when he did that I knew that Chip was about to attempt something. Only—what could it be? I knew that he was as cool as steel, but when he was surrounded by impossibilities, what out was there for him, in spite of his cleverness and his steady nerves, and all that?
He ran the bronco toward the ruins of the avalanche first of all, but as he came under it, I saw him look up and measure the height and mass of it and shake his head.
There was no scaling that wall in a hurry!
He swung back toward the creek itself, and stopped on the verge of it; yes, with the water curling around the forelegs of the mustang. I couldn’t help admiring the control he had over that bronco. It might be a mean, kicking, biting wild cat of a horse, but it had courage. Otherwise no rider could have forced it within ten feet of the verge of that creek.
But Chip was staring constantly out across the water, seeing something, as it were, on the other shore. Aye, what he saw there was freedom, or a ghost of a chance of freedom, I suppose. But how could he get across?
Just then a chunk of the bank a little above Chip went down with a roar and dissolved in the thunder of the water, and turned the stream in front of him to a coffee-colored froth. The spume of it leaped as high as a man’s head, and higher.
But still the kid studied the face of the creek like the face of a man when one waits for an answer.
Well, that fall of the bank had changed things a little. For it had tumbled into the currents some boulders so huge that even that ripping water could not budge them easily. I saw one of them tremble, roll slowly over, and then lie still again, shuddering, and seeming to grow light-footed, but still not swaying with the water again.
Suddenly Chip gave the mustang the whip. The bronco shuddered and crouched.
The sheriff, before me, threw up one hand and knocked it against his forehead.
He turned his face toward me a moment, and I’ve never seen greater horror, but what he shouted I could not hear. There was no talking or hearing down there in the maelstrom.
Besides, I didn’t care what the sheriff might say. I only cared what Chip might do.
I’ve heard punchers tell of crowding wild horses too closely, and how they’ll jump cliffs rather than be taken. And Chip seemed like that—ready to die, but not to give up.
I screeched at him, I hardly know what. Something about not being a fool, I suppose. But I saw that whip flash twice again, and then the horse jumped.
I blinked, as a man will when a fist flashes under his eyes, driving home on his chin. When I looked again, there was the mustang, perched like a goat, on the big boulder which had just fallen from the bank.
It was an amazing thing to see Chip there, crouched in the saddle like a jockey, and holding the reins hard with one hand while with the other he held the business end of a lariat.
They were only poised for a second on that rock. The wavering of the thing made it a miracle that they could have kept their balance so long as this.
Then the bronco jumped again to a smaller stone. And by thunder, once more he landed and slipped, but did not fall off! Suddenly I told myself that they were going to get across. It was only a thin strip of a creek, but it was as dangerous as a cannon’s mouth.
The sheriff and I were both down to the foot of the trail by this time, but we did not ride on toward the creek’s edge. We did not even mount. We just stood still, frozen in place, and gaped, and waited for Fate to decide this thing one way or another.
The mustang jumped the third time. He had his head down. He seemed to be trying to use his chin as a fifth hoof when he landed. But the stone that they aimed for this time was almost lost in the spray and the boiling of the creek, and though the bronco hit the boulder fair and true, he went off it with a roll; and he and Chip disappeared.
No, not all of them.
For as the horse jumped, I saw the rope shoot out straight from the hand of Chip, and it landed the noose snugly about a head of rock on the farther bank.
There were horse and rider under water, and the lariat drawn tight like a dark ray pointing.
They came up. I saw the game mustang swimming hard, head upstream, and Chip striking out beside him.
Something hit the bronco—some stone flung by the current.
He went down.
But up he came again, and now, as the lariat held and the force of the current beat on them, they were forced rapidly in toward the other shore, they reached the shallows, and presently the bronco was scrambling up the farther side.
When he got to the top, with the kid beside him, they leaned together. I saw red running on the body of the horse. I saw red running on the face of Chip, and it was a sight that sickened me.
He did not look back at us. He merely tried to mount, but his legs failed under him. He had to lead the pony to a rock and from that he managed to half slide and half fall into the saddle.
The mustang, head down, badly beaten, started off at a hobbling walk, and I could see Chip tying himself to the stirrup leathers, his hands fumbling. He hardly could have finished the job when he lurched forward along the neck of the horse and lay there like a sack.
The sheriff gripped my arm, and his finger tips sank to the bone. I understood. I couldn’t look at Tug, for my part. For what would happen when that exhausted mustang fell with the kid on his back? What would happen to little Chip then?
In the meantime, we stood there with the danger of the creek at our feet, and well we knew that neither the one nor the other of us had the courage to try what Chip had succeeded in accomplishing.
THE sheriff was ashamed, but I was not. The crossing of that boiling creek was the most foolhardy thing I’d ever seen attempted. But still the sheriff seemed to feel that his duty to the law demanded that he make the attempt.
That would have been suicide. With a grown man’s weight in the saddle, no horse that was not a goat outright could have succeeded in jumping from one stone to another and keeping its balance. Even with Chip up, the bronco had only managed to make two jumps.
Still, it was half amusing and half pathetic to see the sheriff promenading on his horse up and down the bank, scowling and shaking his head at the water.
Finally he gave up, and we made camp there in the thunder and the silence of the canyon—the silence of our human voices, I mean to say, which kept us from speaking. But then, speech was not very necessary. Each of us knew pretty well what the other was thinking.
We cooked and ate a meal. We forced ourselves to it, though we were fairly shaking with fatigue. Then we lay down to sleep.
It was late afternoon when we were awakened by the absence of the thunder in the valley. Both of us sat up at almost the same moment and looked a question at the other fellow. Then we went over to the bank of the stream and looked.
Of course, there was nothing very surprising about it. The thunderheads that we saw from the far-off desert had poured their rain on the highlands and sent the rush of the currents down the canyon. That rain was used up. And the bed of the stream was now almost dry. So we had gone to bed in the midst of thunder, and we were waking in the midst of silence.
I cannot tell how to describe what a difference there was in the very look of the valley now that the lion was no longer roaring. Still, the vibration of that uproar was in our memories so vividly that it seemed as though the tumult were only gradually fading away into the distance rather than completely gone. And the valley itself seemed loftier and more grand in all its faces, now that it was not flooded by the noise.
Well, we got the saddles on the mustangs and started forward again. We found it no trick to cross the dry creek bed, of course, and on the farther side the sheriff lined out on the trail of the boy.
It was easily found and read for a little distance, but then it went out. The sheriff struck straight on, in the direction of the boy’s first line of flight. He said that Chip was so hurt and exhausted that for once he would not be able to attempt any trickery. But I decided that Chip might be more than half dead, but he would be always more than a fox! I had seen too much of him.
So I parted from Tug Murphy. He might have held me because he had found the saddlebag in my custody, to begin with. But Tug seemed to have forgotten all about that. He was badly broken up by this job that he had before him. He even shook hands with me when I parted from him, and he said:
“Joe, I should have put a bullet into the kid rather than let him get across the creek and safe away. The next time that we meet, maybe you won’t want to look at me or be with me, Joe. Because the next time I meet with Chip, I’m gunna get him with a gun, if I can’t get him with my hands!”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I said:
“Why, Tug, you’re talkin’ like a madman. Shoot Chip? You don’t mean that you’d draw a bead on old Chip, do you?”
His mouth twisted up to one side. “I’ve said it, and I mean it,” he insisted. “You’re gonna find that I mean it, old son, and a dog-gone black day for me.”
I said: “Man, you need a rest. You need a dog-gone good long rest. That’s what you need. You look all battered, Tug. You can’t do right or think right, when you’re all jammed up like this. You know you can’t. You turn in and make a camp for one turn of the clock, and I’ll do the cooking for you—”
He shook his head when I had got this far. And I stopped. He merely smiled at me. And then I saw what it was. It was the oath he had taken that was working like a red poison in the veins of poor Tug. By thunder, but I pitied that man! My heart ached for him. I gave his hand a good grip.
“I don’t wish you any luck, Tug,” I confessed to him.
“Luck?” said Tug huskily. “I only wish to Heaven that you’ll find the kid first and that you’ll take him away where I’ll never be able to see him again!”
And Tug meant it, too!
I have often thought about it, since that day, but I’ve never been able to understand the man quite. He was a little too simple, too close to the soil for me to have a complete understanding of him. He worked as a dog works, with its eyes and its heart fixed straight ahead on its duty.
Well, we parted that day, and the sheriff went jogging off on one of his horses, and the other mustang he left to me. So I took it and asked myself deep down, where the kid was likely to be and what would have passed through his mind.
His own pain and weakness and his agony for the lack of sleep? No, I couldn’t imagine Chip beaten down as far as that. He would always reserve the first place for the affairs of his friend and partner, Waters. And, therefore, he would be concerned only with the safe disposal of that infernal saddlebag with the fortune inside it.
Which way for that purpose?
Why, right up into the nearest nest of the mountains, perhaps!
So that was the way I steered.
That last sleep had done me a great deal of good, but I was tired. I was soaked in weariness clear to the bone, because after you’ve been through a sleep famine and a water famine together, you need rest the way a horse does after its summer’s hauling work. It don’t rest up in a day. It stays groggy for two weeks on easy pasture before it begins to pick its head up and see that the old world is not so bad after all.
But I plugged away through the red-hot latter part of that day, steering for the first tangle of mountaintops that I saw. And on the way there I found mostly rocks that wouldn’t take a print, but in one place there were six hoof-prints made by an unshod horse that was going at a walk in the direction I had chosen.
Well, that decided me that I was absolutely right and that Chip must surely have lighted out in the line I had guessed beforehand. So I felt a great deal set up, as you can imagine. This brightened me enough to even get part of a song out of my throat.
I pulled the mustang into a twisting gulley that pointed for the high places, as it seemed to me, and just as I was taking the first elbow turn, a voice sang out behind me:
I grabbed my Colt and turned around. My nerves were pretty jumpy that day, I guess. And there I saw Waters riding along behind me. And he threw up his hands and laughed at me.
“Don’t shoot!” says he.
I took a good bead on him, which is not a polite thing to do.
“I’d like to blow the lining out of you,” says I.
“Sure you would,” says he. “You always did want to, sort of. What’s the matter with you, old son? I thought you were up the line, somewheres, chewing on some quartzite for a stick of candy.”
“Yeah. I been chewing quartzite,” said I.
I put up the gun and scowled at him. But he didn’t care. He shook hands. There was something a little aloof about Waters. He never seemed to mind very much what other people thought—except for Chip. Chip could get under his skin with a single glance, of course.
“Well,” said Waters, “if it hadn’t been for quartzite, I’d’ve been an honest man to this day.”
“You?” said I. “You never could be any straighter than the hind leg of a dog.”
“What’s the matter with you, boy?” says Waters. “You’re riding me pretty hard, it seems to me.”
“Yeah, I’m riding you hard,” said I. “And I’m gunna ride you harder.”
“Go on,” said he. “I see that you’re mysterious.”
He laughed a little, softly, and sort of in the high hollow of his throat, so to speak; and then he curled up the ends of his short mustaches and sparkled his blue eyes at me.
Dang him! I about hated Dug Waters, just then.
I said: “Chip is right, it seems.”
“Right about what?” said Waters. “Chip is always right, the little rat.” And he laughed again.
I hated that affected laugh of his.
“He’s right when he says that you’re a danged dude,” said I.
“Hold on!” said Waters. “Did Chip say that?”
He looked alarmed. I suppose there was a covert insult in the fact that he cared not a rap what I might think of him, but he was pretty badly jarred by the boy’s opinion.
“Yeah, that’s what he said,” I answered.
He looked away from me and then back again, like a man who has received a pretty hard blow.
“He thinks that I’m a dude, does he?” said he.
He said it in a low voice, thinking the idea over.
“You know,” I explained cheerfully. “He thinks that you’re too fussy about clothes and such things. You know how it is. Curling your whiskers too much, and all that.”
“Well, I’m kind of surprised,” he said. “I didn’t think that he’d notice, somehow. You know how it is. I didn’t think that he’d pay any attention. You know, old son.”
I nodded. “He’s got a pair of eyes,” I said.
“He’s got everything,” said Waters.
He meant it, too.
“Well,” I said, “he’s not blind, anyway.”
“I’m on his trail,” remarked Waters. “I thought that I might find him farther on, where you were working.”
“I’m working now,” said I.
“At what?” asked Waters.
“To try to find the kid before the sheriff does,” said I.
He flinched. “The sheriff?” said he.
“Yeah. Murphy,” said I.
His lips twitched and his eyes narrowed. There was murder in the look of Waters just then. I never saw death and destruction more clearly promised in the face of any man.
“He’s been after me long enough,” said Waters softly, and almost to himself. “Now I’m going after him.”
“All right,” said I. “You go after him. You catch him. You catch him before he catches the kid.”
“He’s lining out for Chip, is he?” said Waters.
“Yeah. That’s what he’s doing,” said I.
Waters showed his teeth. “I’m going to kill that blankety-blank—” he promised himself.
I looked him in the eye. “You hurry, then,” said I. “Before he kills the kid.”
“Kills the kid?” said Waters.
He was blank enough now. All the sleekness and the smoothness were worn out of his manner.
“That’s what I said,” I told him.
“Look here,” demanded Waters. “What’s happened?”
I told him, and I made it strong. I told him how Chip had come, and how the sheriff had tailed him in, and how Chip had nearly been the death of the pair of us, and how he had come up in time to save us, too, and how the sheriff had started on his trail.
I told about the riding of the river, too, and when he heard that, Waters put up a hand as though he wanted to ward off a blow. But the blow went home, nevertheless. His mouth began to work for a moment before he could speak.
“I’ve been a dog to load the kid down with that sort of a responsibility,” says he.
“Yeah,” says I. “You’ve been a dog!”
THINGS were drawing to a close. I felt that as I went on with Waters riding beside me. I felt also that evil was working in the air, so to speak, and that this trouble might be one big enough to blast everything—Waters, Chip, the sheriff, and myself.
For, somehow, I sensed an inevitable crash, such as one feels when the thunderheads are piling over the mountains. The same picture had been painted before. I mean to say, the sheriff and Chip and Waters and I had all been involved. That time the air cleared. This time I guessed at the worst.
And this is what happened.
We went through a rocky gap into an upland valley, where there was a dark cloud of pines—not big ones, but good to eyes that were so used to glittering rock and white sand.
Out of the distance, even, we could hear the trickling of water, and the soft, easy song of it; and riding up that valley, we took off our hats, I promise you, to the smell of the clean pines, and breathed it to the bottom of our souls.
It was pretty cold. I had piled my slicker on top of all the rest of my outfit to turn the edge of the wind, and when I saw a twist of smoke above the trees, I suggested to Waters that we go in there and warm our hands, at least.
Waters stared at me.
“Why d’you think that we’ve been going in this direction for the last mile?” he asked me.
“You saw the thing from away back?”
“Yeah. I saw it. Maybe it’s what we want.”
“Or the sheriff,” said Waters.
“Come along, man,” said I. “You’re not hunting for trouble with the sheriff, I know. Let the sheriff go. He’s only doing his duty.”
“I’ll only be doing mine,” answered Waters, “if I blow his head off. I’ll take a chance with him, anyway.”
I argued no more. There’s no use arguing with a bull terrier. You may beat him half to death, but in the finish he’ll put his teeth as near the other dog’s life as he can.
So it was with Waters. His face was gray when he thought of the sheriff, and his nostrils worked. I don’t think it was because he laid such a great heap of blame on old Murphy; it was because he was ashamed on account of Chip. When a man is ashamed, of course he’s a ton more dangerous than when he’s justly angered.
Well, we went on through the woods, and we came at last close up to the smoke, and I was for riding straight in, but Waters slides off his horse, throws me the reins, and goes sneaking ahead on foot.
After a moment I heard a shout, and I went crashing straight through to find Waters doing his war dance in front—not of the sheriff, but of young Chip.
And Chip was sitting up with his back to a tree, and on his wrists there were handcuffs, and from the handcuffs ran a rope that circled the tree. His blankets were under him, and it looked as though he had been sound asleep when Waters discovered him. I mean, his hair was all tousled and he was yawning and laughing at the same time.
They began abusing each other in a good-natured way.
“You pie-eyed little snake,” says Waters, “what made you crawl away off up here? I never gave you any such marching orders as that. What brought you up here?”
“I’ll tell you,” said Chip. “I just got tired of riding alone, so I came up here and found the sheriff.”
“He was pretty glad to see you, I guess,” said Waters.
“Yeah, he was glad,” said the boy.
“So glad he wanted to be sure you’d be here when he came back?”
“That’s right. He put these things on me just to remind me to stay. There ain’t hardly any attention that the sheriff don’t seem ready to pay to me!”
He laughed a little as he said it. Then he nodded to me.
“Hello, Joe,” says he.
“Hello, Chip,” says I. “How does it go?”
“You know,” says Chip. “It goes along all right. I ain’t dead, and neither is the sheriff. So there you are.”
“Where’s the sheriff now?” asked Waters.
“He’s gone off to have a look for some venison,” said Chip. “He says that he could eat a whole saddle all by himself.”
“I hope he has luck,” says Waters, “because he might have some help in the eating of that venison. He might only be the host, in fact.”
Chip looked him squarely in the face. “You mean to make trouble with him, do you?” said he.
“Why shouldn’t I?” said Waters. “How much trouble has he made for you and me?”
“Leave me out of it,” said the boy.
“Yeah? Leave you out, Chip?”
“Yeah. I’ve got nothing agin’ the sheriff,” said Chip.
“Come along,” said Waters. “He’s hunted you like a fox.”
“That’s what I’ve been,” said Chip. “He had a right.”
Waters merely blinked.
Chip went on: “You poke a man in the nose, ain’t he got a right to poke back?”
“Why, I suppose he has,” said Waters.
“You bet he has,” said Chip.
“When did I hit the sheriff?” asked Waters, scowling.
“Whenever you broke the law,” said Chip.
Waters snapped his fingers.
“You like that Irish stiff pretty well, don’t you?” said he.
“What’s better blood than the Irish?” says Chip.
“Oh, bah!” says Waters.
Chip growled in his throat.
“You’d rather have your dang English blood, I reckon,” says Chip. “You’d rather be one of them sneakin’ aristocrats, maybe, or my lord what-not, and of all the lyin’, sneakin’, worthless—”
“Shut up,” says Waters, very hot.
“I won’t shut up,” says Chip.
“You will,” said Waters, “because I’ll make you.”
“Give me my hands free and it’ll take two like you to make me,” says the boy.
“I’ll free your hands for you,” said Waters. “A thrashing is what you need. A good caning, and I’m the man to give it to you!”
“The whole blankety-blank red-blooming island of England couldn’t thrash an Irishman!” screamed Chip.
“Any one Englishman is as good as three Irishmen,” says Waters.
I thought the boy would twist himself into a knot.
“You lie!” says he. “You lie, and you lie ten times, and if I had my hands free I’d show you just how bad you lie!”
Waters was just as hot.
“Policemen and boodle grabbers and crooks is all that Ireland turns out,” says Waters.
“Real crooks is what they turn out,” said Chip instantly, “and not poor, dawdlin’ excuses like Dug Waters!”
“You little puppy!” says Waters through his teeth.
“The sheriff will be back in a minute,” says Chip. “You’d better run for it as fast as you can, because he’s Irish, too, and when he catches hold of an English-American like you he’ll just start in by bashin’ in your face for you, and I wouldn’t like to see your skin broke, Waters, because it would give everybody a chance to see the yaller that’s in you!”
It was foolish business to try to talk down that boy. When he got worked up to it, his punch in language was worse than the punch of any man.
Waters looked to both sides at once, so to speak, but he couldn’t find a proper answer. I came in and tapped his shoulder. “It’s no good,” said I. “You cannot keep that game chicken still. Don’t try, old son. He’ll always win out.”
“Wait till I free his hands,” said Waters. “I’m going to teach him manners. That’s all I’m going to do. He’s too long out of school. That’s the trouble with him.”
“I’ll show you what I’ve learned out of school,” says the kid.
Waters leaned over, and with a little picklock, he barely touched those handcuffs, and they fell away.
“I wouldn’t even get up to pay no attention to you, Waters,” says the kid.
“I’ll warm you up enough to move you,” says Waters. And he catches up a flexible switch from the ground.
I stepped in front of him and caught his hand. “Dug,” said I, “you’re making a wrong play. You can’t touch the kid. You know that you can’t.”
“Back up,” says Waters. “You want a hand in this, do you? If you do, fill your hand before you start.”
I was badly scared. Of course, all he wanted was a chance to explode, and he would a lot rather have me than a mere kid to work on.
“Dug,” I protested, “I’m begging you to take one turn up and down the clearing here. After that I’ll do whatever you say. I’ll fill my hand, if I have to.”
“You’ll fill it now!” says Waters.
He was white. The evil spirit was in him. It was no sight for any one to see, not even for a grown man. And it put me pretty far back. It lowered my temperature a good deal to face him, I can tell you.
But after all, there’s a point when even a rat is cornered. And I was cornered then. Somehow, I think that I would have knuckled under, except that another person was watching, and of all people that witness had to be Chip, who himself had no fear!
At any rate, I reached for the handle of my gun and found and gripped it.
“Start your play,” said Waters, or rather, the evil spirit that was in Waters then.
But just at that, with a split part of a second to go, Chip pushed in between us.
“Leave off this!” says he.
“Get out of my way!” says Waters, and with a backhand cuff, he knocks the boy sprawling.
Then he saw, in a flash, and I saw, too.
There wasn’t enough force in that blow to have floored the real Chip, made of rawhide and whalebone as he was. But the boy had gone down, and staring in wonder at him as he lay on his back, I saw a red-stained bandage around his right leg, above the knee; and Waters saw it, too, and groaned as though a bullet had torn through his own flesh.
IN an instant Waters was down on his knees. Chip, clawing and fighting to get to his feet, whacked his small fist into Waters’s face to knock him back.
He might as well have hammered on cast iron, on white iron.
“Hit me again, Chip,” said Waters. “I want you to. Slam me good, Chip. It’s coming to me. I hit you. I did it! Heavens, what a cur I am!”
Chip sat back against the tree. He put his hand to his face and wiped away a drop of red that was rolling down from his mouth toward his chin. I don’t think that Waters had hit him very hard, but just enough to break the thin mucous membrane of the lip.
“Suppose you fellows leave me be for a minute,” says he.
“No, no, Chip,” says Waters. “I want to tell you that—”
I grabbed him by the shoulder—for I had seen—and whirled him away. He was pretty angry at being manhandled in this manner, but he endured it. I got him through the trees until we were just out of sight of the little fire by which the boy was lying.
“What the dickens do you mean by this?” asks Waters, turning on me again.
“You chump,” said I, “Chip was beginning to cry! Didn’t you see that? The tears were coming into his eyes.”
Waters put his hand against a tree and braced himself, closed his eyes and groaned.
I wanted to make him suffer a little, but hardly as much as this.
“He’ll pull out of it all right,” said I.
Waters shook his head. “He’ll never forgive me,” said he. “He must have known that you saw it. He’d forgive me the other things, and even the blow. But never for shaming him. Never for that! There’s too much proud Irish in him for that!”
Then he added: “Was there blood on his face?”
“Aye,” said I.
Waters groaned again. He began to walk up and down along a short course.
“I’ve drawn blood from him,” he said, “and you know what he’s done for me?”
“I know something,” said I.
“He’s shed his own blood for me! He’s dared everything. Just to please a whim of mine, he’s done it.”
“He’s a grand kid,” said I. “There’s nobody like him.”
Waters cursed softly and steadily for a moment.
“I’ve been nothing but a curse and a drain to him,” he declared. “But I wanted to make up, one day, when I had my pile. Then I would have put him in clover. You know. I would have fixed him in the greatest style in the world. I still will. Only—I know that he won’t take it. He’ll never look at me again until he’s old enough to go gunning for me!”
I nodded. That seemed pretty clear. Everything about that lad was the clear strain, and he was not the likely one to forgive or forget insults.
Then I remembered. I said: “He loves you, old son.”
“Aye, and that’s why I’ve treated him like this!”
“Well,” I told him, “you know, Dug, that every one worth knowing understands how to forgive a friend. Chip is worth knowing.”
He whirled about on me. “You saw that bandage?”
“Yes,” I said, “I saw that bandage.”
“That cur of a sheriff drilled the kid before he got him,” said Waters.
“It looks that way,” said I.
“Then I’m going to get Murphy,” declared Waters. “And I’m going to get him good.”
He continued walking up and down. He controlled his voice, and it came out steadily.
“I had my wad. A quarter of a million—that’s enough for a start. It’s enough for me to begin on, and try to make my way. If I can’t do it with that, I’m no good at all. You know, Joe, that I’ve been no good all my life. I’ve taken the easiest way. You know why I want to take the hard way and be straight?”
“Because of Chip,” said I, getting a flash.
He was amazed at me. “How did you guess that?” said he.
“Well,” said I, “because Chip is straight himself, and because he means more to you than any one else does.”
He nodded slowly, like a man thinking a thing over from the start.
“That’s right,” said he. “It’s Chip. He’s so dang straight. You know what used to happen?”
“What?” said I.
“Well, after I’d made a haul—sometimes Chip had helped me more than a little—I used to try to split the proceeds with him. I used to try to give him his whack. But he never would take it. He used to say: ‘I work for the money that I get.’ Mind you, he never used to tell me that I was a crook or anything like that.”
“He loves you, old son,” I repeated.
“I’m going to give him the best break in the world,” said he.
“Of course you will,” said I.
“Murphy drilled him!” said he.
“Murphy had his duty to do,” said I.
“Duty? To shoot a kid?” said Waters, boiling.
“Yes. Duty means a lot to Murphy.”
“Duty’s going to bring him to his grave,” said Waters.
“Well, he knows that,” I answered.
He stared at me. “Knows what?”
“He knows that this job’ll be the finish of him. It’s no pleasure to him to go gunning after kids.”
“You’re a friend of his, it seems,” says Waters, cold and still.
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m a friend of his. He’s one of the best.”
“I’m going to kill that friend of yours,” says he.
“You’ll hang for it, then,” says I.
“It’s not the first man that’s gone down when I pulled the trigger,” says he, sneering.
“It’s the first honest man,” says I.
“What?” shouted Waters.
“Why, you poor loon,” says I, “you’ve never taken a fall out of an honest man. Not with slugs. Crooks and thugs, on one side of the law or the other, you’ve put them down. But you haven’t put down the straight shooters. You know it. You’ve used your guns where the using was pretty near a virtue. Am I wrong?”
He stared again. “You’re trying to make me out nearly virtuous, aren’t you?” said he.
“Aw, Dug,” I answered, “you’ve never been a bad sort. You’ve taken the easiest way, almost always. But that’s the end. Your heart’s been straight.”
He gaped. “All right,” said he, “if that’s the way you think about it.” But he was badly dented by what I had said, and he showed it. “D’you think that I can go back to the kid now?” asked he.
“Of course you can,” said I.
“Well, I’m going back to ask his pardon, on my knees!” said Waters.
“I’ll walk the other way,” said I. “I’ll give you fifteen minutes to do what’s right.”
So I took a walk through the pines, and I waited until I thought that the fifteen minutes were about up, and then I added another quarter of an hour for luck. And the pines were as still as a funeral, and even the squirrels scampered along the branches and had lost their voices, or so it seemed. And as I walked there, I got to thinking about Waters, and Chip, and the sheriff, and wondering how the thing would turn out, but all that I could see was murder, in the end. Because Waters would never forgive the sheriff for the bullet that he, a grown man, had put through Chip’s leg.
Finally, when the time was twice up, I strolled back, and got the smell of the fire through the trees, and then I followed on and came to the place where Chip was lying. He was stretched out on his back, and Waters was beside him, and Waters was talking, and this was what I heard:
“You know, Chip, that dog-gone dog knew all about me. When I came down in the morning he gave a sniff to my boots, and he knew by the sniff of them whether I was going out hunting or not. If I were not going, he went and curled up in a corner and went to sleep again. But if I was going, then he’d just follow me at the heels all around the house, and crawl under my chair at breakfast.”
“Jiminy,” says Chip. “That’s the kind of a dog to have!”
And he laughed a little. Then he said again: “Wouldn’t I give my socks for a dog like that!”
“I’m going to tell you something,” says Waters. “That dog is going to be yours. That very same dog.”
“Go on!” says the kid.
“I mean it. He’s yours.”
“I wouldn’t take your dog,” said Chip with a quaver in his voice.
“Everything that’s mine is yours,” said Waters. “You know that. We’ve agreed that.”
“Jiminy!” says the boy.
“And then,” says Waters, “you’re going to pick out a school that you like and you’re going to go to it!”
“On what?” says Chip. “It costs money to go to school.”
“Aw, I’ll find the money. Don’t you worry about that,” says Waters, and he laughs a little.
“Have you got it?” says Chip.
“Yes, I have it now,” says Waters.
“Then it’s crooked money!” says the other.
Waters jumped. “Hold on, Chip!” says he.
“I mean it,” answers the kid. “It’s crooked money, and crooked money is not good enough to buy me a sardine sandwich. Let alone sending me through school.”
I listened, and my heart nearly stopped. I could guess that this was worse than a bullet through the heart of Waters. But he held on.
“Suppose I make honest money?” says he.
“Save it, then,” says Chip, “and make yourself into an honest man. I’m mighty tired of having a crook for my best friend.”
There was a little silence after this. And I began to back softly away. It was a scene I could understand where there was no real place for me, so I just backed out of it.
And the last that I could see of them was Waters sitting rather humped over, thinking. And both of them not saying a word.
WELL, the next thing that I said to myself was: “What about the sheriff? And what would happen to him when Waters got on the trail?”
So I just dropped down the valley a little in the direction in which the kid had waved when he said that the sheriff was off looking for venison.
Perhaps there was very little that I could do. On the other hand, if I saw old Tug Murphy, it might be that I could turn him. I doubted, but I was willing to try. It was worth any effort to stop the meeting if it could be managed.
So I went on through the woods, feeling smaller and all the while more ready to turn back on my traces. And by and by, what do I see but the sheriff himself!
Yes, there he comes riding out of the woods, and a nice picture he makes, with the deer meat packed around his saddle, and his rifle balanced across the pommel, and the wind furling up the brim of his hat above his eyes.
I had an idea. I backed away behind a rock, and from that shelter I drew a good bead on the sheriff with my revolver as he went by, and when he was right opposite to me, I sang out: “Hands up!” And I added a couple of good long curses to make the thing sound more real to my own ears.
Tug Murphy’s horse stopped of its own accord—which was enough to make me laugh later on—not just then.
Then Tug sang out: “Who’s there?”
I yelled: “Never mind who. One that’ll drill you clean if you don’t stick up those mitts of yours.”
He was actually beginning to raise his hands when suddenly he said:
“Why, it’s old Joe!” And he laughed, and simply turned his horse around toward me, still laughing as it wheeled.
“Put them up!” I roared at him again. “Put them up or I’ll let the light through you!”
He sat in his saddle with one hand on his rifle and one hand on his hip, and he laughed at me, and the bull-like bellowing of his laughter still, in a sense, is ringing in my ears.
I actually tried to pull that trigger, but I couldn’t; and he knew I couldn’t; and I knew that he knew I couldn’t.
“A rotten murderer is what you make, Joe,” says Murphy.
“I’d like to plant you one between the eyes,” says I.
“Come out from behind that rock, will you?” says the sheriff.
I came out, with my gun still in my hand.
The sheriff just grinned as he looked me over. “You ain’t the kind that could shoot an old partner,” says he.
I looked soberly into the face of the sheriff. He was quite a new man. He had lost thirty pounds, I think, in his hunt for Chip. His clothes sagged on him as if his body were a mere scarecrow frame.
“Old son,” said I, “you come close to trouble when you didn’t shove up your hands.”
He shook his head. “You ain’t that way,” says he. “But so you come up here and found me, did you?”
“Yes,” said I, “I found you. And I found the kid, too!”
The sheriff’s brown face turned yellow.
“I couldn’t run my hoss no faster,” he said. “And I begged him and hollered to him to pull up. But he wouldn’t. And his weight, it was a mighty lot less than mine, and pretty soon his pony begins to gain on me; and so I up and fired. And I meant to fire lower. I aimed just to chip a nick in the calf of his leg for sort of a warning, but just then his pony gives a big jump—”
He paused. He raised a hand to his face, but could not screen the agony that was in it. I was pretty deeply touched with pity.
“It’s all right, old son,” said I. “I understand.”
“You understand, Joe,” says he, “because you’re my friend. That’s the reason that you understand. You understand because you’ve got a heart in you, and you know what my duty means to me. But other folks ain’t going to understand. This here is my last job as sheriff. They’ll laugh me right out of office. I’ll have to resign. It’s the finish of my career. And—maybe I’m glad of it!”
He was not glad, though. The pain was still staring at me out of his eyes.
“Aw, go on, man,” said I. “Don’t you worry. Besides, I’ve got something else to tell you about. Don’t you go blundering back to your camp fire so dead careless and free as you were riding along just now.”
“Why not?” says he.
“Because things are not there as they were when you left the place,” I told him.
“What’s happened?” he asked me.
“Chip’s free,” said I.
“Free?” he exclaimed.
I wanted to let the news in on him gradually.
“Man, man,” he shouts at me, “if you’ve been tampering with the irons that are legally—” He stopped himself. “How did you manage it?” he asked curiously. “Did you smash ’em with a rock?”
“I didn’t do the trick myself,” said I.
“Not yourself? Was somebody with you?” says the sheriff in a suddenly grave and quiet voice.
“Aye,” said I. “Somebody who simply seemed to touch the lock and it flew open.”
“You mean it’s Waters!” says the sheriff with a snarl in his throat.
I nodded. I said: “Now’s the time, old fellow, to play cautious and to back up. You know that Waters is too handy with a gun for you to have a chance with him. You know that.”
“It’s Waters,” says the sheriff, his face turning grayer than ever. “Then I guess this here is the last day that I’ll ever see the sun!”
And as he says this, he gives a wild sort of a look around him, and then upward through the green gloom of the trees to where flecks of blue were shining.
I merely laughed at him.
“You’re wild, sheriff,” says I. “You’d be a fool to take on a fight with the two of ’em armed to the teeth, and expecting you to come back. Nobody ever would ask you to do it—”
“Nobody ever would,” says the sheriff, “but the oath that I took to the people. That would make me. Joe, so long for a while!”
And he wheeled his horse about and goes plunging at full speed up the valley through the trees toward the site of the camp.
I followed as fast as I could leg it. I could have spotted an antelope fifty yards and beat it in a mile, that day. And with every jump of me, my heart was crashing and dashing right in my throat.
But I saw the sheriff, riding like a madman, swirl out of view through the trees, and then, a moment later, as I strained and struggled to sprint faster, I heard two voices shouting loudly, and then the rapid clanging of shots. And then there was silence.
Not the same silence as before, but a thing that crawled and reeked in the very air around me.
Then, as I came closer and broke through into the ring of the trees, I saw a thing to make your blood run cold.
I saw the sheriff down, shot clean out of his saddle, as I supposed. And I saw the great Waters down, too. And the sheriff was pulling himself together and starting for Waters, and Waters was already getting to his feet, very white in the face, and with a shine in his eyes.
Chip has hobbled to the place, and as Waters tries to drive forward, with his gun lifting, Chip throws his arms around him and begs him not to shoot.
“Or they’ll hang you, Dug!” he screams. “They’ll hang you! They’ll hang you!”
What a thrill and a screech was in the voice of that boy. It was like the horrible cry of a frightened woman. But deeper than that. And more in it than that. It was Chip himself; the old indomitable Chip, who was crying out like a girl.
“Chuck up your hands and tell me that you’re beat,” said Waters, “or I’ll surely kill you, Murphy—you boy murderer!”
“Guard yourself!” says the sheriff, and brings himself to his feet, with a gun in his hand, too.
“Make your move!” says Waters, trembling like a tiger.
“Make your own move first, and I’ll blow your head off,” says the sheriff. “I’m gunna take you in. I’m gunna take you in with a rope around your neck—” But he wavered where he stood. I managed to get in between them.
“Stand away, Joe, or I’ll go at him through you,” shouts Waters.
“He’s helpless!” I yipped over my shoulder, a chill shooting faster than a bullet through my spinal column. “He can’t move his shooting arm.”
“You lie!” says Murphy. “You lie—you’ve always lied, you yellow—”
But then he reeled outright, and I caught the gun out of his hand. He staggered, and as he sloped toward the ground, I caught him.
There we laid him out. And there we cut away his clothes and saw what had happened.
The bullet from the gun of Waters had gone straight through the body of the sheriff. And in going through his body, it had gone through his right arm, too. How he had managed to keep a grip on his revolver, I can’t tell, but he had done the thing.
Waters was over his fighting madness—there was no other word for it—by this time. He was helping with the care of the wounded man. And when he saw the direction of the wound, he said to me slowly:
“What made him stand up there like that? What made him ask for it a second time?”
I looked back into the eye of Waters.
“Don’t you know?” said I.
“He was game. He was dead game,” said Waters. “I never saw a gamer one than he. But what made him stand up there like that, when he was a dying man?”
“It was the oath that he took to his people,” said I, “when he took office. That’s what made him stand up. And who are his people? Why, you, and I, and Chip, and everybody on this range! And now he’s a dead man, and Heaven forgive the lot of us—because the law never will!”
NO, he didn’t die. I know a doctor who saw the scars, afterward, and who said that he must have died. And I remember how we fought to save him.
We had three wounded men in the camp, but the wound through Chip’s leg was doing well. And the graze of the bullet that had clipped along Waters’s head amounted to nothing. So all three of us worked on the sheriff night and day.
And the weather turned colder, and we had to build a lean-to, and the food played out; but we kept on at it until one day we looked down into the ghostly face of the sheriff and saw that his eye, at last, was clear and strong. He said nothing, but we knew that he would live.
And live he did.
That day Chip drags the saddlebag containing the stolen money to Waters, and points to it. There’s a great, dark stain covering half of the leather.
“What did that?” says Waters.
“The sheriff. He bled all over it,” says Chip, and he stands there, looking first at the bag and then at Waters.
“What do you want me to say?” asks Waters.
But Chip says nothing, and merely fastens his look straight on the eye of Waters.
Waters moistens his lips.
“What’s in your mind, Chip?” says he.
“It’s in my mind,” said Chip huskily, “that there’s still a chance for you, Dug. If you’ll try to take it!”
Says Waters: “You mean for me to give up this? This is a fortune! This is yours and mine, kid—with a slice for Joe.”
“Joe don’t want it,” says the boy. “And I don’t want it. There’s blood on it. And there’s blood on you, too, so long as you keep it. You’re stained with blood already, but not this kind. The other things that you’ve done, they’ll wash off, but not this!”
Waters blanched. He looked from Chip to me. And I nodded gravely back at him.
“What would you do if you were me?” says Waters to the kid.
And what Chip answered stunned me like a club stroke.
“I’d go in with Murphy,” said Chip. “When he can ride in, I’d go in with him, and give up the loot, and take your chance with the law, and try to get clean. Because you’re stained, and that’s the truth! You’re worse than a pig! You been wallowin’ and takin’ it easy in worse than mud. That’s what you been doin’!”
That was how the miracle happened which caused so much talk.
It was Chip’s idea, and Chip’s persuasion that worked it. And the result was that we all went down to town together, and in the dark of the night we all came to the jail.
The sheriff was completely puzzled.
“I dunno what to think,” he confided to me. “I’ve tried to do my duty. But it looks as though my duty’s bein’ finished for me by other folks. An oath is a terrible powerful thing, Joe. Look how it’s working on all these others! Heaven knows what’ll come of it. I hope not too much harm to Waters. The rest of us, we’re puppies. But he’s a growed-up bear!”
I suppose that there was truth in that. I never saw a nobler face than that of Waters, calm and resigned, as he gave himself up.
One hand was behind his back, however, and that hand gripped hard the fingers of Chip.
But this I was the only one to observe.
It was a strange act, and a great act, in its way. And it had a great result, I’m thankful to say. For when the governor heard of the return of that quarter of a million and of Waters’s resolution to lead a life with clean hands, he sent down a pardon that freed Dug from jail, and left him with no trouble in the world except worry about Chip and Chip’s future.
But, for that matter, there were already half a dozen strong men worrying about the very same thing.
Only Chip was at ease. And he went off on a hunting trip with Tug Murphy, and left his partner, Waters, behind him, to sit down and do the thinking about the future.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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