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A FLY had been dropped in the ointment of perfect happiness for Jeremy Dice. Many elements had gone into the making of his joy this evening. In the first place, he had upon his arm at Kadetzsky's ball the prettiest girl at the dance, Dorothy Petwell. In the second place, he had distinguished himself by the introduction of a pas de deux entirely new in popular dancing—a pair of dragging steps with a jar at the end of them that had enraptured every girl to whom he had shown it and had made other young gentlemen grind their teeth in anguish. In the third and most important place, he could say with perfect assurance that tonight he was the best-dressed man on the floor. Kadetzsky's ball was the only occasion during the year when they aspired to full dress. During the rest of the twelve months the young swells of the society labored and saved and racked their brains for the means to produce a dress suit that would include at least one novelty. Young Saylor had easily borne away the palm last year; it had been Harrison Bean the year before; but tonight Jeremy Dice was the victor. He appeared in a delicately fitted suit whose tails arched out and floated behind him like chanticleer's two most gorgeous feathers. His necktie was white, edged marvelously with thin black. Above all, his waistcoat was white, crowded with black stripes so small and neatly patterned that at a distance the garment gave the effect of a distinguished gray. It was, indeed, a stunning costume, and Jeremy, as usual, wore it to the very best advantage. Yet, while this triumphal evening wore on, as stated before, a fly was dropped in the ointment. It was a remark made by Dorothy Petwell.
"Some day after we're married, Jeremy dear, we'll go out West, won't we?"
Jeremy looked down at her in amazement. Even in the midst of his astonishment he found himself admiring her hair. For Dorothy Petwell worked in a Fifth Avenue hairdresser's establishment, and she set the fashion of hair modes at least three weeks ahead of the other girls who danced at Kadetzsky's.
"West?" gasped Jeremy. "West? Why West?"
"I'll tell you why. I get, oh, the most wonderful letters from my cousin, Jim, out in Wyoming. He says it's a... a... 'man-sized country'... that's what he calls it. 'The country makes the man'... that's what he writes to me."
"Hah!" said Jeremy. "I call that bunk." He arched his not overlarge chest. He was distinctly not Grecian, but, being a tailor, he made the most of his possibilities.
"Being a tailor is well enough," went on Dorothy, "but..."
He was astonished by her seriousness.
"But you could be something more," she said, looking earnestly at Jeremy Dice. "You're a natural leader of men, Jeremy. You ought to be out where there are real men to lead. Riding horses, you know. Throwing ropes and things on cattle. Why, they take great big bulls by the horns and wrestle with them and throw them, Jeremy, dear. Think of doing that. You could, if you tried."
"Hmm," Jeremy said.
A fragmentary picture of himself, facing a bull, flashed into his mind. He gracefully waved aside the compliment with a lean, firm hand. The girl followed the gesture with her eyes. Usually the hands of Jeremy Dice fascinated her.
"Good hands for cards," somebody had once said. Work with the needle and scissors had made them exquisitely swift of movement. There was something of cat-like speed and sureness in every movement that Jeremy made with his hands. One was aware of much nervous force piled up in him, and Jeremy's hands connected with that nerve power.
But tonight those hands did not satisfy Dorothy Petwell. They seemed too much like her own hands. She had in mind the brown, huge fist of Cousin Jim. She sighed.
"I think it's pretty good right here in little old New York," said Jeremy Dice. "You'll get over these romantic ideas, Dottie. Believe me, the West ain't all that it's said to be. Too much work... too little coin. That's what it means. Besides, here I am working my way up in the business. The boss says I'll be picking off a junior partnership one of these days. What d'you know about that?"
He had saved this choice bit of news. And Dorothy Petwell gasped.
"But," she said a moment later, "a tailor isn't..."
"Isn't what?" he asked, angry and aggressive.
"Doesn't ride horses," she replied foolishly.
He looked down at her again in pity. She knew that she had been absurd, and she dared not meet his eye.
"Of course, he doesn't," and Jeremy Dice chuckled. "D'you expect me to sit a saddle and thread a needle?"
At this she did look up. He was surprised to see a shadow behind her eyes rather than in them. If he had been any other than Jeremy Dice, leader of fashion at Kadetzsky's ball and rising tailor, he would have imagined that she was judging him, weighing him, and finding him light, indeed. Although Jeremy felt that this was impossible, something in the attitude of Dorothy Petwell piqued him. He deliberately slighted her for the next few dances and turned his attention to other girls, who received him brightly. For was he not the finest dancer, the aptest and most gracefully dressed man on the floor? An air of distinction surrounded Jeremy that included the girls to whom he favored recognition. At length he returned to Dorothy because he had found that she still watched him in a thoughtful manner, not at all envious of his new companions.
She greeted his return without undue joy. Then, alarmed, he began to court her deftly, softening his voice to talk of her own affairs. She persisted in being absent-minded. She was not hard, she was worse—she was thinking of other things.
So a shade began to fall over the triumph of Jeremy Dice. Not that he began to criticize himself. He attributed it all to the pig-headedness that he felt to be a characteristic of all girls. He grew so concerned that finally he allowed Dottie to take him into the reception room. It was there that the terrible blow fell. He should have known. He should have remembered that the boss had said he was going with his daughter to this affair. He should have remembered all this, but it was brought thunderingly home into his mind by a great voice that called from the side of the reception room: "Dice! Hey, Dice!"
He turned. He was aware of the big, bloated form of the boss, his face more red-purple than ever, perspiration streaming down his face and over his tight collar. It was, indeed, Stanislas Gorgenheim himself. And a cold, sick wave sped through the veins of the tailor.
He bowed and started on, smiling, but the big voice pursued him.
"Hey, Dice. Don't run off. It's you that I want to talk to. Come back here, Dice!"
"Do you let any man talk to you like that?" Dorothy whispered at his shoulder in a singularly small voice.
"It's the big boss, Dottie. I got to talk to him. He... he doesn't mean anything by it. It's just his way. Wait a minute. I'll be right back."
"No, I'll go along."
Very slowly he returned. He came in range of the sound of Gorgenheim's puffing.
"Good evening, Mister Gorgenheim," said Jeremy pleasantly. He had disarmed the boss more than once by his address, but this time fate ruled otherwise.
"So," the fat man said. "You got it, eh?"
His thick finger pointed, swept over Jeremy from the heel to the shoulders. And Jeremy understood that all was known. The sense of disaster paralyzed him. Then: "Hush, Mister Gorgenheim. Let me explain..."
"It is not the hushing," retorted the boss in a loud voice.
Everyone in the room was listening. The walls seemed to Jeremy to be covered with bright, wide eyes.
"It is not the hushing," repeated the big man. "It is the suit. Where did you get it, maybe, Dice? Maybe you paid me? No? Maybe you bought it, no? Where did you get it, eh?"
"Jeremy Dice, you have the suit stole!"
"Mister Gorgenheim, I only borrowed it..."
"Borrowed! I am a child, maybe, no? Hushings, is it? No, it is takings. Go back and put that suit where you got it in the shop, Dice! Go quick!"
Jeremy could not speak. A deep-hearted prayer that the floor might open and swallow him was not granted. He turned away, and about him he saw the faint, small, condemning smiles from the women. The men were chuckling openly and whispering about it. Oh, there would be nothing else talked about for a month at Kadetzsky's. He was ruined.
"I suppose you want to go home?" Dorothy asked after he rejoined her and they reached the hall. He looked down stupidly at her.
"Well, you'll go along, won't you, Dottie?"
"I'll stay. Joe will take me home, I guess."
Out of the depths of his shame he fired a little. "I suppose you're turning me down, Dottie, just because I wore a suit that didn't belong to me?"
She did not speak.
"Ain't you a little ashamed, Dottie?"
"Listen, Jeremy," said the girl very calmly, "it isn't the stuff about the clothes. But... I've just seen a good many things. First of all, I see that you're just a tailor."
It was brutal, but they were alone. Dottie Petwell had only a moment.
"Go on," said the tailor stolidly.
"Now you do look mad. You look like a big wildcat. But I'm not a man. You can't fight me. Why didn't you look like that when you faced that fat, horrible Gorgenheim? You stood before him like a whipped puppy, and you made me sick, Jeremy. I..."
"You want me to go West, eh?"
"I never want to see you again... until you're different."
"Listen," said the tailor, "I don't think you ever will see me again... you or any of the rest." And he fled.
JEREMY'S mind was a blank. Somehow he reached his room. He stood vainly, trying to understand. He had worn a suit out of the shop, something he had done before many times. Because of that crime he had broken with his girl, had incurred the wrath of his employer, and had snapped a cord binding him to his past. He saw little except the contemptuous face of Dorothy Petwell.
"What does she want me to be?" he cried softly.
He thrust his fingers through his hair and rumpled it, tore his collar open at the throat, and leaned to peer into his mirror. The lean, savage face that he saw there frightened him. He sat down and began to collect his wits.
"Something has happened," he kept saying aloud. "I... I'd like to break something."
Only a tailor—the phrase kept coming back at him like a persistent echo. He felt that he would be able to hear it in every still moment during the rest of his life. Go West! He was a little over thirty years old, had a good job with steady advancement behind him and before him. Suddenly all these bright prospects became nothing. Only a tailor damned them.
Unquestionably there was a good deal of the child and the dreamer in Jeremy Dice, or he would never have sustained the impulse long enough to act on it. But, when a child grows sullen, it is apt to throw itself off a cliff or chase its own family with a knife. Jeremy was wrapped in sullen hatred of the world. A sullen man—or child—hates the world because he feels that the world despises him.
At any rate, before dawn of the next morning Jeremy Dice was far westward, shivering in the black night in a lumber yard beside the railroad. A round-faced man, ragged, stood shivering beside him.
"Which way, cull?"
"You and me. There's the Four-Twenty. Come on."
And half a minute later he was riding the rods.
It was the most terrible day of his life. A score of times his mind jumped—as from the unconscious to the conscious. The cinders cutting into his face, the rush of freezing air, the roar of the train, the vast chuckling of the wheels on the rails—he would become aware of these in that jump of the mind. How did he happen to be here? What was he doing, imperiling his life to get to a place where he did not want to be?
Yet, he kept at it. Behind his mind there was the childish, sullen determination to show them. He would go West. In a way, after starting, he was ashamed to turn back. Eventually he would return to Dorothy Petwell. "I've been to your old West. Nothing there but desert. Now I'm back. Take me or leave me, New York for mine."
He was riding shamelessly on top of the freight on this evening. It had been deathly hot all day in the box car, with sittings of acrid dust through the cracks. It got into his nose and made him sneeze. It got into his eyes, and the tears ran down his cheeks. He had blessed the oncoming of night and the dicker with the friendly brakeman that had enabled him to climb onto the top of the car. The scent of alkali was still in the air, keen, subtle, drying the throat, yet it was heaven compared with the heat of the car during the day. On either side, before or behind, he could see nothing except limitless flat. Unquestionably this was the crossing of the desert to which everyone had been referring. Sometimes, glancing over the obscure flat, he wondered if human beings actually lived out here so far from Broadway.
Mostly he kept his chin up and his eyes on the sky. The stars were marvelously close and bright. It occurred to Jeremy Dice that he was really seeing them for the first time. To be sure, he had noticed them now and then on the boat for Coney Island when he rode on the top deck. But usually his sky was blocked at night by the upper reaches of skyscrapers, and he had never looked higher than the electric signs on Broadway. But here it was different. His eye leaped a dizzy distance past the lower, brighter stars into infinitely far-off regions where they clustered like a faintly luminous dust.
"Oh, Lord," and Jeremy Dice sighed, "this is a queer old world."
He looked up to the brakeman.
"I'm all right," he said.
"Good," said the brakeman. "I like to see 'em comfortable. But what about me?"
"It's all right. I fixed it with Jem."
"Jem ain't me. Jem stopped end of the last division. You're starting all over, bo."
Jeremy shrugged his shoulders. "How much?"
"Oh, I'm reasonable. One buck will fix me fine."
Dice reached into his pocket. His hand leaped out again as though it had been burned. It slipped swiftly through his clothes, pocket after pocket.
"I... I've been rolled," he cried. "They've picked me!"
"That old stuff?" retorted the brakeman. "Say, bo, I ain't a new one. Come on! Fork over the stuff. I'll take it in nickels, that's how reasonable I am."
"I tell you I'm busted!"
The brakeman sighed. "All right. I don't argue. We're stopping about two miles up. Off you go."
"Off in the desert?"
"Then come through, you fool."
"I swear I haven't got a cent. Jem must have rolled me. Then that's why he grinned when he passed me."
"If Jem has it, that don't do me no good. Rules are rules. Pay or get off, bo!"
And he waited.
Despair seized on Jeremy Dice. Only a moment before he had looked over that dusky flat and wondered if human beings actually lived there. And now? The train was slowing, the brakes screaming far up the line, and there was a procession of swift jars as the cars halted. The rattling came to Jeremy.
"Now," said the brakeman.
Jeremy did not speak.
"A tight one, eh?" said the brakeman. "Well, maybe it comes to you hard, but rules are rules. You sit here and think it over a minute. I'll be back."
But, when the train started, gathered momentum, still the brakeman did not return. The freight was laboring slowly up the grade when the man first reappeared.
"All right," he said, extending his hand. "I'm glad to see you've come to time."
"Friend," said Jeremy solemnly, "I wasn't fooling. I have no money."
"Why, you poor fool, are you trying to put one over on me?"
A spark of wrath glowed in Jeremy's bosom, but he extinguished it swiftly.
"Friend," he began, with a quaver in his voice, and reached up his hand.
Had the motion been a shade slower, or had it not been night, all might have been well. But the brakeman's suspicions were aroused. When that hand swept up at him, he flinched, saw a vivid picture of a death struggle with the hobo on the top of the train, and put a quick period to that picture by smashing his heavy lantern into Jeremy's face. The moment he struck, he regretted the blow and stooped with a cry to catch the falling man. Jeremy was stunned. He had slumped over as limp as a rag, and the train, swaying at the same instant, caused his shirt sleeve to tear through the fingers of the brakeman. He catapulted from the top of the car.
The brakeman stood shivering. For a moment he was about to give the signal to stop the train, but he thought better of it.
"One fool more or less," he muttered, "what difference does it make?"
Considering the distance he fell and the speed, the chances were large that there would be one the less. But one thing favored Jeremy in his fall, and that was the blow of the brakeman's. It had deprived him of his senses, and he fell limply. If he had braced himself with knotted muscles, he would have broken his neck without fail. As it was, he struck the slope of the grade and whirled to the bottom.
HE wakened a full hour later with a feeling that someone was beating him at the base of the brain. Gradually, his senses clearing, he found that this sensation was simply the pulsing of his blood. When he sat up, the blood rushed back from his head to his heart, and he nearly swooned. Slowly his head freed itself of the mist. Once it had, he set about learning the extent of his injuries with gingerly touches of his fingertips. High up on his forehead, and running through his hair, was a deep cut that must have gone to the bone, but it had ceased bleeding. The back of his head was not lacerated, but there were two great bumps that ached at the lightest touch of his fingers. He tried his legs, his arms. They were oddly numb, but no bones were broken. Across the shoulders also he was badly bruised, and the skin had been raked along one shin so that, when he stood up, the trousers came painfully away from the raw flesh.
The moment he was on his feet, however, he forgot his sense of bodily injuries. There was a greater calamity than any fall. He was alone on the desert, and the only thing that could lead him back to men was the railroad. He looked gloomily down the iron rails, glimmering dully in the starlight and drawing quickly out of sight in the dark. He might walk those rails until he died of thirst before he reached a settlement of any kind, he decided. On the day before they had whirled by many a dreary stretch when he thought they would never come to a station. Stories that tramps had told him flocked back in his mind, of men who had been thrown from trains on the great mountain desert and who had perished there miserably.
"Buzzards is what bury you," someone had said, "and they sure pick the bones clean."
Hopelessly he looked around him with a feeling that he must begin to do something. All was flat on that awful horizon, all except to the left, where low hills, apparently, swelled against the night sky. For some reason he breathed more easily when he saw them. He did not connect hills with the desert. Men perhaps might live yonder. He turned toward them and began to limp in that direction. Presently his muscles loosened. His head still ached, but the pain was subsiding, and action began to bring back hope.
"Everything looks hard until you finish it," decided the tailor and stepped out more briskly.
What a lot he would have to tell to Dottie Petwell when he met her again. He would double, treble the number of the brakemen. In a fearful night combat with three men he had been slugged on the head and thrown from the top of a speeding train! The thought of Dottie's popping eyes comforted him hugely. He was even smiling when the ground began to angle up, and a few minutes later he was among the hills. The darkness had made them seem ten times farther away than they were in reality.
But his spirits began to flag again. They were gloomy, low- huddling mounds of sand rather than real hills. Nothing could surely grow in such soil as this. It puffed up into dust under foot and rose in acrid scent of alkali to his nostrils. Finally he gave up for the moment and sank down to rest and think, if that were possible. But, when he glanced up, the wide sky looked down brightly, mercilessly upon him. The stars were like so many human eyes, seeing his misery and ignoring it. They accentuated his hopelessness. How many other men had they seen sink into the sand to become buzzard bait? A vague wrath rose in him, a hatred and rebellion against the world. And then—when he glanced sidewise—he saw a flat-topped hill with straight sides. Straight sides in this sandy soil? Springing to his feet, he ran to one side. He saw the flat side dissolve and spread into a regular triangle at the top, the immemorial form of a roof. The house of some man!
He shouted huskily and broke into a shambling run, regardless of the choking dust, regardless of his weariness. The house grew out upon him. It was a black-windowed shack. But, of course, everyone would be asleep at this time of night. He had no idea how late it might be. He reached the front of the little shack and shouted again.
There was not a reply. In a fury that he should be allowed to stand there, perishing of thirst, he beat at the door with his fist. It gave way at the first stroke and fell into the interior with a crash. At that he sprang back, alarmed. But there was no clamor of an enraged inhabitant. Suddenly the truth came sickeningly home to him that it must be a deserted cabin. He stepped to the door again and lighted a match. By the flickering light he saw the truth. The bunk in one corner sagged halfway to the floor. The sheet-iron stove was a stumbling ruin. Two chairs were in tolerable repair. That was all. Across one end of the room was a platform built close to the ceiling, and over the edge of the platform projected the ends of some straw—a rickety ladder led up to this haymow. On the whole there could not have been a more disheartening ruin.
After a moment of reflection he knew that no one would have built a house without accessible water near at hand. To hunt for it at night was absurd. Besides, he needed rest more than he even needed water. As the match burned out in his fingers, he dropped it to the floor, ground it under his heel, and then stretched himself on the boards. It needed only a moment to convince him that it would be impossible to rest in this manner. The hard floor made his head throb, and his bruised shoulders ached. Then he thought of the straw.
The ladder creaked and complained under his weight. One rung broke under his foot and let him down to the next one with a breathtaking jar. But he got safely to the platform and, lighting a match, saw a sufficient quantity of old straw lying there. It was a dark, shiny yellow with great age, but it was more inviting to Jeremy Dice than any mattress he had ever seen. He bunched it conveniently and then stretched himself gingerly upon that improvised bed. It was, however, more inviting in appearance than in fact. For not even the loose straw was more than momentarily comforting to his shoulders and sides. Twice he came within a verge of sleep in spite of the pain, and twice a peculiarly hard twinge wakened him again.
He was beginning to twist and turn, consumed with nervousness, when he heard the sounds from the outside, first the snort of a horse and a grunt as it stepped into some unsuspected depression in the sand, and then a deep murmur of men's voices. Of all the sounds that Jeremy had ever heard, there was none more welcome than that humming of voices. He sat up, grinning expectantly in the dark, and gathered his breath to shout. And then a distinct voice broke in on him, close to the house.
"Here we are. Whoa, Belle, you old rattletrap. I know this ain't home as well as you do. Did you ever see such a hoss, Arizona?"
"She saved your skin tonight, Lew. They ain't any doubt of that... and I don't blame the fool hoss for wanting to get to her home."
Something for which he never after was able to account checked the shout that had been forming behind the lips of Jeremy Dice. He even moved back from the edge of the platform.
"Hello, the door's gone down since I was here."
"How long ago?"
"Last month. I'd just shook off the sheriff the day before, and I hit the shack plumb spent. Them boards was like down to me."
At this Jeremy edged far back. The sheriff... A tingling chill went up his back.
"Strike a light, will you, Lew? Can't see why you always carry that lantern in your pack."
"If you don't see any use for it, why d'you want me to light it?"
"Well, we're fools if we do light it. Maybe they might follow after and see the light."
"They ain't going to follow, I tell you. But we'll sit in the dark."
"How can we count coin in the dark? Besides, I guess you're right. They won't follow. Could you make out the one you dropped?"
"Harry Welling, I think."
The other whistled. "Him!"
"What about it?"
"He was a handy gent with a gun himself."
"They don't none come too hard for me, pardner. You stay with me long enough, and you'll find out."
"Meaning you're a pretty hard one yourself, eh?" said his companion dryly.
"Hard enough, son. Hard enough, and you can lay to that any time when you're lying awake, wondering about me."
The speaker scratched a match, raised the glass of a very small lantern, and in a moment a soft but steady light filled the shack. The tailor flattened himself on the platform. Suppose they should see him? Suppose this rotten platform should give way? Suppose he should make some unavoidable move as a nerve twitched? It would be sudden and terrible death, for he was unarmed. But what would arms have availed him against these practiced fighters? It was easy to discover what they were—two bandits, fleeing from the scene of a crime with at least one dead man left behind them and pausing here to divide the profits.
"There you are," went on the voice of the one who had lighted the lantern. There was a click as he placed it on the floor, and the light diminished around the tailor.
"Sit down, Lew. Sit down and be comfortable."
"Fine chance for me to be comfortable. Saddle-sore, Arizona."
"Lew Shaler saddle-sore? You got soft in jail, Lew."
"Go easy on that."
"Get some straw from up there. That'll give you a padded seat."
"You got some sense, Arizona!"
The tailor heard a heavy foot stride across the cabin.
HIS heart fluttered and stopped, and the paralyzing cold ran up his back again and centered at the base of his head. But with the cold sensation there grew a grave determination to fight to the end rather than submit to the two and be shot like a cur. Cautiously he gathered his knees under him. A hand fell on the ladder and stirred it.
"They's a rung broke out of the ladder, Arizona. Maybe the rest would give way under me. You're a pile lighter than I am. You go up, will you?"
"I ain't so much lighter. I'm pretty nigh man-sized, Lew. You can lay to that."
There was a growl in response. "Some day you'll grow up and stop being so damned proud. Every time I ask you to do a thing, you act as though I was insulting you."
"I need all my time, doing things for myself"
"But ain't I older than you? Ain't the older man got the right to lead in things and do a little directing? What sort of a bringing-up did you ever get, Arizona Pete? That's what I'd like to know!"
"A gent like you, talking about bringing up," retorted Arizona Pete. "Say," he broke off, "what's that?"
"I thought that platform shook just then."
The tailor, relieved, had flattened himself again on the boards.
"It's the wind, Arizona. Think they's something up there on the platform?" He chuckled.
"Don't laugh like a fool before you find out whether or not I'm wrong."
"How you going to find out if you don't climb that there rotten ladder?"
"Touch a match to the shack when we leave. The old joint ain't any good. Besides, if they was to be any rat around here, that would burn it out."
"You got a pretty good head for a kid, Arizona."
"Not such a kid, either. But I got a little imagination."
"Don't be always firing up when I look crosswise at you. Well, get out the stuff and we'll start work."
"There it is."
There was a heavy impact on the floor, and mixed with the sound of the fall was a melodious jingling. A feverish curiosity began to work in Jeremy Dice. It was like the impulse that urges a man to throw himself from a great height. Or rather, it was more like the impulse that makes the boy select for his pillaging the orchard he knows beforehand is the most securely guarded with guns full of pepper and salt.
Inch by inch he drew forward on the platform, his hair prickling, but a sort of cold joy growing in him. Once he stopped, wondering at himself in horror. But again the very danger tempted him on, and he continued that cat-like, soft approach. A psychologist might have said: "This is a new man." But Jeremy Dice was not a psychologist. He only knew that the danger was filling him with a fierce pleasure. In reality, he would not have changed places now with any man in the world. He selected a place where the straw bunched high at the very edge of the platform, and, when he reached it, he cautiously moved the straw so that he secured a peephole through which he could stare down at the pair.
They were even more formidable in appearance than in voice. Each was dressed in overalls, riding boots, a vest, and had a handkerchief of vast proportions knotted around his throat. Each wore a big-brimmed sombrero. Each would have been a commanding figure even among big men. But here the points of similarity ceased and the points of divergence commenced. The younger of the two, Arizona Pete, was a tall and athletic fellow. Even as he sat cross-legged on the floor, his back was erect and his head nobly poised. Like his companion, his face was veiled in a beard of several days' growth, but, in spite of the unshaven skin, he was not bad looking, except that the eyes were animal-bright and restless. His companion was more squat and bulky with shapeless strength. By some inches he was appreciably taller. His squat- featured face and the length of his arms suggested a gorilla to the tailor. And he, too, had those animal-bright eyes.
"And now," Lew Shaler was saying, "how d'you figure the stuff had ought to be split?"
"What do you mean by that?" the other fired at once. Throughout he seemed to fear that his companion in crime would take an advantage if an opening occurred.
"I guess I talk tolerably plain. How do you expect to split the stuff?"
"The easiest way. Fifty-fifty."
The gorilla-faced man gaped. "Come easy, Arizona. I'm talking serious."
"And so am I."
The older man shook his head. "Arizona," he said, softening his voice to a whine, "is that the way to talk to a gent that found you down and out and showed you the way to some easy money?"
"You showed me the way to some crooked coin," said Arizona steadily enough, "and I done my share to get it."
"You done your share? Do you mean that?"
"Didn't I do all I was asked to?"
"There you are," declared Lew Shaler sadly to an invisible audience. "There's gratitude for you. Arizona, I'm surprised."
"Sorry. But that's where I stand."
"No, you don't, Arizona. I'll tell you why you think you're going to stand on that. You figure that old Lew Shaler is trying to do you, eh?"
"Maybe I do. Why?"
"Why? Because it cuts me up a pile to have you suspect me of that, son. Look here, did you ever hear one of the boys say that Lew Shaler wasn't square?"
"I dunno. What you driving at?"
"I'll tell you what I'm driving at. I'm driving at what's to come. This here coin... it ain't nothing to me. But I see big hauls ahead of us. I see chances where we can make ten times as much as this. Could you get it without Lew Shaler? No, between you and me, you couldn't. The reason ain't that you haven't got brains. Because you have. But you don't know the ropes. Would you know how to boil down the soup? No, you wouldn't. Would you know how to doctor a safe? No, you wouldn't. Could you even use a can opener? No, you couldn't. But old Lew Shaler, that sees you got brains, is the boy that's going to teach you. Now, I ask you, with me teaching you all those things, is it square for you to want to get as much as me out of it? Ain't it true that when a boy starts out learning a trade, he works for a while for almost nothing? I'll tell you what. I've had bright lads step up to me and say... 'Lew,' they says, 'lemme come along and you show me what you know, and I don't ask you for a cent.' That's what they says. But I wouldn't listen to 'em. No, sir, I says, wait till you find a gent with brains, Lew. Then get him and cotton to him, and you'll both get rich. And that's why I picked you up, Arizona, because you ain't like the rest. You got lots of nerve. You got a good eye. You know a gun as good as the next one. And you're quick to learn."
He finished this lecture and eulogy with a smile, and Arizona Pete perceptibly weakened under the attack.
"I ain't denying that you know the business," he averred. "And I don't want to be no hog. All I want is to get my fair share. And I ain't going to be beat by no man. What you say about keeping on together, that looks pretty good to me. But only if I get my fair share. I ain't going to be nobody's underdog."
"Which I ain't asking you to be nobody's slave," broke in the yegg hurriedly. "Me ask a gent like to play slavey?" He laughed. "Arizona, I value you too high for that. I'd be ashamed to tell you how high I value you because maybe I'm wrong about you. No, sir. All I ask is what's my due. Now, look back over what we done. I ask you, who planned the job?"
"You done that, right enough."
"And when things looked shaky, who threw the old plan away and dug up a lot better one out of his head?"
"You done it, Lew, and I ain't denying that it was a damned clever piece of work. I admire you for it. It was fast thinking."
"Then you come down to the safe. Who done all the fixing?"
"You done that, but I was keeping guard."
"And mighty good guard you kept. Which the way you fooled that old gent that come along asking questions with me inside fixing the safe... why, I near busted out laughing. You're smart, Arizona, that's what I call you... smart!"
"Hmm," growled Arizona and flushed with pleasure. "I ain't anybody's fool."
"You ain't, son. But let's go on. When we made our getaway, and when they was closing in on us from the right, who was it stopped 'em by drilling one of 'em clean?"
"You done that."
"Yes, sir, and it was a hard thing to do. You come out of this with clean hands, son, but I got the guilt of murder on my head."
Arizona snorted. "Lew Shaler, when you take on like that, you make me laugh. If you ever give a thought for all the men you've killed, you'd never think of nothing else. Why, it wasn't no more'n knocking over a rabbit for you to shoot young Welling."
"Wasn't it? A lot you know about it, Arizona. You that never touched a gent in your life."
"I don't like the way you say that."
The tone of Lew Shaler changed with startling suddenness. "Son, I'm tired arguing. I'll tell you what you get. You get one- third. I get two-thirds. Start counting." He kicked in between them two blackened canvas bags.
Arizona Pete sat with his elbows resting on his knees and returned no answer except for a smile that began slowly and never reached his eyes.
It was a sinister expression, and the tailor shivered behind his pile of straw. He was wondering: Jeremy Dice, would your blood turn into water if a man ever looked at you like that?
LEW SHALER remained unperturbed. He returned glare for glare, meantime saying rapidly: "Arizona, think quick and think twice. Don't make a fool out'n yourself."
"Speaking personal," returned Arizona, "I dunno why I should let an old goat like you bluff me out. Besides, I could use that whole sack of coin pretty handy."
"Is that final?"
"I reckon it is."
"You poor fool kid."
Even while the pitying expression was drawling out of the wide mouth of Lew Shaler, his right hand twitched back with unbelievable speed toward the heavy gun in his holster. The left hand of Arizona shot out. The maneuver was repeated in reverse on the opposite side, and the two men started to their feet, each with drawn gun, each with his wrist locked by the grasp of the other. There was no speech now. They glared at each other beast- like. Suddenly the tailor found that he had lost all fear. He was tingling as he tingled when he watched a prize fighter. This was the same, except that there were guns instead of gloved fists.
For a moment the gladiators were standing without motion. But the keen eye of the tailor discovered that each was straining, silently, terribly. Then, as an imperceptible advantage apparently fell to the part of the older man, Arizona Pete whined with dismay and rage and flung himself to one side. At the same instant both revolvers were discharged.
A bullet splintered the boards beside the tailor's head, but he rose to his knees unaware of the danger. They were still spinning; again both revolvers were discharged. Again both men escaped harm, for neither of them could twitch in the muzzle of his gun enough to bring the body of his enemy into line for a shot.
It was Arizona Pete who saw that the struggle along this line was futile to continue. He dropped his revolver to the floor and, unburdened by it, succeeded in wrenching his hand clear. A moment later he had whipped a murderous knife from his belt and drove it at the throat of Lew Shaler.
Lew had instantly imitated the maneuver of his enemy in dropping the gun, and now, tearing his right hand clear, he shot it across and seized the darting hand of Arizona. There was a twist, a yell of pain from Arizona, and the knife also dropped, tinkling, to the floor. At the same moment both men wrenched themselves away, and, the instant there was clearance, Lew Shaler tore open his shirt.
What the significance of that move might be, the tailor could not tell, but Arizona Pete, with a shriek of horror, leaped in and drove his fist into the face of the bulkier man. The impact flung him back against the wall with a crash that sprang the rotten boards. He bounded away from them as if they were springs, and, as Arizona strove to scoop up a revolver from the floor, the huge fist of Lew Shaler landed fairly on his cheek bone and split away skin and flesh. Arizona was whirled like a top by the blow. He straightened from the whirl with a howl of pain, and, hitting inside the flailing arms of Shaler, his fists cracked twice on the flesh with a sound like a clapping of hands, and two dark red trickles went down the face of the older man. Evidently he saw that to engage in this fighting at long range was a hopeless thing for him. Abandoning all effort to strike with his fists, he extended his huge arms and lurched at his slenderer opponent.
Arizona saw the coming danger. He danced away to one side, swerved, and again planted both fists in the face of the older man without receiving a return blow. He began to laugh, taunting Lew Shaler. But the big man whirled and charged again, like a bull, the shack trembling at his footfalls. This time his lowered head drove through the straight-shooting fists of Arizona. He came close. His long arms were wound about the body of Arizona, and the two crashed together on the floor with Lew Shaler on top. A strong heave from Arizona spun them over. Here and there they rolled, a confused mass of striking legs and winding arms. At first the advantage was with Shaler's greater weight and strength, but Arizona had on his side the merciless advantage of youth. His wind held better; his muscles were better equipped to withstand a prolonged struggle. Eventually the tumbling ceased with Shaler flat on his back. Arizona's left forearm was under the wide shoulder of his opponent, and the gripping hand was buried in Shaler's thick neck in a stranglehold, while his right knee was ground into the hollow of Shaler's left arm.
Only the right arm of the older man remained free. He balled the fist and, clubbing it, struck desperately into the face of Arizona Pete. Twice and again those short, deadly blows thudded into the face of Arizona, splitting the flesh above his eyes, opening again the old gash on his cheek bone. But he retained his grip in spite of the punishment he received, and Shaler began to relent. His blows were more hurried, less powerful. They beat a weakening tattoo in Pete's face, but his own face was blackening. His eyes bulged, the veins stood out on his forehead, and he struggled for breath.
Jeremy Dice heard the grim mutter of Arizona Pete: "It's science that counts... science that kills you, Shaler... damn you."
His grip closed harder than before. A peculiar gasping, whining sound broke from Shaler's throat, and for a second he ceased struggling. In that second, however, a new thought must have come to him. He drove his right arm desperately between his own body and that of his foe. The hand tore at his shirt as it had done once before, and Arizona Pete shouted in dismay. Yet he would not relax his death grip. He merely flattened his body as far as he could against the body of Shaler, but the fear of death had nerved the older man with superhuman strength. His hand struggled, jerked out and back, and then there was the explosion of a gun.
Arizona Pete leaped up like a wolf, with a yell, and staggered back. Shaler, turning on his side, fired once more. Arizona swayed and pitched on his face.
With his gun poised, ready for another shot at the first movement, Shaler sat slowly up. Arizona did not stir. Except that his right hand, having fallen by chance on the butt of one of the fallen revolvers, he began to draw it slowly toward his side. This Shaler did not see. He was sitting up, rubbing his throat, and gasping in breaths of the vivifying air, while the purple of his face slowly changed to a brilliant red. And so, as he turned his head from side to side, gasping, his eyes encountered the eyes of Jeremy Dice, who was on his knees on the platform.
For a moment his eyes bulged as though he had seen a ghost. Then, with a grin of indescribable malice, his hand closed on his gun. There was no time for the firing of that shot. Arizona Pete had twitched over on his side and fired once, and the larger man sagged to the floor, dead. And Arizona—a sight that Jeremy Dice would never forget should he live to be a hundred—dragged himself up to his feet by the wall of the shack. He turned, his mouth sagging, his eyes dull, made one step forward—and fell, dead, over the body of Lew Shaler.
For a time it seemed to Jeremy Dice that the two mighty men were still struggling before his eyes. It seemed incredible that those two great hulks were now an inert mass, one on the other, no more dangerous than dead cattle. He began to feel his own heart return to a normal pulse. The pain of the wound on his forehead, long forgotten, stung him again. By the dull light of the lantern on the wall he climbed down the ladder and stood, trembling, on the floor. He turned quickly toward the dead men. While his back was turned, it had seemed to him that huge Lew Shaler had thrust aside the body of Arizona Pete and had sat up, grinning with malice as he had done before, his revolver in his hand. But the dead lay where they had fallen, their limbs oddly twisted. The great right arm of Lew Shaler was outstretched on the floor, but the empty, upturned palm would never hold a weapon again. A queer sense of horror and of awe came over Jeremy Dice as he bent over the dead.
Straining his back with the heavy burden, he lifted and dragged Arizona Pete from his victim. He laid the two side by side, composed the distorted faces, closed the eyes, still terrible and brighter in death than common eyes in life. From their necks he removed the bandannas and spread these over their faces. Those formidable hands he folded upon their breasts, and then stepped back, the revolver of Lew Shaler in his hand, to look over his work. He was deeply relieved for some reason. He felt that the horror had been lessened, almost removed. In his heart a certain sympathy and respect for these men began to rise. Their deaths had been terrible, but had they not been almost glorious?
He looked to the revolver in his hand now. It was not the first time he had handled a pistol. In the shooting galleries he had spent many an hour shooting at the spinning little clay ducks, but his own proficiency only made him marvel the more at the consummate ease with which these fellows had wielded the heavy Forty-Fives, shooting as if by instinct rather than by aim. He turned the gun in his hand, pressed the trigger slightly, and instantly there was a dull explosion—the trigger was set with the lightness of a hair's weight, it seemed. From now on he handled it more cautiously. It had been suspended under the shirt of Lew Shaler. He made a loose fastening for it inside his trousers. It sagged them a little, but the big weapon was concealed with hardly a bulge in the cloth. He tried it. It came out smoothly, easily, and could be restored with a gesture.
From this point his courage began to grow surprisingly. He saw a folded paper bulging in the pocket of Lew Shaler. Removing it, he found it to be a placard printed on thick, white paper. A large photograph topped the sheet—the unmistakable wide features of Shaler himself. Under it was printed in large letters: $2,500 Reward. Under this was a description of the man in detail. In one corner there was a red stain, and he stowed the notice in his pocket. It would be a convincing testimony for Dottie Petwell.
DICE turned back naturally to the money bags, and for the first time he saw that this coin that had caused the double killing was now in his power because his mind had been working behind a haze of deep excitement. The excitement continued, but now it was a new fear. Suppose that posse of which the two had spoken should be indeed on the trail? Suppose they should see the glimmering of this lantern on the wall? Suppose they should come upon him while he was counting the money?
This threw him into a panic. He caught up one of the bags of money and ran to the door. Outside all was dark, quiet. The stars burned with as pure and cold a light as ever. The bandits' two horses stood nose to nose, their heads fallen, their ears sagged back with weariness, and each was pointing the toe of one hind foot. Perfect pictures of rest. But they gave to Jeremy Dice a feeling of security. When he wished, he could tie the money behind one of those saddles, give the horse his own head, and be led back to some settlement in the desert.
As for a posse approaching, there was not a stir across the hills—only the rush of the wind, that was now increasing. It seemed utterly impossible that men would pursue two desperate fugitives, Jeremy argued within his own mind. Had he been among the pursuers, he would certainly have dissuaded them from any forward movement.
He turned back more calmly to take stock of the loot. He untied the bags and spilled the money out on the floor. It suddenly filled the room with a yellow glow—or it seemed to do so to the dazed eyes of Jeremy. To him, money meant faded, worn, rustling slips of paper. Gold was not money. It was treasure. And here was gold. It set his heart beating with a feverish restlessness. Gold. Already it had caused two murders. He glanced uneasily toward the dead, as though he expected them to sit up of one accord, grinning at him, as though they had been playing a game with him all this time.
But the dead remained dead, and the gold washed in two bright tides to his very feet. He thrust his hands into the mass of it. The cold, smooth coins slipped through his fingers and fell back, chiming and rustling among their fellows. He tossed a double handful up. Falling, some of the coins raced to obscure corners of the room and clicked against the walls. It had been a gleaming shower. Jeremy Dice would have been astonished could he have seen how his own face had grown pale, the quiver of his nostrils, and the set of his jaw. It was a long, lean, fighting jaw, like that of a bull terrier. Somewhere in the past men of action must have figured in his ancestry.
He began to count the loot. Tens and twenties—they were comfortable, broad coins. They checked up in swift handfuls, very heavy—twenty to a stack. And quickly he was setting out little piles all around him.
Now and then his mind flashed three thousand miles away. He had set up an establishment of his own. He had hired Sanson, the best of Gorgenheim's cutters. He had gone around and called on Gorgenheim's best customers and drawn them to his own shop. He had called on his former boss and snapped his lean fingers under that red nose. For how could he ever fear any living being after he had witnessed the battle of Arizona Pete and Lew Shaler? He saw himself calling on Dottie Petwell. He felt, now, that he had never really loved her. Indeed in his small life he had never known a single real emotion. One glimpse of the struggling bodies of Arizona and Lew Shaler had taught him what passion could be. Not that this came clearly home to the slender-fingered tailor. By no means. It was only a vague feeling. At the end of his reflections he was deciding that he would marry Dottie Petwell not for love but simply because she was the best-dressed girl of their set in Manhattan. She was the idol of Kadetzsky's. But his picture of Manhattan itself had grown small as though with distance, as though all those skyscrapers were tiny toys. Beside the struggling forms of Lew Shaler and Arizona Pete the picture of Manhattan was a flimsy thing. They could have crushed it under heel.
It may be seen that Jeremy Dice was plunging far into fantasy. Out of this fairy world he was brought with a start by the neighing of one of the horses outside. And then, far off, an answering whinny. Jeremy Dice sprang to his feet and swept up one of the sacks full of gold, knotted the string about its gorged throat with trembling fingers, and leaped to the door. He glanced back. There lay wealth, rolling on the floor, calling to him. With a groan, he ran back. While he was bending, the neigh came again, close to the house and once more the answering whinny—but this time closer—terribly close. It seemed to thunder in the very ear of Jeremy Dice. All at once a paralytic cold came over him.
"I am lost," said Jeremy aloud and dropped the sack of gold on the floor. Oh, to have had one minute's start, and one of those horses racing under him.
There was a muffled rushing of horses' hoofs, swishing through the loose sand. A growl of voices, then a shout answered. Then, half explosively, half in a murmur: "It's his horse. It's Shaler's horse! Spread, boys. Rankin, back me up. Bob, get in behind me. They're here."
A great trembling spread through the body of Jeremy Dice, so that to control himself he folded his arms high on his chest and leaned against the side of the room. His lips were shuddering in a sort of palsy; he compressed them. His knees knocked one against the other. He dropped one foot over the other. And that was the picture seen by Sheriff Lawrence, pushing through the door, crouched, a revolver in each hand. That was how Jeremy Dice was introduced to the men of the mountain desert.
The sheriff and the two men crowding behind him saw a lean, meager figure of a man of about middle height, leaning against the rotten, battered wall of the shack. His face was a ghastly sight. High on his forehead, and exactly in the center, was a narrow, deep gash, running up into the hair. The hair itself stood wildly on end. One side of his face was darkly streaked. His clothes were also stained and begrimed. Yet this grisly face appeared to smile. The lips were compressed, and the faint, sardonic lines were forming at the corners of his mouth. His coat and trousers were rent to almost veritable rags, deep gashes in the cloth as though strong hands had torn them. His legs were idly crossed; his arms were folded carelessly across his breast. He seemed to mock them, and withal—perhaps because of those wounds and that struggle-stamped body—there was peculiar dignity about the slender man.
Upon him the sheriff stared with startled eyes. "Who?" he stammered. Again: "Who are you?" But the stranger disdained speech. As a matter of fact, his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, impelled there by the yawning mouths of those two revolvers.
"Hands up!" gasped the sheriff.
Jeremy Dice did not move. He was, indeed, incapable of motion. How close he came to death then—for the nerves of the sheriff were at the snapping point, and his forefingers were curling hard and harder around the triggers of his guns—Jeremy was never to know. He compressed his lips a little more—to the sheriff it seemed that his grin broadened. A man who smiled in the face of two steady guns!
And then, something drew the sheriff's glance to one side—his gaze remained where it had fallen. Two giant figures, stiff and stark, with the red bandannas across their faces. Sheriff Lawrence went slowly in. Other faces packed through the door behind him. The sheriff put up his guns slowly. The others obeyed in dead silence.
Still that silence continued while the sheriff stalked across the room, raised the bandannas one by one, and then stepped back. He took off his hat. He stared at the slender figure of Jeremy Dice. The others imitated their leader. They went and peeked hastily, awe-stricken, under the bandannas. They took off their hats. They stared at Jeremy Dice.
It suddenly burst upon the terror-frozen mind of the tailor that these strong men were not circling around him in hostility. Indeed, their faces were the faces of children, viewing a master. He remembered the faces of a crowd that had stood aside to see a champion pugilist swagger down the sidewalk. The expressions had been one and the same.
The broad-shouldered sheriff stepped forward to the door. He called: "Halloo! Boys! Come in. It's over."
There was another rush of horses, the sound of creaking stirrup leather, and the grunt of horses as men dismounted. New faces packed into the door. The sheriff was standing close, and now he turned and stretched a solemn arm toward Jeremy Dice, the tailor from Manhattan.
"Boys," he said hoarsely, "he done it. You can see the marks on him. He done it. He killed 'em both!"
The others gaped. Jeremy began to recover his composure.
"Stranger," said the sheriff, still solemnly, "I dunno your name, but I'm standing here ready to tell the world that you're about nine-tenths man. My name's Lawrence."
"And I," said the tailor in his small, gentle voice, "am Jeremy Dice. I'm glad to know you."
THE other introductions followed with a rush. Jeremy Dice felt his lean hand crushed in successive grips, heard deep, rough voices growl their greetings, felt sharp eyes pry at his own from beneath brows drawn down by years of squinting over sun-white sands. He was frightened by the adulation that had been drawn down upon his head. But it was not his fault. They had interpreted the scene as they found it, and what wonder?
But wouldn't they know? That was the great question. Would they not contrast his slender hands with those broken bulks that lay side by side in the corner? Would they not see the ludicrous impossibility of the New York tailor overwhelming two such giants, two such hardened, proved fighters? He almost feared that this was a scene of mockery. But, no, their earnestness appeared manifest on the surface.
The very hugeness of the contrast was in their eyes the proof positive. Here were some twenty veterans of horse, desert, and gun fights who had pursued a foe worthy of their steel and now had come upon those foes vanquished by a single hand. If Jeremy had been six feet, the thing would have seemed incredible. But he was not tall. He was slender—his very lack of muscle convinced them. Lew Shaler and Arizona Pete could only have been overcome by a mysterious power, and Jeremy Dice was a soul- filling mystery.
Back of the mind of every man was a single thought. That thought was the picture of the almost mythical gentle badman. For there have been terrible men on the mountain desert, men of bulk, brawn, and vicious deeds. But more terrible still have been some few mild-eyed men, small, without nerves, courageous as sword blades, nervous and lightning swift of hand. Their names can be checked off on the tips of the fingers of one hand. Some were manhunters on the side of the law. Some were outlaws. All were surpassingly terrible. Their names had passed into legend, magnifying their prowess. And each of the twenty in the posse, looking upon the wan face of Jeremy Dice, seeing his narrow shoulders, feeling the cold touch of his hand, had said to himself: This is one of those destroyers that Dad told me about. He's a ringer for Billy the Kid!
Once they had reached this conclusion, they hugged it to their breasts. They were proud of it. It was natural for a story that they would tell their children. If Jeremy Dice had attempted to explain, they would have laughed him down. Those stern, simple, credulous minds had instantly endowed him with all the characteristics of a hero.
Of course, Jeremy could not know all that was going on inside their minds. But he did see that they had given their imagination wings.
The sheriff had taken up the guns of the outlaws. He examined the chambers. He turned to Jeremy Dice.
"Mind if I look over your gat, partner?"
He drew out the weapon of Lew Shaler. He passed it to the sheriff, and the sheriff opened the chamber. He turned to his posse.
"Boys, Lew and Arizona just about emptied their guns... Dice, here, fired three shots... and they's three bullets in Lew and Pete."
He paused, impressed, and the crowd shook its assembled head.
"D'you mind telling us how you done it?" asked the sheriff, with a plea in his throat.
A wave of honesty, the desire for confession, welled up in Jeremy Dice. "Sheriff Lawrence," he said in an uncertain voice, looking down at the floor, "the fact is that I didn't do anything. I had just happened along, when..."
The sheriff cut him short by shaking his head and turning to the others. With them he exchanged a wise smile. The man-killer was, indeed, like one of those legendary figures whom they all had in mind. He was not only terrible beyond credence in action, but he was also modest. Lawrence turned again on Jeremy.
"Dice," he said, extending an argumentative forefinger, "maybe it's something that you want to cover up. Maybe you got a little past of your own. I dunno. I'm just supposing." He winked suggestively at Jeremy Dice. "Suppose, maybe, that they's places where some other sheriff would be glad to get his hands on you... if he could safely. Just suppose that. But it don't make no difference here. I tell you, no matter what you've done other places, you're among friends here. You've bumped off two murdering, robbing hounds, and we're all behind you, eh, boys?"
There was a hoarse murmur of assent.
"So, Dice, suppose I start the story for you. We know that you found out Arizona and Lew Shaler was planning this little safecracking game. You laid low, said nothing, and waited till they got started off with the loot. Then you cut in on 'em, after they'd shaken off the rest of us. You slipped up on 'em when they was sitting in this shack, counting the loot... I see the coin partly stacked up there and partly lying loose. You found 'em sitting here. Maybe they'd taken off their guns... it's hard sitting down on the floor when you got a gun strapped to your hip. You found them guns close to the door. You stepped in and cottoned onto 'em. Then you stuck up the pair of 'em. We know it must've run like that. All we want is the details of how it was finished."
He paused, waited. Jeremy Dice stood with his head bowed. The picture the sheriff had painted had swelled in his mind. He saw himself slip softly through that door, snatch up the guns that lay on the floor, and then hold up the two bandits with his own weapon.
Jeremy raised his head. He smiled faintly. "Maybe it would sound queer," he murmured.
There was no answer. Belief, credence was stamped broadly on every face.
"You're right, Sheriff. When I came in, I saw the guns on the floor. I raked them to one side with my heel and pointed my gun at the two of them. I backed them into that corner against the wall with their hands over their heads."
He was seeing the imaginary picture. He was lost in his own narrative. His face worked, flushed, his lean fingers moved, and the crowd watched him in breathless suspense.
"I intended to shoot them both. But I changed my mind. It seemed a little hard to kill them both in cold blood. So I put away my gun and started to talk to them. They took their hands down."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed the sheriff. "You let 'em take their hands down?"
"Why not? I thought I could get out my gun before they could hurt me."
The sheriff gasped and exchanged glances with the crowd. Miracles were thickening around them.
"But Lew Shaler watched his chance. When I had turned away a little, he picked up that chair"—Jeremy Dice pointed to one of the chairs, reduced to a hulk by the impact of those struggling bodies—"and threw it at me. I reached for my gun... but... it stuck in my clothes, you see?"
"Yes, yes. Go on, Dice."
That difficult point was passed, thank heavens. "The chair struck me on the head."
"We can see the cut. Knocked you out?"
"It knocked me against the wall."
How hungrily they followed the details.
"And they ran for their guns, but I jumped in at them."
"And stopped 'em?"
"I didn't have time to get to my gun. I had to stop them with my fists!"
"Them cuts on their faces... and look at his knuckles, boys. Raw to the bone where he hit 'em." The sheriff interpolated this information and interpretation in a swift aside. "Go on, Dice."
"A man his size stopping 'em both," ejaculated somebody.
"I knocked them both back and went in after Lew Shaler, hitting for the face."
"He was cut to ribbons, all right," muttered a swift commentator.
"But he wouldn't go down," sighed Jeremy Dice.
There was a mutter of excitement from the crowd. They were weighing the slender form of Jeremy Dice with their eyes. They were seeing that pale face on fire, that wiry body putting panther power behind every blow.
"And Arizona got past me to his gun. I saw him stoop at the same time that I knocked Lew against the wall... it stunned him a little. I whirled in behind him and sort of half pushed and half carried him toward Pete. Lew was stunned, but not down, you see. Pete was blazing away, trying to get me without killing Lew. I held Lew off with one hand, got at my gun, and, reaching around, I shot Arizona. He was so close that the muzzle touched him."
"I saw the burn on his vest," ejaculated the sheriff. "Go on, pardner. Good heavens, boys, it don't seem no ways possible!"
"Shut up, Sheriff, you keep interrupting Dice."
Jeremy had thrown himself into the imaginary scene. "The gunshot seemed to bring Shaler back to his senses. As Pete dropped, Lew caught my gun arm at the wrist... I thought the bones were going to break. I had to let the gun fall. I clinched with Shaler. We went down. Struggled around. Finally I caught Lew on his back, my left arm under his shoulder, and my left hand in his throat. He began to choke."
He started, for there was again that gasping sound from the crowd.
"He was nearly gone when I saw Arizona coming to life and getting to his knees. He looked a horrible sight, I assure you, Sheriff. He staggered over and got to Shaler's gun. Then I jumped off Shaler and ran for my own gat. Arizona was shooting, but his aim was wild... he was dying on his feet, you see. When I turned, Lew Shaler was coming at me with his big arms out. I shot him, and he went down." Jeremy paused. "That was all there was to it."
But how was he to account for the interim in which his wounds ceased bleeding? He was staggered by the necessity of that explanation. Then his mind cleared.
"After that, Sheriff, something queer happened. You see, I'd been battered about a little..."
The sheriff ran his eyes over the tattered body of Jeremy Dice. "I'll tell a man you were, pardner."
"And... when I saw they were both down and dead, my head swam. I went down on the floor and lay there. After a while I heard a horse neigh. I'd just got to my feet when you came in."
And that was the origin of the most famous tale of a gun fight that ever went the rounds of the mountain desert. Twenty bold men stood drinking in the incredible words and believing them all. Twenty honest men heard the prodigious lie without a questioning thought. The sheriff strode forward and stretched out his hand.
"Dice," he said, "I want to shake hands again. I didn't see how you done it. Now it's clear as day, but my head's still spinning with it. And... it was a mighty lucky thing that you didn't collapse while Shaler was still alive... that devil, Lew Shaler."
A voice broke in, reverent, curious. "The thing that beats me is how you come here without a horse? Leastways, I didn't see none."
Again Jeremy Dice was staggered. Perspiration poured out on his forehead.
"Sheriff," he said, smiling wanly, "I've got to confess that I'm no good with a horse. No nerve when I get in the saddle. You see, I was thrown some time back, and since then I've always kept away from a saddle when I could."
They were gaping upon him, but, oddly enough, they were all smiling and nodding. All great men had their weaknesses, and the weakness of this man-killer—ludicrous and wonderful to tell—was horses. Horses! Not a man there but had been born, almost, in the saddle. Each, staring at Jeremy Dice, marveled that a thing so simple should be the weakness of his daring superiority but in that one point. Because he felt this touch of superiority, each man instantly believed all the rest that had been predicated about Jeremy Dice.
"So I didn't come here with a horse," he said slowly, watching them. "I knew where they intended to stop. So I got the train and dropped off when it came even with the hills. Then I came over here and waited."
It was done. It was believed. Preparations to depart began.
IF you wish to humanize a wise man, show him doing one foolish thing—saving orange peels, perhaps, as the great Johnson is shown to have done by the still greater Boswell. If you wish to humanize a cunning man, show him guilty of one great and simple error. If a brave man is to be humanized, show him afraid of one thing that no one else dreads.
Therefore, never was there a more auspicious tale than that of Jeremy Dice concerning his fear of horses. In the first place, it was instantly illustrated. For no sooner had the most gentle horse in the outfit been selected and brought to him than the bold men of the desert had to swallow their laughter as they watched the cautious manner in which Jeremy Dice, the terrible, climbed into the saddle. Indeed, it was a painful thing to have to choke back laughter for fear of being filled full of lead.
That restraint grew. It was observed that when the horse trotted, Jeremy bounced ridiculously in the saddle, and his elbows flopped. This was almost too much even for men who were held in check by fear of death.
Presently the restraint was removed because Jeremy, looking across to the working face of one of his companions, flushed and laughed feebly. It was the signal. A yell of joyous mirth rang instantly through the night. The sheriff was the first to begin and the last to leave off. Everyone was delighted. If a man would submit to being laughed at, it showed that he was a good fellow. Here was a desperado fresh from a double killing, yet he meekly laughed at his own weaknesses and permitted others to laugh as well. This was almost unprecedented—but, for that matter, everything that Jeremy did was unprecedented. The men of the posse fell back in pairs and commented on the foolish appearance of the great man in the saddle. It was noted that he grunted when the horse galloped, that he groaned when the horse trotted, and even clutched the saddle when he walked. They would have scorned any other man in the world, so childish and helpless in the saddle. But for Jeremy Dice this weakness was the key that unlocked their hearts. They swore to each other that he was a rare one, a good fellow, all right in every essential respect. They vowed to drink in his honor long and deep. They did more. They held down the gait of their horses to a snail's pace for the sake of Jeremy Dice.
The sheriff, pressing in at Jeremy's side, pointed out the gentleness of the horse he rode. He assured him that all was well, treated him, in short, as if he were an infant first seeing the ocean but all with reverence—as a royal child, say, might be treated by old courtiers. Jeremy took advice humbly, received and obeyed instructions to squeeze the saddle with his knees and turn his toes in, things that wonderfully eased the ride for him. It pleased the sheriff infinitely to give these instructions. He had played a secondary role on this night. Indeed, if the shameful truth were to be known, he had been casting back in his mind to see if he could not remember a man answering the description of Jeremy under the ban of the law. But he could not remember. Now that he found this great man so mild, so willing to take advice and follow instructions, his mind was opened, and his heart was softened. He began to wish nothing but good luck to his companion. He issued his orders to Jeremy on the horse in a loud and authoritative manner, so that the rest of the posse could see that he was not overawed by his distinguished guest.
So the eight miles to the flourishing town of Chatterton were at length covered. The dawn had come, and then the early day, and then the red sun went up over the hills. It had showed Jeremy Dice sinking in the saddle with weariness, thirst, hunger, to say nothing of the intolerable chafing of the saddle. He even reeled when they swerved to one side, and the posse bolted at a gallop straight for the village.
To tell the truth, he might have fallen from the saddle, but the sheriff was there to support him. He checked the leaders who had set the pace with a shout.
"You damned leather-headed chumps!" shouted Sheriff Lawrence. "Ain't you got no sense? Why, even a horse could see that Dice is sick. And wouldn't you gents be sick if one of you had a set-to with bare hands ag'in' one such as Lew Shaler? To say nothing of two like him?"
He showed his teeth with gathering rage as the others brought their horses back to a shamed trot, and then to a walk.
"Ain't he near had his head split open? Ain't he looked at death pretty damn' familiar about a dozen times tonight? Ain't he one mass of bruises and cuts? And just because he sets his teeth over it and don't whine none, you gents think he's as chipper as you maybe... you that ain't done nothing but sit in your saddles and talk a pile tonight. I never seen such men. I'm ashamed to lead out a posse of gents like you."
But here Jeremy Dice, cutting in on the tirade, protested: "Be easy with 'em, Sheriff. They're all friends of mine."
That small sentence locked him into the inner heart of every one of those hard riders. The procession went on more slowly, but now one rider cut away from the rest and shot off as fast as spurs would urge his willing mustang. He melted swiftly into a mist of dust.
Presently the others wound through the hills and came in sight of Chatterton. It was typical of the desert—but it was all new to Jeremy Dice. The one winding street, the crooked little alleys that ran off from it, like creeks feeding into the main stream. The unpainted shacks. The few stores with imposing signs in red and black paint, the blowing dust in the street, the uncurtained windows. The horses downheaded at the rack in front of the saloon.
This Jeremy Dice saw through a mist, for now the long fatigue was telling heavily on him, and the pain of his head was a torture. They had offered to tie up his wound for him before starting from the old shack, but he had refused, feeling it was more the part expected of him. And the sheriff had agreed. It would be better to wait until they got to town, and the wound could be properly cleansed. Now the eyes of Jeremy Dice cleared.
Life came to those apparently deserted shacks. Faces came at the windows, and then men, women, and children poured out into the street. Everyone was pointing at Jeremy Dice. The posse fell back a respectful distance so that everyone could see. Their messenger had scattered the cream of the news beforehand, but now the posse was cornered one by one and forced to tell more in detail while the hero went down the street, slowly, the sheriff at his side supporting the uncertain figure. They saw the wan, stained face, the tattered clothes. This was the way a man might well look who had conquered Lew Shaler and Arizona Pete—single-handed, barehanded! Yes, he had faced them both, for a time, without a weapon in his hands.
Shouts went up. There were yells for Jeremy Dice, but he did not turn his fallen head. In truth, Jeremy was well nigh fainting with exhaustion and pain. Dimly he saw a man rush down the street, gesticulating.
"Keep your hands off him, Brownell," the sheriff warned. "Yep. He nailed 'em both, and he got all your money back. I got it in the saddlebags, and I'll count it over with you to see all's straight. You're lucky, Brownell, that's all I got to say to you." Later on he said in Jeremy's ear: "You certainly got yourself a home with him. And he's rich, Dice, rich as a mine."
The words came to Jeremy as a voice in a dream. They reached a halting place at last.
"Here's the hotel. Lemme help you down. Why, you don't weigh nothing, pardner. This way. Lemme take care of you. Have a drink first? All the boys are aching to have a drink with you. Ought to do you good."
He was too weak to protest. Presently the long bar was before him. A noisy crowd thronged on every side.
"Keep your hands off him. We got a case for the doctor, that's what we got. Where's Doc Jordan?"
"He's been sent for."
"We'll pull you through, Dice. You can lay to that. We'll pull you through, or I'm a liar. All right, boys. Are you ready? A long cheer for the gent that bumped 'em off. Let her go!"
What a crashing cheer went into the brain of Jeremy Dice and shuddered home to his heart. His lean hand closed around the glass. He attempted to raise it. Then blackness assailed his brain. As he staggered and the many arms received him, he attempted the confession. "Boys, I'm... no... good." That was all. He fainted dead away.
Eventually the confusion died away, and they put him in the best bed in the hotel with the doctor at his side.
"If you don't do a neat job, Jordan, you're through in this town," the sheriff said solemnly.
"Nothing to worry about," the medical man assured him. "Dice is badly shaken up. That cut in the forehead will need three stitches, and it'll leave a scar. Besides, there are a number of contusions, none very serious but..."
"Leave out the big words, Doc, and show us the big work."
The sheriff stood over them, grunting in sympathy when the needles pierced the flesh.
"A highly nervous organization, I should say," pronounced the doctor when the bandages were finally arranged. "You say he handled two big men? Shaler and Arizona? Surprising, of course, but not altogether inexplicable. I have known cases of small- muscled men doing remarkable things in a burst of nervous frenzy. A species of insanity, I suppose. However, this boy will get well in a few days. Let him have rest."
"He'll have the best rest that Chatterton can give him," said the sheriff heartily.
The whole town agreed with him.
When the sheriff came downstairs later to the crowd that waited for word from him about the patient, he said: "Do you know what he said when he keeled over in the saloon, boys? Poor devil had done enough to kill most of us, but, when he dropped, he seemed sort of ashamed of himself. He said to me: 'Boys, I'm... no... good.'"
In this manner Jeremy Dice finally won for himself the hearts of Chatterton's strongest men. West of the Rockies there is one virtue praised above all others, and that is modesty.
IT had been a collapse caused by physical exhaustion. As a matter of fact, Jeremy could have risen from bed the next day very little the worse for wear, but the doctor forbade this. For the good of his reputation it was necessary that he make out the case to be as serious as possible. The whole town of Chatterton and the entire range around it were intensely interested, and the stronger he made his patient's condition out to be, the better it would be for him. Besides, Brownell, the banker, had agreed generously to pay the expenses.
So it was announced that the patient was in a critical nervous condition. The doctor uttered his theory. According to the medical man some people are capable of storing away nerve energy just as storage batteries conserve electricity. At the critical moment this nerve energy is called forth. It comes in one terrific burst. In the instant of action the man does prodigious things. Afterward there is a relapse. All that nerve energy has been exhausted, and it may be some time before he is capable of doing anything again.
It was above all necessary that Jeremy Dice should be kept in bed for several days. Even after that he would need close care, easy exercise, attention. Chatterton declared to a man that these things should be done. Chatterton was delighted with this singular case. Everything about Jeremy Dice was new and different from other men, and the good people hoarded each peculiarity. Such things make good tales in the future.
So Jeremy wakened in a darkened room. He wakened with a consuming sense of guilt, flowing in upon him. When will they find me out?
It was necessary that he should escape from the town as soon as possible. They would pay him the reward money, of course, and with that in his pocket he would fade swiftly from the picture and hie him elsewhere—back to Manhattan. Worst of all, there would be no tale to tell Dottie Petwell, for she was very apt to write West and make inquiries, and then the terrible and shameful truth would be known—he was only a tailor.
It had never seemed to Jeremy before a shameful thing to be a tailor. He had been proud of his deft workmanship. He had gloried in the clothes he produced. But now it appeared that there were larger and better things for a man to do. Such as facing two desperadoes single-handed. He shuddered at the memory of that prodigious lie. Still, at the time it had seemed unavoidable. Indeed, he was torn by two impulses. The first was to flee before his shame was known. The second was to stay and prove to Chatterton that it was right in its opinion of him. But he knew that if he remained there and the test came, the bitter fact of his cowardice would come to light.
At present all he could do was lie and wait. He stirred, raised his head, and looked about him. At once a girl rose from a corner of the room and came to him. She was not a beautiful girl according to standards set by Dottie Petwell. For instance, half of her ears were shamefully exposed. And her hair itself was a glowing red—there seemed almost to be a fire in it—and, as she passed the window and the sunlight struck her, her whole face was illumined. She came into the shadow again, and he could see her better.
She was a brown beauty if ever there was one. Her skin had been tanned in successive coats, but it was not a disagreeable color. It was new to Jeremy Dice, but he enjoyed its novelty. Neither was the tinge of color under her olive cheeks artificial. Even the faint mottling of freckles across her nose and under her eyes was not a disfiguring feature. That nose tipped up just a bit, but the mouth and chin were beautiful, particularly from the angle at which he saw them. Moreover, she had a pair of straight- looking blue eyes. He had never seen eyes that could hold one so steadily. Jeremy wanted to look away and steady himself—but he could not stir his glance.
"Lie back again," said the girl.
"Oh, I'm all right," said Jeremy jauntily. And he heaved himself up on one elbow, preparatory to hitching higher on the pillows. At that, a firm strong hand caught his shoulder and thrust him gently but inevitably back and down.
"Those are the orders of the doctor," said the girl, "and I'm going to see that they're followed."
There was such sternness in her voice that Jeremy surrendered at once. He lay, staring up, feeling very unheroic—quite lost, in fact.
She seemed to feel that she should explain: "I asked for this place. So I have to make good."
"And... who are you?"
"My name is Mary Welling. I'm the sister of the man Lew Shaler... murdered."
She looked past Jeremy up to a picture on the wall. When she glanced down again, there was no emotion in her face.
"I'm sorry," said Jeremy Dice faintly.
"I'm here because you did what the sheriff couldn't do," said the girl steadily. "And I want you to know that there's nothing my family wouldn't do to help you back on your feet... and afterward. We aren't a very clubby lot... we Wellings. But when a person does a friendly thing for us, we never forget it... none of us. So, you write that down in red, Jeremy Dice."
It would have been a rather mannish speech if it had not been for the voice of the speaker.
"Matter of fact...," began Jeremy.
"Stop talking. I'm to talk to you, read to you, do anything you want. But you are not to talk. That's the orders." She added: "What shall I read?"
He closed his eyes. He could not speak for a moment, for the sense of his sin had rushed in on him as it had never done before. It was like soot in his throat, choking him. He had been shamed before, but now he felt like a thief in the night who had sneaked through the door and stolen like a dog into this girl's esteem. It occurred to him, with wonder, that he would not have been ashamed had he stolen in this manner into the admiration of Dottie Petwell. But this girl was different—her eyes were so straight. What would be needed to wrench him from his pedestal and hurl him to the depths of her contempt? The knowledge that he had told a lie—the lie. He dared not carry the thought further.
"You're in pain?" asked the voice of the girl. "It's your head, I guess?"
Confession tumbled up against the teeth of Jeremy Dice, but, when he opened his eyes and saw her face, the words died. How could he kill that look and write it over with scorn?
"There's no pain," he said huskily.
"I guess that isn't the truth. Well... I don't suppose a man likes to have his troubles talked about. What do you want me to read?"
Presently a book was opened. She had begun. The words had no meaning to Jeremy Dice. He listened to the voice, and his own thoughts went on, minute after minute, carrying him through the pit of shame.
"You haven't heard a word I've been saying," she said presently.
"Shall I tell you why?"
"If you can say it in ten words."
"I can... almost. It's about a thing I've done."
"Hush," said the girl. She raised a finger that stopped him, and then came and stood beside him.
"I know how it is, Jeremy Dice. When a man is sick and hurt, he feels like talking. Then he says a lot of foolish things. I don't want to hear about your past. The sheriff has told me some things."
"Well, that you've probably had a good many fights with other men... that your record may even be pretty black. But I don't care about that. None of us cares about that. We like you for what you are. We value you for what you've done. Maybe you've been pretty bad. But we know you did one fine square thing. And... and you killed the man who murdered our Harry."
What could he say? It seemed that fate had nailed him to the cross of his own lie. She would not let him speak. Afterward she read again, and Jeremy Dice allowed himself to sink into a pleasant dream, listening to her voice.
THE days rolled by smoothly. Now and then a deputation came into the room. It was forbidden to disturb the distinguished patient often. Therefore, when the doors were opened, the good people came in groups. Sometimes it was a number of housewives. They brought him jellies. They tugged great-eyed children forward for a glance at him. Sometimes it was a number of young girls, very self-conscious, full of blushes, with their looks directed always at Mary Welling and never at the man they wished to see. Sometimes the influential citizens of the town strolled in, tiptoed softly about, murmured to Mary Welling, saw that Chatterton's patient was doing well and was properly cared for, and went out again with a grin and grunt for Jeremy Dice. Sometimes a few of the young cowpunchers came. They brought the fumes of cigarette smoke with them in a cloud. They were bright- eyed young men always, with lean, brown faces, and capable- looking hands. They always did exactly the same thing—waved their hands with apparent carelessness and said: "How are you, pardner? Here's wishing you all the luck!"
One and all of these groups were banished in the same manner by an austere wave of the hand of Mary Welling.
"The way I run people out, I'm getting myself hated," she confided to Jeremy.
They were on the friendliest footing possible. He had even told her that he thought his being kept in bed was all the bunk. She asked him sternly if he thought he knew more than the doctor. Her father had gotten up too soon after a fever once, and the result had been a relapse that brought him to death's door. She told Jeremy Dice this with a solemn shake of the head. But when he smiled at her, she laughed.
"I'll tell you what," she burst out on that occasion. "I like you, Jeremy. You aren't like the other boys. Take any man I know under forty, and he's too serious. Thinks too much about himself. But... you're different."
It sent a tingle through the blood of Jeremy to hear that. He was not used to such speeches from girls. He and Dottie Petwell had been almost engaged, but she had never actually confessed a weakness for him in words. She would have felt it to be immodest and unmaidenly. Her confessions had consisted of side glances, pressures of the hand, smiles that might mean almost anything. If she had heard this speech of Mary Welling's, she would have smiled behind her hand in a certain way that Jeremy Dice knew. It drilled him to picture it. She would have said: "Awful bad breeding, ain't it, Jeremy?"
Yet, somehow, he was not really shocked. He wanted Mary to say it over again with the same glitter of her eyes and ring in her voice. Yet, after all, she said it in praise of nothing. She praised him because he did not boast of a thing he had never done.
Once, wakening on a mid-afternoon suddenly, he called to her with a sharpness that brought her running to him.
"Mary," he said to her with infinite solemnity, "some day I'm going to be the things you think I am now. I'm going to try to be, I mean."
At this she frowned. "What do you mean by that?" She started, and without waiting for his answer, she said sternly: "Jeremy Dice, are you being silly, the way the rest of them are?"
He tried to deny it, but a guilty red stole across his face, and the girl turned her back on him and walked to the window. He felt that he had offended her greatly, and that he had been ridiculous. When he heard her humming a soft old tune to herself a moment later, he was relieved. He could not have offended her seriously, he decided, if she forgot it so soon afterward.
Until he died, Jeremy Dice would remember that tune. It was "Robin Adair."
On that same day Sheriff Lawrence and Mr. Brownell came in. They had a heavy suitcase between them. At least it was a burden that they handled as gingerly as if it had been a great weight. There was a flush on each face, and they looked about the room with the foolish smiles of those who know that they are about to perform a good action. The sheriff cleared his throat to make an oration.
"Jeremy Dice," he said, "it was some time ago that you stood in a shack, confronting two outlaws who..."
In spite of himself Jeremy Dice could not help glancing sheepishly across the room to Mary Welling. To his astonishment he saw that she was standing with her head high, a flush in her cheeks, a transfiguring smile on her lips. Her face was the face of one who hears a glorious tale or sees a fair country.
He looked back at the sheriff, bewildered. The sheriff was reaching the heart of the harangue, finishing it off in rounded periods that made the banker nod his pleasure. It appeared that the whole countryside had been harried for a long time by the celebrated Lew Shaler. From cattle rustling to claim jumping, from safe breaking to robbery on the high road, there was nothing in the catalogue of crime to which the versatile Lew Shaler had not, at one time or another, turned his hand.
The result had been that the worthy citizens of Chatterton and the vicinity had groaned under this illegal oppression. At huge expense many times a year they had organized expeditions to comb the hills and the desert for the outlaw, but always he had eluded them. At still further expense they had even brought in and maintained celebrated manhunters who had vainly attempted to catch the marauder.
All, all had failed. The depredations continued on a larger scale. And then, after his most daring crime, carrying thousands of dollars out of the bank of the respected Mr. Brownell, this consummate ruffian and his companion in crime had encountered a single man, not a large man, said the sheriff with a rather too- pointed eloquence that made Jeremy Dice again guiltily seek the face of the girl, but a man who had a large heart and fighting spirit. That man had ended two careers of crime. The community was grateful. The range was grateful. The state was grateful. And finally, Mr. Brownell was grateful.
The state had given its reward—twenty-five hundred dollars. The ranchers and townsfolk had raised this price to the extent of five thousand dollars more. And last of all the generous Mr. Brownell willingly gave out of his pocket the sum of twenty-five hundred more, making up the munificent total of ten thousand dollars that they now had in the form of ninety pounds of gold coin of the country.
So saying, the sheriff raised the suitcase and, depositing it on the chair beside the bed, stepped back with a glance at the banker as of one who knows that he has risen to a great occasion.
But what the tailor was seeing was the picture of the two giants struggling breast to breast. He looked away from that memory. No matter what their crimes, they had been valiant men. Perhaps in an earlier time they might have done great things in a different vein. And he, Jeremy Dice, was to be paid for killing them. He turned his head and looked at the girl to see if she were not laughing. But her chin was still raised, and a singular happiness was in her eyes.
Jeremy Dice sank back on the bed and closed his eyes.
"Take the money away," he said faintly.
"What?" cried three voices in chorus.
"It's blood money," said Jeremy Dice. "Take it away!"
The sheriff was stunned. Mr. Brownell was incredulous but not unpleased. Twenty-five hundred dollars was quite a blow even to his prosperity.
"Can you beat that?" said the sheriff, feeling more for his wasted speech than for the ten thousand dollars.
"My friend," began the banker in protest, but Mary Welling cut him short.
"He means it," she said to him softly, almost fiercely. "No, we can't understand. But that's his way. He's... different. Now, go away, please."
They obeyed, lugging the suitcase with them. After all, if they had not had a chance of giving that money away and of hearing the gratitude of the hero, they had gained something fully as valuable—a story that would stand many retellings. They hurried down to the eager little crowd in the street.
Mary Welling, however, had gone from the door and hurried again to the window. Jeremy Dice followed her retreating form with an abashed glance. He had hoped that she would be glad when he did this thing. Now she turned her back on him. Truly, she was other than Dottie Petwell and the girls he had known. There were recesses of her mind, he thought, into which he would never penetrate, should he live to a ripe old age. He turned these things over for a few seconds.
Then he called to her, but she did not turn. It seemed certain that she was very angry. "I was only wondering," he said apologetically, "if you'd maybe read to me for a little while."
She turned and came slowly toward the bed. He could not be certain, at first, because she was in the shadow, but, when she came close to the bed, he saw that there were, indeed, tears in her eyes.
"Oh," said Mary Welling, "you're a man."
She saw a queer look of pain come in his face.
"Hush," he said hurriedly. "Don't talk like that. You make me feel... like a sneak thief, Mary."
She glanced at him in wonder, but then resigned herself After all, she would never be able to understand him, so she sat down and took up her book, fumbling the pages blindly until her eyes should be clear once more.
"What's all that infernal noise in the street?" cried Jeremy Dice petulantly.
At that she raised her hand. "Listen," she said, looking past him with the same starry eyes.
He bent his ear—made out a name—his own name. They were cheering him in the street.
IN spite of himself the doctor could not keep Jeremy Dice in bed forever. He was eventually permitted to sit up, then to walk a little in the room, and finally the day was named when he could leave the hotel and go his way.
On the morning of that day a middle-aged man of distinguished narrow beard and neatly trimmed mustache came to the "hero." In his language, in his manner, there was the same scrupulous care that showed in his clothes. One might have put him down for a club man who had acquired his brown on a golf links. He introduced himself as Henry Welling.
Afterward Jeremy wondered how this suave gentleman had been able to come so quickly to the point without seeming abrupt. Within a moment he had lodged with Jeremy Dice an invitation to come out to his ranch, near Chatterton, and stay there until he was thoroughly back on his feet. Stay indefinitely, if he would.
"You want to take me into your home?" said the tailor, wondering. "But you don't know me really."
"We've heard a great deal about you from Mary... we feel that we know you very well."
Jeremy Dice shivered at the idea of remaining any longer in the region of this town. A score of things might happen. Suppose, for instance, yonder brakeman should happen into the town and recall that Jeremy Dice was the hobo he had thrown off the train not so long ago. Or, in any of a dozen manners that Jeremy Dice could imagine, his past might overtake him—and then would come the crash. Or suppose that some venturesome youth should wish to measure himself against the vaunted prowess of Dice? The very thought turned Jeremy cold.
"I can't come," he said. "The truth is that if you knew..."
There seemed an organized conspiracy to keep him from telling the truth. He really wanted to unbosom himself to this grave- faced gentleman, but Henry Welling raised a prohibitive hand. "We aren't frightened by your past," he assured. "You see, I understand that, when a man reaches a certain stage of proficiency with weapons, it means that he has had actual combats. Your story, Dice, may be a story of violence, trouble, and battles. Very well, we take that for granted. But, when in spite of a turbulent life, a man remains a gentleman..."
Jeremy did not hear the rest of the sentence. The word "gentleman" to him was always set off in the brackets of expensive clothes, club life, butlers, and a taint of scandal perhaps in the high life. That he, a tailor, should aspire to such a position! He blinked the thought away and looked sharply at the rancher. No, he was not being mocked.
"The truth is," the other was saying, "Missus Welling misses our boy." He stopped a moment, frowning to control his emotion. "She would be very happy to have you for a while, at least. So should we all." He raised his head. "Mary, say a word to urge him."
Jeremy looked at her in a species of terror. He felt that if she asked him he would go in spite of himself and risk all the dangers of the situation and all the shame that was sure to come upon him in the end. She looked seriously back at him.
"If you don't come, Jeremy, what in the world can I do with my time?"
Jeremy Dice sighed. "I'll be glad to come," he murmured, "for a day or so."
Three hours later the buckboard had whisked them out to the ranch behind the tails of a free-swinging pair of bays. For the last half hour Henry Welling had been driving through his own property. It seemed a world by itself to Jeremy Dice. An endless succession of low-rolling, brown-burned hills. Here and there was a drift of cattle. He wondered how they lived on that short, dead grass, but apparently the desert had made Welling rich. They came to the ranch house, one of those square buildings that are far larger and more spacious than they seem on the outside. Two tall stories but it was so wide that the house seemed squat. The drive wound through cottonwoods toward it, and an extensive grove tumbled back on all sides from the hill on which the ranch house stood.
There was a profusion of servants. Two to take the horses, another to open the door. Jeremy felt as if he were stepping into some feudal domain. Mrs. Welling met them in the hall, and she took Jeremy's hands in both her own. She was a quiet, gracious woman. White hair and a pathetically wrinkled forehead could not entirely obscure the beauty that had once been hers. Jeremy could see a lovely girlhood behind the years—far more beautiful than Mary, indeed.
They gave him a big, high-ceilinged room in the second story. It had a little alcove lined with books at one end. In an opposite alcove there was a great fireplace, and in the space between the big double bed was almost lost. Mrs. Welling had shown him into the room and left him hurriedly, as though she dared not stay there long. He wondered at this until he had looked about him more thoroughly. The place seemed a complete apartment in itself—the adjoining bathroom, the big, roomy closets, a family could have lived there. It was furnished in a peculiarly intimate manner also, as if they had long expected him. There were mounted heads on the walls—deer and two massive bear skulls with the monstrous claws dangling underneath. The grinning teeth made Jeremy uneasy. He found in one closet complete fishing equipment—nets, rods, and all. And clothes for wading were there also. In another closet there was a whole armory of shotguns, rifles of every caliber from a brace of Twenty-Twos up, and revolvers particularly. All had been well used. He knew enough about weapons to tell that. As he stepped back and closed the door, the truth occurred to him at the same time. This was the room of the dead boy!
He gasped at the thought, but he knew that it was the fact. Those light rifles were the first he had ever owned, and the whole procession of his firearms was represented there in the closet in neat order. And this room was the boy's domain—those hunting books and novels in the library, the furs on the floor, the mounted heads. What a fool he had been not to guess it at once. They had taken him, Jeremy Dice, the consummate liar, the little tailor from the East, to fill the place of the dead son. For the void must be an intolerable and aching one in that house. He could see at a glance that the will of the dead youth had been law in this house—that the life of the establishment had revolved around the son and heir. He, the pseudo-avenger of the boy, was brought here to fill that niche for a while, at least until the pain of the loss grew less with time.
It overwhelmed Jeremy Dice. He sat down and rested his face between his hands for he felt that he was Tom Thumb in the seven- league boots. He had stepped into the shoes of a bigger man, a man capable of exchanging shots with Lew Shaler himself. He was a miserable hanger-on from the stage, a wretched scene-shifter called by chance to take the role of the great star. The large room dwarfed him, embarrassed him, filled him with a sense of loss. The moment he realized the truth he made up his mind to slip away as soon as possible.
But it was easier to resolve than to execute. Whether it was Mary Welling taking him out and teaching him to ride with infinite pains and much laughter, or her father gravely talking over with him the affairs of the ranch and telling tales of men and events, or Mrs. Welling with her sad, quiet smile that welcomed him when he returned from an outing, he was absorbed into the life of this family. How could he leave?
He had to stay a longer while. As soon as he discovered this, he set himself rigorously to prepare in time of peace for war. In other words, he shut himself up in his room every day for some hours and practiced with that revolver of Lew Shaler's that the outlaw had worn next to his heart. He never fired it, of course, but he practiced hour after hour, whipping the revolver from the holster that he now wore strapped against his thigh. He practiced until his head spun and until his arm ached from shoulder to wrist from handling the heavy weapon. It was not that he ever expected to rival with his skill the speed and sureness of men who were practically born gun in hand, but he wished to equip himself so that, in case of a crisis coming on him, he could at least strike a blow in self-defense. So he labored arduously. He had done fine work with the eyes all his life, and swift work with his fingers, and he learned, with astonishing speed, how to whip the gun out on the tips of his fingers and then whirl and point from the hip at something in the room—a corner of the mirror or the knob of a door. At length, the sinews of his forearm grew hardened to the tugging of the weapon, and his fingers were accustomed to its weight.
His sessions were discovered. For though he told the family that he was in the room reading, Mary Welling one day took him aside, very grave of face.
"Jeremy," she said, "what is it? Are you planning to go back to the old life?"
Then she told him how they had heard, downstairs, the padding of his feet as he leaped and whirled. How he had been seen through the window from the top of the barn, working with the revolver.
"It's just habit," he explained to her. "I keep in training. Because someday I may have to fight again." It was the first lie he had ever directly told Mary, and the weight of it hung in his mind for a long time.
"Oh," said the girl, and her eyes misted, "if you keep it up, sooner or later you'll go back to the old ways, Jeremy. If a man keeps ready for trouble, he'll find it sooner or later."
But in spite of that, he would not give up his work. He dared not. Also a certain confidence was growing in him and a feeling that, when the time came, he would be able perhaps to give a good account of himself. Then the test came.
They were sitting in the big living room—Mary was at the piano—when they heard a clatter of hurrying feet and excited voices. One of the cowpunchers broke into the room. There were others behind him with scared faces in the doorway. Henry Welling rose to meet the intruders.
"It's Tampico Joe and Garrison!" cried the first man. "Tampico came back from town all lit up and carrying a bottle of the red- eye with him. He got ugly... started to jump Garry. Some of us got at him and threw him into the back room and locked the door, but now he's smashing the door down and swears he'll murder Garrison!"
"Get Garrison out of the way."
"We've tried to. But Garry won't budge. He's ready for trouble himself. He says it's an old grudge between him and Joe, and that now's a good time to settle it. And it's murder. Garry ain't any match for Tampico. And, when Joe breaks down that door, he'll come out shooting!"
"Very well," said the rancher, "I'll go out and quiet him."
He started for the door, but Mary Welling caught him and stopped him.
"No, no!" she cried. "Dad, what could you do? Tampico is a madman when he's drunk. He'd as soon shoot you as shoot a dog."
Suddenly all eyes turned. A breath of waiting fell on the room.
Waiting for what? Jeremy Dice looked behind him. There was nothing but the wall. Then he understood. They were looking at him—at the great gunfighter. They were waiting for him to offer his services—the man who had beaten Shaler and Arizona Pete single-handed. The blood deserted Jeremy's brain. He felt the scar on his forehead tingling. What could he do? He became conscious only of the eyes of Mary, in all that room. She was staring at him in a sort of horrified wonder, questioning. He moistened his white lips.
Stay where you are, thought Jeremy Dice. I'll go.
Still they stared, waiting. Then he realized that the words had only formed in his mind and had not been uttered.
"I'll tend to this," said Jeremy Dice aloud and turned to the door.
THE girl intercepted him. "You won't kill him, Jeremy?" she was pleading. "You won't have to do that?"
He smiled bitterly. Kill him? Kill Tampico Joe? He had heard that hardy cowpuncher often referred to as the roughest man who ever swung a rope in the service of the rancher—too expert and ready with his gun and only retained because of his uncanny ability in taming half-wild horses. Jeremy Dice, the tailor, kill Tampico Joe? He made no answer but stepped past her into the hall. She followed. The cowpunchers fell back before the great Jeremy Dice and gave him ample room to lead the way. And Jeremy hurried on. As well get it over. If he paused, he knew that he would never be able to go on again. For there was a curious coldness in his legs and his arms, and that chill was striking in and coming close to his heart. If it ever reached that spot, he knew that he would become openly a shamefaced coward.
Even as it was, he knew that his arms and hands were useless, paralyzed. He could not have dragged the heavy revolver from its holster where it now pulled down brutally from his belt. It would have slipped through his nerveless fingers. Why go on, then, and face inevitable death? Because shame whipped him forward. He could have shrieked with hysterical laughter to think that he, Jeremy Dice, was stalking at the head of these practiced fighters, these cowpunchers of Henry Welling's. That they were holding back, trusting to him in everything, was ludicrous beyond speech. Why not turn and face them and cry desperately: "I'm a sham, a farce! I never killed Lew Shaler or Arizona Pete. I'm a cheat... but for heaven's sake don't make me go to my death!"
The words were even trembling on his lips. He faltered, almost turned to the men, and then he thought of the face of Mary Welling. Back there in the living room she had doubted him for the split part of a second. He had seen that doubt, and it filled him now with a sort of horror. She was trying to make up for her moment of failing faith. He heard her assuring the cowpunchers that Jeremy Dice would straighten things out. They must keep back and give him room. That was all that was necessary. He would drop Tampico Joe with a neatly placed bullet through the fleshy part of the arm or through the leg, a wound from which the drunkard would recover in a few days, all the better for the lesson he had been taught. He might even shoot the gun from the hand of Tampico Joe. Yes, that was probably what this super-gunman would do.
She's saying that about me... a tailor... and a coward, Jeremy Dice groaned to himself.
No fear of the cowpunchers flocking about Jeremy and making his work harder. They fell far back and gave him ample room. As the procession hurried out of the house and reached the path to the bunkhouse where the men slept, there was the noise of Tampico Joe, battering at the door and shouting curses at Garrison and the rest of the world—threats of vengeance and bloodshed on all the cowpunchers who had locked him up. He was no dog. He was a man, and he'd show 'em what Tampico Joe could do.
Jeremy found himself going up the path toward that hurricane of noise. The thing was incredible, dream-like. He seemed divided into two minds, one walking that path and the other far off, staring at the figure that went toward its end and wondering at it, shouting silent advice to turn and bolt. He was going slowly and more slowly now. His feet were ice, and it required a conscious effort to lift each in turn and put it forward on the path to destruction. They had turned to lead. His hands, too, dangled heavily, helplessly, at his sides. He ground his fingers together—but the blood would not come. Confused pictures darted across his brain—Manhattan—the great buildings—shadow and sunlight—the ball at Kadetzsky's. What a fool he had been not to stay and face out that small shame and square all with a simple apology to Gorgenheim the next day!
Then a consuming terror gripped him that he might not have the strength to go on into the bunkhouse. He went forward with renewed speed. Terrible speed! He opened the door of the bunkhouse. He stepped inside. It was a long, narrow, low- ceilinged room. Bunks were built onto the wall on every side. Confused blankets lay on them. Two lanterns burned and cast two circles of insufficient light. Hanging in that light were the faint wreaths of tobacco smoke, still rising since the cowpunchers rushed from the house for help.
At one side stood a young fellow, very erect but deadly pale. A naked revolver hung in his hand, and the barrel twitched up oddly now and then—the jumping nerves of the poor fellow. He knew he was condemned, and sentence passed against him, but he would not turn away from the man who was cursing him. His time was drawing short. The door at the end of the room bulged under the shocks as the drunkard flung himself against it again and again, yelling with exultation as the wood began to splinter.
More than he dreaded Tampico Joe, Jeremy Dice shrank from the pale youth. For Tampico might slay him, shame him, but the other would be a living witness of that shame. His lips writhed slowly back: "Get out of here!" commanded Jeremy Dice hoarsely.
He expected to be laughed to scorn, but instead he was astonished to see that an expression of relief swept over the face of the other.
"You order me out, Dice?" he repeated.
"That's something I wouldn't take from nobody else," muttered the other. "But seeing it's you, Dice, I guess it ain't no shame..." And he turned and walked slowly toward the door.
The witness, at least, was disposed of, and Jeremy rubbed a trembling hand across his forehead. His face was burning hot, his fingers ice cold. But oh, fool, fool! Witness? Yonder window was banked with faces. On the other side still others. And a voice behind him from Mary Welling: "Jeremy, you won't shoot to kill?"
The call shook him like a great hand on his shoulder, and at the same time he seemed to be struck behind each knee, unstringing the power of his legs. His hands, too—they would see him trembling. She would see it. He remembered how he had controlled his trembling in the shack when the sheriff broke in on him with the posse. He folded his arms tightly, high on his breast. He spread his feet farther apart and braced them. Was the shuddering of his knees visible? Every time Tampico flung himself against the door, a shock ran through Jeremy Dice.
Someone was calling—many voices. No, they were speaking to one another.
"Look at that! His arms folded! That's to show that he's giving Tampico a first chance to get out his gun. Can he beat Tampico to the draw, starting with his arms folded? It must mean he's going to shoot to kill, eh? Sure, he ain't a fool!"
It was only later that he fully understood what those voices had said. At present it was only a tangle of sound. And now the door staggered—was flung crashing upon the floor—and a red-faced, wild-eyed man stood crouched in the opening, swaying a little from side to side. He made Jeremy Dice think of a mad dog.
"Garry, you dirty skunk! Here's your time come. Go for your gun, you..." His voice roared a series of foul oaths. His gun jerked up to a line with Jeremy Dice's breast.
"It's murder! Dice, do something!"
Then a single shrilling cry: "Jeremy! Save yourself."
He could not even flee. His muscles refused to act. He closed his eyes, and, when he opened them again, he was surprised to find that he was not launched into eternity. The bunkhouse was the same. The same slowly drifting wreaths of blue-brown tobacco mist were moving across the lantern light. The voices were clamoring from the windows. But Tampico Joe was oddly changed. His wild eyes were glazed over, his mouth gaped, and the muzzle of his gun was dropping in jerks.
"You!" he gasped. "You... Dice!" His hand rose slowly. The revolver was dropped back into the holster. "The dirty coward... he didn't dare face me... he had to send you after me." He rubbed his knuckles across his forehead. Then his voice was a whine: "Dice, I guess they ain't any quarrel between you and me. I dunno... I... I... been drunk... a fool, I guess."
Slowly, as the wonder to find himself alive lifted like a cloud from Jeremy Dice, he understood. The power of a name had driven the fumes of liquor from the mad brain of the cowpuncher and had overwhelmed him. Suddenly his blood was running once more. He went to the other with short, uneven steps.
"There'll be no trouble, my friend. Just give me your gun."
"Sure, Dice. We're friends, ain't we? Here's my gun."
Jeremy turned away with the weapon in his hand and went back toward the door. The men were boiling through it before he came to it. But the crowd split away before him. He passed awed faces on either side.
One voice: "By heaven, Dice, that was a fine thing. That took nerve."
Outside, he looked around him, dazed. The girl was not there. Yes, here she came. What was this... tears?
"Oh, Jeremy, I saw... I understood."
It pricked him to the heart with cold. What had she seen and known?
"It was for my sake... because I asked you not to kill him... that you didn't touch your gun? Because I asked you? Oh, Jeremy, it was a glorious thing to see you, standing there with your arms folded... just a step away from death... and not afraid."
"FRANKLY," said Henry Welling that night, "we need you. I am not young... the work of managing the ranch is arduous and more and more difficult for me as time goes on. I have to do my work with rough men who need a leader they will respect in order to have the best they are capable of brought out. What I'd like to have you do is to step in as my foreman... my manager, if that title pleases you better. You know nothing of the cattle game, but I can supply the knowledge and teach you. In five years I'd like to retire and put the ranch in your hands entirely."
Jeremy refused. In five years? By that time his name would be a jest around the town of Chatterton. If only he could leave the place while his name and fame were established without a blemish, but that was not to be. It seemed that an evil destiny chained him to the spot until in some savage denouement all the inner truth of his weakness would be known.
But he could not go. There was no place for him to flee. All his past life had become dim. Sometimes it seemed to him that his existence began with that blow of the lantern that had flung him from the top of the speeding freight train. Go back to Manhattan? When he thought of that, he thought also of the morning rides with Mary Welling, with the fresh wind out of the dawn and into their faces. If he thought of the lights of Broadway on certain evenings, he thought also of the living room of the ranch house and the faces of Mr. and Mrs. Welling in the lamplight. He liked even the cowpunchers. At first they had kept away from him, as men will avoid poison, but, since the affair of Tampico Joe, they had undergone a change of heart. Tampico Joe, retained at the express wish of Jeremy Dice, was his most ardent champion. Tampico taught him how to swing a rope. Tampico went over the range with him and taught him intimate bits of cattle lore. Tampico initiated him into the mysteries of the trail, until he began to see how it is that the cowpuncher follows a cattle path as a student reads a book—a constant turning of pages, and every page crowded with new things. He would go out into the bunkhouse at night, and always they welcomed him into the heart of the circle. He played poker with them and lost outrageously, and then won it back, for he was picking up the art of bluffing and betting high. They would also jest and joke with Jeremy Dice—except that in the midst of horseplay no one ever laid so much as the weight of a finger on his shoulder. It was apparently understood that, while one might go a long way in familiarity with Dice, there was a stopping point. When that was reached, one must stand back and give the gunfighter room. He had become an oracle.
When a new gun was to be bought, Jeremy's advice was asked. He had to consult the library and read up furiously to keep ahead of his questioners. If there was a nice question in a dispute, Jeremy was called in to settle it.
He was no longer white-faced. He had grown brown in these few weeks. He had a swing to his gait and a brightness in his eye that had not been there before. But always he felt like a man eluding a certain destiny. He had gotten away from the hounds, but they were circling, and soon they would get the wind of him and come booming down the trail. Then what a hollow heart Chatterton would discover in its newest and brightest of heroes!
He went ahead, blinding himself to the future. He expected that the end would come suddenly—some formidable figure rising in his path—some gunman who would not be daunted by his fictitious reputation. But when the blow fell, it was slowly, so that he could approach his downfall with his eyes open.
Welling came in hastily to his room one day, hardly pausing to rap at the door. He had been in town that morning. He had not even stopped to take off the linen duster as he came into the house. He locked the door behind him.
"Jeremy, my boy," he said with a troubled face, "there's a most unfortunate mess ahead of you... Bronc' Lewis is in Chatterton, and it's understood that he's going to send word to you that he's waiting there."
Through the space of two heartbeats Jeremy continued to stare down at the page of his book—the print ran into a gray smear. "And who's Bronc' Lewis?"
The rancher laughed uneasily. "Perhaps he's not very formidable in your eyes, Jeremy. Of course, I know your courage and self-confidence, but Lewis is a man I don't like to have you meet. There's nothing of the thug or the professional badman about Lewis... but he's killed his man more than once. Of course, you know all that."
"I never heard of him before. And what's his quarrel with me?"
The rancher gasped. "By the Lord, Jeremy, sometimes you startle me. Never heard of Bronc' Lewis? Why... well, he married Shaler's young sister. That's his quarrel with you. As I understand it, he would like to get out of this, but one can understand how it is. I suppose his domestic life isn't very pleasant until he removes the man who killed his wife's brother, eh? And that brings us to the calamity."
Jeremy swallowed. "Something ought to be done," he said faintly.
"Ah," nodded the rancher sympathetically. "I know how you feel. You've been trying to break with your past... and now you're dragged into a fight with or without your will. It's hard, Jeremy."
"Ordinarily, I know you fellows with the fighting instinct. You'd go a long way for a chance at a man of Lewis's caliber. Of course, he's a more dangerous man to face than Lew Shaler was. And I suppose with his coolness and nerve... or lack of nerve... he may even have some chance against you. Though personally, Jeremy, I agree with the rest of Chatterton... nobody on the mountain desert has a chance against you. However, I wish there were some way of getting out of this infernal scrape. I don't fear for your sake. I only regret that you have to be dragged into the affair."
Jeremy leaned over with a wan face. "Then, Welling," he said huskily, "do something!"
"Eh? But what can I do?"
His complacence maddened Jeremy Dice. "Have him jailed for planning a murderous attack."
The rancher laughed. "You have a sense of humor, Jeremy. I can imagine you having an enemy jailed."
Jeremy sank back in his chair. His doom, he knew, was come upon him.
"In a way," said the rancher, "I can't help admiring the nerve of Lewis. He must know that, even if he has the luck to wound you, it would only be signing his death warrant. He'd never get out of Chatterton alive! But, ah, boy, if something should happen... no, we won't think about the impossible. I don't dare. We'll have to guard against letting this news come to Mary or to Mother. It would torture them and make it all the harder for you. But between you and me, Jeremy, this code of honor that drives men to murder is a horrible thing... horrible!"
"Horrible," echoed Jeremy. "I... I'd like to be alone, Welling."
The other nodded and went soberly out of the room.
Afterward it seemed to Jeremy that the thing had been a dream. The blow had fallen so casually that it did not seem real. But the truth was borne in on him. Two of the boys came into the house later in the day. They shook hands with him gravely.
"We've just heard. Come in to wish you luck, Jeremy, and tell you that we'll be on hand to watch you drop him."
He managed to smile at them in a sickly fashion, and they were gone.
In the middle of the afternoon the bearer of Bronc' Lewis's cartel arrived. He was shown up to Jeremy's room, a calm, bony- faced, resolute man of middle age. He announced himself as John Saunders, making no effort to shake hands. He plunged at once into the heart of his message.
"I've come from Bronc' Lewis. He asked me to tell you that he'll be waiting in front of the post office at ten o'clock tomorrow morning. You understand?"
The pale eyes of the man fascinated Jeremy, as though this were the face of the angel of death. "Yes," he murmured.
"Of course," went on the other, "we know you won't be there."
"Eh?" gasped Jeremy.
The other became suddenly savage. He made a long stride toward his host. "You skunk," he said through his teeth. "Don't you know that we've seen through you? You've put up a bluff, Dice, or whatever your name is. A mighty strong bluff, but now we're going to call your hand. When we get through with you, you won't have enough reputation left around here to blanket a dog. No, sir, you won't!" He paused, glaring. His wrath seemed to be fed from within. "When I think of a low hound like you pulling the wool over the eyes of Chatterton," he went on, "it makes me sick inside, plumb sick! Why, me and Bronc' figured this thing out a long time ago. But Bronc' didn't want to make trouble. He wanted to let you go... only public opinion wouldn't let him stay still. We know you, Dice. You didn't kill Shaler and Arizona Pete. Kill them? You couldn't kill half of one of 'em! They fought about the split of the coin and killed each other, and then you come along and make your play. You tear your own clothes, and you have the nerve to cut your head to make the picture look like the real thing. And then you come to Chatterton and make a fool out of a whole town full of sensible men. And now, Dice, I bring you warning. Clear out. Bronc' don't want no trouble. He don't want to dirty up his hands with you. But he'll kill you unless you pull out of Chatterton and don't never show face here again. You can take that for final. Good bye." He stalked from the room.
THERE was no supper for Jeremy Dice that night. He dared not face the eyes of the family, and he sent down word that he was busy in his room to Welling who made sufficient excuses. When the dark had fully settled over the house, the tailor made his preparations for flight. It was a simple matter to escape. A drain pipe from the roof ran directly past his window and down to the ground. Along this he could easily lower himself, and once on the ground he could slip away among the trees and be quickly lost to sight. Then the dark world beyond would receive him, and, cutting across country, he would come after a time to the line of the railroad.
He wrote his farewells. To Henry Welling:
I tried to tell you a number of times. You always stopped me. It was that way from the first. I lied once. That was in the beginning, and the lie was practically put in my mouth by the sheriff. I took it up. I've no excuse to make. I've played the part of a yellow hound, and the best I can ask is for you to forget me as soon as possible.
When you think about me and despise me, I want you to remember this: that the reason I stayed on, living this lie, was because I loved you, Mary. After the first day, whenever I tried to break away, the thought of you stopped me. I wasn't worthy of you. Of course, I knew that, but... I couldn't go. I've asked the others to forget me, but I ask you to forgive me.
When he had written and sealed these notes, he completed his preparations for departure by putting his hat on his head. Then it was out the window and down the pipe to the ground. It was even more easily done than he had anticipated. The darkness of the trees at once covered him. There was music in the house. Mary was singing, and it seemed to Jeremy Dice a bitter and beautiful thing at once that he should leave her life with this sound of her voice to carry with him.
He skirted past the side of the house, and, coming to the front among the trees, he paused and looked back through an opening. As he stopped there, taking his last long look at the big house, the front door was opened and the singing of Mary Welling struck out at him.
What made the ball so fine?
What made the assembly shine?
And then the voice rose to the climax of the song—a voice not strong, but thrillingly pure—and it went into the heart of Jeremy Dice like the point of a knife. That fiber had never been in her singing before. Or he had never noticed it. Now it seemed as though, in some miraculous manner, she were making a profession of faith. She was calling him back, he, Jeremy Dice, the tailor, was her Robin Adair.
Jeremy sank upon his knees under the cottonwoods and prayed for the first time in his life. He prayed aloud.
"God Almighty, I love Mary Welling. Keep me from bringing her shame."
The song went on. It seemed to Jeremy Dice to be giving wings to his prayer and lifting it up past the treetops to the stars.
Finally he stood up. The house was silent now. The front door closed—perhaps Henry Welling had gone out to smoke in the open for a moment and was now returned. Jeremy went slowly back among the trees, reached the drainage pipe, and climbed up to his room once more. It was like stepping into a tomb. He took the two notes, ignited them, and dropped them on the hearth. Once, as the flames kindled, he stretched out his hand to stop the fire, but then he checked himself and stood with dull eyes until the paper became a red cinder, then black, then silver, and finally a flimsy ash rose and drifted up the chimney. He remembered, out of his childhood, how he had written requests to Santa Claus and then sent them up the chimney in flames. There went his last chance to confess.
He could not sleep. Twice he flung himself on the bed, and twice the picture of what would happen on the next morning brought him stiffly up into a sitting posture. He heard the sounds of the family, going to bed. They came to his door one by one, tapped, and said good night—Mary, Mrs. Welling, and her husband last of all.
The deep smooth voice of the man was a grateful thing to Jeremy Dice. Henry Welling was one of those who would have known how to meet death on horse or foot or in the bed of sickness. Sometimes Jeremy wondered what sin had been his, so terrible that he must make expiation in this agony? What was the divine scheme that needed a coward on the earth?
The night was running on with deadly speed. Every time he looked up at the clock, the hands had leaped forward another hour, it seemed. Presently he heard the rattling noises in the kitchen that were tell-tale signs that dawn was approaching. Indeed, when he looked to the window, he found that it was already gray. He stood up, helping himself with his hands on the table, and, the moment his weight fell on his arms, they shook to the very shoulders.
He went down long before the family was up and got a cup of coffee from the cook. The old Negro tried to make him eat some bacon and fried eggs, but he would not touch them.
"Mars Jeremy," said the old fellow, "I done pray for you las' night. An' heaven keep you today."
So even the cook knew. Even this old Negro would hear the story of Jeremy's death—but would he hear, also, a shameful tale of weakening and cowardice beforehand?
There was not even the strength of the lie to support him now. Lewis and his companion had pierced through to the truth. They would wait until the bullet was fired, and the dead body of Jeremy Dice lay in the dust. Then they would rob the very corpse of its honor. But would Mary Welling disbelieve? No, he had only to die bravely in order to keep her trust.
He went for a brief walk among the trees, and then returned to his room. There was still a coffin air about it. After that, he went through the subtle mockery of looking at his revolver and seeing that the chambers were charged. When he picked up the gun, the muzzle quivered like a leaf in the wind. Jeremy Dice looked down at this phenomenon with a detached, almost impersonal curiosity. It was as if the power of Bronc' Lewis were reaching out and jogging his elbow with imperceptible fingertips. In a flash, it seemed, it was half past eight and high time that he should start for town.
He found his horse saddled, and Henry Welling near the rack came to meet him, shaking his head.
"By the Lord, Jeremy, you look as happy as a boy going to call on his sweetheart. Enough color to do justice to a fever. I'm not going to wish you luck, son. It's too important for that. By the way"—he grew more sober—"I think Mary knows."
"She's in her room... weeping, I'm afraid." He paused. "Jeremy, for all our sakes, come safely back to us."
And so Jeremy went down the road. She loved him, then. No, not Jeremy Dice, but a ghost dressed in a lie. He spurred his horse, but fast as he rode he could not outdistance the following thought. It was the walk to the bunkhouse over again, but a thousand times longer and more terrible. He glanced at his watch. It was nine. It was half past nine. At the stroke of ten he entered the main street of the village. Not a soul on either side in the houses—except a pair of urchins playing in a front yard. As he passed, they stopped and stared at him with great eyes. Even the children knew the great Jeremy Dice.
He went on. The horse was walking, but the brute seemed to be covering the distance with gigantic strides. And not a sound in the village. Yes, there was old Jack Thomas, sitting in front of the general merchandise store, playing his wheezing old instrument, drawing it out and pushing it together again and fingering the keys deftly with his withered hands, while he rocked far back in his chair like a connoisseur listening to a symphony. Jack Thomas and his droning old songs were a village curse. Aside from that music there was no sound, however.
Jeremy turned the angle of the street, and there he saw them at last. They were grouped at windows. They filled the doors of the houses opposite the post office. They stood in groups here and there, and at sight of him a murmur went through them like the sound of the wind through distant trees. In front of the post office one man was pacing up and down. At sight of Jeremy Dice he paused sharply and remained standing still.
No need to have his name told. It was Bronc' Lewis. Jeremy drew rein. He could not stir—no more than if his muscles had been frozen solid. He could not stir, and now a new murmur went through the crowd. What was it? Wonder? Horror? A suspicion of the truth?
He saw that Bronc' Lewis stood with his arms akimbo, laughing silently. Perhaps he had told his story. Perhaps the truth was already known. Perhaps all these had gathered merely to see the unmasking of the coward, the liar, the cheat who went by the name of Jeremy Dice.
Then a new strain was struck up by old Thomas. It faltered. It moaned and droned through the first few notes, as though Thomas were uncertain of the pitch. Then it gathered strength, became surer. It dissolved into a golden music, pouring like a warm sun into the cold heart of Jeremy Dice. It was "Robin Adair" with the voice of the girl in some miraculous manner, singing behind it.
Jeremy threw himself from the horse, hitched at his belt, and strode forward. As he walked, there was a tingling in the tips of his fingers. His eyes were clearing. He could see clearly for the first time, as though a fog had lifted. He saw the arms of Bronc' Lewis drop from his hips, and the grimace of that silent laughter cease.
Jeremy came on, halted. "Are you Bronc' Lewis?" he called.
Every murmur in that crowd was cut off at the root. A great silence fell upon Chatterton.
"I'm the gent," answered Bronc' Lewis. "But who wants to know?"
"I'm Jeremy Dice, and I hear you've been wanting to see me. What about?"
"About the murder of Lew Shaler and the lie you told."
"What way do you talk?" Was this the voice of Jeremy Dice, this strong, clear, ringing utterance? "What way do you talk when you say I lie, Lewis?"
"I talk this way."
The hand of Lewis flipped up and back and came out bearing a flash of steel at the tips of his fingers. Automatically Jeremy found his own revolver in his hand.
Everything seemed to slow down, move haltingly. Perhaps it was because his mind was moving with tremendous speed. It seemed to him that the muzzle of Lewis's revolver rose slowly. He felt like saying: You're slow. Why don't you hurry, Lewis? It seemed to him that he circled his finger slowly over his own trigger. He picked out, beneath the chin of the other, the knot of the flaming bandanna. He was saying to himself: Just the size of the knob of a door. I'm used to that mark.
And just as there was an explosion from the gun of Lewis, and the muzzle of the weapon jerked up, his own revolver went off. There was a tug at his head, jerking it back, and his hat was blown away. But Bronc' Lewis had dropped his revolver and was spinning foolishly around. He fell to his knees, gasping horribly, and both hands were pressed to his throat.
Now voices broke out, shouting. Every face seemed to Jeremy half glad and half frightened, and all at once he felt that he despised these people. He walked up to the post office.
"Is there a man named John Saunders here?"
His acquaintance of the preceding day halted in midst of his stride, as he ran toward his friend Lewis. He fumbled at his hip.
"Take your hand from that gun," said Jeremy calmly. "Take your hand from that gun, you fool."
The hand of Saunders came away—empty. His face was that of a man who has been stunned by a blow.
"Saunders," said Jeremy Dice, "take your gunfighting friend and get out of Chatterton. He's not going to die. That bullet went through the side of his throat and didn't do more than nick the windpipe. But, as soon as you have him bandaged up, put him in a buckboard and get out. If I see either of you around here again, Saunders, I'll kill you as true as my name is Jeremy Dice. Don't forget."
He turned on his heels. They were swarming across the street at him, shouting. They wanted to drink with him. They wanted to shake his hand.
"Boys," called Jeremy Dice sternly, "go back. I don't want your congratulations. If I'd been at the receiving end of this show, I guess you'd be piling around Bronc' Lewis the same way. Give me room."
They fell back, amazed. He went on. He stopped beside old Thomas, who was standing up, blinking.
"Dad," said Jeremy Dice, "if you ever get tired sitting around Chatterton, come out to Welling's ranch. I'll see that you're taken care of, because I'm the manager of that outfit. And... when you come, you can bring along your concertina. So long!"
"But," stammered the old man, "what do you mean by that? What's it for?"
"Because just now you helped me find something... and that thing was myself."