It was all the result, in the first place, of a name. The name originated in a little family conversation some twenty years before.
"But what," said the doctor, "are you going to call the boy?"
"I dunno," said the father. "I dunno that we've made up our minds about nothing just yet."
"I've never heard anything like that," said the doctor. "A couple not having at least a dozen names picked for their first baby. You'd better decide right away. It's bad luck to let a child wait a long time without a name."
"You don't mean it," breathed the father. "Well, I'll be talking to Martha, and maybe we can pick something out. We'll sure try. But d'you think it ain't going to do no harm for me to talk to her now?"
"Why, man, she's half crying for you. Go in and see her now, don't talk about her. Come, now, you do what I say," he directed, "or I'll double my fee. You go into that room and pick up that little baby—"
"Doc, you don't mean for me to go right in and pick it up in these here hands of mine?"
"I mean just that."
"But—I mean—suppose—suppose it was to—to slip, Doc—?"
"You talk like an idiot," said the doctor. "Get in there, and do what I tell you to do."
"Would you mind coming along in with me?" pleaded the father.
The doctor grinned again. "And the first thing you're going to say—do you know what it is to be?"
"Ain't got the least idea, Doc."
"You're going to say—Martha, he's the image of you!"
"Him? I never seen a baby yet," said the father, "that looked like anybody special."
"Of course, you haven't," said the doctor, "but I tell you that you are going to say—Martha, he's the image of you. And she'll answer—Oh, you silly boy, he's a perfect picture of you."
"And what do I say next?" said the father, clearing his throat and staring with great eyes.
"You suggest a name for it."
"I dunno nothing about the sort of names folks use for babies."
"They're about the same as the names people use for grown-ups. Call him Bob—Bill—anything you please."
"I ain't gonna call any child o' mine Bob or Bill!"
"Let's see," said the doctor, "Delapin is your name, and that's a French name, I suppose."
"French!" cried the father. "I'll have you savvy that I'm American clean from the hair on my head to the soles of my feet. French! Wha'd'ya mean by that?"
The doctor rubbed his nose and grinned again.
"I'll tell you what," he said, "some of the greatest men that ever lived here have been Frenchmen."
"They're dead now," said the father, "and let 'em stay dead. I'm an American. That's all. French? You talk plumb ridiculous, Doc!"
"Why, of course," said the doctor. "Anyone can see at a glance that you are American." And here he eyed the broad, square chin of the father and his terrible, pale-blue eyes. "Anyone can see that. But if you want a front name to go along smoothly with your last name of Delapin, I say that you'll have to have a French name."
"Well," said the father, "lemme hear what you mean by that?" And he clenched his big fists.
"You might call him, for instance, Pierre. Pierre Delapin. That's a good name, my friend."
And the father rolled it over his tongue, first cautiously, as though it were a stinging acid, and then with a great abandon. And finally he smiled.
"Pierre Delapin! Doc, you've sure got a great head on your shoulders. I never could've thought of a name like that for him."
"Go in quick, now," urged the doctor. "You go right ahead in and do what I tell you to. Don't forget a thing."
Delapin stole cautiously into the room. And the doctor, listening, heard a weak, happy voice greet the big miner. The doctor stepped nearer and listened still harder.
"Oh, Sam," cried the girl, "I was afraid that you wouldn't want even to see him! Ain't he lovely?"
The shaken voice of Sam Delapin answered with a mighty effort: "Sure he's lovely. He's a dead ringer for you, Martha. He's sure the image of you."
A faint, sweet laughter answered him, and then the joyous voice: "Oh, you silly boy, he's a perfect picture of you!"
And a minute later the name of Pierre had been selected for the child and voted the finest name that was ever discovered by the brilliant mind of man. Therefore the doctor was really responsible for about half of what followed.
There is no denying the influence of a name. There was no reason why Pierre, when his father's hair was red and his mother's was black, should have had brown hair himself. And when his mother's eyes were a pale battle-gray, there was no reason why the eyes of Pierre should have been a rich, deep-sea blue. Such, however, were the eyes of Pierre Delapin. He had the middle height of his father, but he lacked the leviathan limbs and the massive muscles and the huge bones of the elder Delapin. Compared with the father, the son was the lightly, toughly made Arab compared with the lumbering Shire horse. He looked, in short, as if he might be bent, but never broken.
When he was four, diphtheria killed his mother and father. After that, he was raised haphazard until he was thirteen—nearly fourteen—years old. At that period he had his full growth—he had in his hands the speed of a cat's paw, and in his arms he had almost the strength of a man. His education consisted of those choice bits that a boy will pick up when he had been a vagabond north and south and east and west over the continent. He could swear in six languages and speak in three. He could use a gun or a rope or a knife with a mature skill and a barbarous delight, and he loved battle with all the passionate worship of a boy. Whether with fists standing straight, or rough-and-tumble on the ground, he was perfectly at home. He had battled with grown men when he was twelve. And if they beat him with their fists, he beat them with a club. And if they drew a knife, he drew a gun. And if they drew a gun, he drew his a little faster.
Such was Pierre Delapin when he came into the vision of Mrs. Charles Hancock Winton. She was a widow and was, as Pierre often said afterward, foolishly rich. In a word, she had so much money that she never had to ask prices, and, since she hated to be troubled reinvesting her surplus income, she only strove to spend her dollars as fast as they came in.
It was the precious influence of the doctor that riveted her attention to Pierre, for it was that name, so unusual among the Leftys and the Shortys and the Missouris of the cowpunchers, that drew her attention to the boy in the beginning. It struck her eye and her heart as she was reading the town newspaper at her breakfast table in the great, over-luxurious ranch house.
"Pierre Delapin, arrested for the shooting of Albert Lee, who is lying seriously wounded in his home, is fourteen years old and—"
Mrs. Charles Hancock Winton read no further. The boy was French—and how pleasantly that name rolled over the tongue: Pierre Delapin—and in the second place, he was an infant. Fourteen years old!
A red mist of anger rose before her eyes. She clenched her hand and struck the table with it—lightly, for Mrs. Winton was a lady. But two hours later she was in the sheriff's office, and had the pleasure of seeing that dignitary remove his spurred heels from the top of his desk, his hat from the top of his head, and his pipe from between his yellow teeth.
"Sheriff Maine," she said, "I have just finished reading of last night's atrocity."
"Which?" said the sheriff, smoothing his hair politely and vainly.
"I mean," said Mrs. Winton, "that I have been reading about the persecution of that poor foreign child."
"I dunno that I'm following you, Missus Winton," said the sheriff.
He had always called her husband Charlie, but he would never have been so bold as to have dreamed of giving such a familiar title to the widow. She was an important luxury, so to speak. Charlie had brought her in from Philadelphia Some few years before he died. She had been ten years younger than her spouse. She was even now a scant thirty-five, and still as freshly and delicately youthful as many a woman ten years her junior. She was as vain as a peacock and as impulsive as a bull terrier. She would have advanced her ideas in the very presence of the Father of Agriculture, although she knew nothing about the West or its ways.
And yet everyone respected her for the sufficient reason that she had loved big, rough Charlie Winton devoutly, and that she still kept his memory close about her heart, and that it was apparent that she would never spend the rest of her youth with a second husband. Because of this, there was not a man in the wide ranges who would not cheerfully have lain in the mud to give her dry footing. And the sheriff listened to her tirade.
"I am afraid," she said, "that you do know what I mean, and that you are attempting to deceive me, Sheriff. But—I shall insist on seeing this poor, persecuted child. Accused of shooting that great brute, Albert Lee! I have heard his name before—and he probably needed the shooting."
"Sure he did," admitted the sheriff.
"Arrest the kid? Because, otherwise, some of Lee's relatives are apt to go gunning for him."
"Oh, the murderers!" cried Mrs. Winton.
"They'd be the murdered, not the murderers, if they hunted that Pierre."
"What do you mean, Sheriff?"
"The poor child—"
"Child?" said the sheriff.
"I must see him at once and find out if his mother—"
"She's dead," said the sheriff.
"How terrible! His father, then, must—"
"He's dead, also."
"An orphan," breathed Mrs. Winton. "A poor little orphan!"
She could say no more. Her great eyes became liquid with emotion. Her lips trembled until she pressed her handkerchief against them and looked above the lace edge at the sheriff with a misty glance of pity. The sheriff drew a great breath.
"I'll see if he's in the jail or at the court," said the sheriff. "Just make yourself to home, ma'am."
He left hastily, and he walked with a weaving gait, like a drunken man, toward the jail. It had been a long time since he had been so close to the widow. And she was like a rose, or a garden of roses—she left him dazed. When he reached the jail, he kicked the bottom step half a dozen times until the pain of a bruised toe brought him back to the earth. Yet he was still smiling faintly as he passed through the heavy door.
He went straight to the cell of Pierre Delapin. That young worthy had composed himself at ease. The day was very hot. The window was a rectangle of blazing white, and the bars were rimmed with fire on one side. So Pierre had stripped off all clothes save his trousers, and these he had rolled up to the knees. He lay full length in his bunk, with one lean, muscular arm curled under his head. He was smoking a cigarette, blowing the smoke with the greatest expertise into odd curves and concentric circles.
"Hello, kid," said the sheriff, leaning at the bars of the cell.
Pierre moved his head back, and, rolling up his eyes, he saw the sheriff. He did not rise to his feet. Neither did he turn his eyes away. But from the strained position he continued to regard the sheriff, and he also continued to smoke.
"I said hello!" said the sheriff.
Pierre continued to smoke.
"So this," said the sheriff, "is the poor little orphan."
Pierre swung lightly to his feet. He stretched himself, then he walked to the bars, from which the sheriff instinctively recoiled. Pierre leaned against the iron and looked quietly into the face of Oscar Maine, then down to his boots, then slowly back to his face again. It reminded Maine with startling and uncomfortable distinctness of the way a sleek-bodied devil of a puma had eyed him once from behind the bars of a cage.
"Why, damn your black heart," said the orphan, "my father was a better man than ten like your old man."
He spoke without emotion, but he dropped the cigarette, crushed out its glowing end under the leathery callous of his bare foot, and leaned his forehead against a bar while he continued his study of the sheriff. And the veins of the latter began to turn cold. He felt as if he were bringing on himself the enmity of a wild beast with the brains of a man behind it.
"I said," he went on, "that you're a poor little orphan."
Pierre merely stared without blinking.
"And the thing for you to do," went on the sheriff, "is to play the part."
He was still confronted by the same uncanny steadiness of eye.
"You've heard of the rich Winton estate?" he suggested.
The boy shrugged his brown-black shoulders. His skin was actually darker than his hair.
"The widow," said sheriff, "has been reading in the paper about how the cruel sheriff arrested a poor French child by the name of Pierre Delapin— a little orphan, d'you understand? Arrested him because he was accused of shooting the great brute, Albert Lee."
Pierre scratched his shin with the bottom of his other foot, still without speaking.
"And if she gets to pitying you enough," said the sheriff, "there ain't any telling where it'll end up. She's only got about ten millions to spend, poor thing."
"Pity?" said Pierre.
"Pity," said the sheriff, and suddenly they both grinned.
That smile took years off the apparent age of Pierre. It made him totally childish. The sheriff found himself more at ease.
"Will you do what I tell you to do?"
"Maybe," said Pierre.
"Jump into your clothes. I'm going to bring her over here to see you."
"All right," said Pierre.
"Can you act like you're only fourteen or thirteen?" "I dunno," said Pierre.
"You're a poor little orphan," said the sheriff. "You ain't got any father or mother, and you're locked up here by cruel men that accuse you of doing something that you done just because a great big brute was trying to kill you—savvy, Pierre?"
Pierre grinned and showed two rows of pearly white teeth. Then the sheriff went back to the widow and led her to the jail.
"How terrible—for a child," she murmured as she passed through the doorway into the somber interior of the jail. "What a blot to rest upon his young life."
They passed on down the corridor.
"Which is his cell?" asked the lady.
"I—why—there he is," said the sheriff.
In fact, it had been almost impossible for him to recognize the transformed Pierre. Huddled into a corner of the cell sat the "poor little orphan." A sombrero, from the brim of which all the heavy ornaments had been removed, sat upon the back of his head. His trousers were rolled down and were frayed at the bottom, as though they had been worn to rags, although the sheriff could have sworn that the day before those trousers had been almost new. But now they were full of rents, through which the brown skin could be seen. The shirt that clothed the upper part of his body was likewise ragged. But most of all the face of Pierre was altered, for, instead of the steady and fearless look of defiance with which he had greeted him a little before, he now gazed at them with great, round deer-eyes, and seemed to shrink from every glance as if it were a blow.
Indeed, the widow could only endure one glance at that frightened face. Then she turned away and rested her hand on the arm of the sheriff. "It sickens me," she breathed. "Oh, to see the poor child crushed down by the weight of—" She could not finish. But suddenly she said to the sheriff: "I've seen enough—Sheriff Maine, I'm going to bring him home and raise him so that a few years of happiness will shine into his life."
"Ma'am," said the sheriff, "that's sure a kind thought." He turned to the cell. "Pierre!" he called.
"Ah!" breathed Pierre and shrank away, sheltering his face behind the crook of his arm.
"Sheriff," whispered the widow softly and furiously, "what have you been doing to that child?"
And the sheriff could not make an answer.
That day the "poor little orphan" was taken from the jail—allowed his freedom because there was no one to press a charge against him, because the sheriff had reason to believe that the whirlwind would tone down and not go gunning for a Lee. At any rate, Pierre was garbed in the best that the town store could afford, and placed in a buckboard to be driven to the new home. It was the foreman of the ranch himself who escorted the boy out. Afterward, he gave the report that the house servants had passed on to him concerning the new arrival of the orphan at the Winton house.
"He went sneaking around on tiptoe alongside of Missus Winton," said the foreman. "And every time he seen anything new, he'd let out a little holier—like a girl, seeing a new party dress. When he come to one of them big upholstered chairs, he feels of the cushions first with his hand, and then he shakes his head and sits down cross-legged on the floor.
"'Pardon me, ma'am," he says, 'but I dunno that I can trust a thing like that."
"'The poor child,' says Missus Winton, 'he's had the rearing of a savage Indian!'
"And before night she'd got the whole story out of him, about how he'd been kicked around from one place to another and bullied and treated plumb terrible by cruel men—"
The foreman got no further, for his audience broke into a universal groan.
"And that night," said the foreman, "he shows up in the bunkhouse, just as the boys was turning in. He lights a cigarette and laughs at Missus Winton and himself, and he allows that it's a pretty hard game to play. He says that she has sent him to bed and come in and kissed him before he went to sleep. Then he busts out laughing and asks the boys who's game for a round of dice. He shoots craps with us for an hour, cleans up about fifty dollars, and then goes back to the house.
"I sneaked along behind him to see how he'd manage to enter the house. But he went right up the wall of the house like the wildcat that he is. In through the window, and then, while I was standing in the blackness under a tree, wondering at him, something comes humming past my head and goes smash on the tree trunk behind me. That young devil, he'd knowed that I was following, and his way of showing me that he knowed it was by throwing a glass at me hard enough to've brained me!"
This was the introduction of Pierre to the house of Mrs. Winton. He was like a young savage, roaming through the rooms at first. But, although every servant in the house knew perfectly well that he was only playing a part, Mrs. Winton herself had not the slightest idea of it. And when a chambermaid attempted to tell her what she thought, the poor girl was discharged promptly because she was accused of being part knave and part fool. After that no one in the employ of Mrs. Winton cared to take the risk that would accompany the revelation.
About a month later, however, John Bender, of the Bender Ranch, rode across to the Winton place and told Mrs. Winton all he knew concerning her protégé. Mrs. Winton went to bed with an hysterical attack as soon as Mr. Bender left—and for three days Pierre Delapin was constantly at her bedside. At the end of that time he could leave her, and he went across country as fast as his horse would carry him to the Bender Ranch. He found that Bender himself was gone.
Pierre turned his horse about and galloped for town. But even in town he could not find John Bender. It seemed that the veteran rancher had decided that this community might not be altogether safe for him once the "poor little orphan" struck his trail. But, while he was searching, Pierre found John's son, Pete Bender, in front of the store, exchanging bits of gossip. All talk stopped and was supplanted by broad grins as Pierre approached, for he was dressed like a youth about to swing onto the back of a blooded horse for an exercise jaunt through New York's Central Park.
His riding breeches were works of art. Flaring wide over the thighs and coming neatly and closely about the knee. And his boots shone with hours of careful polishing. For was not a man servant assigned to the sole task of dressing young Pierre Delapin? All these lesser marvels, however, gave way to awe at the sight of the soft white collar of his shirt, and the deftly arranged black bow tie. This in place of a bandanna! Wonder and mirth went hand in hand as they saw these things.
And behold, in his hand was a riding crop with which he idly tapped his shining boots as he stood on the verandah of the store and looked coolly up and down the row of faces where the idlers lounged. He looked extremely young. He looked very boyish, indeed. But everyone sitting on that verandah could recall events in which this same youth had participated. Although there was no revolver in sight on his person, they would have wagered their lives, every one of them, that he was armed secretly to the teeth, and that a long, black-bodied Colt would slide into his hand at need. Therefore, the smiles gradually went out as he picked out his man and walked up to Pete Bender.
"Your dad come over to Missus Winton," he said, "and told her a whole string of lies about me."
He waited, but, although Pete had heard his father had given the lie, he did not strike back. He listened, white of face.
"He said," went on Pierre Delapin, "that I've been simply a vagabond and a tramp all this here time—he says that I been nothing but a troublemaker and a fighter all the time. Matter of fact, I don't know one end of a gun from another. Understand? I don't know nothing about fighting at all, and if I hear of anybody coming out to her with such lies again, I'm going to—send in a friend of mine to clean 'em up!"
With this he favored them all with a smile, turned on his heel, and walked out to his waiting horse. He sprang into the saddle and was gone in a flash.
For a week the country talked of nothing but the effrontery and the cold nerve of this boy. But not a syllable of that talk was carried to Mrs. Winton.
Only a month was Pierre Delapin kept at the great ranch house.
"The poor, frightened child," said the widow, "must be taken away from the country where he has suffered so much, and where his nerves have been so ruined."
None of the ladies to whom she confided this decision so much as smiled. Although some of them bit their lips till the skin cracked, they managed to control their expressions. In fact, they had been previously warned in the most solemn fashion by their husbands.
"If you chatter about Pierre Delapin," the husbands and brothers and sons and fathers of these ladies had said, "we'll have Pierre himself after us— and we'd rather have poison in the air."
So they allowed Mrs. Charles Hancock Winton to take her own way. Perhaps they were glad to see her make so a huge a blunder, for they had never been able to forgive her for that alien skin that refused to yellow and wither in the dry, southern air of the desert and the mountains. They allowed her to go down her own path of folly, and, even if they had tried to open her eyes, something told them—for they were women, also—that she was too much in love with her illusion to welcome the common face of truth.
Mrs. Winton left the next day for the East, and Pierre Delapin was with her. In the meantime, she had employed a tutor who struggled not so much to teach lessons of the school to Pierre, as to improve his manners and teach him to wear his clothes. It was hard work, but Pierre flung himself into it with enthusiasm. And, when the month had ended and he stepped onto a train bound for the East, the long, flying hair had been trimmed to a modest length and taught the purpose of brush and comb—he was clad in a well-fitted suit—even the black- brown of his complexion had grown a little paler, and the sunburned, sun-faded eyebrows were beginning to darken. Altogether, if there was still something of the wildcat about him, he was at least a wildcat that could safely be put upon the leash.
Those who saw him appear at the station were amazed. With hungry eyes, they noted down every detail of his appearance. Certainly he looked smaller, slenderer in civilized attire. But, as he was clambering up the steps of the train in the rear of Mrs. Winton, the wind pressed against him, and they saw beneath his clothes the definite imprint of a revolver.
Mrs. Winton had hesitated between two or three tutors and a private house for her protégé, and a berth at a boy's school of the finest type where he could also get private instruction. When she reached the East, her advisors told her by all means to put him with other boys, and that was how Pierre Delapin reached the academy of St. James.
This was an ancient and estimable institution. The Greek department excelled that of almost any university in the country, and the register of the students was a roll call of names musty with age and heavy with importance. Here, Pierre was to be given careful, private tutoring. He could read, and he could write. But that was all. The rest he must make up and bridge the long gap between six and fourteen. Mrs. Winton abandoned him with a sigh, for it seemed to her that, in placing him in a situation where he was actually inferior to companions of his own age, she had belied his real nature.
Pierre, however, was instantly at home. St. James was aristocratic to a degree, but it was filled with extremely human boys, who had to test all the powers of Pierre at once. They let him pass through the first day without disturbance, except for sundry witty remarks about his large, dreamy blue eyes.
But about midnight three of the older boys entered the room of Pierre to introduce him to the hazing tactics of the school, which were so venerable and so respected that even the teachers did not interfere. The hazers accordingly stole into his room, variously equipped for the scene of torture. But, when they were halfway across the floor, they were somewhat amazed to hear a sound as of the door being locked behind them. They turned to investigate, but now, in the utter darkness, they were attacked by a demon who seemed to have the power of vision where there was no light. He fought in silence and with incredible savagery. His hands and his feet were bare, but they were as hard and as heavy as four clubs. In three minutes one of them was unconscious, and the other three were shrieking for help.
They continued to scream, although their yells grew fainter and fainter, while in the air sang the whistling of a Western quirt. At length the door was broken down by the terrified master, and with his flashlight he illumined a strange picture.
In a corner lay one boy, his head opened with a long gash where it had collided against the edge of the wall, having been impelled by a kick in the stomach. And in another corner lay two of the best-known and most athletic of the older lads of the school, each tied hand and foot, while above them stood a half- clad, brown-bodied youth who wielded in his right hand a quirt that broke skin at every stroke.
It was, of course, a tragedy. They carried the fainting victims out, and the next morning Pierre Delapin was summoned to the office of the headmaster of the school. There he heard the sermon on brutality with sad and wide-opened blue eyes. He hardly understood, it seemed. He only knew that his door had been opened by stealth in the middle of the night, that he had wakened full of terror, and in a frenzy of fear he had attacked dim figures that he saw moving before him.
Here the headmaster interrupted him. He pointed out that a frenzy of terror hardly went with the cool proceeding of locking a door behind three invaders, then binding two of them and laying on the whip. "But how," he said, overmastered with curiosity, "were you so confident that you could handle the three of them? How did you know that they wouldn't break you into bits, if you started to lay hands on them?"
"I didn't know," said Pierre innocently, "but I hoped that they might be punished for entering my room. That was why I locked the door—so that they would be found—"
"I hope," said the headmaster gravely, "that you have not done a thing that will make the older boys keep after you until they have turned the tables."
"Oh," said Pierre, "I hope not!"
For a single instant a gleam of unutterable and devilish joyousness had lived in his face as he spoke. It took away the breath of the headmaster. He dismissed Pierre with no more words and called in some of the upper classmen. They departed with carte blanche to administer chastisement to the haughty spirit of Pierre, and three days later the punishment was given. This time seven strong football players entered the room of Pierre and fell on him in unison, with bright electric light to aid them.
The story was told long afterward in old St. James of how he thrice worked himself free, even from that mass of strong hands; of how, like a snake, he slipped through arms and legs; of how he kicked and struck with his fist with an equal abandon; of how smashed noses and split mouths and blacked eyes and swollen faces were the fruit of this mighty encounter; of how the clothes were stripped from the body of the fighting Pierre by the hundred of grips which fastened upon him, and which he wriggled away from; of how at last he went down under the weight of persistent force and combined poundage, and, finding himself on his last legs, of how he selected one choice victim, the biggest boy in the school, the center of the football team, and, fastening his lean hands on the throat of the football hero, crashed to the floor with him; and of how, when they beat him senseless and tore his hands away, the football hero was as nearly dead as Pierre.
But St. James believed in heroic measures. They put Pierre to bed for five days, and, while he lay there, his tormentors came to call on him, one by one. They brought him fruit. They brought him confections. They sat by his bed and regaled him with their best tales. When he issued, battered and blue of eye, from the infirmary, he found that the marks of battle and beating upon him were not pointed at with laughter but were praised as proofs of courage.
After that he had no more fights. Even two at a time, the young warriors of St. James had no desire to tackle this fighting demon. After he had tried out for the football team, it was reported that he was a gift from heaven and not a plague. When the spring came and it was found that he had a natural ability as a sprinter, his fame and place in the school were secured.
In the meantime, according to the reports of his progress that his two tutors sent to Mrs. Winton, he was swallowing knowledge whole, not little by little. Those senses that had been trained on the desert were as fine an equipment as a human being could have asked for. He who had read trails so many years found it not difficult to read history. He who had learned to trail and wait patiently had the steady nerve that is necessary for toiling at hard problems in mathematics.
In four years he swallowed the entire course that is generally spread out over eight years in grammar school and four years in high school. In four years he had written his name in brilliant red into the athletic records of St. James. He was the kingpin upon four of their teams, and the entire school worshipped him, while, in the offing, wolf-eyed scouts for universities hovered and made him tempting offers. For, as was universally admitted, here was the finest shortstop, end, sprinter, and tennis player that had heaved in view among the secondary schools in many a year.
It was at this very moment that the blow fell. He was at the end of his last year in the school when Mrs. Winton died. Pierre jumped a train and whirled into the Southwest in time to find her senseless and at the last hour. And for a month he mourned for her with a terrible and silent intensity. At the end of that time a crisp-spoken lawyer informed him that he was staying in the house at the courtesy of the heirs only. For, with characteristically slipshod business methods, Mrs. Winton had neglected to mention a syllable about him in her will.
To this announcement Pierre replied by shrugging his shoulders and lighting a cigarette. There was a greater significance in this than a casual observer could have known, for Pierre had been keeping the strictest training for four years, and cigarettes had been banned. He was still smoking a cigarette when, a week later, a prominent alumnus of a great university approached him with a query. The great college was waiting eagerly for his arrival the next fall. In fact, the entire student body was holding its breath in expectation.
Pierre answered that he was grateful, but not interested. He loved the sunshine. He loved the Southwest. And there he would stay. The alumnus was frankly shocked. He had heard a rumor of certain failing of funds, but funds were a small thing. He himself was embarrassed with an overplus of the coin of the realm. He would be delighted to assist him into the blue by meeting all expenses. Moreover, he would even have an eye to the future of so splendid an athlete. But Pierre lighted another cigarette.
"When a man leaves his country," said Pierre, "and goes to live in England, say, what do you say about him?"
"He's expatriated, I suppose. He's sort of a man without a country."
"Well," said Pierre, "I have been expatriated, and now I am coming back to my homeland."
"I don't understand," said the other. "I'm as much from the Southwest as you are."
"Of course," said Pierre, "you have lived in the desert, but I am the desert!"
This was a singular response. It called for thought before an answer was given, but the rich alumnus hated thought. He wrote back to alma materthat the mind of the poor Delapin had been affected by grief and disappointment of a lost fortune. Alma mater wrote to other matres and spread the word. In ten days Pierre was utterly forgotten.
Before the end of that period he was on a ranch in the outfit of a cowpuncher.
He was not a success as a cowpuncher. All that he had dreamed about, when the death of Mrs. Winton threw him back on his memory of his earlier days, was changed. In those happy times there was no necessity for work. He had simply wandered through the hills and towns, doing as he pleased. Five dollars a year would clothe him, and the other incidentals of equipment were of the smallest value. He could almost literally live on nothing. But Mrs. Winton had given him other tastes. He needed money—at least a little of it. And the only way he could make it was through the labor of his hands.
But Pierre Delapin did not like labor. It did not matter that he had learned to work like a Trojan in preparing himself for athletic contests of one kind or another. That had not been work for such a purpose as bread and butter. The thought that the meal he ate at night had been earned with his own toil during the day was, for some reason, utterly repulsive to Pierre. The result was that in a fortnight he was bidden to take his way to town. And back to town he went. There he was almost instantly approached by the gambler, Von Ehrn.
Von Ehrn was one of those men who never die. He was over sixty, as everyone knew, yet he often looked at least fifteen years younger. And his spirits were ever younger than his body. He had been mixed up with every rascally scheme that had brought disgrace upon the community for the past forty years, and still he went unscathed by the hands of the law. He had been operating a gambling house for the last twenty years, accumulating a fortune and exchanging winks with the sheriff once a month. Such was the amiable Von Ehrn.
He approached Pierre Delapin with his usual directness. "Pierre," he said, "I have work for you."
"Von Ehrn," said Pierre, "you are an old man."
"What," said Von Ehrn, "has that got to do with the matter?"
"If you were young enough to shoot straight," said Pierre, "I'd tell you a few truths about yourself and your work."
"Well, well," Von Ehrn smiled. His skin was quite impenetrable to ordinary insult. "Do you mean to say you would have the courage to start a gun play after being so long away from guns? Can you handle a Colt after four years without one?"
"I'll tell you something," said Pierre. "Instead of parties, I have stuck to this sort of thing while I was away. I'm glad to have this chance of telling you. Some of the boys seem to think that it will be safe to step on my toes now that I've been away so long. But just tell them that I've never missed a night." As he spoke, he produced his Colt, spun it in his hand, skidded a card through the air, and split it with a bullet.
"Very good," said Von Ehrn, without turning his head to see if the bullet had struck.
"And you may talk about that, if you will," said Pierre. "I want to keep out of trouble." He put away the gun.
"Mighty smooth," said Von Ehrn. "And I'm glad that I'm going to have you."
"Have me where?"
"Dealing for me."
"I'd rather see you dead than work for you, Von Ehrn. That's for frankness."
Von Ehrn only laughed. "Still," he said, "you are my man."
"You are speaking better English, now," Von Ehrn told him quietly. "I am glad of that. Good grammar helps a poker player more than any one thing I could name."
"I don't know what's wrong with you," murmured Pierre. "I give you my solemn word that I have never played poker in my life, and that I have no desire to learn—that if I ever choose to learn, it will not be with you—and that I am tired of our conversation, sir!"
"Excellent," said Von Ehrn. "You have the perfect manner. That is worth five thousand a year to me, and five thousand is what I am going to pay you."
"Not if you offered fifty thousand."
"What will you wager?"
"That I don't work for you? Anything you wish to name."
"I am not a cheap sport," said Von Ehrn. "I'll not bet with you on a sure thing. But to begin with, why won't you work for me?"
"I prefer the work I'm in."
"That's not true, asking your pardon for contradiction. You're too lazy to be a cowpuncher, my friend."
"Perhaps I am."
"What other objection do you have to working for me?"
"A man is disgraced who works for you, Von Ehrn."
"I won't believe that you care what the other fools around you say, when you act to suit yourself. They've tried to hound you down before. Are you going to run your life to suit them?"
"I'll suit myself in keeping away from your crooked card tables, Von Ehrn."
"Who said that I'd give you a crooked table to work at?"
"You mean you'd run straight?"
"I'd run your table straight, not the rest."
"What would you gain out of having me deal for you, then?"
"Partly your name—people would come in to play with you. Partly because you have the makings of a fine gambler. And you couldn't help winning for me."
"That's the real reason you want me?"
"The real reason. Business is getting slack with me. I've run so many crooked games that everyone begins to know it. These fools will walk right into a crooked game in the hope of beating it sooner or later, anyway. Nobody's so blind as a man with the gambling fever. But even the worst of the blockheads begins to know that he can't help losing when he visits me. I've got to get a new method and some new help, or my place goes broke."
"And so I get you in, and advertise that your table is the squarest gaming table in the world, and that they can bet the limit with the sky as the top when they're playing against you."
"Will you back my game as highly as that?"
"You're a real gambler yourself, Von Ehrn."
"On men—yes. I have an eye for men. When do you begin work?"
"You expect me to come—to be a gambler, Von Ehrn?"
"Rather a gambler than a hold-up artist."
"Meaning by that?"
"That you'll have to do one of the two, because you'll never work again. You've tried cowpunching. Mining is worse. You've got to stay West in your own country. And if you stay here, what can you do for a living? You won't work. You've got the lazy streak that runs deepest. And if you wait to make money grow without work, it means either dice, cards, or guns. Am I right?"
This was a blunt arrayal of an argument that shocked Pierre Delapin to his first real attention, and then he began to see the force of all that he had heard. It was perfectly true. He could not work. When he remembered his session on the ranch, it seemed to him that every day had been an eternity of pain. He could not work, and yet he must live, and to live he must have money.
"Unless," said the gambler, "you make a rich marriage. Of course, that would help you on."
The face of Pierre Delapin burned. With those words that oily, evil voice had chimed into the very heart of his thoughts. He scowled heavily at the other.
"I'd rather be dead," he protested. "But if I worked for you, you swear that the game would be clean?"
"That," said Von Ehrn, "will be entirely in your hands."
Pierre drew a great breath. It seemed to him that he was already seated at the table, willing money out of the pockets of other men. And yet, if it was a fair fight of their wits against his wits, why should he not?
"But what will happen if a crooked gambler sits down at my table?" he asked.
"Son," said Von Ehrn, "no crooked gambler will ever try any of his tricks at your table. You're too well known for your gun work. Rest easy on that."
"Then," said Pierre, "I begin today. Take me to your dive."
It made a more than minor sensation. The evil-minded said that they had always known that Pierre Delapin was headed for some such career. The more generous were inclined to sorrow. And a few actually believed the rumor that was busily circulated by Von Ehrn himself, that the table at which Pierre Delapin sat would be the most honest gambling table at which men ever took a hand—where the dealer would be above reproach, and where the dealer would enforce the honesty of the others, if the need arose, with bullets from his gun. Such was the arrangement which was rumored, and it was stated, moreover, that the stakes to be played for at that table would go as high as the sky.
Then George Chambers from Cheyenne came in with enough loose cash to stagger the imagination of a miner. He sat in at the game and walked away with twenty-five thousand dollars in coin, which he freely showed the next day around the town. It did not matter that he went back to Von Ehrn's the next night and lost forty thousand at that same table, facing young Pierre Delapin. That did not matter at all. The original spectacular report was what stayed in the minds of men. And they began to flock to Von Ehrn's to test the truth of the tale.
It was a master stroke on the part of the old gambler. With straight card- playing and no tricks, he was sure that the cold nerve and the good fortune of Pierre would win for him. And win it did. Every day his game improved in quality, and, where skill was insufficient, beginner's luck helped him out. The fame of this honest table was spread with the speed of the seven-league boots of rumor. And men who wished to play very high and very squarely came hundreds of miles to sit in at the game. Pierre Delapin became an institution.
Being an institution he had to dress for the part. No man can be looked at constantly by many curious eyes without feeling as if he were on a stage and behind footlights. The sunburn of a wild life in the first place, and constant athletics in the second place, began to fade and kept on fading until Pierre was very pale, indeed—the gambler's pallor, into which the effect of late hours enters. In addition he began to accentuate that pallor by wearing black. It was a strange vanity, but Pierre was still very young. At this point in his history he was only beginning to feel the difference between himself and other men. He became scrupulously careful in matters of costume. His clothes were expensive, modish, and as different from the cow country outfit as he could make them.
He made a distinction in manners, also. The more he had to do with rough men raised in rough ways, the more he practiced the most formal courtesy for his own part. And, so doing, he gained a weight of something that more than made up for his youth. People respected him for the honesty of his game; they respected him for his cool politeness, also. And those who played opposite him would as soon have taken liberties with his gun as with his self-esteem.
Psychologists would say that the end of this régime would have come quickly enough. Pierre would have been drawn into ruin and died a shameful and despised figure while still in his youth, or else, with a mighty effort of the will, he would have torn himself from the power of his tempter, Von Ehrn. But this is no hypothetical treatise. This is a plain recital of certain facts in the life of Pierre Delapin, and, although some of them are strange, perhaps none is stranger than this—that Pierre stayed on at his work with Von Ehrn year after year. Doubtless not a month passed that he did not set a date after which he should not be seen again in Von Ehrn's gaming room, but still the months drifted on, and he was not gone.
Indeed, it was very hard to leave. He had more than his salary. After he had been there three months, Von Ehrn saw that he had a great prize and came to him with a fat bonus. Von Ehrn was insulted for his pains.
"Do you think," said Pierre, "that it is not shameful enough to fleece the poor devils who play opposite me, without taking an actual share in the spoils?"
"Fleece them?" said Von Ehrn. "This is ridiculous talk! A gambler is a public benefactor."
Pierre smiled in spite of himself. He was accustomed to hearing the old fellow hold forth in this cryptic fashion.
"Observe, now," said Von Ehrn. "I prove to you that I am a public benefactor. The love of chance is the same love that sends men out to find fights, to cut one another's throats, or to fill each other full of lead. The love of chance is what makes a man turn his back on his wife and family and seek new fields of adventure. The love of chance is the spark that the devil maintains in the soul of every man. But here stand I, ready with an opportunity for any of them, If they want action, here it is. In five minutes they can lose enough money to keep them sober and working for a year. And this you call fleecing? I tell you again, Delapin, that I do for them what the doctors did in the old days—I free them of their excess blood and give them a chance to become normal."
In spite of this argument, Pierre Delapin refused the bonus, but, when a larger one was offered a month later, he could not resist. And thereafter a percentage of the gains of the house was turned over to him regularly. Indeed, he was becoming the whole attraction at Von Ehrn's. And he managed everything so well that Von Ehrn himself decided that he could relax and lead a life of leisure. So he relaxed, and within a year he was an old man, a little tremulous about his hands and knees, and nervous of mouth. His back began to stoop almost at once. His hair grew whiter. He added ten years to his apparent age within a twelvemonth.
The rest of the gaming house languished. Finally, it was entirely given up. There was, in all the place, only the table behind which sat Pierre Delapin, with his calm face and his mobile hands. But that one table paid more than a score of ordinary ones. The other tables having been cleared out, Von Ehrn sent for an interior decorator, gave him his expenses from the East and back, paid him a fat sum and a bonus at the end, and through him produced a beautiful chamber. Outside, the house was squalid adobe, but this one room within was worthy of a palace.
There were deep-textured Persian rugs on the floor; there were rich hangings on the walls; tall, warm-shaded lamps kept a glow in the place; and, when the gamblers raised their eyes from the green top of the game table, their glances could pass into shadowy corners to chairs covered with quaintly figured tapestries, and yonder to an oil painting, a stern-featured gentleman of the 17th Century with a placid brow and a head of dangling curls.
Even Von Ehrn was a little staggered by the price he was forced to pay for these things, but, after all, they were worthwhile. The cattlemen and the miners and the lumber princes who came to patronize "the only honest gambler in the world" were impressed by this solemn magnificence, even though they did not understand it. But they felt that this was such a place in which a man could win a huge fortune. The glowing rugs on the floor were a more ample guarantee that Von Ehrn could pay losses of any size than a certified check of a definite figure. When there were big winnings in Von Ehrn's house, the payments were instant and cheerful. When men lost huge sums of money, they found it mysteriously easy to endure the losses in such a room as this. In short, in this apartment Pierre Delapin was enthroned like a prince.
One day an old man came into the hall and walked up to him. He was a little man with a wedge of white beard on his chin, and black eyes indomitably keen and knowing.
"Are you Pierre Delapin?" he asked.
"I am he," said Pierre, and rose from his chair.
"I am glad to see you," said the stranger without shaking hands. "I am the doctor who ushered you into this world of sorrows."
"I am charmed to see you, sir," said Pierre.
"And I see," said the doctor, "that you have risen in the world."
Pierre was rigidly silent.
"Well," went on the doctor, "I didn't mean to offend you, but, when you look around on all this luxury, I think you may keep me in mind. I gave it to you, you know. I am the man who kept you from being called Tom or Jack or Bill. I gave you the name of Pierre, and, therefore, I have given you all the rest of this that goes with it. By heavens, with a name I have recreated a bit of the Seventeenth Century and placed it in the middle of the mountain desert. Who shall say that there is nothing in magic or incantation?"
With this he left the room in haste, chuckling to himself. Pierre walked slowly after him. There was no one else in the room except the big Negro who stood beside the polished door, a solemn and imposing figure with his head of snowy curls. Pierre paused in the center of the room. He was seeing himself in the tall and narrow mirror at the farther end of the room. With one foot advanced, with the shadows covering the bright and telltale surface of the glass, it seemed as though a figure were stepping toward him out of the very wall.
That figure was of a man in a dinner jacket, slenderly and exquisitely proportioned. His hands and face were deadly pale, so white that his brown hair seemed black by the contrast, and his eyes were deep shadows. It was a wonderfully handsome face, with features deeply cut, and an expression of the profoundest hauteur. And as the gambler stared at his image, he felt, with a little shudder of fear, that the doctor had been right. This was a world of magic. And the influence of the name must have done it.
Pierre Delapin! Indeed, it carried an aroma of romance about it; it had transformed this adobe building in the little Western cow town. It had transformed Pierre himself, for it was his foreign name, as he knew, that had first won the attention of Mrs. Winton. That gentle and sweet-faced woman had drawn him out of his past and given him a new future. He wondered sadly whether she had been right, for in the other life there had been content enough. He half closed his eyes and looked back to the scantily clad boy, brown-bodied, reckless as a wolf, who had lain on the bunk in the jail and rolled his eyes back to look at the sheriff. Mrs. Winton had taken him out of that. Certainly he could never forget it.
He began to feel that he himself could not control the drift of his life. There was the touch of magic—a magic name that informed his actions and guided him. When he said himself that this was the sheerest folly, nevertheless the belief persisted. He told himself that he must have a chance. So he walked into the little room where Von Ehrn sat and dozed through his days. He tapped the old man on the shoulder.
"I'm going out," he said. "I can't play tonight."
"Going out?" cried Von Ehrn. "But Gil Hotchkiss and old Gunter are coming this evening, and they've got enough money to load down a freight car."
"I'm going out," said Pierre Delapin.
"If you're getting temperamental—," began the old man gloomily, and he raised his evil eye to Pierre's face.
"This sort of thing won't do. We'll lose everybody, if they find out that they can't depend upon you being here."
"What do I care?"
"Are you tired of your job?"
"I've made enough to retire on," said Pierre coldly, "and you have enough to die on."
"Bah!" cried the old man. "I'll live twenty years longer. Ninety is nothing in my family. They're all long-lived. And as for you, I laugh when you say that you could retire. You've worked up expensive tastes here. It'd take a rich marriage to support you."
Pierre Delapin went up to his room. It had been formed by knocking out three partitions. His bed was in a recess that could be curtained away from the rest of the chamber. Sunk into the north wall was an immense fireplace for the chill days of winter and autumn. On the floor were spots of color, rare rugs from the Orient. On the rough-plastered wall were faces in oils—yes, he had formed expensive tastes. He could not leave Von Ehrn as yet. Not quite yet. But in another year—
He had said that for five years, now, he reflected as he dressed for the saddle. These very clothes he was donning, English in pattern, sure to be stared at when he went out during the day, were a type of his extravagance. But he could not leave the expensive ways. To avoid being wondered at, he took his excursions by night. In fact, from the end of one week to the next he rarely addressed a human being except Von Ehrn, the mulatto servant who cared for him, the big Negro who watched the door of the game room, and those gentlemen who dropped in for play. For the rest, he had as company the beauty of the two rooms—the one he worked in and the one he lived in—the growing numbers of books in the shelves near the fireplace, and these occasional night excursions.
He had ordered his horse before he began to dress. When he went down to the stable, he found the bay mare, Patricia, fretting at her bit and making vain efforts to drive her heels through one of the two men who were cautiously polishing her off, holding a lantern high to inspect their work, and this, although there was a white, full moon in the heavens. But Pierre Delapin, as they had learned before, was extremely particular. Even though he went off riding into the heart of the blackest night where no one could possibly see him, he insisted on having his horse turned out as flawless as the face of a mirror.
He gathered the reins, leaped into the saddle, and then found himself lunging at the moon as Patricia strove to reach it. She landed with her feet close together, her legs stiffened, and her back arched. For thirty seconds she tried to tie herself in knots, then, as though recognizing that she had met an irresistible force, she straightened under the cut of his whip and bolted out of the yard. Another instant, and they had flashed through the town and were rushing through the open beyond.
Pierre, in the perfection of his content, began to smile at the wind that whistled into his face. Patricia was his favorite of the six horses he kept. He needed that number, for one of these midnight frolics across the hills, leaping fences, climbing across ravines, exhausted a horse of the stoutest timber until another week had rolled around. Patricia herself, tough as whipcord, with the temper of a demon and the beauty of a white angel, might have served for double duty, but, instead of that, she was used on the great occasions when Pierre needed the greatest possible excitement and the least danger of breaking his neck. Tonight she galloped as swiftly as water sliding downhill, and as smoothly. She cut across the fields, cleared the fences like a bird, and made sleeping cattle swing clumsily to their feet and dash away, bellowing.
As they swept along, half the mind of Pierre Delapin was on the jumps and the rough country before him, but half of his attention was given to the dream that rode with him. And that dream was of the future that lay before him. That name which the doctor had given him had taken him out of beggary and placed him in a fine school, given him four years of culture and education, and, when he was plunged back into poverty again, it was the power of his name, he felt, which had given him the work with Von Ehrn. Pierre Delapin—it had all the ring of a gambler's name, it seemed to him. Would the hard-headed old fellow have noticed him for an instant, if he had been plain Tom Delapin, cowpuncher? Although the life of a gambler was not on the highest level, at least it had given him five years of leisure in which he could lead his own life, reading, dreaming, drifting on and on toward that character that should fit with the name he bore.
He was thinking of these things when he found himself in a thicket of trees going downhill. That was one of the glories of Patricia. She ran like a dodging football player, picking the way through an open field, and he let her go at the serried ranks of the trees in the perfect security that she would be able to find a way through. There followed two minutes of breathless dodging, and then they lunged out onto a comparatively clear space. There were no trees save a scattering, and the downward slope had increased its angle sharply. Straight before them, a wall of black was rising against the stars. It was the opposite wall of a ravine, and Delapin remembered, with a sudden clearing of the mind, where he was. He had blundered into Lawson Cañon.
The steep slope became a precipitous slant. The frightened mare threw herself back on her haunches and strove to strike her forehoofs into the ground to check their downward rush, but they had gained too great an impetus now. A campfire gleamed among the trees beneath them. With the risk of sending her rolling over and over, Delapin drew his horse to the side, a slight swerve, but enough to take her out of the line of the campfire. His own most cautious line of procedure was to throw himself out of the saddle and into a clump of shrubbery. But there was something cowardly in abandoning the poor mare to her fate—something glorious in riding through with her to whatever came.
He began to laugh like a drunken man. By the fire a shadow-black figure had risen, and he heard a thin cry of horror.
The last part of that swoop down the cañon-side was blurred, as when a train darts through a narrow cut, and the trees that climb up on either hand become streaks and blotches, pulled out of shape and bulging. Pierre Delapin crashed his horse into a thicket that probably saved the lives of horse and man. A myriad of thin branches, each nothing in itself, received him like a great, soft net. They plunged through twenty feet of entanglement and came out on the farther side, thoroughly scourged, but really unhurt. Every inch of the bodies of horse and man had been lashed by the twigs, but the skin was not broken. And, swinging Patricia to the side, Delapin rode her into the light of the campfire that he might examine her thoroughly and make sure she was uninjured. He stopped her, however, on the outer edge of the pool of firelight, for he could see the face of the girl.
Suddenly he was sure that he knew why fate had made him mount Patricia on this night of the full moon, and had made him ride in this direction. It was that he might encounter the girl that stood before him. It was the premonition of what was to come that had been throbbing in his heart every step of the way.
"In heaven's name!" breathed the girl. "You're not dashed to pieces?" She pointed up the slope. "You seemed to be dropping through the thin air."
In fact, the black shadow of the moon, falling over the slope, made it seem as sheer as a precipice. Delapin shivered as he looked up to it, but, glancing back to the girl, he managed to smile. "But you see that everything turned out safely," he said.
He felt her eyes flicker over him, taking in the details of a costume very strange for such a country. Yet there was nothing but approval in her face, and still more approval when he excused himself and led the mare close to the fire and examined her inch by inch.
Patricia was unhurt in body, but she was thoroughly cowed. She had felt herself on the very threshold of the heaven to which good horses go, and she had been saved from destruction—how, she knew not. It must have been through the agency of that daredevil, her master. And, still shaken, she pressed close to him and tried to thrust her muzzle into his hand or under his arm, very like a great dog. The girl, however, did not laugh. Instead, great tears came into her eyes.
"The poor thing," she said, and again, "the poor thing."
"Don't come near her," said Delapin. "She has a nasty temper, and she'd as soon send her heels through you as look at you."
The girl, however, hesitated only an instant. Then she went straight up to the head of Patricia and was presently rubbing the velvet nose and whispering into the trembling ears of the mare.
"How in the world did you manage to get on with her like this?" asked Delapin, stepping back from his examination and breathing a sigh of relief as he found all well.
"Is she hurt?" asked the girl.
"Not a bit. Frightened almost to death, but not hurt. How do you manage to become so chummy with my fire-eater?"
The girl answered to Patricia, not to him.
"Oh," she said, tapping the mare between her shining eyes, "we understand, old dear, don't we?"
To Delapin, watching, it seemed delightful, and a great happiness started his heart beating. He could not have told why he was so joyful, but all at once the circle of that yellow firelight, leaping up and down on the trees as the breeze puffed up the flames and let them fall, seemed to Pierre to contain all that was worthwhile in the universe.
"I see," he said, "that you've established a mystery with Patricia?"
"Is that her name?"
She had a way at once fascinating and annoying, Delapin thought, of turning the flank of one question with another. And quite apart from the pleasure of the moment, he decided that he must take this lesson to heart. It might stand him in good stead at another time.
"That's her name," he said, "and the name of her master is Pierre Delapin."
"Monsieur or mister?"
"Mister," Delapin laughed.
"I am happy to know the master of Patricia," she said. "I am Rose Purchass."
She sat down on a log that had been rolled near to the fire. This little withdrawal permitted Delapin to glance around the scene, and he could make out that a large party was camping here. There were horses dimly discernible through the trees in a neighboring clearing. There was a great litter of camp truck within the precincts of the fire itself.
"But what," she said as he was beginning to understand her silence as a dismissal, "can have brought you onto the face of that—cliff?"
"I was making a short cut into the ravine," said Delapin.
Of course, that was untrue, but he could not tell her that he had been foolish enough to blunder into such a situation.
"You actually mean to say you rode down that cliff on purpose?"
She caught her breath.
"But I aimed badly," he said in explanation, "otherwise, I shouldn't have landed in that clump of brush."
"I've been thinking that was the only thing that saved your life."
"Not at all. One can manage by jockeying one's horse at the foot of the slope to keep it on its feet. And they straighten out on the level very quickly—"
"Or else break their necks and the neck of the rider," she cut in.
"Of course, I don't do this every day, you understand."
"You're not jesting. You really use that devil's slide as a short cut?"
"To go where?"
"To the river."
"But why in the world—I beg your pardon for being so inquisitive, only—this is like a section out of a fairy tale."
"Isn't it," agreed Pierre heartily.
"You admit you are unusual, then?"
He laughed. "I was referring to my good luck in finding you," he said.
"Fiddlesticks!" she cried. "You're making fun of me this instant."
"If it hadn't been for the cliff, as you call it, I might not have met you."
"It has played the part of a mutual friend, then?" And the girl chuckled.
But he accepted the remark, with the utmost gravity, as a returned compliment. "You are very kind," he said, and bowed low to point his acceptance.
When he straightened, she was smiling steadily at him. And her nose, which was a trifle tip-tilted, was wrinkling at him. Altogether she was not beautiful. She was better than beautiful. She was charming. Everything about her was extraordinary. The sound of her voice was as different from all other voices as one face is unique among all other faces. She had black hair and brown eyes and that transparent complexion which only comes to those who live in an atmosphere drenched with the wet winds from the sea. Where the firelight struck her throat, the curve shone like a painted highlight, and her slender, white hands, it seemed to Delapin, had a radiance of their own.
He wanted to step closer to her, just as one is not content with seeing a blossom but must breathe of its fragrance also. She, he felt, must be like a flower. And yet, if he ever stepped so close to her—closer to her eyes and closer to her voice and closer to her soul, he might almost say-he wondered if he would ever be able to leave her side again.
All of this was a great weight of pondering, a great mass of thinking and feeling. Yet it was all thrust through his body and his brain by three beats of the heart. After that he was calmer, more a master of himself, but he knew that a trap had closed over him, and that he was caught forever.
"But after all," she went on, "you have to admit that it is very unusual for a man to ride down a cliff in order to get at a river—a plain river."
He saw a meager loophole for escape. "If it were a plain river, of course, there would be no excuse."
"What have you to say in defense of it?"
"About that I could talk an indefinite time."
"But it seems to me just a muddy, brown stream that runs between banks that are not very beautiful."
"That is why the river must be visited by night."
"I see," said the girl, "that you are a nature lover."
"And are not you?" he asked.
"I hate it," she said with a fervor of honest enthusiasm in the word.
"It's so horribly casual and without a plan."
"Really," breathed Delapin.
"I suppose I'm soulless," she said, "but nature depresses me."
"Even such a moon, in such a sky?"
She looked up at it. In so doing the firelight was shut away from her features, and they were bathed, instead, by the cold shining of the moon that floated now in the central sky.
"As for the moon," she answered, "I never could see anything in it. It simply shuts out the stars, and the stars are delightful."
"Yes," he murmured, "delightful."
There was something in his voice that made her look hastily back to him, half frowning. And Delapin retreated. In truth, he had been on the verge of saying a single word too much, so close to the verge that he shivered now with uneasiness. A voice sounded in the distance, then a murmur of laughter of men and women.
"I must ride on," said Delapin.
"Not before my friends meet you."
"I really cannot stay."
"But you must," said Rose Purchass, "because, of course, I'll have to tell them about what I've seen, and half the point of the story will be lost, if they haven't seen the hero of the tale, you know."
He shook his head.
"Please stay," she urged him.
"If I stay—"
"You will see why I wanted to go."
"I don't understand that."
"I hope that you never will."
"But you will stay?"
"If you insist."
She hesitated, studying him with rather anxious, troubled eyes.
And then, before she could answer, the party broke out of the trees. Delapin saw the big, red-faced rancher, Jefferson Purchass, and with him a rout of younger people—men and girls. They had fishing rods and baskets with them, and it was plain that they had been enjoying the sport by moonlight. They came to a halt, their voices dying out, when they saw the stranger. And Rose Purchass hastened with the introduction.
"Dad," she said, "this is Pierre Delapin. This is my father, Mister Delapin, and this is—"
He barely heard the names as she presented them. He was too busy studying their faces, and there he read enough—far more than any words could have told him. The healthy red of Purchass turned to an angry crimson as he glared at the interloper. And there were two or three young sons of ranchers in the party who glowered at him in the same hostile fashion. The girls, however, were cordial enough, even no little intrigued by his appearance, but the glum silence of the men checked their flow of talk. In a moment the quiet held every tongue, and a battery of eyes glared at Delapin.
He turned to Rose Purchass with a faint smile. "I am already late," he said, "and I must leave you."
She was watching her father so intently and with so much surprise that she hardly answered. And ten seconds later Patricia was picking her way through the brush beyond the pale of the campfire.
Although Jeff Purchass was proverbially tactless, on this night he excelled himself. The current of exclamations from the other girls had hardly ended with the disappearance of Delapin, when the rancher stalked over to his daughter and exclaimed in a voice which reduced the rest to tense attention: "How long have you known this—Delapin?"
The little interval before the name could have meant anything and everything that was degrading and condemnatory. It could have ranged from mere anger to shame and disgust that his daughter should have such an acquaintance. And Rose, being challenged before so many, naturally rose to the occasion with an equal spirit. For her part, she was tingling with embarrassment on a double count—first, because her father and the other men in the party seemed so shocked and angered by the appearance of Delapin, and, second, because she had forced Delapin to endure an insult against his will.
"I met him tonight for the first time," she said carelessly.
Her father had risen from the soil. The stamp of success upon his efforts was this daughter, in whom all his pride—and his fortune—centered.
"Look here, Rose," he growled, "is this what your schoolin' has come to—to teach you to pick up with any stray gent that comes along?"
She shrugged her shoulders. The others turned discreetly away and pretended to busy themselves with other things, but in spite of themselves they kept their voices so low that they might overhear what took place between the irate father and his daughter.
"With no introduction—?" began the rancher again.
"But there was an introduction," said Rose.
"The devil there was! Who gave it?"
"Are you trying to make a fool out of me, Rose?"
"I'm telling you the truth."
She explained rather hastily as she saw that his anger had reached the boiling point: "He rode down that slope—"
"Rode down it!" thundered Purchass. "You mean to say he rode down that cliff?"
The position of the moon had changed, and the black face of the slope looked more precipitous than ever. The others glanced up of one accord and then, with wonder, back to Rose.
"If you take a lantern and search the ground," said Rose, "you'll find the marks where his horse slid."
This challenge was so direct and simple that her father was taken aback. "No matter whether he rode down that place or not," he said, striving to get back to the main point of the dispute, "what d'you mean by picking up with such trash?"
"I wondered if he had killed himself and his horse, when they crashed into the shrubbery at the foot of the slope. He came to show me that they were both quite unhurt. And Patricia is really a dear."
Her father ground his teeth. Sometimes he wished that he had never sent his daughter to an Eastern school, for, although her accomplishments were his greatest pride at times, at other times they were a heavy cross for him to bear. Her very diction, on occasion, seemed to open a gap between them and push him away to a hopeless distance. It was like a disclaimer of any relationship between them, and he seemed to lose the very right to criticize or control her actions.
"Who's Patricia?" he inquired.
"The devil take Patricia, and Delapin, too! Do you know who he is?"
"A gentleman who rides very well, and who talks well, too, I thought."
"Sam!" cried Purchass.
Sam Stevens stepped from the group of the others, looking extremely uneasy. It is not a pleasant thing to be forced to condemn another man in the presence of a girl, and he guessed quickly enough that this was to be his ordeal. It was all the harder for Sam because he was the destined husband of Rose Purchass by family agreement and an understanding of old. As a matter of fact he had seen very little of her. She had been East or in Europe since her early childhood.
"Well, Mister Purchass?" he asked.
"I want to ask you a question, Sam."
"Do you," said Purchass, assuming a magisterial tone that was like a very echo of a courtroom, "do you, Sam, know a man named Delapin?"
"I do," said Sam, very like a witness, and a nervous one at that.
"Tell Rose what you know about him?"
"I think you know him better than I do."
"Will you do what I ask?" insisted the tyrant.
"I've no wish to blacken the standing of any friend of Rose—"
The old cowman roared: "I ask you a plain, simple, damn direct question. Are you going to answer it, or ain't you?"
"Delapin, I believe," said Sam, "is a gambler."
"You believe it?" thundered Purchass. "The whole damn world pretty near knows! A gambler—a professional gambler—a gunfighter—a lying, sneaking thief of a—" He stopped because utter passion had constricted his throat.
"Mister Delapin is being tried in his absence, I see," said Rose.
It was most inopportune. If anything were lacking to make the rancher pour forth his full fury, this was it.
"Tried? He don't merit no trial! Does a skunk get a trial? Not in this here man's country! No, sir! Lemme tell you a few downright true things about this here Delapin. His father was a bohunk miner. His mother wasn't nothing. He was left an orphan early. He made a living sneaking around the country, thieving and lying, so that—"
"Do you blame a fatherless boy for doing things which he doesn't know are right or wrong?"
"Fatherless! Fiddlesticks! Everybody knows the difference between right and wrong, except some that have all the plain common sense educated out of their fool heads!"
Jeff Purchass, in his fury, sank his teeth into a comer of a plug of tobacco. It was something that he had made a point of avoiding in the presence of his daughter for years. Moreover, the lump in his cheek impeded his utterance. "I'm going to tell you the facts about him!"
"The poor child," said Rose with needless warmth. Her father was thrown into a greater ecstasy of rage.
"I'll tell you how much pity he deserved. The Widow Winton come acrost him. He'd shot a gent—"
"How old was he, Father?"
"Fourteen. Fourteen years old, fuller of lies than a cactus is of thorns, ready with a gun or a knife to do a murder at the winking of an eye—but she seen his name in the paper, and about how he was arrested for doing a shooting. She got her sympathies all worked up—"
"Of course," said Rose.
"Lemme finish what I got to say. She goes down to the sheriff. The sheriff pretends that it is a shame that a youngster his age had to be locked up. He goes over and tells the kid that Missus Winton is coming to visit him with her eyes so full of tears that she won't be able to see nothing straight."
"Along she comes, and what does she see?"
"She sees this young hound sitting in a corner, shivering like he was scared to death, and looking pretty near ready to cry. He sat there playing baby and worked on her feelings. She got the sheriff to let her go bail for him. She takes him home. He keeps on playing baby. She sends him away to school. And he threatens to go gunning for anybody that goes and tells her the truth about what he really is."
"And all the big, brave men in the county were afraid of the boy, I suppose?" Rose asked.
"They tried to tell Missus Winton. She wouldn't listen to nothing. He'd filled her full of lies. She wouldn't hear the truth. She didn't have no room for it. Well, she keeps him in school for four years. Then she dies. Think he does anything with his high-priced education? Not by a jugful. Tries to be a cowpuncher—too lazy to work—crooked old Von Ehrn gives him a job gambling, and there's he's been for five years, squeezing the life out of honest men! That's the gentleman that you was introduced to tonight—by a hoss!"
"Do you know," said Rose Purchass, "that I've heard some gamblers are honest?"
"You've heard the gag about him running an honest game, have you? But lemme tell you, there ain't such a thing as an honest gambler no more'n there is a snake that stands up and walks. They're all crooked. Ain't he made Von Ehrn rich? Rose, there ain't a gift in the county that speaks to him."
"Does he give them a chance?"
"You mean he keeps by himself and rides around by night? All that proves is that he's kind of crazy. Am I right, boys?"
They murmured an assent.
"And," concluded Purchass, "don't lemme hear of you ever so much as looking at this man Pierre Delapin again."
She did not respond.
"Do you hear me?"
"I hear you," said Rose.
That brief excursion cost Von Ehrn ten thousand dollars, for, when Delapin returned, he found a group awaiting him, and he played with only half of his mind on the game. Luckily the winners decided to retire and rest on their laurels. When they had gone, Von Ehrn, who had seemed to be soundly asleep in his nearby chair throughout the game, wakened and looked out at Delapin with his dull old eyes.
"I see," he said, "that you are near the end of your rope."
"I don't understand," said Pierre.
"You have ceased to play the game well."
"Nonsense. I've simply had an off night."
But Von Ehrn shook his head. "Something has come between you and the cards," he insisted.
It was so true that Delapin looked sharply at his host. The old man had a way of flashing out like that, now and again, and striking to the very heart of a matter.
"However," said Von Ehrn, "we are both rich enough—I to retire, and you to make a good marriage—a wealthy one, I mean."
"Do you think," answered Delapin, "that a respectable girl will marry a man who is known as a gambler?"
"Girl?" said the old villain. "Who spoke of a girl?"
"Did I misunderstand you? You were speaking of a marriage?"
"But not with a girl. No, I say nothing of a girl, but I say you have now enough money to marry a rich woman—some well-matured widow, some rose fullblown and beginning to wither a trifle. You understand? It is at that very period that they are most likely to fall into the arms of a second or a third husband. They have often contracted the habit of marrying, one might say. And it is toward such a prize that I point the way. She will love you in the first place because you are young, the second place because you are notorious, and in the third place because your manners and your clothes are good and just a little eccentric. You have the perfect equipment. If you marry under five millions, I shall be disappointed. When I lose my fortune, I'll come to be your dependent!"
"When you lose your fortune?" said Pierre, his curiosity conquering his disgust. "But do you actually expect to lose it? Do you think that there is a possibility that such bonds as you have invested in can fail?"
"If I left the money where it is, well and good, but I know myself. Sooner or later the gambling spirit that has brought thousands to become my victims will flame up in me again. It may come to me on my very deathbed, but, when it comes, I shall rise up, risk everything in one stupendous and ridiculous throw, and lose it all. I shall certainly not have enough left to bury me decently."
Delapin gazed upon him with horror. Perhaps a little pity stirred in his heart. Certainly a dread of this man entered him for the first time. He had seen him a thousand times implacable with others; he had never before seen the old scoundrel implacable with himself.
"I suppose," said Pierre, "that it is the common end of all gamblers— at least, that they carry the dread of it about with them. They cannot be safe. They feel that sooner or later the gambling that has made them rich will overwhelm them with ruin. Is that not true?"
"Have you ever known of such cases?"
"I am tired of talking," said Von Ehrn. "You are like all young men. You are about to bring the conversation back to yourself—you are about to ask me, if I think that the same gambling fire will consume you, also. Certainly it must consume you. You cannot escape. The day must come when you will sacrifice home, wife, happiness, wealth, position, honor, and all for the sake of taking a chance."
With this he hobbled out of the room and left Delapin staring sadly down at the rug on which he was standing. All that the old gambler had told him was so true that it rang and echoed again through his mind. Some old woman whose sensibilities were so dulled that she would not care about the whispers of the gossips—this was the only sort of wife he could expect to win. But as for some charming and gracious girl—as for some such girl as had that night walked into his life—that was, of course, impossible. A respectable woman had rather be burned than married to such a person as he.
He made these observations to himself with considerable rapidity. But he did not lie awake that night to brood over his decisions. He had learned how to take losses. And even though this were worse than the greatest financial ruin, he went deliberately to bed, propped himself among his pillows, forced himself to forget all his troubles, and with a calm mind read for an hour, turned out the light, and fell asleep.
When he wakened in the morning, he found that the burden was still heavy on his mind. He set his teeth, raised his head, and whistled as breakfast was brought into his room, but, nevertheless, he knew that this constant effort of the will would wear him out. That morning he told Von Ehrn that he must find another dealer to sit behind the single table in the great room. Von Ehrn took the matter philosophically.
"I saw this coming last night. The serpent had come into the garden. I'm only glad that you are leaving before you lose everything you have won for me."
"I wish you luck with my successor," said Pierre.
He was astonished to hear Von Ehrn swear that there should be no successor.
"There was only one man in the world," said Von Ehrn, "capable of doing what I wanted and doing it honestly and well. You have been thinking that you have been a mere tool. Not at all! You have been the whole machine. You have gambled with a heart of steel and a brain of lightning. You have been magnificent, Delapin. There have been times when I could hardly withstand the temptation. I wanted to rush to you and declare how great you were, but I always realized that I must never let you know yourself. No, Delapin, I now close the house. The furniture will be useful in my New York home."
So saying, they parted. And Delapin went out for a ride, not by the dark of the night, but in the fresh brightness of the morning. He wanted that last ride to convince himself that it was actually necessary for him to leave that part of the country. He wanted that swinging gallop to keep his brain clear, while he worked out his problem. And he rode, without knowing it, straight toward the old ravine where he had seen the girl the night before.
He remembered only when his horse, a strong-going, gray gelding, reached the very edge of the steep downpitch. Then he checked his mount and sat back in the saddle with the sweat standing out on his face, for he knew now how strongly Rose Purchass had won him, if his unconscious mind had brought him back to her. He was a captive, indeed, and, if he wished to escape before he were irremediably held, he must go at once.
He swung the gray about, and with a stern face he was spurring back up the brow of the slope, when he caught sight of someone scurrying away among the trees. He stopped the horse again, his heart thundering. It had been a woman, he knew. And perhaps—
He called, then waited a minute, for two minutes. Either it was not she, or, if it were she, Rose Purchass did not care to meet him again. Then a faint rustling sounded at his side, and he found himself looking down at her. How had she managed to steal upon him so deftly?
"I see that you are an expert in woodcraft," he said, as he swung down from the saddle and took off his hat.
"I see," said Rose Purchass, "that your thoughts are exceedingly profound if they cover up the noise I made. I hoped at first you were coming to call on our fishing party in the cañon."
"Did you really think that?"
"But then I saw you turn away to go back."
"And luckily I saw you at the same instant."
"Luckily I moved to a place where you would be sure to see me."
He laughed at that, and she laughed with him, which made the best sort of chorus imaginable.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "I have come out here, hoping against hope that I might see you without seeing the dragon."
She appreciated that reference to her father with a faint smile.
"It isn't entirely luck, then," she said. "I confess that I climbed up simply to see the slope down which you had ridden from the top. What a wild rider you must be to do such things!"
"It was more accident than intent." He paused. And suddenly the silence became a heavy weight. The noises from the forest stirred about them in the wind. There were a thousand small distractions, and he felt as though his eyes were being pulled away from her, yet he dared not glance in another direction for the fear of losing her. Moreover, he was seeing in her face a thousand worthwhile things that he had not noticed the night before. It needed no sun to show the pure transparency of her skin and to light up the colors and to show the clearness of her eyes. She looked, by day, some vital two or three years younger than she had seemed the night before, just as a stone statue is sure to seem older than the living, pulsing original.
"I wanted to tell you," began the girl, "if I ever saw you again, how sorry I am that what happened last night—"
"Hush," he said. "Of course, it couldn't be helped. Besides, a man who follows a profession like mine has to expect to be talked of."
He spoke this loudly enough to reach the ears of two men who were laboring up the slope. They hurried to an opening and looked out. One was Jefferson Purchass and the other was the fiancé of Rose.
"But now that I have found you," Pierre was saying, "I have to say how happy I was in talking with you last night, and how sorry I am that I must say good bye."
"But," said the girl, "don't you know that we live very near the town?"
"I am leaving it," he said.
"Leaving the town! But this Von Ehrn—"
"He and I have parted company."
What a transformation struck across her face at that.
"Ah," she cried, "do you mean that you have—?"
"There was something else on my mind," said Pierre, "and Von Ehrn saw it."
"What was that thing, then?"
"That made me give up gambling?"
"Then you have definitely done it?"
"Yes. As for what made me do it—well, it will take me a time to tell you about that."
"I have the entire morning weighing on my hands."
"Then suppose we sit down."
They sat down, accordingly, side by side in a patch that was half sunshine and half the shadow of the leaves.
"I must begin at the very beginning," said Pierre.
"I adore long stories," she said.
"Even when they are in the first person?"
"Oh," she cried in a soft, startled voice, "is it—?" But she added: "Well, I shall love to hear it."
"In the beginning—," said Pierre.
At this point the two who were watching through the gap in the shrubbery sank back behind the screen of foliage to watch and to listen.
That day the fishing party returned to the ranch house where Rose Purchass was entertaining the big party of her friends. It was late afternoon before the rancher had a chance to take Sam Stevens to one side.
"I've been giving you the whole day to think things over," said Purchass. "Now I want to know what your thinking comes to."
"You mean," said Sam, moistening his lips, "about—this morning?"
The rancher grunted. "What else?" he said.
"Well, it seemed an interesting story," suggested Sam. "That is, if it were true."
"True? Of course, it ain't true. He was lying like a champion every minute that he talked. But it sure seemed to me that Rose was believing him!"
"I thought so, too," said Sam Stevens.
"And her the most level-headed girl that ever come out of the West. I dunno how he put it over with her."
"Nor I," said the acquiescent Sam.
"When he wound up, seemed like he was telling her that he was quitting gambling."
"She seemed to like that," murmured Sam.
"Of course, she did. He meant her to like it. He was making a bluff at putting all his cards on the table, and she didn't have the sense to see through it. I was sure surprised at Rose."
"I was, too," said Sam.
"And what do you figure she thinks of him now that he's given her all that guff?"
"Why," said Sam, "he made no—er—declaration of affection, did he?"
"You mean, did he ask her to marry him? No, he didn't have the face to do that, but he did everything else. He was making love to her as fast and as hard as any man I ever see—"
"But," Sam put in, "he didn't so much as touch her hand—he didn't so much as say that he even liked her."
Jeff Purchass swung around and favored the youth beside him with a searching glare. It was apparent that a new opinion of Sam had just entered his head. He hesitated, and, when he spoke, it was plain that his words did not match with the original expression on his face. "D'you think that a man has to talk like that, when he wants to make a girl like him? Don't you figure that by opening up and pretending to show her the inside workings of himself that he's doing as much as when he bawls out like a calf that he loves her?"
"Why, I don't know that I'd ever thought of that before. But you must be right."
The rancher bit his lip. What he was tempted to say then could not be respectably represented in print, but he controlled himself. As a matter of fact, he never allowed his temper to carry him beyond a certain point. After that, it was kept in check. And his passion could not go too far to remember that the father of Sam Stevens was several times a millionaire, and that this marriage would essentially strengthen the financial position of Jefferson Purchass, Esquire. So he held himself in check and glared at Sam with an attempt at a smile that was a terrible grimace.
"At least," said Purchass, "you admit that she took Delapin seriously?"
"Oh," said Sam, "you know her much better than I do. If you think so, of course, you must be right."
The rancher sighed and looked for a time straight into space. "What do you think should be done about it, Sam?"
"I don't know. Do you think that something should be done?"
The rancher gritted his teeth before he answered. And now he could no longer look his future son-in-law in the face. "I'm afraid that Rose is losing her head," he answered. "I'm afraid that this Pierre Delapin is too much for her. She's never known any one of his smooth type before. Thank the Lord, her other friends have been gentlemen."
"If you are afraid of Delapin—why," cried Sam Stevens with an air of triumph, "I have the very thing to solve the whole riddle!"
"The devil you have!" The rancher looked at Sam in amazement. "Well, spout it out—what's the solution going to be?"
"Simply forbid her to see him!"
Jeff Purchass, for an immediate reply, sank his teeth in the corner of a plug of chewing tobacco.
"You'd forbid her, eh? Lemme tell you, son, that after you marry up with Rose, and you want her to do anything, one of the very best little ways of making her do what you want is to put down your foot and forbid her to do the opposite. When I want her to stay in at night, all I got to do is to tell her that she's staying in too much at night, and that I want her to get interested in young folks and start going out to parties. That's all I got to say, and pronto she begins to find out that all the young folks she knows are a shallow lot, and that she's going to spend her evenings at home with good, sober books and fine music and—man alive, it ain't that she's nacherally mean. It's just that she's got a contrary streak—in little things."
He had gone a bit further than he had intended. There was a worried look in the eye of Sam Stevens, and the rancher hastened to add: "But when along comes anything important, then she's like a rock—you know just where to find her. That's the sort of girl she is."
"Well," said Sam, "I guess that she's a character, all right. Maybe she'll quiet down when she gets older."
"Of course, she will," said the rancher, and he looked straight through the young man with a very faint and a very grim smile, as if he said to himself that, if his daughter changed, her husband would be altered, indeed. "In the meantime," he went on, "what are we going to do about Delapin?"
"It seems," said Sam, "that it will be difficult to effect anything through Rose."
"Sort of difficult," admitted Purchass dryly, "so I imagine we'll have to work on Delapin. And do you know what that means?"
"Do you mean—?"
"I mean just that."
"Good Lord!" cried Sam.
"Don't show your yaller, till I'm through talking."
"But Pierre Delapin is a gunfighter himself."
"That's why I don't care about getting him bumped off. When he was a kid, he was a regular fire-eater. Now he's going to get some of his own kind of medicine. It'll come to him a bit late, but safe and sure just the same."
"You would—you don't mean—?"
"Have him killed? Why not? Folks have tried to get me put away time and again. Folks'll try it again later on. Now I'm going to get a man to handle Delapin."
"You mean that Pierre might get the best of the fight?"
"He's a famous shot, sir."
"He's living on a past reputation. It's years since he has done much shooting, I'd swear. Besides, the man I'll send to him will be good enough to match the best that Pierre Delapin ever was capable of doing. That's flat!"
"Of course—if that could be done—"
"If it was safe enough, you wouldn't object to the murder?"
"Murder," breathed Sam.
Purchass groaned "When will I meet a man that ain't afraid of a word?"
He left Sam Stevens at once. He had hoped to find in Sam a man of sufficient nerve and force to handle the disagreeable end of this business himself. But, since Sam had failed him, he went off to find his man for the evil work that lay ahead. As to the morals of the thing, Jeff Purchass gave them not a thought. He was a hero of the days when citizen committees had volunteered to serve as the strong right hand of a law that had not kept pace with the westward roll of civilization. In those days a man who was a gambler, a gunfighter, and perhaps a criminal in other ways unknown, was not given the slightest consideration. He was simply a menace that had to be wiped out, and the best way to deal with him was the quickest extermination of the viper. In the viper class Purchass put Pierre Delapin without the slightest hesitation, for the rancher was a man upon whose reputation for integrity there was not even the hint of a spot. The thought that a crook should have actually aroused an interest in the heart of Rose maddened him.
He knew where to go to find help. He rode into town and through to the other side. A mile out there was a tumble-down shack surrounded by a few wretched sheds. On the front doorstep, whittling at a stick, was a middle-aged man whose tobacco-stained Vandyke and heavy eyebrows gave him an impressive appearance at a distance, but at close hand one was too much aware of the dirt and the half-weak, half-cunning gleam in the eyes. Yet he had been a famous man at a time. There was a day when he was still under twenty that the accuracy of his gun play had made him dreaded over leagues of country.
"Bud," said the rancher without preliminaries, "how's the old eye for a gun?"
Bud produced from nowhere a long Colt which, in his lightning touch, was simply a flash of light. The flash of light exploded, and a little tin can thirty yards away tumbled headlong.
"Fair to middling," said Bud, stowing the revolver with as much speed and nonchalance as he had shown in drawing it. And his eyes twinkled up at the rancher in a hunt for admiration.
"Then," said Purchass, "you're my man. I've come here to talk business."
It was not what the letter said, but what it implied, that was wonderful to Delapin. He sat up until midnight, dreaming over it and reading it again and then passing into another dream. Yet it was a short, plain letter in itself.
"Dear Pierre," it began—and, indeed, that had progressed wonderfully in two short meetings, if it brought her to call him by his first name.
My father has been walking about in a terrible rage. I suspect that it has something to do with you. I think I have told you that Dad is the best man in the world; but he is also the worst. If he becomes angry enough, there is nothing he will stick at. Will you please take care of yourself, both for your own sake and the sake of Dad? I think his rage concerns you.
And it was signed Rose Purchass. It seemed to the eager eyes of Pierre that the Rose had been written boldly, strongly, as if meant to stand by itself, and that the Purchass was more faintly inscribed, as though added through an afterthought. This might be all the fondest imagining, and yet he could not persuade himself that there was nothing in it.
But, as for taking precautions, he merely laughed and threw himself into bed, still smiling. He had not feared a human being since he was a child, and he did not intend to begin now. His dreams, also, were of the pleasantest, for the face and the form of Rose Purchass kept drifting through his dreams.
He left his visions and his sleep suddenly, and then found himself lying wide awake in the black of the night with something breathing and living in the room. Another man would have dismissed that thought at once, but the senses of Pierre were not quite robbed of that hair-trigger acuteness that they had gained when he had been a youngster, wandering through the mountain desert. And now he knew perfectly that it was not imagination that told him that another man was in the room, for he felt more than he heard, and what he felt was that strange touch of electric sensibility which comes when another person is near. And it is only in the utter dark, or when the other looks at one from behind, that this eerie feeling comes.
Instead of lying still, sweating with fear, or starting up noisily in bed, Pierre stole his hands above his head and gripped the heavy rail at the head of the bed. There he made his hold strong, and, when he had pushed the bedclothes away from his body with one careful foot, he was ready for action.
He turned his head to scan the room, and waited. Since the bed was in a recess, it was impossible for the other to steal upon him. He would have to come up from the one side, and there was this advantage for Pierre. He was awake, while the other thought that he slept. The pale, rough-plastered wall made an excellent background against which to see any object, so that, presently, he saw a shadow among shadows sliding gently forward along the wall at the head of the bed.
Now he did not wait. He was one of those fortunate persons who can act instantly the moment they see an opening for action. And he struck with his whole body just as a pugilist, seeing a guard wide, drives his fist home. First, he hooked his right leg over the edge of the bed. His left foot he planted against the wall behind him. Then he thrust himself out, driving from the left foot and pulling with his right leg, and swinging himself with all his might with his muscular arms. Whoever has seen the impetus that can be given an athlete's hammer by a single twist of the wrists can imagine what happened with Pierre Delapin. His hundred and seventy pounds of stalwart muscle and bone whipped into motion like an avalanche in the middle of its race down a slope. And when he loosed his hands from the bed rail, he shot through the air straight at that shadow which was flattened against the wall.
He had made a noise, of course, but no more than a man will make turning over in his sleep. At the noise the stealthy shadow paused in its advance. But just as it paused, there came destruction hurtling out of the dark of the alcove. Pierre struck body and bone, crunched it against the wall, and saw the man slump into a pile on the floor, as though he had been turned to sand.
Pierre did not hurry to light the lamp. He knew that he had plenty of time before the other could possibly move. In fact, after it was lighted, he turned to find that his victim had not stirred. He put his foot on the shoulder of the fellow and pushed him back. The body rolled limp and stretched out on the floor, and Pierre found himself looking down into the well-known features of Bud, the gunfighter. The gun lay an arm's length away.
He contemplated that wreck of humanity for a moment of unutterable scorn and disgust. If it had not been for Mrs. Winton, might not he himself have one day degenerated into such as this—a night murderer?
He doused a pitcher of cold water over the prostrate figure. Bud gasped and opened his eyes. Whatever else he might have been, he was quick-witted. He rolled his glance once around the room and then centered it upon Pierre with a perfect comprehension. His face was still sick from the blow that had knocked him senseless. But he understood and waited for the end with calm.
"Get up," said Pierre.
The other cast one miserable glance at the revolver that lay on the floor, only an inch too far away. Then he stood up, and, having risen, he looked less like a drowned rat.
"You're not very happy, Bud," said Pierre.
The other shrugged his shoulders. "Wet, that's all," he said.
He had lost his pride, and, when a man has lost his pride, certain ordinary weapons are taken out of the hands of other men. Shame is a mighty lever.
"Got the makings?" asked Bud presently.
Pierre turned his back on him to get what he wanted. He turned his back in the faint hope that Bud would dive for the gun on the floor. That would give them a fair enough break. And what Pierre Delapin wanted to do was to kill this man. He wanted it, as he had never desired another thing in his life. He found that for five years he had been living in the constant expectation of a gun play across the card table, but the expectation had been all. His reputation and his readiness had saved him. And, now that the chance for a fight had come, he was hungry for it.
Yet, he reached the tobacco and the brown papers, and, when he turned and tossed them to Bud, the latter had not stirred from his place. His ratty eyes were still flashing from Pierre to the gun and back again. But he had decided that the chance was not worth the taking. Instead, he began to roll his cigarette.
"Bud," said Pierre, "you're a yellow dog."
The yellow dog turned up his eyes and watched Pierre, while, at the same time, he licked his cigarette into shape and then lighted it. He was actually smiling.
"You don't believe me?" asked Pierre.
Bud shrugged his shoulders. His attitude was that of a man who had been so many times proven that it is impossible for the world to doubt his courage. In fact, it is impossible for him to doubt himself.
"Look." Pierre said, "there's my gun yonder, hanging on the wall in that belt. And here's yours—" And with a flick of his bare foot he knocked Bud's weapon closer to him.
"It's quicker for you to scoop up that gun of yours than it is for me to step across to my gun and pull it out of the holster. And—well— there you are, Bud."
This, however, was quite a different thing. It should be remembered that the reputation of Bud, although he was not an old man, went back almost to the legendary days of the frontier. Ten years used to make a generation in the West. Bud was four generations old—and, from this viewpoint, he was older than Delapin.
All this time he had been despised as a shiftless and worthless ignoramus, but he had been respected as a terrible man of battle. And still his skill was as great as ever, but now that he was challenged, he knew that his nerve was gone. He shrank from the cold, blue eyes of young Delapin.
"I thought so," said Pierre. "Just rotten inside as well as outside. Bud, who sent you?"
"Sent me?" quavered Bud, forgetting his cigarette until it dwindled out between his fingers.
"Yes, who sent you to me?"
"You lie, Bud."
Bud lighted his cigarette with a trembling hand.
"I say you lie," said Pierre. "I've never harmed you. I've never spoken against you."
"I was broke," muttered Bud.
"Another lie," said Pierre. "You'd never come to rob me of money. You'd ask me for it, the way the other bums do."
In point of fact he had been an easy mark for the loafers ever since his days of prosperity began. He could remember too many hungry days in his own past to permit him to let others suffer, if he could help them with a few coins.
Bud could only shrug his shoulders again. His eyes were beginning to waver about the room—anywhere, so long as they did not have to rest on the face of Pierre Delapin.
"Now," said Pierre, "I intend to hear you talk." He stepped to the wall; he drew forth the long Colt.
"Are you ready, Bud?"
"To tell me who hired you for the dirty work?"
"I'm going to shoot, Bud. Not to kill, right away. I'm going to slide a bullet through your cheek and shave off the—"
"For heaven's sake!" breathed Bud.
"Are you ready?"
Bud slumped to his knees. "Don't shoot, Delapin!"
The muzzle of the black gun tipped up. "Well, Bud?"
"He'll hound me out of the country!"
"He'll be dead before he hounds anybody. Who was it?"
It was Sam Stevens who saw them first through the window.
"Delapin has come to call on you," he called to Purchass. 153
The rancher started up. "What the devil do you mean by that?" he gasped.
Sam turned to him in the most open amazement. "Why, what I say." He was astonished to see that Purchass was white and wide of eye.
"There he comes down the road, and a friend with him," he continued and pointed.
Purchass shouldered him aside and pressed his face close to the window. "They've double-crossed me and put up a game," he was heard to mutter. "The two devils have—I won't see Delapin," he growled, breaking off his former remarks and turning sharply from the window. "You—you go out and tell them that—no, why shouldn't I talk to them myself?"
He began to walk up and down the room, muttering to himself. Sam Stevens wondered at him for a moment, then returned to the window in time to see Pierre Delapin take off his hat and bow to Rose—in time to see her blush and smile in a way that made her suddenly enchanting. And the heart of Sam sank. He was not overacute, but an instinct told him that he had lost infinite ground with Rose. When he turned again, Purchass was tramping out of the room. Just beyond the verandah he confronted the pair, Pierre cool and at ease, Bud with his eyes on the ground.
"Come out here with me," said the rancher, and he led the way to a great mulberry tree out of earshot from the house. There he turned and faced them.
"I see what it is," he said. "You two have cooked up a deal. You want blackmail, eh? Well, I'll tell you, I'll see you hanged before you get it! Not a cent from me!"
"Be quiet," said Pierre Delapin. "I wish to talk to you no longer than necessary. I have only brought this hound along so that you could see his face and make sure that he had really called on me. Now get out, Bud!"
And Bud, crimson with shame and trembling with rage at his persecutor, turned his horse and literally fled. The rancher watched that retreat with amazement. Then he looked up at Pierre.
"What does it mean?" he asked. "What in the name of thunder has happened to Bud?"
"His bluff has been called," said Pierre slowly. "He's backed down. He's told me everything."
"How you hired him for your job."
"You can't wriggle out of it, Purchass."
"Do you think his word will stand up against mine in a court? Even if you add your word to his?"
"Good—good—," muttered Delapin.
"So, if you know that, you have only come for blackmail."
"Certainly," Pierre nodded.
"But if you cannot convince a court, can you expect to convince me that there is a necessity to pay you money?"
"In the first place," said Pierre, "I have something more than a spoken word. I have a written document."
"Let me see it," said the rancher.
It was drawn from the pocket of Pierre and handed across. And Purchass, as he ran his eye down the scrawled words, saw his own damnation, if this account should ever come to the eye of a third person. For there was truth in the very raggedness of the writing and in its anxious haste, as though the muzzle of a gun were jabbing at his back as he worked. Suppose he were to rip the confession to shreds? He looked up and saw the hand of Delapin near a gun. He handed back the confession.
"So that," he said, "is finished."
"And the blackmail," said Delapin, "begins."
"I don't mind being drawn on in moderation."
"I am not moderate. I want more than half of everything you own."
"Then I'll see you hanged."
"You'll see me married, instead."
"I understand everything, Purchass. You are afraid that Rose may make the mistake of marrying me on a sudden impulse. That's why Bud was sent to call on me. You were a fool to do that, however. I had made up my mind to leave the country, because I knew that I was not good enough for her. But then came our friend, Bud. And after I had talked with him, I decided that there was still a chance for me. I might persuade her father to become more generous of her time with me."
Purchass grew livid with anger and then red with shame. He cried suddenly: "Delapin, are you an infernal rascal of a crooked gambler, or are you not?"
"I never have cheated at cards in my life," said Pierre.
"The devil you say!"
"Upon my honor."
"I've used a gun—on men. But I never took another man at a disadvantage. I deceived Missus Winton. But what else could I do? It was my chance. I had to lie to get an opportunity to make myself civilized."
"Hmm," said Purchass, and suddenly he began to grin. "I'm cornered so that I have to believe you. But—you're a cool-headed devil, Delapin."
"No cooler than I have to be, sir."
"You'd never forgive me for sending Bud—"
"If a gambler tried to marry a daughter of mine," said Pierre, "I'd go myself to do the shooting."
"Pierre," said the rancher, "I may be making a mistake. And if I am, I promise you that I shall have the job that Bud didn't do finished up later on. Good bye—but wait. There's that Sam Stevens—?"
Pierre, however, was already too far away to be called back. He did not pause at the hitching rack. He ran straight to the gate, veered it to one side, and swung himself over the gate and onto the walk. In a few seconds he stood, panting, before Rose on the farther side of the house, all unaware that Sam Stevens had stealthily followed and was spying around the corner.
"Rose," said Pierre, "your father has given me the privilege of—of asking you—"
"What?" asked Rose.
"To marry me, Rose."
"If you have persuaded such a dragon as Dad, what earthly trouble could you have persuading a mere woman, Pierre?"
As for what followed, it made Sam Stevens set his teeth. Then he shrank back to the shady side of the house.