AT the top of the Cronin Pass, Joe Good paused to look back into one world and forward into another. Behind him, he could see the bold, treeless hills that made the cattle range around Fort Willow, and below him, on the rainier side of the mountains, there was smoother, richer country, checkered by silver or golden fields of growing crops and dark squares of fallow plowed land, although this pattern was subdued by the mist of distance.
He paused at this high point for other reasons than to look sadly back upon a wasted past before entering a new future. For, as he steered his way forward, sighting between the ears of his burro and over the hump of the pack that burdened it, he had been amusing himself by playing tricks with his black snake. It was not an ordinary black snake, thick and heavy at the butt and tapering to a thin, cutting lash. The cutting lash was there, but, behind it, the whole body of the black snake was of one dimension, not a great deal wider than a thick pencil. It was covered with the finest rawhide, so carefully treated that it was more supple than the skin of a snake, more supple even than the rawhide that the Mexicans know how to treat so that in their lariats it becomes like liquid iron.
Either in his pocket or in his hand, this black snake was ever near to Joe Good. In part, it was of his own invention. He had discovered that bulkier whips are likely to lead to inaccuracy, and Joe Good loved accuracy as much as he loved laziness. So he had developed this black snake after his own idea and given it weight with flexibility by loading it with leaden shot, not only on the handle, but down nearly to the very tip of the lash. The shot diminished in quantity and in size, but it was there, nevertheless.
Only at the butt, the handle flared out a little to make a suitable grip for the palm and fingers. As he walked along, Joe Good had amused himself by performing little tricks with the whip. Sometimes, to be sure, he used it to encourage the burro, but this was very seldom. That burro was said to have the toughest hide of any burro on the range, but somehow it always responded to the magic touch of Joe Good.
For he knew how to take out a chunk of skin and flesh with a snap of the lash, and he knew, also, how to draw a gash in the thickest mule hide. More than this, he was aware of other arts, and once an animal realized what the master could do with that tormenting whip, it needed only a touch to make it put forth its full efforts to whatever task lay before it.
Sometimes, too, he exercised his skill by performing a feat often talked of, but very rarely seen; now and then the black snake would uncoil from his hand and throw out its thin point like a snake's tongue, flicking away a fly without more than brushing the hair of the animal. It was a trick that pleased Joe Good. He would have liked to do it before an audience, but he was a fellow who never had an audience.
There were many other things he could make the black snake do, besides serving as a whip, however. Sometimes it poured fluidly from hand to hand, up one arm, and over his shoulders, descending sinuously into the opposite hand. Sometimes it even reared up like a living snake and for an instant seemed to be supporting its eight feet of length on its thin tail, while the handle rose and steadied for a moment above, like the head of a snake. Sometimes he threw it high, high in the air, until it diminished to a mere pencil stroke, and caught it again by the handle as it shot downward.
Now and again, as he passed under a tree, he flicked the lash upward, dexterously allowed it to twist around a branch, and then cut the branch in two with a slashing pull. Again, with exquisite care, he nipped off leaves, cutting directly through their stems as with a knife touch. But now and then, and this pleased him more than all else, to judge by the smile he wore, he took the almost liquid coil of the black snake in the palm of his hand, and then threw it like a ball at a sapling, or a tree trunk, and watched the ball dissolve and the arms of the black snake whirl suddenly around and around the trunk of the tree. Suppose that a man were struck in the breast by that weight, even if he were not knocked down by it, his arms would be suddenly lashed to his sides! That was why he smiled when he performed the trick, always unerringly. It was not so easy as it looked. The head and the tail of the whip had first to be disposed of in a certain way; otherwise, the lash simply rebounded from the trunk and fell limply against the ground.
He never had tried the trick on a white man, only on a few Mexicans and Indians, but these people, to be sure, never forgot him and his ways.
He was making the black snake coil in his hand and then spring up, snake-like, again and again, when, at the crest of the pass, he saw the new country before him and turned to give a final glance at the big hills behind him. Then it was, also, that he saw the eagle. From a high crag of Cronin Mountain, on his right, it launched suddenly forth and began to circle rapidly, cupping the air under its powerful wings, as it struggled upward. He forgot the rest of the scenery in order to watch, for he recognized the maneuvers of an eagle taking its pitch, in order to swoop down on its prey.
Presently he saw the answer. A fish hawk slid out into view above the tops of the trees, with a fish gripped in its talons, a big, silver flash of a fish held firmly by the back, with its head pointing forward, so that it would cut the air in the best fashion and cause the least wind resistance.
Joe Good, admiring, pulled up his coat sleeve a little and, with a single twirl, wrapped the lithe line of the black snake around his arm. When he pulled down the sleeve again, the handle of the whip was concealed under the cuff, just above his wrist. This he did automatically, as the result of having practiced the really difficult trick a thousand times before.
His eyes, all the while, watched the flight of the hawk that was beating its wings rapidly, to sustain the weight that it carried. Somewhere a nest filled with long-necked, ugly-headed youngsters was waiting for that same food. Well, there would be enough to go all around, unless...
But the eagle was thinking of nestlings, too. It knew the taste of fresh fish perfectly well, and preferred it to anything in the world, even the hottest and juiciest of lamb cuts. It lacked the art of procuring the tidbit from the water, but it knew how to take tribute from more cunning workers.
Now, from its high tower in the air, it turned and dipped over. Down it came in the most magnificent style, opening its wings once to give a swift beat and increase the rate of its fall, then closing them again as it became a metal bolt out of the higher heaven.
Just above the hawk those wings shot outward—young Joe Good distinctly heard the sound. With talons and beak, the king of the air threatened, but the hawk, clumsily dodging, loaded down as it was, continued on its way more rapidly than before.
The eagle had feinted and failed, but now it re-bounded on stiffened wings almost to the height of its former stand. Again it turned over and, even to the eye of the boy, there was savage business in its gesture through the air.
The hawk knew perfectly well that the game was ended. It persisted until the tyrant was just overhead, then it dropped the prize, and the monarch shot down, caught the burden in one claw, and skimmed away toward the nest.
The harsh, enraged scream of the hawk floated down to the ears of Joe Good, but the hawk itself, released from the weight that had anchored it, now shot away to take its watch again over the waters of the hidden lake or stream.
Grand was the eagle's flight, but nothing compared to the way the long, narrow wings of the hawk knifed through the air.
Joe Good, watching it, shook his head, and soliloquized:
"It's always the same. Even the hawks... they've got the eagles over 'em. Same way with me. No matter where I go, I'll land in trouble. Everybody's got trouble. There's no use running away from it. Not even if you could walk on air, because a new brand would find you out, wherever you landed and started again." He was so impressed by this thought that he whistled.
The burro instantly understood the welcome signal and, coming to a halt, began to tear eagerly at the long grass that fringed the trail.
Joe Good sat on a rock and looked sadly forward to the new land, sadly back upon the old. As he reflected, he took from his pocket a small news clipping, and his eye glanced over the following notice:
Vincent Good was buried today in the cemetery, by Dr. Oliver Wain and the Episcopal Church. Attending the funeral was his son, Joseph Good.
Vincent Good met his death under tragic circumstances last Wednesday. During a saloon brawl he drew a gun and shot and seriously hurt Harry Alton.
He was pursued by an impromptu posse composed of the father and brother of Harry Alton. Tucker, Dean, Samuel, and Christopher Alton also joined the pursuit. They overtook the fugitive in Chalmer's Creek Ca˝on, where he resisted arrest, and was fatally wounded by a volley poured in by the posse.
The Episcopal congregation paid the expenses of the funeral.
The eye of Joe Good dwelt, strange to say, chiefly upon that last line. It was true. The congregation had paid, although grudgingly, the cost of the burial. For he, Joe Good, had not a penny.
"You got the wrong man," said an irate member of that congregation. "You ought to be called not Joe Good, but No Good! You ain't worth a darn for anything."
That was what had decided Joe Good to leave the town of Fort Willow. But now, as he sat on the rock, he considered, and shook his head in doubt. There was labor and trouble in every part of the world, even in the blue heavens where the swift hawks and eagles fly. Perhaps it would be better for him to return to the home community?
WHEN he thought of the family farm, his heart sank, however. It was not a thing that commended itself to his thoughts. The only good thing to say about it was that it lay close to town, but the 200 acres were blow sand, cactus, and mesquite, with bristlings here and there of other thorns and worthless weeds. Sometimes, when the spring was very wet, they could pasture a few cows, and, when great cattle drives came through the country, they often made a little money in renting pasture rights to the herdsmen.
On the whole, however, it was worthless ground. No plowshares would ever turn its surface. Even for grazing land, it amounted to almost nothing. Once, to be sure, the Good property had extended twenty times as far and as wide, but his father had sold off bits here and there, and finally the last morsel, and the most worthless one, was that brier patch that lay close to the town of Fort Willow.
As he considered these things, however, there was another element in his memory that made him determined to go back. He had not even said good-bye to the house. For the bed, the bedding, the stove, the few pans and dishes were almost worthless. As for the ground, people would not have wanted it even for a gift. Taxes would eat the whole thing up in a year or two.
No, it was not the value of the place that called his thoughts back to Fort Willow, but it was the recollection that the man who had said his name should be No Good was like those fellows who had killed his father, an Alton. That thought was barbed, stuck in his heart, and would not out for any pulling.
So, like one who stands at the verge of a promised land, he considered the fair new country beyond the pass, and then grimly looked back over his shoulder toward the Fort Willow hill.
A dog came down the trail, a dog moving at a steady trot, as traveling coyotes do. There was something of coyote in this beast, except that it was smaller, and the black and white spots on it gave proof of a domestic mixture that was in the blood.
It saw the man, halted, and began to make a wide detour.
"He's been kicked out of somewhere, too," said the boy, and he whistled.
At the whistle, that sign of human notice, the dog put its tail between his legs and scurried forward.
Joe Good laughed. It amused him when he saw that any living creature was afraid of him, even a dog. He knew his own worthlessness too well. When other people talked with him, it was usually on that subject.
"Hello, Professor," he said.
The dog stopped, raised its head, and then paused a moment longer with one forefoot raised, ready to be gone with instant expedition.
"Don't be a fool, Professor," said the boy. "Come over here and talk to me. I never hurt anyone. I can't."
As he said it, he laughed. In fact, it had been that way all of his life. People never fought with him, because he was not worth a fight. As a boy, he had always been rather small. Even when he finally grew up, in one rapid year, to his full height, he could not stretch himself past five feet nine inches. It was not much. And the men of Fort Willow were generally six-footers. Everyone looked down at Joe Good. Everyone always had.
The dog turned squarely around, canted his head over one shoulder, and regarded him thoughtfully.
"It's all right, brother," said Joe Good. "I can't catch you and, even if I could, I wouldn't bite."
The dog sat down.
"I haven't got a gun," said Joe Good, "but, if you start laughing at me, I might do something that would surprise you."
The dog let its red tongue loll farther out and laughed more deeply, more silently than before.
Joe Good gave a slight shake to his arm, and the limber length of the black snake slid down into the palm of his hand. He knew every outline of the whip as another might know every page of a textbook. Textbooks had never troubled the mind of Joe Good very seriously.
"Professor, are you coming here?" asked Joe Good.
The dog lifted his head a little, then, with deliberate insolence, turned it and looked behind him. That moment Joe Good took for his shot. His right hand rose and shot out faster than thought, fast as the beat of the hawk's wings, as it fled through the sky.
The dog saw the missile coming, and it sprang up to flee, but it was just a fraction of a second too late. The darting ball grazed it on one shoulder, and at once the ample coils of the black snake flowed over it, almost like a black liquid. Around and around body and legs, the whipping lash circled, twisting itself tightly about the limbs. The dog, with a howl of mortal terror, struggled to flee and fell headlong in its tracks.
Before it could pick itself up, before it could shake loose the unwinding coils of the loaded rawhide, Joe Good had it by the scruff of the neck.
It flattened its body on the ground, closed its eyes, and waited for punishment.
He said: "That's all right. I'm the same way myself. I've been kicked around. Don't worry about me, brother. I've been kicked as hard and as far as you've ever been kicked. Don't curl your lips. I don't think that you'll bite. There's my hand. You little beast! You've got your teeth on it, but not in it. You won't bite... not me! Steady down, now. Here we are, and ready to walk along."
He passed a noose of the supple whip around the neck of the Professor—its wise little face had put the name in the mind of Joe Good—and led it back to the trail. The Professor held back, struggled, found that the hard coil strangled it, and came on freely enough.
"Here we are," said the boy, sitting down on the rock from which he had just risen. "And where do we go from here?"
The Professor sat up, cocked its ears, and looked at this new master.
"You're not big enough to fight, and you don't know anything, I suppose," said Joe Good. "So you're about like me. Tell me where we go from here?"
The Professor suddenly reared, placed its fore paws on the knee of Good, and licked his hand.
"You know me, eh?" said Joe Good. "If you know me, you can go free. You scamp!" He loosed the coil that held the dog by the neck.
The Professor turned into a blurred streak of speed, ran in a circle, and came back to Good again. By that time, the boy had turned the head of the patient burro and was herding it down the trail again. He laughed a little as he saw the dog come back.
"Other people have families and things to run. I have a burro and a dog," he said, and he laughed again, as they went down the trail.
For the Professor, it was plain, had adopted him, at least for the moment, and, running up the trail in the lead, it stopped at every suspicious scent and looked back with an attitude half of warning and half of pleasure, toward the burro and the man.
They steadily slogged on down the trail until it was noon. Joe Good was hungry, but he had often been hungry before. So he tightened his belt and went on, when the Professor jumped a jackrabbit out of a pile of rocks. Joe Good laughed heartily to see the tail of the little dog bobbing with effort as it legged it after that winged rabbit. Even a greyhound would have been put to shame. How could the Professor have a chance?
But the dog did not run far. Presently he paused, cocked his head, and, running off to the side, lay down in the long grass. Two minutes later it appeared again, bounding forward, and out of the grass before it rose a jackrabbit and went away with flying leaps up the hill.
Joe Good began to notice now.
Swiftly the rabbit ran, but the dog, pursuing only a short distance, seemed to take notice of the curve of the jack's flight, for no rabbit can do other than run in circles, large or small. When the curve was noted, the Professor ran off to the side, lay down, waited, and rested. It pursued only long enough to make the frightened jack flee furiously for its life, after which the dog went to a strategic point and kept watch. Sure enough, before long, it had started the jack again, and sent it wildly away. Six times that game was played, and the last time of all, the rabbit, exhausted by its own glorious running, died in the teeth of the dog. The Professor brought it back, the long legs trailing on the ground, and laid it before the feet of the new master.
Joe Good was touched. He was moved by the canny intelligence that the mongrel had showed. He was moved, even more, by the odd sign of affection that the beast had exhibited toward him. But, best of all, was the rabbit's flesh itself. He toasted it over a small fire and ate. The Professor had the bones and oddments, and they both drank at the same stream.
Joe Good was in a thoughtful humor and he said aloud to the crisp mountain air: "Brains will do everything... brains and teeth! But what teeth have I?" he added to himself, and he sighed.
They marched on, Joe Good and the burro, the Professor scouting well ahead, until they came down to the house that was posted highest up the side of the pass. There a huge beast, that seemed half mastiff and half wolf, came rushing out at the Professor. Joe Good gave the dog up for lost. For it had not the strength to defend itself; it had not the speed to keep away from those long legs. And Good himself had no gun to defend it.
The Professor bolted under a barbed-wire fence, whirled, and, as the crossbred hound sailed over the fence, the Professor ducked back under the lower wire, sat down, and lolled its red tongue in laughter like a fox.
Joe Good stopped the burro to graze, and himself to laugh loudly and long.
"Here's brains again," he said, "and brains will always win."
FOR a moment or two, the game was repeated, the big hound vaulting over the fence or rushing vainly toward the barbs, while the Professor deftly ducked back and forth under the lowest strand. Then the little dog introduced a new idea—it ran to the side of a big, conical rock and waited there, while the hound, in a fury of joy, bolted in pursuit. It was a new game. Joe Good was so close that he could have interfered now, but he was too interested to move.
The hound first chased the little dog around and around the great rock, but, although it was twice as fast of foot, it could not turn comfortably in such a small circle. It ran so wide that the Professor finally doubled back between the teeth of the larger dog and the rock, then it sat down and lolled its tongue and laughed.
The hound, grown wild with rage, leaped to the very top of the rock to get at its enemy; the Professor waited until the danger was fairly hanging in the air over him, then he began to slide around the huge stone again.
"Brains," whispered the boy, rapt with admiration. "Brains always win."
The Professor was not content, for as the great dog, frothing with fury, raced after it, the Professor gained so much that suddenly it was on the haunches of the hunter and twice slashed it across the thighs, wolfishly. A howl of rage and pain answered. The hound bolted away, and then stood, dancing about. The enemy was so small, so elusive! If only the honest strength of downright jaw power could be applied to the problem. He rushed the rock, feinted at one side, feinted at the other, and then again vaulted clear over it. As he landed, the Professor waited to nip once again at the defenseless hindquarters, then fled around the stone, with the hound terrible in pursuit.
But the Professor's small size and canny footing made him gain as before, and presently—slash, slash—he was drawing blood again.
The hound, with a wild howl, tucked its tail between its legs and fled for the house. It had adventured much for the sake of science, but this was sheer necromancy and home was the best place, in this cruel and mysterious world. The Professor, licking his thin lips, came back to his master and fawned upon him, as much as to say: "See what a danger I have disposed of in your behalf!"
Joe Good did not laugh. He was too deeply buried in thought, for again it occurred to him: "Brains will do everything!" Not only in the world of dogs, but in the world of men, also.
As he went down the trail toward the hills of Fort Willow, he spent much time talking to the Professor and caressing him, for it seemed to him that there were certain object lessons that he had learned on the way, which must be retained in the mind. If only he could apply them.
Then came a beat of horse's hoofs behind him and behold. The crossbred hound again, with no barbed-wire fence, no great conical rocks in sight, of which the little dog could take advantage. But the hound had its lesson well in mind; it held aloof. Savagely it snarled and barked, but always at a distance. That was not the danger, but the big mountaineer, who reined up his absurdly little mustang and stepped, not jumped, to the ground.
He was middle-aged, huge, black-bearded, with a beard that covered most of the face and showed only the glint of eyes and a red streak of mouth. He was in a towering rage and snorted as he came forward, with the reins of the horse over one hand and the rifle over the other.
"You and your vicious dog, what kind of tricks you been up to?" he said.
Young Joe Good began to adopt an apologetic air, but suddenly he remembered that he was no longer in the town of Fort Willow. For all this burly fellow knew, he might be the most dangerous gunman in the entire West. Then again, he said to himself, brains will do everything. Was he as stupid as this gross creature, all beard and brawn? So he straightened himself up to the full stature of his inches—alas, how pitifully few they seemed!—and said: "You keep a fighting dog, and you shouldn't mind if it gets into trouble, partner."
"I'll partner you!" said the mountaineer. "I'll make you a red partner, is what I'll make out of you. Because I'm gonna teach you something, is what I'm gonna do!"
And he came straight at young Joe Good, with vast strides. He was, to Joe Good, as the hound was to the dog, longer of leg and fleeter, vaster of bulk, far more powerful of leg. And what could he do? He was not a fighting man.
"You stand where you are," said Joe Good.
The other hesitated half an instant.
Words, thought Joe Good to himself. Bare words... they're enough to stop even a brute like this. And he marveled. He had always felt that everyone saw through him, but this man did not see through him—quite.
The big fellow strode on. "You gotta have a lesson. You and your dog. I'm gonna shoot that dog, after I get through with you. But you're too mean for shooting. You ain't worth a cartridge."
Joe Good shook his right arm a little, and the heavy, supple coil of the black snake came down into his hand. "I'm asking you again... will you stand there?" he said.
"I'll see you dead first," said the big man.
"Then take it," said Joe Good.
For a flash of blood-red lightning had crossed his brain, and, as it cleared away, he saw that he had hurled the coiled ball of the black snake.
The mountaineer, with an oath, jerked the rifle to the ready. Had the loaded whip, in a knot, struck the breast of the big man? At any rate, he reeled and staggered; the rifle hurled a bullet aimlessly into the blue of the skies and almost hit a buzzard, circling foolishly low. Then the supple arms of the whip coiled about the body, about the arms of the big man. He stood there with his hands lashed to his sides, the rifle fallen to the earth.
Young Joe Good stepped forward, picked up the gun, and leveled it. "You'd better back up a little," he said. As he watched, he saw the most curious thing that ever had come under his observation. For the big man seemed to melt away as the coils of the black snake disentangled themselves from his arms and his body.
He stepped back, muttering. Then he held up his big, soiled hands before his face, as though to shut out the thought of death.
"I ought to drive a slug through the middle of you," said Joe Good. "You're not worth a damn. You're no good. That little dog licked your dog, and made it howl. I've licked you. You understand? I could lick you again, any day of the week!" The hot fury of the tyrant surged through him.
"Don't shoot!" moaned the man of the mountain.
"I ought to, and I think I shall," said Joe Good. "You came down here to murder the pup! I ought to do the same for you. You were going to manhandle me and then murder the pup. I think I'll let you have it."
The big man moaned. "I didn't know who you were. I didn't know you was one of these here gunmen. I just thought you were ordinary, like me. Don't shoot, partner."
"You back up," said the boy slowly, tasting his words and the power behind them. "Throw off your ammunition belt an' your revolver, and then back up out of here."
He was implicitly, foolishly obeyed, he felt. The good Colt and the belt of cartridges, half for the rifle and half for the revolver, lay on the ground, and the big fellow, mounting his mustang, started off, his head turned over his shoulder, and his mouth gaping through the black beard.
Joe Good motioned with the butt of the rifle toward his shoulder; the other bowed over the pommel of his saddle and spurred away for life.
"Brains do everything," said Joe Good to himself. "Brains, and a little bluffing."
He began to laugh. The Professor came and fawned about his knees. "Down, boy," said Joe Good. "You've taught me everything I know, and now you begin to think that I've taught you. Brains and bluffing, they're all that count in this funny little old world."
He was still laughing as he picked up the gun belt, and then, hitching up his coat sleeve, gave the black snake the proper whirl to twist it around and around his arm.
A sort of childish wonder overcame Joe Good. For he saw that dreams could come true, and that the black snake on which he had wasted so many idle hours that even his idle father had reproved him—even this boy could make the difference between life and death, between victory and a brutal manhandling, at the least. So he was amazed, and held his amazement close to his heart.
On the day before, his father had been buried without honor, without a mourner following his body, except his son, buried by public subscription. And on the day following, he, Joe Good, had stepped into a strange empire of his own, based on the power of a whip and a small dog.
A dog for a teacher and a whip for a weapon!
Yet who could tell how far the limits of that empire might extend before the finish? He only knew that he felt in himself the beginning of limitless strength, limitless resources. The world would have to wait, to see what he could do.
He remembered the story of the man who had been thrown off a stage for failure to pay his ticket, a man who was rushing toward a newly discovered gold field. And where he fell, stunned, in a creek bottom, his kit of tools flung out beside him, there he had risen and cracked a great pebble with his hammer, and had seen the gleam of priceless gold shine out invitingly at him.
So, perhaps, he, Joe Good, had stumbled upon his fortune.
HE left Fort Willow with the burro and the black snake. He came back with a dog scampering ahead, a rifle over his shoulder, a revolver strapped about his hips. He would have been a strange lad, if he had not been pleased and, in fact, in all the twenty years of the life of Joe Good, nothing had happened that meant so much to him.
He took a shortcut over the hills and came to the house of his father, his own house now, and, as he looked at it, he wondered that he could have been tempted so easily to give it up. To be sure, it was only a little ramshackle house with four small rooms, but it had its good points that were sure to appeal to the eye of a really indolent man like Joe, or his dead father. If the house itself were not important, at least it possessed an excellent deep verandah across both the front and the back of it. The grass was worn away under the two big oaks and the vast fig tree that leaned above the roof of the cottage.
It was worn away by the moving of chair legs, for this was the favorite reading place of Vincent Good. Here, from morning to night, he had sat, lost in the pages, or taking notes for the great work that he had hoped one day to write. For years and years he had been stacking up these notes on the manners and customs of the ancient Indians, but he never had been able to write more than the title of the first chapter.
The only crop that the tag end of the old ranch grew in quantities was leisure. No one could go hungry when fish thronged in the creek that trickled just behind the house and when the rabbits came knocking at the kitchen door, so to speak. Then there were the seasons when the ducks flew, when the melon patch supplied an abundance of fruit, when the berries ripened on the banks of the creek, and when the half acre of corn that Joe tended was ripe enough for roasting. As Vincent Good had often said: "All the old place needs is a coat of some paint."
Joe Good, leaning on the front picket fence, nodded his head and decided that he was right. The old place needed paint, and it should have some.
He turned out the burro in the scant pasture—at this season of the year nothing but a burro could have lived on the pickings to be found in the big field—carried the pack into the house, and then strolled downtown to the hardware store.
The proprietor greeted him with a frown; everyone greeted Joe Good, in Fort Willow, with either a sneer or a frown, or sometimes it was both.
"I want this turned into white paint," said Joe Good, and laid the revolver on the counter.
The storekeeper lifted the gun, examined it. It was brand-new and it was loaded. "Where did you get this?" he asked sharply.
"Fellow tried to murder me this morning," said Joe Good, with some truth in his words. "I had to take his guns away."
"You took his guns away? How did you take 'em away?" said the doubter.
Joe Good shook his right arm; the heavy pile of the black snake slid down into his hand, and he showed it. "With this," he said, and smiled. He had an insinuating, rather twisted smile. That and his dark blue eyes were his only good features in a thin face that had colorless eyebrows and sun-faded hair above.
The storekeeper looked at the whip and scowled. He did not understand, but meanwhile he was losing time, and the gun really had a value. He gave Joe Good half its worth in white paint, and the boy carried it back to the house.
It was mid-afternoon, but he fell to work at once with a great zeal, and at the end of the day a horseman, going slowly past the Good place, was astonished to see a clean white face on the old shack, a pure white that shone out like a light through the overhanging shadows. He looked closer, and saw that young Joe Good was there at work, now finishing off the verandah.
The rider uttered a profane exclamation. "Here, you!" he exclaimed.
Joe Good turned, paintbrush in hand. The little dog beside him turned, also. The boy saw, sitting a horse at the gate, none other than Hugh Alton, the father of the lad who Vincent Good had wounded in the saloon and the leader of the posse that had killed the fugitive on Wednesday.
All the Altons were magnificent, but Hugh Alton was the most magnificent of them all. He was nearly fifty, but he looked ten years younger. He kept the thin waist and the muscular shoulders of a Western rider, and in his face was that noble beauty that all of the Altons had inherited from him. He was a very successful rancher, but everyone who knew him wondered why he was not the governor of the state or a United States senator. He had the brains necessary for such a post; more than that, he had the bearing.
The heart of Joe Good fluttered as he saw the great man. It fluttered still faster as he remembered that Hugh Alton had led the posse that killed his father. Then the boy went slowly toward the gate.
Alton rested one hand on his hip and looked down with much disapproval on the lad. "I thought that you'd pulled out of here, Joe?" he said.
"I did," said the boy. "But I pulled back again."
"Why?" said Alton. "Think you can make anything out of that sand heap of yours?"
"It's a home for me," answered Joe Good.
Mr. Alton brushed his mustache away from his upper lip, a characteristic gesture. He did it with the tip of a gloved finger. Then he said: "I'm glad that you've come back, Joe. As a matter of fact, I came around here late this morning, hoping to find you in."
"What made you come?" asked the boy.
"Because I've decided that I'll take the place off your hands, that's why."
"Have you?" said Joe Good. He turned and looked all about him. "I don't know what you'd do with it," he continued. "You don't need the house, and the barn has a broken back, and the hundred acres hardly puts out five tons of volunteer hay in a year."
"I know these things," said Alton. "Nevertheless, the land has a value for me."
"Have you struck gold in the creek?" asked Joe Good, with his twisted smile.
"Nonsense!" said Alton. "Stuff and nonsense. Nevertheless, the land has a value for me. It would bring my property down to the road, and that's an advantage. I don't want to be shut off from the main highway, as I am." He pointed toward the rolling ground that marked his own boundaries. "You can understand that, Joe," he said rather confidingly.
Joe Good looked in the indicated direction, and he remembered that all of that land, almost as far as his eyes could reach, had once belonged to his father. The Altons had it now, and they were making it produce a steady stream of gold.
"I can understand your wanting it," said Joe. He turned back to the other man. Suddenly it seemed to him that the attitude of Hugh Alton had in it a certain degree of patronizing sympathy and kindness. Hugh Alton, the boy remembered, had brains, and brains will do everything in this world. But why should Alton be using brains on him, poverty-stricken Joe Good, or on the patch of desert that Joe owned?
Well, a hawk had a use for that fish in the pool, and the eagle had a use for the hawk in the air. So from great to small, the stronger prey upon the weaker.
"I'll offer you a price, Joe," said the rancher. "The house and the barn are worthless, as you've already said. I'd simply be at the expense of tearing down the fire traps. The ground itself, as you've also said, isn't worth a penny. But I'll pay you something. Partly because I can use the acreage as a border to my own land, and partly because I can't help feeling sorry for you just now, my lad. You know, of course, that there was no malice in the unfortunate affair of Wednesday. It was simply apprehending a fugitive. Whiskey was the whole trouble. Infernal, brain-rotting whiskey! Your poor father could never stand the stuff, you know."
Joe Good stared. It struck him as very odd that Mr. Alton should be explaining these matters with such care. Very odd, indeed. He had taken it for granted that his father had flown into one of his accustomed passions, and in those humors he was capable of the greatest violence. Vincent Good had stood a thousand times in the danger of the law because of his frightful temper; last Wednesday had been the final stroke. That was all.
But now Alton was explaining this proposition. The great man went on: "I'll make you a price on the land. I'll give you... what do you say?... well, five dollars an acre. That's five hundred dollars, Joe. As a matter of fact," he added, glancing at his watch, "we've time to drop downtown right now and fix the thing up." He gathered his reins, as though about to start at once.
It seemed to Joe Good that he heard a faint, far-off booming in the air, as when the stooping eagle had suddenly spread out its great wings above the hawk. $500 was really a great deal more than the shack was worth, of course, together with the ground that surrounded it. But Joe Good found himself shaking his head.
"I don't think that I'm interested," he said.
"What?" cried Alton. "Not interested? Stuff and nonsense, Joe. You're not such a fool as to refuse five hundred dollars, I hope?"
Joe Good smiled without mirth. "I'll keep the place, I think," he said.
"Young man," said the rancher, "you don't think that I'm bargaining, do you? You don't think that I'm really beating you down with a small offer that I will raise?"
"No, but you see how it is," said Joe Good. "I've just put a whole coat of paint over the front of the house. You wouldn't want me to throw away all that good paint and the time it took to put it on, would you?"
Mr. Alton stared. Then he exploded—"Half-wit!"—and drove his horse furiously up the road.
THE boy looked long and earnestly after the retreating form of the rancher. "The eagle missed me that time," he said, "but, I have an idea, he'll be stooping at me again before long."
The Professor whined, sitting on the ground before his new master and watching the face of the man with affectionate interest.
Joe Good then made up his mind. He snapped his fingers at the dog and walked outside the front gate. There he paused a moment to admire his brushwork, which had given the house a face so astonishingly bright and new and clean. No one would have thought of calling it a shack now. It seemed rather a delightful cottage, a lovely retreat, tucked away under the cool shadows of the trees, a perfect place for the summer. The boy smiled with pleasure.
He himself, once he were out of rags, might he not seem fairly presentable? Then he went downstairs, following his former thought. Hugh Alton had seemed to think that there was something that required a little explaining. If that were the case, it was not from an Alton that Joe Good wanted the explanation.
He went into Mort Pemberton's saloon, where the brawl between young Alton and his father had taken place. Mort himself was behind the bar, looking vaster than ever in his white coat. He leaned on his fat elbows against the inner edge of the bar and perused a newspaper; most people were having their supper at this hour.
"Hello, Joe," he said, with a side glance and no more. "What are you after? A can of beer?"
Joe Good had fifty cents. It was all he had in the world. Now he slid it onto the bar, saying: "I'll have a touch of whiskey. Have one with me."
Pemberton looked at the money with some surprise. Then he nodded, produced with one hand a bottle of whiskey, and with the other two glasses wedged firmly between his fat fingers. He put down the glasses, uncorked the bottle, and spun it into place in front of his patron. Joe Good poured himself one finger.
"That ain't a drink. That's only a taste," said the bartender, helping himself heartily.
"A taste for you is a drink for me," said Joe Good. "I haven't got a steel lining to my brain, the way some of you people have."
"Yeah," said Pemberton, holding up the glass and regarding it with a squint that was only half for the contents, and half for his own thoughts. "Yeah, there's some that can hold it and there's some that can't. Your old man, Joe... I'm sorry about him, too... but your old man was one that couldn't hold his liquor none too good."
"No, I don't suppose that he could. He was quick-tempered," said the boy. "I don't think that quick-tempered people ever can stand alcohol well."
"Are you quick-tempered, kid?" asked Mort with a rather disdainful smile.
"No," said Joe modestly. "But you don't need a whole ocean to sink a small ship."
The bartender grinned. "Well, here's how," he said, and put down the drink.
Joe Good did the same, and coughed and winked the tears out of his eyes. "Mighty hot, but mighty good," he gasped.
The bartender smacked his thick lips and grinned again. "Have another one on me, Joe," he said.
"No, thanks. One's enough."
"I'll have another one myself, then," said Mort Pemberton. "Where'd you get the dog, Joe?"
"I picked him up. He's just a stray. But he has brains," said Joe.
"You oughta have a lot of brains yourself, Joe," said the other, with the comfortable friendliness of the whiskey taking hold upon him. "Take the books you've read, you oughta have a lot of brains from reading them. You oughta go and do something for yourself, one of these days, maybe."
"Thanks," said Joe Good. "Someday, maybe. We're a lazy lot, though, my family."
Pemberton lowered his voice to gentleness. He leaned his chin on his fat hand. "Kind of lonely out there, ain't it, kid?" he said.
Joe Good straightened a little and looked the other man in the eye. After a moment, his voice came, and he said: "He was a father and a mother and a brother to me."
Pemberton frowned with pain. He looked away from the boy's face and down toward the floor. "I know," he said. "It's terrible! I wouldn't've expected your old man to shoot anybody. He never gave any signs that way, before."
"He had a temper," said the boy. "But there's one thing that surprises me."
"That he pulled a gun?"
"No, but that he was actually able to hit anything after he pulled it. It must have been an accident."
"Oh, I don't know about it being an accident." Pemberton frowned, speaking as one who has given all the ground he can. "I guess his pulling the gun was no accident... or shooting at Harry Alton."
"I don't suppose that it was," said the boy calmly. "I was calling the hit an accident, that's all. But no one knows exactly how it happened, I suppose. They were alone in here, weren't they? You'd gone into the back room?"
"Yeah, I'd gone into the back room, but they weren't alone. Wally Chase was in here with them. Wally seen everything. Wally was the one that give your old man a run out of the place."
"I didn't know that Wally was in here," said Joe Good. He looked up at the mirror and seemed to see there a picture of the veteran gunman, lean, hard as iron in soul and body. He was barely twenty-five, but his hair was silvered; he had been through enough, men said, to whiten the hair of a whole army.
"Yeah, Wally was here, all right," said Mort Pemberton. "He came in with Harry Alton, in fact, and they was having some words. Your old man was standing there in that corner, drinking a little, and being mighty quiet. He hadn't showed no signs at all."
"What were Wally and Harry having words about?" said the boy.
"Something about money. I dunno what. Harry'd given Wally some money. Maybe it was poker. Wally seemed to think that he ought to have more coin. Harry got hot and cursed him."
"That's a strange thing to do," said the boy. "To curse Wally Chase right in his face, I mean."
"Well, Wally ain't fool enough to take a shot at an Alton, I guess," said Pemberton.
"How did my father get mixed into the trouble?" asked the boy.
"I guess," said Mort Pemberton, "that he was just standing there in the corner, loading up poison against the Altons. You know... they've bought up all his ranch, bit by bit, until they come to the last bit, which they didn't want. Must've sort of worked on your father, to see Harry Alton standing there in fine new clothes, with a gold watch in his pocket and a diamond in his necktie. He was kind of swelled up that night, Harry was. He was gonna go out with his girl, I guess. And when I went out of the room, I suppose he just boiled over. There couldn't have been many words. I just heard the shot and your old man shouted at the same time."
"What did he shout?"
"I dunno that I remember. Just kind of yelled out."
"As if he were angry?"
"I suppose so. I heard the shout and the gun go off, and then Harry groaning and the sound of him falling. As I tore back into the room, there was Wally Chase giving your father the run out of the place. Your father looked kind of surprised and staggered. Wally was yelling to get your old man, and shouting out that he'd dropped Harry Alton. Your father ran out to the street and jumped the first horse he came to, and Wally went out and gave the alarm. It just happened that there was a lot of the Altons in town, and they started on your father's trail."
"It's a strange thing," said the boy, "that Wally didn't ride in the manhunt. He likes that sort of thing well enough, and he's usually on the other end of the thing."
"Yeah, that's true. But Wally acted real decent that night," said Mort Pemberton. "He come back inside the saloon and picked up Harry. He said how sorry he was and took care of him like a brother. We had the kid bedded down on the table in the card room, back there, till Hugh Alton come back from the chase. He and Wally and Harry confabbed a while, and then the buckboard came and carted Harry home. He wasn't hurt very bad. Just a clean cut through the top of the thigh. Ain't gonna have another, Joe?" he asked briskly.
"No, I'll be rambling," said Joe. He went out into the street, with the dog behind him.
There were hawks in the sky. One of them had struck down his father. And he, No Good, might now have to play the part of an eagle and hunt the hunters. The thing became clearer and clearer as he stood there outside the saloon, watching the crimson of the sunset blur and streak the west with blood. Then he walked down the street, feeling the puff and squirting of the dust beneath his feet.
He wanted to find Wally Chase, and he knew well enough where the man would probably be. If Wally was not on some nefarious mission outside of the town, he was to be found at Mort Pemberton's saloon, or on the verandah of the hotel, slumped back against the wall and thinking his own dark thoughts in lonely silence.
When Joe Good came to the hotel, he spotted his man at once. There was Wally, as usual, at the end of the line of the indolent, and, again as usual, with no chair pulled up close to his.
The boy went down the verandah. No one took the trouble to speak to him. No one guessed that anger was softening the fall of his feet. If that had been guessed, who would have cared for the thoughts and the passions of No Good? So he went down to the end of the verandah and stood in front of the gaunt, doubled-up form of the gunman.
"Hello, Wally!" he said.
Wally Chase gradually lifted his head from his broodings, but he said nothing. He wasted no words on people like Joe Good.
JOE leaned against the nearby verandah railing and shook the black snake into his hand. He began to make it pour from hand to hand, and the hard, supple coils made a soft, clicking sound as they struck on one another and then flowed loosely into the nearest empty space. He made the long, shaky thing glide up his arm, over his shoulder, and around his neck, slithering down inside his coat and into his hand again. He had played with the whip for so many years that his hands performed instinctively with it.
The Professor sat down against his toes.
Joe Good said: "I wanted to ask you something, Wally."
Wally Chase said nothing. He pulled out the makings, and began to construct a cigarette.
"I wanted to ask you," said Joe, "about Wednesday night."
"Got a match?" said Wally.
"Go fetch me one, then."
Joe Good went and borrowed a match. A faint chuckle of scornful amusement arose from those who had overheard the command of the gunman and watched its execution. Joe lighted the match and held it for the cigarette of the other man. Wally lighted his smoke and then leaned back, puffing, without a word of thanks.
Some interest, of a mild sort, was taken by the line of observers in young Good, as he stood there before the gunman. The contrast between the man of terror and the obscure youth was sufficiently great to keep heads turned in that direction. How could they tell that under his careless surface, Joe Good was as tense as a violin string, ready for the bow? But he was telling himself that now he must play the eagle, indeed, if he were to hunt down such a hawk as this.
"About Wednesday evening," he said.
Wally Chase took no heed of the words.
"I was wondering," said the boy, "if you'd tell me just what happened there in the barroom Wednesday night? You and Harry Alton are the only men who know."
"You lie," said Wally Chase. "Your old man knows, too."
"What?" gasped Joe Good, unable to believe that words so brutal could really have been spoken.
"Your old man knows about it. Go to the infernal regions and ask him," said Wally calmly. "And stand out of my way. I don't wanna be bothered with you!"
"I won't bother you long," said the boy.
"No," said Wally Chase. "You said one thing that's right. You won't bother me long. Stand out of my way, will you?" His voice rose a little. All other conversation along the verandah ceased. No one was amazed to hear the snarling tone that announced that the poison was mastering the brains of the great gunfighter, but all were utterly stupefied to see that young Good did not flee at once, for his life.
If he were presuming upon his insignificance, he was very wrong. Wally Chase, like the beasts of the field, killed when the humor came upon him—he killed men as a cat kills mice.
"I'll stand out of your way after you've answered a couple of questions," said the boy. He was measuring distances, accustoming his eyes perfectly to the dull light of the dusk.
"You'll what?" said the voice of Wally softly, so softly that the straining ears of the others on the verandah could hardly make out what had been said.
"I'll stand out of your way when you've answered a few questions," said the boy.
Wally said nothing. He merely began to lean forward a little in his chair, and his feet moved gradually back under him. His body, at the same time, swayed slightly to the left.
There was a muttered exclamation not far away.
The suspense was beginning to tell; every nerve was strained to the breaking point, as Joe Good said as gently as ever: "I want to know why you shot Harry Alton and then threw the blame on my father?"
"You want to...," began the voice of Wally Chase.
Then the gun flashed, exploded, and fell with a rattling bang on the floor of the verandah.
People arose with groans. They waited for the slender body of Joe Good to topple forward on his face, quite dead from a bullet either through the heart or the brain. But, instead, Joe Good remained standing easily where he was.
"I asked you a question," he said.
For answer, Chase cursed him and reached for his fallen gun with the left hand, not the right.
Something hissed and sang in the air. Wally Chase did not pick up the gun, but straightened with a jerk and an oath.
With incredulously staring eyes, the observers at last understood. Wally Chase was not about to kill Joe Good. Instead, he had just received a slash from the black snake of the boy—and still he was not in the killing vein, it appeared.
"You've broken my wrist," said Wally, and added with a vile oath: "I'm gonna eat your heart. You've broken my wrist."
"I asked you a question," repeated the boy. "Why did you shoot Harry Alton and then lay the blame...?"
The right wrist of the gunman might be broken, but he still had another resource. With his left hand, he drew a hunting knife that was so ground, so drawn to a tapering line of light, that it was quite clear the owner never intended to use that delicate edge on the hide of a deer. With that knife, he lunged straight at the slender body of Joe Good.
That is to say, he started to lunge, but a coil of the loaded black snake struck him across the face and sent him staggering to the side. As he stood there, reeling, the accurate lash of the whip flicked out and curled around the left wrist of the gunman. When it was jerked back, it burned through skin and flesh almost to the bone. Fire cannot burn like rawhide, as every Westerner knows. And the lash of the thin whip was almost like a knife. Wally Chase yelled with the pain and the knife dropped to the verandah floor. Wild oaths rushed from the lips of Chase.
Young Joe Good picked up the knife. He held it in his left hand, while in his right the black snake rose and fell, stood up snake-like and dropped away again, for all the world like a column of black water springing out of the fountain of his hand.
Wally Chase stopped cursing. With his blood-dripping left hand, he cursed the broken bones of his right wrist, and he watched with fascination the evil play of the black snake.
No one else so much as breathed. For they knew Joe Good. They knew that he was No Good, as well. Yet there he stood, and there stood the iron man, the slayer, Chase! The eye could survey this scene, but the brain could not really comprehend it.
In Joe Good there was a strange feeling of calm and assurance. A small eagle he might be, but an eagle, nevertheless. Now he had a great hawk in his talons and the lesser creature would have to bow to his will in all things. He said: "I've asked you the question several times. Are you going to answer me?"
"You've spoiled my gun hand!" screamed the other. And this was followed with more oaths.
"Will you talk?" said Joe Good.
"I'll see you dead first," said the gunman.
The last words were cut sharp, for the lightning-swift lash of the whip went out, like a snake's tongue, and licked straight across his face.
Rage more than pain made him howl, and he turned to flee from that supple sword of fire.
The black snake slid out again through the dusky air, curled about an ankle, and Wally Chase was jerked flat on his face. He got up slowly. No one had offered to assist him. Perhaps there never had been a more feared and detested creature in the town of Fort Willow. But now the men stood about in a wide circle, breathing hard. Not a one of them but wished he had in his grip a whip like that which now lay compactly coiled in the hand of Joe Good.
"Will you talk now?" said Joe Good, "or do you want me to take off some more of your hide?"
"What do you want to know? I'm gonna have your heart for this, you yellow sneak," said the gunman. "I'm gonna eat it, is what I'm gonna do." He stopped and jerked himself more erect. The lash of the black snake had snapped loudly under his very chin. Wally Chase shuddered and was still.
"You shot Harry Alton, didn't you?" said the boy.
The answer was faintly enough muttered, but it boomed more than the explosion of a cannon in the ears of the crowd.
"Yes, I shot him," said Wally Chase.
Four small words, but they had gigantic implications. And young Joe Good was drawing them out. "Why did you shoot him?"
"He got fresh. He was trying to beat me down in a... a business deal."
"What was the business deal?"
"I've said enough."
"What was the business deal," said Joe Good.
"What was the business deal, or I'll cut you in two!"
"It was about your old man," said the gunman.
"What about him?"
"I ain't gonna say no more. Go ask Alton what the deal was about. Curse you!"
Young Joe Good said: "Harry Alton hired you to kill my father. Is that it?"
"Yes... no! You lie! I won't speak again!" shouted the gunman.
Then, in mortal fear of the stroke of pain from which he could not flee, he cowered. A strange sight to see the tyrant shrink!
But no blow answered him.
Joe Good was saying: "I imagine this makes the affair clear. The Altons wanted my father out of the way. They tried to hire this thing. There was an argument about the price. The deal was confused, but eventually they got what they wanted. Now, then, was my father shot by a posse, or murdered by a gang of Altons?"
THE next morning, Sheriff Dick Purvis found a small mongrel sitting on its haunches near the house of Good, watching, while its master, with care and some skill, applied a coat of paint to the south side of the old house. The front and the north side were already of the purest and snowiest white.
The sheriff took off his hat, shook the dust from it, and gave a shake, also, to the bandanna that surrounded his throat, for there had been no stir of wind as he jogged out from the town, and now a little cloud of white drifted slowly away from him. Joe Good, seated on a plank that was supported by two ladders, looked down from his work and waved his hand.
"Hello, Mister Purvis," he said cheerfully.
"'Morning, Joe," said the sheriff, making a smoke and looking curiously up at the worker. "That house worth the paint you're puttin' on it?"
"It's worth its paint to me," said the boy. He began to stroke the brush across the wood, putting on a thick slab of the paint, and then working it well in with supple strokes that brought out the paint from the very depths of the brush. This was not rudeness on his part, for he continued to talk as he worked, saying: "The old place is brightening up a little, Mister Purvis."
"I came out to talk about something more'n paint," said the sheriff.
"Go right ahead, will you?" said the boy. "You don't mind me painting while I listen, do you? I want to finish this side of the house before noon."
Purvis answered grimly, puffing out a thick cloud of cigarette smoke: "I dunno but what I'll have to take you back to jail with me, kid."
"Dear me!" said Joe Good, his voice filled with great horror. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"You're sorry to hear it, are you?" said Purvis. "You may be a whole sight sorrier than you are now when you get behind the bars, young feller."
He was rather a young man himself to be holding such an important post in the county. He had been elected out of respect for his distinguished father, who had held the office before him for many years, and who had died in the execution of his duty. Then young Dick Purvis was chosen for the job, and stepping into his father's shoes he had done fairly well.
He was big, strong, fearless, and honest. He would attack anything up to wild tigers. And he could not be corrupted by the use of money. However, there were other points in which his character was not quite ideal. He was a little too rough, a little too pleased with his own importance, and sometimes he lacked the cleverness that every officer of the law ought to possess.
Joe did not look down as he listened to this outburst. He merely said: "But I'm not going to jail, I hope. What could be the charge against me?"
"Theft!" bellowed the sheriff, almost maddened by the indifference with which the lad received him. "Theft, and breaking the peace, and assault with attempt to kill! Isn't that enough of a charge for you?"
Joe continued the painting, laying on the white with great precision and humming a little, very softly. He said: "You know, Sheriff, I don't know whether you're with the fish, the hawk, or the eagles."
"What in the world are you talking about?" demanded the sheriff.
"Not quite with the fish," said the boy thoughtfully, "and it is equally certain, not quite an eagle. A hawk, let's say. One of the short-winged kind, that robs the hedges of the little singing birds and catches the field mice."
"Why, what are you raving about?" asked the sheriff. "Are you out of your head? I tell you what you're charged with, and you talk about fish and field mice."
"About the charges," said the boy. "The theft, for instance. That had to do with the revolver, eh?"
"Exactly that! And what you got to say in answer?"
"I don't say a thing until I'm charged," said Joe Good. "As for the gossiping of an old gray-headed fool like our friend at the hardware store..."
Tomlinson was one of the most respected of the merchants of Fort Willow. But he was a cruel man in the collection of bills, and most sharp had he always been, most sharp and curt in his treatment of the worthless Goods. Now, with precision, with a wonderful relish that passed from the roots of his tongue to the roots of his soul, Joe Good applied these opprobrious terms to the well-known dealer.
The sheriff himself was amazed. It was a fact that young Good was not expected to advance such ideas with an air of calm decision and of calm knowing.
"What Tomlinson suspects does not matter," concluded the boy, lifting his brush and squinting to examine the smoothness of the white layer he had just put on. "As for the fellow who may once have had the gun, he will bring no charges against me. Does that cover the point, Sheriff?" He turned and favored the sheriff with his humorous, twisted smile.
"Point be blowed," said Sheriff Dick Purvis. "It don't cover nothing. The gun wasn't yours if you didn't buy it, and... and..." He paused, staring at the blank that confronted him. He hardly knew what to say. His words seemed to have conducted him down a blind alley. "Breakin' the peace," he went on angrily, "and assault..."
"Assault on whom?" asked the boy, dipping in the brush and flicking off, against the inside of the paint bucket, the superfluous fluid.
"Will you stop that painting and talk to me?" demanded young Purvis.
"I can hear every word you say," said Joe Good. "Unless you want me to study your face, Sheriff, as you speak."
The words were innocent enough; the sheriff could not tell why he felt that there was a not too covert insult hidden in them. "Assault on... you know well enough what I mean! Assault on, well, on that same Wally Chase." Somehow, the words half died in his throat as he spoke them. Assault on Wally Chase? It was a thing to make the county laugh.
"Is Chase in jail?" asked the boy.
"Him in jail? Why should he be?"
"He pulled a gun on me. There were twenty men present who saw him draw a gun on me. Let things like that happen in your town, Sheriff?"
Young Purvis ground his teeth together audibly and dangerously.
Joe went on with the same smoothness: "Also, he attempted my life with a knife." He pulled a long, glimmering blade from somewhere in his clothes, and held it up to view, turning and smiling again at Purvis. "This is the knife," he said. "You could shave with that blade, Purvis. He attacked me and tried to kill me. I barely managed to defend myself with a whip."
"His gun hand is broke," said the sheriff. "It'll never be the same. You went and ruined him for life practically."
"He'll have to give up murder and take another line of honest work, perhaps," said Joe Good. "Like house painting, eh?"
The sheriff swore loudly and long. His rage grew, because he found less and less that he could hardly put his teeth in and call it a crime. His three charges, which he had come trotting out to lay against the boy and frighten him into submission and a proper attitude toward him, had dissipated.
Then he heard the voice which he had begun to detest, speaking once more, and this time it was saying: "Besides, you won't allow Chase to go free, will you, after he confessed, in public, that he shot down young Alton?"
The sheriff gasped.
Joe went on: "Besides, I'd like to know what you've done about the Alton murderers. Anything?" Young Joe Good was himself incredulous, as he heard these words flowing from his own lips. He rose and stood upon the plank that supported the paint bucket, also. "What about it?" he repeated, controlling the almost hysterical joy of danger that was taking him by the throat. "Have you done a single thing about the Altons?"
"Are you butting in and trying to tell me what to do with my job?" asked Dick Purvis. He roared, as he found a slight semblance of an excuse for fury: "I'm gonna put you in your place, you young loafer! You're the town joke. I'm gonna teach you manners, too!"
The boy responded: "The Altons pretended that they thought that their boy had been shot by my father. But everybody knows that my father couldn't hit the side of a barn. He never hit a mark in his life, even with a rifle. Everybody knew that. But the Altons wanted him out of the way."
"You fool," shouted Dick Purvis, "why would the Altons want to kill your lazy tramp of a no-good father?"
An hysterical impulse came over Joe Good, like that which a man feels when he is perched on a dizzy height. He gave way to the impulse and climbed down the ladder to the ground. There he stood close to the sheriff and looked steadily up into his eyes. It was wonderfully easy to do, and the effect of that calm confronting was extraordinary, for the sheriff blinked and actually withdrew a half step.
Then Joe spoke: "Maybe the Altons sent you out here to bully me. But you can't bully me, Purvis. You're not even a hawk, I see. You're just a buzzard, a carrion-eater. You go back and organize your posse and arrest the Altons. They murdered my father. That's proved now. They hounded him and ran him down. And if you don't arrest them, I'll have you arrested, Mister Sheriff, for failure to do your duty. I'll ride back into town with you now, and swear out a warrant for the whole gang of them. We know their names!"
THE sheriff wanted to blast the young interloper, but he remembered that he was hired by the county to enforce the law, not to break it. He could think of nothing else to do, except to condemn the boy quite fiercely to his face, and tell him to do as he pleased; he, the sheriff, was riding back now. And back he rode.
Joe Good followed on foot, and went to the office of the judge. The judge was a brother of the hardware merchant. Already he seemed to have heard of the story of the revolver, for he was not wearing a pleasant expression when Joe Good appeared before him.
"Young man," he said, "I was afraid that you'd be here before me before long. You've been raising a scandal in this town. What have you to say for yourself?"
"I've come to swear out a warrant," said Joe Good, "for the arrest of Harry Alton, for conspiracy which led to the death of my father. I've also come to swear out a warrant for the arrest of Hugh Alton, Jess Alton, Tucker Alton, Dean Alton, Chris Alton, and Sam Alton, as the actual agents who committed the crime and murdered Vincent Good. Will you issue the warrant?"
The judge stood up from his chair. He was hearing the most respectable names in the county, and certainly the richest ones, all grouped together under one scandalous charge.
"What dumbfounded nonsense is this?" he asked.
"You know what it is. You speak English," said the boy. He stepped a little closer, and his dark bright eyes gloated as he looked into the eyes of the judge. He was discovering, with amazement and a sort of wicked joy, that there is a power in the eye against which few men can stand. He himself, all his life, had been quickly subdued by a level and savage eye. Now he had learned, since the light pressure of the coiled black snake around his arm filled him with more assurance than the touch of any heroic and friendly hand, that in his own glance there was the same power.
So, as he stepped closer and stared at the judge, who was staggered by the last remark, he went on: "I want the warrant. I'll raise up Satan himself if I don't get it. My father was murdered. There was no charge against him. He was murdered by a gang. You know the names of the gang. Everybody knows 'em. I want the warrant."
"You can't have it," said the judge. "In obedience to a general hue and cry, because it was thought, however erroneously, that young Harry Alton had been shot down and perhaps killed by your father, certain men at once pursued the fugitive, whose flight seemed to prove his crime, and they performed what they considered was their duty."
"It wasn't a general hue and cry. It was a hue and cry of the Altons," said the boy. "Not a soul by any other name rode with them."
"Are you going to tell me what the law is, and what the law isn't?" exclaimed the judge. "Leave this room! Some of the most respected members of the community, men of tried and proved integrity, have been insulted by an idle loafer. Leave the room!"
"Don't go wrong at the start, Judge Tomlinson," said the boy. "Are you going to quash the case against the Altons?"
"There's no case to quash," said the judge more loudly and angrily than ever. "Jameson! Jameson!"
A burly fellow broke into the room.
"Throw this young fool into the street!" commanded the judge.
Jameson said: "I'll throw him out on his head!" He came with hands prepared and savage eyes—not for nothing had he enforced order in courtrooms and guarded prisoners for many years.
But he was stopped by a very strange sight. Joe Good was laughing. "You're only a fish in the pool, Jameson," said Joe Good. "Don't come a step nearer, if you want to keep a whole hide."
Under his eye and before that laughter, Jameson stood frozen to the spot. Joe Good actually turned his back on him, but still Jameson did not stir. He was busily remembering what he had heard of the scene on the verandah of the hotel the evening before. Wally Chase, that terrible man, had been the victim on that occasion. He was not a Wally Chase. He was only a Jameson.
Joe Good, as he faced the purple judge, went on: "If you drop out all the other Altons, what about the case against Harry Alton?"
"Case against a man who was shot down?" thundered the judge. "Are you a blithering idiot? What case is there against him?"
"He only had a surface wound on the leg," said the boy. "But he let the gunman who shot him, he let Wally Chase run out of the room and raise the hue and cry, that you speak of, against my father. Was that conspiracy with intent to kill, or what was it?"
"A boy shot down on a barroom floor... you expect him to have the presence of mind...," began the judge, and ended with another roar: "Jameson, take him out of the room."
Joe Good did not even turn to warn Jameson away.
Jameson licked his thin lips, but dared not stir. The heart was willing, but the flesh was now too weak.
Joe Good said: "He may have been confused at the time. But days passed before my father was buried in shame, as a man who had attempted to commit murder. If Harry Alton was not a conspirator and conniving at the crime of murder, he would have spoken at once to clear the name of my father. He let the days go by. No one would have known, from Harry Alton, that my father was innocent."
"And who knows now?" asked the judge, his rage swelling as he saw that a clear legal case was being built up. "As for a poor boy who was shot down..."
"Shot down for doing crooked business with a murderer. What was that business? No one knows. Why should Harry Alton have money dealings with a hired murderer?"
"You can't touch Harry Alton," said the judge, "unless there is actual testimony, and be careful how you call citizens of this county hired murderers."
"No," said the boy, "I see that I can only call you a hired fool. That's all." He turned on his heel and left the room, while the judge, on the verge of apoplexy, sank speechlessly down into a chair.
In the street, young Joe Good stood for a moment, letting the fierce, honest heat of the sun burn against his face. His soul was wonderfully calm and composed. Just across from him was the verandah of the hotel, with a dozen loiterers on it. Some of them were pointing him out to one another, and some were standing up, as though to see him better. A grim, cold pleasure went through the heart of the boy, like a poisonous wine. It was long, long years since people had stood up to see a Good, father or son.
Another figure, to his left, attracted him. It was the notorious miser of the county, old Zeke Stevens, a man hated by thousands for his pinching ways, his great wealth, his high rates of interest, his narrow soul, his cruel foreclosures. He had ruined many a promising life by his savage greed. He would always make a loan when banks refused, and, from his victims, he never failed to wring more than a sufficient return. People said that he loaned money not so much to increase his hoards, as to give pain to others.
Wifeless, childless, friendless, he was a millionaire. Some said that he was a multimillionaire. Yet, as he stood there on the sidewalk under the open window that gave air to the chambers of Judge Tomlinson, he was dressed like a beggar. His coat had been black, but now it was chiefly green. It was pinned with a safety pin across his hollow breast, and over the hump of his crooked back it was guarded by a huge patch. The cuffs of his trousers were a soiled and tattered fringe. His hat was a dismal rag of ancient felt.
He had two pleasures in life, money and whiskey. Although he indulged himself in the first, the second, if it had reddened his lean, grinning face, never had obscured his business hours, which, it was said, consumed twenty-four hours out of twenty-four.
Now he remained standing beneath the window of the judge, with his head canted a bit to one side, and his habitual wolfish grin widened to a smile of actual pleasure. He was as one who had just heard heavenly music and still stands harkening for more. Most amazing of all, he now turned his undiminished smile upon No Good, and then began to beckon to him with a forefinger.
Joe approached him with wonder.
"There's Mort Pemberton's saloon across the way. Come and have a drink," said Zeke Stevens.
The very breath was knocked from the body of Joe Good. For it was famous through the county that the old man never bought a drink except for himself.
Joe made the point clear. "You mean that you want to buy me a drink?" he asked.
The miser twisted his face. "I gotta buy you a drink," he said rather bitterly, and shook his head. "I'll buy you one whiskey! Come along."
The marvel of the thing carried Joe Good along with it, and he went in a daze across the street and held open the swinging door while Zeke Stevens, with the half-dragging and half-running gait that was forced on him by his very bowed posture, went before him into the saloon.
No one was there at that mid-morning hour. There was only Pemberton himself, who waved to them in surprise.
"Bring in a couple of whiskies," said the miser, and led the way into the back room.
There he took a chair. The whiskies arrived, and old Zeke began to turn his glass with loving fingers, after he had paid. But he did not look at the liquor. He continued to eye the boy with that vast, incomprehensible smile. "Joe," he said, "I like you. I pretty near love you. I'm gonna drink your health. Here's to you!"
"Here's how!" said the boy, more utterly amazed than before. He raised his drink and downed the stinging, fuming stuff. A crash startled him. Old Zeke had dashed his glass upon the floor.
Now he said, while the ears of the boy tingled with incredulity: "When I drink the health of a man like you, I always smash the glass, like I would in honor of a king."
The startled saloonkeeper appeared at the door.
"Charge me with a broken glass," said the miser. "And bring me in another... and a fresh bottle. The whole bottle, d'ye hear?"
MANY marvels had been seen in the short and stirring history of Fort Willow, from early Mexican and Indian wars, through a gold rush and the wild days of the cattle drives. There was still excitement enough in its dusty streets, from time to time, but nothing had ever occurred to rank, as a marvel, with the spectacle of Zeke Stevens ordering an entire bottle of whiskey and paying for it.
Mort Pemberton was actually pale with excitement; his eyes were large as he carried in the bottle. He looked earnestly at the money he received in exchange, as though doubting its real value. Then he withdrew, backward, so that he could be sure of seeing everything as long as possible.
"Close the door," said Zeke.
Mort Pemberton slammed it with a muttered oath. He would have given his very teeth to hear the conversation to which this miracle was the prelude.
Zeke Stevens filled the glasses. The boy left his untouched, but the old man, staring down into his own glass, turned it about, again and again, with zealous fingers, admiring the film of oil that collected along the sides of the glass.
Strange words came from his lips.
"Skunks and starved coyotes and mangy dogs and molting hens that smell of the sage," he said. "That's what they are. Tomlinson, he's one. The Altons, they're some more. But they've got a front to 'em. A fine front. They dress fine and they talk big, and they been to school, all of 'em. But they ain't real. They ain't real men. They ain't the kind that I seen out here. They ain't got the men, and they ain't got the women.
"I seen men out here that burned themselves up like candles. No, they didn't last long. But they made a light, is what they made. They made a light that even I could see by. They used to make me wanna be different. They came and they went. They went fast. Rich miner today, dead drunk tomorrow. Cattle king this year, cleaning spittoons the next... cattle king again, the next... dead in a gunfight, the next. Them was men. They burned themselves up, and they made a light that even I could see by.
"And today, when I stood there under the window of the judge, and heard you lay out the Altons, I begun to see by the old light ag'in. It made me wanna shine. And when you laid out old Tomlinson himself, the fat faker, I says to myself... 'Zeke, you can't never shine yourself, but maybe you could help somebody else to shine.' When I say that, I mean you."
He lifted his head. He looked into the eyes of the boy, and Joe Good saw terrible, hungry inquiry, doubt, criticism, and, finally, relief and belief. For he answered that stare with another, equally profound, into the dark soul of the moneylender. He could not have done it the day before. But now this was a sort of gunfire to which he was accustomed.
The old man grinned again and nodded. "They used to have eyes like that," he said. "They looked straight through and through you. They had a ring about 'em. These others, they move like men, and they talk like men, and they look like men. But they ain't. Only bell metal makes the bell, and today, over there under the window of the judge, I heard the old ring!" He nodded his head, and then he went on. "Your father was a gent with substance to him. He knew something. But he didn't have no action in him. He just had sitting. But your mother was different. You never knew your mother, Joe, did you?"
Joe Good lifted his head. He said nothing, but the miser merely smiled.
"You don't need to get mean," he said. "What I got to say about her would sound good even in a saloon. She was small and she was clean. You take Thoroughbreds and raise 'em in a cactus country, and they grow small. Maybe only fourteen three. But they're all iron, all fire, and no smoke. No wastage. They run a hundred miles a day for a month. Their legs is steel, and their hearts, well, they fill out their ribs. She was like that. She was small, and she wasn't the most beautiful in the world, but she would've made any fool the king of the world, if she'd had the time. She made your father a big man in two years. And when she died, he sort of faded out. And you, you got her in you. I never seen it in you till this morning. But you're her son."
He finished his second glass. "I gotta mind to get drunk," he said. "I'm happy, is what I am!" Then he shook his head. "Talk is all right, but we gotta be practical. Answer me some questions."
"All right," said the boy. "I'll try to."
"Are you good with a gun?"
"Ah, that's too bad. The old-timers, they was artists with guns. Pretty pictures they could paint for you with six-guns. Pictures all in red, all in red." He laughed gaspingly. "Now, son," he said, "if you ain't good with a gun, what about a knife?"
"Not a knife, either? But a real workman, he don't mind about tools. What's your tool?"
"A black snake," said the boy.
Blankly at first, then with a grimly dawning light of joy, the moneylender stared at him.
"A whip!" he said. "That's the best of all. That's what they need, more'n horses or dogs!" He repeated the word several times, relishing the taste of the word: "A whip! A whip!" He broke off to laugh in his horrible, strangled fashion once more. "More questions!" he snapped.
"Go on," said the boy, still feeling that he was fumbling through a miraculous labyrinth.
"Got any friends?"
Without needing time for thought, Joe Good answered: "Not one!"
"Any girl on the brain?"
"Any profession or work you wanna do?"
"It's perfect," said Zeke Stevens. "And now, who d'you hate?"
"Nobody," said the boy.
Blank dismay fell upon the old man. "Nobody?" he echoed.
"Of course, the Altons murdered my father," said Joe Good. "I think they ought to be removed. But I don't hate 'em."
"You're right," said Zeke suddenly. "A good surgeon, he don't hate a cancer, but he cuts it out! What about Judge Tomlinson?"
"He thinks there is nothing in the county except the Altons. He ought to be removed, I feel."
"Good. And Dick Purvis?"
"The Altons made him sheriff. He can't think against them. He ought to be removed."
"And you're going to do it?"
The boy did not hesitate. "I'll remove them," he said calmly.
Zeke ran the red tip of his tongue over his lips. His eyes were the eyes of a fox. "Then you gotta do it in style," he said.
"I don't follow that," said the boy.
"Don't you? Well, then, think again. A killing by a ragged tramp, that's murder. A killing by a fine man in fine clothes, with servants in the house... that's a gentleman's honor vindicated. Look in the newspapers, and you'll find all kind of words to call it."
The boy nodded. "I think I know what you mean," he said.
"If you're gonna be thorough, you'll get the whole lot."
"Just a minute," said Joe Good. "I'm not interested in killing. That's short and easy. Besides, it gets the killer hanged, sooner or later. I don't intend to be hanged."
"I take no chances," said the boy.
"By the jumping thunder of the powers above," said the old man, "how you gonna down 'em, then?"
"Well there are worse things than dying," said the boy.
"Such as what?"
"The Altons are the top of the heap now. Suppose that they're put at the bottom. That would be a lot worse. They'd feel that more than dying, one by one."
The miser agreed: "The Altons have everything. They have mines, ranches, newspapers, town real estate. They have everything. What have you got to down 'em with?"
"Brains," said Joe Good with a twisted smile.
The other drew in a long breath and said: "You have 'em, too. I see that you have 'em, and I believe what I see. You got brains! But brains, or not, they'll throw a man in rags like yours into jail. Believe me?"
Joe Good hesitated for a long time. "I think they would," he said at last slowly. "The whole town knows that the Altons did crooked work about my father. But the whole town does nothing. Why? Because I'm a beggar, my house is a shack, and I'm a tramp."
Old Zeke Stevens drew out a wallet and held it firmly grasped in both his hands. He stared at it. His lips twitched and trembled. "Here's a gentleman," he said. "I've got it in my hands. A whole gentleman... from the light in his proud eyes to the shine on his boots. Look. I'm gonna... give... you... this." He passed the wallet across the table.
"How much is in it?" said the boy.
The moneylender writhed. "Don't ask me how much there's in it," he said. "I'd pretty near as soon throw away a leg as to throw that money away. But it ain't throwed away. It'll dress you. Nothing but the finest. It'll give you hosses, nothing but the best. It'll put a coupla Negroes in your house to take care of you. And it'll make a mystery out of you, because nobody will know where you got it. And when this here is spent, I've got more for you. More and more, to pull 'em down, the Altons and the rest. More money to burn under their chins and toast their beards. Every now and then, I'll sneak in, and sit in your fine sitting room, and soil your grand rug with my dirty boots, and listen to what you've done, and what you're going to do, to pull 'em still farther down!"
JOE GOOD did not do his shopping in Fort Willow. Instead, he took the stage to the railroad line and boarded a train that put him down, not many hours later, in a town with paved streets and street lamps that burned all night in certain sections. There he outfitted himself, first with a big trunk, and then with clothes and boots and hats and all else that he needed in order to outfit himself according to his mental picture of a gentleman's exterior. That picture was based on bits of his father's conversation, some remnants of former splendor that lingered about the house, but chiefly on the boy's own observation of the world. So he dressed himself very quietly, but very well, indeed.
He still needed a horse and a servant. And there was plenty of money left. He remembered having heard his father say: "The only good servant for a white man is a Negro that will have only one master in a lifetime."
So he went down to the town jail and saw the head jailer. This was a man with a face of stone and very few words.
"There are a lot of Negroes filling your yard, Mister Leigh," said the boy. "You've got some more in the cells. And I need the brightest Negro that's held in your strongest cell. Someone whose term is about up. If you turn him over to me, I'll keep him straight the rest of his days."
"Will you?" said Mr. Leigh with no expression on his face of stone.
"I make circus Negroes of them," said young Joe Good. "I teach 'em to jump through hoops."
A faint smile came upon the face of Leigh, and he said: "This afternoon we're going to turn loose a buck named Budge Morrissey. We picked him up on a vagrancy charge. We know that he's a safecracker, second-story artist, smuggler, gunman, pickpocket, and other things, but we haven't managed to get evidence together during the three months. So we have to turn him loose. Perhaps you'd like to see him?"
"I'd love to see him," said the boy.
Mr. Leigh pressed a bell, gave instructions. Presently four guards entered, pushing before them a black man who filled the doorway. He was three or four inches over six feet, and from his massive shoulders lines of strength and speed swept down to long-fingered hands and slender feet. His jaw was hinged high up on his head; his forehead was a vast, shining slope that receded to the crown of his head. He wore a huge, golden smile, and set in the lobe of one ear was a diamond of good size that flashed like a speck of fire as he turned his head.
"Take the irons off his hands," said Mr. Leigh.
It was done, and the guards were ordered from the room. They went willingly, but in surprise. Then said Leigh: "Budge, this is mid-morning, and I didn't intend to turn you loose until this evening. But here comes a gentleman named Mister Joseph Good. I don't know him, but he says that he turns big, bad Negroes into good little ones. He intends to take you home with him. I won't prevent him. And I won't prevent you from stepping through that window onto the street... if you can get through this Mister Joseph Good. I'll leave you alone to talk things over, if you want to take your chances with him, Budge."
"Mister Leigh," said the colored man, bowing a little, "that would be fine."
The jailer left the room, and again the faint smile stirred the corners of his mouth. He was not a kind man, this Mr. Leigh. He was in this business because he liked it, and, as the door closed after him, Budge Morrissey said: "I suppose that you have a gun, Mister White Man, and you think that you can stick up Budge Morrissey. But a lot more than air moves through this jail. White man, shove up your fool hands." Suddenly his right hand was inside his coat and coming forth again with a sheen of blue-steel revolver in it.
Joe Good did not stir. He had given his right arm a stealthy shake the moment before, and now from his hand leaped out a shadowy streak and the lash of the black snake curled around the wrist of the Negro. The burning, binding cut of it, as it was jerked backward, opened the fingers of the black man as if with a single touch, and the revolver thudded on the matting of the floor.
"That's smart," said the black man. "But it's not smart enough, brother."
And he came at Joe Good with a knife in his hand. For all his bulk, he came with cat-like speed, his left arm raised to protect his face and head. But that guard was not enough. The more heavily loaded butt end of the whip shot up and over, and whacked on the base of Budge Morrissey's skull. But his rush was not ended, it merely carried him blindly past the white man, and left him standing, tottering, in front of the window that looked upon the street.
Joe Good followed, picked the knife from the nerveless fingers of the black man, laid it, together with the fallen revolver, upon the desk of the jailer, and then turned to Budge Morrissey and steered him back into a chair. He sat down in a slump. It was a whole minute before intelligence began to gleam like two diamonds in the eyes of the Negro again.
Then Joe Good pointed to the weapons that lay on the polished mahogany. "We can start all over again, whenever you say," he suggested.
Budge Morrissey laid a hand on the back of his skull. The smile widened and flared like a golden flame on his face. "Mister Joseph," he said, "I never bet on the last horse when the winner is under the wire. Who dropped out of the ceiling and hit me on the head with a hammer, Mister Joseph?"
Joe Good smiled in turn—his twisted, humorous, appealing smile. Somehow there was much sympathy in it. He said: "Budge, you've been a bad boy. You've earned your living with guns and knives and nitroglycerin."
"Yes, sir," said Budge Morrissey.
"You've never worked for a master in your life."
"No, sir," said Budge.
"But today you commence," said Joe Good.
"Yes, sir," said Budge Morrissey.
"As long as you're a good boy," said Joe, "I'll pay you well, give you easy work, and treat you like a human being. If you're bad, or if you lie or steal, I won't discharge you, but I'll flog the skin off your body."
The smile of Budge Morrissey went out. His eyes opened. "Yes, sir," he said.
"Can you cook?"
"My wife can cook, Mister Joseph."
"Where is she?"
"In this town, sir."
"Go get her and bring her to the railroad station by three-thirty."
A gleam of joy and relief spread over the face of the Negro. "Yes, sir," he gasped, and rose hastily to his feet.
"Don't forget this knife and gun," said Joe Good.
"No, sir," murmured the black man, and his brow puckered with a faint doubt and hesitation of a new sort, as he gathered up his weapons that had been so mysteriously taken from him. He went on more slowly to the door.
Joe Good said: "Wait a moment. You can't come to work for me in dirty, greasy, torn clothes like those. Here's a hundred dollars. Get something of a sober color, but decent. See that your wife has a neat dress, too. Now don't forget. At three-thirty."
The black man had opened the door. Now he stood transformed into a statue, with the sheaf of unexpected money grasped in his mighty hand. His eyes looked out at Joe Good as a child looks upon a seer, a magician, whose magic is real.
"Yes, Mister Joseph," Budge Morrissey said huskily. "I'll be ready with my wife at three-thirty, sir!" He made a step back. He bowed to Joe Good. Then he went down the hall with the money still clasped in his hand, and the look of a sleepwalker in his face.
Mr. Leigh saw him go and came back into his office stealthily, looking fixedly at his visitor.
Joe Good went to the door and nodded farewell.
"You had exactly what I wanted," he said.
"Mister Bell-the-Cat," said the jailer, "you'll always find everything that you want in this world, I have an idea. What diabolical business you want to use that Negro for, I don't know. But I see that you begin with hypnosis."
Joe Good merely smiled and went forth.
When he walked onto the platform of the station that afternoon, he saw a great black man in a dark gray suit rise up like a tower, and a slender little yellow-faced mulatto woman rose beside him. With stalking strides, Budge Morrissey conducted his wife forward.
"Mister Joseph, sir," he said, "this is my wife Betsy, and, if she don't cook better for you than anybody ever cooked before, I'll beat her, sir, from yellow to black."
Betsy looked at her man with affection and pride; she looked on Joe Good with staring awe, then she smiled with content.
Joe Good said: "Budge and Betsy, I've been looking for both of you for a good many years. Now I've found you, and there's only one thing that you need to remember... in my house no voice or hand is ever raised except my own. Budge, here is five hundred dollars more. Buy yourselves tickets to the station of Willow... then go on the stage to Fort Willow. Find the house of Joseph Good... it's my house... now it's your house, too. It's a small cottage. Finish painting it white. Buy food and such dishes as we'll need. Then get a map of the county and chart down in your own mind every house, every road, and every hill, creek, and mountain. I'll be there in three days."
He extended the money. A slight quiver passed through the body of the big black man as he reached for it, but the thin yellow fingers of Betsy arrived first.
"I'll keep the money, Mister Joseph," she said. "Because I've got a bigger purse."
Joe Good, without further words, waved to them, smiled on them, and was gone.
HE had sent them three days ahead for a special purpose. The town of Fort Willow had to be prepared for a strange alteration in his way of life. Also, the town of Fort Willow must begin to waken, and rub its eyes, and hum with gossip as it never had hummed before.
Then, on the third day, when the westering sun had lost its strength, Joe Good came out of the mountains and jogged down the main street of the town. No one recognized him at first. It was not alone the clothes he wore, but it was the horse he rode, a slim-bodied chestnut mare with four black stockings and a sooty muzzle. She was not more than fifteen hands high, but at a glance it was plain that she was one of those animals that Zeke Stevens had described so eloquently—a desert-raised Thoroughbred, made of hammered iron and muscled with lightning flashes. The town of Fort Willow opened its mouth and gaped in silence.
A pair of lordly grays came prancing up the street from the opposite direction, bearing in their saddles magnificent Hugh Alton, and, in a side-saddle on the second horse, a red-haired girl with pleasant eyes and a good-natured smile. As they drew nearer, the great Alton spoke to her, pointed with the handle of his quirt. Her face was sober as she went by Joe Good.
He raised his hat and bowed; there was no response from either of them.
Then, as he came to the verge of the town, with the wide fields extending under his eyes, a rattle of wheels rolled up behind him, and old Zeke Stevens reined in his sweating, broken-down nag.
The eyes of Zeke burned redder than his face. "You been spending like water... my good money like water," he said. He writhed in his place. "But you're turnin' the trick," he continued. "Them Negroes... them Negroes... they got the whole town started to callin' you Mister Joseph. I wanna see you and talk. But nobody must spot me with you. So long. Work slow and work sure. Blow up the foundations, and the houses will tumble down!" And he put the whip on the back of the horse, and went off in a dust cloud, the nag raising a humping, broken-kneed canter.
Young Joe Good reached his father's house and called. Suddenly, in answer, an immense form in an immense white jacket appeared outside the front door and ran down the path to the gate.
Budge Morrissey held the bridle and the stirrup of his master. "Good evening, Mister Joseph," he said. "Good evening, sir. I'll put up your horse and be right in. Betsy will have your bath ready in one minute, sir. It makes a pleasant day for us to have you home, sir!" He took the mare toward the barn.
Young Joe Good went slowly to the house and walked still more slowly about it. It was completely coated over with the white paint and looked, in this light, like glistening marble. The grounds were in good condition. The very fences had been repaired. The leaves were raked beneath the trees. The front yard was dug up and leveled off, and over the soft soil several sprinklers were whirring, cooling the air with their spray, and soothing the mind with their murmur. Gaily, rapidly, the well-oiled gears of the windmill clicked and purred, and to the boy these sounds seemed as a promise that life had returned to the place, and that a new heart was pulsing strongly here.
He went in the front door, and Betsy, in spotless white, came to meet him. She took his hat and, while he listened to the deep-voiced pounding of the water as it ran into the tin bathtub, she conducted him to his room.
He paused a moment, amazed, for all was altered in it. It had been a dingy place of shadows. Now it was painted white and cream, a bright rug shone on the floor; there was a deep easy chair covered with chintz; outside the sill appeared a window box filled with blooming plants. Their fragrance spread gently through the room. Now Betsy was lighting a shaded lamp. Now she was asking what clothes she should lay out for him—his trunk had preceded the master. Now she was withdrawing with a faint whisper of skirts, and the door closed without a click.
Joe Good closed his eyes and felt fear as one in a dream. He opened them and the clean, shining truth poured in upon his mind. He had started up a ladder, and he swore that he would never turn down again.
He dined that night as he never had dined before, with Budge Morrissey standing behind his chair, and the great black hands offering new dishes, noiselessly removing the finished courses. Afterward, he sat on the front verandah and smoked and sipped such coffee as would have gladdened the heart of an Arab chief.
"Budge," he said not loudly. He felt, rather than heard, the step of the giant on the floor beside him. "Budge," he said, "there's a house not far away belonging to Mister Hugh Alton."
"Yes, sir," said the Negro. "I know where it is. I heard in the town about the Altons and their murder, sir."
"I think they have a house guest, a girl. Go over there tonight, and don't come back until you know the girl's name. Also, find out where young Harry Alton sleeps, and whether he's alone, or his brother with him."
Budge left. In an hour he was back, the dark of the night dissolving and letting his shadowy form appear only when it was almost beside the master.
"Where did you learn to stalk like that, Budge?" asked Joseph Good.
"In South Africa, sir," said the other. "The lady is Miss Katherine Garnet. Mister Harry Alton sleeps in the bedroom in the second story in the southeast corner of the house. He sleeps alone. His wound is much better. He can walk a little now. The servants believe that Miss Kate Garnet is to become engaged to Mister Harry Alton. Mister Hugh Alton has sent for the sheriff and received him in his house. They were still talking together when I arrived. I learned from them that it is felt you must have committed a crime to appear suddenly with so much money... the sheriff will look into the business."
"How did you overhear what they were saying?"
"The room they were in had a window," said the Negro, "and the verandah roof under the window made a comfortable place for me to sit. I happened to be sitting there, enjoying the cool of the evening after my hot climb to the roof. And while I was sitting there, I happened to hear what they were saying."
The boy smiled. Then he said: "I'm not surprised that you've done all this so quickly, Budge. I imagine that you'll do much cleverer things still, before we're through with one another."
It was a moment before Budge answered: "I've been around a good many parts of the world, Mister Joseph. But nobody ever gave me money, trust, and a licking all at one time. It's a black day for Budge Morrissey when he's fool enough to leave his first master, Mister Joseph. If I left you, Betsy would leave me."
"Thank you, Budge," said Joe Good. "That's all for tonight."
He sat on through the end of the evening and watched new stars gradually pricking through the mist of the eastern horizon, then rising clearly into the upper sky. It seemed to Joe Good that he was a new being, that he was rising into strange, lofty, and dangerous regions, far above his old wont. But joy was in him like wine.
He numbered his enemies, such as all the Altons, seven men, strong, rich, and clever, and the sheriff himself, and the judge, to say nothing of that poisonous criminal, the famous Wally Chase. His gun hand was broken, but his evil brain remained to contrive mischief, even if his hands could not execute it. Against this opposition, already he could present allies of his own, a strange group of them.
There was the miser, Zeke Stevens, who had both brains and hard cash.
There was huge Morrissey, strong, fearless, and silent as a panther in the night.
Finally there was the mulatto woman, with thought ever smoldering in her eyes.
With three such partners, his back was guarded, and he began to feel that he could take care of all the dangers that rushed at him, face to face. So he began to brood upon his first great problem.
The Professor lay at his feet, and brooded upon the face of his master, silent, also.
THAT night Joe Good slept as never before. The next day he sat, as his father had often done before him, reading and taking notes under the shade of the great fig tree. But the book he read was little more than meaningless print to him, and the notes that he jotted down were his own thoughts as they drifted into his mind.
At noon, and again in the evening, he burned those notes. So, after supper, he sat once more on the front verandah, but this time with a table beside him and a shaded lamp burning upon it.
There was more reading, more note taking, but, strive as he would, he could only reach this conclusion: that with the material he had in hand, there was no possibility of drawing proper deductions. Plainly Hugh Alton and the rest of that tribe wished to see both Vincent Good and Joseph Good dead, or run out of the country. They could not have such a savage determination because of personal malice. For decades the Good family had been far too poor and too weak to affect anything against a tribe as powerful and as increasing in power as the Altons. No, there was some other motive than personal hatred.
What other motive could there be? It appeared that there was none other possible than the motive that had so often entered in the lives of all the Altons—their individual and tribal love of gain.
Suppose that one reduced the matter to this conclusion: the Altons desired to push the Good family out of the way, either by killing them, or by threatening them in such a manner that they were frightened away from the town. But what would the Altons gain by that? A chance to pick up the land cheaply at a public auction, when, for a few dollars of merchandise owing, some tradesman forced a sale of the place. That was clear enough. But what was the land worth? Hardly a penny, unless there was gold on it. Vincent Good had once prospected the place for minerals from head to heel. No, there was nothing hidden under the soil, and yet it seemed that, in some mysterious manner, the acres had a great value in the eyes of Hugh Alton.
More notes were scribbled on pieces of paper and gave indication of his thoughts, but he found that he was surrounded by a wall too high to be surmounted.
The Professor touched his knee with a paw. He looked down and saw that the little mongrel was sharp-eyed with some excitement. It was panting a little and wagging an eager tail. Now it backed away from the master and scooted into the darkness toward one of the big oaks, where there was a dense tangle of shrubbery. Halfway to the place, it halted and looked back over its shoulder, as though asking to be followed.
When it saw the master immobile, he turned and scampered back to him, and again touched his knee with an eager paw.
"Budge!" called the master.
The great Negro glided out onto the porch, and in a lowered voice Joe Good said: "There's something over there in the shrubbery under the oak tree. Go out from the back door, and don't make a sound. Circle around behind that shrubbery and see what you'll find. You'd better have a gun with you, but don't shoot unless you have to."
"Yes, Mister Joseph," said the Negro, and the great golden smile spread upon his face again.
Although he could be a perfect valet in a pinch, it was plain that other lines of work were more to his liking. He disappeared into the house, and Joe Good continued to read there by the lamp on the front porch. He quieted the Professor with one word, but that silently sagacious little beast sat down close to his master and continued to stare toward the oak tree. Certainly he was not fool enough to be so excited about a stray wild cat, a skunk, or a coyote.
A quarter of an hour went by in this manner, until Joseph Good began to feel prickles of cold forming along his spine. Suddenly there came an outbreak of voices and a crashing among the brush.
Out came the vast head and shoulders of the black giant, carrying before him, by the elbows, a slenderer, writhing body.
"I'll break your back over my knee, mister," said the black man, "if you kick me in the shins again!"
The captive suddenly ceased struggling, and on the verandah, before his master, Budge Morrissey put down the slender, evil form of Wally Chase. His right hand was covered by a bandage that was wrapped stiffly around what seemed to be splints. A drop or two of blood trickled from his left.
"Did you hurt him, Budge?" asked Joseph Good.
"He tried to knife me," said Morrissey. "He cut his own hand when I took the knife away."
"I would've ripped the insides out of you," said Wally Chase savagely, "if I'd had two hands to use."
"You wouldnt've ripped the insides out of me, white man," said Budge, unmoved. "I had you covered five minutes before I jumped you. He was laying out there on the edge of the bushes," said the Negro to his employer. "And he was watching you on the porch."
"I could have shot you through the head," said the gunman.
"Here's his guns," said Budge, and he lay in the lap of his master two Colts.
"Careful of them... careful of them!" exclaimed Chase apprehensively. "They're on hair-triggers, both of 'em! I could've shot you dead, Good, and you know it. I couldn't miss at that distance."
"You could, though," answered the other, "and you knew it. You're no good with your left hand. I saw that the other day, when you tried to use a knife in it."
Actually more consumed with curiosity than with fear, Wally Chase said: "What made the Negro come out there to hunt like a cat in the dark?"
"The dog told me that you were there, Wally," said Joseph Good, a little inexactly. "So I sent Budge around to cut off your retreat."
"The dog?" snarled the other. "I got a start when he come nosing around, but after he went back onto the verandah, I didn't think that there'd be any trouble. You're lyin' to me, Good. The dog couldn't've give you a warning."
"He did. You must have seen me call out Budge. And I sent him around to pick you up, which he did."
He smiled at Wally Chase, and the man scowled savagely back.
"Now what?" asked Wally grimly. "I come here and take a look, that's all. There ain't any harm in that!"
"You lie out in the bushes and have a pair of guns with you, and you try to knife the man who routs you out. The blood on your hand now, Wally, will send you to prison. Judges and juries won't be too friendly to you, Chase. It'll be a long term."
The gunman held down his head as he glared at the other from under his hanging brows. "You gonna slam me in the jail?" he asked. "All right. Take and slam me there. I gotta stand it."
"You'd like it, in fact," said Joe Good. "You think you have friends who would take you out again. But that isn't my motive. Budge, tie his wrists together and his ankles, too."
It was done. The omniscient Morrissey instantly took from his pocket some lengths of stout, waxed twine, and, with this, he had secured the wrists of the gunman behind his back before Chase muttered: "What's the idea of all this, Good? The Negro's murdering my wrist that you burned open the other night."
"I'm going to hang you up by the hands to that oak tree you were hiding under," said Joseph Good, "and then I'm going to flog some information out of you. Shall we gag him, Budge?"
"If you gag him, Mister Joseph," said the big Negro with his most amiable smile, "you won't have to make me flog him so hard. When they feel themselves choking, they quit right away. There are plenty of men who'll stand flogging till they faint, but they won't stand throttling, in my experience." He took out a large white handkerchief, and began to wad it significantly together.
"Wait just a minute," said Wally Chase. "Good, you're a low hound. Whatcha want?"
"In the first place, I want to know who sent you tonight?"
"I sent myself."
"Gag him, Budge," said the boy. "He's asking for a flogging, and he'll have to get what he asks for."
The hand of Budge Morrissey was raised.
"Hold on," said Wally Chase. "What if Hugh Alton sent me? Well, what of that? You been talking around town about him so big and high that he's gotta right to look after you. Don't make no phony play, will you, Joe?"
"He sent you to do what?" asked the boy.
"He sent me to barge in and listen in on things over here," said Wally Chase. "That's all I came for. I couldn't figure that the dog and the Negro... mostly, I couldn't figure on your blasted luck, but one of these days that luck's gonna change. We're gonna get you, and we're gonna get you good."
"That's all right," said Joseph Good cheerfully. "Now, about the arrangement that you were making with young Harry Alton, that other day in the saloon... the money that he was to pay you, I mean. What was the money to be paid for?"
"That? That money?" said Wally Chase. "It was just some coin that he'd lost to me at poker. I staked him and he lost it. It was seven hundred and fifty. He said that he was busted, and that he didn't dare to ask his old man for any more than five hundred. He said that he'd pay the other two hundred and fifty later on, and I..."
"Gag him, Morrissey," said the master. "He's really got to have it..."
"Wait! You!" said Wally Chase with a snarl. "I wish that I'd shot the rotten heart right out of your body the other night. Whatcha want me to say about my deal with the kid?"
"Just tell me the truth. I know so much that I'll be able to spot the lie. Listen to me, Wally, you need a flogging, and I'd be glad to flog you, you dog. If you lie again, you won't have another chance to speak till your back is dripping blood."
The face of the gunman worked. Then with bitter slowness, the words blending with curses, he said: "It was like this. I was broke. Alton knew it. Harry come to me and says that he's got a stake for me."
"Five hundred bucks."
"For running your old man out of the county."
"To run my father out?"
"Yeah. The idea was that once your old man was out of the way, you'd drift pretty soon and drift pretty far."
"Why did they want to run us out?"
"I dunno. I got the job, not the idea. I didn't care about the idea."
"Was Hugh Alton behind his boy? I suppose he was."
"I dunno anything about that, either. Harry come and told me that he wanted me to give you and your old man the bum's rush. That's all I know... that's enough for me to know."
"And you do the job for five hundred?"
"I said that I'd do the job for five hundred down and two hundred and fifty after you're both on the way. He promised me the five hundred one day, and the next day he takes back his promise. He says that the job's too easy, and that, if I don't want the five hundred after the work's finished, he'll get somebody else to do it. Well, I got sore, because I was counting on that coin. I needed it. I tried to make him show down. He wouldn't, so I dropped him. I kind of wish that I'd tore his insides out with that shot, instead of playing him for an easy getaway. I'd still have my gun hand left to me, if I'd done that."
"How do you happen to be playing with the Al-tons now?"
"How else and where else am I to play, if I want to eat three squares? I got the drop on them if I wanna tell how Harry offered to bribe me. So they have to play me along. I get living expenses, and that's about all I do get out of the cheap gang!"
"Set his hands free," said young Joseph Good. "And the next time you see him on my ground, day or night, shoot him down. Wally, walk down the path to the gate, and good-bye!"
JOE turned to the Negro. "Stay here with me a moment, Budge," he said after Wally Chase had gone to the gate, had swung about to curse the house and its inhabitants, and then gone on. "Stay here, while we talk things over a little. There may be some hard work ahead for both of us before the evening's over."
A smile spread upon the face of Budge Morrissey. "I hope I know the ground we're going to work in, Mister Joseph," he said.
"What ground do you think?" asked the master.
"Alton ground, sir," said the big man.
"Call Betsy," said Joe Good.
Budge disappeared, and came back a moment later with the little mulatto walking before him. She stood straight, small, and intent of eye, before the master.
"Betsy," he said, "I have some work on hand this evening. I'm going to enter the Alton house, which is burglary. And the house is filled with armed men, which may mean a gun play or so. I want to take Budge along with me, but not without your permission."
Joe Good looked at the big man and saw the brow of Budge was contracted with painful doubt.
But Betsy answered calmly: "There's all sorts of bad ways to good ends, Mister Joseph. He's been a burglar and a gunman before, for his own worthless hide. Why shouldn't he be one once more for your sake, sir?"
"You want two guns, a jimmy, and silent shoes," said the master to Budge Morrissey.
"I've got the guns, the shoes, and a little kit with more than a jimmy in it," said the black man.
"I'll be ready in five minutes, Budge," said Joe Good.
"I'll be waiting for you, sir."
In five minutes, in fact, they were walking across country, and not a word did the white man speak to the Negro half a pace behind him, until he came in view of the house of Alton, sitting back on the brow of a hill and thrusting its big roof high above the tops of the surrounding trees.
Then Budge Morrissey heard his master say: "I'm not quite sure. They may be eagles, but I think that they're only hawks. I think that we'll out-fly them, and out-fight them, and take away the fish."
Of this strange speech, Budge Morrissey understood not a word. But he answered: "We'll take what you want, Mister Joseph." And he followed on, until they were closer to the house. Then, holding up his hand by way of apology and to ask leave, he silently glided in front of Joseph Good and began to make the way.
Joe could instantly see why the black had taken precedence. He himself had gone ahead with a good deal of caution, but with something of what he would have called unavoidable noise. But when the Negro stepped, there appeared to be eyes in his feet that found out every fallen twig, every dead leaf, every loose stone. Joseph Good had simply to put down his own feet where he had seen the Negro step. So, noiseless as cloud shadows, they drew under the trees and close up to the house of the Altons. They came in time to see an odd spectacle.
In the first place, a hanging lamp from the ceiling of the front verandah lighted it up and showed three women and no fewer than seven men.
Crouched behind some shrubbery, Joseph Good named them to the Negro. "Beginning on the right," he said, "write every name down in your memory, and file away every face. For that's the cream of the entire Alton crowd. There's Sam and Bud Alton at the right side, talking together. That big man with the mustache is Hugh Alton, the chief of the gang. Next to him is his brother, Tucker Alton, the father of Chris and Sam, and Dean Alton, who's sitting by the big, broad-shouldered girl. That's Alice Alton, the daughter of Hugh.
"Jess Alton is sitting beside his mother, the gray-headed woman with the necklace, and that fellow with one leg propped up in a chair and a pair of crutches beside him is Harry Alton. The girl beside him, you know. She's Kate Garnet, and you found out about her. She doesn't belong in that sort of a den. Have you got them all in mind? You know what Harry is, and the other six men are the fellows who murdered Vincent Good."
"It was a bad day for them, even if they don't know it yet," said the Negro. "And I've written 'em all down. I've drawn their pictures. I'd know them in spite of false whiskers. I'd know 'em by their ears and noses." As he ended this whisper, up the driveway came a halting figure that moved into the light cast from the ceiling lamp of the verandah.
It was Wally Chase, looking taller, meaner, more bent than ever. He dragged off his hat at the foot of the steps, and then the kind voice of Hugh Alton was heard exclaiming: "There's a poor fellow I have to see!"
Hugh Alton himself came hastily down the steps and drew Wally Chase by the arm back under the shadows, back close under the shrubs that also sheltered Joseph Good and his companion.
"You fool," said Alton through his teeth. "Have you no more sense than to come here and show your face before all these people, at this time of the night?"
"Don't call me a fool," said Wally Chase with an equal energy. "You can't talk down to me, not with what I know about you."
"If you take the blackmail line with me, my fine fellow," said the great Alton, "I'll soon show you what my friendship means in this part of the world and what my enmity means, too."
"Your friendship and your enmity can go to hell, for all I care," said Wally Chase, snarling. "I've been through another hot dose tonight, and all on account of you."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You had to pick me out to go scouting around the Good place. There wasn't nobody else. You had to pick on a cripple. If I hadn't been a cripple, I would've had a chance to lie quiet in the dark and put a bullet that would've done for him!"
"What have you done," said Hugh Alton. "If you tell me that he's had his hands on you again..."
"He's had his hands on me, all right," said the thug.
"You have the brains of a weak fish and the strength of a house fly," said Hugh Alton. "All you can do is to turn up where you're not wanted, and at the wrong time. He's had talk out of you. He's made you talk, and now you've come whining back to me. That's what you've done."
"Alton," said the gunman softly and fiercely, "when I hear you talk like that, I've got a mind to go back and really talk to him."
"There's no point in losing our tempers," said Alton, his manner changing perceptibly. "We've been through too much together, in one way or another. You've shot down my boy... and still you see that I treat you as a friend. Let that be the proof."
"I shot him because he was a double-crossing hound!" exclaimed the yegg. "And if I hadn't thought of you at the last minute, I would've sent that slug straight through the middle of him."
"I know that you were tried. Harry is young and foolish," said the chief of the clan. "But matters have come to a bad state now. There's too much talk in the town. Who could have imagined that the boy had so much in him. Who could have dreamed that the little lazy, worthless idler was a man tamer. More than that, he's beginning to fill the eye of the people. There's talk around the town. There's a great deal of talk, Wally!"
"There's talk," said Wally Chase, "and all of it is about the kid. He's done to me what nobody else in the world ever done, by tricks and sleight-of-hand, but not in what I call a fair fight."
"A black snake against a gun and a knife?" said Alton. "But go on. What are they saying in town? What do you hear?"
"They can't talk at all, except about Joe Good. Him and his new money... the two Negroes... and the Thoroughbred mare. I seen her, and she ain't no fake. I seen the Negroes, too, and they ain't no fake. But the people in Fort Willow are beginning to ask, not what sort of a bank did young Good crack to get all of that money, but what sort of a bad deal did you put over on him when you killed Vincent Good. They're talking about what you called a posse, and they're calling it a murder gang, just the way the kid called it. I tell you what, Alton," he said, shaking a forefinger in the very face of the rancher, "you've covered up a lot of things in your day. But you ain't covering this up very well. There's trouble in the air. Maybe the most important folks still think that you're all powerful. Maybe the judge and the sheriff still think that you can't do any harm, but the saloons are full of buzzing. When the 'punchers talk about you, they frown, and they talk down, deep and low. For every ten friends that you had when you killed Vincent Good, you ain't got more than one left."
"But the ones who remain," said the rancher, "have the county and all of its affairs in their hands. As for the opinions of the rabble, I'm above being influenced by them. That covers the ground. But what did Joseph Good wring out of you, if anything?"
"Nothing that he didn't know before," lied the gunman.
"How did he get hold of you anyway?"
"His Negro is a regular lurcher. He's a silent, runnin' hound. And he come slidin' at me while I was lyin' out in the brush, watching the verandah and edging close enough to pretty near make out what was being said there. He grabbed me. He's a gorilla, and I only got one hand, or I would've laid him dead, the black varmint. They took me in and held a gun to my head. They'd as soon as killed me as taken a breath. And they had me dead to rights... I was caught on their grounds."
"Blast you and your rights," said Alton. "I know that they made you squeal, but now tell me what you said. I don't care. I can cover it up. But I must know exactly what they got out of you."
"He knew it already," said the gunman. "I dunno how, but he knew that I was to get five hundred for running his father and him out of the county. He knows that Harry offered me the money. He doesn't know that you're behind the deal. He's got no idea of that. He don't have any idea, either, why that sand patch of his is worth a mint of money right now. They would've tore me to pieces if I hadn't talked, and now you know what he knows."
Alton took a deep breath, and then, with the tip of a finger, he brushed back the mustache from his upper lip. Finally he said: "How did young Good take this news?"
"As if he'd known it when he was born."
"He's dangerous," murmured the rancher. Then, as though by an afterthought, he said: "I know, whatever he thought, that you never would have confirmed any of his suspicions, except that you had to."
"Thanks, chief," said Wally Chase. "That's only fair, but I'm glad to hear you say it."
"There's another thing," said Alton. "I've been checking up on the big Negro. I've started an inquiry, and already I'm getting results. He's a known yegg."
The gunman sighed with satisfaction. "I knew it wasn't no new hand that took hold of me, tonight," declared Wally Chase. "He had a kind of professional way about him. He knew a gag from a hand saw, what I mean."
"I'll get the Negro first," said Alton, "unless the boy crowds me, and then I'll have to take him. If I can get the Negro, I'll spoil young Good's reputation in the town. Crooked servant, crooked master."
"Like me and you, eh?" Wally Chase chuckled sardonically.
"About money," said the rancher coldly. "You need some funds?"
"I ain't a buzzard," said the gunman. "I can't live on my own dead."
"Here's fifty dollars," said the other. "I'll take care of you, Wally, and I'll take good care. Now trot along. And the next time you come, come to the back door of the house."
He turned and went away toward the lighted verandah, while Wally Chase paused only a moment to mutter with savage hatred. Then he slid away into the shadows and down the drive.
SHORTLY after the return of the master of the house, the ladies retired. Budge Morrissey was murmuring softly, as if to himself: "This is the kind of a party to be stepping in on. All crooks! All except the little lady with the red hair. This here black man always noticed that a white girl that's as good as she's pretty carries a lamp around inside of her. She shines! Look at that verandah now, Mister Joseph, and see if it ain't kind of dark since she went inside?"
Young Joseph Good thought that the remark was very much to the point, but he gave no answer. He was too interested in the group that had formed suddenly on the verandah. Harry was standing supported by his crutches, while the others formed in a close knot, speaking with low voices.
"They've all gathered, the whole of the fighting clan," said the boy to the Negro. "Every one of those men means money, Budge. And every one of them can bring other fighting men into the field. They've come together tonight to talk about me. Hugh Alton is telling them that I've got on their trail through the confession of Wally Chase. And they're laying their heads together. They're planning how to ruin me, one way or another."
"A little lead slug through the head is the cheapest medicine," said Budge Morrissey.
"You see the main point that we have to work for," suggested the master. "Why is my land worth more than a gold mine? What's the mystery?"
"Mister Hugh Alton knows the reason, sir."
"And we've got to try to get the answer out of him. That's why we'll have to enter that house tonight, Budge."
"We got to enter," agreed the Negro. "And with all of those stinging wasps inside, it won't be so easy a job, maybe. But businessmen always write letters. And Hugh Alton is a businessman."
"What are you driving at, Budge?"
"Take a real, plain, straightway crook, like you, like me, and a lot that I know, we never wrote no letters, except about the weather. But a businessman like Hugh Alton always has to write letters. It's not the morning, if there's not a lot of letters in the mail. Somewhere in that house is Mister Alton's study, and in the study there's a desk, and in that desk are a lot of letters, and in the letters there's the mind of Mister Hugh Alton. You got to find those letters, Mister Joseph, and you and I have got to do a little reading tonight."
The boy nodded in the darkness. He saw the troop of men file into the house. Only Hugh Alton remained for a moment at the head of the steps, chewing at a cigar, lost in the deepest thought, and occasionally lifting his magnificent head to look above the heads of the trees toward the stars. At length he, also, turned about and, with a brisk step, went through the front door.
"He's got some ideas," said the Negro. "But maybe he's thinking a mite too late."
A servant came out, stood on a chair, pulled down the porch light with a chain, and blew it out. The lower face of the house was at once shrouded in darkness.
"After all," said the boy, "it appears that we've got to step on the heels of Hugh Alton tonight. Do you know his layout?"
The surprising Budge Morrissey said: "I know the whole plant. I know the cellar and the attic, and even the smell of the blackberry pies in the pantry on the shelves. I ate one of them pies last night, Mister Joseph. I hope you don't mind."
Lights appeared in the windows of the rambling second story that, from the pillars of the verandah fašade, retreated on either hand. After a short time, those lights, all saving one, went out.
"That's the room of Mister Jess Alton," said the Negro. "We go this way, Mister Joseph."
Cautiously, in the footsteps of the big black man, Joseph Good rounded the house, still keeping behind the shrubbery and so came to the side that was to the right of the verandah. There the Negro pointed out a series of windows that were already black.
"That's the room of Missus Alton," said Budge Morrissey. "And behind those three big windows, you see the little one? That's the bathroom, and next there's three more big windows. And that's the bedroom of Mister Hugh Alton. Then comes two more windows, with a balcony outside of 'em. That's his study. And that's where we have to go."
"No man," said the Negro. "In the next room is only Miss Katherine Garnet."
"Good," said the boy.
"Yes, that's good," replied Budge Morrissey. "Because a woman always sleeps sounder than a man. I remember once I was in a hotel bedroom for an hour and a half, a-fooling away at the lock of a little private safe, and the woman that owned the safe, she lay in her bed, and snored and slept, and snored and slept, just as sound. I got a little mad at the way she slept so sound, and at the combination on that safe, and, while I used my dark lantern, I swore a little louder than a whisper, but that only lulled her all the deeper."
"Did you get the safe open?" asked the boy.
"Yes, sir! And did I have a trip to New York? Yes, Mister Joseph, I did, and some of those Harlem Negroes were pretty surprised when they saw me come prancing out of the West. That was a six-month party before I had to go to work again."
The past sins of Budge Morrissey only amused the boy. "We'd better wait a while," he said. "Let them get deeply asleep."
"No, sir. If you'll excuse me," said Budge Morrissey, "the first sleep is the soundest. You just follow along after me, sir." He led the way to a side door that opened just above the ground. "This door hasn't been used for a long time," said Morrissey. "When I tried it last night, I saw that it hadn't been used for a long time, and it made me sort of sad, Mister Joseph, to see a lock all clogged up with rust, so I gave it a couple of squirts of oil. It ought to open pretty easy now."
It did open easily. They stepped into a lower hall. Budge closed the door noiselessly behind them, and the warm air of the interior of the house closed up softly about them, with a faint odor of cookery in it.
A ray of light cut down the center of the floor and then slashed right and left. It came from a dark lantern in the hand of Budge Morrissey. The heart of the boy stood still, until he understood the source of the light.
But after that preliminary examination, Budge moved ahead, a vast and shapeless shadow. He opened a door on the left. They entered a big room, whose size could be guessed from the distant gleam of a cigar butt that was dying on the hearth. Here, the thick, choking stench of cigar smoke was heavy in the air.
From this room they passed through another door into a purer atmosphere. They came to steps, up which the single needle ray from the lantern tripped before them.
The whisper of the Negro was at the ear of Joseph Good. "Walk close to the wall. Put your toes down first and let your knee sag. Ease yourself every step. If a creak starts, stop short, but not too short. If a board begins to groan under you, let it groan long and soft rather than quick and sharp. Come on."
At that moment, it seemed to Joseph Good that, through the darkness, numbers of whispering, mocking forms were trooping down the stairs with hands ready to clutch at them, with eyes that could look through the night.
Up they went slowly, slowly, and, as they came toward the head of the stairs, a padding footfall came down the hall. They shrank against the wall. Young Joseph Good made the loaded black snake ready.
But the half-guessed-at form went by the head of the stairs. A little farther down, there was a knock at a door. Then a door opened. The voice of Harry Alton said: "Here's your book, Kate, if you want to read yourself to sleep."
"I can sleep without reading, I'm so full of fresh air and tired with riding," answered the quiet voice of the girl. "But thanks for the book, Harry."
He said: "Kate, now that you've seen everybody, are you any closer to knowing?"
"Yes," she answered. "Not from seeing them, but from other things."
"And what's the answer?" he asked, excited.
"I'd rather talk to you in the morning, Harry," she said.
"Because you don't want to give me a bad night?"
"I'm sorry," she said.
"You're sorry? It's Uncle... Tucker Alton," he said fiercely. "You couldn't stand his big, brawling way of talking. I noticed your face at dinner."
"It's not your uncle, Harry."
"It's myself, then?"
"You know, in such a matter, you and I are the only people who really count."
"And you've made up your mind that I won't do."
"Not that you won't exactly do, but..."
"Listen to me!" he broke in. "It's the rotten talk that's been going about through the town. I know you've heard something. About that beggar, Joe Good, and what happened to his father. Tell me true. Is that partly in your mind?"
There was rather a long pause for such a point in such a conversation.
Then she said: "Yes, that's very much in my mind."
There was a groan from Harry Alton. "But he's a tramp, he's a loafer, he's worthless!" said Harry Alton hotly.
The girl responded: "I passed him the other day on the street. He seemed to me like the horse he was riding... a Thoroughbred."
"Kate," gasped the boy, "don't you know that he's been the town joke?"
"Perhaps he used to be," she said. "But from the way you all talk of him, he's certainly not a joke now." She added: "I don't want to talk any more now, Harry. I'd rather wait till the morning. You know I only came here..."
"I know that you only came because I begged you to," he said. "But to think that Joe Good... No Good, they've called him... to think that he made you... Kate, we'll talk again in the morning. Good night!"
THE door closed. The padding, irregular step of Harry Alton went down the hallway, and then his door was slammed. The memory of his muffled curses was still sweet in the ear of young Joseph Good.
"Now," said the Negro, and at last they arose and went stealthily on their way again.
They paused, Budge Morrissey fumbled at the wall, and then his wonderfully controlled whisper came to the ears of the boy: "Locked." A hand-warmed, metal thing was promptly placed in the hand of the boy. "Move the shutter a little. Give me a ray of light," said Morrissey.
Joseph Good, for the first time in his life, handled a dark lantern and unsheathed a streak of meager light, which he played obediently over the surface of the lock.
A little kit was already unfolded on the hall carpet, and Morrissey, on his knees, fell to work. It was metal against metal, but Good heard never a click.
Presently the door sagged open; a whispering draft came out about them. They stole into a big room with a high ceiling. Budge took the dark lantern and swept the place with the single ray that, it appeared, was all that he used. Like a sword slash, the light clove the darkness and showed the rug on the floor, the deep easy chairs, two tables, one piled with books, and more books in a set of shelves bracketed out from the wall. But, above all, the main piece of furniture in the room was a rolltop desk of great size, placed between the two windows. The ray of light steadied like a finger upon it.
Handing the lantern to Good, Budge was instantly leaning over the lock.
"These things are always easy," said the Negro. As he spoke, he began to slide back the top of the desk gradually, little by little. There was no sound. It was raised almost to the top, and then they fell upon the papers.
"We can't spend all night," the Negro whispered. "If the papers make some crackling noise when we open 'em up, we've got to chance it."
And chance it they did, while the cold sweat formed on the face of Joseph Good and trickled down to his chin. They tried the desk's pigeonholes. But there was nothing there except the scrawled reports of ranch foremen and small ledgers filled with ranch and other accounts.
"Deeper," said the Negro, and began opening drawers.
There were many drawers, and they were stuffed full of letter files and such matters.
For a whole half hour longer, they worked. Finally the Negro looked up and shook his head. "We're not on the right track," he said. "This Alton, he's a fox. He doesn't go to ground that everybody knows about. There may be some tricks about this desk." He drew out a drawer, measured it, compared its depth with the depths of the desk, shook his head again.
"We've lost," said the boy, shaking his head. "Let's get out of this at once." For a flutter of panic was making his heart race.
The Negro looked up with his golden smile. "Young crooks get to jail quick, Mister Joseph," he said. "And they don't have a full pocketbook to take with 'em. But I'm an old crook. Don't run till the patrol wagon comes, sir." Opening a top drawer, he began to probe about at the top of the desk. Suddenly he straightened with a startled look.
"Heard something?" gasped the boy.
"No, but I found something." He worked a moment over the top of the desk, removed the blotter, and presently raised up what seemed a solidly placed board in the surface of the desk, gripping it with his fingernails. A little compartment stocked with letters and a small notebook was revealed.
They exchanged knowing looks, these two burglars, and no faint, joyous smiles.
The ledger fell into the hands of the boy. He opened it. Small notations of cash expended met his eyes. They met nothing else until, glancing further, he saw:
Five more for Dick Purvis's election. He's too honest to be worth that much money.
It was as though music had sounded in the ears of Joseph Good. Hastily he turned onto a date that would be forever lodged in his memory, and there he found:
The five hundred and two-fifty bonus to Wally Chase. The rascal was worth his pay, after all!
And lower down:
Good has left. The best of them gone, and another hundred to Wally. That ought to hold him.
Fifty to Wally Chase. He knows too much. I wish Joe Good had broken the head of the worthless fool, instead of his hand!
Fifty to Wally. This is blackmail, but I have to stand it. Joe Good still away, thank God, perhaps forever. Then: Good returns. Fifty more to Wally Chase. He'll have to repay me with blood, one day!
That was the last entry in the ledger.
The boy looked up to find a broad smile on the face of the Negro, a smile so vast that it threw wrinkles into the vast sloping expanse of the forehead.
There was Budge Morrissey holding out several sheets of letter paper. "This is the trick!" he said.
Joseph Good dropped the account book into his pocket. Then he took the letters and read:
I have your letter of the 15th. I can't thank you enough. If the railroad runs through, as I think, of course you can clean up. You have bought all the best land through which the line will pass, except the most important bit of all, where the siding will run.
That will become the center of the town, and what are now waste acres will be sold soon for the price of building lots. This land of which I speak is the hundred acres belonging, I learn, to a certain Vincent Good. Can you buy him out? It will be several days before the news of the railroad's plan to build will be made public. You have that margin to work on. Thank you for your check.
The second letter read:
Have been working frantically, but nothing can be done with railroad engineers. The place they have chosen is the best for all their purposes. They want, also, the water of the creek that runs through the Good place. That will be invaluable, because it is never dry, winter or summer. I talked to the president today and suggested your plan, but he was immovable. I talked until he said that no doubt I had a good friend concerned. I laughed it off as well as I could. The station will be just in front of the Good place. There's nothing to be done about it.
You say that you may be able to get Good off the land with guns or money. Use both if you need to. That 100 acres will be worth all the rest of Fort Willow, the instant the railroad building plans are known. There are to be large yards. Fort Willow will have 10,000 new people in it within a year. Alton, I know that you're a smart man. Now use your brains.
Thank you for the last check. It was very welcome. I am hoping to buy a new house, and will need $10,000 for that purpose. If you get the Good place, I know you won't miss that much.
At the bottom of both of these letters appeared the signature: William Proctor.
Joseph Good folded the sheets of note paper and placed them in his pocket. "It isn't a perfect case," he said, "and it might not even put Alton in jail, but it will smash his name and reputation forever. Budge, I owe you something for myself, and something for..."
The hand of Budge Morrissey flew up in warning. He glided back toward the door that opened on the balcony. That door suddenly opened, and a figure entered the room, only to be instantly seized by the mighty hands of the Negro.
There was not a sound, except the whispering of silk, and the boy, striking in with the ray of the dark lantern, fastened it upon—the face of Katherine Garnet!
"Let her go!" ordered the boy, aghast.
"She'll yell," said the Negro through his teeth.
"Let her yell, then, Budge. Take your hands from her."
The hands of the Negro fell away from her. She staggered and slid with a groan into a chair.
THE boy was on his knees beside her, saying: "Nothing will happen to you. You're perfectly safe. Budge, get out of here! Save yourself. The house will be up in a moment."
"The house ain't heard a thing," said Budge Morrissey, breathing heavily. "Steady now, and we'll still pull through. Her mouth ought to be shut though."
Katherine Garnet sat up, one hand laid on her bruised throat, the other gathering her dressing gown around her. She was trembling, but something more than raving fear was in her eyes.
"You're Joseph Good," she said. "Why are you here? Why have you...? I came through the wrong door from the balcony. What... what have you done to Mister Hugh Alton?"
At that moment, as though inspired, from the next room Mr. Hugh Alton snored loudly.
"I came for this," said the boy, "and I've found it. I came to find proof that my father was murdered, and the motive for it... and I've found it. Will you look at these things?" His finger marked the places. The names were familiar enough to her; the words themselves would have been enough without such a knowledge. Her face grew a sickly white.
"It was murder," she said. She stood up. "What am I to do?"
"Go back to your bed. Say nothing, remember nothing. Can you do that?"
She drew in a breath. "What will you do before you leave this house?" she asked, her glance bright and steady on him.
The twisted, humorous smile came on the lips of Joseph Good. "Not what you guess that I might do," he said. "And not what other people in this part of the world might do. My father was murdered, but I'll not be a murderer to balance the account. Will you believe that?"
She paused before she nodded, and then her whisper said: "I'll believe it tomorrow. I knew..." She paused with a gasp at the things she knew.
"Go back to your room," he repeated. "Budge, close the desk."
It was done. The board in the top was arranged. The rolltop was lowered and clicked softly.
Then they left the room. The flicker of the dark lantern lighted the hallway outside, ending in a glistening point on the knob of her door. Then Joseph Good stood in the darkness beside her. He said: "My hand was forced. I had to play the cards that were in it. Does it make you think that I'm a common criminal?"
Katherine Garnet answered: "If I could do such a thing for my father's sake, I'd be proud. Good-bye."
Her door opened and closed on her, as he stood mute, silenced by the throng of words that were swelling in his throat.
Big Budge Morrissey took him by the arm. "We've got to go," he said. "Don't stay for her. A lady never forgets, Mister Joseph, no more than a gentleman can."
It seemed to Joseph Good that all danger had disappeared. They passed rapidly down through the house and out into the black of the night, striding across the fields toward the Good house. All that he had done seemed less important than another thing, a nameless excitement, sorrow, and joy that lived in him like the breath of his nostrils.
He mounted the mare the next morning at nine, and with a free, cantering gait he overtook a buckboard that contained the narrow, humped body of Zeke Stevens. Into his hands he passed two letters and a small ledger, and Zeke Stevens clucked to the horse as he drove on, reading. He looked up, his long, skinny arm extending the papers back to the boy on horseback. But the red fire was in the eyes of Zeke.
"The foundations are blowed away from under 'em. They're all gonna come down... all gonna come down! Go on, get the newspaper, get the sheriff. The game's yours!" And he waved to Joseph Good.
"Hawks," said Joseph Good. "They were hawks. And now there's an eagle over their heads."
In Fort Willow, he let the mare dance through the main street. There was peace in his soul and calm determination. He had done enough. The law would have to reach out now and gather in Mr. Hugh Alton, and perhaps many of his clan.
His way took him straight to the office of Judge Tomlinson, and he saw that dignitary dismount from a carriage that sagged down under the weight he put upon its step in descending. He waited. He followed the great man to his chambers. At the door, he confronted Jameson.
"The judge is a busy man," said the latter, and started to slam the door.
Joseph Good blocked it with his foot. "Take the judge this ledger," he said. "I'll wait in the hall."
He waited a long ten minutes. Then the door was jerked open by Judge Taylor Tomlinson in person. He came out into the hall with a drawn face. "Young man," he said, "Hugh Alton is my best and oldest friend. I'm not a handwriting expert to pass upon forgery."
"Hugh Alton is your best and oldest friend," said the boy, "and that means that you know his handwriting as well as you know your own."
The judge raised a hand and covered his eyes. "Hugh Alton," he muttered. He jerked the hand down. "What do you want?" he said.
"A warrant," said the boy.
"Murder," said young Joseph Good. "I showed you only part of the evidence. Here's more." He indicated the two letters that he had drawn from his pocket.
Back in the chambers of Taylor Tomlinson, he sat beside the judge and watched the latter read until his head finally fell into the cup of both hands. Then the judge sat up and shook his head to clear away the dark mists from his eyes.
"I would have chosen him," he said solemnly, "as the most honest man in the world. But if he's what he appears, I tear him out of my heart. God forgive Hugh Alton. I seem to see him before me now, guilty, guilty, guilty!" He rang a bell. Jameson appeared.
"Jameson," he said, "make out a warrant against Hugh Alton for the murder of Vincent Good!"