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This short novel features Barry Home, who made his first appearance in "The Three Crosses," a novelette that appeared in Street & Smith's Western Story Magazine on January 23, 1932, under the pen-name George Owen Baxter.
THREE men came over the horizon. The first came through the pass, the second, up the valley, and the third walked in over the flats from the direction of the railroad. All three were headed for Loomis, and one of them was to die before morning.
The man in the pass was Rance Tucker, flogging a pair of little mustangs in front of his buckboard that jumped and danced over the stones and the icy ruts of that trail. As he drove, he leaned forward in his seat a little, as though even that slight inclination of the body got him a vital degree closer to his necessary goal. He was a big man in his early forties, rawboned, with a weather-beaten face and a great crag of a jaw. As he came out of the mouth of the pass, he first looked apprehensively behind him, for he thought that he had heard the pattering hoofs of a horse galloping through the ravine. But that might well be in his mind; for days a dread had been gathering in him.
When he saw the iron-colored walls of the ravine behind him and nothing living between them, he flogged the mustangs again, until they bumped their hindquarters, switched their tails, and shook their heads in protest. But, according to the ways of their kind, they only lurched for an instant into a rapid lope, and then fell back to the dog-trot which was all they knew about a road gait.
Tucker forgot to whip them for a moment and stared down through the gloom of the winter evening into Loomis Valley. It was a heavy dusk, for the sky was sheeted across with gray, and long arms of shadow reached out of the heavens toward the earth, covering the mountains, obscuring utterly the level reaches of the desert, thronging over the lower end of the valley itself. There was the brittle chill of frost in the air, and before morning probably the ground would be covered with white. But the darkness only served to make the lights of Loomis shine more clearly, a little bright cluster in the middle of the valley.
Rance Tucker sighed and nodded with reassurance as he made out the spot. He could remember when this had been Parker Valley, and yonder stood the town of Parkerville. But Parkerville had burned to the ground, and, when the ashes were hardly cold, before they had had a chance to blow away, in fact, Dave Loomis came along and bought up the entire site for next to nothing. It was only a crossroads little town, at the best, but Loomis built his hotel there, installing a blacksmith shop in a wing of it. He also found room for a post office and a general merchandise store. What more does a town need, except a barroom, which the hotel offered, and some sort of a dining room, which the same hotel possessed? So the hotel stood in place of the vanished town of Parkerville, and everybody was satisfied, particularly Dave Loomis.
That hotel was the goal of Rance Tucker. He had barely settled himself back in his scat and commenced clucking again to his horses, however, when he heard the sound of hoofs again behind him, and this time unmistakably. He looked back with eyes that started from his head. Like a ghost appeared the rider in the gloaming, but Rance Tucker, with a groan of fear, jerked the horse to a stand, pulled a double-barreled shotgun loaded with buckshot from beneath the seat, and, dropping low down, leveled his weapon, blinking rapidly to clear his eyes of the tears that the wind had brought there.
The rider came swiftly on, saw the gleam of the leveled gun, and jumped his horse far to the side with a yell: "Hey, Dad!"
Rance Tucker got up from his knees with a groan of relief. His big body began to tremble with weakness, now that the strain upon him was relaxed. "Hey, you. Lew," he answered, rather feebly. "Whatcha mean by coming out like this? Your place is back there at home."
Lew Tucker reined his horse in beside the buckboard and scowled at his father. He was a huge man, only twenty-two, but already seasoned and hard; his strength was in full maturity as often happens when boys lead a life of constant activity.
"Lookit here, Dad," he said. "It's all right, you telling me to stay at home, but Ma wouldn't have me there."
"Whatcha mean? Wouldn't have you there?" shouted the father, relieving himself by falling into a rage.
"That's what I mean," said the young man. "You don't think that you been pulling the wool over the eyes of anybody, do you, the way you been acting for a couple weeks, do you?"
"Acting how?" asked Rance Tucker, with a little less vehemence.
"Acting," said Lew Tucker, "as though there was Injuns lyin' in wait in the next room at home or over the hill, when you're out riding. And staying up all last night, walking up and down—that's not deceivin' anybody, is it? There's certainly something on your mind, and you're drivin' to Loomis to get it off."
This assemblage of facts broke down the self-assurance of the older man. He said: "Look, Lew, you know that Barry Home is comin' back tonight, don't you? Tonight or tomorrow, he's sure gonna turn up, and who would wanta be alone on a ranch when that murdering devil comes back?"
"How d'you mean, alone?" asked the son. "Ain't you got me as well as yourself? Ain't there two hired men? Ain't four men enough to handle even Barry Home?"
"You think so, do you?" the father asked gravely.
"Four to one?" repeated Lew Tucker, as though the phrase was a sufficient answer.
"I got a wife and a son, and I got a ranch that I've made out of nothing with my own hands," began Tucker.
"Aw, wait. Don't go through all that again," pleaded Tucker insolently. "I know all you done, and how poor you and Ma were when you started the climb. Now, you tell me what you're gonna do in Loomis. Go and lie under a bed and shake for a coupla days, waiting for Barry Home to show up? Is that it?"
"Don't sass me back like that," commanded the father. "You think that you're a big, bold, rough feller, you do. But you don't know what Barry Home can do when he gets started."
"Well, and what could he do?" asked Lew Tucker. "He ain't more'n half my size, scarcely, and he ain't much older than me, only three or four years. And he's a damned jailbird, besides!"
"He's a jailbird," said the father. "And that means that he's gonna try to work out his grudge ag'in' me. He swore that he would be even with me, when the jury found him guilty. The judge and the jury, they all heard him."
"What I mean," said the son, "did you do dirt to Barry Home that time? Did you hide the stuff in his room, like he swears that you done? Did you plant it there to get him pinched, instead of you?"
"Lew, Lew, what you talkin' about?" exclaimed Rance Tucker.
"I'm askin' you a question."
"And you a son of mine!"
"I ain't saying that I'll let you down. No matter what you've done, you're my father, I reckon, and I'm behind you as long as there's any blood in me. Only, I'd like to know the truth."
"Was you in the courtroom when I give my evidence?" asked the father.
"It was three years back," said the son, "but I reckon that I could say every word over. Was it true?"
"Did I take an oath on a book before I talked that day?" asked the rancher.
"I reckon that you did."
"Is that enough for you?"
"Yeah, I guess that's gotta be enough, if you put it that way."
"Then go on home with you."
"I won't go home," insisted the son. "I wouldn't dare to. Ma sent me out to have an eye on you, and I'm gonna keep with you till hell freezes over."
Rance Tucker made a sound of vague discomfort and annoyance deep in his throat and struck his horses with the long whip. They jerked away into the dusk, with a clattering of the iron-shod wheels, and young Lew Tucker rode rapidly behind.
Up the lower part of the valley, that was still called Parker, as distinguished from Loomis, came another rider at this same time, as tall a man as cither of the Tuckers, but with an air about him that suggested a foreign gentility.
He was mounted on a horse of such obvious value that all the Tucker mustangs, their saddles, buckboard, harness, and guns together, would not have made half the value of that magnificent stallion.
The rider, taking the wind in his face as he came to the junction of Loomis and Parker Valleys, paused to adjust the silken scarf that he wore in place of a bandanna about his throat As he paused, the wind turned up the wide brim of his sombrero, though it was stiffened and weighted with Mexican gold work, and showed for a moment a thin, sallow, handsome face, puckered a bit about the lips as though in great weariness, but with a reserve of fire gleaming in the eyes.
That was Tom London, known far and wide throughout the country, suspected of being a little light in his fingers and lighter still in his conscience. For he was a gentleman without visible means of support, but one, nevertheless, who was constantly able to do as he pleased. Moreover, nothing but the most expensive ever satisfied him. Some said that he was able to make all his expenses out of gambling, but others shook their heads. Though Tom London was a gentleman who gambled for high stakes, he seemed to lose even more than he won. There must be other sources of his revenue, and what could they be?
However, the question went no further than surmises, for Tom London was the very last person in the world of whom one would wish to ask questions, at least questions about himself. At the same time, his manner was the most amiable in the world, unless one crossed him suddenly, unexpectedly, and then danger peered out from beneath the straight, black brows.
He finished adjusting his neckcloth and rode on, just as Barry Home, walking through the desert sand, came within sight of the distant glitter of the lights of Loomis and paused in his turn to make a cigarette, light it with his back to the wind, and smoke it out while he remained thinking things over.
IT is not the easiest thing in the world to make a cigarette in the semi-dark; it is nearly impossible when a strong wind is blowing. Yet, Barry Home managed the thing with the most consummate ease, never glancing down at what his fingers were accomplishing. Neither did he have any difficulty in lighting the match, holding it for a moment in the secure round cup of his hands, and then opening the thumbs to get the cigarette in contact with the flame.
In this flash one could see his face. It was not the face that Loomis would expect to see. He had gone away as the buffoon, the good-natured jester of the entire range, and he was coming back with the roundness chipped away from his face. In fact, he seemed to be carved in a very different sort of stone.
He was the sort of man who would be described with difficulty. He had blue-gray, sometimes greenish, eyes; his hair was ordinary brown; his height was only a shade above average; there were no marks or scars on his face or on his body. In fact, the whole man could be summed up as average.
However, though Loomis would have been willing to admit that Barry Home was average in appearance, the community, of which town the hotel was the center, would have been the first to declare that there was nothing average about his mental equipment.
For that matter, when had there been a Home who was simply average? The grandfather of Barry had been one of those fellows who play the real Indian game. That is to say, you tag the Indians while the Indians arc trying to tag you. You do the tagging with the point of a knife, or an ounce of lead placed in a vital spot. And Grandfather Home had done a great deal of tagging before the Indians finally put an end to the game and him. His three sons scattered to different parts of the West. One of them became a booster of small towns and was wiped out in the fire that removed one of these towns from the map. Another started a gambling palace in Tucson and was said to have run it fairly and squarely. Nevertheless, an irate customer, whose roulette luck had been worse than his fortune in the mines, pulled a sawed-off shotgun from under his coat one day, and emptied both barrels of it into Home.
That left Barry Home, the third, the sole heir of the family name and the family fortune. The name was a wild one, and the fortune was nil.
Barry Home himself seemed to care nothing for the past and nothing for the future. He was content to ride the range, working here and there, a very good hand with cows, a better hand with horses. He was never offensive. His spirits were always high. Some people continually waited for him to show a spark of the old Home fire, but it never appeared, except in his jovial moments. The result was that half the range said that the old blood was burned out at last; the other half said that Barry Home, the third, was the best of the whole wild family.
Then came the day when the Crystal River stage was robbed of sixty-odd thousand dollars in hard cash and jewels, following which the trail of a rider from the point of the hold-up was traced back to the Tucker Ranch. The print of that horse was oddly like that of one belonging to Tom London. Tom was actually arrested, when suddenly Rance Tucker appeared and reluctantly confessed that he had seen his hired man, Barry Home, returning late on the guilty night, riding a horse whose shoes, in fact, were ringers for those worn by Tom London's Thoroughbred.
The sheriff jogged out to the Tucker place and searched Barry Home's room. He did not find much, only three gold watches and a single batch of currency. But what does a cowpuncher need with three gold watches, when he's working for fifty a month, or less, according to the season?
No one could tell, particularly the judge and the jury that heard the case, and Barry Home was sent to prison, but for only five years, though that state was hard on stage robbers. However, the boy was young; it was a first offense and, though he was threatened with a much longer term unless he would confess where the rest of the loot was hidden, it was a matter of record that he would not budge from his first story of innocence and complete ignorance of how the loot could have appeared in his bedroom at the Tucker ranch house. Nevertheless, he was given only five years by the judge, in spite of a furiously ranting district attorney. Good behavior in the prison, the special intercession of the warden, commuted the five years to three. And now he was out in the world again, a free man.
He had the clothes he stood up in. He had a dollar and sixty-five cents in his pocket. Otherwise, he had one handkerchief, and that was all. The young man, however, was optimistic. After he had stood there for some time, smoking out the cigarette and considering the distant gleam of the lights of Loomis, he dropped the butt on the ground, stepped on it, watched the little red shower of sparks blow away, and then stepped forward again, singing.
The angry wind tore the music from his lips and scattered it abroad, as it were, but Barry Home, undaunted, continued to sing. And his step was as light as a dancer's. As he came closer to the long double row of trees that led up to Loomis, he stopped and looked curiously up at their nakedness, barely visible in the rapidly gathering night. He was. like them, stripped of everything. They had lived for twenty-five years in the world, and so had he. Now they had come to a cold, naked winter. So had he. They were regarded by the world in the time of their need. And thus it was with him.
When he had come to the conclusion of these somber thoughts, he broke out into contented laughter and walked on again. It was plain that he was as good-natured as ever, and yet it was also plain that cheerful nature had changed a little during the three years he had spent away from Loomis and the range around it.
He reached the hotel. First, he stepped onto the front verandah, walked down the length of it, looked at the darkened windows of the store and post office, at the lighted ones of the lobby and sitting room, then turned back and regarded the pale gleam of the water in the troughs that hospitably bordered the whole length of the porch. Something made him dip a finger in that water. The cold of it bit his finger to the bone. He stepped from the verandah, rounded the hotel, and a great mongrel dog came running toward him, barking furiously out of the night.
"Hello, Tiger, you old bluff," said the young man pleasantly.
Tiger began to whine and sniff at the shoes of the stranger. He did not know the voice, to be sure, but he understood the familiar tone of one who feels that he is at home. Tiger was in a quandary. He began to growl again, when he saw this man walk up to the kitchen door and pull it open.
A thin drift of smoke and of fragrant steam blew out into the night. The young man stepped inside.
He saw Mrs. Dave Loomis. Gertie to the entire range, standing over the big stove in the corner, just now lifting the iron lid of a pot and, with a dripping spoon in one hand, peering through clouds of steam at the contents.
"Hello, Missus Loomis," he said with a smile.
"Hey! Hullo, there, Barry!" she cried.
She gave the metal spoon a fling into the sink, where it arrived with a great clattering. Then she bore down hugely upon the other and held out both hands, red and wet as they were.
"Barry Home!" she cried. "Now, I'm mighty glad to be seeing you, and since when have you started in calling me Missus Loomis, I'm asking you? Maybe I'm that old, but I don't want to feel it."
"Old?" he said, taking the moist hands with a hearty grip. "You're not old. You're just the right age, I think. But I've been taking lessons in politeness for three years, you know. I've learned to use names with a lot of care, I can tell you."
He laughed, his eyes shining with wonderful brightness and merriment. Mrs. Loomis sighed with relief, and nodded and smiled in return.
"Barry," she said, "I was thinking that maybe they'd put the iron into you, like they often do. There was that poor fellow Phil Dunlop, you knew him?"
"Oh, he wasn't no killer in the beginning," said Mrs. Loomis. "All he did was to pick up a cow, now and then, just a wanderin' cow or a calf that didn't know where to go, and how could you be blaming a poor fellow with not much of a home, except of his own making? He never touched another man's horse! But they got hold of him, and they shipped him away to jail. When he came out, the spirit inside of him had changed, and he was mean. He was a nice boy, when he went away, but he was a gunman when he come back home. But you, Barry, they didn't do nothing to you. Not a thing! Except you're three years older. That's all. And I'm glad. I'm mighty glad. Hey, Patty, come here and look at Barry Home come back to us! And just the same as ever he was in the old days."
The girl came out of the pantry with a bread knife in her hand. "Hey, Barry!" she cried, waving the knife.
"Dry your hands on my apron, Barry," said the cook. "I been and dripped all over 'em. Come along, Barry. Take a look at my girl, Patricia, will you? I'm a proud woman. Look what I've been and done with that niece of mine.
You remember the skinny sixteen-year-old bit of nothing that she was when you went away? And now will you look at her? Just like Texas beef, after it's been fattened up all summer on our good grass. She's pretty, Barry, ain't she? Her eyes get bluer and bluer every year. The boys are dyin' for her, Barry, is what they are. And won't she be making the grand wife for somebody? She's a good girl and a handy girl, Barry—but she ain't quite settled down yet. She don't know whether she's a boy or a girl, or whether her place is in the kitchen or in the saddle. But my old man used to say many a time that a hoss that didn't need some breaking wasn't no hoss at all!"
Patricia had shaken hands firmly with the returned man and given him her best smile, but her eyes waited and dwelt on his face.
"Come here in the pantry and talk to me while I cut the bread and do something," she said. "Aunt Gertie, he wants some news, and that's why he's come in the kitchen way. Let me have him, and I'll fill him full."
"How should he be wanting news, when you've wrote him every week for three years, Patty?" asked Mrs. Loomis.
"Written news," said the girl, "is no good, because you can't make any faces in a letter. Come along, Barry."
He went into the big pantry and hoisted himself to the top of the cracker bin. There he sat with legs dangling, watching her swift hands at work. She looked at him rarely, giving him only her attention and her voice, and he was able to examine her with a tender curiosity and to nod with approval.
"I won't ask if you're glad to be back," said the girl. "I know how you feel—hard outside and hollow inside. Is that it?"
"Oh. no," he said. "I got over all the funny business in prison."
"You got all over it? You got all over what?"
"Ah?" she said. She lifted her head and looked not at him, but straight before her at her own thoughts.
"You were a good girl to write me once a week."
"And a whole year before the first answer came," she replied. She smiled a little ruefully.
"I told you why. Solitary."
"Solitary? Yes, but you never told me why they kept you in solitary confinement for a whole year. Isn't that a frightful lot?"
"It's a lot," he admitted. "They have a whole lot of hell there, besides. Rivers of it. You can get all you want there."
"Did you want it?" she asked.
"I confess that I was a little restless," he explained.
"Oh, was that it? Prying around? Did that get you into trouble?"
"Punching a few fellows on the chin started the trouble. Then I got the name of being a bad actor, and I was proud of that name."
"Ah, hum," said Patricia Loomis. She added: "Go on, Barry, talk, will you? You never told me about this. What happened? How did you get out of solitary?"
"They changed wardens, and the second warden didn't believe in solitary as a punishment."
"What did he believe in?"
"Double hours of work, heavier irons, a heavier sledge hammer, and plenty of beatings."
"Beatings?" said the girl, in a very quiet voice.
"Yes. They toughened me up quite a bit. I had a year of double work and short rations and plenty of beatings. It makes you thin, but it keeps you in wonderful shape. You sleep without any dreams, good or bad, when you're living that sort of a life."
"Ah, hum," she said. "But I thought that you had got out on good behavior, Barry."
"Well," he said, "they'd lengthened my term four times for me under the first two wardens. They had it up to about ten years. You never heard of the trials, because I didn't write about 'em. Then the second warden was changed, when the new party was elected... and a little over a year ago, the third warden came along. He was a different cut. He wasn't holding down an easy job. He was trying to do some good. He took the bad characters out of chains.
He said they simply had excess energy, and they could use it to entertain the boys every evening with boxing bouts in the prison yard. He split us up into our weights. I was a middleweight, Patty, but I got the heavyweight championship finally. I took some whalings on the way up, but I got there." He laughed.
"Good old Barry," said the girl. But she frowned as she continued to cut the bread. "Go on," she commanded.
"Well, when I won the championship—that was six months ago—the warden made me his personal trusty, his bodyguard, d'you see? There was a terrible howl from the old trusties and all the old prison officials. They said it was rewarding crime and bad behavior. But the warden stuck to me."
"Ah, there was one white man, eh?" murmured the girl.
"White man? He was more than a white man... he was good luck to me. Then, one day, a crazy Swede tried to smash the warden's head with a crowbar, that was in the blacksmith shop. But he happened to hit my head, instead.
So I went to bed and, when I got out of bed, the warden was at work getting all the sentences reversed, except the first one. He couldn't manage that. But he got me out inside the smallest limit of my sentence."
"God bless him!" said the girl. "But tell me this, Barry, isn't it true, when you were hit, that it wasn't by accident? You just chucked yourself into the crowbar's way, wasn't that the fact of the matter?"
"My job was to take care of the chief," said Barry, frowning a little, for the first time. "Now tell me about things around here in town. And tell me first what started you writing letters to me, Patty? We'd never known each other very well when I was here."
"It was like this," explained the girl. "Everybody always had a good word for you till you went away. After that, they began to shake their heads and say they always had... well, anyway, I thought that I'd write to you. And I did."
"You did," he said soberly. "You saved my life, Patty."
"No, I didn't do that much for you," she insisted.
"I would have gone crazy that second year," said Barry Home. "I was crazy, part of the time. But your letters kept coming every week. When I got out of solitary, imagine what a heap was waiting for me... fifty letters from you to read through! I used to read 'em over and over. I could sec that you were growing into a sweet youngster and getting finer all the time. About the end of the second year, they took all your letters away from me. They did that!"
His voice had not changed greatly, there was simply a new, faint ring in it. But it made Patty Loomis turn sharply upon him and catch his wrists with her strong brown hands. He was still smiling about the mouth, but his eyes were sober and very bright.
"Don't, Barry," said the girl. "Don't act that way!"
"I'm not acting any way," he assured. "I said they took your letters away from me, that was all. There were almost a hundred of 'em. I knew 'em by heart, but I used to keep on reading 'em. Nobody else wrote me any letters. Not a soul. But I could tell your letters one from another by the outside of the envelopes. Then they took 'em all away." Barry laughed a little. "That was not so good," he said.
She kept her hold on his wrists. "Good old Barry" she said. "I'll tell you one thing."
"You've got to watch yourself."
"How should I watch myself, Patty?"
"You know what I mean. You just keep a tight hold on yourself, will you?"
"You think I might do something violent. Is that the idea?" he asked.
"That's the idea," she admitted.
"Ah. but you're wrong. Patty," he said, "I'll never do anything violent that I can be checked up for. I'll never do anything more violent than to defend myself from danger. Oh, no, I've become the most careful man in the world. Believe that?"
She kept her straight, steady glance upon him. Then she shook her head. "Oh, Barry," she said, "they've hurt you right to the heart, haven't they?"
"Not that deep. They've just toughened my skin a little. I have a good, tough skin, now, believe me."
"I believe it," she murmured.
"Now, tell me what the picture's like here at home," he said.
"It's just the same," she answered. "I'd like to ask you a question that I never dared to put into my letters."
"You want to ask me if I robbed the stage?"
"Yes. I want to ask you that."
"I won't answer."
"It wouldn't harm you to answer."
He laughed cheerfully, again. "You see," he said, "I said under oath, at the trial, and I said it a good many times, that I was innocent, that I didn't rob the stage, that I didn't know where the loot was. But they chucked me into prison for three years. Two years of hell and one year of hoping. That was all. Now I talk no more about the robbing of the stage. And people won't wonder if I have money, even when I'm doing no work. There was over sixty thousand dollars in that job. I'm supposed to have it cached away, somewhere."
"Barry, what d'you mean?"
"I mean that I'm not going to work for a while. I've worked for three years hard, and now the world can work for me a while."
"There's only one way to get money without working," she said.
"No," he answered, "there are a whole lot of ways, and they're all honest, unless you're found out in the middle of the job."
She turned away from him, not answering.
"That's the way of it," he said grimly. "Does it make you despise me, Pat?"
"No," she said, her voice trembling. "I don't despise you, but I feel pretty sick. You go and talk to Aunt Gertie for a while. I'm going to cry, or something, and be a fool."
BARRY left the pantry and went down the short hall toward the dining room and lobby just as the farther door opened and young Lew Tucker strode in, facing him. It was a narrow hall with a low ceiling.
Young Lew bowed his head a trifle to keep the lofty crown of his sombrero from touching the ceiling. When he saw Home, he stopped short and stared.
Barry Home walked straight on, pausing just in front of Lew and looking up to him with that faint smile about the lips and that gravity of the eyes that was now his habitual expression.
"Hello, Lew," he said.
"Why, Barry Home!" exclaimed Lew.
"That's me," nodded Home.
"Home," said Lew Tucker, "I gotta ask you something."
"Here I am for the asking," said Home.
"I don't mean no damn' joking."
"No, you don't mean any damn' joking, I suppose," said Home.
Calmly he looked the big fellow up and down. A red flag in front of a bull could not have been more infuriating than this attitude of detached indifference.
Lew Tucker raised his right hand. All of it was fist except the forefinger, that protruded, and that he now shook at the smaller man.
"Because," said Lew Tucker, "trouble is something that you might start around here, and that other folks would do the finishing of."
"Other folks are always apt to finish the trouble," nodded Barry Home, his smile unaltered.
"Are you tryin' to make a fool out of me?" asked Lew Tucker, his voice rising and turning as harsh as a rasp on metal.
"Oh, I couldn't do that," declared Barry Home. "Easy, there, Lew. It looks as though you're trying to back me out of the hall. You mustn't do that. There's room for me to squeeze by even a great big man like you."
"I've got a mind...," said Lew. And he turned his right hand into a complete fist by curling back the forefinger.
"You have a mind to what, Lew?" asked Barry Home, in the same amused manner.
"I gotta mind to sock you on the chin," said Lew Tucker. "I would, if you was my size. You're tryin' to make a fool out of me?"
"Now, Lew," said Barry Home, "you're a good fellow and a big fellow, but don't you think that you're making a mistake?"
"What kind of a mistake?"
"Taking a bite, when you don't know whether you can swallow it or not?"
"Oh, I dunno what you mean, except you mean that you need a licking," said Lew Tucker, "and I've a mind to give it to you. You damn', sneakin', mockin' jailbird."
"That's all right," said Barry Home, shrugging his shoulders. "You can't irritate me, Lew. I've had men talk to me, real men with vocabularies."
It was the final insult for Lew Tucker. Besides, he was on edge for just such a scene as this. He knew that his father was frightfully worried He knew that the cause of the worry was this ex-convict, and he felt that any gesture he could make against Home would be against the common enemy of all his family.
So he made a half-step forward with his left foot, feinting with his left hand at the same instant, and then leaning his ponderous weight forward so that all of it came behind the whip of his right shoulder as he drove a long, straight right for the mouth of Barry Home. These were the tactics that had won for Lew Tucker many a stiffly contested school-yard fight. Over and over again, that feint had fooled the other fellow, and the heavy right had gone to the point. The mouth was the best target, he felt. For one thing, the lips were easily cut, and the taste of one's own blood and the sting in the numbness of the lips arc disheartening. In addition, the punch is likely to stun the other fellow, so that a second and far heavier blow can often be landed with ease.
But it was not for nothing that Barry Home had fought his way up among the tough fellows of the prison yard, not for nothing had he fought thrice with Tiger Humphries, the ex-prizefighter, for the heavyweight championship of the jail. Twice they had fought out twenty desperate rounds to a draw. The third time, he knew the Tiger's tricks by heart, and a merciful umpire stopped the slaughter in the fifth round.
A fellow like Lew Tucker, big as he was, was merely a much easier target. Barry Home let the feint go. The serious purpose, he knew, was in the following right. When that punch came, he flattened himself against the wall and let it shoot past his face.
Lew Tucker bumped into a short right jab which was as solid as the projecting fork of a tree. It hurt his ribs and took his breath. He twitched to the side and, clubbing his big left fist, smashed it downward at the restless head of Barry Home. The smaller man stepped inside that punch and heaved all his weight into a flying uppercut that landed just under the chin of the big fellow.
Lew Tucker did not pitch back. His head jerked convulsively with the impact, then he fell on his face as though a trip hammer had fallen on the back of his brain. He lay still, with his arms stretched out before him and the fingers twitching. Otherwise, there was no movement.
Barry opened the door into the lobby. Straight before him he saw the sheriff, Bert Wayland, in earnest conversation with Rance Tucker.
"Hello, Tucker! Hello, Sheriff Wayland!" he said. "Won't you come and take a look at poor Lew, here? He's had an accident. He must have slipped and fallen on his chin. He's knocked out!"
Rance Tucker went back a full stride, as be heard that voice. His eyes opened and let Barry Home look deep into his soul, to see all that he had suspected that he might find there—stark, staring guilt. However, Tucker ran forward into the hall, and Barry Home heard him exclaiming over the fallen body of his son. Then Lew Tucker began to groan and make feeble, kicking motions with his legs.
The other men in the lobby hurried forward to enjoy the scene, waving and nodding greeting askance to Barry Home as they went by him.
Only the sheriff remained where he had been before, and he said tersely: "Kind of like an entrance in a play, ain't it, Barry?"
"The villain's entrance, d'you mean?" said Barry Home.
The sheriff glanced quickly at him. "How d'you mean that?" he asked.
"Why, I always mean what's right. I never mean any offense," said the other.
Wayland thrust out his jaw. "I wanta talk to you, my friend," he said. "And I guess there's no better time for talkin' than right now."
"I can't think of a better time," said Barry Home, "except over a glass of whiskey. Step into the bar and have one with me?"
Wayland thrust out his chin still farther. "You've got yourself all polished up smooth and smart while you been away these three years, ain't you?" he asked.
"I've had a good deal of grooming and dressing down. I ought to be polished enough to shine. Sheriff," he said.
He smiled, as though expecting sympathetic comment from the other, but Wayland was only angrier than before.
"You wanta watch yourself and your step, now that you're back here," he said.
"In a rough country, a man always has to watch the ground under him," agreed Barry Home gently.
"What I mean," said the sheriff, "you wanta look out for yourself. Right now you been slugging Lew Tucker, have you? You're gonna try and ride the Tuckers, are you, because old man Rance told the truth about you and landed you in stripes?"
"My dear Sheriff," said the other. "I never pick a fight. I really never do. I've had enough fighting to last me the rest of my life. But I don't mind taking on the trouble that's brought to me by others. I dare say you know what I mean."
"You dare say that I do, eh?" said the sheriff, snarling and growing angrier as he listened. "You been and worked up your language a lot while you was away, did you?"
"I read a few books, if you don't mind," said Barry Home. "They had an excellent library at the prison. It wasn't a bad place at all, as a matter of fact."
Sheriff Wayland grunted.
"Perhaps you'll see it, some day," suggested Barry Home.
"Meaning that I'll be sent up, eh?" exclaimed Wayland. "Now, looka here, young feller, if you think you can start badgering me, I'll tell you this... I'm here to keep Loomis peaceful tonight. And peaceful is what it's gonna be. You hear me talk?"
"I hear you talk," agreed the other.
"Well, you keep right on hearing, then!"
"Thank you," said Barry Home, "I'll keep right on hearing, Sheriff."
"Mocking me, are you?" shouted the sheriff suddenly.
"Why, who am I to mock the sheriff of the county?" asked Barry Home, opening his eyes as though in smiling and polite surprise.
"I see your line," said the sheriff, crimson with anger. "And maybe, hey, Lew Tucker!"
Lew Tucker was on his feet, at last, looking around and settling his hat on his head with one hand, while with the other he fumbled at a small, bleeding place on his chin.
"Well?" muttered young Tucker.
"Did this gent jump you, Lew?" asked the sheriff. "Go on and tell us what happened. Breaking the peace is enough to slam folks in jail in this here neck of the woods."
But Lew Tucker, making no answer, his eyes darkly fixed before him, simply strode across the lobby. A minute later his footfall sounded heavily on the verandah outside, and he was gone.
RANCE followed his son to the door which he jerked open, and. leaning out. bawled loudly: "Hey, Lew, Lew! Come back in here, will you?"
There was no answer from Lew Tucker, but from the night came the whistle of the storm, hooting like an owl in the distance and then whistling high and small, near at hand. A gust of icy wind entered and caught a paper from the floor, sending it hurrying in tatters until it flattened against the glowing body of the big stove. There the paper began to smoke, and Dave Loomis caught it up and folded it against his fat stomach, saying: "Now, Rance, just close that door, will you? It looks like Lew had had a kind of a fall, and he ain't likely to come back inside here and face all the folks for a while. I'm sorry about that, too, because Lew is a good scout. But you know how it is, when you're kind of proud. A young gent, he don't like to stumble over nothing and get a fall, not even over Barry Home."
Rance Tucker closed the door and turned about. His face was pale. Even in that instant the strength of the rising wind had blown a film across his eyes. Now, looking down, he brushed from his knees a few glistening flakes of snow. They turned to water at the touch of his hand. He flicked the drops away and shook his head, with the air of one who is striving vainly to solve a problem of immense depth and importance. When he looked up at last, his glance fell upon Barry Home and hastily jerked away from him, again.
The sheriff lifted his voice.
"What I wanta know," he said, "is did Barry Home jump Lew Tucker out there in the hall. If he did, I'm gonna do something about it!"
No one answered.
Wayland, with a shrug of his shoulders, growled out: "You've gone and turned yourself into a fox, have you, Barry Home? But foxes can't last long in a place like Loomis!"
"Of course not," agreed Barry Home. He made the gesture of one deprecating all hard feeling and withdrawing all opposition. "I told you what happened," he said. "Poor Lew just stumbled and fell on his chin. That's hard luck, and I'm sorry."
Dave Loomis went up to him and laid a fat, brown, red-backed hand upon his shoulder. "You go and be a good scout, will you. Barry?"
"Why, of course, I'll be a good scout," said Barry Home. "I've learned how you're punished when you're bad in this world, and now I'm going to be good. I'm going to work night and day to be good, of course. You would, too, if you'd had three years of the strict teaching that I've been through."
The whole crowd was listening to these words, as it gathered more and more closely to the stove. This was the first of the really cold weather. In the morning, they might awake in a white world, one that would stay white for five long months. Later on, they would grow acclimated to the cold, but now the drafts worked up sleeves and trouser legs and down inside neck bands like little fingers of ice. It was a moment when women could stop regretting that their work was over a hot stove; it was a moment when the hotel keeper seemed the luckiest man in the world. Some of those men would be out riding range in the dusk of the next morning, their horses slipping through slush or sliding on well-iced surfaces. They were down-hearted now, thinking about what lay before them, wondering why they had chosen this country to live in and how the summer could fly away so fast. So they gathered near the stove, edging toward it, turning their shoulders to the heat, stretching out furtive hands to it, as though it were a solid thing of value that could be stolen and kept in one's possession.
In the meantime, they listened to Barry Home's pleasant and excited voice, as he spoke to Dave Loomis and pronounced the values of a life in prison.
"Now, Barry," said Dave, "don't you go and laugh behind my back."
"He ain't laughin' behind your back... he's laughin' in your face." said the sheriff. "I dunno what I oughta do about him. I dunno but what I oughta lock him up, right now, and by the jumpin' Jiminy, I think that I'm gonna do it!"
"Why, I wouldn't do that," said the voice of one who had just stepped into the lobby from the barroom. That was the tall, elegant form of Tom London, his silken scarf adjusted neatly now, his clothes well brushed, his boots polished, his whole manner alert, genial, gentlemanly. He was smoking a cigarette, and the very way in which he flicked off the ash pronounced him to be a man of taste and of understanding.
The sheriff turned sharply on this man of strange and suspicious character.
"Are you turnin' yourself into a judge, Tom?" he asked. But his words were spoken in a complaining, rather than an insulting, tone.
"I'm not a judge," said Tom London. "But I remember that they always used to say in this part of the country, in the old days, that one never should kick a dog when he's down."
"That's good. Thai's right," said Dave Loomis. "Now, mix around, everybody. Step into the bar and everybody's gonna have a drink on the house, in honor of Barry Home getting back to us. Come on, Barry, and we'll lead the way."
With that, he took the arm of Barry Home, and so violently interrupted the argument and the wrath of the sheriff. The latter followed thoughtfully toward the end of the line. He found Tom London beside him, and muttered:
"What would you be takin' his part for, Tom? You think that it ain't too late to make a friend out of him?"
"Oh, I'm not thinking about that," answered Tom London. "I don't so much care whether he's friendly or not. He's not apt to be so friendly, because he tried to put the blame for the Crystal Creek robbery on my shoulders. You know how it is, Sheriff. Men always hate the people that they've wronged. So I suppose he hates me. But that's all right. I can take care of myself, I hope, even when there's Barry Home about."
The sheriff looked curiously at his companion. He, in common with the rest of the community, had his doubts about London's source of income. Nevertheless, he was interested in the truth of the last remarks.
"He's changed," he said.
"Of course, he's changed," said London. "Prison changes men."
"Yeah, it changes every one of 'em."
"It doesn't often improve them, to be sure," said London.
"No, it don't," admitted the sheriff. "That's the bad part of it. You'd say that prison is a thing that had oughta improve a gent. If it takes him when he's bad and makes him worse, then what good is it?"
"Prison," said Tom London, "is like hammering in a blacksmith shop. You put the hot iron on the anvil, and then you beat it. Sometimes you beat too hard, and you crystallize it. Then it's brittle, and won't hold any edge. It breaks when it's most needed. But sometimes the hammering works up a perfect temper. I'd say that Barry has more of a cutting edge, right now."
"Every Home has had a cutting edge," muttered the sheriff. "I'm worried... is what I am. I'm worried mighty bad. I don't like the way that he looks. I don't even like the way that he smiles."
"Oh, that's all right," said Tom London. "He's feeling a little strange, just now. Everybody feels strange and upset when they come out of jail. That's only natural."
"Here we are having a drink to him. That's kind of funny," said the sheriff. "I dunno that I oughta drink to him, though."
"Do what the rest do," said Tom London. "That's the easy way out of everything."
He smiled as he said it, but the sheriff sighed. Sheriff Wayland was the most honest man in the world, and one of the bravest, but he was not exceedingly clever, and now, as he had admitted, he was very worried, indeed.
They filed into the barroom with the others. The bar was thickly lined.
Then, Dave Loomis said: "Fill 'em up, boys. There's the glasses, and there's the whiskey bottles. Help yourselves and fill 'em high. Speakin' personal, it's a good day for me, when Barry Home comes back. His father and his grandfather before him, I knew 'em both, and they knew me. Barry's had his bad luck. We all know about that, and there ain't any doubt that the best thing is to forget about it, and take Barry for what he was before ever anybody doubted him. Barry, I'm lookin' at you."
"Wait a minute," said Barry Home. He held up his hand. Every glass was frozen in place, most of them halfway to the lips, as Barry spoke: "I want to say this, fellows. Dave Loomis is a kind man, and always was a kind man. I'm glad to drink his liquor and to drink to him. But I've got to say that I suspect a good many of the people in the room are not exactly friendly to me. That's all right. I don't expect them to be. But I'd simply like to know where I stand. If there's a single fellow here who doesn't feel that he's my friend or that I can be his friend, I wish that he wouldn't take this drink."
He looked carefully about the room and a battery of eyes was turned upon the faces of Rance Tucker and Tom London.
Rance Tucker seemed to be in a quandary. He raised the glass, and he lowered it. He stared straight ahead of him, then flicked his glance to either side, like a speaker stuck for want of the right word.
In the meantime, however, Tom London said cheerfully: "It's all right, Barry. I suppose that you have some bad thoughts about me, but I have none about you. Here's to you! Here's in your eye, Barry Home!"
With a fine, flourishing gesture, he downed the glass of drink. Rance Tucker, with a sigh of relief, followed his example.
THE delight of Dave Loomis overflowed. He beamed upon the entire company, his face reddening as he looked about him. While he cheered on the festivities, other men ordered drinks, the constraint disappeared from the faces of nearly all, and even the sheriff seemed to be relaxing.
As for Tom London, he walked up to Barry Home, and the latter met him in a corner of the room, smiling. Tom held out his hand. Barry took it instantly.
"I'm glad that you've done that, Barry," said the man of mystery. "After what your ideas were at the trial, I thought that there might be some black blood in your heart."
"Because you shifted the blame for the robbery on my shoulders?" said Home calmly.
"Come, come, Barry," said the other. "You don't stick to that point of view, do you?"
"Come, come, Tom," said Barry. "Where's your sense of humor? When you say that, can't you smile a little?"
They spoke quietly. People three yards away could not make out what was being said. The more vital the words, the lower the pitch in which they were spoken.
"You never explained your theory to me," said Tom London, his eyes frank and curious. "What is it?"
"Are you still riding the same horse?" asked Home. "The big dappled chestnut, I mean."
"The very same," said Tom London.
"The same one whose trail led from the place of the robbery of the Crystal Creek coach?"
"You mean," said London, smiling tolerantly, "that the horse's trail was like the chestnut's? There was the same barred shoe on the near front hoof. The chestnut had a touch of frog, you know. Never bothers him now, but I keep the barred shoe on him, just in case."
"My theory is this," said the young man. "You and Tucker probably had your horses shod in the same shop here. Why not? Tucker's gray mustang with the barred shoe on the near front hoof and yours. That was odd enough to cause the two of you to comment on it. Now, then, when you heard that they were on the trail of your horse, after the robbery, you remembered the gray mustang that also had the barred front hoof. Isn't that simple?"
"So far it sounds simple enough, if it were true," said Tom London. "Go on, old son, I like to see the way your brain works."
"All right," said Barry Home. "I don't mind showing you just how my head works, Tom. My idea is this... as soon as you heard they were on your trail, you got hold of Tucker and made a proposition to him. If he would run the blame for the robbery onto somebody else, then you would give him a good split of the profits of the robbery. Maybe ten or fifteen thousand."
"Ah? Go on, Barry. You work it out so smoothly that I almost begin to believe that I must have done something like that," said Tom London.
"Of course, you did," said the ex-convict. "And then you easily worked out the details of the rest of the story with him. Nothing hard about that, I should say. In the first place, he got up in the middle of the night or early in the morning, to fit in better. He happened to hear a horse snort, and he looked out the window and saw the gray mustang being ridden into the corral. The corral gate squeaked. He waited there at the window and saw the rider clearly. It was Barry Home, the same Barry Home whom Rance Tucker had begun to hate because he lost so much money to me at seven-up, whenever he had a game in the evening. That's the story, Tom, and after the story was cooked up, you got Rance Tucker to stick to it."
"It's a good enough story," said Tom London. "I remember that your lawyer tried to work up your case along those lines, though, so I'm not surprised to hear it now."
"No, you're not very surprised," he answered. "I simply wanted you to know that I stand on the same ground, but more strongly."
"What's given more strength to your case?" asked Tom London.
"Why," said Barry Home, "haven't you looked into the eyes of poor Rance Tucker tonight?"
"What about 'em?" said London.
"They're as blank as the eyes of an owl at midday, but there's a little red glitter rising up in 'em from time to time."
"What does that tell you, Barry?"
"Why, that he's half crazy. That's what it tells me, Tom. What does it tell you?"
"Simply that he knows that Barry Home is a dangerous man to have for an enemy, and that he's going to watch you, to keep from being hurt. But you don't mean to say that you really still stick to the theory of the frame between me and Rance Tucker, do you?"
"Yes, I still stick to that."
"By thunder," muttered Tom London suddenly.
"I wonder if I have it?"
"Why, the right theory, and I think I have, Barry. It's humped right into the middle of my brain, and I'll swear that it's right."
"I'd better wait and try to work this up."
"Just as you please."
"Well, I might as well tell you what I'm guessing," said Tom London. "It's this... that Rance Tucker himself may have drifted over and stuck up that stage."
"Ah?" said the young fellow.
"That's what I mean. Think it over. It fits together well enough. Rance Tucker may have wanted a bit of extra hard cash. I never knew a rancher in my life who didn't need hard cash."
"He had some payments coming due about that time, but they were only for four or five thousand dollars," said the young fellow.
"That's all right. He couldn't have known that particular stage was so loaded down with gold, could he?"
"Go on," said Barry Home.
"Why, that's all there is to it. He's in a little pinch. He decides that he'll work himself out of it with a gun, instead of with mortgages and banks. So he takes the gray and rides over and turns the trick."
"I could understand that," agreed Barry Home, nodding his head.
"Of course, you could understand it. And Rance Tucker was a rough devil when he was a youngster. There are plenty of stories floating around about his work in the old days. Oh, in a pinch he can be a fighting man."
Barry Home nodded, but with a frown that carried no conviction whatsoever.
"Then," argued Tom London, "listen to the rest."
"I'm listening, all right."
"Why, the day after the robbery, he hears that they're on the trail of his horse with the barred shoe and that drives him crazy with fear. He decides that he'll hang the blame on you, because he doesn't like you. That's all there is to it."
Barry Home looked into a shadowy corner of the ceiling, like a man conceiving a distant and difficult thought. Then he shook his head again.
"Rance Tucker," he said, "is more the type of fellow who fights when his back is against the wall, or when he's half crazy... when he's drunk, say, or when he's pinched in a tight corner and can't get out. Then he could be a devil, I suppose. I saw him cornered by his big red bull in a field one day, and he laid the bull out by pulling up a loose fence post and slamming the bull over the head with it. He could fight, but he wouldn't go out to do a trick like the stage robbery."
"He was in a corner," said London. "He needed the money. That's enough of a corner to make him rob a stage, I guess."
"Maybe, maybe," murmured Barry Home. "I'm glad that you suggested it, at any rate, because I want to go over everything fairly."
Tom London suddenly narrowed his eyes. "You've got something on your mind, Barry, of course," he said.
"Yes, I've got something to do," said the other.
"Well, good luck to you."
"I'm going to tell you what it is, too," said Barry Home. "You've talked frankly to me, and I'm going to talk frankly to you."
"That's the straight thing to do," said Tom London. "Particularly if you've got something against me."
"Why, it's this way," said Barry Home. "I spent three years in the pen."
"Of course. I know that."
"And I went up for a job that I didn't do."
Tom London nodded. His interest was intense, so that his jaw set hard and his nostrils flared a little.
"Three years is a long time," went on the boy. "It's such a long time that I decided, while I was in prison, that I'd get the man or the men who had railroaded me."
"That's natural," commented the other. "I suppose every fellow in the same situation feels the same."
"And swore by everything holy that I'd never give up the trail."
"That's swearing by a lot."
"It is. And it means a lot," he replied. "And that's why I'm telling you, London. In spite of what you've said, I still think you may have had a hand in the job. When I find out the truth, if you're in it, I'm going to do my best to send you west."
"That's frank," nodded London.
"It is," agreed the young man. "It makes a square deal and a fair fight between us. If you can cover up your trail, good. That is, if your trail needs covering. Otherwise, I'll run down the devil who railroaded me, and I'll kill him. What happens to me after that, I don't care."
Tom closed his eyes as he nodded. "You mean business," he said soberly. "And I don't blame you. I'm thanking you for telling me that I'm still on the suspected list."
He held out his hand, and for the second time that evening Barry Home gripped it firmly.
LONDON drifted to another part of the barroom. And Barry Home now had the attention of Dave Loomis himself. A big man was Dave and fairly well blocked the eyes of Barry from the rest of the room, yet, with side glances, he managed to keep track of the movements of the others in the place. Prison experience helped him here, the sort of experience that enables a criminal, at one of the long dining tables, to catch the attention of another criminal with a single glance, and then to carry on a complicated conversation by means of signals made with the head, gesture of the hand, and a few significant words tapped out in a code with a spoon against a plate or a cup, all done in the most haphazard way imaginable. With the farthest corners of the senses, as it were, Barry Home had learned to note matters in detail, though with the most inconsiderable glance of the eyes.
It seemed to Dave Loomis that Home was giving him his full attention, but, as a matter of fact, he was studying all the crowd, either from side to side, or with glimpses over the shoulder of Loomis into the long mirror that extended down the bar. It was in that reflection that he saw Tom London pass Rance Tucker, far down the room, and let his arm graze against the side of the rancher.
Rance Tucker paid no heed apparently. But surface indications are another thing that convicts learn to disregard. When, a moment later, Tucker finished his drink and left the room, Barry did not hesitate.
He walked out into the lobby in time to see the broad back of Rance Tucker disappearing through a door that led onto the side verandah. He could not directly follow without calling too much attention to himself, because every man in the room was sure to be aware of the bad blood that existed between himself and Tucker. But why had Tucker gone out there into the whirling snow of the storm?
The cold was growing momently more bitter. The draft that flowed under the doors and across the floor was like a stream of ice water. People were continually shifting their position and shrugging the shoulders of their coats into different wrinkles. Why should Rance Tucker step out of the hotel to the southern verandah?
Well, there would be shelter, here, from the full blast of the wind, for one thing, more than on any other side of the house. In addition to that, it was the side nearest to the stable. If a man were suddenly to decide to go out and hitch up his horses, he might go either through the back hall and around the corner, or straight over the southern verandah.
Barry passed through the hall that led in such a narrow compass past the dining room. He would have avoided the pantry, but, as he was stepping by it, the door flew open and the girl, with a loaded tray, stepped out before him.
When she saw him, she came to a halt, with her head held stiff and high and her eyes darkening soberly at him.
"Barry," she said, "are you getting ready to raise the devil around here?"
"I'll never raise the devil again," he said. "I'll never be breaking the law, Patty."
He would have taken the weight of the tray from her. She shook her head and frowned to warn him to get back.
"I don't trust you, Barry," she said. "You've started on poor Lew Tucker, already."
"Why," he asked, "you know how that happened, don't you?"
"Yes, I know," she answered gloomily. "He tripped and fell down on his chin. Wasn't that just it?"
"You could believe it, if you wanted to," he responded.
"Show me the backs of your hands," she commanded.
He held them out obediently.
"How did you get that welt across your fingers, just in front of the knuckles, Barry?" she asked.
"As I was walking down the road," he said promptly, "I was swinging my hands to make the walking easier and keep up my circulation. You know, the wind was cold."
"I know the wind was cold," said she, eyeing him carefully.
"As I was swinging my hands, this one whacked across a stripped branch that was sticking out of some shrubbery."
"Where did it happen?"
"Down at the beginning of the trees."
"The shrubbery's on the left down there, coming this way," said the girl.
"Perhaps it happened farther up toward the hotel," he suggested.
"Perhaps," she answered. Then she added: "Look here, Barry, whatever else it was, it wasn't good sense to tackle Lew Tucker. It let everybody know that you're on the warpath. If anything happens, you're going to be jailed for it. Anything!"
"I know that, and that's why nothing is going to happen."
"Oh, Barry," murmured the girl, "you're going to smash things up, I know. You're going to ruin your own life, for one thing."
He slid a hand under the tray and took the weight of it. "I'm not going to break the law," he insisted.
"But what are we going to do?"
"Make an easy living."
"Easy livings are not honest. That's the fact of the matter."
"Look at the way your Uncle Dave lives here," he said. "That's both easy and honest, I'd say."
She shook her head at him, frowning with pain. "You don't mean that sort of living. I know that you don't."
"I've made up my mind," he answered. "You see how it turns out."
"I feel pretty sick about you, Barry," she replied.
Al this, the faint smile disappeared utterly from his face.
"Pat," he said, "do you give a rap?"
"I give several raps," she said and nodded.
"You mean that you... that you... well, that you really care about me, Pat?"
"Why should I say so?"
"You shouldn't. I know that you shouldn't." Then he added: "I told you that there was a time when your letters were the only thing that kept me from going crazy. I meant that. I mean it, now, when I say that, if I could pull the world in a balance, with you on the other side, you'd outweigh the rest of the world for me, Pat."
"You were always a good, friendly sort of a liar, Barry," she answered.
"Don't you think that I mean it?"
"Not a whack."
"I tell you, it's true."
"Prove it," she said.
"There's a tray between us," he said. "Otherwise..."
"I don't mean foolishness. I mean, you really step out and prove it, Barry... will you?"
"What sort of a reward is there at the end of the trail?" he asked her.
"There's that better half of the world that you were talking about a while ago."
He straightened to his full height, his shoulders hunched a little forward in the attitude of one prepared to receive the shock of a very heavy blow.
"You're talking about yourself, Pat?"
"I'm doing that. Are you interested?"
"Give me a chance to prove it, Pat. That's all I ask. Except that I'm a dog, if I let you care about me now."
"I wrote to you for three years because I thought you were getting a bad deal." she told him. "I thought you were the underdog and that your life was ruined. Then you came back here tonight, and I could tell from one look that your life wasn't ruined. No, no, you are a lot more apt to dig in and do some ruining on your own account.
"I liked you before, and now the trouble that I feel on account of you, Barry, is aching away inside me every moment. If you honestly wanted me, you could have me in a minute, Barry. I'd go around the world blacking your boots. I'm not proud. But if you want me, you've simply got to go straight."
"What do you mean by going straight?" he asked her.
"Being an honest man in the eyes of God and yourself. What do you mean by going straight?"
"Never bringing myself to the attention of the law. That's what going straight means to the rest of the world."
She shook her head. "I knew that it was something like that. You've been hurt, and now you're going to pass the kick along. Give me the tray at once, Barry."
"Are you going to walk out on me like this?" he asked her.
"I'm not walking out on you. It's only that I saw the poison in you, that's all. If you're not honest, Barry, I wouldn't follow you around the world. I wouldn't follow you one step. Not if you were the king of England!"
"Sunday school stuff rubs out and wears thin, before the finish," he said.
"This idea of mine won't rub out and wear thin," she assured him. "It's as close to my heart as my blood is."
"You're thinking of children and all that, eh?" he asked her.
"That's what I'm mostly thinking about," said the girl. "Let me go by, Barry."
"Wait one minute longer," he pleaded.
"I'm going to think over what you've said," he declared.
"You say that you'll think it over. But you don't mean it. You've made up your mind already. Somebody's going to die for the years you spent in jail. Rance Tucker or Tom London, perhaps. I know what you have in your mind. Everybody knows, for that matter."
He sighed, and stepped back. "You think you're walking out of my life, Pat," he said. "But you can't. If you care a whit about this jailbird, he's going to keep you caring."
She uttered a short exclamation and hurried past him down the hall.
THERE was in Barry Home a cold devil that had been born three years before and nourished by the brutal cruelty and injustice he had received during the intervening time. It was generally the topmost spirit in his breast, but now, for an instant, it shrank down and died within him, and all that was kind and warm-hearted in him sprang alive.
He had almost cried out to her. If he had done so and she had turned to show him the suffering in her face, he would have been changed forever. But he did not cry out. He saw her push open the swinging door of the dining room, and again he strove lo speak, but again the devil in him throttled the words, and they were unspoken. As the door swung shut behind her, making a faint moaning sound upon the rusting hinges, he sighed. With that sigh the kindlier impulses died out of his heart, and left it cold and calm again.
She was gone from his sight. Yet, for a moment, he laid his hand against the side of the wall and considered. It seemed lo him that he could see her more clearly than ever, not only face and body as they were, but as if through a veil of glowing flesh and blood, the whole spirit and all that he saw of her was gentle and true, brave and womanly. Yet, the impulse that already had been mastered in him once would not master him again so quickly. He turned down the hall once more.
His business was not with women, no matter how fine they might be. His business was what he had promised himself that it would be, one day in the frightful darkness of the solitary cell, when he was calling out his heart. No—the truth is no heart was left in him on that day when the dark, cold panic of the grave had overcome him in a rush, and he had wished to fling himself at the door, screaming for mercy, for help, and for freedom, one glimpse of the fine, pure light of the day!
Then, when he had mastered that desire to surrender, as he grimly took hold of himself with the last iron atom of will power that was left to him, he had gone down on his knees and promised that he would do certain things when his term expired, if that time ever came.
During the remainder of his imprisonment, every trouble was easier to bear, even when he looked forward to a prolonged term, for he felt that he had been to the bottom of the pit, and that, thereafter, nothing could wring the sinews of his soul as they had been wrung before. To him, the promise of what he would accomplish when freedom came was like the hope of spring in the dim, cold heart of winter.
So that unforgotten moment came back over him again and, turning down the hall, he went swiftly to the back of the hotel and out through an entrance not far from the kitchen door. As he stepped into the open, the wind cut at him with a saber stroke, its cold edge penetrating to the nerve and the bone.
Bui what of it? Very little, indeed, to a man who had been manacled in a blizzard with a twelve-pound sledge hammer to swing to keep himself warm and with a rock pile to use his energy upon. He merely shrugged his shoulders, rested his head for an instant against the wall, already snow-encrusted, and looked out toward the barn. There was one dim light glowing in it, showing through the cracks around one of the windows. If he followed that light, perhaps he would find Rance Tucker. And might not Tom London be with the rancher?
He went at a run. sprinting lightly along. And so he came to the corner of the barn and paused, with the wind beating about him. There was not much snow falling, and that was so very dry that it shook off from his clothes at a shrug of his shoulders, but it added to the biting cold of the first winter blizzard. There was a sliding door at either end of the barn, as he knew. But he could not risk pushing open the one nearest him. Little by little, he worked it back, but only a fraction of an inch. Then, staring through, he made out suddenly the face of Rance Tucker, not a yard away.
He almost cried out in his astonishment and bewilderment at this sudden apparition. Looking again, he saw that Rance was alone, sitting upon the grain bin, whittling long, thin slivers from a stick of wood and scowling thoughtfully at his work. Beyond him extended the long line of horses in their stalls, a dozen of them, at least. What was the meaning of this lonely vigil of Rance Tucker?
Barry could not enter the barn on this side to find out, and, if he remained there in the open to spy on the man, he would soon be frozen. He ran to the other side of the barn, pushed open the other sliding door a little, and looked into the thick, solid velvet of utter darkness. That was what he wanted, and, slipping inside, he pushed the door shut behind him. Then, closing his eyes, he tried to remember exactly what this side of the barn had been like in the old days. It might have changed in the interim, but, as it was before, there had been horse stalls part of the way and other stalls at the farther end where cows were kept in the bitterest of the winter cold. At each end, crosspieces nailed to big uprights that fenced in the mow led upward to the top of the mow. Yes, he could remember all of that very clearly.
Ahead of him, he heard horses stamping and snorting as they worked their muzzles deeper into the feed of the mangers—wet horses, for he could detect the unmistakable odor. Feeling down the wall to his left, he reached the side of the mow and presently located the ladder that led upward. Up that he climbed, with the hay bulging out and scratching him as he worked on. But now there was vacancy before him. He reached out, probed empty space, and found that he had come to the top of the hay.
He stepped from the ladder, and sank to his knees in the soft fluff. It was sweet to his nostrils, and the place was gratefully warm, as though some of the heat of the long summer had been harvested and kept there with the hay to prepare for the savage length of approaching winter. He was not conscious of a light at first, but, standing quite still for a moment, he finally was able to make out a dim glow from the farther side of the mow. That would be the lantern that was burning there, giving Rance Tucker enough light for his whittling that was now being so very thoughtfully conducted.
He began to cross the top of the mow, but presently collided with something that barked his shins. He fell forward, and hard, cold iron slithered up the side of his neck. Lying still, feeling about him, he discovered that he had tripped over a big pitchfork, left lying on its back with spear-pointed, tiger-toothed prongs sticking up two feet and a half. One of them might have passed well enough through his throat; one of them might have glided easily through his heart, and that would have been the end of his endeavors in this world.
He sat up, after a little time, and smiled faintly in that darkness. It was a very odd world, to be sure. The dangers that are plotted with human cunning may be far smaller, indeed, than the dangers that are cast in one's path by chance. At last, he stood up and went forward again. His feet accustomed themselves, as of old, to the art of walking in deep hay, which consists of taking short steps, as when walking through soft sand and waiting for the resilient rebound of the compressed hay to lift and help one forward. He smiled again, remembering how he had worked, on a time, stowing away hay in that very barn.
Patty Loomis had been a mere youngster of eleven at that time, and hardly worth the notice of a fully matured man sixteen years old. He had been very proud to work with experienced laborers making hay. He had been praised, most of all, for his willingness to work on top of the stack inside the barn and stow it away under the roof, with no breath of air stirring and the dreadful heat of the sun pouring through the shingles of the roofing above him. He had been praised for that. He smiled as he remembered the big Irishman who, leaning on his hay fork, had called to the others.
"Look at Barry, now, will you? He's a whale, when he gets on the end of the pitchfork, is what he is. For the size of him, I never seen such a lifter!"
Oh, they had worked him hard enough, in those days of his youth. Yet it had been a pleasant time for Barry Home. How he had gloried in the excess of his strength as he never would glory again until that happy day when his hands were on the throat of the man who had engineered his trip to the prison—Rance Tucker or Tom London, one of that pair, or both! He hardly cared which.
Then, stepping on, he came close to the edge of the mow. It was difficult to come to the very side of it, for the hay on top of the mow, being the loosest, was very apt to slide beneath a weight, and might throw him down into the mangers below, a most excellent way of breaking bones. So he lay down flat and, inching forward, at last was able to part a projecting tuft of the hay and stare down at the scene beneath him.
Rance Tucker had not moved apparently. The heads of the horses were almost entirely lost in the shadows made by the stall partitions. One of the mustangs, perhaps outworn by a long day's work or else a very fast eater, was lying down already. Then the sliding door of the barn opened, and Tom London stepped inside.
"THOUGHT you'd changed your mind about coming out," said Rance Tucker. "Wasn't it here that you said meet you, in case there was a need of us talking?"
"I said the woodshed," said Tom London, "but, when I didn't find you there, I came on out here."
"Well?" said Tucker.
"Nobody else around here?"
"Nobody," said Tucker.
Tom London lifted his head and looked straight at the spot where Home was lying at the edge of the mow above him.
"A barn is a damned silly place to talk in," he said. "A thousand men could be hidden away within earshot of us."
"Yeah, and who would be hidden away on a night like this with the Loomis stoves going so fine and the Loomis whiskey so good?" asked Rance Tucker.
"One man would," answered Tom London.
"You mean the kid?"
"He's not a kid any longer," said London.
"Aw, damn him!" said Tucker. He shut his knife with a click. "I'm tired of thinkin' about him," he concluded.
"So am I," said London.
"Well?" asked Tucker.
The out-thrust jaw made his head tilt back a little, so that Barry could examine his face more clearly. It was not an ugly face, really, but a face that showed hard endeavor and a strong will, yet unbroken by life. He seemed to await suggestions.
"You saw me talking to him?" asked London.
"Yeah, I seen you, and you seemed to be having a good time out of it. I wonder what he did to Lew? How'd he manage to handle Lew, I wonder."
"He's strong," said London. "I tell you, he was a soft kid when he went to prison, but he's had three years of hell. You can see the whole of the three years in his eyes, if you look."
"I looked into 'em, right enough," declared Tucker. "There wasn't no other place that a man could look. It was like facin' a double-barreled shotgun, I tell you."
"Worse," said London. "A lot worse. And he'd kill quicker and more surely than a double-barreled shotgun, too!"
"I'll put my faith in a shotgun even ag'in' Barry Home," said Tucker. "I wonder what he could've done to Lew?"
"Why, hit him out of time, that's all. Lew didn't stop to argue. He just left."
"He'll be back. He's got pride, that Lew of mine has," declared the father gloomily. "And he'll be back, mind you, London. You can bet on that."
"I'm glad that he's coming back," said London. "But he's young, Rance."
"He's young, but he's a man."
"Nobody's a man till he's thirty," said London, with conviction, "or until he's had a few years in prison, some place."
"You got both of them advantages, maybe?" asked Tucker, with a twisted grin.
London looked down at the other without answering, and, although his face was utterly in shadow, Barry could guess that he was smiling.
"This is pretty far West to be asking so many questions," said London.
"Maybe that's true," said the rancher. He added: "What was you talkin' to Barry Home so hard and fast about?"
"I was trying to change his mind for him."
"Change his mind about what? About you being the robber?"
Tucker actually laughed, and, as he listened, the mirth ran like a freezing poison through the body of the listener.
'That wasn't his idea," said London.
"No, it wasn't."
"Couldn't the young fool see that?" asked Tucker.
"He couldn't. He's had three years to think everything over, and that's too long for a brain of his sort, I suppose."
"He's got a good enough brain to handle Lew," scowled Tucker, unable to forget his son's unhappy experience. "What's his idea?"
"That you turned the trick by yourself."
"Is that what he thinks?"
"Yes, that's what he thinks."
Barry Home listened with interest to the lie. He could see the point of it clearly. A queer sense of omniscience came over him, and he began to guess that his theory about the robber had been entirely accurate.
Rance Tucker slid from the top of the feed box and stood shaking his fist at the air—also, in the direction of the man he was cursing.
"Damn that fool," he said. "Why would he think that I'd do a thing like that, and me a respectable rancher and everything?"
"He was working for you, then."
"A lazy, worthless hound he was, too," commented Tucker.
Again the listener smiled. Nothing is right about an enemy, he had learned long ago, and with pleasant contempt he looked down on the face of the big man.
"He knew you needed money, that you had debts."
"I had some debts. I had land and cattle for 'em, too!"
"Stolen money would pay 'em off as well as the land and the cows, and you'd miss that kind of money less. That's what you used, after all."
"Not then. I wasn't such a fool. I sold cows. But the next season, I bought back twice as many." Tucker laughed gleefully. "I covered my steps all the way. That's what I did."
"This is the idea of Barry Home," said London. "He thinks that you needed the coin, and that you planned the robbery, and put it through. Then you framed him, when you heard that the search was for the trail of a horse with a barred shoe on the left forefoot. That would bring the hunt pretty close to you, perhaps. You took no chances. You sprang the story to the sheriff. You talked about looking out the window and seeing him ride in. Then you planted the loot in his room."
"Well," said Tucker, "he was bright enough to guess part of it, anyway."
"Yes, he was bright enough. He's no fool. That's one of the things I wanted to tell you."
"Well, when was any Home ever a fool, when it came to making trouble for their betters?" said Tucker, with a snarl. "Is that all he said?"
"No. The most important part is coming."
"What is it?"
"He told me that he wanted to give everybody a fair warning. He warned me, because he said that he once suspected me. He'll warn you before the evening's over."
"That this is a death trail. He's going to kill the man who sent him to the pen. He's sworn to do it. He told me that of his own free will."
"He wouldn't tell you that... he wouldn't put a rope around his neck, in case he... he managed something," muttered Tucker.
"You never spent three years in prison. It makes a little difference in the way a man does his thinking and his acting. If he can kill you, Tucker, he'll die happy."
"And let you out, eh?" said the rancher.
"Never fear. I'm standing by you, man," said London.
"I think you are," said Tucker gloomily. "You're standing by me. What's my interest is yours, in this play of the cards."
"But you were paid for your work," said London. "You held me up for half of the whole loot."
"Held you up? Wasn't I taking half the risk, then, by covering you up?"
His voice rose high in the argument. "You took your half of the risk after the stage was robbed," assented Tom London. "But that's over and done with. I don't talk about spilled milk."
"Anyway," said Tucker, "I never cashed in on my whole half."
"There was the diamond stickpin and the woman's necklace, the pearl one with the diamond clasp. I didn't know how to sell 'em. If I went to a pawnbroker, he'd cheat me. Besides the things were pretty well advertised through the papers, d'ye see? If I tried to get rid of 'em, I might be spotted. And then the goose would be cooked."
"So you still have 'em?"
"Yeah. I still have 'em. Five thousand dollars' worth of stuff, and more, according to what the papers printed about the missin' articles."
"Where do you keep them, Rance? In the bank?"
"You'd like to know, eh?" asked Tucker, sneering. "But I don't keep 'em in the bank. Never mind where I do keep 'em. No man would find where I've put 'em, and yet..." He broke off with a laugh of triumph. "And yet," he said, "it's an easy thing to find 'em, too, for a man that knows." He laughed again.
"All right," said London. "I'm not planning to rob you, Rance. I don't go after small things like that. It's not my game."
"Five thousand bucks is small to you, eh?"
"Yes. And now, about young Home."
"That's what I wanta talk about. If he's on a blood trail... and I would've guessed it before... are we to let him run with his nose to the ground till he finds something out?"
"No," said London. "We're not! We stop him."
"With what?" said Tucker.
"With a bullet through the brain," said Tom London.
Tucker showed not the least emotion, when he heard this announcement. He merely began to nod and to frown. At last he said: "In the hotel, eh?"
"That's as good a place as any," said Tucker. "But it's kind of clumsy. I mean, there's so many chances of other folks hearing and seeing."
"The hotel is the best place in the world for me," said the robber. "I've worked it before, Rance, as you ought to guess. I know every corner and nook of it, and I have a few passkeys that will open every door in the place, and not a sound heard." He made a gesture of confidence, as though the matter were already accomplished. "Nothing could be better for me," continued Tom London. "No matter where he may sleep in the hotel tonight, I can open the door for you, Rance."
"Open the door for me? Open the door for yourself!" exclaimed Tucker. "Why should I do the job?"
"Because he's after you."
"Bah," snorted Tucker. "He'll be after you, too, before he's done. It's your job as much as mine. It's more your job, in fact."
"Robbing and killing is your business," said the rancher.
"It's yours when you need it... you can rob and kill in a pinch as well as anybody, Rance," said Tom London angrily.
"Look, man, look," protested London. "I know all about you. I know everything that you've done. I had to find out everything. And I have found you out. I had to have a hold on you, in case of a pinch. Well, Rance, you know what you've done in the past."
"What have I done?" asked Rance Tucker, half sullenly, half defiantly.
"D'you want me to go all through the yarn of what happened to young Barnefeld?" asked London.
The rancher was silent, staring, and again his jaw thrust out, but he did not speak.
"It's all right," said London. "How you got your start in life doesn't make any difference to me. Not a bit! It might interest other folks, but not me, so long as you play fair and square with me, Rance, and never are tempted to turn state's evidence, say, or some little trick like that."
"I'm not that kind of a sneakin' hound," declared Rance.
"Of course, you're not," replied London, "but I don't want you to change. And I suppose this is the reason why I'm no fitter than you are to do the job on that young fellow tonight."
"Listen. I'd like to know how you found out about Barnefeld," muttered Tucker. "And that's not admitting that I had any hand in it."
"Nobody would have thought of looking up that old story," said London. "Nobody except those that already knew you had stepped a little on the shady side of the law. I knew that already, so I looked back and found out fast enough that, just after Barnefeld was robbed and murdered, Mister Rance Tucker began to look about for a small piece of land to buy. Then I got on the trail and went to the shack that's still standing at the corner of the Berryville Trail and Chester Road, and down in the cellar I found..."
"Wait a minute," said Rance Tucker huskily.
"All right," said London. "I don't want to talk about it, either. Looking at that by match light, in the middle of a howling night as bad as this, made my blood curdle, all right. I don't want to talk about what you've done in the past. But I want to point out that you qualify for this job tonight as well as I do."
Tucker answered: "You've kept your hand in, London. You're surer than me with a gun and, from your own account, him that tackles Barry Home, he'd better be damn' sure with his weapons."
"True," said London. "The best answer is, we open that door and go inside together. I'm going to take my revolvers, Rance. I'll carry the lantern in one hand, and you can get the riot gun out of the store. No, I'll steal that for you as a starter, to show that my heart's in the right place."
"How'll we cover the thing up?" asked Tucker. "We're sure to be suspected. Everybody knows that he hates us, and, therefore, that we're sorry that he came back from jail. Everybody will have a look at us as soon as the body's found."
"Rance," said Tom London, "suppose that there's a mountain lion running at your heels and a wolf pack away off in the distance. Do you hesitate about killing the mountain lion because you don't know how you'll handle the wolves afterward?"
Tucker shrugged his shoulders.
"Besides," said Tom London, "I have ideas of how we'll be able to dodge, when people come hunting for us. It's the little matter of establishing an alibi, and I'm an expert in that line, Rance." He laughed, exulting. "No matter what the other evidence might be," said London, pursuing what was apparently a favorite subject, "no matter if the prints of the murderer's feet go in blood from the dead man to your own parlor rug, and your thumb prints are on the throat of the corpse, and your knife is found in the side of the man who's dead, no matter if all of those things are standing out against you, it makes no difference if you have old man alibi standing beside you, when the sheriff with his posse knocks at the front door." He broke off and laughed again. "I've alibied myself out of a dozen hangings and twenty lifetimes in jail," he concluded, "and I know how I can alibi myself out of this trouble, too."
"Yes, you, too. Look here, Tucker, you don't think that I'm the sort who lets down a partner, do you?"
At this, the vicious element in Tucker became only too evident. "I'll tell you what I'd expect out of you," said the rancher, "and that is everything that saves your neck and lines your pocket. That's all I expect, and it's each man for himself, as soon as this damned Barry Home is dead. Trust myself in your hands and to your alibis? I'm not such a fool!"
"Good," Tom London answered calmly.
And in the quiet nodding of his head it seemed to Barry Home that he was seeing the most dangerous quality that a criminal can possess—imperturbable coolness under every circumstance. Long was the road that London could travel in this world. That conclusion had barely come to Home, when it seemed to him that he was seeing the two men below more easily than before. In fact, his face was now in plain view of them, if they should look up. Then he was aware that he had been sliding forward and was still moving little by little, gradually, steadily. He was not slipping over the surface of the hay, but the hay itself was in motion, a considerable width of this top layer having been unsettled by his weight.
Softly, rapidly, he began to turn his body to the side, but at the first motion the forward impetus of the hay redoubled. It began to shoot away under him, threatening to cast him straight down into the mangers beneath. In the hundredth part of a second that remained to him, he chose between two things. One was to make a vast effort to reach the wooden upright that was nearest to him; the other was to try to swing about so that he could at least drop feet downward. If he fell, there was no doubt as to what London and Rance Tucker would do, no doubt in the world. They would simply thank the fortune that delivered him into their hands, and that would be the end of Barry Home. So he flung himself sidewise toward the upright. The hay shot out from underneath him and went down in a great cloud.
The frightened horses pulled back from their mangers, snorting and squealing as though the sky were falling on their heads, and the voice of London shouted: 'There! Look! It's Home!"
The left hand of Barry Home had missed the upright entirely. The right had caught hold, however, and, as a gun spoke beneath him and a bullet tore through the hay at his side, he jerked himself back to the safety and darkness at the top of the mow. Instantly the lantern was extinguished below him. He heard a muttering of voices, the grinding of the wheels of the sliding door on the runway, the whistling of the icy storm through the aperture, and then the heavy slamming of the door.
He was alone in the barn except for the animals. All the information that he had gained was now more than counterbalanced, since his enemies had learned of the fullness of his knowledge. There had been a vast advantage for him, that was now totally relinquished, for they would understand that he had overheard their mutual admissions, their plans for his murder.
They would be on guard. If they were dangerous before, they would be doubly dangerous now that they knew that he was forewarned and fully aware of their admitted guilt.
So, lying prone in the hay, Barry Home gritted his teeth together. He had a wild impulse to descend at once, rush to the hotel, borrow or steal a gun, and turn it loose upon the precious pair. But what was gained if he killed them and, in turn, was hanged for that crime? For a moment, his brain whirled. Something had to be done quickly, but the very need of haste paralyzed his wits, and he could accomplish nothing.
At last, he fumbled his way down the edge of the hay mow, found the ladder of crosspieces nailed to one of the great uprights, and descended. He would have to find his plans as he walked blindly back toward the hotel.
WHEN he reached the back of the hotel, he went into the kitchen a moment and found Mrs. Loomis standing at the inner door, ringing a great, brazen-lipped bell with all her might. She had a happy expression on her face. Why should the woman be ringing this bell in the middle of the night, unless she were utterly mad? Then he remembered—no matter how much had passed since the coming of twilight and that moment when he first saw Loomis in the distance—the actual time that had passed had been very short, and the meal, which was in course of preparation on his arrival, was merely ready for the table. It was the supper bell which Mrs. Loomis was sounding.
Patty came swiftly to him and touched his hand.
"What's the matter, Barry?" she asked him. "And what have you done?"
He looked down at himself. He had not been too abstracted on the way from the barn to neglect the obvious precaution of brushing off the hay that stuck to him. There was no sign of it on his clothes. Whatever she saw was in his face, and certainly in his heart there was murder to match whatever she could guess.
"You have a horse, Patty, haven't you?"
"I have one," she said.
He looked down and saw that her eyes were troubled as she searched his face again.
"I want to borrow it," he said. "Which is it?"
"The blue roan gelding on the near side of the barn," said Patty Loomis. "What...?" She did not complete her question.
"It's all right, Patty." He nodded to reassure her and saw that far more than a mere gesture was needed to make her happy about him. A lump rippled up in her throat and fell again.
"I suppose it's all right," she said. "But you're going to stop and take some supper before you leave?"
"No supper. I have to ride three pretty brisk miles, and ride 'em now."
"You'll be back before long?"
"I'll be back before very long. Good bye, Patty." He glanced uneasily around the kitchen as he spoke.
"You want something else?" she asked.
"You want a gun?" said the girl.
He flushed, and then set his teeth.
"I want a gun," he murmured.
She was off in a flash, gesturing toward the side door. There in the hall he waited, and she came to him with her hand beneath her apron, and, when she took it out, she was carrying a long, heavy-barreled, single-action Colt.
"The kind you like," she said.
He handled it fondly. At the touch of his fingers on the roughened grip, confidence ran warmly through his body, and that unforgotten delight of battle wiped out all fear of consequences. No man in the world could be trusted, perhaps, but this was a friend that would not fail him. Then he saw the girl, so pale with fear that her eyes seemed darker, and he wondered at her.
"It's in good shape," said Barry Home. "I see it's loaded and clean and well oiled."
"Yes, it is," she answered, the haunted look never leaving her.
"By thunder," said Barry Home suddenly, "if it weren't for the solemn oath I've made, I wouldn't leave you now, Pat. I'd stay here with you, and never raise my hand in my whole life except to make you happy."
A pitiful smile plucked at her lips and was gone again. She nodded. "Yes, Barry," she said.
"It's your father's gun?
"Yes," she whispered, overcome with emotion against which she kept on fighting.
He closed his eyes and saw again, for a moment, the picture of Hal Loomis, the brother of Dave, but very different from the hotel keeper was that big, burly, adventurous man who had trekked from the deserts of South Africa to the snows of Alaska, hunting for gold, laboring with the strength of a giant to find treasure for his family, and never succeeding, but getting, instead, a long series of hard knocks. Fate had never daunted him with her hard strokes, however, and to the end he had fought hard and cleanly.
It was the gun of Hal Loomis, now, that he gripped in his right hand. And it seemed to Barry Home that the ghost of the dead man stood with a troubled face behind his daughter and looked sadly, reproachfully, at him above her head.
Home thrust the gun inside his coat. "It's going to come out right," he declared.
"Yes," she murmured, and again she nodded, and again the wave of apprehension widened and darkened her eyes.
He put a hand on either side of her face and stood close while an agony of tenderness wrenched at his heart. "You wait, Pat," he said. "The time's coming when I'll be able to show what you mean to me. You've given me a horse and a gun tonight, and I'll promise you this, I'll use 'em for no wrong thing. I'll never shoot till it's my life or another man's."
"Good old Barry," she said, and smiled again at him in a way that made the tears rush into his eyes.
He had to hurry out from the house, breathing deep and hard to restore his self-confidence and remove the aching pity from his heart.
Then he was in the barn again, lighting the lantern that swung a little back and forth on its wooden peg near the door. Of course, it was the pressure of a draft that moved it, but it was to Barry Home exactly as though the hand of Tom London had that very instant hung it in place.
By the lantern light, he looked up grimly toward the place where he had lain stretched out on the top of the mow. Looking down, it had seemed to him that he had been at a very secure distance. A neck-breaking distance, almost certainly. Looking up, however, it seemed that Tom London could not possibly have missed his shot. There was the beam he had reached, and by which he had managed to snatch himself back to safety and darkness. Down on top of the manger he saw lying the spilled mass of the fallen hay, with two horses working happily away on it.
The blue roan was one of them, a mustang built long and low, with plenty of driving power in his quarters and a fine, muscular slope to his shoulders. He was not a pretty horse, but one that looked serviceable, such a horse as one could expect the daughter of big Hal Loomis to select for herself.
He got the saddle off the peg on the wall, and the blue roan tried to kick it out of his hands. That did not either alarm or annoy him, but brought a grin to his lips. He could almost have told the horse by the manner of the beast. She was always selecting the worst-mannered horse in a whole herd, then gradually reforming it until it became as wise and gentle as a household pet. She had been doing it with one horse after another from the days of her childhood, and here was another instance.
As he finally got the saddle in place and wedged the bit at last between the angry teeth of the gelding, he told himself that nowhere in the world could another girl be found like Patty Loomis, a perfect mate for him. There was nothing under heaven that he would not do for her—nothing except to give up the vow that he had made long ago in the solitude of his cell.
That was what he told himself fiercely, and softly moved his lips. All the while it was as though she were standing at his shoulder, silently, as she had stood before him in the hall, grieving with all her heart at whatever terrible danger he was intending to face, but loyally helping him to the extent of her ability. Aye, there was a woman for him or for any man.
He gave the cinches another tug, put out the lantern, and led the mustang to the barn door. The gleam of that lantern might well have been seen at the hotel and, if Tom London or the rancher, Tucker, noticed the light, either one of them or both might be waiting now outside the barn. He hesitated, thinking of this, before he pulled back the sliding door.
When he thought of all that lay before him in the bitter cold of this night and its darkness, he realized that, if he kept pausing for every possible thought of danger, he would never get through to the morning, he would never be able to execute any of his plans. So he thrust the door boldly open. The blue roan grunted and pulled back, as the wind knifed into it. A tarpaulin, hanging near the door, flapped loudly in the rush of the air.
The sliding fingers of the cold pried under the ribs of Barry Home and got at the pit of his stomach. Brave man or coward, no one could face such whip-driven cold as this without something more than the apparel he was wearing. The snow was coming faster, riding the wind with a scream, and cutting the skin of his face as it struck him. It was such a night as to make one wonder what, other than raving idiocy, would make any man leave shelter for the open. But Barry Home did not hesitate. Only, first, he took the tarpaulin hanging beside the door and tied it around his shoulders. Then he led the mustang out, closed the door, mounted, and left the corral for the open road.
The wind, in the meantime, gathered force and leaped on him with a yell, when he had gone through the corral gate. Through the tarpaulin and through his own wretchedly insufficient clothes, the chill of the storm soaked like water through paper. He gave himself some comfort by remembering what he had read of the gigantic Patagonians, those filthy savages who endure a weather that is continual storm and ice in nakedness, with only one bit of leather, like a shield, strapped to their bodies, and turned toward the prevailing wind. He was better than that, at least, in his equipment, as he started riding through the blizzard for the house of Rance Tucker.
THE wind had shifted so that it beat straight in his face all the way to the Tucker house. It was increasing in force until, in the throat of the pass, it came at him with such violence it threatened to lift him out of the saddle. It seemed wonderful to him that anything so cold could have such buoyancy.
How the mustang managed to keep going was a mystery to the rider. He flattened himself along the neck of the strong-hearted gelding and kicked it in the ribs now and then, by way of encouragement, and at every kick the horse shook his head and freshened his trot. A trot was all that could be managed with safety, now that the road was wet and frozen underfoot and doubly treacherous where the snow had drifted across it in the hollows. Sometimes, as they went on, the wind scooped up a cloud of the fallen snow and sent it with hurricane swiftness like a great, flying, ghostly mist into the face of Barry.
Had it not been for the tarpaulin that covered his shoulders and the upper part of his body, he knew that he would have had to give up the journey before he had covered the first half mile. Even as it was, when the first mile had ended, he was certain that he would be a dead man before he went over the next two. But he could remember other miseries of cold almost as great. Every winter there were sure to be a few occasions when a rider would be forced to venture his very life for the sake of the cattle on the range. So he was well inured to this exposure; moreover, experience hardens the mind.
The second mile brought him into the pass itself, where his courage failed him for a moment. Perhaps he would have turned back, after all, except that the blue roan, shaking its ugly head, bored resolutely on into the teeth of the storm. That roused his heart with admiration for the poor beast that could have no understanding of the purpose for which this adventure was undertaken, which was supported and urged along merely by the will of the rider and perhaps by a somewhat perverse determination to conquer every obstacle that could be presented.
Out of the pass, the country widened into rolling hills, and the wind, no longer compressed in a funnel, raged less furiously. He was able to sit up straight on the horse, and he began to swing his arms to quicken the circulation as he came to the house of Rance Tucker, lying long and low, a big, black hulk. All was familiar ground to him here. He had worked long enough for the thrifty rancher to have a map of the layout printed in his mind. It would be useful to him now.
In the first place, he had to cache his horse. He went behind the woodshed where it abutted on the smokehouse, where the hundreds of hams and sides of bacon were cured every year by Rance Tucker, who raised his own pigs to feed his own crew and had something left over to sell cheaply to the Loomis store. The junction of the two sheds formed a perfect windbreak, and, when the rider threw the reins, the blue roan cuddled up contentedly into the angle thus formed, as though this were exactly the sort of stabling it was used to. That was sufficient shelter, at least, to keep the tough brute from any danger of freezing.
Barry Home remained there beside the horse for a moment, jumping up and down and thrashing his arms about against his body until he was in a glow. He waited with his eyes closed, also, until the wind strain was gone out of them. He practiced passing the revolver out of his coat and back inside it a score of times, to make sure that he was familiar with the lie of the weapon. When he was ready, he wiped his eyes, settled his hat firmly on his head, and then turned the corner of the smokehouse into the screech of the gale again.
A moment later he was beside the leeward wall of the house, with only the howling of the wind overhead, as it shot across the roof of the house and sped away, sloping rapidly down to the ground again. Here, there was no snow upon the ground, and he could give thanks for that, because it would be easy for his feet to grow numb while he waited out here, slowly exploring.
He tried the light in the kitchen first. Rubbing away a frost of cold mist in a lower corner of a pane, he looked through the spy hole and saw the whole room easily, while the white frosting secured him from discovery. Mrs. Tucker was there at the sink, a tall and bony woman with what seemed a curving rod down her back but what was in reality her spinal column, sticking out from the starving flesh. It was said that Mrs. Tucker was not in the habit of cooking for herself when her men folk were out of the house. She fed them well enough when they were present but, for her own part, a glass of milk and a few crackers were enough to suit her, or the trimmings of meat left on a leg of mutton after most of the carving had been completed. On bits and scraps she was pleased to maintain herself when she was alone, and well could Barry Home remember the starved and forbidding eyes with which she followed the trencher work of the men at her table while she sat erect at one end with her mouth pinched into a straight line and the devil in her glances.
She was not, in fact, washing up dishes after her supper. She was busily scrubbing at the sink, but through the window he could see that she was using the empty evening to rub up all of the kitchen pots and pans. With her sleeves rolled up to the elbows, she attacked the pots with a huge rattling, scrubbing at them with a brush and sand first, and then polishing them off to shining dryness.
Well, there were certain virtues in such a woman, Barry Home supposed. But he did not wish to find them again in any woman he married, any mother of sons of his. It seemed to him that the evil that had spread abroad through that house had almost entirely sprung out of her. Evil she was, and to evil she gave birth.
As he watched, the door was flung open, and young Tucker came striding into the kitchen. Not a sound did his footfall make on the floor, so loud was the shouting of the storm outside in the ears of the watcher, and he heard not a whisper of the loud cry of Mrs. Tucker, although he could see the opening of her mouth and the straining of her lips as she ran toward her son. Black was the face of Lew Tucker and solemn his look. What would he tell his mother?
Barry shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. Whatever else might happen that night, it was plain that Lew Tucker had received a frightful blow to his pride; otherwise, he would not have shrunk from his father in time of need. Why had he lingered on the way? What had he been doing? Well, perhaps he had been sitting in the darkness of the barn, after unsaddling his horse, holding his head between his hands, in thought, pondering his downfall and his shame.
There was some pity in the heart of Barry Home as he turned from the kitchen window and walked along the side of the house to the next lighted window, that opened out from the living room. Somewhere in that house were the articles of the loot that the rancher had named to his partner, Tom London. If he could find them, Barry Home could reverse the judgment against himself, and thus punishment would fall where it had been so long and richly merited.
Where was he to search? He had gathered from the story of the rancher that the stuff was hidden, at least in part, in some open and obvious place, where the eye was not likely to recognize it. Otherwise, Rance Tucker would not have laughed with such exultation. Furthermore, his assurance must have been absolute, or he would never have confided so much to Tom London. But still there was hope in young Barry Home that he might be able to penetrate to the heart of the mystery.
He looked through the living room window as he had looked through the kitchen window and saw it not too brightly illuminated by the lamp with the circular burner that was suspended above the little round center table, the light made more brilliant by strands of clouded glass beads that hung from a circular frame all around the lamp. Beneath that glow he saw the books and could name them—the velvet-covered, brass-studded album of family portraits, Pilgrim's Progress, the book of the flowers of the wayside and the field, and the battered, ancient dictionary that, so far as he could remember, had never been opened except to look up populations that had been outgrown twenty years before. He grinned sourly as he surveyed the rest of the room, the empty fireplace—in spite of this weather—and the stiff-backed chairs with moth-eaten plush covering the seats.
There had been no happiness during the months he had worked for the Tuckers, only the satisfaction of holding down a place where few cowpunchers would stay more than a few weeks at a time, underfed and underpaid.
He tried the window with his hand. It seemed fast, at first, but then it shuddered and finally rose a little. It must not be allowed to make a sound that would be audible at the farther end of the house. He was about to push it up a sufficient distance to enable him to climb inside, when something made him turn his head, and now he saw three riders coming rapidly down the road from the pass.
He must not be seen against the lighted square of the window, so he crouched down close to the ground, and saw the riders swing in through the gate to the Tucker house. One of them was surely Rance Tucker. The heart of the young fellow quickened. If ever a man sensed the near approach of fate, it was Barry, as he saw the three shadows proceed to the barn, dismount, and pass into the darkness of that building.
HE was in a quandary once the three had disappeared and a light gleamed inside the barn from a lantern. He might slip out to the barn and try to overhear what was passing there, as he had spied on London and Tucker. But probably they were coming straight back to the house. And he might do something with them now. If he recognized them in time, he could shout a challenge and open fire—on London and Tucker, yes, and perhaps he could kill them both, but the third man? That complicated everything.
Besides, even if the third man had not been there, it was no good, this shooting business. If anything happened to London and Tucker, the blame would be attributed to him as directly as though a thousand pairs of eyes had seen him do the shooting. What was his triumph of revenge, then, if he passed from freedom back to prison, and from prison to the hangman's rope?
Savagely he brooded as he crouched in the cold and saw the door of the barn open again. Out came the trio. The barn was dark again behind them. There came a pause in the storm's uproar, and he heard distinctly the rumbling of the wheels of the sliding door on the runway.
As the three came closer, he recognized two of them. The larger man was Rance Tucker, he was certain, and even more unmistakable was Tom London from a certain grace of carriage that he retained even when leaning against the wind. Slowly they came on, slowing almost to a halt from time to time, as the force of the storm staggered them. They came very close and, staring hard, straining his eyes, the young fellow made sure of the third man. It was the sheriff!
Barry set his teeth, for the thing became clear. Tucker and London, when they knew that they were overheard, had made up their minds that they were in immediate danger of their lives.
They had cooked up some sort of a story to interest the sheriff, and now they were gathered together to watch out this night in safety, this night, at least, under the broad shield of the law.
All Barry's difficulties from that moment were doubled and redoubled.
They entered the house. Presently they came into the living room. In the entrance hall, they had taken off their coats. But their faces were blue and red with cold, and they began to stamp and strike their bodies with their hands. Tucker made angry gestures toward the empty hearth. His son came in. Everyone was speaking. Mrs. Tucker appeared, her ugly face illumined as she embraced her husband on his safe return. Then the party trooped through the farther door, evidently going in to take advantage of the warmth that the kitchen stove would offer to them.
Rance remained a pace behind the others. As they disappeared through the doorway, the watcher at the frosted window saw through his peephole how the rancher paused, swept his big hand through the strands of the glass beads around the hanging lamp, then, with a sly smile of content, followed the others.
The watcher shook his head. He had a vast sense of defeat. With four men inside that house, all armed, all undoubtedly on the lookout to ward off danger directly threatening them from him, there seemed nothing left but to get his horse and return to Loomis. with the single advantage that the storm would then be blowing at his back.
And then he knew that he could not return. He could not leave these detested enemies any more than a starving wolf can leave the trail of a bull moose, though it knows that it is far too weak to pull down the prize when it has been brought to bay. So he lingered there, shuddering with the cold, trying to think. He could form no plan. But somewhere in the house there was the proof that would shift blame from his shoulders to those of Rance Tucker. He must find it. He could not trace it, if he remained there in the outer night. No, he must enter.
After he was inside, inspiration might come to him, he felt, so he rounded to the front of the house, tried the door, found it unlatched, and entered quickly, sliding through a narrow aperture and shutting the door behind him again. Even so, he heard the whoop of the wind go with a hollow and a whistling sound through the house. Would that alarm the inmates of the place?
A noise of voices arose suddenly from the back of the house. He recognized the heavy tones of Lew Tucker, saying: "The front door was opened, then. I know the way the wind come in." The door to the kitchen was ajar. Lew Tucker stood in the gap of it, frowning, and looking across the living room toward the darkness of the hallway.
"Don't be a fool. Lew," said the voice of Rance Tucker. "That was the howl of the wind comin' down the chimney. I seen the smoke and ashes puff out of the stove."
"Somebody opened the front door!" insisted Lew.
"Well, go and see, then," urged his father carelessly. "You ain't gonna take my word for it, so you go and make up your mind for yourself, will you?"
"Yes, I will," growled Lew.
He drew out a big Colt to assist him in the search. Barry Home shrank back against the wall, rolling his eyes wildly from side to side. There was no other door opening into the hallway, he knew, except that of the living room. Where could he hide himself, then? There were only the long, dripping overcoats and slickers that hung against the wall, but for a good reason he would not use that refuge.
Lew Tucker, in the meantime, was striding straight on.
Barry Home groaned, his throat swelling and aching with the suppression of the sound. It was not young Lew Tucker that he wanted. It was the father of that young fellow. But there was Lew coming, armed, and with a resolved face.
Home slid back into the darkest corner, and there he squatted on his heels against the wall. Chance would have to help him now. As for his own revolver, he drew it with a numb, cold hand, and held its muzzle down, beside his knee.
Then Tucker stood in the door and moved his head, staring about him, gun held at the raised ready position for firing. Plainly he meant business of the most serious kind. He stepped forward. Exactly as Barry Home had expected, he brushed aside the wet overcoats, found nothing, and finally with a shake of the head turned away. He reached the doorway, jerked his head sidewise, and looked straight at the spot where Home was crouched.
A thousandth part of a second was Lew Tucker from death at that instant. Then he went on slowly, and Barry Home was blinded by a rush of blood to the head, and staggered by the pounding of the pulse in his temple. He stood up, trembling and breathing deeply. He heard the kitchen door opening again and the sound of voices rolling out toward him.
"Well, Lew?" asked Rance.
"I guess I was wrong. If that door was opened, it was closed without anybody coming inside."
"You look in the hall?"
"No, not a soul," said Lew Tucker, and closed the door on his own last words.
Barry Home smiled as he listened, and then glided into the living room. He glanced at the empty hearth, not that he expected to see the warmth of a fire flickering there, but because everyone else had looked in that direction on entering the room. He had no instant to waste on odd details by glancing here and there, but he made sure of the emptiness of the hearth first of all, gritting his teeth at his own folly at the same moment.
Then he stood under the flare of the lamp. How perfect a target he was for anyone who opened the door of the kitchen at that moment. Then he did as he had seen Rance Tucker do. He drew out the bead fringe that dangled around the lamp. What was the meaning of that caressing gesture on the part of the rancher? What was the meaning of the sly and exulting smile of the man?
He could find no reason for that either and, leaving the string of glass beads to clash softly together as he stepped back, he removed himself a pace and looked uncertainly toward the door of the kitchen. Out of the other room came the steady rumble of men's voices, with the shrill overtone of Mrs. Tucker cutting through with an opinion, now and again.
There was reason for him to tremble. Though he did not actually shake, every nerve in his body was painfully on the alert, reaching out, probing on all sides toward possible danger. That right hand of his, now recovering from the cold, tingling and throbbing with heat, was eager to snatch out his revolver. One gun against four, that was not an easy game, even for Barry Home fighting for his life.
He could see, now, that when he examined the beaded fringe under the lamp, he was not in exactly the same spot where Rance Tucker had stood. He moved to the same place, thrust out his hand, and placed it under the dangling strings of glass beads. Even then he would not have found a difference, if his eyes had not been sharpened by keen necessity. As it was, however, he could see that whereas the other strings turned dark and cold in the shadow of his hand, one of them appeared faintly luminous and of a softer, creamier texture of light. They were not glass at all. They were pearls!
HE glanced up from them, suddenly, to the larger bit of cut glass from which the particular string of beads dangled and saw that it was a good bit smaller than the other pieces of glass around the lamp, the headpieces from which the strings dangled. It was cut in many more facets, and it cast out a spark of fire, instead of the duller flash of the other bits. It was not glass any more than the string of beads beneath it. It was the valuable stickpin diamond!
No wonder that Rance Tucker had said that he had hidden the little treasures where no man could find them, though they were easy enough to locate, when one only knew the key. He himself might have searched through the house forever, and vainly, except that he had chanced to be on hand to see the gesture of Tucker. But now he knew, and he reached up his hand to strip away the prize.
He checked himself. It was not the possession of that thing that he really wanted. A few thousand dollars mattered nothing, as a matter of fact. What was important was that, while this string dangled here, it was proclaiming with every flash, with every gleam of jeweled light, that Rance Tucker had a share, at least, in the robbery of the stagecoach to Crystal Creek.
No, the value of the evidence lay simply in the place where it hung in view, if he could bring the eyes of authority to glance at it. It meant, in a single flash, the removal from his own shoulders of all implication in the crime for which he had suffered for three years. It meant his reestablishment as a respectable citizen. Respectable citizen? His upper lip twitched with disdainful scorn as he thought of the phrase. He knew, he thought, what respectability amounted to now. As he had told the girl, it was merely the ability to hide the evidences of crime. So London and Tucker had done. For three years they had continued being respectable, while he, poor fool, suffered every pang short of damnation.
Breathing deep, he stared at the little string of pearls and the diamond above them. How simple it was. How clever. He almost stopped hating Rance Tucker, in his admiration for this stroke of cleverness.
A shot that shattered a pane of glass in the window through which he himself had looked, not long before, cut short these speculations. He felt the whir of the bullet past his face, and then turned and dove for cover.
Not toward the hall door, for that was too far away, but just to the left of the living room fireplace there was another doorway that opened on the stairs that led to the second story. At that door he aimed himself, like a projectile, running low, his shoulder bunched and the muscles hardened. He struck the door. It crashed before him as the second and third bullets plunged into the woodwork that framed him. And forward he pitched onto the broad lower steps of the stairway. In his ears was the yelling voice of Rance Tucker from outside the house: "I got him! I nailed him! I nailed him! Run him down, damn him! I got Barry Home!"
People were coming with a rush from the kitchen, as Home, more than half stunned, picked himself up and staggered up the stairs. He got to the first landing, where the steps turned and wound upward at a new angle, before the people from the kitchen rushed in and reached the broken door that he had battered down.
He turned and fired, not at them, but above their heads, and heard the shriek of Mrs. Tucker. He was still bewildered by the shock he had received, so that, as he ran on up the steps to the hall above, he could only vaguely hear the clamor of the voices and wonder if the bullet by any chance had actually struck poor Mrs. Tucker. Then he was in the hall above. They were not following. He stood still, in the cold, clammy darkness, and listened to their voices.
Rance Tucker was already in the room, shouting in triumph. "The third shot, I nailed him. I split his back open for him. He's a dead rat. I nailed him fair between the shoulders!"
There was so much confidence in his voice that Barry Home actually slid his left hand up behind his back toward the shoulder blades, and he started as his finger touched moisture. No, of course, that was simply melted snow. And Rance Tucker was enjoying the same illusion that hunters have when they swear they have seen half a dozen bullets strike the bear, and yet the bruin is scampering rapidly away through the brush, unscathed.
"I don't see any blood," said the voice of the sheriff.
"There mightn't be any blood on the floor, but there's blood oozing down his clothes and his body. There's blood being pumped right out from his heart this minute, red blood, lifeblood!" shouted Rance Tucker. "Tom, he ain't gonna bother us no more!"
"I hope you're right," said London.
"Right? You hope I'm right? I know I'm right. I don't seem such a fool now, do I, comin' out from the kitchen into the cold again? No, I got an instinct. I can tell when things are goin' wrong!"
"He'll get out of the house and away," said the sheriff.
"He'll die before he gets fifty steps," said Rance Tucker, filled with confidence.
"We've gotta keep watch. There's a moon blowed up over the mountains now, and it gives plenty of light," said Lew Tucker. "We gotta go and lie out and wait, some of us."
"You'll be freezing yourselves to death, you crazy things," said Mrs. Tucker.
"Lew is right," broke in the sheriff. "We can't take any chances. If it's Barry Home, and, if he's in this house, he means to fight his way out, unless your bullet got him, poor young fool."
"Poor young murderer, you mean!" said Mrs. Tucker. "The blood-thirsty young scoundrel. I hope..."
What she hoped remained unknown. For now the sheriff broke in with a crisp, clear voice: "Rance, you and Lew and Tom London get outside and watch the house. Stay there for an hour. You'll have moonlight to do it. Use shotguns. Shoot at any shadow that tries to get free from the place. Understand?"
"I understand," said Rance Tucker. "But you won't need to wait for a whole hour. He's running blood, I tell you. His blood is soaking through the flooring, some place in the house. I split his wishbone, boys. I was kind of unsteady, seeing him first, but the third shot, I nailed him. I seen him go crash, when he hit the door." He laughed in his exultation.
The voice of the sheriff cut in again: "Get out there on the double. Barry Home is a tough man. It's hard to kill Barry Home with one bullet. Get out there, now, and look things over. Be sharp, too. He's gonna slide through your fingers, if you don't look out. If it's only to drag himself away and die in some hole or corner where he'll never be found. If you wanta find your dead man, get outside. I'll hold things down in here. Before you're froze to death, one of you come back in. Rance, you're the oldest. You come back inside after an hour, and I'll go out and take your place. We're gonna have to keep a watch on the outside of the house all night. When the morning comes, we'll start in searchin' for the body."
"It's a waste of time," said Rance Tucker. "I split his wishbone for him, I tell you."
"Go and do what you're told to do by somebody that knows," said Mrs. Tucker. "Don't go and dispute with the sheriff, Rance!"
"Come on, Pa," urged the son.
"Oh, I'll go," said Rance Tucker. "Only, it's a big night for me. A big night when I've bagged Barry Home, and don't you forget it!"
"All right, Rance," said Tom London, who spoke very little at this moment. "The main thing is for us to keep from freezing while we're out there in the open. We'll need all the coats and slickers that you have in the house."
"They're in the hall, stacks of 'em," said Mrs. Tucker. "And I'll fire up the kitchen stove and get some coffee to boiling for you boys. I'll fetch it out to you. There ain't no more comfort than hot coffee in the cold."
"Make it good and strong, Ma," said Lew Tucker. "Not that dish-water that you're likely to serve up."
"Only," said Mrs. Tucker, "are you sure that murderer ain't gonna come down from upstairs and break in on us? Are you sure that you hurt him bad enough to take the fight out of him?"
"Him?" said Rance Tucker. "You take my word for it. He's lying on his face dead, somewhere up in the hall. That's all. He's dead, right now. But I guess we'd better play safe, like the sheriff says. That's the best way, to play safe when you're up against Barry Home!" He laughed again at the end of this speech, as though he had said something very witty.
It was mere excess of joy and animal spirits that brought the merriment forth.
Then, standing frozen to his place in the upper hall, Barry Home heard their muffled voices as they got into coats and slickers, then heard them stamping through the door. He did not attempt to get through a second story window to the ground. That would be difficult and dangerous business, while the outer walls of the house were iced over with sleet. For his own part, he had formed another, and what seemed to him a much better, plan.
Mrs. Tucker was already in the kitchen, to judge by the rattling of iron. That seemed to indicate that she had opened up the stove and was loading it with wood again. She would soon have the coffee pot on, steaming and boiling. In the meantime, the front door slammed heavily, the weight of the wind hurling it shut with a crash, while the breath of the storm whistled and screamed through the house.
Barry Home took advantage of that uproar to make, rapidly, the first three steps of the descent down the stairs.
THE living room was, undoubtedly, the crucial place to hold from a tactical point of view, if one wished to make sure of what happened in the house, and the sheriff was very right in remaining there. Barry Home was glad for almost the same reason for, according to his present plan, it was the sheriff that he wanted to get at.
But he made his descent cautiously. From the living room there came no sound whatever for a time, and, meanwhile, he was coming down the stairs, but in such a way that his procedure would have appeared extremely erratic to anyone not initiated. For he never moved until the wind caught hold of the house and shook it from head to heel with a furious blast. Then he ventured softly down, two or three steps at a time. After this he would pause, motionless, two or three minutes, until another blast of the hurricane descended on the place.
After twenty minutes of these precautions, he got finally to the bottom of the stairs. And now he stood beside the broken door. Inside that bright frame was the room with Sheriff Bert Wayland waiting, gun ready, eyes keen as a hawk's. A formidable man was Bert Wayland, not one to talk a great deal, but he could shoot straight and fast. His record was long. There were many deaths to decorate the length of it.
That was the reason why the young man hesitated long moments until the door of the kitchen opened, and the voice of Mrs. Tucker, husky with excitement, said: "Well, Mister Wayland, is everything all right?"
"Everything will be all right, so far as the house goes," said the sheriff, "till you hear a gunshot, and I drop dead. I'm watchin' that doorway, yonder. I'm watchin' it as though the devil might stick his head around the corner of it almost any minute."
"Good for you," said Mrs. Tucker heartily, "because a devil is what he is. I can't understand why the prison should go and turn loose a killer like him. Prisons is the place for 'em, and no place else!"
"Maybe," said the sheriff.
"I'll be fetching you in a cup of coffee, Sheriff Wayland, in a coupla shakes," said Mrs. Tucker cordially, and slammed the kitchen door.
That instant, surely, the eyes of the sheriff would wander toward the place where his hostess had disappeared. That instant Barry Home glided into the frame of the broken door and leveled his gun, hip-high, and saw the glance of Wayland, as he had expected, swinging back from the kitchen door.
The sheriff was seated in a straight chair, well to the side of the center table, so that the glare from the lamp, shining down, would not trouble his eyes in taking aim. His gun rested on his knees. But he made no effort to raise it when he saw that he was covered, and by whom.
Many things had been said of Barry Home, first, second, and third, but never had any man suggested that one of the three was that he failed to shoot straight. The sheriff, at least, cherished no such delusion.
Without moving his gun hand, Wayland's head rose as he stiffened a little in the chair, and his nostrils flared. He had the attitude of a man steeling himself to receive a frightful shock of a bullet that would strike over his heart and tear its way through his life.
"Lean over and put that gun on the floor," said Barry Home.
The sheriff obeyed.
"Now stand up, turn your back to me, and hoist your hands."
Again the sheriff obeyed.
Barry Home went to him and laid the muzzle of his revolver in the small of the sheriff's back. He nudged it hard against the spine of the helpless man.
"You see where you stand," said Home.
"I've been beat before," said the sheriff. "Only tonight I was a fool to trust Rance Tucker. He split your wishbone, did he?" He groaned as he spoke.
The left hand of Home went deftly over him. There was not a bulge to indicate another weapon.
"That's all right," said Barry Home. "Now come over here."
He steered the sheriff with a hand on his shoulder until he came to a certain point, facing the hanging lamp. Then, stepping forward, he laid the muzzle of his gun against the sheriffs breast.
"You don't need this much light to murder me by, Barry, do you?" asked the sheriff calmly.
And Barry Home wondered. He had seen men die, young as he was, and in the prison he had heard many tales of death. Yet there was something both terrible and fine in the calm of the sheriff, who was taking his turn under the muzzle of a gun. How would he, Barry Home, react in a similar situation? With his left hand, he reached out and fumbled behind the glass strings of beads.
"Look at this, not at my gun," he advised. 'There's your answer!"
"I don't see nothin', Barry," said the sheriff, as calmly as ever.
"Look again, at the string that hangs from the cut-glass bit that's smaller than the others. See anything now?"
"Yeah. It's smaller. The beads are bigger, though."
"Reach out and break that off from the frame," ordered Barry Home.
"It's pretty nigh funny enough to make me laugh," said the sheriff, "though I know that I'm gonna catch thunder and lightning in a minute."
"You're wrong," said Barry Home. "You'll see how wrong you are in another minute. But do as I say."
The sheriff obeyed once more and stood gravely, holding the dangling string of beads with the diamond at the top of them in his hand.
"Don't look at me," said Barry Home. "Look at the stuff in your hand."
"I see it," said Wayland.
"Look again. Is that stuff glass?"
The sheriff stared, and then started. "By thunderation," he muttered under his breath.
"That stuff," said Barry Home, "was all described by the papers at the time the Crystal Creek stage was robbed. A pearl necklace, and a diamond stickpin. Worth a couple of thousand dollars apiece."
"By thunderation," repeated the amazed sheriff.
"Pull yourself together," said Barry Home. "Tom London and Rance Tucker should have served that prison sentence, not I. You remember that I always swore I had nothing to do with it? London robbed the stage. You remember the horse trail business? London and Tucker framed it together to put the blame on me. Tonight, in the Loomis barn, I heard them talk the whole thing out. The diamond and the pearls... Tucker was afraid to sell for fear he'd be traced through 'em. He had this idea for concealing his stuff, and it was a good idea, I'd say."
"Good idea? It's a great idea!" said the sheriff. "It... it's a good enough idea for a book. But hold on, Barry. You mean to say that the state was wrong, and you were innocent all the while?"
"That's what I mean." He quietly put up his gun as he spoke. "Take your Colt again, Wayland. Call in Rance Tucker. Show him that stuff and ask him where he got it. And watch his face."
The sheriff drew in a great breath as he scooped up his gun. For a moment it seemed, from his savage face, as though he intended to turn his bullets upon the young fellow, but what he said was: "The hounds, the dirty hounds! And a poor kid went to prison and hell for 'em, eh? Oh, Barry, I'm a sad man, when I think what a fool I've been. A sad man."
He went to the front door, opened it, and, as the wind whistled into the house, his voice was heard calling, faint and far away: "Rance! Oh, Rance Tucker, come in!"
Almost at once Rance Tucker was entering the house, and the whistling of the wind was shut out as the front door closed.
"Wayland, have you got him?" exclaimed Tucker.
Barry had slipped back through the broken door and waited, peering out through the safe mask of shadow. He saw the two come into the room, the face of Tucker eagerly expectant.
Suddenly the sheriff held the string of beads before him. "Where'd you get this, Tucker?" asked Wayland sharply.
The jaw of Rance Tucker dropped. "Damn you!" he whispered, and caught at his gun.
He was far too slow in his movements to match the skill and training of the sheriff. Now he stood at bay, his hand on the butt of the gun, his jaw set, his eyes wild, covered by Wayland's gun, as Barry Home stepped through the doorway.
"It's a plant... it's a plot," muttered Rance Tucker, as he saw the face of Barry Home. "Home, he came here and put the stuff up there with the glass beads."
"You know too well where it came from," said the sheriff. "Cover this fellow a minute, Barry, while I go and call the others."
He stepped to the front door, and once more his voice rang into the night, more loudly than ever.
"Tom London! Oh, Tom! Come in! I've got him! Lew Tucker! Come in, Lew!"
Someone came running.
"Be careful, and mind what you do," the voice of the sheriff said in caution. "Give me that gun, Lew. Now go ahead in and see the man we want. Why doesn't Tom come, too?"
The door of the kitchen flew open at the same moment that Lew Tucker stepped in from the hall, and there they saw Rance Tucker standing, covered by the supposed thief, and the sheriff assisting at this outrage. But the very fact of that assistance struck the pair cold.
"There's the thief," said the sheriff melodramatically, but most unnecessarily, as it seemed.
Mrs. Tucker had been drying her hands on her apron. She began to moan, saying: "Oh, Rance, I always knowed that God wouldn't let it be with such an honest young feller as Barry Home. You should've picked on that worthless Slim Ferrar."
"I'm gonna say one thing," said Tucker at last. "You've got me, but get the man that done the real job. Get Tom London. He robbed the coach!"
BUT no matter how loudly the voice of the sheriff had run through the night, Tom London had not appeared.
"He's gone!" Barry Home said suddenly, and pointed toward the window.
What meant something to him, and very little to the others, was the small round eye of darkness, through which the bullets of Rance Tucker had sped not so long before. A man could have seen a very informing tableau by looking through that peephole, at any time in the last minute or so, and what would keep Tom London from taking such a glance as he came running to answer the call of the sheriff?
"He's gone," repeated Barry Home. "But he can't go as fast as I'll follow. Wayland, swear me in, make me deputy for this one night. Swear me, and I'll chase him to the rim of hell!"
Never was an oath administered more swiftly than at that particular moment.
And with the response trailing in the air behind him, Barry Home bolted from the house. As he ran from the door into that terrible blast of the wind, he saw what he expected—the silhouette of a horseman, galloping up the road toward Loomis with the gale helping him on. And the horse that he rode was a Thoroughbred.
Groaning, staggering, with a blindness of rage and of helplessness, Barry Home rushed to where the long, low-built blue roan had been left. Soon he was out on the road, and there was the shadowy form of the fugitive not so far ahead, strangely close, as though he had halted to make some adjustment of his saddle and then had gone on. But the blue roan was flying at full speed.
The wind had shifted a few points; the sky was scoured clean of clouds; and the moon poured a steady flood of silver into the pass as Barry Home rushed his horse up the trail. Well shod was the roan and sure-footed as a mustang has to be in the West, and he strode mightily on, the wind giving him wings.
Now Home could tell why, to his unutterable amazement, he gained ground. As he drew closer, he could see the long-legged Thoroughbred slipping and sliding in the treacherous going.
The surface of the road had been whipped clean of all snow by the force of the wind, but the earliest fall, that had melted, had turned to ice, and it was over a surface of ice that the cleated shoes of the gelding were beating, biting in to get a good grip and sending him swiftly and safely along.
Ah, trust Patty Loomis to have a horse that was a horse! And a rage of self-confidence swelled up in Barry and mastered him. He rode well forward, jockeying the good mustang, holding it with an iron hand, one hand, and that the left, because the right hand had to be nourished in the warmth of his body against the moment when it would be needed to grasp the handle of the Colt.
He could see before him how Tom London was riding his horse all out, now glancing back over his shoulder, now flogging the poor, skidding Thoroughbred to more frantic efforts. Given one good mile of clear going, and there would be no doubt of how that exquisite mechanism of flesh and blood would speed away from the blue roan, but now the Thoroughbred was caught at exactly the wrong moment and the low-running mustang made every stride a winning one. Tom London knew it, finally. He pulled up his horse at the side of the road, swung down to the ground, and drew his revolver.
It was still a good distance, fifty or sixty yards. There were two ways to manage the thing, to pull up the mustang in turn and shoot it out at long range, or else to charge straight in, trusting that the motion of his gelding would upset the aim of London as much as it unsteadied his own hand. The second course was the only one for Barry Home. And as he snatched out his revolver, it seemed to him that he was merely an instrument in the hands of a greater fate that would control this battle.
There was no doubt in him. Calmly and coldly, but with the whole long agony of three discredited years weighing down upon him, he watched the gun of Tom London, as the robber fired. And he saw the moon flash dimly on the buttons of the man's heavy overcoat. Then he fired in turn. There seemed to be no effect. It was merely that Tom London had lowered his own weapon and seemed to be looking curiously at the charge of his enemy. Then his knees sagged, and he leaned over very slowly, put out a hand toward the road, and collapsed.
He was dead. The certainty of it was in Barry Home before he could rein up the gelding, and then turn back to the place. Tom London was dead, and his horse was backing away from the horrible smell of blood.
THEY had sat long over the table at the Loomis hotel, because there was much to discuss out of that day's happenings, and the sudden disappearance of London, Rance Tucker, and Barry Home, to say nothing of the sheriff, was enough to cause every man to hazard some conjecture. There was the pale, drawn face of Patty Loomis, too, to cause the whispers to be lowered still further, as she circulated about the long dinner table, laden with plates or platters. There was, too, the somber look of Dave Loomis, sitting miserably at the head of the table robbed of his customary cheerfulness.
But three miles, even through bad weather, does not take a galloping horse much time. And they were still sitting about the table at the Loomis hotel when the door opened, and the sheriff looked in.
"I want to swear in a coupla deputies," he said briefly.
Patty Loomis, with a moan, put her hand against the wall to steady herself.
The sheriff said to her briskly: "It's not to get Barry Home, Patty. Barry Home needs no getting. There never was a time when he ought to've been got. Tom London robbed the Crystal Creek stage, and Barry's killed him for it, killed him resisting arrest, as an officer of the law. Rance Tucker went halves with London for putting the blame on poor Barry Home. And it's Rance that I want watched tonight. Any volunteers? Patty, I think Barry went around the back of the hotel."
She found him in the kitchen, sitting with his head resting in his hands. After she had looked at him a moment, smiling sadly and happily as well, she went to him and laid a hand on his shoulders.
"I know, Patty," he said. "I'll be all right in a minute. But I'm still a little sick. I've thought all the time that it was my business only. Now I see that fate or something had a hand in it all the while.(#there wasn't a comma or period after 'while.' I think a period would be correct?) Patty, I've killed a man."
She was perfectly silent. Her face was grave. And she looked above and beyond him, as one who knows that happiness is near but that it must be fought for to be kept.
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