HIS father was a Macdonald of the old strain which once claimed the proud title of Lord of the Isles. His mother was a Connell of that family which had once owned Connell Castle. After that terrible slaughter of the Connells at the Boyne, those who were left of the race fled to the colonies. After the Macdonalds had followed Bonny Prince Charlie into England in that luckless year, 1715, the remnants of the proscribed race waited for vengeance among the Highlands, or else followed the Connells across the Atlantic.
The Connells were great black men, with hands which could crush flagons or break heads. The Macdonalds were red-headed giants, with heaven-blue eyes and a hunger for battle. But the passing of generations changed them. They became city dwellers, in part, and those who dwelt in cities shrank in stature and diminished in numbers. They became merchants, shrewd dealers, capable of sharp practice. They lived by their wits and not by the strength of their hands. They gave corporals and raw-handed sergeants to the war of the Revolution; to the Civil War, nearly four generations later, they gave majors and colonels and generals. Their minds were growing and their bodies were shrinking.
And so at last a Mary Connell, small, slim-throated, silken black of hair, wedded a Gordon Macdonald, with shadowy red hair and mild, patient, blue eyes. They were little people. He was a scant five feet and six inches in height, and yet he seemed big and burly when he stood by the side of his wife. What manner of children should they have? For five years there was no child at all, and then Mary died in giving birth to a son. He was born shrieking rage at the world, with his red hands doubled into fat balls of flesh, and his blue eyes staring up with the battle fury—he was born with red hair gleaming upon his head. His father looked down upon him in sadness and bewilderment. Surely this was no true son of his!
His wonder grew with the years. At thirteen, young Gordon Macdonald was taller than his father and heavier. He had great, long-fingered bony hands and huge wrists, from the latter of which the tendons stood out, as though begging for the muscles which were to come. And his joy was not in his books and his tutor. His pleasure was in the streets. When the door was locked upon him, he stole out of his bed at night and climbed down from the window of his room, like a young pirate, and went abroad in search of adventure. And he would come back again two days later with his clothes in rags, his face purpled and swollen with blows, and his knuckles raw. They sent him to a school famous for Latin and broken heads. He prostrated two masters within three months with nervous breakdowns, and he was expelled from the school weak, bruised, but triumphant.
"Force is the thing for him then," said his weary-minded parent. "Let us discipline his body and pray God that time may bring him mildness. Labor was the curse laid on Adam. Let his shoulders now feel its weight!"
So he was made an apprentice in a factory, at the ripe age of fifteen, to bow his six feet two of bones and sinews with heavy weights of iron and to callous his hands with the rough handles of sledge hammers. But though he came home at night staggering, he came home singing. And if he grew lean with the anguish of labor in the first month, he began to grow fat on it in the second. His father cut off his allowance. But on Saturday nights Gordon began to disappear; money rolled into his pockets, and he dressed like a dandy. Presently his father read in one paper of a rising young light heavyweight who was crushing old and experienced pugilists in the first and second rounds under the weight of a wild-cat onslaught; and in a second paper he saw a picture of this "Red Jack" and discovered that he was his own and only son!
After that he took his head between his hands and prayed for guidance, and he received an inspiration to send his boy away from the wiles of the wicked city for a year and a day. So he signed Gordon Macdonald on a sailing ship bound for Australia. He hade his boy farewell, gave him a blessing, and died the next month, his mind shattered by a financial crash. But he had accomplished one thing at least with his son—Gordon Macdonald came back to Manhattan no more.
In the port of Sydney, far from his homeland, he celebrated his seventeenth birthday with a drunken carousal, and the next day he insulted the first mate, broke his jaw with a pile-driving jab, and was thrown into the hold in irons. He filed through his chains that night, went above, threw the watch into the sea, dived in after him, and swam ashore.
He was hotly pursued by the infuriated captain. The police were appealed to. He stole a horse to help him on his flight. He was cornered at the end of the seventh day, starved, but lion-like. With his bare hands he attacked six armed men. He smashed two ribs of one, the jaw of another, and fractured the skull of the third before he was brought down spouting crimson from a dozen bullet wounds.
The nursing he received was not tender, but he recovered with a speed that dazed the doctor. Then he was promptly clapped into prison for resisting arrest, for theft, and for assaulting the officers of the law.
For three months he pored upon the cross section of the world of crime which was presented to him in a wide, thick slab in the prison. Then, when he was weary of being immersed in the shadows of the world, he knocked down a guard, climbed a wall, tore a rifle from the hands of another guard, and stunned the fellow with a blow across the head, sprang down on the farther side, dodged away through a fusillade of bullets, reached the desert land, lived there like a hunted beast for six months, with a horse for a companion, a rifle for a wife, and a revolver for a chosen friend. At last he reached a seaport and took ship again on the free blue waters.
When the ship touched at Bombay, the hand of the law seized him again. He broke away the next night, reached the Himalayas after three months of wild adventure, plunged into the wastes of Tibet, joined a caravan which carried him into central Asia, came to St. Petersburg a year later, shipped to Brazil, rounded the Horn on a tramp freighter, and deserted at a Mexican port.
At the age of nineteen he rode across the border into Texas for the first time. He stood six feet two and a half inches in his bare feet. He weighed two hundred pounds stripped to the buff. He knew guns and fighting tricks, as a saint knows the Bible, and his whole soul ached every day to find some man or men capable of giving him battle which would exercise him to the uttermost of his gigantic strength.
But on his long pilgrimage he had learned a great truth: no matter how a man defies his fellows, he must not defy the law. For the law reaches ten thousand miles as easily as a man reaches across the table for a glass of water. And no matter if a man has a hand of iron, the law has fingers of steel.
Suppose the mind of a fox planted in the body of a Bengal tiger, a beast of royal power and a brain of devilish cunning. Such was Gordon Macdonald. He looked like a lion; he thought like a fox; and he fought like ten devils, shoulder to shoulder.
First he joined the Rangers, not for the glory of suppressing crime, but for the glory of the dangers to be dared in that wild service. He gained ten commendations in as many months for fearless work; in the eleventh month he was requested to resign. The Texas Rangers prefer to capture living criminals rather than dead ones.
So Gordon Macdonald resigned and rode again on his friendless way. He rode for ten years through a thousand adventures, and in ten years no man's eyes lighted to see him come, no woman smiled when he was near her, no child laughed and took his hand. The very dogs snarled at him and shrank from his path. But the Macdonald cared for none of these things. The spirit which rides on a thunderbolt does not hope for applause from the world it is about to strike. No more cared "Red" Macdonald. For he was tinglingly awake to one thing only, and that was the hope of battle. Speed, such as hides in the wrist of a cat, strength, such as waits in the paw of a grizzly, wisdom, such as lingers in the soul of a wolf—these were his treasures. Through all the years he fought his battles in such a way that the lie was first given to him by the other man, and the other man first drew his gun. Therefore the law passed him by unscathed. And all the years he followed, with a sort of rapturous intentness, a ghost of hope that some day he would meet a man who would be his equal, some giant of force, with the speed of a curling whiplash and the malignity of a demon. Some day he would come on the trail of a great devastator, an incarnate spirit of evil, and these men who now ceased talking and eyed him askance when he entered a room, these women who grew pale, as he passed, would come to him and fall on their knees and beg him to spare them. He carried that thought always in his heart of hearts, like a secret comfort.
Such was Gordon Macdonald at the age of thirty. He was as striking in face as in his big body. That arched and cruel nose, that long stern chin, that fiery hair, uncombable on his head, and, above all, his blue eyes stopped the thoughts and hearts of men. One felt the endless stirring impulse in him. To look in his eyes was like looking on the swift changes of color which run down the cooling iron toward the point. It was impossible to imagine this man sleeping. It was impossible to conceive this man for an instant inactive of mind, for he seemed to be created to forge wily schemes and plan cruel deeds.
He had crowded the events of a dozen ordinary lives into his short span of years. And still, insatiable of action, he kept on the trail which has only one ending. One might have judged that with such a career behind him, some of it would have been written in his face, but even in this he was deceptive. To be sure, when he frowned, a thousand lines and shadows appeared in his face; he might have been taken for a man of forty. But when he threw back his head and laughed—laughed with a savage satisfaction for work accomplished, or for danger in the prospect, he looked no more than a wild youth of twenty.
Such was the Macdonald in his thirtieth year. Such was the Macdonald when he saw Sunset, and at once he sensed that the fates had arranged the encounter.
THE horse had his name from his color. When the brilliant colors at the end of the day begin to fade from the clouds, and when they are only shimmering with a rusty red, such was the tint of the hide of the horse, and yet the mane and tail and the four stockings of the stallion were jet black. It was that rich, strange color that first startled the Macdonald and held his mind. It was like the thick blood with light striking across it, he thought, and that grim simile stayed in his mind.
The thought struck an echo through his brain at once. There was something of fate in this meeting, he felt. A strange surety grew up in him that his destiny was inextricably entangled with Sunset. An equal surety came to him that that destiny was a gloomy thing. If he had that horse, evil would come of it, and yet the horse he must have!
He rode closer to the edge of the corral and examined the stallion more in detail. It was not color alone in which Sunset was glorious. He was one of those rare freaks of horseflesh in which size is combined with an exquisite proportion and fine working of details. It is rare to find a tall man who is not poorly put together, whose legs are not too long, or whose arms are not too lean; there are sure to be flaws and weaknesses when a man stands over six feet in height. And, rare as it is to find a big man who conforms to the Greek canons, it is rarer still to find a tall horse neither too long nor too short coupled with bone to support his bulk, but not lumpy and heavy in the joints, with a straight, strong back, with a neck neither too heavy nor too long and gaunt to balance comfortably a head which is apt to be as big as the head of a cart horse, or as ludicrously small as the head of a pony.
Sunset avoided all these possible defects. One knew at a glance that he would fit the standard. So exact, indeed, were his proportions that it might have seemed with the first survey that he was too lean and gangling of legs; but, when one drew closer and gave more professional attention to his survey, one noted the great depth of body where the girth ran, the wide, square quarters, rich in driving power, the flat and ample bone, the round hoofs, black as ink, the powerful sweep of the long shoulders, dimpled over and rippling with muscles like the tangled lashes of a thousand whips. He stood a scant inch under seventeen hands, but he was made with the scrupulous exactness of a fifteen-hand Thoroughbred, one of those incredible carvings of nature that dance like little kings and queens about the turf at a horse show, or take the jumps as though winged with fire.
And here were the same things drawn to scale and made gigantic. The great heart of the Macdonald contracted with yearning. He looked down with unspeakable disgust to the nag which bore him. Big-headed, long-eared, squat and shapeless of build, the gelding had only one commendable quality, and that was an immense strength which was capable of supporting even the solid bulk of the Macdonald, with a jog trot that might last from morning to night. But on such a steed he was a veritable slave. If he offended, a swift-riding posse might swoop down and overtake him in a half hour's run. No wonder that he did not violate the law when he was damned by slowness of movement. And what availed him all his prowess, if he could neither pursue nor flee? Were there not a score of men who had insulted him and then avoided the inevitable lightning flash of his revenge by springing upon the backs of neat-footed horses and darting away across the mountains?
He looked up to the ragged sides of those mountains. The rider of such a horse as Sunset could make his home among those peaks. From those impracticable heights he could sweep down like a hawk on the wing and take toll from the groveling men of the plains—strike—ravage—destroy—beat down enemies—award justice for past injuries—and then away on wings again—wings strong enough to sweep him up the slopes and back to safety, while the sweating posse labored and puffed and cursed and moiled vainly in the dust far behind him!
No wonder that the Macdonald looked back from those distant heights to the stallion with a heart on fire with eagerness. The speed of an eagle, the strength of a lion, and the heart of a lamb. Yonder stood the giant horse nosing the hand of the man who was talking softly to him and stroking his sleek neck. The Macdonald dismounted. He stepped closer to the pair.
He had one gracious quality, and that was a soft and deep bass voice. He used it with more effect because in all his travels he had picked up no slang; he spoke the same pure tongue which he had learned in his boyhood.
"I wonder," he said to the stranger, "if you're the man who owns this horse?"
"Sunset?" The other turned, as though surprised that any one should have asked such a question. He was a tall and slenderly-built youth, with long tawny hair, a brown, weather-marked face with joyous gray eyes looking out at the Macdonald. "Yep," he said. "I own Sunset."
"Sunset?" echoed the Macdonald, and he looked back to the stallion. It was an appropriate name, and he said so. It was doubly appropriate now, as the big horse turned, and a wave of red light rippled along his flank, like a highlight traveling over bright silk.
At the deep and quiet sound of his voice, Sunset came closer, snorted softly his suspicion, then reached out with bright and mischievous eyes and nibbled at the brown back of the Macdonald's hand.
"Oh, he doesn't seem to be afraid, does he?" asked Macdonald of his companion in the profoundest wonder.
"Why should he be afraid?" asked the other, frowning. "He's been raised right and treated right. He don't connect with gents with clubs and spurs, like most of the horses around these here parts!"
The Macdonald looked over his shoulder and under his eyes, and his gelding flattened its ears and stared at the master with concentrated malice. Back to Sunset turned Gordon Macdonald. The teeth of the stallion had caught up a fold of skin on the back of his hand and pinched it very gently. Yet, as though he had committed a crime deserving punishment, the red horse started away, tossing and shaking his head. No rough curses followed him. He came back again slowly. Once more he sniffed at the stranger. Once more he came back and thrust out his beautiful head. Wonder of wonders, he permitted that great, strong hand of Macdonald to reach and touch his velvet muzzle. He permitted the tips of those terrible fingers to rub his forehead, to touch his silken ears, to stray along his throat. Nay, he grew so emboldened that he reached high. He caught the brim of Macdonald's hat. He twitched it off, and then, wheeling like a dog playing a game, half afraid and half delighted, he bolted across the field, whipping the hat from side to side and flashing his heels in the air.
"Hey!" yelled the owner. "Come back here, Sunset! Say, stranger, I'm mighty sorry that happened... looks like a good hat, too!"
He broke off in his apologies. Fifty dollars in gold had been paid the Mexican who first owned that sombrero. But now Macdonald was staring after a fleeing horse, like one enchanted by a dream of beauty. The long sweep of that gallop made him dizzy with delight. His stern lips parted to the tenderest of smiles. On the farther side of the field Sunset dropped the sombrero and dashed his hoofs upon it. In an instant it was a mass of rents and fragments. And behold, Macdonald turned to his companion a laughing face.
"He's like a big, happy dog!" he said.
The other stared upon him with no less surprise than if he had been convicted that instant of lunacy. And, indeed, there was something wild in this careless throwing away of a sombrero, dearer to a cowpuncher's heart than aught except his gun.
After the episode, Sunset picked up the hat again and came back at full gallop, the fragments dangling from his teeth, his head thrust out, his ears flattened, his mane flying like the plumes above a Grecian helmet, swift as an arrow loosed from the string, the ground shivering under the impact of his beating hoofs. A red flash of danger he shot at them, then threw himself back and slid to a halt on stiffly braced legs, while his hoofs plowed up long strips of the turf. At the very feet of Macdonald he dropped the hat.
"Like he expected a lump of sugar for spoiling my hat!" said Macdonald and laughed again. "And look at this! He comes right back to my hand again! Man, man, there's only one horse in the world... only one horse in the world!"
"Come here, Sunset," said the master. "Come here, I say."
But Sunset only wavered toward his owner. Then he returned to the fascinating task of trying to catch a lock of Macdonald's fire red hair in his teeth. What it meant to Macdonald no man could know. Perhaps a mother feeling the tugging hands of an infant could understand how his heart ached with joy to see this magnificent dumb creature defy him without malice and tease him as though he were some harmless child.
"What have you done to Sunset?" growled the young owner.
"Never saw him act up like that to any other man."
It was wine of purest delight to Macdonald.
"He doesn't take up with strangers, you say?" he asked greedily.
"Takes them with his heels, if he can!"
"Well," said Macdonald, "he's no common horse. He understands! He understands, eh, old boy?" He turned abruptly on the youth.
"What's your name?"
"Moore, is your horse for sale?"
"Moore, I've got five hundred dollars in my pocket."
"He's not for sale. Why, I raised him!"
"Look here, five hundred is quite a lot. It takes a long time for a cowpuncher to save that much." He put the amount in Moore's hand.
"No use talking, stranger!" declared Moore.
"Six hundred, then!"
"Not if you made it six thousand!"
"Moore, here's nine hundred and eighty dollars. It's yours. Give me the horse!"
"Not for nine thousand eight hundred!"
Moore recoiled a little, for the expression of Macdonald had changed. His lips had stiffened. His big body had trembled. There was even a change in the hand which had been stroking the neck of the stallion, for the horse suddenly drew back and sniffed suspiciously at the bony fingers. But if there had been a glimpse of danger in the face of Macdonald, he smoothed it away quickly enough and managed to smile.
"No way in the world that you'd give up that horse... couldn't be taken from you?"
"Not unless the luck was against me!"
"I mean I've never backed down at dice for any man! And, in fact," Rory Moore was laughing at the thought, "I'd stake my life on my luck! Look here, I've got a pair of dice with me. Your nine hundred against Sunset... one roll."
Eagerly Macdonald reached for the little cubes, then drew his hand back with a groan.
"I never gamble," he said.
"What?" cried the other, as though the sun had vanished from the heavens. "Never gamble?"
"No." He turned, took one last, long look at Sunset, who had pressed his breast against the fence, as though eager to follow, and then stepped to his gelding.
"What name'll I remember you by?" asked Moore.
But Macdonald did not seem to hear. He had thrown himself into the saddle and spurred the gelding down the road toward town, whose roofs already pushed up above the trees.
"BUT how a gold digger like you," said Macdonald, "could ever go broke, I don't see! You can make the cards do everything but talk, can't you? And I've watched you practice with the dice and call your throw nine times out of ten, even bouncing them against a wall!"
The gambler lifted his wan, lean face from his hands. Then he shrugged his shoulders.
"Yep," he said, "I can do that. And I had my big game planted, Macdonald. There was a fortune in sight... a hundred thousand, if there was a cent in that game! I had the cards stacked. Nothing better. Gent started betting against me. He had two aces and two jacks. My guns, how well I remember! I'd given him the ace of spades and the ace of hearts and the jack of spades and the jack of diamonds. He opened on the jacks, and I gave him the aces on the draw. The fifth card ought to have been the seven of clubs. I had three little deuces, but they looked big again' two pair. I figured him to be bluffing. He began to raise. I raised him right back. He began to sweat. I figured that he was sorry for his bluff, but thought that he could work it out. He saw me and raised me right back.
"Then I smeared in the rest of my chips... every cent I had was on that table... and he called. I showed my three deuces... I was reaching for the pot, and he laughed and put down two jacks and three aces on top of them. Yes, sir, it wasn't the seven of clubs that I'd given him... the first mistake I'd made in a hundred deals, and how I made it, I dunno! An ace full on jacks is what he hands me, and me with three measly deuces! That's how I'm busted, Macdonald!"
"Just change that name, will you?" said Macdonald.
"They don't know you here?"
"No, it's new country for me."
"Me, too, and bad country it is. What name d'you want? I call myself 'Jenkins!' "
"Call me nothing... call me Red, if you wish."
"All right. And, Red, you ain't fixed to stake me, are you?
The gambler shrank from him with a sickly smile.
"I meant to stake me to a couple of square meals, pal. I'm lined with vacancy, fact! Ain't eaten since I can remember!"
Macdonald rubbed his knuckles across his chin, and under his gaze Jenkins shuddered. His eyes widened. Plainly he knew a great deal indeed about the past of this slayer of men.
"Suppose I do stake you?"
"Why, then I'll sure pay you back, partner, the minute..."
"Suppose I stake you to five hundred dollars?"
The jaw of Jenkins fell.
"Five hundred!" he whispered. "What you want of me, Mac? What can I do for you? You know I ain't any hand with a gat, or for..."
The raised hand of Macdonald silenced him.
"I want you to gamble for me."
"Why I'd play my head off! You mean I'm to split with you after..."
"Shut up," said Macdonald. "I want to think!"
He strode up and down the room for a time, and the rat-like, sharp eyes of Jenkins followed him guiltily back and forth. Presently he shrank back in his chair again, as the bulk of the other loomed before him, and Macdonald stood still, with his legs braced far apart.
"I want no split," he said. "If you win, you win, and you keep the coin you make!"
Jenkins swallowed with difficulty, and his haunted eyes clung to the face of Macdonald.
"There's a youngster who lives in an old house near the town. His name is Moore."
"Oh, yes, Rory Moore!"
"You know him?"
"All about him!"
"What do you know?"
"The Moores used to own most of this here country. Look across the street!"
Macdonald looked across to the lofty and gabled front of the hotel. It was a spacious building for such a small town, and it was set far back from the street in deep grounds, in which all the garden had perished except a scattering of shrubs.
"That used to be the Moore home," said Jenkins.
"Rory's father blew the whole wad of coin. He was a hot spender. Paris was his speed, that's all. Come back with a mighty small jingle in his purse and a funny accent. The kids got his empty purse, but they couldn't inherit the funny accent!" And Jenkins laughed with a malicious satisfaction. "If he wanted to throw his coin away, why wasn't poker right here in Texas as good as Monte Carlo? Down with a gent that don't patronize home folks, I say!" His thin lips writhed into a snarl of deathless malevolence.
"This youngster, Rory Moore... he likes to play pretty well?"
"And he usually wins. That's how he's made enough money to start his ranch. He's sure got luck with dice and cards. Well, you know what luck means!"
"You mean he's crooked?"
There was an expressive shrug of the shoulders.
"I think you are lying, Jenkins!"
The latter winced under the word, but he recovered himself at once.
"I ain't seen him crook the cards," he confessed. "But he's a bad one... a fighter." He stopped short, watching Macdonald, in dread lest this imputation of blame to a fighter might offend the man of battle. But Macdonald was not thinking of himself.
"He's a fighter, you say? Neat with a gun, eh?"
"Quick and certain... which is what counts most!"
"Look here, Jenkins, would you have the nerve to sit in with Moore at a game and beat him?"
Jenkins turned white.
"What if I made a slip... and he seen? I'd be ready for planting, right there and pronto!"
"What if you didn't make a slip?"
"Then I'd clean him out!"
He twisted his bony hands together in glee at the prospect.
"Yes, he's the sort that would bet down to his last dollar," nodded Macdonald.
"He'd bet the boots he rides in," assented Jenkins. "And if he stuck by the game, a gent could clean him out of his ranch... out of everything! But what's the use of talking like that? I ain't got a stake to start a game, have I?" He fixed upon Macdonald the eyes of a ferret.
"Five hundred dollars, Jenkins. I'll stake you as high as that."
"And how do we split?"
"How do you think we should?"
"I dunno," whined Jenkins. "You furnish the cash, but I take the chances. And if he thinks I'm running up the cards on him, there'll be a gun play sure!"
"He has a horse..."
"Sunset, you mean?" asked Jenkins.
"That's the name. Jenkins, I want that horse. When you break him, he'll stake Sunset. I want Sunset, but you can keep the cash!"
For a time they were both silent, the lips of Jenkins moving, and his eyes fixed so intently upon the distance, that he reminded Macdonald of one who bet his last cent on a horse race and sees the ponies battling desperately down the home stretch.
"A man has to die sometime," said Jenkins at last. "And ain't it better to die flush than broke?"
"There's no doubt about that!"
"I'll take you up, Red! Gimme that coin and I'll lay for him! I'll get him tonight. Say, Red, I been broke so long that this looks like a pile of money that you're giving me. Don't you want some sort of a receipt?"
But Macdonald, as he put the wallet back into his pocket, merely smiled. "No," he said. "I don't need a receipt."
"Sure you don't! Sure you don't!" murmured Jenkins, shivering violently, as another thought came to him. "I guess there ain't many west of the Mississippi that would try to beat you out of anything."
His shivering ended in a crackling laugh. But in the meantime he had a pocket bulging with money, and his spirits would not stay down. Warmth was beginning to strike through all his body.
"One thing I never could make out about you, Red," he went on.
"You can do about anything that any other man can do. But you always stay shut of cards. Don't seem to want to take chances that way. But you sure made a mistake, Red. With your nerve you get by fine. The trouble with me... the trouble with me is that I get to thinking of what might happen, if they should find me out in a pinch, and something sort of melts in me."
It was not often that Macdonald showed any delicacy of feeling, but now he turned away to hide the scorn which darkened on his face.
"Jenkins," he said, facing the other again, "has an honest gambler a chance of winning?"
"Honest gambler!" sneered Jenkins. "There ain't any such bird!"
"That's why I don't gamble," said Macdonald. "I haven't enough coin to throw away, and as for the other way of gambling, I hate a sure thing!"
"But look here," argued Jenkins, "do you think that I'm going to play square with Rory Moore?"
Macdonald scowled upon his confederate.
"I offered Moore twice the value of his horse," he explained. "He was a fool not to take it, and you're a worse fool, Jenkins, to ask questions!"
HERE ended the talk, of course. Macdonald left Jenkins and stalked across the street to the hotel. There he went at once to his bed and flung himself upon it. Since he had not closed his eyes in forty-eight hours, he could hardly prop them open long enough to finish his bedside cigarette, peering through the shadows of the room at the old photographs and pictures which hung along the walls. These might all be members of the clan of Moore—kinsmen, relations, supporters of the old power in the days when it was really great, and when this hotel was like a castle in the midst of a principality.
Such were the thoughts that formed vaguely in the mind of Macdonald before he threw his cigarette butt through the window, turned on his side, and was instantly asleep. It was a sleep filled with visions of uncertain misery for a time, but by degrees he passed into a dream of such pleasantness that he began to smile in his sleep.
For it seemed to Macdonald that he was mounted at last upon the great red beauty, Sunset, and that he was galloping over the mountain desert like a dry leaf soaring on a wind. A dizziness of joy swept into his brain, with the sway and swing of that galloping. And there was perfect accord between the red horse and himself. A pressure of his knee was as good as a twist of the reins, and his voice was both bit and spur.
In the meantime he came to a river twisting among the hills, a swift, straight stream, save where it now and then dodged the knees of a hill and plunged on again. Macdonald looked upon that river with a careful eye, but he could not remember having seen it before.
He went on up its bank, glorying in the brown rushing of the waters with streaks and riffles of yellow foam upon the surface. On either side the banks were being gouged away. Here and there trees were toppling on the edges of the banks, with half their foothold torn away. And even the hills of rock, which the stream dodged perforce, were rudely assaulted and carved by the currents.
And, just as this dashing and thundering torrent was different from other peaceful rivers full of quiet, of pauses, and starts, was not he, also, equally different from other men? Did he not bear down those who opposed him? A thousand crimes might be laid to his account, but who was strong enough or cunning enough to call him to a reckoning?
At length he came to a turn of the river, so that its main body was removed to some distance from him, as he drove on straight up the valley and, as the waters were withdrawn, it seemed to Macdonald that their voice was gathered in great, thick accents: "Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!" repeated over and over.
So startling was the clearness of that phrase that he shook his head and thundered out a fragment of a song to thrust the thought from his head; but, when he listened to the river again, it was calling as clearly as ever: "Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!"
He halted Sunset and looked about him. As he stared about him now, it seemed to Macdonald that he had indeed seen this river before. He had ridden that way, but he must have looked only casually about him. He could recall no single landmark, but he remembered the whole effect, as one remembers the sound of a human voice without being able to identify it with descriptive words.
Now he followed the stream again, as it dwindled swiftly. He crossed a fork, where another creek joined it. He went on, and in another half mile he was at the big spring which gave the river birth. A little farther on he came to the divide, a ragged crest which overlooked to the east a rich plain, dotted with trees, spotted here and there with houses, and in the distance the gathered roofs of a town with a few clusters of spires above it. And, as he paused, the wind blew to him faintly the lowing of cattle made musical with distance. Another sound was forming behind him, the small voice of the creek, and again it seemed to be building words: "Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!"
Macdonald grew cold in his sleep. A heaviness of foreboding depressed him. But he reached for his guns, and they were all safe; they were all loaded. He looked again upon the plain below. It was bright with sun, spotted with shadow as before, and all was wrapped in a misty noonday of content and prosperity.
There could be nothing to fear in this, he told himself, and straightway he gave Sunset the rein. Down the slope they went in a wild gallop. They started across the fields with Sunset jumping the fences like a bird on the wing dipping over them. And so they came suddenly to a long avenue of black walnut trees, immense and wide-spreading, trees that interlaced their branches above the head of Macdonald.
He stopped Sunset. It was more than familiar, this long double file of trees. He had seen it before. He closed his eyes. He told himself that if he turned his head he would see a section behind him, where three trees had died, and where three smaller and younger trees had been planted. He turned his head; he looked; and, behold, it was exactly as he had guessed.
It was very mysterious. He had never seen that plain before, he told himself, and yet here he was remembering an exact detail. Macdonald swallowed with difficulty. He looked hastily around him. But there was nothing to justify that warning voice which he had seemed to hear from the river among the hills. There was only the whisper of the wind among the big branches above him, and the continual shifting and interplay of the shadows on the white road and lazy cows, swelling with grass, had lain down in the neighboring field to chew their cuds. No, nothing could be less alarming than this, unless the rattle of approaching hoofbeats bore some unsuspected danger toward him.
In a moment the rider was in view, swinging around a bend in the road. But fear? It was only a girl of eighteen or twenty on a speedy bay mare, borne backward in the saddle a little by the rate of the gallop and laughing her delight at the boughs of the walnut trees and the glimpses of the deep blue sky beyond them.
And as her face grew out upon him, Macdonald turned cold indeed! For on the one hand he knew that he had never seen her or, at least, he had certainly never heard her voice, never heard her name; but as for her face, it was more familiar to him than his own. He had come into a ghostly land, with voices speaking from rivers and with roads on which familiar strangers journeyed.
She came straight on, and he searched her face with his stare. She was by no means like the girls he was familiar with. They rode astride like men in loosely flowing garments of khaki, but this one was clad in a tightly fitted jacket, with long tight sleeves, bunched up at the shoulders, and she was perched gracefully in a side-saddle, with the skirt of her riding habit sweeping well down past the stirrup.
When she saw him, she threw up a hand in greeting, and he heard her cry out in a high, sweet, tingling voice that went through and through him. The bay mare flung back and came to a halt with half a dozen stiff-legged jumps, then she busied herself touching noses with Sunset. But the girl in the side-saddle? She had thrown her hands to Macdonald, and she was laughing, but her eyes were filled with tears.
"Oh," she cried to him, "I have been waiting so long... so long! I have ridden here every day for you to come, and here you are at last. I thought my heart would break with the long waiting, Gordon, but now it's breaking with happiness!"
Was it from this that that voice from the river had bidden him turn back? His heart was thundering.
"Do I know you then?" he was asking her. "Have I really met you before?"
"Don't you remember?"
"I try to remember, but there's a door shut in my mind, and I can't open it."
"We have met in our dreams, Gordon. Don't you remember now?"
"I almost remember. But your name is just around the corner and away from me."
"I've never had a name... for you." she said. And then her face clouded. "But if I should tell you my name, it would spoil everything. You aren't going to ask me for that, dear?"
"How can a name spoil anything?"
"If I showed you my father's house, you would understand."
"If I should lose you, how could I trail you and find you again, if I did not know your name?"
"You could find the river, and the river will always bring you to me, you know. But we never can leave one another now! If we turn together and ride fast, they'll never overtake us... if we once get to the hills and ride down the valley road beside the river, just the way you came."
"I have never run away from any man or men!" he answered sternly. "How can I run away now? Who will follow?"
"My father and all his men. Have you forgotten that?"
Fear grew up in Macdonald, but at the same time there was a wild desire to ride on to the end of that road. And as for "father and all his men," he was consumed with a perverse eagerness to see them. It was from this, then, that the river had bidden him turn back. But on he went, with the girl riding close beside him, beseeching him to stop.
When they came to the great avenue of walnut trees, they entered a village and passed through it until they came into a deep garden and straight under the facade of a lofty house, one of the largest he had ever seen, he thought, with great wooden turrets and gables. To Macdonald it looked like a castle.
"Is this your father's house, where he lives with all his men?" he asked of the girl.
But no voice answered him and, when he turned, the girl was gone. He looked on all sides, but she was nowhere to be seen.
"They have stolen her away from me," he thought to himself. "They have taken her into the house and, if I follow her there, they will kill me; but if I do not follow her I shall never see her again." And it seemed to Macdonald that, if he never saw her again, it would be worse, far worse than death. For the sound of her voice he would have crossed a sea. And there was a soft slenderness to her hand, like the hand of a child, that took hold on his heart.
"If I follow her into the house," said Macdonald again to himself, "I am no better than a dead man; but if I do not follow her, I am worse than dead!"
So he marched resolutely up the winding path. He strode up the wide steps, but when he came before the door of the house, though he had not heard a sound of a footfall following him, a strong hand clutched him by the shoulder.
Swiftly he turned around, but there was nothing behind him save the empty air, and the grip of the hand held him by the shoulder, ground into the strength of his big muscles, and seemed biting him to the bone like a hand of fire.
Here Macdonald awoke. There was a hand indeed upon his shoulder, and over his bed a dim figure was leaning. Instantly he grappled with the other, found his throat, dashed him to the floor.
"For Lord's sake," groaned the voice of the other, "don't kill me... it's only Jenkins!"
SO real had been the dream, so vivid had been the sunshine which he had seen in it, so clear the flowers and the trees and the shrubs in that great garden and the looming house above him, that for a moment the black darkness in the room seemed to stifle the big man.
Macdonald recalled himself and raised the groveling form of Jenkins to his feet.
"A fool thing to wake a man up like that... in the middle of the night," he growled at Jenkins. "Wait till I light a lamp."
"Not a lamp, in the name of reason!" panted the gambler. "Somebody might be watching... somebody might guess..."
"That you put me up to the work."
"Playing with Rory Moore and breaking him."
The whole story rolled back upon the mind of Macdonald, and for a moment the face of the girl in his dream was dim. "Ah, yes," he said. "And tell me what happened?"
"You seen just what would happen, Macdonald. Moore played like a crazy man. I won so fast it had me dizzy. Finally he was broke. He put up his watch; he put up everything he had."
"Even the ranch?"
"Nope, it seems that he made that over to his sister. It's in her name!"
"But he lost everything else?"
"Everything! And finally he put up Sunset. You'd have thought that he was staking his soul on them cards. And when he lost, he put his head between his hands and groaned like a sick kid."
"But you got the horse, Jenkins?"
"It's in the stable behind the hotel. I'm leaving the first thing in the morning. I'm going to tell them at the stable that I sold the hoss to you. Then I light out for Canada."
"Rory Moore may find out what I am, that some folks think I don't always play square with the cards. And if he thinks that he's been cheated out of that hoss, he'll kill me, Macdonald! Why, he'd follow me around the world to sink a bullet into me."
"Shut up! You're talking like a woman, not a man. Be quiet, Jenkins. Go wherever you please, but let me have the horse. Good-bye."
"Will you shake hands and wish me luck, Macdonald?"
"You rat! You card-juggling rat! I've used you, and I'm done with you. You have the money, and I have the horse. Now get out and never come back!"
He could feel Jenkins shrinking away from him through the darkness, and from the door he heard the stealthy whisper of the gambler.
"I dunno that I'm any worse than you. You put me up to this game. I dunno that I'm any worse than you."
"Bah!" sneered the big man. "Get out!" Then the door shut quickly behind the other.
After he had gone, the strangeness of the dream returned upon Macdonald. He lighted a lamp and sat down with his face between his hands, but he found that his heart was still beating wildly, and the face and the form of the girl still stayed in his thoughts more vividly, so it seemed, than when he had first seen her in the vision. There was none of the usual mistiness of dreams about her. He could remember the very texture of the sleeve of her riding habit. He could remember the way a wisp of hair, blown loose from beneath her stiff black hat, fluttered and swayed across her cheek. He could remember how her bay mare had danced and sidled, coming back down the avenue of the walnut trees. And, above all, he still held the quality of her voice in his ear. How she had pleaded with him not to approach that house behind the garden! And how mysteriously she had disappeared, when at last he had called to her. What might have happened had he not persisted in going on? And, above all, what was it that made him persist? What was the pull and the lure which drove him so irresistibly ahead?
At this he started up out of his chair with a stifled exclamation of disgust with himself. Of course anything was possible in a dream. There was no real existence except in his thoughts alone.
He stared around the room. It seemed to Macdonald that, if he could rest his eyes on some familiar daylight object, his nerves would quiet. But what his glance first encountered was the dark and faded portrait of an old gentleman with a white muffler—turned gray with age—around his throat, and one hand thrust pompously into the bosom of his coat. He smiled, and the smile was a grotesque caricature done in cracked paint. And the blue of his eyes was dim with time.
Daylight reality? There was more in one second of the dream than in an age of such pictures. And the whole room exuded a musty aroma of the past. Yonder dust, which lay in the corner, seemed to have lain there for a generation, and the footprint within it had been made by the foot of one long dead.
In vain Macdonald strove to rally from this obsession. In vain he told himself that this was no more than an old family mansion long used as a hotel—every room occupied many times in the course of each year. But the more he used his reason, the more it failed him.
The panic was growing momently in him, and it was a strange sensation. Not on that day, when the five men had cornered him in an Australian desert and held him, more dead than living, in a group of rocks for forty-eight hours, without water—not even in the worst of those hours had he felt this clammy thing called fear. There was a weakness in his stomach and in his throat. He felt that if a knock were to come at his door, there would hardly be in his knees sufficient strength to answer it. Suppose that in this condition some enemy were to find him and reach for a gun?
He shuddered strongly at that thought. Then, driven by a peculiar curiosity, he forced himself to go to the mirror and to hold above his head with shaking hands the lamp. What he saw was like the face of another man. The pupils of his eyes were dilated. His lips were drawn. His bronzed cheeks had turned a sickly yellow, and his forehead was glistening with perspiration. He put down the lamp with a muffled oath, then glanced sharply over his shoulder to the window, for it seemed to him as though his eyes, a moment before, had been watching him from its black rectangle, with the high light from the lamp thrown across it, blurring the outer dark.
After this he consulted his watch. It was half past two, and at this hour he certainly could not start his day's journey. But the very thought of remaining in that room was unspeakably horrible to him.
He dressed at once. There was Sunset, at least, waiting for him in the stable. At that thought half of the nightmare fears left him. He hurried through the packing of his bed roll, then left the room and went down the stairs. On the desk in the deserted little lobby he left more than enough to pay his bill. Then he started out for the stable.
It was deserted like the lower floor of the big house. Even the stable, which the Moores had built behind their home, was lofty and mansion-like, finished at the top with sky-reaching gables and adorned at the upper rim of the roof with an elaborate cornice of carved wood, half of whose figures had cracked away with the passage of the years and the lack of paint.
As he stepped through the great arch of the central door, he found a single lamp burning behind a chimney black with smoke. This he took as a lantern and examined the horses in the stalls. There were only five kept there for the night. The rest were in the corrals behind the building, and in the first of these corrals he found Sunset.
The stallion had been placed by himself and, the moment the lamp from the light struck on him, he came straight for the bearer, his big eyes as bright as two burning disks, and the lamplight was quivering and running along the silk of his red flanks.
Macdonald uttered a faint exclamation of delight. It was the first time in his wild life that he had secured anything through fraud. Treachery had never been one of his mental qualities. But, as the horse nosed at his shoulder and whinnied softly, as though they had been friends for many a year, his heart leaped. Every man, he had always felt, will commit one crime before his life was over, and this must be the crime of Macdonald. How much bloodshed, how many deaths could be laid to his score did not matter. He had risked his own life in taking the life of another. But here he had gone behind another man and cheated him with hired trickery!
It was very base. The whole soul of Macdonald revolted at the thought of Jenkins and the part he had played. But he would use Sunset as tenderly as any master could use him. That, at least, was certain.
In five minutes his saddle was on the back of the stallion, his roll was strapped to it, and he had vaulted into the stirrups and jogged out onto the main street of the town. There were no noises. The town slept the sleep of the mountains, black and stirless. The great stars were bright above him. And under him the stallion was dancing with eagerness to be off at full speed, dancing and playing lightly against the bit, but as smooth of action as running water.
He spoke gently, and Sunset was off into a breath-taking gallop, no pitch and pound, as of the range mustang, but a long and sweeping stride, as though the beat of invisible wings bore him up and floated him over the ground. They flashed out of town. Now the blackness of the plain lay before them, and Sunset was settling to his work. A horse? No, it was like sitting on the back of an eagle. The cold of the nightmare left him, and it seemed to Macdonald that, if he turned, he would see the girl of his vision cantering beside him, laughing up to him!
Now he touched Sunset with the spurs. It was half a mile before he could pull the startled horse out of a mad run and bring him into a canter again, with hand and voice soothing the stallion. By that time all thoughts of the dream were behind him. But for how long? When would she come again to make his heart ache with loneliness and to fill him again with the sad certainty of disaster toward which he was traveling?
One thing at least was necessary. He must find action—action which would employ him to the full. He must have battle such as he had never had before. He must fight against odds. He must plunge into danger as into cleansing waters, and these would wash the memory from his mind.
So at least it seemed to Macdonald, as he gnawed his lip and rode on into the night. And he cast around in his thoughts for an objective. It was no longer easy to find the danger which was the breath of his nostrils. Time had been when the shrug of a shoulder or a careless word would plunge him into battle. But that time had passed. His reputation had spread wide before him and men took far more from him than they would take from their ordinary fellows. Moreover, how many sheriffs had warned him solemnly that the next time there was a killing by him in their county, self-defense would be no defense, but he would be left to the mercy of the crowd?
He must find some ready-made trouble, and with that the inspiration came to him. Five years before in the town of Sudeth he had killed young Bill Gregory, and the Gregorys one and all had sworn that he would never live to spend another day in that town. What could be more perfect? He had only to ride into the town of Sudeth and take a room in the hotel. The next move would be up to the Gregorys.
There were scores of them about the place, and they were not the type of men to forget past oaths.
THE tidings of his coming went out on wings, and that night the Gregorys assembled. In the course of two generations a large family had multiplied greatly and become almost a clan, of which the head was old Charles Gregory; and it was at his ranchhouse, a scant mile from the town of Sudeth, that the assembly gathered. Old or young, gray or dark, they packed into the big dining room. The elders sat. The younger men, the fighting van of the Gregory family, were ranged around the wall, smoking cigarettes until their faces were lost behind a haze, but speaking rarely or never. For it was felt in the Gregory family that age had its rights and its wisdom, and that young men may listen to them with profit.
Old Charles Gregory himself sat at the head of the board. Time had withered, but not faded, him. His arms and hands were shrunk like the arms and hands of a mummy, but his thin, bronzed cheek still held a healthful glow, and his eyes were as bright as the eyes of a youth. He opened the meeting with a little speech.
"There ain't no use saying why we've come together, folks," he said.
"The hound has come back. It wasn't enough that we didn't follow him out and finish him off after he murdered poor Bill. That wasn't enough. We kept the law and stayed quiet. But being quiet only made him figure that he could walk right over us. So he's back here sitting easy at the hotel and waiting for us to do something. The question is: What are we going to do?"
The elders around the table neither stirred nor spoke, but there was a slight and uneasy shifting of feet around the wall and a dull jingling of spurs. Not a man there but was a man of action.
"None of you seem to have no ideas!" said Charles Gregory fiercely. "But first off I'd better tell you just what happened when Bill was killed. There's been a lot of talk about it since. There's been five years for talk to grow up, and talk grows faster than any weed on the range! I'll tell you the facts because, come my time of life, the longer ago a thing happens the clearer it is to me!"
He paused and closed his eyes. For the moment he looked like a weary mask of death. Now again his eyes looked out from the steep shadow of his brows, and he went on: "And you younger people listen close. You're going to hear the facts. It started over nothing, the way most shooting scrapes start. Bill comes riding into town one day and goes up on the verandah and sits down in a chair. Pretty soon Abe Sawyer comes up to him and says to him: 'You know who that chair belongs to?'
"'I dunno,' says Bill.
"'Gordon Macdonald has been sitting in it,' says Abe.
"'Who's Gordon Macdonald?' says Bill.
"'A nacheral born man-killer,' says Abe, 'and the worst man with a gun that ever was born.'
"Bill sits and thinks a minute.
"'I don't know how much gunfighter he is,' says Bill, 'but he sure ain't got this chair mortgaged. If he happens to sit down in it in the morning, he ain't going to have it kept for him here all day!'
"Abe didn't say no more about it. He went off and sat down to watch, and pretty soon a big man comes out through the door of the hotel and taps Bill on the shoulder.
"'Excuse me, partner,' he says, 'but this is my chair!'
"Bill answers without turning his head. 'D'you think that you can hold down a chair all day by just sitting in it once?'
"'I was fixing my spurs,' says the big man, 'and I left one of 'em lying on each side of the chair. Ain't that enough to hold down a chair for a man for two minutes? Besides, there's other chairs out here on the porch, and you could have sat in one of them, couldn't you?'
"Bill looks down and he sees the spurs for the first time. He looks up to the face of Macdonald, and he said later that it was like looking up into the face of a lion. His nerve sort of faded out of him.
"'Maybe you're right,' says he and gets up and takes another chair. But, while he's sitting in the other chair, he sees half a dozen of the gents that have watched the whole thing sort of looking at him and then at one another and smiling. A shiver runs up Bill's spine, and he starts asking himself if they think he's taken water. He's got half a mind to go over and pick a fight with Macdonald right there, to show that he has nerve enough to suit any man. But then he remembers that he's going to marry poor Jenny inside of a week, and he decides that he ain't got no right to fight a gunman.
"He goes on home. As soon as he sits down to the supper table in comes his cousin, Jack, over yonder... oh, Jack, it was a poor part you played that night!... and started joking with Bill because he'd give up his chair to Macdonald. Bill didn't say a word to nobody. But he gets up from the table and goes out and saddles a hoss and starts for Sudeth town. He runs down the street, jumps off'n his hoss, and dives into the hotel. There he looks up this Macdonald. He starts in cussing Macdonald, with his hand on the butt of his gun. He says that Macdonald must have started talking about him and calling him yaller. But Macdonald talks back to him plumb soft and says that he don't want no trouble, and that the matter about the chair don't mean nothing. Pretty soon Bill got to thinking that Macdonald was yaller, I guess, from the soft way that Macdonald talks. Anyways he goes up and punches Macdonald on the jaw. Macdonald knocks him down. While Bill lies on the floor, he pulls his gun, and Macdonald waits till he sees the steel, then he pulls his own Colt like a flash and kills poor Bill."
Charles Gregory paused, looking down to his withered hands, clasped above the table. There was no sound in the room.
"That's the straight of that killing of Bill, and it sounds like Bill was simply a fool. But since then we've heard a lot about Macdonald, and we know that he's one of these gents that goes around hunting trouble, and when he gets into trouble he backs up and talks soft and tries to make the other gent lead at him, but the minute anything is started, Macdonald does all the finishing. He lives on murder! We've traced him a ways, and we've planted twenty dead men to his credit! Now, folks, this Macdonald is the man we told to get out of Sudeth and never come back, and here he is in town again. I seen the sheriff today. All he said was that he had a long trip to make and was leaving pronto, which was the same as saying that he knew that Macdonald was a plumb bad one, and that he wouldn't dislike having us wipe him out. Ain't I right? The only question is: How are we going to do it?"
There was a small, respectful pause at the conclusion of this speech, and finally Henry Gregory, a wide-shouldered, gray-headed man, spoke from the farther end of the table. No one in that room was more respected by the others.
"I've had my storms," he said, "and I've done my fighting. But the older I get the more I figure that no good can come out of the muzzle of a Colt with a forty-five slug. And I say short and pronto: no more fighting! Let Macdonald stay. Poor Bill is dead. There ain't no doubt that it was no better than murder. There ain't no doubt that this Macdonald is a professional, and before we could get rid of him, a couple of our boys are sure to go down. I say: hands off of Macdonald."
"There'd be a lot of talk!" exclaimed half a dozen voices in a chorus.
"Nobody but a fool would accuse the Gregorys of being cowards," said Henry. "What fools say don't bother us none. We can let 'em chatter!"
Someone stepped forward from the wall of the room with a clank of spurs. It was the face of Jack Gregory that came out of the mist of smoke.
"Folks," he said, "I'd ought to wait until my elders have finished talking, maybe, but I got something to say that needs saying pretty bad. Grandfather Charles was sure right when he said that it was me joking Bill that sent him into town to fight. God knows that I didn't mean no harm. Me and Bill was always pals, everybody knows. But it was me that got Bill killed, and I'll never live it down with myself! What I got to say is this. Let me go in and face the music. Let me meet Macdonald and try my luck. It's my business!"
There was a stern hum of dissent, and Mack Gregory, the father of Jack, turned and glanced gloomily at his son.
"No," said old Charles Gregory, speaking again, "we've passed our word that Macdonald should never come back to Sudeth, and he's done it. Right or wrong, we've passed our word. It ain't the business of Jack. It's the business of all of us! Speaking personal, I say that it would be suicide to send only one man. We need more! Macdonald is a lion!"
There was another growl of agreement.
"Are we going to let folks say that the Gregorys have to fight in twos?" protested Henry Gregory, but he was not heard.
In another moment they were busy preparing the lots and then making the draw. By weird chance it fell upon both the sons of the peacemaker, Henry Gregory. Steve and Joe were his only children, great-boned, silent fellows, as swarthy of skin as Indians and as terrible as twin wildcats in a fight. Certainly the choice could not have fallen upon two more formidable men.
"But it ain't right," protested Jack. "I sure ought to have a hand. If Steve and Joe are hurt, the blame of it will come back on me, and I can't stand it!"
"Shut up!" snarled his father. "You're playing the fool, son. Are you wiser than all the rest of us?"
So Jack was cried down, but his mind was not put at rest by all the talk. He heard it decided that the attack on Macdonald should be made in the morning. He heard the farewells, as the party broke up. And, witnessing all these things through a mist, all he saw clearly was the stern face of Henry Gregory, now wan with sorrow for his sons. He saw that, and it determined him on the spot. He waited until the assembly had scattered, then he took his horse, fell to the rear, and presently had turned down a path and started for the town of Sudeth.
IN the meantime Macdonald had waited until the night. Yet it was not wasted time. In anticipation he was turning over the danger in his mind, as a connoisseur turns over the thought of the expected feast. He had put his head into the jaws of the lion, as he was well aware. How those jaws would close was the fascinating puzzle. They might attack him by surprise, or in a crowd. They might wait for the night, and then they would be truly terrible, or else they might strike boldly in the day, when he would have a better fighting chance.
Such surmises filled his mind all the late morning. In the early afternoon he fell asleep and, the instant he closed his eyes, he was once more traveling up the river in the mountains, with the voice forming out of the sounding current: "Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!" in endless reiteration. Once more he climbed to the headwaters of the stream; he crossed the divide; and he saw before him the same sunny plain, exactly as it had been before.
He wakened suddenly; and that afternoon he slept no more, but went down into the lobby of the hotel and then onto the verandah in front, where there would be other men around him.
The evening came, and still there was no sign of the coming of the Gregorys. But word was brought to him that the sheriff had left the town. And then new word came that the Gregorys were meeting that evening. For, wherever Macdonald went, though he had no friends and no companions, there was always a certain number of men, like the jackals who follow the king of beasts, ready to carry information to the great man, ready to cringe and cower before his greatness. He treated them, as they needed to be treated, with a boundless contempt; but on occasion they were invaluable to him. They were very necessary on this day, for instance, with their eager whispers to and fro. And it was one of these fellows who brought the word about Rory Moore.
"If anybody was to ask me where there was going to be trouble first," said this sneak of an informant, "I'd say it would come right here in Sudeth. And the second place it's going to come is to Rory Moore in his own town!"
"Rory Moore? Rory Moore?" asked Macdonald sharply. "What the devil do you know about him?"
"Nothing but what everybody will know pretty pronto. I ain't doing you no favor telling you this. Twenty men could tell it to you pretty soon. Rory Moore is telling folks around his home town that you stole his hoss, Sunset, from him!"
It brought a growl from Macdonald, and he dropped his cigarette to the floor and smashed it with his heel.
"I stole his hoss? It's a lie! I bought it from a man who won Sunset from him in a gambling game."
"It was a frame-up," said the informer. "Moore swears it was a frame-up. He says that he's found out that Jenkins, who won the hoss from him, was really a professional gambler, a crooked player whose real name is Vincent. Is that right, Macdonald?"
"Hang Jenkins and Moore both!" cried Macdonald. "Where does all this rot come from?"
"The telephones have been packed with it all morning. Seems that this fellow Vincent... was it really Vincent?"
"What if it were?"
"Nothing except that Vincent is an old hand. He was run out of Sudeth a couple of years back, and he's been tarred and feathered a couple of times for his dirty work with the cards. And one of these days they'll talk to him with a gun, they will! Anyway, it seems that this Jenkins, as he was calling himself, started right out of town after he'd cleaned Rory Moore up at the cards. But early the next morning Moore heard some talk about town that Jenkins was really Vincent, the crooked gambler. It took Moore about one second to see through everything, the way he'd lost the night before. He started on Jenkins's trail. By noon he'd run him down. He put a gun on Jenkins, and the hound got down and crawled and said he'd confess everything, if Moore would let him live.
"So Moore let him live, and Jenkins told him a crazy yarn. Said that you'd come to Jenkins the night before and found him broke. You offered to stake him to five hundred dollars, if he'd use it to clean out Moore and make him put up his horse at the end of the game. The horse was what you wanted. You'd tried to buy it and, when Moore wouldn't sell, you schemed to get Sunset this way. And the scheme worked, according to Jenkins. He got the money and hoss. He put the hoss in the stable, told you where it was, and then run for his life. And Moore swears that you rode out of town before morning, which shows that you were afraid to stay. Anyway, he got all his money back from Jenkins, and now he's hunting across country to find you and Sunset. I'm wondering if he'll have a hard time finding you?"
Here the speaker laughed hugely at the poor jest, but Macdonald found the story no laughing matter. If this story were out, if this story were proved—and who could doubt the confession of Jenkins, alias Vincent, the card shark?—then Macdonald would be established in the eyes of the men of the ranges not only as a man-slayer, but as a scheming rascal; and men who would never combine against one who merely took lives could immediately gather together to run to earth a crafty schemer. Decidedly it was tidings of the most serious import. Macdonald gritted his teeth, as he thought it over. If he could tear Vincent to small pieces and scatter the remnants to the dogs, there would be some satisfaction. But Vincent was a poor mongrel not worthy of a blow.
Meantime there was a pleasanter side to the story. Of all the men he had faced in the past half dozen years, there had been none to compare with Rory Moore in dash and spirit. He had not the slightest doubt that the young rancher was a warrior of parts. And a battle against him would be distinctly a pleasure worth a search of a thousand miles. If he came alive from this affair at Sudeth, he would be instantly back in Moore's home town and await him there in the hotel. What could be better than that? And in wiping out Moore, he would wipe out the person chiefly interested in telling that ugly tale about the crooked gambler's work.
It was evening, and he was back in the lobby before he came to all of those conclusions. And they were hardly formed, when his attention was sharply called by a silence which had fallen over the room. There was a soft and sudden shifting of positions. Macdonald, looking into a small mirror which was hanging on the wall in front of him—a little diamond-shaped affair meant to be a decoration—saw a big fellow striding through the door and into the room. He did not need more than one glance to make sure that this was a man come on desperate business. The pale, rather drawn face, the glaring eyes, the jaw set hard and thrust out a little, were all the features of a man on the verge of meeting death itself!
"Macdonald!" called the stranger.
As Macdonald rose slowly from his chair, he stretched his arms.
"Look out!" gasped the voice of the human jackal who had brought him so much news that day. "Look out! It's Jack Gregory, and he's a fighting fool!"
But Macdonald turned with glorious unconcern.
"Calling me?" he asked cheerfully.
"I'm calling you! Macdonald, I want to talk to you outside the hotel!"
Macdonald hesitated. One who dreaded Macdonald's speed and his accuracy with a gun often sought to equalize matters a little more by bringing him into the darkness. But, after all, he had fought a score of times in the light of the stars. He had made a point of doing as much target practice by night as by day, and the chances, which were heavy against any foe in the daylight, were even heavier against them in the dark. After that moment of delay he nodded and crossed the room to the other.
"I don't think I remember meeting you," he said.
"You don't," said the other. "My name is Jack Gregory!"
And, as he spoke, his body drew stiff and straight and his right hand trembled near to the butt of his gun. But such a killing was by no means in the mind of Macdonald. With the blandest of smiles he held out his hand.
"Very glad to meet you, Gregory," he said.
His hand was disregarded.
"I want to talk with you outside. Will you come?"
They passed through the door and descended the steps. They stood in the street. Instantly the door of the hotel was packed with a blur of white faces, watching eagerly. Macdonald looked about him with infinite satisfaction. It was a moonless night, to be sure. The moon would not be up for another hour; but the sky was clear, and the stars were shining as clear as crystal. Certainly there was light enough for Macdonald to shoot almost as straight as by daylight, at such close range. But what was this Gregory saying?
"Macdonald," he said, "I've come to beg you to leave the town."
"Beg me to leave it?" asked Macdonald with the slightest and most insulting emphasis.
"Just that," said the other.
"And if I don't go?"
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Macdonald, and in the starshine he smiled evilly upon Jack Gregory. "But as for leaving," he continued, "you must admit that this is a free country and a free town. Why should I leave, if you please?"
"Because," said Gregory, "my family has sworn that you cannot stay here."
"Interesting," said the mild, soft voice of the man-killer, "but unimportant, Gregory."
"Macdonald," pleaded the other, "it was some fool joking of mine that drove Bill Gregory, five years ago, to come in and have it out with you. I got his death on my conscience. Now some of the rest of the boys are going to try to get you out of town, but it ain't their business. It's mine. If you should kill them, their ghosts would haunt me! So I've come in to try to persuade you!"
"I'm listening," said Macdonald.
"Everybody on the range knows that you're a brave man, Macdonald. If you leave town, nobody'll think any the worse of you, and I'll let the folks know that I asked you to go and didn't drive you out by threats."
"Who'd believe you?" asked Macdonald grimly, as he saw the bent of the conversation. "You'd get a big reputation cheap. But what would I get?"
"A cold thousand. I've saved that much, and..."
"Listen to me! I'm not trying to insult you, but I'm trying to think of everything in the world to persuade you. If you don't want the money, forget that I mentioned it. But I'm desperate, Macdonald. I know that I can't stand up to you, but if you won't go by persuasion, I got to try my gun!"
It was a situation unique in the experience of Macdonald, and he hesitated. But what cause had he to love the world or trust or pity any man in it? From the very first his life had been a battle.
"If I gave way," he explained coldly, "I'd have twenty men ready to bully me wherever I went. The story would go around that you'd bluffed me, Gregory. I'd rather be dead than be shamed."
There was a groan from Gregory.
"You cold-hearted devil!" he cried. "If there's no other way, I'll try my luck!"
Gregory reached for his gun. Even then there was time for Macdonald to seem to protest—for the benefit of those who were jammed in the doorway of the hotel. He raised a hand in that protest, and he called loud enough for the spectators to hear: "Not that, Gregory!"
Macdonald saw the gun of the other flash. It was shooting at ten paces, and even a poor shot was not apt to miss him. He dropped his right hand on the butt of his gun, making it swing up, holster and all, for the end of the holster was not steadied against his thigh. At the same instant he pulled the trigger. Jack Gregory spun and dropped. He had been shot squarely between the eyes.
NO doubt, when all was said and done, it was as fair a fight as had ever been seen in the town of Sudeth. There was no shadow of a doubt that Jack Gregory had pressed home the battle. There was no doubt that he had reached first for his gun, and that the odium of beginning the fight rested entirely on him. But, in spite of this, there was a roar of anger from the spectators when they saw him fall.
They were out through the doorway in a rush, and every man had a drawn gun in his hand. A moment before they had been watching as spectators at a game. Suddenly they realized that in this game the prize was death, and that Jack Gregory had received it—Jack Gregory whom every man there, perhaps, had known from his boyhood. His life was wasted, and yonder was the man of fame, the cool slayer, who had conquered again. And the horror of it took them suddenly by the throat.
One section of that little mob spilled out toward the body of Gregory, lying face down in the dust. The other section swarmed toward the slayer.
"Finish the murdering dog!" some one was crying.
"Hold him for the sheriff!" called another.
"And see him get free on self-defense?" was the answer. "No, we'll be our own law! Macdonald, put up your hands!"
There had been no chance to run. In that clear starlight with a dozen guns covering him, Macdonald knew that he could not get away. Therefore he stood his ground, and at the order he obediently thrust his arms above his head, not straining them high up, as men in fear will do, but holding them only a trifle above the height of his shoulders, standing at ease and facing the rush of the mob.
"He's dead!" cried voices from the rear. "Poor old Jack is dead. He'll never speak again. That murdering hound has sure got to pay for this!"
They joined the circle around Macdonald.
"Get iron on his wrists."
"No irons here. A rope will do. Where's a rope?"
"Your sheriff will hunt you down," said Macdonald.
"Do you think that a jury could be found in this country that would convict a man for helping to lynch you?" asked someone, and Macdonald felt the truth of the query.
"Put down your hands, one hand at a time," commanded the man with the rope. "Jab a gun into his middle a couple of you, and kill him if he tries to move!"
Macdonald smiled down upon them. Perhaps this was a little more than he had bargained for, but it was not at all unpleasant. The old tingling joy in peril, which he had found so early in his life and loved so long, was thrilling in him now. They had his life upon the triggers of a dozen guns and yet, if he could strike suddenly enough, their very numbers...
He did not pause to complete that thought. He had been lowering his right hand slowly toward the rope, as though to show that he intended no sudden effort to escape. Now he jerked it down and knocked away two revolvers which had been thrust against his body.
One of them exploded, and there was a yell of pain from a bystander through whose leg the big bullet plowed. At the same instant half a dozen pairs of arms reached for Macdonald, but he spun around. Their fingers slipped on the hard bulk of his muscles. And now he drove ahead, crouching low, as a football player charges a line. They tumbled away before him like snow before a snow plow. Who could fire, when the bullet, nine chances out of ten, would find lodgment in the body of a friend?
They poured after Macdonald, but two or three had lost their footing and gone down. They entangled some of those who followed. Now there was a sudden thinning of the mass before Macdonald. Two men stood before him. He smote one on the side of his head, saw the head rebound, as though broken at the neck, and the man went down. His shoulder, as he rushed, crashed against the breast of the other, and the man fell with a gasp. There was an open way before Macdonald, and he went down it, like a racing deer with the sound of the hounds behind it.
With a sweep they followed but, before they had taken half a dozen steps, they saw he was stepping swiftly away from them, and the leaders stopped to shoot. But a fight, a scramble, a race, and the starlight, combined with the knowledge that one is shooting at a famous target, make a very poor effect upon the nerves. The shower of bullets flew wild. Macdonald ran on unscathed. He reached the corner of the hotel and whipped around it. He headed down the side of the building, then darted for the corrals, with the mob still in hot pursuit. But they lost at every fence, for he leaped them in stride, like the athlete that he was, and they had to pause to crawl between the rails or vault over.
He found Sunset at once. Onto his back he vaulted, and it seemed that the fine animal knew at once what was expected of him. A tap on the side of the neck turned him around, and a word started him away at a flying gallop. He took the fence with a wild leap that brought a yell of despair and rage from the pursuers, and in another moment he was sunk in the outer blackness of the night.
They pursued him no more than one would attempt to overtake an arrow after seeing it leave the string. But Macdonald had not left to stay away that night. He galloped not half a mile, then returned and headed straight back to the hotel. Into it he ventured, stole up the back stairs, and got to his room. They had not touched his belongings. He packed them deliberately, returned down the stairs, went out to the shed and got his saddle and bridle, put them on Sunset, and was again ready for the journey.
As for the town of Sudeth, it passed through a sudden and violent transition. For two hours they raved against the cool-handed murderer and swore that they would run him to the earth, if it took them a life of labor to do the task. But at the end of the two hours, a committee went up to investigate the belongings of Macdonald and found them gone. On the plaster of the wall was written:
A very pleasant party. — Macdonald.
When the others learned, there was a storm of wonder and then of appreciation. For they had heard enough to convince them that there was something almost supernal in the courage of a man who could return on the heels of the very mob which was hunting his life. There and then the townsmen lost their interest in the chase of Macdonald. That was left to the Gregorys, and the Gregorys solemnly took up the trail.
NO seer was needed to tell Macdonald that the town of Sudeth was apt to lose its enthusiasm for war before long, but that the clan of Gregorys would never leave him until they had clashed at least a few more times. Nevertheless he had no desire to put a great distance between himself and his probable pursuers. There was first the little matter with Rory Moore which was to be settled. And he let Sunset run like a homing bird straight across the hills toward home.
They reached it nearly a day later, in the red time of sunset, with all the town as hushed and peaceful as a pictured place rather than a reality.
He saw one old man smoking a pipe at the door of a shop. He heard in the weird distance one dog barking. But of living sights and sounds, these were the only two. The town might have died. It was like riding into the ghost of a place.
Of course it was easily explainable, Macdonald told himself. The people were simply at supper and, since they all kept the same hour for supper, they would all be off the streets at that time. And yet such a conclusion did not entirely satisfy him. There was a solemnity about this quiet, this utter silence, with the far off wailing of the dog, that warned him back like the voice of the river in his dream.
At the hotel he found the same sleepy atmosphere which he had noted before in the place. The hotel, in short, was not paying. For in spite of its size and the comfort of its arrangement, there was a forbidding atmosphere about the place which had held the trade away. Macdonald felt it again, as he stood in front of the desk in the hotel office and asked for a room. He would have given a good deal if he had not come to this hostelry where he had spent that terrible night so short a time before. He would have given a great deal if he had chosen, instead, the little shack which had been built at the farther end of the street, and which also went by the name of a hotel in the town.
But he could not withdraw, having come so far. He could not mumble and excuse and retreat. But his absent-mindedness, which was the curse of his life, having brought him on thus far, he must go on with the thing. He heard a cheerful promise that he should not only have a room, but that he should also have that very same room which he had occupied the last time he stayed there, the room which he had left so suddenly in the middle of the night.
And even from this proposal he could not dissent. He was kept quiet by the very violence of his feelings. How could he declare that the very last place on earth in which he wished to spend another night was the room where he had slept before? They might pin him down to the truth. They might discover—oh, monstrous joke to be roared at by the whole world—that Macdonald had run away from a dream like any brain-sick youth of fourteen years!
So he had to submit and was led upstairs to the room. When the door closed upon him, and he was left among its shadows, the old panic swept upon him. He could not stay there alone. Down the stairs he went again and out to the stable to look at Sunset. The stallion was digesting a liberal feed of grain and sweet-smelling hay. Half a dozen hungry chickens, roaming abroad in search of forage, were clustered around the outskirts of the pile of hay, scratching a quay into it and picking busily at the heads of grain. But the big stallion, when he had finished his grain and turned to the hay, made not the slightest objection to these small intruders. For he kept on steadily at his hay, merely cocking one sharp ear when the beak of a hen picked a little too close to that soft muzzle of his.
Macdonald hung over the fence of the corral, delighted, until the gathering of the shadows drove even those hungry chickens away from the hay and back to their roosting places.
"Yep," said a voice to the side, "that's a plumb easy-going hoss, I'd tell a man!"
Macdonald looked askance with a scowl. It was by no means his habit to be so rapt in any observation that he allowed other men to stalk up beside him and take him by surprise. What he found was a little old man, very bent, so that his head was thrust far in front of his body, and he balanced himself with a round-headed cane on which his brown hands rested. He carried a short stemmed-pipe between his gums and puffed noisily at it. In a word he was like a figure out of a book, or off the stage.
"And who might you be?" asked the little man, and he had a quick, bird-like way of jerking his head toward the one to whom he was speaking, while he sucked on his pipe.
"Oh, I've just happened by," murmured Macdonald smoothly enough.
"You've heard that he's back again, I reckon," said the other.
"You've come like me to have a look at Sunset before that Macdonald man rides him away ag'in. I disremember when I seen a finer hoss than Sunset!"
"Nor I!" exclaimed Macdonald, and at the sound of his deep voice the stallion looked up, swung halfway toward his new master, and then allowed the greed of a big appetite to draw him back toward his fodder. But the heart of Macdonald was beating with a great new tenderness.
"The hoss likes you!" piped the old man. "Well, I never seen a hoss yet that would waste a look on a bad man. All that makes me sorry is to think about Sunset being wasted on a man-killing, law-spoiling hound like that Macdonald."
"Is he as bad as that?" asked Macdonald slowly.
"He's worse," said the other with great venom, and he even removed his pipe from his mouth so that he might speak with more vehemence. Macdonald saw that the stem was wound with string to give a better grip to the old gums of the man. "He's a pile worse. There ain't nobody can say anything bad enough about him. What would you say about a gent that kills just for the sake of killing?"
"Why," said Macdonald, "I think that depends on how he kills. Every man is a hunter, if you come down to that. They're all trying to kill one another, you know. But some are lucky, and some aren't so lucky. It depends, I say, on how he kills. If he takes as big a chance as the next man, what's so terribly wrong in that?"
"Suppose he killed with poison?"
"Do you mean to say that he does that?" cried Macdonald.
"Just as bad as that. He's such a good shot, and his nerves are so plumb steady, that he knows he ain't running no real risk when he faces another man. There ain't one chance in a hundred that he'll get so much as scratched. That's why I say he might as well use poison for his killings. And to think that a hoss like Sunset..."
But Macdonald heard no more. He had listened to too much already, as a matter of fact, and he climbed back to his room with a heavy heart. And on the way he fought over the truth about himself. It had not occurred to him to look at the matter from this new viewpoint. He had always felt that it was fair fighting. But now that he thought of it, how clearly he saw the new idea! His skill, he had to confess, was far greater than the skill of the average man. Just how much chance did the other fellow have, when matched against the practiced hand and the familiar gun of Macdonald?
He thought back to many of his conflicts. In the old days he had been often wounded. His body was still ripped and dotted with scars. Yes, he had been wounded almost as often as he had wounded others. Finally he had gone into a fight almost expecting to have his own body wounded, or the life shot out of him. But, as time went on, he learned new things, and among the rest he learned to practice with his weapons assiduously every day. How long had it been now, since an enemy had wounded him in fair fight, face to face? And what did that mean?
It meant that the old man standing by the corral had been right! He might as well have killed by poison.
He threw himself down upon his bed and, staring up into the darkness, his mind filled with two thoughts—the girl of whom he had dreamed, and the men who had fallen before him in his life of fighting. And so fiercely did he concentrate that in another moment he was riding up a river among the mountains, a river whose voice gathered into human words: "Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!"
SO sudden had been that sleep that even in his dream he was acutely conscious of something left behind him, of a change just made. One half of his mind was trying to turn back to what he had been, while the other half was listening to the shouting of the river. At length he gave all his attention to the road before him.
It was all as it had been before. He rode to the top of the divide, where the water dwindled to a little spring. He looked over the plain onto a great sweep of sunshine and shadow, with browsing cattle, and the faint sounds of their lowing was blown to him upon the height. And, as before, even while looking at that pleasant and warm scene, a chill of distress passed into the heart of Macdonald and a wild misgiving of something which was to come. For the voice which God or a demon had put into that river could not be wrong. This was the third time he had ridden up that river to its rising, and on this third time there was certain to be a revelation of the catastrophe.
Yet turn back he could not. A nameless eagerness filled him, far overbalancing his fear. And down the hill he swept and over the meadow at the long-reaching gallop of the red stallion. So he came in due time to the same avenue of the walnut trees, under which he had passed before. And down that avenue he rode, with the growing dread which he had felt when he galloped there before, and yet with a wild desire to hear the beat of approaching hoofs and to see once more the girl riding around the sweep of the trees.
He reached that turn but she did not come. He went on more slowly. He came again to the town, all quiet under the sun. He came again to the garden. And he stood once more before the great castle of a house where, as he remembered, a hand had fallen upon his shoulders, and the girl had disappeared. Perhaps she would come to him again now!
Slowly he went up the steps, and the great house before him was wonderfully silent. There was a flutter of wings, as a bird darted under the roof of the porch, brushed close to his face, and darted out again. Then he knocked at the door. It was opened so quickly that it was obvious that his approach had been noted, and that there was someone ready to let him in.
Yet he saw no one inside the dark, high hall of the place. He stepped in and, the moment he did so, he discovered who had opened the door for him. It was a man whose hand was still on the knob, and he was standing flat against the wall. And the pale face was the face of Anthony Legrange, as he had been on that night eight years before, when he died in Cheyenne with a bullet from the gun of Macdonald through his heart. He had not altered by a single shade, save that he had been a gloomy man in those days, and now he was smiling, a calm smile of mockery and scorn, as though he had a knowledge before which Macdonald was as helpless as a child.
Macdonald reached hastily for his gun, but the smile of Anthony Legrange merely deepened and suddenly Macdonald knew that a gun would be of no avail to him in this house.
"Anthony," he said, "I thought that you were dead eight long years ago. But I'm a thousand times glad to see that I was wrong! A thousand times glad, old man!"
But the smile of Anthony merely deepened again. He closed the door and leaned his shoulders against it, facing Macdonald once more, as though he defied him to try to break out.
"Why," said Macdonald, frowning, "if you think that you've trapped me here, it makes no difference to me. Do you imagine that I'm afraid of you, Anthony? No, nor of a thousand like you!"
At once he turned his back on Anthony, stepped into the next room, and passed through this to a great dining hall. There he found a long table set, the longest table he had ever seen, and all around it men were seated, and before them food was placed. Some were eating, and some were drinking, and some were smoking, so that the air was blue with smoke. Yet, though Macdonald walked through a cloud of it, he smelled not the least taint of tobacco.
He noted, too, that though they seemed to be all laughing and talking, they were not making any sound, and the fall of knives and forks upon the plates made no sound. It was very strange, but stranger than anything they did were their faces. For there were men from a dozen nations, and everyone, he saw, was a man whom he had killed!
Yes, just before him sat young Jack Gregory, and with no mark of the mortal wound upon his forehead. And at the side of Gregory sat a great Negro, a giant of his kind, naked to the waist, just as he had been on that night, so many years before, when he had grappled with Macdonald in the fire room of the tramp freighter. That had been a grim battle. And it rushed back clean and clear upon the mind of Macdonald. He saw the Negro, blood streaming down his face, tear himself away. He saw the big fellow snatch up a great bar of iron used for trimming the fires. He saw himself catch up a lump of coal and with a true aim knock down the big stoker. He saw them grapple again, and his big hands had found a firm grip upon the throat of the black man.
And beside the Negro sat a hideous Malay, with a split upper lip, rolling his wild eyes, as he talked. That was the human devil who had leaped upon him from behind in an alley in Bombay.
Yonder was the burly English mate who had striven to enforce obedience by the weight of his fists. They had grappled and gone over the rail together. Macdonald had come up, but the mate had sunk.
Sitting side by side, yellow of skin and dark of eyes, were the Arizona Kid and his two brothers. Macdonald had trailed them when he was a Ranger, and he had killed them all in one glorious and bloody battle. Now the Arizona Kid pointed him out, and his two brothers laughed in the face of their slayer. Indeed the whole table was laughing and pointing, until the perspiration rolled down the face of Macdonald.
He stepped to the table and struck upon it. The dishes jumped beneath the vibration of the stroke, but there was no jingling sound.
"You rattle-headed fools!" cried Macdonald. "Why do you laugh and point? I've sent you to damnation, every one of you, and I'd send you there again and think nothing of it! What are you doing here? What right have you in this place? I had no fear of you living. Do you think for an instant that I'll be afraid of you because you come back after death and gibber at me?"
The Negro giant leaned across toward him and extended a long, black arm, and along the naked skin the highlights glimmered. Macdonald could see the bull throat expand and quiver; he could see the chest of the monster rise; and he waited for the immense voice which, on a day, had been strong enough to stun the ears of men. But, instead, there ran forth only the faintest of faint whispers, hardly discernible.
"We're laughing at you, Macdonald, because we have gone to hell, every one of us, but a worse man than any one of us killed us. You saved us, Macdonald, with your gun, and that's why we laugh at you!"
"You lie!" thundered Macdonald. "Half of you were good men, and hell had no claim on that many of you. There's Jack Gregory at your side. What wrong had he ever done?"
He saw Jack Gregory convulsed with soundless laughter. Then he half rose and pointed an exultant arm at Macdonald.
"I was damned black until you saved me," he cried, and this time the sound that reached Macdonald was as faint as the ghost of an echo. "I'd forsworn myself to a girl that I got with a false marriage, and then I left her to take care of herself and her child. But I was killed by a worse man than I am, Macdonald, and that's why I laugh!"
Macdonald stood back from the table, sick at heart.
"What have I done, then?" he cried to them. "I've fought every man of you fairly, squarely, face to face! I took no advantage. I never struck a man that was down. I never shot a man that wasn't fighting back! I never harmed a man that asked for mercy. Why am I worse than you?"
But instead of answering, they fell into a hearty convulsion of that shadowy laughter, and Macdonald strode from the room. At the very threshold of the next apartment he was greeted by the delicate sweetness of flowers, and now he saw that they were banked everywhere about the room. There were flowers of every kind, little wild flowers and crimson roses and great smudges of violets. The air was alive with their fragrance. He could not decipher one scent from another, for all was a blended sweetness.
And with the fragrance went a profound silence. It was like that weighty quiet which lies in the high regions of the mountains, when no noise seemed strong enough to break it. For no matter how loud, the sound comes deadened upon the ear, and the thick silence rolls in swiftly behind it and drowns the echoes, as they come flocking from the distant peaks. Such was the quiet in that room, a bewildering and awful thing.
In the center of the apartment stood an open coffin on a flower-clad pedestal, and in that coffin lay the dead. The profile was clearly to be seen, and it was the face of Rory Moore—Rory Moore dead before he had been struck! Rory Moore dead, and above him leaned the lady of the vision, still in her riding costume. Her lips trembled, and though no sound came from them, the tears streamed steadily down her face.
But that was not all Macdonald saw in that room of sorrow, for he made out that the face of the girl and the face of Rory Moore were wonderfully alike. They could not be more similar, save that what was drawn on a large and manly scale in Rory's dead face, was made small and exquisitely beautiful in the living face of the girl.
"It was not I!" cried Macdonald. "I swear to heaven that I have not touched him!"
At his voice she looked up. There was one glimpse for him of the horror and hatred in her eyes, and then with her raised eyes she shut out the sight of him.
And Macdonald wakened and found himself on his knees in the darkness of his room, with his arms stretched out before him, and his voice moaning vague words.
INSTANTLY Macdonald hurried down to Sunset. He only paused to sweep his pack together before he was gone, and on the way he looked at the time. He noted with a shudder that it was half past two, the exact hour at which he had last left his chamber. Beyond a doubt a curse had fallen upon this house.
In the corral he roused the stallion with a word, and led him into the stable, and in the light of a lantern put on the saddle. While his swift fingers worked, he made up his mind. To leave the town would make it seem that he had lost his nerve at last, and that he dared not wait for the coming of Rory Moore. But let that be as it might. He must go nevertheless. For, if he met Rory Moore, nothing could keep him from killing the younger man, and kill Rory he must not. No, all the superstition in his strange soul urged him against it. He had received a warning, and that warning must be heeded.
Plunging into the darkness he headed away from the town, and he rode on until morning came. It was no sooner light than he camped by the way; by mid-morning his sleep was ended, and Sunset was rested; then he went on again. All that day he struck blindly ahead, and by nightfall he came into the heart of the mountains.
He had paid not the least heed to direction. He only knew that he was covering many miles, and that was sufficient. He went on from the second camp before the next day had well begun. By this time Rory Moore would have heard of his coming to the town, would have returned, found him gone, and would have published him abroad as a coward. But that was still a small thing in the mind of Macdonald. For the girl of his dreams was more to him now than all the rest of the living world. She had lived in his mind and in his very heart. She was never absent from him. And he found himself, a hundred times in the day, grown tense with waiting for her voice. And he found himself hurrying Sunset toward the rise of every hill in eagerness to see her coming.
It was just after he had camped to make coffee at noon and had gone on again that he found the place. He had come over a ridge, and journeying down to the sound of the waters he came suddenly upon the river up which he had ridden three times in his sleep.
There was no mistaking it. It was the very place. Yonder ran the swift brown waters, streaked with creamy foam. There hung the willow on the edge of the bank, with half of its roots exposed. And, above, the round hills tumbled away against the sky!
Macdonald covered his aching eyes with his hands. The devil had brought him at last to the road of his death. He had no more doubt of that than though he had seen it written across the sky in letters of gold. He had no more doubt of it than though a voice had whispered it at his ear.
With a groan he surrendered to that feeling of fate. He turned Sunset up the stream and rode slowly on. In a sort of mute agony he watched the happy head of Sunset tossing, with his sharp ears quivering forward. Ah, to be a mere joyous brute like the big horse, to be freed from all these tortures of the mind which went with manhood!
He passed among the hills and came again to the ridge. With a sick heart he looked down upon that landscape which he had three times seen in his dream—the bright sun falling—the spotting shadows from the trees and the far voices of the cattle. And who could struggle against such manifest destiny as this?
Riding down the slope he twisted over the undulating surface of the plain, and so he came at last to the place where that avenue of walnut trees should have been. But here he found, for the first time, a difference between the dream and the reality. For the trees were gone, nor was there any semblance of them standing on either side of the road, but only a few wretched shrubs here and there. He had passed down the road for a mile or more, when he saw a buggy approaching with an old man driving it. He hailed the driver and stopped him.
"Friend," said Macdonald, "I want to ask you a few questions about this country. Have you been living around here long?"
"Not more'n about fifty years," said the old man, laughing with some importance.
"And you've known this road all that time?"
"D'you mind telling me if there were ever walnut trees growing along the sides of it?"
The other started.
"How did you know that if you're a stranger in this here country, the way you say?"
But Macdonald rode to the side of the buggy and, leaning over, laid his hand on the shoulder of the other.
"In the name of God," he said solemnly, "tell me the truth! There have been walnut trees planted here?"
"There have!" gasped the other, overwhelmed by the question and the manner in which it was put to him.
"Then God have mercy on my soul!" groaned Macdonald, and spurred furiously down the road.
It was not long after this that he came upon the town itself, but he had hardly entered it before he began to recognize it, not as the thing he had seen in his dream—there was no silence here—but as a place where he had been before. Suddenly rounding a corner he came upon a blighting proof. For this was the town which he had left two days before. Fortune had led him in a circle. He had come back by a new approach, and yonder, straight before him, was the very hotel itself, big and towered like a castle. He looked closer at it, with all the freshness of the dream weighing upon him. Yes, this was the castle of his vision. It was only the town house of the Moore family.
He stretched out his arms and laughed in the sunshine. A thousand tons of dread seemed to have been removed from his mind. There were still other things to be explained. He must find where he had seen that row of walnut trees other than in the dream. He must find where he had seen the girl.
At least he was now startled out of that absent-mindedness which, as a rule, plagued him and closed his eyes to things which were most familiar around him. He would see whatever was to be seen. As for Rory Moore, let him take heed to himself, or one portion of that dream would at least come true.
He went again to the hotel, again he asked for a room, and again he was assigned to the same chamber. There needed no explanation of the frightened eyes which men turned upon him, as he crossed the lobby and went up the stairs. They knew he had come back to kill Rory Moore. Well, their knowledge was doubly right!
Once in that room where the dream had twice come to him, he looked sharply around him, and it was as though the scales had fallen from his eyes. He could see it all at a glance. Mystery? There was none at all! What he had half seen and left unnoted by his conscious mind, he was now keenly aware of, and here was all the substance of his dream.
Someone with no common touch had made those fading paintings which hung along the walls. There, a small sketch, was the narrow and rushing river streaking down from the ragged hills which rolled back against the sky. And here, too, was the sweeping bird's-eye view of the sunlit plain. But where was the girl?
He had only to turn to the opposite wall to see her, just as she had ridden into his dream, sitting lightly on the side saddle and riding around a curve down a long avenue of mighty walnut trees.
Here, then, had his dream gone out. But, as the first rush of relief left him, he was struck with a sharp little pang of grief. He had banished that dream and all that was in it. He had found the most simple of explanations. But what of the girl? By the fashion of that coat and the puffed shoulders, she was dead these many years, or else she had grown into middle age, something of her youth had died from her. She was dead, indeed, and he could never find her as he had seen her.
The door opened on the chambermaid with clean linen over her arm.
"Look here," said Macdonald to the old woman. "Have you ever known the girl in this picture?"
"Miss Mary Moore?" said the other. "Sure I knew her! Mind you, the man that painted that picture was her lover, and she died in a fall from that very same horse three days after that picture was painted. I mind it as well as if it was yesterday. I was a servant in this house then, and I've been here ever since!"
Macdonald dismissed her with a dollar bill and returned to his own gloomy thoughts. He had gone for two days in what he considered an exquisite torment. But now he began to wonder if the torment into which he was passing might not be worse after all. For there had lingered in his mind, all those hours, the hope that some day he would find her, just as she had been when she rode into his dream. And if all the terror of the dream were gone, all the beauty of it was gone, too.
There was a light rap at the door, and he bade the person enter. It was a dusty, barefoot boy, with a letter in his hand, and great frightened eyes fixed upon the face of Macdonald, as though the latter had been an evil spirit. He was gone the instant the big man took the envelope. Macdonald tore it open and found within it the shortest and the most eloquent of notes:
I am waiting for you, just in front of the blacksmith shop. —Rory Moore.
Methodically he tore the letter to bits. It was an old habit of his. Next, still out of force of habit, he took out his Colt and examined it from muzzle to the butt, polished by the years of use. Last of all he turned to the picture of Mary Moore. What he had seen in the dream was true enough. She was very like Rory. She might have posed as his sister.
LIKE all events which grow in importance after they happen, and which become a part of even minor history, what happened that day was remembered even to the most minute details. And everyone of mature years in the town was able to recall some part. At least they had seen Macdonald issue from the hotel, dressed with unusual care, a flaming red bandanna around his throat, with the point hanging far down between his shoulders, and a great sombrero decorated with silver medallions upon his head, and his boots shined until they were like twin mirrors. One might have thought that he was going to be the best man at a wedding, the groom himself. But everyone knew that he was going out to give battle and take a life, or give his own. For the rumor had passed, as swiftly as rumors do, through the length and the breadth of the town that Rory Moore was waiting in front of the blacksmith shop, and that he had sent a message to the terrible Macdonald.
So scores of eyes were watching as the big man walked down the single street of the village. He had never seemed taller. He had never seemed more sedate. He carried with him that unconscious air of importance which goes with men who have seen or suffered much.
He paused at the corner, where the corral from the hotel bordered the street. There he leaned against the fence and called. And the big red stallion came running to the voice of his new master. A dozen men swore that they saw Macdonald pass his arms around the neck of the horse and put his head down beside the head of Sunset.
Then he went on again with as light a stride as ever. When the watchers thought of Rory Moore, their hearts shrank within them. For it seemed impossible that such a force as Macdonald could be stopped by any one man.
More than one hardy cowpuncher set his teeth at the thought and looked to his gun. If anything happened to Rory, it would take all the desperate nerve and skill of a Macdonald to get out of that town. For they had determined that, fair play or not, the time had come to finish this destroyer of men.
In the meantime Macdonald had passed the general merchandise store. He had come to the Perkins place, and there he paused to speak to an old Mexican beggar woman who came with a toothless whine to ask for money. They saw him take out a whole wad of rustling bills and drop it into her hand. The bills overflowed. She leaped upon them like an agile old beast of prey. When she straightened again, he was half a block away, and she poured out a shrill volley of blessings. Her borrowed English failed her, and to become truly eloquent she fell back upon the native Spanish and filled the air with it.
But her benefactor went on without a glance behind him.
"He's superstitious," said the beholders. "He's trying to get good luck for the meeting with Rory... and the devil take him and the old beggar!"
But now he had come in sight of the blacksmith shop. A cluster of men fell back. One or two lingered beside Rory Moore, begging him to the last minute not to throw away his life in vain. But he tore himself away from them and strode well out into the street, where the fierce white sun beat down upon him. Nearer drew Macdonald, and still his bearing was as casual and light as the bearing of any pleasure seeker.
"Macdonald!" cried Rory Moore suddenly in a wild, hoarse voice.
"Well, Rory," answered the smooth tones of the man-killer, "are you ready?"
"Yes, curse you, ready!"
"Then get your gun!"
And Rory, waiting for no second invitation, reached for the butt of his Colt. It was an odd contrast that lay between the two, as they faced one another, Rory crouched over and taut with eagerness, and the tall and careless form of Macdonald. And it seemed that the same carelessness was in the gesture with which he reached for his weapon. Yet such was the consummate speed of that motion that his gun was bare before the revolver of Rory Moore was out of the holster. His gun was bare, but there seemed to be some slip. Carelessness had been carried too far, for the gun flashed in his hand and dropped into the dust.
And Rory? His own weapon exploded. It knocked up a little fountain of dust at the feet of the giant. He fired again, and Macdonald collapsed backward, like a falling tower. The big sombrero dropped from his head, and he lay with his long red hair floating like blood across the dust.
And yet so incredible was it to all who watched that Macdonald should indeed have fallen, that there was a long pause before a yell of triumph rose from a hundred throats, and they closed around the big man, like wolves around a dead lion.
And when the wonder of it was faded a little, they picked up his gun, where it had fallen in the dust. They picked it up, they examined it, as one might have examined the sword of Achilles, after the arrow had struck his heel, and the venom had worked. They broke the gun open. But not a bullet fell out. And then they saw that it was empty, and that Macdonald had come so carelessly down that street not to kill, but to be killed!
It was a thunderstroke to the townsmen. It was as though the devil, being trailed into a corner, should turn into an angel and take flight for heaven!
"There ain't more'n one way of looking at it," said the sheriff, when he came into the town that evening on a foaming horse. "Macdonald didn't want to kill young Moore. But he had to face him, or be called a coward. And there you have it! He's been a hound all his life, but he's died like a hero!"
And that was the motive behind the monument which was built for Macdonald in that town. Although partly, perhaps, they simply wanted to identify themselves with that terrible and romantic figure. But, while the turmoil of talk was sweeping up and down the town, two women were the first to think of striving to untangle the mysterious motives of Macdonald by something which he might have left behind him in his room—perhaps some letter to explain everything.
It was Mrs. Charles Moore who led the way, and with her went her niece, the sister of Rory. They found the room undisturbed, exactly as it had been when Macdonald left. But all they found was his rifle, his other revolver, his slicker, and his bed roll. There was nothing else except a few trifles. So they began to look around the room itself.
"And look yonder!" cried Mrs. Charles Moore. "There's the place he dumped out the bullets from his gun... poor man... right underneath the picture of your poor dead Aunt Mary! And, child, child, how astonishingly you've grown to be like her! I've never seen such a likeness... just in the last year you've sprouted up and grown into the very shadow of her!"
"Oh," cried the girl, "how can you talk of such things!"
"What in the world..." began the other.
"Here in this very room... and... here where he thought his last thoughts!"
"Heavens above, silly child, you're weeping for him!"
"But I saw him when they carried him in from the street," said Mary softly, with the tears running slowly down her face. "And even in death he seemed a greater man than any I'll ever see. And one great arm and hand was hanging down... I shall never forget!"