ONE step beyond Billman lay the desert; young Ingram, minister of the Gospel, took the single step and sat down in the shadow of a rock amid the wilderness. Already one needed the shadow; for though the sun was barely above the horizon—had lost the rose and gold of dawn only the moment before—it was now white with strength and flooded the desert with a scorching heat. When the knee of the Reginald Oliver Ingram projected into that heat, he withdrew it. It was as though a burning glass had been focused neatly on it. He looked down, half expecting to see the cloth of his trousers smoking. And this heat would increase until early afternoon, after which its power would diminish by almost imperceptible degrees. Until its face turned red, the sun would flood the desert with white fire.
Like shimmering snow was the face of that desert, except that snow is fixed and still, whereas the sands were covered with little wraiths and atmospheric lines. They quivered and throbbed, as a white-hot iron quivers and throbs. Mr. Ingram raised his eyes from the paper on his knee and took more careful stock of all that lay around him. He had been in Billman only a few days—not long enough to preach his first sermon, as a matter of fact—but he had come across the continent with a suitcase filled with books. From their well-studied contents he could name yonder gigantic saguaro, and the opuntias, surrounded with a halo of ivory sheen in the strong sunlight; and he knew also the deer-horn cactus not far off, the greasewood and mesquite on the sands.
To name all the living things in sight was to give an impression of companionable multitudes about him, but as a matter of fact all he observed was hardly more to the desert than is an occasional mist of white to the broad, pale bosom of the summer sky—nothing to give shadow, for the intense sun will look through the spectral clouds when it stands directly above them. So it was with this plant life—a few fantastic forms, looking like odd cartoons of animals, thrust in the sand with arms or legs extended foolishly—and yonder patches that looked like smoke against the sand.
But Mr. Ingram looked upon all these signs of desolation with an eye that was unafraid; for he carried about him a spiritual armor that blunted the edge of every danger and every painful instance: When he left the theological school, a wise, ancient and holy man had said to him: "Now you are about to enter the world. Leave some of your books and bookishness behind you. Be a man among men; trust the angels a little less and man a little more!" The Reverend, Reginald Ingram smiled as he thought of this speech. For, looking across the desert, it seemed to him that the hand of God was visibly revealed, and he penned hastily and strongly the first words of the sermon which he would deliver later that morning: "Dear brothers and sisters whom I meet here at the edge of our civilization, we have gone very far from our old homes and we have left many of our old ideas behind us; we even have stepped beyond the reach of the law, I suppose; but we have not passed beyond the reach of God, and I wish to speak to you today concerning the signs of His loving Fatherhood which are scattered about us, though the signs are unregarded by most of us, I fear."
Having finished this burst, he paused, knitting his brows with the farseeing effort of a poet or a prophet. He glanced then to the tall forms of the San Joaquin Mountains far to the north and east, now washed with tides of light through air so pure and thin and dry that he could see the shadows which the boulders cast and almost pick out the individual trees which straggled up to timber line. Beyond that line was a band of purple, and above the purple lay the glittering caps of snow and eternal ice which, like a cup of haunting coolness, were offered forever to the sight of the parched desert beneath. A gleam of wings near by drew his attention to the fluttering butterfly which wafted aimlessly up and down close to the sand, all jeweled and transparent in the powerful sun.
The rapid pencil of the Reverend Reginald Oliver Ingram ran again over the paper: "Here, beyond the law, conscious of our own strength, and aware of the apparently cruel face of nature, we prepare ourselves for battle. But our Father in heaven permits life without battle, and sends out unarmed multitudes, who persist and give the earth gentleness and beauty. Consider the butterfly that flutters softly over the desert, harmless, soft, brilliant in the sun—"
He looked up for inspiration to complete his sentence, and noticed an active little cactus wren, balanced on a hideous thorn of the deer-horn plant.
"—or the wren," dashed on the swift pencil of the minister, "spreading his wings that the sun may flash through them and make of him a double jewel—"
He looked again, and saw almost at his feet a little yellow beetle looking as hard and glittering as a piece of quartz.
He touched it with the eraser of his pencil; it was, indeed, like pressing on a rock.
"—or the beetle," went on the writer in glad haste, "like a nugget of gold on the face of the desert. But these defenseless ones which can harm nothing and which give joy to the world teach us that we, also—"
Something whirred through the air; the butterfly was clipped in two by the long, wicked beak of the wren. The quivering halves tumbled almost at the feet of the watcher, but since he had sat quietly so long, the bird seemed to accept him as a part of the landscape, and pursuing its prey, gobbled up the feast and was gone.
Mr. Ingram looked down at his page and puckered his lips in thoughtful regret. However he continued: "Teach us that we, also, have been placed in the world to make it beautiful with the work of the heart and not terrible and dangerous with the work of the hand. Gentleness is mightier than pride—"
He paused again, and saw that the golden beetle had encountered a smaller insect. Whatever it might have been, it was now unrecognizable. For the yellow beauty, beating its shardlike wings with joy or anger, was already tearing the weaker thing to bits.
"Gentleness is mightier than pride," insisted Mr. Ingram's pencil, "and the triumphs of the strong are, in reality, not triumphs at all; they are soon avenged!"
He completed the sentence rather grimly, and another whir in the air attracted him once more to the wren, which had dropped like lightning from its bower of thorns and attacked the golden beetle.
There was no battle. The beetle depended on the toughness of its armor, and depended in vain, for soon Ingram could hear the crackling of this natural coat of plate, and the beetle presently disappeared. Thereafter, the wren flitted onto a stone, and sat there opening its beak wide, pulling in its head, and ruffling its feathers as though it found its recent tough meal very hard to digest.
"I hope you choke on it!" said the minister sternly to the bird. And he wrote: "Vengeance is near at hand, and we are being watched by a higher power. The victories which we win are always just around the corner from defeat!"
So wrote the man of God, and he had barely finished this sentence when new ideas forced themselves upon him, and he added fluently: "Put off your guns and knives! The God who rules heaven and earth is a God of peace. Trust to Him, and He will lead you out of your troubles. What blow can threaten you that He will not ward away?"
He felt a glow of triumphant conviction as he finished. At that instant he heard a hiss like a volley of arrows whirring above him; a shadow slanted with incredible speed past his head; the wren was blotted out; there was a shrill scream, and away winged the big hawk which had dropped from the blue—and now sailed back into it, carrying a little tuft of crimsoned feathers in one set of talons.
Ingram watched the bird of prey rising gracefully and rapidly, climbing the sky in great spirals. It reminded him of the men he had seen in Billman since his arrival—lean, quiet men, who, when they were roused to action, struck with sudden and deadly stroke. And all at once he felt more than a little helpless, for it seemed to him that he could hear the chuckles of his audience when he told them later that morning that there was no value in might or in the strong hand.
What lessons of gentleness could he derive from that nature where the smaller beetle was eaten by the larger, the larger by the wren, the wren by the hawk which towered in the sky, and the hawk, in turn, perhaps struck down by the soaring eagle? However, he would not be downhearted at once.
He followed the flight of the hawk past the cold summits of the San Joaquin range, and as he did so, the glory of the great Builder possessed his imagination. New ideas crowded upon him and drove his pencil at breakneck speed until he had covered several sheets; and when he stood up from the shadow of the rock and faced the glare of the sun, the sermon which had haunted him since his arrival at Billman was completed.
He glanced at the pages from time to time as he wandered back into the town; and before he reached his shack, he knew that the thing was firm in his memory. At his door he stood for a moment and watched the wind roll a cloud of dust up the street more swiftly than a horse could gallop. So let the idea which had come to him on this morning sweep through the minds of his auditors, and freshen in them the almost obliterated image of their Creator!
He entered his little house and was startled by the figure of a Dominican monk, whose fat body was covered with a gown of not over-clean rusty black, girded with a long cord. The monk turned and grasped the hand of Ingram.
"Good morning, Mr. Ingram," said he. "I am Brother Pedrillo. I've come to welcome a fellow-worker to Billman."
Ingram did not like the use of the word "fellow-worker". Young Mr. Ingram had been bred to a faith which does not look kindly upon the Roman Catholic creed; but in addition, he felt in himself so much aspiring vigor, such a contempt of the flesh, that to be yoked with Brother Pedrillo was like harnessing an ox in the same team with Pegasus.
So he turned away, busied himself putting up his notes for the sermon, and revolved swiftly in his mind the attitude which he should assume. However, the Lord works His will in mysterious ways. The Reverend Reginald decided that he would force himself into friendliness with the Dominican. Humility is ordained very early in the Gospel.
HE invited Brother Pedrillo to take a chair, and so became aware of the shoes of his visitor. They were made of roughest cowhide, but even that durable material was worn to tatters. The fringe of his robe, too, was worn to rags, and the bald head of the monk had been burned well-nigh black. At least this was a man who was much in the open air. The heart of young Ingram softened a little.
"You read philosophy, I see," remarked the monk.
"Don't you?" queried Ingram, rather sharply.
"When I was just from school, yes," replied the Dominican. "But afterward, I let the thing slip. It was quite useless to me in my work."
"Ah!" said Ingram coldly.
"Not," added the other, "that philosophy cannot be translated into the language and the acts of the man in the street; but I haven't the time nor the intelligence to do the translating. My work takes me long distances," he explained more fully, "and my tasks are placed far apart." He pointed to his battered shoes.
"You don't live in Billman, then?" asked Ingram.
"I live in a district a hundred miles square."
"Hello! Do you walk that?"
"Sometimes I get a lift in a buckboard. But my people are very poor. I must walk most of the days."
"A frightful waste of time," suggested Ingram.
"For those who live or for those who die," said the Dominican, "time is of little importance in this part of the world. Have you watched the buzzards?"
"They wait on the wing a week at a time, without water, sailing a hundred leagues a day, perhaps; but, if they are watchful, finally they find food. It is that way with me. I go from village to village, from house to house. But if I find one good thing a month to do, I am satisfied. The rest of the time, I wait on the wing, as you might say."
He looked down at his round stomach as he spoke, and laughed comfortably, until he shook from head to foot.
"I should think that you could settle down here," said Ingram with enthusiasm. "There are scores of Mexicans here. The number of their knife fights, you know—I beg your pardon," he added, "I don't want to appear to give advice."
"Ah, but do it! Do it!" said Pedrillo. "As we grow older we find little advice to take; and a great many occasions for giving. So say what is in your mind."
Ingram looked at the other a little more closely, for he feared that he was being mocked; but he met an eye so transparent and a smile so genuine and childlike that he could not help laughing in return.
"There is nothing I can say," he declared at last. "Except that it seemed to me that there was enough in Billman to keep you busy every moment of your time."
"In this little town," said Pedrillo, "my people shift so fast—up to the mines and back again, in and out—that I can do little except marry or bury them as they pass. If it were a settled place, then I could take a house here and live among them until I became really a brother to them. But as it is, the mines fill their pockets with money. They have plenty to spend on food and tequila, and something left over to gamble and fight for. Their minds and their hands are so filled that they have no need of me except when they are about to marry or to die. If I were to settle among them now they would forget that I am here. I would be a shadow to them. But since I come from a distance, at rare intervals, I am something more. They listen to me now and then. That is all I can expect. I am not ambitious, Mr. Ingram. But you have your own people, and they are not mine. All of mine will hear me—at least two or three times in their lives. Some of yours will never hear you at all. But a great many of them may take you into their everyday lives. That is the greater good. Unquestionably, the greater good. Ah, well, I must accept my destiny."
His words were a good deal more serious than his manner, for he smiled as he spoke.
"But," he added, "I have never had gifts. Unless it is a gift to listen to people's sorrows. You, however, can mix with your kind and command admiration among them."
"Why do you say that?" asked Ingram, frowning a little, as one who does not like to receive idle compliments.
"You are big," said the Mexican; "you are young, and you are strong. The men here are rough; but they cannot afford to scorn you."
He pointed, as he spoke, to a little silver vase which stood on top of the bookshelf, a pair of boxing gloves chased on its side.
Young Ingram smiled faintly and shrugged his shoulders.
"That was before I had any serious purpose in life," said he. "That was before I found myself. Now I'm a man."
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-five, almost," said Ingram.
Brother Pedrillo did not smile. "And how did you come to find yourself?" he asked gently.
Ingram found it strangely easy to talk about himself to this brown, fat face, these inactive but knowing eyes. He rested his elbows on his knees and looked into the past.
"I was smashed in a football game, and played too long afterward. It put me in the hospital. I had the germs of a fever in me at the time, and that gave the sickness a galloping start. It was a long struggle. But in the intervals, when I was not delirious and when I realized how close to death I lay, I wondered what I had been doing with myself for twenty years. Twenty long years, and nothing done, nothing worth while! A few goals kicked. A few touchdowns. Some boxing. Well, I determined that if God spared me I would give something to the world that was worth while. And when I could call my life my own, I began studying for the church."
He checked himself and looked rather auspiciously at the Brother.
"I seem to be chattering a good deal," he suggested.
"Talk is good," said the older man with conviction. All at once he began to whistle a thin, small note. Ingram turned and saw a little yellow-backed lizard lying in the burning sun upon the threshold. It lifted its head and listened to the music. "Talk is good," added the friar, with a nod of surety.
He stood up.
"We begin to know each other," he said.
"I want to ask you the same question that you asked me," said Ingram. "How did you happen to select your vocation?"
"But I had nothing to do with it," answered the friar. "My mother gave me to the church. And here I am," he added, and smiled again. "Whatever I can do, ask of me. I have little power. I have little knowledge. But I know something of the strong men who live here."
"These ruffians!" cried Ingram rather fiercely.
Brother Pedrillo raised a brown hand.
"Don't call them that. Yes, call them that if you will. It is always better to put it into words than to leave it buried in the mind. But except for a rough man's act, would there be a church here now? Would you yourself be here in the desert, my brother?"
Ingram bit his lip thoughtfully.
"I don't know what you mean," he replied frankly.
"You don't know?" asked Pedrillo, his smile fading. And for a single instant his eyes were keen and cold as they searched the face of his companion. "Perhaps you don't," he decided. "You have not heard how your own church was built?"
"By a man named William Luger. I've been here only four days, you understand."
"Do you not know how he came to leave the money for it?"
"No. Not yet."
"So, so!" murmured the friar.
He sat down again and rolled a cigarette, whistling the small note to the enchanted lizard at the door. He made the cigarette like a little cornucopia, for such is the Mexican fashion. And Ingram saw, with a little disgust, that the fingers of the holy man were literally painted orange-yellow by the stain of nicotine.
"Let me tell you," said the friar, beginning to blow smoke toward the rough beam of the ceiling. "Billy Luger was a man typical of this part of the world!"
"A little better than that, I hope," said Ingram, turning stiff.
"No," replied the Dominican. "He was just that. He had spent thirty years branding cattle—his own or ones he borrowed for the occasion. Finally he dipped into mining, when the rush started toward the San Joaquin silver and the Sierra Negra gold. He made a few thousand and was celebrating a trip to town one evening, when he got into a card game with 'Red Jim' Moffet. Moffet shot him, and it was while Billy lay dying that he made up his mind to leave his money for the founding of a church. That's the story. And that's what brought you here."
"And the murderer?" asked Mr. Ingram hotly. "He was hanged, I trust?"
"You are a sanguinary young man," smiled the Dominican. "But these people are fond of killing with guns; they rarely kill with a rope. No, Moffet was not hanged. He's still alive, prosperous and well. You'll meet him around the town."
"A most extraordinary tale," said Ingram, breathing hard. "Was no attempt made to bring his killer to justice?"
"The fact is," said the friar sympathetically, "that Moffet accused Billy of having a card up his sleeve during the game. And I believe that the bystanders agreed with Red, after the smoke blew away."
Brother Pedrillo rose again.
"You are going to exercise much influence from the start, I know," said he.
"And on what do you base that?" asked Ingram, again antagonistic.
"Where the ladies of the town go, the men are sure to follow—though sometimes at a little distance," said Pedrillo, and he stepped out into the blast of the sun.
It glistened on his bald head as upon brown glass.
Once more the friar waved adieu, and trudged down the dusty street, leaving Ingram of two minds as he stood in the doorway. He could not quite make out the import of that last remark. It sounded suspiciously like a touch of sarcasm, but he could not be sure. At length he turned to complete his sermon. It was not easy. He had to set his teeth and force his pencil on. Because from time to time across his mind came the vision of a card game—and one man with cards up the sleeve!
WOMEN? He had not guessed that there were so many in the entire town, aside from the Mexican section across the creek. They filled more than half the front part of the church, whispering, buzzing, and then settling down to watch his face with a curious insistence, until he began to feel that they were hearing not a word.
He lifted his eyes from them and directed the strength of his little oration toward a dozen men who remained as far back as possible on the benches, huddling themselves into the shadowy corners.
They were listening, and they did not seem convinced by this talk about peace. Now and then they looked gravely at one another. Once or twice the Reverend Reginald Ingram thought he saw a faint smile. But he could not be sure. Only he knew that the church now began to seem extremely small; and that the sun beat upon it with a terrific force. It was hot, very hot; and he wanted a cooling wind to pour in and bring him relief.
Well, that small miracle was denied for his gratification, and Ingram centered his attention fiercely on his sermon—bulldogging it through, as he often had done on the football field. Yardage on a football field, however, is chalked off with convenient white lines. Yardage in a church is a different matter. One may be under the goal posts one instant, and fighting to keep from being scored on the next.
However, he drew his parallels. The yellow beetle and the gay little wren were called upon to furnish a metaphor apiece. The cruel hawk was not mentioned at all. And gradually he established his own conviction in the picture he was drawing of peace on earth, and good will among all of the men living upon it. He felt that he was drawing his audience together a little more. As for the hulking men in the rear—let them rise and sidle with creaking boots toward the exit. Not one of the feminine heads before him turned to watch them go. No, all were feverishly concentrated upon him. They were brown faces, indubitably Anglo-Saxon in spite of their color. And the eyes seemed strangely blue and bright by contrast. He began to feel that never before had he seen so many intelligent women gathered together. For, if the truth must be known, Mr. Ingram looked down upon the other sex. They rarely bothered him. No woman can talk football, and few can talk of religion with much conviction.
The minister ended his sermon, and the organ responded in squawks of protest to the organist who was trying to furnish music to close the service. However, the little crowd did not depart, and Ingram, descending from his throne, was softly enveloped in a wave of organdies and lawns that brought a fresh, wholesome laundry smell about him.
The ladies introduced themselves, and he listened gravely and earnestly to their names. If he was to work with such material as this, then it behooved him, by all means, to come quickly to the knowledge of it.
They had enjoyed his sermon, it appeared. They had enjoyed it, oh, so much! Everything he said was so true. If one only stopped to think! How well he understood the desert, and their problems! Some one was asking him to come home to lunch. And then another, and another.
A girl with very pale, blonde hair and very blue, blue eyes seemed to brush all the others aside, with her gesture—though she was a little thing—and stood directly before him, smiling up.
"They have no right to you," said she. "My poor mother couldn't come, and she wanted me to remember every word you said. As if I could do that, in my silly head! So you have to come home to lunch with me. Go away, Charlotte! Don't be foolish! Of course Mr. Ingram is coming with me!"
Even among the others it seemed to be taken for granted that Mr. Ingram would, of course, go with her of the pale hair and the extraordinarily blue eyes. They gave up. And she carried him off from the church.
Indeed, he had a distinct impression that he was being carried. He could remember her name by a little effort; in fact, it was a very odd one. She was called Astrid Vasa.
As they came from the church a tall man, who looked compressed by his store clothes and nearly strangled by his necktie, approached them, with a red-faced grin for the girl.
"Come along, Red," said she. "This is Red Moffet, Mr. Ingram. Red, this is Mr. Ingram. You know. He runs the church, and everything. Don't you, Mr. Ingram?"
She looked up at Mr. Ingram at the conclusion of this infantile question, and shut out the view of Red Moffet with a parasol which slanted over one shoulder, and which she was spinning with a very delicately made little hand. Ingram wanted to frown, but he couldn't help smiling; which made him more determined than ever to frown. And so his smile grew broad!
"Red works in a mine, or something," explained Astrid Vasa, shrugging a shoulder in the direction of Mr. Moffet.
"I own a mine," said Red. "It's kind of different."
He was offended, of course. It occurred vaguely to Ingram that Mr. Moffet seemed very offended. For his own part, he wondered what his attitude should be toward the man who had killed the founder of the church over which he now presided. But after all, it was said that the other cheek must be turned. Ingram, concentrating on the thought, set his teeth.
They reached a picket fence in front of a little unpainted house. Few of the houses in Billman were painted, for that matter. "I dunno that I'll be comin' in," said Red Moffet gloomily.
"You better come along," said Astrid. "We gotta couple of the best-looking roosters that you ever saw for dinner."
"I'm kind of busy," said Red, more darkly than ever, "so long!"
And he rambled down the street with a peculiarly awkward leg action. It reminded Ingram of the stride of a certain tackle of his college team, a fellow uncannily skillful in getting down the field under a kick, and marvelous in providing interference. He was more interested in Red Moffet from that instant.
"He's got a grouch on," confided Astrid. "He always wants to be the whole show since he got his silly old mine. C'mon in!"
The screen door screeched as it was kicked open from within. A burly gentleman in shirt sleeves stood before them.
"Hello; where's Red?" asked he in a pleasant voice.
"Dad, this is Mr. Ingram, the minister, and he's just been persuaded to—"
"Hullo, Ingram! Glad see you. Where's Red, sis?"
"I dunno. He got a grouch on and beat it. I can't be bothered—all his notions."
"You little simp," said the inelegant Mr. Vasa, "you'll be havin' him slide through your fingers one of these days."
"Dad, what are you talkin' about?" exclaimed Astrid, very pink.
Her sire looked from her to her companion and grunted.
"Humph," said he. "Is that it, eh?"
"Is that what?" asked Astrid, furious.
"Aw, nothin'. C'min and sit down and rest your feet, Ingram. Lookit—ain't it like a fool girl, though? Shufflin' a boy like Red around? Know Red, I guess?"
"I've barely met him," said Ingram, with reserve.
"Have, eh? Well, he's all right. Kind of mean, sometimes. Yep, mean as hell. But straight. Awful straight. Why, that kid's got a half million dollars' worth of mine up in the San Joaquin. Wouldn't think it, would you, to look at him? But I've seen it. Make your mouth water. Lord knows how deep the vein runs. Maybe take out a hundred thousand a year for a hundred years. Can't tell. And here's our Astie with a gent like that in her pocket, and chucking him away over her shoulder. Finders keepers! Sis, your're a simp. That's all!"
"Father!" cried Astrid, dividing the word into two distinct parts, each concealing a world of meaning. "D'you know that your're talkin' to a minister, with all your profanity, and—and talking foolishness about Red Moffet? Who said I had him in my pocket? Who wants to have him there? I'm sure I don't. And—what do you mean by talking like this to a perfect stranger?"
"Aw, don't step on your own toes to spite me, sis," suggested her father, grinning. "Besides, maybe Ingram ain't going to be a stranger for very long. How about it?"
This extreme directness embarrassed Ingram. He searched his mind—and found nothing with which to respond except a smile which might have received varying interpretations. Astrid retreated to regain her composure and let her blushes settle down to a normal pink.
"She's a good kid," pronounced Mr. Vasa, "but careless. Dog-gone careless. Far as that goes, though, this here is a land of carelessness and accidents. Billman's an accident, you know."
"An accident?" said the polite Ingram.
"Sure. You know how it started?"
"Sure. A town has to start, don't it? Aw, you're fresh out of the old States, where a town put down roots so long ago that there ain't any story left about it except a legend that's a lie. Well, things ain't that way out here. We ain't scratched many wrinkles on the desert yet, and the only ones we've made are all new. Take Billman. Old Ike Billman was started for the San Joaquin range when the mines opened up there. Had a string of wagons loaded with stuff to sell for ten prices, the old hound! But he busted down here. Broke a wagon wheel. Before he got it fixed the boys were rushing through on the way for the San Joaquin on one side and for the Sierra Negra on the other. They wanted supplies, and wanted 'em so bad that price was no object. So Ike, he piled out his stuff and sold it out here just as good as he could have done if he'd marched all the way into the mountains. Then he put up a shack, and began freighting more stuff—not to the mines, but here. Other folks followed the good example. Then some of us have got interests in both places—San Joaquin and Sierra Negra—so we live in this halfway station. Y'understand? That's how Billman started growing. Just plain accident."
"You're a mine owner also, then?" said Ingram in a polite attempt to discover the interests of his host.
Astrid returned. She had studied her smile before the mirror and felt that it would do.
"Sure, I'm a mine owner. I mean, I got shares in a couple of mines. I was a blacksmith when I come out here to—"
"Dad," put in Astrid, "I don't see why you have to rake up all the old family history. I'm sure Mr. Ingram isn't interested."
"Why not?" asked Vasa. "Ain't it honest to be a blacksmith? I never was in jail—except overnight. I got nothing to be ashamed of. It's a darn good trade, Ingram—blacksmithing. The money that I made out of it was honest. But this mining game—just luck! I took a couple of flyers at it. And they both connected with the bulls-eye. There you are. I'm gunna be pretty well off. I could sell out now for a hundred thousand. Maybe more. Not so bad, eh? But I guess I was just as happy hammering iron, hot or cold. It's the thing that you're cut out for that counts. Luck ain't apt to make you happy, Ingram. I'll never be worth shucks as a miner. But I could lay a shoe on the hoof of a horse so fine it would make you stare. You come and watch me some day. I still put in a few hours in the old shop now and then, just to keep my hand in."
Mrs. Vasa, as small as her husband was large, rather withered but still good looking, stood in the doorway. She was flushed from her work in the kitchen, and wiped her hands on her apron before she greeted the minister.
"Astie says that the sermon was just wonderful. I'll bet it was," said Mrs. Vasa. "Now you come along in and have a bite of lunch with us, will you? I'm mighty glad to have you here, Mr. Ingram. I was just too busy to get to church this morning. Church is kind of new in Billman, you know. And it takes a body a time to get into the run of going again. But my folks were mighty regular; they never missed a Sunday hardly. I always think it does you sort of good to go to church. Cools you off, you know, and it's restful. D'you think that you're gunna like Billman, Mr. Ingram?"
This was poured out effortlessly, rapidly, as they got to the table and sat down. Mr. Ingram could have made a quick answer to the final question, but it was not necessary to answer questions in this house. Between the head of the house and his wife there was no room left for silent spots.
Afterward they had music. Ingram sat down to supper, and remained to listen in amazement.
"Astie, she sings like a bird; dog-gone me if she don't!" said her father.
And that was exactly what she did. She accompanied herself on the piano. As smoothly as speech flowed from the lips of Mrs. Vasa, so song poured from the throat of her daughter, and the accompaniment bubbled delightfully in between.
"Dragged that dog-gone piano clean out from Comanche Crossing," declared Vasa. "And I never regretted what it cost, derned if I have. Now ain't it a treat to have a girl that can sing like that? She ought to be on the stage, where thousands could enjoy her. Honest, she should. But she'll never get there!"
"Why do you say that, dad?" asked Mrs. Vasa.
"Because she's got her career all mapped and laid out for her right here in Billman," said the head of the house.
"Career?" asked Astrid. "What sort of career?"
"Humph!" said the ex-blacksmith. "Breakin' hearts, or tryin' to!"
"Dad, you're just—" cried Astrid.
"You might let the poor girl—" began Mrs. Vasa.
"Aw, be still!" said Vasa. "Ingram's gunna know about you pretty quick, if he don't already. I tell you what, Ingram. If that girl hadn't been born with a pretty face, she would have amounted to something. But she's got just enough good looks to spoil her. Her heart's all right. But her mirror keeps tellin' her that she's Cleopatra."
"I hope you don't pay no attention, the way that he keeps on about his own flesh and blood," said Mrs. Vasa to her guest.
Ingram smiled. But it was with an effort.
"Tune up, sis," commanded Vasa. "Go on and tune up, will you, and stop shaking your head at me. It ain't gunna change me. I'm too old to change. Take me or leave me. That's my motto. Maybe there's rough hammer marks on me, but the stuff I'm made of is the right iron, I think. Go on and sing, will you? Gimme some of the old ones, where you don't have to listen too hard. 'Annie Laurie', that's about my speed. Somethin' nice and sad. Or 'Ben Bolt'. Dog-gone me, if that ain't a swell song, Mr. Ingram. What you say? 'Ben Bolt', sis. And make her nice and sobby!"
They had 'Ben Bolt' and 'Annie Laurie', also.
And afterward Mr. Vasa went to sleep in his chair and snored. And Mrs. Vasa announced that she would go and close her eyes for a minute. Such a warm afternoon! Mr. Ingram was glad to excuse her. He sat in the shade of the house with Astrid.
"I guess you think we're terrible people," said Astrid sadly, "the way that dad carries on."
"No," said Ingram earnestly. "I don't think so at all. I like him. He doesn't pretend. He's honest. I like him a great deal, you know."
It was pleasant to see her face light. Her smile was like her singing, charming beyond words. And Ingram wondered how such a flower could have grown in such rocky soil. It made him feel, too, the value of that background of culture which enables one to appreciate the great and the simple, the complex and the homely.
"He thinks I ought to go on the stage," said Astrid. "But I'll never get there. No, I'll have to stay here in the desert."
"Do you want to go?"
"I don't know," said she. "Only—I'm so lonely here."
She looked up at him with sad eyes.
"Poor child!" said Ingram, melting. "Lonely?"
He leaned a little toward her. Charitable kindness is commanded directly.
"Oh, lonely, lonely!" sighed Astrid, still looking into his face with suffering eyes. "Do you know—but you wouldn't want me to tell you—"
"I think I would," said the gentle minister.
"You know such a lot, and you're so wise and clever," said Astrid, "you would laugh at me!"
"I'm none of those things. And I won't laugh."
"Really you won't?"
"Well, of course I know a lot of people here. But though there are lots of them to chatter to—well, perhaps you won't understand—there's really not a soul for me to talk to."
"Poor child!" said Mr. Ingram. He felt that he had said that before, but it was so true that he could not help repeating it. "Poor child, of course I can understand!"
"Until you came, Mr. Ingram. And I really think that I could talk to you."
"You shall, my dear. Of course you shall, whenever you please."
"And you won't laugh at me?"
"And when I tire you, you'll just send me away?"
"We'll see about that," said he, tolerantly.
"Ah, you could understand!" said Astrid. "The others—they just think that I'm always gay. They never guess, Mr. Ingram, how close—the tears are—sometimes!"
Yes, yes! But he could guess! He could see the tears now, just welling into her eyes. And he dropped a large, strong hand over her little one.
They sat in silence. He felt prepared to face the world. He felt the ability to endure, to suffer. And some day, when he had children, he was sure that he would be able to raise them tenderly, and well.
THERE followed for Ingram several days of severe labor, for he was establishing his parish, enlisting the interests of various people, and accepting sundry contributions which poured in with amazing speed for the first public work which he attempted. This was the establishment of a little hospital.
Sick men came down constantly from the mines in the San Joaquin, or in the Sierra Negra, and from Billman they were in the habit of taking the long stage journey overland to Comanche Crossing, where they could get medical attention of a kind. Ingram saw the possibility of putting up something which would be more than a way-station for the sick. And his idea was taken up enthusiastically. Mexican labor made the adobe bricks rapidly on the banks of the creek, and the terrible sun dried them to the proper strength; after that, skilled Mexican workers raised the walls of the hospital. There were three rooms, and they were built of generous size, with lofty ceilings and thick walls, so that the sun's heat would not turn the place into an oven. For bed equipment there were various improvisations, and many donations were made after Ingram set the example by giving up his own cot. If he were willing to sleep on the floor, others would be equally brave in facing uncomfortable nights on the boards. For doctors there was no want; for several of them were among the men who had tried their luck in the gold rush and had run out of funds. They returned to their professional work and supplied the hospital with a competent staff. The Mexicans made excellent nurses, assisted from time to time by volunteers from among the ladies of Ingram's congregation. As for the funds to pay for all this necessary labor and expenses of various kinds, the inhabitants of Billman willingly dug deep into their purses, and in addition came contributions from all the mines.
The work of the hospital filled Ingram's hands for some time, and won for him a great deal of friendly recognition. In the meantime, a building of another kind went on to completion; a sure sign that the old days of Billman were drawing to a close, and that civilization was gathering the wild little town into its arms. For one day a thin, small man came to Ingram, a being so withered and lean that he seemed like a special product of the desert environment, equipped by nature to live for a long time without moisture of any kind. His skinny neck projected from a collar that would have girt in comfort the throat of a giant. His footwear was not neat.
And when he fixed his melancholy eyes upon the minister, the latter was sure that this was another one of the race of hobos who pestered him from time to time.
Said the little man: "I'm Sheriff Ted Connors. I came over to fix up a jail in this town, because it looks to me like this would be a handy place for a jail to stand. It wouldn't never have to be empty. And I'd like to know from you, how you get the folks in this town to fork over the money for a good cause?"
The two spent a long hour going over ways and means. And the very next day the foundations of the jail were established by the running of a shallow trench through the surface sands. The jail was completed in a very few days. And the withered little sheriff jogged out of town, leaving his work to be carried on by a younger, bigger, and much more formidable-looking deputy, Dick Binney.
"Now that there's a church and a jail," said big Vasa, "it looks like Billman was pretty well collared, eh?"
Ingram agreed. It was, he felt, only a matter of waiting a few weeks for the lawlessness and roughness of the town to subside. He had had a taste of that lawlessness before the town was very old. For, one night—the hospital had been opened that day and the first patients, the wrecked victims of a mine explosion, installed—masked men entered Ingram's shack and bade him come with them.
They led him down the main street, which was singularly deserted, and out from the town to a point where a crowd was gathered under one of the few trees of the neighborhood. Beneath that tree stood a man whose hands were tied behind him; around his neck was the noose of a rope which had been flung over a limb above his head. Ingram realized that he was in the presence of a crew of vigilantes.
A gruff voice said to him: "Here's Chuck Lane, that wants to talk to you, kid, before he swings. Hop to it and finish the job pronto. We're sleepy!"
"Do you intend to hang this man," asked Ingram, "without the process of law?"
"Ah!" said the leader of the crowd, "is that your line? Now look here, kid, if there's gunna be any arguin' about that out of you, you can turn around and go home. Chuck swiped a horse, the skunk, and he's gunna swing for it. There's been too much borrowin' of horses around these parts lately. And he goes up as example number one. If you got any talkin' to do, do it on Chuck, will you?"
Ingram considered briefly. After all, he was quite helpless before these armed fellows. A protest would accomplish no good; it would merely deprive the victim of whatever spiritual comfort he might desire.
As he stepped up to the man who wore the noose, the others, with an unexpected sense of decency, made a wider circle around them.
"It's all right, boys," said Chuck Lane cheerfully, noticing this backward movement. "All I got to say can be heard by you gents."
"Chuck," said the minister, "are you guilty of the crime of which they accuse you?"
"Crime?" echoed Chuck. "If borrowin' a horse when a man's in a hurry is a crime—sure, I'm guilty! Well, kid, that ain't why they sent for you. Fact is, I want to know something from you."
"Very well," said Ingram, "if you are a member of any church—"
"I was took to church once when I was a kid," said the thief. "Otherwise I ain't been bothered about them. But now when I come to stand here, around the corner from Nowhere, it seems to me a pretty good time to find out what's on the other side. What do you say, Ingram?"
"Do you mean that you have doubts?" asked Ingram.
"Sure! Doubts about everything. Is this the finish—like going to sleep and never waking up? You're a smart young feller. No matter what lingo you're paid to sling in the church, you give me the low-down out here, man to man. I won't tell nobody what you've said."
"There is a life to come, surely," said Ingram.
"Will you gimme a proof, then?"
"Yes. The beasts have flesh and sense. Man has something more. He is born with flesh, mind, and spirit. Mind and flesh die, but the spirit is imperishable."
"You say it pretty slick and sure," remarked Chuck Lane. "You really mean that?"
"Well, then, the next thing is: What chance have I to slip through without—without—"
"What chance have you of happiness?" asked the minister gently. "That I cannot tell. You know your own mind and life."
"What difference does the life make, really?" asked the horse thief. "Ain't it what's in the head that counts most?"
"Yes," said Ingram, "sin is more in the mind than in the body. Have you anything on your conscience?"
"Me? Well, not much. I've taken my fun where I've found it, as somebody has said before me. I knifed a gent in Chihuahua, once. But that was a fair fight. He'd taken a pass at me with a chair. I shot a fellow up in Butte, too. But the hound had told everybody that he was going to get me. So that don't count, either. Otherwise, there ain't been nothing important. This little job about the horse—that's nothing. I was just in a hurry. Now, kid, the cards are on the table. Where do I go?"
"You are young," said Ingram. "You're not much more than thirty—"
The minister stared, aghast. Much, much of life had been scored on the face of this young man in his few short years.
Chuck seemed to understand, for he went on: "But the wrinkles don't set till you're forty," he remarked, "and you can change your face up to that time. Y'understand?"
"Did you intend to take up some other way of—"
"I was always aiming to be a farmer, if I could get a stake together. Nothin' wrong with my intentions, but the money was lackin'."
"And how did you try to earn it?"
"Cards was my chief line."
"You were honest, Chuck?"
"I never had the fingers for real crookedness," admitted Chuck frankly. "I could palm a couple of cards. That was all. And I generally met up with somebody a good deal slicker than I was. So my winnings went out the window."
Ingram was silent.
"Does that make it bad for me?" asked Chuck ingenuously.
It was a grim moment in which to play the judge, but Ingram answered slowly: "You've been a man-killer, a thief, and a crooked gambler. And perhaps there have been other things."
"Well," said Chuck, "I suppose that closes the door on me?"
"I don't know," said Ingram. "It depends, in the first place, upon your repentance."
"Repentance?" echoed the other. "Well, I dunno that I feel bad about the way I've lived. I've never shot a man in the back, and I've never cheated a drunk or a fool at the cards. I tried to trim the sharks, and the sharks always trimmed me."
"Is that all?" said Ingram.
"That's about all. Except that I'd sure like to get with the right crowd of boys on the other side. I never had no real use for the tinhorns, thugs, and short sports that must be crowded into hell, Ingram. But you think I got a mighty slim chance, eh?"
Wistfulness and manly courage struggled in his voice.
"No man can judge you," said the young minister. "If you believe in the goodness of God, and fix your mind on that belief, you may be saved, Chuck. I shall pray for you."
"Do it, old-timer," said Chuck. "A prayer or two wouldn't do me any harm, and it might do me a lot of good. And—look here—hey, boys!"
"Well?" asked some one, coming closer.
"I'd like Ingram to have my guns. It's all that I've got to leave the world."
"Are there no messages that I can take for you?" asked Ingram.
"I don't want to think about the folks that I leave behind me," said the thief. "I got a girl down in—well, let it go. It's better for her never to hear than it is for her to start grievin' about me. Better to think that I run off and forgot to come back to her. So long, Ingram!"
"Gentlemen," said Ingram, turning on the crowd, "I protest against this unwarranted—"
"Rustle the kid out of the way," said someone, and half a dozen strong pairs of hands hurried Chuck suddenly away.
Behind him Ingram heard a groan, as of strong friction, and, glancing back, saw something swinging pendulous beneath the tree, and writhing against the golden surface of the rising moon.
THE death of Chuck Lane caused a good deal of excitement in the town, for he was no common or ordinary thief, and the minister overheard one most serious conversation the next day.
He had stopped at Vasa's house to talk over the choir work with pretty Astrid; for she led the choir for him, and a thorough good job she made of it. There he met Red Moffet, and Red, with an ugly glance, rose and strode away, barely grunting at the minister as he passed.
"I think Red doesn't like me very well," said Ingram. "He seems to have something against me. Do you guess what it is?"
"I can't guess," said Astrid, with the strangest of smiles. "I haven't the least idea!"
But now the gallant form of the deputy sheriff, Dick Binney, swept down the street, and Red Moffet hailed him suddenly and strongly from the sidewalk.
"Binney! Hey, Binney!"
The deputy sheriff reined in his horse. The dust cloud he had raised blew down the street, and left him with the shimmering heat of the sun drenching him. So terrible was the brightness of that light, and so great the radiation of heat from every surface, that sometimes it seemed to the young minister that he lived in a ghost world here on the edge of the desert. All was unreal, surrounded by airy lines of imagination, or radiating heat.
Unreal now were those two men, and the horse which one of them bestrode. But very real was the voice of Red Moffet, calling: "Binney, were you there last night?"
"Was I where?"
"You know where."
"I dunno what you mean."
"Was you one of them that hung up poor Chuck Lane?"
"Me? The sheriff of this here place? What you take me for, anyway? Are you crazy?"
"I dunno what I take you for. But I've heard a yarn that you was with the rest of them cowards and sneaks that killed poor Chuck."
Dick Binney dismounted suddenly from his horse.
"I dunno how to take this here," said he. "I dunno whether it's aimed at the boys who hanged Chuck last night, or at me!"
"I say," declared Moffet, "that Chuck was an honester man than any of them that strung him up. And if you was one of them, that goes for you, too!"
It seemed that the deputy was willing enough to take offense, but he paused and gritted his teeth, between passion and caution. Certainly it would not do for him to avow that he had been one of the masked men.
So he said: "What you say don't bother me, Red. But if you're out and lookin' for trouble, I'm your man, all right!"
"Bah!" sneered Red Moffet. "It wouldn't please you none to make trouble for any man in town, now that you got the law behind you! You can do your killings with a posse now."
"Can I?" replied Binney, equally furious. "I would never need a posse to account for you, young feller!"
"Is that a promise, Binney?" asked Moffet. "Are you askin' me to have a meetin' with you one day?"
"Whenever you like," said the deputy. "But now I'm busy. I ain't gunna stand here and waste time with a professional gun fighter like you, Moffet. Only, I give you a warning. You got to watch yourself around this part of the world from now on. I'm watchin' you. I'm gunna give you just enough rope to hang yourself."
He jumped back into the saddle, and galloped down the street, leaving Red Moffet shaking a fist after him and cursing volubly.
Mr. Vasa, coming home, paused to listen with a judicious air to the linguistic display of Red. Then he came into his yard, shaking his head gravely.
"I'll tell you what it is," said Vasa, greeting his daughter and the minister, "things ain't what they used to be around these parts. There's a terrible fallin' off of manhood all around! There's a terrible fallin' off! There's been enough language used up by Red and Dick Binney, yonder, to have got a whole town shot up in the palmy days that I could tell you about."
"Dad!" cried his daughter.
"Look here," said the ex-blacksmith, "don't you make a profession of being shocked every time I open my mouth. You live and learn, honey! I tell you, there was never no fireworks in the way of words shot off before the boys reached for their guns in the old days, Ingram. No, sir! I remember when I was standing in the old Parker saloon. That was a cool place. Always wet down the floor every hour and sprinkled fresh, wet sawdust around. Made a drink taste a lot better. It was like spring inside that place, no matter how much summer there might be in the street. Well, young Mitchell was in there, drinking. Same fellow that shot Pete Brewer in the back. He was drinkin' and yarnin' about a freighting job that he'd come in from. He ordered up a round."
"I'll buy one for the boys," says he.
"No, you won't," says a voice.
"We looked across, and there was Tim Lafferty that had just come through the swingin' doors.
"Why won't I?" asks Mitchell.
"You ain't got time!" says Tim.
"They went for their guns right then, and as I stepped back out of line two bullets crossed in front of my face. Neither of 'em missed. But it was Mitchell that died. Well, that was about as much conversation as they needed in the old days before they had a fight. But now, look at the way that those two have been wastin' language in the street; and nothing done about it. I say, it's disgusting!"
"Do you think that Red's a coward?" asked the girl sharply.
"Red? Naw! He ain't a coward. And he can shoot. But what's important is that the fashion has changed now. A gent with a gun that he wants to use feels that he's got to write a book about his intentions before he can bum any powder. They didn't waste themselves on introductions in the old days. Well, those times will never come back."
The minister asked gravely: "Is it possible that the deputy sheriff could have been at the lynching the other night?"
"Well, and why not?"
"Why not? The representative of the law—"
"Why, old Connors made a terrible mistake when he up and appointed Dick for the job. Dick is all right some ways. But he's got an idea that the law is to be more useful to him than to the rest of the folks. He hated Chuck. I got an idea that he was at the hanging. And that's why Red is mad. He loved Chuck. Good boy, that Chuck Lane."
"Did you know him?" asked the minister, with some eagerness.
"Did I know myself? Sure, I knew him!"
"He was a gambler and—a horse thief?"
"That was careless—swiping the horse. Matter of fact, though, if he'd got to the other end of the line, he would have sent back the coin to pay for the horse as soon as he got enough money together. But you got to judge people according to their own lights, and not according to yours, young man!"
Thus spoke Mr. Vasa, with the large assurance of one who has lived in this world and knows a good deal about it.
"It's a brutal thing to lynch any man, no matter how guilty," declared Ingram.
"Hey, hold on!" cried the blacksmith. "Matter of fact, there ain't enough organized law around here to shake a stick at. Not half enough! And I don't blame the boys that hung up Chuck. Can't let horse stealing go on!"
This double sympathy on the part of Mr. Vasa amazed and silenced Ingram.
"You're lookin' thin," went on Vasa. "Tell, me how you're likin' the town. You run along into the house, Astie, will you? I got to talk to Ingram."
Astrid rose, smiled at her guest, and went slowly toward the house.
"She's got a sweet smile, ain't she?" was the rather abrupt beginning of the blacksmith's speech.
"She has," said Ingram thoughtfully. "Yes," he added, as though turning the matter in his mind and agreeing thoroughly, "yes, she has a lovely smile. She—she's a fine girl, I think."
"Pretty little kid," declared the father, yawning. "But she ain't so fine. No, not so fine as you'd think. Wouldn't do a lick of housework. I don't think, if her life depended on it. Y'understand?"
"Ah?" said Ingram, vaguely offended by this familiarity.
"And she's fond of everything that money can be spent on. Look at that pony of hers. Took her down to look over a whole herd at the McCormick sale. Nothin' would do for her. 'I'll take that little brown horse, dad,' says she.
"Now, Astie," says I, "don't you be a little fool. That little brown horse is a racer, out of blood more ancienter than the dog-gone kings of England. For a fact!"
"'All right,' says she, and turns her shoulder.
"'Look yonder at that fine chestnut," says I. "There's a fine, gentle, upstanding horse. Halfbred. Strong, not a flaw in it anywhere. Warranted good disposition. Mouth like silk. Footwork on the mountains like a mule. Go like a camel without water. Now, Astie, how would you like it for me to give you that fine horse—and ain't he a beauty, too?"
"'I don't want it,' says she. 'It'll do for that crosseyed Mame Lucas, maybe!'"
"'Astie,' says I, 'what would you do with a horse that would buck you over its head the minute that you got into the saddle?'
"'Climb into the saddle again,' says she.
"'Bah!" says I.
"'Bah yourself.' says she.
"It made me mad, and I bought that dog-gone brown horse. Guess for what? Eleven hundred iron men! Yes, sir!"
"'Now, you ride him home!' says I, hoping that he'd break her neck.
"He done his best, but she's made of India rubber. Threw her five times on the way, and had half the town chasing the horse for her. But she rode him all the way home, and then went to bed for three days. But now he eats out of her hand. Wouldn't think that she had that much spunk, would you?"
"No," agreed the minister, amazed. "I would not!"
"Nobody would," said the blacksmith, "to look at the sappy light in her eyes a good deal of the time. But I'm tellin' you true. Expensive! That's what that kid is. If there was ten pairs of shoes in a store window, she'd pick out the most high-priced pair blindfold. She's got an instinct for it, I tell you!"
"You think that she'd change, maybe," said the blacksmith. "But she won't. It's bred in the bone. God knows where she got it, though. Her ma was never an expensive woman."
He rolled a cigarette with a single twist of his powerful fingers, and scratched a match on the thigh of his trousers. A hundred more or less faint lines showed where other matches had been lighted on the same cloth.
"This ain't a blind trail that I been followin'," he announced. "I'm leadin' up to something. D'you guess what?"
"No," said Ingram. "I really don't guess what you may have in mind."
"I thought you wouldn't," said Vasa. "Some of you smart fellows couldn't cut for sign with a five-year-old half-wit. Matter of fact, what I want to know is: Where are you heading with sis?"
"Heading with her?" said Ingram, very blank.
"Where d'you drift? What's your name with her? Does she call you deary, yet?"
Mr. Ingram stared.
"Has she held your hand yet for you?" asked Vasa.
The blood of a line of ancient ancestors curdled in the veins of Mr. Ingram.
"She does all of those things to the boys," said the blacksmith. "There is even two or three that may have kissed her. I dunno. But not many. She gets a little soft and soapy. But she's all right; I'd trust Astie in the crowd. I wondered where you'd been sizin' up with her?"
"I don't know what you mean," declared the minister.
"Aw, come on!" grinned the other, very amiably.
"Everybody has to love Astie. Some love her a little. Some love her a lot. Even the girls can't hate her. How d'you stand? Love her a little? Love her a lot?"
Ingram began to turn pink. Partly with embarrassment, and partly with anger.
"I have for Astrid," he said with deliberation, "a brotherly regard—"
"Hell!" said Vasa.
The word exploded from his thick lips. "What kind of drivel is this?" he demanded. At this, Ingram narrowed his eyes a little and sat a bit forward. More than one football stalwart who had seen that expression in the eyes of Ingram had winced in the old days. But the blacksmith endured this gaze with the calm of one who carries a gun and knows how to use it. Who carries two hundred and thirty pounds of muscle, also—and knows how to use it!
"Don't give me the chilly eye like that, kid," he continued. "I aim to find out where you stand with Astie. Will you talk?"
"Your daughter," said the minister, "is a very pleasant girl, and I presume that that closes this part of the conversation?"
He stood up. The blacksmith rose also.
"Well," said Vasa, glowering, "suppose we shake hands and part friends on it?"
"Certainly," said Ingram.
A vast, rather grimy paw closed over his hand, and suddenly he felt a pressure like the force of a powerful clamp, grinding the metacarpal bones together. But pulling a good oar on a powerful eight does not leave one with the grip of a child. The leaner, bonier fingers of Ingram curled into the plump grip of Vasa, secured a purchase, and began to gather strength.
Suddenly Vasa cursed and tore his hand away.
"Sit down again," he said suddenly, looking at his splotchy hand. "Sit down again. I didn't think you was as much of a man as this! It's what comes of layin' off work. I'm soft!"
The minister, breathing rather hard, sat down as invited. He waited, silently.
"You see, Ingram," said the blacksmith, "I've watched sis with the other boys, and I've watched her with you. She's always been getting a bit dizzy about some boy or other. But with you it's a little different; I guess she's hard hit. Now, that's the way I see it for her. How do I see it for you? And mind you, she'd take my head off if she thought that I was talking out of school."
Mr. Ingram looked at the wide blue sky—the sun dazzled him. He looked at the ground—it was withering in the heat. He looked at the fat face of the blacksmith, and two keen eyes sparkled back at him.
"I didn't think—" he began.
"Try again," said Vasa with a chuckle.
The blue eyes and the smile of Astrid flashed into the mind of the minister. Her smile was just a little crooked, leaving one cheek smooth, while a dimple came covertly in the other.
"I don't know," said Ingram; "as a matter of fact—"
"Only holding her hand?" said the blacksmith with a smile. "Well, Ingram, I ain't throwin' her at your head. I'm just telling you to watch yourself. It don't take more'n five minutes for a girl like that to make a strong man pretty dizzy. And if she ever gets the right chance to work on you, I know Astie! She'll hit you with everything she's got, from a smile to a tear. She'll either have you on your knees worshipping or else she'll have you comfortin' her. God knows what she would need comfort about! But that's the way she works. You understand? And one thing more—Red Moffet is wild about her. Red is the closest to a real man that's ever wanted to marry her. And he's got everything that her husband ought to have—money, grit, and sense. You've got sense. I guess you've got grit. But I know you ain't got money. Mind you, I'm just talkin' on the side. But, whichever way you're goin' to jump, you better make up your mind pretty quick. Because Red, if he don't hear something definite, is gunna lay for you with a gun one of these days!"
With this remark, Mr. Vasa arose.
"Girls are hell to raise," said he, confidentially. "Hell to have 'em and hell to lose 'em. Come on in, Ingram!"
"I'm busy at the church," said Ingram, rather stunned.
"Has this here yarning cut you up some?"
"No, certainly not. I thank you for being so frank. I didn't, as a matter of fact—"
"Maybe I shouldn't have told you. Well, it's out, now, and it'll bring matters to a head. Whichever way you jump, good luck to you!"
They shook hands again, more gingerly. And Ingram turned out the gate and went up the street, his head low, and many thoughts spinning in his mind, like the shadows of a wheel. It was, of course, ridiculous that an Ingram should think of marrying a silly little Western girl.
And still, she was not so silly. File off a few rough corners of speech—she would learn as quickly as a horse runs—and—
He came to the church and stood before it, hardly seeing its familiar outlines. He had received counsel. But, oddly enough, what he wanted to do now was to go back and see Astrid and find out, first of all, if she really cared for him.
Suppose that she did; and that he was not ready to tell her that he loved her? He made a sudden gesture, as though to put the whole idea away from his mind, and with resolute face and firm step, he went into the church.
A LITTLE chill went through Billman next day, for it was known that Red Moffet had discovered the name of at least one member of the posse that had hung Chuck Lane. Mr. Ingram heard the story from Astrid when she stayed a few moments after choir practice. It was a large choir, and though it was impossible to obtain enough male voices to match the sopranos, it was pleasant to hear the hymns shrilling sweetly from the throats of the girls.
Astrid stayed after practice and told the exciting tale. Mr. Red Moffet, by some bit of legerdemain, had secured the very rope with which Chuck Lane was hanged by the neck until dead. And, having secured that rope, Mr. Moffet had examined it with care and promptly recognized it. For, at the end, there was a queer little knot such as only a sailor would be likely to tie. And in Billman there was a cowpuncher and teamster who had been a sailor before the mast—one Ben Holman, a fellow of unsavory appearance. And worse reputation.
Red Moffet had, first of all, searched wildly through Billman to find the owner of that rope. But it was said that Mr. Holman heard that he was wanted and decided to look the other way. He slipped out from the village into the trackless desert. Mr. Moffet started in pursuit in the indicated direction, but straightway the desert became truly trackless, for a brisk wind rose, whipped the sands level, and effaced all signs.
Red Moffet came back to Billman, and the first place he went to was out to the cemetery, carrying the hangman's rope with him. He visited the most newly made grave and sat for a long time beside it. He himself had paid for the digging of that grave and for the headstone, which stood at one end of it, engraved in roughly chiseled letters:
Here lies Chuck Lane.
He was a good fellow
that never played in luck!
Men said that the inscription was Red's contribution also.
Whatever were the thoughts that passed through Moffet's mind as he sat there alone in the graveyard, Billman did not have the slightest hesitation in describing them as fluently as though Red had confided his ideas to the world in general.
"If you know what he was thinking, tell me," suggested the young minister to Astrid.
"Oh, of course. Red was swearing that he would never give up the trail until he had Ben Holman's scalp."
"Does he intend to murder that man for being one of the mob?" asked the minister.
"Murder?" echoed Astrid. "Well, it isn't murder when you stick by a pal, is it?"
"This pal, as you call him, is already dead. And though the means used were illegal, I must say that it seems to me young Lane was not worthy of much better treatment than he received."
At this, Astrid, who was sitting lightly on the back of a chair, swinging one leg to and fro, frowned.
"I don't follow that," said she, "You've got to stick by things, I suppose. Death doesn't matter, really."
"I wonder," broke in this irreverent girl, "what folks would say if they heard me call you Reginald, or Reggie, say!"
"Why do you laugh, Astrid?"
"Why, Reggie is really a sort of a flossy name, isn't it?"
"It never occurred to me," said that serious young man. "But to return to what you say—about death not mattering—"
"Between a man and his pal, I mean," said Astrid. "Why, you live after death, don't you?"
"Yes," said Ingram. "Of course."
"Then," said she triumphantly, "you see the point. Even after a pal is dead, you'd want to do for him just what you'd do if he were living. That's pretty simple, it seems to me!"
"My dear child!" exclaimed he. "What service is Red performing to Chuck Lane by chasing Ben Holman out of Billman and murdering him if he can?"
"Why, Reggie," said the girl, "how would you serve a friend, anyway? Suppose you're a friend of mine and you want music for your church. Well, I'd sing in your church, wouldn't I?" And she wrinkled her nose a little and smiled at him. "Or suppose that I was a friend and that you wanted a new wing built on the church, I'd build it for you if I could, wouldn't I? Same in everything. You served a friend by doing what he would do for himself if he could, but which he can't—"
"I don't exactly see how you relate this to Red's murderous pursuit of Holman."
"You don't? You're queer about some things, Reggie. Suppose that Chuck Lane could come back to earth, what would he want to do except turn loose and chase down the boys that strung him up? And first of all he'd want to get the fellow who loaned his rope to do the job. I think that's pretty clear!"
"Astrid, Astrid," said Ingram, "do you excuse a murder with a murder?"
"But it isn't murder, Reggie! Don't be silly! It's just revenge!"
"'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord!'"
"Oh!" said she. "Well, wait till the time comes, and I'll see how long you'd sit still and let a partner be downed by thugs or yeggs or something! You'd fight pretty quick, I guess!"
"No," said he. "Lift a hand against the life of a fellow? Astrid, we expressly are commanded to turn the other cheek!"
"Sure," said Astrid. "That's all right. But you can't let people walk over you, you know. Isn't good for 'em. Would make 'em bullies. You got to trip 'em up for their own sakes, don't you?"
"My dear Astrid, you are quite a little sophist!"
"And what does that mean?"
"A sophist is one who has a clever tongue and can make the worse way appear the better, or the better appear the worse."
She grew excited.
"Suppose, Reggie, that you were to stand right here—you see? And a gun in your hand—"
"I never carry a gun," said the minister mildly.
"Oh, bother! Just suppose! You're standing right here with a gun in your hand, and your beat friend is standing in the doorway of the church, and you see a greaser come sneaking in behind him with a knife—tell me, Reggie—would you let the greaser stick that knife into his back, or would you shoot the sneak—the low-down, yellow—"
"Such a thing could never happen here in the house of God," said Ingram.
"Oh, but just supposin'! Just supposin'! Can't you even do a little supposin', Reggie? You make me tired, sometimes! I pretty nearly believe that you haven't got any real pals! Tell me!"
"Pals?" He echoed the word very gravely. And then his face grew a bit stem with pain.
"Hold on!" cried Astrid. "I didn't mean to step on your toes like that. I see that you have got 'em, and—"
"No," said he. "There was a time when I had a good many friends. They were very dear to me, Astrid; but when I took up this new work, why, they drifted away from me. So many years—a very close life—books—study—a bit of devotion. No, I'm afraid that I haven't a single friend left to me!"
"That's terrible hard!" said the girl, sighing. "But I'll bet you have, though. Look here, it makes you feel pretty bad, doesn't it, I mean the thought of having lost 'em?"
"I trust that I have no regrets for the small sacrifices which I may have made in a great cause which is worthy of more than I could ever—"
"Stop!" cried Astrid. "Oh, stop, stop! When you get humble like that, I always want to either cry or beat you! I want to beat you just now! I say, you feel terrible bad because you've lost all those old friends. Then you can be sure that they feel bad to have lost you. So they still are your friends, and they would come jumping if you just gave them a chance! Tell me about them, Reggie."
He shook his head.
"It is a little sad," said he, "to think of all the men who've been—well, I think I prefer to let it drop."
"But I want to know. Look! I've told you everything about myself And I don't know a thing about you. That's not fair. But the whole point is, that any real man would go to hell and back for the sake of a friend. Now wouldn't he?"
The minister was silent.
Astrid went on, innocent of having given offense: "I'll tell you how it is, then, with Red. He and Chuck were old pals. Chuck's lynched. Well, Red wouldn't be a man worth dropping over a cliff if he wouldn't try to do something for his old partner. Isn't that clear and straight? I want to make you admit it."
"I can't admit that," said the minister slowly.
"By Jimminy!" said the girl, "I do believe that you've never really had a hundred-per-cent friend—the kind that they raise in this part of the country, I mean. A fellow who would ride five hundred miles for a look at you. Never write you a letter, most likely. But fight for you, die for you, swear by you, love you dead or livin', Reggie. That's the kind of a friend that I mean!"
The minister had bowed his head. He was silent; perhaps the torrent of words from that excited, small, round throat was bringing before his eyes all the men he had ever known.
"What are you seeing?" she asked suddenly.
"I'm seeing everything from the stubble field where the path ran to the swimming pool," said Ingram sadly, "to the empty lot behind the school where we used to have our fights; and the schoolrooms; and the men at college. Boys, I should say. They weren't men. They can't be men until they've learned how to endure pain!"
"Look here!" she snapped, "does a fellow have to suffer in order to be the right sort?"
"Would you trust something that looked like steel," asked he, "unless you knew it had been tempered by going through the fire?"
"Now you're getting a little highflown for me," said the girl. "It isn't only the men that have been your friends. But suppose I were to say that a girl you've known was in danger—the very one that you liked the most—suppose that she were standing there in the doorway, and a sneak of a Mexican was coming up behind—what would you do? Would you shoot?"
"No, I would simply call: 'Astrid, jump!'"
"I—" began Astrid.
Then the full meaning of this speech took her breath away and left her crimson. Ingram himself suddenly realized what he had said, and he stared at her in a sort of horror.
"Good gad!" said the Reverend Reginald Ingram, "what have I said!"
"You've made me all d-d-dizzy!" said Astrid.
"I—as a matter of fact, the words—er—were not thought out, Astrid!"
"Of course you didn't mean—" began Astrid.
"I hope you'll forgive me!" said Ingram.
"For what?" she said.
"For blurting out such a—"
"Such a what?" she persisted.
"You're making it hard for me to apologize."
"But I don't want you to apologize."
"My dear Astrid—"
"I wish you'd stop talking so far down to me!"
"I see you're offended and angry."
"I could be something else, if you'd let me," said she.
"I don't understand," said Ingram miserably. "I could be terribly happy, if you meant what you said."
He looked hopelessly about him. A daring blue jay had lighted on the sill of the open window. Its bright, satanic eyes seemed to be laughing at him.
"Don't," cried she and stamped her little foot.
"Don't what?" he asked, more embarrassed than ever.
"Don't look so stunned. I'm not going to propose to you."
"My dear child—the friendship which I feel—which—so beautiful—most extraordinary—fact is that—I don't seem to find words, Astrid."
"Talking is your business," said the girl. "You've got to find words."
"Do I?" asked Ingram, wiping his hot brow.
"You can't leave me floundering like this, unless it's because you have some sort of a doubt about me. I want to know. Tell me, Reggie!"
"What?" asked he, very desperate.
"You make me so angry—I could cry!"
"For Heaven's sake, don't! Not in the church, when—"
"Is that all you think about—your silly old church? Reginald Oliver Ingram!"
"Do I have to tell you that I love you?"
Mr. Ingram, sat down so suddenly and heavily that the chair creaked beneath his weight.
"Stand up!" ordered Astrid.
He stood up.
"You don't really care!" she cried.
"Astrid—I'm a bit upset."
"Are you sick?"
"I'm a bit groggy."
"Reggie, cross your heart and tell me—have you ever been in love?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"Never really been in love?"
"Are you a little giddy and foolish and—"
"You are in love!" said she.
"Do you think so?"
"Have you never proposed?"
"Never in your whole life—to any girl?"
"Then you'd better begin right now."
"Astrid, the thing is impossible!"
"To marry. You understand? I'm a minister. A poor man. Nothing but my salary—"
"Bother the silly salary! Do you want me?"
"More'n all the world?"
"More'n all your old friends—almost as much as your church and your work?"
"I think so," said he.
"You'd better sit down," suggested Astrid.
She took the chair beside him, and leaned her shining head against his shoulder.
"Heavens!" said Astrid.
"How terribly happy I am! Why, Reggie, you're all trembling!"
"Because I'm trying to keep from touching you."
"We sit here in the house of God and in His presence, Astrid."
"He would have to know some time," said she. "Gracious!"
"How hard you made me work!"
THE ideas of Astrid about the practical problems of the future were extremely simple and to the point. They could easily live on his salary. How? All she wanted would be some horses for riding, and a few Mexican servants—
"I have just enough," said he, "to support one person on the plainest of fare, with no servant at all."
"Oof!" said Astrid.
But after a little thought she arrived at another solution. She would simply tell her father that she needed enough money to marry on. And, of course, her father would give it to her.
"I couldn't marry you on another man's money," said Ingram.
"But he isn't another man. He's my father!"
For answer, Ingram raised her hand to his lips, and felt it quiver as he touched it.
"I can see," said Astrid, "that I'll never be able to call my soul my own in our house! You're going to be a bully, Reggie!"
"But what shall we do?" she asked.
"Work—and wait—and I'll hope," he began.
But she broke in: "Of course it'll be arranged. You could go up in the hills and discover a mine or two, the way that father did. Reggie, that's a glorious idea! Because I'd really like to be rich. Wouldn't you? You could build such a wonderful big church then!"
Ingram studied her, half in awe and half in amusement, for heedless child and wise woman blended so oddly and unexpectedly in her that he never knew just how to take her.
However, having suggested that he take a flying trip to the mountains to make himself rich, she next felt that it might be better if no word of their engagement were given out for the moment.
"Chiefly because of dad," said the girl. "The minute you showed up, he said that I would throw over Red and marry you if I could. The silly old thing!"
"Has Red a claim on you?" asked Ingram.
"Red? Not a bit!"
"But you spoke of throwing him over?"
"Oh, right after the rodeo, you know. When Red had the prize both for riding and roping. Well, just about that time I saw a good deal of him, and I said that I'd marry him, some day, maybe!"
"As a matter of fact, you were definitely engaged to him?" asked Ingram sternly.
She turned and stared at him.
"What terrible rows we're going to have!" said Astrid Vasa. "I hope we'll love each other enough to get through them safely. Sure—maybe you can say that I was engaged to him."
"But you said before that he didn't have a whit of claim on you!"
"Oh, Reggie, don't pin me down. It's not fair, is it? You'd never doubt that I love you, Reggie? What did any other man matter to me after I once saw you?"
"Did you break your engagement with him?" asked the minister, clinging grimly to the point.
"You're going to be mean, I see," sighed Astrid.
"Of course, it's broken to tiny bits!"
Her eyes were wide open, like the eyes of a child.
"Reggie—don't!" she begged.
"Then I'll go to tell him myself," said Ingram.
"No!" screamed Astrid.
"Don't go near him! He'd—he'd kill you, Reggie!"
"Would he murder me if I told him that you had become—"
"Don't even speak about it! It makes me see you lyin' dead! He told me he'd do it!"
"Told you that he'd do what?"
"He told me that he'd kill the other man, if I ever turned him down after once being engaged to him!"
"Did he actually tell you that—the ruffian?"
"Before he even proposed to me!" said Astrid.
"He told me to think things over. Because he was going to ask me to marry him. He knew that I'd been engaged to other boys. He said that he wasn't a boy, but a man. And that he didn't expect to fall in and out with the girl he hoped to marry. It was to be all of him or none of him. And he said that if I ever drifted away from him, he'd stop me by putting a bullet into the gent that I was drifting toward. You understand, Reggie? Don't go near him, because he's a terrible fighter!"
Ingram made no promise. He watched Astrid walk down the street from the church; and he heard her gay voice sing out to a friend as she passed.
It left him to grave reflections. Old Vasa's first suggestion had utterly stunned him; but this denouement, following so suddenly and unexpectedly, seemed to him most mysterious. It had been a matter of the moment. There was no reflection or planning.
Words had burst from his lips of their own accord. And now he had placed himself in the hands of a little bright-haired girl of the desert, the daughter of a rude blacksmith and a simple household drudge.
He thought of the people among whom he had moved in other years, and his heart failed him. But when he thought of Astrid, his courage returned. For he felt that there was the right stuff in her. She had the right ring, and only bell metal makes the bell.
As for Red Moffet, he did not give that gentleman a serious second thought. Ingram returned to his little office beside the church and sat there for an hour, casting up accounts, going over papers, and with a mighty effort forcing out of his mind every concern except that of the church which he served.
Boxing teaches one to concentrate in a crisis; so does football; and the minister felt grateful to both sports as he worked in his little private room, with only the ghost of Astrid floating somewhere in the back of his brain.
It was very hot. But he had compunctions about taking off his coat while he was in any part of the sacred edifice. In fact Mr. Ingram was hopelessly medieval in many respects. And he kept himself stiffly incased in the armor of outworn ceremony.
However, the robes in which an idea is clothed are often essential to it; remove a man's manners, and you are apt to remove the man; and very few think of their prayers before they are on their knees. The gesture provokes the word, the word provokes the idea, and the idea may finally lead again to an act. So the young minister in his office kept himself rigidly in hand and would have been the last to guess that he did not use the formalities, but that the formalities used him.
In the midst of his labors, a tap came at his office door. He opened it and found himself facing Mr. Red Moffet. A dark scowl was upon the face of that gentleman, and according to the classic advice, he struck at once into the middle of his tale.
"Ingram," said he, "Billman don't need you. Astrid don't need you. I don't need you. You better move on before sunset!"
And with that brief remark, he turned and walked away, leaving the minister to stare after him blankly.
He had already heard of such warnings. Men who disregarded them usually fought for their lives before the next morning came—or else they accepted the advice and moved on.
What was he to do?
He had done his share of hunting, he had worked with a revolver at a target in his time. But all of this was years ago and he was hideously out of practice, of course. Besides, he could not possibly use violent measures, even in self-defense. He could not imagine a more un-Christian proceeding.
What, then, was he to do?
He turned the thing backward and forward in his mind. Of course, he could not flee from the town. Of course, he could not ask for help from—from Vasa, say. But then, what remained to him to do?
He had felt that this was the very brightest and most joyous day in his entire life. But the brightness had been snatched away. No, not altogether! A thrill of happiness remained in his heart and never could be snatched away, save by her who had given it.
So, in a dark mood, indeed, he left his office and went back to his shack, where he paced up and down, wondering, probing a mind in which he knew he could find no suggestion of a solution for his difficulties. A great bitterness against Moffet swelled in his heart. For certainly it was unfair to attack one who was consecrated to peace and to peaceful ways. At another time—a few years before—when the clerical collar was not yet around his neck, he would not have been troubled by such a threat as he had received today. But those old days were gone, and his hands were tied!
But there was something of the ancient Roman in the minister. He had been placed at his post, and at his post he would stick, like those sentinels at Pompeii, who stood on guard until the ashes and the lava of Vesuvius buried them.
"Ah," said a voice at his door, "we still have our little yellow friend, eh? You've made him at home, Mr. Ingram, I see?"
He looked up and saw the black-robed Dominican before him. There was something so comfortable and reassuring in that brown, fat face, that Mr. Ingram fairly jumped from his chair to take the hand of the Mexican.
"Come in, Brother Pedrillo," said he. "Come in and sit down. I'm glad to see you!"
"Thank you," said the other, and settling himself in the largest chair he turned to the lizard and whistled a thin, small note. Then he laughed, as the little creature lifted its head and listened.
"Look!" said the friar. "You'd never think that he could move as fast as a whiplash, to see him now stiffened with the sun and a whistle, eh?"
Ingram made no comment. Small are the troubles of the man who can lose himself in the contemplation of a yellow lizard on a doorsill!
The friar turned back to him. "I thought I could possibly be of help," said he.
"Help?" asked Ingram, utterly at sea.
"Yes," said the Dominican. "I thought that I could help you pack."
IT brought Ingram bolt upright.
"What do you know?" he asked.
"Know?" said the other, as though surprised by such a question. "Oh, I know everything. I have to!"
"Will you tell me how?" asked Ingram.
"We Mexicans," said the friar, "are not like you Anglo-Saxons. Our tongues are connected directly with our hearts and our eyes. And so everything that we see or hear or feel must overflow in words—even the smallest things, you understand?"
"I don't see how that applies," murmured Ingram.
"Think a moment, and you'll see the point," replied the brown friar. "You don't know of the Mexicans in this town. You don't have to, because your work takes you to the Americans. But the Mexicans know you. For instance, some of them have been treated in your hospital—"
"It isn't mine," said Ingram. "I only suggested—"
"And planned, and begged and superintended, and collected the staff, and raised the money. Ah, we know, dear brother! All of those brown-skinned fellows who have been in the hospital have thanked the doctors, but they haven't forgotten you!"
Ingram stared. He had not foreseen such an eventuality when he planned the hospital.
"Those men are curious about you, of course," said the friar. "So they ask questions, they talk about you, and they find a few who can answer—a few of their own kind. The servants at the house of Senor Vasa—they are Mexicans, you understand? And though you have no Mexicans in your congregation, you have an old man to take care of the garden beside the church, and another to clean the place—well, they see! They have eyes and they know how to use them as quickly—as that lizard, say."
"Well, what do they tell you?" asked Ingram impatiently.
"They tell me," said the Dominican, "that you, also, have eyes, brother, and that you know well how to use them."
"That I don't understand," replied Ingram.
"Ah," said Pedrillo, "shall I be more open? The señorita is charming enough, surely. Can we not compliment you on—"
He paused, smiling.
"Oh, well," said Ingram. "There are no secrets in this town, I presume."
"Also," said the friar, "a voice carries far in the silence of the desert. So I heard that perhaps you would be in a certain hurry, today!"
"Will the whole town know what Moffet said to me?"
"The town? Perhaps. The brown part of the town will, to be sure! You need not doubt that!"
"Tell me. What would you do if you were in my place, Brother Pedrillo?"
"I would not hesitate. I would pack at once and leave town before the sun set. I would be a comfortable distance away before the sun set, as a matter of fact."
Ingram shook his head.
"You don't mean that," he said. "Having been assigned to a post, you wouldn't desert it!"
"That's a very harsh way of stating it," said the friar, "suppose that I had no care about myself, still I would go."
"Because it would seem to me very wrong to allow another man to commit a mortal sin in raising his hand against me. If you remain, Red Moffet must attack you. He has promised to do so. Nothing under heaven could keep him from fulfilling the obligation. That is the code by which he lives, of course. I understand it and, therefore, I should never place temptation in his way!"
"Run away from him?" asked. Ingram. "I couldn't do it!"
"Why?" asked the Dominican. "Is it because you think it's wrong, or because you're a bit concerned about public opinion?"
Ingram raised his head.
"Public opinion? No!"
"I am afraid that you mean yes," said Pedrillo.
"Well, perhaps I do. I don't want people to call me a coward!"
"Ah," said the other, "it's a hard time with you, I can see. To my more supple nature, the way would seem perfectly clear. But to you—no, that is different! I understand, however. Pride is a stubborn passion. And will it keep you erect in the face of this storm?"
"I trust that it will," said Ingram.
"Well—then tell me what I can do for you, brother?"
"Nothing," said Ingram. "What could you do?"
"A great many things. Suppose that I let a word fall to a few of my compatriots in this town?"
"What of that?"
"A great deal might come of it. For instance, a number of them might call on Mr. Moffet in the middle of the night and urge him out of the town—"
The minister's nostrils flared with a burst of wicked passion, which he controlled with a strong and instant effort.
He recalled the powerful form of Moffet, his long, mighty arms. A gun sagged at either hip in a well-worn holster, polished not by hand, but by use.
"If they went to Moffet like that," he said at last, "some of them might be killed."
The Dominican was silent.
"Some of them surely would be killed. Moffet would never go with them alive!"
"Perhaps not" said Pedrillo. "There is such a thing as duty which has nothing to do with pride, you see. Their duty would be to take him away so that he might be a danger to you no longer. His pride would force him to fight. What would come of it, who can tell? But much, for instance, may be done by a soft approach, and by the use of the rope. A rawhide lariat in the hands of one of my countrymen can be a knife, a club, or a tangling spider's web, strong enough to hold a struggling lion. Perhaps you had better let me send word to my friends!"
Ingram shook his head, more fiercely decided.
"This is my own fight," said he, "and I must see it through by myself. No other shall lift a hand on account of me!"
"You are familiar with guns, then?" asked the Dominican.
"I have been. But now I carry no weapons."
"Here," said the friar, "is a chance for me to serve you. I shall bring you a revolver—"
"No," said Ingram. "The Gospel tells me what I must do in a case such as this. Resist not evil!"
"Our Lord," said the Dominican, "taught us by parables and seldom spoke directly. But He knew that He was not speaking to angels, neither was He speaking to devils. He wished us to interpret Him as a human being, speaking to other human beings."
Suddenly Ingram smiled.
"If you had twenty tongues," said he, "you couldn't persuade me! Thank you for coming."
"I have failed then?"
"No, not failed. You have done what you could for me!"
"Then what will you do?"
"Pray," said Ingram.
"Pray for Moffet, also," said the friar. "Because he is in danger of a frightful crime! Ah, brother, you have come very close to happiness in this place, and now I fear you are coming even closer to sorrow!"
"I am in the hands of the Lord," said the minister, with a stern composure.
"And in the end," said the Dominican, "Perhaps He will reveal to you the right way."
He departed, wandering slowly from the door, pausing two or three times to turn back to his young friend as though there were still new arguments swelling up in his throat; but he seemed to decide that none of them would be of any avail, so stony had been the expression of Ingram.
After the friar had disappeared, Ingram looked across, the roofs of the houses, with the heat waves shimmering up from them like steam, to the broad and burning plain of the desert.
He was seeing another picture in his mind's eye—of the bug eaten by the beetle, the beetle eaten by the wren, and the wren destroyed by the hawk. He began to wonder vaguely what order was in this corner of the universe, and what topsy-turvy expression of the Divine Will was represented in it.
Then he turned from the doorway, flung himself on his blankets on the hard floor, and was presently asleep.
He wakened with a singing in his ears, for it had been very hot.
He staggered to the door. It was still breathless, no wind was stirring, and the ground and the houses poured out as from the mouths of ovens the heat which they had been drinking in all day. Twilight had thickened and the night was coming on rapidly, but a dim band of fire still circled the horizon as if with an ominous promise that, as the day had been, so would the morrow be also.
Ingram washed his face and hands. Supper was not thought of. He had been warned to leave the town that day before sunset, and the sun already had set!
Now what would happen?
He forced himself to go methodically about his business. He was conscious of a vast, craven desire to flee from the house and hide in some dark corner, but he fought back the impulse sternly. He lighted a lamp, trimmed the wick, saw that it was burning brightly and evenly, and then sat down with a book.
The print blurred and ran together. He could not make sense of the thing that lay before his eyes.
Then he mastered himself again, with such a vast effort that sweat not brought by heat poured down his forehead. The words cleared. He began to take in the author's meaning.
And then a voice called strongly from the street: "Ingram!"
He recognized it at once as the voice of Red Moffet. Yonder he stood in the dark of the public way. Perhaps others were gathered covertly to watch the tragedy.
The minister stepped into the doorway.
A lamp was burning at a window just across the street, and against that lamp he saw the silhouette of the horseman.
"I am here," said Ingram.
Then something whistled over his head. He was gripped by the powerful clutch of a slip noose, and jerked from his feet as Red Moffet began to ride down the street, dragging his victim through the thick dust behind him.
HE was half stifled when the dragging ceased; and suddenly he was trundled by skillful hands in a net of stout rope. He could not move hand or foot, and was brought by main force and tied to a sapling.
No one was near. Billman was lost in darkness. The town was at its evening meal, and Moffet had chosen the most convenient hour to work without interruption.
Deftly Moffet removed the minister's shirt.
He stepped back.
"I'm gunna give you a lesson that ought to last you a while, you skunk!" said Red Moffet. "If you was a man, I'd shoot daylight out of you. But bein' only a minister, I got to do this!"
And a riding quirt sang in his hand and branded the back of the minister with fire.
A dozen strokes, but not a sound from the victim.
"Fainted, eh?" grunted Moffet.
He lighted a match.
Blood was trickling down Ingram's white back. He walked around and by the light of the match Moffet stared into such eyes as he never before had seen in any human being.
He dropped the match with an oath.
Then he said in the darkness: "That'll teach you. But if I catch you in Billman tomorrow, I'll handle you worse'n this!"
And he rode away, the thick dust muffling the sound of his horse's hoofs.
Against that tree the minister leaned all night. Exhaustion overcame him; but the cutting ropes which bound him held up the weight of his body; and burning rages of shame and hate sustained him until, in the crisp chill of the desert morning, men found him there and cut him down.
He fell like a log, unconscious. They carried him back to his house and gave him a drink of whisky. One grim-faced cow-puncher said to him, half sneering and half in pity: "You better get out of town, Ingram, before Moffet does worse'n this to you!"
Ingram made no reply. His nerves were so completely shattered that he dared not open his lips for fear anything from a sob to a scream might come from them.
He lay trembling until the mid-morning.
Then he got up, stripped away his tattered clothes, and washed his swollen, wounded back. He remembered suddenly that it was Sunday morning, and that a sermon should be preached in half an hour.
So he walked to the church with a steady step and found not a soul there!
Not even the Mexican to ring the bell! He rang it himself, long and loudly, and then went back into the church and waited.
No one came. The little church through its open doors drank in some of the sultry heat of that bitter day, but no human being crossed its threshold until long after the sermon should have begun.
Ingram wondered if it was a sense of delicacy which held back the crowd of women who should have been there?
And then into the church walked no woman, but the tan, lumbering giant, Vasa. He came up to the minister and sat down beside him.
Pity and wonder were in Vasa's glance, but withering scorn predominated over them.
"I got a note from sis for you," said he, and tendered an envelope.
It was amazingly brief and to the point.
It merely said: "How could you lie down and let any man do that to you? I'm ashamed and I'm sick. Go away from Billman. No one will ever want to see your face here again!"
No signature even. The words were enough. And the splotches and smudges which covered the paper—well, they were a sign of tears of bitterest shame and disgust, no doubt. He folded the paper carefully and put it into his pocket.
"I'd better be going," said Vasa.
And he stood up. He added suddenly: "Darned if I ain't sorry, Ingram. I didn't think you were the sort that would let any—"
He stopped himself, turned upon his heel and was gone. Ingram closed the church and went home again.
Delicacy which had kept the women from the church that morning? There was no more delicacy in Billman and its people than there was in the birds and the insects of the desert around them. They were walled away from him now by the most profound contempt.
By the middle of the afternoon, he knew what he must do, and he walked down to the telegraph office. He met a hundred people on the way, but not a single pair of eyes. They turned away when they saw him coming. They slipped this way and that so that they might not have to encounter him. Only a pair of boys ran out of a gate and after him, laughing, yelling, calling out words suggested to them by the fiend that inhabits boys.
At the telegraph office he wrote a telegram:
MY USEFULNESS AT BILLMAN ENDED; SUGGEST THAT YOU SEND A NEW MAN AND AN OLD ONE FOR THIS POST; WILL WAIT TILL HIS ARRIVAL IF NECESSARY.
He signed that message and directed it to those who had dispatched him on this distant mission. Then he walked back down the street towards his shack once more.
He wanted to hurry, but he made himself walk with a deliberate step. He wanted to skulk around the backyards to get to his destination, but he checked himself and held on his way through the thick of men and women. More boys came out to mock at him. And he heard a mother sharply scold her offspring.
"Let the poor, good-for-nothin' creature alone, can't you, boys?"
That was for him!
He got to his shack again, and remembered suddenly for the second time that day that it was the Sabbath. So he took up his Bible and began to read, forcing his eyes to consider the words until a shadow fell through the doorway and across the floor to his feet.
It was the Dominican.
He came in and held out his hand. Ingram failed to see it.
Then Brother Pedrillo said: "I guessed at a good many things, brother. But this thing I didn't guess at. I thought that it would be simply a matter of guns. I didn't imagine that it could be anything worse!"
He added, after a moment: "Brother, I understand. The rest have not seen the truth. You hate them now. Afterward, you will remember that they are like children. Forgive them if you can. Not today. It would be too hard. But tomorrow."
This he said, and afterward withdrew as quietly as he had come, and went down the street with a fat man's waddling step.
In due time, he passed Vasa's house, and found the busy matron in the garden, snatching a moment from her housekeeping to improve the vegetables. He leaned on the picket fence to talk with her.
"And how's Astrid?"
"That girl's in bed," said Mrs. Vasa. "Pretty sick, too."
"Sick?" queried the friar. "What does the doctor say about it?"
"Oh it ain't a thing for doctors to know about. Doctors ain't much help sometimes, brother."
Pedrillo wandered on down the street. He passed the hotel, where he was hailed jovially by the idlers, and drinks of various kinds and sizes, were suggested. He refused them all, not that he was above having a glass of beer—or pulque as the case might be—but because he drank in a house, not in a saloon. And at the farther corner of the hotel he fairly ran into Red Moffet.
Red hailed him. The friar walked on in silence, and the tall cow-puncher instantly was at his side.
"Look here, Pedrillo. What's the matter? Didn't you see me?"
"I don't want to talk to you, Red," said the friar. "Because if I start talking, my temper may get the best of me."
"You mean Ingram, I suppose," said the big fellow.
"I mean Ingram."
"Well, what would you have me do? Use a gun on him instead?"
"May I tell you what I think, Red?"
"Fire away, old fellow. You can say whatever you please."
"Then I'll tell you what I firmly believe—that if a scruple didn't stand in his way, Ingram could thrash any two men in this town!"
"What kind of a joke is that?" asked Moffet.
"It's not a joke, but the coldest kind of hard fact."
"Why, brother, the man's yellow!"
"Don't tell me that, Red. He's simply keeping himself in hand. He won't fight on principle—not for the sake of his own hide. And just now, you are on the crest and he's in the trough. But I shouldn't be surprised if he turned the tables on you one of these days!"
"He'll have to make it quick," said Red. "The quitter has had enough. He's wired to be taken from the town."
"Has he done that?"
"Yep, he's hollered for help."
And Red grinned with malicious content.
"Very well," said the Dominican. "He's asking to be relieved because he thinks he no longer can do good here—after the way you disgraced him. But I'll tell you, Red, that this is going to be no short story for you. It is apt to be a very, very long one!"
He went on without further words, and with a very dark brow, leaving Red Moffet deep in thought behind him.
On across the creek to the poorer section of the town went the friar, until he found himself in the quarters of his compatriots. There the theme was the same as that which occupied the Americans in the more prosperous section of Billman.
And a lame fellow fresh from the hospital said to the Dominican: "Our friend, Senor Ingram, he is not much of a man, brother?"
"Who has told you that?" snapped Pedrillo.
"Look! He has been whipped like a dog!"
"Shall I tell you a thing, my friend?"
"It is a great secret, amigo."
"Then tell me, brother."
"This Señor Ingram is a quiet man. But also when the time comes, it will be seen that he is muy diablo."
There is no way to translate that phrase—muy diablo. It means "much devil" or "very devil". And then it has other meanings as well. One can say that a maverick is muy diablo. Also one may use the expression concerning a stick of dynamite. The peon listened to the friar and opened his eyes. Never for a moment did it occur to him to doubt.
"I shall keep the secret!" said he. "But when will Señor Ingram act?"
"That is with God and his conscience. He will act in good time!"
And he watched the peon hurry away. He knew that in half an hour the whole town would be apprised of the secret that Señor Ingram, the minister, in some mysterious way, was muy diablo. Brother Pedrillo was content.
RUMOR in Billman, as in all small Western towns, moved with the speed and the subtlety of a serpent. And so the tale rapidly went the rounds that Ingram, despite his fall at the hands of Red Moffet, was stronger than he seemed to be; that he was, in fact, muy diablo. He was biding his time. Before long, something would happen to reveal him to the people as he was in truth.
The cow-punchers, hearing the tale, shrugged their shoulders and were inclined to laugh. But afterward, they remembered and pondered the matter. There had been something in the unflinching manner with which big Ingram walked their streets the very day after his disgrace that gave them pause. They turned the matter in their minds and became more serious. The story came to the ears of Astrid Vasa and made her sit up suddenly in bed, her eyes shining.
Who could tell?
In five minutes she was dressed. In five minutes more she was on the street, hurrying to Ingram.
She found him in his shack, with a telegram in his hand, which told him that there was no possibility of replacing him at once in Billman, and that he would have to remain at his post for an indefinite period. In the meantime, he must write all details of what had happened.
When Astrid called, he came out into the sun and stood there with his head lowered and thrust forward a little, like a fighter prepared to receive a blow. She was abashed.
So she stood by the gate, guiltily hoping that no one would see her there.
"I only wanted to say, Reggie, that I wrote that note without thinking. I hope that I didn't hurt you—I mean—I thought—"
He lifted his eyes to her face. Astrid uttered a little cry.
"I should never have written it!" she pleaded. "I'm sorry. And I didn't know that you would—that you—"
And she added suddenly: "Won't you say something?"
No, not a word. She did not feel that his was the sulky silence of a child. Rather it was a considerate silence, as of a man who needs a quiet moment for thinking. But it was as though she were thrust away from him by a long arm. It was as though she never could have been near him.
Astrid began to regret, and to regret bitterly. Not that she knew just what was in the mind of Mr. Ingram, or what he was as a man—but that she felt he was something different from any other man who had ever been in Billman. And Astrid loved novelties!
"You won't forgive me!" moaned Astrid suddenly.
"Forgive you?" repeated the deep voice. "Oh, yes, I forgive you!"
No passion in it. No more than if he were reading the words out of a book, and somehow that was more to Astrid Vasa than the bitterest denunciation. She shrank away down the street and hurried to her home.
Her father was not there.
She rushed to his shop, and there she found him. The forge was sending up masses of smoke, for the fuel had just been freshened; smoke wreathed all the shadowy cave in which the forge flame was darting like a snake's tongue. In the midst stood Vasa, his shirt off, the top of his hairy chest and his wonderful arms, loaded down with muscles, exposed. He had donned a leather apron. In one hand he swayed a fourteen-pound sledge tentatively.
"Dad!" cried Astrid, "I want to speak to you!"
"Hey—you! Get out of here!" called her father fiercely.
She had walked into the grime and the heavy, impure air. And with the unceremonious wave of his arm her father sent her staggering back to the door.
She was furious, for no human being ever had treated her after this fashion. Not since she had first been called by her full name of Astrid.
She saw the two assistants bear the great beam of iron from the forge fire, each of them toiling with a pair of huge pincers. She saw the beam laid across the anvil. Then the sledge in the hands of her father began to sweep through the air in rapid circles, and at each stroke a thousand rays of liquid fire darted to every corner of the shop, lighting up all its cobwebbed angles and showing the smoke, thick as milk, which hovered against the beams of the roof.
The assistants winced under those showers of sparks and shrank away; the blows fell more rapidly. She heard her father bellowing orders, and saw the iron being turned, moved here and there on the anvil according to his directions. And then, half disgusted and half afraid, she saw that all this noise and smoke and fury was merely for the sake of putting a bend in that massive bit of iron, a right-angle bend, and also to round the iron about the angle point.
Then she saw her father seize the iron beam with one pincers and with one hand plunge it into the tempering tub. With one hand—that burden for two strong men!
There was a frightful hissing, as though a vast cauldron filled with rattlesnakes had been threatened with death. A billow of steam rolled out and all within the shop was lost in fog. At length, parting the mist before him with his hand, Vasa came toward Astrid and towered above her.
"Well, honey, what you want?"
She did not answer. She only stared.
"I was kind of rough, Astie, dear," said he. "Don't be mad with me!"
It was not his roughness that amazed her, but his sudden gentleness. And Astrid began to guess at vastly new thoughts, and vastly large ones. That bending of the iron in itself was not so important, perhaps. The iron would become a part of a stupid machine. But what was important was that a man with fire and hammer to aid him had turned that strong iron as though it had been wax, melted and molded it, and given it a new shape!
So thought Astrid. And she could understand the roughness with which her father had greeted her. For she had come between him and his work—that mystery of work! She had been nothing—merely an annoyance! She had felt, before this, that nothing so important as herself could come into the life of some chosen man. But now she guessed that the more worth while the man, the more his work would mean to him, and the less the winning of a woman. Would she, then, be pushed into the background? Was it right?
Right or wrong, with terrible suddenness the girl realized that she never could care truly for any man save for one capable of elevating his labor into a god in this fashion. Even if it were no more than the shaping of iron beams. Yes, even that work could be great and important if it were approached in the right manner. And it was this which gave a certain surety and significance to her father. He was all that she had ever thought him—gross, careless, slovenly—but also worthy of respect.
So thought Astrid, and accordingly she greeted her father as she never had greeted him before, with a touch of awe.
"Can you spare me a minute, dear dad?" she said.
"A minute?" he asked, amazed. "Sure, kid! Or an hour; now what you want? What's botherin' you? You look sort of upset!"
He took her by the elbows and lifted her to the top of a great packing case. She would have cried out, at another time, because his hands were smudging her dress. But now she merely smiled down at him, a rather uncertain, frightened smile.
"You tell your old dad!"
"You remember that note you took to Reggie Ingram?"
"Aye, I remember."
"I told him in that note—that I didn't have any more use for him!"
"Hello! That was kind of hard!"
"Dad, I'd got myself engaged to him before that."
"And then I threw him over."
"What else could you do? A gent that lets himself—"
He was silent.
"You tell me, then," he said at last.
"I want him back! Dad, you got to get him back for me!"
Mr. Vasa combed his hair with fingers covered with the black of iron.
"What am I gunna do, honey? Get down on my knees and beg him to marry you after all? Look here, I'll bring him to the house. You got to do the rest; but, sis, ain't you a little crazy to want to take a man that's been—"
"No!" cried she.
He was silent again. And she wondered that with all his force he should submit so easily to her desires. It was as though he felt that her intelligence was worth more than his in this affair.
"I can't talk to him!" said Astrid, with a sob. "I've just been to see him and tried, but he only looked at me and said nothing until I asked him to forgive me, and then he said that he would; but he's put me out of his life—and I can't stand it! I can't stand it, dad!"
"So? So?" murmured the big blacksmith.
He lifted her down to the ground and dried her eyes.
"I'm gunna do what I can," said he. "But, I dunno! It looks pretty bad. Though there's a yarn going around the town that after all he's not what we think—that this Ingram is muy diablo, sis. Have you heard that?"
She answered fiercely: "You wait and see! You wait and see!"
Vasa nodded, and she went slowly back home. It had been a day of wreckage and disaster to her old idea, and the new idea was not yet firmly established in her mind, so she felt weak, and frightfully uncertain. She only guessed that there were such forces loose in the world of men as she never before had dreamed of.
And then, at the door of her home, she met Red Moffet, who was grinning, and looking both shamefaced and proud of himself, like a child that expects to be praised.
She shrank from him.
"I've got a headache; I can't talk to you, Red," she told him truthfully enough. "I've got to be alone!"
And she walked straight past him.
Now Red was a man among men, and he was intelligent enough to prospect for gold-bearing ore, and find it and work it. But he did not understand the ways of women. Men usually are like that. The more brave and bold and successful they are in their own fields, the more obtuse, clumsy and inept they are with the women who enter their lives. Perhaps there never was a universal favorite with women who was not a bit effeminate, or something of a charlatan. One needs a dainty touch with women. A conversation with them is like a surgical operation upon nerves. The slightest slip of the hand or a cut a shade too deep and the result is total failure. The light-tongued jugglers of words—they are the successful ones.
But poor Red did not know this.
All that he was sure of was that he loved this girl, and that he felt he had eliminated from the competition his one dangerous rival. But instead of reaping the fruits of victory, he was received with open weariness and disgust.
So he followed her to the door and even touched her shoulder.
She whirled around at him, shrinking as if his touch were a contamination.
"I want to know," began Red, "what's happened to make you so very—"
"You bully!" she cried.
It staggered Red, and he fell back.
"Bully?" he said, amazed.
"You cowardly, great, hulking, worthless bully!" cried Astrid, following him.
He could not stand his ground. He retreated through the door, forgetting his hat.
She threw it after him.
"I hope I never see you again!" cried Astrid.
NOTHING offends us so much as the illogical. We do not demand a great deal from the world. But we wish for our logical rewards—and a little bit more. If a child has cut up your best hat in order to make an ash tray for you, you must not scold him, no matter how your heart is bleeding. He expects a bit of praise, and praise he must have. Or if you point out to him, with care, that he has been in most frightful error and really deserves a whipping, then he is mortified, ashamed, shrinks from you, and presently hates the entire world.
This was exactly the frame of mind of young Red Moffet. He had seen an Easterner, a tenderfoot, a minister, walk into Billman and promise to carry away the prettiest girl in the entire town. He had stopped that proceeding with the might of his good right arm, and now all glory, all reward was denied him!
He jammed his hat upon his head and set his teeth. He was, indeed, furious enough to have torn out the heart of his best friend and thrown it to the dogs.
He was known in Billman, was young Red Moffet. And when he was in such a humor, it would have been hard to hire a man to cross his way. But Fate, who insists on shuffling the cards and dealing the oddest hands, now drew the worst deuce in the pack and presented it to Red Moffet.
For Ben Holman had come back to town that day. He had been angered by the wrath of Red Moffet; and since he was only one third wild cat and two thirds sneak, he had vowed to himself that never would he cross the path of that dreadful destroyer of men. There had been sundry killings in the past of Ben Holman himself, but always he had shot or knifed from behind. That allowed him to take better aim and keep a cooler head. Whereas, when he stood confronting another puncher who wore a gun, he discovered at once that his heart was out of sorts.
But now the good news came to him that Red had put down the minister, for the reputed reason that the minister needed putting down if Red was to keep his girl, pretty Astrid Vasa. Ben Holman knew Astrid by sight and he felt that the man who had won her back would be so completely happy that he would forget all past enmities—even his hatred of those who had officiated at the killing of poor Chuck Lane.
At any rate, Ben was something of a gambler, the kind who always like short odds. And what odds could be shorter than these? He determined to return to Billman and try his luck in appeasing Mr. Red Moffet before a gun could be drawn on him.
These were the reasons which drew Ben back to the town. They were good reasons; they were well thought out; they were well founded. If he had come half an hour earlier, all would have been well.
But at this very worst of moments, as he turned the corner of the street, young Red Moffet came straight upon Holman, riding toward him and not twenty feet away.
There was no time for thinking. Holman screeched like a frightened cat and whipped out his gun with the desperation of any cornered wild thing. He actually got in the first shot, and it lifted the hat of Red Moffet and sent it sailing into the air. Red Moffet got in the second shot. And he did not miss. His bullet struck Ben Holman in the throat, tore his spinal column in two, and dropped him in a shapeless heap on the farther side of his horse. Then Red Moffet went out with his smoking gun and saw what he had done.
He felt no pangs of conscience. He was merely relieved, and sighed a little, as though he had got something out of his system. Then he straightened out his victim, put the latter's sombrero over his face, and hired half a dozen passing Mexicans to carry Ben to the burying grounds just outside the village.
Perhaps twenty men had been interred there under similar circumstances. Red Moffet had sent two there himself. But since he had always paid the price of the ground and the price of the burial, nothing had been said, and this time he expected not the slightest trouble.
He had simply done his duty by Chuck Lane—that thorough, good fellow—and having eased his conscience, what call was there for any further excitement about the matter?
But Fate, as has been said, is a tricky lady who loves to mix the cards and deal the unexpected. There was hardly a soul in Billman who cared whether Ben Holman lived or died. His reputation was not much more savory than the reputation of a coyote, or any other sneaking beast of prey. And every one knew that Red Moffet shot from in front, waited for the other man to fill his hand, and was, in addition, a hardworking and honest member of the community. However, it happened that Red had, in fact, turned this trick before. And there is nothing more annoying to an audience than to have an actor return to the stage to sing his song over again when there has been no applause to warrant an encore. Red's last shooting exploit was hardly three months old. And the news about Holman's death touched the nerves of Billman's citizens in a sensitive spot.
Killing in the cow-country is a diversion to be forgiven any man now and then. But it should never be allowed to become a mere habit.
It looked as though Red had formed the habit.
More than this, hardly twenty-four hours ago he had manhandled the minister. When you come to think of it, the said minister had done no harm. As a matter of fact, he had been a useful and quiet member of the community. Reputations die quickly in a mining town, as elsewhere. But Ingram had built that hospital very recently. And there were a number of convalescents around the town at that moment. They did not take kindly to the roughing of their benefactor. And now they listened somberly to this new tale of violence.
A Western town usually makes up its mind quickly. As a matter of fact, often it doesn't stop to make up its mind before it acts.
Now Dick Binney, the deputy sheriff, had no love for Red Moffet. But he knew Red and he knew Ben Holman and he no more thought of arresting the former for the killing of the latter than he would have thought of arresting a man for the killing of a prowling wolf on the streets of the town.
Eight tall, strong, brown-faced men strode into Dick's office and sat down in his chairs, on his desk, and in the window.
"Dick," they said, "we reckon that maybe you better put Red up where he'll be safe to cool off for a while. He's runnin' up the death rate near as bad as smallpox."
Dick Binney looked from one face to another, and after a few moments' thought he nodded.
"Boys," said he, lying cheerfully, "I was thinking the same thing."
He got up and left his office, and the big men followed him at a distance. The deputy came on Red Moffet, cheerfully chucking stones at a squirrel which was up a tree.
"Red," said he, "I hate to do this, but I got to ask you to come along with me."
While he spoke, he tapped Red lightly on the shoulder.
"Come along with you where?" asked Red savagely. "What you talkin' about, man?"
"To jail, for a rest." said the deputy sheriff.
"To jail?" said Red Moffet. "What's the funny idea?"
And he added vigorously: "For what?"
"For the killing of Ben Holman!"
"It's dirty work on your part," said Red Moffet in anger. "You know that Holman has been due to be bumped off for a long time, and the only thing that saved him was that nobody wanted to waste a bullet on an insect like him."
"Sure," agreed the deputy. "You never said nothin' truer. Matter of fact, Red, I ain't been no friend of yours, but I would never have arrested you for killin' Ben. Only, public opinion, it sort of demands this!"
"Public opinion can go hang," said Red.
"Sure," grinned Dick Binney. "But when there's eight public opinions wearing guns, all of 'em, it's sort of different, don't you guess?"
He hooked a thumb in the proper direction, and Red Moffet became aware of eight good men and true, in various careless attitudes. Red had a practiced eye, and with one glance he counted eleven revolvers and three rifles. Those were the weapons which were displayed for public notice. Undoubtedly there were others concealed.
"Well," agreed Moffet, "it looks like you got some reason in what you say. Maybe I'll come along with you!"
Down the street they went.
"This is gunna be talked about, Dick," said Red Moffet. "It's gunna be said that I'm no good, if I let myself be arrested without strikin' a blow."
Dick Binney, walking beside him, nodded in ready agreement.
"That's true," said he. "I hadn't thought about that." Red halted.
"I'm afraid," said he, "that I can't let you take me without shooting for the prize, old-timer."
"Hold on, Red," said the deputy sheriff, "if I was to kill you just now—hatin' your innards the way I do and me being sheriff—it would be all right. But if you was to kill me—well, you know how things go with a gent that kills a sheriff?"
Red Moffet nodded gravely.
"I know," said he. "You sure are playing the part of a white man to me today, Dick. If I didn't hate you for a low skunk, I'd figure you to be one of the best."
"I'll shoot your innards out, one of these days," said Binney, "but I ain't gunna take advantage of you now. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll put a hand on your shoulder. You knock it off. I'll make a pass at you with my fist and we'll close and grapple and start fighting as though we'd forgot all about our guns. Y'understand? The rest of the boys'll think that you're resisting arrest. They'll come runnin' up and you can afford to give up to eight armed men without losing no dignity."
"Sure," agreed Red Moffet. "Dick, I pretty near love you when I see what a wonderful head you got on your shoulders!"
With that, Dick clapped a hand upon the shoulder of his companion. The hand was promptly knocked off, and Mr. Binney made the promised pass at his companion with his fist. However, he did not merely fan the air. He had a hard and ready fist and he cracked it squarely along the side of Mr. Moffet's jaw. The hair rose on the crown of Red's head. "You hound dog!" he grunted.
And with that, he lifted a hearty uppercut from his toes to the chin of the deputy sheriff.
It was only by good luck that the deputy did not fall on his back. If he had done so, eight good men and true who were rushing down the street toward the fighters would have shot Red so full of holes that he would have looked in death like nothing but a colander. But by happy chance the deputy sheriff fell in and not out. He pitched into the arms of Red, who caught and held him, and they pretended to wrestle back and forth, the deputy sheriff groaning: "You hit me with a club, you sap!"
In the midst of this struggling, the rescue party arrived, and quantities of guns were shoved under Red's nose. He pushed his hands into the air with a reluctance which was only partly assumed.
"You seem to have the drop on me, boys," said Red. "What might you be wanting of me? A invitation to call, or something like that?"
"He ought to get what Chuck Lane got, the darned man-killer," said one harsh voice. "Resists arrest, and everything! Lucky that we were on deck!"
"Lucky nothing!" declared the deputy sheriff, who was able to walk without staggering at about this moment. "I was beating him to a pulp for my own pleasure before lockin' him up. Come along to the jail, Red, or I'll knock your block off!"
So, with a volunteer guard of honor, Red was escorted down the street and installed in the jail of which Billman was so proud. He was given the most comfortable quarters that the little building could afford, and Binney sat down outside his door and chatted with him, tenderly rubbing his jaw the while.
"When you get out of this, Red," said the deputy sheriff, "I'm gunna beat you to a fare-thee-well! But in the meantime, I'll try to make you comfortable here!"
IT is so unpleasant to dwell on the miseries which beset the mind of young Ingram, that we may skip to the moment when Vasa leaned against the post of his door, saying: "Hello, Ingram! Here I am back again. Am I welcome?"
There was an uncertain murmur from Ingram in reply.
"No," declared the unabashed giant, "I can see that I ain't, but still I ain't downhearted. I can't afford to be. But the fact is, old man, that you've cut up my girl a good deal. I've had to come along and try to make peace with you for her sake. What chance do you think I have?"
"Peace? With me?" asked the minister bitterly. "But of course, that's a jest. I am a man of peace, Mr. Vasa. I thought that I had proved that to the entire town!"
The blacksmith felt the bitterness in this speech. He could think of nothing better to say than: "Well, Ingram, folks are getting pretty sorry for what's happened. I suppose you know what they've done to Red Moffet just now?"
"I don't know," said the minister, turning pale at the mere sound of the man's name.
"They've locked him up in jail! For what he done to you—and for killing Ben Holman!"
"Did he kill a man?" asked the minister slowly.
"Shot him dead."
"However," said Ingram, "it was in fair fight, I presume?"
"What made you guess that?" asked the blacksmith.
"Because I thought that he was that kind of a man."
"As a matter of fact, you're right. It was a fair fight. And that Holman was a hound. But still we've stood for too much from Red. He's got to have a lesson. But I thought that I'd ramble up here and ask you about sis. Are you through with her for good and all, Ingram?"
The minister was silent.
"Think it over," suggested Vasa. "That girl is all fire and impulse. She's probably got ten ideas a minute, and nine out of the ten are wrong. Think it over, and let her know later on what you decide."
"Thank you," said Ingram.
Mr. Vasa felt very uncomfortable. He began to perspire freely, and finally he stood up and left. He hurried down the street as though to leave a sense of unpleasantness as far as possible in the rear.
Reginald Ingram was not cheered by this embassy.
He had fallen so far into the deeps of shame that he felt nothing could bring him back to self-respect. But now he began to torment himself in a new manner. Red Moffet was in jail. Was it his duty as a Christian to go to see his enemy?
The thought made him writhe. And in the midst of his writhings, Friar Pedrillo, appeared. He was filled with news and, in particular, he could detail all that had happened concerning the arrest of Moffet.
"The evil are punished," said the Dominican. "And now Red Moffet is crouching in jail in fear of his life."
"Do you think that they would hang him for what he has done?" asked Ingram, half sad and half curious.
"Not by process of law," replied the friar. "They can't convict him with a Billman jury for having killed Ben Holman, who was a known scoundrel. But there is another danger for poor Red."
"Yes, of course. There's the mob you know."
"I don't understand."
"You will, if you go downtown this evening. There's a whisper going about the town, and I think that after dark there will be a good many people grouping around the jail and planning to take Red out and hang him up!"
"Wait a moment!" cried Ingram. "I thought that Red Moffet was popular in this town?"
"Six days a week, he is," said the Dominican. "But on the seventh you may find his enemies in the saddle, and this seems to be the seventh day!"
With that, Brother Pedrillo left, and Ingram found himself plunged into a melancholy state in which he was lost for the remainder of the day.
But when the evening drew on, he knew what he must do. He must go to the jail and be near when the crisis came. Exactly what prompted him to go, he could not tell. He could not honestly say that he wished big Moffet well. And yet—
As he walked down the street, he told himself that he would, at any rate, try to do what he could for the prisoner, in case of mob violence. When he reached the vicinity of the jail, he found a swarm of people of all sorts and all ages. And every one of them had one topic on his lips—the name and the fate of Red Moffet, who was now waiting in the jail for his end.
The minister went through the crowd like a ghost; it seemed that no one had eye or ear for him. He was an impalpable presence, not worthy of being noticed.
It was a strange crowd, gathering in little knots here and there, talking in deep, grave voices. Now and again, Ingram heard some louder, more strident voice. When he listened, it was sure to be some one recalling some evil act on the part of Moffet, some episode in Red's past which had to do with guns and gore.
The minister went to the jail, where he found the door closed and locked. When he knocked, a subdued voice inside said: "It's the minister. It's Ingram."
"Let him in, then," said another voice.
The door was opened just enough for him to slip through and, as he did so, there was a rush from the street behind him. But the door was swung shut with a crash, before any one got to the spot.
Outside there were curses loud and long, and a beating on the door by men who demanded entrance at once.
Inside, Ingram found the deputy sheriff and two others, a pale-faced group, who looked gloomily at him.
"What you want here, Ingram?" asked Dick Binney. "Have you come to crow over Red Moffet?"
"No," said Ingram quietly. "But I'd like to talk to him, if I may."
"Go on straight down the aisle. You'll find him there!"
Down the aisle went Ingram, and behind the bars of a cell he saw, among the shadows, the form of a man, his face illumined faintly, now and then, by the red pulsation of light as he puffed at a cigarette.
"Moffet?" he asked.
"Yes. Who's that?"
"You've come over to see the finish of me, I suppose?"
"I've come over to pray for you, man," said Ingram.
"What on earth!" cried Red Moffet. "D'you think that I want prayers from a whining yellow mongrel of a sky pilot?"
Ingram lurched at the bars of the cell. He gripped them and hung close, breathing hard, a raging fury in his blood and brain. The man in the cell stepped closer to the bars, in turn.
"Why," he said, "it seems sort of irritatin', does it, when I call you by name?"
"God sustain me!" said Ingram. Then he added: "A mob fills the street, Moffet. When they rush this place, I don't think that the sheriff and his two companions will stand very long against them. And now that you have come to this desperate time, Moffet, I want to know in what way I can serve—"
"You lie!" said Red Moffet, "The fact is that you've come over to enjoy the killing of me!"
Ingram sighed. But in the little pause which followed, he asked himself seriously if the prisoner were not right. For what else had drawn him to the jail with such an irresistible force? Had he felt, really, that he could be of help to Moffet? Had he felt that he could control the crowd?
He said suddenly: "I hope that you're not right, Moffet. I hope that I've come here from a better motive."
"That's right," said Moffet. "Be honest; be honest, man, and shame the hypocritical devil that's in a good many of you sky pilots."
There was a wilder burst of noise outside, and the wave of sound crowded up around the walls of the jail. Those inside could make out the voice of a ringleader shouting; and then they heard Dick Binney defying the crowd and swearing that the prisoner would never be taken except at the cost of a dozen lives.
The minister heard Moffet groan bitterly: "Oh, God, for a gun and a chance to die fighting! Ingram! Ingram! Find me a gun, or a club! What's the matter with me, askin' a hound of a sky pilot for help!"
Ingram retreated to the farther side of the aisle, dizzy, his head whirling with many ideas. He was trembling from head to foot—as he had trembled in the old days when he waited for the signal which would send him trotting out upon the field with the team.
There was another roar and a wave of running feet, but this time it curled around the jail and there was a sudden crash against the back door.
"The back door, Binney! Dick! Dick! The back door!" shouted Moffet.
He rushed to the bars and shook them with his frenzy, but Binney was already running to the back of the jail, cursing. His two assistants had had enough. They were out of the fight before it began, and Binney had to face the crowd alone.
He was within a stride of the rear door when it was beaten in, and a swarm of men, leaping through the breach, bore him down and trampled him under foot. Up the aisle of the jail they poured, their terrible masked faces illumined by the swinging light of heavy lanterns which they carried.
Then Ingram leaped into their path.
He raised both hands before them, looking gigantic in the strange, moving light.
"Friends and brothers!" he called to them. "In the name of the Father of Mercy, I protest—"
"Get that yellow-livered fool out of the way!" called a voice, and half a dozen rude shoulders crashed against Ingram and beat him out of the path.
"A couple of you hold the sky pilot," ordered another voice. "Now, gimme those keys you got from Binney!"
IT was dreadful to Ingram to stand pinned against the opposite range of bars, held on either side by a stalwart fellow, while the leader of the mob jangled the keys and tried them rapidly in the lock.
"He's shakin' like a leaf," said one of Ingram's captors to the other.
"Sure," said the second man, "he looks real, but he ain't. He's a make-believe man. Stand fast, Ingram, or I'll bash you in the head, you big sap!"
Ingram stood still!
He heard a voice snarling at Moffet: "Now, Red, what d'you say about yourself? The shoe's on the other foot, ain't it?"
"I know you, 'Lefty'," said Red Moffet, his voice calm. "You never heard of a time when I was part of a mob at a lynching. I've fought fair all my life, and you know it, you swine!"
"Swine, am I?" said Lefty. "I'll have that out of your hide before you swing."
"Shut up!" barked the leader. "These keys don't fit. Hold on—by Heaven, I've got it!"
And the next moment the door to Red Moffet's cell swung open.
Then Reginald Oliver Ingram found his strength, as he had found it on other days when the whistle sounded the commencement of the game. The grip of those who held him slipped away from his muscles which had become like coiling serpents of steel. He thrust the men staggering back and sprang into the crowd.
A round half dozen had rushed into the little cell the instant the door was opened as the yell of the two guards rang out: "Look out for Ingram! He's running amuck!"
The others whirled, hardly knowing what to expect, and as they whirled, Ingram plunged through them. They seemed to him shadows rather than men. He had known how to rip through a line of trained and ready athletes. He went through these unprepared cow-punchers and miners as though they had been nothing. Reaching the cell, he slammed the door with such a crash that the spring lock snapped, and the bunch of keys fell violently to the floor.
A hand reached instantly for those keys—Ingram stamped on the wrist and was answered by a scream of pain.
At the same time a pair of arms closed heavily around his body.
It would not be fair of course, on a football field; but this was not a football field. Ingram snapped his fist home behind the ear of the assailant, and the arms which had pinned him relaxed. Others were coming at him, leaping, crowding one another so that their arms had no play; and, with his back to the cell door, which contained Moffet and his half dozen would-be lynchers, the minister stood at bay.
The nervous tension which had made him shake like a frightened child in the cold before the crisis, now enabled him to act with the speed of lightning. He struck not a single blind blow. He saw nothing but the point of the jaw, and into that charging rank he sent two blows that tore out the center of it.
Arms reached for him; a rifle whizzed past his head; but he brushed the reaching arms aside, and plucked the rifle from the hands which wielded it.
The men gave back before the sway of it with a yell of fear. Two or three lay crushed on the floor of the jail. He stepped over or on the bodies and struck savagely into the whirling mass of humanity.
The butt of the rifle struck flesh; there was a shriek of pain.
The rifle stock burst from its barrel as though it had been made of paper!
Then a gun spat fire in Ingram's face. He smote with the naked rifle barrel in the direction of that blinding flash of light, and there was a groan and a fall.
Panic seized the crowd in that narrow aisle. They had no room to use their numbers. Many of them had fallen before the onslaught of this inspired fighter. They shrank from him; he followed on their heels.
And suddenly they turned and fled, beating each other down, trampling on one another, turning and striking frantic blows at their assailant, who now seemed a giant. And half a dozen times a revolver bullet was fired at him, point-blank. Panic, however, made the hands shake that held the guns, and Ingram drove the crowd on before him, striking mercilessly with his terrible club and treading groaning men under foot as he went.
So the mob of rioters was vomited from the back door of the jail. As they swept out, two or three frightened fugitives, who had dragged themselves from the floor on which they lay stunned, staggered past Ingram and into the kindly dark.
Into that doorway Ingram stepped. He shook the broken rifle toward the mob which was swirling and pitching here and there like water.
Those behind wished to press forward, and those who had been in the jail dreaded more than death to get within the reach of that terrible churchman.
"You yelping dogs!" called Ingram in a voice of thunder. "The door of the jail is open here. Come when you're ready! Next time I'll meet you with bullets—and I'll shoot to kill. Do you hear?"
There was a yell of rage from the crowd. Half a dozen bullets sang about Ingram's ears. He laughed at the crowd, and strode back through the doorway.
On either side of the opening he placed a lantern, of which several had been dropped by the fleeing mob. Their light would bring into sharp relief any one who tried to pass through that doorway; and it would be strange indeed if that cowed host of lynchers dared to attempt the passage.
From the cell where the foremost members of the lynching party were held safe with Red Moffet there was now rising a wild appeal for help. The men called by name upon their companions, who remained in the darkness outside. They begged and pleaded for the opening of that door which they had unlocked with such glee.
Now from the floor near the rear of the jail, a man rose up and staggered toward Ingram. It was Dick Binney, with a smear of blood on one side of his face, where he had been struck by the butt of a heavy Colt. He had a gun in either hand, and his lips were twitching. Ingram felt that he never before had seen a man so ready for desperate needs.
"Ingram," he said, "God bless you for givin' me another chance at 'em! Oh, the scoundrels! I'm gunna make 'em pay for this! I'm gunna make 'em pay!"
There was a litter of weapons on the floor of the aisle, where five men lay, either unconscious or writhing in terrible pain.
The sheriff and Ingram gathered the fallen and placed them in a corner, while the sheriff's two assistants now again appeared and offered to guard the prisoners. Their proffer of help was accepted in scornful silence, and the sheriff went back to the main prize of the evening—the half dozen ringleaders who were cooped safely in Red Moffet's cell.
Then a strange thing happened.
For the six were well armed—armed to the teeth in fact—and yet they had not the slightest thought of resistance. They crowded against the bars and with piteous voices begged the sheriff to let them out. They promised, like repentant children, that they, would be good hereafter. They vowed to the deputy sheriff eternal gratitude.
Dick Binney, his face stiff with congealed blood, grinned sourly as he listened. Then he opened the door and permitted them to come out, one by one. At the cell door they were relieved of their weapons, and held in check by Reginald Ingram. They were before him like sheep before a shepherd. For the Reverend Reginald Ingram was a much altered man.
A random bullet had chipped his ear, and sprinkled him with streaks of blood. His coat had been torn from his back. One sleeve of his shirt was rent away, exposing a bare arm on which the iron muscles were piled and coiled. And perhaps his chief decoration was a great swelling—already blue-black—which closed one eye to a narrow, evil squint.
This terrible giant herded the prisoners along the bars, the bent barrel of the rifle, more terrible by far than any loaded gun, still in his hand. He spoke to the crestfallen men with a cheerful contempt. They would be held for attempted murder, and they would be treated as cowards should be treated. He ripped the masks from their faces, and called them by their names. And they shrank and trembled before him.
When the sheriff had emptied Red Moffet's cell, he locked up the recent aggressors, one by one, in adjoining cells. A miserable row they made! With them went three of the stunned men whom Ingram had trampled in the aisle. Two others of his victims were better suited for the hospital than the jail, and Binney's assistants cared for them in the office as well as they could.
Outside, the noise of the crowd had ceased with mysterious suddenness. When Binney cast a glance through the open rear door, half suspecting that his enemies might have massed covertly for a sudden thrust, there was not a soul in sight. Apparently, on reflection, the crowd had decided that there had been enough done that night—or enough attempted! They had remembered other employments. They had scattered swiftly and silently.
A cell door had clicked shut for the ninth time, and nine men were cursing or groaning behind bars, when a hand was clapped on the bare shoulder of the minister. He turned and confronted Red Moffet, whose face was transformed by a magnificent grin of triumph.
"Old-timer," said Red Moffet, "of all the good turns that was ever done for me, the best—"
He was silenced by a lionlike roar from the minister.
"Moffet, what are you doing out of your cell? Get back inside it!"
"Me?" said Moffet, blinking, and then he added: "Look here, Ingram, you've been playin' dog to a lot of sheep, but that don't mean that you can—"
"Get back in that cell, you—you puppy!" ordered Ingram.
"I'll see you there first!" began Red Moffet.
Feeling that words were not apt to have much effect upon this bloodstained, ragged monster, Red followed his speech with a long, driving, overhand right which was aimed full at the point of Ingram's jaw.
It was an honest, whole-hearted punch, famous in many a town and cow camp throughout the Western range. It was sure death, sudden darkness, and a long sleep when it landed. But this time it somehow failed to land. The minister's head dropped a little to one side, and Moffet's thick arm drove over his shoulder; then, while Red rushed on into a clinch, Ingram swung his right fist up from his knee, swung it up, and rose on his toes with the sway of it, and put the full leverage of his straightening back into the blow.
It struck Red Moffet just beneath the chin and caused his feet to leave the floor and the back of his head to fall heavily between his shoulder blades. When his feet came down again, there was no strength in his knees to support his weight. A curtain of darkness had fallen over his brain. He dropped headlong into the arms of Ingram.
Those arms picked him up and carried him into his cell, laid him carefully on his cot, and folded his arms upon his chest.
"You didn't kill him, Ingram?" asked the overawed sheriff, peering through the bars as Ingram came out of the cell and slammed the door.
"No," said Ingram. "He'll be all right in a few minutes. And," he added, looking around him, "I hope that everything will be quiet here now, Binney?"
"Partner," grinned Dick Binney, "nobody could start trouble in this town for a month—after what you've done tonight! And—suppose we shake hands on things in general?"
They shook hands on things in general.
IT would be impossible to describe all that passed through the mind of the Reverend Reginald Ingram when he released the hand of the deputy sheriff. For, with a shock, he was recalled to himself. And he realized that, no matter how else his conduct might be described, it certainly had been most unministerial!
He did not have time to reflect upon the matter in any detail, nor to decide how he could reconcile what his fists had done with certain prescriptions in the Gospels. For now there was a violent interruption on his train of thought. Horses were heard galloping up the street. They stopped near the jail.
"It's more trouble! Stand by me, Ingram!" cried the deputy sheriff, picking up a repeating rifle. "If they try to rush that door open, I'm going to blow a few of them sky high! These are some of the friends of the boys in the cells, yonder! Ingram, will you stand by me?"
"I will," said the minister. And, automatically, he reached for a weapon from the sheriffs stock. It was a great, ponderous, old-fashioned, double-barreled shotgun, loaded with buckshot, adequate to blow a whole column of charging men back through yonder doorway.
Voices were heard calling, crying back and forth. Then into the bright lantern light which flooded the doorway, a figure sprang. Ingram tilted his weapon—
"No!" cried the deputy sheriff.
And he struck up the muzzles of the shotgun just as the triggers were pulled, and a double charge blasted its way through the flimsy roofing and on toward the stars.
"It's a woman!" called Dick Binney.
Aye, it was a woman who ran toward them now, crying: "Dick Binney! Dick Binney! Where's Reggie Ingram? What've you done with him?"
Astrid was as unconcerned as though a popgun had been fired at her. Behind, charging through the doorway, came Vasa and a few of his neighbors to protect the girl. She disregarded them utterly. She found Dick Binney and caught hold of his rifle.
"Dick!—Dick! You've let the brutes murder Reggie, and I'll—"
"Hey, quit it, will you?" exclaimed Dick Binney, striving vainly to free his gun—for he was not quite sure of the intentions of the cavalcade which clattered up the aisle of the jail. "I didn't touch Reggie, as you call him. Here he is to speak for himself."
The girl looked across at the tattered giant; and at the second glance she was able to recognize him.
"Reggie!" she screamed.
And all at once Ingram was enveloped—subdued—dragged forward beneath the light—kissed—wept over—exclaimed about—it would be impossible to express all the storm of joy and grief and fury which burst from Astrid Vasa.
It appeared that the large minister was an innocent darling, and all other men were beasts and wolves; and it further appeared that he was a blessed lamb, and that his Astrid loved him more than heaven and earth joined together; moreover, the man who had made his eye so black was simply hateful, and she would never speak to that man again—
"But, oh, Reggie," she breathed at last, "didn't you just have a gorgeous, glorious, ripping, everlasting good time out of it?"
He hesitated. He blinked. The question touched exactly the center of his odd reflections.
"Yes," he said faintly and sadly "I'm afraid that that is exactly what I have been having. And," he added, "I'm frightfully depressed, Astrid. I've disgraced myself and my profession and my—"
The rest of the sentence was lost. Astrid was hugging him with the vehement delight of a child.
She dragged him forth. She pointed with pride to his tatters and to his wounds.
"Look!" cried she. "Look at him! And he's ashamed! Oh, was there ever such a wonderful, silly, dear, foolish, good-for-nothing in the world?"
They got Ingram out of the jail.
The town was up by the time they reached the street. It had not been very safe to venture abroad during the period when the would-be lynching party had possession of the streets, but now it was perfectly safe, and, therefore, all hands had turned out and were raising a great commotion. And in the forefront, nearest to the jail, were the families of sundry gentlemen who, it was rumored, were now fast confined within its walls. And Heaven knew what would become of them when the law had had its way!
Ingram appeared, disfigured, vastly unministerial, with Astrid Vasa at his side, and a small corps of men, heavily armed, walking behind the couple.
The crowd gave way.
"Brother Pedrillo was right, after all," said a bystander. This feller sure is muy diablo."
"Muy diablo!" murmured Astrid, looking fondly up at her hero. "Do you hear what they're saying about you?"
"Ah, my dear," said the battered hero. "I hear it, and I'm afraid it shows me that I have done my last work for the church."
"Bah!" said Astrid. "You can do better work now than you've ever done before. You can build hospitals over the whole face of the country, if you have a mind to. By Jiminy, I'll make dad give you the money for another one right away, if you'll have it!"
The minister made no reply.
He was too busy thinking of various widely disjointed phases of this business, and most of all he was wondering what sort of report would go back to the reverend council which had dispatched him to this far minion in the West?
He said good night to Astrid at her house, and went on up the street toward his own little shack. And as he came the crowd—which was returning from the region of the jail, where they had been picking up the detailed story of the fight—gave way around him, and let him have a clean pathway. He had been downtrodden, cheaper than dirt in their eyes. He was something else, now. He moved among them like a Norse god, a figure only dimly conceived in the midst of winter storm and mist. So Reginald Oliver Ingram walked down the main street of Billman and entered his shack.
As he entered, the strong odor of cigar smoke rolled out toward him. He lighted the lantern, and saw Brother Pedrillo seated in his one comfortable chair, smiling broadly at him.
"These cigars of yours," said Brother Pedrillo, "are very good. And I thought that, after all, you probably owed me one, being muy diablo, as it appears you are!"
There was a change in the church affairs of Billman. Indeed, for the first time in the history of the town, the activities of the church had to do with something more than weddings and funerals. Men who were a little past the first flush of wild youth formed the habit of drifting into the church on Sundays. Because, for one thing, all the other best men in the community were fairly sure to be there. They came for the sake of talking business after the church session had ended.
But then they began to grow a little more enthusiastic about the church itself. The manner of the young minister was not that of one speaking from a cloud. He spoke calmly and earnestly about such matters of the heart and soul as interest all men, and with such a conversational air that sometimes his rhetorical questions actually drew forth answers from his congregation. No one could ever have called it an intense congregation, or one that took its religion with a poisonous seriousness. But, before the winter came, it was a congregation which supported two schools and a hospital. It acquired a mayor and a legal system that worked as smoothly as the system in any Eastern city. And it was noted with a good deal of interest that in the political campaigns there was one speaker who was always upon the winning side, and he was none other than the gentleman of the clerical collar—young Reginald Oliver Ingram.
"How come?" asked a stranger from Nevada. "Might it be because he's got such a pretty wife, maybe, that he's got such a powerful lot of influence with people?"
"I'll tell you the real reason of it," replied a townsman, drawing the Nevada man aside. "You take another look. Now, what d'you see?"
"I see a big sap of a sky pilot."
"Stranger, I'm an old man. But don't speak like that to one of the younger boys of the town, or they'll knock your head off. I'll tell you the real reason why Ingram runs this town. It ain't just because he's a parson. It's because he's muy diablo, and we all know it!"