BEFORE narrating the strange events that befell Barry Home, the best thing is to get pretty close to the man, because he was a good many jumps from any young girl's ideal of youth and beauty. As for looks, he was about the romantic height of six feet, but his weight was not a pound over a hundred and sixty. He was not small boned, either. There was plenty of substance to his wrists and feet and shoulder bones, but the muscle was laid sparingly on top of this frame. It was tough stuff, very enduring and surprisingly strong. He was not a very powerful man, but, like a desert wolf, though he looked all skin and bones, he could run all day and fight all night. His legs, there is no doubt, curved out more than a shade. That curve helped to lock him in place on any horse, large or small. But it was not beautiful, and neither was the distinct stoop of his shoulders that threw his neck forward at an awkward angle and made his chin jut out.
These curves and angles made a slouchy man out of Barry Home, and his clothes were not worn with any attempt to rectify that impression. At the moment when important events began to happen to him, he was dressed in common or garden overalls that were rubbed white along the seams and that bagged enormously at the knee. He had on a flannel shirt of uncertain color, and a badly knotted bandanna was at his neck. Because it was cold, he was wearing a coat, too. It was the sort of coat that seems never to have been a part of a suit, but, coming singly into the world, it had simply been a coat from the beginning. There was a great oil spot on the right shoulder. The left elbow was patched with a large, triangular section of blue jeans, and this patch had not been sewed on well, therefore, the cloth of the sleeve was pulled quite awry.
Sagging well below the bottom of the coat appeared the gun belt, so loose that it appeared about to drop over the narrow hips of this man. And far down on the right thigh there was the holster with the flap buttoned over the handles of the gun. To look at that arrangement, one would have said that the gun was worn for the purpose of shooting snakes and vermin, rather than to rough it with other men. And that, in fact, was the case. It was a hard-working gun, part of the proper equipment of a hard-working man. When he was in town, he thought a revolver was a burden and a bore. But when he was on the range, he would have felt rather naked and indecent if he had not had the familiar lump and bump hanging down from his right hip.
Another conclusion about the dress of Barry Home would have been that he was absolutely free from vanity. But, when one came to the boots, there the opinion stuck and changed, for they were the finest quality of leather and made to order so that they fitted as gloves should fit, and shoes so seldom do. But more amazing than the boots were the spurs, which were actually plated with heavy gold—gold spurs to stick into the hairy sides of bronchos on the range.
Perhaps that set Barry Home a little apart from the others? Perhaps it was that. It was certainly not his superiority in the matter of personal habits.
Your ordinary cowhand will sweat and get dust down the neck for six days or so. When the seventh comes, he lugubriously begs a small quantity of boiling water from the cook and pours it into a galvanized iron washtub, adding not very much more cool water. Then, he peels off his clothes, takes a scrubbing brush, and gingerly enters the bath with a chunk of laundry soap. He looks, then, like a cross between a starved crow and a restored statue, the original bronze being cut off at the nape of the neck and the wrists, and the torso being restored in shockingly bad taste to the purest white marble.
This bathing is not a pleasant ceremony, and the boys do not like it. Generally they get through it once a week. But sometimes they do not. This is a sad thing, but the truth must out. You who have a steam-heated bathroom at your convenience—how many baths would you take in a bunkhouse refrigerated by hurricanes at twenty below zero?
Well, Barry Home was not one whit better than the average. In addition, he had other unclean habits. For instance, the paper tag of a package of high-grade tobacco was generally hanging out of the breast pocket of his shirt and the soiled yellow strings of the little sack, as well. He was always rolling a smoke, and letting dribblings of the golden dust fall into the wrinkles of his coat and the pockets. He had a way, too, of removing a cigarette from his mouth and sticking the butt of it on the first convenient surface, he hardly cared where.
On winter evenings, Barry Home was fond of smoking a pipe in the bunkhouse. His pipe was black. The forward lip of it had been pounded to a decided bevel in knocking out the ashes. In the back of the pipe there was a deep crack, and Barry Home kept the old pipe from falling to pieces by twisting around it a bit of small-sized baling wire which often grew hot enough to burn through even his thick hide. Every winter Barry Home decided that he would have to give up that battered excuse for a pipe and get a new one. But when he remembered how a new pipe parched the throat and scorched the tongue, he always weakened. Besides, the old pipe was endeared by the many lies he had told around the stem of it, breathing forth clouds of smoke and sulphurous untruths.
For he was a great liar—on winter evenings. In fact, he preferred always the most roundabout way of getting at a thing. The truth was to Barry Home like a glaring, noonday sun, and he preferred the mysterious half-tones, the twilight glories, and profundities of the imagination.
To continue the list of his bad habits, it must be admitted that he chewed tobacco, though this was strictly a summer vice. He had an idea that a quid of tobacco stowed in one cheek keeps the throat moist in the most acrid August weather. He even believed that if one stowed the quid far back in the pouch of the cheek, and took a drink of water from a canteen, the water so flavored had tonic properties.
So, from time to time, he would buy for himself a long plug of good chewing tobacco, each cut of which was ornamented with a tin star stamped into the hard leaf. This tobacco was sweetly flavored with molasses, and it was kept neither in a pouch nor in a metal case, but simply in a hip pocket, so that it was generally much battered against the cantle of the saddle and was compressed on the rims.
To continue the discussion of Barry Home along equally personal lines, his talents were such as one often finds on the range. In no respect were they exceptional. For instance, with guns he had much acquaintance, but he was by no means a great expert. His rifles had killed for him a good many deer and one grizzly bear. He was very fond of talking about that bear, and the story grew more extended and the action of it was more dangerous with the passage of every year.
But he was not a dead shot. He could not bring down the body of a running deer, blurred with speed, as it shot through the brush four or five hundred yards away. He had heard of a good many men who could do that trick every time, but he never had seen the trick done, and he never had met a man who personally claimed that he could do it.
With a revolver he also could hit a mark, if it were not too far away, and if it obligingly stood still. He did not fan the hammer. It is true that he stuck to the old-fashioned, single-action gun, and he was quite skillful in cocking the hammer with his thumb, but the trigger was not a hairtrigger, and neither was it filed away. In common with many other fellows, his peers, he had had plenty of fights, but they had all been with fists. He never had pulled knife or gun on any man. If he had to do such a thing, he would play slow and sure, trying to get close to his mark, and settle the affair with one well-placed slug of lead. But he did not relish the thought of gun fights. The idea of them frightened him.
He was a good rider, as a matter of course. But he was not a flash, fit to win the blue ribbon and the highest prize at a rodeo, where professional horsebreakers exhibited their uncanny skill. He had broken a great many tough, bad mustangs, but he did not do it from choice. When he selected his riding string, he sacrificed a good deal both of beauty and speed for the sake of the large, quiet eye that is apt to bespeak horse sense and good nature. Even so, every year he would be bucked off, three or four times, and he hated that. Whenever he felt a horse arching its back under the saddle, he grew a little cold and sick in the pit of his stomach. He would shout loudly and jerk on the reins to distract the mind of the pony. And he was almost devoutly thankful when such an ordeal ended with his feet still securely in the stirrups.
With a rope he could do the ordinary work, but he had no fancy tricks up his sleeve, and never, never did he uncoil a rope except when the season required work of that sort. Personally, he preferred the light, forty-foot, Texas rope, for he had learned with that kind. Now he was much farther north. He had to swing sixty feet of heavy lariat. That was necessary because the cattle were much bigger—a Texas pony would hardly hold these huge steers, and the bigger, clumsier horses one found on the northern range could not maneuver as close to the target as could the Southern mustangs, quickfooted cats that they are. One needed that sixty-foot length of rope. Sometimes one wished for the strength of arm and the dexterity to throw one of a hundred feet.
In conclusion, one must add, among the talents of Barry Home, that he was a first-rate cowman; that he generally held his jobs for a long stretch at a time; and that he was quite generally liked and respected. He was a veteran and had campaigned in this frontier cattle war for fourteen years. He was referred to as an old-timer—he was called Old Man Barry Home. He was, in fact, of advanced years, having numbered thirty-two of them, all told.
He was a fellow of some education and could talk book English well, but ordinarily he spoke a vile lingo of the range. If he could understand the other fellow and make himself understood at the same time, he was contented.
This Barry Home, here truthfully portrayed, was nevertheless the central figure in the remarkable events which are about to be described. And I dare say that even in daydreams, he never imagined himself accomplishing such things as now fell to his lot. Perhaps a shrewd judge of character might have expected a good deal from him, once the blue, steady fire began to burn in his eyes and the long, lean jaw to set.
IT was Doc Grace who started the ball rolling. He was misnamed. He was not a doctor, and there was no grace about him. He was a work-dodging, shiftless, lazy scalawag, and he did not confine his lying to winter evenings. He loved all excitement for which he did not have to work. His chief delight was to start trouble and then stand by and watch it roll downhill, growing bigger and bigger, involving many people in its fall. This was his idea of a rip-roaring good time.
On the morning when this narrative begins, the cook had just shouted: "Turn out, you lazy bums! Turn out! Come and get it! Come and get it!"
Hardly any other cry, not even that of "Indians!" could have roused those 'punchers from their blankets under their deep tarpaulins. But now they struggled to sitting postures and, grunting, cursing, pulled at their boots. Many an aching one of them would hardly have cared if the drizzly rain had been a mist of dreadful fire falling from heaven, except that they had been through just such times before.
There was the flare of the big fire, that the cook had freshened when his cookery was ended. That heat and blaze of light called to them as to so many moths. They dressed, they rose, staggering, uncertain, and felt their way toward the war path. There they stood shuddering, heads bowed, coats shrugged high about the shoulders.
It was supposed that spring was beginning, but, though it was time for the dawn to begin, the sky was only lighted enough to reveal its darkness. For vast clouds poured across the zenith and let down shadowy arms that struck the earth as rain, or flickerings of pale snow, or sudden beatings of hail that danced for a moment on the ground.
No wonder those 'punchers were a gloomy lot. But they were young, and they were tough. Presently food began to cheer them. It was substantial food. This breakfast was exactly what lunch would be, and lunch was the twin brother of supper. Namely, there was beefsteak, boiled potatoes in their jackets, vast hunks of cornbread, and a swimming of molasses for dessert, and black coffee. The beefsteak was cut thin and fried gray. It dripped with grease. The potatoes had raw streaks in them, and many were frostbitten yellow. The cornbread was heavy as mud. The molasses was of the cheapest and the sharpest sort. The coffee would peel the tongues of ordinary people like you and me. But there was plenty of everything. These men had to have fuel if they were to keep up steam for fourteen or fifteen hours of hard riding. Therefore, the cook stood by the cauldron of potatoes and the big pan that was heaped with slabs of steak, and anyone who came within reach was sure to receive another width of steak, pitchforked onto his plate whether he wanted it or not. The potatoes were there for the taking, and coffee for the dipping. Not a one of the men complained of the quality of the food. In fact, it was felt that this camp fed well.
Of all the crowd, only Barry Home shuddered, suddenly, with more than cold. He took one chunk of the soggy cornbread and one cup of the bitter black coffee. The stuff flowed like a rapid poison through the veins of Barry. His heart fluttered, and climbed into his throat. He threw the unfinished part of his coffee into the ashes of the fire, and the ashes hissed.
The cook marked that act. He was more like a butcher than a chef, this big-barreled, wide-shouldered man, and though he was generally good natured enough, like all cooks he sometimes flew into a passion. He flew into one now: "Hey, you, Barry Home," he shouted. "Whacha mean by wasting good coffee? I gotta mind to put you on bread and water a coupla days!"
Barry Home looked back at him with a sardonic smile and answered nothing. One does not talk back to a camp cook. For the whole camp has to suffer if one man throws the cook into a fit of bad temper. If there is any unwritten law of the range, it is that a cook must be respected. No prima donna is more spoiled, flattered, and coaxed than is the cook of a range outfit.
Barry Home turned his back on the big fellow, his great shoulders and his scarred face, and spread his hands toward the fire.
It was then that Doc Grace dropped the spark into the powder magazine. Doc was squatting nearby the stand of Barry Home. He had a nearly finished plate of potatoes and beefsteak on his knee. His coffee cup stood on the muddy ground beside him. His hat was pushed back on his head, so that his stiffly twisting forelock was liberated and stood up. Above the round, fat face of Doc Grace, his pudgy nose and his pale eyes, that forelock stood up like a hand, to warn people that the evil one sometimes took up his residence in the cowpuncher.
Now Doc Grace rose suddenly to his feet, leaned, and stared at the hands of Barry Home.
"Great, sufferin' Scott," he murmured, and squatted again.
"Not clean enough to suit you, Doc?" asked Barry Home, in an ominous tone.
If there was a gay demon in Doc Grace, there was a growling, snarling, black-browed one in Barry. He did not turn his head as he spoke, but the sound of his voice alone was enough to make other 'punchers, nearby, take note and look curiously from one of the pair to the other.
They were generally companions in mischief, bedeviling some one or other of the men. It was a pleasant thing to most of them to hear this ghost of discord rising between the two. "Clean enough?" said Doc Grace. "They're clean enough, all right. I wasn't thinking about that."
"No?" asked the gloomy Barry Home. "Don't start thinking, Doc. It's not your long suit. Do anything else rather than start thinking. It makes me pretty blue when you begin to think, Doc. It takes you a long time to recover—it's worse than a morning after, for you."
"All right, Barry," said Doc Grace gently. "That's all right. I don't mind what you say. It just gave me a sort of a start to see..." He stopped himself short.
"To see what?" asked Barry Home, surprised by the mild tone of his friend.
"I mean, in your hands, to see the sign of...oh, nothing." He paused again, as though embarrassed. And that seeming should have been enough to warn Barry Home and put him on his guard. For he might have known, if embarrassment had seized on Doc Grace, it was for the first time in his life.
But the mind of Barry Home was not quite clear. A beforebreakfast discontent still persisted in him, and just now a shower of cold rain flogged his shoulders and sent a chill down his spine.
"What sign did you see on my hands?" he asked.
"Oh, nothing," persisted Doc Grace. "You know, Barry, I worked for years fiddling around with palmistry. I guess there's nothing much to it."
"I never knew that you worked on anything but cows and crooked poker," said the other sourly. "Whacha mean, you worked on palmistry?"
It seemed impossible to offend Doc Grace this morning. Now he merely said: "Oh, you know—spent years on it when I was a kid. I used to get the books and read them. They're a lot of bunk, mostly. It's chiefly faking, all that Gypsy business. Maybe there's something behind it...anyway, it's been going on for thousands of years. But you know, Barry, you know how it is. You never learn anything straight that's good news. It seems to be all bad. The future always seems to be pretty rotten.
"I gave the game up—I got tired of looking at the hands of people—it's years since I read a palm, because it always just gave me the blues. I used to see so many bad things ahead, that I always had to lie to the people. And it was kind of a shock to me, just now, when I looked at your hands and saw for the first time—you know, there's nothing in it."
"What did you see for the first time?" asked Barry Home.
"I don't wanta talk about it any more," said Doc Grace. "Forget it, will you, Barry, old scout?" His voice was gentler than ever, rich and tender apparently with affectionate sympathy.
"There's nothing in that palmistry lingo," declared Barry Home. "Not a damned thing."
"Sure, there isn't," said Doc Grace heartily. "Not a damned thing. You stick to that, Barry. I wouldn't want you to believe...." He paused, stopping short again.
"Well, you wouldn't want me to believe what?" asked Barry Home.
"I must have been wrong anyway," said Doc Grace in a murmur, as though to himself. "I couldn't really have seen...—He rose, put down plate and cup, and leaned over once more to stare at the hands of the other. He took hold of them, turned them from the growing light of the day to the brighter, rosier light of the fire. Suddenly he caught his breath and exclaimed. He started to let the hands of Barry Home fall, while he looked up with amazement and with wide eyes of horror at the taller man. Then, shaking his head, he quickly turned the long, bony hands of the other palm upward and stared again.
"It's true!" he breathed again. He abandoned the hands of Barry, gripped him firmly by one hand, and stood close to him, looking up into his eyes with commiserating pity, with friendship, with a sort of despair, also.
"Come on," said Barry Home. "This is just a lot of bunk. Don't you try to make any game out of me."
"Me, try to make game out of you about a thing like this?" exclaimed Doc Grace. "What sort of a hound do you think I am, Barry, anyway? What sort of a low hound d'you think I am?"
"You're kidding me, brother," said the other calmly.
"Kidding you?" echoed Doc Grace. "Look here, Barry, you know there's one thing that nobody ever kids about."
"I don't know. What is it?" asked Barry.
"Death," said Doc Grace.
NO sooner had that word left the lips of Doc Grace than he clapped his hand over his mouth, like an Indian registering astonishment. Then, dropping his hand, he exclaimed: "I'm sorry, old man. I didn't wanta say that. I'm damned sorry. It just slipped out."
"Did it?" said the other, managing a rather sour smile. "You mean I'm gonna die sometime, don't you? Well, I could've guessed that myself."
"Yeah, that's all I mean," said Doc Grace. "I didn't mean anything but that." And, dropping the subject with a wellpretended gladness, Doc picked up his coffee cup and went to get it filled. Then he carried his cup to another part of the circle of men, warming themselves at the fire. Shortly, a hand, which he had been expecting, fell on his shoulder. Of course, it was Barry Home, but Doc Grace did not allow his smile to appear.
"Look, Doc, what's all this bunk about?" asked the puncher. He added, rather shamefaced: "I don't believe in any of that stuff, of course."
"Well, neither do I," agreed Doc Grace.
"But," said Barry, "I don't look at a new moon through a glass or throw salt over my left shoulder, if I think in time ...and I don't walk under a ladder, either. You know ...a fellow sort of takes the superstitious stuff a little seriously. Just lukewarm, eh?"
"Yeah, but don't pay any attention to it," said Doc Grace. He laid his grip on the arm of his companion and muttered: "I'm sorry I said a word. It just sort of popped out, you know, seeing the same sign on the outside and the inside of the hand. That was the funny part. That was what sort of staggered me, and the word just popped out. You're not going to die. I mean, not so quick as all that. Maybe." His conclusion was a little shaken and weak.
"You mean," said the other slowly, "that you pretend my hand shows when I'm going to die?"
Doc Grace laughed a little, a very short, dry, unmirthful laugh. "You know, old son, that life line business. Some of the books say that you can measure off the years. Well, I don't know. But this is a joke, this time. You know, a joke! Because according to everything I can see—wait a minute. You mind if I look again?"
"Aw, no," said Barry Home, attempting a large and careless attitude. "I don't mind."
He held out his hands. The other took the left one and examined the back of it.
"That's what I saw first," he murmured, as though to himself. "That dent, behind the little finger. It's not only there, but it's deep, too. Poor old Sam Waller had the same dent there," he added, his voice now so low that Barry could hardly make out the words.
However, he remembered that Sam Waller, the year before, had been thrown and trampled to death by a vicious wild-caught stallion. Barry Home thought of his string of riding horses at present. The gray had a Roman nose that promised mischief, and there was that quiet mouse of a mare—with eyes that were always flecked with red, and some day there might be murder in that mare. He cleared his throat. All was decidedly not well with him.
Doc Grace had turned up his friend's palm and was peering at it. He traced the life line with his forefinger. Once, twice, and thrice he repeated the operation, muttering, shaking his head. "No," he said, "I give it up. There's nothing in it. But I never saw the signs clearer."
"That there life line," commented Barry Home, with as much calmness as he could maintain, "looks to me good and long, if you ask me."
Doc jerked up his head and nodded. "Sure it's long," he said. "It isn't the length that counts, though. It's the breaks in the line. What's a line, anyway, but a wrinkle made by shutting the hand? There's that break, and you look close—you see those three crosses beside the break?"
"No, I don't see them," said Barry Home. He was beginning to sweat a little; yet he was colder than before. The fire could not warm him.
"Here—get the light on your hand. You see 'em now?"
"Hold on," exclaimed Barry. "Yeah, I see 'em now, all right."
"Well," said the other, "when I saw those, it flattened me. That was what made me talk like a fool. Three of 'em! You might get by one danger, but not three—not three all in a row, like that. That wouldn't be natural."
"Wouldn't it?" said Barry Home, his voice very faint, indeed.
The zeal of the palmist, the interest in the occult, seemed to sweep Doc Grace away in a stream of excitement, making him forgetful of the dire messages he was conveying to his friend. He was saying: "Not with a break like that in the line. That's sure proof. No racettes, either. That's another good proof I never saw anybody in my life, before, without a single racette."
"What's a racette?" asked the feeble voice of Barry Home.
His friend did not seem to hear, but, pouring on with his words, he said: "Then the three crosses, almost hitched together. Why, it's like three red lights in a row along the railroad track. Danger! That's what it is. Only, nobody can dodge the danger that's hid away in fate, like a bomb in the dark. Three crosses, yeah, like they were at the head of three graves. They're faintly marked, but that doesn't make any difference. But it's damned lucky that one thing puts it all out." He dropped the hand of Barry Home and nodded and smiled happily, with a brightening eye. "I've measured it all out," he said. "I might be wrong by a couple of years, one way or the other. It's not as exact as all that. But this just goes to prove how far palmistry can be all wrong."
"Does it?" said Barry, warmth flooding through his heart again.
"Of course, it does," said Grace, with increasing cheer. "You see, according to the time you've lived and according to the signs in your hand, why, you're dead already, Barry!" He laughed as he said it.
"Am I?" said Barry Home, grinning at last. "Well, that's rich, all right."
"Sure," said Doc. "It's a joke. It just goes to show that palmistry is a superstition. That's all it is. According to the lines and crosses and breaks, and everything on your hand, you're dead five, six years ago."
"Tell me how you make that out?" asked the other, now so much at ease that he began to roll a cigarette.
"Why, here you are thirty-seven or thirty-eight years old, but, according to your hand, you're dead at thirty, maybe thirty-two at the latest."
He laughed again, happily.
But Barry Home dropped the unfinished cigarette to the ground. His lips parted, but it was a long time before the ice of them thawed enough for him to enunciate.
"Doc, I'm exactly thirty-two!"
"Hold on," said Grace. "You don't mean that, do you?"
"I look older," said Barry, in a hollow voice. "But I'm just thirty-two."
The solemnity of his utterance brought all talk between them to an end for the moment.
Then Doc Grace, blinking and shaking his solemn head, observed: "Are you just exactly that? Are you just exactly thirty-two?"
"Just exactly," said Barry Home.
Doc Grace shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. "I know that there's nothing in it all!" he exclaimed finally. "But ...but—Barry, tell me what to do to help?"
"Why," said Barry Home, "what can I do and what can anybody do? If the cards are stacked, the game's lost, and that's simply all there is to it."
Doc Grace said: "You know, Barry, that there's hardly any game that can't be beaten."
The other answered: "Doc, you can't cheer me up. If I'm to get the knife, I'll take it. That's all right. Only, in the time that's left ahead of me, I'm going to stake the easy line. I've worked long enough. If there's a jumping-off place ahead of me, I'm going to ride and coast the rest of the way." With that he turned on his heel and walked together with other figures through the murky light of the morning toward the corral.
Very strange things were happening in the mind of Barry. He got saddle and rope and bridle, went to the corral, and entered. Before him the horses milled, sometimes dashing back and forth like liquid shaken to froth in a shallow pan, and sometimes they swerved around and around the corral in one mass.
Into that mass the 'punchers worked, cautiously—cautiously, because many of those half-wild mustangs would have enjoyed nothing so much as an opportunity to put teeth and hoofs to work in stamping out the life of any human. But, now and again, a rope shot from a clever hand and found its mark, and the selected horse, well knowing that no folly is greater than running against the burn of a rope, would throw up its head, halt from its gallop, and a moment later it was snubbed against a fence, waiting for the saddle.
Barry Home saw many of his own string in the unhappy light of that dawn. He also saw the only horse he owned. He had taken it the week before from young Hal Masters in payment of a poker debt. It was a five-year-old stallion graced with the beauty of a fiend and the temper of the same deity. It had been an outlaw from the first. It had maimed three men and nearly broken the neck of a fourth. It was worth exactly the price of its hide and hoofs. But now, when Barry Home saw its dark head shooting by, lofty in the throng, its ears flattened, its teeth agleam as it snapped tigerishly right and left at the other mustangs, a slight shudder ran through his body.
Fate was inescapable. If it was his fate to be slain by the black horse, why should he attempt to put off the inevitable moment? Was it not fate, now working in him, that made the rope leave his hand and shoot, swift and sure, for the head of the horse?
AS he finished saddling his own horse, big Bull Chalmers turned and saw the big, black, evil beauty snubbed against an adjoining fence, fidgeting a very little, its ears pricked forward, contentment in its eyes.
"You ain't drunk this early in the morning, Barry," said Chalmers. "You don't think that you're gonna ride that maneater, do you?"
"I'm not thinking," said Barry. "I'm just riding."
He unloosed the head of the great horse and swung into the saddle. A small man stood a little farther down the fence, laughing silently in the brightening dawn. That was Doc Grace, and one glimpse of him would have been enough to snake Barry Home out of the saddle with the realization that he had been made the victim of a peculiarly cunning, practical jest. However, his head was not turned that way, and a moment later it was turning all ways at once. For the black horse did not wait. Like a good musician, he played his best piece first, and that piece was so full of action that he seemed to be climbing the air and disdaining the earth. The shocks of that convulsive bucking kept the head of Barry Home snapping to one shoulder or the other, or throwing it back, or jerking his chin against his breast.
He lost both stirrups. He clung by the golden spurs, sunk in the girth. And he was not in doubt, now. He was certain that it was the end of life for him. Fate? Yes, and he had rushed forward to meet it. But who can deny his doom? So thought Barry.
Straightway he swung his quirt in the air and brought it down full length along the satin, tender flank of the stallion. Blackie was in the midst of a fine operation that was designed to pitch his rider into the heart of the sky, out of which he might pick him again with his strong teeth, as the man descended. But when he felt the whip, nature reacted involuntarily, and made him fling far forward. As he landed from that mighty bound, the whip cut his opposite flank, and he leaped farther forward than ever.
It was very fast running, but more straight racing will not shake off a trained cowpuncher. Barry Home got his feet instantly in both stirrups, and gave Blackie the lash on each shoulder, alternately. Blackie screamed like a lost soul with rage and hate. As he ran, he turned and tried to get the knee of the rider in his teeth, but a bludgeon stroke across his soft muzzle changed his mind about that, and he flung himself to the ground, sidelong; spinning over and over again.
Not skill, but the mere force of the fall disengaged Barry Home from the saddle. He got up, sick and dizzy, and climbed onto the back of the horse as Blackie surged to his feet, a little dizzy in his own turn, and more than dizzy with amazement to find the man still with him. It was years since he had felt the whip. Riders were too busy pulling leather with both hands to get a free arm for wielding the lash. But now the horrible serpent with many tails rushed through the air with a whistling sound and beat on the flank of Blackie again, urging him to get to his feet once more, urging him to run, to buck, to do what he pleased.
Blackie obeyed the first impulse. He tried to blow this man out of the saddle by the terrific force of his gallop, but still, as he raced, the whip burned his hide. He was pulled to the right, and, in his blindness, he obeyed that pull. As though in reward, he was not punished. He was drawn to a trot. Still the whip did not fall. He halted. Then the voice told him calmly to go on. In reply, he tried to kick a cloud out of the dark sky and, with his heel still in the air, turned his head again to get the right leg of the master. For answer, the tails of the quirt, swung by the practiced strength in the arm of Barry Home, cut Blackie across the face. He began to run again. But he was thinking now. His whole body burned with the pain he had endured. His whole soul ached with bitter revolt. But if he obeyed instructions, the pain ceased.
After all, a clever horse need not depend upon bucking only. There are such things as braining a man while standing in a stall, or kicking him through a barn wall, from the same happy post of vantage, or rushing him with gaping mouth as he comes to the hitching rack. Blackie knew some of these devices, and he gave up the bucking contest, but not the entire battle.
It had not lasted many minutes. Now Barry Home came riding back to the camp.
The day was rapidly growing brighter, and it was high time for the 'punchers to be off at their work, but still they lingered. They had seen some riding that was worth while, and many of their throats were aching, so very loudly had they been appealing to the cowboy to ride him.
Barry Home found the foreman, Pemberton, sitting on the pole of the cook wagon, drinking coffee. He was a sour, little man, an excellent cattleman, without a human weakness or a kindness in him.
"I'm going to town, Pemberton," said Barry Home.
The little man did not look up. "If you go to town, you don't need to come back," he said.
"That's no news to me," said Barry.
Pemberton looked up now with a start. "What's the matter?" he asked.
"We don't feed him good enough," the cook said. The angry cook was sneering. "He won't eat the meat I cook for him. He throws my coffee into the fire. I ain't a fancy enough cook to suit him!" He stood, vast and threatening, his fists planted on his narrow hips, his shoulders thrown forward, unhumanly broad.
Barry Home looked at him with a curious eye. He had always feared this man because of something brutal, both in his reputation and his face. The ugly scar was light upon his soul, as it were. But now Barry feared him no longer. When a man is face to face with his doom, and the doom itself is unknown, why should he feel fear? A wild horse, a brutal fellow like this with a cleaver in his hand—either one of the two was enough to end his days, but not unless it were so fated. It was very odd. Like a Thoroughbred freed from the grip of the cinches and the burden of the saddle, he was lightened; he felt free as he never had been before.
Now he stripped the glove from his right hand. He raised that hand a little. He pointed the forefinger at the cook.
"Your cooking is well enough," said Barry. "It's your foul mouth that the 'punchers can't stand."
"If you want—" began the cook, with a roar. Then he changed his mind. He had been on tiptoe to charge, but the steadily pointed finger of Barry Home reminded him that there were such things as guns about a cow camp. Such a thing as death, in fact, might not be so far away. So he changed his mind, turned on his heel, and strode off, muttering something about fools stewing in their own folly.
With a mild and yet a deep surprise, Barry looked after the man. He had not dreamed that it would be like this. He had expected the rush of the man like the rush of a bulldog. He saw the foreman nodding.
"Yeah, he's that way," said the boss. "I wondered how long it would take the boys to call his bluff. But somehow I didn't reckon that you'd be the first one. You're mostly peaceable, Barry. Now, you tell me, what's the matter with you? There ain't anything wrong with the chuck we give you up here. I work the boys pretty hard, but not worse than other outfits. Just want a change?"
"That's it," said Barry. "I just want a change."
"You've got thirty dollars, minus the price of some tobacco, coming to you," said the foreman. He stood up. He brought out his wallet and counted the cash into the other's hand. "Common or garden cowpunching ain't after your liking, Barry, is that it?"
"It's all right. I just want a change," insisted Barry Home.
"Well," said the other, "if I'd known what was eating you, I might've given you a chance at...look here, Home. You've got the right stuff in you, and the old man wants eight men to go over to his new piece of range and take charge of the herd he's sending in there. Why can't you take the job?"
Barry remembered once more that there was no human kindness in Pemberton. The welfare of others never had meant the slightest thing to him. Then, wherefore should he show all of this concern and kindness? In its small way, this was one of the most amazing things that ever had befallen Home.
He said: "That's fine of you, Pemberton. I won't forget it. But I've got to get away to a new start."
Pemberton was not offended. "I know," he said, with actual sympathy in his voice. "You've got growing pains. Well, go on and grow, Home. You've got the stuff in you. This here world is tool-proof steel, but a diamond point will cut it, all right. So long. I've got to be riding."
He went off to get a horse, walking slowly, limping a little. Barry Home, still amazed, watched him go, and presently saw him turn to look back. As though ashamed of being caught so, Pemberton waved a hand in renewed farewell and walked on. Barry went on in a dream to his blankets, made up his roll, and then climbed into the saddle on the back of Blackie.
The black horse was shining with sweat, and the long welts of the whip strokes were entangled across his body. The continued pain of them made his tail keep switching back and forth. His lip twisted in a sneer, like that of an angry man, when the master approached, but he did not attempt to snap. Something held him back. Perhaps it was the calm curiosity in the eye of Barry Home and the steady step with which he approached the big fellow. Unhindered, he mounted, and moved off across the fields.
BARRY HOME went on to town. For that section of the range, town was Twin Falls, where the Crane River and Yellow Creek dump their waters over a bluff within a hundred yards of one another. The town itself is farther down the narrow valley, but the sound of the tumbling, breaking water is in the air day and night, all the year long, except that in September and again in January, for opposite reasons, Yellow Creek sends only a small trickle over its cliff. But there is always a considerable stream rushing down the valley and under the bridge at Twin Falls. As soon as he came over the ridge, even while a grove of trees still shut him out from a view of the falls, Barry Home could hear it in the mournful distance, and he told himself that this was fitting music to accompany his last day, or his last days. Men who are about to die should listen to the most eloquent sermons.
Now he came through the trees and saw the little town itself, strung out long and narrow in the bottom of the gorge, and he looked toward the flashing faces of the falls, and then up to the blue sky and the white clouds painted against it. He asked himself if it could be true—could death really be approaching through such a scene as this? He was more than half doubtful. He stripped off the glove from his left hand and looked again at the lines and the wrinkles that had told so much to young Doc Grace.
It was a very strange thing that men could pretend to know so much from the examination of a hand. And yet, after all, was it not an ancient science? Yes, there are mysterious things in this world, decided Barry Home. Wise men heed them; fools laugh at them; and those who are neither very wise nor very foolish are likely to regard the mysteries with gravity and speak of them not at all. He felt that he belonged in the third class. But to pretend to measure the actual time at which events would take place? Well, why not even that?
Taking the life of a man to be threescore and ten, why could not one estimate quite accurately—yes, even to the very year. He felt that Doc Grace had certainly been honest. He had seen Doc in all of his veins of jesting, but he had never seen him wear such a face as he had worn when examining his own hand. More and more, his conviction increased. Besides, and this was the clinching point, Doc Grace had actually withdrawn from him and striven, in this manner, to break off the conversation rather than to give such bad tidings of the future. And then there was the matter of his age. Doc apparently had taken him for thirty-seven or eight. Could he have known the truth? Looking back, Barry Home could not remember that he ever told a man in that camp his correct age.
No, when the things were fitted together, one by one, it seemed certain that Grace had not been talking through his hat. There were the three crosses, faindy lined, to be sure, but entirely discernible, once the eye knew where to look for them. Barry Home sighed and drew on his glove again with a melancholy thoughtfulness, now growing deeper.
For had not Doc Grace said that a man might escape the danger implied in two of those signs, but never in the third? That would be the fatal one. Of course, he could not tell how often danger had come near him this year. There was the time the big boulder had bounded down the hillside and missed him by a yard or so. There was the time he fell, and the mules had galloped over him without touching his body. There was the time when he was nailing up shakes on the roof of the big hay barn, and he had slipped and skidded clear to the rain gutter, before he saved himself. That fall, for instance, might well have broken his neck.
This very day, from Blackie and the cook, he might well have been said to have had narrow calls. Before the night closed upon the day, was it not possible that he would have closed his eyes to this world forever? The thought became so vivid that it was no longer a mere thought it was a conviction. It was too deeply graven in him to be expressed by fear, and as he sent Blackie ahead down the slope again, he laughed a little, seeing the dainty ease with which the stallion, in spite of his great size, picked his way among the stones, surely judging the uncertain footing from the safe.
Men could say what they pleased, but just as a wild-caught falcon had powers of flight that no eyes could ever rival, so a mustang that had been allowed to reach maturity among the dangers of the desert wilderness, saving itself from famine and the storm and heat and freezing, and the hunting of wild beasts—such a horse would have, Barry Home felt, thews of body and sinews of the brains, which no animal reared in domesticity could ever be expected to rival.
He was pleased with the stallion. Though he knew that the horse was not pleased with his master, it was perhaps not because of the identity of the man, but because all masters would be alike hateful to the great horse. But what a throne for any rider to sit upon. If he, Barry Home, were to die this day or the next, at least he hoped that death would find him on horseback. It was that thought which kept his head high, as he rode into the town.
In fact, he was quite changed. He passed, lounging on a street corner, old Dick Wendell, and he waved and called to him cheerfully.
Old Dick had hated him for years. Now he drew himself up and stared without making a gesture of response. But what did that matter? Let bygones be bygones. Was it not better to be remembered, even in death, even by such a fellow as Wendell, in a final gesture of good will? Barry Home felt that it was.
He got to the hotel, put up his horse in the barn, and then stopped at the store to get a clean shirt, some socks, and underwear. The sombrero would do. And he had in his roll of blankets a suit of clothes that only needed some pressing. He picked out a necktie with care.
The clerk, who knew it, said: "You're turning yourself into a dandy, Barry."
"A fellow has to dress for weddings and funerals," answered Barry Home.
"Who's getting married?" asked the clerk.
"Oh, I don't know," said Barry Home.
"Somebody just died?" asked the clerk with interest.
Barry Home merely laughed. He could not explain. He never would be able to explain to anyone. People would write him down as a fool in the first place, or as a more confirmed practical jester than ever in the second place. Why not that, then?
So, still laughing, he said: "I'm dressing for my own funeral, Bud."
"Are you?" asked Bud, laughing cheerfully in turn.
"That's it. Dressing for my own funeral."
"What's going to kill you?" asked Bud, grinning broadly.
"Oh, a horse, a man, a gun, or a brick on the head. I don't know what. Plenty of things to kill a man, Bud."
"That's true. Where did you find out you was going to die? In the newspaper?"
"I had my hand read," said the other. "I went and had my palm read, and the reader said that my life line was right up against the rocks. Not enough left of that life line to daub on a cow...not enough of it to go and tie the heels of a yearling." At this, Bud laughed very heartily.
"That's dog-gone funny, Barry," he said, when he could speak. "You're certainly a great one, you are. This is worth telling, all right." Then, he added: "I'd like to see where the line wrecks."
"It's right here," answered the 'puncher amiably. "Wait a minute till I get the light on it right. You see the break in the line and the three crosses."
"I see the break, all right," said Bud, poring and peering. "I don't see the crosses, though."
"Right off to the side, like little wooden head pieces for three, little graves."
"By Jimmy, I see 'em, all right. Poor old-timer, it looks to me like you've got to die three times in a row."
"Yeah, it looks that way, all right," said Barry Home. "It's what I call hard lines. If I were a cat, I wouldn't mind so much. But one life is about all I can afford to spend at once."
Bud roared louder than ever. Tears were actually on his face, but still laughing he said: "Hold on, Barry. You loaned me twenty dollars last year. I never paid you back. You'd better have that money, if you're getting ready for your own funeral, eh?"
"Never mind, Bud," answered Barry Home. "Why should you waste your money on me? You drop a check for it in my coffin, and we'll call it square."
The idea amused Bud more than ever. Still laughing, he clapped the 'puncher on the shoulder. He followed him to the door.
"You're all by yourself, Barry," he cried after him. "I'll be seeing you soon. So long, old man."
And Barry Home, faintly smiling, but only very faintly indeed, went down the street, bound toward the hotel.
That was the best way. He was getting ready for his funeral. Everyone might know that. They would excuse his little eccentricities of the moment by attributing them to the completion of the jest.
DOWN the street, on the way to the hotel, he came to the pawnshop of Solomon Dill, and paused to look into the window, crowded with cheap jewelry of all sorts and fashions, some of it valuable enough, most of it utterly worthless. There is no more melancholy thing in the world than a pawnbroker's shop, for every article in it, well-nigh, represents the sorrow of someone. Nothing, at least, can make one smile, except some of the lurid designs in jewelry.
In this window one could find everything from guns to spurs, watches of all sorts, belt buckles, ornaments for the hatband or the trouser seams. There was a host of fine Mexican silver and goldwork in which Mexicans are so cunning. Altogether there was quite a blaze from the window. It was set off by a little fanfare of light in each of the four corners, for in each of these were three Mexican knives, with their points stuck into wood and their handles thrusting outward. Those handles were brightened with big, red pieces of glass, set in the butt, or perhaps the stuff was a cheap red stone.
Even Barry Home smiled in earnest, when he saw this glittering ornament. Where would one find even a Mexican who might wish to carry such a gaudy thing as this? No, hardly even a Mexican, certainly not a man who was about to dress for his own funeral.
Then, still laughing, he nodded his head. After all, there was a grim pleasure in this game. It would make Twin Falls laugh heartily for a day or two before the odd coincidence of his death set some of the wiseacres to shaking their heads and remembering that Providence should not be tempted.
He opened the door and went in.
Young Isaac Dill was behind the counter, improving an idle hour by polishing some silver. He rose at once, quietly, respectfully, attentively, and stood with his hands folded on the edge of the counter. Young Ikey had made up his mind, years before, that he would not be a snarling brute like his father. He would follow the same business because he loved it and had a real talent for the thing. But he would not allow himself to become a wild, savage creature, hated by all men.
Ikey never raised his voice, never sneered, never loudly debated prices. He had decided, instead, that it was better to have a fixed price system. Once his father was dead, Ikey would set a price tag upon every article in the shop. He would make each price, in every instance, a little better than a good bargain for himself. However, he would prominently display, from time to time, a few objects that would be real cost price bargains for the public. Even the easy-going people of Western towns, he felt, are likely to love and recognize a real bargain, now and then, and what is better for a shop than to have the ladies of the town dropping in just to look things over?
Yes, Ikey had many ideas locked within the narrow range of his low forehead. Strangely enough, he had red hair. His eyes were blue and small as the eyes of a ferret. His face was utterly colorless. It was like a translucent stone.
"Hello, Ikey," said the 'puncher.
"How do you do, Mister Home," said the boy.
"Come, come, Ikey," said the other, "we know each other better than that, don't we?"
"Of course, Mister Home," said Ikey, "it's a pleasure to me, I'm sure, to be known by my first name to gentlemen. But it's just a little more proper, sir, for me to remember titles, don't you think?" He bowed across the counter to Barry Home and smiled.
Ikey was educated. He had fought for that education, raged, starved, and labored for it. He had it, now. He felt the grace of it like an invisible mantle of dignity thrown over his shoulders. Ikey felt that worth would find its way in this world, even from a pawnshop, upward.
"All right," said the 'puncher. "Lemme have a look at one of those knives in the window, there, will you?"
"Yes," said Ikey. "Certainly, Mister Home." He slid open the inner window.
"One of those with the red stones in the handles," said Barry Home.
"Ah?" said Ikey, and he flashed a glance at his companion, as though waiting to see a smile.
"Yeah, I want one of 'em," declared Barry Home. "I'm going to a funeral."
"Are you?" smiled the clerk. "Well, if it's that sort of a funeral, take your choice, Mister Home." And he picked out the whole dozen knives from the wooden blocks in which they were stuck, and laid them carefully in a row upon his counter.
Barry Home handled them one by one. He could see that they were cheap stuff. These blades were not steel, hardly better than cheap iron. The thin gilding that brightened the blades was rusting through in little spots, here and there.
"Good hunting knife, this would be," he said.
Ikey bowed and said nothing. He was always willing to smile at a joke, though jokes were things that he rarely understood.
One of them was a little heavier than the others in the handle.
"This is the king of 'em," said Barry Home, making his choice. "Not such a big piece of red glass in the butt of it, but the glass is redder a lot. I'll take this one. How much, Ikey?"
"Why, those knives were just a window decoration, Mister Home," said Ikey. "A dollar is all we charge for them."
"A dollar for this?" said the other. "A dollar for this piece of junk? Well, it's good enough to wear at the funeral. I'll take it. You don't need to wrap it up, and here's the dollar."
Ikey went with his customer to the door. "Whose funeral, sir?" he asked, graciously interested.
"My own," said Barry Home, and stepped out into the street.
The thought of his last purchase kept him still with that faint, amused twinkle in his eyes when he reached the hotel. And there he was hailed by Tom Langley with a great shout.
"Hey, Barry! What's this about a wedding? What's the truth about that, eh?"
"Wedding?" said Barry Home, smiling again, and wondering at the speed with which the slightest rumor travels in this world.
"Yeah, that's what we hear."
"Funeral, I thought it was," said Barry Home.
"What funeral?" asked his friend.
"My funeral," said Barry. And his smile went out as, entering the door of the hotel, he heard a loud, appreciative roar of laughter behind him.
But that was the better way, after all, he decided, when he got to his room. Better for them to keep laughing until the trick was turned, and knife, bullet, rope, or disease ended his days. In the meantime, he must make himself decent for the end. He remembered having read, sometime, somewhere, words that went something like this: Nothing in his life became him like his leaving of it. Well, he would try to make those words fit him.
He thought, as he was busily scrubbing in the bathtub, of the past years of his life. He frowned as he added them up. It was true that he had not done much evil; it was true that the great, windy days of riding over the hills were very pleasant, and so were the evenings in camp, and the gay, rough talk of the other 'punchers, the sway and swing of galloping horses, the blast of cold winter, and the crisping heat of summer were merely the backgrounds against which the better moments appeared in kinder relief. After all, he had been drifting, he had been doing nothing for himself. What money had he laid up? What land had he gathered? Or had he ever brought himself to the point of asking a girl to marry him?
No, if he had done that, if he could have anchored himself to a woman and a home, then he might have accomplished something worth leaving behind him. He might have built a house no matter how small, or he might have had a child or so, to grow up and remember him. But now?
He had come to the end of his tether, the very end. It might be a day, it might be a month before he died, but death was there, waiting with its horrible smile. Well, he would not quit. He would try to put a good face on everything.
The first thing was gentleness. He would have to work on that, every day and moment. No critical sneering at other people. Who was he, a doomed man, to sneer at the rest of the world? They would still be inheriting the beauty of this glorious world while he lay in choking darkness forever. Next, just as he put away pride, so he must take on himself justice, throwing from his heart malice and envy. It was far too late for envy now. Above all, he would surely be able to show courage, now that nothing but fate itself could injure him. No bullet would strike him, except one predestined. It was a very strange feeling, indeed.
He got out of the tub, rubbed himself dry, and went to his room to dress. Then he looked at himself in the mirror. His appearance was neat enough, to be sure. But he was standing like a country gawk. His shoulders had to go back, his head had to be carried higher. What was the best way to meet death'? Why, like a soldier, to be sure. He was going to execution, but not as one condemned for a shameful crime. He sighed a little. With humble, steadfast eyes he encountered the brown face that looked back at him from the mirror.
BEFORE he got out of the room, Ikey Dill came tapping at his door. He called out, and the pale face appeared, the little bright serious eyes staring at him.
"I'm sorry to bother you, Mister Home," said Ikey.
"It's all right," answered Barry Home, though he felt that he had seen more than enough of Ikey for a single day.
"It's about that knife," said Ikey.
"What'? To give me a refund?" asked Home.
"Well, yes," said Ikey.
"I thought it was a high price," said the 'puncher. "How much you want to give back to me, honest man?"
"A dollar," answered the pawnbroker.
"A dollar?" exclaimed Home.
"We'll take back the knife. You know, Mister Home, any other knife would do better for you. Any other knife would have steel in it. There's no steel in that thing. We'll just take it back. I shouldn't have let you take it in the first place."
"Well, Ikey," said the cowboy, "you're starting in to be a credit to Twin Falls, I must say."
Ikey laid a dollar on the center table and held out his hand a little.
"But I need a knife," said Barry Home.
"Well, if you need a knife," said Ikey, "I've brought some for you, some real knives." And he drew out three good hunting knives from his pocket.
"What price are they?" asked Home.
"Same price, Mister Home."
Barry was holding out the gilded imitation with the red stone in the hilt, and he felt the hand of the other take hold of it, as he leaned over the three knives which had been laid upon the table.
"Same price?" asked Home, surprised.
For one of these knives had a real horn handle, and the blade was clearly marked. It was the best kind of English steel, and it could hardly be sold at such a low price, he felt.
"Just the same, a dollar," said Ikey, and tugged gently at the bit of window decoration which he had come to reclaim.
It was not overly patent, but it was patent enough to arouse a twinge of suspicion in Barry Home.
Ikey wanted that knife back, and he wanted it badly. Barry stood up and shook his head. He put the knife back in his clothes and noticed, first, the swift shadow of anger, then a pale brightness, like fear, in the eyes of the young pawnbroker.
"You know, Ikey," he said, "a fellow gets freaks of fancy. I like this knife. I think I'll keep it. You're a good fellow not to want me to keep it, because it's only an imitation knife, but I knew that when I bought it. I could see the rusted spots, biting through the gilding. I bought it for a joke."
He had made a long enough explanation, and now Ikey gathered up the three, good knives that he had brought to make the exchange. In the center of each cheek there was a white spot. In a wide ellipse around his mouth there was a streak of white, also. Clearly, Ikey was badly upset, and now he said, taking a step back toward the door: "My father will make me suffer for this, Mister Home."
"Will he? Why?" asked Barry Home.
"Because he lost his temper badly, when he saw what I'd done. He said that I'd spoiled the window decoration. I didn't know that he put so much stock in those knives as decorations."
"He shouldn't put any stock in 'em," declared Home. "They look like the mischief. They simply tell the passersby that everyone who tries to do business in that shop will be stuck."
He laughed a little. Ikey Dill only managed a faint caricature of a smile in response.
"It's not what's right or wrong," he explained. "It's only what's right or wrong in my father's eyes. He was in a rage. He said that I was trying to take the running of the shop out of his hands. He said that I was a fool, and he made a good many other remarks." Ikey paused, shaking his head and rolling his eyes a little. "He told me not to come back to the shop without the knife," he murmured faintly. He had reached the door, as he said this, and now he turned disconsolately through it, his head hanging.
That picture of the brutality of Solomon Dill held Barry Home spellbound for the moment. In his mind's eye he saw Solomon, the long, hanging face, the brutal mouth and brows. Yes, he would be quite capable of turning the boy out of the house for no better reason than this.
"Wait a minute!" called Barry Home.
Young Ikey whirled about, his face lighted with hope, a flame of it in his eyes. "Yes, Mister Home?" he exclaimed.
Barry Home paused. The expression on Ikey's face had changed a little too quickly. It seemed apparent that he had been merely acting a sad part, overacting it a little, perhaps. And now there was scarcely subdued triumph in his flashing eyes.
In short, Barry Home changed his mind. He said, calmly: "You want this bit of junk, this knife, back. I don't know why you want it. But you want it pretty badly. Well, Ikey, I don't think that you can have it. There's a secret about it. I'd like to find out the secret myself"
The joy in the face of Ikcey darkened to crimson rage. Suddenly he could not speak, stifled by the smoke of his passion. Then, gradually controlling himself, he said: "Mister Home, I know that you're a kind man. You wouldn't want to ruin me. My father is in a crazy temper, and he'll never let me come back into the business. It may not be a business that you approve of, Mister Home, but it's the one that I was raised to."
He clasped his hands together and gave them an eloquent wring as he spoke. But Barry Home was watching with a most critical eye now. He was watching for every sign of a sham, and he detected plenty of overacting in this last appeal. Decidedly and firmly he shook his head.
"I don't want to do you any harm, Ikey," he said, "and I know that your old man doesn't mean what he says. He couldn't run the shop without you, could he? Oh, no, he was simply throwing a fit to scare you. He's a bully. You go back and draw a line, and you'll see fast enough that he'll never dare to cross it. But I'm curious about this knife. I'm going to keep it for a while."
Violent trembling shook the body of young Ikey. Twice he tried to speak and could not. Then two words came in a sibilant gasp.
With a whispered curse, he slid out of the room like a silent shadow, closing the door behind him.
Nothing in that odd interview impressed Barry Home like the closing of it. Ikey Dill was famous for his humility in Twin Falls. Yet he had dared to curse a man to his face. Barry crossed the room, opened the door, and looked out in the hallway. It was empty already. Then he came back to his table and laid the knife on it. Stare at it as he might, there was nothing about it except obvious cheapness.
He examined the handle; he examined the blade. Sometimes valuables were hidden in the handle of a knife, within the hollow of it. So he snapped off the blade at the hilt. He was quite right; it was hardly more than cheaply gilded tin. The breaking of the blade opened up the frail hollow of the handle. He could see at a glance everything that was inside and all that he saw there was a layer of rust. The answer must be in the blade of the knife, therefore.
He broke it into twenty pieces in his fingers, bit by bit, but there remained only a glittering handful of junk, which he dropped with a slight clattering into the waste paper basket. He was about to throw the handle in after the rest, when it occurred to him that the secret of the knife's importance might lie in the big, red stone that capped the butt of it. So he stared at this. It was about an inch square, and the flat light which he saw in it might be either ordinary quartz or a sign of the cheapest glass. He would pick glass as the greater probability. But suppose that such a thing were a ruby.
The very thought took his breath. Such a stone would be one of the jewels of the world, but he remembered having seen rubies many a time, and always there had been a welter of crimson flame in them, as though a fire were burning in the stone. Even by matchlight, they flared more than this big square did by the light of day. However, that lump of stone or glass, whichever it might be, seemed the only reason for the knife's peculiar value to the Dills. Unless, by any chance, there might be a meaning in the cheap scrollwork that ran down the sides of the hilt? That was a possibility. He dropped the whole handle into his pocket. He took it out again at once. The scrollwork was, it appeared, the most ordinary mechanical pattern; and yet there might be more in it than met the eye. However, he would need time to puzzle over that. In the meantime, he could find out definitely about the red stone, or glass, on the butt of the handle.
He went out at once. There was a second pawnshop in the town, and to this he went. Dutch—he seemed to have no other name—lay flat and squashy in his chair behind the counter. He took the knife handle in his big, dirty fingers and looked at it from thick-lidded eyes.
"Fifty cents," he said. "I dunno that I want it, though."
"What is it?" said Barry Home.
"Quartz, I guess," said the other. "Got anything else to hock?"
"I'm not hocking. I'm only asking," said Barry Home, pocketing the knife handle.
"Well, go on, then. I ain't got any time to waste," said Dutch.
Barry Home went on.
HE felt a strange calm that was like the languor of childhood on a sunny, lazy afternoon, with no mental care except to plan the next game. There were two important differences, however. With this calm there was no inertia. And he did not need to plan, for plans would come and find him. Fate was his opponent and would keep him well engaged.
He sat on the verandah of the hotel until supper time. Then he went into the dining room, where he sat at the long table and ate his meal with a curious detachment. He was seeing everything clearly, hearing everything with a wonderful precision. Nothing troubled him.
Tom McGuire came in and sat opposite him at the table by mistake. For they were old enemies. There had been a dispute over cards five years before, and the bad blood lingered. He saw McGuire start, scowl, move as though to leave his chair, then resolutely settle down into it, prepared for anything. He understood perfectly, watching McGuire. There was plenty of fighting blood in this man.
"Hello, Tom," he said presently.
McGuire looked up with another start and glared at Barry Home. "What's the matter with you?" he demanded.
Other people heard. They could not help hearing. They knew, most of them, all about the enmity. Now they watched the interchange of words with much interest. One never could tell. A gun play might spring out of the slightest circumstance.
Barry Home said: "Tom, why should we be growling at each other the rest of our lives just because we were a pair of fools five years back?"
McGuire was frankly amazed. He narrowed his eyes; he passed a finger under the band of his collar to loosen it. Then he said: "Whacha driving at?"
"You ought to know what I'm driving at," said Barry Home. "I know you're a good fellow, Tom. Your friends think a lot of you. I'm not such a hound, either. D'you think I am?"
McGuire hesitated. Temptation made his face crimson. His pale eyebrows lowered, and his very red hair seemed to bristle. However, he controlled himself, and said: "Maybe I ain't publishing what I think of you."
Barry Home found it possible to smile and to look unoffended, without tenseness, into the square, wide-mouthed face of the other. It might be that doom was about to overtake him even now and that presently a gun would be in the hand of Tom McGuire and thin smoke curling from its lips, while he, Barry Home, fell backward dead upon the floor. But what did it matter? Nothing would happen unless decreed by fate. And Tom McGuire could shoot straight. It would be as easy a death as any.
Barry pursued: "You didn't know me very well, then. You thought I'd run in a cold pack on the game that evening, didn't you? Well, you know me better now. I've been around this part of the world long enough for the boys to know I'm not a crook. I'd have more money in my pocket if I were. We both used a lot of bad language that other night. How about forgetting it and making a fresh start?"
McGuire blinked. He even leaned a little lower in his chair, as though prepared to jump a little to one side or the other and get out his gun. Then he muttered: "You're doing all the leading, in this here."
"Sure I am," said Barry Home. "Nobody'll ever be able to say that you took the first step toward making up."
McGuire grew redder than ever. He thrust out his lower jaw. "Not that I'd be givin' a continental what anybody else might think about whether I took the first step or the last one," he declared. "It's between you and me."
"That's who it's between," agreed Home.
Suddenly McGuire grinned from ear to ear. "The mischief, Barry," he said. "I've always wanted to be friends, down in my boots. I was the leading fool, that evening."
"We were neck and neck," said Barry Home.
"Partner," said McGuire, "gimme your mitt on that!" And he thrust a thick arm across the table and grasped the hand of Barry Home with great energy.
An old cattleman at the table said: "That's a good job. Home, you're a man. You've growed up, since I last seen you kicking up your heels and breaking glassware around the town."
A general murmur went around the table. It was plain that everyone thought it was a fine gesture—and Tom McGuire above all. His eyes were shining; Irish warmth was kindling the fire.
He said: "I oughta made the first move like I made the first mean move that other time. I'm pretty damned ashamed of myself. You and me are gonna have a drink after supper, partner."
"There's nobody I'd rather drink with," said Barry Home, not quite truthfully.
The old cattleman, at the table, caressed his saber-shaped mustache, looked before him into space and said: "It takes nerve to be a gentleman. That's what we used to say about Dan Moody. We used to say that Dan was a gentleman."
"Dan Moody was the gunman and killer, wasn't he?" said someone.
"Yeah," answered the cattleman, "he killed seven men, before he died of the kick of a mule. But he was wounded every time he killed his man. The way he killed 'em, that was why we called him a gentleman."
"How did he kill 'em?"
"It was a kind of pretty thing to see," said the veteran. "It was kind of a mean thing, too. I seen the first time that he dropped a man. That was in the old days. You kids wouldn't know much about Dan Moody."
"How did he kill his first man, Colonel?"
"I seen him walk down the street. He got close to the steps of the hotel verandah when a fellow by the name of Jerry Burton come out of the door and seen him, and run down and cursed him about something.
"Well, he looked at Jerry as cool as you please, and he says—'I'll tell you what, Jerry, it looks as though you or I would have to die, for usin' language like that. It's too hot to be all bottled up.'
"'I'm ready now!' yells Jerry.
"'Are you?' says Dan Moody. 'Well, take hold of an end of this handkerchief. That'll give us about the right distance apart. Grab it in your left hand, Jerry, and then we'll start in shooting, if it's all the same to you.'
"Jerry was game, and he grabbed the handkerchief, all right. The guns went off about the same second, and Jerry fell on his face.
"'Will somebody call for a doctor?' said Dan Moody.
"'Jerry don't need a doctor,' says I, because I was the first to reach the body and turn it over on its back. 'He'll never need a doctor again,' says I.
"'I do, though,' says Dan.
"He was shot through the side of the leg!"
This story was greeted with silence, first, as each man asked himself whether or not he would have sufficient courage to grasp the proffered end of the handkerchief. After this breathing space, there was an interval of talk.
"Yeah, he had nerve," said McGuire. "I wouldn't wanta do that trick. I wouldn't wanta offer the handkerchief, either. Did he kill all his other men the same way?"
"All the same way," said the old-timer. "He killed four of 'em right in that town. It was a mean place, but after the fourth one, nobody else liked the game any more, and they let Dan Moody alone. Dan was a gentleman, he was. It was a coupla years later that he dodged too short, and a mule brained him."
"A mule is worse business than any gun, if you get the mule good and started," said someone.
"All that a mule needs is practice," said another man. "I seen a coupla starved wolves in the middle of winter try to pull down an ornery little Texas mule. That mule, it busted the back of one of them with a forehoof...and it took half the hide off the ribs of the other, as it jumped in to hamstring it. I never seen nothing travel like that wolf for the tall timber."
"Yeah, you say you seen that happen?" asked a cynic.
"I mean to say, brother," said the speaker, with a dangerous gentleness in his voice, "that I owned that mule, and I'd drove it for five year, and it was the meanest demon and the ironest mouth that I ever tried to handle. And I mean to say that I seen that thing happen with my own eyes. What do you mean?"
Whatever the answer might have been, it was prevented by the commanding voice of the old cattleman, exclaiming: "You two shut up. You'll be shooting in another minute. And we ain't gonna stand it. Barry Home down there, he's taught us manners. And I ain't gonna allow no more shooting. I'm too old for it, and it hurts my ears a whole lot."
There was more of this talk, and Barry Home thought that it was all very amusing. He felt that if he had brought about this reconciliation years before, it would have been very well, indeed. But he knew that he would never have been able to do it. Only the close presence of death had made the thing easier tonight.
Afterward, he went with Tom McGuire to Tod Randal's saloon, and they stood at a corner of the bar. Others drifted in. Presently Tom was saying: "You're drinking beer to my whiskey. That ain't very friendly, and that ain't like you, partner."
Barry Home said, mysteriously, but gently: "I can't afford to get tight, Tom."
"You don't have to afford it," said McGuire. "I'm buying the drinks, tonight."
Then, from the farther end of the bar, as the door swung open, a loud voice called: "Anybody seen that hound, Barry Home?"
Barry listened without turning his head. He did not have to look in order to realize who was speaking. And he felt, with a cold and calm foreknowledge, that death had at last come surely upon him.
THERE were, at this time, nearly twenty men in the long, narrow room. Voices were loud, and the air was filled with smoke that merely helped to darken the corners, but which rose in a cone of brilliant bluish-white underneath the lamp that hung from the ceiling just over the center of Tod Randal's bar.
The voice of the newcomer rang out loudly and thrust back, as though with a hand, everyone who was leaning against the bar.
Then the voice of McGuire muttered at Home's ear: "It's Stuffy Malone! What's Stuffy got ag'in' you?"
"I dunno," said Home.
"I'll stand by you," said McGuire, with a desperate sincerity.
"You back out of this," said Barry Home, in words that were afterward remembered and repeated. "You couldn't help me. Nobody could help me."
McGuire, though very reluctantly, consulted his safety sufficiently to draw back a little from his newly made friend.
"You!" shouted the great voice. "You're what I want! You're the meat that I'm gonna chew on! You, Barry Home!"
And still Barry did not turn his head. Well, it hardly mattered. It was all destiny. If he were doomed, as now it seemed certain, to die at the hand of this scoundrel, this professional murderer and jailbird, then that was the way he would fall. There was no question about that. There was no need for excitement, either. Better this than falling over a cliff, say, or being caught in a burning building. So he did not even turn his head, and, when he raised his hand, it was to lift his glass of beer to his lips.
Stuffy Malone, not unnaturally, put a wrong interpretation on the attitude of the other. He roared out: "You ain't gonna hear me, eh? I'll open your ears for you, you sneaking lowlifer, you lying hound of a played-out cowpuncher!" His stamping stride advanced down the floor of the barroom. A very odd and startling thing happened then.
Barry Home's quiet voice was heard saying: "I'll kill you presently, Stuffy, but don't bother me till I've finished my beer."
It stopped Stuffy Malone. Everything instantly was placed upon a different basis. There was no rough and tumble about this. This was a challenge given and accepted. And Stuffy Malone was not more astonished than relieved, astonished that such an observant fellow as this new cowpuncher should remain so calm in his presence, and delighted above all that now it was to be a fair fight, with warning given and taken. Then his own matchless gun play would finish the encounter in the proper way. So he halted, just on the verge of the cone of light that descended through the smoke from the lamp above.
Barry Home conjured out of the past the unsavory picture of the monster. He was worthy to figure as the illustration of an ogre in a child's fairy book. He was one of those fellows who are slim to the age of twenty-five or six, and then are swelled and bloated by steady dissipation. He was tall, but his breadth gave him the name Stuffy, his breadth and the rolling flesh of his face, whiskey-stained to a purplish-red. His very forehead was fat. Fat rolled up and almost obscured his eyes. Only his hands had remained young. He treated them as a lady of fashion might treat her hands. He massaged and rubbed and stroked them every spare moment. He wore on them the thinnest, most delicate gloves, specially made, when he rode a horse. When he came into a town, his left hand remained gloved, but his gun hand was always bare, for he never knew when he would need it. Delicate, pale, slender, wonderfully sensitive, it seemed that only this one part of his body remained what all of him might have been. It was as though all that was strong in his soul were lodged there also. Men said that his greatest sorrow was that he could not decorate that hand with rings covered with shining jewels. But rings might interfere with the drawing of a gun. He had killed many men. No one knew just exactly how many. He was only forty, but he had been a most terrible legend for fifteen years at least.
This was the monster who, as Barry Home knew, waited there on the verge of the cone of light. Yet the younger man went on sipping his beer. He looked down and saw that his hand did not tremble. Even a day before, had such a trial come, how that same hand would have been shaking. But it's only fools and knaves that tremble when they stand, at last, guiltless on a scaffold. He began to smile; he even laughed a little.
Other people shuddered then. Tod Randal, in particular, as he stood, white-faced behind the bar, his eyes staring, thrusting out from his head. He said in a shaken voice: "Boys, it's gotta be stopped. You got nothing against old Barry Home, Stuffy. Somebody must get help!"
There was no need to get help. There was plenty of help at hand. What held back those grim-faced 'punchers was that they knew the code which does not permit of interference in any personal quarrel between two men.
Now the voice of McGuire yelled, sharp and high: "I'm gonna take a hand for one. It ain't no fight. Barry's no good with a gun. It's murder—that's what it is!"
"I'll mind you, later on, McGuire!" said the raging voice of Stuffy Malone.
"You'll mind me, too, then," said another. More chimed in.
Then, suddenly and most unexpectedly, came the words of Barry Home, who still sipped his beer without turning his head. "You fellows all back up, please."
They paused. The murmuring ceased. Stuffy Malone, who had begun to think of retreating before such aggressive numbers, stared bewildered at his intended victim.
"Everybody stay here and see the show," said Barry Home, in the same unmoved manner. "Because it's going to be worth seeing, I think. I don't want any help. I'll tell you another thing, and that is that your help is no good to me"
Many men breathed deeply when they heard this. They could not quite understand. They could barely make out that Barry Home was actually picking up the defiance of Stuffy Malone and throwing it back at him.
And there he stood, never turning his head, sipping his beer. There was very little left in the bottom of his glass.
He said: "Stuffy, who hired you to go after me?"
"Hired me?" shouted Malone, driving himself headlong into a passion. "Was there any need to hire me to wipe such a hound off the range?"
"You don't need to yell like this," said Barry Home. "It's a small room. No need to deafen me before you kill me." As he said that, he laughed a little again.
Stuffy Malone thrust out his head in a strange manner, like a rooster, when it peers at a new object. And he said nothing at all, in response to the last injunction. He seemed staggered. His left, gloved hand grasped the edge of the bar. His lips moved, but the curses were not audible. But it was true. He had seen Barry Home laughing, as he placidly sipped his beer.
"After all," went on Barry Home, "I wonder how this thing will turn out. You know, Stuffy, that you can kill only as many men as you're fated to kill. When your luck turns against you, then it's your turn to die. Perhaps tonight is the time."
"If you're done yapping," said Malone, his voice strained and uneven, "we'll get this party over with."
"I'm not quite through with my beer," said Barry Home. "When I finish that, I'll see to you." He stood a little straighter and pressed his shoulders farther back. He wanted to stand now as a man should stand when he was about to die. For, considering their comparative skill, he knew that he had no more chance against the huge Malone than he would have had in front of a firing squad. It would not be a battle. It would be merely an execution. What could have set Malone on the warpath against him?
He finished the beer. Then he raised his hand to his breast pocket.
Instantly a revolver flashed in the hand of Stuffy.
The bartender shrank back, with a faint groan, and threw up a hand before his eyes. His face was for all the world set as though he expected that the bullet would fly at him.
But with that long, white handkerchief, which he had drawn from the breast pocket of his coat, Barry Home was merely patting and wiping away the bit of foam that remained on his mouth after the beer.
"McGuire," said Barry Home.
"Aye, Barry, old son," came the tremulous response.
"McGuire, I've got a black stallion in the stable behind the hotel. If I'm killed, the horse goes to you to remember me by."
"Aye, Barry," said McGuire truthfully, "but I don't need a horse to remember you by. There ain't a man here that'll ever forget you."
Stuffy Malone, seeing that he had drawn too soon, grew a dark crimson, ashamed of his haste. He put the gun away again with a well-oiled, sliding gesture of his right hand. He gritted his teeth and narrowed his eyes, then waited, tense and brittle with readiness.
"The horse is yours if I go down," said Barry. "The way to ride him is to tear into him with a whip before he tears into you. Otherwise, he's a demon and a killer, like Stuffy, here." He chuckled again, and that laughter, at such a time, froze the blood of all who heard it. "Poor Stuffy, perhaps he doesn't expect what may happen to him," he said. Then he turned from the bar, for the first time, and faced Malone, with the handkerchief still in his left hand.
IT was not planned before. It was simply that the handkerchief was there in his fingers, and that he remembered the story which the old cattleman had told at the supper table. That was enough to give him the idea. It was what the veteran had said of Dan Moody that stuck in the mind of the cowpuncher now. He was dressed cleanly; he was standing straight; he had made his will. That was the gesture of a gentleman, the old cattleman had felt, that throwing of a handkerchief's end to an adversary.
It did not strike Barry Home as being a little foolish and melodramatic. Neither did it strike any other man in that barroom as being ridiculous. They were standing on too vital a stage. And, though they were spectators, this was a play which would have only one performance and which must end in blood.
Some of those men who were looking on were frozen with dread. Others were half sickened at the thought of what might come. Others again, with cold, clear eyes, noted every detail of what happened. It was these last who gave the world the true version of the scene afterward.
The beginning had been odd enough. What followed was still more of a strain to the nerves, when Barry Home walked calmly down the bar and said: "Take hold of this, Stuffy. It will give us about the right distance," and offered the end of his handkerchief to Malone.
Stuffy took it with a grasp of his gloved hand. His face was swollen with the whiskey bloat and with diabolical passion as well. He felt that he was being put further and further in the wrong in some mysterious way. Besides, the whole conduct of this affair was unexpected. It was years since any single man had dared to stand up to him, even men of some celebrity. And what was Barry Home? Simply an obscure cowpuncher, rather well known in places for his whimsical humor and his practical jokes. Perhaps there was a joke behind his manner now. Perhaps his calm indicated that the whole scene had been worked up and carefully planned. Perhaps it meant that when he, Malone, drew a gun, by some neat device the weapon would be knocked out of his hand.
It seemed to Stuffy Malone that the people who lined the wall of the room, staring, were smiling also. Smiling at what? Why, smiling at him, at the practical joke which was about to be revealed, entirely at his expense. He wanted desperately to glance to the side and make sure whether or not he was being laughed at. But now, of course, it was too late for that. The antagonist was standing close to him, and he was anchored in body and in mind also, for he was holding the end of that handkerchief.
He wondered why he had not drawn and fired when Home turned at the bar and walked toward him. But that was not generally his way. His own skill was so consummate that he could afford to let the hand of the enemy begin to move, before his own fatal gesture flickered in and out and the gun spoke once and needed to speak no more. So he had waited in this instance, and now the fellow was close upon him.
The important thing was to get the matter over at once. "Fill your hand, you!" said Malone.
The order and the oaths that followed did not stir Barry Home. Since the only thing he was intent on was dying properly, it followed as a matter of course that he must not make the first gesture toward his gun. He must give every advantage, even to this brutal manslayer who needed no advantage. Now he actually smiled again. And the lines of humor were so well drawn around his eyes that the smile appeared perfecdy genuine.
It was not easy for Stuffy Malone to have that smile so close to him. It seemed genuine. Therefore, it meant that his enemy was perfectly assured of the outcome of this affair. It meant that Barry Home knew he would come scathless from the ordeal. Very strange, inexplicable! Was it a plot, in fact, against the great Stuffy Malone? More than ever, Stuffy yearned to steal a side glance at the faces of the men along the wall. But he dared not.
It was odd, too, to find himself staring at such close range. It was almost as though he never had looked a man in the eye before. From ten yards, or even five paces, the whole man was in the picture. But at this range he saw nothing but the head and neck of the other, hardly the shoulders even. His glance was drawn hard and fast to the keen eyes of Barry Home. He could see the sun-burned tips of the eyelashes and the thin-cut wrinkles on the forehead. The bridge of the nose was high and lean and strong; the cheekbones were well defined beneath the brown skin. And the mouth was smiling. That was the horrible part of it, that the mouth should be faintly smiling. How? Well, calmly, in the first place, disdainfully in the second.
He, Stuffy Malone, was being regarded with scorn. Then a dreadful thought pierced him like a knife and rankled in his heart. Had they, perhaps, gained access to his guns the night before? Had they done that and tampered with them? He, like an utter fool, had not looked to his weapons on this day, but had taken them for granted. It was almost the first time since his days of maturity that he had done so careless a thing.
Fear widened his eyes. His crimsoned face turned pale. It glistened with sweat. That was it. They had drawn the bullets, and in his revolvers there were only blank cartridges.
The voice of Barry Home was in his ears, saying: "I don't take advantages. Not even from a fellow like you, Stuffy. Make your move, when you dare to make it."
"Go after your gun, you fool!" said Malone, showing his teeth.
He was glad to speak. Every second of silence was a dreadful weight on his heart.
"What's the matter, Stuffy?" he heard the voice of Home saying. "Are you losing your nerve? Your face is soggy—it's gray. Is it true that you're not a fighting man, after all? Are you just a plain murderer? Are you just a hired murderer?"
"I'll blow that question through the back of your head," said Malone.
The other actually leaned a little toward him, and a gleam, half curious and half cruel, was shining in his eyes. Very difficult eyes they were, and with every instant they were harder to endure. In their unwinking steadiness, was there the power of hypnotism? That was it! said the heart of Stuffy Malone to his struggling soul. It must be hypnotism. That was the reason behind the device of the handkerchief. That was why Home wanted to come so close, in order that the horrible fascination of his art might penetrate the mind of Malone. Had he already penetrated to the core of his mind, freezing up the power of action, enchaining the marvelous and lightning skill of the right hand of the slayer?
A third thrust of horror entered the soul of Stuffy Malone, and he drew back a little. He did not move his feet, but his body leaned slightly away, for every inch of distance from that lean, hard face was a vital advantage to him.
Yet the other would not give him this grace. Instead, he seemed to sway closer. He was in good training. He was in perfect condition. That was clear. Oh, for the days when he, Malone, had also kept in perfect physical trim, days when his own face was as lean and as hard as this. In those days, his heart had never raced, staggered, and bumped, as it was doing now. The horrible thing within him seemed to be enlarging. It filled his entire body. Breath was difficult to draw. There was no steadiness to that beat, but it raced downhill and labored up long grades again. He wanted to lie down and recover his wind. He would have been glad to lie down right there on the floor of that barroom, for two minutes, only until that heart of his was steadier. Then he would rise and kill this wretch, hypnotism or no hypnotism.
Then he saw the lips of the other moving. But he saw them only dimly. He really observed nothing except those fixed and staring and unconquerable eyes, though the lips were now saying: "Why, you're only a fake and a sham, Stuffy Malone. You're shaking, and you're beaten. You're not worthy of a gun play. I think you never shot a man in your life, unless you had some advantage over him. You're not even brave. You're a coward—a murdering coward is all that you are. I give you your last chance to fill your hand. You hear me? I count to five, and if your gun isn't in your hand by that time, I'm going to kick you out of this place because you won't be fit to drink with white men."
Actually, like the slow tolling of a bell, the steady resonant voice began to count.
Suddenly Malone knew that he was paralyzed unless he avoided the eyes of this man, at least for one instant. Freed from that terrible domination for a moment, he could then look back and strike to kill. So he dragged his eyes away and glanced toward the wall. And there he saw what he expected.
It was true that several men were white as sheets; one had actually hidden his face behind his hands, unable to endure any longer this scene of torture. But there were others who were smiling. Yes, with savage leers of pleasure they were following the disintegration of the gunman. His brutal record was well known to them, and now they reveled in the horrible spectacle so unexpectedly played out before them.
It was true, said Stuffy Malone to himself. The whole thing was a plot, and he was ruined, undone!
He heard the steady voice count: "Four!"
He jerked his glance back toward Barry Home, but a mere glimpse of those steady, brilliant eyes was more than he could stand. He could not face them. His own eyes wavered.
"Five!" counted the voice.
Inside his coat jumped his hand, reacting involuntarily, swifter than thought, and gripped the butt of the gun. Then something caught. There was a rip of cloth. His hand was still there, inside his coat, shuddering in every finger, and the wrist was numb with weakness. And there, leveled before him, was the bright length of a Colt revolver, covering his heart.
Someone leaning against the wall groaned, a long, sick sound, and then a loose body hit the floor.
He, Stuffy Malone, felt those sounds as though they came from his own throat, and the falling of his own body. Death was before him. Oh, the kind mountains and the sweeping plains, the breath of the pine trees and the flashing of distant rivers, far away from dangerous men—if only he could return to them, freed from the horrors of this moment.
He heard Barry Home saying: "I thought you were a bad one, but a man. You're only a stuffed cur. You ought to be thrown to the dogs! Get out of Twin Falls and never come back!"
With the hard flat of his left hand he struck the soggy face of Stuffy Malone and swinging through, struck the other side of the wet face with the harder knuckles of his fingers.
The gun slid from the nerveless hand of Stuffy. He raised both arms before his face and cowered. "Don't shoot!" moaned Stuffy.
"I swear that I'll shoot unless you run," said the terrible voice of Barry Home.
Stuffy ran, blindly, striking against the bar and then the side of the doorway, and so, staggering, out into the open of the street.
NIGHT had gathered, by this time, thick and complete, but, as Barry Home followed the routed gunman as far as the swinging doors, he looked across the blackness of the street, and the shaft of light from the saloon itself struck upon a familiar tall, gaunt form. He thought that he recognized the outlines of Solomon Dill. It was not very hard to put two and two together now. The knife that the pawnbroker had been so willing to exchange or to buy back, he wanted so very much that he was even willing to hire a murderer for the purpose of regaining it.
It could hardly be the merest chance that posted him across the street from the saloon. It could hardly be chance that made him turn on his heel, when he saw the exit of the gunman, and the pass that he made down the street with long, swift strides. Most assuredly there was some connection between him and the murderous design of Stuffy Malone. It was well known that Stuffy had killed for money. It was even well known that his price was not very high. In fact, the whole thing hung together like a charm.
He stood for a time, revolving the thoughts which came to him. Then he went out through the doors and walked slowly down the street.
Nothing that had happened, so far, had so fully convinced him of the insight that lay behind the predictions of Doc Grace. For certainly more had been crammed into this one day than had happened to him in years and years before. In all his life, in fact, there was nothing so terrible or so weird as that encounter with the gunman in the saloon of Tod Randal.
Thrice he was to face dreadful danger. Twice he might escape it, but the third time would be fatal. Well, it had seemed, before this evening, that the grim figure of the cook of the camp in the hills, had been one sufficient danger. The riding of the stallion had certainly seemed to be another. But both of these things now dwindled in his mind. They were as nothing compared to the stress and strain of confronting Stuffy Malone. Perhaps that was the one important crisis, and the others did not matter so very much.
Slowly he sauntered down the street, turned mechanically into an alley, and, following this, came to the verge of the town before he knew where he was. Then he saw before him a small, white cottage, gleaming here and there softly, where the lamplight from neighboring windows was streaked upon it.
It was the Sale house, to which his footsteps had brought him. As he passed through a shaft of light, a hearty voice greeted him, old Pete Sale himself, calling out: "Hello, there, Barry. About time that you looked up your old friends. Come on in here and gimme an accounting of yourself, will you?"
Barry stood at the front gate and rested an arm on top of its pickets. "I can't come in," he said. "Judy won't let me."
Pete Sale was watering the lawn, and now he swung the stream of water onto the base of the climbing vines that swarmed up over the front verandah of the little house.
"Hey, Ma!" called Pete Sale.
"Yeah?" cried a strong voice, coming from the house.
"Hey, Ma!" yelled Pete Sale again.
The strong voice of the woman reached the front door and burst upon the outer night.
"Yeah, I heard you, I heard you. You want me to fly, every time you speak. I haven't got any wings, Pete Sale, and you know it!"
He answered: "Here's somebody come to call, a friend of mine, and he says that Judy won't let him in."
"Great goodness," said Mrs. Sale. "It's Barry Home, and bless my eyes! You come in here, Barry! The Wilkins boy was just by, and told us all about how you handled that ruffian, Malone. The wicked wretch! You come right in."
He persisted at the gate. "I can't come in," he said. "Judy won't let me."
"The little vixen," said the mother. "Judy, come out here. Look, the scamp's been sitting here in the dark of the verandah the whole time, pretending that she didn't hear."
"I wasn't pretending that I didn't hear," said Judy Sale's voice, full of husky, soft, contralto music. She came to the top of the steps, a dim form.
"Now, you tell me," challenged her father, "that you had the brass to tell a friend of mine like Barry Home not to come inside this gate no more?"
"Yes, I told him that," she said.
"Hey?" yelled Mr. Sale.
"Pa," said Mrs. Sale, "you don't need to yell. You don't need to let all the neighbors know everything that happens in our house."
"It ain't any good trying to keep things quiet," answered Pete Sale. "Not the way this town is. You couldn't keep a secret in Twin Falls if you dug a hole in the ground and whispered into it, and filled the hole ag'in. No, sir, a gopher would go and hear it, and tell the snake that swallered him, and the snake would go and hiss it in the ear of that hatchetfaced Missus Walters."
"Hush, Pa, hush!" said Mrs. Sale. "She'll be hearing you. You know that she always sets out on the verandah in the cool of the day."
"I hope she hears," declared Pa Sale. "It ain't the first time that she's heard a few settlers from me, the old witch! Now I'm talking about something else. Judy, I wanta know, whacha mean by telling folks they can come and they can't come?"
"I told him because I didn't want to see him any more," said the girl.
The father was gritting his teeth audibly with anger. "You told him that, did you?" he said. "You went and told him that you didn't want to see him, no more? And what about me? Didn't I wanta see him no more? Barry, you come right in, or I'll start in and raise the mischief."
"I can't come in," said Barry Home, grinning through the dark. "I don't dare. I'm afraid of Judy."
"You are, are you? You ain't afraid of Stuffy Malone. But you're afraid of Judy, are you?"
"So are you, Pete," suggested the younger man.
"Me?" said Pete. "Well, I ain't afraid of her right now. You come inside, Barry. Ma, turn off the water there, will you?"
Mrs. Sale went to turn off the water from the house.
"I can't come in till Judy asks me," said the cowpuncher.
"I won't ask you, Barry," answered the girl. "But I'll come down and talk to you at the gate."
Down she came. Pete Sale, as the sound of the water died down, no longer gushing from the nozzle of the hose, went on: "I never heard of a girl acting up like that. How much money and time has Barry, here, spent on you, taking you to dances and things? That's what I'd like to know."
"Do be still," said the girl.
She came down the path and stood before the gate.
"Are we shaking hands, Barry?" she said.
"I hope so," he replied.
He took her cool, slender hand, but he felt that he was at a disadvantage, because the light from the open front door streamed dimly upon his face, whereas she was left in deeper shadow by it. It only gleamed very faintly in her hair.
"Are you in on another spree so soon, Barry?" she asked.
"Ain't you gonna ask him inside?" demanded the insistent father.
"Come along here, Pete Sale," said the mother of the family. "Don't you know nothing? Young folks have to have their squabbles out."
"I'm gonna get at the bottom of this," declared Pete Sale. "What's the meaning of it, Barry?"
"I've been asking her to marry me about every other time I saw her," said Barry Home. "She got tired of it, after a while."
"She's precious fine, if she gets tired of a gent like you. Judy, I'm ashamed of you."
"It was only by way of talk," she said. "Barry is one of the men who runs dry in his talk, and he has to start a little sentimentality or else fall into a silence."
"That's right," agreed Barry Home.
"Well," said Pete Sale, "you kids, nowadays, you beat me. You make me tired. I'm gonna go inside. Barry, if you don't manage to come inside, too, I won't think you're more'n half a man."
He retreated with his wife, and the girl said: "You're honest, Barry, anyway. Are you having a good party in Twin Falls this time?"
"It's not a party."
"Wrangling around with gunmen in saloons, you don't do that for fun, I suppose? It's a new angle on you, too, Barry. You're a deeper one than I guessed. I thought you kept your guns for rabbits and wolves and coyotes—I never knew that you would use 'em on men."
"I don't," he explained. "Stuffy started to run over me. That was all. I didn't start the trouble."
"You finished it, though," she observed. "I'd like to read a bit deeper in your past. I'd like to find out why you have to live on the range as a common 'puncher. What have you done, Barry? Why are you afraid to settle down? What is it that you don't want people to find out about your past?"
"Are you going to make a mystery out of me?" he asked her.
"I'm not making one out of you. You've always played the joker and the harmless, happy-go-lucky fellow. But tonight people have had a chance to see that there's danger in the core of you. Why don't you tell me the truth, Barry? I don't chatter and gossip."
He looked steadfastly at her. He had always liked her better than others. It seemed to him, now, that he glanced deep into her nature and saw there something that made him love her. It was true that she did not chatter idly. There was strength and dignity about her. But how could he talk to any human being of the cause that had brought him to Twin Falls? Palmistry and a silly, tinsel knife that had been part of a window decoration—that was an odd combination. She would simply think that he was lying.
He said: "Judy, I'd like to talk to you, but I can't. I came around here tonight almost by accident. My feet took me, you might say. And I'd better get along again."
"I won't hold you, Barry," she answered.
A rush of emotion came over him. Life, of which so little remained to him, could be a beautiful thing, indeed. The smell of the wet earth, the freshness of the grass, and the perfume of the roses were only a setting for this girl who stood before him.
He leaned across the gate a little, saying: "I want to break loose. I want to tell you that I'd rather have you than—but I can't talk. I'm sorry I said so much. I beg your pardon, Judy."
"Wait a moment. Why can't you talk? Is there something in your past? Is there another woman tangled up in it, Barry?"
He shook his head. "It's the future that stops me. It's nothing in the past. I see the future like an open road."
"The future go hang!" she said. "You like me a little. I like you a lot."
"Don't talk any more. You're putting me in the fire, I tell you.
"You can bet that I'll talk some more," she said. "I don't know what your mystery is, but the town is buzzing and laughing about your silly remarks of dressing up for a wedding or for your own funeral and such stuff. Well, Barry, if your funeral were coming tomorrow, you could buy me right now like a horse for a thousand dollars."
"What d'you mean?" he demanded.
An odd, stifling impulse of excitement began to tremble in him and trouble his whole soul and body.
"I mean," she said, "that if you ever care enough about me to show me a thousand dollars for starting a home—not that I care a rap about the money, either, but it would show that you were really in earnest—why, Barry, I'd marry you in a minute. This silly stuff about your future—I'd take care of that future! You don't think a lot of me, but, once I have you, I'll make you love me or break my hands and my heart trying. I'm a bold girl. You can see that. But I'm tired of seeing my happiness drift in and out again every time Barry Home rides into town or away. I'm going to catch you, you piece of driftwood, and hold you if I can."
"Judy," he said, reaching toward her.
She caught him firmly by both wrists. "Oh, I know you're willing to slip into a little love scene," she whispered. "But I'm not. I won't have it, either. But if you want me, you can have me. Bring me a thousand dollars and count it out on the gatepost here, and I'll not even go back to put on my hat. I'll march straight downtown with you and marry you, and you'll never get away from me as long as you live, Mister Barry Home. I'll make a home for you, and I'll keep you there, too. For every lick of work that you do, I'll do two, and we'll be so horribly happy, Barry, that it almost makes me cry to think about it. Good night!"
She went, hurrying back down the path toward the house, leaving a mute and trembling hero behind her at the gate.
HE remained there for some time, flooded with emotion that made him quite helpless. Now, as he was about to be shut away into the long, cold night of death, he saw a door open which revealed to him a whole heaven of happiness. A thousand dollars? Why, he would make ten thousand for her. He would tear the money out of the rocks. He would do it in a day. The sense of infinite power filled him.
Then he remembered. On the very wedding date, fate might come for him and take him in her inevitable way. At he thought of this, never before had the pain of life seemed so cruelly bitter to Barry Home.
He turned, at last, and went down the street. It appeared to him, then, that the very nearness of his doom was what had changed him and made all of these recent solutions of events possible. The moment he came to town, a whisper about him had passed through Twin Falls because he had changed. There was destiny working in him surely and coldly. He had been able to find the friendship of that hardhitting, fiercely honest Irishman, McGuire. He had met and crushed Stuffy Malone. Now, finally, here was Judy Sale telling him so freely that she loved him.
She had even said that her happiness had followed him for a long time, but he discounted that, and was sure that it was what she had heard of his exploits on this one day in Twin Falls that had influenced her mind and opened her soul to him—not to the real Barry Home, the careless, worthless cowpuncher, the mere bit of driftwood, as she had frankly termed him, but a new man, remade, faced by the dangers in which he moved.
It was a sadder thought, then, that he carried with him down the alley and, moving back into the main street, he encountered Tom McGuire who seized on him.
"I been hunting everywhere for you, old son," said Tom. "Now I've got you, and I'm gonna keep you. You can't slide out on the boys this way. It can't be done. We're gonna have a few drinks in honor of you, Barry. We gotta have 'em. We're dry and thirsty to have 'em. You march with me, Barry, you damned, old, stony face. It was the finest thing that I ever seen. I wouldn't have said that any man could do it, but I seen it with my own eyes.
"And me, I felt like a hound, letting you go in alone to meet him like that. I didn't know what you were. I knew you were a good fellow, Barry. I didn't guess that even a Stuffy Malone didn't mean nothing in your young life. Oh, you've kept a lot up your sleeve for a long time, but now we've found you out, and now we know you, Barry, and we think a damned whole lot of you. Stuffy Malone is done. Kids will kick him around the lot from now on. His heart's broke for him. You come along this way, Barry."
He said: "Listen to me, Tom. I'd like fine to go along with you. There's nothing that I'd really like better. But I can't. I've got something to do."
"I'll help you do it, then," said the generous Irishman. "Many hands make light work. I'll lighten it for you. There's a coupla dozen of us that would like to lighten things for you, boy!"
"Thanks, Tom," said Home. He felt like an old man, as he added: "There's nobody in the world who can help me in this pinch. I've got to go at it alone. Thanks, Tom, but I've got to leave you."
Tom McGuire stepped back. "I dunno that I understand," he said. "But I know when a man is up ag'in' some things, he wants to be alone. When you're through with the pinch, we want you with us, Barry. That's all that I got to say." And he stepped back and waved his hand in what was almost a formal salute.
Barry Home went on down the street. And he said to himself that it was still true—it was not the real Barry Home they were all so fond of now. It was that new face which he had acquired, in waiting for inevitable doom.
And wait for it much longer, he felt that he could not. He would have to force himself upon it, and the only door to fate which he could think of was one that lay well before him, down the street, a door over which gleamed a dull light, and the light, in turn, glimmered over the moons of the pawnbroker's shop. Solomon Dill—through him he might come the more quickly upon the end of all things, if his guess were right.
So he marched down to the door of the little shop and paused before it for an instant, doubting a little. Then he laid his hand upon the knob and entered. The jingle of the bell above the door echoed back through the inner rooms and seemed to float back to him in a thin, dismal echo. For the shop itself was empty and, only after a few moments, did he hear a padding footfall. Then the curtain that covered the inner hall was moved to the side, and Solomon Dill himself appeared, in a round cloth brimless cap and a long dingy dressing gown, with slippers on his feet. He seemed to have been eating, and the ragged beard on the end of his long chin was still wagging a little, up and down and from side to side. He paused there, and, holding the robe together over his hollow chest, he solemnly eyed his visitor.
THIS rather awful figure was greeted with: "Hello, Solomon, old son." Solomon Dill advanced a step and allowed the curtain to swing to behind him. Then he said: "Good evenin', Barry Home. What kind of mischief you up to here, young man?"
The cowpuncher smiled. "Not your kind of mischief, Solly," he answered.
"What's my kind of mischief?" demanded Solomon.
"Not murder," said the younger man.
"Murder?" exclaimed Solomon.
"Murder," repeated Barry Home. "You know—the worst kind—murder by hire, is what I mean to talk about."
Solomon Dill wagged his head. Then he sat down in the chair behind the counter and allowed his spare shoulders to fall into their familiar droop. He picked up a stained piece of chamois and with it began to fondle and fumble with a piece of silver with his gnarled fingers.
"You talk sense," he said, "or you go away. I'm a busy man.
"So am I," answered Barry Home. "I'm too busy to be murdered by your hired men."
Solomon raised his head and his voice, and said: "You say that ag'in. Now, get out and stay out. I don't want you here!"
"I know it," insisted Barry Home. "You don't want me here. You'd rather have me dead. You hoped that I'd drop dead there in the saloon, didn't you?"
Solomon Dill did not frown. He merely looked impatiently toward the door. Then he shrugged his shoulders, as one who has endured insult before.
Barry Home continued: "Take it this way, Solomon. You hire Stuffy Malone, and you think that he'll put a couple of slugs through me, and then have a chance to bend over me and wish me good bye, eh? But you forgot one thing."
"I don't know what you say," declared the pawnbroker.
"You try to think again," said Home.
"If you won't go, I've got men to send you," said Solomon, with a dark and quiet anger.
"You send me," answered the other, "and I'll come back with some of the boys of the town. I could tell them things that would make them crack you open like the shell of a crab, to eat the meat inside."
"What could you tell them?" asked Solomon Dill, not expectantly.
"That you hired Stuffy Malone."
"Me? I hire him to kill you?"
"That's a lie!"
"You lie yourself," replied Barry Home. "But Stuffy wouldn't have lied, too, not in the corner where I had him."
The crimson anger died instantly from the face of the pawnbroker, and left his sallowness a grayer tinge than ordinary. "What did he say?" he croaked.
"That you paid him to come for my scalp," lied Home.
"Oh," groaned Solomon Dill, "what for would anybody want to ruin an old man like me, sat'in' such things?"
"That's what he said," answered Barry Home.
"The fool!" screamed Dill suddenly. "And why for would I want to have you killed?"
"For this," said Barry Home.
He held the handle of the broken knife with the red stone in the butt of it under the nose of the pawnbroker. The effect of this gesture was very extraordinary.
Like a hawk on its high post of advantage, ruffling its feathers, gaping its beak open, preparing to leap through the thin fathoms of the air and fasten its talons on its prey, so Solomon Dill in an instant mantled, showed his yellow teeth, and raised both of his skinny hands, as though to grasp the thing from the fingers of Barry Home. It was a revolting and to some extent an unnerving thing.
Barry Home put the thing back in his pocket. "That's the reason," he said. "To a man who knows what it's all about, I think that's enough of a reason to get a man killed."
"Wouldn't I say that men have died before on account of it?" demanded Solomon Dill. He added: "But there ain't no proof against me. There's no proof against me!"
"Maybe not for a courtroom," answered Home, "but there's enough proof to make some of the cowpunchers that are in this town come in here and take your dump to pieces, Solly. You're not the best-liked man in town. You make too much money, and you make it too fast. People are jealous of you. They'd like to take you apart and see what makes you tick."
Solomon Dill narrowed his eyes, and through the thin aperture between the lids he looked far out across the years and saw many scenes of violence, more vividly than they might have appeared in print or in paint. He had, to be sure, seen much of this West in the making. The violent years which had been the foundation of his fortune had also founded his understanding of the wild temper of Westerners when they are roused. More than one necktie party had he witnessed. Once those bony, old hands of his had pulled upon the rope. He liked to remember that scene, as a rule, but he did not like to remember it now.
He said: "Mister Home, old friends like we been for years, old friends like us, why for should we be talkin' so to each other?"
"Because I have a prejudice against being murdered," said Home. "You know how it is. We all have our foolish little ideas. We don't like to be killed before our time. Especially we don't like to be shot up by hired gunmen. Not for the sake of a pawnbroker."
Solomon Dill extended a long, gaunt forefinger. "You know that my fool of a son...he never should sell you that?"
"I know he sold it. That's enough for me to know."
"He sold it. You want a knife. He sell you that! Oh, the fool! The price of his blood ten times, would it be worth that?"
A little chill ran through the very soul of Home. What could be the unique value in that piece of quartz—no, not in the quartz, but no doubt in the stamped inscription on the sides of the handle?
Then furious curiosity mastered the tongue of Solomon, and he exclaimed: "How did you know that one of the twelve knives had that?"
Barry Home countered instantly: "You tell me, first, how did you come to get your dirty hands on it?"
He made his tone loud and peremptory, and Solomon Dill shrank a little. Then he opened his crooked mouth a little and ran the red, furtive tip of his tongue across his lips. "Now, my son," he said, "the time has come for us to stop talking in anger. You want money. I want that. I give you money—you give it back to me."
Suddenly, Barry Home was remembering the voice of the girl, the deep and resolved note in it, when she said: "The moment you come and count out a thousand dollars on the top of this gatepost, I won't even go back to the house for my hat" She had meant it, too. There was no sham about her, and there never had been. He thought of her, also, not as he had been able to see her that night, but as he had seen her in the full light of the day—her rose and brown face, the steady blue eyes. The man who married her was marrying a life's work, clearly enough. But what a work, what a glorious work. Better to commence it, perhaps, even if he could not live long to finish the structure of their happiness together.
He said: "Money is always money, Solomon. What would you offer?"
Solomon interlocked his long fingers. He looked up into the face of Home with a glance filled with something like a wistful entreaty. "Why, Mister Home, I wouldn't haggle about money with you. I want it. You know I want it. I'd make you my top offer right away. I'll give you five hundred dollars."
Dutch had offered fifty cents—this was an offer exactly a thousand times as high. Barry lowered his eyes to conceal the leaping excitement in them. Then he looked up and smiled genially upon Solomon. "You like to make a hard bargain," he said. "But I'm not a fool, Solly."
Dill parted his lips a little, shook his head as though about to delay all further interest in the thing, and then, as though in his own despite, he said: "I want it. I pay for what I want. I'll give you a thousand dollars—in cash." He pulled open a cash drawer as he spoke, sighing and shaking his head, as though reproving himself for his own folly.
But the blood of Barry Home was racing through his veins like hot quicksilver.
"Why, Solly," he said, "I don't know what you think I am. A thousand dollars doesn't interest me...not considering what this is."
Solomon Dill slowly closed the cash drawer. He did not look up again. "Well, what is it?" he asked in the dry voice of one who has no breath left.
"Come along," said Barry Home. "You know what it is, and so do I. Now, you tell me what you'll make me for a real offer. Ready to do that, eh?"
He saw a shudder pass through the body of Dill, from the shoulders to the feet.
Then the pawnbroker said: "I'll pay you five thousand dollars!"
"Five thousand?" answered Home, slowly, utterly amazed, but still ready to pursue this strange game to its ultimate conclusion. "That's almost like a beginning. But now turn loose and make me a real offer, will you?"
Solomon Dill bent back his head and looked up to heaven to witness his agony.
He said: "Ten thousand dollars."
"Bah!" snapped Barry Home. In fact, he had not breath enough to say more.
"Twenty thousand dollars," groaned Solomon Dill, "and may heaven have mercy on my soul."
BARRY rested an elbow against the counter and looked down, still automatically shaking his head. He could not meet the glance of Dill, for fear that the pawnbroker would see the wonder and the delight in his eyes. In the meantime, he es timated rapidly what twenty thousand dollars would do. It would start life so well that there would be no question about the finish of it. He had always been more than an average worker, even working for others. He felt that he could take hold of the problems of life with a giant's grasp, if ever he were to work for himself and such a girl as Judy Sale. They would have land and cattle from the start, and they would make their start grow and grow.
It was not so much of wealth that he thought, but it was of a sufficiency which would enable him to build a house on a small scale and in it raise a family in comfort—brown children as strong as hickory and sound to the core, on the backs of his own horses and riding through all the weathers of the year. Well, that was all a dream. There would be no time for that—though might there not be time for the beginning? There might be another year of life left to him, and any work to which he put his hand, Judy would complete. Of these things he thought, leaning against the counter in the little shop.
Then he said: "Twenty thousand is a lot of money, Solly. But you know what you're offering it for?"
Solomon Dill threw his two arms toward the ceiling. "I know what you think!" he screamed. "If it were clear, if it were clear. But there's a flaw! I know what a flawless ruby might be worth, that size. It's my business to know. But there's a flaw. Come here. Come around here. I show you under my glass." He picked up a small magnifying glass and gestured with it toward his eye.
Barry Home went slowly around the edge of the counter, walking in a profound haze. A ruby? Dimly the same thought had crossed his mind's eye, but the casual opinion of Dutch had dissipated that idea. A ruby? It would have to be in a pendant only, or set in a king's crown. Almost staggeringly he came.
Solomon Dill was exclaiming, hastily: "I offer you twenty thousand! I don't know. I mortgage my soul and borrow all from all my friends, and maybe I'm able to raise thirty thousand for it. That's all."
Thirty thousand dollars! From fifty cents to thirty thousand dollars, and good grazing land was cheap as dirt, and Texas steers to be had almost for the asking, if one wished to ride into that Southern land and drive the lean longhorns north.
He rounded the counter. He leaned and took the magnifying glass and drew from his pocket the knife handle. He heard Solomon Dill saying in a moaning voice: "Not even my boy knew. When I got it, I hid it that way. How should I know that Satan would be sitting under your eyebrows to point out the thing to you? Twelve knives and all of them with the same sort of a silly piece of red in the head of them. I laughed when I thought of that. There would be a fortune standing behind the pane of my window. And the world would walk by and never know the truth."
Suddenly his voice rose to a whining cry: "Now, Ikey!" And he flung his arms around the body of the cowpuncher, pinning him helplessly, for the instant. Before Barry Home could act effectively, he heard a padding step behind him, the grunting sound of an intaken breath, and then a blow on his head which knocked a great shower of red sparks across his vision.
Staggering, he heard the voice of the pawnbroker screaming: "Ride, Ikey! No matter if they kill me. No matter if they send me to prison. Ride! Ride! It's worth all Hades!"
Half sick, Barry Home staggered back and forth, held in the long, strangely powerful arms of Solomon Dill, but then, half consciousness returning, he set himself free with a single gesture. He saw Solomon reel back from him, the long arms flung up to ward off the blow that seemed sure to come, but it was not of Solomon Dill that he thought. It was of the jewel, and that was being carried away by the son of the pawnbroker.
He staggered into the street and saw the fugitive rider fling out of the alley mouth beside the shop and go dashing away—not one rider alone, but two more behind the smaller figure which he identified as Ikey Dill. There was, it seemed, a bodyguard with the younger pawnbroker, and he was behind them, on foot, and in an empty street where his loudest shouts would bring him no assistance. He pulled a revolver, but something stopped him. He never had fired at a human being before, and he could not do it, even on this night. He merely ran on, blindly, with all his might, like a foolish child after a galloping horse.
He saw them swerve out of the darkness of the main street into the moonlight that came pouring down the side alley near the hotel. Around that same corner he dashed the next moment. Far up the slope of the hill he could see the trio diminishing rapidly.
It was fate again, perhaps, which led him on, but he plunged into the stable behind the hotel, and instantly had a saddle and bridle on Blackie. Out into the moonlight he brought the big fellow with a twitch and a leap. And then up the trail.
He had been recognized. Voices called out to him; men were running from the verandah of the hotel, but they would be of no use. To pause and explain would be to lose the race hopelessly, even at the start.
He had seen the three riders scourging their horses frantically forward. But he did not let the tall black run at full speed. There was no need of burning out his lungs on such an ascent. It was a stern chase and was bound to be a long one, and endurance would count for the finish. So he kept the stallion in hand, sweeping up the slope, and as he rode he reasoned.
The first impulse of those riders would be to put one or two ridges of the hills between them and Twin Falls. After that, they would cast about for the best road to their destination, since some definite goal they must have in mind. Perhaps it would be the nearest junction with a railroad. Once on the train, Ikey would be off to some great Eastern city where the gem could be priced and sold. To be sure, he could advertise it in the newspapers, but that would only cause the great ruby to be cut up and sold in fragments to receivers of stolen goods. Stolen it must be. Otherwise, why would Solomon Dill be so earnest to hide it in the cunning manner which he had chosen. How small a thing had undone Solomon Dill's plans—merely the freakish impulse in an idle cowpuncher, driven by destiny, and the chance that he noted the slightly heavier weight of the real gem. All the rest had been sheerest luck, if that were a large enough term for it.
Now, as he rode, he could bless two things—the moonlight and the early falling of the dew. It lay like a sort of bright, gray dust all over the range grass, and though, of course, he lost sight of the trail where it passed into the deep shadows of the woods, yet in the open it was easily traceable—three narrow streaks of darkness across the hills or, where they went one behind the other, one large trail.
Exactly as he had thought, the trail led straight across the ridges of the hills, until the second range was behind him and between him and Twin Falls. Then the sign failed altogether over a broad plateau where the surface was almost entirely naked rock. He groaned when he saw this. There was only one way, and, skirting rapidly around the verge of the rocky ground, he picked up the trails, one by one.
They had played safely and cleverly, too. Each trail led in a different direction: one almost straight back to Twin Falls, one off toward the Case Pass, and the third down the long, narrow valley that led toward the town of Chesterfield. He did not hesitate. For the railroad touched at Chesterfield and that, he made sure, was the point to which the man he wanted would flee. There he would overtake him, fate willing, and take back his own from the fugitive.
Down that valley he let the black stallion take wings, and Blackie ran both kindly and well, as though he realized that the time had come when it was easier and more pleasant to obey than to resist. With every curving of the way, with every lift of the valley floor, anxiously Barry scanned the distance to find a sign of the fugitive. But always the valley stretched before him, silver with dew and the moonlight, and there was only the thin trail of a single galloping horse spotted over the short grass or streaked through the higher growth.
Trees appeared in groves, here and there, and now and again were broad fields of dark shrubbery. In the distance, he began to see the windings of Chester Creek, narrow and bright. Then, rounding the shoulder of a grove, he saw that the trail had vanished before him, and at the same instant Blackie leaped to the side, dodging like a wildcat. A rifle exploded from the shrubbery at the same time, and he heard the whir of the ball pass his head as, neatly shed from saddle and stirrups, he was flung violently forward and crashed into the brush. It received him with a thousand scratches. But the little branches broke the force of the fall like so many springs, and, floundering back to his feet, he saw a form dodging off among the trees. Instantly he rushed forward in pursuit.
IT was Ikey, he made sure, for the figure was of about the same height, and he thought that he could recognize, also, the furtive way in which such a fugitive would run, like a leaping, dodging little ferret. The pain still stabbed to his brain, where the blow had fallen on his head, but a thousand motives of eagerness and rage made him run as he had never run before. Valiantly, the fugitive fled before him, but the long legs of Home were telling the tale, when the little man in front disappeared behind a tree, which instantly gave forth spitting bullets on the farther rim of the trunk. Home dodged behind another trunk, heard the sixth bullet fired, and was out again in a flash.
He heard a wild cry, half yell and half groan, just before him, and then, in the act of reloading a revolver, he saw a small form that suddenly flung the gun at his pursuer's head. It missed Barry Home narrowly. In another bound, he had gathered the man inside the crook of his left arm.
The fellow twisted like a wild thing. A knife flashed in his hand as he swerved about, but the remorseless pressure of the revolver's muzzle against his throat made him drop the useless weapon.
It was Juan, the half-breed, who stood there, shuddering, and moaning: "I wouldn't have taken the job, if I'd known it was you, Mister Home. I swear I didn't know. Would I've worked for that Ikey Dill ag'in' you, I ask? Would I've done that? I didn't know who it was. Only there was somebody that might have to be socked on the head. That was all he told me, when he hired my brother and me. Don't shoot, Mister Home! You wouldn't kill even Stuffy Mason, and look what I am. I'm only a kid!"
He began to cry, overcome with self-pity. Barry Home shifted his grip and shook him by the nape of the neck.
"What did Ikey do? Which trail did he take?" he demanded.
"Back," said the other. "Back straight to Twin Falls. And, in the morning, he's gonna start ag'in, and get to the railroad across the range, and that's all I know. I didn't get no big stake. I only got fifty dollars. That's every bean. I wouldn't have shot, if I knew that it was you. I wouldn't have shot. I wouldn't have been such a fool. I would've known that I didn't have no chance. But when I heard somebody coming up behind, I got desperate, and the rifle...."
Barry Home was already running out from behind the trees. He had heard enough.
Blackie had not run away. The grass was too long and too sweet for him to get very far. To the amazement of his master, he did not throw up his head and bolt when he drew near. Instead, he waited, calmly, merely made a pretense of being about to flee, and in another moment Barry Home was in the saddle and away. He measured the strength of Blackie for that homeward run, and he used it. It was a sadly worn stallion that he turned into the stable behind the hotel, with only one swallow of water to content the ravening thirst of the great horse. Then he hurried out into the street and straight down it he went to the shop of Solomon Dill, pawnbroker.
He did not try the front door. More expert housebreakers might have known what to do with it, but he was unable to think of any device of opening that front door without ringing the bell that worked by friction above it. Instead, he stole down the alley to the side. There was no door there. But in the rear of the little shack there was a back entrance, and within those closely shuttered windows he heard voices murmuring, sounds so soft that he had to press his ear to the keyhole before he could make out the words. Then all was clear enough.
It was Solomon Dill, saying: "No matter what happens to me, you gotta go and get the thing turned into money, Ikey."
"I'd like to turn it into money, Father," said the younger man, "but then what will happen to you? They'll come with the sheriff. They'll have you imprisoned for the rest of your life. And I'll have to change my name, and go to live in another country."
"You fool!" said Solomon Dill, snarling, "what does it matter what comes to me? But you got your ma and your sister, ain't you, to think of?"
"Yes," said Ikey, solemnly. "I would think of them, too."
"I never liked you none," said the father, again in a snarling tone. "I never liked you none, because you was always too smart for me. I wasn't good enough for you. My hands, they wasn't clean enough to suit you, eh?"
Ikey said nothing, and Solomon Dill went on: "I was only a greasy and a mean man, ain't I?"
"No, Father," said the boy. "I know you helped me to go through school."
"And your sister, don't I help her, too? Why shouldn't she help herself, washing a dish, now and then, and maybe a window? Such things is exercise. Why should she always be spending money and studying? Is that good for the eyes?"
"No, Father," said Ikey.
"But now," said the old man, "what with the value of the stock in the store and the price of the ruby—a hundred thousand dollars for that ruby, Ikey! A hundred thousand dollars, if you take it where I say to take it. A hundred thousand dollars! That and the rest. You go to New York, where there is plenty of our kind of people. You change your name. You are Mister Dillingham, then. Your ma, she is Missus Dillingham. Be mighty good to her, Ikey. She is a woman with a loud voice, but she has a good heart. She never is asking for clothes and foolishness."
"And what sort of a life could we lead?" asked Ikey. "How could we live, thinking of you in prison?"
Solomon showed his teeth. "For why not, fool?" he said. "I am an old man, ain't I? And I sit in prison, why not? I pay nothing for board and room. I get my clothes free. The work it is not too hard for old men like me. Besides, I know how to make the best of bad places. It is a little way I have of getting on, Ikey. And all the while, I rub my hands, while I lie in the dark in a good, clean bunk at night, and I think of my fine son, Mister Dillingham, and his mother, Missus Dillingham, and his sister, Miss Dillingham, such nice people, to write to an old man in a prison."
Then, hurriedly, he went on: "Now go, go! I have kept you too long, Ikey. I see the morning, it is beginning. And that Barry Home, he is riding on your trail like a fire in the grass. The evil one is eating his heart, a little bit at a time, and there is much heart in him for Satan to eat. Go quickly, my son! And when you ride through the hills, take off your hat when you pass the house of Alvarado. He don't even yet know, the fool, that the ruby in his safe, now, is paste, and that the real one is going fast with you. Go quickly. And be a good boy."
The door opened, and Ikey stepped straight out into the darkness, and against the muzzle of Home's revolver.
It was a hundred thousand dollars, then, that Barry Home took back into his pocket. But that was not all. He saw, instantly, that he could have nothing to do with the thing. For the simple reason that he knew the rightful owner of the jewel.
Dawn was, in fact, beginning, and the bright sun was up when he rode a very tired Blackie through the plantation of trees, up the winding driveway to the great ranch house of James Alvarado. He still held the kernel of a great Spanish land grant. Only the kernel, a mere trifle of eighty or a hundred thousand acres. In a sense, he was as American as any other citizen of the country, and, in a sense, he belonged in old Castile.
He was American enough to be up like any other rancher at this time of the day, and he was Castilian enough to look slightly down his nose at the tattered clothes and the weary face of Barry Home. The brush had made Barry look like a beggar. And there were streaks of blood, too, here and there on his clothes.
Mr. Alvarado stood perhaps a little too grandly in the hall, resting his hand on the polished, faintly shining back of a chair.
Barry Home pulled out the handle of the broken knife.
"Here, Alvarado," he said. "Here's your ruby. It was swiped out of your safe. You've got something down there that's made of paste. This is the real thing. Good bye. I'm getting back to Twin Falls."
He was at the door before Alvarado caught up with him and stopped him.
"Home," he said, "I can't believe my eyes, or what you tell me. But I know it must be true. By heavens, it is true! I see the real fire of the ruby when the sun strikes it, like this!"
It was true. The whole heart of the square-cut stone was blazing. It filled the palm of Alvarado like burning blood.
"You must not go like this," said Alvarado. "I see that you've been through the devil knows what to get it. There's a matter of reward, Home. It's the chief treasure of the family. It's two centuries old in our family—something to reward your great...."
Barry Home rubbed a hand across his forehead. He was very weary.
"Look here," he said, "suppose you had a dog that ran away. You wouldn't offer me a reward for bringing it back. I don't want your money, Alvarado."
Mr. Alvarado was almost too amazed to speak: "I don't mean a small sum. I mean that several thousand...."
"I've got to go back. I'm pretty tired," said Barry Home, and got into the saddle.
"But who was the thief?" asked the rancher. "Will you tell me that, at least?"
"A poor devil that's got a wife and a son and a daughter," said Barry Home. "They're sweating enough already. There's no good reason for sending them to jail, I guess." And he rode the stallion slowly down the trail and slowly away toward Twin Falls, for horse and man were very weary, indeed.
IT was well on in the morning when he came to the hotel. He went straight to his room, fell on his bed, and slept.
He wakened with a heavy knocking on the door. The proprietor's son came in when he called. "Here's a note for you, Mister Home," he said. "And there's a long-legged goat downstairs that says he wants to see you. We'll give him the run, if you say the word. It's that Solly Dill, that I'm talkin' about."
"Wait a minute," said Barry Home, for a little tingle went through him, as he opened the note.
"Sure I'll wait," said the boy. "The editor of the paper is downstairs, too. And Mister James Alvarado. He's there, too. Everybody's doin' a lot of talking, Mister Home. You sure wake up this little old town, I gotta say!"
Barry Home was reading:
I've been thinking everything over. Everything means you. And everyone else is thinking and talking about nothing else.
I was a silly girl last night. This morning, if you'll come to the gate, you don't have to count out a thousand dollars. Just put your hand on the post. Empty hands are good enough for me.
He closed the note, crumpled it, straightened it out, and slid it gently into his pocket. Then he stood up.
"That fellow, Dill," he said. "I'll have to see him." And he handed a quarter to the boy.
"I'll have him here in a jiffy," said the youngster and was gone in a noisy scamper.
Not long afterward a slow and solemn step approached, and the lofty, though bent, form of Solomon Dill appeared in the doorway. He held in his hands the round cloth cap without a visor. He held it in both hands, stepped inside, and closed the door gently behind him. His eyes were on the floor. Again he was gripping at the cap with both sets of bony fingers.
"Mister Home," he began, and stopped.
"Well?" said Barry Home, frowning. "And now what, Solly?"
Whatever problem was in his soul, Solomon Dill found it difficult to find proper words. Twice again he essayed, before he was able to say: "About the ruby, Mister Home. I know what you did with it. And I know that the sheriff ain't come yet to my house."
"Oh, the sheriff won't come, Solly. I thought you'd done your share of stewing about it. I'm mum."
A little shudder ran through the body of Solomon Dill, as he straightened his gaunt body. He lifted his eyes from the floor to the knees of the cowpuncher, to the gun on his hip, to his shoulders, and at last, with a final effort, to his face. Large tears ran slowly from the eyes of Solomon Dill, and flowed through the deeply cut furrows of his face. But his voice did not tremble, as he said: "I was always a sort of honest man, for a pawnbroker. I was always an honest man, except that once—that once! And now I'm going to be honest all the rest of my old years. Ikey and me, we'll think about you every day, at the end of the day, Mister Home. My little girl, some time I tell her, too."
He was gone, with a long, backward, gliding step.
And Barry Home stood very still with a humbled heart. It was a sad and yet a glorious world which he was leaving. The worst of men were not altogether hopeless.
Then he went down the stairs, but not the front steps, into the lobby of the hotel. He was both pleased and shamed, when he thought of all the fine fellows who were gathered there, James Alvarado among the rest. But he could not face them. Not, particularly, when he had this horrible foreknowledge of disaster that lay in front of them.
So he slipped out the back way and passed through the kitchen, and so down the back steps to the yard in front of the stable.
"Takes a scared hawk to fly high, I've heard tell," said a familiar voice.
He turned and saw before him none other than Doc Grace. "Hello, Doc," he said. "What are you up to in Twin Falls?"
"Just takin' the air," said Doc, "and a coupla span of mules back to the ranch. The old man has gone batty. He's gonna try to raise some wheat on the bottomlands. How are things with you, Barry? You seem to be holding out, still, in spite of what your hands say."
Not long but keenly did the eye of Barry Home rest upon the other. Then he said, rather slowly: "You didn't think that I took any stock in all those lies you told me about palmistry, did you?"
"Didn't you?" said Doc Grace, frowning a little. "Aw, go on, brother, I had you on the run. You gotta admit that. I run you right out of camp to get ready for your own funeral. You know I did. I dunno the right hand from the left, but you gotta admit that I gave you the cold chills for a while."
And suddenly Barry Home said: "Yes, you gave me the cold chills for a day. But I'm glad you gave 'em to me. It's made all the difference to me."
Difference? He left Doc Grace, and went down the street like one who is blinded by excess of light. He moved like one overcome by alcohol, pausing every now and then, and going ahead with uneven steps. He was not a very prepossessing spectacle in that brush-torn suit, streaked in so many places with blood where the briars and twig ends had cut his skin. But he was not thinking of appearances when he turned down a certain alley to the next winding street that had grown up on both sides of a meandering cow trail.
It was early afternoon. The heat was white hot. And he had come out without a hat. Now he stood in front of the Sale house, and before he could speak he heard the loud voice of Mrs. Sale exclaiming within the house. Then he heard the patter of rapid footfalls, and the girl appeared in the hallway, looking, behind the shadow of the screen, like something seen deep in water.
Into the bright sun she flashed, and came swiftly to him.
On the gatepost he had laid his empty hands. She took one of them and brought him through the gate.
"You'll be having sun stroke, pretty quick," said Judy Sale. "You come along inside, silly Barry. There's Missus Brewster at her front window, gaping at us. And there's Missus Merrill, too—just staring! Oh, I hope they think there's something to talk about. Now I've got hold of you, Barry, they can rest assured that I'll give them a great deal more to talk about in a day or two. Come up here—now take that chair in the shade. Isn't that better? Are you dumb, Barry? Can't you speak? No, you don't have to talk. Sit still."
He said nothing, but he looked out through the showering leaves of the Virginia Creeper and felt that he was inside the cool green wall of heaven.