ALL day the storm had been gathering behind Chimney Mountain and peering around the edges of that giant with a scowling brow, now and again; and all day there had been strainings of the wind and sounds of dim confusion in the upper air, but not until the evening did the storm break. A broad, yellow-cheeked moon was sailing up the eastern sky when ten thousand wild horses of darkness rushed out from behind Mount Chimney and covered the sky with darkness. Dashes and scatterings of rain and hail began to clang on the tin roofs in the valley, and the wind kept up a continual insane whining, now and then leaping against window or door and shaking them in an impatient frenzy.
On such a night as this, few men got as far as Yates's Saloon beyond the outskirts of the town of Royal, but nevertheless he was always glad to have this weather, for those who did come stayed long and opened their purses with as much freedom as though the morrow was to be doomsday, and as though their souls needed much warming with honest rye whiskey against that great event.
Mr. Yates had two rooms. The bar was in one, with a round iron stove at one end where the guests might warm themselves and a row of chairs against the walls, for one of the maxims of Yates had to do with the evils of drinking—while standing.
He was engaged in giving good advice at this moment to a youth who rested one elbow on the edge of the bar and poised the other fist upon his hip—a tall, strong, fierce young man who smiled down at the saloon keeper partly in contempt for the advice and partly in mild recognition of the privilege of white hairs.
"You give me another slug of the red-eye, old boy," said the cowpuncher.
Mr. Yates filled the glass with an unwilling shake of the head. As he pushed it back across the bar and gathered in the fifty-cent piece he said gloomily: "You can't hurry liquor, son. Whiskey is something that can't be rushed. You got to go slow and easy, let it mellow you, treat it with caution... and then whiskey will stand your friend."
"All right," said the cowpuncher, tossing off the drink and shoving back the glass. "Never mind the change. Gimme another, will you... and then you can talk some more."
Mr. Yates came to a pause.
"I dunno that I ought to let you drink another so quick," he said.
"You dunno?" said the young man. "I know, though. Fill up that glass!"
There were five men in the barroom, their chairs tilted against the wall, and now five chairs swung softly forward, and five heads were raised.
"I tell you, lad," explained the saloon keeper, "that the whiskey which will be a friend to the wise man can turn into a devil if it's treated carelessly. You can't crowd it into a corner. You can't treat it like a slave!"
"What'll it do?" asked the boy. And stretching out his arm with a movement of snaky speed, he wrenched the bottle from the hands of the saloon keeper, and filled his glass with such a careless violence that an extra quantity spilled upon the well-rubbed varnish of the bar.
"What's this stuff going to do to me?"
Mr. Yates did not attempt to protest against the act of violence. But a dark flush spread over his face and he said solemnly: "It'll take you by the throat and strangle you. It'll send a bullet into your back. It'll throw you under the feet of a mad horse. Or it'll kill you with the horrors, if it feels like it!"
The youngster tossed off his liquor again, coughed, and then shrugged his shoulders. "I don't understand what you're driving at," he said, "and I don't know that I give a damn! Is there any writing paper in that other room?"
There was still more contention upon the tip of the tongue of Yates, but he controlled himself with an effort, for words flow more willingly from the lips of an old man than water from a rich spring. He merely said: "There's always paper there, and welcome!"
There was no answer to this courtesy. The cowboy turned from the bar and kicked open the door. His chair screeched as he drew it up to a table, and after that there was silence from the second room, and silence at the bar, also. The five farmers and cow hands smoked their pipes or cigarettes and watched the thoughtful cloud upon the brow of their host.
"And who is he?" asked one at length.
"Him? Didn't you have a fair look at him?"
"It's Cliff Main," said another. "I knew him over in the Ridoso Valley a few years back, and I'm sure it's him."
"Yes," nodded Yates, "it's the same man."
But one of the others said suddenly: "Why, partner, that's the name of Harry Main's brother!"
Again the saloon keeper nodded.
"It's him," he confessed.
This was followed by a deeper and longer silence, and more than one apprehensive glance was cast at the door of the second room. A weather-beaten farm hand approached the bar and leaned against it.
"Tell me," he murmured, "is he like Harry?" And he hooked a thumb over his shoulder.
"You can see for yourself," said Yates solemnly. But he added, forced on by a keen sense of fairness: "No, he ain't a killer, you might say. He's gone straight enough. But still he ain't any lamb!"
The farmer shuddered a little. "What's his game here?" he asked.
"It's that girl up the valley... her that young Royal is after."
"I mean Christopher."
"It's the Lassiter girl that Chris Royal goes with, ain't it?"
"That's the one. They say that Main seen her at a dance down in Phoenix last year, and it addled his head a good deal. So I guess that's why he's here."
"That would be a thing!" said the farmer. "A Lassiter to look at a Main, eh?"
"Well, I've seen stranger things happen," said Yates. "A pretty girl takes to a strong man, and a strong man takes to a pretty girl. Goodness and badness ain't considered much, and neither is the poor old family tree. But that ain't the point. Georgie Lassiter, she's got one strong man already, and that had ought to be enough! I guess that no woman can ask for more than a Royal, eh?" He leaned on the edge of the bar. "I guess that no woman could ask for more than that," he echoed himself, and he shook his head slowly from side to side and laughed softly.
The others nodded in understanding, as though they were all familiar with the qualities of the family which had given its name to the valley and to the town.
In the meantime the storm had been rising and quickening like the pulse of a sick man's heart, and now the wind broke with hysterical wailing around the saloon. The windows and the doors rattled furiously. The very roofs seemed about to be unsettled, and a contrary gust came down the chimney and knocked a puff of smoke through every crack of the stove.
"What a night!" breathed Yates.
"I'll take another whiskey!" said one.
"And me!" said another. "We'll set 'em up all around. I say that I don't mind a night like this when you can sit warm around a fire with something to keep your heart up. But I could tell you about a night that was a twin brother to this, except that it was in February with ice in the wind. I was back up in Montana, that winter, riding range for the..."
The door quivered and then jerked open, and the wind, like an entering flood of water, made every man cringe in his place. With that burst of the storm came a big young man who thrust the door shut behind him with a strong hand and then leaned against the bar, stamping the water out of his soaked riding boots and shaking the rain out of his hat. He was neither beaten nor even embittered by the force of the wind and the rain. It had merely brought a rosy glow into his face and dimmed the brightness of his eyes a bit with moisture.
"Well, Chris Royal," said the bar keeper. "What're you having?"
"Nothing," he said. "I'm bound home, you see, and Mother doesn't like me to have liquor on my breath. I stopped and put my mare in your shed for a feed and a bit of rest. She was fagged by bucking this wind all the way up the valley."
He broke off to speak to the other men in the room and, as he completed that little ceremony and had asked after their welfare, you might have put him down as the son of a great landed proprietor on whose estates all of these men were living, so that their welfare in a way was his. However, that was not the case, even though the Royals had been so long in the valley, had given it its name, and had dominated all affairs in it that they were placed in a truly patriarchal position. There were no political parties in Royal County or in Royal Valley, for instance. There were only the Royal partisans and their opponents. And the opponents were sure to be merely a scattering and spiteful handful. In other ways, too, the family dominated the region.
"It's a sort of queer name... Royal," someone had said to a man from the valley, and the answer had been instant: "That's because you ain't seen them. They're all fit to be kings!"
"But look here, Christopher," said Yates. "D'you know that, if you don't drink, you're missing one of the best things in life?"
"I take a drink now and then," said Christopher. "I like it as well as most, I suppose. But it bothers Mother to have me do it. So I don't when I'm going toward her, you see."
"Ah, well," said Mr. Yates, holding up a bottle toward the light, "here's something twenty-five years old that I was going to offer you a sip of, but heaven knows that I'd make trouble between no boy and his mother. She's a grand lady, Christopher, and amazing how well she carries her years, ain't it?"
"Years?" said Christopher. "Years?"
"Well, she's getting on, ain't she?"
Christopher Royal looked rather blankly at his host. "I never thought of that," he said. "She isn't really old, you know."
"No, not old! Not old!" said Yates, smiling. "But when we have white hair..."
"Her silver hair," said Christopher, "is beautiful. It's always been silver, you know. As far as I can remember."
"I can remember farther back than that, though," smiled the saloon keeper. "I can remember when she first came to Royal Valley. It was a dark, mean day, and she come in a covered carriage, all made snug. But I had a glimpse of her through the carriage window and saw her face all pink and white and her yellow hair like a pool of sunshine in the shadows of the carriage."
Christopher shook his head. "I can hardly think that my mother was ever like that," he said, smiling in rather a bewildered way. "But you mustn't call her old!"
"Why, Chris, at sixty you can't exactly call her young, can you?"
"Sixty?" exclaimed Christopher. He began to think back. "I'm twenty-five. Duncan is twenty-eight. Peter is thirty. Edgerton is thirty-one. Samson is thirty-five. By heavens, you're right, and she's sixty years old. I should never have guessed that. One doesn't connect years and time with her." He added with a smile to Yates: "And you're one of the unchangeables, too. You've never been any different, have you? Not in my lifetime!"
"Well, lad, well!" smiled Yates, "I do well enough. I just shrink and shrivel a bit as time goes on. I get a little whiter and a little drier, and there's less hair for me to bother about combing, from year to year. But I don't change much. Neither does the old place."
"You've put a new wing on the shed, though."
"You noticed that, eh?"
"Yes. Who did you have do the work?"
"I had the slaves of Adam," said Mr. Yates, and he held out his two hands with a chuckle.
"You did it all yourself?" Christopher whistled. "You're a rare old one. If there were more like you, there'd be no room for the youngsters in the world. You'd take our work away from us."
A door crashed just behind him.
"Are you Chris Royal?" asked a voice, and he turned about and looked into the dark eyes of Cliff Main.
"I'm Christopher Royal," he admitted.
The other stepped up and faced him at the bar.
"I started to find you today," he said. "Then the rain dropped on me and I put in here. I want to have a talk with you, Royal."
"A talk? Where?"
"Well, there's an empty room back here. We might go there."
CHRISTOPHER regarded the newcomer rather dubiously for a moment, but then he nodded and followed him into the other apartment. The door closed behind Main, and the lock grated as it was turned.
"Hello!" said the saloon keeper, starting around from behind the bar. "I don't like that!"
"What're you going to do, Yates?" asked one of the farm hands, catching his sleeve as he passed.
"I'm going to have that door open."
"Now, don't you do it. You know Main. Don't take more'n a little thing like that to send Harry Main crazy. And his brother looks like the same kind of gunpowder."
Yates paused, biting his lip with anxiety.
"Besides, there ain't gunna be no trouble," said one of the others. "it ain't as though Duncan or Edgerton or Samson Royal was in there. Christopher, he's softer than the rest. He's easier and quieter. He's more like a girl, you'd say, compared to his older brothers. He can get on with anybody. I never heard of Chris having an enemy."
"And that's all gospel," said Yates, going back behind the bar. But he paused, now and again, and shook his head. "I don't like that locked door," he sighed. "I remember once that me and my wife had a bad quarrel. And it started with me locking the door..." He broke off with a laugh. "And when I wanted to open that door, I'd lost the key!"
There was general mirth at this, until a sudden uproar of the wind and its loud whistling beneath the door caused the human voices to fall away. The wind itself dropped to a murmur shortly afterward, and everyone in the barroom could hear the voice of Christopher Royal, saying sharply: "I tell you, man, that I don't want any trouble with you! I swear that I've never done you any harm!"
The wind began again, and all the six in the barroom looked mutely at one another, with great eyes.
"It's the whiskey," said Yates suddenly. "I might of knowed it. I told him when he was pouring it down that way. I've seen it happen before. And I tell you that door'll never be unlocked until there's been hell to pay inside!"
He rushed out from behind the bar and tore at the knob.
"Open the door!" he yelled.
There was a sudden sound of thunderous scuffling within, and then a heavy body crashed against the door. Yates, terribly frightened, shrank away.
"Why don't you do something?" he wailed. "Ain't they in there killing each other? Ain't there five of you, big and strong and young, to stop 'em? Why do you stay here with your hands hangin'?'
They looked at one another, these five. Surely they were as strong and as brave as most men, but the sound and the thought of the battle which was raging beyond that door baffled and overawed them. They could not move to help. Perhaps in another instant they would have recovered their courage and been able to act, but the whole duration of the scuffle within the other room lasted only a single moment. It ended with the sound of a revolver shot. Then the key grated in the lock. "May heaven forgive me," said old Yates, "but I'm gunna die with poor young Chris or revenge him!" He picked up a shotgun from behind the bar and laid it level with the opening door, his old face white and tense with savage energy.
The door swung wide—and Christopher Royal stepped out, while a gasp of wonder and relief came from the others in the place. For their sense of suspense had been as great as if they had been forced to stand by while a man was caged with a tiger. And now the man came forth alive.
In the hand of Christopher there was hanging a big Colt with a thin wisp of smoke still clinging to its muzzle like a ghost.
"He's dead, I think," said Christopher, and he leaned against the bar. "I wish that some of you would go and see."
They poured into the writing room. It was half a wreck. One could see that two very strong men had wrestled here, and whatever they touched had given way. Cliff Main lay in the corner on his back with a smudge of blood across his face. There was no reason for a second glance. He had been shot fairly through the brain.
When they came back into the barroom, Yates hastily filled a glass with whiskey and in silence placed it beside the youngster. He gripped it eagerly—and then pushed it away. "She wouldn't like it," he explained. He raised his head and, seeming to discover the gun in his hand, or to remember it for the first time, he threw it on the bar and shuddered violently. He was very white, with a look of sickness in his face, but he was extremely steady and quiet. He said: "Is your telephone working in spite of the storm, Yates?"
"It's working, Chris."
"Then I want you to ring up the sheriff and tell him what's happened out here."
"I'll do that."
"There's nothing to be done for... him, I suppose?"
"For Main? No, he's dead, Chris."
"I thought so. But what did you say the name was?"
"Cliff Main... Harry Main's brother."
"Harry Main's brother!"
He took the glass of whiskey which was standing on the bar. He tossed it off, and then without another word he strode away into the night.
"Look at him," said Yates, addressing the door through which his guest had just disappeared. "Look at him. And you call him soft. I tell you, even Harry Main wouldn't get any better than his brother, if he should come along to even things up. There's something in the Royal blood, and it can't be beat, and it can't be downed. Did you notice him when he came out from that room? Sick looking, because it had been a dirty job and a dirty sight at the finish. But like a rock, eh?" He rubbed his hands together. "As for the killing of Cliff Main," he added with a sudden sternness, "you was all here to witness how Main carried on from first to last, wasn't you?"
"We seen it all," said one of the farmers. "They'll never lay a hand on Chris for this. It's only Harry Main that he's got to think about! And I thank heaven that I ain't in Chris's boots!"
THE wind had changed so that, as Christopher Royal rode up the valley, the rain was volleyed at him from the side, stinging his face until he was forced to cant his head against it. It was an automatic movement. The howling of the wind and crashing of the rain which had seemed terrible enough to him before were now as nothing, for there was a war in his spirit which quite overwhelmed all mere disturbances of nature.
He had killed a man! To Christopher the miracle was that in the crisis, when his back was against the wall, his skill with a gun, built up by many a long year of practice, by many a strenuous hunting season, had not deserted him. When the need came, mechanically the weapon had glided into his hand, and he had shot swift and true, so swiftly and truly, indeed, that Cliff Main had not been able to complete his own draw before the pellet of lead had crashed through his brain.
But suppose that he had known that the name of the man was Main? Suppose that he had known that this was none other than a brother to the famous fighting man, Harry Main? What then?
It made convulsive shudders run through Christopher's body, and in the blackness of the night with the rush of the storm about him he told himself again the secret that no one other than the Almighty and his own soul had ever been cognizant of before: he was a coward!
How, then, could he have come to the age of twenty-five years without having that weakness publicly exposed by the rough men of Royal Valley, where he had spent his life? The answer was simply that his family were all above the shadow of reproach. They had filled the mountains with their deeds for many a year, and this present brood seemed to have improved upon the old stock rather than fallen away from the good tradition. If there were a riding or a hunting or a shooting contest, one could be sure that one of the Royals would be the winner. And when it came to fighting—why, who was apt to forget that the scars on the face of Samson Royal had been received in hand-to-hand battle with a grizzly? And who could fail to know that Edgerton Royal had ridden single-handed into Pinkneyville, when he was deputy sheriff, and come out again herding two prisoners before him—prisoners he had taken away from beneath the eyes of a hundred of their friends? As for Peter Royal, he had proved that he was worthy of spurs on that dire night when the three Mexicans cornered him, and only a year before Duncan Royal had shot out an argument with two men on the Chimney Trail.
So they were all proven, and there had remained only the youngest of the brood, Christopher, to make his name. Yet it had hardly needed making. Men took it for granted that one Royal was about as good as another. There might be little differences, but the world generally agreed that all were lions—pick which you would!
For one thing they all looked alike. That is to say, the smallest of them all, Samson, was a full two inches above six feet, and the tallest of them, Duncan, towered a palm's breadth above his older brother. They had all the same sort of shoulders, filling a door as they went through it. And concerning their might of hand, wonderful and beautiful fables filled the land. How Samson had twisted the iron bar in the blacksmith shop in Royal Town—behold, it still hangs against the wall as proof. And how Edgerton could take two packs of playing cards and tear them across. And how Christopher himself had lifted the entire bulk of a horse!
Such stories filled the mountains with echoes. Since not one of the band had ever been found weak in any manner of physical or nervous test, it was taken for granted that all were of the same true, pure steel. But one person in all the world knew the facts. He knew that Duncan and Edgerton and Samson and Peter were all undoubted heroes with hearts even stronger than their hands. But he knew also that there was one fatally weak link in the chain of brotherhood. That was himself. For Christopher during years and years had felt a weakness in his spirit, and he had waited for the dreaded moment when he should be tested. Or could it be that the family name and fame would shield him effectually all his life?
In his school days he had not so much as guessed it. No matter how mighty had been the tradition that his brothers had left behind them in the little white schoolhouse by the river, he had not been overawed. The height of Duncan's jump, and the width of Peter's leap, and the speed of Samson on foot, and the weight of Edgerton's fist had all become proverbial in the school. But young Christopher bided his time and surpassed them, one by one. He was just as strong as they, and in addition he was a little more supple, a little more graceful, a little more brilliantly swift and sure of hand. And other graces had been lavished upon him, as though Nature, who had framed his brothers on so magnificent a scale, had been merely practicing for the moment when she was to create Christopher. So she had made the others big and glorious, but she gave to Christopher the gift of beauty, also. The others were dark. She made him fair. There was a touch of gloom about the others, as there is apt to be with big men, but Christopher she made joyous from the beginning. Altogether, if the citizens of Royal Valley had been asked to select one of the family as the representative of all that was best and finest in them, they would have picked Christopher with almost one voice. There were a few, of course, who were not impressed by his gentleness.
But in this lavishness of hers, Nature had forgotten the prime and essential gift. She had left out the vital spark of courage. And though no man knew it except Christopher himself, he had passed through many a dreadful moment when he stood face to face with his secret.
Now the very secrecy that enveloped the fault was threatened. For, as certainly as lightning strikes, Harry Main was sure to come to avenge the death of his brother. And when Harry Main came, what would Christopher do?
In his desperation he vowed that he would go out to meet the destroyer and in some hidden place, with no man to see, he would fight and die. Yet, in his heart of hearts he constantly knew that he would not be able to meet the great test. When Harry Main approached the valley, Christopher would slink away—and never again dare to show his face among his kin. Somewhere far off he would have to find a new place in the world, a new name, and there live out his wretched destiny.
And when he thought of these things, it was typical of Christopher that he did not think of the faces of his four strong brothers, hard with scorn and contempt, but the picture that rose before him was of two women. One was his mother, and the other was the lovely Georgia Lassiter whose head was always carried so jauntily high. He was sure that the reason she loved him so passionately was not so much for himself, his mind and his spirit, as because of an ideal of manhood which she had conceived and which she had grafted upon Christopher. She loved, not him, but her idea of him. If once she guessed at such a dreadful taint as cowardice, all her love would be replaced by a fiery disgust.
And his mother? When Christopher thought of her, his heart bowed almost to the mud of the road. What she would think and do and say was beyond him, for he knew the sternness which underlay her motherhood, and he knew the iron of her pride in her family.
He reached the turning from the main road and saw before him the avenue of poplars, their heads shaken and bent beneath the fierce hand of the wind. Down the gravel drive he galloped the tired mare and so wound into view of the Royal House itself, with its lofty front and its romantic wooden battlements. From the top of the neighboring hills the naked eye could see Royal House like a great natural landmark of the valley, and from directly beneath it looked rather like a great palace than the residence of a rich rancher.
Behind its wide-flung arms were the sheds, the barns, and the maze of the corrals where the weaker cattle were sheltered and fed through the severer winters. There were the quarters for the hired men, also. Day and night, for all these years, there had never been a moment when smoke did not rise from some chimney in that group of buildings.
Christopher, looking at it all, and thinking of what it meant, felt again what he had often felt in his childhood—that big and strong as all his brothers were, his father who had built these things must have been even to them as a giant to pygmies. And his mother had been the proper wife of such a man. Still she ruled the establishment with a power as firm as it was mild, and even her eldest son dreaded her quiet voice more than the booming of a cannon.
Christopher had been a little different. He had been the baby of the family. He had been the petted one. For having raised so many sons so well, even such a woman as Marcia Royal could afford to relax a little and favor her youngest child.
He thought of this bitterly now. For, if he had passed through the same stern school as the others, might he not have developed, like them, the same iron core to his spirit? Might he not have grown, like them, into a hero of heart and hand also?
He gave the mare to a stable boy. Then he turned to the house, and, as he walked, he wondered how he should tell the story. And what would the others say? He decided that he would say nothing for the time being. So he went into the living room and found them all, except Samson, gathered in easy chairs near the fire on the open hearth.
He changed his clothes, and, when he came down again, he found that his mother had a cup of hot coffee waiting for him. She stood behind his chair, with her hands on his shoulders, while he drank it.
She spoke quietly: "Christopher, dear, you shouldn't have come out on such a night. You know that."
"I tried to telephone from Wooley's, but the line was down in the wind, I think. I was afraid you'd worry if you didn't hear from me. So I came on out."
"And why not telephone from Yates's place? And stay there the rest of the night?"
He did not have a chance to answer, for just then Samson came in and fixed his dark eyes instantly and firmly upon the face of his youngest brother, so that Christopher understood that Samson knew all that had happened.
THERE was something so unusual about Samson's air that the others noticed it instantly. For that matter, the oldest brother of the Royal family was always so direct, so fiercely sincere, that it was not usually difficult to understand what was going on in his mind.
He came across the room after a moment and stared down at Christopher, who stirred uneasily beneath that glance. Afterward, Samson went before the fire and stood with his back to it, until steam began to rise from his wet clothes.
"Now what is it, Sammie?" asked his mother.
Samson was the only member of the family that dared disregard for an instant a direct remark from his mother. In place of answering he suddenly put back his head and shook with silent laughter.
"Samson!" cried Mrs. Royal.
At this, he came to himself with a start.
"What on earth is the matter with you?"
"My dear, you must tell me at once. You make me nervous."
Samson allowed a broad smile to spread over his face, while he stared straight across the room directly at Christopher. "Look there!" he commanded.
"There is Christopher, of course," said the mother. "You are really rude, Samson. Now, what about Christopher?"
"I don't know what you mean. What should there be about him?"
"Don't beat about the bush, Samson!"
He sobered down at that, but still there was a suppressed exultation in his eyes and in his voice. "You haven't heard. He wouldn't say anything about it. He doesn't want to shock you!" And the laughter broke out again, not mirthful, but savage. "I'll tell you what," said Samson, "this old Christopher of ours, whom we've always thought so gentle and all that, he's a lion under the fleece! I've always guessed it. And tonight he's proven it!"
Mrs. Royal turned on her youngest son. "Christopher, what have you done?"
Christopher stirred in his chair and tried to answer, but he could only shake his head and murmur, "I can't talk about it!"
"It was too much," said Samson with a grim satisfaction. "Nasty business. He doesn't want to talk about it. Doesn't want to at all! Well, I'll tell you what happened. I came up the road to Yates's Saloon and got there just after Chris left. I heard what had happened, and I saw!"
"What was it, Sammie, in the name of heaven!"
"Why, I'll tell you what it was! I found there the proof that Chris is your real son, Mother!"
"Have you doubted that? Did you think he was a foundling?" asked Mrs. Royal, looking fondly at her youngest son.
Samson went over to her and dropped his big hands on her shoulders. "You understand, Mother, that it was always easy to see that Chris was like you in one way... like the gentler side of you... but we didn't think that he had your iron."
"Am I iron, Sammie dear?"
"You may smile at me, Mother, but you can't fool me. Yes, you are iron, in the time when iron is needed. And if you hadn't been a woman, you would have made as hard a man as ever stepped!"
"That needs some explaining, foolish boy."
"Well, we all remember the time that the Crogan dog went mad, and tried to get at us, and how you stood it off with your walking stick!"
"That was a horrible day," she said.
"No, you liked it! I'll never forget how your eyes shone as you stood up to that wild, foaming beast!"
"Tush, Sammie. But I want to hear about Christopher."
"Well, about darling Christopher," murmured Samson, and he turned his powerful, homely face toward him. "I'll tell you. But watch him squirm. Watch him wriggle while I talk."
"Don't be too ridiculous, Samson. Just tell me the facts."
"There were several facts. To begin with, Chris was at the Yates place this evening. And so were several others. And one of them was young Main."
There was a sudden stiffening in the attitudes of all of the family.
"You mean Harry Main's younger brother?" asked Duncan, the giant.
"A ruffian, like his brother Harry!" exclaimed Mrs. Royal.
"Look at Mother's eyes shine," nodded Samson. "She's gentle... no iron about her." He stopped to laugh with a savage satisfaction again.
"Samson!" cried Christopher hoarsely. "I don't want to hear any more of this!"
"You can't help it, Chris. You simply can't help hearing it."
"I can, though, and I shall!"
And Christopher strode hurriedly from the room.
"Now will you tell us before we all go mad?" said Mrs. Royal.
"It was like this... Cliff Main had come to Yates's place, poured down some stiff whiskies, and then gone into the next room to write a letter. Then Chris came in. He wouldn't drink, not when he was riding home to his mother."
He paused and grinned.
"My darling Christopher," smiled Mrs. Royal.
"He's a darling," nodded Samson. "A perfect lamb. Wait until you hear the end of this yarn, though."
"I want to hear it, if you'll only get on."
"Main come out of the other room and found Christopher..."
Here the door opened suddenly and caused everyone to start. It was Christopher coming back—a pale and shaken Christopher.
"Samson," he said, "I want you to stop making such nonsense over what happened."
"I'll tell them myself exactly what happened, since they have to know the truth about the miserable affair."
"Go on, old man. Of course, we have to know."
"Cliff Main made me leave the barroom with him. We went into that other little room. The moment we were alone, he grew insulting. And after a time, when he saw that I wanted to be friendly and keep out of trouble, he grew overbearing... horribly so! And finally he said that he happened to be interested in Georgia Lassiter, and that that was reason enough for me to stop paying attention to her."
There was a stifled exclamation from Mrs. Royal. Christopher, his eyes closed, rested a hand against the wall. He said slowly: "I couldn't quite stand for that, you know. And I had to tell him that the thing would not do."
Christopher did not speak for a moment. He was recalling that moment over again—the sinking of his heart and the sickness of his spirit, and the manner in which he had felt that he was slipping into a sea of darkness. Another instant and he would have begged for mercy. Another instant and he would have tried to flee from the room. But that instant was not given him by the brutal Main. There had been a flash of a hand toward a gun. And he instinctively had moved to make his own draw—and made it first!
"And then," said Christopher faintly, "he started for his gun. And I had to start for mine..." He paused, breathing hard. "The bullet passed through his brain." Christopher sank down in a chair. He was overcome by horror.
His mother was suddenly beside him, her arm around him. "Chris, my dear boy. I know. No matter what a brute he was, he was a human being. But now that you've done this thing, there'll never be any need for you to do another. You detest bloodshed, and having proved that you're a man who cannot be tampered with safely, the others will be sure to leave you alone! Dear boy, how my heart aches."
He did not answer. He could not look at her. She thought his horror was because he had had to take a life. But it was not. It was horror at the knowledge of how close he had been to a nervous collapse, to a complete hysteria of cowardice.
"But you're wrong, Mother," said Edgerton Royal, the logician of the family. "You're quite wrong. Before the week's out there'll be another gun fight on Chris's hands."
"What do you mean?"
"Think for yourself. Will Harry Main allow the man who killed his brother to get on without another fight?"
"Harry Main! That murderer! That gunfighter! No, you will all band together and prevent him. You'll all meet him and crush him!" cried Mrs. Royal.
"Wait!" said Peter Royal, for he was the judge of the family. "Wait, Mother, and tell me if you yourself would allow other people to fight your battles if you were a man?"
She hesitated. Christopher, his face buried in his hands, waited breathlessly. Then he heard her saying slowly: "No, I couldn't. And not a one of you will be different. Not a one of you will want to help poor Chris, though every one of you would die to avenge him! But oh... what a dreadful trial for my poor Chris. Such a man as Harry Main."
Samson was speaking, Samson the mighty, the ugly of face, the steely hearted. "Chris'll beat him! Let these gentle fellows get the taste of blood and they're worse than the worst of the gunfighters that are born hard and mean. I'm a prophet. You wait and see what happens. For a million I wouldn't be in the boots of that fellow Harry Main!"
Harry Main? To Christopher, it was as though he had been thinking about a great tiger rather than a man. Harry Main? He would as soon stand up to a thunderbolt as to that destroyer. What was Cliff Main compared to such a devil of a man?
He waited. A pause of solemnity had come in the talk of the room. And in that solemnity he knew that every one of the stem and strong brothers was resolving that the battle must be fought out man to man. So his last hope was thrown away.
SLEEP came to him that night as a most unexpected guest. And the morning dawned and found him twelve hours nearer, not to death, but to his humiliation. For all thought of standing for the trial of courage against Harry Main had left him. But, knowing that in the crisis he would not be present, he was able to put on a smile when he went down to breakfast. The others greeted him with a forced cheerfulness that made him feel they already thought him as good as dead. Only his mother did not smile but sat very sternly erect, her eyes looking far away. What schemes might be passing through that formidable brain of hers, equal to any man's?
After breakfast, Peter called him to one side. "Here's that Winchester of mine that you've always liked, Chris," he said. "I want you to have it."
Peter hurried away, leaving Christopher more thoughtful than ever. For his brother, Peter, was a great hunter, and this was his favorite rifle of which he had often said that the gun had a will and a way of its own in shooting straight to the mark. Such a gift meant a great deal. It was more than a rifle. It was as though Peter had parted from some of the strength of his very soul.
To be sure, Harry Main was as apt to fight with a rifle as with a revolver. Various stories of his prowess passed through the mind of Christopher. He remembered that old tale of how the four Brownell brothers had gone on the trail of Harry Main and shot him from behind, and how he had dragged himself from his fallen horse to a nest of rocks and bandaged his wound, and fought them off through all of a hot, windless day among the mountains. Three of the Brownell boys he killed outright. And Jack Brownell, with a bullet through his shoulder, rode fifteen miles to get to a doctor. As for Harry Main, he had needed no doctor but cured his own hurts.
That was one eloquent testimonial to the skill of Harry with a rifle. And Christopher's face contorted a little in unwilling sympathy as he thought of the injured man dragging himself about among the rocks and firing at some momentarily exposed bit of an enemy among the adjacent rocks.
However, though rifles were a possibility, revolvers were far more likely. And as for the examples of the hardihood of Main with a Colt, there were a dozen to select from, each well-nigh as incredible as the other. Perhaps none was quite so startling as that tale of how, when he was little more than a boy, he had followed three Mexican cattle thieves who had raided his father's little ranch—followed them over a thousand miles, until the trail crossed the Rio Grande, and on the other side of that famous river had encountered them in broad daylight, unexpectedly, at a bend of the road. All three had opened fire. But Harry escaped without so much as a wound, laid the three dead with three bullets, and then turned and began the long march back toward the ranch, driving the lean cattle ahead of him.
That had been revolver work, and upon a revolver it was most likely that Harry would depend now. So Christopher took a pair of Colts and a loaded ammunition belt. He went back behind the house to a quiet little dell where the poplars walked in their slender beauty along the banks of a winding stream. It was an unforgettable spot in the mind of Christopher, because at this place he had first told Georgia Lassiter that he loved her, and she had said so frankly and joyously that she had always loved him.
It gave him seclusion now. With his heavy knife he sliced a blaze on the faces of six posts and then, at twenty paces' distance, he walked rapidly past those posts and put a shot in each.
He examined them afterward. A bullet had cut through the heart of each white spot except for one, where the pellet had torn through the margin of the blaze. But even so it would have touched the heart, had that post been a man.
He was infinitely pleased with this exhibition of skill. Not that it determined him any the more strongly to remain and wait for the coming of Harry Main into the valley, but, because he had worked for so many years to make himself expert with weapons, there was a meager satisfaction in seeing to what a point his skill had attained.
He went on to other little bits of marksmanship. He would select a tree, mark it with a blaze, and then turn his back upon it, close his eyes, and, whirling rapidly around, look and fire all in an instant. It was terribly trying work. He missed the blaze three times out of four, but still he always managed at least to strike the tree trunk.
Then he had another little exercise of skill which he often worked at. If you knock a man down with your first bullet, he may still shoot and kill you while he lies, bleeding and sprawling on the ground. So he marked trees with a double blaze, one head-high and one against the roots, and he began to fire his shots in pairs, and the sap oozed from the wounds that he made in the tender saplings.
He changed from that to picking up bits of wood, or stones, and tossing them high in the air—then whipping out a revolver and firing at the flying target. Once in three times he hit with his first shot. And half of the remainder he managed to smash with a second shot. But one in three fell to the ground untouched. However, such shooting could never be made perfect. It was just a wonderful test and training for speed and accuracy of hand and eye combined.
Three times in succession he tossed high into the air a stone no larger than his palm in size, and three times in succession he blew it into a puff of powder with a well-planted bullet. As the last bit of sandstone dissolved in the sunshine into a glimmering mist, there was a little burst of hand-clapping from the side of the meadow, and Georgia Lassiter rode out to him on the little white-stockinged chestnut that he had given to her the year before.
She was the last person in the world he wanted to see. All the rest he could give up and endure their loss—even his mother. But Georgia was different.
She swung down from the saddle and into his arms, and she stood there, holding him close and straining back her head a little from him to look up into his face.
"You'll beat even Harry Main!" she declared. "You can't fail. It really isn't in a Royal to fail, Christopher."
"Mother has told you, then?" asked Christopher gloomily.
"Your mother didn't need to tell me, because everyone in the valley is talking about nothing else, and last night the telephones were simply humming with the news. Everyone says the same thing, Chris... that you'll beat him! Because an honest man is stronger than any scoundrel and thief."
"Is Harry Main a thief?" he asked rather blankly.
"He is! He is!" cried Georgia, who never failed to defend her opinions with vehemence. "A man who picks pockets is a thief when he only takes away a watch or a wallet. Then what about a villain who uses his greater training and cleverness to steal the lives of other men? Isn't he a thief... a murdering thief?"
"He always uses fair fight, Georgia."
"I know, and there's something grand and terrible about Harry Main. But still... when I stood there and watched you practicing, Christopher, I couldn't see how any man in the world could safely face you."
"There's a difference between target practice and practice at a living target, you know."
"You seem so pale and gloomy, dear."
He looked vaguely at her, like a child, hardly seeing her, and yet keenly aware of details, such as the depth of tan in the hollow of her throat, and the trembling in the wind of the cornflower at her breast.
"I'm not very cheerful," he told her anxiously. And he waited, to see if that would make her guess anything. She was merely a little irritated.
"There's Lurcher, too," she said, "looking as if you'd just beaten him!"
Lurcher was a melancholy crossbred hound, a very ugly beast that had strayed down the road to the Royal ranch and stayed there, adopting Christopher as his particular sovereign deity. But he would never follow Christopher farther than the limits of the ranch, which he seemed to know by a peculiar instinct. Even when there was a hunt, he would not follow a trail beyond the borders of the Royal estate. Lurcher had passed through many a dreadful trial, it seemed, in his earlier life, and he was fixed in his determination to remain as much as possible on the soil where he had found freedom from persecution. Now he skulked in from the edge of the meadow and lay down in the shadow of his master, raising his mournful eyes toward the girl.
"I never beat Lurcher," explained Christopher, a little hurt by her tone.
"I wish that you would," she said in one of her petulant moods. "It might do him good. It would stop him from thinking so much about his troubles by giving him something to worry about."
"He's not a bad dog," said Christopher. "He does things, you know."
He drew his hunting knife and threw it dexterously so that it stuck in a poplar trunk thirty feet away. "Get it, Lurcher!" And the hound trotted obediently over, worked the blade from the trunk, and came back, wagging his tail with joy to lay the knife at his master's feet and then raise his sorrowful eyes in worship toward the face of Christopher.
"Without cutting himself!" cried Georgia.
"You see, Georgia, he's not such a bad dog."
"But he's a coward, Chris. I never could understand how a Royal could endure any cowardly creature near."
This was pressing him very close, and he winced from the thought. "He's not cruel or treacherous or unkind or bullying or underhanded or disloyal, Georgia," he argued. "You have to admit that's a good deal to say for any character."
"Is it?" She shrugged her shoulders and then burst out: "I'll tell you, Chris, it really doesn't amount to anything. What's the good of friendship that doesn't dare to fight for the sake of its friend? What's the good of love that won't die for the thing that's loved? Can you answer me that?"
HE went back to the house with Georgia at his side, sitting lightly in her saddle.
"All the rest seem to think that it's the same as sure death to have Harry Main go on the trail of a man, but I don't feel that way," said Georgia Lassiter. "I know that courage and the right have a force in the world. I thank heaven for that faith. And... I want to have our engagement announced tomorrow... before anything can happen to you."
He caught at the bridle of her horse, but she reined the chestnut dexterously out of his reach.
"Georgia! Georgia! Do you mean that?"
"Why, of course I mean that, silly."
"And then... suppose that something happens...?"
"Something may happen to you, but that won't kill my love for you, dear. You don't suppose that because a bit of a bullet might strike you down, Chris, it would strike down my love also? No, I laugh at such an idea. I've no fear of myself! And once I've let the world know that I love Christopher Royal and intend to marry him, I'll never change my mind. Nothing can change it. I tell you, Chris, that I'd be as true to your ghost as to yourself"
She said it with a fiery enthusiasm, her nostrils dilating a little. He thought that there was something rather more knightly than womanly in her bearing. It seemed odd to Christopher that his mother and this girl, both so deeply in his life, should have such a strength between them. And he such a weakness!
"Georgia," he breathed, "I wish... I wish..."
"What do you wish?"
"I wish that there didn't have to be any change, but that the two of us could just go on like this forever... no tomorrow... no yesterday..."
"You'd get hungry after a while," observed Georgia.
"That's the way that the gods live," said Christopher. "Always in the present, with no sorrow for what has been and no dread of what is to come."
"Chris, you're talking like a pagan priest."
"To be like this, Georgia dear, with you on your horse, within the sweep of my arm, and I walking here beside you, and the good rich yellow sunshine pouring down on us both, and the face of that river always silver ahead of us... don't laugh, if you please!"
"I won't laugh. You frighten me when you talk like that."
"Frighten you? You?"
"Do you think that I can never be frightened?"
"Yes, I've always thought that."
"I'll tell you what, Chris. If something happens... oh, why should I beat about the bush? I mean... suppose that Harry Main actually kills you, I'll have to go the rest of my life like this... I mean, with my back turned on what's around me and always looking away on the times when you and I were together and alone. There aren't many of those times. I suppose that I'll begin to wonder why I didn't spend every moment with you while I had the chance, and why I didn't beg you to marry me quickly, and why I didn't have a baby to keep after you. And... I'm getting so sorry for myself that I'll be crying in another minute!"
Christopher could not answer, for such a coldness of dread and of sorrow had grown up in him that he felt the very nerves of his knees unstrung, and a horrible weakness of spirit passing over him. "Georgia, you'd better go on home."
"No, I want to talk to your mother first."
"There's no good in that. You understand? I don't want to talk about Harry Main. I don't want to think about him... until I have to."
She swung the chestnut closer and dropped her arm over his shoulders. "I know," she said. "That's the right way... not to worry about the game until it has to be played. But heaven won't dare to let Harry Main win."
He looked up to answer her. She kissed him, and then galloped the chestnut away. He watched her across the fields. Lurcher, who had followed the galloping pony to the first fence, stood up with a forefoot resting on the lower rail and looked after her with a low whining which was the nearest approach to a voice of any kind that people had ever heard him use.
There was something wonderfully touching, to Christopher, in the dumb excitement and grief of the dog. He called Lurcher back to him, and went on into the house where he found the letter that laid the last stone in the wall of his misfortune.
It came from Harry Main, and it said simply:
They've brought me news about how Cliff died. I'm coming down into your valley as soon as I can. That ought to be by about Thursday. I suppose that you'll want to meet me somewhere around Royal Town. Wherever you say will suit me fine. I'm coming to Yates's Saloon to talk to old Yates. And you could leave a message with him for me.
Yours very truly,
It was all so very quietly written, and so rather gentle in a way, that Christopher could hardly believe that the quiet words which he had been reading could have flowed from the pen of the man whose terrible guns had brought him such a crimson fame throughout the land. But, after all, Christopher knew perfectly well that the loud-mouthed and cursing heroes are of a very inferior breed compared with the silent and workmanlike gunfighters who build their fame by actions rather than by boasts.
He read and re-read that letter, and then he showed it to his mother. She read it with care, as though it were a much longer document.
"I'm sorry," said Mrs. Royal, "because I'd hoped that you would not be destroying such a thorough man as this letter seems to be from. I'd hoped that you would simply be facing a vagabond and a bullying scoundrel. But it seems that Harry Main is not that sort. It's a very good letter, Chris. Don't you think so, dear?"
He could nod in answer to this.
"One feels so much assured strength and self-reliance in it," she went on. "And no cursing, and no boasting, and no threatening. In fact, it's just the sort of a letter that I would hope to see you write, Chris, if you were in a similar position!"
He said, "if one of my brothers were killed, would you want me to ride down to murder the murderer, Mother?"
He was curious, and listened to her with a sort of detached interest, although he knew her answer beforehand.
"No," said Mrs. Royal, "I shouldn't expect you to do anything like that... not trail until your older brothers had ridden out first, l mean to say!" She added this as a sort of afterthought.
"But suppose that they all went down, one after the other...?"
"Oh, of course, you would go! Why do you ask such a foolish question?"
"Because in some parts of the country they think that the law should be left to handle such work as this."
"In some parts of the land," she replied, "the law is a grown-up force, but it's not grown-up out here. It's simply a child. And one poor sheriff has less chance of keeping order among the wild men of these mountains than a single little boat would have of policing the seven seas. So that's why there's a different code. And there has to be. Manhood is the mainly important thing. Just sheer manhood. That's what we have to worship out here."
He could see that there was no use trying to persuade her into another viewpoint, for she had lived so long in this land and had grown so inured to its strange ways that she could not feel or think in any fashion other than this. She believed in the lynch law for cow and horse thieves, for instance, and there was on record a case when she masked herself and rode with the mob to see justice done. And yet there was very little of the iron to be seen in her face. She was rather a small woman, delicately made, and her hand was smaller, indeed, than the hand of Georgia Lassiter's. Her carriage was as daintily erect as Georgia's, too, and her laughter had almost as young a ring in it. Youth might wear a different face in Mrs. Royal, but its heart was not greatly altered.
"There are still forty or fifty years for growing old," she loved to say, "and I'll never use them all."
"What do you mean?" someone would always ask her.
"One of these bucking horses will finish me one of these days. Or else, one of our enemies will creep up and shoot me. I only hope that it's not in the back. I only hope that I can see my death coming straight before me. I don't think that I'll flinch."
That was not an affectation but the actual state of her mind and of her desires. She had lived like a lady all her life. But she wanted to die with her boots on, like a man.
"I don't know that my granddaughters will have much use for me," she also used to say, "but I want all my grandsons to be able to look up to my memory."
Which was the reason why Christopher, hearing her speak in this fashion, could not help wishing that some of the "manhood" which she worshipped, and which she also possessed in such a degree, could be stolen away and placed in his own heart. But he saw that for the first time in his life he would be able to draw no comfort from her. For the way she saw the matter was far closer to the manner in which Harry Main was seeing it than it was to the viewpoint of her own son.
He went up to his room and sat there in a brooding silence. He could see that there was no cause for changing his earlier decision. If he could manage to slip away from the house that very night, he had better do so, because there were only two days left before the announced date of the arrival of Harry Main, and before that time he must be far, far away, leaving a small track to be followed, as followed he must be.
HE made himself quite jolly through that evening, because he knew that he was making his last impression save one upon his family. And in the course of the evening Peter Royal could not help breaking out: "I wish that I had your fine nerve, Chris! To stand up to the music like this while every minute is bringing that devil closer and closer."
Christopher, when he was alone in his room, brooded over this, sitting by the window and looking into the dark, deep face of night that lay outside. He was called down to the telephone, then, and Georgia's voice came sweetly to him.
"I had to speak to you again today, Chris. I've had a dreadful feeling all the time, as though you were slipping away from me. No, it's not prophetic. It's only fear. It's only fear, Chris! But, oh, l wish the thing were over with!"
He said good night to her hastily, for the sound of her voice had sent a thrilling weakness through all of his veins, and he felt that he had hardly the strength to get back up the stairs to his room.
He turned out the lights and lay down to rest a little, if he could, but the blackness swirled above him and stifled him like the beating of wings of enormous moths. Time dragged on miserably until at length the house grew quieter, then silence, and he knew that he alone was awake—or should be awake. He made up his pack for the trip. He made it small, consisting of the barest essentials, so that it could be done into a tight roll inside his slicker. He had in mind the horse he would take. It was the flea-bitten roan which Samson had given him as a birthday present the year before. The gelding would never tire at his work, wherever it led.
When he had completed the preparations, he remembered that he had forgotten Peter's rifle. That was just the last thing in the world that he wished to leave behind him, so he reached into the closet to find it. Pulling it out, the old bamboo fishing rod swayed out and tapped its slender stem against his forehead. He stood for a moment in the darkness, gripping it, and remembering with a sudden rush a thousand things out of his boyhood, when he had first learned to use that rod. He saw again the windings of the creeks, and the creaming surfaces of the little rapids, and the broad, brown faces of the pools, where the fish would be lurking beneath the fallen logs along the banks. He saw himself once more trudging home with the rod on his shoulder and the dangling fish snapping their lank tails at the dust, and he heard his voice raised with the voices of his companions, proclaiming lustily what manner of men they should be when they grew up. Ah, there would be no cowardice in them surely!
He remembered the day that a wave of scorn ran over the boys in the school when they heard how a forgotten outlaw had walked into a bank in broad daylight and had held up the cashier and three or four others, made them open the safe, and shovel the contents into a sack, which he then carried away with him, mounted his horse, and cantered cheerfully and unharmed away from the city. Ah, how the schoolboys had raged when they heard of it! Had only a few of them been in that town of cravens, they would have upheld the law in a more fitting manner! But they had not been there, and little Christopher Royal, lying awake in his excitement at night, had dreamed long and wildly of what things he should accomplish when he grew older.
He thought of this as his hand closed around the narrow shaft of the fishing rod, and then he turned sadly away and closed the door. For he felt gloomily that he had shut away one part of himself in that closet, and all his hopes of what he might be were confined with the old toys in the dark of the closet.
Then he hurried from the room, opening the door with care, lest some squeaking of the hinges might betray him. But, as he stepped out, he tripped and stumbled heavily over a form which lay in the hall just outside his door. It was Lurcher, who now came cringing to him and licked his hand by way of apology.
He cursed the dog in a whisper, for the noise he had made might have caught the attention of his mother, who was a very light sleeper. But, after listening a moment and finding all silent in the house, he went softly down the stairs to the lower floor. The side door creaked badly, so he did not attempt that, but spent a moment sliding the bolts of the front door gently back and then turned the big key slowly, without making the slightest whisper of sound.
After that, he slung his pack over his shoulder and turned for a last look at the old house. As he did so, he saw a glimmering form on the lowest landing of the stairs. And then he made out his mother's face as she watched him.
It was characteristic of her that she had not cried out to him, but there could be no doubt that she understood. The pack at his back, the rifle in his hand, and the hour of the night could mean only one thing. So he stood confounded before her, and she came finally down to him.
She said: "Then we were all wrong, Christopher. After all, you couldn't stand it?"
"No, after all, I couldn't stand it."
She sat down and drew her white dressing gown closer around her, because the night air was chill, and, though she did not speak, her eyes never moved from his face, and he knew that her stern heart was breaking.
"Will you say something, Mother?" he begged.
"What can I say, Christopher? I know that your own heart has said all of these things to you before me."
He nodded, dumb with shame and remorse.
"What are your plans?"
"To go somewhere far off. I don't know where. And take a new name and try for a new life."
She shook her head. "Someone from this part of the country would be sure to find you and tell what you had done."
"I suppose that there's a chance of that."
"Then I'd have to move on again."
"Oh, Christopher, a man can die only once!"
He bowed his head.
"And if you stayed, and if you fought, heaven wouldn't let you lose. It couldn't. And you've already won once!"
He could not lift his head to answer. He began to tremble from head to foot.
"And Georgia?" she asked suddenly.
He did raise his head then. "I've thought of Georgia every minute!"
"Why, if that thought doesn't stop you, then I suppose that I've no influence whatever. And still I can't help talking. I wish... oh, I wish that I could disguise myself and pass for you. How gladly I'd take a gun and face him! Oh, how gladly, Christopher, if that would save you!"
He felt the lash and winced.
"Christopher, you've already met one of them and beaten him. Do you think of that?"
"I didn't know who he was," said Christopher, "not till afterward. And even before a stranger that I didn't know, I was in a blue funk. And when Samson and the rest hear what I've done..." He struck his hand across his face with a groan. And then he looked out at her and found her watching him with a cold eye of agony.
"It's the fear of death?" she asked him. "it's not knowing what will happen after death?"
"No, it's not death. I don't think that's what tears me in two. But there's a dread feeling in standing up to a man who actually wants your life, and seeing his eyes turn to fire, and a grin like a beast on his mouth. It's seeing a man turn into a beast, and then being filled with a horror of the thing that he's become. And... oh, what's the use of trying to explain? Because it's cowardice, and I know it, but you don't. You've never really felt such a thing, and you never will!"
"When I was a little child," she said, "I was afraid of the dark."
"I don't believe that, hardly. But at any rate, you beat it."
"I went up to the top room in the tank house and locked the door just at dusk and threw the key out the window. And there I stayed till the morning. It was very hard. But before daylight came, I was no longer afraid of the dark."
"How old were you when you did that, Mother?"
"I was seven, I think, or six."
He sighed and shook his head at her. "I have to go now," he said nervously.
"I won't try to persuade you, Christopher. I won't tell you what it means to me, or how big things are made to look small by facing them. I'll say good bye to you, if I have to."
He took her in his arms and kissed her forehead.
"I'll tell you this... that every day I'll pray for more strength, and, when I find strength, I'm going to come back to Royal Valley and find Harry Main..." His voice trailed away. For she was nodding and trying pitifully to smile as though she believed the lie. He could not endure the strain for another moment and, whirling away from her, he caught up his pack and rifle and ran through the door.
Her voice stopped him.
"What are your plans?"
He turned, glad that he had the darkness of the night to cover his face.
"Christopher, only tell me where you're going, so that I'll know how to pray for you, and where to turn my face toward you!"
"I'm going up to the woods beyond Emmett's. You remember that little cabin where we camped one summer six years ago?"
"I'll think of you there, dear!"
"Aw, Mother, forgive me if you can!"
And he turned and ran blindly through the night.
THE greater excitement began very early in the morning when Peter went into Christopher's room and found matters in disorder there, and Christopher gone. He went hastily down. Everywhere he hunted for Christopher, and everywhere Christopher was not to be seen. And then it was found that the strong, flea-bitten roan was missing also. That explained matters clearly enough.
Christopher had fled! So Peter went bounding into the house and, as a matter of course, went straight to the head of the family... his eldest brother, Samson. To that dark and somber man he told the terrible news, and Samson listened with a look of agony in his eye.
"It's the waiting," said Samson. "There was never a son of our father that could be a coward. But it was the waiting that killed him! But, Peter... what will happen to Mother when she finds out?"
"She mustn't find out. It would be the death of her."
"How can we keep it from her? Won't she miss Chris in five minutes? Doesn't she really love him more than she loves all the rest of us put together?"
They stared at each other, unable to find a solution to this dreadful problem. And, in due course, the rest of the brothers were gathered in a solemn conclave, where each had a different opinion.
Duncan was for rushing off single-handed, meeting with the famous Harry Main, and destroying him in order that the shame of Christopher Royal should not be noised abroad.
"You'd never have a chance against Main," said Samson bitterly. "None of us would. And Chris would have simply died if he'd met him, because the fellow is a devil. The only language he understands, really, is the chattering of a fanned Colt. But what's there in death compared with the shame? No, I won't let you throw yourself away, Duncan. But what's to be done with Mother?"
"Go straight to her, Samson, and tell her the truth. That's the only way."
"Go straight to her? I'd a lot rather go tell her that Chris is dead!"
"It's your business to talk to her. You're the oldest. And, besides, do you think we could pull the wool over her eyes for ten minutes? She sees through me as though I were made of plate glass, and I think that I'm as politic as the rest of you."
That advice of Peter's was considered, though bitter, a wise pill to swallow, and therefore Samson Royal went straight to his mother and found her already down in the garden, working with her own trowel with her usual energy. He helped her to her feet.
"Mother," he said, forgetting the speech which he had tried to prepare on the way, "Mother, I'm sorry to say that Christopher seems to have left..."
She waved the trowel at him. "Of course, he has," said Mrs. Royal.
Samson stared. "Of course?" he echoed, completely at sea.
"Dear Sammie," said his mother, "can't you understand that Christopher won't fight with Harry Main right here in my home? But he's gone off to meet him!"
"Gone to meet him!" exclaimed Samson. "Without saying good bye to any of us?"
"Of course! Of course! Samson, you can see that he wouldn't want to trouble the rest of you and say good bye in a melancholy way when he goes out to die?"
"But it doesn't seem like Christopher's way of doing things," said Samson.
"Do you really believe that you understand him?"
Samson frowned in thought. "No," he said slowly at last, "I suppose that I forgot that he's his mother's son, after all."
He went back to tell the new idea to his brothers. They accepted this interpretation without any hesitation, for they were accustomed to taking the word of Mrs. Royal as the truth. And they went out to their work without further question.
The morning mail brought further news to Mrs. Royal. It was a brief note from Harry Main, addressed to Christopher, and she opened it without hesitation.
Dear Royal, ran the note, I'm going to be at Yates's place this evening. Will that do for you? I'll expect to hear from you there.
While she sat in a gloomy quandary over this note, there was a call from Georgia Lassiter on the telephone.
"Missus Royal, we've heard very, very odd news... that Christopher has left the valley just as Harry Main came into it!"
Ah, how cold was the voice of Georgia! What wonder? For she had been raised in a family which was full of legends of war, and three quarters of her uncles and cousins had died fighting for the lost cause of the Confederacy.
"He's simply made a meeting place with Harry Main outside the valley," said Mrs. Royal. "You couldn't expect him to want to shed blood on my doorstep, Georgia dear."
There was a little silence, and then a voice broken with mingled grief and joy came ringing back: "Ali, why didn't I think of that? But I've been wondering and terribly worried. Because I was afraid... afraid... oh, well, that's all gone! I'll never doubt again."
Mrs. Royal, left to herself, turned the problem for the thousandth time in her mind. Something led her up the stairs, and into the attic to those old boxes where the worn clothes of the family had been stored for years—not that there was ever much chance that they would be needed, but because Mrs. Royal was a woman of system and thrift. And, moreover, whenever she thought of giving the clothes away, something always held her back.
She opened the box where Christopher's things had been deposited. It seemed to her, as she lifted them out and looked them over, that it was not a mere collection of clothes, smelling of moth balls, but Christopher himself, resurrected and lying there, preserved in her memory. She could remember with an odd and unhappy distinctness how he looked in this blue sailor suit, that last day that his father saw him on this earth. What were the thoughts of that stern spirit now, as he looked down from the kingdom above and peered into the heart of the craven? Here was the first pair of long trousers that had made Christopher so inordinately proud. She could remember with what care he had always hitched them up at the knees before he sat down.
None of her other sons had been able to appreciate the graces of society as Christopher had done. Not one of them had ever been so close to her. There had always been a feminine delicacy in the instincts of this lad that enabled him to look into her mind and know what she felt before she could express herself in words. And, when she looked forward to old age, it was always with the thought of Christopher as a son and as a friend to lean upon. The rest of the world was a dim thing in prospect, but Christopher's gentle and wise heart was a vision of sunshine.
Now he was gone. He was already worse than dead! She wished with a stern bitterness that she could have closed the book of her thoughts when he was in his second-and-twentieth year, say, the most admired and loved man that had ever ridden a horse down Royal Valley. Then there would have been in her heart, to the end of her days, a fixed worship of this gentle boy, a fixed belief in the great man that he might have become. But now he was gone, and her heart was filled with grief.
She closed the box and hurried from the dimness of the attic, with the ghosts of her sad thoughts about her. In the brighter sunshine of her own room, new courage and a new idea came to her. Death itself, for Christopher, seemed to her no tragedy now. It was only the desire to let him die bravely, or at least where no third person might see his cowardice.
She caught up a pen and paper and wrote hurriedly upon it:
I am waiting for you at the little cabin in the hollow above Emmett's. Come when you can.
Then she doubted. For it might very well be that Main would question the genuineness of this handwriting.
She hunted through her desk until she found a letter from Christopher. Then, with a resolute hand, she rewrote her note, making the letters as bold and firm and sweeping as the hand of Christopher himself She addressed the note in the same manner.
Then she called Wong, the cook. He was the only person in the household so stupid that he would not think this a most suspicious affair. To him she entrusted the note with a word to drive down the valley as fast as he could and leave the letter at Yates's saloon.
Presently she heard the wheels of the buggy grinding down the gravel of the driveway. She knew that Wong was gone and that she had set in motion the wheels of death that must overtake her son before another twenty-four hours had spun away. In the meantime she was to wait, striving to close her eyes against the passing of time, and praying every moment, with all her heart, that Christopher would find in his soul enough courage to let him meet death as a man should meet it.
She went down to her garden. There she could leave behind her most surely the thoughts of her boy.
"Where is Lurcher?" she asked of Granger, the gardener. "He's always basking there on the terrace at this time of the morning."
"Lurcher's gone," said the gardener. "I called him for his breakfast, and he didn't come in. I whistled and hollered for him. You know that he never leaves the ranch. And so I'm afraid that something must of happened to him here."
But Mrs. Royal's breath caught as she heard. For could it be that the strange dog had indeed left the place and followed her boy, with an animal's strange instinct for an approaching death?
WHEN Christopher stumbled away from the house toward the corrals, you may be sure that half his mind was behind him in the house with his mother. But instinctively he found the saddle shed, his saddle, bridle and rope, and dragged them out into the corral. He had hardly emerged before a dozen sleek-coated horses started to their feet in a corner of the enclosure, ready to bolt from threatened danger, but they were already too late to flee. He could pick out the roan by the size and the ugliness of his head, and the snaky loop of rope darted through the air and settled true to its aim. The rest of the saddle band fled, and he went on methodically with the saddling of the roan, glad that this work had not caused enough disturbance to waken the cow-punchers in the bunk house.
When the horse was saddled at last, he swung into the saddle, and the big gelding, having his head, thrust it well out and down and proceeded to unlimber himself with a little artistic pitching. Christopher let him have his way, because he rather enjoyed anything in the way of excitement that would take his mind from his wretched self.
That struggle did not last long. The bone-breaking grip of his knees and the iron of his hand upon the reins soon assured the roan that fighting was no use. He stopped, and shook his head, as though partly bewildered. At that moment he received a cruel prick with the spurs, and his head was quickly straightened at the fence.
Ears flattened, eyes trailing fire, mouth agape under the pull of the bits, he bolted straight at the loftiest part of the fence, and Christopher let him go. As he rode, he wondered grimly to himself what other man in Royal Valley would have put an untried mount at such an obstacle? Aye, but courage across fences was not what was needed in his life. Courage to face a fighting man was the thing!
The fence rose sheer before him, then the roan pitched into the air. His two trailing hind hoofs clicked sharply against the upper bar, and then they were away across the field beyond.
He gave the big horse his head for two miles up the valley and by the time they had come to Fisher's Well, where the road forked toward Emmett's on the right and toward Cluster Canon on the left, the roan had had enough of such high life. He came back to a moderate canter and then to a soft, sweeping trot that brushed the miles away behind him with a wolfish ease.
There was a miserable satisfaction in the heart of big Christopher as he considered the action and the breathing of his mount. A few days on the road and the roan would be in such condition that Harry Main, desperate rider and expert trailer as he was famed to be, would have much to do to keep up with such a pace as the fugitive could set.
But then, even Harry Main could not fathom, surely, the problem that now lay before him. And unless Christopher had a mind reader working against him, he was confident that he could lie in secure hiding among the tall, dark woods above Emmett's.
After that, he would wait a number of days until it was certain that Harry Main was away from the trail, and then he would ride down to a new country, and far off where the name of Royal had never been heard and his race of tall brothers had never been seen.
He headed the roan onto the right-hand road and turned to look back down the valley, perhaps for his last look at it. He could see the lofty roof of the Royal house looming above the distant trees, and nearer at hand a shadow slipped from one bush to another, across the road.
"Coyote," murmured Christopher, and turned his face forward again.
When he was climbing the divide, leading toward the upper ranges of the hills, he glanced back down the winding trail again. There was not much light. There were clouds enough to kill the stars, and behind the high-blown mist the moon sailed in a pale-gray canoe. But still there was enough light to show him once more a shadow, skulking from bush to bush behind him.
He drew rein at that and instinctively reached for his rifle for since when had coyotes begun to trail lone riders? The creature behind him was not half large enough for a wolf!
After a moment, hearing nothing but the hiss of the wind through the willow by the creek, and seeing nothing but the hurried bobbing of the heads of the trees, he turned his face forward along the trail again.
Yet it worried him. For, though wolves and bears were apt to trail men, all other animals were either unable to keep up with the pace of a horse or else were too thoroughly afraid of the lords of creation to come near for any length of time. And so this small thing remained a mystery to him that troubled his mind as he toiled up the slopes, with the good horse bowing his head to the work.
He reached Emmett's in the gray of the coming dawn, and passed it, keeping well within the forest, so that only now and then could he see the lights of the little village, twinkling dim and cold through the mist which lay pooled in the hollow. Beyond Emmett's he rode up to the dell where that deserted cabin stood in which they had passed the vacation those years before. He could see to the right the hilltop from which he had sighted the big grizzly in the valley beyond—that grizzly which he had trailed for three days and nights before he caught up with it and finished its marauding life with a well-placed bullet.
Now it was his turn to be hunted! He dismounted, and, throwing the reins, he entered the cabin. It was far gone with moldering time now. Those years before it had been small and simple enough, but now it was a complete wreck, and a board of the flooring crunched away to rotten pulp under the weight of his stride as he entered. It was so damp, so dark, so utterly dismal, that he was half inclined to spend the night beneath the dank and dripping trees rather than in this place, and yet, when he thought of the matter, he could see that the more hopelessly ruined the shack was, the more perfect would be his security in it.
So he entered with a shudder and, lighting a match, looked around him. He noted the table, leaning to the floor in a corner of the room, and the fallen branch of a great tree, blown down in a storm that had crunched its way through the rotten roof and showed its ragged butt as though even now ready to fall farther.
Yes, the cabin was a complete wreck. But now he felt that he was satisfied. It was safe—safe from all men, and, therefore, it was dearer to him than any palace of a king.
As he crossed the old, brush-grown clearing again, the wind slashed and tugged at his slicker, and the rain cuffed his face with cold fingers, but in the dripping forest he busied himself cutting a number of tender fir branches, till he had gathered a great armful.
These he carried back to the cabin, beat the water out of them thoroughly, and then built them into the foundation of a bed in the cabin. He laid down his meager blanket roll over them, and then he looked about to take care of the horse.
By this time the roan had cooled off so much that there was no danger of chilling him by removing the saddle, and now he remembered the little natural meadow higher up on the creek, surrounded by trees so tall and thick that it was amply fenced in against all manner of bitter weather.
To this place he led the gelding. The grass was tall and matted with the remains of old crops around its roots. The dense trees shut out the cutting edges of the wind, and yonder was the leaning rock, which stood out so far from the side of the mountain that it made a natural shelter against the rain, unless it was blowing from the east.
What better place could a hardy cow horse have asked—one that had fought its way through half a dozen of the range winters? He hobbled the roan here, and left it contentedly cropping the grass beneath the shelter of the hanging rock.
Then he turned back toward the cabin, and, passing through the trees, he was sure that in the freshening daylight a small animal darted from one tree to another. He could not be certain that he had actually seen any shape, however, and, since the light had not strengthened to such a point that he could effectually study a trail, he marched on to the cabin, kicked off his boots, and lay down with a grunt upon the damp bed.
He was very tired. Body and soul had been worn by the trials through which he had been passing and by the long ride he had made. And so sleep dropped in a sudden wave over him and had almost swallowed his senses when he awakened again with a start and sat up, a cold sweat on his forehead, for it seemed to him that something had been watching him from the entrance to the cabin.
Yet it could not be! He gritted his teeth as he clutched his rifle and started to his feet. If there were the dread of man in him, at least there was no dread of any other beast, and he would be able to prove that he dared as much in the hunt as any human in the world.
So he leaped to the door, but, when he glanced toward the clearing through the growing glow of the dawn light, it seemed to him that he saw a subtly moving form melt like a shadow among shadows into the margin of the wood. He jerked the rifle to his shoulder and fired point-blank. The range was very short; his hand was never steadier; and he was confident that he must have nailed the fugitive with the bullet.
He was so very confident, indeed, that he did not even go out to look for the dead, but turned back to the cabin and to his bed, where he stretched himself and allowed himself to drop securely toward slumber until... He sat up again, this time with a racing heart, and, as he sat up, he made sure from the corner of his eye that a fugitive form was leaping through the doorway into the day outside.
He had only a glimpse, but his hand moved lightning fast to snatch a revolver and fire. There was no sound to answer the shot. He rushed to the door, and once more all that he saw was the dark and ominous face of the forest, rising tall and deathly silent before him.
He sprinted around the shack, thinking that the creature must have dodged out of sight by that route, but still there was no sign of it high or low. As he leaned his broad shoulders against the wall of the shack, the dreadful thought came to Christopher that it was no animal of flesh and blood at all, but a phantom sent to cross his way with a foreboding of doom.
HE had no need of sleep after that. There was no trace of the white mist that had obscured the hollows and tangled among the forest trees as he was climbing the trail. All was bright sunshine—far brighter than the lowlands could ever know.
So he began to cut for sign through the woods. But though he thought that he found traces, here and there, so thick was the carpeting of pine needles that lay everywhere beneath the trees that he could not make sure of anything that he saw by way of foot impression upon the soil.
Where the pine needles did not lie, grew rank, tall grass, with the matted dead remains of other seasons entangled about the roots to such a degree that the tread of a horse upon it could hardly have been distinguished from the step of a bear, for it curled upward again the moment the pressure of the step was removed.
Then, as he came to a pause, he heard the sudden howl of a wolf not a hundred yards away—a cry that went thronging through the trees and seemed to well up to his ears from every side. He made no effort to trace the beast by the cry, for the grim surety came to him that tracing would do no good. Twice he had tried the nature of this phantom with good powder and lead, and twice the thing had escaped from him unscathed.
Perhaps it would have seemed a small affair to some, but to Christopher, whose nerves were already on edge and whose whole spiritual stamina had been broken down by shame and grief and self-disgust, this was enough to carry away the last of his resolution and to make him determined to leave the cabin behind Emmett's as soon as possible, hunting out another hiding place deeper in the mountains—some place, for instance, where the cheerless woods would not be standing so perilously close to him.
He went to the roan at once, saddled it, rolled his blankets, and started forging through the pass that opened above him. It was a cheerful canon, after the depression of the hollow, and he enjoyed the keen morning sun which smote between his shoulder blades. It was just such a day as leads to the dispelling of all foolish illusions.
So he followed the dim trail along the edge of a creek, until the way turned into a shallow ford. He was in no hurry, and, therefore, he dismounted and examined the bottom of the ford, to make sure that it was safe for the roan. The rocks at the bottom seemed firm and secure enough, and he led the gelding across. On the farther side he paused to mount once more, and, doing so, he scanned the valley up which he had just been riding.
It was very open and clear. There was hardly a stone big enough for a prairie dog to have hidden behind, and there was not the slightest sign of the ghost wolf that had haunted him before. He nodded to himself with satisfaction and had turned to put his foot in the stirrup when he found himself looking straight into a pair of eyes—human eyes that watched him from close by.
It was an Indian, so old that his wasted body could have illustrated the legend of Tithoonus, and clad in such tatters that his half-naked body and his clothes, and even the homely fishing rod which he held, melted into the patchwork of the valley side with its bronzed rocks and spotted shrubs. And yet Christopher was a little startled that he could have been so close without noticing the presence of the other. That was before he studied the eyes of this stranger and saw that they were vacant with age. There was no more life in this withered creature than in a dying tree, say, or some blind growth that floats in the depths of the sea, untouched by the sun.
Said Christopher: "Do you have luck here, my father? Do the fish take the bait?"
The ancient Indian looked at him without interest, and then, lifting his head, he glanced at the pale blue of the mountain sky. When he spoke, it was with a voice wonderfully deep and hoarse and with a humming indistinctness of sound, so that it passed away into the noise of the brook and was almost lost there.
"The Great Spirit sends the fish and the fisher," he said. "Sometimes the fish are taken, and sometimes the fisher!"
Christopher, staring at him, was sure that he was in contact with something other than an ordinary Indian. Here was a man of such age that he must have ridden his ponies and taken scalps long before the repeating rifle had been dreamed of. Even the revolver was still an unheralded invention in the days of the youth of this chief. How much had been seen by the old man? Half the continent had first been explored, and then fought for, and conquered, and peopled during the span of his existence.
"However," said Christopher, falling in with the old fellow's own phraseology, "the Great Spirit has favored men a little more than He has favored fish, you must admit."
"How?" asked the Indian gravely.
"He has given us brains."
"To walk on the dry land, but the fish lives in water. Can we follow him there?"
"He has only a thin stream or a little muddy pool for his life."
"His rivers lead down to the ocean, my son."
Christopher stared. It was very odd to find so much mental agility in so dead a body as that which sat before him.
"However," said Christopher, "He has given us a soul, you know."
"Look!" said the chief, and he scooped up some sand in his claw-like hand. "How many grains of sand are here? But, if all of them were the souls of men, only one of them all would come to the life of the Sky People and stand before the face of the Great Spirit, and ride His horses there and take scalps, and live in happiness."
"Only one?" asked Christopher, enchanted by this voice from the past and this prophet of a dead creed. "But what of all the rest?"
"Some," said the chief, "will die having done no great deed. For many men grow old, and they have done nothing greater than to skin a buffalo or to make an arrow." He let most of the sand sift away from his bony fingers. "And there a few who have fought like men and been strong and true, but in the last moment they turned coward before their enemies, and the enemies have taken them and split their heads with axes, taken off their scalps and left their souls to blow up and down the earth forever like that leaf, never resting."
Christopher turned and regarded the little spinning, twisting, drifting leaf with curiosity. The thought sent a thrill of coldness through him. "But suppose," he said, "that these men have fought bravely and been overcome in battle by numbers but not with fear?"
"That cannot be," said the chief "For the brave men cannot die in battle. It is only chance that kills them... and that is the Great Spirit, leaning from the sky, to take men because he has watched them too long and wished to have them close to Him!"
"Then only cowards die?" asked Christopher, smiling a little.
"Only the cowards," nodded the Indian. "All these people have souls so that they may suffer. They see death always before them. It is curled up like a rattlesnake among the rocks. It stands in the darkness of the teepee and watches them like a hawk. It whistles for them in the wind. It beats on them in the hail and rain. It strikes for them in thunderstrokes. So that the cowards are always dying."
"But some men are brave until they come to their death battle!"
"Yes," nodded the chief, "some are brave in little dangers, but their souls turn to water when they see great odds before them. But it is always the thing we fear that kills us, otherwise nothing can take us from the earth except the hand of the Great Spirit!"
"Come, come," said Christopher, "you will not treat all of your friends and family so harshly, because I can guess that a great many of them died in battle."
"Ah," said the Indian gravely. "All of my people and the families of my brothers have died in battle. They were all cowards."
"Are you still sure of that?"
"Then I must say that the Great Spirit is a spendthrift, to throw away so many good people and let their souls blow up and down the world."
"I shall tell you about the Great Spirit," said the old man, perfectly calm and speaking from a great height of dignity. "He is like you and me. We have known many people. We have seen ten thousand faces, but we have only one friend. And so it is with the Great Spirit. He has seen ten million souls turn to powder and blow away in the wind, and only one is left, but that one is a bright soul and worth all the rest, and so the Great Spirit, when He has made sure that the one soul really shines, snatches it greedily up to Him in the sky, and there they live happily together."
As he spoke, he had shaken out the rest of the sand grains, and now he held up between his thumb and his forefinger only a single little fragment of quartz, transparent with a gleaming thread of gold in it, so that it poured forth a stream of sparkles in the keen morning light.
Christopher could not help being moved by such imagery. He said: "But consider yourself, father. Certainly no enemy has ever taken your scalp..."
The other nodded at once, unoffended. "And yet the Great Spirit has allowed me to grow old and thin as a blade of dried grass? That is true. But it is because He could not be sure. Sometimes I seemed to shine, and then sometimes I seemed very dark and dull. He watched me in battle, and He saw me ride through the ranks of the Sioux as though they were the standing brush in the field. He saw me make their heads fall, as a little boy with a stick makes the heads of the tall cornflowers bend. He saw me take many scalps and count many coups, and often His heart grew hot with joy, and He stretched his hand down from heaven so close that I could feel his fingers in the wind, tugging at my hair. But always He drew his hands back again and waited, and watched, for He could not be sure."
"But," murmured Christopher, "how could He have doubted?"
"With men, He knew I was brave. But... listen!"
He held up a cautionary finger, and up the valley floated the echoing, dismal call of a wolf.
CHRISTOPHER, remembering the phantom in the hollow, shuddered a little. He could not help it.
"It is always there," said the old man, leaning his head to listen as though to hear a terribly familiar music. "It is always somewhere between me and the edge of the sky. Sometimes, it is so far away that I do not hear it. Sometimes, it holds its voice and crawls up to watch me, but it is always there."
He nodded his head with a religious conviction.
"But what is it, father?" asked Christopher, beginning to feel his flesh creep.
"It is the werewolf," said the old Indian, "that has kept me away from the Great Spirit for all these years."
"A werewolf!" exclaimed Christopher.
"There are two kinds of werewolves," said the chief, holding up two fingers of his hand. "The first are the ones which have been men and become wolves. They are only terrible for a short time, and then they become stupid. Then there are others. They are the wolves that cannot become men until they have killed the warrior who has been marked out for them." He closed his eyes and then added: "When I was a little boy, I frightened the horse of Black Antelope, the medicine man, and he got a fall when the horse bucked. I was very happy. I danced and yelled with pleasure to see him in the dirt. But then I heard him shouting out of the dust cloud, `The werewolf is waiting to take you! May he take you soon!'
"I saw that he had known this for a long time, but the knowledge had been forced from his lips by his passion. Then I could remember, young as I was, that often I had seen wolves, skulking near me. Fear jumped in my throat. You are a young man and a big man. Have you ever been afraid?" He leaned forward a little and a cruel flame appeared in his eyes as he scanned the face of Christopher. Then he leaned back, nodding. "You will understand," he said, "what I am saying."
A little chill passed through Christopher as he saw that his secret was plain before this terrible old wizard of the mountains.
"When I knew that it was a werewolf that was waiting for me," said the Indian, "I did not fear men. If the Great Spirit had meant a werewolf to inherit my soul, then I could not die until that one wolf reached me, if it were able. Therefore, I laughed at men. In battle I knew that their bullets could not touch me. I went into the fights, singing my songs, and the Sioux became women before me. They turned their backs upon me, and I shot my arrows between their shoulder blades. I became a great man in my tribe. But I never hunted at night, and after dark I stayed in my teepee, until one cold winter night a wolf put its head through the flap of my teepee and snarled at me.
"The next day, I saddled my best pony and fled to the south and left my squaws and my children behind me, for I felt that the time had almost come, and that the wolf was about to take me. He was a brown wolf, young and strong. if I had stayed, the wolf would not have dared to face me. I should have rushed out into the night and fought with it, though I carried nothing but a knife. But I was afraid, and the moment that fear lays a whip on our backs, we cannot stop running. So I have been fleeing all the days of my life, and the wolf follows me. I saw him only so long ago as the waning of the old moon when it was like the paring of a fingernail in the sky. He is a gray wolf now. His back is arched, and his belly is tucked up with age. One of his fangs is broken. With the other he still hopes to cut my throat. But some day I shall hear him, leave my fire, go out in the darkness, and call to him, with my knife in my hand. I shall fight him and kill him and, when he is dead, the Great Spirit who has waited and watched so long for me will snatch me up in His fingers and make me happy forever."
The Indian ended his tale in a raised voice with a glitter in his eyes, but at that moment the wolf call boomed with a melancholy note up the pass, and the eyes of the chief were instantly struck blank. The fishing rod trembled in his hand.
When Christopher had given the old fellow half the tobacco in his pouch, he rode up the trail again, but he was a very thoughtful man. Of course, the whole matter was plain to him, and he could see how the momentary malice of the old medicine man, Black Antelope, had poisoned all the following years of this man's life. Yet he could not smile at the superstition. He had lost the calloused hardness of self-assurance, and into his opened soul strange thoughts dropped, like those falling stars which show the blackness of the heavens.
When he reached the ridge of the divide, he looked across a far prospect with the mountain crests tossed up as rough and crowded as storm waves on a sea. After all, why should he flee into this unknown region? For, if there were indeed anything supernatural following him, it was better to face it in a place he knew.
Suddenly he turned and rode down the trail up which he had just passed. Not that I would have you think that he took as true all that the Indian had told him, or any of it. But, no matter how sophisticated we may become, superstitions will leave a trace and a taint within our souls. So it was with Christopher, and he was like the man who sees the moon over his left shoulder, and scorns the superstition of bad luck, but cannot keep a chill from passing down his blood.
Whatever it was that had haunted him, he was sure that it had been a living creature of flesh and blood. He was sure, and yet a coldness was spreading through body and soul. And it happened that just now, halting the roan for breath, he looked back and saw, or thought he saw, a shadow behind the shadow of a bush. He took quick aim, fired, and then spurred the roan furiously back to the spot.
There was nothing there. He dismounted and examined the ground. It was a soft sand which would have registered the impression even of a falling leaf, and yet there was not a trace upon it. He stood up and mounted again with a prickling sense of dread coursing up and down his back.
Yet there had been, he felt, an infinite amount of truth in what the old Indian had told him. The fears that we flee from are those which will eventually master us. Those that we face shrink away from us in turn and become as nothing.
So he went straight back to the deserted and moldering cabin in the hollow, which he had left so gladly that morning. You will say that he should have carried his philosophy a stage further and gone back to his home to outface his first impelling terror—the dread of Harry Main and his guns. But to tell the truth, his mind did not dwell upon Harry Main. This other uncanny fear had overmastered him, and its problem, to be scorned and mocked by his consciousness, continually lurked in the back of his brain.
When he got to the cabin, it was mid-afternoon. A rabbit had lifted its head above a rock a quarter of a mile above the edge of the pines of the hollow, and he tried his Colt with a snap shot. When he rode to the rock, he found the rabbit's body secure enough, the brains dashed out by the bullet. No, his hand had not lost its cunning or its surety.
He cleaned the rabbit on the spot and carried it on toward the cabin for his dinner. But, as he went, the darkness of his brain increased. He had fired at the rabbit with no more skill and surety than at the ghost thing that had been hunting him in a wolfish shape, and yet the other had twice escaped.
The moment he entered the dark circle of the pines, he regretted his return to the spot, for the stretching shadows that covered him darkened his spirit more than his eyes. He cooked the rabbit and ate it, but it was with a forced appetite, and he went about his preparations for the night mechanically. His heart was not in them. He had to urge himself forward continually with the remembered words of the old chief.
He decided, as the evening began, that he would try his nerves in the forest itself while the darkness gathered, and so he sat down beneath the trees and lighted his pipe. It suddenly occurred to him that the glowing light in the bowl of the pipe would be like a guiding lantern to direct any danger toward him and to blind his eyes against all drifting shadows—such as the form of an old gray wolf, its back arched with age, its belly gaunt, with one broken fang and the other capable of splitting open the throat of a man.
Now he wished mightily that he had continued on his way through the unknown mountains to the north and the east, but he would not saddle the roan for a night journey. It was not because he pitied the weariness of the horse, but because he dreaded the trip through the solemn woods worse than death.
He left the trees at last and went into the cabin. He found that he was crossing the clearing with a slinking gait and with his head down and, though he forced himself to walk erect, his heart he could not lift.
So he came to the cabin and laid down his blanket roll there. Outside the wind was rising and, across the moon, volleys of high-blown clouds swept and crossed the threshold of the cabin with waves of light and shadow.
The whole world had become an eerie place, indeed, and a setting in which all that was wild and strange might happen. And then he thought of the old Indian, and his lifetime passed in the midst of just such dread as this reinforced by a superstition that turned fear into a thing as concrete as a pointed gun.
What unbelievable force of nerve and courage had maintained the old man so long—living as he did, in the lonely middle of the mountains, waiting for death in a strange form? He pulled the pile of branches that supported his bedding to a corner of the cabin from which he could watch the door. There was a window also from which he could be spied upon, but a ragged fragment of a board was nailed across it—and no wolf could jump through.
He smiled at his own conceit, but you may be sure there was no mirth in his smile.
IT seems most strange that Christopher Royal should have been brought to such a nervous state because a lurking shadow had crossed his path a few times. But, undoubtedly, he was unstrung chiefly by his interview with the old Indian whom he had met that day fishing at the side of the brook.
However that may be, he had almost reached the point of hysteria, listening to imaginary sounds and watching the alternate dimming and brightening of the moonlight on the floor. And then came a thing that blinded him with fear.
Beyond the door, in the clearing, he heard the unmistakable though soft crackle of a twig beneath an approaching, stealthy foot! All of this time he had been telling himself with a breathless insistence that there was nothing at all in his dread beyond a sort of fear of the dark, and that, when the morning came, he would simply mount the roan and ride away from this wretched nightmare in spite of the advice of the crazed Indian. Now came the positive proof that there was a living creature in the clearing—a creature that guessed his presence in the cabin, for, otherwise, why should the cabin have been stalked with such care? Too paralyzed even to think of clutching the Colt at his hip, Christopher stood up against the wall opposite the door just in time to see a shadow cross the dim moonlight that passed the threshold of his door. It was not like the shadow of a wolf. Christopher suddenly glanced up and found himself peering into the face of Harry Main!
He had never seen that famous man in the flesh before, but he could have recognized him even by dimmer light than this as the brother of Cliff Main, whom he had killed by luck rather than by valor. In the hand of Harry Main the revolver was quickly steadied on its target.
"It's all right, kid," said Harry Main. "I'm here to finish you off, but there ain't any need for me to rush around about it. I understand everything. You lost your nerve, waiting for me, and you come up here in a blue funk. I understand all of that, and I'm gunna wait till you've had a chance to get hold of yourself before I tackle you with a gun. You can depend on that, because I keep my promises."
He dropped his revolver back into the holster. An instant later he was startled with a thrill of cold fear, for he had seen Christopher standing against the wall, a very picture of abject, helpless, frozen terror only a moment before, and now he heard Christopher break out into a wild and ringing laughter while he cried: "Are you the wolf? You?"
"Am I the wolf? I?" asked Harry Main, retreating toward the doorway behind him. "What in the name of heaven do you mean? Are you crazy, Royal?"
Perhaps no man in the world ever looked closer to insanity than did Christopher at that moment. For his life, which had come to a stop, was beginning again, and, as it began, a flare of warmth and fiery self-confidence flamed in his eyes, dilated his nostrils, and made his breast heave.
Under the dreadful shadow of an unearthly fear, he had quite forgotten that it was the original dread of Harry Main that had forced him from his home and into the mountains. He had quite forgotten that, and there remained before him only the overpowering horror of a supernatural enemy.
To such an extent was this true that, as he had been standing against the wall, he had been saying to himself, quoting the Indian: A werewolf is one of two kinds—either a man turning into a wolf, or a wolf turning into a man.
To be sure, if one looked closely at the handsome dark features of Harry Main, one could not help finding something decidedly wolfish in his appearance. There was a smallness and a brightness in the eyes, which were moreover set abnormally close together, that gave his face a touch of animal cunning. The bulge of his jaw muscles added a rather brutal strength to the lower part of his face. He looked as brown, too, as a creature capable of living without any covering other than its own pelt.
But Christopher was not ready at that moment to mark small differences and peculiarities. What mattered to him was that he had been more than half expecting the dreadful apparition of a wolf or a wolf-man in the doorway. And instead, here was a man—a mere being of flesh and blood like himself. That was why Christopher laughed—laughed at the sight of that famous and dreadful Harry Main! He laughed out of pure relief and excess of thankfulness and joy that, after all, he was to be tested by something less than supernatural power.
Now, when this flood of relief had coursed through the veins of Christopher and when the laughter had burst from his lips, he could not help crying out: "By eternal heaven, it's only Harry Main!"
Harry Main had been fairly certain that this fellow was insane the moment before. But he rather doubted it now after facing Christopher for a moment, and he began to wish that he had kept his Colt in his hand.
"Only Harry Main!" A very singular remark, surely, concerning the most terrible of all those practiced gunfighters who rode the mountain desert. It literally took the blood from the heart of the man of might and threw it all into his face. "And what more do you want to have on your hands than Harry Main?" he exclaimed.
"What more? Why," cried Christopher, "if there were half a dozen of you, I should still laugh at you, Main! I should still laugh at you!"
Harry Main listened and positively gaped with childish wonder, and with horror also, for he could not feel that this was stage playing. There was a ring of such tremendous sincerity and honesty about the words of Christopher that a more skeptical man than Harry Main would have been convinced.
Main said: "I'm about to finish you off, Royal. I dunno that it's any pleasure to me to have to kill you, but you took that out of my hands and left me no choice in it. You murdered poor Cliff..."
"That was a perfectly fair fight," declared Christopher.
"Fair?" cried Main, his hot temper rising. "Why everybody knows that Cliff was only a kid!"
"He was two years older than I," answered Christopher.
The heat of Harry Main increased. For, having found no ready answer, he was naturally all the more enraged, and he exclaimed: "You ain't gunna be allowed to sneak out of that blood this way, Chris Royal!"
"Sneak out? Sneak out?" said Christopher. "Why, man, I'll tell you an honest fact... I was never so glad of anything as I am of the sight of you tonight!"
"The hell you are!" growled the gunfighter, and he stared more closely at Christopher Royal.
But it was true. Yes, it was very true. He would have been the worst sort of a blind man not to see that Christopher meant all that he said and had not the slightest fear of his famous antagonist.
"Oh, yes," said Christopher, "but since you seem a decent fellow, Harry, I rather hate to have to send you after your brother."
"D'you hate to do that?" snarled Main. "Why, I'm ready to tear your heart out, if you got the guts to stand up to me!"
Another cross passed like a shadow over the face of Christopher. And then he shrugged his shoulders, as though to get rid of the idea.
"Well?" asked Main sharply.
"I'm thinking of the long stretch after I've dropped you, Harry, as drop you I surely shall. And, besides, I'm wondering if we wouldn't both be happier if we had sunlight instead of moonshine for our work."
"Moonlight is good enough," declared Main.
Christopher nodded. "You're getting nervous, I see," he said very kindly. "And if that's the case, why, we'll have it out now, man, of course. I suppose that you might become rather a nervous wreck if you had to wait until the morning."
"To the devil with your coolness!" cried Harry Main. "Me turn into a nervous wreck? I ain't got a nerve in my body, and, when it comes the time for the guns to work, I'm gunna show you I mean what I say."
"You shoot very well, I hear," said Christopher.
"That's best told," said Harry Main darkly, "by them that ain't no longer got a voice in this here world."
"By the dead, you mean?" interpreted Christopher, nodding. "You've killed a great many people. I've heard that you've killed all of fourteen men, Main?"
"Up to tonight, and not counting the greasers, yes. And you'll be the fifteenth white man."
Christopher looked at Harry Main and then smiled brightly and carelessly, as though to announce that he did not care to argue such an absurd suggestion. And a little mist of perspiration—a cold sweat—came out upon the forehead of Harry Main.
"All right," said Christopher, "if you're not afraid to wait until the morning..."
"Do you think that you can bluff me out? I'll have your nerves all frazzled out if you wait that long in the same house with me."
"Will you?" murmured Christopher, stretching his arms out luxuriously. "Well, you watch me."
And he threw himself down on the bed, took a turn in the blanket, and was almost instantly asleep, leaving Harry Main standing by the door, with the killing power still gathered in his face and a strangely empty and foolish feeling in his heart.
IT must be admitted that it was a most peculiar situation for Harry Main. He had most certainly prophesied to himself that Christopher Royal, in spite of the shooting of Cliff, had turned yellow when he started up toward the higher mountains and, with that sense of surety supporting him, Harry Main had proceeded with a sort of contemptuous carelessness on the trail of revenge. He had never started out on a manhunt without feeling that he was superior in his skill with guns to any other man on the range.
And now this surety had been snatched out of his hands. He sat down and watched the pale, slow hand of the moonlight stretch across the floor and find the hand and then the face of Christopher. He stood up, leaned over the sleeper, and saw that he was smiling as in the midst of a happy dream.
No wonder that Main scratched his unshaven chin in great anger and perturbation. Such coolness was absolutely inexplicable to him, because it never occurred to him that Christopher had been existing in this cabin under the shadow of a fear so much more awful than that of any human being that it made even the hostile presence of Harry Main not a terror but an actual comfort. And having no key to the situation, Harry Main began to feel that, so far from having reached a craven fugitive, he had come up with the bravest man he had ever known.
But to have fallen asleep in the presence of the gunfighter the great and celebrated Harry Main—that surely was a thing not to be believed. And sleeping—yes, and snoring—that lad most certainly was. Why, then, had Christopher left the valley? Simply because he wished to take the ugliness of battle away from the vicinity of his home? It had seemed a most hollow sham and pretext to Harry Main, at the first, but now he began to believe that there must be something to it.
He began to regard Christopher Royal more closely, and there was much about him that deserved the narrowest scrutiny. He watched the heaving of the high-arched chest while the young fellow slept, and he regarded the wide and smooth slope of the shoulders, and the strength of the jaw, and, above all, the long-fingered hands. Men said that there was both infinite might and great speed in those hands, and Harry Main, who was an expert in such affairs, could well believe it. The weight of a Colt, for instance, would be no greater than that of a feather to the power of this man, and the round wrist and the tapering fingers promised the most flashing and dazzling speed of execution.
Now it seemed to Harry Main, at about this time, that the hours of the night were marching along with a very painfully slow step, and that the morning lingered with disgusting persistence beneath the edge of the eastern sky.
He himself tried to lie down and to rest, but, when he had stretched himself out in a resolute composure and closed his eyes, it always seemed to Harry Main that his terrible young companion was slowly opening his eyes, then peering sidewise, and then sitting up and reaching for a gun... At that point of his imaginings Harry Main would be snatched out of semi-slumber and sit up with a jerk, only to find Christopher Royal sleeping most peacefully.
Two or three times this was repeated, and at last Main abandoned all attempts at resting. He stood by the door, or he walked up and down outside it, watching a pale mist that had boiled across the face of the moon and that was now gathering under the heads of the great forest trees. Frequently, however, he had to drag himself away from his thoughts and peer through the open door at young Christopher.
Rage began to grow up in the breast of Harry Main. He felt that by a low trickery Christopher Royal was enjoying a heartening and strengthening rest, whereas he, Harry Main, who had entered that house with the drop on the man he wanted and who had surrendered that advantage willingly because he did not choose to murder but preferred to fight—he, Harry Main, walked up and down through the night fog and wondered what the devil had ever entangled poor Cliff with this cold-nerved devil of a boy!
Why not end the matter, now that there was no eye to watch? Main strode through the door with the Colt ready in his hand. But, when he leaned over the sleeper, his finger withdrew from the trigger. Once before, and long ago, just such a crime as this had attracted Harry Main, and on that occasion he had not resisted temptation. But he had long since vowed that he would never have another such stain upon his conscience.
So he went back to the door, stealthily, without making a sound, as he thought. Then, turning around, he found the eyes of the supposed sleeper fixed steadily upon him. It was far from a pleasant experience for Main.
Christopher sat up and yawned in his face.
"It was better not to do that," he nodded. "I see that you're all shot to pieces, Main. And look here... if you want to postpone this business until the nerves have had a chance to settle down again, of course I'm agreeable to that. I don't want to hurry you ahead, you understand."
"Hurry me ahead? Hurry me ahead?" snarled Main. "Why, if the daylight would only come, I'd polish you off in half a second."
"Polish me off?" smiled Christopher, standing up and stretching forth his arms. "Well, man, the day has begun."
"It's a thick mist. We often have 'em in this hollow. And that's what blankets the sun away. But... look here. It's seven o'clock. And let me know, old fellow, if you want to fight now, or after breakfast?"
There was such a world of good humor in his voice that Harry Main felt his heart shrink into a cold, small knot.
"Now," said Main steadily. "You can bring in the gun work now, and I'll be contented. But damn me if I'll wait for another five minutes to play the nurse to you!"
"Nurse?" laughed Christopher Royal. "Well, well, the odd thing about it all, from my viewpoint, is that when I left the valley I was actually afraid of you, old fellow. Frightened to death of you. And now, as a matter of fact, I'm almost sorry that I shall have to turn loose a gun upon you."
Harry Main lowered his head a little for the purpose of scowling out beneath his gathered brows at the other, when he suddenly realized that no facial expressions were apt to daunt the very composed self-sufficiency of this young man. He could not help saying suddenly: "Royal, when you left the valley, it wasn't to meet me up here. I dunno why you sent me the letter. But I know that you never intended to meet me here."
"What letter?" asked Christopher.
"What letter? Why, the one where you told me that you'd be waiting for me in this cabin... the one that the Chink brought down to Yates's place for me."
It took the breath of Christopher to hear this. Certainly he had dispatched no such letter, and there was no one in the world who knew where he intended to hide himself with the exception of his mother. But could she have done such a thing, and betrayed him to his enemy? Then, in a blinding flash, he understood everything, and the prayer which she must have breathed to have her son dead rather than shamed—her blind hope, too, that when the crisis came he might find a mysterious strength to meet the emergency. And he had done so. For, whether he could master Harry Main or not he could not tell, but master himself he certainly had.
So he looked up again to Main and said gently: "You've guessed the facts. I was afraid of you when l left."
"Then what happened?"
"Something that you wouldn't understand. There's no use in trying to talk about it or to explain."
"I'd like to judge that for myself."
"I'll tell you this," said Christopher suddenly. "After what has happened to me up here, I feel as though there's no real harm that can be done by a bullet."
"All right," said Harry Main. "I guess that's beyond me."
"And there," said Christopher, "is a bit of blue sky for you. It's broad enough day, and I suppose that we have to go through with this thing."
"We do," said the gunfighter solemnly.
"Notwithstanding that I wasn't at fault with your brother?"
"I give you my word of honor, Main, that I tried to back out of the fight. I didn't want his blood on my hands. I didn't want to fight with anybody, as a matter of fact."
Harry Main listened with a thoughtful frown, and again he felt the transparent honesty of this youth and felt a shudder go through him. "That ain't what matters," he said at last. "The only fact that counts is that you stood up to poor Cliff and killed him, and now everybody expects me to stand up to you and kill you... or to do my best. And that's what I'm here for.,,
"I understand," nodded Christopher. "Your reputation for being invincible is worth more to you than your life. You've got to risk that to protect your good fame. Well... there's nothing that I can say to that."
"No," declared Harry Main, "there ain't anything you can say. But are you ready?"
"Ready," said Christopher, and they walked out of the little cabin side by side.
"It ain't much better than moonshine, though," said Main, regarding the fog which hung in dense clouds through the trees. "We'll have to stand close to each other with our guns, old-timer."
"Yes, that seems logical."
"But, by heaven, kid, you're the coolest hand that I ever had to shoot at. We'll take ten paces."
"All right. Which way?"
"Stand here. I'll measure off the distance."
He stalked ten strides away, halted, and spun about toward Christopher.
"Are you ready, Royal?"
NO matter what doubts had been passing through the mind of Harry Main during the long hours of the night, they deemed to disappear, now that he faced his foe in the open, and it seemed to Christopher that the very body of the other man swelled with passion. A gathering battle fury glittered in the eyes of the gunfighter. He was like a bull terrier that seems to have a ten-fold power poured into it by the mere chance to bare his teeth at an enemy.
As for Christopher, he felt no passion, and certainly least of all did he feel fear. The fury that was rising in the other would have appalled him beyond words only the day before, as he well knew. But now he was possessed of a perfect calm, a cool indifference, and, though he stood on the ground at point-blank range from this proved man slayer, he had the attitude of one who looks on a strange scene from a great distance. Instead of fear, out of that calmness a great sense of superior might flowed through him. He looked at the terrible Harry Main and looked down on him. He remembered what the Indian had said, and of how as a young brave he had careened through the ranks of the enemy, laughing at their bullets, because he was conscious of a stranger and more deadly fate than mere bullets or arrows could deal out to him.
So it was with Christopher Royal. As he stared at Harry Main, he could not help wondering where that other and haunting shadow might be, and was it not ever present, watching the man who had been marked down for it? And the instant that Harry Main was gone, would not that devilish film of a creature be at his heels once more?
"Harry," he called.
"Go for your gun!" said the other, trembling with a dreadful eagerness. "Go for your gun, kid. I give you the first chance!"
It was like a wrestler offering his hand openly to a weaker foe, but Christopher merely smiled.
"Go for your gun!" yelled the gunfighter again.
"I want to ask you for the last time," said Christopher, "to think the thing over, will you? I don't fear you, Main. But there's no reason I should try to kill you, and there's no reason why you should kill me. Do you think that you will ever be taunted for not having butchered me? No, people know you too well, and your record is too long."
"My record is a fighting man's record," said the killer, growing momentarily more savage. "I'm no damn chattering jay... like you. I've give you warning, Royal!"
"I've heard your warning, and I take it," said Christopher, "but I won't go for my gun first."
"I mean what I say. Make the first move, if you will. I'll never shoot except in self-defense, man!"
"By heaven!" cried the other, "your blood is on your own head, for being a fool. I offer you the free chance. There ain't nobody here to report it on you."
"Except one's conscience," said Christopher, "and that's enough!"
A wolf howled up the valley, and a sudden shudder went through the body of Christopher. It seemed that the other noted it, for he said instantly: "That varmint is going to yell again in a minute. He's got something cornered! He'll yell again, and, when he yells, that'll be the signal for us, Royal. You agree?"
"Yes," said Christopher, feeling that there was a sort of hidden fate in this arrangement, "I agree to that. He'll howl a death yell for one of us!"
"Exactly. Afterwards, kid, I'll treat you fine. I'll see that you don't lie here and rot in the middle of the woods. I'll cart your body down into the valley where somebody can find you on the road and let your folks know."
"Thank you," said Christopher.
He looked a trifle away. He raised his head boldly and looked up to the smoke-white mist, now riven away in the heart of the sky so that dim, delightful blue shone through.
"Are you prayin', kid?" asked the gunfighter savagely.
"No, no," said Christopher. "I'm only pitying you, Main."
He said it so impulsively and so gently that Harry Main started convulsively. He had been in a hundred battles but never before had he seen a man in the presence of death conduct himself in such a manner as this. He was amazed, and the awe took possession of the very nerves of his fingers and made them half numb. He rubbed the knuckles of his right hand swiftly into the palm of his left—swiftly, for at any moment the fatal cry of the wolf might ring up the hollow.
"And if the bad luck should come to you, Harry," said Christopher Royal, "where shall I take you, and where shall I send your last message?"
"Cut out all this fool's talk!" snarled the other. "I don't want to hear no more of it!"
"What, man? Is there no one to whom you want to send your last thoughts? Is there no kindness for any one?"
"I've seen the world for what it is," said the other grimly, "half sneaking, and half lying, and all hypocritical. There ain't nobody that likes nobody else, except for what they can get out of him. Folks have knowed me, and they've used me. I've knowed them, and I've used them. And when the finish comes, I thank heaven that there ain't nobody that can say that he's trimmed me worse than I've trimmed him. Because where the score was ag'in' me, I've used a gun and settled it that way."
"Heaven forgive your unhappy soul," said Christopher.
"You talk partly like a fool, and partly like a sky pilot!" sneered Harry Main, gripping at the butt of his revolver. "I'm going to wipe out that smile of yours with a Forty-Five slug of lead in half a minute."
Christopher looked up once more to the blue heart of the heavens, where the fog was still rapidly thinning, and through that remaining film of cloud he could see the splendors of the sun flooding across the upper sky. At that moment, while his glance was still high, the booming note of the wolf's cry pounded up the valley, mixed with its own flying echoes.
Harry Main, the instant that he heard, bounded to the side and tore out his Colt as he sprang. It was an old trick of his in which he trusted implicitly, for it had won many a battle for him. But Christopher, seeing the move, had no doubts. His own weapon glided smoothly into his touch. At the hip he spun it up. From the hip he fired, and he saw Harry Main fire his own weapon into the ground, and then lunge downward, very much as though he had intentionally fired downward at an invisible enemy and then fallen down to grapple with it hand to hand.
Christopher did not need to go forward to investigate. He knew just where his own bullet had struck home, and he raised his head in an odd quiet of the soul and saw that the last wisps of the upper mist had been cleared away, and, in a deep well of blue, shot through with golden sun, the heavens opened above him as though for the free reception of a winged spirit.
Then he went to poor Harry Main and turned the body on its back. He had been shot straight through the heart. The top buttonhole of the open coat had been the target of Christopher, and right through that slim target the bullet had torn its way.
He closed the eyes of Harry Main. While he was on his knees, performing that last rite, a chilly sense of being watched from behind made him leap to his feet. He looked behind him into the underbrush beneath the woods, for from that direction he knew the eyes had been upon him. The thing was back once more to hound him!
There had been no joy in him for the victory. There had been no exultation. It was merely the assurance that came at the heels of his conscious superiority. There had been no chance for poor Main from the first instant that they faced one another in the cabin.
But Harry Main was forgotten. All that was remembered was the dreadful unseen thing that moved so noiselessly around him. What was it?
When he had gained control of himself once more, he went to the roan and found him down-headed, dull-eyed, with his lower lip hanging and a tremor in his legs. He had a wisp of green grass hanging from his lips, and, when he was led to the water, he refused to drink.
Christopher, with a terrible sinking of the heart, felt that he understood what had happened. The gelding, too, had seen more than the eye of a brute could understand and had felt more than an animal heart could stand.
He rubbed the strong animal down and swung into the saddle. And the gelding, taking more heart with his first steps along the trail, was soon going ahead at a good gait and lifting his head more as he warmed up.
Straight down the hollow rode Christopher, for the first thing to do was to take the word of what had just taken place to the people below. He must send for the dead body, and then he must carry word of what he had done to his mother. And how could he face her, or she him, since he knew that she had sent Harry Main to face him in this hiding place?
However, all of that was very far away and of little importance, and what really mattered was simply that he get out of these tall, dark woods as fast as he could. He rode with a terrible conviction that he would never pass through those woods alive. Now he was in the grip of whatever power it was that hounded him. The old Indian, it was true, had kept the foe at bay for three-quarters of a long lifetime, but that old Indian had a power of will such as Christopher felt that he could never aspire toward.
His head was never still as he went through the shadows. But he could see nothing except soft shiftings of shadows, which well might be the quiet passing of some pursuer. On the other hand, it might be the mere effect of the shifting lights that passed down through the wind-stirred trees. As for hearing anything, every slight murmur was lost in the continual patter of dropping water, for the fog had left the branches and the twigs covered with dim, silver drops.
So he crossed the little dark-hearted brook, and, turning the next winding of the narrow forest trail, he came on a sight that stopped his heart. In the middle of the way, flat on his back, his arms thrown crosswise, and his dead eyes fixed sightlessly upon the trees above him, lay the Indian.
CHRISTOPHER dismounted instantly and ran to the spot. As he leaned over the dead man, he groaned with veritable horror. The throat of the Indian had been torn across—and not by any knife. It had been ripped open—just as by the fang of a wolf!
So the long trail of the old hero had come to an end. And how long before Christopher's end should come, also? He felt that his knees were turned to lead. He staggered back to the roan and was coming toward him with outstretched hands when something in his way of approach startled that most patient of horses. He tossed his head and with a sudden, frightened snort he fled on down the trail.
Christopher, left alone, called after him until the wailing notes of his own voice frightened him. Then he went on in the same direction, but every step he took was one of agony. He gave up all control and dashed madly forward, blind with terror. And then, behind him, he was sure that he heard the breathing of a pursuer. So he whirled with a gasp of terror and flung his back against a tree. Just behind him the fleeting shadow darted out of view behind a tree. His pounding heart turned to ice!
He felt, now, that his death was to follow that of the Indian. Destiny was thick around him. To make all sure, presently he heard a faint whine, and it drew before his imagination the dreadful picture of an old wolf, gray with years, his back arched and his belly gaunt, and his grinning mouth showing only a single fang for murder.
Then it seemed to him that he saw something drift noiselessly into the midst of a small bush. Yet he was almost sure that the glitter of eyes shone out at him. Instinctively, without aiming, he jerked up the muzzle of his gun and fired.
There was a yelp of fear and pain and then out of the covert, straight toward him, wriggling on his belly with fear and with pain, came the familiar form of Lurcher!
Christopher, watching him and sick with wonder and relief and pity, suddenly understood all that had happened. Lurcher, the silent hunter who never left the Royal ranch, had indeed left it this time, because in his dog's heart he had known that some great trial lay before his master. He had trailed the big rider, but from a guilty distance, and, when he tried to come closer at last, he had been received with a bullet that must have missed him narrowly. Again as he strove to crawl in out of the cold of the night to his master—to his master and away from the wolfish voices in the woods—poor Lurcher had been fired at point-blank. It was most miraculous that he had not been killed.
This was the hunting ghost, then, which had filled Christopher Royal with such supernatural dread that even terrible Harry Main had meant nothing to him. He dropped on his knees and Lurcher, moaning with joy and terror and pain combined, stood up and staggered into his master's arms.
Tears poured into the eyes of Christopher. He dashed them away. But still his lips were trembling with pity as he worked over the hurt dog. Off went his coat. His shirt was ripped to shreds. He cleansed the wound of the bullet which had passed through the breast, close to one shoulder, and out the side of the hound through a gaping wound. Then he stopped the flow of the wound with dust—and with his prayers. He felt that this poor trembling, heartbroken, spiritless creature had been the strange instrument through which his own soul had been saved from much, much worse than death, and he worked for Lurcher with a passionate intensity.
He saw the great eyes grow dim. He took his pocket flask of whiskey and forced a bit down the throat of the weakening dog. And then—the bleeding stopped as if by a miracle. A sheer miracle, indeed, Christopher always considered it. After that, he made the bandage, tenderly but firmly; and last of all he took his coat, and, using it as a litter, he carried Lurcher out of the woods.
He had thought that he was deep in the heart of the forest, but now he found that the crisis had come upon him when he was on the verge of the trees. Clean, sweet sunshine beat upon him as he issued from the damp and the shadows, and he saw the familiar beauty of Royal Valley spread out beneath him. Just below there was the Kendrick house with a banner of smoke hanging white above it, and he thought that he had never before seen a picture of such beautiful quiet as this which was before him. Indeed, it appeared to Christopher as though he had never beheld it before—or as though he had always been living in a dream until this time.
Lurcher was rapidly dying in his arms. Twice he stopped, as he was hurrying down the hill, and laid the hound upon the ground for the sake of letting him recuperate. Twice, under his hand and his voice, the dog opened his eyes and smiled vaguely at him, as only the eyes of a dog can do. And then he hurried on once more, never daring to break into a run for fear lest the jarring would prove instantly fatal to Lurcher. He reached the front gate of the Kendrick yard and kicked it open with such a crash that pretty Mary Kendrick came running out onto the verandah.
She screamed loudly at the sight of him. "Oh, Chris, Chris!" she cried. "Harry Main has killed you, and you've come here to die!"
"Don't talk foolishness," he said. "I'm not hurt. It's only blood from this dog... the finest dog in the world. Where's there a bed for him?"
"Bed? Chris! For a dog!"
"Yes, yes, yes! I mean what I say. Where's there a bed for him? I'll pay for it! He's got to lie soft and be contented."
In the little side room off the verandah there was a fine old couch where Lurcher was laid down to bleed and die.
"Now get Doctor Hutchison on the telephone and tell him to come over here as fast as he can gallop his horse, Mary!"
"But Chris! The dog is shot right through the body! He can't live! And do you know that Harry Main is looking for you and threatening..."
"Harry Main will never threaten anyone again. Get the doctor, I say! And tell him that there's a thousand-dollar case here for him... a thousand dollars if he saves the life of a dog!"
She gave one more frightened glance at him to make sure that he was not mad, but her brains were still addled when she reached the telephone. Presently she was calling across the wire: "Missus Hutchison! Missus Hutchison! This is Mary Kendrick. Christopher Royal isn't dead. He's here. But maybe he's dying. I don't know. Harry Main shot his dog. Then Christopher fought with him with his bare hands and killed him. Isn't it terrible? I think I'm going to faint. Christopher is quite mad. And he says that he'll pay your husband a thousand dollars for saving the life of the dog..."
At this point in the recital there was an interruption made by Mrs. Hutchison's smashing the receiver into the hook. There is a time for politeness. It is not, however, when there is an opportunity to win a thousand dollars.
She bounded to the back porch. Her voice, wire drawn and piercing as a knife, stabbed the air. "Hank! Ha-a-a-n-nk! Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!"
And Hank hurried. When he got to the Kendrick place, his horse was staggering and Hutchison himself was pale with expectancy and terrible hope. He had never seen a thousand dollars gathered together in all his life. Here was his great chance. The word of a Royal was a great deal better than a gold bond for any amount within thinking distance.
So old Dr. Hutchison reached the house of the Kendricks and rushed into it, not even as much as waiting to rap at the front door. He found himself in a house of terrible turmoil and confusion, in which the domestics and the family hurried here and there on urgent errands. Then he was shown into a small room where Christopher Royal, his big body half-naked to the waist and his clothes streaked and spotted with crimson, was on his knees beside a couch, and lying partly on the couch and partly on the arms of his master was an old hound, whose glazing eyes were fixed upon the eyes of Christopher as though in them he saw his only stars of hope.
The long arm of Christopher reached out and jerked the doctor also upon his knees. "Forget it's a dog, Hank," he said. "Think it is a human being. And I can tell you that he has meant more than any human being in my life. No matter what you can do for him, you get five hundred. And if you save him... a thousand! You hear?"
"My heaven, yes," said the doctor. "Don't I, though?"
And that was the beginning of the strangest scene that had ever been witnessed in Royal Valley, for day and night the two men would not leave the side of the dying dog. Christopher because, whenever he moved, there was a moan from Lurcher; and the doctor because his skilled attention was bringing Lurcher alive through each succeeding hour when it seemed as though death must take him at the next moment.
The doctor had a growing reward dangling before his eyes, and, when Christopher saw that the old skilled veterinary was actually accomplishing some results, his delight knew no bounds, and he could not contain himself. On successive days he raised the proffered sum to fifteen hundred and then to two thousand dollars.
And so it was that Royal Valley came to hear of the "Two-Thousand-Dollar Dog."
ALL of this time, it must be remembered, Royal Valley had other things to consider. When the party went up into the hollow, according to the directions of Christopher, to find the body of the famous Harry Main by the cabin near Emmett's, they also found on the way that there was a dead Indian, lying along the trail in the forest.
They buried him at the side of the trail and put up a little mound of stones to mark the spot. Then they went on and forgot all that they had seen of him when they saw Main, indeed, lying with a bullet through his heart. They carried Harry Main down into the valley and laid him out in state in the church, where he was viewed by literally thousands.
Cliff Main had lain there before, and now the more famous and more deadly brother lay there also. Men came who had felt his bullets in their body. And others came who had heard the hiss of them going by. And still others there were who had merely been witnesses.
All of these followed the body to the grave, almost with the air of mourners, and afterward they rehearsed again the wild and grand feats that they had seen this man perform. By hundreds and hundreds those who had never been sufficiently blessed to see the great Main in action drank in these words of the wise.
Royal Valley was particularly glad to hear all that magnified the greatness of Harry Main, just as the Jews of another day were glad to magnify the greatness of Goliath, they having their own David. That David was acting very oddly now but, given such a bit of freakishness as this frantic struggle to save the life of a mere cur, was forgiven.
"You can't expect a gent like Christopher Royal to act like common folks. Everything about him is big... and different!" they said affectionately.
He had explicitly denied the story that described him as rushing bare-handed upon terrible Harry Main and killing him by sheer might of hand and frightful heroism in the face of odds. For that matter, there was the unbruised body of Harry Main, with the bullet through his heart, to deny the tale most effectually. But that was not enough. For men will believe what they want to believe, and the most catching story is always the most lasting one. Christopher was made into a prodigious hero, and all the while he was by the bed of a sick dog too busy to pay attention to his fame.
Mrs. Royal started the instant that she heard where he was, but she was passed on the road by Georgia Lassiter on a flying horse and with a pale, lovely face. Poor Georgia! She got to the Kendricks' house and entered only to find her lover too deeply engrossed in his labors as a nurse to pay the slightest attention to her. She turned crimson—and then she fell to work to help.
After her came Mrs. Royal, to whom her son merely extended a stained hand and said: "I understand everything. And it's all right, Lurcher and you saved me."
Mrs. Royal did not quite understand. But she was a patient woman, and she could wait for explanations. Just what Lurcher had done she could not dream.
And how could any mother be expected to understand how a common, spiritless hound could have been magnified into a danger so terrible that the mere encounter with a celebrated gunman was as nothing to her son?
On the fifth day the crisis came. The doctor, rising to shaking knees, motioned Christopher away from the bed. Unshaven, hollow and black about the eyes, with sunken cheeks and parched lips, they stared down at the sleeping dog and saw Lurcher quiver and jerk and whine in his sleep.
"He's gunna win through," said the doctor. "He's sleeping sound and fine now. He'll be a better dog when he wakes up. But always lame in that off shoulder. Mind you, he's sure to be lame in that shoulder."
"Confound it, man," said Christopher Royal, "you've done the greatest thing in the world. I'll never forget it!"
They rested their arms on one another's shoulders and wavered a little with weariness and gladness as they looked down upon their accomplished work.
Then Christopher could sleep in turn, and, when he awakened, he found Georgia sitting on the floor beside him. For he would lie on the floor in the same room with the dog.
"Hush," she was saying. "Hush." As he stared up into her face, she added: "There are no such things as werewolves, dear Chris."
"No such things," he breathed, and, gripping her hand, he fell asleep again.
You may say, if you will, that this is only a history of how a dog found a man, but as a matter of fact it is a narrative of how a man found himself. The Royal blood had been reclaimed for Christopher, and it was never to be lost again.
Only once did he try to tell the story of the facts to Georgia. He failed dismally, because, after he had finished, she merely looked with a smile at him and said: "Oh, of course, Chris, you want to tell me that you're not a hero at all. But that's always the way with the really brave men. They always think that the things they do are accidents. And, of course, what you say about yourself is right, and what everyone else in the valley says about you is all wrong. You silly dear."
I think that even Georgia, though she was as large-hearted as the day, grew a little jealous of Lurcher before the end, but the old hound had secured a lasting place in the household and could not be removed to his death's day.
It was a common sight, in Royal Town, to see an old, gray-tinged, lean-ribbed hound trailing along behind the tall, graceful figure that Christopher Royal remained throughout his life.
"A queer dog for such a handsome man to own," strangers would say.
And the answer was as ready as "a borrower's cap." "Looks like a common dog, don't it? But everybody in these parts can tell you that two thousand dollars was spent on the same hound, sir."
Such a remark was sure to silence all objections because, as the saying has it, "You have to pay for class."
Christopher had paid. And not in cash only. For to the end of his life, while all the rest of his hair was black, there was a decided sprinkling of gray about the temples, and one deep crease drawn down the very center of his forehead.
The werewolf had put its mark upon him.