The fifty empty freights danced and rolled and rattled on the rough road bed and filled Jericho Pass with thunder; the big engine was laboring and grunting at the grade, but five cars back the noise of the locomotive was lost. Yet there is a way to talk above the noise of a freight train just as there is a way to whistle into the teeth of a stiff wind. This freight-car talk is pitched just above the ordinary tone—it is an overtone of conversation, one might say—and it is distinctly nasal. The brakie could talk above the racket, and so, of course, could Lefty Joe. They sat about in the center of the train, on the forward end of one of the cars. No matter how the train lurched and staggered over that fearful road bed, these two swayed in their places as easily and as safely as birds on swinging perches. The brakie had touched Lefty Joe for two dollars; he had secured fifty cents; and since the vigor of Lefty's oaths had convinced him that this was all the money the tramp had, the two now sat elbow to elbow and killed the distance with their talk.
"It's like old times to have you here," said the brakie. "You used to play this line when you jumped from coast to coast."
"Sure," said Lefty Joe, and he scowled at the mountains on either side of the pass. The train was gathering speed, and the peaks lurched eastward in a confused, ragged procession. "And a durned hard ride it's been many a time."
"Kind of queer to see you," continued the brakie. "Heard you was rising in the world."
He caught the face of the other with a rapid side glance, but Lefty Joe was sufficiently concealed by the dark.
"Heard you were the main guy with a whole crowd behind you," went on the brakie.
"Sure. Heard you was riding the cushions, and all that."
"But I guess it was all bunk; here you are back again, anyway."
"Yep," agreed Lefty.
The brakie scratched his head, for the silence of the tramp convinced him that there had been, after all, a good deal of truth in the rumor. He ran back on another tack and slipped about Lefty.
"I never laid much on what they said," he averred. "I know you, Lefty; you can do a lot, but when it comes to leading a whole gang, like they said you was, and all that—well, I knew it was a lie. Used to tell 'em that."
"You talked foolish, then," burst out Lefty suddenly. "It was all straight."
The brakie could hear the click of his companion's teeth at the period to this statement, as though he regretted his outburst.
"Well, I'll be hanged," murmured the brakie innocently.
Ordinarily, Lefty was not easily lured, but this night he apparently was in the mood for talk.
"Kennebec Lou, the Clipper, and Suds. Them and a lot more. They was all with me; they was all under me; I was the Main Guy!"
What a ring in his voice as he said it! The beaten general speaks thus of his past triumphs. The old man remembered his youth in such a voice. The brakie was impressed; he repeated the three names.
"Even Suds?" he said. "Was even Suds with you?"
The brakie stirred a little, wabbling from side to side as he found a more comfortable position; instead of looking straight before him, he kept a side-glance steadily upon his companion, and one could see that he intended to remember what was said on this night.
"Even Suds," echoed the brakie. "Good heavens, and ain't he a man for you?"
"He was a man," replied Lefty Joe with an indescribable emphasis.
"He ain't a man any more."
"Get bumped off?"
The brakie considered this bit of news and rolled it back and forth and tried its flavor against his gossiping palate.
"Did you fix him after he left you?"
"I see. You busted him while he was still with you. Then Kennebec Lou and the Clipper get sore at the way you treat Suds. So here you are back on the road with your gang all gone bust. Hard luck, Lefty."
But Lefty whined with rage at this careless diagnosis of his downfall.
"You're all wrong," he said. "You're all wrong. You don't know nothin'."
The brakie waited, grinning securely into the night, and preparing his mind for the story. But the story consisted of one word, flung bitterly into the rushing air.
"Him?" cried the brakie, starting in his place.
"Donnegan!" cried Lefty, and his voice made the word into a curse.
The brakie nodded.
"Them that get tangled with Donnegan don't last long. You ought to know that."
At this the grief, hate, and rage in Lefty Joe were blended and caused an explosion.
"Confound Donnegan. Who's Donnegan? I ask you, who's Donnegan?"
"A guy that makes trouble," replied the brakie, evidently hard put to it to find a definition.
"Oh, don't he make it, though? Confound him!"
"You ought to of stayed shut of him, Lefty."
"Did I hunt him up, I ask you? Am I a nut? No, I ain't. Do I go along stepping on the tail of a rattlesnake? No more do I look up Donnegan."
He groaned as he remembered.
"I was going fine. Nothing could of been better. I had the boys together. We was doing so well that I was riding the cushions and I went around planning the jobs. Nice, clean work. No cans tied to it. But one day I had to meet Suds down in the Meriton Jungle. You know?"
"I've heard—plenty," said the brakie.
"Oh, it ain't so bad—the Meriton. I've seen a lot worse. Found Suds there, and Suds was playing Black Jack with an ol gink. He was trimmin' him close. Get Suds going good and he could read 'em three down and bury 'em as fast as they came under the bottom card. Takes a hand to do that sort of work. And that's the sort of work Suds was doing for the old man. Pretty soon the game was over and the old man was busted. He took up his pack and beat it, saying nothing and looking sick. I started talking to Suds.
"And while he was talking, along comes a bo and gives us a once-over. He knew me. 'Is this here a friend of yours, Lefty? he says.
"'Sure,' says I.
"'Then, he's in Dutch. He trimmed that old dad, and the dad is one of Donnegan's pals. Wait till Donnegan hears how your friend made the cards talk while he was skinning the old boy!
"He passes me the wink and goes on. Made me sick. I turned to Suds, and the fool hadn't batted an eye. Never even heard of Donnegan. You know how it is? Half the road never heard of it; part of the roads don't know nothin' else. He's like a jumpin tornado; hits every ten miles and don't bend a blade of grass in between.
"Took me about five minutes to tell Suds about Donnegan. Then Suds let out a grunt and started down the trail for the old dad. Missed him. Dad had got out of the Jungle and copped a rattler. Suds come back half green and half yeller.
"'I've done it; I've spilled the beans,' he says.
"'That ain't half sayin' it,' says I.
"Well, we lit out after that and beat it down the line as fast as we could. We got the rest of the boys together; I had a swell job planned up. Everything staked. Then, the first news come that Donnegan was after Suds.
"News just dropped on us out of the sky. Suds, you know how he is. Strong bluff. Didn't bat an eye. Laughed at this Donnegan. Got a hold of an old pal of his, named Levine, and he is a mighty hot scrapper. From a knife to a toenail, they was nothing that Levine couldn't use in a fight. Suds sent him out to cross Donnegan's trail.
"He crossed it, well enough. Suds got a telegram a couple days later saying that Levine had run into a wild cat and was considerable chawed and would Suds send him a stake to pay the doctor?
"Well, after that Suds got sort of nervous. Didn't take no interest in his work no more. Kept a weather eye out watching for the coming of Donnegan. And pretty soon he up and cleaned out of camp.
"Next day, sure enough, along comes Donnegan and asks for Suds. We kept still—all but Kennebec Lou. Kennebec is some fighter himself. Two hundred pounds of mule muscle with the brain of a devil to tell what to do—yes, you can lay it ten to one that Kennebec is some fighter. That day he had a good edge from a bottle of rye he was trying for a friend.
"He didn't need to go far to find trouble in Donnegan. A wink and a grin was all they needed for a password, and then they went at each other's throats. Kennebec made the first pass and hit thin air; and before he got back on his heels, Donnegan had hit him four times. Then Kennebec jumped back and took a fresh start with a knife."
Here Lefty Joe paused and sighed.
He continued, after a long interval: "Five minutes later we was all busy tyin' up what was left of Kennebec; Donnegan was down the road whistlin' like a bird. And that was the end of my gang. What with Kennebec Lou and Suds both gone, what chance did I have to hold the boys together?"
The brakie heard this recital with the keenest interest, nodding from time to time.
"What beats me, Lefty," he said at the end of the story, "is why you didn't knife into the fight yourself and take a hand with Donnegan"
At this Lefty was silent. It was rather the silence of one which cannot tell whether or not it is worth while to speak than it was the silence of one who needs time for thought.
"I'll tell you why, bo. It's because when I take a trail like that it only has one end I'm going to bump off the other bird or he's going to bump off me"
The brakie cleared his throat
"Look here," he said, "looks to me like a queer thing that you're on this train"
"Does it" queried Lefty softly "Why?"
"Because Donnegan is two cars back, asleep."
"The devil you say!"
The brakie broke into laughter
"Don't kid yourself along," he warned. "Don't do it. It ain't wise—with me."
"What you mean?"
"Come on, Lefty. Come clean. You better do a fade off this train."
"Why, you fool—"
"It don't work, Joe. Why, the minute I seen you I knew why you was here. I knew you meant to croak Donnegan."
"Me croak him? Why should I croak him?"
"Because you been trailing him two thousand miles. Because you ain't got the nerve to meet him face to face and you got to sneak in and take a crack at him while he's lying asleep. That's you, Lefty Joe!"
He saw Lefty sway toward him; but, all stories aside, it is a very bold tramp that cares for argument of a serious nature with a brakie. And even Lefty Joe was deterred from violent action. In the darkness his upper lip twitched, but he carefully smoothed his voice.
"You don't know nothing, pal," he declared.
"Nothing," repeated Lefty.
He reached into his clothes and produced something which rustled in the rush of wind. He fumbled, and finally passed a scrap of the paper into the hand of the brakie.
"My heavens," drawled the latter. "D'you think you can fix me with a buck for a job like this? You can't bribe me to stand around while you bump off Donnegan. Can't be done, Lefty!"
"One buck, did you say?"
Lefty Joe expertly lighted a match in spite of the roaring wind, and by this wild light the brakie read the denomination of the bill with a gasp. He rolled up his face and was in time to catch the sneer on the face of Lefty before a gust snatched away the light of the match.
They had topped the highest point in Jericho Pass and now the long train dropped into the down grade with terrific speed. The wind became a hurricane. But to the brakie all this was no more than a calm night. His thoughts were raging in him, and if he looked back far enough he remembered the dollar which Donnegan had given him; and how he had promised Donnegan to give the warning before anything went wrong. He thought of this, but rustling against the palm of his right hand was the bill whose denomination he had read, and that figure ate into his memory, ate into his brain.
After all what was Donnegan to him? What was Donnegan but a worthless tramp? Without any answer to that last monosyllabic query, the brakie hunched forward, and began to work his way up the train.
The tramp watched him go with laughter. It was silent laughter. In the most quiet room it would not have sounded louder than a continual, light hissing noise. Then he, in turn, moved from his place, and worked his way along the train in the opposite direction to that in which the brakie had disappeared.
He went expertly, swinging from car to car with apelike clumsiness—and surety. Two cars back. It was not so easy to reach the sliding side door of that empty car. Considering the fact that it was night, that the train was bucking furiously over the old roadbed, Lefty had a not altogether simple task before him. But he managed it with the same apelike adroitness. He could climb with his feet as well as his hands. He would trust a ledge as well as he would trust the rung of a ladder.
Under his discreet manipulations from above the door loosened and it became possible to work it back. But even this the tramp did with considerable care. He took advantage of the lurching of the train, and every time the car jerked he forced the door to roll a little, so that it might seem for all the world as though the motion of the train alone were operating it.
For suppose that Donnegan wakened out of his sound sleep and observed the motion of the door; he would be suspicious if the door opened in a single continued motion; but if it worked in these degrees he would be hypersuspicious if he dreamed of danger. So the tramp gave five whole minutes to that work.
When it was done he waited for a time, another five minutes, perhaps, to see if the door would be moved back. And when it was not disturbed, but allowed to stand open, he knew that Donnegan still slept.
It was time then for action, and Lefty Joe prepared for the descent into the home of the enemy. Let it not be thought that he approached this moment with a fallen heart, and with a cringing, snaky feeling as a man might be expected to feel when he approached to murder a sleeping foeman. For that was not Lefty's emotion at all. Rather he was overcome by a tremendous happiness. He could have sung with joy at the thought that he was about to rid himself of this pest.
True, the gang was broken up. But it might rise again. Donnegan had fallen upon it like a blight. But with Donnegan out of the way would not Suds come back to him instantly? And would not Kennebec Lou himself return in admiration of a man who had done what he, Kennebec, could not do? With those two as a nucleus, how greatly might he not build!
Justice must be done to Lefty Joe. He approached this murder as a statesman approaches the removal of a foe from the path of public prosperity. There was no more rancor in his attitude. It was rather the blissful largeness of the heart that comes to the politician when he unearths the scandal which will blight the race of his rival.
With the peaceful smile of a child, therefore, Lefty Joe lay stretched at full length along the top of the car and made his choice of weapons. On the whole, his usual preference, day or night, was for a revolver. Give him a gat and Lefty was at home in any company. But he had reasons for transferring his alliance on this occasion. In the first place, a box car which is reeling and pitching to and fro, from side to side, is not a very good shooting platform—even for a snapshot like Lefty Joe. Also, the pitch darkness in the car would be a further annoyance to good aim. And in the third and most decisive place, if he were to miss his first shot he would not be extremely apt to place his second bullet. For Donnegan had a reputation with his own revolver. Indeed, it was said that he rarely carried the weapon, because when he did he was always tempted too strongly to use it. So that the chances were large that Donnegan would not have the gun now. Yet if he did have it—if he, Lefty, did miss his first shot—then the story would be brief and bitter indeed.
On the other hand, a knife offered advantages almost too numerous to be listed. It gave one the deadly assurance which only comes with the knowledge of an edge of steel in one's hand. And when the knife reaches its mark it ends a battle at a stroke.
Of course these doubts and considerations pro and con went through the mind of the tramp in about the same space of time that it requires for a dog to waken, snap at a fly, and drowse again. Eventually, he took out his knife. It was a sheath knife which he wore from a noose of silk around his throat, and it always lay closest to his heart. The blade of the knife was of the finest Spanish steel, in the days when Spanish smiths knew how to draw out steel to a streak of light; the handle of the knife was from Milan. On the whole, it was a delicate and beautiful weapon—and it had the durable suppleness of—say—hatred itself.
Lefty Joe, like a pirate in a tale, took this weapon between his teeth; allowed his squat, heavy bulk to swing down and dangle at arm's length for an instant, and then he swung himself a little and landed softly on the floor of the car.
Who has not heard snow drop from the branch upon other snow beneath? That was the way Lefty Joe dropped to the floor of the car. He remained as he had fallen; crouched, alert, with one hand spread out on the boards to balance him and give him a leverage and a start in case he should wish to spring in any direction.
Then he began to probe the darkness in every direction; with every glance he allowed his head to dart out a little. The movement was like a chicken pecking at imaginary grains of corn. But eventually he satisfied himself that his quarry lay in the forward end of the car; that he was prone; that he, Lefty, had accomplished nine-tenths of his purpose by entering the place of his enemy unobserved.
But even though this major step was accomplished successfully, Lefty Joe was not the man to abandon caution in the midst of an enterprise. The roar of the train would have covered sounds ten times as loud as those of his snaky approach, yet he glided forward with as much care as though he were stepping on old stairs in a silent house. He could see a vague shadow—Donnegan; but chiefly he worked by that peculiar sense of direction which some people possess in a dim light. The blind, of course, have that sense in a high degree of sensitiveness, but even those who are not blind may learn to trust the peculiar and inverted sense of direction.
With this to aid him, Lefty Joe went steadily, slowly across the first and most dangerous stage of his journey. That is, he got away from the square of the open door, where the faint starlight might vaguely serve to silhouette his body. After this, it was easier work.
Of course, when he alighted on the floor of the car, the knife had been transferred from his teeth to his left hand; and all during his progress forward the knife was being balanced delicately, as though he were not yet quite sure of the weight of the weapon. Just as a prize fighter keeps his deadly, poised hands in play, moving them as though he fears to lose his intimate touch with them.
This stalking had occupied a matter of split seconds. Now Lefty Joe rose slowly. He was leaning very far forward, and he warded against the roll of the car by spreading out his right hand close to the floor; his left hand he poised with the knife, and he began to gather his muscles for the leap. He had already taken the last preliminary movement—he had swung himself to the right side a little and, lightening his left foot, had thrown all his weight upon the right—in fact, his body was literally suspended in the instant of springing, catlike, when the shadow which was Donnegan came to life.
The shadow convulsed as shadows are apt to swirl in a green pool when a stone is dropped into it; and a bit of board two feet long and some eight inches wide cracked against the shins of Lefty Joe.
It was about the least dramatic weapon that could have been chosen under those circumstances, but certainly no other defense could have frustrated Lefty's spring so completely. Instead of launching out in a compact mass whose point of contact was the reaching knife, Lefty crawled stupidly forward upon his knees, and had to throw out his knife hand to save his balance.
It is a singular thing to note how important balance is to men. Animals fight, as a rule, just as well on their backs as they do on their feet. They can lie on their sides and bite; they can swing their claws even while they are dropping through the air. But man needs poise and balance before he can act. What is speed in a fighter? It is not so much an affair of the muscles as it is the power of the brain to adapt itself instantly to each new move and put the body in a state of balance. In the prize ring speed does not mean the ability to strike one lightning blow, but rather that, having finished one drive, the fighter is in position to hit again, and then again, so that no matter where the impetus of his last lunge has placed him he is ready and poised to shoot all his weight behind his fist again and drive it accurately at a vulnerable spot. Individually the actions may be slow; but the series of efforts seem rapid. That is why a superior boxer seems to hypnotize his antagonist with movements which to the spectator seem perfectly easy, slow, and sure.
But if Lefty lacked much in agility, he had an animallike sense of balance. Sprawling, helpless, he saw the convulsed shadow that was Donnegan take form as a straight shooting body that plunged through the air above him. Lefty Joe dug his left elbow into the floor of the car and whirled back upon his shoulders, bunching his knees high over his stomach. Nine chances out of ten, if Donnegan had fallen flatwise upon this alert enemy, he would have received those knees in the pit of his own stomach and instantly been paralyzed. But in the jumping, rattling car even Donnegan was capable of making mistakes. His mistake in this instance saved his life, for springing too far, he came down not in reaching distance of Lefty's throat, but with his chest on the knees of the older tramp.
As a result, Donnegan was promptly kicked head over heels and tumbled the length of the car. Lefty was on his feet and plunging after the tumbling form in the twinkling of an eye, literally speaking, and he was only kept from burying his knife in the flesh of his foe by a sway of the car that staggered him in the act of striking. Donnegan, the next instant, was beyond reach. He had struck the end of the car and rebounded like a ball of rubber at a tangent. He slid into the shadows, and Lefty, putting his own shoulders to the wall, felt for his revolver and knew that he was lost. He had failed in his first surprise attack, and without surprise to help him now he was gone. He weighed his revolver, decided that it would be madness to use it, for if he missed, Donnegan would instantly be guided by the flash to shoot him full of holes.
Something slipped by the open door—something that glimmered faintly; and Lefty Joe knew that it was the red head of Donnegan. Donnegan, soft-footed as a shadow among shadows. Donnegan on a blood trail. It lowered the heartbeat of Lefty Joe to a tremendous, slow pulse. In that moment he gave up hope and, resigning himself to die, determined to fight to the last gasp, as became one of his reputation and national celebrity on "the road."
Yet Lefty Joe was no common man and no common fighter. No, let the shade of Rusty Dick, whom Lefty met and beat in his glorious prime—let this shade arise and speak for the prowess of Lefty Joe. In fact it was because he was such a good fighter himself that he recognized his helplessness in the hands of Donnegan.
The faint glimmer of color had passed the door. It was dissolved in deeper shadows at once, and soundlessly; Lefty knew that Donnegan was closer and closer.
Of one thing he felt more and more confident, that Donnegan did not have his revolver with him. Otherwise, he would have used it before. For what was darkness to this devil, Donnegan. He walked like a cat, and most likely he could see like a cat in the dark. Instinctively the older tramp braced himself with his right hand held at a guard before his breast and the knife poised in his left, just as a man would prepare to meet the attack of a panther. He even took to probing the darkness in a strange hope to catch the glimmer of the eyes of Donnegan as he moved to the attack. If there were a hair's breadth of light, then Donnegan himself must go down. A single blow would do it.
But the devil had instructed his favorite Donnegan how to fight. He did not come lunging through the shadows to meet the point of that knife. Instead, he had worked a snaky way along the floor and now he leaped in and up at Lefty, taking him under the arms.
A dozen hands, it seemed, laid hold on Lefty. He fought like a demon and tore himself away, but the multitude of hands pursued him. They were small hands. Where they closed they tore the clothes and bit into his very flesh. Once a hand had him by the throat, and when Lefty jerked himself away it was with a feeling that his flesh had been seared by five points of red-hot iron. All this time his knife was darting; once it ripped through cloth, but never once did it find the target. And half a second later Donnegan got his hold. The flash of the knife as Lefty raised it must have guided the other. He shot his right hand up behind the left shoulder of the other and imprisoned the wrist. Not only did it make the knife hand helpless, but by bearing down with his own weight Donnegan could put his enemy in most exquisite torture.
For an instant they whirled; then they went down, and Lefty was on top. Only for a moment. The impetus which had sent him to the floor was used by Donnegan to turn them over, and once fairly on top his left hand was instantly at the throat of Lefty.
Twice Lefty made enormous efforts, but then he was done. About his body the limbs of Donnegan were twisted, tightening with incredible force; just as hot iron bands sink resistlessly into place. The strangle-hold cut away life at its source. Once he strove to bury his teeth in the arm of Donnegan. Once, as the horror caught at him, he strove to shriek for help. All he succeeded in doing was in raising an awful, sobbing whisper. Then, looking death in the face, Lefty plunged into the great darkness.
When he wakened, he jumped at a stride into the full possession of his faculties. He had been placed near the open door, and the rush of night air had done its work in reviving him. But Lefty, drawn back to life, felt only a vague wonder that his life had not been taken. Perhaps he was being reserved by the victor for an Indian death of torment. He felt cautiously and found that not only were his hands free, but his revolver had not been taken from him. A familiar weight was on his chest—the very knife had been returned to its sheath.
Had Donnegan returned these things to show how perfectly he despised his enemy?
"He's gone!" groaned the tramp, sitting up quickly.
"He's here," said a voice that cut easily through the roar of the train. "Waiting for you, Lefty."
The tramp was staggered again. But then, who had ever been able to fathom the ways of Donnegan?
"Donnegan!" he cried with a sudden recklessness.
"You're a fool!"
"For not finishing the job."
Donnegan began to laugh. In the uproar of the train it was impossible really to hear the sound, but Lefty caught the pulse of it. He fingered his bruised throat; swallowing was a painful effort. And an indescribable feeling came over him as he realized that he sat armed to the teeth within a yard of the man he wanted to kill, and yet he was as effectively rendered helpless as though iron shackles had been locked on his wrists and legs. The night light came through the doorway, and he could make out the slender outline of Donnegan and again he caught the faint luster of that red hair; and out of the shadowy form a singular power emanated and sapped his strength at the root.
Yet he went on viciously: "Sooner or later, Donnegan, I'll get you!"
The red head of Donnegan moved, and Lefty Joe knew that the younger man was laughing again.
"Why are you after me?" he asked at length.
It was another blow in the face of Lefty. He sat for a time blinking with owlish stupidity.
"Why?" he echoed. And he spoke his astonishment from the heart.
"Why am I after you?" he said again. "Why, confound you, ain't you Donnegan?"
"Don't the whole road know that I'm after you and you after me?"
"The whole road is crazy. I'm not after you."
"Maybe I been dreaming. Maybe you didn't bust up the gang? Maybe you didn't clean up on Suds and Kennebec?"
"Suds? Kennebec? I sort of remember meeting them."
"You sort of—the devil!" Lefty Joe sputtered the words. "And after you cleaned up my crowd, ain't it natural and good sense for you to go on and try to clean up on me?"
"Sounds like it."
"But I figured to beat you to it. I cut in on your trail, Donnegan, and before I leave it you'll know a lot more about me."
"You're warning me ahead of time?"
"You've played this game square with me; I'll play square with you. Next time there'll be no slips, Donnegan. I dunno why you should of picked on me, though. Just the natural devil in you."
"I haven't picked on you," said Donnegan.
"I'll give you my word."
A tingle ran through the blood of Lefty Joe. Somewhere he had heard, in rumor, that the word of Donnegan was as good as gold. He recalled that rumor now and something of dignity in the manner with which Donnegan made his announcement carried a heavy weight. As a rule, the tramps vowed with many oaths; here was one of the nights of the road who made his bare word sufficient. And Lefty Joe heard with great wonder.
"All I ask," he said, "is why you hounded my gang, if you wasn't after me?"
"I didn't hound them. I ran into Suds by accident. We had trouble. Then Levine. Then Kennebec Lou tried to take a fall out of me."
A note of whimsical protest crept into the voice of Donnegan.
"Somehow there's always a fight wherever I go," he said. "Fights just sort of grow up around me."
Lefty Joe snarled.
"You didn't mean nothing by just 'happening' to run into three of my boys one after another?"
"Not a thing."
Lefty rocked himself back and forth in an ecstasy of impatience.
"Why don't you stay put?" he complained. "Why don't you stake out your own ground and stay put in it? You cut in on every guy's territory. There ain't any privacy any more since you hit the road. What you got? A roving commission?"
Donnegan waited for a moment before he answered. And when he spoke his voice had altered. Indeed, he had remarkable ability to pitch his voice into the roar of the freight train, and above or beneath it, and give it a quality such as he pleased.
"I'm following a trail, but not yours," he admitted at length. "I'm following a trail. I've been at it these two years and nothing has come of it."
"Who you after?"
"A man with red hair."
"That tells me a lot."
Donnegan refused to explain.
"What you got against him—the color of his hair?"
And Lefty roared contentedly at his own stale jest.
"It's no good," replied Donnegan. "I'll never get on the trail."
Lefty broke in: "You mean to say you've been working two solid years and all on a trail that you ain't even found?"
The silence answered him in the affirmative.
"Ain't nobody been able to tip you off to him?" went on Lefty, intensely interested.
"Nobody. You see, he's a hard sort to describe. Red hair, that's all there was about him for a clue. But if any one ever saw him stripped they'd remember him by a big blotchy birthmark on his left shoulder."
"Eh?" grunted Lefty Joe.
He added: "What was his name?"
"Don't know. He changed monikers when he took to the road."
"What was he to you?"
"A man I'm going to find."
"No matter where the trail takes you?"
"No matter where."
At this Lefty was seized with unaccountable laughter. He literally strained his lungs with that Homeric outburst. When he wiped the tears from his eyes, at length, the shadow on the opposite side of the doorway had disappeared. He found his companion leaning over him, and this time he could catch the dull glint of starlight on both hair and eyes.
"What d'you know?" asked Donnegan.
"How do you stand toward this bird with the birthmark and the red hair?" queried Lefty with caution.
"What d'you know?" insisted Donnegan.
All at once passion shook him; he fastened his grip in the shoulder of the larger man, and his fingertips worked toward the bone.
"What do you know?" he repeated for the third time, and now there was no hint of laughter in the hard voice of Lefty.
"You fool, if you follow that trail you'll go to the devil. It was Rusty Dick; and he's dead!"
His triumphant laughter came again, but Donnegan cut into it.
"Rusty Dick was the one you—killed!"
"Sure. What of it? We fought fair and square."
"Then Rusty wasn't the man I want. The man I want would of eaten two like you, Lefty."
"What about the birthmark? It sure was on his shoulder; Donnegan."
"Heavens!" whispered Donnegan.
"What's the matter?"
"Rusty Dick," gasped Donnegan. "Yes, it must have been he."
"Sure it was. What did you have against him?"
"It was a matter of blood—between us," stammered Donnegan.
His voice rose in a peculiar manner, so that Lefty shrank involuntarily.
"You killed Rusty?"
"Ask any of the boys. But between you and me, it was the booze that licked Rusty Dick. I just finished up the job and surprised everybody."
The train was out of the mountains and in a country of scattering hills, but here it struck a steep grade and settled down to a grind of slow labor; the rails hummed, and suspense filled the freight car.
"Hey," cried Lefty suddenly. "You fool, you'll do a flop out the door in about a minute!"
He even reached out to steady the toppling figure, but Donnegan pitched straight out into the night. Lefty craned his neck from the door, studying the roadbed, but at that moment the locomotive topped the little rise and the whole train lurched forward.
"After all," murmured Lefty Joe, "it sounds like Donnegan. Hated a guy so bad that he hadn't any use for livin' when he heard the other guy was dead. But I'm never goin' to cross his path again, I hope."
But Donnegan had leaped clear of the roadbed, and he struck almost to the knees in a drift of sand. Otherwise, he might well have broken his legs with that foolhardy chance. As it was, the fall whirled him over and over, and by the time he had picked himself up the lighted caboose of the train was rocking past him. Donnegan watched it grow small in the distance, and then, when it was only a red, uncertain star far down the track, he turned to the vast country around him.
The mountains were to his right, not far away, but caught up behind the shadows so that it seemed a great distance. Like all huge, half-seen things they seemed in motion toward him. For the rest, he was in bare, rolling country. The sky line everywhere was clean; there was hardly a sign of a tree. He knew, by a little reflection, that this must be cattle country, for the brakie had intimated as much in their talk just before dusk. Now it was early night, and a wind began to rise, blowing down the valley with a keen motion and a rapidly lessening temperature, so that Donnegan saw he must get to a shelter. He could, if necessary, endure any privation, but his tastes were for luxurious comfort. Accordingly he considered the landscape with gloomy disapproval. He was almost inclined to regret his plunge from the lumbering freight train. Two things had governed him in making that move. First, when he discovered that the long trail he followed was definitely fruitless, he was filled with a great desire to cut himself away from his past and make a new start. Secondly, when he learned that Rusty Dick had been killed by Joe, he wanted desperately to get the throttle of the latter under his thumb. If ever a man risked his life to avoid a sin, it was Donnegan jumping from the train to keep from murder.
He stooped to sight along the ground, for this is the best way at night and often horizon lights are revealed in this manner. But now Donnegan saw nothing to serve as a guide. He therefore drew in his belt until it fitted snug about his gaunt waist, settled his cap firmly, and headed straight into the wind.
Nothing could have shown his character more distinctly.
When in doubt, head into the wind.
With a jaunty, swinging step he sauntered along, and this time, at least, his tactics found an early reward. Topping the first large rise of ground, he saw in the hollow beneath him the outline of a large building. And as he approached it, the wind clearing a high blowing mist from the stars, he saw a jumble of outlying houses. Sheds, barns, corrals—it was the nucleus of a big ranch. It is a maxim that, if you wish to know a man look at his library and if you wish to know a rancher, look at his barn. Donnegan made a small detour to the left and headed for the largest of the barns.
He entered it by the big, sliding door, which stood open; he looked up, and saw the stars shining through a gap in the roof. And then he stood quietly for a time, listening to the voices of the wind in the ruin. Oddly enough, it was pleasant to Donnegan. His own troubles and sorrow had poured upon him so thickly in the past hour or so that it was soothing to find evidence of the distress of others. But perhaps this meant that the entire establishment was deserted.
He left the barn and went toward the house. Not until he was close under its wall did he come to appreciate its size. It was one of those great, rambling, two-storied structures which the cattle kings of the past generation were fond of building. Standing close to it, he heard none of the intimate sounds of the storm blowing through cracks and broken walls; no matter into what disrepair the barns had fallen, the house was still solid; only about the edges of the building the storm kept murmuring.
Yet there was not a light, neither above nor below. He came to the front of the house. Still no sign of life. He stood at the door and knocked loudly upon it, and though, when he tried the knob, he found that the door was latched, yet no one came in response. He knocked again, and putting his ear close he heard the echoes walk through the interior of the building.
After this, the wind rose in sudden strength and deafened him with rattlings; above him, a shutter was swung open and then crashed to, so that the opening of the door was a shock of surprise to Donnegan. A dim light from a source which he could not direct suffused the interior of the hall; the door itself was worked open a matter of inches and Donnegan was aware of two keen old eyes glittering out at him. Beyond this he could distinguish nothing.
"Who are you?" asked a woman's voice. "And what do you want?"
"I'm a stranger, and I want something to eat and a place to sleep. This house looks as if it might have spare rooms."
"Where d'you come from?"
"Yonder," said Donnegan, with a sufficiently noncommittal gesture.
"What's your name?"
"I don't know you. Be off with you, Mr. Donnegan!"
He inserted his foot in the closing crack of the door.
"Tell me where I'm to go?" he persisted.
At this her voice rose in pitch, with squeaky rage.
"I'll raise the house on you!"
"Raise 'em. Call down the man of the house. I can talk to him better than I can to you; but I won't walk off like this. If you can feed me, I'll pay you for what I eat."
A shrill cackling—he could not make out the words. And since patience was not the first of Donnegan's virtues, he seized on the knob of the door and deliberately pressed it wide. Standing in the hall, now, and closing the door slowly behind him, he saw a woman with old, keen eyes shrinking away toward the staircase. She was evidently in great fear, but there was something infinitely malicious in the manner in which she kept working her lips soundlessly. She was shrinking, and half turned away, yet there was a suggestion that in an instant she might whirl and fly at his face. The door now clicked, and with the windstorm shut away Donnegan had a queer feeling of being trapped.
"Now call the man of the house," he repeated. "See if I can't come to terms with him."
"He'd make short work of you if he came," she replied. She broke into a shrill laughter, and Donnegan thought he had never seen a face so ugly. "If he came," she said, "you'd rue the day."
"Well, I'll talk to you, then. I'm not asking charity. I want to pay for what I get."
"This ain't a hotel. You go on down the road. Inside eight miles you'll come to the town."
"That's nothing for a man to ride."
"Not at all, if I had something to ride."
"You ain't got a horse?"
"Then how do you come here?"
If this sharpened her suspicions, it sharpened her fear also. She put one foot on the lowest step of the stairs.
"Be off with you, Mr. Donnegally, or whatever your outlandish name is. You'll get nothing here. What brings you—"
A door closed and a footstep sounded lightly on the floor above. And Donnegan, already alert in the strange atmosphere of this house, gave back a pace so as to get an honest wall behind him. He noted that the step was quick and small, and preparing himself to meet a wisp of manhood—which, for that matter, was the type he was most inclined to fear—Donnegan kept a corner glance upon the old woman at the foot of the stairs and steadily surveyed the shadows at the head of the rise.
Out of that darkness a foot slipped; not even a boy's foot—a very child's. The shock of it made Donnegan relax his caution for an instant, and in that instant she came into the reach of the light. It was a wretched light at best, for it came from a lamp with smoky chimney which the old hag carried, and at the raising and lowering of her hand the flame jumped and died in the throat of the chimney and set the hall awash with shadows. Falling away to a point of yellow, the lamp allowed the hall to assume a certain indefinite dignity of height and breadth and calm proportions; but when the flame rose Donnegan could see the broken balusters of the balustrade, the carpet, faded past any design and worn to rattiness, wall paper which had rotted or dried away and hung in crisp tatters here and there, and on the ceiling an irregular patch from which the plaster had fallen and exposed the lathwork. But at the coming of the girl the old woman had turned, and as she did the flame tossed up in the lamp and Donnegan could see the newcomer distinctly.
Once before his heart had risen as it rose now. It had been the fag end of a long party, and Donnegan, rousing from a drunken sleep, staggered to the window. Leaning there to get the freshness of the night air against his hot face, he had looked up, and saw the white face of the moon going up the sky; and a sudden sense of the blackness and loathing against the city had come upon Donnegan, and the murky color of his own life; and when he turned away from the window he was sober. And so it was that he now stared up at the girl. At her breast she held a cloak together with one hand and the other hand touched the railing of the stairs. He saw one foot suspended for the next step, as though the sight of him kept her back in fear. To the miserable soul of Donnegan she seemed all that was lovely, young, and pure; and her hair, old gold in the shadow and pale gold where the lamp struck it, was to Donnegan like a miraculous light about her face.
Indeed, that little pause was a great and awful moment. For considering that Donnegan, who had gone through his whole life with his eyes ready either to mock or hate, and who had rarely used his hand except to make a fist of it; Donnegan who had never, so far as is known, had a companion; who had asked the world for action, not kindness; this Donnegan now stood straight with his back against the wall, and poured out the story of his wayward life to a mere slip of a girl.
Even the old woman, whose eyes were sharpened by her habit of looking constantly for the weaknesses and vices of men, could not guess what was going on behind the thin, rather ugly face of Donnegan; the girl, perhaps, may have seen more. For she caught the glitter of his active eyes even at that distance. The hag began to explain with vicious gestures that set the light flaring up and down.
"He ain't come from nowhere, Lou," she said. "He ain't going nowhere; he wants to stay here for the night."
The foot which had been suspended to take the next step was now withdrawn. Donnegan, remembered at last, whipped off his cap, and at once the light flared and burned upon his hair. It was a wonderful red; it shone, and it had a terrible blood tinge so that his face seemed pale beneath it. There were three things that made up the peculiar dominance of Donnegan's countenance. The three things were the hair, the uneasy, bright eyes, and the rather thin, compressed lips. When Donnegan slept he seemed about to waken from a vigorous dream; when he sat down he seemed about to leap to his feet; and when he was standing he gave that impression of a poise which is ready for anything. It was no wonder that the girl, seeing that face and that alert, aggressive body, shrank a little on the stairs. Donnegan, that instant, knew that these two women were really alone in the house as far as fighting men were concerned.
And the fact disturbed him more than a leveled gun would have done. He went to the foot of the stairs, even past the old woman, and, raising his head, he spoke to the girl.
"My name's Donnegan. I came over from the railroad—walked. I don't want to walk that other eight miles unless there's a real need for it. I—" Why did he pause? "I'll pay for anything I get here."
His voice was not too certain; behind his teeth there was knocking a desire to cry out to her the truth. "I am Donnegan. Donnegan the tramp. Donnegan the shiftless. Donnegan the fighter. Donnegan the killer. Donnegan the penniless, worthless. But for heaven's sake let me stay until morning and let me look at you—from a distance!"
But, after all, perhaps he did not need to say all these things. His clothes were rags, upon his face there was a stubble of unshaven red, which made the pallor about his eyes more pronounced. If the girl had been half blind she must have felt that here was a man of fire. He saw her gather the wrap a little closer about her shoulders, and that sign of fear made him sick at heart.
"Mr. Donnegan," said the girl. "I am sorry. We cannot take you into the house. Eight miles—"
Did she expect to turn a sinner from the gates of heaven with a mere phrase? He cast out his hand, and she winced as though he had shaken his fist at her.
"Are you afraid?" cried Donnegan.
"I don't control the house."
He paused, not that her reply had baffled him, but the mere pleasure of hearing her speak accounted for it. It was one of those low, light voices which are apt to have very little range or volume, and which break and tremble absurdly under any stress of emotion; and often they become shrill in a higher register; but inside conversational limits, if such a term may be used, there is no fiber so delightful, so purely musical. Suppose the word "velvet" applied to a sound. That voice came soothingly and delightfully upon the ear of Donnegan, from which the roar and rattle of the empty freight train had not quite departed. He smiled at her.
"But," he protested, "this is west of the Rockies—and I don't see any other way out."
The girl, all this time, was studying him intently, a little sadly, he thought. Now she shook her head, but there was more warmth in her voice.
"I'm sorry. I can't ask you to stay without first consulting my father."
"Go ahead. Ask him."
She raised her hand a little; the thought seemed to bring her to the verge of trembling, as though he were asking a sacrilege.
"Why not?" he urged.
She did not answer, but, instead, her eyes sought the old, woman, as if to gain her interposition; she burst instantly into speech.
"Which there's no good talking any more," declared the ancient vixen. "Are you wanting to make trouble for her with the colonel? Be off, young man. It ain't the first time I've told you you'd get nowhere in this house!"
There was no possible answer left to Donnegan, and he did as usual the surprising thing. He broke into laughter of such clear and ringing tone—such infectious laughter—that the old woman blinked in the midst of her wrath as though she were seeing a new man, and he saw the lips of the girl parted in wonder.
"My father is an invalid," said the girl. "And he lives by strict rules. I could not break in on him at this time of the evening."
"If that's all"—Donnegan actually began to mount the steps—"I'll go in and talk to your father myself."
She had retired one pace as he began advancing, but as the import of what he said became clear to her she was rooted to one position by astonishment.
"Colonel Macon—my father—" she began. Then: "Do you really wish to see him?"
The hushed voice made Donnegan smile—it was such a voice as one boy uses when he asks the other if he really dares enter the pasture of the red bull. He chuckled again, and this time she smiled, and her eyes were widened, partly by fear of his purpose and partly from his nearness. They seemed to be suddenly closer together. As though they were on one side against a common enemy, and that enemy was her father. The old woman was cackling sharply from the bottom of the stairs, and then bobbing in pursuit and calling on Donnegan to come back. At length the girl raised her hand and silenced her with a gesture.
Donnegan was now hardly a pace away; and he saw that she lived up to all the promise of that first glance. Yet still she seemed unreal. There is a quality of the unearthly about a girl's beauty; it is, after all, only a gay moment between the formlessness of childhood and the hardness of middle age. This girl was pale, Donnegan saw, and yet she had color. She had the luster, say, of a white rose, and the same bloom. Lou, the old woman had called her, and Macon was her father's name. Lou Macon—the name fitted her, Donnegan thought. For that matter, if her name had been Sally Smith, Donnegan would probably have thought it beautiful. The keener a man's mind is and the more he knows about men and women and the ways of the world, the more apt he is to be intoxicated by a touch of grace and thoughtfulness; and all these age-long seconds the perfume of girlhood had been striking up to Donnegan's brain.
She brushed her timidity away and with the same gesture accepted Donnegan as something more than a dangerous vagrant. She took the lamp from the hands of the crone and sent her about her business, disregarding the mutterings and the warnings which trailed behind the departing form. Now she faced Donnegan, screening the light from her eyes with a cupped hand and by the same device focusing it upon the face of Donnegan. He mutely noted the small maneuver and gave her credit; but for the pleasure of seeing the white of her fingers and the way they tapered to a pink transparency at the tips, he forgot the poor figure he must make with his soiled, ragged shirt, his unshaven face, his gaunt cheeks.
Indeed, he looked so straight at her that in spite of her advantage with the light she had to avoid his glance.
"I am sorry," said Lou Macon, "and ashamed because we can't take you in. The only house on the range where you wouldn't be welcome, I know. But my father leads a very close life; he has set ways. The ways of an invalid, Mr. Donnegan."
"And you're bothered about speaking to him of me?"
"I'm almost afraid of letting you go in yourself."
"Let me take the risk."
She considered him again for a moment, and then turned with a nod and he followed her up the stairs into the upper hall. The moment they stepped into it he heard her clothes flutter and a small gale poured on them. It was criminal to allow such a building to fall into this ruinous condition. And a gloomy picture rose in Donnegan's mind of the invalid, thin-faced, sallow-eyed, white-haired, lying in his bed listening to the storm and silently gathering bitterness out of the pain of living. Lou Macon paused again in the hall, close to a door on the right.
"I'm going to send you in to speak to my father," she said gravely. "First I have to tell you that he's different."
Donnegan replied by looking straight at her, and this time she did not wince from the glance. Indeed, she seemed to be probing him, searching with a peculiar hope. What could she expect to find in him? What that was useful to her? Not once in all his life had such a sense of impotence descended upon Donnegan. Her father? Bah! Invalid or no invalid he would handle that fellow, and if the old man had an acrid temper, Donnegan at will could file his own speech to a point. But the girl! In the meager hand which held the lamp there was a power which all the muscles of Donnegan could not compass; and in his weakness he looked wistfully at her.
"I hope your talk will be pleasant. I hope so." She laid her hand on the knob of the door and withdrew it hastily; then, summoning great resolution, she opened the door and showed Donnegan in.
"Father," she said, "this is Mr. Donnegan. He wishes to speak to you."
The door closed behind Donnegan, and hearing that whishing sound which the door of a heavy safe will make, he looked down at this, and saw that it was actually inches thick! Once more the sense of being in a trap descended upon him.
He found himself in a large room which, before he could examine a single feature of it, was effectively curtained from his sight. Straight into his face shot a current of violent white light that made him blink. There was the natural recoil, but in Donnegan recoils were generally protected by several strata of willpower and seldom showed in any physical action. On the present occasion his first dismay was swiftly overwhelmed by a cold anger at the insulting trick. This was not the trick of a helpless invalid; Donnegan could not see a single thing before him, but he obeyed a very deep instinct and advanced straight into the current of light.
He was glad to see the light switched away. The comparative darkness washed across his eyes in a pleasant wave and he was now able to distinguish a few things in the room. It was, as he had first surmised, quite large. The ceiling was high; the proportions comfortably spacious; but what astounded Donnegan was the real elegance of the furnishings. There was no mistaking the deep, silken texture of the rug upon which he stepped; the glow of light barely reached the wall, and there showed faintly in streaks along yellowish hangings. Beside a table which supported a big reading lamp—gasoline, no doubt, from the intensity of its light—sat Colonel Macon with a large volume spread across his knees. Donnegan saw two highlights—fine silver hair that covered the head of the invalid and a pair of white hands fallen idly upon the surface of the big book, for if the silver hair suggested age the smoothly finished hands suggested perennial youth. They were strong, carefully tended, complacent hands. They suggested to Donnegan a man sufficient unto himself.
"Mr. Donnegan, I am sorry that I cannot rise to receive you. Now, what pleasant accident has brought me the favor of this call?"
Donnegan was taken aback again, and this time more strongly than by the flare of light against his eyes. For in the voice he recognized the quality of the girl—the same softness, the same velvety richness, though the pitch was a bass. In the voice of this man there was the same suggestion that the tone would crack if it were forced either up or down. With this great difference, one could hardly conceive of a situation which would push that man's voice beyond its monotone. It flowed with deadly, all-embracing softness. It clung about one; it fascinated and baffled the mind of the listener.
But Donnegan was not in the habit of being baffled by voices. Neither was he a lover of formality. He looked about for a place to sit down, and immediately discovered that while the invalid sat in an enormous easy-chair bordered by shelves and supplied with wheels for raising and lowering the back and for propelling the chair about the room on its rubber tires, it was the only chair in the room which could make any pretensions toward comfort. As a matter of fact, aside from this one immense chair, devoted to the pleasure of the invalid, there was nothing in the room for his visitors to sit upon except two or three miserable backless stools.
But Donnegan was not long taken aback. He tucked his cap under his arm, bowed profoundly in honor of the colonel's compliments, and brought one of the stools to a place where it was no nearer the rather ominous circle of the lamplight than was the invalid himself. With his eyes accustomed to the new light, Donnegan could now take better stock of his host. He saw a rather handsome face, with eyes exceedingly blue, young, and active; but the features of Macon as well as his body were blurred and obscured by a great fatness. He was truly a prodigious man, and one could understand the stoutness with which the invalid chair was made. His great wrist dimpled like the wrist of a healthy baby, and his face was so enlarged with superfluous flesh that the lower part of it quite dwarfed the upper. He seemed, at first glance, a man with a low forehead and bright, careless eyes and a body made immobile by flesh and sickness. A man whose spirits despised and defied pain. Yet a second glance showed that the forehead was, after all, a nobly proportioned one, and for all the bulk of that figure, for all the cripple-chair, Donnegan would not have been surprised to see the bulk spring lightly out of the chair to meet him.
For his own part, sitting back on the stool with his cap tucked under his arm and his hands folded about one knee, he met the faint, cold smile of the colonel with a broad grin of his own.
"I can put it in a nutshell," said Donnegan. "I was tired; dead beat; needed a handout, and rapped at your door. Along comes a mystery in the shape of an ugly-looking woman and opens the door to me. Tries to shut me out; I decided to come in. She insists on keeping me outside; all at once I see that I have to get into the house. I am brought in; your daughter tries to steer me off, sees that the job is more than she can get away with, and shelves me off upon you. And that, Colonel Macon, is the pleasant accident which brings you the favor of this call."
It would have been a speech both stupid and pert in the mouth of another; but Donnegan knew how to flavor words with a touch of mockery of himself as well as another. There were two manners in which this speech could have been received—with a wink or with a smile. But it would have been impossible to hear it and grow frigid. As for the colonel, he smiled.
It was a tricky smile, however, as Donnegan felt. It spread easily upon that vast face and again went out and left all to the dominion of the cold, bright eyes.
"A case of curiosity," commented the colonel.
"A case of hunger," said Donnegan.
"My dear Mr. Donnegan, put it that way if you wish!"
"And a case of blankets needed for one night."
"Really? Have you ventured into such a country as this without any equipment?"
"Outside of my purse, my equipment is of the invisible kind."
"Wits," suggested the colonel.
"Not at all. You hinted at it yourself."
"However, a hint is harder to take than to make."
The colonel raised his faultless right hand—and oddly enough his great corpulence did not extend in the slightest degree to his hand, but stopped short at the wrists—and stroked his immense chin. His skin was like Lou Macon's, except that in place of the white-flower bloom his was a parchment, dead pallor. He lowered his hand with the same slow precision and folded it with the other, all the time probing Donnegan with his difficult eyes.
"Unfortunately—most unfortunately, it is impossible for me to accommodate you, Mr. Donnegan."
The reply was not flippant, but quick. "Not at all. I am the easiest person in the world to accommodate."
The big man smiled sadly.
"My fortune has fallen upon evil days, sir. It is no longer what it was. There are in this house three habitable rooms; this one; my daughter's apartment; the kitchen where old Haggie sleeps. Otherwise you are in a rat trap of a place."
He shook his head, a slow, decisive motion.
"A spare blanket," said Donnegan, "will be enough."
There was another sigh and another shake of the head.
"Even a corner of a rug to roll up in will do perfectly."
"You see, it is impossible for me to entertain you."
"Bare boards will do well enough for me, Colonel Macon. And if I have a piece of bread, a plate of cold beans—anything—I can entertain myself."
"I am sorry to see you so compliant, Mr. Donnegan, because that makes my refusal seem the more unkind. But I cannot have you sleeping on the bare floor. Not on such a night. Pneumonia comes on one like a cat in the dark in such weather. It is really impossible to keep you here, sir."
"H'm-m," said Donnegan. He began to feel that he was stumped, and it was a most unusual feeling for him.
"Besides, for a young fellow like you, with your agility, what is eight miles? Walk down the road and you will come to a place where you will be made at home and fed like a king."
"Eight miles, that's not much! But on such a night as this?"
There was a faint glint in the eyes of the colonel; was he not sharpening his wits for his contest of words, and enjoying it?
"The wind will be at your back and buoy your steps. It will shorten the eight miles to four."
Very definitely Donnegan felt that the other was reading him. What was it that he saw as he turned the pages?
"There is one thing you fail to take into your accounting."
"I have an irresistible aversion to walking."
"Ah?" repeated Macon.
"Or exercise in any form."
"Then you are unfortunate to be in this country without a horse."
"Unfortunate, perhaps, but the fact is that I'm here. Very sorry to trouble you, though, colonel."
"I am rarely troubled," said the colonel coldly. "And since I have no means of accommodation, the laws of hospitality rest light on my shoulders."
"Yet I have an odd thought," replied Donnegan.
"Well? You have expressed a number already, it seems to me."
"It's this: that you've already made up your mind to keep me here."
The colonel stiffened in his chair, and under his bulk even those ponderous timbers quaked a little. Once more Donnegan gained an impression of chained activity ready to rise to any emergency. The colonel's jaw set and the last vestige of the smile left his eyes. Yet it was not anger that showed in its place. Instead, it was rather a hungry searching. He looked keenly into the face and the soul of Donnegan as a searchlight sweeps over waters by night.
"You are a mind reader, Mr. Donnegan."
"No more of a mind reader than a Chinaman is."
"Ah, they are great readers of mind, my friend."
Donnegan grinned, and at this the colonel frowned.
"A great and mysterious people, sir. I keep evidences of them always about me. Look!"
He swept the shaft of the reading light up and it fell upon a red vase against the yellow hangings. Even Donnegan's inexperienced eye read a price into that shimmering vase.
"Queer color," he said.
"Dusty claret. Ah, they have the only names for their colors. Think! Peach bloom—liquid dawn—ripe cherry—oil green—green of powdered tea—blue of the sky after rain—what names for color! What other land possesses such a tongue that goes straight to the heart!"
The colonel waved his faultless hands and then dropped them back upon the book with the tenderness of a benediction.
"And their terms for texture—pear's rind—lime peel—millet seed! Do not scoff at China, Mr. Donnegan. She is the fairy godmother, and we are the poor children."
He changed the direction of the light; Donnegan watched him, fascinated.
"But what convinced you that I wished to keep you here?"
"To amuse you, Colonel Macon."
The colonel exposed gleaming white teeth and laughed in that soft, smooth-flowing voice.
"Amuse me? For fifteen years I have sat in this room and amused myself by taking in what I would and shutting out the rest of the world. I have made the walls thick and padded them to keep out all sound. You observe that there is no evidence here of the storm that is going on tonight. Amuse me? Indeed!"
And Donnegan thought of Lou Macon in her old, drab dress, huddling the poor cloak around her shoulders to keep out the cold, while her father lounged here in luxury. He could gladly have buried his lean fingers in that fat throat. From the first he had had an aversion to this man.
"Very well, I shall go. It has been a pleasant chat, colonel."
"Very pleasant. And thank you. But before you go, taste this whisky. It will help you when you enter the wind."
He opened a cabinet in the side of the chair and brought out a black bottle and a pair of glasses and put them on the broad arm of the chair. Donnegan sauntered back.
"You see," he murmured, "you will not let me go."
At this the colonel raised his head suddenly and glared into the eyes of his guest, and yet so perfect was his muscular and nerve control that he did not interrupt the thin stream of amber which trickled into one of the glasses. Looking down again, he finished pouring the drinks. They pledged each other with a motion, and drank. It was very old, very oily. And Donnegan smiled as he put down the empty glass.
"Sit down," said the colonel in a new voice.
"Fate," went on the colonel, "rules our lives. We give our honest endeavors, but the deciding touch is the hand of Fate."
He garnished this absurd truism with a wave of his hand so solemn that Donnegan was chilled; as though the fat man were actually conversant with the Three Sisters.
"Fate has brought you to me; therefore, I intend to keep you."
"In my service. I am about to place a great mission and a great trust in your hands."
"In the hands of a man you know nothing about?"
"I know you as if I had raised you."
Donnegan smiled, and shaking his head, the red hair flashed and shimmered.
"As long as there is no work attached to the mission, it may be agreeable to me."
"But there is work."
"Then the contract is broken before it is made."
"You are rash. But I had rather begin with a dissent and then work upward."
"To balance against work—"
"Excuse me. Nothing balances against work for me."
"To balance against work," continued the colonel, raising a white hand and by that gesture crushing the protest of Donnegan, "there is a great reward."
"Colonel Macon, I have never worked for money before and I shall not work for it now."
"You trouble me with interruptions. Who mentioned money? You shall not have a penny!"
"The reward shall grow out of the work."
"And the work?"
At this Donnegan narrowed his eyes and searched the fat man thoroughly. It sounded like the talk of a charlatan, and yet there was a crispness to these sentences that made him suspect something underneath. For that matter, in certain districts his name and his career were known. He had never dreamed that that reputation could have come within a thousand miles of this part of the mountain desert.
"You should have told me in the first place," he said with some anger, "that you knew me."
"Mr. Donnegan, upon my honor, I never heard your name before my daughter uttered it."
Donnegan waited soberly.
"I despise charlatanry as much as the next man. You shall see the steps by which I judged you. When you entered the room I threw a strong light upon you. You did not blanch; you immediately walked straight into the shaft of light although you could not see a foot before you."
"And that proved?"
"A combative instinct, and coolness; not the sort of brute vindictiveness that fights for a rage, for a cool-minded love of conflict. Is that clear?"
Donnegan shrugged his shoulders.
"And above all, I need a fighter. Then I watched your eyes and your hands. The first were direct and yet they were alert. And your hands were perfectly steady."
"Qualifications for a fighter, eh?"
"Do you wish further proof?"
"What of the fight to the death which you went through this same night?"
Donnegan started. It was a small movement, that flinching, and he covered it by continuing the upward gesture of his hand to his coat; he drew out tobacco and cigarette papers and commenced to roll his smoke. Looking up, he saw that the eyes of Colonel Macon were smiling, although his face was grave.
A glint of understanding passed between the two men, but not a spoken word.
"I assure you, there was no death tonight," said Donnegan at length.
"Tush! Of course not! But the tear on the shoulder of your coat—ah, that is too smooth edged for a tear, too long for the bite of a scissors. Am I right? Tush! Not a word!"
The colonel beamed with an almost tender pride, and Donnegan, knowing that the fat man looked upon him as a murderer, newly come from a death, considered the beaming face and thought many things in silence.
"So it was easy to see that in coolness, courage, fighting instinct, skill, you were probably what I want. Yet something more than all these qualifications is necessary for the task which lies ahead of you."
"You pile up the bad features, eh?"
"To entice you, Donnegan. For one man, paint a rosy beginning, and once under way he will manage the hard parts. For you, show you the hard shell and you will trust it contains the choice flesh. I was saying, that I waited to see other qualities in you; qualities of the judgment. And suddenly you flashed upon me a single glance; I felt it clash against my willpower. I felt your look go past my guard like a rapier slipping around my blade. I, Colonel Macon, was for the first time outfaced, out-maneuvered. I admit it, for I rejoice in meeting such a man. And the next instant you told me that I should keep you here out of my own wish! Admirable!"
The admiration of the colonel, indeed, almost overwhelmed Donnegan, but he saw that in spite of the genial smile, the face suffused with warmth, the colonel was watching him every instant, flinty-eyed. Donnegan did as he had done on the stairs; he burst into laughter.
When he had done, the colonel was leaning forward in his chair with his fingers interlacing, examining his guest from beneath somber brows. As he sat lurched forward he gave a terrible impression of that reserved energy which Donnegan had sensed before.
"Donnegan," said the colonel, "I shall talk no more nonsense to you. You are a terrible fellow!"
And Donnegan knew that, for the first time in the colonel's life, he was meeting another man upon equal ground.
In a way, it was an awful tribute, for one great fact grew upon him: that the colonel represented almost perfectly the power of absolute evil. Donnegan was not a squeamish sort, but the fat, smiling face of Macon filled him with unutterable aversion. A dozen times he would have left the room, but a silken thread held him back, the thought of Lou.
"I shall be terse and entirely frank," said the colonel, and at once Donnegan reared triple guard and balanced himself for attack or defense.
"Between you and me," went on the fat man, "deceptive words are folly. A waste of energy." He flushed a little. "You are, I believe, the first man who has ever laughed at me." The click of his teeth as he snapped them on this sentence seemed to promise that he should also be the last.
"So I tear away the veils which made me ridiculous, I grant you. Donnegan, we have met each other just in time."
"True," said Donnegan, "you have a task for me that promises a lot of fighting; and in return I get lodgings for the night."
"Wrong, wrong! I offer you much more. I offer you a career of action in which you may forget the great sorrow which has fallen upon you: and in the battles which lie before you, you will find oblivion for the sad past which lies behind you."
Here Donnegan sprang to his feet with his hand caught at his breast; and he stood quivering, in an agony. Pain worked him as anger would do, and, his slender frame swelling, his muscles taut, he stood like a panther enduring the torture because knows it is folly to attempt to escape.
"You are a human devil!" Donnegan said at last, and sank back upon his stool. For a moment he was overcome, his head falling upon his breast, and even when he looked up his face was terribly pale, and his eyes dull. His expression, however, cleared swiftly, and aside from the perspiration which shone on his forehead it would have been impossible ten seconds later to discover that the blow of the colonel had fallen upon him.
All of this the colonel had observed and noted with grim satisfaction. Not once did he speak until he saw that all was well.
"I am sorry," he said at length in a voice almost as delicate as the voice of Lou Macon. "I am sorry, but you forced me to say more than I wished to say."
Donnegan brushed the apology aside.
His voice became low and hurried. "Let us get on in the matter. I am eager to learn from you, colonel."
"Very well. Since it seems that there is a place for both our interests in this matter, I shall run on in my tale and make it, as I promised you before, absolutely frank and curt. I shall not descend into small details. I shall give you a main sketch of the high points; for all men of mind are apt to be confused by the face of a thing, whereas the heart of it is perfectly clear to them."
He settled into his narrative.
"You have heard of The Corner? No? Well, that is not strange; but a few weeks ago gold was found in the sands where the valleys of Young Muddy and Christobel Rivers join. The Corner is a long, wide triangle of sand, and the sand is filled with a gold deposit brought down from the headwaters of both rivers and precipitated here, where one current meets the other and reduces the resultant stream to sluggishness. The sands are rich—very rich!"
He had become a trifle flushed as he talked, and now, perhaps to cover his emotion, he carefully selected a cigarette from the humidor beside him and lighted it without haste before he spoke another word.
"Long ago I prospected over that valley; a few weeks ago it was brought to my attention again. I determined to stake some claims and work them. But I could not go myself. I had to send a trustworthy man. Whom should I select? There was only one possible. Jack Landis is my ward. A dozen years ago his parents died and they sent him to my care, for my fortune was then comfortable. I raised him with as much tenderness as I could have shown my own son; I lavished on him the affection and—"
Here Donnegan coughed lightly; the fat man paused, and observing that this hypocrisy did not draw the veil over the bright eyes of his guest, he continued: "In a word, I made him one of my family. And when the need for a man came I turned to him. He is young, strong, active, able to take care of himself."
At this Donnegan pricked his ears.
"He went, accordingly, to The Corner and staked the claims and filed them as I directed. I was right. There was gold. Much gold. It panned out in nuggets."
He made an indescribable gesture, and through his strong fingers Donnegan had a vision of yellow gold pouring.
"But there is seldom a discovery of importance claimed by one man alone. This was no exception. A villain named William Lester, known as a scoundrel over the length and breadth of the cattle country, claimed that he had made the discovery first. He even went so far as to claim that I had obtained my information from him and he tried to jump the claims staked by Jack Landis, whereupon Jack, very properly, shot Lester down. Not dead, unfortunately, but slightly wounded.
"In the meantime the rush for The Corner started. In a week there was a village; in a fortnight there was a town; in a month The Corner had become the talk of the ranges. Jack Landis found in the claims a mint. He sent me back a mere souvenir."
The fat man produced from his vest pocket a little chunk of yellow and with a dexterous motion whipped it at Donnegan. It was done so suddenly, so unexpectedly that the wanderer was well-nigh taken by surprise. But his hand flashed up and caught the metal before it struck his face. He found in the palm of his hand a nugget weighing perhaps five ounces, and he flicked it back to the colonel.
"He sent me the souvenir, but that was all. Since that time I have waited. Nothing has come. I sent for word, and I learned that Jack Landis had betrayed his trust, fallen in love with some undesirable woman of the mining camp, denied my claim to any of the gold to which I had sent him. Unpleasant news? Yes. Ungrateful boy? Yes. But my mind is hardened against adversity.
"Yet this blow struck me close to the heart. Because Landis is engaged to marry my daughter, Lou. At first I could hardly believe in his disaffection. But the truth has at length been borne home to me. The scoundrel has abandoned both Lou and me!"
Donnegan repeated slowly: "Your daughter loves this chap?"
The colonel allowed his glance to narrow, and he could do this the more safely because at this moment Donnegan's eyes were wandering into the distance. In that unguarded second Donnegan was defenseless and the colonel read something that set him beaming.
"She loves him, of course," he said, "and he is breaking her heart with his selfishness."
"He is breaking her heart?" echoed Donnegan.
The colonel raised his hand and stroked his enormous chin. Decidedly he believed that things were getting on very well.
"This is the position," he declared. "Jack Landis was threatened by the wretch Lester, and shot him down. But Lester was not single-handed. He belongs to a wild crew, led by a mysterious fellow of whom no one knows very much, a deadly fighter, it is said, and a keen organizer and handler of men. Red-haired, wild, smooth. A bundle of contradictions. They call him Lord Nick because he has the pride of a nobleman and the cunning of the devil. He has gathered a few chosen spirits and cool fighters—the Pedlar, Joe Rix, Harry Masters—all celebrated names in the cattle country.
"They worship Lord Nick partly because he is a genius of crime and partly because he understands how to guide them so that they may rob and even kill with impunity. His peculiarity is his ability to keep within the bounds of the law. If he commits a robbery he always first establishes marvelous alibis and throws the blame toward someone else; if it is the case of a killing, it is always the other man who is the aggressor. He has been before a jury half a dozen times, but the devil knows the law and pleads his own case with a tongue that twists the hearts out of the stupid jurors. You see? No common man. And this is the leader of the group of which Lester is one of the most debased members. He had no sooner been shot than Lord Nick himself appeared. He had his followers with him. He saw Jack Landis, threatened him with death, and made Jack swear that he would hand over half of the profits of the mines to the gang—of which, I suppose, Lester gets his due proportion. At the same time, Lord Nick attempted to persuade Jack that I, his adopted father, you might say, was really in the wrong, and that I had stolen the claims from this wretched Lester!"
He waved this disgusting accusation into a mist and laughed with hateful softness.
"The result is this: Jack Landis draws a vast revenue from the mines. Half of it he turns over to Lord Nick, and Lord Nick in return gives him absolute freedom and backing in the camp, where he is, and probably will continue the dominant factor. As for the other half, Landis spends it on this woman with whom he has become infatuated. And not a penny comes through to me!"
Colonel Macon leaned back in his chair and his eyes became fixed upon a great distance. He smiled, and the blood turned cold in the veins of Donnegan.
"Of course this adventuress, this Nelly Lebrun, plays hand in glove with Lord Nick and his troupe; unquestionably she shares her spoils, so that nine-tenths of the revenue from the mines is really flowing back through the hands of Lord Nick and Jack Landis has become a silly figurehead. He struts about the streets of The Corner as a great mine owner, and with the power of Lord Nick behind him, not one of the people of the gambling houses and dance halls dares cross him. So that Jack has come to consider himself a great man. Is it clear?"
Donnegan had not yet drawn his gaze entirely back from the distance.
"This is the possible solution," went on the colonel. "Jack Landis must be drawn away from the influence of this Nelly Lebrun. He must be brought back to us and shown his folly both as regards the adventuress and Lord Nick; for so long as Nelly has a hold on him, just so long Lord Nick will have his hand in Jack's pocket. You see how beautifully their plans and their work dovetail? How, therefore, am I to draw him from Nelly? There is only one way: send my daughter to the camp—send Lou to The Corner and let one glimpse of her beauty turn the shabby prettiness of this woman to a shadow! Lou is my last hope!"
At this Donnegan wakened. His sneer was not a pleasant thing to see.
"Send her to a new mining camp. Colonel Macon, you have the gambling spirit; you are willing to take great chances!"
"So! So!" murmured the colonel, a little taken aback. "But I should never send her except with an adequate protector."
"An adequate protector even against these celebrated gunmen who run the camp as you have already admitted?"
"An adequate protector—you are the man!"
"I? I take your daughter to the camp and play her against Nelly Lebrun to win back Jack Landis? Is that the scheme?"
"Ah," murmured Donnegan. And he got up and began to walk the room, white-faced; the colonel watched him in a silent agony of anxiety.
"She truly loves this Landis?" asked Donnegan, swallowing.
"A love that has grown out of their long intimacy together since they were children."
"Bah! Calf love! Let the fellow go and she will forget him. Hearts are not broken in these days by disappointments in love affairs."
The colonel writhed in his chair.
"But Lou—you do not know her heart!" he suggested. "If you looked closely at her you would have seen that she is pale. She does not suspect the truth, but I think she is wasting away because Jack hasn't written for weeks."
He saw Donnegan wince under the whip.
"It is true," murmured the wanderer. "She is not like others, heaven knows!" He turned. "And what if I fail to bring over Jack Landis with the sight of Lou?"
The colonel relaxed; the great crisis was past and Donnegan would undertake the journey.
"In that case, my dear lad, there is an expedient so simple that you astonish me by not perceiving it. If there is no way to wean Landis away from the woman, then get him alone and shoot him through the heart. In that way you remove from the life of Lou a man unworthy of her and you also make the mines come to the heir of Jack Landis—namely, myself. And in the latter case, Mr. Donnegan, be sure—oh, be sure that I should not forget who brought the mines into my hands!"
Fifty miles over any sort of going is a stiff march. Fifty miles uphill and down and mostly over districts where there was only a rough cow path in lieu of a road made a prodigious day's work; and certainly it was an almost incredible feat for one who professed to hate work with a consuming passion and who had looked upon an eight-mile jaunt the night before as an insuperable burden. Yet such was the distance which Donnegan had covered, and now he drove the pack mule out on the shoulder of the hill in full view of The Corner with the triangle of the Young Muddy and Christobel Rivers embracing the little town. Even the gaunt, leggy mule was tired to the dropping point, and the tough buckskin which trailed up behind went with downward head. When Louise Macon turned to him, he had reached the point where he swung his head around first and then grudgingly followed the movement with his body. The girl was tired, also, in spite of the fact that she had covered every inch of the distance in the saddle. There was that violet shade of weariness under her eyes and her shoulders slumped forward. Only Donnegan, the hater of labor, was fresh.
They had started in the first dusk of the coming day; it was now the yellow time of the slant afternoon sunlight; between these two points there had been a body of steady plodding. The girl had looked askance at that gaunt form of Donnegan's when they began; but before three hours, seeing that the spring never left his step nor the swinging rhythm his stride, she began to wonder. This afternoon, nothing he did could have surprised her. From the moment he entered the house the night before he had been a mystery. Till her death day she would not forget the fire with which he had stared up at her from the foot of the stairs. But when he came out of her father's room—not cowed and whipped as most men left it—he had looked at her with a veiled glance, and since that moment there had always been a mist of indifference over his eyes when he looked at her.
In the beginning of that day's march all she knew was that her father trusted her to this stranger, Donnegan, to take her to The Corner, where he was to find Jack Landis and bring Jack back to his old allegiance and find what he was doing with his time and his money. It was a quite natural proceeding, for Jack was a wild sort, and he was probably gambling away all the gold that was dug in his mines. It was perfectly natural throughout, except that she should have been trusted so entirely to a stranger. That was a remarkable thing, but, then, her father was a remarkable man, and it was not the first time that his actions had been inscrutable, whether concerning her or the affairs of other people. She had heard men come into their house cursing Colonel Macon with death in their faces; she had seen them sneak out after a soft-voiced interview and never appear again. In her eyes, her father was invincible, all-powerful. When she thought of superlatives, she thought of him. Her conception of mystery was the smile of the colonel, and her conception of tenderness was bounded by the gentle voice of the same man. Therefore, it was entirely sufficient to her that the colonel had said: "Go, and trust everything to Donnegan. He has the power to command you and you must obey—until Jack comes back to you."
That was odd, for, as far as she knew, Jack had never left her. But she had early discarded any will to question her father. Curiosity was a thing which the fat man hated above all else.
Therefore, it was really not strange to her that throughout the journey her guide did not speak half a dozen words to her. Once or twice when she attempted to open the conversation he had replied with crushing monosyllables, and there was an end. For the rest, he was always swinging down the trail ahead of her at a steady, unchanging, rapid stride. Uphill and down it never varied. And so they came out upon the shoulder of the hill and saw the storm center of The Corner. They were in the hills behind the town; two miles would bring them into it. And now Donnegan came back to her from the mule. He took off his hat and shook the dust away; he brushed a hand across his face. He was still unshaven. The red stubble made him hideous, and the dust and perspiration covered his face as with a mask. Only his eyes were rimmed with white skin.
"You'd better get off the horse, here," said Donnegan.
He held her stirrup, and she obeyed without a word.
She sat down on the flat-topped boulder which he designated, and, looking up, observed the first sign of emotion in his face. He was frowning, and his face was drawn a little.
"You are tired," he stated.
"You are tired," said the wanderer in a tone that implied dislike of any denial. Therefore she made no answer. "I'm going down into the town to look things over. I don't want to parade you through the streets until I know where Landis is to be found and how he'll receive you. The Corner is a wild town; you understand?"