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Title: Soft Metal Author: Max Brand * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1302741h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2013 Most recent update: May 2013 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan from a text donated by Paul Moulder. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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All the earth was black, but there was still light in the heavens when Larry Givain came over the hills and into the valley. He paused on the upper slope between a great Spanish dagger plant and a scrub cedar. Below him the darkness was broken, not by forms, but by black hints of shapes like arms thrust up at the sky. More Spanish daggers, then, marched down in their grisly ranks to the bottom of the hollow.
Larry Givain dismounted from the saddle, loosened the throat latch of his mare, and took off his glove to rub her wet muzzle. "Dear old Sally," he said to her, and stopped patting her nose to slick her ears between his fingertips. Even her ears were wet almost to the points, for Sally had labored mightily that day, and, when Larry looked back in mind to the wilderness of desert and rocks and mountains which the dainty-footed mare had covered, it seemed that they must have been given wings.
In this hollow beyond the rise he had hoped to find the light of a house. Once before he had traveled in that general direction, and he could be almost certain that he had passed a house in this very place, although that was years before, and the whole remembrance was as dim as the light in which he was riding. But he needed water very badly. It did not so much matter that his own throat was lined with fire. It had been in that condition many a time before, when he was compelled by certain exigencies to plunge out of one town and away toward another of vague location, somewhere beyond a gigantic screen of desert. For, like most men who make their living by their luck at cards, Larry Givain was apt to run into streaks of violent unpopularity after he had been in a town a few days.
In the old days he had been able to arrange a career across the mountains so that he flitted safely on like a bee, sipping the honey at one flower patch and then darting away to the next before the hornets were aroused. But having been five years on the road, he now found that he had to retrace his steps across known country. Of course, he never went back to the same town he had been in before, but even to be in the near vicinity of a town that had known him in the past was dangerous. If one man saw him, talk was started. And shortly after talk was started, it became an essential for Larry to use the legs of a fast horse.
The fast horse was Sally, and she was a very rocket for speed, yet she had been with him so long that she was becoming almost more of an encumbrance than a blessing, for where his face was not remembered, her beautiful brown body and the white-stockinged near forefoot and the blaze of white in the center of her forehead were sure to be recalled. Of course, he would not give her up. She had saved his hide a hundred times. She knew his voice; she knew his whisper. She would have given all of her great heart for him as freely as though her blood were water.
Larry Givain thought of these things, while he rubbed her sleek ears and blessed her. But she must have water. Not only for her own sake but to keep away from sundry hot riders whom he had last seen in the middle of the afternoon, coursing furiously along his trail. They were very angry fellows, and they had promised him, among other things, a coat of tar and feathers. However, that was a girl which had been offered to him before, and the acceptance of which he had dexterously avoided.
He mounted Sally again and rode her gently down the hill, knowing well that a down slope is far harder on a tired horse than an upward one. And so it was, just as he reached the bottom of the hollow, that the place loomed black and big before him—literally slapped him in the face. It was the house of his dim memory, put here in the hollow, surely enough, but simply without a light in it.
That might mean, perhaps, desertion, and no water available in a broken well. He hurried anxiously to the rear, and there he saw the long trough with a great yellow star floating in the black water.
Sally, like a good horse, drove her head in up to the eye, but after she had taken a deep swallow or two, Larry Givain drew her away, for she was far too hot to drink much. And she answered his touch, in spite of her passion of thirst, as readily as though he was taking her from a free pasture. Little things sometimes touch us most, and this kindly willingness of Sally's made the whole heart of Larry Givain rise.
He led her away from the trough, loosened the cinches a trifle more—for he made a point of a loose cinch at all times—and looked back to the skyline. The stars were out, but not in the east where the last pallor of the old day was living, and this light defined mistily the heads of the eastern hills. No black shadows of horsemen broke that line, and they would not break it for a good half hour to come, at the least. Sally had been running her best, and, when Sally did her best, the cream of other horseflesh shriveled and shrank from comparison.
That half hour would be far better employed in rest than in further riding. If, at the end of that time, the impromptu posse stormed over the hills and swept down toward the house, they had as well try to tag the tail of a comet as attempt to catch a rested and well-breathed Sally.
So he tried the door of the house. It was unlatched. It occurred to him that the owner of the house might be there, but simply asleep after a hard day's work. So he called, but his voice died, and the echoes rang from wall to wall with a convincing hollowness. So he threw the reins of Sally and stepped in to explore.
What the light of three matches showed him were three rooms. The first was the kitchen, where he found the well primed, a sure sign that the owner of the house was not more than twenty-four hours away. He worked it for five minutes, controlling his wild thirst until the stream of water ran cool as a mountain spring, for he knew that half a cup of really cool water will do more for a famished man than a whole quart, apparently, of lukewarm throat wash. His second match showed him a living room. His third match gave to his eyes the bedroom.
It was a well-ordered, well-equipped house, a hundred times neater and better furnished than the average squatter's shack, and a squatter this man must surely be. Givain went to the living room, opened the window, and let a stream of fresh night air cleanse away the humid heat that had been accumulating in the house all day. It washed away the larger half of the nameless odors of the dwelling, also, and let in the keen scent of the desert, sharp as a wolf's ear, to the nostrils of Givain. He whistled for Sally. It was the only thing in the world that could make her stir after the reins had been thrown, so she trotted up to him, holding her head far to the side so that she would not tread on the reins. Then she stood at the window, and, when Givain lighted the lamp, her great eyes mirrored the light and made her look almost terrible in wildness.
There she remained, sniffing cautiously at the door, then raising her little square nose to the ceiling, then drawing back without moving her feet and looking about her into the night. For, with infinite care, he had taught her to stand as quietly and to move as quietly as a great loafer wolf. Her master in the meantime was busying himself with the first book upon which his hand had fallen. He was so glad to see it that he hardly cared to wonder how it happened to be in a mere squatter's shack. He opened it, and was instantly deep in the pages.
The time passed. Outside, the last light faded, the coyote that had been crying down the draw turned downwind, and his voice began to quiver and pulse along the horizon of sounds, as a sail on the open seas seems to wing in and out of view. Still, the time rolled on. Sally was ready for her second drink long since, and she moved more and more restlessly, until finally she stepped about and stared continually into the night to make out the first movement of an enemy. For poor Sally had been hunted with her master so often that she distrusted a long halt with all of her heart.
At length there came a warning that struck even the attention of the gambler. It was no more, say, than the noise that wind makes on a quiet day, when a door is opened silently and slowly, but to Larry Givain the sound seemed as intelligible as the whisper of a voice at his ear. For he had heard the unmistakable sound of cloth rubbing against cloth, and the noise came from the kitchen, where he had not seen a fragment of cloth hanging against the wall.
He glanced at the window. He could dive through it like an eel into water and be instantly safe on the back of Sally, where she stood, glimmering in the starlight, but Givain had fled long enough. He had a sort of femininely uncertain nature that made him unaware of exactly what course he would pursue. He never could plan a strict course of action for himself; the stricter it was, the more apt he would be to break it. On this occasion, reason told him to flee speedily, but the imp of the perverse made him stay.
Givain laid down his book and rose from his chair. He reached the wall nearest to the opening of the kitchen door in three long and gliding steps. Then he waited. It did not seem to weary him to wait out the seconds, or to hold his difficult position, for he was crouched low, as if he would strike at an enemy with teeth and hands like a beast of prey rather than with the heavy- handled Colt that dragged down in his holster. For, strangely, he had not drawn the gun. Indeed, it was a maxim of his never to draw a gun until there was absolute necessity to shoot, and never to find a necessity until he felt that his own life must be given up otherwise. In that crouched position one felt that the body beneath his clothes must be like the body of an Indian, lithe and lean and wiry, and his thin, handsome face was sunburned to an Indian brown, and his big, dark eyes had the Indian wild light in them.
The door swayed open a crack, and Givain melted against the wall. It opened a bit more, and he dug his toes against the floor. He always wore soles on his riding boots of a papery thinness. Sometimes they made for discomfort in a long ride, chafing against the stirrups, but those flexible soles gave his feet a purchase and made his footfall as silent as the dropping of a moccasin.
The door opened yet more; something was now visible beyond it. There was a half guessed at eye of metal gleaming behind the dusky wall. Of course, the gun was the thing to use, a quick snap shot, aimed rather low perhaps, in case he did not wish to risk inflicting a mortal wound upon an innocent man. But instead of the gun, suppose that he dove into the blackness beyond, grappled the enemy—it would be death, perhaps, but it would be an exquisite thrill of pleasure.
He was through the door like a thrown stone, and with almost as noiseless a rush. There was not even time for a gasp from the other, before the shoulder of Givain went home and the figure went down in the dark. Givain reached, with a wolf's instinct, for the throat, and found it.
But he loosed his grip the instant his fingertips sank into the flesh, for there was never a man who had so soft a skin. Then he lifted the inert burden in his arms and ran back into the light of the lamp. He cried out with horror, for it was a girl, with her head hanging back as though her neck were broken, and her hair streaming down to the floor—long black hair that dropped like a coiling pool upon the floor.
Just as his heart was frozen with the thought that she might be dead, indeed, she stirred. Givain laid her carefully in the chair and stepped back to the wall, still weak, still sick at heart. So she opened her eyes and looked out at him.
It was as though the lamp was turned upon her face for the first time to bring it out of the darkness, that opening of her eyes. Before he had simply seen that she was a woman, that she was young, that she was good to see. Now he found a pale, young face in which the only beautiful feature was the eyes. For the rest, her nose was too short, and her mouth was too wide. She was astonishingly pretty, but no one could ever have called her beautiful.
She did not scream, although he had set his nerves to endure it. She did not even fall on her knees and beg him not to murder her, although he had prepared his eyes for that. All that she did was to stare at him for a moment and then suddenly to smile. The smile began at the eyes first, and then touched the corners of her lips. If it did not make her lovely, at least it made her fascinating. That smile sent a trickle of warmth down to the innermost heart of the gambler.
"I guess we were both surprised," she said. "But it was a foolish thing to faint. I didn't mean to, really."
It was the turn of Givain to stare, and then, of course, he laughed. Perhaps the tail of his eye took note of the hair, tumbling to one side and slipping off her shoulder. She twisted that hair into shape and skewed it into place with a hairpin.
"I thought that a great panther had jumped at me," she said, shivering. "When you came through the door, you came so fast that I had no time to even think. I wonder what a man would have done."
"The same thing," said Givain rather grimly. He added hastily: "That sounds a bit boastful, I guess."
"Not at all," she said politely, and then added more slowly, considering: "Not a bit."
If he could move with such tigerish speed, even a man, even a strong man, might be as helpless before him as before a thunderbolt in the fabled hand of the Titan.
"But tell me why you have come here?" she asked suddenly.
"I've a good mind to ask you the same thing."
"Oh, but I have a right to come."
"Perhaps I have a right to be here, then."
"Ah!" she said. "That was what I had hoped."
"That you belonged here."
"Because, of course, then you can give me the news about Jim."
"I suppose so."
"Where has he gone—why isn't he here—didn't he expect me?"
"That's a lot for me to answer," said Larry Givain. "I don't know that Jim would be any too glad for me to talk right out."
"But, of course, he has told you all about me, if you live right here with him."
"I'll tell you," said Givain, "Jim can be mighty close-mouthed about some things."
"No, no! Why, he rattles away about anything and everything. I'd rather trust a secret to a baby than to Jim."
Givain took refuge in the making of a cigarette and in a glance through the window at the mare and at the stars above the eastern hills. How many minutes would he be left to keep up this chatter with the girl?
"That's the way a girl will do," he said. "She judges a man by what he does in the little things. Not what he does in the big things."
"I'm afraid that we know different Jims," she said with a sudden anxiety. She looked around and shook her head. "And yet, what are you doing here, if you are not a friend of Jim's? You certainly are not—"
"A thief?" suggested Givain, grinning.
"Thieves don't sit down and read books before they've robbed a place," she said with assurance.
"Thank you," he said.
"I have an idea," she said, "that you're laughing at me all of this time."
"On my word, I'm not."
"Then why don't you tell me about Jim?"
"Do you think that Jim wants to be talked about to everyone?"
She hesitated, studying him darkly. Then she took hold of a thin, gold watch chain that hung around her neck and that had been effectively masked by the collar of her blouse hitherto. She drew out a small locket. She snapped it open and held it up.
"I suppose that will show you that I'm—a friend of Jim's?"
He leaned to look more closely. There was not a shadow of a doubt. This was the man who had sat in with him at that last game in the town. This was the man who had risen and flung down the cards when a friend stooped and whispered something hurriedly in his ear. This was the man who had jumped up from his chair and refused to play another second with him.
This was the man whom Givain, swinging out of his own chair, had clipped underneath the chin with a driving fist and dumped in a comer of the room with staring eyes. This was the man who had risen, shooting, with a gun in either hand, and with that gun smashed at least two windows while Givain was going through the door. This was the man who had shouted for a horse and men to follow the gambler. This was the man who had led the pursuit all the day, riding a tall, red roan horse. A dozen times Givain had caught him in the clear circle of his field glasses. He had studied that face so intimately that he could almost see the lump that must have grown out where his own hard knuckles had landed. And this was the girl's Jim.
It was a long, strong face. There was a high, aquiline nose, a prominent and square-tipped chin, a bull throat. He was a very big fellow. No doubt he could have crushed Givain to bits in close encounter, if it had not been that the latter had struck that first, blinding blow. But, after all, that was Givain's speed. He struck with hand or knife or gun as the whiplash strikes after its length has once started through the air.
"So you," said Givain, sitting back in the chair once more, "so you are the girl?"
She blushed, and looked fondly down to the locket. "I suppose that I am," she said.
"And you've come out here to drop in on Lucky Jim?"
"Of course. But do you know that I've been waiting here all day, and not a sign of him yet?"
"I don't know what to make of it. I nearly died in the sun—it was so hot!"
Tears of self-commiseration gathered in her eyes.
"Why didn't you come into the house and wait?"
"I did come in, but it was so deadly quiet that—that it really frightened me, and I had to run out again."
Givain laughed, and she smiled back, cheerfully enough.
"Men never know what's going on in the minds of girls."
"I suppose not," said Givain. "I've said that myself a good many times."
At this she laughed in turn.
"It's something important that's brought you here," said Givain.
"Of course. One wouldn't plow this horrible stretch of sand—"
"Just to see Jim?"
She flushed quickly. "Did Jim ever tell you my name?" she asked.
"He's described you over and over again," said Givain blandly.
"Ah, did he do that?"
"By the hour. He used to drive me out of the house with his talk."
"Hmm," said the girl. "And yet he never told you my name?"
"And didn't he ever mention mine when he wrote?" asked Givain.
"Not a syllable."
"You see, he's mighty secretive. My name is Larry Givain."
He looked at her squarely in the eyes—that name was widely known, but let heaven be thanked that it was a new name to her.
"I am Rose Mundy."
They nodded their pleasure to one another.
"But where is Jim?" she asked.
"Gone into the hills."
"For a vacation. He had me here to take care of things."
There was a groan of despair from her.
"What's wrong? You need him?" asked Larry Givain, with a foolish hope rising in him.
"More than I can ever need him again."
"He'll be back in a couple of days, then."
"A couple of centuries."
"Suppose," said Larry, "that I were to take his place?"
At this she pricked up her ears and looked at him with her head canted a little to one side. She frowned with the intensity of her interest.
"Of course," she said, "you could do it just as well as Jim or any other man who ever lived."
"Lady," said Givain, "after that I'm ready for anything."
And they laughed together.
"Suppose you tell me what's wrong?" he suggested.
The wind drove a rattle of sand against the side of the house, and, for the moment, to Givain it seemed like the approaching clatter of hoofs. But then his heart subsided as he recognized the truth.
"I have a brother," the girl was saying.
Givain nodded. "He's in trouble?"
"What makes you think he's in trouble?"
"Your brother might be, you know."
"Hmm," said the girl. "I wish I knew how I might take that."
She did not pursue the inquiry but continued: "At any rate, Bob always is in trouble. It runs in the blood, to tell you the truth. If there is a fight within a hundred miles of us, a Mundy is sure to be in the middle of it. And Bob is the worst of the lot. If someone would only thrash him soundly, it would be all right. It might bring him to his senses. But thrashings haven't come his way. He's fought a hundred times and always won."
"With guns?" said Givain.
"Not with guns. Two or three times he's been in scrapes with guns. But usually it's been with his fists. Or sometimes a man has drawn a knife, and Bob has followed the bad example."
"Hmm," said Givain. "He seems to be a handy fellow."
"Are you making fun of him?"
"I'd be afraid to."
"He has thousands of friends."
"Why don't they help him out of his pinch, then?"
"Oh, but you don't understand what the pinch is."
"What is it, then?"
At this Givain jumped up, walked halfway across the room, and then whirled and faced her sternly. All the mockery had faded from his face.
"What has Richards to do with this story?" he asked.
"You know him, then?"
"Of course. Everyone knows Richards. You don't mean to say that Bob mixed up with Richards—"
"There was a man came through town last spring. He met Bob, had words with him over something—it's horribly easy to have words with Bob about anything—and finally they fought.
"When they were pried apart, Bob had a nasty knife cut in his cheek, but his own knife was between the other man's ribs. And when the man left the hospital, he disappeared. But after a time a letter came to Bob from Al Richards. He said that it was a friend of his that Bob had stabbed. And he said that Bob had used dirty work, and that he, Al Richards, was coming down to town from the mine where he was working, on the fourteenth of October. And the fourteenth of October is tomorrow."
She clasped her hands together and stared at him.
"Tomorrow," murmured Givain. "Then why doesn't Bob leave town?"
"There's all the trouble, you see. He won't leave town a single step. He says that he'd as soon die now as when he's sixty. There's no difference. Not to poor Bob. And he says that, if there were a regiment of Al Richardses, he wouldn't go away on account of them. So, there he stays, and tomorrow is his very last day."
It was a final touch to the picture of Bob, and the
gambler felt his heart going out to the younger man.
"You can't persuade him?" he said gravely.
"I've gone down on my knees and wept. It makes no difference. Bob says that a man's honor is worth more than anything else he may have or be. He won't be budged by anything that we say to him. Oh, I wish that you could hear him fly into a fury, when we so much as suggest that he run away. God bless him and pity him, poor boy."
At this she clasped her hands, and the tears ran into her eyes, and Larry Givain worshipped her mutely.
"You want someone to meet Al Richards before Al gets to your brother. Is that it?" he asked curiously.
She started and flushed. "No, no! I'd feel that I'd helped Richards to another of his murders, if I did that. That isn't the idea. But if someone who's a good fighting man were to ride into town and let it be known that he intended to stay with Bob every minute, day and night, and prevent Richards from bullying him—then I'm sure that even Richards wouldn't dare to go ahead. He'd know that he couldn't beat two men."
"He's beaten three and four at a time," suggested Larry Givain.
The girl shrugged her shoulders. "Such men are trash," she said scornfully. "I'm a better man than such fellows. But when Al Richards has one look at you and at Bob, he'll know that the time has come to speak softly and watch his actions. No man living could beat you two."
"D'you think it's manly to band together against one?"
"Richards isn't a man. He's a monster. Everyone knows that. How many men has he made away with—some openly and some in secret? He's a tiger, not a man. Oh, he's a killer for the love of killing."
"I suppose that's true."
"When I tried to get one man to stand beside Bob, there wasn't a single one in town who'd do it. They said that the only thing for Bob to do was to turn around and run for it."
"Will Bob stand for a partner?" asked Givain.
"As long as he's not attacking Richards, why not? He's not aiming to offend Richards. He's simply asking leave to go about his own business in his own way. If Richards won't let him, Bob has a right to have help to keep the tiger off."
There was unquestionably something in what she said.
"Well," said Givain, "if I can be of any help, I've already said that I'd go."
"God bless you! But that was before you knew that the man was Richards. You can draw back now, if you want. I'd understand."
"Perhaps you would. But I'm not drawing back. I'll see this thing through. What's the name of the town? I'll be there."
It was a straining blow to Givain. Monkville! He had rather that she had named any other town on the map than this one. For Monkville was no other than that situation in which he had played the celebrated game with marked cards and trimmed two rich ranchers for five thousand dollars. He could have laughed, when he remembered it, saving that this was not an occasion for laughter.
That game had made the ranchers suspicious; they had asked him for another game and revenge the following night. He had complied, and run into a gang of half a dozen armed men waiting for him. They searched him, and found on him the crayons and acids with which he had so deftly done his markings the night before. They took his winnings from him. They threatened him with a thousand shameful punishments. And finally they locked him into a third-story room and continued their deliberations on how they should punish him and discourage crime in the rising generation.
He had broken open the window, jumped into a big water trough, staggered half dead to Sally, and escaped, reeling and half fainting in the saddle as she galloped.
That had been his exploit in the town of Monkville, and now she asked him to go back to it, promenade through the streets of it in company with a man who was already stared at and who drew all eyes. She was asking him to do these thing, and he could not refuse her. He had pledged to her his promise, and a promise to a girl was held foolishly sacred by Larry Givain. He was that sort.
"Monkville," he repeated vaguely, hunting for his wits after the shock.
She thought it was an absent-minded search for the location of the place, and she drew a hasty map on the floor and indicated the location of the town. By the time she was finished, he was master of himself again.
"As a matter of fact, I'll ride there with you this very night," she said.
He shook his head. "There's no purpose in that," he told her. "The thing for you to do is to go home and to go to bed. I'll handle the rest of this deal by myself."
Givain got up from the chair into which he had sunk, and they went out together under the stars. The wind had fallen again. It was only a vagrant and wandering breath now, that trailed across the hills and dipped lazily, now and again, into the hollow where the house had been built.
"When do you start?" she asked.
"In two minutes."
"Have you a horse?"
"I have the best horse that ever stepped. Here she comes."
"Why, she's as gentle as a dog."
"She came when she heard us talking," said Givain.
"How in the world did you train her?"
"By spending about four hours with her every day for five years," he said. "Put in eight thousand hours on almost any horse, and you get results, you know."
At this the girl gasped. "I'm riding fast back to the house to give them the good news," she said, "and we'll all be in town to watch—"
"Good night," said Givain.
"When I see you again—"
He hardly heard. There was something about his bravery, and things she would tell him more of when they next met. But what Givain was saying to himself was that he would never see her again. For he intended to have Bob Mundy out of Monkville before noon of the next day, provided the posse played no interference to his little game. As a matter of fact, had he only known, the posse had already become discouraged, and some time since the riders had turned their mounts about in acknowledgment of the hopelessness of the chase.
When the morning came, he felt that he could never have entered upon that foolish business, if he had had the daylight from the beginning. But daylight he had not had. There had been stars and the night air and the voice of the girl to seduce him from the ways of common sense. But the rooming sun burned all the nonsense out of him. He could see the facts of the case, as they were, and the insane plan that he had formed on the spur of the moment the night before seemed all very well enough. Now it appeared to Givain that the wiser thing would be simply to waylay Al Richards and attack him, gun in hand. But this, in turn, he discarded with a shudder. To attack Al Richards was like attacking and tempting the very god of death. He would go down at the first shot, and no good would be done for poor young Mundy.
So he pushed ahead to the town, or rather to a hilltop from which he could sit in the saddle, hitched far to one side, and contemplate the view. He had not been near the place for two whole years, but he could remember everything with a wretched distinctness. He could easily pick out the broad and comfortable back of the hotel in which he had played that thrilling game. There was the twisting and winding main street down which he had fled at the full and matchless speed of Sally. He could even see the sun glitter on the face of the watering trough into which he had fallen from the windows on that other day.
If he were not recognized, the beautiful mare was sure to be. And the instant they were known, there would be a riot. In any case, it meant a fast and far flight. He dismounted and looked over Sally. She was not gaunt. Her ribs showed just a trifle, but so do the ribs of a racer in the very pink of condition. For the rest, she looked well, as she nearly always looked. He could campaign her for a month uphill and down dale, and at the end of that time she would be almost as full of running as at the beginning. Perhaps practice had made her so, for her days under the gambler had been far from easy. And now, as he sleeked her neck and patted her flanks, she tossed her head and began to paw, as though she already sensed hard work ahead of her.
Then Givain mounted and went down toward the town, very slowly. For it was necessary to locate young Bob Mundy before he entered the limits of the town itself. He must not have to loiter through the streets to be recognized, but go swiftly and directly to the other man and do the thing that was forming in his mind—and of all the wild things that Givain had ever done, this was the wildest.
He met an old cowpuncher at the next bend of the trail, and they saluted one another with careless gestures and with keen eyes. He saw a wrinkle form in the middle of the other's brow, and knew that he was trying to hitch Givain to something that was in his past and almost forgotten. Givain knew that on such occasions the only thing to do is to brazen matters out. So he began to roll a cigarette as he made his inquiry. He was looking for young Bob Mundy.
"You ain't the only one that's looking," said the cowpuncher. "The whole town is looking for him, and pretty soon he'll be putting on the show. I guess that Richards can't be very far off by now."
"He must be close, if he means to keep his promise," said the gambler.
"How far might you have rode in to see the party?"
"As far as that! Well, they been dropping in from all over for this here fight. I'd like mighty well to see it myself, but the old woman got took bad during the night and the message just came in for me to trot out home to see her. Besides, it won't do no man no good to see a boy like young Mundy cut up by a professional, as you might call him, like Richards."
"Mundy is quite a fighter himself," said the gambler.
"Oh, he's so-so. He can fight—and he has fought a mighty lot of times. But between you and me, stranger, he likes the tune of a fight better than he knows the words of it. He's too good-natured to be a fine fighter. Takes the cool-headed, poison-minded critter like this here Richards to beat men often and beat 'em bad. I've seen our Bob perform. He don't do half bad. But in a real, stand-up fight he ain't got a chance with a man half as good as Richards."
"You may be right. But I wish him luck."
"Luck? The devil, man, so do we all of us. And he's a game kid to stand his ground and get killed."
"Why don't folks interfere, then?"
"He won't stand for interfering. He talks like a young fool. Says he's going to make himself famous today, and put Richards away in our churchyard. But everybody knows that down in his heart he figures out he ain't got a chance."
"Well, where's he to be found?"
"Don't you know that? Right over next to the post office, he's running that big new blacksmith shop. Darned little smithing that our Bobbie does, though. He don't know one end of a hammer from another. But he keeps on running the business and talking to the girls that goes by and losing money, hand over fist, for his pa."
The cowpuncher went on, shaking his head, and Givain started toward the village once more. Everything that he had heard was less and less to his taste. There was apt to be a crowd near young Bob even this early in the day, and it would be hard to face any crowd in that town without being instantly recognized. He could see that his course of action was greatly restricted. The more he heard of young Bob, the more plainly he saw that it would be plainly impossible to keep him quiet. Once the great Richards was in town, there was sure to be a meeting between them, no matter how well guarded Bob might be. One keen taunt and he would break away and go hunting for trouble which would be fatal for him.
So Givain decided that, since he could not protect Mundy in the town, he must take Mundy away from the town, and the danger of Richards. The novelty of his scheme lay in the manner in which he proposed to execute the measure. It would be a kidnapping without a mate in history.
From the edge of the hill he overlooked the place for the last time and laid his plans, one by one. He selected the post office from its fellow shacks on either side. He picked out the best tree to the rear of the post office under which he could leave the mare—for plainly he and the mare must not appear at the same instant. Then he went forward at a gallop.
Givain threw a loose girdle around the town, drew up behind the post office, and dismounted. Then he shook his revolver loose in its holster and tugged his hat a little lower across his eyes. Its wide brim and a downward cant of his head would prevent people from recognizing him too hastily. With these preparations complete he went on to the side of the building and saw the smithy.
His worst anticipation was realized at once. The crowd was there, and with a vengeance. It was not gathered densely around the smithy. Indeed, not half a dozen were near the place. But people were everywhere where a good view could be obtained. In the windows of the houses across the street many faces moved. A little farther up the street there was a crowd of horses around the verandah of the hotel. And he could see what this meant. If they could not prevent the fight, the men of the town were determined to revenge any wanton killing. That, again, would complicate his own work, but not, he hoped, very greatly. He sauntered to the front of the blacksmith shop. There was young Bob Mundy. There was no mistaking him. In his working clothes he was as distinctive, compared with the other workers, as was his sister compared with all the other women whom the gambler had known.
"Are you Bob Mundy?" asked the newcomer from the doorway.
At his voice, a worker in the rear of the shop looked up and then hurried forward, staring, and Givain knew by his expression that within ten minutes he would have remembered the central figure of the most sensational brawl that the town had ever known. Within ten minutes—or ten seconds, just according as the wind blew.
"I'm not Bob Mundy," said the big, thick-shouldered man to whom Givain had addressed himself. "There's Bob, over yonder."
Givain turned to Bob, who was now approaching him. "The devil," groaned Givain, "are you Bob Mundy?"
"I am," said Bob. "Doesn't it please you?"
"I should say not. I should say not! Why, son, I have money riding on you."
Such insolence brought a gasp from the spectators.
"Well?" asked Bob, controlling himself with apparent difficulty.
"Well," said Givain, sauntering boldly nearer, and measuring him up and down with contemptuous eyes, "when I heard that a man named Mundy was going to fight Richards, I liked the name and took a ten-to-one chance that you'd win. And now I see that I'm a fool and a hundred dollars poorer than I might have been!"
He was prepared for the explosion, even then. But Bob was showing rare new metal this morning. He had his mind fixed on graver trouble than this quarrel could possibly be, so it seemed.
"I'm willing to hear that explained," said Mundy, and waited, tapping his chin with a nervous, slender forefinger.
But all the while a spark of fire was in his eyes. And Givain was fascinated. This was the true fighting spirit. He recognized it as brother blood.
"I'll explain," he said brutally. "I came here looking to find a man!"
"Instead of a man, I find a kid who only needs to shave twice a month. Man? The devil, son, in my part of the country they wouldn't use you for a chore boy!"
An oath spat out from the lips of Mundy, and his hand twitched back for his gun, but here the worker who had come from the rear of the shop cried out: "Hold on, Bob! I've something to say to this stranger!"
The recognition that had been working blindly toward the surface of the workman's mind had at last come into full being. There was scorn in his eye and anger in the set of his jaw as he now came to confront the gambler. And the latter saw that he must use a few priceless seconds or else be baffled entirely.
"Not for a chore boy," he repeated contemptuously to Bob Mundy. "The devil, man, Al Richards will turn you over his knee and spank you. You're in no danger of being bullet fodder."
Bob Mundy had endured enough and more than enough to class him with the most patient men on that morning. But now, his patience had run out like the sand from an hourglass. He uttered a faint moan, that showed the torment which he had suffered. Then, without a word, he reached for his gun.
It had once been said of Larry Givain that in moments of danger he turned himself into a bullet. And so he seemed to the bystanders at that moment. So, most of all, he seemed to Bob Mundy.
What he did was simple enough, but the manner in which he did it was consummate art. As the fingers of Mundy curled around the handle of his gun, Givain was taking one lightning step forward. With the iron-hard edge of his open hand he struck Bob on the outer side of the right arm, just where the long shoulder muscles slope away to nothing and the biceps are beginning. Here there is a deep indentation in a man's arm, with only a shallow surfacing of flesh over vital nerves. Against the bone, the blow of Givain struck those nerves. The right arm of Mundy was paralyzed instantly for half a second, and, before that half second was over, he had been spun around, the gun had been snatched from his unnerved fingers, and a foot planted in the small of his back had kicked him headlong, so that he ran a few long strides, stumbled over an iron fragment, and then pitched upon his face.
Any scientific wrestler could have done things more marvelous, but the speed of Givain was reinforced by the magnificent carelessness of his demeanor. He turned now deliberately on his heel and sauntered toward the door of the shop.
"In my part of the country," he told the dumbfounded men, "that's the way we treat the boys when they begin to talk too loud!"
But here his poise was shattered by the voice of the workman crying: "Don't let him get away! It's Givain! It's the crooked gambler, Givain!"
Like a spur pricking, it started Givain into full speed. It started the others into motion behind him. Not a man there but had heard of the spectacular poker game, and how the culprit had been apprehended by the town's best and bravest, and how he had, afterward, slipped through their fingers like fluid sand.
All these things were at work in them. But, most of all, they ran because Larry Givain fled before them. And he fled like a rabbit that has felt the breath of the greyhound, panting behind it.
He swerved away from the door of the shop. He saw before him three stalwarts, fumbling for guns with their right hands and stretching out their left hands to seize him. He chose the central figure, gave him a piston- shooting fist as he came near, then shot on through the gap that the fellow's fall made, stepping once on soft flesh and then dashing away over the sand again.
Someone behind tried a snap shot. It chipped a comer off the post office wall as Givain darted around it. He made for Sally like a badly frightened rabbit, indeed, and, just as the head of the pursuit shot around the edge of the post office, he reached her.
Good horse! She was trembling with eagerness the instant she saw him coming. For he had taught her a hundred times how to act, which was to turn away from her master as though she would abandon him in time of need, to turn away and begin to canter softly, with her head well held around so that the dragging reins would not entangle her feet. In this way she had gathered headway, and Givain, rushing beside her, mounted like a circus performer. He simply hurled himself through the air, gripped mane and pommel, and so dragged himself into place, and, before he was fairly on her, he was jammed back into the saddle by the pressure of her speed as she gathered incredible headway.
In three strides she was away at full speed, like a racer leaving the post. And behind her the crowd of the pursuit was snatched into an ineffectual distance. One or two random shots were fired, but that was all. Men were not quite sure whether or not it was lawful to fire at a man who was wanted for cheating and for nothing of more serious moment. Some of the crowd stopped to stare at the gymnastic feats of the fugitive as he gained his horse, running at well-nigh full speed. Others turned and ran for their horses. But all paused to behold young Bob Mundy, his face contorted with unspeakable rage, the brim of his sombrero blown sheer up from his face, a revolver clasped in one hand and the reins of his speeding horse in the other, dash through their midst on his gray gelding, famous through all the country for its matchless speed.
There was death in the face of Bob. When a man has been shamed to a certain point, he no longer blushes, but begins to lose color, and Bob was white as the sands over which he was sprinting his horse now.
Instead of trying to join in a pursuit in which they knew that they would be outdistanced, men began to rush for points of vantage to behold the race. They climbed trees. They hurried to the tops of the nearest hills. They clambered upon rooftops, and from these high points they observed the pair sweep away toward the far-off desert horizon, swinging up and down over the rolling sand like a pair of stormy petrels over the waves.
"But the gray don't gain!" they called to one another. "Bob Mundy's Captain is plumb beat!"
And beaten, indeed, the Captain was. Strain and labor as he would, that streaking mare shot away before him and opened a widening gap. Slowly it grew at first, but after the mile had gone, she began to stream away like a piece of cloud blown on the wind, while the gelding labored sullenly, manifestly beaten, behind.
They had hardly turned from the observation of this exciting race, as the mare faded into the horizon, when Rose Mundy arrived. What was it all about? They told her. She listened with astonishment, with anger, and then with a glint of understanding in her eyes, to be followed with more wonder of a deeper dye.
"What a man," she breathed at last. "Why, he sifted through the whole crowd of you like a grown man through a lot of boys."
"He took us by surprise," they told her sullenly. "Let him come back, and we'll be ready for him—we'll show him then!"
But Rose understood so well that her heart was brimming over with thankfulness. This was the strange way her rescuer had chosen to do his work—to drag her brother away to follow an irresistibly tempting bait. Somehow, it matched with the flickering will-o'-the-wisp fire that she had seen in the eyes of Larry Givain the night before, in the house.
"Besides," said someone in the crowd, "you can't expect us to match a crooked gambler. It takes a crook to beat a crook, you know, and I guess we're a shade too honest to deal with this Givain."
"A crooked gambler?" echoed the girl. "Why, he's a cowpuncher who works with—"
She got no further than that. There was an uproar of laughter, for they were all rejoiced to have turned the tables on her.
"Cowpuncher? Him? Ever see such hands on a cowpuncher?"
She remembered, then, those remarkably slim and delicately made hands of Larry Givain. They would have done credit to a woman, except that there was little flesh upon them. And this explained, too, the aloof and restless manner of the man, and the strange way he had of looking at her that had reminded her so strongly of something in fear or about to become dangerous. It was simply the look of a man who lived outside the law.
"Where's the kid?" called a heavy voice.
The group in front of the blacksmith shop turned and saw, advancing toward them, the badman of badmen, the destroyer of destroyers, Al Richards himself. On the farther side of the street he had left his horse, hardly less famous than himself, not for brilliant speed such as the Sally of the gambler, but for dogged and incomparable powers of resistance that enabled him to plod on for hours at unbroken dog-trot, if his master so willed it. He was an ugly brute of a horse, with bony, projecting hips, and a sharp ridge of backbone and a pot- handle belly and big shambling feet and an ewe neck and a huge, misshapen head with an ugly Roman nose and little, brutal, wicked eyes, glittering under a great brush of forelock. He matched his master in ungainliness.
Al Richards was dressed like a miner, which was his chosen profession. The reason he did not work as a cowpuncher, it was said, was because of his build. His short legs were further diminished in gripping power by the fact that they were oddly bowed out. They were made for strength, rather than for beauty, and their strength was required to support the unwieldy bulk of his body. Above the hips, in chest and arms and huge throat, he was like a gorilla. His face, however, was well-featured, almost handsome, except that there was a peculiarly animal flare to the nostrils and that the eyes had a brute boldness, a sort of flat look, into which no glance could penetrate in order to make out the workings of the mind beneath them.
"Where's the kid?" he repeated, as he came forward. "Where's the blacksmith that's going to chew up poor old Al Richards?" He accompanied that speech with a loud laughter, and at the same time his eyes glanced swiftly over the faces of the crowd, drinking in their horror, their anger, their fear, as another man would have drunk in words and looks of the profoundest admiration. "He don't seem to have waited for me," he said, grinning. "Kind of looks to poor old Al Richards like the boy had some business that took him some place else." And he laughed again, gloating over his prowess and that dreadful name of his that struck men down long before he came on them.
"He was waiting for you," said Rose Mundy suddenly, when she could endure the shame of her brother no longer. "He was waiting, but he was insulted by another man and has chased him—"
"Insulted by another man? Ain't I enough of a fight for him in one day? Has he got to go around hunting up trouble in other places?" His voice had become like the voice of a bull.
"He'll be back to face you—if there were ten men with you," said Rose Mundy, shivering with her horror of the man.
"He'll be back? Well, I can't wait for him to come. I'm just that plumb anxious to find him that I got to go out and camp on his trail until maybe my old Joe hoss gets up to him. And then him and me can have a little talk all by ourselves and settle these things between us quiet and proper, like gentlemen should. That's my way, always—a little talk, quiet and proper, to set all things right."
He chuckled, like a brooding growl of a beast of prey, and he ran his brute eyes slowly back and forth across the faces of the men as if hunting half in despair for some remonstrance, some opposition among them.
Still they shrank from him as though there were leprosy in his very breath.
For five miles the gambler had been the hunter and not the hunted. He had trailed softly and easily behind the weary gray gelding, while the master of the gray forced his staggering horse relentlessly on into the desert. It was as though the younger rider had determined, like a child, either to find his enemy or kill his horse, and, while he had not a chance of succeeding in capturing the gambler, he was in an excellent way of destroying the honest Captain.
But at length, by the grace of blind fortune and not through any skill of his own, he found a patch of grass growing around a spring and a feeble trickle of water. Here was water, the prime necessity for himself. And here was water and fodder for his gallant gray. But as for food for himself, he had not brought a crumb of it.
Larry Givain, sheltered comfortably behind some rocks on a neighboring hill crest, looked down on the scene with a grim smile and a shrug of the shoulders. For his own part, he had long since learned never to leave his saddlebags unstored with certain light and highly concentrated nourishment. Parched corn, some dried raisins, a little coffee, and salt were always at his command, at the very least, and with these be could defy hunger for many days.
But he now saw that the blacksmith, although hot-headed, was not actually cruel or neglectful. When he finally saw that he could not press on any longer through the thickening evening and on the back of an exhausted horse, he dismounted by the spring, allowed the hot gelding only a small swallow of the water, and then unsaddled his mount. With a twig from a tough mesquite he whipped the sweat off the horse, rubbing him down with even more care that the gambler usually showed to Sally. But, perhaps, that was because Sally was tough as wrought iron and resisted weather and winds and temperatures with equal indifference.
After he had assured himself of the comfort of the gelding and hobbled him, there was nothing left for him to do for himself. He rolled himself wretchedly in a slicker—cold comfort in that for a desert night—and stretched out, prepared to endure the worst. But a long night it promised to be for poor Bob Mundy.
Sleep came slowly to him. He tossed and twisted here and there, and the patient gambler, watching from above through the dim twilight, knew that pangs of rage with minglings of shame and pangs of hatred were disturbing the younger man. But at last he lay still, and Larry Givain went down the slope to capture the enemy.
He sat down on a stone beside the sleeper and touched him with his foot, and Bob Mundy, leaping to his feet, found himself confronted with the all- expressive mouth of a revolver held in a steady and yet very casual hand. And above that gun was the face of the man he had been hating with all his soul that afternoon. The hatred leaped back upon him and took him by the throat, so to speak. It set him trembling. It was all he could do to keep himself from leaping straight at his enemy.
"Turn around," commanded Givain.
The other obeyed.
"By the heavens, you went to sleep without a gun on you!"
The other turned back on him, in silence.
"The devil," said Givain, "you aren't a man—you're a baby! Man? You're a selfish young jackass, that's all!"
"You rat-faced skunk of a crooked gambler," said the blacksmith with coldly calculated and deliberate insult, "what you think of me makes no difference at all! If you've come here to murder me, pull the trigger. I won't beg off! Not if that's what you're waiting for!"
"A fool," said Givain meditatively. "Not only a fool, but a selfish one!"
"Listen to me," said the boy hoarsely. "If you think you can sit there and insult me, you're mistaken. I'll run in on you and your gun, and either get you or else be gotten!"
It was not a sham. Even the dim light of the evening could not hide from the gambler the berserk madness in the face of his companion.
"You have nerve," said the gambler calmly, "I admit that."
"I don't care a damn what you admit!"
"Of course not. But you will after a while. Do you know why I came to you today?"
"Because you're a—"
"Easy on that. I'm mild-tempered, Mundy, up to a certain point, and after that—but to come to what I started to say, I came to you to get you out of that town and away from our mutual friend, Al Richards. I hadn't a chance to try to persuade you. I'm too well known in that village and able to raise a mob on my own account in a moment's notice, as you saw for yourself." And he chuckled at the memory.
"People are queer in my town," admitted the blacksmith sarcastically. "They hate a crooked gambler worse than they hate a snake."
"No doubt," said Givain smoothly. "But to come back to yourself. I had to get you out of town. There was really no other way than to make you hate me worse than you hated Richards. And that was what I did."
"D'you think you can pull me off your trail?" sneeringly replied young Bob Mundy.
"You blockhead!" cried Givain. "D'you imagine that I fear what you can do? Because you've manhandled a few old men and young idiots, do you think that you're a man? Al Richards would have eaten you up!"
"At least he'd've found me waiting! Besides, every man has a chance with every other man, when it comes to guns! If you doubt that, let me get my gun, and we'll fight it out right here and now!"
His voice trembled with eagerness, but Givain laughed.
"Here's my matches," he said. "Rake a fire together. Don't go near your saddle and your guns, though, or I'll shoot without warning, Mundy."
"I know your kind," said Bob, and went away to execute the order. He got fairly out of range of the revolver, considering the darkness of the night, now, but he could not bolt and run for it without leaving the gray gelding behind him, and the gray meant as much to Bob as his own life. So presently he came back with a huge load of dried shrubbery and heaped it up, touched a match to it, and the flame was instantly soaring and making the good Captain toss his head and snort with fear, while the two big eyes were turning into balls of reflected fire.
"Now," said Givain, "I'm going to show you something. You see that black rock with the point sticking up?"
"I see it."
"Watch the point."
He tossed up the muzzle of the gun and fired almost without taking aim, so it seemed. The point was clipped squarely off the rock. There was a gasp from Bob Mundy.
"Anybody can hit a stationary target," he declared.
"Throw that white stone into the air."
Bob Mundy tossed it twenty feet high, and, as it hung in the zenith of its rise, the gambler fired, and the little stone was jerked away into nothingness. Presently a fine shower of sand puffed down upon them.
"Well," said Bob Mundy, "you can shoot, right enough." And he said it reverently, as one who understands the importance of gun play well enough.
"I can shoot," admitted the gambler, without overdue modesty and yet without excitement. "But I'm not a patch on Al Richards. Listen to me, Mundy. If I faced a hangman with a rope around my neck, I'd feel as much hope for life as if I faced Al Richards with a gun in my hand and a gun in his hand."
And he put up his weapon. Bob Mundy gazed upon him in utter wonder.
"I see," he said slowly, thinking aloud, as it were. "You really don't need to have that gun out to have me in your power. And—I guess you're right. I guess that I have been a fool." He groaned out the words.
"You've been a fool to start with," said the gambler. "But the start isn't the finish."
"Givain, what made you start to get me away from Al Richards?"
"That doesn't matter. The question is, what are we to do with Al Richards now?"
"I'll tend to him later on."
"You mean that you'll go back and let yourself be killed?"
Bob Mundy was silent.
"It isn't a question of chance," said Givain. "I met Al Richards once before."
The gambler hesitated. Then: "I'm the only man who ever wounded him in a fair fight," he said soberly at last, "and I'm the only man that ever faced him in single fight and got away with his life. But—I'm not proud of it. Luck helped me out."
"His gun hung a little in the holster. My slug glanced off his skull. I thought he was dead, when I left him. But the dead man started walking again. The only thing that has saved my life is that he doesn't know my name, or how to ask after me. I met him by night.
"There was another silence.
"It seems," said Mundy, "that we're in the same boat, and neither of us can paddle."
"And what we have to do," said the gambler, "is find a way to shore."
They talked until the dawn began in the gray east. And by that time the younger man had agreed to do what the elder advised, and that was to put his shame in his pocket and stay away from home for a few days.
"Because, inside of that time," Givain assured him, "Al will have forgotten all about you. He'll have another trouble in his mind and be off across the mountains in one direction or another. You can depend on that. I've known the brute and the brute's mind for a long time."
He could hardly believe his ears when young Mundy agreed. He would not make a pretense about it, however, he said. He would go over to the mountains and write home that he would be gone for three days, simply because he wanted to dodge Richards. If, at the end of that time, Richards was still in the town, he would face him on his return. It was rather a shorter space than the gambler had hoped for, but he had to content himself with what he had gained without pushing the point.
"But will you tell me," asked young Mundy, "what makes you do all of this on account of me?"
"Because when I heard of your meeting that was to be with Richards, I decided that something had to be done about it. I knew how it would turn out. . . with another grave in the town cemetery and another notch in Al's gun butt. Did you ever see that gun butt?"
"No," answered Bob Mundy.
"It looks like the mouth of an old dog, full of short teeth."
So it was that they parted. Mundy would have had his new companion ride on the way with him. But Givain insisted that he had work ahead for himself. He watched Mundy disappear into the north. Then he swung sharply around and went south.
It was in the sunset that he came on the town, and, just as he glimpsed it, he found the person in all the world whom he most desired to meet. And that was Rose Mundy, cantering slowly across a hill edge against the sky, and seeming to float into it with every upward sway of her horse. Sally might have had an excuse as a very weary horse, but one word from her master sent her away like a swallow. She dipped over the hills and cut across the path of Rose Mundy on the side of the third. Givain stopped her with a touch of his knee and swept off his hat cavalierly.
Rose Mundy drew rein with a jerk and a gasp. "Oh, Larry Givain!" she cried to him. "Where is my brother?"
"Riding north, comfortably out of danger," he said.
"That's like those other stories you told me last night about yourself' and Jim."
"Why are you sure?"
"Bob Mundy would never turn his back on a danger."
"He could not be persuaded?"
"Never, except with iron chains."
I persuaded him—with only words," said Larry Givain, and smiled at her so frankly that the color came back a little into her face. She was even able to smile faintly back at him.
"How did you do it?"
"I showed him it was foolish to face such a murderer as Richards."
"You couldn't convince my brother of that."
"I tell you, I did."
"How did you argue it?"
Her head was high, now, and her eyes shining with indignation at the thought that her brother might have showed fear.
"Do you really want your brother to meet Richards?" he said. "Only last night you seemed to want nothing less in the whole wide world."
"Only last night," she said, "I was out of my head with terror, but today I know that there is one thing worse than everything else in the world for a man, and that is to lose his honor."
"Do you think they will taunt him in the village for turning his back on Richards?"
"He will taunt himself—it will be a torture to me. You couldnot persuade him?"
"I did, however. I told him, for one thing, that I had run away from Richards myself."
She was abruptly silenced, but she began to regard him darkly. "That's another thing I can't believe. You wouldn't fear a thing in the world."
"Are you sure?" he said pleasantly.
"Otherwise, how could you have done the wild, crazy suicidal thing you did for my brother?"
"That was only a game."
"And is it only a game, coming back to this town where a score of men are hungry to get at you?"
"One must take a chance, now and then."
"There is something on your mind. Did you—did you come here simply to bring the tale that poor Bob is safe? Oh, if he were to come to harm, I should die."
"Rather dishonor for him than that?"
"I see," said Givain smilingly, "that you are logical."
"I don't care," she said. "I don't care for anything, except that Bob must not be hurt."
"Not even for Jim?"
"Bah!" she laughed at him. "Do you still believe that cock-and-bull story? Jim is nothing to me. I've never seen him in my life."
Givain clasped the pommel of his saddle, and, thus steadied, he stared out at her from beneath his sombrero. And it seemed to him that a cooling wind touched upon his face and made his blood jump.
"I knew that my best friend was engaged to a fighting man. I went to her to have her enlist him. She was sick, but she sent me out to him with that picture of him that she wore. That was why I carried it. Simply as a sort of passport from his lady to him to carry me into his confidence. But when I got there—I found that my sham was shown to another sham."
And she laughed again, whole-heartedly, her eyes dancing. As for the gambler, his head was singing with a thousand new and sudden hopes.
"But, oh," she said, "if you had not done that wild thing yesterday, poor Bob would be a dead man now, and that great brute would not be lurking yonder in the old house."
"Yes, yes! That horrible creature. My blood runs cold when I think of him." And she pointed to a rambling old house that ran up one side of a hill, the highest hill in the town.
"They say it's haunted," she said. "But what do ghosts matter to that demon? He's living there, and says he'll stay there forever, unless Bob comes back. You see he started out to get Bob, but he lost the trail and returned to wait it out.
"So Richards is waiting there?" Givain murmured. And he stared vaguely up to the house. It had once housed a large family, no doubt. Now this great wolf of a man had crouched there like a beast in a den, waiting for his prey to come within leaping distance. He stared harder, and it seemed to him that he could make out the outlines of the ugly mustang, ranging near the building.
All his presuppositions were upset, then. There was nothing in what he had told young Bob Mundy and had half hoped might be true. Richards had come to stay, and now he was feeding on the notoriety of his position. It was manna and honey to him. Every day he would be stared at. Every day hundreds would talk about him. Every day the little children would flee from him, as he rode through the streets of the town. And there was a touch of consummate craft and artistry in thus barring the youngster from his home village.
Of course, the moment that such tidings came to young Bob Mundy, he would come down like a storm to meet his death. But, in the meantime, there would be surely a full three days. Three days in which to move Al Richards from that house and send him headlong out of the town and never to return. It was like moving a mountain, that picture of effort to the gambler.
He found that the girl was studying him seriously.
"What wild scheme is in your head, now?" she asked him.
"Not for Bob's sake. You've risked enough for him."
"Not for his sake," he answered, and looked at her just as steadily.
She flushed, but shook her head violently. "You mustn't be—foolish," she said.
"I always play safe," said the gambler with a touch of bitterness. "I suppose you've heard that about my games?"
"I've heard—that you're a strange fellow;" she admitted. "But—"
"I take people as I find them."
"Thank heaven for that!" He spoke so fervently that she flushed still more.
"Suppose," he said, "that Richards were to be persuaded to leave that house and never come back?"
"Ah!" she cried.
"Well, if this were in a fairy tale, there would be half a kingdom for the hero, eh?"
"Oh, yes," she said, "half a kingdom, at least."
"And what else?"
"It is hardly safe to say," said Rose, and yet she was not too embarrassed for laughter.
"Well," said the gambler, "of course, that is something that no one can ever do."
"Are you sure?"
"The only person who could beat Richards would have to be a greater brute than he. He isn't a man. He hasn't a man's nerve or a man's weaknesses."
"And yet," she pondered, "Achilles had one vulnerable heel. Somewhere there is a flaw in the armor. And that's the thing to aim at. Once the flaw is found, the spear will go through."
"But who can stay near such a brute long enough to discover what weaknesses are in his mind? For, I suppose, that's what you mean?"
"And yet," muttered Givain to himself more than to her, "there must be a way of studying it out. Except that the time is terribly short—short. And young Mundy will be coming back again."
"What did you say?"
"What sort of a man is the sheriff?."
"The flaw in his armor is horses," she told him.
When he watched her go, a few minutes later, it hardly seemed possible that he could have let her escape so easily. But, after all, she had said all that he most wished to hear. Although she were half in jest, she was half in earnest also, when she hinted that, if Al Richards were routed out of the town, never to return, she would marry the hero who had conquered the giant.
And most like a giant to a boy did Al Richards seem to the gambler as he cantered his horse along the side of the hill and looked up to the gloomy and staggering old house which crowned it. But it was not to survey the house or to encounter the giant that he rode in that direction. He wound around the hill and went on through the outskirts of the town until he came in sight of Sheriff Campton's house. He remembered having looked it up of old, on his first and most famous visit to the town. He found the place in the gathering dusk. A lamp was lighted in one window, and, when he looked through, he saw the sheriff sitting alone, a long and sprawling man, stretched out in a rocking chair that was tilted far back on the ends of the runners. His feet rested on another chair—long, ungainly feet. His body was hunched in the rocking chair so that he looked more like a poorly stuffed image than a real human being. The gambler could not help smiling as he regarded the man of the law.
Then he went boldly to the front door, knocked, and waited. As he expected, the sheriff himself opened to him, and, shading his eyes to peer into the wall of dusk, he stared at his visitor.
"Who might you be, stranger?" he said.
"I'm Larry Givain," said the gambler.
"The devil!" gasped out the sheriff. "What brings you down here?"
"Two things," said the gambler. "The first is to have a talk with the sheriff, and the second thing is to borrow a feed of oats for my horse, Sally, while I talk with you."
"Well, I'll be damned!" exclaimed the sheriff." But he added, to the surprise of the other: "What makes you think that I keep oats and not barley?"
"No real horseman feeds barley," said Givain calmly.
The sheriff swore again, but there was a touch of gratification in his voice. "I'm giving comfort and aid to the enemies of the law," he said growlingly to Givain, "but I never yet turned a hungry man away from my door, and I'm damned if I'll turn a hungry hoss, either. Come along, Givain, and let's have a look at this Sally hoss. The town ain't talking of much else besides her, just now."
He went out behind his guest. Under the trees Givain called, and Sally came softly to his side. The sheriff said not a word. Neither did he walk curiously around her. But having stared at her bright eyes for a time, he turned abruptly upon his heel and strode away through the dark, telling Givain to follow him.
The sheriff led them into a small stable, so well kept that it was fragrant with sweet hay. He opened a door upon a box stall and pointed inside, and then he tossed in a bundle of straw so that Givain could bed down his favorite. He climbed into the loft and gave her hay with his own fork, and he brought out a measure of oats for her. Givain divided the portion in two.
"She isn't used to high fare," he said. "It might upset her stomach. A thistle and a bit of dead grass is all she expects."
"Made like a Thoroughbred and tough as a mustang," commented the sheriff. "I've dreamed of hosses like that kind all my life, and I've tried to get 'em by crossing breeds and by careful raising. But it wasn't no good. A good hoss is like a great man. You never can tell when they'll spring up."
They went back to the house and sat down with their cigarettes.
"But," said the sheriff suddenly, "what the devil would folks think, if they looked in and saw me here with you? And what do you want with me now that your hoss is fed?"
"I've come to make a bargain."
"To make a bargain you've got to have something I want."
"I have," said Givain.
"Only your freedom," said the sheriff.
"You're wrong. I can try to get rid of a man you'd much rather see go than myself. I mean Al Richards!"
"What the devil," murmured the sheriff. "D'you mean that you'd have anything to do with Al Richards for love or money?"
"For neither," said Givain not quite truthfully. "But he and I have an old grudge against one another."
"I know," said the sheriff. "Richards has been talking about it. When he heard how you had been to town before him, he said it was not the first time you had crossed his path. He told how his gun had stuck in the holster, and how that let you beat him. He told how he's been chasing you ever since."
"That," said Givain, with a strange lifting of his upper lip, "was mighty kind of him. Well, Sheriff, I don't like to be chased by any man except by a sheriff, with his badge on, and all that."
"I see," said Campton, grinning.
"What I want you to do is to make me free in this town three days from now."
"If I were to appear in the streets now, what would happen?"
"More things than you could count, I guess."
"I want you to let 'em know that three days from today, in the morning at eleven o'clock, I'm not to be molested, when I ride into town and head for the blacksmith shop of Bob Mundy. Tell them that I've heard how Richards is talking, and that I've beaten him once, and that I swear that I can beat him again. I'm to be allowed liberty to ride freely to that blacksmith shop and have it out with Richards. Will you spread that word around?"
The sheriff merely gaped at him.
"You get rid of one of us for good and forever," said Givain. "Maybe you get rid of both of us. What I'm asking you to do is to spread the news around the town."
The sheriff rose, walked a gangling stride through the room, then turned, and laid his great hand upon the head of Givain.
"What game have you planned?" he asked.
"Sheriff, I have to get Richards out of this town."
"That doesn't matter."
"It does, though. I've got to know."
"For a girl, then," said Givain, and neither flushed nor smiled.
"Ah," said the sheriff. "Ah! I might've knowed that Rose Mundy's smile would be behind this deviltry some place. I never could make out whether the smiling of Rose or the fighting of Bob would be doing the most harm in this world. But now I see what's what. He ain't armed with even a paper knife compared to her. She's sending you to get killed by Richards?"
"I said nothing of that," said Givain angrily. "I haven't mentioned the lady's name!"
"Tut, tut," said the sheriff. "If I was ten years younger, I'd be a fool about Rose, too. Well, well—the young men hunt the pretty faces, and not what's behind the faces—so go your own way to the devil and trouble, Givain."
"What of the message?"
"Message?" The sheriff ran his fingers through his sparse hair and, thereby, made it stand straight up on end. "You couldn't be headed off?" he said plaintively. "Because what would become of Sally once you was gone?"
"I leave her to the best horseman I know—to Sheriff Campton!"
The sheriff turned a fiery red. He clasped his great bony hands together.
"Man, man," he murmured, "don't be talking any faster than you mean."
"Every word is the straight truth and nothing but the truth."
"Well," said the sheriff with a great sigh, "Sally aside, I think I got to spread that news around. It'll make a lot of talk. And if you're bound to be a fool, you can ride into town safe enough on a morning three days from this."
It was news of such a quality which the sheriff had to spread that in half an hour the entire town had heard of it. He had merely to step from his house and pass on the tidings to one person. But the person the sheriff selected, after he had bid the gambler good bye, was chosen with wonderful care and forethought.
He watched Givain out of sight, and then he walked up the street and rapped at the door of a house perhaps a hundred yards from his own. He rapped not at the front door, but to the rear, where the light of the kitchen lamp and the fragrance from the kitchen announced that supper was in preparation.
A large woman, red-faced from many leanings over the hot stove, opened the door to him. Under one armpit was tucked the cloth with which she had been opening the oven. She was meditatively licking a finger of her hand that had been burned in the last adventure with the erratic oven door. At sight of the sheriff the frown of irritation was smoothed away. "If it ain't the sheriff!" she cried, half mining her head so that her voice would pass resonantly throughout the house and perhaps reach the envious ears of Mrs. Murphy in the adjoining shack. "If it ain't the sheriff, and just in time to have supper."
"I ain't for supper, ma'am," said the sheriff, as he doffed his hat to her and, thereby, pulled a struggling gray hair forelock across his brown forehead. "I ain't for supper, but I just chanced over to ask if you happened to have a mite of salt to spare. Dog-gone me, if I ain't plumb run out!"
"I got a whole barrelful," said Mrs. Snyder kindly. "Now ain't it like a man to order everything, except what's needed most of all for his cooking. I'll have you a snack of salt fixed in a jiffy, Sheriff." And she poured some into a cup and gave it to him.
"But food is going to waste in this house this night, Sheriff," she assured him as she gave him the package. "I got more'n my man and my boys could ever in goodness eat up, and just room for another hearty eater at the far end of my table—"
"I got my own dinner, warming up on the stove," said the sheriff, lying with perfect smoothness. "I'll be getting on back before things burn all up."
"Well, well," said Mrs. Snyder, following him a step through the door, "these are busy times with you, Sheriff, what with all the carrying on in this here town."
"What carrying on?" asked the sheriff, with the bland eye of an innocent child.
"What carrying on?" she cried. "Why, with young Bob Mundy run out of town, and maybe murdered by that horrible gambler, and then this man-murdering Richards come to set right down amongst us—don't you call that something worth talking about?"
The sheriff raised his eyebrows noncommittally. "I dunno that I been paying much attention to that for the last hour," he said. "Other news just come in."
"Other news?" gasped out Mrs. Snyder. And she panted with eagerness.
"Yep. Just had word from Givain. He wants a safe conduct into the town three days from this, in the morning, at eleven o'clock—"
"In the name of goodness, Sheriff, what's a safe conduct?"
"It means, he wants to know if he can come safe and sound into town and out again."
"What in land's sake is the rascal thinking of? Of course, you ain't going to give it to him?"
"I dunno that I ain't."
"You see, the idea is that he wants to come in at that time to meet Al Richards in front of the blacksmith shop that Mundy runs. And, somehow, I ain't got the heart to keep them two from fighting it out together." And with this he strode away.
Mrs. Snyder followed him almost to his door, forgetful of the burning roast in her oven, forgetful of everything, except that she wanted to know details and, above all, whether or not this news had as yet been generally spread abroad. She learned that it had not, and with that her cup of happiness was full.
Two minutes later her family was gathered about her, five young sons with skins no sun could bum, with eyes brimmed over with deviltry, and her husband, who filled seven mouths three times a day and wondered every nightfall how he had managed it, And in three minutes more they had the whole story, with embroiderings of Mrs. Snyder's own invention. And, shortly afterward, seven Snyders were speeding on their way to seven different households to tell their story. Like the ripples from around the fallen pebble, the news washed through the town. The sheriff had chosen the right spot to let fall his talk.
It came to the ears of big Al Richards, where he sat in front of his borrowed house upon the side of the hill. An old man was the only one brave enough to carry the message up to him. He arrived in front of the warrior just as the latter had finished packing his pipe with plug tobacco, and just after Givain had slid into cover under the floor of the rotted verandah. From his place he could look out through the lattice work and survey both the tale bearer and the destroyer of men.
He who bore the message was both withered and bent. He went upon tottering legs and a crooked cane that shook in his hands, and a perpetual tremor of age kept his thin, white beard shivering as though in dread of the death that could not be many steps before him.
"Well, Mister Richards," he said, "I see you're enjoying a fine evening and a fine pipe by yourself?"
Mr. Richards eyed the veteran. Then he brought forth a match and scratched it on his overalls. Next, he sheltered it between his huge palms while the red, reflected light glowed upon his brutal features. When the sulphur fumes of the tip of the match had burned away, he held the flaming stick over the loaded pipe and drew mightily upon it. The noise of his puffing was like the noise of a small engine, and the cords stood out on his great neck and made the collar of the loose flannel shirt rise and fall. Finally the pipe was ignited, although the wedge of tobacco in it was almost as solid as wood. And now he puffed forth a cloud of the brown smoke and glowered upon the ancient.
"What the devil do you want?" he said.
"Nothing," said the other, shrinking back a pace, and then bracing himself as he realized that his great feebleness made him as inviolable of violence as any weak woman.
"I don't want nothing," he added, catching his breath and steadying himself. "I was just coming up here to pass a word with you and the time of the day."
"You lie," said the monster. "You lie like the devil. You ain't done much work as the climbing of this hill for ten years. And you won't climb this far again till you go to— heaven." And he laughed. He was so contented with his stern jest that he now wiped the mustaches away from the upper lip and looked forth with something approaching to good nature upon the octogenarian.
"What might your name be?" he asked.
"Well, Si, the truth is that you just come up here to have a look at me, ain't it?"
"You're worth seeing, Mister Richards," said the old fellow politely.
The giant reared up his full bulk. He was not so tall. But in breadth and in bulk he was monstrous, indeed, and, as he rose, his huge mustang in the neighboring field laid back his ears and snorted with hate.
"You've seen me and yet you ain't seen me. If you was thirty years younger, I'd wring your neck for coming up here to look at me. But seeing as you ain't more'n an old goat ready to tumble into a grave, look long and hard. You ain't seen my likes before and you ain't going to again. Look at this here hand!"
He thrust forth his left hand, the fingers gnarled with labor and with power. The little finger was as stubby and as blunt and as thick as the thumb of an average man.
"Look at that hand! It's worth seeing. That's the hand that throttled Sim Harper. Look at this other hand. That's the hand that shot Buck Jerome and young Saunders, and Milt Jeffrey and a few more—a few more—And look here. Here's the gun that dropped 'em. Look at them notches. Them are each a dead man. And them other notches you see—them are—just decorations!" He laughed hugely. "Yep, them are just decorations!" He laughed again.
Si Dean shrank away and held one shaking and claw-like hand before his face. Perhaps it was the nearness of those awful paws that made him tremble. Perhaps it was the brightness of the revolver. Perhaps it was the dreadful truth about this man sinking in upon his soul of souls.
"Well," said the monster, "now that you've seen, git out and don't come back."
"I got one bit of news for you," said the old man.
"News," said the giant, resting an immense foot upon a large and jagged boulder, "news for me?"
It was as though he considered it impossible for tidings affecting him to come forth from so negligible a source.
"Yes," quavered Si Dean.
"What in the devil about?"
"About—about—I'm afraid it will anger you, Mister Richards," Si Dean told him.
"You old rag-chewer, will you say what you got to say?" Then he added, half meditatively: "Or I'll take you by a leg and see how far you would sail down the hill."
Si Dean glanced hastily below him. Down the steep descent were ragged-edged stones, like the upturned mouth of a shark. He drew a quick breath.
"It was about a—a gent that sent a message to the sheriff."
"That he was coming to town three days from today, in the morning, at eleven o'clock."
"What of that?"
"And that he wanted to meet you in front of Bob Mundy's shop."
"He can find me. Who is he, and what does he want of me?"
Si Dean shrank to a safer distance. He looked behind and below him again at the rocks. They were hard, indeed, and yet how could he resist telling the cream of all his story?
"He's a gent that says that he's tired of hearing so much about the doings of Al Richards. He's a gent that says that he licked you once before plumb easy, and that he's going to do it again. He's a gent that says they ain't nothing to you but your size, and that, when he gets through, you'll be whittled down plumb small."
A tremendous oath tore the throat of Richards. "What's his name?"
"Givain!" cried the old veteran. And then he cowered halfway to the earth.
There was no violence in Richards for a reply. Instead, as though he had forgotten that there was an interlocutor before him on the hillside, he lifted his head and then raised up his great hands to the night sky. Light from the fire that he had kindled inside the house upon the open hearth shone out through the door, however, and struck across his features, as rugged, as hard as the rock upon which his foot was based. And in his face there was joy, or something akin to joy. His eyes glittered with it. His hands trembled. His whole body shook with eagerness.
"He's coming—to me—of his own self," whispered the giant.
And Si Dean fled, stumbling, for safety.
Therefore, he did not see what Givain saw. For the latter saw the big man lean suddenly, seize the rock upon which a foot had been resting, and tear it from its bed. Up it came, all dark beneath, with small, white roots of grasses clinging about it, and from the full height of Richards it was dashed down upon another boulder. It cracked to a score of splinters, and every splinter was a heavy stone that went rolling or flying down the dark hillside. Givain heard old Si Dean cry out in feeble terror as a missile went hurtling past him. Then another rock rolled farther below, and another cracked sharply into a rivulet of water in the bottom of the hollow. After that was silence, and the giant dropped his arms.
There are prodigies that numb the body, the very faculties of the mind. And the gambler could not stir in his place of covert after the rock had fallen or after this vast mass of muscle and bone and venom had strode into the house.
But then Givain came forth from hiding, slowly, dragging one limb after the other with a conscious effort. His mind was full of panics. At every whisper of the wind it seemed to him that it was the rushing of the air in the clothes of Richards as the latter sped upon him in the dark. And, once perceived, he could not fly. There was no strength in his heart to bear him up, and there was no strength in his limbs.
And yet he could have smiled at the irony of this event. For he had climbed the hill in the vain, small hope that the girl had been right, that this giant had some vulnerable point, that, like Achilles, he had been only partially blessed with invincibility to the gods of war, and that he, Givain, might spy the weakness out. He had believed that speech of Rose Mundy's because he was almost forced to believe it. There was no other hope for him.
But now that he had come and seen Richards, being unseen himself, he had discovered a thing that washed away the last of his strength. And he knew with a deadly and sickening certainty, not only that he would have no chance in battle against Richards, but that he could not even find the wretched courage in his soul to go to the place of meeting and die like a man.
For there was no facing this demon after the scene that Givain had just witnessed. It seemed to his shattered imagination that he was being picked up in the hands of Al Richards and broken to shards upon the stones. He could see his body flattened in the street before the blacksmith shop of Bob Mundy.
Yet his reason did not give up the battle easily. It assured him again and again that, big as he was, Richards could be killed as easily as any other man by a bullet. It told him that in every, fight there is a chance that a good shot and quick draw may kill, and that luck might help him. But, in spite of that, the horrible foreboding was fixed in his mind and would not go out of it—he had two days and three nights to live, and on the third morning he was to die at eleven o'clock in front of Bob Mundy's shop. And as he thought of that, the whole affair became dream-like to him. He could see his first meeting with the girl in Jim's house like events dimly pictured—pictures out of a story book, and no flesh and blood reality.
Then he went slowly, very slowly, down the hill, aching with terror lest his foot should displace a stone and that small noise bring the monster flying down after him.
That was the first night of Givain's vigil. The second night he came up again and saw Al Richards ride out early and saw him come home again late, drunk. And he seemed to Givain, as the latter stole to the window and looked in upon him, lighting the fire upon the hearth, like a great, fire-breathing dragon out of some fairy tale. As for the wood for the fire, he tore boards from the walls of the room and pitched them, crashing upon the hearth. They smashed upon the fire and cast out big showers of sparks. Ah, would that one of those sparks might start a conflagration which would instantly involve the house in flames and burn with it the evil spirit that now dwelt there.
But he waited for no more. Instead, he turned sick at heart and went down the hill and to his sleep for the night. But he could not sleep. He sat up beside his small fire among the woods and hugged his knees and looked at his death in the darkness until Sally came and put her soft muzzle upon his shoulder and nibbled carefully at his ear.
Yet once more crouched outside the house, he waited and watched the movements of Richards until, finally, the big man kicked off his boots, threw his blankets on the floor near the fire, and jerked open his shirt at the throat preparatory to sleeping. But, as he did so, he appeared to break a thread that was tied about his neck. Something bright and yellow was flicked from his bosom and rattled on the floor, and Richards uttered a cry of horror and of fear. He stood like a child, seeing a ghost, his eyes dilated and his hands extended with stiff fingers. Then he dropped upon his knees and began to search the floor, groaning with dread. He tore up the boards with his steel- like fingers for wedges, and looked down the cracks. At length he scooped up something with a strangled yell of relief and joy.
When Richards sank down cross-legged upon his blankets, however, all that Givain saw with his startled eyes was a twenty-dollar gold piece, twisted out of shape and with a large hole driven through the center of it. Yet the giant cradled it in his palm as though it was a diamond of untold value.
At length he set to work to tie a new and stouter string through it. And the knot of the string, as he tied it around his neck again, was drawn tight and tied again, half a dozen times. Certainly there was small fear that such a knot would unravel, and as for the string, it was of the stoutest twine. With this strange talisman fastened about his neck, he lay down upon the blankets. He wrapped himself in them and seemed sound asleep, yet, now and again, he started violently, and his big right hand flew up to clutch at the place beneath the flannel shirt where the twenty-dollar piece must lie. And each time there was a groan of relief and of content as his fingers touched the metal.
Then Givain, turning from the window, hurried down the hill. He had no great hope, but even a small one was like a glimpse of heaven after the despair in which he had been plunged through all of these days. He went straight to that small, hidden camp of his, took from his little pack his razor, tested it upon a hair and found that its edge was as keen and as biting as hate. Then he closed it, pocketed it, and went back up the hill.
By the time he arrived at the house on the hill, the fire had burned low upon the hearth. It was either dead or else the dying coals were filmed over with the gray of ashes through which a dull and uncertain glow was thrown across the room. Yet, now and then, when a draught pried at the embers, a flame was wakened for an instant, illumining every corner of the room brightly.
Givain took note of these surroundings calmly, gravely. Then he unbuckled his revolver and dropped the cartridge belt upon the ground, for, if the giant wakened, Givain must not be tempted to kill a man by surprise and by treachery. Better by far to be himself killed by those great hands. After this he removed his boots, took off his hat, and gave the bright stars one look. Then he entered the room.
There were seven paces from the door to the spot where the big man snored. There were only seven small paces, but at the fifth the fire gleamed, and at the seventh the tongue of flame started up, and Givain, looking down, thought that the glittering eyes of the other were fixed upon him. Was the giant playing 'possum?
But when he leaned and peered, it seemed from the relaxed muscles and the steady breathing that Richards still slept. So Givain knelt beside him, and, so kneeling, he was within the circle of the left arm of the prostrate man. One sweep of that hand would gather him in, no matter how blindly made. Then a fumble of the big fingers, a crunch of bones, and his neck would be broken.
Givain was whipped on by the dread of the meeting in front of Mundy's shop. With fingers nerved to steadiness, he fumbled beneath the collar and found the thread of twine. With set teeth, with a prayer and despair in his heart, he softly drew that thread forth. But how could he keep the rough twine from chafing, however softly, against the skin of the sleeper? There with a gasp and groan, and the right hand of the killer clapped against his breast.
How Givain jerked his own hands away, swiftly, and without a jar, he did not know. But certain it was that Richards did not strike them. But his hand struck his breast, and apparently he felt the coin, and, reassured in the midst of his nightmare, he dropped his hand again, turned with a groan of relief upon his side, and was instantly asleep again.
Givain went swiftly and calmly ahead with his work now. Having succeeded in passing this crisis, it seemed to him that he was guaranteed against further interruption. With a deftness incomparable he drew forth the coin. A touch of the razor's edge parted the twine, and now both twine and coin were his.
But being his, such an ecstasy of relief and of weakness passed through him that he felt he could never find the strength to rise from his knees. His legs were shaking, and his teeth were chattering in his head. His whole body trembled. It was a long effort before he rose. And he began to move backward toward the door, keeping his eyes fixed upon the bulk upon the floor, more dimly outlined now by the dying firelight. Once a tongue of flame stood up, quivering inches high above the ashes. It showed the rugged face of the sleeper, but his eyes were closed, and Givain, being now in the doorway, whirled, leaped into the night, felt the firm ground beneath him, and rushed down the hill as though assisted by wings. No one could have caught him then, he felt. For, crushed against his palm, eating into his flesh, was the curved edge of the coin that, in some mysterious manner, represented the whole strength of Al Richards. He was as certain of it as though he had seen a spell breathed over that piece of money.
At last he sat by the ashes of his own fire in the woods. He fanned it to life again. He cast handfuls of dead shrubbery upon it, until the fire rose recklessly high and Sally came sniffing and nosing toward him. Then he took the bit of gold in his hand. The date was clear—it had been coined in 1892. And the hole that was drilled so clean through it might have been punched by a Thirty- Two caliber bullet—a rifle bullet, say. The impact that had forced it through the metal had twisted the coin at the same time out of shape.
How could this trinket have anything to do with the powers of Al Richards? And yet he felt, as he stared down at the thing, that he had trimmed the hair of Samson and found, indeed, the heel of Achilles. He felt freed. If, at that instant, he had seen the vast and unwieldy bulk of Al Richards looming through the darkness, he would have gone to the attack on the great man with a feeling of perfect confidence, so much was he assured that the hands of the destroyer were unnerved.
But what would happen when Richards wakened in the morning? What would the big man do? What would he say? He was urged by an invincible curiosity that made him rise from the fire he had just kindled. Now he saddled Sally, flung himself upon her, and jogged easily up the slope of the hill. He dismounted at a little distance from the house.
To the same door to which he had gone in such a horror of fear before, he advanced again. He sat upon the sill and looked calmly into the shadows. There was Richards, still sleeping, still a shapeless mound of blackness rising from the floor.
So Givain went out again, and he remembered that he had made this second perilous journey even without his revolver. At that remembrance he merely laughed, and, passing around the house, he picked up the belt and the gun where he had unbuckled and dropped them. As he picked them up, he wondered if such a scruple as had moved him, when he gave up his weapon, could ever have entered into the brutish brain of Richards.
Yet that brain was not all brute. There was that which assured him that the love of this mere coin would be the undoing of the monster. Therefore, there was an instinct in him that said that Richards was capable of highly strung efforts of the imagination.
And now, with his gun buckled upon his thigh, he sat down to watch the morning grow, and smoked a cigarette. He was hungry. He had not tasted food for twenty-four hours. But food was not what he needed. He was tasting, in all its sweetness, the surety of life restored—the sweetest of all life, his own. And how dear to him was the growing of that dawn behind the mountains, striking them out in quick and bold strokes, as though he watched some worker in black and white sketching in a picture of mountains at dawn, rescuing new details at every stroke.
But now it was more than a rough and wildly imposing sketch. Behind the mountains was welling up flood upon flood and wave upon wave of tender color—of pink transfused with yellow, of rose so lovely that it opened his soul as though there was a fragrance emanating from it, and of tides and tides of exquisite, pure, white light. How beautiful it was, and how it rolled upon the heart of Givain for the first time, until it seemed to him that, after the three days of torture, he was being born again and into a world all new to him. There would be a thousand things to mark and to look for thereafter. He told himself that, having tasted the bitterness of death for three whole days, he would make a new path for himself through the world. What he had kicked aside as worthless before, he would stay to watch closely. And if he had gone through his days prizing, first, fox-like cunning, and secondly, fierce skill in battle, he would revise his ideas, open his eyes, and see if there was not something in life like the light that was rushing up over the eastern peaks—something good because it was beautiful, and beautiful because it was good.
It seemed to Givain, indeed, that now for the first time he was getting at the heart of an understanding of the girl, Rose Mundy. He had thought that he knew her before, but how small had been his knowledge, He had seen and admired her prettiness, her clever mind, her subtle ways of eyes and hand and thought, but he had never been aware of something else that he was now beginning to sense as he. watched the birth of the morning, and that was a deep and perfect purity. So that her greatest strength was not her cleverness, but her very lack of knowledge. And she seemed to the ecstatic mind of the gambler, now, half child and half saint—half to be adored and half to be worshipped.
Of at least one thing he was sure. If he were ever to touch her hand with this newly saved being of his, it must be as one who had put his criminal existence behind him. It must be as one who had vowed an honest labor to make an honest life. He rose. He stood upon tiptoe. He stretched out his arms to the east, all golden now, and rose, with one streaming cloud of fire blown westward. And he felt that the cold air he breathed went through and through him and purged him forever of the thing that he had been.
And in the very midst of that ecstasy he heard the deep voice of Al Richards cry out, half groan, half scream—half fear and half the wildest rage.
It brought him back with a shock and a start to the cruel facts of that last night. For a moment he was on the verge of running to peer through the window and watch. But then something held him back. The shouting of Al Richards was like the crying of a stricken beast. As he raged, it seemed to Givain that looking in upon him would be like looking in upon a man transformed into an animal. And he had no right to do that. After all, it was through a piece of wicked theft by night that he had disarmed the soul of the man killer of its old confidence.
And there was something magnificent, also, in the passion of the destroyer. He was tearing up the planks of the floor, now. He was dashing them about. The house shook and moaned under his passion as though a storm wind were harrying it with a strong hand. And the thunder of the giant's voice rose and raged.
It all stopped suddenly. The roaring and the smashing stopped. It was as though a pointed gun had halted that big man. And in Givain it was as though a sudden realization of weakness had come upon Richards.
So the gambler turned the corner of the house. What he saw was Richards shambling across the field with his saddle and bridle dragging after him, making toward the huge mustang. He was half running, like a man in the most mortal fear. And Givain grew sick at heart as he watched. For, after all, although the strength of Richards had been terrible, it had been magnificent, also. And now the fellow was a mere skulker. He was transformed from a lion to a jackal.
He was busy at the mustang now. His deep voice rolled back to Givain in mutterings, confused, subdued, hurried, as he cursed his horse one moment and implored it to stand quiet the next. For the mustang hated the sight of the saddle and the bridle and showed its hatred even with its hobbled feet.
It was saddled, however. And finally its wicked teeth were pried apart and the bit forced between them. So, saddled and bridled, the giant now unhobbled his horse and slung the ropes behind the saddle. This done, he was in the act of mounting, when his eye lighted on the form of Sally, as she grazed calmly along the side of the hill. And that sight seemed to crush him.
Richards glanced wildly around. And then, in the door of the house that he had just left, he saw none other than the young gambler, dapper, alert, slender, exactly as he had stood upon that other day when his gun had struck Richards down. And the power of mystery fell suddenly and heavily upon the big man.
The mustang seemed to feel his weakness, for now it veered suddenly away. Richards lunged in pursuit with a muffled cry, but he received the heels of the mustang as the brute lashed out. One grazed his head and one grazed his body and hurled him flat, and, before he could rise again, the horse was gone. Al Richards cast one terrified glance behind him to make sure that the enemy was not pursuing him, and then he rushed down the hill after the horse.
But Richards never again sat the saddle on that animal. All day he kept up the vain labor upon the mustang's trail. At night he gave it up. He slunk to the nearest town, took the first freight that left the place, and was swept north. Five hundred miles away, and two days later, he was arrested for vagrancy in a little Montana town, arrested by a new constable and a young one.
In the jail they learned the truth from the cowering bulk. He was Al Richards, famous in story for a dozen years. He was Al Richards, or, rather a wreck who swore that the name belonged to him. And when the reporters came to question him, he refused to talk. But to his cell mate he told a strange story.
It was of how, years and years before, he had entered his first fight, and of how the bullet of the other man had struck him and hurt him in the side. But he had not been pierced by the slug, and his own shot had killed his enemy. And when he examined the place where he had been hit, he found that the bullet from the other's rifle—for they were firing at a distance from one another—had pierced his wallet, cut through the leather, and then, in cutting through a golden twenty-dollar piece, had been turned to the side.
So his life had been saved by that bit of soft metal, and it had seemed to Richards like a sign of power given to him. He felt, thereafter, that he was invincible. He attached all the belief in his own strength to that bit of gold, and, so long as it was strung around his neck, he was secure. But when it was gone, he was helpless. And, in fact, the instant that the piece of money had been taken from him, the belief that punishment for all his crimes was about to overtake him had crushed him as if under a great weight. In a moment he was unmanned. And now the man killer was serving a thirty-day term for vagrancy.
After that, Al Richards was never heard from again.
Whether he came to a sudden end, when one of his numberless enemies took heart at his downfall and pursued him to the ground, or whether Al Richards had slunk out of the cow country and was rushed far away by the speed of trains to begin a new life as a laborer, where his mighty strength of hands would stand him in better stead, remained a mystery even to those who most carefully strove to delve into the facts. But certain it was that he never again appeared in the West with his flat, brutal eye, his voice of thunder, mounted on his terrible horse, and with his ungloved right hand swinging near the handles of his gun.
Perhaps Givain should have told the whole story of what had happened at the so-called haunted house to everyone in the village. But a little trace of vanity prevented him.
He went down to the village and announced calmly enough that Al Richards would not come down to fight the big fight that day in front of Bob Mundy's blacksmith shop, and, when people grinned their disbelief and asked why he thought so, he said that he and the other had already fought out their little quarrel in the haunted house upon the hill. And Bob Mundy, who had returned to meet his fate at the hands of Al Richards, was there to hear the joyous news.
Twenty men took horse and rode to the place. They did not find a dead body. Indeed, they found no trace of Richards at all. But they found that the interior of the building was half wrecked. And they came back to tell their amazed friends that they had seen a prodigy.
As for Givain, he never again dealt a pack of cards. He never again wore a gun, for he had promised his wife, Rose, that he would not. Indeed, he did not need a gun now for protection, for a thousand men and women and children up and down the range believed firmly that Givain had in some mysterious fashion been able to meet the giant bulk of Richards, hand to hand, and subdue him. For did not the wrecked interior of the house show that a fight had been fought there?
And Givain never had the moral courage to deny the tale.
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