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- A First Family of Tasajara - 6/33 -
"Well, I want to speak to ye about 'Lige. Seein' the candle shinin' through the chinks I thought he might be still with ye. If he ain't, it looks bad. Light up, can't ye! I want to show you something."
There was a peremptoriness in his tone that struck Harkutt disagreeably, but observing that he was carrying something in his hand, he somewhat nervously re-lit the candle and faced him. Peters had a hat in his hand. It was 'Lige's!
"'Bout an hour after we fellers left here," said Peters, "I heard the rattlin' of hoofs on the road, and then it seemed to stop just by my house. I went out with a lantern, and, darn my skin! if there warn't 'Lige's hoss, the saddle empty, and 'Lige nowhere! I looked round and called him--but nothing were to be seen. Thinkin' he might have slipped off--tho' ez a general rule drunken men don't, and he is a good rider--I followed down the road, lookin' for him. I kept on follerin' it down to your run, half a mile below."
"But," began Harkutt, with a quick nervous laugh, "you don't reckon that because of that he"--
"Hold on!" said Peters, grimly producing a revolver from his side- pocket with the stock and barrel clogged and streaked with mud. "I found THAT too,--and look! one barrel discharged! And," he added hurriedly, as approaching a climax, "look ye,--what I nat'rally took for wet from the rain--inside that hat--was--blood!"
"Nonsense!" said Harkutt, putting the hat aside with a new fastidiousness. "You don't think"--
"I think," said Peters, lowering his voice, "I think, by God! HE'S BIN AND DONE IT!"
"Sure! Oh, it's all very well for Billings and the rest of that conceited crowd to sneer and sling their ideas of 'Lige gen'rally as they did jess now here,--but I'd like 'em to see THAT." It was difficult to tell if Mr. Peters' triumphant delight in confuting his late companions' theories had not even usurped in his mind the importance of the news he brought, as it had of any human sympathy with it.
"Look here," returned Harkutt earnestly, yet with a singularly cleared brow and a more natural manner. "You ought to take them things over to Squire Kerby's, right off, and show 'em to him. You kin tell him how you left 'Lige here, and say that I can prove by my daughter that he went away about ten minutes after,--at least, not more than fifteen." Like all unprofessional humanity, Mr. Harkutt had an exaggerated conception of the majesty of unimportant detail in the eye of the law. "I'd go with you myself," he added quickly, "but I've got company--strangers--here."
"How did he look when he left,--kinder wild?" suggested Peters.
Harkutt had begun to feel the prudence of present reticence. "Well," he said, cautiously, "YOU saw how he looked."
"You wasn't rough with him?--that might have sent him off, you know," said Peters.
"No," said Harkutt, forgetting himself in a quick indignation, "no, I not only treated him to another drink, but gave him"--he stopped suddenly and awkwardly.
"Eh?" said Peters.
"Some good advice,--you know," said Harkutt, hastily. "But come, you'd better hurry over to the squire's. You know YOU'VE made the discovery; YOUR evidence is important, and there's a law that obliges you to give information at once."
The excitement of discovery and the triumph over his disputants being spent, Peters, after the Sidon fashion, evidently did not relish activity as a duty. "You know," he said dubiously, "he mightn't be dead, after all."
Harkutt became a trifle distant. "You know your own opinion of the thing," he replied after a pause. "You've circumstantial evidence enough to see the squire, and set others to work on it; and," he added significantly, "you've done your share then, and can wipe your hands of it, eh?"
"That's so," said Peters, eagerly. "I'll just run over to the squire."
"And on account of the women folks, you know, and the strangers here, I'll say nothin' about it to-night," added Harkutt.
Peters nodded his head, and taking up the hat of the unfortunate Elijah with a certain hesitation, as if he feared it had already lost its dramatic intensity as a witness, disappeared into the storm and darkness again. A lurking gust of wind lying in ambush somewhere seemed to swoop down on him as if to prevent further indecision and whirl him away in the direction of the justice's house; and Mr. Harkutt shut the door, bolted it, and walked aimlessly back to the counter.
From a slow, deliberate and cautious man, he seemed to have changed within an hour to an irresolute and capricious one. He took the paper from his pocket, and, unlocking the money drawer of his counter, folded into a small compass that which now seemed to be the last testament of Elijah Curtis, and placed it in a recess. Then he went to the back door and paused, then returned, reopened the money drawer, took out the paper and again buttoned it in his hip pocket, standing by the stove and staring abstractedly at the dull glow of the fire. He even went through the mechanical process of raking down the ashes,--solely to gain time and as an excuse for delaying some other necessary action.
He was thinking what he should do. Had the question of his right to retain and make use of that paper been squarely offered to him an hour ago, he would without doubt have decided that he ought not to keep it. Even now, looking at it as an abstract principle, he did not deceive himself in the least. But Nature has the reprehensible habit of not presenting these questions to us squarely and fairly, and it is remarkable that in most of our offending the abstract principle is never the direct issue. Mr. Harkutt was conscious of having been unwillingly led step by step into a difficult, not to say dishonest, situation, and against his own seeking. He had never asked Elijah to sell him the property; he had distinctly declined it; it had even been forced upon him as security for the pittance he so freely gave him. This proved (to himself) that he himself was honest; it was only the circumstances that were queer. Of course if Elijah had lived, he, Harkutt, might have tried to drive some bargain with him before the news of the railroad survey came out--for THAT was only business. But now that Elijah was dead, who would be a penny the worse or better but himself if he chose to consider the whole thing as a lucky speculation, and his gift of five dollars as the price he paid for it? Nobody could think that he had calculated upon 'Lige's suicide, any more than that the property would become valuable. In fact if it came to that, if 'Lige had really contemplated killing himself as a hopeless bankrupt after taking Harkutt's money as a loan, it was a swindle on his--Harkutt's--good-nature. He worked himself into a rage, which he felt was innately virtuous, at this tyranny of cold principle over his own warm-hearted instincts, but if it came to the LAW, he'd stand by law and not sentiment. He'd just let them--by which he vaguely meant the world, Tasajara, and possibly his own conscience--see that he wasn't a sentimental fool, and he'd freeze on to that paper and that property!
Only he ought to have spoken out before. He ought to have told the surveyor at once that he owned the land. He ought to have said: "Why, that's my land. I bought it of that drunken 'Lige Curtis for a song and out of charity." Yes, that was the only real trouble, and that came from his own goodness, his own extravagant sense of justice and right,--his own cursed good-nature. Yet, on second thoughts, he didn't know why he was obliged to tell the surveyor. Time enough when the company wanted to buy the land. As soon as it was settled that 'Lige was dead he'd openly claim the property. But what if he wasn't dead? or they couldn't find his body? or he had only disappeared? His plain, matter-of-fact face contracted and darkened. Of course he couldn't ask the company to wait for him to settle that point. He had the power to dispose of the property under that paper, and--he should do it. If 'Lige turned up, that was another matter, and he and 'Lige could arrange it between them. He was quite firm here, and oddly enough quite relieved in getting rid of what appeared only a simple question of detail. He never suspected that he was contemplating the one irretrievable step, and summarily dismissing the whole ethical question.
He turned away from the stove, opened the back door, and walked with a more determined step through the passage to the sitting- room. But here he halted again on the threshold with a quick return of his old habits of caution. The door was slightly open; apparently his angry outbreak of an hour ago had not affected the spirits of his daughters, for he could hear their hilarious voices mingling with those of the strangers. They were evidently still fortune-telling, but this time it was the prophetic and divining accents of Mr. Rice addressed to Clementina which were now plainly audible.
"I see heaps of money and a great many friends in the change that is coming to you. Dear me! how many suitors! But I cannot promise you any marriage as brilliant as my friend has just offered your sister. You may be certain, however, that you'll have your own choice in this, as you have in all things."
"Thank you for nothing," said Clementina's voice. "But what are those horrid black cards beside them?--that's trouble, I'm sure."
"Not for you, though near you. Perhaps some one you don't care much for and don't understand will have a heap of trouble on your account,--yes, on account of these very riches; see, he follows the ten of diamonds. It may be a suitor; it may be some one now in the house, perhaps."
"He means himself, Miss Clementina," struck in Grant's voice laughingly.
"You're not listening, Miss Harkutt," said Rice with half-serious reproach. "Perhaps you know who it is?"
But Miss Clementina's reply was simply a hurried recognition of her father's pale face that here suddenly confronted her with the
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