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- The Law of the Land - 20/49 -
Thompson. Not all of us go down into the valley of the shadow with the kiss of innocence on our lips.
Number 4 steamed on to the southward. She crossed the flat bottoms where the great river was hedged out by the levees; edged off again toward the red clay hills and finally, leaving this fringe of little eminences, plunged straight and deep into the ancient forests of the Delta, whose flat floor lay out ahead for many miles. Number 4 was now in the wilderness. Panther, and fox, and owl went silent when the wild scream of Number 4 was heard; of Number 4, carrying its burden of the ancient comedy and tragedy of life, its hates, and loves, and mysteries, its sordid, its little and its tremendous things.
Later in the night Number 4 groaned and creaked and protested at the stop for the little siding of the Big House plantation, eighty miles from the point where she had begun her flight. Her brake shoes ground so sternly that the heavy oaken beams whined at the strain put on them; yet obedient to the hand of man, she did stop, though it was but to discharge a single passenger.
Henry Decherd hurried out into the darkness like some creature hard pursued. Number 4 swept on, clacking, rumbling, screaming. The shriek of her whistle, heard now and again, was loud, careless, imperious, self-assured.
But what meant this hoarse and swiftly broken note, as though Number 4 were caught in sudden mortal fear? What meant this broken, quavering wail, as though the monster were suddenly arrested by an utter agony? What, sounding far across the sullen forest, was this rending and crashing roar? Number 4 had been here, hurrying onward. But now--now where and what was Number 4?
Meeting her fate, Number 4 plunged, ground, shivered, shortened and then fell apart, shattered like a house of toys. For an instant the wilderness heard no sound, until there arose, terrible in its volume, the wail of a general human agony. There was no answer save that, borne far upon the humid air of the night, there came the solemn calling of the deep-throated hunting pack of the Big House kennels. Each night the pack called out their defiance to Number 4 as she swept by with her roar and rattle and the imperious challenge of her whistle. She was their enemy. But now they knew that evil had been done, that life was in jeopardy; even as they knew that the mighty at last had fallen.
It was a strange party that took breakfast at the Big House table on the morning after the railway wreck. All these guests, injured or well, crippled or whole, were gay and talkative. Gestures, hysterical smiles marked their conduct. Their faces showed no spell of horror. Men had looked at the long row of dead on the platform at the station. "That is my father," said one; and another, "This is my sister," but they spoke impersonally, and only to satisfy the curiosity of others. There was no room for an individual terror. A woman with both arms broken and her head heavily bound sat laughing, and again raised her voice in a hymn of thanksgiving.
The broken-hearted search, the frenzied efforts at relief occupied all comers far into the morning. It was long before any one thought of asking the cause of the disaster; yet presently reason sufficient was discovered. The broken railway train covered with its wreckage the immediate cause of the accident: a pile of timbers erected carefully and solidly between the rails. Seeing this, after a time, there began to mount in the jarred and dazed senses of these human beings a sullen desire for justice or revenge.
Among the first to seek the head of the train where the wrecking timbers lay was John Eddring, who arrived on the early train from the city. By virtue of his office as agent of the personal injury department, he at once began to possess himself of such facts as might be of use later on. With face pale, but steady, he traversed the entire length of the shattered train, examining, inquiring, making a record of the dead and injured, and in some cases examining papers and effects for purposes of identification.
There was in particular one victim, a large, well-looking man, who had been killed in the forward compartment of one of the sleeping cars, he being the only one who suffered death or extreme injury in that car. Close by was his hand-bag, but this bore no card and offered no distinguishing mark serving to identify its owner. The porter could remember only that this gentleman had got on at the city and had not yet been "checked up." The porter was sure that this was his valise, for he had himself brought it in from the platform.
"Thompson, James Thompson," said a newspaper worker, one of those who mysteriously appeared before the accident was many hours old. "Here's his accident insurance card. Got it in his pocketbook. It's twelve thousand to his wife, anyhow, I reckon. Davenport, Iowa; that's his home."
Eddring felt it his duty to examine more thoroughly the effects of this victim. The hand-bag held absolutely no items of personal equipment. Its sole contents were a small and curiously bound little volume, printed in the French language, and a bundle of papers of legal size, typewritten and backed in the form of railway documents. Eddring could not conceal a start as he glanced at these papers. Hurriedly he thrust into his pocket papers, book and all.
He had reason for surprise. Here, in this nameless package in the care of this stranger, James Thompson of Davenport, Iowa, was a full list of the outstanding judgment claims against the Y. V. railway throughout his own division; a list of whose existence he supposed no one except himself had any knowledge whatever! Attached to the package of papers there was a letter written in a woman's hand. Hasty and professional as was his glance, and much disturbed as he was by the discovery which accompanied his finding of the letter, the words which met his eyes carried a shock such as he had not known in all the years of service in his eventful calling.
"Dearest," ran the communication, not wholly ill written: "Dearest, you said you would come last week, but you did not. I am uneasy. Are you forgetting me? Does that girl mean more to you than I do--does either of them? Why, they don't know how to love. You know I would do anything for you if you kept on in the old way, but you shall not leave me. You say you have to 'keep things in careful shape.' I have wished a thousand times that girl had been out of the way long ago. Then you would have to depend on me now for everything, love and all. You say you will divide it all with me when we get it. What do I care about that? Let it all go, and let us go and live somewhere together and be happy as we were.
"Now if you are not telling me the truth, you are getting yourself into trouble, and you will have enough of that anyhow. As for madam, it's not you she wants any more. Yet she can't bear to have you look at the girl. You don't know women very much. Now she has forgotten her part, let her make it up with old man Blount and let the girl go. You and I can fight it out the way we started to before they ever came down here. I say one string to a bow is better than two. You will have to choose between these strings.
"If I ever feel certain that you are lying to me, I'll do what ought to have been done, and then I won't care. You can have all the money if you ever get it, but I am going to have all of you, and no dividing with anybody. I have no place in the world here, and am standing everything and waiting and hoping. Sometime people will hear from me. Sometimes I hate myself and you, and all the world. I would do big things if I once started. The best thing you can do is to come down here to me right soon. We must have a talk, and, besides, I want to see you."
The letter bore no signature, save a scrawled mark or sign, which Eddring did not pause to examine at the moment. Indeed he had no time to ponder or to speculate, for even as he folded the letter and placed it in his pocket with the other articles taken from the valise, he heard a sudden cry, and, going forward, joined again the group that had formed about the pile of fatal timbers at the head of the wreck. Some one showed him a handkerchief, a sodden bit of linen which had been taken from under the heap of logs. It was a woman's handkerchief, and as Eddring spread it out on his hand he noted in one corner a curious embroidered mark. At this he gazed intently, with a vague feeling that somewhere he had seen a similar mark before. It was like some rude monogram or crest.
"If you don't mind," said he, quietly, "I should like to have that handkerchief. It might be useful with other evidence which I have in my possession." None offered objections, and Eddring presently moved away. He felt a certain mental uneasiness which he could not fully formulate; but presently all speculation was carried from his mind by the crowding of events about him.
There had by this time appeared the sheriff of Tullahoma County, who brought with him the most practical agencies of justice possible for that peculiar country, three dogs known widely as skilled followers of human trails. To the sheriff Eddring now offered the newly discovered handkerchief. The latter held it out to the dogs, which sniffed at it gravely, and sniffed also at the place where it had been found under the derailing timbers. The sheriff went about his duties methodically, now moving back all the spectators so that the dogs might have full opportunity in their work.
The tail of the lead dog at length began to move slowly from side to side. He walked a pace or so down the bank and paused, the other two coming to him. The sheriff pointed silently. Distinctly marked in the soil was the print of a shoe--a woman's shoe, long, narrow. All three of the dogs now moved toward a gap in the row of stumps which formed a rude hedge for the cleared right of way. At this little gap the narrow footprint was seen again, with others made by bare feet. At the edge of the wood, there came a long, low, sobbing call from the lead dog, and presently the others wailed their confirmation; so that the trail was now steadily begun.
They followed the dogs for miles, across glade and ridge and opening, through jungles of vines and matted cane; and presently they came upon paths which converged, separated and converged again, as might have been in the jungle about a village of the Black Continent. They went on and on, and finally they came out, as John Eddring in his heart knew they presently would, at the edge of a little hidden opening, surrounded by a wall of deep green cane. There before them stood a long, low, log structure, which he himself could have described in advance. Upon the door, done in the blind, morbid egotism of crime, which so often leaves open sign and signal for its own undoing, there showed, cut deep in the jamb, a rude sign, cabalistic, mysterious, fetish-like. To Eddring it seemed for the instant to be the same mark as that upon the handkerchief. He could
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