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- The Rose in the Ring - 50/73 -
high and mighty chap you've come to be. No wonder you won't shake hands with a jail-bird."
"Stop talking, Tom Braddock," said Ruby, a gleam of anxiety in her eyes. "Here's what's left of the lamb and here's--"
"Wait a minute, Ruby," said he. With his elbows on the edge of the table and his chin in his broad, sinewy hands he leaned forward and spoke again to David. "I've been out three weeks. I was up there for two years and a half. I'm just telling you this so's you'll know why I've changed. The whiskey's all out of me. There never will be any more inside of me, do you understand that? Ten years ago I was a man-- wasn't I, Joey? I was a dog when you knew me, Jenison. Now, I'm a man again. See these hands? Well, they've been doing honest work, even if it was in a convict barrel factory. I'm ten times stronger than I was before. There isn't a soft muscle in my body. What you miss is the fat--the whiskey fat. I'm gray-headed, but who wouldn't be? But that is not what I'm trying to get at. I saw Dick Cronk this morning. I don't know how he found me. He told me you were up here to take a hand in my affairs. What I want to know, right here, Jenison, is this: Where is your friend Bob Grand and where is _she?_"
He spoke quite calmly, but there was a deliberate menace in his tones. David was startled. An angry retort leaped to his lips, but he choked it back.
"You are very much mistaken, Braddock, if you consider me the friend of Colonel Grand. I hate him quite as bitterly as you do. I--"
"Oh, no, you don't," snapped the other. "No one in all this world, from its very beginning, has ever hated as I hate."
"He is no friend of mine," reiterated David. "I think you know me well enough to believe that I do not lie. I have not seen him in five years."
Braddock stared hard at him. Suddenly he leaned back with a deep breath of relief. "I believe you," he said. "You don't know how to lie. Well, what are you doing here, then, mixing in my affairs?"
"We'll talk about that later on," said David. "Here is food, man. Eat. You are half-starved. Have you no money?"
"Money? Say, do you think they pay you up _there_? I _am_ hungry. Not a mouthful since yesterday noon. Before I touch this grub, Joey, I want to say to you that I don't deserve it of you. I sold you all out. I wasn't square with you. But it was drink and--and that devil behind me all the time. I took your pocket-book that night, David. I stole it. I guess I was crazy most of the time in those days. I don't say I'll ever pay it back. I'm not apologizing for it, either. I'm just telling you. I meant to get all you had, but--well, I wasn't mean enough to crack you over the head. It would have been the only way--"
"Don't speak of it, Braddock," interrupted Jenison painfully. "That's all past and gone."
"I've paid for some of my sins--but not all of 'em," said Braddock. "Not all of 'em."
He fell to eating ravenously. The others sat back, stiff and uncomfortable, watching him. His sunken but powerful jaws crunched the food with some of the ferocity of a beast. It came forcefully to the minds of the two men that they were looking upon a man whose great sinews were of steel, who could have crushed either of them in the long, hard arms that stretched forth to seize the food Ruby had placed before him. They were slowly coming to realize the bent of this man's mind during its savage development in prison. He had slaved to a purpose. The same thought grew in the mind of each observer: what chance would Robert Grand have in the naked hands of his enemy?
Joey was the first to broach the subject.
"Brad," he said soothingly, "you want to think twice before you do anything desperate."
Braddock gave an ugly laugh as he jabbed a fork into a piece of meat.
"Joey," he said, "I've already thought ten thousand times."
"What do you intend to do?" asked David.
"I'm going to get square with Bob Grand," said he very quietly. "I'm not going to be rash about it. I'm going to take my time and be _sure_."
"We'll have to do something to prevent--" began David.
"You can't do anything. I'm not saying what I'm going to do to him, so don't get fidgety."
"You intend to kill him!"
"He sent me up, didn't he? Without cause, too. He swore me into the pen. Said I tried to kill him. I never tried it. He owed me money. I asked him for it." He suddenly sprang to his feet. "By Jove, I try not to think that _she_ had anything to do with it. I don't want to believe it of her."
"She didn't 'ave anything to do with it," cried Joey. "Get that idea out of your 'ead. You treated 'er like a dog, Brad, but she never turned on you like that. I can swear it."
Braddock went over to the window and stared out upon the little garden. A long interval of silence ensued before he turned to face the others.
"Don't look so scared, Ruby," he said, noting the girl's expression. "I'm not going to hurt _her_. I guess I've hurt her enough already. She's living as she'd ought to live, and so is--so is Christine. I'm not going to begrudge _them_ anything. But I'm going to have a talk with her." His manner was ugly.
"I'm going to ask her two questions. She'll tell me the truth, I know. That's all I ask."
"She has always hated Bob Grand," cried Ruby, "if that's what you mean."
"That's what I mean. But I'm going to ask her just how much he has pestered her since--well, since that time with the show. I'm going to ask her if she knows what I did to her in the sale of my interest. I'm going to find out if he told her. Oh, you needn't worry! I won't do anything to hurt her or Christine. If she don't know already what I did to her, I'm going to tell her myself. If I get a chance to see my girl, I'm going to tell her just what I did to her mother."
"Braddock, you must listen to reason!" cried David. "No good can come of this. They are happy and contented. Don't spoil it all for them. Go away, man. Try to forget your grievance against Colonel Grand. God will punish him and--"
"I'll tell you what I came here for to-day, Jenison," said Braddock levelly. "Dick says you're still crazy about my--about Christine. He swears you haven't seen her in five years--some kind of a promise my wife made, he says. I came to ask you this question: will it make any difference in your intentions regarding her if I--if her father should happen to end his life on the scaffold? I don't say feelings, mind you,--I said intentions."
"I mean it. Would you still want her if--if it turned out that way?"
David looked helplessly from Joey to Ruby and then at the set, emotionless face of the questioner.
"Braddock, I can tell you this from my soul: nothing you may do will alter my feelings or my intentions. Christine is in no way responsible for your transgressions. I am only sorry that she has such a father. If she still cares for me, I shall ask her to be my wife, even though you are strung up a hundred times. But this is beside the question. _You_ should think of her happiness, her peace of mind. All her life she will have to think of you as a--a--well, I won't say it. You--"
"I'll say it for you," interrupted the gray-faced listener: "as a gallows bird--as scaffold fruit."
"Please don't, Tom," cried Ruby.
"You would better a thousand times shoot yourself than to bring that black shadow into her life," said David. "Suicide is bad enough but-- ugh!" He shuddered.
"Look here, Jenison, I might have been a good man if it hadn't been for Bob Grand. I always would have been a showman, I reckon, but I'd have been fairly self-respecting. Today, instead of being what I am, I'd still have the love of my wife, the respect of my girl, and--oh, well, you can't understand. You all are against me--and have been for years. I don't blame you--not a bit of it. I deserve it. Grand deliberately set out to ruin me--to pull me down. You know why. We won't go into that. I happen to know he afterwards paid her a lot of money for her interest in the business. When she tells me it was a square transaction I'll believe it, but not before."
He paced the floor, his hands in his coat pockets, his brows drawn down in a thoughtful scowl.
"You can stop me, I suppose, by having me locked up--but you can't keep me there forever. I'll get out some time. I don't say I'm going to shoot Bob Grand. I want you all to bear witness to this statement: whatever I do to him will be with these two hands. See 'em? Don't they look competent? He didn't use weapons on me, and I'm not going to use 'em on him. It's just a case of who has the best hands in this little game."
"Why, man, it would be cowardly in you to put your strength against his. You could crush him," groaned David.
Braddock smiled, almost joyously. "Won't it be a pretty sight? My hands on that fat neck of his! Ha!"
"And the 'angman's rope on that neck of yours," put in Joey, wiping his moist forehead.
"That's not the point," said Thomas Braddock.
He picked up his hat, which he had cast upon a chair, and, without another word to either of them--no word of thanks to Ruby, no word of appreciation to David, no word of gratitude to Joey--he strode out into the hall, through the door and down the steps.
They sat still looking at each other for a long time.
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