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- Northern Lights, Volume 5. - 10/11 -
"Malpractice resulting in death--that was poor Jimmy Tearle; and something else resulting in death--that was the switchman's wife. And the law is hard in the West where a woman's in the case--quick and hard. Yes, you've swung wide on your tether; look out that you don't swing high, old man."
"You can prove nothing; it's bluff;" came the reply in a tone of malice and of fear.
"You forget. I was your lawyer in Jimmy Tearle's case, and a letter's been found written by the switchman's wife to her husband. It reached me the night he was killed by the avalanche. It was handed over to me by the post-office, as the lawyer acting for the relatives. I've read it. I've got it. It gives you away."
"I wasn't alone." Fear had now disappeared, and the old man was fighting.
"No, you weren't alone; and if the switchman and the switchman's wife weren't dead and out of it all; and if the other man that didn't matter any more than you wasn't alive and hadn't a family that does matter, I wouldn't be asking you peaceably for two thousand dollars as my fee for getting you off two cases that might have sent you to prison for twenty years, or, maybe, hung you to the nearest tree."
The heavy body pulled itself together, the hands clinched. "Blackmail- you think I'll stand it?"
"Yes, I think you will. I want two thousand dollars to help a friend in a hole, and I mean to have it, if you think your neck's worth it."
Teeth, wonderfully white, showed through the shaggy beard. "If I had to go to prison--or swing, as you say, do you think I'd go with my mouth shut? I'd not pay up alone. The West would crack--holy Heaven, I know enough to make it sick. Go on and see! I've got the West in my hand." He opened and shut his fingers with a grimace of cruelty which shook Rawley in spite of himself.
Rawley had trusted to the inspiration of the moment; he had had no clearly defined plan; he had believed that he could frighten the old man, and by force of will bend him to his purposes. It had all been more difficult than he had expected. He kept cool, imperturbable, and determined, however. He knew that what the old quack said was true--the West might shake with scandal concerning a few who, no doubt, in remorse and secret fear, had more than paid the penalty of their offences. But he thought of Di Welldon and of her criminal brother, and every nerve, every faculty was screwed to its utmost limit of endurance and capacity.
Suddenly the old man gave a new turn to the event. He got up and, rummaging in an old box, drew out a dice-box. Rattling the dice, he threw them out on the table before him, a strange, excited look crossing his face.
"Play for it," he said in a harsh, croaking voice. "Play for the two thousand. Win it if you can. You want it bad. I want to keep it bad. It's nice to have; it makes a man feel warm--money does. I'd sleep in ten-dollar bills, I'd have my clothes made of them, if I could; I'd have my house papered with them; I'd eat 'em. Oh, I know, I know about you-- and her--Diana Welldon! You've sworn off gambling, and you've kept your pledge for near a year. Well, it's twenty years since I gambled--twenty years. I gambled with these then." He shook the dice in the box. "I gambled everything I had away--more than two thousand dollars, more than two thousand dollars." He laughed a raw, mirthless laugh. "Well, you're the greatest gambler in the West. So was I-in the East. It pulverised me at last, when I'd nothing left--and drink, drink, drink. I gave up both one night and came out West.
"I started doctoring here. I've got money, plenty of money--medicine, mines, land got it for me. I've been lucky. Now you come to bluff me-- me! You don't know old Busby." He spat on the floor. "I'm not to be bluffed. I know too much. Before they could lynch me I'd talk. But to play you, the greatest gambler in the West, for two thousand dollars-- yes, I'd like the sting of it again. Twos, fours, double-sixes--the gentleman's game!" He rattled the dice and threw them with a flourish out on the table, his evil face lighting up. "Come! You can't have something for nothing," he growled.
As he spoke, a change came over Rawley's face. It lost its cool imperturbability, it grew paler, the veins on the fine forehead stood out, a new, flaring light came into the eyes. The old gambler's spirit was alive. But even as it rose, sweeping him into that area of fiery abstraction where every nerve is strung to a fine tension, and the surrounding world disappears, he saw the face of Diana Welldon, he remembered her words to him not an hour before, and the issue of the conflict, other considerations apart, was without doubt. But there was her brother and his certain fate, if the two thousand dollars were not paid in by midnight. He was desperate. It was in reality for Diana's sake. He approached the table, and his old calm returned.
"I have no money to play with," he said quietly. With a gasp of satisfaction, the old man fumbled in the inside of his coat and drew out layers of ten, fifty, and hundred-dollar bills. It was lined with them. He passed a pile over to Rawley--two thousand dollars. He placed a similar pile before himself.
As Rawley laid his hand on the bills, the thought rushed through his mind, "You have it--keep it!" but he put it away from him. With a gentleman he might have done it, with this man before him, it was impossible. He must take his chances; and it was the only chance in which he had hope now, unless he appealed for humanity's sake, for the girl's sake, and told the real truth. It might avail. Well, that would be the last resort.
"For small stakes?" said the grimy quack in a gloating voice.
Rawley nodded and then added, "We stop at eleven o'clock, unless I've lost or won all before that."
"And stake what's left on the last throw?"
There was silence for a moment, in which Rawley seemed to grow older, and a set look came to his mouth--a broken pledge, no matter what the cause, brings heavy penalties to the honest mind. He shut his eyes for an instant, and, when he opened them, he saw that his fellow-gambler was watching him with an enigmatical and furtive smile. Did this Caliban have some understanding of what was at stake in his heart and soul?
"Play!" Rawley said sharply, and was himself again. For hour after hour there was scarce a sound, save the rattle of the dice and an occasional exclamation from the old man as he threw a double-six. As dusk fell, the door had been shut, and a lighted lantern was hung over their heads.
Fortune had fluctuated. Once the old man's pile had diminished to two notes, then the luck had changed and his pile grew larger; then fell again; but, as the hands of the clock on the wall above the blue medicine bottles reached a quarter to eleven, it increased steadily throw after throw.
Now the player's fever was in Rawley's eyes. His face was deadly pale, but his hand threw steadily, calmly, almost negligently, as it might seem. All at once, at eight minutes to eleven, the luck turned in his favour, and his pile mounted again. Time after time he dropped double- sixes. It was almost uncanny. He seemed to see the dice in the box, and his hand threw them out with the precision of a machine. Long afterwards he had this vivid illusion that he could see the dice in the box. As the clock was about to strike eleven he had before him three thousand eight hundred dollars. It was his throw.
"Two hundred," he said in a whisper, and threw. He won.
With a gasp of relief, he got to his feet, the money in his hand. He stepped backward from the table, then staggered, and a faintness passed over him. He had sat so long without moving that his legs bent under him. There was a pail of water with a dipper in it on a bench. He caught up a dipperful of water, drank it empty, and let it fall in the pail again with a clatter.
"Dan," he said abstractedly, "Dan, you're all safe now."
Then he seemed to wake, as from a dream, and looked at the man at the table. Busby was leaning on it with both hands, and staring at Rawley like some animal jaded and beaten from pursuit. Rawley walked back to the table and laid down two thousand dollars.
"I only wanted two thousand," he said, and put the other two thousand in his pocket.
The evil eyes gloated, the long fingers clutched the pile, and swept it into a great inside pocket. Then the shaggy head bent forwards.
"You said it was for Dan," he said--"Dan Welldon?"
Rawley hesitated. "What is that to you?" he replied at last.
With a sudden impulse the old impostor lurched round, opened a box, drew out a roll, and threw it on the table.
"It's got to be known sometime," he said, "and you'll be my lawyer when I'm put into the ground--you're clever. They call me a quack. Malpractice--bah! There's my diploma--James Clifton Welldon. Right enough, isn't it?"
Rawley was petrified. He knew the forgotten story of James Clifton Welldon, the specialist, turned gambler, who had almost ruined his own brother--the father of Dan and Diana--at cards and dice, and had then ruined himself and disappeared. Here, where his brother had died, he had come years ago, and practised medicine as a quack.
"Oh, there's plenty of proof, if it's wanted!" he said. "I've got it here." He tapped the box behind him. "Why did I do it? Because it's my way. And you're going to marry my niece, and 'll have it all some day. But not till I've finished with it--not unless you win it from me at dice or cards. . . . But no"--something human came into the old, degenerate face--"no more gambling for the man that's to marry Diana. There's a wonder and a beauty!" He chuckled to himself. "She'll be rich when I've done with it. You're a lucky man--ay, you're lucky."
Rawley was about to tell the old man what the two thousand dollars was for, but a fresh wave of repugnance passed over him, and, hastily drinking another dipperful of water, he opened the door. He looked back. The old man was crouching forward, lapping milk from the great bowl, his beard dripping. In disgust he swung round again. The fresh, clear air caught his face.
With a gasp of relief he stepped out into the night, closing the door behind him.
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