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- Northern Lights, Volume 5. - 4/11 -
unhanged. Put on the table there the letter in your pocket. It holds five hundred dollars belonging to your child. There's twenty-five hundred dollars more to be accounted for."
The other hesitated, then with an oath threw the letter on the table. "I'll pay the rest as soon as I can, if you'll stop this damned tomfoolery," he said sullenly, for he saw that he was in a hole.
"You'll pay it, I suppose, out of what you stole from the C.P.R. contractor's chest. No, I don't think that will do."
"You want me to go to prison, then?"
"I think not. The truth would come out at the trial--the whole truth-- the murder, and all. There's your child Bobby. You've done him enough wrong already. Do you want him--but it doesn't matter whether you do or not--do you want him to carry through life the fact that his father was a jail-bird and a murderer, just as Jo Byndon carries the scar you made when you threw her against the door?"
"What do you want with me, then?" The man sank slowly and heavily back into the chair.
"There is a way--have you never thought of it? When you threatened others as you did me, and life seemed such a little thing in others --can't you think?"
Bewildered, the man looked around helplessly. In the silence which followed Foyle's words his brain was struggling to see a way out. Foyle's further words seemed to come from a great distance.
"It's not too late to do the decent thing. You'll never repent of all you've done; you'll never do different."
The old reckless, irresponsible spirit revived in the man; he had both courage and bravado, he was not hopeless yet of finding an escape from the net. He would not beg, he would struggle.
"I've lived as I meant to, and I'm not going to snivel or repent now. It's all a rotten business, anyhow," he rejoined.
With a sudden resolution the ex-sergeant put his own pistol in his pocket, then pushed Halbeck's pistol over towards him on the table. Halbeck's eyes lighted eagerly, grew red with excitement, then a change passed over them. They now settled on the pistol, and stayed. He heard Foyle's voice. "It's with you to do what you ought to do. Of course you can kill me. My pistol's in my pocket. But I don't think you will. You've murdered one man. You won't load your soul up with another. Besides, if you kill me, you will never get away from Kowatin alive. But it's with you--take your choice. It's me or you."
Halbeck's fingers crept out and found the pistol. "Do your duty, Dorl," said the ex-sergeant as he turned his back on his brother.
The door of the room opened, and Goatry stepped inside softly. He had work to do, if need be, and his face showed it. Halbeck did not see him.
There was a demon in Halbeck's eyes, as his brother stood, his back turned, taking his chances. A large mirror hung on the wall opposite Halbeck. Goatry was watching Halbeck's face in the glass, and saw the danger. He measured his distance.
All at once Halbeck caught Goatry's face in the mirror. The dark devilry faded out of his eyes. His lips moved in a whispered oath. Every way was blocked.
With a sudden wild resolution he raised the pistol to his head. It cracked, and he fell back heavily in the chair. There was a red trickle at the temple.
He had chosen the best way out.
"He had the pluck," said Goatry, as Foyle swung round with a face of misery.
A moment afterward came a rush of people. Goatry kept them back.
"Sergeant Foyle arrested Halbeck, and Halbeck's shot himself," Goatry explained to them.
A white-faced girl with a scar on her temple made her way into the room.
"Come away-come away, Jo," said the voice of the man she loved; and he did not let her see the lifeless figure in the chair.
Three days later the plains swallowed them, as they made their way with Billy Goatry to the headquarters of the Riders of the Plains, where Sergeant Foyle was asked to reconsider his resignation: which he did.
"And thou shalt be brought down and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be as of one that hath a familiar spirit out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust."
The harvest was all in, and, as far as eye could observe nothing remained of the golden sea of wheat which had covered the wide prairie save the yellow stubble, the bed of an ocean of wealth which had been gathered. Here, the yellow level was broken by a dark patch of fallow land, there, by a covert of trees also tinged with yellow, or deepening to crimson and mauve--the harbinger of autumn. The sun had not the insistent and intensive strength of more southerly climes; it was buoyant, confident and heartening, and it shone in a turquoise vault which covered and endeared the wide, even world beneath. Now and then a flock of wild ducks whirred past, making for the marshes or the innumerable lakes that vitalised the expanse, or buzzards hunched heavily along, frightened from some far resort by eager sportsmen.
That was above; but beneath, on a level with the unlifted eye, were houses here and there, looking in the vastness like dolls' habitations. Many of the houses stood blank and staring in the expanse, but some had trees, and others little oases of green. Everywhere prosperity, everywhere the strings of life pulled taut, signs that energy had been straining on the leash.
Yet there was one spot where it seemed that deadness made encampment. It could not be seen in the sweep of the eye, you must have travelled and looked vigilantly to find it; but it was there--a lake shimmering in the eager sun, washing against a reedy shore, a little river running into the reedy lake at one end and out at, the other, a small, dilapidated house half hid in a wood that stretched for half a mile or so upon a rising ground. In front of the house, not far from the lake, a man was lying asleep upon the ground, a rough felt hat drawn over his eyes.
Like the house, the man seemed dilapidated also: a slovenly, ill-dressed, demoralised figure he looked, even with his face covered. He seemed in a deep sleep. Wild ducks settled on the lake not far from him with a swish and flutter; a coyote ran past, veering as it saw the recumbent figure; a prairie hen rustled by with a shrill cluck, but he seemed oblivious to all. If asleep, he was evidently dreaming, for now and then he started, or his body twitched, and a muttering came from beneath the hat.
The battered house, the absence of barn or stable or garden, or any token of thrift or energy, marked the man as an excrescence in this theatre of hope and fruitful toil. It all belonged to some degenerate land, some exhausted civilisation, not to this field of vigour where life rang like silver.
So the man lay for hour upon hour. He slept as though he had been upon a long journey in which the body was worn to helplessness. Or was it that sleep of the worn-out spirit which, tortured by remembrance and remorse, at last sinks into the depths where the conscious vexes the unconscious --a little of fire, a little of ice, and now and then the turn of the screw?
The day marched nobly on towards evening, growing out of its blue and silver into a pervasive golden gleam; the bare, greyish houses on the prairie were transformed into miniature palaces of light. Presently a girl came out of the woods behind, looking at the neglected house with a half-pitying curiosity. She carried in one hand a fishing rod which had been telescoped till it was no bigger than a cane; in the other she carried a small fishing basket. Her father's shooting and fishing camp was a few miles away by a lake of greater size than this which she approached. She had tired of the gay company in camp, brought up for sport from beyond the American border where she also belonged, and she had come to explore the river running into this reedy lake. She turned from the house and came nearer to the lake, shaking her head, as though compassionating the poor, folk who lived there. She was beautiful. Her hair was brown, going to tawny, but in this soft light which enwrapped her, she was in a sort of topaz flame. As she came on, suddenly she stopped as though transfixed. She saw the man--and saw also a tragedy afoot.
The man stirred violently in his sleep, cried out, and started up. As he did so, a snake, disturbed in its travel past him, suddenly raised itself in anger. Startled out of sleep by some inner torture, the man heard the sinister rattle he knew so well, and gazed paralysed.
The girl had been but a few feet away when she first saw the man and his angry foe. An instant, then, with the instinct of the woods and the plains, and the courage that has habitation everywhere, dropping her basket she sprang forward noiselessly. The short, telescoped fishing rod she carried swung round her head and completed its next half-circle at the head of the reptile, even as it was about to strike. The blow was sure, and with half-severed head the snake fell dead upon the ground beside the man.
He was like one who has been projected from one world to another, dazed, stricken, fearful. Presently the look of agonised dismay gave way to such an expression of relief as might come upon the face of a reprieved victim about to be given to the fire, or to the knife that flays. The place of dreams from which he had emerged was like hell, and this was some world of peace that he had not known these many years. Always one had been at his elbow--"a familiar spirit out of the ground"--whispering in his ear. He had been down in the abysses of life.
He glanced again at the girl, and realised what she had done: she had saved his life. Whether it had been worth saving was another question; but he had been near to the brink, had looked in, and the animal in him had shrunk back from the precipice in a confused agony of fear. He staggered to his feet.
"Where do you come from?" he said, pulling his coat closer to hide the ragged waistcoat underneath, and adjusting his worn and dirty hat--in his
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