FROM La Salle Street to Goliath Idaho, is ordinarily a matter of some two days' travel; but it required the best part of a year for Ogden Secor to perform the journey.
On the train he had become acquainted with an alert and plausible stranger who owned a gold mine in the mountains north of Ketchum. All that was needed for development was a few hundred dollars' worth of machinery and flumes--then it would make its owners fabulously wealthy.
By the time the train reached Shoshone, Ogdon Secor was inoculated with the insidious virus of gold-fever--that mad malady which races white-hot through the veins of its victims, distorting every mental image and precluding the sane functioning of the powers of reason.
In possession of all his faculties at their best, Secor could never have been trapped so easily; but what with weakened mental and physical powers--the result, primarily, of the work of the cracksmen, and later of the effects of alcohol, he fell an easy prey to the highly imaginative enthusiasm of his new acquaintance.
And so it befell that he left the train at Shoshone, and in company with the owner of the gold mine, boarded another for Ketchum, the northern terminus of the branch line.
Ketchum is, or at that time was, a squalid wreck of a place; but, like every other settlement of its stamp it boasted several saloons. To one of these the mine-owner led his victim. Here they discussed ways, means, and barbed-wire whisky until Secor passed over the few hundred dollars remaining to him that his new partner might go forth and purchase the necessary machinery and the outfit that was to transport it and them North into the mountains on the morrow.
Secor, waiting, drank with the proprietor, with the loungers about the place, and with others who drifted in scenting whisky at another's expense.
Night came, and still the mine-owner had not returned--nor did he ever.
Next morning Secor awoke, partially sobered, to a realization of the truth. He had been fleeced. He was friendless and all but penniless in a strange town; but, worst of all, his nerve was gone.
The year that followed was a hideous nightmare of regret and shame, the sole surcease from which was obtainable only through the stupifying medium of drink.
Often times he was hungry, for there was little chance to earn money in Ketchum. Again he did odd jobs about one or the other of the several saloons when a flash of his waning self pride or the growing desire for whisky goaded him to the earning of money.
Later he was given work as a clerk in the general store, his knowledge of accounting proving of value to the proprietor. This man, realizing that the continuous use of whisky would have no tendency to increase the value of his new clerk, employed him with the understanding that for six months he was to have but a small percentage of his wages weekly--just enough after the store closed Saturday night to permit of a mild orgy from which one might recover over Sunday and be fit for work on Monday.
At the termination of the six months, Secor demanded the balance of his accrued wage, and received it. Much to his employer's surprise, he failed to spend it immediately for drink. Instead, he did what he had been planning upon--took the first train south for Shoshone and Goliath.
In his mind was a determination to seek his farm and be thereafter independent of any employer. There was, too, the decision to stop drinking; but little did the man realize the hold the sickness had taken upon him.
Secor found Goliath a thriving town of three or four thousand inhabitants. His first inquiry, notwithstanding his good resolutions, was for a saloon, nor did he have any difficulty in locating several.
The tiresome journey from Ketchum had given him far too much leisure with only his own gloomy thoughts and vain regrets for company.
A little drink would do no harm--then he would stop. He would never touch it again; but just now his nerves required the stimulant. Then, too, was it not a well-known fact that in too sudden a cessation of the habit lay grave danger?
Ah, criminal fallacy! To you how many countless thousand graves owe their poor, miserable inmates!
And so it happened that at dusk it was a far from sober man who entered the Palace Lunch Room in time for the evening meal.
As he sat slouched down upon his stool, his befogged vision struggling with the blurred and scrawly purple of the mimeographed bill-of-fare, the girl waiting across the counter from him for his order could scarce conceal the disgust she felt at his slovenly and unkempt appearance. She could not see his face while his head was bent low above the greasy card, but she knew that it must be equally as repulsive as his soiled and disheveled apparel.
Who would have guessed that this object of the contempt of a cheap lunchcounter waitress in a far Western railroad town could have been the spotless Ogden Secor of two brief years ago?
Presently he looked up into the girl's face. At sight of his features she gave a little involuntary gasp, stepping back at the same time as though to avoid a blow.
"'Smatter?" asked Mr. Secor.
The girl eyed him intently for a moment, and then with a sigh of relief forced a smile to her white lips. He had not recognized her.
"Nothing," she said. "I'm taken that way occasionally."
"Heart?" asked Mr. Secor.
June Lathrop looked at Mr. Ogden Secor in silence for a moment.
"I wonder," she said, half to herself. "I wonder if it is?"
He gave his order and ate in silence, occasionally casting a furtive glance in the girl's direction. When she brought his dessert he asked where he might find a comfortable hotel.
"I only just arrived," he explained, "and am not familiar with the town."The meal had sobered him a bit, so that he could talk a trifle more coherently.
As he ate his pie June stood in front of him, talking. She told him where there was a room in a private family near by that he could probably get. She was filled with wonder at the change that had taken place in him. When his face was in repose the depth of sorrow that it revealed touched her heart. In vain she looked for the one-time radiant smile that had endeared Ogden Secor to many beside herself.
Could it be possible that this was the fastidious society and business man she had known but little more than two years since? It was incredible.
"Are you going to remain here?" she asked.
"I guess so," he replied. "I have a ranch around here somewhere. I've never seen it, but I'm going out to-morrow to have a look at it, and if it's all right I'll settle here and go to ranching. Much doing in that line?"
"Alfalfa and fruit ranches pay fairly well," she replied. "It depends, of course, on several things--soil, water rights and--" she hesitated--"the man who's ranching. Farming nowadays, you know, is something of an exact science. To be successful a man must understand that haphazard methods won't work."
"Can't a man learn?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied; "but even then he won't succeed if--" she hated to say it, but oh, how she hated to see him as he was--"but even then he won't succeed if he drinks."
Ogden Secor flushed. He was still far from having lost all self-respect. Without another word he paid his check and walked out of the lunch-room. It served him right, he thought, for having entered into familiar conversation with a waitress.
The following morning he engaged a buck-board and a driver for the trip to his ranch. A half hour's hunt through the records of the county clerk's office sufficed to locate his tract.
As he was driving through town he told his guide to stop in front of a saloon.
"We may get dry before the day's over," he explained with a grin to the more than willing native--it would never do to stop too suddenly.
As he stepped up to the bar and ordered a flask the words of the waitress came suddenly to his mind: "--but even then he won't succeed if he drinks." They seemed to take the keen edge off his appetite for whisky, but he pocketed the bottle and soon was jogging along through the stifling dust toward the only thing on earth that he might by any twist of the imagination call home.
As they drove along, Secor tried to picture the rolling meadow lands, the shady orchards, the broad, green fields of wheel-high, sweet-scented alfalfa of his ranch. Never before had he given this least valued of his possessions more than a passing thought, but now that it seemed to offer him a peaceful haven of rest and quiet, and utter seclusion from the world that he had known and come to hate, he viewed it through a mind's eye that glorified and idealized. He could scarce restrain his impatience with the slow, plodding team that wallowed now through sand to their fetlocks, and again labored upward toward the brow of a rough, lavastrewn bluff.
At last they came within sight of a broad, willow-fringed river. Low islands, dense thicketed, clove the strong, swift current with their sharp points. They might have been great, flat ships forging their silent way toward the distant mountains of the northland and whence the mighty river tumbled roaring downward for its thousand-mile journey to the waters of the lesser stream that steals its identity, onward to the sea.
All was greenish-gray or greenish-brown and all was sere and desolate and cold. Here and there little patches of half-melted snow lay in the shadows of the sage-brush that dotted the rolling flat beside the river. Beyond, Secor could see a similar landscape upon the other shore.
"It is farther than I thought," he said to his guide.
"That's mostly the way in Idaho," replied the man.
Secor was wondering how they were to cross that mighty torrent, for it was evident that the ranch must be beyond the river--there were no signs of habitation, no rolling meadow lands, no shady orchards, no green alfalfa fields within his ken upon the river's hither side. He realized, of course, that the season precluded a full consummation of his dream, but there would at least be plenty to suggest the beauties of the Spring and Summer when they should come upon his home.
The guide drew rein upon a little knoll beside the river.
"Wanna get out?" he asked.
"What for?" questioned Secor.
Secor looked at him searchingly. Already the truth was learing at him with a contemptuous grin.
"Is this it?" he asked, nodding his head in a half swing that took in the surrounding desert.
"Yep," said the guide. "'Tain't much good. You ain't got no water."
Secor laughed--a weary, mirthless laugh.
"Oh," he said, "I think it's a pretty good place."
"Whafor?" asked the guide in surprise.
"To take a drink," said Secor, pulling the flask from his overcoat-pocket.
The guide grinned. "An' you don't need no water for that," he said.
"No," replied Secor, "water'd spoil it."
For weeks Secor frequented the Q. P. saloon at Goliath, emerging occasionally to eat and sleep. Every time he ate he was reminded of the waitress at the Palace Lunch Room, but he didn't go there. He wondered, when his mind was not entirely befogged by drink, why the girl should cling so tenaciously to his memory, and what cause there could be for the uncomfortable feeling that accompanied recollection of her warning--for warning it evidently had been.
One night Secor was sitting in a stud poker game. The gentleman next to him developed a crouching manner of inspecting his buried card, placing his eye on a level with the table and barely raising the corner of his own card. This permitted him to inspect Secor's buried card at the same time. A dozen hands were dealt before Secor discovered why he always won small pots and lost the large ones. Then he saw that his worthy opponent not only looked at Secor's buried card, but immediately thereafter passed obvious signals across the table to a crony upon the other side.
At the following deal Secor did not look at his buried card at all. He merely remained in on the strength of what he had in sight. From the corner of his eye he saw that the sly one was becoming nervous. Secor bad an ace and two deuces up--there was still one card to be dealt.
At the betting, Secor raised for the first time, then, purposely, he turned his head away from his cards and the man at his left to take a drink that stood at his right band. He guessed what would happen. When the drink was half way to his lips he turned suddenly to the left to discover the sly one in the act of raising his, Secor's, buried card to learn its identity.
Like a flash Secor wheeled, dashing his glass with its contents full in the face of the cheater. With the same move he came to his feet. The other whipped a revolver from beneath his coat. The balance of the players scattered, and the loungers in the saloon ran for the doorway or dived over the bar for the security its panels seemed to offer.
If Secor had been a foot further away from his antagonist he would doubtless have been killed. As it was his very proximity saved him. There is no easier weapon to parry at close range than a firearm. The slightest deviation of aim renders it harmless.
As the gun flashed beneath the electric light, Secor's left arm went up to parry it as if it had been a clenched right fist aimed at his jaw. The bullet passed harmlessly past him, and with the report of the exploding cartridge his own right landed heavily upon the point of the cheater's chin.
The man went backward over his chair, his head striking heavily upon a massive pottery spittoon. Then he lay perfectly still.
Ogden Secor stood with wide eyes gazing at the prostrate form of his antagonist--dazed. The bartender poked his head above the sheltering breastwork of the bar. Seeing that the shooting appeared to be over he emerged. His first act was to remove the gun from the nerveless fingers of the supine man. Then he turned toward Secor.
"Got a gun?" he asked.
Secor shook his head negatively. A moment later the players and the loungers returned to bend over the quiet form upon the floor. With them came the sheriff and a doctor. The former, after questioning the bartender, took Secor into custody, as several men carried the injured gambler into a back room.
All night Ogden Secor sat sleepless in his bare cell. He was very sober now, and the depths to which he had sunk were revealed to him in all their appalling horridness. It was unthinkable, and yet it was true--he, Ogden Secor, a participant in a drunken, saloon brawl! To-morrow, or as soon as they should release him, he would seek out the man he had struck and apologize to him, although he knew that the fellow deserved all that he had got.
He was sorry now that the bullet intended for him had not. found him. It would have been better so, and infinitely easier than to go on living the worthless, besotted life that he was surely headed for.
About eight o'clock in the morning the sheriff entered the corridor outside his cell.
"How's Thompson this morning?" asked Secor. Thompson was the name of the cheater.
"I guess he's comfortable," said the officer with a grin. "He ain't sent back for nothin'."
"Has he left town?" asked Secor.
"Yep," said the sheriff. "He's dead--you killed him."
Secor collapsed upon the hard bench at the side of his cell. He felt as though some mighty hand had struck him heavily over the heart. There was a look in his eyes that the sheriff had never seen in the eyes of another of the many killers he had arrested during his long years of service.
It was neither fear nor horror--the sheriff could not have interpreted it, for he knew not to what heights pride of name, of family, of station, birth, and breeding may lift a man above the sordid crimes, nor how awful is the plunge from such a pinnacle to the bottomless pit of shame which Ogden Secor's naked soul was plumbing that instant.
"You needn't take it hard," said the sheriff kindly. "You hit him in self-defence--there's half a dozen witnesses to that and to the fact that you wasn't armed. It was hittin' the spittoon with the back of his head that killed him. There ain't a jury in Idaho that'd find you guilty. You'd ought to have a medal, for of all the ornery cusses that ever struck Goliath that tin-horn was the most orneriest."
After the sheriff left him Ogden Secor sat with bowed head, his chin resting in his palms. He was surprised that the thought that he had killed a fellow man should not weigh more heavily upon him. It was the debauching degradation that had led up to the killing that caused him the most suffering.
The words of the waitress at the Palace Lunch Room came back to him once more: "--but even then he won't succeed if he drinks." Well, he wasn't succeeding in anything except getting rid of his little store of money.
What in the world was there for him to succeed at, anyway? he thought. If the ranch had been any good he would have pitched in there and worked hard. There he could have led a decent life, and earned a respectable living--he had no ambition for anything greater; but the sight of the arid sage-brush wilderness which had dispelled his dreams of fertile orchard, field, and meadow land, had so discouraged him that, since, he had been able to see no brighter ray than that which is reflected from the liquid fire that crossed the bar of the Q. P. in sparkling glasses.
As he sat buried in vain regrets and sorrowful memories, weighed down by thoughts of his utter friendlessness and loneliness, he became aware of the presence of someone approaching his cell along the short corridor.
Not sufficiently interested even to look up, he sat with eyes riveted upon the cold, gray cement of his prison floor. It was not until the footfalls halted before the bars of his cell that he raised his eyes. With a little start of surprise he came to his feet. Before him, smiling down into his face, stood the waitress of the Palace Lunch Room.
He looked at her inquiringly.
"I thought," she said, "that you might be lonesome here--that there might be something I could do for you."
If June Lathrop had required any reward for the generous impulse that had sent her to Secor's side in the time of his adversity she was amply repaid by the expression that lighted his face at her words. He almost choked as he attempted to reply.
"And I was just thinking," he said, "how absolutely friendless I am here. It is awfully good of you--I don't know how to thank you; but really you ought not to be here. I'm not--not the sort of person a decent girl should. know."
To what awful depths of self-abasement must Ogden Secor have sunk to voice such a sentiment as this! June felt the tears coming to her eyes.
"You mustn't say that," she said. "The sheriff told me all about it, and that you--it was in self-defence."
"It isn't that," said Secor. "It's that I was there at all--gambling in a saloon--and drunk. Drunk! I should have thought that would have killed whatever natural sympathy a woman might feel for a man who had killed another, even in self-defence. And," he continued, "do you remember the warning that you gave me the first day that I was in Goliath?"
"Yes," she said, "but I didn't think that you would."
"I have, a hundred times," he said. "And wondered why I should. I've wondered, too, what prompted you--did I seem as bad as that even then--or what was it?"
She did not dare tell him. He looked at her closely for a moment.
"Haven't I known you somewhere?" he asked.
She mustered all her courage. It was less on her own account that she dreaded telling him than on his. To be befriended by her might seem the last straw--the final depth below which there was no sinking.
"My name is Lathrop," she said; "June Lathrop."
Secor shook his head. "No," he said, "I don't know you, but there is something mighty familiar about your face."