A dry branch snapped under Kerry's foot with the report of a toy pistol. He swore perfunctorily, and gazed greedily at the cave-opening just ahead. He was a bungling woodsman at best; and now, stalking that greatest of all big game, man, the blood drummed in his ears and his heart seemed to slip a cog or two with every beat. He stood tense, yet trembling, for the space in which a man might count ten; surely if there were any one inside the cave--if the one whose presence he suspected were there--such a noise would have brought him forth. But a great banner of trumpet-creeper, which hid the opening till one was almost upon it, waved its torches unstirred except by the wind; the sand in the doorway was unpressed by any foot.
Kerry began to go forward by inches. He was weary as only a town-bred man, used to the leisurely patrolling of pavements, could be after struggling obliquely up and across the pathless flank of Big Turkey Track Mountain, and then climbing to this eyrie upon Old Yellow Bald--Old Yellow, the peak that reared its "Bald" of golden grass far above the ranges of The Big and Little Turkey Tracks.
"Lord, how hungry I am!" he breathed. "I bet the feller's got grub in there." He had been out two days. He was light-headed from lack of food; at the thought of it nervous caution gave way to mere brute instinct, and he plunged recklessly into the cave. Inside, the sudden darkness blinded him for a moment. Then there began to be visible in one corner a bed of bracken and sweet-fern; in another an orderly arrangement of tin cans upon a shelf, and the ashes of a fire, where sat a Dutch oven. The sight of this last whetted Kerry's hunger; he almost ran to the shelf, and groaned as he found the first can filled with gunpowder, the next with shot, and the third containing some odds and ends of string and nails.
He had knelt to inspect a rude box, when a little sound caused him to turn. In the doorway was a figure which raised the hair upon his head, with a chilly sensation at its roots--a tall man, with a great mane of black locks blowing unchecked about his shoulders. He stood turned away from Kerry, having halted in the doorway as though to take a last advantage of the outer daylight upon some object of interest to him before entering. He was examining one of his own hands, and a little shivering moan escaped him. A rifle rested in the hollow of his arm; Kerry could see the outline of a big navy-pistol in his belt; and as the man shifted, another came to view; while the Irishman's practised eye did not miss the handle of a long knife in its sheath. It went swiftly through his mind that those who sent him on this errand should have warned him of the size of the quarry. Suddenly, almost without his own volition, he found himself saying: "I ask your pardon. I was dead beat an' fair famished, an' I crawled in here to--"
The tall figure in the doorway turned like a thing on a pivot; he did not start, nor spin round, as a slighter or more nervous person might have done; and a strange chill fell upon Kerry's heat when the man, whom he recognized as that one he had come to seek, faced him. The big, dark eyes looked the intruder up and down; what their owner thought of him, what he decided concerning him, could no more be guessed than the events of next year. In a full, grave voice, but one exceedingly gentle, the owner of the cave repaired the lack of greeting.
"Howdy, stranger?" he said. "I never seen you as I come up, 'count o' havin' snagged my hand on this here gun."
He came toward Kerry with the bleeding member outstretched. Now was the Irishman's time--by all his former resolutions, by the need he had for that money reward--to deftly handcuff the outlaw. What he did was to draw the other toward the daylight, examine the hand, which was torn and lacerated on the gun-hammer, and with sundry exclamations of sympathy proceed to bind it up with strips torn from his own handkerchief.
"Snagged!" he echoed, as he noted how the great muscle of the thumb was torn across. "I don't see how you ever done that on a gun-hammer. I've nursed a good bit--I was in Cuby last year, an' I was detailed for juty in the hospital more'n half my time," he went on, eagerly. "This here hand, it's bad, 'cause it's torn. Ef you had a cut o' that size, now, you wouldn't be payin' no 'tention to it. The looks o' this here reminds me o' the tear one o' them there Mauser bullets makes--Gawd! but they rip the men up shockin'!" He rambled on with uneasy volubility as he attended to the wound. "You let me clean it, now. It'll hurt some, but it'll save ye trouble after while. You set down on the bed. Where kin I git some water?"
"Thar's a spring round the turn in the cave thar--they's a go'd in it."
But Kerry took one of the tin cans, emptied and rubbed it nervously, talking all the while--talking as though to prevent the other from speaking, and with something more than the ordinary garrulity of the nurse. "I got lost to-day," he volunteered, as he cleansed the wound skilfully and drew its ragged lips together. "Gosh! but you tore that thumb up! You won't hardly be able to do nothin' with that hand fer a spell. Yessir! I got lost--that's what I did. One tree looks pretty much like another to me; and one old rock it's jest the same as the next one. I reckon I've walked twenty mile sence sunup."
He paused in sudden panic; but the other did not ask him whence he had walked nor whither he was walking. Instead, he ventured, in his serious tones, as the silence grew oppressive: "You're mighty handy 'bout this sort o' thing. I reckon I'll have a tough time here alone till that hand heals."
"Oh, I'll stay with you a while," Kerry put in, hastily. "I ain't a-goin' on, a-leavin' a man in sech a fix, when I ain't got nothin' in particular to do an' nowheres in particular to go," he concluded, rather lamely.
His host's eyes dwelt on him. "Well, now, that'd be mighty kind in you, stranger," he began, gently; and added, with the mountaineer's deathless hospitality, "You're shorely welcome."
In Kerry's pocket a pair of steel handcuffs clicked against each other. Any moment of the time that he was dressing the outlaw's hand, identifying at short range a dozen marks enumerated in the description furnished him, he could have snapped them upon those great wrists and made his host his prisoner. Yet, an hour later, when the big man had told him of a string of fish tied down in the branch, of a little cellarlike contrivance by the spring which contained honeycomb and some cold corn-pone, the two men sat at supper like brothers.
"Ye don't smoke?" inquired Kerry, commiseratingly, as his host twisted off a great portion of home-cured tobacco. "Lord! ye'll never know what the weed is till ye burn it. A chaw'll do when you're in the trenches an' afraid to show the other fellers where to shoot, so that ye dare not smoke. Ah-h-h! I've had it taste like nectar to me then; but tobacco's never tobacco till it's burnt," and the Irishman smiled fondly upon his stumpy black pipe.
They sat and talked over the fire (for a fire is good company in the mountains, even of a midsummer evening) with that freedom and abandon which the isolation, the hour, and the circumstances begot. Kerry had told his name, his birthplace, the habits and temperament of his parents, his present hopes and aspirations--barring one; he had even sketched an outline of Katy--Katy, who was waiting for him to save enough to buy that little farm in the West; and his host, listening in the unbroken silence of deep sympathy, had not yet offered even so much as his name.
Then the bed was divided, a bundle of fern and pine boughs being disposed in the opposite corner of the cave for the newcomer's accommodation. Later, after good-nights had been exchanged and Kerry fancied that his host was asleep, he himself stirred, sat up, and being in uneasy need of information as to whether the cave door should not be stopped in some manner, opened with a hesitating, "Say!"
"You might jest call me Andy," the deep voice answered, before the mountain-man negatived the proposition of adding a front door to the habitation.
Kerry slept again. Mountain air and weariness are drugs potent against a bad conscience, and it was broad daylight outside the cave when he wakened. He was a little surprised to find his host still sleeping, yet his experience told him that the wound was of a nature to induce fever, followed by considerable exhaustion. As the Irishman lifted his coat from where he had had it folded into a bundle beneath his head, the handcuffs in the pocket clicked, and he frowned. He stole across to look at the man who had called himself Andy, lying now at ease upon his bed of leaves, one great arm underneath his head, the injured hand nursed upon his broad breast. Those big eyes which had so appalled Kerry upon a first view yesterday were closed. The onlooker noted with a sort of wonder how sumptuous were the fringes of their curtains, long and purple--black, like the thick, arched brows above. To speak truly, Kerry, although he was a respectable member of the police force, had the artistic temperament. The harmony of outline, the justness of proportion in both the face and figure of the man before him, filled the Irishman with delight; and the splendid virile bulk of the mountain-man appealed irresistibly to the other's masculinity. The little threads of silver in the tempestuous black curls seemed to Kerry but to set off their beauty.
"Gosh! but you're a good-looker!" he muttered. And putting his estimate of the man's charm into such form as was possible to him, he added, under his breath, "I'd hate to have seen a feller as you tryin' to court my Katy."
This was the first of many strange days; golden September days they were, cool and full of the ripened beauty of the departing summer. Kerry's host taught him to snare woodcock and pheasants--shoot them the Irishman could not, since the excitement of the thing made him fire wild.
"Now ain't that the very divil!" he would cry, after he had let his third bird get away unharmed. "Ef I was shootin' at a man, I'd be as stiddy as a clock. Gad! I'd be cool as an ice-wagon. But when that little old brown chicken scoots a-scutterin' up out o' the grass like a hummin'-top, it rattles me." His teacher apparently took no note of the significance contained in this statement; yet Kerry's very ears were red as it slipped out, and he felt uneasily for the handcuffs, which no longer clinked in his pocket, but now lay carefully hidden under his fern bed.
There had been a noon-mark in the doorway of the cave, thrown by the shadow of a boulder beside it, even before the Irishman's big nickel watch came with its bustling, authoritative tick to bring the question of time into the mountains. But the two men kept uncertain hours: sometimes they talked more than half the night, the close-cropped, sandy poll and the unshorn crest of Jove-like curls nodding at each other across the fire, then slept far into the succeeding day; sometimes they were up before dawn and off after squirrels--with which poor Kerry had no better luck than with the birds. Every day the Irishman dressed his host's hand; and every day he tasted more fully the charm of this big, strong, gentle, peaceful nature clad in its majestic garment of flesh.
"If he'd 'a' been an ugly, common-looking brute, I'd 'a' nabbed him in a minute," he told himself, weakly. And every day the handcuffs under the dried fern-leaves lay heavier upon his soul.
On the 20th of September, which Kerry had set for his last day in the cave, he was moved to begin again at the beginning and tell the big mountaineer all his affairs.
"Ye see, it's like this," he wound up: "Katy--the best gurrl an' the purtiest I ever set me two eyes on--she's got a father that'll strike her when the drink's with him. He works her like a dog, hires her out and takes every cent she earns. Her mother--God rest her soul!--has been dead these two years. And now the old man is a-marryin' an' takin' home a woman not fit for my Katy to be with. I says when I heard of it, says I: `Katy, I'll take ye out o' that hole. I'll do the trick, an' I'll git the reward, an' it's married we'll be inside of a month, an' we'll go West.' That's what brought me up here into the mountains--me that was born, as ye might say, on the stair-steps of a tenement-house, an' fetched up the same."
Absorbed in the interest of his own affairs, the Irishman did not notice what revelations he had made. Whether or not this knowledge was new to his host the uncertain light of the dying fire upon that grave, impassive face did not disclose.
"An' now," Kerry went on, "I've been thinkin' about Katy a heap in the last few days. I'm goin' home to her to-morry--home to Philadelphy--goin' with empty hands. An' I'm a-goin' to say to her, 'Katy, would ye rather take me jest as I am, out of a job'--fer that's what I'll be when I go back,--'would ye rather take me so an' wait fer the little farm?' I guess she'll do it; I guess she'll take me. I've got that love fer her that makes me think she'll take me. Did ye ever love a woman like that?"--turning suddenly to the silent figure on the other side of the fire. "Did ye ever love one so that ye felt like ye could jest trust her, same as you could trust yourself? It's a--it--well, it's a mighty comfortable thing."
The mountaineer stretched out his injured hand, and examined it for so long a time without speaking that it seemed as though he would not answer at all. The wound was healing admirably now; he had made shift to shoot, with Kerry's shoulder for a rest, and their larder was stocked with game once more. When he at last raised his head and looked across the fire, his black eyes were such wells of misery as made the other catch his breath.
Upon the silence fell his big, serious voice, as solemn and sonorous as a church-bell: "You ast me did I ever love an' trust a woman like that. I did--an' she failed me. I ain't gwine to call you fool fer sich; you're a town feller, Dan, with smart town ways; mebby your gal would stick to you, even ef you was in trouble; but me--"
Kerry made an inarticulate murmur of sympathy.
The voice went on. "You say you're goin' home to her with jest your two bare hands?" it inquired. "But why fer? You've found your man. What makes you go back that-a-way?"
Kerry's mouth was open, his jaw fallen; he stared through the smoke at his host as though he saw him now for the first time. Kerry belongs to a people who love or hate obviously and openly; that the outlaw should have known him from the first for a police officer, a creature of prey upon his track, and should have treated him as a friend, as a brother, appalled and repelled him.
"See here, Dan," the big man went on, leaning forward; "I knowed what your arrant was the fust minute I clapped eyes on you. You didn't know whether I could shoot with my left hand as well as my right--I didn't choose you should know. I watched fer ye to be tryin' to put handcuffs on me any minute--after you found my right hand was he'pless."
"Lord A'mighty! You could lay me on my back with your left hand, Andy," Kerry breathed.
The big man nodded. "They was plenty of times when I was asleep--or you thort I was. Why didn't ye do it? Where is they? Fetch 'em out."
Unwilling, red with shame, penetrated with a grief and ache he scarce comprehended, Kerry dragged the handcuffs from their hiding-place. The other took them, and thereafter swung them thoughtfully in his strong brown fingers as he talked.
"You was goin' away without makin' use o' these?" he asked, gently.
Kerry, crimson of face and moist of eye, gulped, frowned, and nodded.
"Well, now," the mountain-man pursued, "I been thinkin' this thing over sence you was a-speakin'. That there gal o' yourn she's in a tight box. You're the whitest man I ever run up ag'inst. You've done me better than my own brothers. My own brothers," he repeated, a look of pain and bitterness knitting those wonderfully pencilled brows above the big eyes. "Fer my part, I'm sick o' livin' this-a-way. When you're gone, an' I'm here agin by my lonesome, I'm as apt as not to put the muzzle o' my gun in my mouth an' blow the top o' my head off--that's how I feel most o' the time. I tell you what you do, Dan: you jest put these here on me an' take me down to Garyville--er plumb on to Asheville--an' draw your money. That'll square up things fer you an' that pore little gal. What say ye?"
Into Kerry's sanguine face there surged a yet deeper red; his shoulders heaved; the tears sprang to his eyes; and before his host could guess the root of his emotion the Irishman was sobbing, furiously, noisily, turned away, his head upon his arm. The humiliation of it ate into his soul; and the tooth was sharpened by his own misdeeds. How many times had he looked at the great, kindly creature across the fire there and calculated the chances of getting him to Garyville?
Andy's face twisted as though he had bitten a green persimmon. "Aw! Don't _cry!_" he remonstrated, with the mountaineer's quick contempt for expressed emotion. "My Lord! Dan, don't--"
"I'll cry if I damn please!" Kerry snorted. "You old fool! Me a-draggin' you down to Garyville! Me, that's loved you like a brother! An' never had no thought--an' never had no thought--Oh, hell!" he broke off, at the bitter irony of the lie; then the sobs broke forth afresh. To deny that he had come to arrest the outlaw was so pitifully futile.
"So ye won't git the money that-a-way?" Andy's big voice ruminated, and a strange note of relief sounded in it; a curious gleam leaped into the sombre eyes. But he added, softly: "Sleep on it, bud; I'll let ye change your mind in the mornin'."
"You shut your head!" screeched Kerry, fiercely, with a hiccough of wrenching misery. "You talk to me any more like that, an' I'll lambaste ye--er try to--big as ye are! Oh, damnation!"
The last night in the cave was one of gusty, moving breezes and brilliant moonlight, yet both its tenants slept profoundly, after their strange outburst of emotion. The first gray of dawn found them stirring, and Kerry making ready for his return journey. Together, as heretofore, they prepared their meal, then sat down in silence to eat it. Suddenly the mountain-man raised his eyes, to whose grave beauty the Irishman's temperament responded like that of a woman, and said, quietly,
"I'm a-goin' to tell ye somethin', an' then I'm a-goin' to show ye somethin'."
Kerry's throat ached. In these two weeks he had conceived a love for his big, silent, gentle companion which rivalled even his devotion to Katy. The thought of leaving him helpless and alone, a common prey of reward-hunters, the remembrance of what Andy had said concerning his own despair beneath the terrible pressure of the mountain solitude, were almost more than Kerry could bear.
"Fust and foremost, Dan," the other began, when the meal was finished, "I'm goin' to tell ye how come I done what I done. Likely you've hearn tales, an' likely they was mostly lies. You see, it was this-a-way: Me an' my wife owned land j'inin'. The Turkey Track Minin' Company they found coal on it, an' was wishful to buy. Her an' me wasn't wed then, but we was about to be, an' we j'ined in fer to sell the land an' go West." His brooding eyes were on the fire; his voice--which had halted before the words "my wife," then taken them with a quick gulp--broke a little every time he said "she" or "her." Kerry's heart jumped when he heard the mention of that little Western farm--why, it might have been in the very locality he and Katy looked longingly toward.
"That feller they sent down here fer to buy the ground--Dickert was his name; you've hearn it, I reckon?"
Kerry recognized the murdered man's name. He nodded, without a word, his little blue eyes helplessly fastened on Andy's eyes.
"Yes, Dickert 'twas. He was took with Euola from the time he put eyes on her--which ain't sayin' more of him than of any man 'at see her. But a town feller's hangin' round a mounting-gal hain't no credit to her. Euola she was promised to me. But ef she hadn't 'a' been, she wouldn't 'a' took no passin' o' bows an' complyments from that Dickert. I thort the nighest way out on't was to tell the gentleman that her an' me was to be wed, an' that we'd make the deeds as man an' wife, an' I done so."
Kerry looked at his host and wondered that any man should hope to tamper with the affections of her who loved him.
"Wed we was," the mountain-man went on; and an imperceptible pause followed the words. "We rid down to Garyville to be wed, an' we went from the jestice's office to the office of this here Dickert. He had a cuss with him that was no better'n him; an' when it come to the time in the signin' that our names was put down, an' my wife was to be 'examined privately and apart'--ez is right an' lawful--ez to whether I'd made her sign or not, this other cuss steps with her into the hall, an' Dickert turns an' says to me, 'You git a thousand dollars each fer your land--you an' that woman,' he says.
"I never liked the way he spoke--besides what he said; an' I says to him, 'The bargain was made fer five thousand dollars apiece,' says I, 'an' why do we git less?'
"'Beca'se,' says he, a-swellin' up an' lookin' at me red an' devilish,--'beca'se you take my leavin's--you fool! I bought the land of you fer a thousand dollars each--an' there's my deed to it, that you jest signed--I reckon you can read it. Ef I sell the land to the company--it's none o' your business what I git fer it.'
"Well, I can't read--not greatly. I don't know how I knowed--but I did know--that he was gittin' from the company the five thousand dollars apiece that we was to have had. I seen his eye cut round to the hall door, an' I thort he had that money on him (beca'se he was their agent an' they'd trusted him so far) fer to pay me and Euola in cash. With that he grabbed up the deed an' stuffed it into his pocket. Lord! Lord! I could 'a' shook it out o' him--an' the money too--hit's what I would 'a' done if the fool had 'a' kep' his mouth shut. But I reckon hit was God's punishment on him 'at he had to go on sayin', 'Yes, you tuck my leavin's in the money, an' you've tuck my leavin's agin to-day.' Euola was jest comin' into the room when he said that, an' he looked at her. I hit him." He gazed down the length of his arm thoughtfully. "I ort to be careful when I hit out, bein' stronger than most. But I was mad, an' I hit harder than I thort. I reached over an' grabbed open the table drawer jest fer luck--an' thar was the money. I tuck it. The other cuss he was down on the floor, sorter whimperin' an' workin' over this feller Dickert; an' he begun to yell that I'd killed 'im. With that Euola she gives me one look--white ez paper she was--an' she says, 'Run, Andy honey. I'll git to ye when I kin.'" The mountain-man was silent so long that Kerry thought he was done. But he suddenly said:
"She ketched my sleeve, jest ez I made to start, an' said: 'I'll come, Andy. Mind, Andy, _I'll come to ye, ef I live_.'" Then there was the silence of sympathy between the two men.
So that was the history of the crime--a very different history from the one Kerry had heard.
"Hit's right tetchy business--er has been--a-tryin' to take Andy Proudfoot," the outlaw continued; "but, Dan, I'd got mighty tired, time you come. An' Euola--"
Kerry rose abruptly, the memory hot within him of Proudfoot's offer of the night before. The mountaineer got slowly to his feet.
"They's somethin' I wanted to show ye, too, ye remember," he said. They walked together down the bluff, to where another little cavern, low and shallow, hid itself behind huckleberry-bushes. "I kep' the money here," Proudfoot said, kneeling in the cramped entrance and delving among the rocks. He drew out a roll of bills and fingered them thoughtfully.
"The reward, now, hit was fifteen hundred dollars--with what the State an' company both give, warn't it? Dan, I was mighty proud ye wouldn't have it--I wanted to give it to ye this-a-way. I don't know as I've got any rights on Euola's money. I reckon I mought ax you fer to take it to her, ef so be you could find her. My half--you kin have it, an' welcome."
Fear was in Kerry's heart. "An' what'll you be doin'?" he inquired, huskily.
"Me?" asked Andy, listlessly. "Euola she's done gone plumb back on me," he explained. "I hain't heard one word from her sence the trouble, an' I've got that far I hain't a-keerin' what becomes of me. I like you, Dan; I'd ruther you had the money--"
"Oh, my Gawd! Don't, Andy," choked the Irishman. "Let me think, man," as the other's surprised gaze dwelt on him. Up to this time all Kerry's faculties had been engrossed in what was told him, or that which went on before his eyes. Now memory suddenly roused in him. The woman he had seen back at Asheville, the woman who called herself Mandy Greefe, but whom the police there suspected of being Andy Proudfoot's wife, whom they had twice endeavored, unsuccessfully, to follow in long, secret excursions into the mountains. What was the story? What had they said? That she was seeking Proudfoot, or was in communication with him; that was it! They had warned Kerry that the woman was mild-looking (he had seen her patient, wistful face the last thing as he left Asheville), but that she might do him a mischief if she suspected he was on the trail of her husband. "My Lord! Oh, my Lord! W'y, old man,--w'y, Andy boy!" he cried, joyously, patting the shoulder of the big man, who still knelt with the roll of money in his hands,--"Andy, she's waitin' fer you--she's true as steel! She's ready to go with you. Yes, an' Dan Kerry's the boy to git ye out o' this under the very noses o' that police an' detective gang at Asheville. 'Tis you an' me that'll go together, Andy."
Proudfoot still knelt. His nostrils flickered; his eyes glowed. "Have a care what you're a-sayin'," he began, in a low, shaking voice. "Euola! Euola! You've saw me pretty mild; but don't you be mistook by that, like that feller Dickert was mistook. Don't you lie to me an' try to fool me 'bout her. One o' them fellers I shot had me half-way to Garyville, tellin' me she was thar--sick--an' sont him fer me."
Kerry laughed aloud. "Me foolin' you!" he jeered. "'Tis a child I've been in your hands, ye black, big, still, solemn rascal! Here's money a-plenty, an' you that knows these mountains--the fur side--an' me that knows the ropes. You'll lend me a stake f'r the West. We'll go together--all four of us. Oh Lord!" and again tears were on the sanguine cheeks.
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