Without looking at the others, or at the beef-grower, who had pushed his chair back and got up noisily, Jennison removed one cupped hand from the heap of bank-notes and began to edge them off with a dampened thumb, counting under his breath. The smoky light in the back room of the mountain store showed him still more unlovely in his diligence, deepening the purplish cast of his pain-ridden face and accentuating the twist of his wry-neck.
"Luck!" he repeated for the third time, in the same dry tone.
The others fidgeted, coughed, and fooled with the soiled, scattered cards, keeping uneasy eyes on Yaard. The beef-grower had turned back from the doorway, his arms struggling with the armholes of his wine-colored mackinaw. He was a big, young, blond fellow, good-looking, full-blooded, easy-going. But now the stale light showed his face blotched with red.
"Luck!" he cried. "Luck, eh?"
Peters, the storekeeper and peacemaker, got up with an unnecessary clatter and came around the table, bearing a half-empty bottle.
"Yaard, old fellow, have just one before you go, that's the man. It'll be cold going over the mountain. Just a small one---to help the sun up? Eh?"
"To hell with that stuff!" The beef-grower ran the back of a wrist over his lips with an unconscious gesture. "I'm looking at that man there!"
Jennison, counting, "Seven hundred and five, seven hundred and fifty-five---" did not raise his eyes. His studied preoccupation struck deeper in the other's anger. Leaning over a chair-back, Yaard brought his fist down on the tabletop.
"I'll be damned if that four queens over four tens was luck. And here's another thing. Take it from me and put it in your pipes and smoke it up, the whole lot of you. There's no such thing in the world as luck, and the man's a damned fool that thinks there is….Good night!"
Turning his back on them, he went out, and they heard him blundering through the littered darkness in the front part of the store. Peters, anxious for his goods, followed, catching up a pile of burlap from a barrel beside the door. They heard him calling:
"Oh, Yaard, take care for them apricot-cases right in the way there. Wait a second! You forgot your grain-bags. Wait a second!"
"God-a-mighty!" he complained, when he came back. "I can never tell if that fellow's had too much or not." His mouth was sour with the night, and he mad a face. "And now what's wrong with you, Ed?"
Boler, the sawmill man, shook a sad, comical head. "You heard that? 'No such thing as luck'? Yaard! Will Yaard! And him the luckiest fool devil that ever drew breath! Luck? Good Mother o' mine! Luck!"
The recurrence of the word put them in mind of the one remaining, the silent, wry-necked winner bent over his calculations, and they stopped talking. The awkward silence in the room merged with the wide hush of the mountain night; through it they heard the infinitesimal flaws that made it only the more complete---the fall of a lone pine cone on the crust, the whine of a dog asleep in a shed, the bladelike creak and snap of fibers under the pressure of the frost that comes before dawn. A mile away above the Forks a vixen barked.
Jennison stuffed the folded notes into a hip pocket and got up. He began struggling with his sheepskin reefer with his usual sighs and grimaces of pain. It made everyone uncomfortable.
"Going over the mountain?" asked Peters, who knew well enough.
Jennison gave him a sour look and nodded obliquely.
"If I was you," Tinker advised from the stove-corner, "I shouldn't walk too fast goin' over the mountain. It's a narra road for two to travel, Jen, and by the looks of Will Yaard when he left here he wouldn't relish havin' his heels trod on too much this mornin'."
Tinker was Peter's hired man. He was held for something of a wit, and made everybody laugh with his solemn drawl.
"Yaard's all right," he went on, "when he's sober. And when he 'ain't got a grudge."
Boler, who enjoyed this sort of thing, slapped his thigh.
"And a gun," he put in. "What Yaard wants to lug that old forty-four around for beats me. Wolves, he says."
"Wolves!" Tinker1 gave a sarcastic laugh and looked at Jennison. "Have you got a gun on you, Jen? You got to remember you're carrying quite a piece o' money, and by the looks of Will Yaard he wasn't more 'n above too certain yet who it belongs to. Got a gun, Jen?"
The storekeeper thought it had gone far enough. He clapped the table.
"Pshaw! Jennison, don't pay 'em any attention!"
Jennison was not even looking their way. He pulled his rat cap over his red, outstanding ears, fished for his mittens, and shook his head with a touch of anger at the other's proffered bottle.
"Come to think of it, though, guess I will," he muttered.
"That's the boy," nodded Peters. Same to you. I hope you prosper! You busy now, Jennison? Got any foxtraps out this year, eh?"
"Oh, a few," Jennison drew his sleeve over his bloodless lips. "Got a couple down near the pond. If I feel like it when I come by there I might have a look at them on the way over."
Tinker reached over and tapped Boler on the knee.
"That's where we'll search for him," he advised, in a stage whisper.
Boler struck back at him with a ponderous glee. "Yessir! We'll have the pond drug. If he don't turn up to home in good time, with the money, you understand, we'll---"
But Jennison was gone. They heard him, as they had heard Yaard before him, groping through the store, and Peters after him, calling advice and caution.
The storekeeper was out of temper with them when he returned.
"You fellows ought to know better 'n to go on like that, " he said. "Good God! as if there wasn't enough bad blood between 'em already."
"Women!" Tinker soliloquized. "If there wasn't any women, now!"
"I guess that's right."
"That's about it, I guess."
They all nodded.
"Judge Proal's daughter, ain't it?"
"And to think of Jen---with his face! And his kind of luck with money! Why, to-night's the first time I ever see money cross Jen's palm the right way yet."
"And you got an idea why---to-night---"
"Now, now, what's the use---"
"All right. But to think of him looning around a girl like Judge Proal's young un! Dear, dear!"
"Especially with Will Yaard---"
Peters yawned. Corking the bottle and tucking it under his arm, he turned to the door.
"I'm going to bed. Let Boler out, Joe, when he begins to feel like going home. Thank God for Sunday. Good night."
And they heard him in his turn making off through the store, and then the sound of his boots, incisive and metallic, on the frosty stair leading to the loft….
It was one of those windless, brittle nights which come sometimes in a mountain winter, when the utter stillness, piling up on itself through the hours, takes on just before dawn an electric quality; the report of a twig popping a quarter-mile away comes to the ear undiminished through the clear, magnetic fluid, and a man may be well-near deafened by the crackle of his own footfalls running under him lika a slow fusilade of musket-fire.
Jennison halted for the second time where the road came in a bend over a little ridge spurring down from the mountain, and remained standing as he was, motionless as the architectural pines flanking him to the left and right, his knees bent between steps, the tilt of his head, cocked and thrust forward by the malformation of his neck, heightening almost to the point of caricature the attitude of the listener.
He had been quite sure the other time that some one beside himself was moving on the road. What he learned now was that the creaking footsteps were not, as he had imagined, ahead of him, but behind.
Turning around with a half-conscious care to keep his boots from crunching on the snow, he waited, his eyes fastened on the inner wall of the bend, black in the starlight. After a moment a figure detached itself from the pines and came forward, climbing steadily along the blue-gray ribbon of the road. It was Yaard.
Had Jennison been a braver man he would have turned on his heel and walked on with his back to Yaard. As it was he waited, standing quite motionless. When the beef-grower had come to within about ten paces he halted. Whether or not it was because he saw Jennison then for the first time it would be hard to say, just as it would be hard to say whether the gesture with which he shifted the grain-bags to his left arm was simply to give the other a rest, or whether it was with the old, half-buried instinct of leaving the right hand free.
For perhaps twenty seconds neither man moved nor spoke. In the perfect stillness each could hear the other breathing and see the gray, pear-shaped jets rising from the other's nostrils straight upward in the windless starlight. It was one of those queer, lawless moments, one of those dropping-off places in time for which no man can account or be held responsible.
Jennison was the first to stir. "Will---what do you want?"
The beef-grower lifted his right hand suddenly and struck his brow with the flat of his mitten.
He began to laugh, opening his mouth wide and throwing his head back. The charmed silence was broken. His loud, frank laughter ran away through the corridors of the forst and came back indecorously from the faces of hidden rocks.
Jennison felt his face breaking into a profuse perspiration which froze immediately in a gossamer crust on his skin.
"Well, what the hell, then!" he protested, huskily, mopping his forehead with his mitten. "What we standing here for like a---a---"
"Like a couple of strange dogs," the other supplied. He came forward, stamping his feet and whacking his sides with his elbows. In him the revulsion from melodrama took the form of an exuberant liberation. "Only I didn't know you were ahead of me, that's all," he explained, with another burst of laughter.
They started on, side by side. The first rift appeared in the night. A ghostly effulgence hovered in the zenith and was gone again, and after a moment the woods on the crest to the east showed an edge of grayness, faintly heliotrope.
As they tramped along, Yaard explained his lagging, and the whole startling trick of transposition became absurdly simple. Coming past the Pitner place at the bottom of the hill he had remembered that he ought to see Pitner, and he had turned up the road to the house.
"Pitner was just getting up," he said. "There's a little piece of m oney I been owing him for a bunch of calves, and I was figuring to pay up to-day. I wanted him to know I was---was---" He broke off suddenly, his face flushing, and began to whistle "Suwanee River." He shook his shoulders roughly.
"That you were what? Go on!" Jennison lagged half a pace behind and watched Yaard's back with an odd fascination. The sweat began to stiffen on his brow once more, and he, too, shook his shoulders roughly, as if struggling with something. He had not wanted to ask the question at all.
A singular thing had happened to them. The long, heavy night, their lungs drowsy with the spent air, their brains alternately sagging and leaping with the recurrent, suppressed excitement of the play and the repeated stimulation of whisky---the abrupt plunge into the outer air, like a plunge into an icy bath---the interval of isolation and utter stillness---the profound nervous shock of that moment when, startled by a trick of time and place, they had found themselves staring into each other's eyes, "like a coupld of strange dogs"---by such successive stages had they been stripped, unconsciously, piece by pice, of their protective husks, their inhibitions, their spiritual defenses, their mental reserves. And now in the weird hour of dawn they found themselves of a sudden unable to hold their thoughts of curb their tongues. It made them ill at ease. They saw that they were naked, and they were ashamed. They struggles against it. A man drunk will give himself away inevitably; he will say what he always really wants to say, will do what he always really wants to do. These men were drunk with something more than whisky---added to whisky.
"That you were what?" asked Jennison. "Go on!"
"That I wasn't able to keep my word about paying him to-day---because I'd gone and lost the money---sitting in a poker game---like a damned fool."
A hunted look came into the other's eyes, mingling with and deepening the expression of fascination.
"It was a run of luck," he muttered, and bit his nether lip.
"And I tell you it wasn't. I was a damned fool to sit with you, and that's settled and done. No, there's no such thing as 'luck'. A man gets what's coming to him in the long run. Look at me, now."
"Yes, but look at me!"
"Look at me, now. They'll tell you I'm lucky. 'That lucky bastard, Will Yaard,' they'll say. But let me tell you the secret---"
"Yes, yes, but look at me!" In his hunger to be heard, Jennison increased his pace by two or three short steps, almost like a hopping bird, an illusion still further heightened by the twist of his neck and the eager, inquisitive cock of his hear. "Look at me, Will! do you say I ain't unlucky? Eh? Eh?"
"No, it ain't unluckiness, Jen. You're always doing fool things, that's all. You're always making fool bargains with your money, or getting drunk and throwing it away. And you've damned lazy, Jen, and you know it. Always were. You'll never get ahead any never in God's world, and it ain't unluckiness, either."
"I know, Will, I know. But it ain't that I'm thinking of. I've never cared a shuck about that, not a shuck. I've never cared much about anything till just lately---not till---till---"
"Till Hetty Proal came home from seminary with her hair up, eh?"
"I'll tell you the living truth, Will; not till then."
At ordinary times they were ordinary men; wild horses could not have dragged either of them to pronounce the word "love" in the other's hearing, except as personal to a third partiy, with jeering or mock pity. But now as they walked, climbing higher and higher over the mountain's shoulder into the thin, pale, icy wine of the dawn, a sort of Pentecostal carelessness loosened their tongues, the bars were let down, and their thoughts ran away with them.
"Not till then," Jennison went on, with a fevered eagerness. "I'll tell you the living truth, Will; I love that girl."
"You do, do you? Why look at you, Jen! Just look at you! Good Lord! you make a man laugh."
"And then you say I ain't unlucky! You say I ain't unlucky!"
Their voices, unrestrained, incisive, ran away among the trees; a flight of startled snowbirds whirred in the near air; for a moment a fine thread of tone hung over the ridges, the engine's whistle as the "Five-fifty-eight" came sliding into Monk's Falls. Colors---the cold lilac of the sky and snow, the blue of firs, the deep malachite of pines, grew vivid. The world was big with the day.
"You say I aint unlucky? Look here. I go by the Judge's every day, almost. I'll go five mile out of my way to pass there. I'll go in. She'll ask me in. I'll sit there and I'll look at her. I'll see her smooth, soft, white neck, and I'll see how the brown hair lays light and warm against her cheek, and I'll imagine how it would feel against my cheek---my cheek that's never touched the hair of a woman that knew me. I'll sit there and talk. I can talk better than most men, better a good sight than you, Will. I can talk---just so long as she don't look at me…."
"Talk? Good God! Yes. Talk, talk, talk. You can talk!"
It was quite without rancor. Yaard walked at an enormous, free gait, his right arm swinging, his face lifted a little and his eyes on the sky.
"That's all right, but just the same I'ld make her a good husband."
"Husband?" The beef-grower laughed loudly without taking his eyes from the waning stars. "Husband?"
"All right, all right, but I would. No, maybe I wouldn't make her quite such a good living, but I'd know better what she was thinking of, or worrying about, or such things. I can see different sides of things. And she likes to hear me talk, and I can talk---so long as she don't look at me. But the minute she looks at me---"
"She don't! That's a lie! That's a hell of a thing to say! She don't laugh, no, sir….Only when I feel her looking at me I--- Welll---you know….And then you got the cheek to say I ain't unlucky. Is it my fault I'm like---Is it any of my fault I was born like---this?"
"You've made it worse by drinking, that's all I know. And then again, if it ain't your fault yourself, it's the fault of somebody; it's pay for something. It says in the Bible that a man's sins will go down from two to three generations. You look back and I warrant you'll find a foolish act somewheres---your father or your grandfather or some one. No, no, Jen; complain all you want to, only don't lay it to luck; don't lay it to accident. Accidents don't happen….Take me, now…"
"Yes," cried Jennison, in a bitter tone. He had almost to run to keep pace with the other's sanguine stride. "Only everything always comes easy for you."
"Take me, now. If I need what you call 'luck,' why, I make it. Accidents? Bah! I'd like to see the accident that would keep me from going right on ahead. The whole thing is, I work hard, but not too hard. I use my head, but I don't worry. I'll take a drink, but I don't take too many. I'll do a fool thing, maybe, once in a long while, like tonight; but here's the point---you won't find me doing it twice. And so I'll keep on going ahead. Bound to!" He lifted his chin still higher, expanded his chest with a yet deeper draught of the sparkling air. "Bound to!"
The mists of easy-going, workaday self-detraction were swept away; he saw himself for the moment in the naked splendor of dawn.
"You wonder how Hetty's hair would feel against a man's cheek. I know. Night before last it laid against mine---when she told me all right---when I asked her if she'd marry me and she told me all right. That's the way with you, Jen---you wonder. That's the way with me---I know!"
For a little while there was silence, ruffled only by the swift crunching of the snow in the road. When Jennison spoke his voice sounded thick and rasping, as if it hurt his throat.
"Is that true, Will? No fooling, is it true, Will?"
"God's truth. We'll be married before the month's done."
There was another silence, longer than the last.
"No, I'll be damned if you will!"
The beef-grower wheeled, startled not so much by the words as by the abrupt change in distance. Jennison had halted a dozen paces back and stood there staring after him. His eyes were bloodshot, his color livid. His upper lip contracted, showing his teeth.
"What you mean, you'll be damned if we will? What you mean by that, Jen?" And then with a wave of exasperation, Yaard bawled at him: "Quit it! Quit it! O my God! you're such a baby! Quit looking that way, I say!"
"I'll be damned if you will!" Jennison repeated, in the same tone.
Yaard walked back to him, taking long steps. Halting before him, he spread his feet wide and put his fists on his hips.
"Well, then, what you going to do about it?"
For a moment they remained staring fixedly into each other's eyes. The eastern sky was turning green; the poisonous light ran over their set faces. Once again it was the weaker man's glance that fell.
"I don't know. I don't know. " His shoulders sagged with a sudden weariness. In a flash of pitiless light he seemed to see himself for the first time as he was. "What can I do? Look at me. I ain't anywhere near as big as you nor as stout as you. And on top of that you've got a gun."
"Oh, bah!" Yaard spat loudly in the snow in his disgust. "That's just like you, Jen. " Fumbling in his pocket, he drew out the revolver and thrust it roughly into the other's hand, crying: "There you are! Now! There! You got it man! Now what?"
Jennison's eyes rested heavily on the weapon lying in his palm. Lifting with a slow and horrible fascination, they came to the other's breast, where, under the deep-red stuff of the mackinaw, the heart beat. His sick nerves rebelled. A shudder passed over his frame. His teeth chattered, distorting his words.
"You're lucky, lucky. You know I can't do it. You know as well as I do I can't do it in cold blood, you---you devil, you."
He felt himself stripped, ashamed, degraded. He could not meet Yaard's glance; his hunted eyes ran everywhere. At the foot of a long, gentle, sparsely wooded declivity to the left he saw the pond, its ice gleaming iron gray between the silhouetted poplar-boles.
Strange thoughts tumbled slowly through his brain, speculations, fragments of remembered speech. So engrossed was he the the other's outburst came to him only in meaningless dribblets: "---poor snipe---as if you could harm me---as if you could imagine---" He was thinking to himself instead, "Joe Shultz was up to try the ice for cutting yesterday. Must have been just down there, because he told me there was ten inches just off the bend…."
"As if you could imagine," Yaard was repeating, hoarsely, "that anything you could do---"
"As if I could imagine," Jennison echoed, hanging his head.
"You poor snipe!"
"Yes, I am a poor snipe."
"You make me sick." Yaard spat on the snow again, as if to get a taste out his mouth. "You never can carry a thing through."
"No," Jennison agreed, in a dreary voice. "I never been able to carry a thing through yet; I know it as well as you do."
The sight of his moral disintegration was revolting. His knees bent under him, his head lopped over untidily on his twisted neck. One hand began groping feverishly in a hip pocket.
"I can't," he groaned. "I can't even carry through my one run of luck. Take it!" he cried, pusing the rool of banknotes into the other's hands with a nervous violence. "It's yours! I---I---"
"I know," Yaard put in with a sudden large tranquility. "I knew all along. That last was too raw; that four queens. You saved three of them out of your full-house three hands before. I knew it. But I never worried. I know I'd get the money back. I knew you couldn't carry it through….But look here; I only want what's mine. You got some of your own in here, Jen."
"No, no, no!" Jennison waved a hand in passionate protest. "I don't want part or parcel of it, Will. I won't touch it, Will. It's dirty to me now."
"Don't be a fool!" Yaard's ordinary, expansive good-nature had come back. He unrolled the bills with his thumb, counting. "How much, Jen? Well, never mind, then; I know."
"I won't, Will! I won't, I tell you!" Jennison almost danced in the ecstacy of refusal.
"There!" Yaard forced a thin sheaf into his hand. "Take it, I say. And now shut up and come on along."
Jennison did not move. For the moment he seemed unable to answer. As he stared down at the money lying limp in his hand a curious look came and went in his eyes. He seemed to shake himself.
"I ain't going on just now," he said. "I got a couple of traps down here by the pond I'd like to have a look at before sunup." He stared thoughtfully at the snow near his feet. "There's a blue fox on the mountain somewheres. Joe Shultz seen it less 'n a week ago. If I could get that fellow! Say, Will, would you mind leaving me take one of them grain-bags for a spell? Eh? Thanks. I tell you, if I had the luck to catch that blue one I souldn't want the whole township knowing it, eh?"
He took the grain-bag and folded it over his arm. It was a good, stout bag (Yaard took pride in his business and all its physical details), and on one side it bore the black-stenciled legend:
ELM BROOK FARM Wm Yaard Prop
"Here's your gun," he went on, still looking down slantwise at the snow as he held out the big, clumsy revolver. "But no; wait a second," he reconsidered. "I'll bring it 'round to your place later, if it's all the same, Will. If you don't mind, I'd just as leave have it along, in case that fox---"
"Fox!" Yaard almost shouted with mirgh. "Lord, Jen, you ain't a-scared of a fox!"
Jennison's teeth sank slightly into his lower lip. "No," he said, slowly. "Only them blue ones, you know. I've heard say they ought to be shot in the eye---so's not to mar the pelt."
"Oh, well, hell!" Yaard waved his arm. "I don't claim to know anything about such things. Go on, take it and welcome. Keep the plagued thing if you're a mind to; been trying to throw it away for a year, anyhow. There's no more of them forty-fours hereabouts any longer; can't even get sheels any more, without I send away for them. Keep it, keep it; I make you a present."
"Oh no, no! That's all right," the other muttered, sheepishly. "I'll see you later with it, all right. So long!"
Putting the weapon in the pocket of his reefer, he stepped out of the rutted road into the clean snow down-hill. He was not gone, however. He had something yet to say, and starting hard at the beef-grower's boots, he said it.
"Will, if you don't mind---maybe you'll think it's funny---but I'd be as obliged if you wasn't to say anthing about it, about my handing back the money, you know, and all that. I suppose I deserve to be showed up, only, somehow or other---I'd be just as obliged---"
"Not a word!" cried the other, in good-natured protest. "Not a word, trust me!"
"If you was to say you hadn't met up with me, or seen me, even. If any one asked you---if you was to say you hadn't laid eye on me after you left Peter's place---"
Yaard cut him off with a wave and an indulgent laugh. "Anything you like, Jen. Not another word. I'll swear on the Bible I never laid eye on you. Now go 'long about your business. So long!"
Filled with a sense of large and beneficient tranquility, he stood as he was for a moment, watching Jennison's laborious progress down the hill. The snow, about a foot deep and crusted not quite thickly enough to bear, made heavy going.
The long labor of dawn was near its end. The whold eastern heaven flamed with a pale, cold lemon, against which the farther ridges stood out dark and cold and dead. The poplars fringing the pond, silhouetting more strongly with each passing moment, looked hard and dead, too, each separate stem like an upright bar of iron eaten black with rust. And on the spotless mat of the snow the figure of the walker showed vividly in its every detail, the narrow, uneven shoulders, the grotesque carriage of the neck and head, the awkward posture of the left elbow as he held the grain-bag clear of the snow.
"Blue fox, eh? Shoot them in the eye, eh? Sounds just a trifle fishy to me. Now I wonder…"
A vague sensation of uneasiness came over him. He shuffled his feet in the snow and told himself he was silly. With a formless impulse he put his hand to his mouth to call after Jennison. And then he took it down again without calling.
Jennison waded on down the gentle slope without once looking back. His feet made hard work, but he was conscious of no fatigue. His face was set and expressionless. He was thinking.
It was as if he had a new brain, in which thoughts came and went with an intoxicating swiftness, a starry clarity. Bits of recollected speech hovered for instants in the clean, new mental firmament:
"As if you could harm me---you poor snipe---"
"As if you could imagine that anything you could do---"
"You never can carry anything through, Jen, never---"
His face remained expressionless, save for a faint satirical twisting at the corners of the lips. His eyes, staring straight ahead rested on the pond, glimpsed in larger and larger fragments through the trees. Phrases came back to him:
"That's where we'll search for him….We'll have the pond drug…if he don't turn up to home…with the money---"
"Yaard's all right when he's sober….And when he 'ain't got a grudge…and a gun….That old forty-four---"
"Remember you're carrying quite a piece of money, Jen, and Yaard---"
He was well down among the trees now. A phrase of the beef-grower's recurred to him:
"But look here, I only want what's mine…."
Halting, he took from his pocket the notes Yaard had thrust upon him and studied them for a moment with an extraordinary concentration.
"Damn the luck!" he muttered. "Why did he have to think?"
There were six of them, five tens and a two. Holding them out fanwise, he scratched a match and set them on fire. They burned pallidly in the growing light. When the flames had come to his finger-tips he gathered the ashes in his palms, rubbed them to dust, threw the dust in the air. And then, turning two of his pockets wrong side out with a violence that left one of them torn half-across, he went on.
At the pond's edge, where a ribbon of black, frozen earth and stones intervened between the snow and the ice, he laid the grain-bag down, folding it neatly two ways. On it he placed the revolver. Then, standing up and shading his eyes, he swept them slowly across the nearer ice. All his actions now were performed with an extraordinary precision, doubly extraordinary in a man who had always faltered and fumbled a little.
"There!" he nodded. "I knew it must be somewheres here."
He had some trouble in getting a stone. He picked out a large, round one and tried to pry it from its bed of frozen mud. It was only after he had pushed and tugged for minutes, his fingers bleeding under the nails with the cruel work, that he had it free in his hands.
Carrying it, he walked out across the ice. He was glad to see that his soles left no imprint on the glassy surface. Schultz, the owner of the ice-house at the foot of the pond, had cut a small, rectangular hole about twenty yards out from shore. During the night it had closed up again, but the new ice was only an inch or so thick and showed darker. Jennison cast the stone in the center and the whole new surface caved in with a turmoil of black water. He looked down at it, and a slight convulsive shudder passed over his body. He raised his eyes to the eastern ridge.
"I got to hurry."
Returning to the shore, he hesitated only a moment.
"I need more stones." He looked down at the stones. "Let them be, just now. I got to hurry."
Abandoning the pond, the stones, the bag, and the revolver, he started off swiftly through the trees, throwing up a huge furrow with his boots. Five minutes later he was back again, standing in the same place, in the same posture, looking sown at the stones. Only the half-congealed sweat on his face told of the enormous exertion he had been through, exertion of which he had been scarcely aware, exertion which seemed, on the face of it, to have gained him nothing. In reality it had accomplished this: whereas, when he had started, there had lain across the snowy expanse between road and pond a single, well-churned foot-track, there now lay three, and to the eye of any mountaineer it could be seen that two of them led down to the pond, and only one led back.
"More stones!" he muttered. "More stones!"
He got down on his knees and fell to the terrible work of tearing them out. The blood ran down freely from his nails; groans issued from his throat, but he felt no pain. When he had four worked loose he put them in the grain-bag and tied up the end securely. All this he did mechanically and, as has been said, with an extraordinary precision and thrift of movement. All the while, across the stage of his transfigured brain thoughts cam and went in a troop---words, phrases, small, vivid, and fragmentary pictures…
He saw a crowd of men, grim-faced, angry, gathered at the pond's edge.
He saw them walking along a road.
He saw Hetty Proal's face, as in silhouette against a window with flowers, her hands pressed tight against her whitening cheeks.
He saw Yaard, ignorant as yet of what had happened, opening his door in the night to invisible questioners. He heard him answering, hesitating, as he remembered his promise, grinning slightly: "Jennison? No I didn't see him. Don't know nothing about him. What? Money? No, I don't know nothing about any money. Where's my forty-four, you say? What's it all about? Say! Yes, yes, that's my grain-bag. Can't you see for yourselves? What? Search my house? What do you m ean? Say, look here---what the devil!"
The sun trembled under the earth's rim; the sky ran crimson from the eastern ridges to the zenith. Under the spacious glow an illusion of warmth, or roseate hope, flooded the little valley. Snowbirds flew high. Even the trees seemed to lift their sapless boughs a little to the instant of day. An energy, as inexorable as it was dramatic, carried the man along.
He was standing with his back to the pond and his face toward a little copse of undergrowth fifteen or twenty yards up among the poplars. The grain-bag was bound to his middle, his belt let out a little and buckled over it, with two of the heavy stones hanging down in either end.
"I got to throw it right there, right there." He repeated it over and over. Somewhere or other he had heard that if a man thought hard enough about a certain action or set of actions he would somehow or other go through with them in the moment of death. "Then," he whispered to himself---"then I got to turn 'round and walk straight."
There was no hesitation, no bungling. Caught up in the dramatic sequence of events and circumstances, he thought, for the first time in his painful, self-centered life, scarcely at all of himself or of what he did. There was no faltering. He held the revolver out at arm's-length, aimed at his right breast, his thumb on the trigger.
"I got to throw it right there," he repeated. "Then I got to rurn 'round and walk straight out across the ice…."
He was not conscious of any stabbing or rending pain; rather of a broad, flat, heavy blow, as from a fist. He recovered his balance, took his thumb out from the trigger-guard carefully, drew back his arm, and threw the weapon into the underbrush, where, flicking the twigs as it passed, it sank out of sight under the snow.
Then he turned around and walked out across the ice toward the hole. As he walked he said out loud:
"No, I'll be damned if you will!"
The blood from his lips fell down and immediately spread out in large, pinkish circles on the ice. The sun's red rim peeped over the ridge directly ahead, laying a sudden, blinding, crimson path before his numb feet.
It seemed farther than he had thought. He walked and walked. The numbness in his legs increased; a great fatigue came over him; the stones in the bag dragged him down. A terrible fear smote him. He had lost his way. He had missed the hole, and, passing it by, walking, walking, under that dragging weight, he must have come almost as far as the center of the pond. It was so far. He began to cough.
One of his feet went out from under him. He clawed at the air and found nothing to sustain him. The water in the hole rose up in a round, black fountain to engulf him.
He felt himself going down and down. The icy impact of the water all around his head seemed to have awakened him from a dream. He opened his eyes, but it was all green and dark. He opened his mouth to shout, and water gushed into his throat….
"God! God! Where am I?"
In the new sunshine bubbles rose to the surface of the water in the hole Shultz had chopped. Breaking, they rocked the floating splinters of ice, like microscopic ships in distress on a miniature sea. And then all was still again.
* * * * *
Yaard stood as he was for a moment, watching Jennison's laborious progress down the hill. On the spotless mat of the snow the figure of the walker showed vividly in its every detail, the shoulders, the carriage of the head and neck, the awkward posture of the left arm holding the grain-bag clear of the snow.
The beef-grower was conscious of a vague sensation of uneasiness. Moved by a formless impulse, he put his hand to his mouth to call after Jennison. And then he took it down again and wheeled at the sound of a sudden, close thudding of hoofs on the snow of the road. A big bay gelding between the shafts of a black sleigh was near to running him down.
"Say!" he protested, jumping to one side. And then, seeing whose sleigh it was, his temper changed.
"What you doing there, Judge? If you don't get them bells put on again pretty quick you'll be up for manslaughter in your own court."
Judge Proal peered over the edge of the buffalo-robe. He had a broad, jovial, rubicund face, rather dull just now with a hard night spent in a mountain smoking-car. He brightened, though, when he discovered who the speaker was, winked his sleepy eyes very hard, and grinned.
"Hullo!" he said. "Hullo, Will! Just got in on the 'Five-fifty-eight." Jump in and I'll give you a lift….Hullo! What's Jennison doing down there?"
He sat up a little straighter and shaded his eyes.
"Where's he going this time of morning with that grain-bag? Eh?"
"Oh, he thinks he's got a fox down in his trap," Yaard explained. "Blue on, he thinks, maybe. Borrowed one of my bags and the old cannon. Shoot it in the eye, he says. What you think of that, Judge? Queer, ain't he?"
"Queer enough. I can't stand him for a cent. Here, jump in, will you, and let's get out of here before he sees us and changes his mind. Two's company, three's a crowd. Can't stand him!
"Say, but you're pretty lucky," he rattled on, jovially, as the gelding answered to the lift of the reins. "I don't know where you've been, but I know you'd have had a long road to go yet on a good cold morning if I hadn't just happened along. Lucky, eh?"
Yaard lifted his head with an air of protest. The word had begun to get on his nerves. But then he said no more. The horse's hoofs drummed rhythmically in his ears; the keen air rushed across his face, trees fell away swiftly to the rear. A fine languor crept over him. It was warm under the soft weight of the robe. He rubbed his eyes, yawned, laid his head back again, and let it go.
Return to the Wilbur Daniel Steele library , or . . . Read the next short story; Out of Exile