For a few seconds Darrell tried vainly to recall what had awakened him. Low, confused sounds occasionally reached his ears, but they seemed part of his own troubled dreams. The heat was intolerable; he raised himself to the open window that he might get a breath of cooler air; his head whirled, but the half-sitting posture seemed to clear his brain, and he recalled his surroundings. At once he became conscious that the train was not in motion, yet no sound of trainmen's voices came through the open window; all was dead silence, and the vague, haunting sense of impending danger quickened.
Suddenly he heard a muttered oath in one of the sections, followed by an order, low, but peremptory,—
"No noise! Hand over, and be quick about it!"
Instantly Darrell comprehended the situation. Peering cautiously between the curtains, he saw, at the forward end of the sleeper, a masked man with a revolver in each hand, while the mirror behind him revealed another figure at the rear, masked and armed in like manner. He heard another order; the man was doing his work swiftly. He thought at once of young Whitcomb, but no sound came from the opposite section, and he sank quietly back upon his pillow.
A moment later the curtains were quickly thrust aside, the muzzle of a revolver confronted Darrell, and the same low voice demanded,—
"Hand out your valuables!"
A man of medium height, wearing a mask and full beard, stood over him. Darrell quietly handed over his watch and purse, noting as he did so the man's hands, white, well formed, well kept. He half expected a further demand, as the purse contained only a few small bills and some change, the bulk of his money being secreted about the mattress, as was his habit; but the man turned with peculiar abruptness to the opposite section, as one who had a definite object in view and was in haste to accomplish it. Darrell, his faculties alert, observed that the section in front of Whitcomb's was empty; he recalled the actions of its occupant on the preceding afternoon, his business later at the telegraph office, and the whole scheme flashed vividly before his mind. The man had been a spy sent out by the band now holding the train, and Whitcomb's money was without doubt the particular object of the hold-up.
Whitcomb was asleep at the farther side of his berth. Leaning slightly towards him, the man shook him, and his first words confirmed Darrell's intuitions,—
"Hand over that money, young man, and no fuss about it, either!"
Whitcomb, instantly awake, gazed at the masked face without a word or movement. Darrell, powerless to aid his friend, watched intently, dreading some rash act on his part to which his impetuous nature might prompt him.
Again he heard the low tones, this time a note of danger in them,—
"No fooling! Hand that money over, lively!"
With a spring, as sudden and noiseless as a panther's, Whitcomb grappled with the man, knocking the revolver from his hand upon the bed. A quick, desperate, silent struggle followed. Whitcomb suddenly reached for the revolver; as he did so Darrell saw a flash of steel in the dim light, and the next instant his friend sank, limp and motionless, upon the bed.
"Fool!" he heard the man mutter, with an oath.
An involuntary groan escaped from Darrell's lips. Slight as was the sound, the man heard it and turned, facing him; the latter was screened by the curtains, and the man, seeing no one, returned to his work, but that brief glance had revealed enough to Darrell that he knew he could henceforth identify the murderer among a thousand. In the struggle the mask had been partially pushed aside, exposing a portion of the man's face. A scar of peculiar shape showed white against the olive skin, close to the curling black hair. But to Darrell the pre-eminently distinguishing characteristic of that face was the eyes. Of the most perfect steel blue he had ever seen, they seemed, as they turned upon him in that intense glance, to glint and scintillate like the points of two rapiers in a brilliant sword play, while their look of concentrated fury and malignity, more demon-like than human, was stamped ineffaceably upon his brain.
Having secured as much as he could find of the money, the murderer left hastily and silently, and a few moments later the guards, after a warning to the passengers not to leave their berths, took their departure.
Having partially dressed, Darrell at once sprang across the aisle and took Whitcomb's limp form in his arms. His heart still beat faintly, but he was unconscious and bleeding profusely. All had been done so silently and swiftly that no one outside of Darrell dreamed of murder, and soon the enforced silence began to be broken by hurried questions and angry exclamations. A man cursed over the loss of his money and a woman sobbed hysterically. Suddenly, Darrell's incisive tones rang through the sleeper.
"For God's sake, see if there is a surgeon aboard! Here is a man stabbed, dying; don't stop to talk of money when a life is at stake!"
Instantly all thought of personal loss was for the time forgotten, and half a dozen men responded to Darrell's appeal. When it became known throughout the train what had occurred, the greatest excitement followed. Train officials, hurrying back and forth, stopped, hushed and horror-stricken, beside the section where Darrell sat holding Whitcomb in his arms. Passengers from the other coaches crowded in, eager to offer assistance that was of no avail. A physician was found and came quickly to the scene, who, after a brief examination, silently shook his head, and Darrell, watching the weakening pulse and shortening gasps, needed no words to tell him that the young life was ebbing fast.
Just as the faint respirations had become almost imperceptible, Whitcomb opened his eyes, looking straight into Darrell's eyes with eager intensity, his face lighted with the winning smile which Darrell had already learned to love. His lips moved; Darrell bent his head still lower to listen.
"Kate,—you will see her," he whispered. "Tell her——" but the sentence was never finished.
Deftly and gently as a woman Darrell did the little which remained to be done for his young friend, closing the eyes in which the love-light kindled by his dying words still lingered, smoothing the dishevelled golden hair, wondering within himself at his own unwonted tenderness.
"An awful pity for a bright young life to go out like that!" said a voice at his side, and, turning, he saw Parkinson.
"How did it happen?" the latter inquired, recognizing Darrell for the first time in the dim light.
Briefly Darrell gave the main facts as he had witnessed them, saying nothing, however, of his having seen the face of the murderer.
"Too bad!" said Parkinson. "He ought never to have made a bluff of that sort; there were too many odds against him."
"He was impulsive and acted on the spur of the moment," Darrell replied; adding, in lower tones, "the mistake was in giving one so young and inexperienced a commission involving so much responsibility and danger."
"You knew of the money, then? Yes, that was bad business for him, poor fellow! I wonder, by the way, if it was all taken."
At Darrell's suggestion a thorough search was made, which resulted in the finding of a package containing fifteen thousand dollars which the thief in his haste had evidently overlooked. This, it was agreed, should be placed in Darrell's keeping until the arrival of the train at Ophir.
Gradually the crowd dispersed, most of the passengers returning to their berths. Darrell, knowing that sleep for himself was out of the question, sought an empty section in another part of the car, and, seating himself, bowed his head upon his hands. The veins in his temples seemed near bursting and his usually strong nerves quivered from the shock he had undergone, but of this he was scarcely conscious. His mind, abnormally active, for the time held his physical sufferings in abeyance. He was living over again the events of the past few hours—events which had awakened within him susceptibilities he had not known he possessed, which had struck a new chord in his being whose vibrations thrilled him with strange, undefinable pain. As he recalled Whitcomb's affectionate familiarity, he seemed to hear again the low, musical cadences of the boyish tones, to see the sunny radiance of his smile, to feel the irresistible magnetism of his presence, and it seemed as though something inexpressibly sweet, of whose sweetness he had barely tasted, had suddenly dropped out of his life.
His heart grew sick with bitter sorrow as he recalled the look of mingled appeal and trust which shot from Whitcomb's eyes into his own as his young life, so full of hope, of ambition, of love, was passing through the dim portals of an unknown world. Oh, the pity of it! that he, an acquaintance of but a few hours, should have been the only one to whom those eyes could turn for their last message of earthly love and sympathy; and oh, the impotency of any and all human love then!
Never before had Darrell been brought so near the unseen, the unknown,—always surrounding us, but of which few of us are conscious,—and for hours he sat motionless, lost in thought, grappling with problems hitherto unthought of, but which now perplexed and baffled him at every turn.
At last, with a heavy sigh, he opened his eyes. The gray twilight of dawn was slowly creeping down from the mountain-tops, dispelling the shadows; and the light of a new faith, streaming downward
"From the beautiful, eternal hills
Of God's unbeginning past,"
was banishing the doubts which had assailed him.
That night had brought to him a revelation of the awful solitude of a human soul, standing alone on the threshold of two worlds; but it had also revealed to him the Love—Infinite, Divine—that meets the soul when human love and sympathy are no longer of avail.
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