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Chapter 21

Two Crimes by the Same Hand

At Walcott's request the date of the wedding was set early in January, he having announced that business would call him to the South the first week in December for about a month, and that he wished the wedding to take place immediately upon his return.

The announcement of the engagement and speedily approaching marriage of the daughter of D. K. Underwood to his junior partner caused a ripple of excitement throughout the social circles of Ophir and Galena. Though little known, Walcott was quite popular. It was therefore generally conceded that the shrewd "mining king," as Mr. Underwood was denominated in that region, had selected a party in every way eligible as the future husband of the sole heiress of his fortune. Kate received the congratulations showered upon her with perfect equanimity, but with a shade of quiet reserve which effectually distanced all undue familiarity or curiosity.

Through the daily paper which found its way to the mining camp Darrell received his first news of Kate's engagement. It did not come as a surprise, however; he knew it was inevitable; he even drew a sigh of relief that the blow had fallen, for a burden is far more easily borne as an actual reality than by anticipation, and applied himself with an almost dogged persistency to his work.

The winter set in early and with unusual severity. The snowfall in the mountains was heavier than had been known in years. Much of the time the canyon road was impassable, making it impracticable for Darrell to visit The Pines with any frequency, even had he wished to do so.

The weeks passed, and ere he was aware the holidays were at hand. By special messenger came a little note from Kate informing him of Walcott's absence and begging him to spend Christmas at the old home. There had been a lull of two or three days in the storm, the messenger reported the road somewhat broken, and early on the morning preceding Christmas the trio, Darrell, Duke, and Trix, started forth, and, after a twelve hours' siege, arrived at The Pines wet, cold, and thoroughly exhausted, but all joyfully responsive to the welcome awaiting them.

Christmas dawned bright and clear; tokens of love and good will abounded on every side, but at an early hour news came over the wires which shocked and saddened all who heard, particularly the household at The Pines. There had been a hold-up on the west-bound express the preceding night, a few miles from Galena, in which the mail and express had been robbed, and the express clerk, a brave young fellow who stanchly refused to open the safe or give the combination, had been fatally stabbed. It was said to be without doubt the work of the same band that had conducted the hold-up in which Harry Whitcomb had lost his life, as it was characterized by the same boldness of plan and cleverness of execution.

The affair brought back so vividly to Mr. Underwood and the family the details of Harry's death that it cast a shadow over the Christmas festivities, which seemed to deepen as the day wore on. Outside, too, gathering clouds, harbingers of coming storm, added to the general gloom.

It was with a sense of relief that Darrell set out at an early hour the following morning for the camp. He realized as never before that the place teemed with painful memories whose very sweetness tortured his soul until he almost wished that the months since his coming to The Pines might be wrapped in the same oblivion which veiled his life up to that period. He was glad to escape from its depressing influence and to return to the camp with its routine of work and study.

This second winter of Darrell's life at camp was far more normal and healthful than the first. His love and sympathy for Kate had unconsciously drawn him out of himself, making him less mindful of his own sorrow and more susceptible to the sufferings of others. To the men at the camp he was far different, interesting himself in their welfare in numerous ways where before he had ignored them. The unusual severity of the winter had caused some sickness among them, and it was nothing uncommon for Darrell to go of an evening to the miners' quarters with medicines, newspapers, and magazines for the sick and convalescent.

He was returning from one of these expeditions late one evening about ten days after Christmas, accompanied by the collie. It had been snowing lightly and steadily all day and the snow was still falling. Darrell was whistling softly to himself, and Duke, who showed a marvellous adaptation to Darrell's varying moods, catching the cue for his own conduct, began to plunge into the freshly fallen snow, wheeling and darting swiftly towards Darrell as though challenging him to a wrestling-match. Darrell gratified his evident wish and they tumbled promiscuously in the snow, emerging at length from a big drift near the office, their coats white, Duke barking with delight, and Darrell laughing like a school-boy.

Shaking themselves, they entered the office, but no sooner had they stepped within than the collie bounded to the door of the next room where he began a vigorous sniffing and scratching, accompanied by a series of short barks. As Darrell, somewhat puzzled by his actions, opened the door, he saw a figure seated by the fire, which rose and turned quickly, revealing to his astonished gaze the tall form and strong, sweet face of John Britton.

For a moment the two men stood with clasped hands, looking into each other's eyes with a satisfaction too deep for words.

After an affectionate scrutiny of his young friend Mr. Britton resumed his seat, remarking,—

"You are looking well—better than I have ever seen you; and I was glad to hear that laughter outside; it had the right ring to it."

"Duke was responsible for that," Darrell answered, with a smiling glance at the collie who had stationed himself by the fire and near Mr. Britton; "he challenged me to wrestle with him, and got rather the worst of it."

A moment later, having divested himself of his great coat, he drew a second seat before the fire, saying,—

"You evidently knew where to look for me?"

"Yes, your last letter, which, by the way, followed me for nearly six weeks before reaching me, apprised me of your return to the camp. I was somewhat surprised, too, after you had established yourself so well in town."

"It was best for me—and for others," Darrell answered; then, noting the inquiry in his friend's eyes, he added:

"It is a long story, but it will keep; there will be plenty of time for that later. Tell me of yourself first. For two months I have hungered for word from you, and now I simply want to listen to you a while."

Mr. Britton smiled. "I owe you an apology, but you know I am a poor correspondent at best, and of late business has called me here and there until I scarcely knew one day where I would be the next; consequently I have received my mail irregularly and have been irregular myself in writing."

Darrell's face grew tender, for he knew it was not business alone which drove his friend from place to place, but the old pain which found relief only in ceaseless activity and an equally unceasing beneficence. He well knew that many of his friend's journeys were purely of a philanthropic nature, and he remarked, with a peculiar smile,—

"Your travels always remind me very forcibly of the journey of the good Samaritan; when he met a case of suffering on the way he was not the one to 'pass by on the other side;' nor are you."

"Perhaps," said Mr. Britton, gravely, "he had found, as others have since, that pouring oil and wine into his neighbor's wounds was the surest method of assuaging the pain in some secret wound of his own."

Darrell watched his friend closely while he gave a brief account of his recent journeys along the western coast. Never before had he seen the lines of suffering so marked upon the face beside him as that night. Something evidently had reopened the old wound, causing it to throb anew.

"I need not ask what has brought you back into the mountains at this time of year and in this storm," Darrell remarked, as his friend concluded.

For answer Mr. Britton drew from his pocket an envelope which Darrell at once recognized as a counterpart of one which had come to him some weeks before, but which he had laid away unopened, knowing only too well its contents.

"I am particularly glad, for Miss Underwood's sake, that you are here," he said; "she feared you might not come, and it worried her."

"Which accounts for the importunate little note which accompanied the invitation," said Mr. Britton, with a half-smile; "but I would have made it a point to be present in any event; why did she doubt my coming?"

"Because of the season, I suppose, and the unusual storms; then, too," Darrell spoke with some hesitation, "she told me she believed you had a sort of aversion to weddings."

"She was partly right," Mr. Britton said, after a pause; "I have not been present at a wedding ceremony for more than twenty-five years—not since my own marriage," he added, slowly, in a low tone, as though making a confession.

Darrell's heart throbbed painfully; it was the first allusion he had ever heard the other make to his own past, and from his tone and manner Darrell knew that he himself had unwittingly touched the great, hidden sorrow in his friend's life.

"Forgive me!" he said, with the humility and simplicity of a child.

"I have nothing to forgive," Mr. Britton replied, gently, fixing his eyes with a look of peculiar affection upon Darrell's face. "You know more now, my son, than the whole world knows or has known in all these years; and some day in the near future you shall know all, because, for some inexplicable reason, you, out of the whole world, seem nearest to me."

A few moments later he resumed, with more of his usual manner, "I am not quite myself to-night. The events of the last few days have rather upset me, and," with one of his rare smiles, "I have come to you to get righted."

"To me?" Darrell exclaimed.

"Yes; why not?"

"I am but your pupil,—one who is just beginning to look above his own selfish sorrows only through the lessons you have taught him."

"You over-estimate the little I have tried to do for you; but were it even as you say, I would come to you and to no one else. To whom did the Divine Master himself turn for human sympathy in his last hours of grief and suffering but to his little band of pupils—his disciples? And in proportion as they had learned of Him and imbibed His spirit, in just that proportion could they enter into his feelings and minister to his soul."

Mr. Britton had withdrawn the cards from the envelope and was regarding them thoughtfully.

"The receipt of those bits of pasteboard," he said, slowly, "unmanned me more than anything that has occurred in nearly a score of years. They called up long-forgotten scenes,—little pathetic, heart-rending memories which I thought buried long ago. I don't mind confessing to you, my boy, that for a while I was unnerved. It did not seem as though I could ever bring myself to hear again the music of wedding-bells and wedding-marches, to listen to the old words of the marriage service. But for the sake of one who has seemed almost as my own child I throttled those feelings and started for the mountains, resolved that no selfishness of mine should cloud her happiness on her wedding day. I came, to find, what I would never have believed possible, that my old friend would sacrifice his child's happiness, all that is sweetest and holiest in her life, to gratify his own ambition. I cannot tell you the shock it was to me. D. K. Underwood and I have been friends for many years, but that did not prevent my talking plainly with him—so plainly that perhaps our friendship may never be the same again. But it was of no avail, and the worst is, he has persuaded himself that he is acting for her good, when it is simply for the gratification of his own pride. I could not stay there; the very atmosphere seemed oppressive; so I came up here for a day or two, as I told you, to get righted."

"And you came to me to be righted," Darrell said, musingly; "'Can the blind lead the blind?'"

Mr. Britton was quick to catch the significance of he other's query.

"Yes, John," he answered, covering Darrell's hand with his own; "I came to you for the very reason that your hurt is far deeper than mine."

Under the magnetism of that tone and touch Darrell calmly and in few words told his story and Kate's,—the story of their love and brief happiness, and of the wretchedness which followed.

"For a while I constantly reproached myself for having spoken to her of love," he said, in conclusion; "for having awakened her love, as I thought, by my own; but gradually I came to see that she had loved me, as I had her, unconsciously, almost from our first meeting, and that the awakening must in any event have come sooner or later to each of us. Then it seemed as though my suffering all converged in sorrow for her, that her life, instead of being gladdened by love, should be saddened and marred, perhaps wrecked, by it."

"Love works strange havoc with human lives sometimes," Mr. Britton remarked, reflectively, as Darrell paused.

"I was tempted at times," Darrell continued, "as I thought of what was in store for her, to rescue her at any cost; tempted to take her and go with her to the ends of the earth, if necessary; anywhere, to save her from the life she dreads."

"Thank God that you did not, my son!" Mr. Britton exclaimed, strangely agitated by Darrell's words; "you do not know what the cost might have been in the end; what bitter remorse, what agony of ceaseless regret!"

He stopped abruptly, and again Darrell felt that he had looked for an instant into those depths so sacredly guarded from the eyes of the world.

"You did well to leave as you did," Mr. Britton said, after a moment's silence, in which he had regained his composure.

"I had to; I should have done something desperate if I had remained there much longer."

Darrell spoke quietly, but it was the quiet of suppressed passion.

"It was better so—better for you both," Mr. Britton continued; "when we find ourselves powerless to save our loved ones from impending trouble, all that is left us is to help them bear that trouble as best we may. The best help you can give Kate now is to take yourself as completely as possible out of her life. How you can best help her later time alone will show."

A long silence followed, while both watched the flickering flames and listened to the crooning of the wind outside. When at length they spoke it was on topics of general interest; the outlook at the mining camp, the latest news in the town below, till their talk at last drifted to the recent hold-up.

"A dastardly piece of work!" exclaimed Mr. Britton. "The death of that young express clerk was in some ways even sadder than that of Harry Whitcomb. I knew him well; the only child of a widowed mother; a poor boy who, by indomitable energy and unswerving integrity, had just succeeded in securing the position which cost him his life. Two such brutal, cowardly murders ought to arouse the people to such systematic, concerted action as would result in the final arrest and conviction of the murderer."

"It is the general opinion that both were committed by one and the same party," Darrell remarked, as his friend paused.

"Undoubtedly both were the work of the same hand, in all probability that of the leader himself. He is a man capable of any crime, probably guilty of nearly every crime that could be mentioned, and his men are mere tools in his hands. He exerts a strange power over them and they obey him, knowing that their lives would pay the forfeit for disobedience. Human life is nothing to him, and any one who stood in the way of the accomplishment of his purposes would simply go the way those two poor fellows have gone."

"Why, do you know anything regarding this man?" Darrell asked in surprise.

"Only so far as I have made a study of him and his methods, aided by whatever information I could gather from time to time concerning him."

"Surely, you are not a detective!" Darrell exclaimed; "you spoke like one just now."

"Not professionally," his friend answered, with a smile; "though I have often assisted in running down criminals. I have enough of the hound nature about me, however, that when a scent is given me I delight in following the trail till I run my game to cover, as I hope some day to run this man to cover," he added, with peculiar earnestness.

"But how did you ever gain so much knowledge of him? To every one else he seems an utter mystery."

"Partly, as I said, through a study of him and his methods, and partly from facts which I learned from one of the band who was fatally shot a few years ago in a skirmish between the brigands and a posse of officials. The man was deserted by his associates and was brought to town and placed in a hospital. I did what I could to make the poor fellow comfortable, with the result that he became quite communicative with me, and, while in no way betraying his confederates, he gave me much interesting information regarding the band and its leader. It is a thoroughly organized body of men, bound together by the most fearful oaths, possessing a perfect system of signals and passwords, and with a retreat in the mountains, known as the 'Pocket,' so inaccessible to any but themselves that no one as yet has been able even to definitely locate it—a sort of basin walled about by perpendicular rocks. The leader is a man of mixed blood, who has travelled in all countries and knows many dark secrets, and whose power lies mainly in the mystery with which he surrounds himself. No one knows who he is, but many of his men believe him to be the very devil personified."

"But how can you or any one else hope to run down a man with such powerful followers and with a hiding-place so inaccessible?" Darrell inquired.

"From a remark inadvertently dropped, I was led to infer that this man spends comparatively little time with the band. He communicates with them, directs them, and personally conducts any especially bold or difficult venture; but most of the time he is amid far different surroundings, leading an altogether different life."

"One of those men with double lives," Darrell commented.

Mr. Britton bowed in assent.

"But if that were so," Darrell persisted, his interest thoroughly aroused, as much by Mr. Britton's manner as by his words, "in the event, say, of your meeting him, how would you be able to recognize or identify him? Have you any clew to his identity?"

"Years ago," said Mr. Britton, slowly, "I formed the habit of studying people; at first as I met them; later as I heard or read of them. Facts gathered here and there concerning a person's life I put together, piece by piece, studying his actions and the probable motives governing those actions, until I had a mental picture of the real man, the 'ego' that constitutes the foundation of the character of every individual. Having that fixed in my mind I next strove to form an idea of the exterior which that particular 'ego' would gradually build about himself through his habits of thought and speech and action. In this way, by a careful study of a man's life, I can form something of an idea of his appearance. I have often put this to the test by visiting various penitentiaries in order to meet some of the noted criminals of whose careers I had made a study, and invariably, in expression, in voice and manner, in gait and bearing, in the hundred and one little indices by which the soul betrays itself, I have found them as I had mentally portrayed them."

Mr. Britton had risen while speaking and was walking back and forth before the fire.

"I see!" Darrell exclaimed; "and you have formed a mental portrait of this man by which you expect to recognize and identify him?"

"I am satisfied that I would have no difficulty in recognizing him," Mr. Britton replied, with peculiar emphasis on the last words; "the work of identification,"—he paused in front of Darrell, looking him earnestly in the face,—"that, I hope, will one day be yours."

"Mine!" exclaimed Darrell. "How so? I do not understand."

"Mr. Underwood has told me that soon after your arrival at The Pines and just before you became delirious, there was something on your mind in connection with the robbery and Whitcomb's death which you wished to tell him but were unable to recall; and both he and his sister have said that often during your delirium you would mutter, 'That face! I can never forget it; it will haunt me as long as I live!' It has always been my belief that amidst the horrors of the scene you witnessed that night, you in some way got sight of the murderer's face, which impressed you so strongly that it haunted you even in your delirium. It is my hope that with the return of memory there will come a vision of that face sufficiently clear that you will be able to identify it should you meet it, as I believe you will."

Darrell scrutinized his friend closely before replying, noting his evident agitation.

"You have already met this man and recognized him!" he exclaimed.

"Possibly!" was the only reply.