Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
IN WHICH THREE GO TO THE SIGN OF THE SLED AND BUT TWO RETURN
As Helen and her companion ascended the mountain, scarred and swept by the tempest of the previous night, they heard, far below, the swollen torrent brawling in its bowlder-ridden bed, while behind them the angry ocean spread southward to a blood-red horizon. Ahead, the bleak mountains brooded over forbidding valleys; to the west a suffused sun glared sullenly, painting the high-piled clouds with the gorgeous hues of a stormy sunset. To Helen the wild scene seemed dyed with the colors of flame and blood and steel.
"That rain raised the deuce with the trails," said Struve, as they picked their way past an unsightly "slip" whence a part of the overhanging mountain, loosened by the deluge, had slid into the gulch. "Another storm like that would wash out these roads completely."
Even in the daylight it was no easy task to avoid these danger spots, for the horses floundered on the muddy soil. Vaguely the girl wondered how she would find her way back in the darkness, as she had planned. She said little as they approached the road- house, for the thoughts within her brain had begun to clamor too wildly; but Struve, more arrogant than ever before, more terrifyingly sure of himself, was loudly garrulous. As they drew nearer and nearer, the dread that possessed the girl became of paralyzing intensity. If she should fail--but she vowed she would not, could not, fail.
They rounded a bend and saw the Sign of the Sled cradled below them where the trail dipped to a stream which tumbled from the comb above into the river twisting like a silver thread through the distant valley. A peeled flag-pole topped by a spruce bough stood in front of the tavern, while over the door hung a sled suspended from a beam. The house itself was a quaint structure, rambling and amorphous, from whose sod roof sprang blooming flowers, and whose high-banked walls were pierced here and there with sleepy windows. It had been built by a homesick foreigner of unknown nationality whom the army of "mushers" who paid for his clean and orderly hospitality had dubbed duly and as a matter of course a "Swede." When travel had changed to the river trail, leaving the house lonesome and high as though left by a receding wave, Struve had taken it over on a debt, and now ran it for the convenience of a slender traffic, mainly stampeders, who chose the higher route towards the interior. His hireling spent the idle hours in prospecting a hungry quartz lead and in doing assessment work on near-by claims.
Shortz took the horses and answered his employer's questions curtly, flashing a curious look at Helen. Under other conditions the girl would have been delighted with the place, for this was the quaintest spot she had found in the north country. The main room held bar and gold-scales, a rude table, and a huge iron heater, while its walls and ceiling were sheeted with white cloth so cunningly stitched and tacked that it seemed a cavern hollowed from chalk. It was filled with trophies of the hills, stuffed birds and animals, skins and antlers, from which depended, in careless confusion, dog harness, snow-shoes, guns, and articles of clothing. A door to the left led into the bunk-room where travellers had been wont to sleep in tiers three deep. To the rear was a kitchen and cache, to the right a compartment which Struve called the art gallery. Here, free reign had been allowed the original owner's artistic fancies, and he had covered the place with pictures clipped from gazettes of questionable repute till it was a bewildering arrangement of pink ladies in tights, pugilists in scanty trunks, prize bulldogs, and other less moral characters of the sporting world.
"This is probably the worst company you were ever in," Struve observed to Helen, with a forced attempt at lightness.
"Are there no guests here?" she asked him, her anxiety very near the surface.
"Travel is light at this time of the year. They'll come in later, perhaps."
A fire was burning in this pink room where the landlord had begun spreading the table for two, and its warmth was grateful to the girl. Her companion, thoroughly at his ease, stretched himself on a fur-covered couch and smoked.
"Let me see the papers, now, Mr. Struve," she began, but he put her off.
"No, not now. Business must wait on our dinner. Don't spoil our little party, for there's time enough and to spare."
She arose and went to the window, unable to sit still. Looking down the narrow gulch she saw that the mountains beyond were indistinct for it was growing dark rapidly. Dense clouds had rolled up from the east. A rain-drop struck the glass before her eyes, then another and another, and the hills grew misty behind the coming shower. A traveller with a pack on his back hurried around the corner of the building and past her to the door. At his knock, Struve, who had been watching Helen through half-shut eyes, arose and went into the other room.
"Thank Heaven, some one has come," she thought. The voices were deadened to a hum by the sod walls, till that of the stranger raised itself in such indignant protest that she distinguished his words.
"Oh, I've got money to pay my way. I'm no dead-head."
Shortz mumbled something back.
"I don't care if you are closed. I'm tired and there's a storm coming."
This time she heard the landlord's refusal and the miner's angry profanity. A moment later she saw the traveller plodding up the trail towards town.
"What does that mean?" she inquired, as the lawyer re-entered.
"Oh, that fellow is a tough, and Shortz wouldn't let him in. He's careful whom he entertains--there are so many bad men roaming the hills."
The German came in shortly to light the lamp, and, although she asked no further questions, Helen's uneasiness increased. She half listened to the stories with which Struve tried to entertain her and ate little of the excellent meal that was shortly served to them. Struve, meanwhile, ate and drank almost greedily, and the shadowy, sinister evening crept along. A strange cowardice had suddenly overtaken the girl; and if, at this late hour, she could have withdrawn, she would have done so gladly and gone forth to meet the violence of the tempest. But she had gone too far for retreat; and realizing that, for the present, apparent compliance was her wisest resource, she sat quiet, answering the man with cool words while his eyes grew brighter, his skin more flushed, his speech more rapid. He talked incessantly and with feverish gayety, smoking numberless cigarettes and apparently unconscious of the flight of time. At last he broke off suddenly and consulted his watch, while Helen remembered that she had not heard Shortz in the kitchen for a long time. Suddenly Struve smiled on her peculiarly, with confident cunning. As he leered at her over the disorder between them he took from his pocket a flat bundle which he tossed to her.
"Now for the bargain, eh?"
"Ask the man to remove these dishes," she said, as she undid the parcel with clumsy fingers.
"I sent him away two hours ago," said Struve, arising as if to come to her. She shrank back, but he only leaned across, gathered up the four corners of the tablecloth, and, twisting them together, carried the whole thing out, the dishes crashing and jangling as he threw his burden recklessly into the kitchen. Then he returned and stood with his back to the stove, staring at her while she perused the contents of the papers, which were more voluminous than she had supposed.
For a long time the girl pored over the documents. The purport of the papers was only too obvious; and, as she read, the proof of her uncle's guilt stood out clear and damning. There was no possibility of mistake; the whole wretched plot stood out plain, its darkest infamies revealed.
In spite of the cruelty of her disillusionment, Helen was nevertheless exalted with the fierce ecstasy of power, with the knowledge that justice would at last be rendered. It would be her triumph and her expiation that she, who had been the unwitting tool of this miserable clique, would be the one through whom restitution was made. She arose with her eyes gleaming and her lips set.
"It is here."
"Of course it is. Enough to convict us all. It means the penitentiary for your precious uncle and your lover." He stretched his chin upward at the mention as though to free his throat from an invisible clutch. "Yes, your lover particularly, for he's the real one. That's why I brought you here. He'll marry you, but I'll be the best man." The timbre of his voice was unpleasant.
"Come, let us go," she said.
"Go," he chuckled, mirthlessly. "That's a fine example of unconscious humor."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, first, no human being could find his way down to the coast in this tempest; second--but, by-the-way, let me explain something in those papers while I think of it." He spoke casually and stepped forward, reaching for the package, which she was about to give up, when something prompted her to snatch it behind her back; and it was well she did, for his hand was but a few inches away. He was no match for her quickness, however, and she glided around the table, thrusting the papers into the front of her dress. The sudden contact with Cherry's revolver gave her a certain comfort. She spoke now with determination.
"I intend to leave here at once. Will you bring my horse? Very well, I shall do it myself."
She turned, but his indolence vanished like a flash, and springing in front of the door he barred her way.
"Hold on, my lady. You ought to understand without my saying any more. Why did I bring you here? Why did I plan this little party? Why did I send that man away? Just to give you the proof of my complicity in a crime, I suppose. Well, hardly. You won't leave here to-night. And when you do, you won't carry those papers--my own safety depends on that and I am selfish, so don't get me started. Listen!" They caught the wail of the night crying as though hungry for sacrifice. "No, you'll stay here and--"
He broke off abruptly, for Helen had stepped to the telephone and taken down the receiver. He leaped, snatched it from her, and then, tearing the instrument loose from the wall, raised it above his head, dashed it upon the floor, and sprang towards her, but she wrenched herself free and fled across the room. The man's white hair was wildly tumbled, his face was purple, and his neck and throat showed swollen, throbbing veins. He stood still, however, and his lips cracked into his ever-present, cautious smile.
"Now, don't let's fight about this. It's no use, for I've played to win. You have your proof--now I'll have my price--or else I'll take it. Think over which it will be, while I lock up."
Far down the mountain-side a man was urging a broken pony recklessly along the trail. The beast was blown and spent, its knees weak and bending, yet the rider forced it as though behind him yelled a thousand devils, spurring headlong through gully and ford, up steep slopes and down invisible ravines. Sometimes the animal stumbled and fell with its master, sometimes they arose together, but the man was heedless of all except his haste, insensible to the rain which smote him blindingly, and to the wind which seized him savagely upon the ridges, or gasped at him in the gullies with exhausted malice. At last he gained the plateau and saw the road-house light beneath, so drove his heels into the flanks of the wind-broken creature, which lunged forward gamely. He felt the pony rear and drop away beneath him, pawing and scrambling, and instinctively kicked his feet free from the stirrups, striving to throw himself out of the saddle and clear of the thrashing hoofs. It seemed that he turned over in the air before something smote him and he lay still, his gaunt, dark face upturned to the rain, while about him the storm screamed exultantly.
The moment Struve disappeared into the outer room Helen darted to the window. It was merely a single sash, nailed fast and immovable, but seizing one of the little stools beside the stove she thrust it through the glass, letting in a smother of wind and water. Before she could escape, Struve bounded into the room, his face livid with anger, his voice hoarse and furious.
But as he began to denounce her he paused in amazement, for the girl had drawn Cherry's weapon and levelled it at him. She was very pale and her breast heaved as from a swift run, while her wondrous gray eyes were lit with a light no man had ever seen there before, glowing like two jewels whose hearts contained the pent-up passion of centuries. She had altered as though under the deft hand of a master-sculptor, her nostrils growing thin and arched, her lips tight pressed and pitiless, her head poised proudly. The rain drove in through the shattered window, over and past her, while the cheap red curtain lashed and whipped her as though in gleeful applause. Her bitter abhorrence of the man made her voice sound strangely unnatural as she commanded:
"Don't dare to stop me." She moved towards the door, motioning him to retreat before her, and he obeyed, recognizing the danger of her coolness. She did not note the calculating treachery of his glance, however, nor fathom the purposes he had in mind.
Out on the rain-swept mountain the prostrate rider had regained his senses and now was crawling painfully towards the road-house. Seen through the dark he would have resembled some misshapen, creeping monster, for he dragged himself, reptile-like, close to the ground. But as he came closer the man heard a cry which the wind seemed guarding from his ear, and, hearing it, he rose and rushed blindly forward, staggering like a wounded beast.
Helen watched her captive closely as he backed through the door before her, for she dared not lose sight of him until free. The middle room was lighted by a glass lamp on the bar and its rays showed that the front-door was secured by a large iron bolt. She thanked Heaven there was no lock and key.
Struve had retreated until his back was to the counter, offering no word, making no move, but the darting brightness of his eyes showed that he was alert and planning. But when the door behind Helen, urged by the wind through the broken casement, banged to, the man made his first lightning-like sign. He dashed the lamp to the floor, where it burst like an eggshell, and darkness leaped into the room as an animal pounces. Had she been calmer or had time for an instant's thought Helen would have hastened back to the light, but she was midway to her liberty and actuated by the sole desire to break out into the open air, so plunged forward. Without warning, she was hurled from her feet by a body which came out of the darkness upon her. She fired the little gun, but Struve's arms closed about her, the weapon was wrenched from her hand, and she found herself fighting against him, breast to breast, with the fury of desperation. His wine-burdened breath beat into her face and she felt herself bound to him as though by hoops, while the touch of his cheek against hers turned her into a terrified, insensate animal, which fought with every ounce of its strength and every nerve of its body. She screamed once, but it was not like the cry of a woman. Then the struggle went on in silence and utter blackness, Strove holding her like a gorilla till she grew faint and her head began to whirl, while darting lights drove past her eyes and there was the roar of a cataract in her ears. She was a strong girl, and her ripe young body, untried until this moment, answered in every fibre, so that she wrestled with almost a man's strength and he had hard shift to hold her. But so violent an encounter could not last. Helen felt herself drifting free from the earth and losing grip of all things tangible, when at last they tripped and fell against the inner door. This gave way, and at the same moment the man's strength departed as though it were a thing of darkness and dared not face the light that streamed over them. She tore herself from his clutch and staggered into the supper-room, her loosened hair falling in a gleaming torrent about her shoulders, while he arose from his knees and came towards her again, gasping:
"I'll show you who's master here--"
Then he ceased abruptly, cringingly, and threw up an arm before his face as if to ward off a blow. Framed in the window was the pallid visage of a man. The air rocked, the lamp flared, and Struve whirled completely around, falling back against the wall. His eyes filled with horror and shifted down where his hand had clutched at his breast, plucking at one spot as if tearing a barb from his bosom. He jerked his head towards the door at his elbow in quest of a retreat a shudder ran over him, his knees buckled and he plunged forward upon his face, his arm still doubled under him.
It had happened like a flash of light, and although Helen felt, rather than heard, the shot and saw her assailant fall, she did not realize the meaning of it till a drift of powder smoke assailed her nostrils. Even so, she experienced no shock nor horror of the sight. On the contrary, a savage joy at the spectacle seized her and she stood still, leaning slightly forward, staring at it almost gloatingly, stood so till she heard her name called, "Helen, little sister!" and, turning, saw her brother in the window.
That which he witnessed in her face he had seen before in the faces of men locked close with a hateful death and from whom all but the most elemental passions had departed--but he had never seen a woman bear the marks till now. No artifice nor falsity was there, nothing but the crudest, intensest feeling, which many people live and die without knowing. There are few who come to know the great primitive, passionate longings. But in this black night, fighting in defence of her most sacred self, this girl's nature had been stripped to its purely savage elements. As Glenister had predicted, Helen at last had felt and yielded to irresistibly powerful impulse.
Glancing backward at the creature sprawled by the door, Helen went to her brother, put her arms about his neck, and kissed him.
"He's dead?" the Kid asked her.
She nodded and tried to speak, but began to shiver and sob instead.
"Unlock the door," he begged her. "I'm hurt, and I must get in."
When the Kid had hobbled into the room, she pressed him to her and stroked his matted head, regardless of his muddy, soaking garments.
"I must look at him. He may not be badly hurt," said the Kid.
"Don't touch him!" She followed, nevertheless, and stood near by while her brother examined his victim. Struve was breathing, and, discovering this, the others lifted him with difficulty to the couch.
"Something cracked in here--ribs, I guess," the Kid remarked, gasping and feeling his own side. He was weak and pale, and the girl led him into the bunk-room, where he could lie down. Only his wonderful determination had sustained him thus far, and now the knowledge of his helplessness served to prevent Helen's collapse.
The Kid would not hear of her going for help till the storm abated or daylight came, insisting that the trails were too treacherous and that no time could be saved by doing so. Thus they waited for the dawn. At last they heard the wounded man faintly calling. He spoke to Helen hoarsely. There was no malice, only fear, in his tones:
"I said this was my madness--and I got what I deserved, but I'm going to die. O God--I'm going to die and I'm afraid." He moaned till the Bronco Kid hobbled in, glaring with unquenched hatred.
"Yes, you're going to die and I did it. Be game, can't you? I sha'n't let her go for help until daylight."
Helen forced her brother back to his couch, and returned to help the wounded man, who grew incoherent and began to babble.
A little later, when the Kid seemed stronger and his head clearer, Helen ventured to tell him of their uncle's villany and of the proof she held, with her hope of restoring justice. She told him of the attack planned that very night and of the danger which threatened the miners. He questioned her closely and, realizing the bearing of her story, crept to the door, casting the wind like a hound.
"We'll have to risk it," said he. "The wind is almost gone and it's not long till daylight."
She pleaded to go alone, but he was firm. "I'll never leave you again, and, moreover, I know the lower trail quite well. We'll go down the gulch to the valley and reach town that way. It's farther but it's not so dangerous."
"You can't ride," she insisted.
"I can if you'll tie me into the saddle. Come, get the horses."
It was still pitchy dark and the rain was pouring, but the wind only sighed weakly as though tired by its violence when she helped the Bronco into his saddle. The effort wrenched a groan from him, but he insisted upon her tying his feet beneath the horse's belly, saying that the trail was rough and he could take no chance of falling again; so, having performed the last services she might for Struve, she mounted her own animal and allowed it to pick its way down the steep descent behind her brother, who swayed and lurched drunkenly in his seat, gripping the horn before him with both hands.
They had been gone perhaps a half-hour when another horse plunged furiously out of the darkness and halted before the road-house door. Its rider, mud-stained and dishevelled, flung himself in mad haste to the ground and bolted in through the door. He saw the signs of confusion in the outer room, chairs upset and broken, the table wedged against the stove, and before the counter a shattered lamp in a pool of oil. He called loudly, but, receiving no answer, snatched a light which, he found burning and ran to the door at his left. Nothing greeted him but the empty tiers of bunks. Turning, he crossed to the other side and burst through. Another lamp was lighted beside the couch where Struve lay, breathing heavily, his lids half closed over his staring eyes. Roy noted the pool of blood at his feet and the broken window; then, setting down his lamp, he leaned over the man and spoke to him.
When he received no answer he spoke again loudly. Then, in a frenzy, Glenister shook the wounded man cruelly, so that he cried out in terror:
"I'm dying--oh, I'm dying." Roy raised the sick man up and thrust his own face before his eyes.
"This is Glenister. I've come for Helen--where is she?" A spark of recognition flickered into the dull stare.
"You're too late--I'm dying--and I'm afraid."
His questioner shook Struve again. "Where is she?" he repeated, time after time, till by very force of his own insistence he compelled realization in the sufferer.
"The Kid took her away. The Kid shot me," and then his voice rose till it flooded the room with terror. "The Kid shot me and I'm dying." He coughed blood to his lips, at which Roy laid him back and stood up. So there was no mistake, after all, and he had arrived too late. This was the Kid's revenge. This was how he struck. Lacking courage to face a man's level eyes, he possessed the foulness to prey upon a woman. Roy felt a weakening physical sickness sweep over him till his eye fell upon a sodden garment which Helen had removed from her brother's shoulders and replaced with a dry one. He snatched it from the floor and in a sudden fury felt it come apart in his hands like wet tissue-paper.
He found himself out in the rain, scanning the trampled soil by light of his lamp, and discerned tracks which the drizzle had not yet erased. He reasoned mechanically that the two riders could have no great start of him, so strode out beyond the house to see if they had gone farther into the hills. There were no tracks here, therefore they must have doubled back towards town. It did not occur to him that they might have left the beaten path and followed down the little creek to the river; but, replacing the light where he had found it, he remounted and lashed his horse into a stiff canter up towards the divide that lay between him and the city. The story was growing plainer to him, though as yet he could not piece it all together. Its possibilities stabbed him with such horror that he cried out aloud and beat his steed into faster time with both hands and feet. To think of those two ruffians fighting over this girl as though she were the spoils of pillage! He must overtake the Kid--he WOULD! The possibility that he might not threw him into such ungovernable mental chaos that he was forced to calm himself. Men went mad that way. He could not think of it. That gasping creature in the road-house spoke all too well of the Bronco's determination. And yet, who of those who had known the Kid in the past would dream that his vileness was so utter as this?
Away to the right, hidden among the shadowed hills, his friends rested themselves for the coming battle, waiting impatiently his return, and timing it to the rising sun. Down in the valley to his left were the two he followed, while he, obsessed and unreasoning, now cursing like a madman, now grim and silent, spurred southward towards town and into the ranks of his enemies.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.