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A Complete Novelette

by Jackson Gregory
Author of "The Crimson Mask," "The Red Law."


"DID you ever kill a man?" The question came quietly out of a long silence. The younger man looked up quickly from the crackling camp-fire, his eyes searching his partner's grave face for an explanation of the strangely dull note in his voice.

"No, Johnny. I never killed a man. Why?"

Johnny Watson made no answer for a little as he drew thoughtfully upon his pipe. The little, drying mountain stream upon which they had camped for the night went singing on its way under the stars.

Neither of the two men so much as stirred until after the younger man had almost forgotten the abrupt question, and was thinking upon the bed he had made of willow branches, when Johnny Watson took the pipe from between his lips, ran a brown hand across the grizzled stub of his ragged mustache and continued in the same expressionless monotone:

"I have. Three of 'em. One close to thirty years ago, Dick. A sailor, he was; and a sailor of a sort I was, too, in those days. Down where the South Seas is used to man-killing. 1 had a little money, a good deal for a sailorman to have all at one time, sewed in a bit of canvas in my shirt. Ben, he had been drunk and was mean and reckless, or I guess he wouldn't 'a' done it —Ben was a decent man after his fashion. "He come up behind with a knife. I saw his shadow, and I give it to him across the temple with a bit of scrap-iron laying on the little pier. He died two days later.

"One was twenty years gone now. They called him DeVine, and he was the crookedest man that ever put on white man's clothes. It began with cards, and ended with him trying to do me on a mine. He knowed when I had caught him, and pulled his gun first. He missed me about six inches, and we wasn't standing more than seven feet apart....

"And one was something more than eight years ago. He was no account. He murdered old Tom Richards. Tom was a pardner of mine. Tom's body wasn't cold yet when the man as murdered him went to plead his case with the Great Judge."

Again the deep stillness of the mountains shut in about them. Young Dick Farley stared curiously into his partner's face, wondering. And since the ways of the cities of the earth were not forgotten by him, the ways of men, where judges and courts and written laws were not, were new to him—he shivered slightly.

For two years he and the man who was speaking quietly of the murderous killing of men, and the killing of men in retribution, had lived together in that dose fraternity for which the West has coined the word "pardnership" from a colder word; and never had he heard old Johnny Watson talk as he did tonight. And still he waited for the man to go on, knowing that there was some reason for this unasked confidence.

"There's some things a man can explain," went on Watson. "There's a Lord's sight more he can't. When you've lived as long as I have, Dickie, alone a big three-fourths of the time, maybe you'll be like me and not try to look under things for the why so long's you know the what.

"I know now you and me are on the likeliest trail I ever put one foot down in front of the other on. And I know it's my last trail! It's 'So long' for you and me, pardner. And I'm going to know real soon what's on the other side of things."

Dick Farley sought a light rejoinder with which to meet an old miner's superstition, but he could find no words. So again there was silence between them until Watson once more spoke:

"I killed them three men in fair fight, Dickie, and with the right o' things on my side. And it ain't ever once bothered me. And now the funny part of it—I ain't so much as thought of one of them men for a month.

"You know we got too much to think about, you and me, with the trail leading us straight to more gold—our gold—than would sink a battle-ship. And today? Well, when the sun shines in ray eyes, and I wake up slow, I'm kinder dazed for a little while, and while I can't get ray bearings I'm back in the South Sea country with Ben, the sailorman. Just as plain as I'm seeing you now, Dick, I saw him. Twisted thumb and all—and I hadn't thought about that twisted thumb from that day over thirty years ago until this very morning! And all day I've been walking first with Ben and then with Flash DeVine, and then with Perry Parker, as did for poor old Tom Richards."

HE BROKE off suddenly, sitting lurched forward, his eyes meditatively upon the fire. Then he cor tinued:

"A man that didn't know would think was all nonsense. But most men that live in the way-out places of the earth, and who've took men off, fair and square—or with a knife from behind; it makes no difference would know what I know. I don't know the why, pardner. And I don't care why. You'll be looking for a new side-kick before Summer dies."

Dick stirred uneasily. Again he sought for a light, bantering reply. But the words did not come. A strange sense of fatality had crept slowly over him.

He tried to tell himself that he was listening to the expression of an old miner's superstition, that the thing was an absurdity. And while he refused to give credence to a thing which he could not understand, he had an odd sense that he and Johnny Watson were not alone. Unconsciously he drew a bit closer to the fire and to the man who was "seeing things."

"And this here the likeliest trail I ever set foot down on," said the older man, with nothing but a vague regret in the even tones. "Just two more days and we're there—maybe together and maybe you finish the trail alone, pardner. It's a month ago I picked up that first big yellow lump. The whole mountainside is rotten with gold! .And then I come back and picked you up like we'd said we would, you wearing your shoes out on flinty rocks where a man wouldn't find a color in seven lifetimes. And now we're in two days of it, and——"

He didn't finish, breaking off with a long-drawn, deep breath. His pipe had gone out and he leaned forward, picking up a blazing bit of dry pine which he held to the blackened bowl. Dick Farley noticed that the bronzed, lined face was very calm, the eyes somewhat wider opened than usual, the fingers upon the fagot as steady as should be the fingers of a man without nerves.

"Johnny—" Farley was speaking at last, with an effort, keeping his tones as steady as his partner's—"you are right when you say that there are some things which we can't explain. But it's up to us to explain what we can, isn't it? You haven't thought of those men for a long time, and now they flash up before you all of a sudden, and clear. Can't it be that I have happened to use some expression that Ben used, or that some sound from the woods about us, or some smell or even an odd color in the sunset——"

"That's like you, Dickie. Fight until you're in the last ditch, and then go on fighting!" Watson shook his head. "No, that ain't the right explanation this trip. I've seen them three men today. I've seen Flash DeVine jerk up his head with a little funny sort of twist to the left like he always used to, and I've seen the red spot by Parker's ear. I'd clean forgot them little things, Dick. No, pard'. There's no use trying to explain. I got to thinking about it this noon while you was staking out the horses, and I made a little drawing you can use if I pass out before we get to the place. It's on a cigareet paper, and I poked it inside old Shaggy's saddle-blanket. And now, boy—" standing up, his shoulders lifted and squared—"good night. If it happens I don't see you any more——"

He put out his hand suddenly. Young Dick Farley gulped down a lump in his throat as he gripped Johnny Watson's lingers. For a moment they stared into each other's eyes—then Watson turned away abruptly and with no other word went to his blankets.


IT WAS Johnny Watson's voice swearing at old Shaggy that awoke Dick Farley in the early dawn. Farley stared upward through the still tree-tops at the gray morning, his mind groping for the unpleasant something of last night. And when he remembered he smiled, thinking how he would chaff his partner about his night fears and his dead men.

But when he caught a swift glimpse of the deep-set eyes under the shaggy gray-sprinkled brows, the bantering remarks which were trooping to the end of his tongue were left unuttered. In a blind sort of way he realized that the thing which had come upon Johnny Watson yesterday had not left him. Those eyes were looking out upon death calmly, expectantly, a bit reluctantly, but not with fear and not with rebellion. Farley said nothing as he turned away and went down into the creek-bed to wash his hands and face.

Over their breakfast of coffee, bacon and flapjacks the two men talked lightly of this and that, with no mention of last night. When Watson had finished he began speaking of the day's work into the canon. He told briefly where they would leave the creek in three or four hours, where they would find water for the noon camp, where more water and grass for the evening camp.

"Tonight—we ought to be there by six—we get over the ridge and into the Devil's Pocket country. There's just one way to get out of that country, Dick, and that's the way we're going in. If a man looks for a short cut. if he goes skallyhooting east or west, north or south of the' place where our trail is going to cut into the basin there, he's a goner.

"If you leave this trail on the way back you're going to run out of water first' thing, and your horse is going to break his kg, if it ain't his neck, the next thing; and then you die because you can't pick up another waterhole. I was in that country more'n a dozen years ago. There was three of us. Me being lucky in them days, I got out. The others didn't. And I ain't never been back until I took a whirl at it last month."

The morning sun had not yet peeped down into the steep-walled ravine in which their course lay when the two men led their pack-horses out of its shadows, along the higher bank upon the right, and upon the little bench land there. They moved swiftly, with long swinging strides, and as Watson had said, within three or four hours they left the creek entirely, moved eastward through a cut in the mountains which rose steeply against them, and found what might once have been a trail.

Conversation had died. Watson was in the lead, at times hidden from his companion a hundred yards in advance. Then came the two horses. And in the rear, his brain leaping from the talk of last night to Watson's accounts of the place where "the whole side of the mountain was rotten with gold," to wondering about this Devil's Pocket, Dick Farley followed silently.

They camped a little at noon by a spring which Watson had marked upon his map, and rested for a couple of hours. The older man, unostentatiously and without effort at concealment, unlimbered the two heavy revolvers at his belt and looked to them as a man docs when he expects he will use them.

"The cards ain't played yet, Dick," he said. "And if it don't come too unexpected, we're going to give 'em a run for their money, old timer."

During the silent hours of the afternoon Farley strove to keep his partner always in sight, hurrying up the lagging horses, keeping them at Watson's heels. And, although he still told himself that he did not and would not believe in this senseless superstition, he carried all day a forty-five-caliber Colt.

ALL day they drove steadily into the mountains. For ahead of them was the thing which had called to them across the miles of wilderness, which, since the world was young, had drawn men into hardship, exile and often enough to death— soft, yellow, crumbling gold! And it was almost eight, and dark in the narrow pass, when Watson called out and Farley pushed by the horses to his side and looked on the site for their camp—"the last camp this side the strike."

It was a spring which bubbled out clear and cold upon a little flat hardly bigger than the barroom at the Eagle Hotel. And oddly, there was no creek flowing from it to mark its whereabouts. For the water ran a scant ten feet westward and sank into a great fissure in the rock.

"We'll eat first," said Watson when the two men had drunk. "The moon'll be up pretty quick. Then I'll show you something—what the Devil's Pocket country looks like."

The day had died slowly. It did not grow dark, for with the rising evening breeze the full moon climbed up through a tangle of fir-tops and barren peaks, its strong white light driving all but the most valiant stars from the sky. Watson knocked the dead ashes out of his pipe and got to his feet.

"Come ahead, Dick. We'll take a look at where we're going. Where a good many men have been—and not many come back."

They climbed from the trail along a spine of rock to a black spire, rising clear of the scanty brush. To the very top of the sloping rock they worked their cautious way until their two gaunt bodies stood outlined against the sky. Here they found footing, and here Watson stood with arm flung out, pointing. Dick Farley was not unused to the thousand moods of the mountain places, and yet as his eyes ran along the pointing arm, and beyond it eagerly, he muttered his startled admiration.

The moon, full, round and yellow, had floated clear of the distant ridges and hung in rich splendor above a long, narrow, twisting valley, the Devil's Pocket. Trees, hills, peaks and ravines stood out in the soft light, black and without detail. The floor of the winding valley took upon itself many shifting shades, a dark silver-gray here where there was a strip of sandy soil, a more somber splotch there where the willows followed a thin thread of a stream.

"There she is!" Watson exclaimed. "Th...

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