Who hath known the Quest! ... the Call, the thing
At the beckon of which men go wandering.
Fleece of the Fables, the Holiest Grail,
The maddest adventure that e'er raised a sail
Or tempted a covetous crew
Are to it but a voyage and the length of a day
This is the Quest that men follow alway;
The Quest that draws me and you.
Oh! this was the thought when the first man sighed;
Happy the Questant, satisfied.
- The Song Of Everyman.
IT happened on one of the red-letter nights when O'Flynn rode over from Carson's with the pay. O'Flynn accomplished this little trick once a month and the night was a red-letter one, for it completed, with reward, a whole month's labor and solitude and eternal cussedness - if such things can be measured in coin. Then gambling debts were paid, and the boys were square, and the world was begun over again. Life for these men of the ranches was a chain of monthly links, each of which dropped away into oblivion with the coming of O'Flynn from Carson's. That which they had done they had done, and they put the month aside without regret.
This happening coincidently with the advent of O'Flynn and the pay was not an innovation. It had occurred at regular intervals, perhaps quarterly, for years. It concerned McConnell. They regarded it in the same fatalistic fashion as they looked on the monthly drunk of Pattison, who would ride over to' Carson's heavily laden with his wage and would ride hack somehow, equally heavily laden with "Prescott's Beacon Light XXX." But while it may not have surprised the men, this happening concerning McConnell, in strict truth it always caused a slight rustle of comment.
They were sitting in front of the quarters, Duffy, Johnson, Ed' Lewis, and the rest, when McConnell tapped out the tobacco from his pipe and said reflectively:
"Well, boys, I've got my stake."
This was addressed to them as a body. Only Duffy felt the necessity of responding; "What's that, Mac?" he sharply called out, getting up from his unusually graceful position in the doorway.
"Guess I've got to call, Duff," said McConnell. He said this as if he almost regretted it, as if there was some faint desire of his heart not to be forced to say it. In the short silence following, Duffy's cigarette-smoke seemed almost to mark the time.
"Gosh, Mac!" he broke out finally. "There ain't no use in your goin' off, an' - an' spendin' all that coin. How much? - four months, ain't it?"
"Four months, right yeh are, Duff," answered McConnell slowly. "Three hundred, but for that tidy lump I paid Johnson in two hours' poker -"
"Well, we've all got our little ways," commented Johnson, who felt constrained to say something.
"Yes," said McConnell.
"But, hang me, if I don't think you'd be gettin' tired by now, Mac," went on Duffy from the doorway. "Let me see, you an' me have been ropin' together nigh onto five year, ain't it? And you've had a little hunch that way nearly every four or five months in that time. An' you always come back broke, an - say, what's into you, Mac? What fun do you get out of it, anyway?"
McConnell sighed. He plucked somewhat nervously at a shirt-button. "I don't know as there's any fun in it, Duff," he said, seeming to take the question under consideration. "Guess it's the call - somethin' - never could understand it myself, but somehow it comes round reg'lar-like. I'll tell yeh what happened to me onct, though."
There was a little stir of expectation now. McConnell was known to be a quiet, secretive sort of man. Never before had he offered anything in the line of a yarn. Martin came up just then with some remark about "them cattle in the Ryos bottom," but Johnson fiercely censured him for the interruption, and a general chorus warned him to hold his peace or go into obscurity with a broken head.
It was growing all gray about the little cattle quarters. The half-gilded dun haze which had so long brooded over the undulating stretches was now giving way to a dimly advancing curtain of purplish shadow which seemed to be flung up in puffs like smoke from behind hillocks now deeply shaded. Far off, the ridge-pole of the range had grown hard with the rust-red tinges of iron in the last glances of a drowsy sun. The hood of the, Monk's Head was still crimson, but the robe of it trailed in the night. About the quarters was an atmosphere of thin lavender, touched here and there with the red-gold halo of pipe and cigarette as they offered incense to the weaver of tales. A long line of corral fence merged off into the dusk vaguely as a snake, and the breeze bad risen for a night frolic in the dust-garbed grasses.
"Used to be just like this at Hardin's place, didn't it, Duff? " said McConnell, as a sort of prelude, shying a match away from him.
"Why, yes, it does make me think of Hardin's onct in a while, but -"
"That's where I first seen you, Duff."
"Yeh didn't say much in them days, Mac."
"No - yeh see, it was like this. In days I bad it just as bad as I got it now, only different. Used to work for Hardin' like a dog for a stretch an' then I'd get a piece of coin together an' shy off to the nearest town, or what answered for a town in that country, an' the next few days would be a gilded buzz. That was me, McConnell. Hardin didn't like it, but I always came back an' acted proper - till next time."
"But you left Hardin," ventured Duffy.
"That's what I'm telling yeh about - 'bout when I left Hardin, and why I left Hardin... Sure."
Martin came back at this point and sat himself down at the edge of the group. The lavender mist was changing into heavy drifting purples and the corral fence was a mystery of line and shadow.
"It was just after you came to Hardin's, Duff. I got some easy five hundred that time an' I makes off. Went up toward Lone Hill. Say, that was a rucktious place. On the way I lingered a few days in Red Dog, and the Red Dogites relieved me of a cool two hundred by means of a game they had there which I didn't know, and I was some sore, you bet. I had a few dishes of Red Dog brandy just previous to leavin', and they gave me plenty of room, so I heads for Lone Hill. I knew the nature of the place, but I hadn't no fear. I put up with Smith. You remember Smith, Long John, with the whiskers, of course. So I took a couple o' days to look around the town, gettin' acquainted meanwhile with all the wet goods that Long John had on hand, an' it was a Tuesday night, if I remember correct, that this matter began.
"I happened into that long yellow place on the main street where a fellow could go the limit if he liked an' nothin' said. I had two hundred left, an' the game suited me but somehow, there wasn't anything to it. I saw my pile getting thinner an' thinner and I could see Hardin's getting plainer and plainer for me. Says I. 'Soon I'll be back rammin' and jammin' them cattle again - for three long months I'll be at it. Oh, Lord!' says I. An' then I'd bet another ten, and that green-eyed rascal across the hoard would rake it in, an' I'd be just ten dollars nearer Hardin's and the cattle. I know I got right down to the last ten in gold, an' som'thin' took a grip on me right there, which the same said I'd need that ten to get out and away. Som'thin' told me that I'd have to eat on my way back to Hardin's, so I pockets the stuff right shrewd and walks out.
"'Got enough?' called out the fellow after me.
"'Too much,' says I back, trying to be genial.
"'Come again,' he says.
"'Maybe,' I says.
"And then, when I had got outside the door and had just turned down toward Long John's place, then I met her."
McConnell went into his pocket for another match, and busied himself relighting his pipe as if it was a very serious matter.
They made no demands on him for the rest of the story. The new character demanded silence. It was all dark now around the quarters. The corral fence had snaked away, the Monk's hood had disappeared, and only a handful of moist stars looked out from a doubtful sky. The flame of the match painted the man's earnest face for a moment.
"She was a pretty sort, brown hair, brown eyes, an' her face wasn't hard, like Smith's wife. No, she was in Lone Hill, but yeh forgot Lone Hill when yeh looked at her. She had quite a figure, too, I remember, and her arms they were plump. She was dressed a bit neater than most wimmen you'd meet in that town, whether they was men's wives or not, which the most of them were not; but I met her just under the light outside that long yellow place, an' - an' somebody was playin' the pianny inside, an' she looked awful pretty an' good to me. She says to me without any hesitation, says she: 'Is Bill in there?'
"'Who's Bill?' I asks her.
"'Why, he's - Bill's that fellow with the brown mustache and the white hat. I think he was playin' at the middle table awhile ago. He's my - my husband, is Bill.'
"'Sure enough,' says I to her, remembering the fellow. 'I think your Bill was cleaned out half an hour ago, like most every one else that goes up against that green-eyed dealer.'
"That seemed to get her. 'Oh!' she says to me, 'I'm afraid of that man. He's always tryin' to get Bill to play, an' Bill always loses, an' then Bill goes off - an' it's terrible times till he gets his stake back again. Get Bill to come away from there, won't you?' she asks that of me.
"Well, I was always a soft cuss, anyway, so I told her to keep away from the door an' to wait a bit. I goes back into the place, all' there, just as I comes in from one side, up comes this fellow Bill from the other. I had thought he was cleaned out, but I see he has money in his hand. We both reached the tables about together.
"'Hello!' calls out the green-eyed chap, grinning a little. 'Are you two fellows back again? Thought you'd stopped for to-night, sure.
"'Yes, I'm back,' says Bill. An' I could see that Bill had been collectin' more than money where he'd been outside, for his eyes were looking nasty and wide an' he seemed nervous.
"'See here, Bill,' says I, cautious.
"'I don't know you, pardner,' he says to me.
"'No, but I want a word with you.'
"'You can wait a minute, can't yeh?' he growls back. An' I could see there was som'thin' on his mind, serious.
"'Oh, of course, no hurry,' I said, trying to appear easy, which I wasn't by no means. Bill puts twenty dollars on the queen. A minute afterward he calls out at the dealer, with a curse: 'I thought so,' says he, vicious, reaching for his money with one hand and whipping the other behind him, 'I thought so, you damned sneak, you're crooked!'
"An' with that there was a scuffle and a shot. I got confused-like, as a man will who ain't expecting trouble. Bill went staggering backward across the room, catchin' at chair-backs with one hand while he pulled at his throat with the other, an' then he fell across a table, an' lay there like a log. I could see that he was done for, an' I thought of the little woman out in the street, waitin'. There stood that green-eyed devil at his table with a gun in his hand, an' the men crowding up, an' the chairs turning over in the rush, an' the whole place in a hell of a row. It made me mad and sick to see it, an' the lights went round in little greasy yellow circles, an' my eyes hurt, an' my mouth got so dry I choked, an' then I saw somethin' at the doorway. It was the brown-haired woman. She didn't scream out nor say anything, but just stood there, leanin' up against the jamb with her two hands clasped at her breast, an' the look on her face.
"All this time some one was talkin', talkin', loud and fast. It got into my ears like a rumble. Then I began to hear words. I guess it was all in a second, but to me it seemed longer.
"'He tried to shoot me!' yells the green-eyed fellow, explaining to the other men, an they were an angry lot. 'He said I dealt a crooked game!'
"By that time I had got the sickness out of my eyes an' I could see the woman go across the room to look into the dead man's face as he lay backward across the table, but she didn't touch him, only shrank away as if she was afraid, an' put up her hands to her face. Then all the mad in me came out. In a second I had pushed into the table an' stood right across from that protestin' pair of green eyes. The fellow was scared, 'cause he could see that his story wasn't getting much sympathy, an' I yells at him:
"You do deal a crooked game, you greasy gambler!" for I had been watching him some close on that last affair.
"'What!' he screamed, his eyes getting wild.
"'You - you - you deal a crooked game, an' you killed this man, an' you're going to swing for it!'
"Then he began to swear vengeance. 'I'll kill you, too!' he cried, vicious, an' he flung himself at me, forgetting he had a gun in his hand even, but two of the men caught his arm and tried to take it away from him. They mastered him all right, like a wild beast he was, an' they got him by the throat. I had been waitin' for him to get loose, just. I wouldn't have been idle with that blue-skinned toy I carried in them days, an' there'd have been a dealer less in that town sooner But there. I'm running ahead of the rest of it.
"They took him off to pen him up, cause, while Lone Hill was bad, it didn't stand for such free shooting as that without some comment. The chairs were pushed back, an' the place got quiet. Then once again I turned down the street toward Long John's, and once again there stood that woman, weepin'. Somehow, I knew she was lonely an' miserable.
"'Why don't yeh go home?' I asked her.
"'They've taken Bill there,' she said.
"'Are you afraid? Can't yeh get some woman to stay with you?'
"'No,' she says, crying. 'The right kind won't come, an' -'
"'Oh!' says I. 'I see, the good'uns are too good an' the bad'uns ain't good enough. Well, what's the matter with me? I'm all right. Here, I'll go with yeh,' and we went off together to Bill's house.
"It was a little board shack of two rooms. They had put Bill in the rear one, which was a bedroom, and she went in there to sit by him. It got late. I stayed in the kitchen an' I could hear her cryin', cryin'. Then I must have dropped off in a doze, for it got very late all of a sudden. She was still cryin', an' I went to the room door, and said:
"'Come, come, don't cry so.' Her eyes were as red as blood and her pretty brown hair was all rumpled. 'The man's dead,' says I, kind as I could 'An' you'll only make yourself sick, you will sure.'
"'He was good to me,' she said.
"'Of course, an' I know you loved him, but -'
"She shook her head quickly. 'No,' she said earnestly, 'I didn't love Bill, but he was Bill, an' he had been good and square with me, an' I ought to be dead for not loving him, an' I didn't ever want Bill to die while he lived -'
"'You didn't want -' I was sure puzzled at that, but the answer came from the outside. There was a tap at the door. I could hear the pawin' of a horse - two horses. A man demanded to be let inside. I looked at the woman and she was afraid.
"'It's him,' she whispered, shrinking.
"I stepped back into the room where Bill lay an' I said to her, stern-like: 'Go open that door, woman.'
"She looked at me an' then she slipped to the door as if it was the mouth of hell - but she opened it. The green-eyed fellow came inside quickly an' shut the door and stood there with his back to it. He was gray-white in the face an' his eyes were gleamin' like a snake's when it means dirty business.
"'I've got away from 'em,' he said, breathing hard an' grinnin' a little. 'There was a loose board down in the back wall an' I pried it away. Got my two horses out there an' I've come for you.'
"She got away from him to the wall, just as a woman would if a real snake was in the room, till she couldn't get no farther. The man came out into the center now, looking at her as if he'd eat her. An' I wasn't growin' none too easy in my mind. I didn't know whether to kill him right then or to act fair and give him a chance.
"'Oh! that business won't go with me, he said, watching her. 'I've always wanted yeh, long before that man Bill came, an' I told him I'd kill him because of you, an' I did, by God! I did, an' you're coming with me to-night, or I'll put yeh alongside o' Bill, d'ye mind that!' he said, an' he gets out his trusty little gun.
"But I caught a glimpse o' the woman. Her eyes were staring right into mine from across the room an' she was beggin' me to help her. I motioned for her to move to the right, which she was sharp an' did, always watching him as if he was that snake I mentioned, an' that brought the scoundrel back to me. I could have dropped him proper from behind, but I wanted to feel his neck in my two hands. He heard me coming and tried to turn, but I got him with a tight grip an' I made him blue in the face with a double twist. He tried to bring the gun up, but the strength dripped out o' him an' he went down like a rag. Hand and foot I tied him. He wasn't goin' to get loose from that piece of rope, an' I tied him by his neck and his knees to the post of the bed where Bill lay. Then I came out and shut the door.
"'We'll take his horses,' I said to the woman."
McConnell had talked so long that he was tired and dry. He asked Duffy to reach him a dipper of water and drank as if the throat of him was of lime.
"We got away from Lone Hill that night, leavin' that cuss tied neck and knees, an' we rode out over the flats. It was all quiet when we crossed the Little Windy at the ford an' came down toward Carson's. 'Bout a million stars were out, all bright and cold, and it was so still an' the world seemed an awful big, lonely place for a woman to be. All the way I was thinking how helpless she was, an' how pretty she was, an' how she had looked when I had first seen her under the lamp just outside that yellow gambling hell in Lone Hill. Then we rode by that old church the padres built for the Indians and I said to her:
"'Are yeh sure there was nobody but Bill - an' him?' I said.
"'Only Bill,' she says to me.
"'And I didn't say anything more for a little time.
"'Well,' says I at last, after thinking it over. 'Bill's dead, poor chap, an' they'll string that other devil up in the morning as sure - as sure - so why not come with me? We can go over to the mission an' fix it all right with the padre.'
"We went on half a mile before she answered. Then she said: 'Are you sure you know - you understand - 'bout Bill?'
"An' I had thought it over some, too; an' I had thought of Hardin's and that damned cattle country, an' the loneliness, an' the whole uselessness of it - working like a dog for three months, then a week's drunk, then three months' misery some more, an' so I says to her:
"'Well, I ain't much of a fellow, but I'll stick to the rules and say nothin' if you will. I'll play the game square if you will.'
"'I didn't love Bill,' she said.
"'But will you love me - as I love you?' I asked her.
"And then I kissed her."
McConnell sighed and stood up.
"Well?" asked Duffy, as if he thought there should be a sequel.
"She was as white as the best woman that ever lived," said McConnell, his voice getting very deep and gentle. "She knew how to play the game straight. She got prettier and prettier until she was a queen. We lived down at Turrajas for a year, almost. An' not once in that year did I go drinking, or wandering, or wanting to. There was always some one waiting for me, yeh see, some one that took the whole bitter edge off this life out here. And then - then I came back to work for Hardin, you remember, Duffy. I left her down there at Turrajas. There's a place near the old mission where they put 'em when they go off sudden like she did. But she was white, she was, while she lasted, an' I got a fellow to put som'thin' like that, only better worded, on a big piece o' granite. It's down there near the mission. An' - an' - then I came back to work for Hardin - you know -"
McConnell went to the house-wall and took down his bridle. He came back to the silent group and stood for a moment as if thinking. " Guess I'll go over Brinkerman's way, Duff, if the old man wants to know. Tell him I've got my stake again - that I guess I'll be back some time, all right - an' that's all, I guess."
Duffy said nothing. McConnell swung off toward the stables. A little later they heard a horse's hoofs patter in the dusty grass. It grew fainter and fainter as the distance claimed it, and so silent were the men and the night that Mac's horse could be heard until the hoof-beats became as fine as sound will shred. The knight errant had once again gone forth in quest of happiness.