FROM where he sat on the warm, earth with his back against the house Clark could hear the woman praying. Through the double wall of split cedar her voice sounded as an indistinct mumble. Now and then he could catch a word, a phrase. And although he made a slightly deprecating grimace over his motive, he hoisted himself stiffly to his feet and went limping out of earshot. It made him uncomfortable to overhear that curious mixture of pleading and invocation. He went down a path and out a gangway to a float beside which his boat was tied. He went slowly, favoring his lame leg, and seated himself upon a block when he came there, clasping both hands over one knee, staring thoughtfully at the tide creeping up over the weedy rocks, over the scarlet and purple starfish among the white barnacles and the brown kelp.
Clark did not have much faith in the efficacy of prayer. In the matter concerning which Mrs. Seton prayed he would have put his faith in more material weapons. But then, he reflected, she was a woman and more than usually helpless. Perhaps a religious, faith which could give her the occasional ecstasy of prayer made it easier for her to endure much that she had to endure.
He looked out over the shining bay with its bottle-neck entrance that opened from the wide Gulf. His eyes skirted the green-timbered shore, lifted to the enclosing hills. High above the loftiest peak white fluffs of cloud sailed free in a blue sky. There was a benign atmosphere of peace on that landlocked bay, an aspect of quiet beauty, a delicate coloring fresh from the palette of the Master Painter. The prospect pleased Clark. But he was irritated by a sense of all this peaceful beauty being marred by man’s vileness. He could not shut out the praying woman, nor that which caused her to seek the relief of prayer, the beseeching cry to her God.
A rowboat slid in through the bottle-neck entrance, came up the bay with clicking oarlocks rowed by a young fellow in shirtsleeves, bareheaded, In the stern a girl sat facing him. The boat drew in beside the float, and the girl, after setting out two buckets of wild blackberries, sprang lightly to the planked surface.
“The old man came back a little after noon,” Clark said to her.
Her face clouded.
“And.I suppose he raised Cain when he found out I’d gone off with Walter eh?” she remarked. “Did he get after Mama?”
“Kinda, I guess,’’Clark admitted,
"Here he comes now.”
Young Grey had been making past the boat’s painter. He stood up now with narrowed eyes turned on the man coming down the path. The girl’s gaze rested on this approaching man, and so did Clark’s, with something approaching apprehension. And as he came near another figure issued from a cabin little to the right along the shore and also came toward the float.
THE man who came down the hill would be about fifty, inclined to shortness, but his lack of height was lore than offset by wide, thick shoulders, short, bull-like neck, and long arms that ended in big, knotty hands, his face was ugly, not so much in feature or coloring, but with the expression it wore—a mixture of snarl and owl that put pin-points of flame in his brown eyes and nasty, threatening lines about his full red lips. Clark looked at Howard Seton as he stepped on the float and wondered if the man had ever smiled genially, if he had ever been kindly in word or deed, if he had ever been anything but an ugly-tempered brute who found a perverted pleasure in domineering harshness. It didn’t seem possible to Clark. He knew that Seton had come down there to be disagreeable, to vent his ill-humor on the girl and young Grey for being out together, just as earlier he had abused his wife for the same reason. Clark had been watching the exercise of this domestic tyranny for nearly a month. He wondered how long these people had been enduring it, and why? But even Clark was not quite prepared for the fury of Seton’s outbreak.
“You go on to the house an’ help your mother get supper,” he said gruffly to the girl.
She turned silently to obey. “Take them berries with you.” Seton commanded harshly. “Even if ’twas only an excuse, we’ll make use of ’em. Take ’em up, both of ’em.”
Mary picked up the two buckets and walked off the float without a word.
“And you,” Seton turned on young Grey. “How long’s it goin’ to take you to learn that when I say a thing I mean it?”
The youngster—he was not more than twenty-two or three—looked coolly at the older man.
“Your word ain’t law to everybody,” he said quietly.
“I’ll make it law for you,” Seton roared. His voice seemed to come out of his deep chest in a menacing bellow, as if he were an enraged bull. Clark thought whimsically that he would not be surprised to see him begin to paw the planked float. “I told you before I ain’t goin’ to have Mary runnin’ around with no damn whippersnapper like you. I give you notice to keep off my place, to keep away from this here float. I told you once. I’ll bust you in pieces if I have to tell you again.”
Grey’s tanned face flushed. He stared at Seton. His lip curled.
“This is a partnership float. I helped build it and put it here. When I need to use it I will,” he said defiantly. “You can run your bluff on women, maybe, but not me. Don’t act like a fool.”
CLARK thought Seton would charge the boy like some infuriated animal. Instead, he waved his hands, and in a voice hoarse and quivering he cursed young Grey with all the foul and obscene expressions a man could rake out of the cesspool of profanity. And young Grey stood his ground, contemptuous, immobile, his lip curling at the spectacle and the epithets until the man from the little house reached the spot.
He was a smaller edition of Howard Seton, a little older, a little shorter, less burly, far less aggressive in his general aspect. No one would have failed to mark the two men as brothers, and as being utterly different. Old Henry broke in with a deprecating air.
“Aw, Howard, for the land’s sake don’t act like a crazy man,” he remonstrated mildly. “What’s the use cussin’ like that? Hear y’ all over the hull ranch.”
“Who told you to butt in?” Seton roared at him. “You damn useless old pelter! You bald-headed old plug that I’ve fed for twenty years! You crawl into your hole and keep outa this."
“Here,” young Grey cut in sharply, “you might as well cool off. I’m tellin’ you right now that all your cussin’ and jawin' won’t get you anything. You sure do act like a crazy man.”
“Looks here, Howard.” old Henry began again placatingiy. There was a humble pleading note in his voice that made Clark wince. It was almost a whine, tinctured with fear "Aw. How— ”
Seton cut him short with a swift back-handed blow that dropped the older man on his haunches, blood oozing from between his smashed lips. Whereat young Grey’s hands doubled into hard, white-knuckled fists. He took a step forward, his eyes suddenly steel-bright. And Seton drove at him like an angry bull, head withdrawn between his hunched shoulders, his long arms shooting blows like the piston rods of an engine. He moved with incredible swiftness, as light-footed as a great cat. He battered at young Grey with a devastating ferocity that beat the boy down as standing grain goes down before a hailstorm. He stood over him panting and mumbling, and Clark was strangely reminded of a furious old boar.
"I guess that’ll hold you for awhile.” he snarled. “An’ that’s only a sample.”
He turned and went off the float, mumbling to himself, deep in his throat. Clark saw him follow and overtake old Henry trudging toward his cabin holding one hand to his bruised lips, saw him go through a threatening pantomime with his hands before he went on to the house. Young Grey rose to his feet, his face puffed and bleeding.
"Well,” he said to Clark, “I didn’t make much of a showing, did I?”
"Never mind.” Clark replied. “From the way he handled himself I doubt if there’s many men in this country could do much with old Howard Seton. He’s all same dynamite, I’ll say.”
"Just the same. I’m not going to let him run over me,” young Grey asserted slowly, without passion. “No. Not if I have to carry a club for him.”
YOUNG GREY left the float, traversed the shore on the left until he crossed the mouth of a small creek and there disappeared in a thicket. Clark sat on a block by the gunwale of his fishboat as he had remained sitting, a spectator of these matters, aloof and apparently unconcerned. his stiff lame leg thrust out before him. He smoked a cigarette, looking thoughtfully, abstractedly, out over the bay with its faint ripples glistening in the sun.
All that he knew of these people he had learned in less than a month. He had come to the place to fish, to make such a living as a crippled man might make trolling for salmon in the waters outside this secure shelter. And because his lame leg, which was a memento of Ypres, had bothered him a little and cooking for himself had been even more of a bother, he had arranged for board at Seton’s table. He wondered a little why Seton accepted a boarder when he saw the ground in cultivation on the slope behind the house, the splendid orchard, the cattle that ranged in a natural meadow by the creek. The Seton ranch was a good one, as ranches go on the British Columbia seaboard. But when Clark had been there long enough to see something of the Seton menage he thought he understood. Old Howard Seton wanted revenue, next to having his own way—and he did not care how he secured either. He worked with a fiendish energy himself, early and late. When he had no routine work in hand he battled with timber and stumps, reclaiming more land. A little extra work put on the two women of his household was nothing to him, if the extra labor returned a profit.
Clark had learned a little of the Seton history from Mary, from old Henry, from Walter Grey. Mary’s father had settled that place when it was forest. He had cleared the first acre, planted the first trees. Then he died. After a lapse of time, after a struggle with the wild land, Mary’s mother had remarried. Seton had made the ranch what it was. Also he was making the lives of the two women a daily discomfort, a matter of bleak endurance, by his harshness, by a spirit of vindictive domineering that pervaded all he did and said. Clark saw that for himself. But this outburst against young Grey went beyond harshness, beyond the petty meanness and domestic tyranny of the man. There was a strain of passion in it that made Clark wonder, that set him thinking.
HE SMOKED another cigarette, threw away the stub and went up to the house. Mary was there picking over blackberries. Off behind the house rose the quick, whacking strokes of an axe. Clark marvelled at the tireless energy of the man. He could rage and deal blows, and go straight to his work. Clark sat down near the girl, finding a passive pleasure in watching the deft movements of her hands. She was not strikingly pretty, but she was slender, graceful, with the delicate, fresh coloring of youth. Clark saw that her grey eyes held a smouldering fire, that her fingers worked with an unnaturally nervous quickness. He had the impression of tensity, of some emotion rigidly repressed.
“You see the fracas down there?” he asked.
“You like young Grey well enough to marry him?” he inquired further. Mary looked at him keenly. In that silent scrutiny a faint wave of color crept over her face.
"Yes.” she admitted at last.
“Then why don’t you?” Clark suggested. “That would put a stop to this sort of thing. Pretty nearly amounts to persecution, doesn’t it?”
The girl’s lips compressed. Her hands rested on the edge of the bowl. She looked down on the smooth mirror of the bay, in which now the shore timber and the high hills above were pictured in perfect detail.
“You talk just like Walter,” she said. “Did he tell you to say that?”
“No. Absolutely no. It simply occurred to me as the simple way out. I’m not blind.”
“I can’t,” she whispered. “I wish I could, but I can’t.”
“There’s Mama. Can you imagine what it would be like for her here with me gone? There wouldn’t be any limit to his abuse. I do a lot of work she couldn’t possibly do. He’d have to hire someone to take my place. He’d be furious. He’d be worse than ever. He’d take it all out on her. And I’d know he was doing that. Don’t you see?”
Clark nodded. He could understand. But he did not say he approved. He said nothing. And in the silence that fell between them, in the breathless hush of that quiet place, the voice of the girl’s mother came plaintively through an open window. She was praying again.
“Soften his heart, O Lord, I beseech Thee. Thou knowest his harshness and pride. Bend his stiff neck,. Lord, and make him humble. And if Thou canst not soften him by Thy loving kindness, let Thy hand be heavy upon him. Chastise him that he may know Thy grace.”
Clark stirred uneasily. His ears were keen. Above the low intonation he heard a soft step on the back porch, the creak of a board. The voice ceased; another, deep, harsh, irritable in its inflections, broke in.
“Stop that damn prayin’,” it sounded. “How many times a day you got to get down on your marrow bones an’ whine to God Almighty? Huh? Think He’ll give you a good pair of legs again in place of them withered old shanks if you snivel long enough? Cut it out, cut it out. You give me a pain. You’re only wastin’ time. Prayin’ don’t get you no spuds in the fryin’ pan. Hurry up with supper.”
CLARK could hear Seton moving about inside, grumbling, hectoring, arrogantly insulting. Mary picked up the berries and went in., Clark looked after her reflectively. He could hear her clear tones as she spoke to her mother, ignoring the man. Of that family she was the only one who seemed not just a little afraid of Howard Seton, who did not cringe a little before him. She did her work and held her tongue. But she carried herself like a lance. Her spirit was unbroken. Clark wondered how long she had been a self-appointed buffer between her step-father and her mother, between doddering, placating old Henry and his brother—how long she would continue to be a buffer.
In half an hour the girl struck two strokes on an iron triangle outside the kitchen door. Old Henry came plodding up to the house. Clark looked at him. His lips were puffed a little, and bruised purple. But he did not seem to be angry, to bear such resentment as even an old man with all the spirit knocked out of him might feel.
They went in together. Howard Seton sat in his place. Mary brought a plate of meat from the kitchen. Her mother hobbled in with a teapot, supporting herself with a stick, a prematurely aged woman, bent and twisted by rheumatism. They sat silent over their meal, old Henry with his face lowered over his plate, gobbling his food, Seton eating with a gross, lip-smacking voracity. Clark watched him, marking for the twentieth time the extraordinary vitality of the man, the muscular compactness of his body, the thick corded neck. And if the physical presentment of the man stirred animal-life comparisons in Clark’s mind, certain facial expressions, an easily stirred fire in his eye, the sensuous mobility of his lips heightened such comparisons. A combination of satyr and faun! A petty Caligula? Or simply a coarse man of exceptional virility who derived a malicious pleasure in tyrannizing over his family? Clark could not say which conclusion seemed most fit.
The girl sat in her place, scarcely touching food.
“Why don’t y’ eat?” Seton demanded.
Mary looked at him without answering. There was a hostile contempt in her steady, unwavering gaze. Seton dropped his eyes to his plate.
“All the more for the rest of us,” he said with a grimace. “Spect young Grey ain’t got much appetite to-night, either.”
OLD HENRY finished first, rose without ceremony, took himself outside, as if he were glad to get away. Mrs. Seton and Mary began to clear the table. Seton sat stuffing his pipe. And Clark kept his seat, unobtrusively studying the man. Seton’s eyes kept following the girl: they rested on her with a curious steadiness, with a lightning-like flicker of his heavy lids when she came near him.
“Say, Mary,” he uttered when she drew off and folded the tablecloth, “you needn’t bother about the. cows. I’ll get ’em up an’ milk to-night.”
“All right,” she answered, coldly impersonal.
Seton sat looking at the doorway through which she disappeared. And Clark watched him, stirred by a discovery which he believed himself to have made in one of those prescient gleams which comes to a thinking man now and then, that curious and vivid illumination of motives and actions which lights up the black abyss of the unknown, the unguessed. He suddenly had the key to the Seton riddle, a name for the quality of that look which Seton bent on his step-daughter. It startled Clark. He got up and went outside, to ponder upon the implications of this discovery. He was aware subtly, as he crossed the room, that Seton had turned in his chair and was looking after him with -that air of covert malice that seemed his most natural expression. Clark had barely sat down on the steps when Seton followed him out. He stood tapping the bowl of his pipe against a porch post.
“You paid a month’s board,” he said abruptly. “Month’s up Friday. Can’t keep you no longer. Too much work for the women.”
“All right,” Clark acquiesced. “I’ll go back to batching Friday.”
“No fish much around here anyhow,” Seton grunted.
“No. Not many salmon just now,” Clark agreed.
Seton said no more. He stood until he had re-stuffed his pipe with a thick forefinger, then walked back into the house. Clark limped down to his fishboat. He stretched his body on a narrow bunk in the cabin and gave himself up to reflection.
All that he knew about Howard Seton he had learned from Walter Grey, from Mary, and old Henry, piecemeal, in graphic snatches of talk. The rest was indirect, the fruit of observation, inference, intuition. In the beginning Mary’s mother had been a comely widow with a little property. She looked sixty now. She was in fact less than forty-five. Seton had absorbed the energy of the woman, as well as her property. Overwork and untimely disease had made her what she was, a physical wreck that Seton was trying to finish off with abuse.
He had the property. He wanted the girl. That was what Clark read in the lustful caress of the man’s eyes. He was a vigorous animal, sensual, cunning, cruel, Clark’s frown deepened when he remembered how old Seton leaned his elbows on the table and looked at Mary, the rapacious gleam in his eyes, the moistening of his full lips, the sudden dilation of his nostrils at each movement of her lissom young body. The lewd old devil! A man of his age bending amorous eyes on his step-daughter. It troubled Clark. It seemed to him unnatural. There is something incongruous, depraved, about carnality in a man whose years are past half a century. Youth is the time for passion.
SETON didn’t seem quite human to Clark. He was too strong, too ruthless. There was neither justice nor mercy in him. He would be crafty, remorseless, implacable in the pursuit of his desire. And it was an unhealthy desire. Someone ought to stop him. But who? And how?
Clark lay staring up at the cabin roof. Certainly no one in that vicinity was physically a match for Howard Seton. He had an idea that Walter Grey would passionately assault Seton if he guessed at what Clark believed to be a certainty, but it would take more than earnest intent to overcome the man. There was besides Grey only old Henry, timid, incompetent, browbeaten into submission long ago. There were the two women—and himself. And it was not his funeral—a crippled veteran with only one good leg. Clark shook his head. It promised to be a messy business. He reflected impatiently that if Mary would take the bull by the horns and marry young Grey that would settle it. She wouldn’t be under old Howard’s nose to tantalize the easily aroused animal in the man. But he doubted that Mary knew why Seton interposed his bulk, his arrogant authority, between her and Walter Grey. She wouldn’t leave her mother to his spite, that was all. Clark reflected that the girl was like an animal-trainer, unconsciously restraining a beast by sheer force of personality. He wondered how long that would be a sufficient restraint.
Clark wished he could banish his uneasiness. He got out of his bunk at last and leaving the float walked along a path that skirted a thicket of willow and young alder until he crossed a small creek. Then the path broke through the thicket and into a clearing beyond which opened a swampy meadow. A log house stood in the clearing, a small shed, with a fenced garden in the rear. The creek was the dividing line between the Seton property and Grey’s homestead. South of the creek lay cleared acres of pasture and orchard and vegetables which Seton owned by virtue of marriage, which he had brought to that stage of cultivation during ten years of Homeric labor—for he worked as he did everything, with á prodigal expenditure of energy, a ferocity of toil. Clark, stood, caught for a moment by the pearly tint cast over the low lands by the dusk pushing down off the hills. The man, he thought, was pure act, matter energized dynamically, lacking a stable balance of reason and perception. A fever in the blood of such a one, the blind urge of a belated sensuality, might drive him to any length. Seton was naturally cruel Clark felt instinctively, not knowing that he was even then walking toward proof of this instinctive conclusion.
He went up to the open door, called “Hello, Walter.” No one answered. Clark had made himself free of the place before. He was welcome there. He did so now. There was no one in the house. He limped on toward the shed, thinking to see if young Grey was in the shadow. A casual glance through the open door of the shed arrested him. He went in.
YOUNG GREY hung between two posts, spreadeagled, so to speak, one wrist lashed to each post by heavy cotton cord. He sagged on his arms. His head lolled forward. There was a gag in his mouth, bound there by; a handkerchief. He was stripped to the waist. From waist to shoulderblades his back was a mass of welts, livid ridges, cuts that dripped blood. And while Clark stared, stupified at the sight, his eye fell upon a willow stick three feet long, peeled smooth, blood-stained, lying on the floor at Grey’s feet.
Clark had lived through three years of war. He was not shocked out of power for speech or action by either blood or danger. He pulled loose the gag, cut the wrist lashings, eased young Grey to the floor. Grey was not even unconscious. But he was weak, stupid from exhaustion and pain. His eyes when they met Clark’s with recognition held also an agony of shame. Clark said to him:
“Reckon you can walk if I help you? I can’t carry you, worse luck, with my bum leg.”
Grey nodded. Clark helped him struggle to his feet. So, the beaten man and the lame one, they traversed the few steps to the house. Clark got him a drink of water, made him lie face down on his bed, and washed the lacerated flesh, after wrapping the youngster’s body with a clean shirt torn in strips. There was no antiseptic, not even a bit of germicidal salve in the house. Young Grey sat up. His eyes burned. He looked at Clark, at a rifle hanging on the wall. He got to his feet, swayed drunkenly put his hand to his head and sat down.
“I’ll be all right in a minute or two,” he muttered thickly.
“Who did this to you?” Clark asked. “When was this dirty business pulled off?”
“About half an hour ago,” Grey told him haltingly, “old Howard came over. He talked soft and put me off my guard. Then he jumped me. You know he’s as strong as a horse. He got me foul and strung me up between the posts the way you found me. Then he beat me—” Grey’s teeth gritted—“beat me like a dog. Said he’d be back after a while to give me another dose and turn me loose. I hope to God he comes!” His lips parted in a twisted smile, and his eyes turned to the rifle. “I hope he comes.”
“He won’t come,” Clark said slowly. “And whether he comes or not, you can’t stay here.”
“Oh, can’t I?” Grey muttered.
“No. You’ve got to get yourself attended to. That’s more important fright now than getting old Howard. He’ll keep. In another hour or two you’ll be stiffened up so you can’t move. You’re liable to get poisoned in those cuts if they aren’t properly dressed. You come along with me to the Landing. There’s a boat down to-night. You can get to the Paul River hospital on that.”
IN THE end Clark had his way, and there was a dual purpose in his way. He knew that Grey needed medical attention, that there was a danger of infection— but he knew further that young Grey would shoot Howard Seton on sight. It was not in the nature of man to endure such indignities. And for the present at least, Clark wished to save young Grey from the sure penalty for taking the law in his own hands. So Clark prevailed. He was anxious to get young Grey out of there. He did not know what might happen afterward. But he could not sit beside Grey and listen to him talk in slow sentences, pinched dry of all emotion, without knowing what would happen if he left Grey to himself that night— and if not that night then to-morrow or the next day. Clark had seen men primed to kill before. He knew the symptoms. Young Grey would kill Seton without passion or remorse. He could not live at peace with himself otherwise. He did not say so. But Clark knew. And he desired to postpone the execution of this just purpose for the time being. Something might happen in the interim. It did not seem to Clark that Howard Seton could go much further without getting snarled in the mesh of his own deeds.
Dusk emerged into darkness, the luminous dark that overlies the earth when the moon is hiding just under the rim of the hills. Presently Clark got young Grey started, down to the float, quietly aboard. He shoved the launch away with a pikepole before he started the motor. In two hours he was helping Grey up the gangplank of a coasting steamer. A little after midnight he was tied up at the float again.
He went up to breakfast as usual, a meal devoid of conversation, a business of taking food with silent glances, lowered eyes. Only the voice of the man at the head of the table would boom out arrogantly when he wanted something, and his bold gaze would sweep them all as if he were conscious of his power over those meeker-spirited. He filled his chair with the bulk of his short, thick body. His hairy chest showed in the V of his unbuttoned shirt. His full eyes swept them arrogantly, contemptuously. All but Mary. There was a different quality to his look when it fell upon her. Clark wondered why he had not marked that before last night. He wondered if Mrs. Seton or the girl grasped the implication of that look.
AFTER breakfast he sat on the porch steps, deliberately waiting until Seton should go away to his work. He wanted to reassure Mary about Walter Grey’s absence. And for some reason Seton seemed to be continually reappearing about the house, coming through the rooms or around the corner with a noiseless feline tread, walking on the balls of his feet like a cougar. He always went about like that, with a quick, springy step. Clark sat on the steps, hating him for this light-footedness, for his thick neck and bold eyes and full, sneering lips.
But he had a chance to speak to Mary at last and told her a kindly lie about her lover’s departure. He left the house then, because he could hear Seton growling at his wife in the kitchen, taunting her with her impotent body, withered and distorted by successive attacks of rheumatism. The troubled, uneasy look that flitted across Mary’s face at the half-heard sound of this bullying language stirred Clark to fresh pity and resentment. He had seen the same sort of look flit across Mrs. Seton’s features, lie like a shadow on old Henry’s face. They were all more or less afraid of that gross brute. He inspired fear, just as dynamite or lightning or a caged tiger did by the potential evil that resided in them.
A man like that, Clark reflected, was capable of anything. He would be crafty, too. How, for instance, could anyone prove that he had trussed up young Grey and beaten him? Prove it, that is, before a court that would punish him? Merely one man’s word against another’s.
Clark felt relieved that he was not going to be even an onlooker after Friday. Then he remembered Mary and his momentary relief became uneasiness. Still, there was nothing he could do. If he were right in his surmising no one could do anything until it was too late for anything but mere reprisal. It made Clark squirm with distaste to think of those great arms clutching at the girl. Yet that was precisely the sort of picture which kept troubling his mind.
THE second day after that old Henry came down on the float in the middle of the forenoon with a senile grin of anticipation on his face, a wrinkled serge suit on, and an ancient travelling bag in his hand.
He cackled to Clark. He hadn’t been to town in three years. Howard had staked him to a holiday. Howard was going to row him out and flag the tri-weekly steamer and put him aboard. He was goin’ to see every movin’ pitcher in Vancouver. He prattled on, and Clark pitied him. But when Howard Seton appeared on the path old Henry’s simple joyousness faded. He cast an uncertain glance at his brother. He leaned toward Clark and whispered in his shaky old voice:
“Say. I dassent say nothin’. But you tell Mary t’ look out for him. He ain’t safe. You tell her.”
Clark nodded. He was startled. Even this simple, colorless old man could see.
Behind Seton came Mary steadying her mother. They reached the float, got in the big rowboat and pulled away, old Henry and Seton at the oars. During his stay there Clark had never seen the women go with Howard Seton anywhere. They were going now for his pleasure, not for their own, Clark felt sure. He wondered why.
When they came back Seton stood about on the float till Mary and her mother were out of earshot up the path. Then he said:
“There ain’t no salmon around here now.”
Clark agreed briefly.
“I hear there’s a good run on at Baker Pass. Why don’t you try it there?”
“Maybe I will,” Clark replied casually. He looked after Seton’s retreating back. Young Grey driven off. Old Henry shipped away to town. A suggestion that was a veiled order to himself. And when he went there would be only Seton here in this lonely place, and two women, of whom one did not count, a crippled woman who could only pray.
“Damn his soul!” Clark muttered. “What’s he up to?”
He did not take that pointed hint. He stayed on. He meant to stay until Friday, at least. He had an idea that Seton would brusquely order him to go then, if he did not move of his own volition. And Clark, sitting on the back deck of his boat, wondered if he were letting a weird fancy trouble him, or if he were actually groping in a mist of unspeakable intentions. But when he looked at Howard Seton he could not think of him except as an aged wild boar, ripe for any foulness.
The day after old Henry left Howard came down on the float.
“Got to go to Potter’s Landin’ for giant powder,” he said to Clark. “Want to go along?”
“No,” Clark declined. “I have some work to do on my engine.”
Seton looked at him sidelong. He got aboard his own launch and made ready. Then he went back to the house. Mary and her mother followed him down. The girl stopped to speak to Clark.
“Come on. I ain’t got no time to waste,” Seton boomed at her cross the float. Out of the corner of his eye Clark saw him scowl blackly.
“He’s going off his head, that guy,” Clark muttered to himself as the launch bore down the bay. “Crazy jealous. Jealous even of me. That’s why he’s started carting ’em with him wherever he goes. He’s afraid to leave Mary behind, and she won’t go without her mother. Old Henry’s right. He isn’t safe. But what the hell can a man do?”
THEY came back late in the afternoon. Seton set two or three boxes on the float. Mary helped her mother off. The stiffened, bent woman hobbled away leaning on her stick. Seton said to Mary:
“Bring along that there parcel.”
He picked up a box under each arm. Mary started to follow him. Abreast of Clark she stopped to speak.
“Did Walter say when he would be back?” she asked hurriedly.
“Not exactly,” Clark evaded. “I kinda persuaded him he’d better stay away for a while. He’s pretty hot-headed, you know.”
“I wish he’d come back,” she murmured.
“Why?” Clark asked bluntly.
A faint color rose in the girl’s cheeks. “I’ll sound silly if I tell you.”
“Maybe not,” Clark encouraged. “What is it? You know I’m your friend, and Walter’s.”
“I’m afraid of him.” To Clark she always spoke of her step-father as “him.”
“I never was before. But he’s different with me lately. It frightens me.”
“What does he say?” Clark asked sharply.
“It isn’t so much what he says. It’s the way he says it. And he acts—I wonder—”
She broke off short—changed to an inconsequential account of what they had done and seen at Potter’s Landing that day. Seton was coming along the gangway to the float with his quick, springy stride, the planks rattling under his weight.
“Your mother wants you,” he said gruffly.
He stood watching the girl go, his hands on his hips, darting sidelong glances at Clark sitting unperturbed on the side of his boat, a cigarette in his fingers.
“You better pull your freight,” he broke out at last. “I’m gittin’ tired seein’ you around here. All you’ve done since you been here is lay around and honey up to the women.”
Clark had a temper of his own under his placid exterior. It bubbled now under pressure of the insulting speech and his dislike of the man.
“You go to the devil, Seton,” he snapped. “You can’t bulldoze everybody and get away with it.”
Seton’s right hand shot out. His fingers clamped on Clark’s neck. The man half-lifted him from his seat, and literally shook him with one hand. A grimace of fury narrowed his eyes and drew the thick loose lips back from his stained, uneven teeth. Then he let go.
“You better pull your freight,” he grunted. “I’m liable to forget you’re a damn cripple an’ hurt you.”
HE PICKED up the last box and strode off the float without once looking back. Clark felt his neck. Across the back of it and under each ear the flesh felt as if it had been squeezed in a pair of great tongs. His neck ached. He climbed aboard and down into the cabin, shaking with anger, with rage against his impotence in the face of that superior brute force. He sat down on his bunk and stared fixedly at the opposite wall.
On a shelf there, fastened securely in a small box, rested a Mills bomb, a relic of Clark’s service overseas, a metal container charged with high explosive, of a size and shape to be easily grasped and accurately thrown by a man’s hand. It lay in its place harmless as an apple— until the pin should be drawn.
Clark lifted down the box, took out the bomb, sat looking at it, turning it over and over, a red spot glowing over each cheek-bone. Then he put it back with a sigh, and lay staring up at the curved beams of the cabin roof. He roused himself when he heard the supper gong—but not to attend that meal. He started his own galley stove, made a meal of tea and soda biscuits. Then he lay down again.
To-morrow he would leave. He hated to retreat under fire, but there was nothing to be gained by staying now. The only defense he could make against such a man as Seton was to destroy him. Clark . did not contemplate that with any qualms of conscience. He was chiefly restrained by a cool-headed calculation of the penalty he would pay for such summary vengeance. Nor did he desire greatly to revenge the minor injury he had suffered. It was the sense of lacking any adequate defense against that sort or thing that angered him most.
He lay in his bunk and smoked until dark settled like a black mist on the bay, until that darkness was silvered by a fat moon that swam up from behind the Coast Range to lighten the dusky earth and dim the twinkling stars.
Clark lifted himself on elbow listening. In that silver-shot bush he had heard a sound like a cry. Or was it his overstimulated imagination? He listened, wavering between doubt and certainty, heaved himself up to the low after deck. A light glowed in the front window of the house. Behind the radiance of the bay the hills stood sharp against the sky, their tops bathed in the moonlight, their canyon gutted flanks barred with black shadows. In all that breathless stillness there was no sound, not a rustling leaf, nor the slap of a wavelet, only the far murmur of a creek in its stony bed.
But Clark was sure of his hearing. He leaned on the cabin, stricken with a gnawing uneasiness for which he could find no name. Should he go ashore and see?
He negatived that with a picture of Howard Seton rising in sudden wrath to meet him at the house, to bestow fresh insults upon him if not further bodily injury. Clark shrugged his shoulders, went back inside and sat down.
But he could not sit at ease. He kept his seat less than a minute, rose, stood irresolute, got out on the float and listened again. No sound. He limped halfway up the path, stopped to strain his ears once more, and so came at last with cautious steps to the low porch before Seton’s house. He could hear now and see also. The door stood wide. In the lamplight Mrs. Seton huddled in a heap on the floor, whimpering incoherently. Clark warily crossed the threshold.
But the woman was in either the first or last stages of hysteria. She could tell him nothing. She whimpered and gibbered like a frightened infant. Clark straightened up.
“Mary,” he called sharply.
The name rang through the empty rooms. No answer. No sound other than the muffled whimperings in the throat of the old woman on the floor, looking up at him now with glazed, wet eyes.
“Where’s Mary?” he demanded of her.
She went off into another spasm of incoherence.
CLARK went boldly through the house, out the kitchen door, alert, every nerve in him taut like a bow-string, his right hand in his coat pocket. He stood to listen again. Nothing. Not a rustle in the thickets, not a footfall nor a voice, no sign of life in the welter of moonlight barred by intense black shadows of tree and shrub and fence.
Cautiously he traversed a hundred yards of this roadway, until he came to where the forest on his right ran out into an area slashed and burned, starkly dotted with stumps in various stages of uprooting, the site of Seton’s latest land clearing. Against one thick cedar stump abutting on the road Clark halted. A box stood upended against the stump, in one corner a dozen or more yellowish-brown cylinders like thick candles. Clark eyed the box end and its contents casually. Giant powder for blowing stumps. Forty per cent, nitro-glycerine—dynamite.
He turned back at last, discouraged by the purposelessness of his quest, the futility of seeking he knew not what along the borders of that gloomy timber, the nebulous area of the fields. He retraced his steps a dozen paces, fifteen, twenty, stopped in the black shadow of a lone fir. The crack of a breaking twig made him flatten against the tree. Then very distinctly he heard a voice, in which harshness and pleading were curiously blended, say: .
“Mary! Hey, Mary! Don’t be a darned fool. Come on back to the house. I ain’t goin’ to hurt you.”
Immobile in the shadow Clark watched the roadway. Presently he glimpsed a moving body. It emerged from the litter of brush-piles and down branches very silently, and stood in the roadway, clear in the flood of moonlight—Seton, bareheaded, looking this way and that. He came on and stopped again, beside the cedar stump against which leaned the box of dynamite.
“Mary! Oh, Mary!”
He called twice—softly—then a little louder. He faced about, and Clark’s teeth set hard. The full glow of the moon exposed every detail of the man’s face, betrayed him.
Somewhere in those shadows, under cover of the friendly gloom, Mary was hiding.
Clark took his hand out of his coat pocket, fumbled a moment, stepped clear of the tree and drew back his arm. He counted under his breath—one—two— three—and heaved.
The flying missile showed faintly in the moon-glare that silvered the open. It fell with a faint thud beside the box of dynamite against the cedar stump. Clark saw Seton look, take a step.
In that moment there rose a fan-like burst of red and yellow flame, a thunderclap, a concussion that shook the ground and the great tree against which Clark flattened his body. Then the echo of that report bandied back and forth in the distant hills, and the sound of things falling to earth like spray from a fountain. Then silence.
Clark stepped out into the road. There was no cedar stump, no man. Instead of the stump and the man and the box of giant powder there were riven roots upturned like grotesque arms in the moonlight, splintered timber, a cavity in the soil.
Clark turned back a step or two.
“Oh, Mary,” he lifted his voice to a shout. “It’s all right. This is Clark. Can you hear me?”
He walked on a few yards, called again, listened. The girl stepped into the roadway beside him,as noiselessly as a shadow, so close that he was startled.
“What happened?” she whispered.
“Seton blew himself up,” Clark said. “Blew himself into kingdom come. He’s scattered over half an acre of ground.”
“I wonder,” said Mary to Clark softly, “if it’s wrong to be very, very glad?”
AT DAYBREAK in the morning they went up the road, Mrs. Seton supported on one side by her daughter, on the other by Clark. A little way short of the place Clark halted them. He saw something smeared across a prone trunk. He went forward to examine. On the earth beside the fallen tree he found a logger’s boot with shreds of cloth and a pulpy horror protruding from the laced upper. He carried it to them, with a warning of his discovery.
The bent prematurely-old woman gazed at it without a movement of her seamed face. Her washed-out blue eyes held steadfast upon the gruesome object.
“He was evil, evil to the core,” she said at last, her old voice vigorous in its denunciation. “It was the hand of God.”
“The hand of God,” Clark remarked to himself. He smiled, a grim curving of his thin lips. “Perhaps the old woman is right. Maybe it was.”