THE BEGGAR’S DIAMOND
COMBING his hair in front of the bureau, Pete Taggard saw in the mirror a man riding up the road. It was Pete’s road, ending there at the ranch house. There was nowhere else you could go on it.
The mirror was low because it was Evie's. Pete spread his long legs wider, to see better, and went on combing, until he saw that the man was Morg. McHale. Then he stopped and looked sharply at Evie. She was brushing her hair, with her back to the window. He let his big chest swell wtde with relief. She hadn’t seen.
Evie’s hair wasn’t red-brown and short and w eedy like Pete’s, but black and fine and long. She had thrown it forward over her bowed head and the warm air from the ;iove made it flare and wave gently as if with a delicate life of its own. It covered everything but the hem of her chemise, a bit of her white cotton stockings, her low-heeled black slippers and her bare arms that moved up and down the surge of it in a serene, slow rhythm. Her arms were frail and childlike, with rather sharp elbows. The sight of them always moved big Pete. It seemed to him that anyone who wanted to could break Evie with a touch.
There was pain in the desire to protect her that welled continuously in his heart like a spring. He stepped across the room and pulled down the window shade.
"Sun'll wake up the kid,” he said, and moved towards the door.
McHale would have to follow the road around the corner of the Baker Place. He was riding slowly. There w as plenty of time.
"I'm going down to fix that broken place in the fence.”
But the covers of a cot against the wall erupted violently and a little head, stiff-haired and amazingly like his own, thrust itself up in the midst and a shrill voice sang out with the exuberance of a meadowlark:
“I ain’t sleep! Lemme go wif
And then, without waiting for reply, Little Pete began his morning game: jounce, jounce, jounce on the springs of his cot, a piercing "Vu heee-oop!” and a leap through the fair to his father's arms. It was a good strong jump for a ive-year-old, and he came dow-n like a comet, with his nightgown streaming over his head for the tail of it.
Taggard caught him with practised hands, twitched off the hampering garment and tousled him into a naked, squealing ball of delight. He buried his face in the soft flesh and blew a great, snorting, popping breath that produced delicious tickles and louder squeals.
"Get some clothes on you! You’re a disgrace to a respectable family!”
He tossed the child back into the cot and went out into the kitchen. Evie followed him.
"I just wanted a kiss.” She had swept her hair up and was wrapping it in smooth bands about her head. “I’m as happy as he is, and why shouldn’t I show it? We’ve really bought the Baker Place, and we’ve really got him, and each other! I want to talk about it all the time!”
Who can say what beauty is? Pete thought his wife was, beautiful. When she slipped her arms about his neck and looked up into his eyes he thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Who can say the beauty he saw was not there? That, sensitized by love, he did not see more truly than those who looked at her otherwise and thought her a plain little thing?
“Oh, Pete, Pete, aren’t we fucfcy!”
“I’ll say we are!”
He flung it out like a challenge to the gathering uneasiness in his mind, swung her off her feet into his arms and held her close for a moment. As he went on down the hill his veins were full of her.
IJE AND McHale reached the barbed-wire gate to-1* gether. He made no move to open it, and there was no pretence of greeting. Morg. McHale lounged in the saddle with immense and loutish ease, wearing his sixty years as a dried leaf that had fallen on his coat.
The red crept up out of Pete’s collar. “I don’t want Evie to see you nor any of your family. Pull your horse in behind those aspen trees and I’ll talk to you.”
Without any show of feeling, McHale pulled in behind the aspen trees. Pete opened the gate and followed him.
"It’s nothing to me that Sade’s back. She’s your daughter for life, but I got rid of her when I got the divorce. You couldn’t find anybody on earth it makes less difference to about her being back than me.”
“You might be too sure about that. Anyway, here’s all I got to say: She wants to see you.”
"Let’s get this straight—for keeps: I won’t see her. I've got nothing to say to her. Now nor any time.”
A faint smile accentuated the runnels on MoHale’s long horse-face. “Sade’ll do the talking.”
"Not to me she won’t.”
Sade McHale came back to the ranch country with rancor in her heart. Her one desire was to see the soul of Pete Taggard writhe in agony. But Sade McHale never lied. That was her honor — a curiously hard diamond, glowing on a crooked finger. This is the story of hozv that finger ■was straightened.
“Yep, to you. Up to my place, before sunset. Sade’s sick and ain’t able to travel. She said to tell you” . . .
The yellow eyes flickered like sheet-lightning. Sade’s eyes, Pete thought, and something went sick inside of him. Nothing burned, he thought, like that cold fire.— “She said to tell you it’s about the kid. The only way you can head off trouble from Little Pete’s by going to see her.”
Taggard could not control the blind panic that rolled itself into a ball behind his breastbone, but he suppressed all evidences of it.
“If you was to touch one of his shoestrings, I’d put you where you’d be some good for the first time since I’ve known you: I’d plant you over there in that field and raise a crop out of you. And with your reputation it’s not likely anybody in this county’d ever dig you up to see what ailed you.”
McHale looked at him meditatively for half a minute. “I don’t bluff good, Taggard. And as for dying, it don’t work in with my plans. But it ain’t me that’s got something on you, it’s Sade. I’m free to tell you I don’t even know what it is. It ain’t likely, of course, that you can say as much.”
“I can, and I do. There’s nothing she could have.”
McHale gathered the reins. “Sade ever lie to you?” he said, and wheeled his horse casually and loped away. Sade never lied to anyone.
THE McHale house squatted at the top of a little rise like an old, brown toad that had hopped to the edge of the Engelmann spruces and lay, plethoric and spent, watching the level miles of Long Grass Park flow like a yellow-brown lake into the distant snow-touched mountains. Beyond those mountains was another mountainlocked “park” and Pete Taggard’s ranch, and now and then during the six years he had lived there he had felt the
house looking through them. He hated that house and the place where it stood.
The spruce trees, undisturbed for centuries, flanked it and backed it. Their branches interlocked against the sun.
Nothing grew beneath them in the semidark; only their own debris piled up and rotted there. Their spiked tops seemed to prod the storms out of the sky. The wind was always howling over them, but they stood black and stiff and still, protected by the cliffs behind. The cliffs went up so straight and far that from the dooryard you laid your head on your backbone for a sight of the tops of them and the spurting waterfall, like a broken artery of the earth, that flung down long gray smears of ice. Pete supposed there was a time of year when that ice melted, but he had never discovered it.
It gleamed dully, like a rubbed place on the lowering sky, as he rode over the high empty plain three hours after his talk with McHale—at ten o’clock on that November morning.
He had gone from the gate to the breakfast table and chewed Morg’s message with his bacon. Then he had said to Evie: “Kelso’s scaling timber to-day over to
Offutt’s Mill.” Kelso was the forest ranger. “Guess I’ll jog around there and buy some dead stuff for firewood”;
had saddled his horse and had jogged, first to the mill and now to McHale’s.
He threw the reins over his horse’s head and walked up the steps. The bell fleered shrilly through the house and Sade’s voiee bade him enter. He lifted the latch and stepped into the house Sade had married him to get away from and closed the door, soft-pedaling the moaning of the wind.
The room seemed full of Sade’s eyes. They lit its gloom, licking eagerly over his face—to see what Evie had done to him. Suddenly the sense of Sade was beating about him like the flapping of wings. They were dead wings, but they set his nerves tingling like bells. The musty, acrid odor of the house was drowned in the heavy fragrance of the crab-apple blossom perfume she always used. About the husk of the flaming beauty that had once fanned through his pulses like a drug were the old paraphernalia of colors; a batik scarf of burnt orange jagged across with figures of yellow and black and russet red, pinned up to hide the ragged window shade behind her; a kimona of yellow silk about her shoulders, purpled here and there with wistaria; another orange one over the dingy blankets of the bed; and floating out of an open suitcase on a chair, an orange veil, and on the floor black satin pumps with gold buckles and run-over purple boudoir slippers with shabby purple pompons. There was purple, too, beneath the great yellow eyes, but Sade hadn’t put it there; and her cheeks were redder than rouge.
“You’ve changed as much as I have,” she said bitterly, and laughed with a sound like the drawing of a sword.
“I’ve got what I want. I'm happy. I’m sorry you're sick, Sade.”
His voice sounded queerly in his ears, speaking to Sade! He had meant never to use it for that purpose again.
“You’re not. You're glad. You hate me just like I hate you. But you're scared of me.”
His vitals seemed to freeze and harden. Only it didn't hurt as it used to.
“What do you want?” he said in a tone that startled him. He had forgotten he could speak like that. It vas as unhuman as the slamming of a door. But be didn't know any other way to dodge her blows.
She raised herself a little with the old energetic impatience and her hand tightened. “Is that all you've got to say to me after nine years, when I come home sick?”
“It would be better if I didn’t say anything to you. I don’t want to hurt. you. Words never did mean the same to you that they did to me.”
“Not even at first?” she said softly, w ith one of her swift, incalculable changes. “Not even that summer night
you drove me to Crystal Plume? Not even the time we went fishing on Roaring River and I fell in and you brought me out in your arms and held me up tight and kissed me? Not even when I loved you, Pete?”
The tones of her voice walked with feet on the flesh of his back. It seemed to him that he had never been away from them.
“I won’t talk about that. Not to you nor anybody.” “Why not? Because it don’t fit in with Little Pete and Evie’s kitten face and cute, little Puritan eyes?”
“No, it’s not that. I’d be glad to tell you about Evie and Little Pete if you wanted to understand; but you don’t. All you want is to stick something into me and make me wriggle. That’s the reason you want to talk about—about that. You want to find out how you could hurt me the most.”
“Come here,” she said suddenly, and he came over and stood close beside her, looking down into her restless eyes. “Will you tell me the truth about just one thing?” “I’ll tell you the truth or nothing.”
The cold, gold fire leaped high in her eyes. “Do you love me now? Even—a little bit?”
“No. Not even a little, Sade. So help me God.”
C*HE lay breathing fast and looking at him with that ^ pillaging look which had once betokened an ability to get out of him anything she wanted to know. He returned it steadily, while the wind filled the old dark house with its distant moaning.
“You’re not more’n half as dumb as you used to be,” she said at length in an almost chatty tone. “I don’t love you either. I feel just the way you do—only I’m not so mealy-mouthed about it. I hate you. And I want to pay you a little of what I owe you. Now listen, and don’t waste time cussing and kicking and you can be back in Evie’s scrawny, little arms by lunch-time. This is strictly business. I’m going to die—”
“Oh, not before you can get away. No chance of it’s being your funeral; you needn’t worry about that. Not even this month maybe. But inside a year—or fifteen months, or sixteen. One doctor said eighteen, but he was in love with me. And—”
She shook her head. “I’m as sure to be dead at the end of two years as you are at the end of a hundred.” “Whyn’t you tell me that at first? I—I wouldn’t’ve hurt you for anything, Sade, if I’d known. I’m—”
“Would you have told me you loved me?” she said curiously.
“Maybe—maybe I would. I’d have been so sorry—” “You’ll be sorry for yourself in a minute, and I’d rather have it like that. I never have gotten any kick out of having people sorry for me. Now this is my little scheme for fixing up a nice last act to the play called ‘Sade McHale,’ if you get what I mean. Before noon to-morrow I want you to deed over the Baker Place to me, so that I can have a comfortable house to move into—I’ve never liked this one, you know—and Dad can have something to live on in his old age when he’s ready to give up bootlegging and—”
“The Baker Place? Deed you the Baker Place?” He stared at her in frank incredulity.
“Evie’s place. Little Pete’s place. I know you bought it for them, and 1 know all you are going to say about keeping it for them ; but that won’t do you any good. I want it for Dad and me, and I’m going to take it—before noon tomorrow. You might as well say that over to yourself now and get used to it.”
“Did you know I had to put a mortgage on the ranch to get the money to buy the Baker Place?”
“Yes. What of it?”
“And that Evie and I have planned to live there ever since we were married, and have got along in a shack not much bigger than a chicken coop, saving for it?”
“There are two kinds of people,” said Sade quietly;
“those that do the work and those that profit by it. You never knew me do any work, did you?”
“No. You’ve always lived off somebody. And now you’re figuring, are you, that you’ll live off me and Evie and Little Pete?” He stopped and pondered.
“Well, seeing that you were once my wife and that things have gone pretty hard with you, I guess you can, and we won’t grudge it to you, either. Evie knows all about you, and she wouldn’t want you to suffer if we could help it. I can find the money somehow to see you through for the eighteen months, or as much longer as you need it, if you will give me your word that your father hasn’t got it. And—and I’d like for you to take it kindly, Sade. I—I wish you hadn’t said that about the Baker Place. I couldn’t let you have that, you know. That’s Evie’s, like you said, and then Little Pete’s.”
Sade put her hands behind her head, so that the full, yellow sleeves of the kimona fell on both sides of her face. She looked like an evening primrose that life had picked yesterday at its moment of perfection and tossed aside.
“That’s the reason I want it. I want Evie to get a little of what I’ve had. It will kind of ease up my last days. Now, I’ll have a notary public waiting for you here to-morrow morning at eleven o’clock, and you’ll either bring me the deed that you got from Baker, so that I can know the place really belongs to you, and execute another deed in my favor before noon, or—”
She paused, as if loath to spend the delicious moment of disclosure which she was hoarding as a golden coin.
“I don’t know what it is that you are going to try to blackmail me with, but I’m not afraid of you. Evie knows everything you could tell her, and we don’t either one of us care what you say or what you do. You can’t have the Baker Place ever, and that’s flat. Knowing what it means to me, only a devil would have asked for it.”
“—or I’ll tell the world,” she went on smoothly, “that I’m your wife and Evie’s not, and—”
“But Evie is my wife,” he broke in gently. A look of compassion had come into his face. He moved a step closer and bent towards her. “We were married in the little church at Gray Dome. And you are not my wife— we were divorced. Don’t you remember?—I let them grant the divorce in your name because you wanted it that way. Went away and left you so that you could say you’d been deserted.”
She laughed like the tinkling of ice. “You are a fool! My mind’s a good bit sounder than yours. I’m not the kind that goes insane. Did it ever occur to you that saving my reputation wasn’t the only reason I had for wanting the divorce given to me? That I might want to keep a handle on you in case I ever needed it? Did it ever occur to you that maybe we weren’t divorced at all?”
“I asked a friend of mine to sit in the court room,” said Pete. “He heard the judge grant you the decree.”
“Yes. And I’ve got it now. It’s a perfectly drawn decree. With the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed, and signed and sealed and everything, only—I never had it
recorded, and—” she shrugged her shoulders slightly and smiled into his eyes—“and it’s no good until it’s recorded.”
She lay back on the pillow and watched him, as still and ready as a hovering hawk. To assist him out of his bewilderment, “And so you see,” she summed up, “Evie’s not your wife. And Little Pete— Well, you know what Little Pete is.”
For a moment or two he didn’t know anything. He stood perfectly still and stared at her. What she said had no meaning for him, because it was impossible. Comprehension climbed into his face like a sloth, and with it a question that Sade answered before he had phrased it.
“There’d be no sense in lying to you. You could get the truth by telegraph before noon to-morrow. And besides, I don’t lie.”
It was a strange streak in her, but a valid one. All her life she had sheared through everything with the flashing blade of her devastating truthfulness. She had robbed and humiliated and tortured him, but she had never lied to him. It had eased him like spring after a hard winter to find that Evie could tell little fibs to save the feelings of those she loved. He had suffered more from the utter, caustic truthfulness of Sade than from any other quality in any human being. She had used it as a scalpel and laid him bare to the marrow of his soul. He’d wear forever the scars of some of the truths she had told him. And she told the truth, not only to hurt, but also for its own sake. That was her honor—a curious, tough flower blossoming from how strange a soil!
And so that hope died out of his face. She saw it die and nodded. He didn’t move. There was no sound in the room but the far-off moaning of the wind and the rubbing of boughs outside. He grew heavily and darkly lost in his thoughts. They bumped each other, and he pounded through them slowly.
His appearance changed. The veins in his temples swelled and throbbed. His face grew dark with blood. The long line of beasts hidden in the past of everyone looked suddenly out of his eyes. Sade felt them behind him, shouldering and jostling. They pushed him forward, and he came slowly and unwillingly, tormented and blind and terrible, and she watched him come with curiosity but not a flicker of fear. When he bent over her she shattered his trance like thin glass with a light, hard laugh.
“Come out of it! They’d send you up for life, if Dad didn’t shoot you. And where’d Little Puritan Eyes be then?”
He stood before her dazed and limp and shaking. Sweat streamed from his face. The old sense of degradation seemed to creep through the fibres of his flesh. He was like that, but only Sade had made him know it. Through the muddied swirl of pain and shame and fear and horror only the longing ran clear to get away from his old self and the odor of crab-apple blossoms that was choking him and the jeering colors about Sade’s bed and her hard, flickering yellow eyes.
He turned heavily towards the door. “You can’t have the Baker Place,” he said thickly. “I’ll see you in hell first!”
“No,” she said, as cool as lily buds—“afterwards!” She laughed a cold, sure laugh that followed him far into Long Grass Park.
E RODE with his head bent down, smelling the clean, thin air that was touched with the scents of dead grass and spruce and juniper and freshened with new snow; feeling the good crisp cold regenerate his blood; listening to the swooshof the great, free wind that ranged carelessly through states and continents. Dimly he wanted to go on out and into these things until the trees grew out of him and the wind was his breath and something cold and pure and white like melted snow ran through him instead of blood. He wanted to ride away from the man who had married Sade McHale. He was ashamed.
He hung his head and yielded to the comforting, swift trotting of his horse. His mind took hold of the strong, steady beat and kept itself empty of everything else. Lacy flakes of snow
Continued on page 63
The Beggar’s Diamond
Continued from page 23
subsided like tiny tired moths all over him. They covered his horse’s head until it looked like a white bonnet. He watched it bob sedately before him in the gloom and rode on home to Evie.
His head cleared on the way and he told himself he’d tell Evie the truth. They’d face it hand in hand. She’d see as he did that no mere slipping of a legal cog could vitiate a marriage like theirs, or degrade their child. What could the law add to what they had? After the poisoned air he had breathed with Sade it had been his pleasure to come out into a cleaner place and to make his every, least action as Evie’s husband conform not only to his own sense of right but also to that of organized society. For the first time in his life he had gone to church, and had found vitality and breath in the categorical “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” which he had used to think but fungus growths upon the fears and weaknesses of men.
Sade had thrown him, and Evie’s serene, little Puritan eyes had led him into religion, and he had been startled and gratified at the lightness of its burden and the ease of its yoke after those he had laid down. He had learned something of that peace of God that passes understanding. As simply as he had turned in his youth towards drink and cards and the flashy beauty of Sade McHale, he turned with Evie towards the obvious forms of righteousness. He wanted the comfort of knowing his path wasn’t going to twist out of pleasure into pain; of following the way that all people, whatever they themselves might do, agreed in their hearts was the safest for a man to travel with a woman. He sheltered himself as simply now behind the conventions as the jackrabbits in that high, cold country shelter behind the snow-guards along the railroad tracks when the north wind blows.
Sade couldn’t touch a man who had lived like that. He’d get another divorce himself—there were, he reflected, plenty of grounds—and have it recorded. He’d marry Evie all over again. He’d do whatever formal things were necessary, and, since his life had lain there for six years, plain and open, like a billboard, for anyone to read, who’d care anything about it?
THE answer faced him across the dinner table when he got home at half-past twelve—Evie. As he looked into her tranquil eyes he realized that they were empty of something he had counted on finding there. They did not know yet the things that he knew. The price of his knowledge had dripped out of him like blood, and the price of hers, if he asked her to pay it now, would be greater. Looking into her eyes, he went as deep as he pleased and there was no trouble or pain. If he told her, that fathomless serenity, as deep as the sky, would never be there again. He lowered the food he was raising to his lips and sat staring.
Evie laughed. “Hey, there, wake up!” He looked so surprised that she laughed again—the happy, running laugh that ran so easily from ripple to ripple. He had never heard it without pleasure. When she played with Little Pete and just sort of laughed along like the wind in the trees, Taggard would find something to do that kept him near so that he could listen to it. Sade never laughed when she was amused : her laughter carried a sting in the tail of it; but the sound of Evie laughing had always brought him an immense sense of well-being and content.
“Did you meet a spook up there in Long Grass Park, old Solemn Face?”
“Maybe,” said Little Pete excitedly, “maybe he saw Nine Mile Bully? I’ll bet yer ’twouldn’t take him long to get acrost, lookin’ for bad little boys! Two-free steps ’n’ he’d be there! Oh, Daddy, did yer see Nine Mile Bully! Didyer?”
FOR the rest of that day as he went quietly about his work, Peter Taggard carried under his red-brown, scrub-brush hair a hell of his own, and at night he laid it on his pillow beside the tranquil paradise that was Evie’s. After she was asleep and he could hear the sound of her breathing, like the gentle pulsing of a little launch putting out into the calm sea of dreams, he raised himself on his elbow and looked at her by the faint glow of the night light they kept burning for Little Pete. She had been as strange to him when he
first began to love her as a member of another race. She was from another race, to him. He had day-dreamed of people like that, just as he’d day-dreamed of what he’d do if he had unlimited wealth, but he had never really believed in their existence in any world where he might move, until Evie came. For Evie was as clean and natural and unashamed, as delicately fine and strong and lovely as a birch tree. She took him just as he was.
It had taken his breath, and stiffened his backbone, and flung up the forehead of his spirit until he went about singing inside himself.
And then Little Pete came, made sheerly out of their joy, and he found that he had wanted a son. It amazed h'm. He had never touched a child. He had loathed a baby. He sat soberly before this one and worshipped it. Life, like a magnifying glass, drew all the rays of his being together and focussed them on Little Pete. He was so happy that he feared something terrible was going to happen.
As he propped himself on his elbow and looked at his wife he felt that this was it. Somehow through all the miles and the years he had felt the poisonous thing lying and growing and ripening in Sade s mind. Some powerful ligament of hate still bound them together.
There was a plain and ugly word for what Little Pete was. Sade had but to speak and it would flare across the county like a prairie fire. Like a prairie fire it would burn down quickly and people would forget, but not Evie. She’d be scorched, singed, branded. It would stop the flow of that proud, free sense of rectitude that ran through her life like sap. Because, when all the explaining and justifying had been done, the undodgeable facts would remain: she had been living for six years with a man who was not her husband, and her child had been born out of wedlock. Maybe—the cold sweat sprang out of him at the thought of it—maybe she’d leave him until a new divorce could be got . . . She had the strength and the weakness of those who have never had to compromise • Maybe she’d leave him and take his boy
He sank back upon the pillow and thoughts snowed into his mind thick and futile. They snowed all night, while he stared the hours away. They told him what it would mean to give the Baker Place to the McHales and have them living there while he and Evie slaved on to raise the mortgage. They told him how hard it would be to explain such a gift to Evie. What could he say to her? That Sade, although she had gone off with another man and was not entitled to it, had somehow, through his failure to collect evidence against her, sued him for alimony for all the nine years since the divorce and won the suit? Something of the sort, he supposed: some lie to shelter Sade who never lied. They told h’m how it would be if Evie knew the truth. They told him what would happen if he slipped out of bed and dressed and went to the barn and got his horse and rode over the mountains and Long Grass Park to Sade’s house and shot McHale first and then his daughter and buried them under the spruce trees. They told him everything there was to say, and they were still snowing hard the next morning when he rose and went about his chores. He could not see through them and he couldn’t stop them.
AFTER breakfast he drove into the town—to get a new coulter for the plough, he said to Evie; to clear his head, he said to himself; but through his drifting thoughts Sade’s voice told him it was to get the deed to the Baker Place from his safe deposit box in the bank.
He stopped his car in the courthouse square and looked around him with a fresh realization of his plight. Robbed in broad daylight under the eyes of the people he knew the best! His eyes lingered curiously on names of stores and offices. There was scarcely one of them but stood for a friend. He could cross the street and drum up an army that would chase the McHales out of the county forever. His eyes narrowed. The line of his lips grew straight and tight. Grimly he opened the door of the car and thrust out one long leg—starting.
Yes, and Sade as she departed would
speak a word he’d find in Evie’s eyes when he got back to her, and the Evie he'd left an hour ago chattering along with Little Pete as merry as a bird, he’d never see again. She couldn’t be gone out of the county, she’d be gone out of the world.
For the sake of her he trod steadily into the bank and got his deed and brought it out, bound for Sade and surrender. And for her sake he stopped and obstinately took up the fight again. The Baker Place was her place. He’d never give it up—to anyone! . . .
Aimlessly he began to walk, found himself beside his car and aimlessly got into it. It was to-morrow now, and behind the clouds the sun climbed steadily towards noon. In two hours he’d have chosen. As he put his heel on the starter post he wondered detachedly what his choice was going to be. As a spectator he’d like to know. He pushed his little car into “low” and put forth again—he knew not for where.
The voice of Gus Holtzclaw brought him down like a bullet in his wavering flight.
“Hey, Pete!" he shouted. “Pete Taggard! There’s a call for you on the telephone!”
In the back of the store, over in the corner where the wall telephone was, everything fell still and clear inside of him, to listen, for the heavy tones that shook the receiver in his hand were Morg. McHale’s, and what he said was this: “I’ve got your boy.” Slowly, twice. “I’ve got your boy. He’s taking a little ride with me, back into the hills. He’s liking it fine. It won’t do him any harm, if we don’t go too far. I was thinking we’d stop up to my place if you could arrange to meet me there—alone—before noon, like Sade said—and bring along the thing that you and her was talking about. If you was to forget it, or fetch somebody else with you, or be too late, we’d go further, me and the kid. Quite a lot further. And it might be inconvenient for all of us. I might”—with an incongruous barking laugh—“I might have to send him home in a box, or something like that, if you know what I mean!”
Pete heaved his speaking machinery into motion like somethinghugeandrusty. “I will do what you say. Give me time. Something might happen to the car.” “All right, then, we’ll call it two o’clock. Your wife thinks the kid’s over to Hutchinson’s, where he was going when I picked him up. If you don’t tell her, she needn’t know. Wait a minute. I'll bring him in here and let him speak to you.”
Little Pete’s voice came shrill and high : “Hello, Daddy! Mr. McHale gived me a ride, V he’s takin me on a picnic, V maybe we’ll see where Nine Mile Bully lives, V I ain’t scared a bit!”
“That’s nice, son. Daddy’ll be along pretty soon and bring you home.”
He was pale as he walked out of the store, but the place was rather dark and nobody noticed it.
“Everything all right with the boy and the missus?” said Holtzclaw; and Pete said yes, they were fine; and got into his car and drove out of the town.
HIS heart seemed beating just beneath his Adam’s apple, at the top of a void; the strokes thudded softly into the ache in his head. He drove with great care. All his complexity was simplified. His whirl of thoughts had shrunk to one: he must get the boy. After that he’d see. The flesh of his chest and arms ached for the pressure of the slim, little form. They had broken his mainspring. They could do whatever they liked with him. They had him. He must get the boy. He went into the McHale house with the deed in his hand.
It was dark in there, and very quiet except for the distant moaning of the wind. But this time he didn’t hear it, nor smell the drench of perfume that weighted the air, nor see the gaudy oasis of colors about the bed. He saw only Sade’s yelloweyes, alive and waiting, and beneath them the child, stretched motionless across the foot of the bed. He was to see them like that now and then as long as he lived.
The heat of his fear burned the picture into his mind: Sade’s eyes like a pulsing flame that had drawn into itself all the light in the place, and the child limp and still—discarded looking, like something too delicately made to endure, his little face a pale spot in the twilight.
Taggard opened his mouth to speak, but only unintelligible noises came out of it. Suddenly he sat down heavily on a chair. “Is he dead?” he said.
“So you care like that?” she mused. “It’s funny. I wouldn’t’ve thought it of you. No, he’s asleep. He played and talked so much—about himself and you and his mother.—that he wore himself out, and all of a sudden he laid down there and slept like a puppy.”
Pete sagged in the chair and let the long waves of relief wash over him. For a while he couldn’t think.
His eye fell on the document in his hand, and he turned it about and looked at it.
He cocked his head to listen, and heard the ticking of a clock and the slight noises the stove made against the background of the moaning of the wind. He looked into Sade’s eyes to see if he could tell whether the house was empty round about them or whether Morg. sat in the other room behind the half-open door with his rifle across his knees.
“There’s nobody here but me and Little Pete. This kidnaping stunt was a fool idea of Dad’s. When he showed up here with the kid I sent him about his business. I knew you’d bring the deed anyhow. Is that what you’ve got in your hand?’ ’ “Yes,” he said slowly, “that’s the deed,” andreached back and laidhis heavy forty-four on top of it.
Sade smiled. “You won’t have any use for either of ’em here, Pete. I lied to you about the divorce. I had it recorded as soon as I got it.”
He got to his feet, studying her face. “You don’t lie. You do everything else. You’re a devil. But—you—don’t—lie.” He looked deeply into her eyes. “But I guess you’ve lied now. One time or the other. And why’d you be lying this time? What good would it do you?”
She nodded. “It was the other time, not this one. And my friend here”—she said the words gravely and touched the child’s hair with her fingers—“was as legal-born as the parson.”
“Why—?” he began slowly.
“After doing everything else, I lied to you, just like you said. And I’m sorrier about that than all the rest of it. It used to be a kind of comfort to me that I didn’t lie. It meant quite a lot. It was like—” she pondered soberly— “like a ragged beggar with a big diamond. And now I’ve lost that, too.”
“I’d have given you money—"
“I don’t like being given things. I like to take ’em. Besides, I wanted to make you wriggle.”
“Why?” said Pete, from the midst of an old despair.
“Don’t you know?”
“How could I know?”
“I didn’t either until this little, wetnosed, grubby brat that looks exactly like you got to climbing around on my bed. Funny, isn’t it? It’s because I love you.” There was a long pause during which they looked together at this final assay of their relationship.
“Take him,” she said at last—Pete had nothing left within that he wanted to say —“and go home. Dad don’t know and Evie don’t kno-w. I didn't lie to anybody but you.”
He thrust his revolver into its holster and put the deed in his pocket and came forward and bent over the sleeping child.
She laid her hand on his arm. “Will you kiss me good-by?”
He kissed her gently on the cheek and gathered up his son and went away. The clock that ticked against the moaning of the wind struck noon.
Sade lay back on her pillow’. After a while she drew’ out the unrecorded decree of divorce. “What they don’t know,” she said, “won’t hurt them"; and tore it slowly into bits.