The Perfect Ending
"Two men so faithful to the memory of one woman could not meet—and live”
WHERE the old Indian trail rounds over the Aletippi Pass, Terry Frollingham has built himself a cabin. The new motor road, avoiding the climb, skirts the base of Mount Beppo, leaving the Aletippi and Terry much to themselves. So does everyone else, for that matter; for the Indian is scarce, the old-time packer is no more, and the few tourists who stumble on the Mountain View Hotel seven miles or so away have neither energy nor ambition to climb to Terry in his eyrie. Even Markham, the optimist, gouging a precarious living from the little hotel, has never heard of Terry.
So he remains alone, his cabin hidden in the trees near the "brink of the precipice overlooking the deserted gold camp. Up there is only view—and Terry. And there are so many other views more accessible. As for Terry, without his story he counts nothing. And that story he has told to none but me.
I speak of him in the present. But there is Jack Maybee to consider. Perhaps it is Jack lives there now. It is one or the other. Two men so faithful to the memory of one woman could not meet and both live. And before my eyes they met. I am not curious. Simply I know that it was the perfect ending, whatever it was.
TT WAS the tourists brought us together, Terry and me. Fleeing their noisy, desecrating bridge on the hotel verandah, I stumbled on the old pack trail. Just a vestige of ancient passings through the jackpines, treerubbed by the pack ponies, winding along in the inexplicable way of paths. Vaguely I followed it.
It led finally to the motor road, where it seemed to halt, for a screen of trees interposed there. Pushing through, I saw across the road the ruins of a village—a dozen dilapidated buildings grouped about a central cabin. Nothing surprising in that—a hundred such ruins, relics of construction camps, gold camps, defunct lumber concerns, were scattered through the mountains; yet without thinking, something about the old village sent me creeping back to the cover of the trees. Rallying there, I peered out once more. Uninhabited certainly, for windows, doors and roofs were gone, the old paths untrodden, forest fungi clotted on the log walls. Yet the place was not dead. A pulse beat there. Something lived on—a memory—a hope—waiting, waiting. Something wistful and pathetic seemed to return my stare, wondering a little.
I shook myself back to reason and understood. The central cabin—that was it. Evidences of recent repair there—a roof, infirm, but still a roof. A solid door, locked, I felt certain, against a prying world. The windows, mere openings now, were set higher in the walls than a man’s head. I noticed then that the forest wild growth that so closely pursues the heels of man had been cleared away. An inviolable sort of place, I thought. Private.
Impressed, I retired to the slope behind me, deciding to climb and look down on the old village, escaping that wistful stare.
'"T'HAT was how I came on the garden and the cabin —Terry’s—away on the crest of the Pass. Surprising garden, vegetables that even the industrious Markham had failed to raise, protected from the devastating mountain rat by a fine-meshed wire fence that seemed to extend under ground, and an array of empty grocery boxes for covering at night. Beyond the garden was the cabin. As I stopped to look it over, through a screen of trees to the right an old man hurried and disappeared around the cabin. A door slammed.
I knew he had seen me—I read the meaning of the slamming door. Yet I persisted. Rounding the wire fence, I pushed through the screen of trees and came out on the edge of a precipice that fell two hundred feet to the long slope extending to the valley, in the heart of which lay the living death of the ruined village. For a moment the precision of my course startled me. Then I saw the position of the sun, and realized how time had passed. In something of a panic I turned for home.
As I circled the cabin, the door opened narrowly and the old man spoke through to me.
“How did you get here?”
It was not impertinent, not resentful, not even uncivil. But a certain agitation about it—concern—puzzled me.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” I replied. “That’s why I’m hurrying back to the hotel.”
“You found the old pack trail?”
“I suppose I did—stumbled on it. I wanted to get away from some very disagreeable tourists.”
His face softened. “You’ll have to hurry. If you keep that slide in sight”—a distant gash in a forested slope— “and turn left at a river down to the valley, you’ll find the hotel in a few minutes.”
I started to thank him, but the door shut in my face. This time, however, it did not slam.
I did not sleep well. All night the strange old man and his garden and the ruined village haunted me. Next day, with Markham’s lunch under my arm, I sought the old pack trail again. Something led me unfalteringly. In three hours I was there, seated on a rustic bench I found at the edge of the precipice.
No life had shown about the cabin as I passed, but I knew I was observed. Across the valley half a dozen peaks thrust into the sky, forest-green, broken at intervals by spots of gray or brown cliff. Below, the gray worm of the motor road tangled through the trees; and in the heart of the valley the old village. It interested me. What was its story—its birth and close-following death? The sun beat comfortably on my shoulders and a whisper of breeze stirred the trees musically. I closed my eyes.
I opened them to find the old man seated beside me, though I had heard no sound. Frankly he regarded me, silent, but undisturbed by my return inspection. Closer now, he seemed much younger. His hair was gray, his shoulders bent, his face haggard. But not with years. Something of his story I read in his eyes. Anxiety there, a trace of impatience, a muddled bewilderment. I looked down on the ruins below, and back at my companion. An involuntary movement, yet he seemed to understand, for he smiled.
“I hope I’m not trespassing unforgiveably,” I apologized when I could stand the silence no longer. “It’s the old village there—I was interested.”
“My village,” he said, in the flat voice of one accustomed to silence. In the accent, in the tone was a trace of truculent possessiveness, as if I had questioned his claim.
“No one lives there now, I suppose?”
He shook his head. “Not a grain of dust panned there these thirty years—and never will be again.”
“Oh, an old gold camp?”
“Bepposite, one time liveliest of ’em all,” he replied dreamily.
“A lovely spot for a village,” I ventured.
His face lit up. “What Sally and I always thought, lookin’ down from here.”
“You’re married?” I asked, and instantly realized my blunder. I realized it more, when without a word he rose and left me, disappearing among the trees.
Puzzling over it, I was on my way back to the trail when the door opened again.
“You’re welcome to the bench any time,” he called after me.
EXT day rain held me fidgeting at the hotel, but on the following day, despite Markham’s warning, I set out for the cabin. The old man was standing in the doorway watching for me. Shyly he invited me in. I knew then that the brushing of his elbow by the outside world had touched a responsive chord in him. Something it could give him after all ... I wondered if he didn’t need me.
The trimness of the interior of the cabin did not surprise me, but what it did do was to draw my attention to something in its owner that I had been vaguely aware of. Even the day I saw him first, he, too, had been trim—his clothes fresh, his shoes polished, a daily shave. I wondered. The cabin was a real home, with its comfortable home-made chairs, its newspaper and magazine-laden tables, its soft curtains caught back across the windows. But the heart of the room was the windowseat looking toward the cliff over the valley. A much used and usable seat, with a convenient table littered with papers beside it —there, I felt certain, my friend spent his indoor hours. I moved toward it—and started when, through the glass, I looked down on the old gold camp. I felt that I had uncovered something of a story I longed to hear.
I tried to cover my start.
‘You’re comfortable here. Good enough for a woman.”
‘My new friend smiled on me.
“I’m glad you said that. You’re my first visitor. I’ve tried to make it as Sally would like it. Even a shack can be a home.”
“I wouldn’t call this a shack,” I protested, wondering who and where Sally might be.
“No, you’re right. Sally never did. It was our home. Not this one, of course, the one they burnt down—before this.”
I watched him roaming about .the room, touching things with gentle hands, tidying the papers.
As he came to the table beside the window seat he jerked upright and leaned forward. I looked over his shoulder.
Outside it was raining softly, not like a mountain storm. Over the valley hung a thin mist through which the ruined camp showed clear in the forest obscurity. In the camp clearing a Ford had pulled up, and the usual Ford mob was tumbling from it to spread out pryingly through the village. As the father of the family started toward the main cabin the man before me wheeled abruptly and dashed through the door. For a moment or two I could hear him plunging down the mountainside. I turned to watch the scene below.
The tourists were poking about—no rain could dampen their insolence. The father, trying the door of the main cabin and finding it locked, struggled with it a moment, then, returning to the car, seemed to recall the family, for they came tumbling and in a mass fell on the laden running-boards and bumpers. In a few minutes a tent was spread on the ground. The father found a pole, and setting it up between a roofless wall and a post that had once probably held a sign, with the assistance of the whole family threw the canvas over it. Leaving the family to complete the work he returned to the main cabin. He, too, was curious.
I found myself resenting their impudence, cursing the road that made their presence possible. With an uncomfortable laugh I realized that my new friend’s excitement had spread to me. I wondered why.
The hands of the man below had fallen on the high sill of a window of the main cabin to draw himself up, when suddenly the whole family turned toward the road, and from among the trees my new friend came running. Probably he had shouted. Straight for the father beside the central cabin he made his way, and for a moment they seemed to argue. Side by side, then, they returned to the car. The children, clustered about their mother, watched in evident fright. With a sweep of his arm the old man tore down the tent and kicked it to a heap. And the father, stepping forward to protest, found a gun poking in his ribs ...
In five minutes they were gone, family and outfit spilling over the sides of the car. The old man watched them djpappear and, after a slow look about, approached the central cabin and let himself in with a key. I seated myself on the window seat and picked up a newspaper.
The cabin door opened softly and the old man entered. “It’s stopped rainin’,” he said, a little breathlessly. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you anything to eat.”
I took the hint. “Thank you, I’ll have to go. I’d hate to be lost in the mountains.”
“You don’t understand the mountains,” he told me with a smile. “If you’d lived in ’em thirty-two years ...” He stopped in some confusion. “It’s thirty-two years since I came first. I’ve lived here only twelve.” “One might well envy you,” I assured him, trying to cover his embarrassment. “I’m coming every year.” His tanned face flushed with pleasure. “My name’s Frollingham—Terry Frollingham. Christened ‘Terence,’ I guess. Wasn’t ever called it. Everyone has something to be thankful for,” he added whimsically. “I couldn’t live anywheres else. It’ll be better here when—when the account’s settled.”
I asked no questions—his story was bursting to tell. I gave him my name and he repeated it after me, as if he liked the sound of it.
“Are you Canadian?” he asked. And when I said I was, his face lit up. “Then you’d know something of the Great War.”
“Too darn much.”
He did not seem to hear. “I couldn’t go. I was in jail—for murder.” Seeing me start, he smiled, and I smiled back; it all sounded so fantastic.
“If you’d care to come again,” he pleaded timidly.
“I’ll be here tomorrow—Terry.” He touched me lingeringly on the arm. “A life sentence it was —and I was guilty, you know. They let me out in twenty years.” His eyes bored into mine.
I laughed and left him. I was late for supper at the hotel, and Markham, politely curious, questioned me in vain.
'T'ERRY was waiting for me on the rustic bench beside the cliff. Scattered clouds freckled the sky, sending shadows racing over the valley. Far away against a brown cliff a pair of huge birds soared. Terry pointed.
“Eagles. They’re gettin’ scarce. I like to think they’re the ones I used to see thirty years ago.” One of the shadows struck the central cabin below and seemed to linger. The man beside me winced. Fumblingly he drew a pipe and commenced to pack it.
“Down there—it’s where she lived,” he murmured. He stopped to light up. “Sally Saunders. Pretty name, don’t you think? But not pretty enough for Sally— Sally and Bepposite. They lived and died together. When Sally— went, the other gold went, too. Forme, too. I’ll tell you about it.” He pressed the fire from the pipe and returned it to his pocket. I was puzzled. Sally Saunders! She’d been all the world to him. I knew that, and yet he could speak of her with such detachment. Not indifference—no, indeed. Acceptance—that was it. A fatalist, Terry Frollingham. With this
addition, that things were as they should be with him. He was speaking again.
“Sally Saunders—though that was before she married Jack Maybee—before I knew her. But Sally Saunders she was to the camp to the end. Odd, too, when you know. ’Cause she always loved Jack—that was why she wouldn’t never marry me—me, who took her. She was that kind of a girl.”
A subtle change had come over him—a burden of silence lifted, long-closed chambers thrown open to the light. How he must have longed to talk during these many years!
“I was young in them days. But Bepposite was younger. In years only. I’m only fifty now, though—well, when you’ve served twenty years—and been waitin’ for ten more . . . Things had happened back home, nasty things. They thought I was no good and I set out to show ’em—And the first I saw of Bepposite, the new gold camp, was the one good thing it had—Sally.”
He looked about with soft, distant eyes.
“Right here it was.” He sighed. “So much has happened here. First, Sally. Then—that other—the awful thing. And I’m only waitin’ for the last—I’d lost my way and I heard a woman singin’. She’d climbed up here to get away from the noise and dirt o’ the camp, like she always liked to. Yes, I know—just a girl from a gold camp—and runnin’ a faro table. But you don’t know Sally Saunders.
“I heard her singin’. And she could sing, Sally could. They don’t sing like her nowadays. I’ve heard most o’ the big ones on the machines, and I know singin’ when I hear it. From the time I was a kid I sang in the choir back home. We got third prize once at the county show. But Sally beat anything. You know that little trill they used to know how to get at the end of a line. They’ve forgot it now. Well, Sally could do it so your heart would jump in your throat and choke you .
“She didn’t sing much after that. Too much happened—and too fast—I don’t know—maybe she was happier in them days. But what I did—what we did—was for the best, as we saw it. Maybe I was wrong. I’ll know some day.
“I saw her before she did me—she was standin’ right there—but she just took one glance at me, and that was through me. I was raw from the country, you see. She was frightened somehow. ‘You shouldn’t oughta be here,’ she said; and she looked down on the camp. ‘Nor you neither,’ I said back, looking the same direction.
“ ‘It’s my home,’ she said, and she threw up her head. ‘My husband lives there—runs the gamblin’ room. And I run the faro table.’
“ ‘Then gamblin’ ain’t what we thought back home,’ I said, tryin’ to think I meant it.
“And her eyes went all soft, because, I guess, she saw I was in love already. She touched me on the arm. ‘He’s my husband,’ she said, ‘and I love him still—■ and always will.’
“I wasn’t too raw to see what that ‘still’ meant, though I knew she didn’t know she said it. ‘Gamblin’,’ I said, ‘is a reg’lar business in a gold camp, I guess, so it’s better bein’ run by nice people.’ And when I looked at her again there was tears in her eyes. ‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘it won’t be my business. I’m goin’ to dig gold.’
“She laughed at that, and she told me I wouldn’t dig it, because this was placer mining. Then she looked through me, dreamy-like, and she told me I would make my fortune, two or three o’ them. ‘And you’ll lose them,’ she warned. ‘They all do. That’s what makes our fortune, Jack’s and mine.’ A bit bitter she sounded.
“She only smiled when I said I wouldn’t gamble, and the dimples dancin’ in her cheeks—God, she was pretty, the kind o’ prettiness that knocks a man silly—golden hair, all fluffy and nice, and a skin smoother than velvet, and dark eyes and brows and dark red lips—I didn’t know till afterwards . But you can’t blame a girl for makin’ the most of herself, can you? Sort o’ duty.”
Poor Terry! Part of his unhappiness was his memory of Sally in these days of wider experience.
“I told her all about myself, then. Most men did. And she listened as if I mattered. She was that way. I’ve seen her let a drunk pile his troubles on her— and his dust, too, for safe keepin’. As if she hadn’t worries enough of her own. And then some of them—the brutes— they’d imagine when they got sober that they’d given her more than she gave back. Men are like that in a gold camp—just beasts. Don’t know a lady when they see one. That’s something you learn on a farm as good as anywheres, is a lady.”
“And when I was through, she looked so sober it sort o’ frightened me. ‘If only you’ll help me,’ I begged.
“ ‘That isn’t my business, Terry,’ she said, bitter again.
“ ‘Anyway, you’ll never have a chance to cheat me,’ I bragged, feelin’ big about it.
“ ‘Terry Frollingham,’ she said low, just sayin’ my name. ‘It sounds like you. Mine’s Sally. And, Terry, the faro table will always treat you square.’ Then she closed her lips tight, like as if she’d said too much.
“I just laughed; and then I told her it was gettin’ dark, and I asked her the best I knew how if I could see her home—like we did with the girls back home. She looked as if she wanted to cry, but what she said hurt terrible. ‘You can see me down the mountainside, Terry, then I’ll go into the camp alone.’
“And I—fool . . . thought she was ashamed to be seen with the tenderfoot, so I left her. ‘You’ll understand only too soon, Terry,’ she called after me—and I did.”
"DOR a long time he was silent. I, too, -L for I wanted his story exactly as he wished to give it. His emotions told as much as his words.
“Bepposite,” he went on. “Just fever and nastiness—Sally was right. I got the fever—gold and faro. Maybe if Sally hadn’t been runnin’ the faro table . . .
But that isn’t fair to her; I did what I did with my eyes open. Sally was all there was decent about Bepposite. Like a water lily in a scummy pond—And there wasn’t one of us didn’t hope to pick that lily—some day. You ought to heard her sing, ‘In the Baggage Coach Ahead,’ and ‘After the Ball.’ Make you swallow hard, I tell you. Big Bill Carew shot a guy for laughin’ once. Drunk, or he couldn’t ’a’ done it—the guy, I mean. Sally about ran the place.
“ ’Course there was Jack Maybee, her husband. Likable chap, Jack was, sort that could make friends collectin’ taxes, even. We made him Mayor first show o’ hands; and it wasn’t true we was afraid to vote against him, like some said. Head andshoulders above the run o’ jointkeepers, Jack was. Wouldn’t stand for no rough-house—not when Sally was around Once he kicked a man out for callin’ her ‘Sal.’ And the other—the one that clapped her on the back—drunk he was or he wouldn’t ’a’ dared—we buried him next day out back; and we didn’t have the nerve to borrow from Jack the only book in camp to do things like that decent like.
“ ’Member the first fight I seen. A dago and a big Swede it was. Jack tried to stop it quiet-like; but dagoes and Swedes don’t stop easy. They got nasty, and I—raw fool I was yet—I chipped in to help Jack. Well, he just brushed me away, and hustled Sally into their own rooms. After that there wasn’t anything but the doctor for the other two. Great with his fists, Jack was. Gun, too. But he wouldn’t use a gun on them—they was new guys in camp and didn’t know no better—Jack always got Sally out o’ the way before a row. Most always. I’m cornin’ to the times he forgot. When a man loves like Jack did Sally, he’s bound to forget sometimes.
“But what he’d ’a’ done without Sally I don’t know. She was always where the rows started. Nobody’d think o’ startin a row about the other girls in camp. We knew a lady, we did. And Sally sure was one. You could tell it by the crook of her little finger when she et, so graceful and cute, and the way she used a toothpick. You just got one squint o’ Sally, and went and bought a comb and a necktie. Jack Maybee kept a stock o’ things like that for spiffin’ up. Sally didn’t expect the impossible.
“Handsome pair, Jack and Sally. And different. Jack’s hair was black as the ace o’ spades, and all oiled smooth and shiny. And his mustache waxed into a nice circle. Gent from the city, you’d say, maybe a banker or somebody. And how he did love Sally! My love wasn’t that kind, but I sort o’ understand. And she loved him just as much, Sally did—right to the end. That’s what makes it all the stranger—because she wasn’t the sort o’ girl to fit into the life he made her lead. There wasn’t nobody else he could trust to run the faro, so what else could she do? It paid, too. Always a crowd waitin’ to break in at Sally’s table— And Jack standin’ behind the counter just glarin’ at us.
“ ’Course it couldn’t go on long. A man can’t last only so long with jealousy eatin’ his heart out—He picked on me early. You see, Sally sort o’ mothered me, me bein’ so raw and all that—-
“ ’Member the first night I tr.ed to play. I’d panned out pretty well that day, and a part of it had gone over the counter. I’d crowded in close to Sally’s chair, and when the openin’ came I butted in. But Sally nodded to the man behind me. I just was drunk enough to put up a howl, but Sally only raised her eyebrows and went on with the game. And then Jack Maybee was reachin’ for me . . .
“I saw by his eyes he’d been layin’ for me, and I was fool enough to welcome a fight. Seemed to be fightin’ for Sally, and I’d have walked through hell for her. But Sally spoke up sharp, ‘Stop it, Jack.’ It almost knocked the wind out of him. Me, too, and when I got my wits back I was outside, and three friends holdin’ me.
“But it only put off the end. It had to come, that fight. Nobody could butt in between Jack Maybee and Sally, and get away with it. Two days after that I squeezed into the game—Bally didn’t dare keep me out again. And right from the start I had beginner’s luck. They were mad, I tell you. Then—well, I thought I saw Sally doin’ tricks to make me lose— wanted to make me quit, I know now— and I put up another howl. You know how I felt—like as if she’d gone back on me.
“Then something happened. A gun slid over the table, and there was Big Bill Carew behind it. And Bill was never known to argue—or miss. It scared me. Bang!—and I thought I was a goner. But it wasn’t Bill’s gun. No, Bill just gave a groan and slumped over sideways off his chair. And next second Jack Maybee and Sally and I was standin’ together, watchin’ the room over our guns. Big Bill’s friends hadn’t a chance to draw.
“ ‘Who did that?’ Jack ast. One of Big Bill’s friends, it was, said, ‘Ask Sally.’ And, sure enough, there was a wisp o’ smoke curlin’ up from under the table where Sally’d been sittin’. That did it. For the second time in two minutes I was helpless. But Sally saved me again— struck Jack’s gun back over the counter so the bullet went wild into the ceilin’ . . .”
TERRY was leaning forward, staring down on the old cabin. I took a steadier breath. Conventional scene in a gold camp—conventional characters. Yet somehow it gripped me. Something different, something unexpected, was coming. I knew it.
“I’m glad I didn’t shoot. Jack Maybee has a right to his chance. He ain’t done nothin’ wrong. Maybe I did—just lovin’ Sally, and wantin’ her so bad. Jack’s got to have his chance—and Bepposite.”
“Is he alive—Jack Maybee?” I asked. He did not seem to hear. “That brought things to a head. I don’t know exactly what happened—Sally never would tell. He must ’a’ used her a bit rough. Couldn’t help it, lovin’ her the way he did, and knowin’ how I loved her, and what she done and all that. I see his side. Love was hurtin’ him, so the other’s got to be hurt, too. Sally stuck it a week, then she —came to me.”
He stirred uneasily. “Nothin’ else for her to do, was there? Sally’s never been brought up to make a livin’ for herself— she wasn’t that sort of a girl. God made her the lady she was—maybe He sent her to me. You see, somebody might ’a’ got her that didn’t understand her love for Jack, and they’d ’a’ made her marry them. I didn’t—often she cried herself to sleep in my arms—she loved Jack Maybee so.
“I’d made a bit, and we cleared out. Took her right home to Iowa. I thought the folks’d be proud o’ her and me. But they weren’t. They ast if we were married —closed the door on us. It was terrible. You see, Sally was goin’ to have a baby. It was born five months after. She couldn’t ’a’ known when she left Jack. ’Member this was thirty years ago, when even flappers didn’t know everything about motherhood but the pangs . . . I was proud as sin to father her kid when she needed a father most. But that didn’t help Sally much—And my people could think! God, they could think that o’ Sally!”
His lips worked. “She was straight, Sally was. Cornin’ to me was nothin’. It was either that or—or worse—So little Betty was born in a hospital, with nobody but me to comfort her mother And after that—you know how it is—the money went quicker’n we thought. Sally was unhappy. It hurt me more because she seemed to be wantin’ all the time to make up to me for something—I don’t know what. See how lucky I was—not another man in the world—except Jack—she’d ’a’ let do for her what I was able to do— And so when the money was ’most gone, ‘There’s that new camp in Nevada,’ I said, not lookin’ at her. And she only laughed for the first time for weeks, and pinched me. ‘We’ll go right back, Terry. Jack won’t be there.’ She knew it was always Bepposite for both of us.
"I came back alone first and scouted about. Jack was gone—just pulled out. Lookin’ for us, I knew. And the camp had got together and run the gamblin’ room. Payin’, too, it was. They were glad when Sally turned up to take the money. I knew better than to show up. Some things you can’t explain to a gold camp any easier than back in Iowa. Rules, you know. So I built a cabin—right where this one is now. And she and Betty used to come up to me o’ nights.
“For a month things went fine, and we began to think our troubles over. But some o’ Big Bill Carew’s friends was there. I blame it on them, what happened. But maybe—sometimes I don’t know—maybe it was God. A man can’t run away with another man’s wife and not pay for it; no, not even if it’s the only thing to do. Maybe I had to pay for wantin’ her so bad. I’m ready to pay. But Sally—that’s what beats me. I don’t see—But maybe a woman ought to stick ...”
“What happened?” I asked.
He rose and, stepping to the edge of the cliff, pointed down. Two hundred feet below I saw a small cairn of rock.
“He found us here. It was a lovely evening, soft and balmy, and we were sittin’ here watchin’ the lights cornin’ out in the camp—Sally with Betty in her arms leanin’ against me like I loved her to do. We weren’t talkin’—just dreamy and happy. A whisper o’ wind in the trees, like music. One o’ the wonderful mountain evenings I get so often now, alone— and then there was another sound, and Jack was here.”
Terry shivered and moistened his lips with his tongue.
“He had his gun, so there wasn’t nothin’ I could do but watch my chance. He was crazy wild. Said things—awful things—about Sally—about little Betty, his own child. I was bracin’ myself to jump him, and then I saw two o’ Big Bill’s friends had me covered behind. And there was Sally and Betty to think of, if shootin’ began.
“Sally didn’t say a word—just seemed frozen, starin’ up at Jack. And when he stopped she groaned and hugged Betty closer. And then she was up facin’ him, holdin’ Betty out.
“ ‘You can think that, Jack?’ she wailed. ‘You? Look at her—your own Betty !’ Seemed as if her heart was broke. But Jack was too mad to notice. He said more things—worse things. Sally seemed to wilt, and just when I had made up my mind to take a chance, she broke away with a moan.
“Both Jack and I tried to stop her. He was nearest and he got his fingers on her dress, but she tore loose. I saw red then. I heard the thud—and then I was shootin’. Not at Jack—somehow I could not hurt him, just standin’ there starin’ like he was crazy. No, not Jack, the other two—Big Bill’s friends. Just two shots. I 'member the double flash of my gun, and then I ran. I looked back once. Jack was watchin’ me. He didn’t shoot. Feels like I do—some day we’ll settle our account decent and fair.”
He fumbled for his pipe, breathing deeply.
“So that was the murder?” I scoffed. “Why, any lawyer could have got you off. Self-defense ...”
“I didn’t want to get off. Sally and Betty—Too awful to end easy like that. Neither Jack nor I would tell—Jack took a life sentence, too.” He saw my bewilderment and smiled. “You don’t know Jack Maybee. Good sport, he always was. When they got me he gave himself up. Said he’d shot one of ’em. It didn’t look square to him for me to get it all when he’d been a bit to blame—in a way. Besides, he wanted to keep track o’ me.”
“The settlement. It’s got to come—for both our sakes. For Sally’s sake. For Bepposite’s, the old gold camp. Jack’s lookin’ for me.” His face clouded. “But it’s ten years. I don’t understand.” The shadow of the mountain opposite fell across us. “You’d best be goin’, my friend.”
TT WAS late next day—lost my way— and Terry was on the bench looking for me. He welcomed me with that wistful smile of his. In all these years he had grown so little beyond the old farm days in Iowa. He had, I noticed, taken more pains than ever with his appearance— goatee trimmed, gray hair glossy with oil, and a new suit in its original creases. “You expect visitors?” I enquired.
He nodded. “One of you already.”
“Oh, but I’m no visitor; you’ll see me every nice day till I leave.”
He smiled, pleased but uncomfortable at the frankness of my friendship. I came to the point. All night I had fretted.
“You mustn’t stay, Terry. It’s tempting disaster. Jack Maybee will look for you here.”
He nodded. “I’ve been waitin’. Ten years. Accounts like ours have to be settled.”
“Rank sentiment,” I stormed. “Bosh !” “What else is there to live for?” he countered simply.
I gave it up. “Oh, well,” I reasoned with my fears, “he may be dead—or found another woman.”
“Not Jack Maybee. You forgot Sally, I guess. Anyway, I had to come. They burnt down the old cabin.” He looked back through the trees. “It’ll suit either of us—the new one—whichever’s left— If only the folks back home would believe —about Sally!”
To Terry Frollingham the thirty years were as a day. Such simplicity, such love, such faith . . .
Something stirred behind me. I swung about, my heart pounding.
The sun had dropped behind a mountain peak. Long shadows lay across the deserted camp. A wind whispered mysteries among the trees. A large, broadshouldered man stood over us, his clothes immaculate but extreme, his graying hair oiled flat, his mustache waxed to a circle. One who had lived hard, eyes bulging a little, lips thick but controlled. His face, oddly pale and flabby, told of recent suffering. Terry had not turned, but he had heard; a happy smile on that gentle face bewildered me. The man over us did not seem to see me.
“The old spot, Terry. I knew I would find you here. I was impatient and they kept me seven years longer. It told on me—hospital most of the time since. You were always a good sport, Terry. Let’s get on with it. The sun is going down— the hour she loved.”
I caught him by the arm. “For God’s sake, Jack Maybeee, can’t you ever forget?”
“Does Terry?” he asked softly, smiling almost affectionately on Terry’s back. He tossed me aside and his face hardened. “Would any man forget the friend who ran away with his wife—murdered her?”
“But he didn’t do either. You know—”
But neither of them was listening.
“You have your gun, Terry?” Maybee asked quietly.
Terry nodded and made for the house. For a foolish moment I hoped he would escape—and was ashamed of myself. Maybee took no notice of me—he was looking down on the old camp. A smile creased his cheeks. Then Terry was back, an old revolver in his hand. Maybee drew two beautiful, new, blue steel guns from his pocket.
“That would be foolish, Terry. Take your pick.”
“Thanks, Jack, I like the old gun.”
“Have you another?”
Terry left us again, and as he returned with the two old guns, Maybee hurled his pair far out over the cliffs. They smiled at each other and started away.
One last effort I made. “Terry, Terry, don’t do it. You’ll let him kill you.” Terry straightened. “I’ll do the best I know how. If I didn’t, it’d mean I’d done wrong. And that’d mean Sally did, too. It’s for Sally’s honor.”
“Both of us,” said Maybee. “Sally never did wrong. It’s one of us.”
Terry hesitated. “One thing, friend— back in Iowa—I wish they could know how straight Sally was.”
I dropped helplessly to the bench. Terry returned and laid a hand on my shoulder.
“You’ve done a lot for me, my friend. You’ve listened. You’d best go now. It’ll be dark soon. I don’t think you want to know, do you?”
Then they were gone.
I had to grip myself to keep from running after them. Their affair, this, and it had to be settled. Better one man’s conscience at rest than two in misery. Dull thud of feet keeping step—then silence. Far below they emerged on the road, crossed the empty camp side by side, and disappeared behind the old gambling room. A shaft of evening sunlight struck through a gap in the mountain wall and fell gently across the rotting roof. I waited, scarcely breathing. Seconds only, but it seemed a lifetime. Two shots that would have been one, had I not known. And while the echoes still rattled through the mountains, the roof of the old faro room collapsed in a cloud of brown dust; the door flew open and swung in the wind. I ran.
Next morning I left the mountains. Martin wondered. I have never been back. I am not curious, but sometimes I wonder in my dreams who is living up there in the little cabin on the Aletippi Pass.