A Bad Citizen
AS the sun went down, Powell crept out from the the mesquite where he had been lying down. He turned his face, bloodless with the prison pallor, toward the magnificent crimson glow that flooded the western sky above the notched mountain line. Six years he had hungered for it, for the smell of the desert dust and wind in his nostrils, for the look of the gaunt hills with that thin smoke-blue film upon them. This had been life to him, the breath of his being.
Now he had come back to his own hut he felt himself an outsider, no longer a part of it. The instinctive physical delight in it all had been stamped out of him. He had gone in young, vigorous, lance-straight. He had come out a broken man, still under thirty but with the youth in him quenched. Like a wounded wild beast he had stolen back to his lair to die. Only one instinct of life was still strong in him, the one that had buoyed him all the long days and nights of his confinement. He would pay first the debt of hate he owed.
Almost at his feet a cabin nestled in a little grove of live oaks. Listlessly he wondered whose it was, for it had not been there when last he had been here. As he stood irresolute there came to him on the wind the wail of a childish treble. It took his feet slowly along the ridge to a point from which he could look down upon a little chap entangled in the cholla half way up a trail that zigzagged along the edge of the bluff. But a few seconds were necessary to release the youngster and set him safely on the path.
At sight of his large-framed emaciated rescuer the crying stilled. The little boy forgot to sob. His whole big-eyed attention was adsorbed in contemplation of this unshaven, haggard stranger with the lank black hair and the hollow-chested stoop. For a week Powell had starved in the chaparral while he dodged his pursuers, and the marks of the hunted wolf were plentiful on him.
“Hello! What makes you do that?” the four-year-old wondered aloud.
For there had come upon the man a violent paroxysm of coughing which left him leaning limp and exhausted against the face of an out-cropping boulder.
“What you doing here?” the man gasped as soon as he could find breath.
“I tum to look for my Daddie.”
“Who are you? What's your name?”
“Luke Shane,” the sprat announced. “And I can spell it,” he added proudly by an afterthought.
The name stabbed the outlaw. Not for six years had he heard it spoken aloud, not since the owner of it—his best friend—had stood in the witness box and sworn him into the penitentiary to save himself. This fair-haired handsome little fellow must be the son of Luke Shane. The man then had prospered, had married and no doubt been happy, while he rotted in that hellhole where they had shut him up. He could see no look of his father about the boy, the sight of whom struck vaguely some other chord of memory. Somewhere before he had seen that same trick of a twisted, dimpling, little half smile.
Always he had nursed his revenge, hugged the thought of it. It came now as a spur to his hatred that Luke Shane, the coward and traitor who had turned State's evidence, had found the love and joy out of which he had cheated him. For there had been a girl, a tall slim girl with the sound of laughter in her voice. And the chill walls of the prison had shut him out of Teseda's life.
He had come hack furtively, under cover of night. His one thought had been to find Luke Shane before they recaptured him. The settlements he had avoided with the cunning instinct of the hunted. Ranch houses he had visited only stealthily to steal his food. He had spoken to few and asked no questions. For he dared not direct suspicion toward himself. But his lucky star had guided him straight to the home of the man ho meant to kill.
Craftily he questioned.
“Where is your Daddy, Kid?”
“Don to town,” the little man lisped.
“Did he say when he was coming back?”
“No-o. He jes' turns when he's weady.”
Powell mapped his campaign. He would go to the house and get something to eat. Then he would go on down the trail and waylay Shane in the darkness.
The youngster slipped his warm little hand into that of Powell and led the way. All his childish troubles had vanished. As he pattered down the trail his gay confidence was like a slanted sunbeam in a world all gray. The simple mind of the man was troubled. He wanted to have no compunction for the thing he was going to do. “Muzzie,” “Daddie,” “Baby,” these were words long unfamiliar to him. In the wild turbulent days of his youth they had meant nothing. They stood now for all that he had missed and never could have. Strange thoughts disturbed him. Angrily he tried to put them aside, for they were not in harmony with that single-minded purpose that had become an obsession.
Lamps had just been lit in the adobe cabin, and through the open door Powell could see the young mother as she moved lightly about, setting the table. Her back was turned to him, but the poise of the body, the rhythm of its motion, held him spellbound. She was singing softly an old-fashioned lullaby, and at sound of that voice memories stirred uneasily. He stopped, his nerves responding to a strange emotion.
She must have heard the happy lilt of the youngster's voice, for she caught up her baby and came swiftly to the door.
For an instant be knew a crash of the senses. Teseda! The wife of his enemy!
Again “Luke,” she cried, softly.
For the man in the shadows all that he had missed was expressed in that one buoyant word, in the eager, radiant face divinely tender with love. He saw it all—what he had been robbed of wholly and forever.
Tho best in his life had always centered round her. It rallied now instinctively to defend her even from the knowledge of who he was.
“No, ma'am. I reckon you're mistaken. I done picked your boy up out of the cactus and brought him home. I'll be going,” he said, huskily, and before the shaken words were out of his mouth had turned and plunged into the gathering darkness.
He fled through the night in a tumult of emotion. It beat on him in waves, for the time carrying him off his feet. He had thought himself dead, save for the one overwhelming purpose that animated him. But so fiercely was he driven that he did not know the cactus thorns shredded his clothes and tore cruelly his flesh. Primeval instincts old as Eden rode him savagely.
Not till he sank down from sheer physical exhaustion did he stop. There came over him again a spasm of coughing, so long and deep it racked him to the marrow. The doctor at the penitentiary had given him a few months to live. With amazing gameness he had made his escape and dragged himself a hundred miles to have five minutes alone with Luke Shane. Through all the stress of his feeling he never let go of this. What he had come to do he must do.
He worked his way back to the trail running down to the mesa. Slowly he moved now, for it would not do to be seized by one of his coughing spells at the critical moment.
After carefully examining his revolver he sat down on a hillock close to the trail. Hours passed, but he never moved except to relax his stiffened muscles. In his whole tense attitude then was the patient vigilance of a beast of prey crouched for the kill. One seeing him there so still, black-eyed and expressionless, would never have guessed him the prey of such conflicting fires. But a flame that had long lain banked in him, smothered almost to death by the ashes of bitterness and despair, was active again and fighting for its life against the stark, ruthless purpose that had carried him so many weary miles. The hard flinty will of him was resolved to go on with the thing, hut he could not drive from him the sight of Teseda's happiness—that joy he was about to blot out forever and ever.
Far across the desert something popped. On the wind came very faintly a bunch of firecrackers. Powell rose, every nerve alert. Some one had fired a rifle. Others—four or five at least—had answered the challenge. Tensely he waited, but silence had again settled over the night.
It was many minutes later that there came the faintest tinkle of an iron shoe on shale. He stretched himself and moved noiselessly on his feet to make sure his cramped muscles would not betray him. Also he massaged the fingers of his numbed right hand. By the rapid pounding of the horse's hoofs he knew the animal was being driven hard as it labored up the steep hillside. To guess the rider one flying for his life was not hard. After he had stepped out upon the path and brought the pony to a slithering halt, the white hunted face turned toward him confirmed his impression without words.
“Don't move,” he ordered sharply, to check a half involuntary motion of the rifle lying across the saddle.
The weak chin of the man in the saddle quivered. “Wes Powell.”
The rider obeyed. His hands were trembling so that the weapon in them shook.
“I've come for to kill you, Luke Shane.”
The ranchman moistened his parched lips. “Don't do that, Wes. I didn't go for to testify against you. They done drove me to it.”
The burning sunken eyes of the sick man did not move from his face. “I didn't round on you. I stood the gaff. You threw me down like a coyote, sent me to that hell, robbed me of everything I had to live for. You've got to pay.”
“My God, I can't die! I've got a wife and two children.” Tiny sweat beads stood out on the man's damp forehead.
“You stole them from me, too. I never once guessed it, but I know now why you gave evidence against me. You wanted to get me out of your road.”
“No. I swear I didn't. I've been sorry a hundred times. You don't understand. They sweated me. They made me come through.”
“They tried to make me, too. All you had to do was to keep your mouth shut. They couldn't have proved a thing against either of us. But you always were a quitter. You couldn't game it out, or else you didn't want to. By God, you can't lie down on me and get away with it.”
What Powell said was true. They had done their foolish piece of lawlessness together while drunk, had been suspected, and arrested. The Cattleman's Association had wanted to make an example, and they had been the first to be caught in its dragnet. But the evidence had been incomplete. The prisoners had been put through the third degree. One had shown himself a man, and the other had not.
“I hadn't ought to have done it, Wes,” the ranchman pleaded.
“I wasn't nothing then but a wild young colt. Say I did help yon rustle them 3-C calves. 'Twasn't anything hut kid foolishness. They took me and stomped my life out. I've had hell a-plenty, and now I'm a dying man. Last Friday I broke jail jes' to kill you. Nothing could have kept me alive over that desert but the thought I was going to settle with you.”
“It would kill Teseda. God, man, didn't a woman ever love you?”
“One was just about to, but you robbed me of that along with all the rest. I can't make you suffer like I done, not a hundredth part of it. I can't drag out your death for six years. All I can do is to stomp you out like I would a rattler.”
From the valley came again the sound of a ride, this time nearer and clearer. In their adsorption both men had forgotten the hunt.
“What's it about?” demanded Powell, with a slight movement of the head toward the valley.
“Must a-seen something moving and thought it was me. I gave them the slip down then, but they're right on my trail again. I got no show to get away.”
“What are they huntin' you for?”
“I got crazy drunk and held up Sam Black's saloon. First break I've made in six years. Ain't touched liquor before once—not once.”
“Did they recognize you?”
“No, I was masked. But they soon my horse. Followed me right out of town. Go ahead. Kill me. It don't make any difference. They will if you don't.”
For six years society had sinned against Powell. It had hammered him from a kindly amiable youth into a bitter revengeful savage. Some hours earlier he would have killed without compunction, with a fierce delight, this man who had ruined his life. But his spirit had known a change. He saw a vision of a woman singing, her babies round her, the dewy freshness of youth still clinging to her.
Abruptly he spoke. “Gimme that rifle. Now your hat—and your coat. Hit the trail for home. I'll attend to this job.”
“What are you going to do?” the amazed ranchman faltered.
“Oh, go to hell. It ain't for you I'm doin' it.”
Powell pulled himself slowly to the saddle and sat there for a minute coughing in another racking attack. As soon as he could speak he turned savagely upon Shane.
“Get out, I tell you. If they ask questions say I held you up and took the horse away before the saloon was robbed.”
Already the horses of the pursuers could be heard as they struck the shale of the steep hill. The convict plunged into the mesquite and rode for a hundred yards rapidly, then fired twice into the air.
The hunt closed upon him. Rifles cracked one after another. He cantered into an open stretch of open desert, abandoning the shelter of the thick shrubbery. Half-way across a bullet reached his heart.
They found him lying crumpled up where he had fallen.
A man bending over him looked up quickly and surprise spoke in his voice.
“It's Wes Powell, boys.”
“He broke out last week. Likely he stole Shane's horse and held up the saloon.”
“Maybe we got the wrong man,” a third suggested.
From the pocket of the dead man's coat the first speaker drew a crumpled bit of cloth that had been used as a mask.
“No, I reckon not.”
“Well, he was a bad citizen. Began his meanness just as soon as he got out. We're well shet of him.”
“That's right,” indorsed a new speaker.
Public Opinion voiced itself in silent nods of agreement. Yes, he was a bad citizen. No doubt about that. The country was well rid of him.
A quarter of an hour later a white-faced man crept into the grove of live oaks surrounding the cabin. He moved noiselessly, but the waiting woman saw his approach.
“Luke! Luke!” she cried.
“Yes, Teseda,” he answered.
Instantly she was in his arms, betwixt tears and happy laughter.
“I've been so frightened. There was a man here. He acted so strange. Oh, I'm glad you're back.”
The man spoke tremulously. “Honey. I'm glad, too. God, I'm glad!”
She looked up quickly, anxiety in her eyes. “Is something wrong, Luke? Are you troubled?”
“No—no. I was thinking of that man. He might a-done you a meanness. But it's all right now. It's all right.”
With his arm about her waist they went into the lamplit house together and shut the door. A warm fire of piñon knots crackled in the grate. The savory odor of steak and onions rose from the stove. Upon the cot slept the two children that called him “Daddie.”
He shuddered, for he knew that somewhere on the desert what had lately been a man lay with sightless eyes and stared at night's million stars—and that man might have been he. But after all Wes Powell had been a bad citizen. He knew in his heart a fear that had never been quitted was lifted from his mind. Better the way it was! He had had his lesson. Fervently he promised himself to live straight from this hour.
He kissed his wife and spoke cheerfully. “My, but I'm hungry. Let's have supper, honey.”
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1954, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 68 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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