Thad Parker had fled frantically from the monster that unbalanced his mind. Axe clutched in his hands he raced through the forest, looking back now and then as though fearful of some terrible presence peering over his shoulder, tripping, stumbling, falling, rising and keeping on, breath making sounds like those from a distressed animal. He came out into a fire line and followed it, turning at an intersection. His flight became a feeble flounder and once when he fell he did not try to rise until he had crawled a dozen yards, clinging to his axe, whimpering. He crossed the bridge and followed the ruts toward the Foraker house. He did not hear Bobby and Bessy crying, did not heed the sharp questions flung at him by Aunty May, did not see Luke Taylor standing at a corner of the building, leaning on his stick and staring into the smoke. He went on along the road that led to Seven Mile, away from the demon that was ever at his heels.
A car rounded a curve and bore down upon him. Parker stopped, swaying in the middle of the road, eyes fast on the figure at the wheel which grew rapidly distinguishable as the car came through the murk. The motor was four lengths away. Its horn sounded impatiently. The man at the wheel made a gesture for Parker to step out of his way and then reached for his emergency brake, bending low and cursing as Thad gave no ground.
Parker moved, but did not step aside. He lurched forward. He swung the axe above his head thrice, as a hammer thrower whirls his weight. He let it go and doubled quickly, with a shriek of crazy mirth. Glass of the wind shield splintered explosively. Wilcox, beside the driver, cried out. Bert Wales and Wes Hubbard, in the back seat, threw up their arms against the glass slivers—then rose and" leaned forward.
Jim Harris made no sound. His hand retained its grasp on the brake and he sagged forward over the wheel, a great, limp hulk; the axe dropped to the floor and the purpling patch behind his ear sent out its first thin ooze of blood. The others lifted him out of the seat as a roadster stopped behind them and Dr. Pelly, Humphrey Bryant and John Taylor got out and gathered about the prostrate Harris.
There was little blood, but Harris' breathing was fast and heavy and as the physician, kneeling on the sand, touched the bruise with light fingers they saw the broken bone stir beneath discoloring skin.
"Isn't that bad, doctor?" Wilcox was the first to speak and Pelly nodded.
"As good as dead."
The smoke-laden wind sobbed in the trees above them. For a moment there was no other sound and then Thad Parker's weak, faltering voice rose in a thin wail, half fright, half triumph.
"Dead! Dead? And I killed him? Before God, I killed him with my hands! I killed him, and he killed my wife, my hope—I—I—"
He whirled and would have run again, but hands clutched him. He struggled and shouted and laughed.
"Get him into a car and to town," said the physician. "Stark mad!"
Wales and Hubbard led Thad away and sat beside him on the cushioned seat, holding him there, as he leaned forward and whispered.
Philip Rowe came running from the house and old Luke Taylor himself moved down the road to join the group. A third car stopped and five men got out.
And one more, trundling an ancient bicycle through the forest, halted and made as if to draw back when he came into view of those others. But he did not go back. Charley Stump stood there, stroking the bent handle bars. The group about the unconscious figure shifted; Charley could see Jim Harris' face. He left his safety and moved forward timidly. He stood behind them, listening; he saw the doctor shake his head hopelessly; he heard young Wilcox mutter as he turned away. Charley dropped to his knees, hands clasped, staring down into Harris' face.
"Jim?" His husky voice rose uncertainly. "You ain't dead? Jim?—" He looked about, bewilderment in his pale, witless eyes. "He ain't goin' to die is he?" in appeal to the doctor. "Jim can't die now, doc, can he?—He was goin' to give me tires." He looked anxiously from face to face. "Tires for my safety—Jim, you can't die, Jim!" He lifted trembling, blackened hands and looked about, at Pelly, at Rowe, at Luke Taylor—
A movement, and young John stepped through the group and there was that in his face and manner which was electric, which made men wait for him to speak, there in the smoke of fire and the shadow of death.
"Tires, Charley?" he asked. "He was going to give you tires for what?"
On that question the old man rose. "Nothin'," he whimpered. "He wasn't going to give me nothin'!"
He started to edge away, but John stepped before him, stooping to stare close into his face.
"Yes he was, Charley. Tell these men what you did to earn those tires!"
"No, no!" trying to tear his eyesirom that insistent gaze.
The old man stared about, sniffing, breath very fast, eyes hunted. He looked at John again and shook his head, but there was no conviction about the gesture and as Taylor started to speak he cried out:
"Oh, I didn't want to! He made me—said I'd go to jail if I didn't set that fire." A stir; added tension, as the group became more compact.
"And what else? That's only a part of it. What else, Charley? Where were you the night the logs burned, the night the dam went out?"
"Oh, I didn't—he made me!—he said I'd go to jail! He told me I would if I didn't set fire to her logs an' drive spikes in some an' blow up her dam. He told me that!" He looked down at the unconscious man at his feet and clasped trembling hands. "He made me!" throwing those hands wide for mercy. "I didn't want to, but he made me—he—he—"
Charley looked about again as his voice died to a whisper. His roving gaze set itself on Phil Rowe's face. The man quailed and started to move away.
"Hold on, Phil!" It was Taylor again and after a moment: "What else, Charley? Who else threatened you?"
Slowly one of the withered arms rose, an unsteady, gnarled finger half pointing. The accusation came in a half whisper.
"Him!" halting the finger to indicate Howe. "He come th' first time—they both told me I'd go to jail if I—"
"It's a lie! He's crazy!" Howe's denial, sharp and panicky, broke the tension. Men moved.
"It is no lie!" Taylor elbowed through them to be near Rowe. "You've gotten away with your last lie, your last piece of blackmail in this deal, Phil! Do you think I've been asleep? I've been just a lap behind you for days, you rat!"
Humphrey Bryant moved to where he could see John's face.
"I've got enough on you Rowe, to keep you busy from now on! Harris, there, may be lucky—" John looked about, breathing deeply in anger and saw Henry Wales and Wes Hubbard staring at him from the car, where they held the mumbling Thad. "And may be others will wish they were dead before I'm through!"
His eyes ran over the faces before him and came to rest on his father's. His shoulders slacked and he shook his head rather sorrowfully. "These are the things you have done," he said, spreading his hands. "This is why I have had to fight you."
His anger was gone; he looked pityingly at his father. For a moment their gazes clung, the old man's sharp and defensive—before something faded in his eyes. He looked from his son to Charley Stump who stood shaking with fright and it seemed as though between the two was more than the bond of age: the communion of trouble, of guilt. Luke caught his breath as though to answer. But he did not speak. He half turned to confront his bookkeeper and then moved away, walking slowly, cane thrusting deep into the sand.
There was shifting, voices lifted; questions, oaths, excited laughter. Humphrey Bryant's hand went out and grasped Taylor's arm, clenching there tightly in a pressure which meant all, but he only said: "We came to help, and we're wasting time—now."
They moved, starting for their cars. And then a heavy detonation broke through the forest, balking the very wind, it seemed. They halted and faced its direction.
"Dynamite!" said somebody. "Let's get on!"