The Ace of Hearts
THE little man with the white face and gleaming eyes struggled no longer. He was spent and breathless; a little, thin, red thread trickled from a wound in his forehead. He had dropped to his knees in the snow. Above him the pine trees tossed and twisted in the blizzard, the thin white powder stung his cheek. He looked a pathetic object enough, and all the more slender and helpless by contrast with the three Westerners who stood about him. There was no suggestion of pity or compunction in the eyes of those picturesque ruffians. The little man was looking for no mercy—indeed, that was an asset he had not counted upon for a moment. He was not going to ask for quarter, either. His life hung upon a thread, and he knew it.
"Wal, ain't you goin' to speak?" the leader of the trio asked. "We ain't out shootin' rabbits. We ain't goin' to spell it for yon, either. What we want to know, and what we're goin' to know, is the name of the man who rounded up poor Bill Carney. You was present, and you seen it done."
"I guess that's so," the little man snapped, "but you can't make me speak if I don't want to."
The leader of the gang smiled grimly.
"I calculate we can," he said. "Now, just you listen to me, stranger. I dunno as you know much about these parts, but there's considerable snow comin'—a matter o' six feet before mornin'. Now, I'll kinder draw your attention to that pine branch what's hangin' over your head. The programme, sonny, is to tie your hands behind you an' put a rawhide round your neck, so's to keep you dancin' on the tips of your toes. The other end of the rawhide will be round the pine branch. When the snow comes up to your neck, you sing out for the waiter. He won't be far off. An' the beauty of the game is that you can call our hand whenever you like."
The little man said nothing. He pressed his lips more tightly together, and his eyes gleamed like slumbering fires.
Over his head the pines were tossing and moaning like creatures in pain. The upper branches were hidden in the flying wrack of snow; already in the hollow there the white battalions of the storm were beginning to assemble. The little man made no movement of any kind as his hands were secured behind him and the rawhide adjusted. The end of the rope was cast dexterously over the branch and drawn tightly—so tightly, indeed, that the victim could merely feel the frozen ground with his toes.
"Now, for the last time," the chief ruffian asked, "are you goin' to spell it or not? A white man was Bill Carney—there ain't a whiter man on the Amurican continent, 'ceptin', p'raps, Captain Rufus himself—an' we ain't goin' to set down shellin' popcorn while high-minded citizens is bein' shot like dogs."
The little man turned with a bitter sneer.
"Never a greater skunk drew the breath of life than Carney," he said; "and if there is a more poisonous reptile up here, it's the man you call Captain Rufus. I saw Carney shot—I know whose hand it was that rid the world of a loathsome scoundrel. He was killed in fair fight by a better man than himself, and you can tell Rufus that his time is coming, too."
"Hear him talk!" another of the gang laughed. "Anybody might think as he was David Hames. Ever see him, sonny?"
"More than once," the little man said quietly. "He doesn't come this way, I understand. It will be a bad day for you and your kidney if he does take it in his head to come into the Lone Wolf district. Any of you know him?"
Apparently none of them did, though they seemed to listen in respectful silence to that dreaded name. The snow was getting deeper now; the little man's face was more drawn and livid, yet there was no sign of surrender in his eyes. With an oath, the leader of the gang turned away, bidding his companions to follow him. There was a hut on the far side of the hollow, where it would be possible to while away the time over a game of poker, till, in the picturesque language of Pete Stanley, the little man decided to throw up the sponge and "spell it." That the stranger would eventually essay the task in question, Mr. Stanley did not for a moment doubt. He was an expert in these matters.
An hourslowly. The snow was getter deeper, and the little man's face was whiter than the powder on his hair, yet his jaw was fixed and rigid, and the unconquerable fires were still burning in his eyes. The howling wind dropped for a moment, and it seemed to the man standing half-frozen there as if someone above was calling him. He turned his head, and, to his astonishment, made out the figure of a woman crawling painfully along the branch of the pine from which the rope was suspended. He could see the dull gleam of a knife in her hand. The rigid tension snapped, a black wisp lay for a moment breathless and half insensible on the snow, then the little man rose and climbed painfully up the slope to the spot where the woman was standing.
"I live close by," she whispered. "I had occasion to go down to the hut, and I heard what those men were talking about. I am Doctor Winter's wife."
"I know him," the little man said. "Can you give me shelter? I shall be a different man to-morrow. And you need not be afraid, especially if you have any arms in the house."
"There is no lack of those," Mrs. Winter said. "But pray come along quickly, before those dreadful men find out that you have escaped. Lean on my arm, please."
Very gradually life and strength came back to the little man. He exchanged his wet clothes for dry ones, the grateful warmth of the stove thawed out his frozen limbs; a food meal had put fresh steel and fire in him. He sat up suddenly, rigid and alert.
"Those men are outside," he whispered; "they have discovered my escape. They'll want to search the house. You look like a brave woman, Mrs. Winter."
"I had to learn that after I came out from England," the woman said quietly. "I'm not going to give you up, if that is what you mean. I will do exactly what you suggest."
The little man reached for a rifle and handled it with loving care. He pushed aside a corner of the blind and looked out. Surely enough, the three ruffians were standing there, apparently having an altercation of some kind. There was a small ventilator by the side of the window, which might be useful, a little later on, as a porthole. The altercation was apparently finished now, for Stanley strode up to the door and began to thunder on it furiously.
"Come out, come out!" he cried. "We don't want to hurt a woman, but you've got a man hiding there. It won't pay you or the doctor to defy us. Now, open the door."
"I open the door to no man in my husband's absence," Kate Winter cried defiantly, "and I warn you that I'm armed."
Stanley muttered an oath in his beard and stalked back to his companions. The plan of attack soon became apparent, for two of the ruffians opened fire on the hut, whilst Stanley proceeded to drag a huge log of timber forward, obviously with the intention of battering in the door. He would be fairly safe so long as the other two directed their fire on the windows of the house. With a bitter smile on his white face, the little man lifted his rifle on the edge of the ventilator and covered Stanley. There was a crack, a tiny puff of smoke, and Stanley pitched forward heavily in the snow, lying there still and motionless. Once more the rifle spoke; a second man spun round on his heels and then sank gently on his knees, as if he were dropping innocently off to sleep. The third man dived for cover, and was seen no more.
Kate Winter dropped into a chair and covered her face with her hands. The little man could see that she was shivering like a leaf.
"I had to do it," he said. "It was their lives against yours and mine. You don't know those men—I do. There are four of them who have been keeping a reign of terror in Lone Wolf Gulch for years. There were five of them a little time ago, but the man called Carney died suddenly last week. And because I would not tell those ruffians who shot him, they were going to leave me to perish in the snow. They got me at a disadvantage for the first time in my life, but they would have dragged nothing out of me. Besides, it would never have done to have told them the name of the man who killed Bill Carney."
"Did you really know it?" the woman asked.
A queer, dry smile twisted the little man's lips.
"Well, considering that I shot him myself, yes," he said. "Fortunately for me, those dogs didn't know that. Some old friends of mine fetched me from five hundred miles the other side of the mountains, to help wipe out Captain Rufus and his gang. There does not seem to be much law and order in these parts, and they say that the sheriff's in league with those ruffians. Well, at any rate, I've accounted for three of them now, and the captain himself will hear from me before long. Not that I want this thing talked about. I should like you to have the credit of this little entertainment."
"Oh, I couldn't!" Kate Winter cried.
"Just a moment," the little man urged. "Let it be understood that Stanley and some of the gang attacked the house, and that you shot two of them single-handed. Depraved as those scoundrels are, they would never dare to take vengeance on a woman. You will have public opinion on your side, and this exploit should go far to bringing about a better state of things. There are hundreds of brave men and good citizens in these parts, and yet they hesitate to act for fear of incurring the displeasure of Rufus and his murderous gang. They'll have to do something now."
"My husband is a busy man," Mrs. Winter murmured, "and it does not do for a doctor to make enemies. We want a real live man here—somebody who can get the best of Rufus, somebody who dare meet him face to face. Ah, if we could only have a man like David Hames to come to our assistance!"
The little man smiled again.
"To beard Rufus in his den, eh? To shoot him down in the midst of his satellites when he is drinking in his favourite bar? Well, that might be done. A man like Rufus always has more enemies than friends. The carneying crowd of sycophants who would applaud some cowardly deed of violence would be still more willing to cheer the man who rid the world of a creature like Rufus; and that is what I have come over five hundred miles to do."
The man spoke quite simply and naturally. Small as he was, and slight of frame, there was a suggestion of strength and force behind him that robbed his words of any shade of egotism.
"I'd like to stay here a day or two, if I might," he said, "then I will go on to Gulch City."
As things turned out, however, it was the best part of a week before the little man with the white face and the burning eyes quitted the friendly shelter of the doctor's house. The story of the attack, and the death of Stanley and his companion, had travelled far over the snow-clad hills and valleys. Mrs. Winter's exploit had come as something of a sensation in that lonely province. People had flocked from far and near to attend the funeral of Stanley and his companion; the wild-cat papers in the district had lost no time in making a heroine of Kate Winter. She bore her honours as meekly as she could—she was longing for the time when the truth could be told. Wild and lawless men had come down from the hills—though they were clean-handed men, for the most part—and they had told with bated breath of the vengeance which Captain Rufus was going to take later on. Still, the sluggish blood of the countryside was stirred now, and there were rumours of reprisals. If Rufus was disturbed by these, he showed no sign of it. Up in Gulch City he reigned supreme, surrounded by a horde of flatterers, insolent and intolerant in the face of an executive that was practically powerless. But there were one or two observant sympathisers who brought insinuations that Rufus had been a little more moody of late, and that, to all practical purposes, he stood alone. From the day of Stanley's death the third man had not been seen.
It was one cold and bitter night, a fortnight later, that the little man with the white face crept quietly into Jake Tomlin's saloon and took his seat by the stove. He was so situated that he had his back to an angle of the wall, and it was impossible for anybody to approach from behind. The big room was packed with gamblers and drinkers; in the centre of the floor an engrossing game of poker was in progress. The big man with the coarse, red hair and long, fiery beard, the little man recognised at a glance. He needed no one to tell him that this was the quarry he was in search of. In all the region of wild farce, it seemed impossible to conceive anything more ridiculous than a duel to the death between these two men.
It was only for a few moments that the stranger passed unnoticed. His mild air and manner was bound to attract attention. But the chaff, rude as it was, had a good-natured flavour about it, and the little man sat there smilingly indifferent. A burst of raucous laughter a little louder than the rest attracted the attention of Rufus. He had been drinking heavily; he was in a winning vein, as the pile of greasy dollar notes by his side testified. He raised his great red head and glanced in the little man's direction.
"Where does the child come from?" he asked.
The sycophants laughed loudly—the saloon rocked with their mirth. The little man's lips grew a little harder, but the smile was still on his face.
"I came here with a message," he drawled.
"Well, expectorate it," Rufus said.
"That's very polite of you," the little man went on. "As a matter of fact, my message is for you, sir. I had it directly from the lips of David Hames himself."
Rnfus's red face took on a purple tinge. At the mention of that dreaded name, the saloon was stricken into absolute silence. The men loafing there could see the veins standing out on Rufus's forehead, they could see his beard bristling and crackling like the hair on a cat's back when it is stroked in the dark.
"Does Hames want to see me?" he demanded hoarsely.
"He is here for that very purpose," the little man said. "He will be along presently. I ask your pardon for interfering in your game in this rude way. Will you please continue until Mr. Hames arrives?"
"Perhaps he would like to come and take a hand," Rufus sneered. "I'll play him for his life. It's a big place, is this American continent of ours, but there's no room on it for David Hames and myself. You'll see some fun presently, boys. You're going to have the time of your lives. I've been just praying for a chance like this. It's real polite on Dave's part to come here, and save me the trouble of going to his funeral."
Rufus looked round for the customary flattering laughter. But no sound came, nothing but an uneasy breathing and shuffling amongst the greasy mass of humanity there. The dreaded name of David Hames had made a deep impression, and not the most drunken of the loafers there but who could have told, had he only dared, which of the twain he held in highest reverence. That Hames should have dared to come there, to have sent a polite message in this fashion, was a staggering proof of his marvellous courage.
For, according to all the rules of the game, Hames's hands were clean, whilst those of Rufus were not. The red man was a fugitive from justice, more than one man's blood was on his head, and it would have been accounted no discreditable thing had Hames covered his man from the doorway and shot him before the latter could get his hand to his hip pocket.
Rufus burst into a storm of uneasy curses. He was irritated to find that he could not meet the glance of the little, white-faced man opposite. He was furious, too, to feel that his gallery were deserting him.
"Any of you ever seen Hames?" he growled.
Nobody responded. Evidently no member of that fragrant company had ever set eyes on the redoubtable Hames. Rufus reached out his hand for the cards and began a fresh deal.
"Let's try and forget it for a minute or two," he growled. "And if Mr. Hames comes along, tell him to wait till I've finished."
The game proceeded in absolute silence. For the next quarter of an hour Rufus was winning steadily. Then a voice cut the silence—a voice sharp and commanding, so that Rufus raised his head and glared in the direction from whence the sound came.
"Anybody speaking to me?" he challenged.
"I am," the little man snapped. "Put up your left hand, quick!"
The whole bar rocked with excitement, for every man there thrilled as if that clear, ringing voice had been a blow. The little man had changed almost beyond recognition. His face appeared as if carved out of marble, his mouth and chin were as rigid as fine steel, his dark eyes were full of fire, his whole being bristled with nervous vitality.
"Did—did you speak to me?" Rufus stammered.
"Put up your hand," was the reply.
Rufus was gazing into the hollow rim of a Colt, which he knew by instinct was trained upon his heart. Slowly and reluctantly his left hand went up, with the hairy back of it turned in the direction of the breathless spectators.
"Drop it on the table," the little man commanded.
"There's nothing to drop, curse you!" Rufus screamed.
A tiny spurt of flame flicked from the mouth of the Colt, and, as if by magic, a thread of blood trickled down the back of Rufus's hand. As his arm collapsed, something fluttered from his nerveless fingers and lay upon the floor.
"Pick it up," the little man snapped. One of the crowd stooped eagerly and raised the greasy square of pasteboard.
"It's the ace of hearts, he cried, "and there's a bullet-hole right through the middle of it! Gee whiz, but that was a bit of dandy shooting! Did your father teach you to draw a bead like that, little man?"
"Guess he's a pupil of David Hames!" another cried. "Say, sonny, when's David going to happen along?"
"I am David Hames, curse you all!" the little man snarled. "Now, Rufus, stand up, you dog!"
But Rufus made no motion towards getting up. He sat there red and sullen, with something suggestive of tears in his eyes. He nursed his injured hand. He was quivering from head to foot with pain and anguish, and a certain feeling he could not place, but which, had he but known it, was shame.
"Get up, you cur!" Hames cried. "None of your shuffling excuses for me. You have your right arm still. Now, then, you cheat, you palmer of cards, the day has come for our reckoning. How much longer do you suppose you would be allowed to delude these poor fools here? How long has he been cheating you like this?"
A dissipated wreck from the bar spoke up.
"Rufus always wins," he said. "I never did think he was of much account myself."
Hames laughed contemptuously.
"Are you going to take that lying down, Rufus?" he asked. "Have you not got pluck enough to resent an insult from a drunken wreck like that? Why, there's not a child in the camp who wouldn't slap his face for him! Now, then, get out your shooting-iron, and we will fight across the table. I've been looking forward with pleasure for many a long day to this meeting, might have shot you as I came in to-night, but that is not my way. There are white men and clean men in Gulch City—indeed, I can see plenty of them round me now—and when I realise that fact, I marvel that you have not been lying in your grave for many a year. But I'm wasting your time and mine. Your gun, Rufus!"
Captain Rufus dropped his head upon his hands and burst into a flood of tears. A laugh cut the silence, then the whole saloon swayed with ribald, mocking mirth. Hames held up his hand for silence. He pointed to the figure huddled over the table.
"I'm going to leave him to you presently," he said; "you will know how to deal with that cowardly skunk there. And there is not one of you who would not have rejoiced to see his back long ago. I'm going to tell you something. I was asked to come to these parts to take a hand in wiping out Rufus and his gang. I gladly came, because it was a pleasure to me to do so. The first man I came in contact with was Carney. He happened to recognise me, and—well, you know what became of him. Then there was Stanley and two other rowdy blackguards whose names I don't know. They happened to catch me unawares, and for an hour or two my life wasn't worth a dime. You see, they had found out that I saw Carney die, and they wanted to know who killed him. I couldn't very well tell them that, could I, boys? It was a close call, and if it had not been for the bravery of a woman, Rufus would still be here swaggering and bullying and cheating you out of your money as usual. I want to tell you, boys, that it was Mrs. Winter who saved me. And she is anxious for me to tell you that it was I who shot Stanley and his companion, and not she. If you were not an indolent, careless lot, yon would have rid yourself of this cowardly, murderous brute long ago. At any rate, you ought to know what to do with him. You are acquainted with the quaint and interesting ceremony which usually takes place in a community like this when a distinguished citizen is invited to travel. So far as I am concerned, I make you a present of Rufus."
"Ain't you going to kill him?" a voice drawled.
"Kill him!" Hames sneered. "Do you think I'd soil my hands with carrion like that? Whatever the faults of the other members of the gang might have been, they were men. That poor creature snivelling on the table there is nothing but a craven coward. Oh, there are plenty of his sort about in the mining camps—the West is infested with them."
Hames turned upon his heel and, with a curt nod of his head, made for the door. He had finished with these people, and he wanted no more of them. After all, the expedition had been disappointing. He bad hoped for an adventure more full-flavoured than this.
"Say, mister," a voice drawled, "ain't you goin' to wait for the ceremony? We won't keep you long."
"I think I will," Hames said sweetly. "I love the smell of tar, and burnt feathers are most invigorating. Eh, Rufus?"