The Youngest of the McMahons
THE YOUNGEST OF THE McMAHONS
"THEM McMahons, Y'r Anner, they'll be the death of some one before they're done with it, the way they carry on! Look at him—look at him now, ragin' up the street with them harses, and he drunk too, and no constable annywhere. There's no good in them fellas, not a ha'purth."
It was Patsy Kernaghan who spoke. He was standing outside the office of the Young Doctor, to whom he addressed his complaint.
The Young Doctor was just getting into his buggy for a long drive across the prairie on a visit to a patient. In silence, for a moment, he watched the galloping horses and the swaying wagon, with the driver erect, his outstretched hands holding the reins above his head as he shouted wild encouragement to the excited pair. Presently, with a sorrowful shake of the head, the Young Doctor replied:
"It's the best of them. too. It's Phil McMahon. The cut of his jib isn't the same as the other two. It isn't a bad face, and he's open in his ways. The others go blanketed, as the Indians say."
"It doesn't do 'cm much good, annyhow," remarked Patsy. "Everyone's got onto them. They're horse-thieves, and that'll come out all right some day."
The Young Doctor was in his buggy now, getting the reins into his hands. "Patsy," he said reprovingly, "don't give your tongue so much mouth. It's dangerous calling a man a thief even when it's true. For myself, I don't believe Phil McMahon would steal horses—or anything else."
Patsy scratched his head. "Well, Y'r Anner," he said, "I'd take your word about a man quicker than I would annyone else's. All I can say is, he's aither a damned hippycrit, with his laughin' face and roarin' voice, or he's just a scamp with the devil in him. But how could he be straight and open, and bis blood-brothers what they are!"
"Patsy, you'd be keeping me here all day if I'd let you, though you know there's the sick waiting me," remarked the Young Doctor, preparing to start and yet looking at the other with a benevolent eye. for the little Irishman had not an ill streak in him. "There's this to be said for him, you'll admit—that he has only joined his brothers within the last month, and he mayn't know what they are."
"Shure, that's true for you, Doctor dear," answered Patsy quickly. "That's as likely as annything else. He's been in Idaho, in the States yonder, for years past. Rut I know what Tom and Matt McMahon was in Ireland twenty years ago—begare, I do! I've h'ard tell. Like boy, like man, sez the man that told me. They're no credit to Ireland, them two, though yourself too only come from Inniskillen, that I never h'ard army good of, Y'r Anner."
The Young Doctor smiled quizzically, and laid his whip on Patsy's shoulders. "1 left Inniskillen because I'd have starved to death as a doctor, the place being so healthy, and so little for me to do. The Lord loveth Inniskillen, Patsy. Goodness is health, and the place was healthy because it sent the bad men straight away to Hell or Kerry, and Hell had the preference with them."
Patsy flushed, for he was a Kerry man and loved it, and he was ready to burst forth in protest, but he caught the look in the other's eye, and he only smiled helplessly as the Young Doctor continued:
"Newer mind. Patsy. They tell me Kerry's better the last fifteen years—since you left. So no one can say you haven't done some good in the world."
"Get along, my lads," he added to the fretful pair of horses, which instantly tightened the traces and bravely trotted away.
Patsy watched the Young Doctor out of sight admiringly. "If he asked me to hand me liver out for a dog's breakfast. I'd do it," he said with decision, and then swung round to watch Phil McMahon tearing down the street again, his voice breaking into snatches of ribald song.
PHIL was having what he called a "hoot." He had had only one hoot since coming to Askatoon, and the place had got on his nerves, somehow. Down in Montana and Idaho and Wisconsin and Wyoming he had had the time of his life, as he called it, and it was only homesickness to see his two elder brothers—so much older than himself—which had brought him to Askatoon.
He had been warmly welcomed by Tom and Matt, who forthwith determined to make him settle down on the ranch and ultimately join their gang of horse-thieves operating on the Border. They had skillfully organized it, but they needed one who had Phil's popular gifts, his daring and resource, his ingenuity and brains, to carry through their boldest proposals successfully. Neither of them had Phil's gifts or looks, though in one sense Tom McMahon was a handsome man, with a strong blue eye and well-molded head, a fine full beard, while in stature he far exceeded Phil. Yet he did not inspire confidence, and Matt was little better.
Phil, however, had made friends ever since his coming to Askatoon, particularly among the casual population and non-church-members. He was the essence of querulous good-nature, if such a contradiction may exist. He was free with his money, and full of good stories, and an attraction to every saloon and hotel in the place. Though the Young Doctor and Patsy Kernaghan had frowned upon his reckless driving in the streets, the people who looked out of the doors of the saloons at the tearing onset of man, horses and wagon said merely that he was showing off, and they yelled rude remarks at him.
The town constable, however (moved thereto by the complaints of certain citizens), intent to repress riotous conduct and the sale and use of strong drink, went out and stood in the middle of the street, holding both hands up against the thundering pair of horses and their driver. As for Phil, he took no notice, and the constable would have been run down, had he not jumped aside just in time.
It was lucky that the street was fairly empty of people and conveyances. This was chiefly by accident, for it was market-day and market-time, and most traffickers were in the market-square. There were enough people left, however, to furnish tragedy for Phil's escapade; and Priscilla Meekin, who had a preoccupation of mind and a self-will which, working together, might make dark mischief for herself and others, nearly made it a fact.
PRISCILLA was of an age from which the tassels of hope do not hang in any numbers, and her life had been a series of disappointments. It did seem absurd that a girl should have an income of seven hundred dollars a year, and yet should not have been able to abandon the title of spinster and set up a home for two. Was she not thrifty and careful? Would she not be a devoted wife to a real man—not the men she talked to in the mirror when alone in her room? Yet no one really worth while, in all her thirty-three years, had ever asked her to marry him, and she had not been successful in her own way of asking, which of course was not asking outright. Still, Rigby the druggist, when finding it difficult to carry on his business for lack of increased capital, heard opportune hints from Priscilla's gentle lips, and several young ministers of religion had been carefully waylaid in seasons and circumstances when the young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. Indeed, in desperation, she had even starved herself ill so that the Young Doctor might be called in to attend her; all to no purpose. It was not easy to face the future with the straw-colored, faded Priscilla, whose eyebrows were like strips of dandelion-white, whose lips were so thin that they seemed a mere line of faintish pink, whose body was so deprecating and pliant that it almost wriggled, whose voice had a coaxing, affected tone which only the most toneless ear could endure—and Rigby sang in the Methodist choir; and the young ministers, to their credit, married for love rather than money. As for the Young Doctor, he soon showed himself very unsympathetic. "A perfect butcher and brute," Priscilla had called him in her pique after his expensive treatment,—for the Young Doctor determined to teach her a lesson,—though he had only cut up her feelings and not her body. Indeed, there was so little of that to cut away that he had ordered for her much starchy food to stiffen her pliant back and make impossible her ingratiating wriggle.
It was the anemic Priscilla, with the watery blue eyes, who brought Phil McMahon's career as a charioteer to an end for the moment, by throwing herself at great peril into his tempestuous path. It was all pure accident, which, however, might easily have ended in her being driven decorously and somberly to the churchyard on the hill near by to Askatoon.
It was like Priscilla to bungle her accident as she had bungled everything else in her life, save in the hard bargain she had driven tor bed and board with the wife of her cousin Jonas Billings. She had lived with them free of charge for months after her father's death, and then had so worked upon the feelings of Jonas' wife, who was a devout Methodist, by becoming "converted," that when the bargain was struck, she got her living far below market price, much to her husband's disgust; for he was no Methodist, he hated cant, he did not like Priscilla and he felt more at home when she was not there, he was a spectator of her accident now.
Priscilla had had some words with a smirking clerk in a dry-goods store, because of certain advice he had given her as to the color and size of some stockings: and with angry eyes and an unbecoming flush to her mottled cheeks she flung out of the shop and proceeded to cross the street. She was even talking to herself—for the stockings urged upon her by the officious clerk were much too large; and why should he recommend a "gold-yellow to match her own coloring," as he had said!
SHE was oblivious of all sounds save the loud noises in her anemic brain, when she stepped from the sidewalk into the street. Suddenly some one called out to her. It was Jonas Billings. He saw her danger from the oncoming horses and wagon and he shouted at her.
"Priscilla—say, look out!" he called. "Look out—you damn fool," he added under his breath, for unless she hurried she would be run down.
Jonas' familiar voice roused her out of her distempered abstraction, and she looked up, startled. She saw Phil McMahon erect in the wagon shouting, the reins held high above his bend; and panic seized her. She was fully three-fourths of the way across, and could have made the remaining distance easily, but with frantic excitement she jerked round and started back.
"Hell—don't—go on!" called out Jonas in anxiety and alarm. She was too dumfounded to grasp what he said. In her mind's disorder there was a vague sense that it was safer to return than to make for the farther shore on which stood repellent Rigby the druggist. Back she went, scrambling like a lame hen, toward the store where she had been "insulted," as she afterwards declared to a sympathetic listener—a spinster older than herself, who repeated the insult wherever it would be effective.
People stood on the sidewalk transfixed with alarm, for nothing could be done to save her. Everything depended on herself and on a drunken fellow in the juggernaut thing bearing down on her. She herself had terrible sensations of black clouds smothering her, and through the clouds huge monsters flinging themselves on her. There was no will, no control of the disordered senses. She was far more drunken, in a way, than Phil McMahon. That was proved presently when he, in a sudden and sobering realization of her danger, dexterously gathered in the loose reins and wrenched at the maddened horses' mouths. It was a great tribute to his strength, his skill and his presence of mind, that he saved Priscilla from death and himself from a charge of manslaughter. The horses did not quite clear her, however. As they swept by, the shoulder of one struck her slightly and threw her on the ground free of hoots and wheels, but only by inches.
She lay moveless where she had fallen.
JONAS BILLINGS was the first to reach her, and Rigby, racing across, came next, followed by several fussy folk, much excited, asking if she were dead. Rigby soon set all doubts at rest about that. He had her taken over the way to his store, and in its half-mysterious atmosphere, with its suggestive and magical odors, she was presently restored to consciousness.
Her awakening was not unhappy. She at once realized how soothing it was to be an object of interest—a thing dear to a certain type of woman. This first satisfaction was darkened, however, by the fact that she was in the arms of her cynical cousin, Jonas Billings, who would waste no sentiment on her even at the last gasp. She had hardly struck the balance between the advantages and the disadvantages of her situation, when Phil McMahon entered the store a little noisily. He made straight for where she lay looking round in a languishing way, supported by Jonas Billings' knee.
"Say, missus, I'm sick and sorry and silly over this business," he said to Priscilla, one hand waving, and pulling off his hat with the other. "I must ha' been well soaked. But it sobered me all right. When I saw your trouble, I felt like a boy when he watches castor-oil coming to him in a spoon. It knocked me. It,"—he turned to the other people in the store,—"well, I don't hesitate to say that I got as skeered as if I was hittin' my own mother in the face."
Some one in the store giggled. He had called Priscilla "missus," and he had indirectly placed her on the list of the elderly ones. Truth is, with her attempt to make the most of the situation, Priscilla had lengthened her face, and she looked so piously piteous that it increased her years very noticeably. She forgot that only vivacity—even her assumed and affected vivacity—could keep her looks in line with her years. She certainly was throwing away her profits out of this transaction.
These profits were squandered entirely a moment later when, indignant and chagrined at Phil's manner of addressing her, and seeing the effect of it upon the lookers-on, she heard him say: "Missus—say, missus, I hope you'll forget it. All's right that comes right, but of course it don't wipe the blame off me. I might ha' robbed a happy home of its pride and beauty. I hope you'll take it kindly and say. 'Philip. I forgive you'—Philip being my baptismal name, but called Phil by everybody. You've seen enough of young people in your time to forgive 'em. I was always young for my age, and I was feelin' partickler young to-day, it bein' my birthday—thirty—sweet and simple thirty. That's why I let myself go.... Say, missus, let bygones be bygones, and I hope you'll accept this here fifteen dollars, the last I got in my pocket, and take 'em home to the little ones—a gift from a repentant sinner."
HE held out three five-dollar bills toward her with an ingratiating manner, and added: "I bet your husband'll be so glad you escaped that he'll forget all about me, and the children wont mind— Why, Jeerusalem!"
The last exclamation was caused by Priscilla's knocking his hand aside with spirit, not to say temper.
By words he certainly had wiped out much of the profit in the incident which might have been hers. She could see people sniggering at the reference to her "little ones" and her "husband;" and there was Rigby the druggist with his hand over his mouth—Rigby whom she had once tried to capture, Rigby happily married now. Also there was her cousin Jonas, who would gibe at her forever after; it was a humiliation not to be borne!
She sat up, and with finger outstretched to the constable, said:
"Take him to jail. I'll never be well again. I've got internal injuries. Put him in handcuffs. He tried to kill me. He don't care who he rolls in the dust. I was as near death—take him to jail at once!"
The constable was precise in his reply. He was a man of few words. He would probably have tried to marry Priscilla long ago if she had not talked so much, for her seven hundred dollars a year was quite worth while; but he could not stand people who babbled. He was notoriously hard on brawlers and loud-talking drunken men, and lenient with the silent and morose disturbers of the peace.
"I can't put him in jail," he said in response. "It aint the law. But you can summons him—and I can summons him; and that's what I'm goin' to do. He's got to see that this town aint in Idaho. He's got to realize he must stop when I hold up my hand. I done that, and he kept on, and here you are! I'll have him up all right, miss. Get home, and don't worry."
"What a fuss—and I was ready to square it!" said Phil in cheerful disappointment as he put the money in his pocket again. "Well, I'm sorry you can't forgive me. missus."
"She aint married," said Rigby the druggist, with friendly intent.
It was too much for Priscilla, however. She scrambled weakly to her feet.
"Hell have to pay for this," she said almost hysterically, for Rigby's comment had touched her in a tender corner.
"Say, I'd have offered you more if I'd known you was a single woman—honest, I would," remarked Phil, holding out a friendly hand to her as she passed him, making for the door.
No one knew why Phil said that. Perhaps it was his native chivalry towards women.
THE net result of Phil McMahon's dangerous escapade was a summons. It was followed by a trial of short duration, because the law-breaker was not willing to put up a defense. He pleaded not guilty, but that was merely to give his lawyer a chance of making a plea for an easy sentence. During the trial Phil was carefully, and almost amusingly, sympathetic. In the thrilling, dramatic moment to Priscilla when she gave evidence, his eye was limpid with magnanimous regard. He beamed upon her. That was his way. Scamp as he was, he had regard and respect for the opposite sex. Anyone that wore a dress—if that dress was clean and its wearer had a clean name also—commanded his homage. In other words, he liked 'em clean and damn the looks, though if they had the looks it was better fun. He was an incorrigible Adonis, and yet with no evil toward women in him.
Phil's trial gave Askatoon a great day, not so much because of the misdemeanant as because of Priscilla, whose incursion into the realms of legitimate drama, with a smack of comedy, was a relish to every meal eaten by the people of Askatoon for several days. They all admitted that Priscilla had come into her own in a way. Sensation, in which she should be a living, breathing, central figure, had always been the desire of her heart: and here it was. Phil had opened up for her doors to a red sky of sensation.
In the witness-box she was so moved by the central position she occupied that Augustus Burlingame the lawyer—who, none too secretly disreputable, had even borrowed money of her in the past; and because she had babbled of his unpaid loans, he did not scruple to make her modest goodness appear naked assurance when he had her now under cross-examination. He did not, however, carry his ruthless game far, because Phil McMahon intervened, saying:
"Give it the hush. Let the girl be. It's me that's done the harm, and all I can say is I'm proud to see her alive."
The wind being taken out of Burlingame's sails, the trial soon ended, a fine of fifty dollars or a month in jail being imposed. The month in jail was a heavy punishment, but when he announced it, the magistrate assumed that Phil would naturally elect to pay the fine. His experience had been that men would rather pay five hundred dollars than be in jail for three days.
After a judicious and reproving little speech from the Bench. Phil stood up, but he did not put his hand in his pocket. He seemed to be waiting patiently for something.
"Pay the fine—fifty it is," whispered Burlingame to him.
"I'll not pay a cent of any fine," returned Phil loudly. "I've spent all I mean to spend on the fun I had. A blamed good drunk it was, but it's over. I paid in cash all it was worth. Money's no punishment to me. When I have it, anybody can have it; it burns my pocket. Money can't pay for breakin' the law, not with me. I've broke the law, and I'll see it through. On principle, I'm a friend of the law, and prison's a good place for them that's broke it and are weary of ill—doin'. So take me where I'll be eatin' bread that I wont have to pay for."
Everyone laughed except the magistrate, Priscilla and the chief constable. Priscilla did not laugh, because now that the thing was over, the reaction had come. The way Phil had looked at her during the trial had fluttered her in spite of herself. She had taken the attitude of an avenging goddess, and she had got out of it all there was to get. Somehow punishment was not so sweet as it looked.
Being what she was, an epitome of the weaknesses of her sex, she suddenly gave way to one of them, which was to punish and then to pity. Besides, Phil McMahon's voice was a thing to remember; it had a coaxing element which had been too much for women of more character than herself; and when, in leaving the courtroom, he turned, and with deviltry in his eye and kindness on his tongue, he said to her, "Priscilla, oh, Priscilla, 'tis for you I go to jail!" she felt a shiver of emotion go through her. So powerful was it that she even failed to notice how everybody's attention was fixed on Phil, while she remained unnoticed save by a few of her own sex who gave to their congratulations a tone of assassination.
PHIL went to jail cheerfully. It was not the first time he had been there. It had no terrors for him, particularly in summer-time, when he could be nice and warm and sleep to his heart's content. Also, he liked doing the unexpected thing, and certainly his going to jail was not expected. As he said, "It flabbergasted the old rooster on the bench."
When the door of the cell closed on him, he remarked to the warder: "Well, there's a lot of people can't bother me for a while. Blessed be Jonathan and John!"
For some days, what with sleeping and reading things like "The Story of the Jumping Frog" from the jail library, he got along quite well, but presently he became the bored victim of a conspiracy which even the jail walls could not shut out.
For Priscilla, troubled in spirit, became a conspirator. No sooner had Phil gone to jail than she repented having sent him there. His playful, reproachful words to her as he left the court kept ringing in her ears. She took them seriously, and by the time forty-eight hours had gone round she flung herself into the storm of another of her romances. Her mind kept turning to the jail, and despite the disparaging remarks of Jonas Billings,—who heard of her intentions through his wife,—she conceived the noble idea of converting Phil.
With the consent of the sheriff, who had a sense of humor, and saw no moral breach of the rules in doing the thing, she sent Phil tracts, books of travel, "The Life of John Wesley." "The Adventures of a Missionary in Uganda," and so forth. Also, at last, she secured permission to send him good things to eat, including a frosted cake, on which, in beautiful pink sugar, she inscribed the words:
"Pull for the shore, sailor,
Pull for the shore.
To the cake she attached a paper giving the whole of the words of the hymn.
She was indifferent to the fact that Askatoon made sport of her. She was bent on a high enterprise, or such was her make-believe. As for Phil, he really had a taste for reading, and though the tracts startled him, he became engrossed in the adventures of the missionary of Uganda; and even the life of John Wesley had its interest for him, especially that part where the great man was persecuted for his convictions. Indeed, he talked quite sympathetically about Wesley to the warders.
AS for the food sent him by Priscilla, it was very palatable, and his native tact and common sense made him share it with his greedy and grateful warders. However, in spite of the Uganda missionary, John Wesley and the jelly-cake, he became intensely bored at the end of a fortnight, in which he made up his mind that Priscilla's attentions were not wholly Virtue pursuing Vice for Vice's good, but woman stalking man for sentiment's sake.
Yet when he was informed by the sheriff that Priscilla wished to visit him in prison, and to read to him in the presence of the warder, he recklessly consented. He was really pleased when she did come, and still more so when the warder stood outside the cell, not within hearing, though able to see what was going on inside at any instant.
Phil made short work of the reading of the tracts, and presently engaged Priscilla in such conversation as she had never known in the thirty odd years of her harmless life. Nothing he said, however, might not have been published in a Sunday-school paper—or a comic journal. Yet despite the blameless speech, Priscilla's hot eyes, slightly trembling and nervous fingers, all of which told a tale of emotion, conveyed to Phil that it was her will to put him in greater danger than she had been from his wild horses and the murderous wheels of his wagon. Suddenly he felt as a man would who must fight an armed enemy with his naked hand. He had no courage at all with women if they were "straight," as he called it.
"Your time in jail will he up in another week." Priscilla said at last. "I wont be a bit happy till you're free again."
"Aw, a week or so is nothin'!" remarked Phil carelessly. "There's plenty to do here. There's the physical exercises and the eatin' exercises, and"—raising his voice—"there's the fatiguin' exercise of watchin' them fools of warders stick their noses in where they're not wanted."
He said this at the moment when his warder had stepped forward to the barred opening in the door to warn Priscilla that her time was up. So taken aback was the warder at the tone of Phil's voice, and the humorously malicious character of the remark, that he fell hack with a grim smile.
"I pray for you every night," said Priscilla with curious little undulations of her body and an embarrassing, misty look in her eyes.
"Think of that!" Phil returned. "Just think of that! Now, about what time every night is this holy action performed for the man that put the life of a pious, paramount woman in danger?"
He had to indulge in extravagance to cover his actual helplessness. He was free from entanglement with any woman alive, but he would have run till he dropped, if he were on the trail and Priscilla pursued him. His bones became ropes at the thought of what might happen.
"At nine o'clock every night," she answered, fluttered, "and I feel it in me that my prayer will be answered."
PHIL was like one trying to beguile a lunatic. He had the stark premonition that what she prayed for was a walk up the aisle of the church with a man about his size, carrying a gold ring in the right-hand pocket of his waistcoat, while another man with a big book in his hand and a white tie under his chin would wind up an embarrassing business with the words, "let no man put asunder."
"Now, think of that!" be repeated. "I've often wondered what was the right time to say prayers, and whether they ought to be said standin' up like the Presbyterians, or sittin' down like the Quakers, or gettin' on the knees like all the holy people of the Methodists and Baptists. Are you a Methodist or a Baptist?" he added in a tone that was like the interest which one of the Apostles might have felt in the Sadducees.
Priscilla undulated modestly. "Oh, I'm a Methodist," she answered. "I found grace five years ago."
Phil brightened. Something familiar had struck his ear. It gave him a chance of getting away from her smothering sentimentality.
"Oh, well, we're both in the same box, then," he remarked. "Five years ago it was down in Montana I went huntin' Grace, and I found her too. Dang it, but she was a prize-packet! She wasn't unmarried like you. She was married, but her boy got smashed in the ranges, and she went huntin' him, and got lost. Well, the way Bill Sparks, Nick Godalmine and myself went huntin' her hell-to-leather was a caution! And 'twas me that found her. Five years ago you found grace, and five years ago I found Grace. Well, well, it shows, doesn't it!" He did not, however, say what it showed.
There was something devilishly innocent and childlike in his face. His natural sense of humor had suddenly given him courage.
"Time's up!" said the warder peremptorily through the barred opening, and then he straightway swung the door wide open.
Phil turned on him with mock indignation. "Is there no sense of convenience in a jail? Is there no manners in a warder? We were finding grace," he said, "and you've put your ugly face between."
He reached out a hand. It swallowed Priscilla's as a hippopotamus might swallow a fly. "Nine o'clock's the time to be remembered!" he added in a voice at once malicious and mockingly tender.
He could not help it. He was born that way, and the woman was going—that was the great thing; and in sheer gratitude he would say to her anything that came to his mind.
"I hear they're to let you out of prison before the full time is up," she said at the door. "You'll let me know when you're leaving, wont you—the very minute you're leaving, please, dear friend?"
"I'd die before I'd forget," answered Phil; and she did not see the double meaning in his words.
A minute afterward he sat down limp and helpless.
"She'll not be waitin' for me at the door of the jail when I go," he said huskily. "No, by jiminy-jo—I'll go in the middle of the night."
Then he asked the warder for a dipper of water. He had never been so thirsty in his life.
"Phew! Coppers all hot!" he said as he gulped the water down.
THE day after Phil left jail with the regrets of the sheriff and the warders following him,—for he had made himself popular in that stern circle,—he plunged into the mild dissipation of a logging-bee at the house of old Brick Tannahill. His brothers, Tom and Matt, with six of their ranchmen, were also present. It was the McMahons' cue to make themselves neighborly, and also, for some time, Tom had been "looking toward" Eileen, Tannahill's daughter. "Looking toward" has more than one meaning in the West. You "look toward" with a glass in your hand, and you "look toward" a woman who has your admiration. The sturdy ranchman had made up his mind that he would add Eileen to his household, if it were possible, though he had not yet conveyed his purpose to Eileen. He had been on his good behavior to her on the few occasions they had met, and he had won her gratitude by organizing the bee for the building of the new house, and rounding up over sixty helpers who were trained in the work of building log-houses.
Brick Tannahill was by no means a prepossessing man in appearance, for his nose had been broken in his youth, and he had had an injury to one eye, which somewhat disfigured him; but he was a whimsical old fellow, and he had a kindly disposition. There was no doubt, however, about the comeliness of Eileen. She was alone and separate in her good beauty, with her soft blue eyes and their long lashes, her wavy black hair, her dimpled cheek and chin and a figure of sweet suppleness, she would have been the pride of better places than Askatoon; but she had no preferential position, because she was only the daughter of "old Brick Tannahill," who had been little better than an ordinary laborer till he had been left two thousand dollars by a relative in Ireland, and had taken up a government grant of land.
The girl, however, had none of the characteristics of a laborer's daughter. She had mental gifts above the average, and she was ambitious and determined. She had secretly been sorely hurt by the petty "uppishness" of those who arranged the social tests of Askatoon; and she had determined that she would yet be recognized, for had there not been a canon of the Church in her family! By which it will be seen that Eileen was not perfect, though her imperfections were no crime in one of her sex. It remained that she was bright and cheerful, simple and unaffected, and she easily captured the good will of all the men that came to the logging-bee, among them Phil McMahon, who had never seen her before.
THE subjection of Phil was instant. For the first time he was ashamed of having been "a jail-bird." But he worked like a Trojan at the bee, and was the life of the crowd, meeting chaff and gibe by chaff and gibe, putting one man against another in the competitive work of the day, completely usurping his brother Tom's leadership—not wholly to his regret, unselfish though he was, for there was Eileen!
Eileen was conscious of what the glance of his eye meant; and it brought a flutter to her pulse—a little to her chagrin, for Phil had done no good to himself by having gone to jail, and people had said dark things about him and his drunken exploits. Yet to her, in spite of all, there was something compelling in his devil-may-care ways and laughing, impudent face. Also he had great physical strength and athletic grace. So it was that when their eyes met, or their hands touched as he helped her to place the pails of coffee and cold meats on the tables, she had a thrill of interest and excitement. She could not help coquetting with him shyly. It was done carefully, though spontaneously; yet it attracted the attention of two or three rough spirits who were secretly envious of "the McMahon Gang;" and as the day wore on, a spirit of provocation began to show itself. Once after Eileen had had a few friendly words with Phil, Sam Shorthorn of "the Shorthorn lot," as the men from his ranch were called, said to Eileen: "Did you know, Miss, the new name for a jail?"
Eileen recognized a malicious purpose, but she shook her head and poured Shorthorn out another cup of coffee.
"It's the courtin'-house," was the sarcastic reply. "From the courthouse to the courtin'-house—that's the game. It's a regular system now. The things that go on in the courthouse aint nothin' to what goes on in the courtin'-house."
"I'll have to take your word for it; I've never been in either," answered Eileen. "I suppose it's funny," she added as the Shorthorn lot laughed loudly, "but I don't see it, and I can't laugh."
"Priscilla saw it, all right," Shorthorn said, and laughed loudly. "'Pull for the shore, sailor, pull for the shore,' says Priscilla, and the sailor pulled his weight. He knew a lot about pullin' before Priscilla pulled him into court, and that was a way-up maritime display. Hip, hip, hooray, for Priscilla and the sailor. Hip, hip, hooray!"
"I thought no one was to drink liquor till the bee was over," remarked Eileen sarcastically, and there was a flush to her cheek.
"He hasn't been drinking liquor here, Miss," said Phil McMahon softly. "He come here drunk—what was left from yesterday and the day before, and last week—and so 'way back!"
PHIL was getting angry. Several had chaffed him rudely all morning about Priscilla, and he had met the gibes good-humoredly; but when there were insinuations of a vulgar kind about the spinster who had drawn upon herself the comment of the community, he grew steadily resentful and answered his tormentors brusquely. As a rule, he was very quick to anger, but there was in him a real sense of delicacy where women were concerned, and he did not want a row here at Eileen Tannahill's home; nor did he want further gossip about Priscilla. He saw now that he had been a fool in permitting Priscilla to send him things and visit him in jail, and he thought the less said or done on his part the soonest mended.
For some hours there was a lull in the coarse chaffing and sidelong remarks, but toward evening Sam Shorthorn, who, through jealousy, was evidently determined to punish Phil as much as possible, began to torment him. He initiated his attack none too strategically. And at last he ventured a remark of an offensive nature about Priscilla, within hearing of Eileen. On the instant Phil, touched in his most chivalrous corner, and hot with accumulated anger, flung the pail of coffee he was carrying for Eileen in Shorthorn's face.
"Long in the tooth, but good sport for them that don't pick and choose—and watch the census, boys!" was the remark made by Shorthorn.
He never made another of that kind in his life, for the coffee was in his face, and a moment later Phil and he were locked in each other's arms. Shorthorn tried to draw his knife, but to no purpose. Phil's blood was up, and all the resources of a lifetime were called into play, while his brothers stood watching the crowd, lest there should be a movement on the part of Shorthorn's friends. There was, however, no necessity for the vigilance, for the one unpardonable thing in the Western men's eyes had been done,—a woman had been slandered,—and sympathy was with Phil.
Moreover, it was over too soon for any faction fight. Phil had suddenly got the grip for which he had been working since they closed, and he flung the stalwart Shorthorn over his shoulder like a bag. Shorthorn came down with a thud, his head striking the splintered bole of a small tree which had been cut down. He did not move. For half a minute the crowd waited; then some one rushed forward, knelt down beside him and felt his heart. It was still.
Phil looked at the body in a dazed way for a moment, then put on his coat and turned to go. Two of the Shorthorn lot moved forward as though to prevent him.
"I'm goin' to the sheriff to give myself up," he said. "It was an accident, but I'll take what I get, without squealing."
Then he marched away, his brothers following; and Eileen watched them go with horror in her eyes.
IN jail again on a charge of manslaughter, Phil awaited his trial with indifference. In the town of Askatoon. Priscilla awaited it with an immense emotion—one much too big for either her mind or her body. A man was to be tried for killing another man who had defamed her! She was the center of a tragic situation. She had been the object of a supreme act of devotion. A man had been killed for her sake, and the slayer was in jail!
It was a bigger thing by a thousand times than Priscilla had ever expected to happen in her life. It transcended the most brilliant dream of her imagination. People who had never been very nice to her now treated her with respect. She had a share in the heroic in spite of her watery blue eyes, her faded cheeks, her straw-colored eyebrows and hair. Even Jonas Billings' disparaging and sarcastic remarks could not lower her temperature. Her chance had come at last. She was sure now that Phil was in love with her.
She insisted on being called for the defense when the trial came on. Burlingame, with useful intuition, saw the danger of such a course, for it was supremely necessary that his client should not suffer ridicule, that he be kept in an atmosphere of heroism and chivalry before the court. And so he told Phil, who was greatly alarmed at the idea of Priscilla's appearing at the trial at all. He could face judge and jury, but he wilted at the thought of facing the woman who would lay her life at his feet.
At last Phil devised a scheme that he believed would temper her transports. He asked the sheriff to allow her to visit the jail, and he arranged that she should be admitted at the very time when he expected the new unmarried minister of the Baptist Church to visit him.
At the appointed time Priscilla entered the door of his cell, with an intolerable romance in her eyes and the flush of a hectic sentiment on her cheek. Phil had braced himself to the ordeal, but he was hardly prepared for the trembling, passionate figure who came toward him with hands outstretched. He suddenly felt weak, for he seemed to feel her arms around his neck. He caught her hands, however, in time to counter that danger.
"O my defender—my dear, dear defender—at last!" she said with a smile sick with sentimentality.
"Heaven is our helper!" returned Phil with a veiled grimace.
"Oh yes—how sweet it is to owe our debt to Heaven!" she replied. "But you were Heaven's handmaid," she added gushingly.
IN her excitement she did not notice what is billed in the West her "break." Phil as a "handmaid" was truly an illusion.
"Maid of-all-work," added Phil dryly. "Salary no object—workin' for Heaven its own reward."
She did not realize yet the silly mistake in grammar she had made, nor that Phil was "taking a rise" out of her. She was so agitated that her eyes were glazed by the fire of her emotions.
"Oh, dear friend, I felt sure you would find peace if you had time," she said with simpering solemnity. "Those tracts and books I sent you—in the solitude of your cell they opened up the gates of understanding, they brought conviction and a sense of sin, they—"
"I'm likely to have conviction twice in a month," remarked Phil, "and as for a sense of sin, I guess I've had that ever since I stole Pap's tobacco and Ma's pics outen the pantry when I was a youngster. Senses was always a strong point with me."
"But your stay here has brought you to the Mercy Seat, hasn't it?" asked Priscilla.
"If you call a jury of twelve men from Sokash County the Mercy Seat, I expect I'm here; but I'm not mashed on mercy—leastways I was mashed on Mercy once—Mercy Maggs she was, but not the mercy you mean."
The palpitating Priscilla began to doubt her own hopes. "I know it's only your manner of speaking, but you should not trifle with such things," she remarked ruefully. "I'm sure it's only because you feel deeply and don't want your real feelings to be seen."
"Well, it's plain I succeed in it," rejoined Phil maliciously. "If you—"
She interrupted him with a hysterical little simper. "Oh, you needn't say it—I know it all—Philip! You killed a man for my sake, and I can never to my dying day, never—oh, I thank the Lord morning and night that I have helped to snatch a brand from the burning, that there was something which roused in you—"
Phil could stand it no longer. "Say," he said, "I only done for you what I'd have done for any woman on earth, when a man spoke of her as Shorthorn done. And you'd been kind to me—that cake and currant loaf, and pumpkin pie and the books, they clinched it. But if it bad been old Sary Ginnis the washerwoman, I'd have done it just the same. He riled me a lot, that Shorthorn, and I wasn't takin' any more from him. I itched to lay him out the minute I set eyes on him at the bee. A skunk, he was, but I wasn't aimin' at killin' him, not for no woman on earth. I got to face a judge and jury too for it, and—"
She almost threw herself in his arms. "Oh, my brave one, you—"
"Don't talk that way." he interrupted irritably. "That's no way to talk to a man that's to be tried for manslaughter. I aint fit company for you—not for one frozen minute. I put Shorthorn out of action forever, and I got to pay. I'm sorry I killed him. There aint no woman that's worth a life like that—and I'm tired of jail already."
"You shall not be here long—you shall go free. I'll go into the witness-box and say why you did it. That'll clear you. I told Mr. Burlingame so."
"I'm not sure I wouldn't rather go to jail for ten years than see you in the witness-box." remarked Phil with meaning, but not a meaning that she apprehended. "I wouldn't want to be in that position. I couldn't stand it. I'm tough, but I'd break down if I saw that."
THIS time he spoke with an apparent purpose. The first words were full of sarcasm not understood by her, but the last two sentences were spoken with mock feeling and tenderness. He was determined to bring things to an issue at once, and he anticipated accurately what she would do.
She stood gazing at him for one instant; then, in spite of the fact that one of the warders was looking in the opening of the door, she almost threw herself upon him. Her hands caught at his arms; her lips trembled.
"You shall not suffer alone—you shall not, Philip," she said ecstatically.
He loosened the storm on her without warning.
"I wouldn't suffer alone—that's the trouble," he said, coolly bracing himself for the lie he was to tell. "I wouldn't—that's the trouble. There's my wife and children—my dear little ones, two lovely little girls, down in Idaho."
She started back with face abashed. Her body seemed to shrink. She became suddenly wilted and forlorn. All in a second her wonderful romance was shattered by a lie as big as it was useful. On hearing it, the warder fell back from the door in a fit of laughter. Phil regarded his visitor mournfully.
"It's for them I feel, you see," he said. "They're all I've got. I need to be braced. That's why the new Baptist minister is comin' to-day. Have you met him?" he added.
She shook her head mournfully. "He's only just come to Askatoon," she murmured.
"He's young and good-looking—about thirty-two; and I like his talk," Phil continued. "He's not too religious. He puts things without licking his chops—d'ye see?"
She nodded sorrowfully, for she had been sorely hit. Yet she was interested. The new Baptist minister had only been in Askatoon a very short time. When he learned that Phil had said he was a Baptist when asked his religion by the sheriff, he had gone at once to the jail, and he was again waiting now outside the cell.
"He wont have much of a living in Askatoon," Phil remarked with careful sympathy in his voice, and Priscilla raised her head a little, for now a faint spirit of fresh adventure came into her eye. A new, good-looking Baptist minister—and poor! One romance had just been slain, but as though Providence had stooped to bring comfort to her, here was the faint vision of another.
"He'd be better if he was married," reflected Phil. "He could do more good. He's coming to pray with me. He's waitin' outside now, I expect."
"Time!" said the warder at the door to Priscilla.
"Bring in the sky-pilot, Warder," said Phil
A MOMENT later the Reverend Enoch Milton was in the cell, a lean, affectionate, soulful-looking man who looked a fit companion for Priscilla Meekin. Phil introduced them.
"One of our heiresses of Askatoon, Mr. Mikon," he said. "She's done me real good, I got to say it. She's always thinkin' of others."
He gave a swift and unnecessary description of the incident of running her down in the street, of his going to jail and of her subsequent "holy work," as he called it.
"Doin' good—always doin' good," he added. "I'm a Baptist, if I'm anything, but it didn't make no difference to her. She'd have spent her fortune on me. And now, since I killed Shorthorn, the man that insulted her—of course you've heard," he added.
"I have heard—indeed I have heard," unctuously remarked the Reverend Enoch Milton.
"Time!" said the warder peremptorily.
"Shake hands, you two people who go about doin' good." said Phil.
This was done with real and primitive eloquence. The Reverend Enoch Milton was thinking of what acquaintance with an heiress might mean, and as for Priscilla, when she fluttered from the cell there was the light of a new romance in her eyes. She even gave the warder a dollar—which showed how much she was moved.
"She's a wonder, that girl—a prize, and so holy." Phil watched her go with benevolent satisfaction.
"A true handmaid of the Lord," answered the Reverend Enoch Milton.
THE country around Askatoon was particularly fertile. This was due, so said some dry-as-dust scientific men, to the fact that the river at Askatoon had in the past overflowed its banks, and like the Nile, had deposited good nourishing deposits of the hills from which it came. The scientists further added that there had been recent deposits, and that the river would probably overflow its banks again. Such statements made very little impression upon Askatoon, because, in the first place, the scientists did not look like practical, knowledgable men; and secondly, because not in the memory of the oldest Indian had there teen a great flooding of the river, though the Indians had legend of flights of the tribe from the sudden overflow of the banks of the Mattalan.
There was only one person in the town who took both the scientists and the Indian legend seriously, and that was the Young Doctor. He was absolutely certain that the river had overflowed within the memory of the living. Indians were migratory, and the tribe now in the reservation at Askatoon might very likely have been five hundred or a thousand miles away when the last flood occurred. He spoke his mind about it in the early days of the place, and urged building the town on the rise above the lowest level of the prairie, without avail.
Nothing had happened to justify his fear. Nevertheless, the flood came like a thief in the night.
There had been two days' rain, and the river had risen; then there had been sunshine again, but the river remained still within a dozen inches or the bank. Yet one morning, before daybreak, there was loud crying in Askatoon, and people scrambled out of their beds into their doorways to hear the alarm rung by the bells of the churches and the shouts of people in trouble. The Mattalan had overflowed its banks according to the prophecy of the scientists.
MORNING broke upon a town almost deserted, as most of the population had stampeded to the upland, taking little with them. In one of the driest places of the West every individual and separate house was now an island; streets were canals; women and children were crying from upper windows; boats—and there were very few—were passing here and there, rescuing and bringing food and clothes to the refugees. A few people who lived on the opposite side of the river from Askatoon were safe, as there the bank was several feet higher than on the Askatoon side. It was on the farther side that Tannahill and his daughter Eileen lived. They were safe, at least. They could see the cattle carried away by the flood—also barns and outhouses which had had no foundations.
Askatoon never showed to better advantage than in this first crisis of its existence. Men like Jonas Billings were tireless in their efforts to save people, and were full of resource, cheering and comforting. They slaved without ceasing, and only two lives were lost—those of little children. It was a time of mutual help, of bravery and of good organization, which was practically controlled by the Young Doctor, the mayor being absent from the town.
Yet in spite of organization, one spot was forgotten. Nobody thought of the jail. It was not on the lowest ground of the town; it stood somewhat apart, nearer to the channel of the river. It was naturally thought—if there was any thought at all—that the officials of the jail would look after their own particular population. As it happened, however, the sheriff was absent from the place; the deputy-sheriff, in his excitement in the early morning, having nothing to eat, drank whisky and became intoxicated; and two of the warders forsook their posts to look after their own families, who were living in the town.
In the great excitement, Phil McMahon begged permission to assist in the rescue work, promising on his word of honor to return, and being refused, fell upon his warder, laid him out senseless, abstracted his keys and escaped from jail, taking to the water. With unerring instinct he swam toward the farther shore in the direction of Tannahill's farm, having taken off his boots and hung them around his neck. AS he made his way through the flood, here and there able to walk, he felt pleased with himself. This was the kind of thing that added interest to existence. He passed a crowded boat, which hailed him, and was told that practically everybody was safe. The melancholy of the outlook all around him did not overwhelm him. Cattle were floating down the main current of the river; trees and brushwood swept by; the outhouses, on which small animals found refuge, slowly moved past; overhead the sun was shining brightly, while all round the horizon great piles of clouds were scattering and breaking—the last fringes of the storm in the mountains and the foothills which had made the peaceful Mattalan a savage destroyer of homes.
Suddenly he heard a cry in the distance behind him. He turned round. A man in a boat, flourishing a rifle, was calling upon him to stay his course. By this time he had just come to the main current of the river. He paid no attention to the summons, which came from the warder whom he had overpowered in his cell, and now, faithful to his duty, was trying to recapture his prisoner. A shot was fired, but the bullet went wide, and then the warder settled down to row, making unskillful use of the oars, however. In spite of that he gained on Phil, and would have overtaken him in due course had he not, by unshipping an oar through accident, been caught by a flood-tree, at the same time striking some underwater obstruction which overturned his boat. At the moment he was but a few hundred feet from Phil, who, seeing the accident, swam back. Caught by the tree, the warder, who could not swim, was in imminent danger of drowning.
Ensued the interesting situation of a prisoner saving his jailer from a watery grave, and with great difficulty keeping him up, while he endeavored to swim to the opposite shore, the current impeding him. The chances were terribly against his making it, unless he abandoned the warder to his fate. That might have to be done, since it was better that one should drown than both; but Phil was not the man to save himself so long as there was a chance of saving anyone else.
He would not have been able to do that, however, had it not been for Eileen Tannahill. From the opposite shore she had seen Phil take to the water from the window of the sheriff's office in the jail; she had seen him making for the shore where she was; and before the warder's boat had overturned, she had already seated herself in a heavy Indian canoe and struck out from the bank. Instinct told her the whole situation when she had seen the shot fired by the warder, and when Phil turned back to rescue his jailer, a thrill of admiration and pride possessed her. Why should she be proud? Somehow she had a feeling for Phil not founded on an understanding established between them on the fateful day when Sam Shorthorn had been killed by the man now struggling to save the life of another.
"He's a wonder, he's a wonder—oh, dear, why doesn't he let go the warder!" she exclaimed as she paddled hard.
"No one else would do it, and that's why—why—!"
She broke off sharply. Something was stirring her more than the excitement of the rescue she was attempting.
SHE reached the two only just in time. There was no chance of getting either into the canoe. With a word of warning, followed by a word of greeting, she laid her canoe alongside Phil, whose chin was only just above water.
The warning was not needed. Phil bad no intention of clutching at the canoe and overturning it. His hand caught the stern of it; he got it firmly in his grip; and with cheerful spluttering bade Eileen go ahead.
Even now, with the greatest difficulty, he supported the warder. Yet Phil's indomitable optimism, his refusal to see the bad end to anything, enabled him even to make a joke as they moved slowly toward the bank.
"Pull for the shore, sailor,
Pull for the shore—"
he spluttered gayly to Eileen.
And so at last the bank was reached, and old Brick Tannahill, and a couple of other men, with the assistance of pike-poles—the hooks catching in the warder's uniform—were able to land the insensible official.
As for Phil, relieved of his burden, his strength came back, and with an effort at jauntiness he almost sprang ashore. His boots were still around his neck.
"I'd shake hands with you, if I wasn't so wet," he said to Eileen.
The tears started to Eileen's eyes. Impulsively she caught both his hands in hers.
"They ought to give you a gold medal and put up a statue to you," she said.
Phil laughed. "They'll put a broad-arrow on my clothes if they get a chance." he returned; "and they'll take care of me at gover'ment expense for ten years, mebbe. Isn't that enough? Well, it'll certainly be enough if I let 'em, but I'm off! I'm off! I've broke jail, and I'll watch them catching me again, I don't think. But there's my friend the warder to be looked after first," he added, and he turned to where Tannahill and the two men were working the warder's arms up and down, in an effort to restore him to consciousness.
AFTER a moment Tannahill exclaimed excitedly: "He's comin' hack; his eyes are open! Halleluyeh, his eyes are open! Aw, he's breathin'. Aw, here, the fella's back again safe and sound. Here's to ye, Mr. Warder! 'Tis in the land of the livin' y'are. Now. where did ye think ye were, with that look in yer eyes? Ye're in the land of livin', I'm lellin' ye."
The warder looked round dazedly. Then his eyes fixed upon Phil. "I owe it to you," "he said feebly. "But I fired wide—honest I did," he said.
Phil nodded. "That's all right," he replied, "and—good day, old locksman! Say, I got to go. This aint no place for me." He turned to Eileen: "Well, I'll be back with thanks to you by and by," he continued. "There's a horse here that'll do the trick for me. I'll see you get it back," he added to Tannahill, as he pointed to a sturdy little Indian pony, saddled and bridled, tethered near by.
"Why should ye be off?" demanded Tannahill indignantly. "Haven't ye saved the warder here? Hasn't he said so? Back he is in the land of the livin', and who's done it?"
"Your daughter's done it, and she's done it in style," replied Phil, getting into his boots. "If it hadn't been for her—"
"That's all very fine—I think we know all about it," remarked Eileen gently. "Give yourself some credit, please. You need it after what's happened. Take all you can get—and come back some day. You'll be welcome."
"Come back!" exclaimed Tannahill vigorously. "How can they jail him now? What Sam Shorthorn got he deserved; what the warder here's got he didn't deserve. Firing at a man in the water—think of that! Sure, wouldn't the law make the balance between the two?"
"I'm not taking any chances. I guess I got to go," answered Phil decisively.
"The law is the law," said the warder, making a feeble effort to rise. There was warning in his voice. It was as though he meant to take Phil into charge; yet it was plain also from his face that he wished him to go. It was his duty to take Phil back to jail, but he wanted to avoid it. "I've got to take you back," he persisted. "The law's the law."
"Don't trouble to rise," said Phil dryly. "Rest when you can, and bless the Lord for all his mercies. But I'll be gettin' on." He nodded toward the pony. "Is it a go?" he asked Tannahill. "I'll give you fifty dollars for it if it doesn't get back."
Tannahill nodded. "Never mind about the fifty. Take the cayuse."
"I can't hold you," said the warder. "I'm too weak."
"Don't you try, old boy," remarked Phil ironically. He caught the warder's hand for an instant. "There's no strength in y'r grip," he said. "Tell the sheriff it's up to him now. I've done my part by the jail." Then he turned to Eileen. "Mebbe, I'll find you here when I get back," he added smiling. His eyes had a meaning look, and she understood and was glad.
"You'd better come back soon," she said.
"I don't wish him no bad luck!" said the warder warmly a moment afterwards, as Phil cantered away on the cayuse in the burning heat of noon.