Story type: Literature
“In all the wide border his steed was the best,” and the name and fame of Terence O’Ryan were known from Strathcona to Qu’appelle. He had ambition of several kinds, and he had the virtue of not caring who knew of it. He had no guile, and little money; but never a day’s work was too hard for him, and he took bad luck, when it came, with a jerk of the shoulder and a good-natured surprise on his clean-shaven face that suited well his wide gray eyes and large, luxurious mouth. He had an estate, half ranch, half farm, with a French-Canadian manager named Vigon, an old prospector who viewed every foot of land in the world with the eye of the discoverer. Gold, coal, iron, oil, he searched for them everywhere, making sure that sooner or later he would find them. Once Vigon had found coal. That was when he worked for a man called Constantine Jopp, and had given him great profit; but he, the discoverer, had been put off with a horse and a hundred dollars. He was now as devoted to Terence O’Ryan as he had been faithful to Constantine Jopp, whom he cursed waking and sleeping.
In his time O’Ryan had speculated, and lost; he had floated a coal-mine, and “been had”; he had run for the local legislature, had been elected, and then unseated for bribery committed by an agent; he had run races at Regina, and won–he had won for three years in succession; and this had kept him going and restored his finances when they were at their worst. He was, in truth, the best rider in the country, and, so far, was the owner also of the best three-year-old that the West had produced. He achieved popularity without effort. The West laughed at his enterprises and loved him; he was at once a public moral and a hero. It was a legend of the West that his forebears had been kings in Ireland like Brian Boroihme. He did not contradict this; he never contradicted anything. His challenge to all fun and satire and misrepresentation was, “What’ll be the differ a hundred years from now!”
He did not use this phrase, however, toward one experience–the advent of Miss Molly Mackinder, the heiress, and the challenge that reverberated through the West after her arrival. Philosophy deserted him then; he fell back on the primary emotions of mankind.
A month after Miss Mackinder’s arrival at La Touche a dramatic performance was given at the old fort, in which the officers of the Mounted Police took part, together with many civilians who fancied themselves. By that time the district had realized that Terry O’Ryan had surrendered to what they called “the laying on of hands” by Molly Mackinder. It was not certain, however, that the surrender was complete, because O’Ryan had been wounded before, and yet had not been taken captive altogether. His complete surrender seemed now more certain to the public because the lady had a fortune of two hundred thousand dollars, and that amount of money would be useful to an ambitious man in the growing West. It would, as Gow Johnson said, “Let him sit back and view the landscape o’er before he puts his ploughshare in the mud.”
There was an out-door scene in the play produced by the impetuous amateurs, and dialogue had been interpolated by three “imps of fame” at the suggestion of Constantine Jopp, one of the three, who bore malice toward O’Ryan, though this his colleagues did not know distinctly. The scene was a camp-fire–a starlit night, a colloquy between the three, upon which the hero of the drama, played by Terry O’Ryan, should break, after having, unknown to them, but in sight of the audience, overheard their kind intentions toward himself.
The night came. When the curtain rose for the third act there was exposed a star-sown sky, in which the galaxy of Orion was shown with distinctness, each star sharply twinkling from the electric power behind–a pretty scene, evoking great applause. O’Ryan had never seen this back curtain–they had taken care that he should not–and, standing in the wings awaiting his cue, he was unprepared for the laughter of the audience, first low and uncertain, then growing, then insistent, and now a peal of ungovernable mirth, as one by one they understood the significance of the stars of Orion on the back curtain.
O’Ryan got his cue, and came on to an outburst of applause which shook the walls. La Touche rose at him, among them Miss Molly Mackinder in the front row with the notables.
He did not see the back curtain, or Orion blazing in the ultramarine blue. According to the stage directions, he was to steal along the trees at the wings, and listen to the talk of the men at the fire plotting against him, who were presently to pretend good comradeship to his face. It was a vigorous melodrama, with some touches of true Western feeling. After listening for a moment, O’Ryan was to creep up the stage again toward the back curtain, giving a cue for his appearance.
When the hilarious applause at his entrance had somewhat subsided, the three took up their parable, but it was not the parable of the play. They used dialogue not in the original. It had a significance which the audience were not slow to appreciate, and went far to turn The Sunburst Trail at this point into a comedy-farce. When this new dialogue began, O’Ryan could scarcely trust his ears or realize what was happening.
“Ah, look,” said Dicky Fergus at the fire, “as fine a night as I ever saw in the West! The sky’s a picture. You could almost hand the stars down, they’re so near.”
“What’s that clump together on the right–what are they called in astronomy?” asked Constantine Jopp, with a leer.
“Orion is the name–a beauty, ain’t it?” answered Fergus.
“I’ve been watching Orion rise,” said the third–Holden was his name. “Many’s the time I’ve watched Orion rising. Orion’s the star for me. Say, he wipes ’em all out–right out. Watch him rising now.”
By a manipulation of the lights Orion moved up the back curtain slowly and blazed with light nearer the zenith. And La Touche had more than the worth of its money in this opening to the third act of the play. O’Ryan was a favorite, at whom La Touche loved to jeer, and the parable of the stars convulsed them.
At the first words O’Ryan put a hand on himself and tried to grasp the meaning of it all, but his entrance and the subsequent applause had confused him. Presently, however, he turned to the back curtain, as Orion moved slowly up the heavens, and found the key to the situation. He gasped. Then he listened to the dialogue, which had nothing to do with “The Sunburst Trail.”
“What did Orion do, and why does he rise? Has he got to rise? Why was the gent called Orion in them far-off days?” asked Holden.
“He did some hunting in his time–with a club,” Fergus replied. “He kept making hits, he did. Orion was a spoiler. When he took the field there was no room for the rest of the race. Why does he rise? Because it is a habit. They could always get a rise out of Orion. The Athens Eirenicon said that yeast might fail to rise, but touch the button and Orion would rise like a bird.”
At that instant the galaxy jerked up the back curtain again, and, when the audience could control itself, Constantine Jopp, grinning meanly, asked:
“Why does he wear the girdle?”
“It is not a girdle–it is a belt,” was Dicky Fergus’ reply. “The gods gave it to him because he was a favorite. There was a lady called Artemis–she was the last of them. But he went visiting with Eos, another lady of previous acquaintance, down at a place called Ortygia, and Artemis shot him dead with a shaft Apollo had given her; but she didn’t marry Apollo neither. She laid Orion out on the sky, with his glittering belt around him. And Orion keeps on rising.”
“Will he ever stop rising?” asked Holden.
Followed for the conspirators a disconcerting moment; for, when the laughter had subsided, a lazy voice came from the back of the hall, “He’ll stop long enough to play with Apollo a little, I guess.”
It was Gow Johnson who had spoken, and no man knew Terry O’Ryan better, or could gauge more truly the course he would take. He had been in many an enterprise, many a brush with O’Ryan, and his friendship would bear any strain.
O’Ryan recovered himself from the moment he saw the back curtain, and he did not find any fun in the thing. It took a hold on him out of all proportion to its importance. He realized that he had come to the parting of the ways in his life. It suddenly came upon him that something had been lacking in him in the past, and that his want of success in many things had not been wholly due to bad luck. He had been eager, enterprising, a genius almost at seeing good things; and yet others had reaped where he had sown. He had believed too much in his fellow-man. For the first time in his life he resented the friendly, almost affectionate satire of his many friends. It was amusing, it was delightful; but down beneath it all there was a little touch of ridicule. He had more brains than any of them, and he had known it in a way; he had led them sometimes, too, as on raids against cattle-stealers, and in a brush with half-breeds and Indians; as when he stood for the legislature; but he felt now for the first time that he had not made the most of himself, that there was something hurting to self-respect in this prank played upon him. When he came to that point his resentment went higher. He thought of Molly Mackinder, and he heard all too acutely the vague veiled references to her in their satire. By the time Gow Johnson spoke he had mastered himself, however, and had made up his mind. He stood still for a moment.
“Now, please, my cue,” he said, quietly and satirically from the trees near the wings.
He was smiling, but Gow Johnson’s prognostication was right; and ere long the audience realized that he was right. There was standing before them not the Terry O’Ryan they had known, but another. He threw himself fully into his part–a young rancher made deputy-sheriff, who by the occasional exercise of his duty had incurred the hatred of a small floating population that lived by fraud, violence, and cattle-stealing. The conspiracy was to raid his cattle, to lure him to pursuit, to ambush him, and kill him. Terry now played the part with a naturalness and force which soon lifted the play away from the farcical element introduced into it by those who had interpolated the gibes at himself. They had gone a step too far.
“He’s going large,” said Gow Johnson, as the act drew near its close and the climax neared where O’Ryan was to enter upon a physical struggle with his assailants. “His blood’s up. There’ll be hell to pay.”
To Gow Johnson the play had instantly become real, and O’Ryan an injured man at bay, the victim of the act–not of the fictitious characters of the play, but of the three men, Fergus, Holden, and Constantine Jopp, who had planned the discomfiture of O’Ryan; and he felt that the victim’s resentment would fall heaviest on Constantine Jopp, the bully, an old schoolmate of Terry’s.
Jopp was older than O’Ryan by three years, which in men is little, but in boys, at a certain time of life, is much. It means, generally, weight and height, an advantage in a scrimmage. Constantine Jopp had been the plague and tyrant of O’Ryan’s boyhood. He was now a big, leering fellow, with much money of his own, got chiefly from the coal discovered on his place by Vigon, the half-breed French-Canadian. He had a sense of dark and malicious humor, a long, horse-like face, with little, beady eyes, and a huge frame.
Again and again had Terry fought him as a boy at school, and often he had been badly whipped, but he had never refused the challenge of an insult when he was twelve and Jopp fifteen. The climax to their enmity at school had come one day when Terry was seized with a cramp while bathing, and after having gone down twice was rescued by Jopp, who dragged him out by the hair of the head. He had been restored to consciousness on the bank and carried to his home, where he lay ill for days. During the course of the slight fever which followed the accident his hair was cut close to his head. Impetuous always, his first thought was to go and thank Constantine Jopp for having saved his life. As soon as he was able he went forth to find his rescuer, and met him suddenly on turning a corner of the street. Before he could stammer out the gratitude that was in his heart, Jopp, eying him with a sneering smile, said, drawlingly:
“If you’d had your hair cut like that I couldn’t have got you out, could I? Holy, what a sight! Next time I’ll take you by the scruff, putty face–bah!”
That was enough for Terry. He had swallowed the insult, stuttered his thanks to the jeering laugh of the lank bully, and had gone home and cried in shame and rage.
It was the one real shadow in his life. Ill-luck and good luck had been taken with an equable mind; but the fact that he must, while he lived, own the supreme debt of his life to a boy and afterward to a man whom he hated by instinct was a constant cloud on him. Jopp owned him. For some years they did not meet, and then at last they again were thrown together in the West, when Jopp settled at La Touche. It was gall and wormwood to Terry, but he steeled himself to be friendly, although the man was as great a bully as the boy, as offensive in mind and character; but withal acute and able in his way, and with a reputation for commercial sharpness which would be called by another name in a different civilization. They met constantly, and O’Ryan always put a hand on himself, and forced himself to be friendly. Once when Jopp became desperately ill there had been–though he fought it down, and condemned himself in every term of reproach–a sense of relief in the thought that perhaps his ancient debt would now be cancelled. It had gone on so long. And Constantine Jopp had never lost an opportunity of vexing him, of turturing him, of giving veiled thrusts, which he knew O’Ryan could not resent. It was the constant pin-prick of a mean soul, who had an advantage of which he could never be dispossessed–unless the ledger was balanced in some inscrutable way.
Apparently bent on amusement only, and hiding his hatred from his colleagues, Jopp had been the instigator and begetter of the huge joke of the play; but it was the brains of Dick Fergus which had carried it out, written the dialogue, and planned the electric appliances of the back curtain–for he was an engineer and electrician. Neither he nor Holden had known the old antipathy of Terry and Constantine Jopp. There was only one man who knew the whole truth, and that was Gow Johnson, to whom Terry had once told all. At the last moment Fergus had interpolated certain points in the dialogue which were not even included at rehearsal. These referred to Apollo. He had a shrewd notion that Jopp had an idea of marrying Molly Mackinder if he could, cousins though they were; and he was also aware that Jopp, knowing Molly’s liking for Terry, had tried to poison her mind against him, through suggestive gossip about a little widow at Jansen, thirty miles away. He had in so far succeeded that, on the very day of the performance, Molly had declined to be driven home from the race-course by Terry, despite the fact that Terry had won the chief race and owned the only dog-cart in the West.
As the day went on, Fergus realized, as had Gow Johnson, that Jopp had raised a demon. The air was electric. The play was drawing near to its climax–an attempt to capture the deputy-sheriff, tie him to a tree, and leave him bound and gagged alone in the waste. There was a glitter in Terry’s eyes, belying the lips which smiled in keeping with the character he presented. A look of harshness was stamped on his face, and the outlines of the temples were as sharp as the chin was set and the voice slow and penetrating.
Molly Mackinder’s eyes were riveted on him. She sat very still, her hands clasped in her lap, watching his every move. Instinct told her that Terry was holding himself in; that some latent fierceness and iron force in him had emerged into life; and that he meant to have revenge on Constantine Jopp one way or another, and that soon; for she had heard the rumor flying through the hall that her cousin was the cause of the practical joke just played. From hints she had had from Constantine that very day she knew that the rumor was the truth; and she recalled now with shrinking dislike the grimace accompanying the suggestion. She had not resented it then, being herself angry with Terry because of the little widow at Jansen.
Presently the silence in the hall became acute; the senses of the audience were strained to the utmost. The acting before them was more realistic than anything they had ever seen, or were ever likely to see again in La Touche. All three conspirators, Fergus, Holden, and Jopp, realized that O’Ryan’s acting had behind it an animal anger which transformed him. When he looked into their eyes it was with a steely directness harder and fiercer than was observed by the audience. Once there was an occasion for O’Ryan to catch Fergus by the arm, and Fergus winced from the grip. When standing in the wings with Terry he ventured to apologize playfully for the joke, but Terry made no answer; and once again he had whispered good-naturedly as they stood together on the stage; but the reply had been a low, scornful laugh. Fergus realized that a critical moment was at hand. The play provided for some dialogue between Jopp and Terry, and he observed with anxiety that Terry now interpolated certain phrases meant to warn Constantine, and to excite him to anger also.
The moment came upon them sooner than the text of the play warranted. O’Ryan deliberately left out several sentences, and gave a later cue, and the struggle for his capture was precipitated. Terry meant to make the struggle real. So thrilling had been the scene that to an extent the audience was prepared for what followed; but they did not grasp the full reality–that the play was now only a vehicle for a personal issue of a desperate character. No one had ever seen O’Ryan angry; and now that the demon of rage was on him, directed by a will suddenly grown to its full height, they saw not only a powerful character in a powerful melodrama, but a man of wild force. When the three desperadoes closed in on O’Ryan, and, with a blow from the shoulder which was not a pretence, he sent Holden into a far corner gasping for breath and moaning with pain, the audience broke out into wild cheering. It was superb acting, they thought. As most of them had never seen the play, they were not surprised when Holden did not again join the attack on the deputy-sheriff. Those who did know the drama–among them Molly Mackinder–became dismayed, then anxious.
Fergus and Jopp knew well from the blow O’Ryan had given that, unless they could drag him down, the end must be disaster to some one. They were struggling with him for personal safety now. The play was forgotten, though mechanically O’Ryan and Fergus repeated the exclamations and the few phrases belonging to the part. Jopp was silent, fighting with a malice which belongs to only half-breed, or half-bred, natures; and from far back in his own nature the distant Indian strain in him was working in savage hatred. The two were desperately hanging onto O’Ryan like pumas on a grizzly, when suddenly, with a twist he had learned from Ogami the Jap on the Smoky River, the slim Fergus was slung backward to the ground with the tendons of his arm strained and the arm itself useless for further work. There remained now Constantine Jopp, heavier and more powerful than O’Ryan.
For O’Ryan the theatre, the people, disappeared. He was a boy again on the village-green, with the bully before him who had tortured his young days. He forgot the old debt to the foe who saved his life; he forgot everything except that once again, as of old, Constantine Jopp was fighting him, with long, strong arms trying to bring him to the ground. Jopp’s superior height gave him an advantage in a close grip; the strength of his gorilla-like arms was difficult to withstand. Both were forgetful of the world, and the two other injured men, silent and awed, were watching the fight, in which one of them, at least, was powerless to take part.
The audience was breathless. Most now saw the grim reality of the scene before them; and when at last O’Ryan’s powerful right hand got a grip upon the throat of Jopp, and they saw the grip tighten, tighten, and Jopp’s face go from red to purple, a hundred people gasped. Excited men made as though to move toward the stage; but the majority still believed that it all belonged to the play, and shouted, “Sit down!”
Suddenly the voice of Gow Johnson was heard: “Don’t kill him–let go, boy!”
The voice rang out with sharp anxiety, and pierced the fog of passion and rage in which O’Ryan was moving. He realized what he was doing, the real sense of it came upon him. Suddenly he let go the lank throat of his enemy, and, by a supreme effort, flung him across the stage, where Jopp lay resting on his hands, his bleared eyes looking at Terry with the fear and horror still in them which had come with that tightening grip on his throat.
Silence fell suddenly on the theatre. The audience was standing. A woman sobbed somewhere in a far corner, but the rest were dismayed and speechless. A few steps before them all was Molly Mackinder, white and frightened, but in her eyes was a look of understanding as she gazed at Terry. Breathing hard, Terry stood still in the middle of the stage, the red fog not yet gone out of his eyes, his hands clasped at his side, vaguely realizing the audience again. Behind him was the back curtain, in which the lights of Orion twinkled aggressively. The three men who had attacked him were still where he had thrown them.
The silence was intense, the strain oppressive. But now a drawling voice came from the back of the hall.
“Are you watching the rise of Orion?” it said. It was the voice of Gow Johnson.
The strain was broken; the audience dissolved in laughter; but it was not hilarious; it was the nervous laughter of relief, touched off by a native humor always present in the dweller of the prairie.
“I beg your pardon,” said Terry, quietly and abstractedly, to the audience.
And the scene-shifter bethought himself and let down the curtain.
The fourth act was not played that night. The people had had more than the worth of their money. In a few moments the stage was crowded with people from the audience, but both Jopp and O’Ryan had disappeared.
Among the visitors to the stage was Molly Mackinder. There was a meaning smile upon her face as she said to Dicky Fergus:
“It was quite wonderful, wasn’t it–like a scene out of the classics–the gladiators or something?”
Fergus gave a wary smile as he answered: “Yes. I felt like saying ‘Ave, Caesar, ave!‘ and I watched to see Artemis drop her handkerchief.”
“She dropped it, but you were too busy to pick it up. It would have been a useful sling for your arm,” she added, with thoughtful malice. “It seemed so real–you all acted so well, so appropriately. And how you keep it up!” she added, as he cringed when some one knocked against his elbow, hurting the injured tendons.
Fergus looked at her meditatively before he answered. “Oh, I think we’ll likely keep it up for some time,” he rejoined, ironically.
“Then the play isn’t finished?” she added. “There is another act? Yes, I thought there was; the programme said four.”
“Oh yes, there’s another act,” he answered, “but it isn’t to be played now; and I’m not in it.”
“No, I suppose you are not in it. You really weren’t in the last act. Who will be in it?”
Fergus suddenly laughed outright as he looked at Holden expostulating intently to a crowd of people round him. “Well, honor bright, I don’t think there’ll be anybody in it except little Conny Jopp and gentle Terry O’Ryan; and Conny mayn’t be in it very long. But he’ll be in it for a while, I guess. You see, the curtain came down in the middle of a situation, not at the end of it. The curtain has to rise again.”
“Perhaps Orion will rise again–you think so?” She laughed in satire; for Dicky Fergus had made love to her during the last three months with unsuppressed activity, and she knew him in his sentimental moments; which is fatal. It is fatal if, in a duet, one breathes fire and the other frost.
“If you want my opinion,” he said, in a lower voice, as they moved toward the door, while people tried to listen to them–“if you want it straight, I think Orion has risen–right up where shines the evening star–Oh, say, now,” he broke off, “haven’t you had enough fun out of me? I tell you, it was touch and go. He nearly broke my arm–would have done it, if I hadn’t gone limp to him; and your cousin Conny Jopp, little Conny Jopp, was as near Kingdom Come as a man wants at his age. I saw an elephant go must once in India, and it was as like O’Ryan as putty is to dough. It isn’t all over, either, for O’Ryan will forget and forgive, and Jopp won’t. He’s your cousin, but he’s a sulker. If he has to sit up nights to do it, he’ll try to get back on O’Ryan. He’ll sit up nights, but he’ll do it, if he can. And, whatever it is, it won’t be pretty.”
Outside the door they met Gow Johnson, excitement in his eyes. He heard Fergus’ last words.
“He’ll see Orion rising if he sits up nights,” Gow Johnson said. “The game is with Terry–at last.”
Then he called to the dispersing, gossiping crowd: “Hold on–hold on, you people! I’ve got news for you. Folks, this is O’Ryan’s night. It’s his in the starry firmament. Look at him shine!” he cried, stretching out his arm toward the heavens, where the glittering galaxy hung near the zenith. “Terry O’Ryan–our O’Ryan–he’s struck oil–on his ranch it’s been struck. Old Vigon found it. Terry’s got his own at last. O’Ryan’s in it–in it alone. Now, let’s hear the prairie-whisper!” he shouted, in a great, raucous voice. “Let’s hear the prairie-whisper! What is it?”
The crowd responded in a hoarse shout for O’Ryan and his fortune. Even the women shouted–all except Molly Mackinder. She was wondering if O’Ryan risen would be the same to her as O’Ryan rising. She got into her carriage with a sigh, though she said to the few friends with her:
“If it’s true, it’s splendid. He deserves it, too. Oh, I’m glad–I’m so glad!” She laughed; but the laugh was a little hysterical.
She was both glad and sorry. Yet as she drove home over the prairie she was silent. Far off in the east was a bright light. It was a bonfire built on O’Ryan’s ranch, near where he had struck oil–struck it rich. The light grew and grew, and the prairie was alive with people hurrying toward it. La Touche should have had the news hours earlier, but the half-breed French-Canadian, Vigon, who had made the discovery, and had started for La Touche with the news, went suddenly off his head with excitement, and had ridden away into the prairie fiercely shouting his joy to an invisible world. The news had been brought in later by a farm-hand.
* * * * *
Terry O’Ryan had really struck oil, and his ranch was a scene of decent revelry, of which Gow Johnson was master. But the central figure of it all, the man who had, in truth, risen like a star, had become to La Touche all at once its notoriety as well as its favorite, its great man as well as its friend, he was nowhere to be found. He had been seen riding full speed into the prairie toward the Kourmash Wood, and the starlit night had swallowed him. Constantine Jopp had also disappeared; but at first no one gave that thought or consideration.
As the night went on, however, a feeling began to stir which it is not good to rouse in frontier lands. It is sure to exhibit itself in forms more objective than are found in great populations where methods of punishment are various, and even when deadly are often refined. But society in new places has only limited resources, and is thrown back on primary ways and means. La Touche was no exception, and the keener spirits, to whom O’Ryan had ever been “a white man,” and who so rejoiced in his good-luck now that they drank his health a hundred times in his own whiskey and cider, were simmering with desire for a public reproval of Constantine Jopp’s conduct. Though it was pointed out to them by the astute Gow Johnson that Fergus and Holden had participated in the colossal joke of the play, they had learned indirectly also the whole truth concerning the past of the two men. They realized that Fergus and Holden had been duped by Jopp into the escapade. Their primitive sense of justice exonerated the humorists and arraigned the one malicious man. As the night wore on they decided on the punishment to be meted out by La Touche to the man who had not “acted on the square.”
Gow Johnson saw, too late, that he had roused a spirit as hard to appease as the demon roused in O’Ryan earlier in the evening. He would have enjoyed the battue of punishment under ordinary circumstances; but he knew that Miss Molly Mackinder would be humiliated and indignant at the half-savage penalty they meant to exact. He had determined that O’Ryan should marry her; and this might be an obstruction in the path. It was true that O’Ryan now would be a rich man–one of the richest in the West, unless all signs failed; but, meanwhile, a union of fortunes would only be an added benefit. Besides, he had seen that O’Ryan was in earnest, and what O’Ryan wanted he himself wanted even more strongly. He was not concerned greatly for O’Ryan’s absence. He guessed that Terry had ridden away into the night to work off the dark spirit that was on him, to have it out with himself. Gow Johnson was a philosopher. He was twenty years older than O’Ryan, and he had studied his friend as a pious monk his missal.
He was right in his judgment. When Terry left the theatre he was like one in a dream, every nerve in his body at tension, his head aflame, his pulses throbbing. For miles he rode away into the waste along the northern trail, ever away from La Touche and his own home. He did not know of the great good-fortune that had come to him; and if, in this hour, he had known, he would not have cared. As he rode on and on remorse drew him into its grasp. Shame seized him that he had let passion be his master, that he had lost his self-control, had taken a revenge out of all proportion to the injury and insult to himself. It did not ease his mind that he knew Constantine Jopp had done the thing out of meanness and malice; for he was alive to-night in the light of the stars, with the sweet, crisp air blowing in his face, because of an act of courage on the part of his school-days’ foe. He remembered now that, when he was drowning, he had clung to Jopp with frenzied arms and had endangered the bully’s life also. The long torture of owing this debt to so mean a soul was on him still, was rooted in him; but suddenly, in the silent, searching night, some spirit whispered in his ear that this was the price which he must pay for his life saved to the world, a compromise with the Inexorable Thing. On the verge of oblivion and the end, he had been snatched back by relenting Fate, which requires something for something given when laws are overriden and doom defeated. Yes, the price he was meant to pay was gratitude to one of shrivelled soul and innate antipathy; and he had not been man enough to see the trial through to the end! With a little increased strain put upon his vanity and pride, he had run amuck. Like some heathen gladiator, he had ravaged in the ring. He had gone down into the basements of human life and there made a cockpit for his animal rage, till, in the contest, brain and intellect had been saturated by the fumes and sweat of fleshly fury.
How quiet the night was, how soothing to the fevered mind and body, how the cool air laved the heated head and flushed the lungs of the rheum of passion! He rode on and on, farther and farther away from home, his back upon the scenes where his daily deeds were done. It was long past midnight before he turned his horse’s head again homeward.
Buried in his thoughts, now calm and determined, with a new life grown up in him, a new strength different from the mastering force which gave him a strength in the theatre like one in a delirium, he noticed nothing. He was only conscious of the omniscient night and its warm, penetrating friendliness; as, in a great trouble, when no words can be spoken, a cool, kind palm steals into the trembling hand of misery and stills it, gives it strength and life and an even pulse. He was now master in the house of his soul, and had no fear or doubt as to the future or as to his course.
His first duty was to go to Constantine Jopp and speak his regret like a man. And after that it would be his duty to carry a double debt his life long for the life saved, for the wrong done. He owed an apology to La Touche, and he was scarcely aware that the native gentlemanliness in him had said through his fever of passion over the footlights, “I beg your pardon.” In his heart he felt that he had offered a mean affront to every person present, to the town where his interests lay, where his heart lay.
Where his heart lay–Molly Mackinder! He knew now that vanity had something to do, if not all to do, with his violent acts, and though there suddenly shot through his mind, as he rode back, a savage thrill at the remembrance of how he had handled the three, it was only a passing emotion. He was bent on putting himself right with Jopp and with La Touche. With the former his way was clear; he did not yet see his way as to La Touche. How would he be able to make the amende honorable to La Touche?
By-and-by he became somewhat less absorbed and enveloped by the comforting night. He saw the glimmer of red light afar, and vaguely wondered what it was. It was in the direction of O’Ryan’s Ranch, but he thought nothing of it, because it burned steadily. It was probably a fire lighted by settlers trailing to the farther North. While the night wore on he rode as slowly back to the town as he had galloped from it like a centaur with a captive.
Again and again Molly Mackinder’s face came before him, but he resolutely shut it out of his thoughts. He felt that he had no right to think of her until he had “done the right thing” by Jopp and by La Touche. Yet the look in her face as the curtain came down, it was not that of one indifferent to him or to what he did. He neared the town half-way between midnight and morning. Almost unconsciously avoiding the main streets, he rode a roundabout way toward the little house where Constantine Jopp lived. He could hear loud noises in the streets, singing, and hoarse shouts. Then silence came, then shouts, and silence again. It was all quiet as he rode up to Jopp’s house, standing on the outskirts of the town. There was a bright light in the window of a room.
Jopp, then, was still up. He would not wait till to-morrow. He would do the right thing now. He would put things straight with his foe before he slept; he would do it at any sacrifice to his pride. He had conquered his pride.
He dismounted, threw the bridle over a post, and, going into the garden, knocked gently at the door. There was no response. He knocked again, and listened intently. Now he heard a sound–like a smothered cry or groan. He opened the door quickly and entered. It was dark. In another room beyond was a light. From it came the same sound he had heard before, but louder; also there was a shuffling footstep. Springing forward to the half-open door, he pushed it wide, and met the terror-stricken eyes of Constantine Jopp–the same look that he had seen at the theatre when his hands were on Jopp’s throat, but more ghastly.
Jopp was bound to a chair by a lasso. Both arms were fastened to the chair-arm, and beneath them, on the floor, were bowls into which blood dropped from his punctured wrists.
He had hardly taken it all in–the work of an instant–when he saw crouched in a corner, madness in his eyes, his half-breed Vigon. He grasped the situation in a flash. Vigon had gone mad, had lain in wait in Jopp’s house, and, when the man he hated had seated himself in the chair, had lassoed him, bound him, and was slowly bleeding him to death.
He had no time to think. Before he could act Vigon was upon him also, frenzy in his eyes, a knife clutched in his hand. Reason had fled, and he only saw in O’Ryan the frustrator of his revenge. He had watched the drip, drip from his victim’s wrists with a dreadful joy.
They were man and man, but O’Ryan found in this grisly contest a vaster trial of strength than in the fight upon the stage a few hours ago. The first lunge that Vigon made struck him on the tip of the shoulder and drew blood; but he caught the hand holding the knife in an iron grasp, while the half-breed, with superhuman strength, tried in vain for the long, brown throat of the man for whom he had struck oil. As they struggled and twisted, the eyes of the victim in the chair watched them with agonized emotions. For him it was life or death. He could not cry out–his mouth was gagged; but to O’Ryan his groans were like a distant echo of his own hoarse gasps as he fought his desperate fight. Terry was as one in an awful dream battling with vague, impersonal powers which slowly strangled his life, yet held him back in torture from the final surrender.
For minutes they struggled. At last O’Ryan’s strength came to a point of breaking, for Vigon was a powerful man, and to this was added a madman’s energy. He felt that the end was coming. But all at once, through the groans of the victim in the chair, Terry became conscious of noises outside–such noises as he had heard before he entered the house, only nearer and louder. At the same time he heard a horse’s hoofs, then a knock at the door, and a voice calling, “Jopp! Jopp!”
He made a last desperate struggle, and shouted hoarsely.
An instant later there were footsteps in the room, followed by a cry of fright and amazement.
It was Gow Johnson. He had come to warn Constantine Jopp that a crowd were come to tar and feather him, and to get him away on his own horse.
Now he sprang to the front door, called to the approaching crowd for help, then ran back to help O’Ryan. A moment later a dozen men had Vigon secure, and had released Constantine Jopp, now almost dead from loss of blood.
As they took the gag from his mouth and tied their handkerchiefs round his bleeding wrists, Jopp sobbed aloud. His eyes were fixed on Terry O’Ryan. Terry met the look, and grasped the limp hand lying on the chair-arm.
“I’m sorry, O’Ryan, I’m sorry for all I’ve done to you,” Jopp sobbed. “I was a sneak, but I want to own it. I want to be square now. You can tar and feather me, if you like. I deserve it.” He looked at the others. “I deserve it,” he repeated.
“That’s what the boys had thought would be appropriate,” said Gow Johnson, with a dry chuckle, and the crowd looked at one another and winked. The wink was kindly, however. “To own up and take your gruel!” was the easiest way to touch the men of the prairie.
A half-hour later the roisterers, who had meant to carry Constantine Jopp on a rail, carried Terry O’Ryan on their shoulders through the town, against his will. As they passed the house where Miss Mackinder lived, some one shouted:
“Are you watching the rise of Orion?”
Many a time thereafter Terry O’Ryan and Molly Mackinder looked at the galaxy in the evening sky with laughter and with pride. It had played its part with Fate against Constantine Jopp and the little widow at Jansen. It had never shone so brightly as on the night when Vigon struck oil on O’Ryan’s ranch. But Vigon had no memory of that. Such is the irony of life.