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Authors: John Frederick

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One by one he numbered his obligations to Martin Ryder, and first and last he
remembered the lie which had soothed his father. The money for that corner plot
where the grass grew first in the spring of the yearwhere was he to find it? He
fumbled in his pocket and found only a single coin.

He leaned back against the wall and strove to concentrate on the problem, but
his thoughts wandered in spite of himself back to the snows of Canada, to the
letter, to the ride south, the death of the roan, and so on until he reached his
entry to that very room.

Looking backward, he remembered all things much more clearly than when he had
actually seen them. For instance, he recalled now that as he walked through the
door the two figures which had started up to block his way had left behind them
some playing-cards at the corner table. One of these cards had slipped from the
edge of the board and flickered slowly to the floor.

With that memory the thoughts of Pierre le Rouge stopped. The picture of the
falling card remained; all else went out in his mind like the snuffing of the
candle. Then, as if he heard a voice directing him through the utter blackness
of the room, he knew what he must do.

All his wealth was the single half-dollar piece in his pocket, and there was
only one way in which that coin could be increased to the sum he would need to
buy that corner plot, where the soul of old Martin Ryder could sleep long and
deep.

From his brothers he would get no help. The least memory of those sallow,
hungry faces convinced him of that.

There remained the gaming table. In the north country he had watched men sit
in a silent circle, smoking, drinking, with the flare of an oil-lamp against
deep, seamed faces, and only the slip and whisper of card against card.

Cold conscience tapped the shoulder of Pierre, remembering the lessons of
Father Victor, but a moment later his head went up and his eyes were shining
through the dark. After all, the end justified the means. It was typical of him
that sorrow sat lightly on him.

A moment later he was laughing softly as a boy in the midst of a prank, and
busily throwing off the robe of serge. Fumbling through the night he located the
shirt and overalls he had seen hanging from a nail on the wall. Into these he
slipped, leaned to kiss the chill, damp forehead of the sleeper, and then went
out under the open sky.

The rest had revived the strength of the tough little cow-pony, and he drove
on at a gallop toward the twinkling lights of Morgantown. There was a new
consciousness about Pierre as if he had changed his whole nature with his
clothes. The sober sense of duty which had kept him in awe all his life like a
lifted finger, was almost gone, and in its place was a joyous freedom.

For the first time he faintly realized what an existence other than that of a
priest might be. Now for a brief moment he could forget the part of the subdued
novice and become merely a man with nothing about him to distinguish him from
other men, nothing to make heads turn at his approach and raise whispers as he
passed.

It was a game, but he rejoiced in it as a girl does in her first masquerade.
To-morrow he must be grave and sober-footed and an example to other men;
to-night he could frolic as he pleased. The good Father Victor would hear and
frown, perhaps, but remembering the purpose for which the thing was done he
would forgive.

So Pierre le Rouge tossed back his head and laughed up to the frosty stars.
The loose sleeves and the skirts of the robe no longer entangled his limbs. He
threw up his arms and shouted. A hillside caught the sound and echoed it back to
him with a wonderful clearness, and up and down the long ravine beat the clatter
of the flying hoofs. The whole world shouted and laughed and rode with him on
Morgantown.

If the people in the houses that he passed had known they would have started
up from their chairs and taken rifle and horse and after him on the trail. But
how could they tell from the passing of those ringing hoofs that Pierre, the
novice, was dead, and Red Pierre was born?

So they drowsed on about their comfortable fires, and Pierre drew rein with a
jerk before the largest of Morgantown's saloons. With a hand on the swinging
doors he paused a breathless moment, thinking, doubting, wonderingand a little
cold of heart like the boy who stands on the bank of the river to take the first
plunge in the spring of the year. He had to set his teeth before he could summon
the resolution to throw open the door. It was done; he stepped inside, and stood
blinking in the sudden rush of light against his face.

It was all bewildering at first; the radiance, the blue tangle of smoke, the
storm of voices. For Muldoon's was packed from door to door. Coins rang in a
steady chorus along the bar, and the crowd waited three and four deep.

Some one was singing a rollicking song of the range at one end of the bar,
and a chorus of four bellowed a profane parody at the other end.

The ears of Pierre le Rouge tingled hotly, and he lowered his eyes to the
floor. Truly, Father Victor would be very wrath when all this was confessed.
Partly to escape this uproar he worked his way to the quieter room at the back
of the saloon.

It was almost as crowded as the bar, but here no one spoke except for an
occasional growl. Sudden speaking, and a loud voice, indeed, was hardly safe.
Some one cursed at his ill-luck as Pierre entered, and a dozen hands reached for
six-guns. In such a place one had to be prepared.

Pierre remembered with quick dismay that he was not armed. All his life the
straight black gown had been weapon enough to make all men give way before him.
Now he carried no borrowed strength upon his shoulders.

Automatically he slipped his fingers under the breast of his shirt until
their tips touched the cold metal of the cross. That gave him stronger courage.
The joy of the adventure made his blood warm again as he drew out his one coin
and looked for a place to start his venture.

"It is God who governs me," he said, "and why should I doubt Him?"

So he approached the nearest table. On the surface of it were marked six
squares with chalk, and each with its appropriate number. The man who ran the
game stood behind the table and shook three dice. The numbers which turned up
paid the gambler. The numbers which failed to show paid the owner of the game.

His luck had been too strong that night, and now only two men faced him, and
both of them lost persistently. They had passed the stage of intelligent gaming;
they were "bucking" the dice with savage stubbornness.

Pierre edged closer, shut his eyes, and deposited his coin. When he looked
again he saw that he had wagered on the five.

 

 

 

CHAPTER V
HURLEY

The dice clattered across the table and were swept up by the hand of the man
behind the table before Pierre could note them. Sick at heart, he began to turn
away, as he saw that hand reach out and gather in the coins of the other two
betters. It went out a third time and laid another fifty-cent piece upon his.
The heart of Pierre bounded up to his throat.

Again the dice rolled, and this time he saw distinctly two fives turn up. Two
dollars in silver were dropped upon his, and still he let the money lie. Again,
again, and again the dice rolled. And now there were pieces of gold among the
silver that covered the square of the five.

The other two looked askance at him, and the owner of the game growled:
"Gimme room for the coins, stranger, will you?"

Pierre picked up his winnings. In his left hand he held them, and the coins
brimmed his cupped palm. With the free hand he placed his new wagers. But he
lost now.

"I cannot win forever," thought Pierre, and redoubled his bets in an effort
to regain the lost ground.

Still his little fortune dwindled, till the sweat came out on his forehead
and the blood that had flushed his face ran back and left him pale with dread.
And at last there remained only one gold piece. He hesitated, holding it poised
for the wager, while the owner of the game rattled the dice loudly and looked up
at the coin with hungry eyes.

Once more Pierre closed his eyes and laid his wager, while his empty left
hand slipped again inside his shirt and touched the metal of the cross, and once
more when he opened his eyes the hand of the gambler was going out to lay a
second coin over his.

"It is the cross!" thought Pierre, and thrilled mightily. "It is the cross
which brings me luck."

The dice rattled out. He won. Again, and still he won. The gambler wiped his
forehead and looked up anxiously. For these were wagers in gold, and the
doubling stakes were running high. About Pierre a crowd had growna dozen
cattlemen who watched the growing heap of gold with silent fascination. Then
they began to make wagers of their own, and there were faint whispers of wrath
and astonishment as the dice clicked out and each time the winnings of Pierre
doubled.

Suddenly the dealer stopped and held up his left hand as a warning. With his
right, very slowly, inch by inch lest any one should suspect him of a gun play,
he drew out a heavy forty-five and laid it on the table with the belt of
cartridges.

"Three years she's been on my hip through thick and thin, stranger. Three
years she's shot close an' true. There ain't a butt in the world that hugs your
hand tighter. There ain't a cylinder that spins easier. Shoot? Lad, even a kid
like you could be a killer with that six-gun. What will you lay ag'in' it?"

And his red-stained eyes glanced covetously at the yellow heap of Pierre's
money.

"How much?" said Pierre eagerly. "Is there enough on the table to buy the
gun?"

"Buy?" said the other fiercely. "There ain't enough coin west of the Rockies
to buy that gun. D'you think I'm yaller hound enough to sell my six? No, but
I'll risk it in a fair bet. There ain't no disgrace in that; eh, pals?"

There was a chorus of low grunts of assent.

"All right," said Pierre. "That pile against the gun."

"All of it?"

"All."

"Look here, kid, if you're tryin' to play a charity game with me"

"Charity?"

The direct, frank surprise of that look disarmed the other. He swept up the
dice-box, and shook it furiously, while his lips stirred. It was as if he
murmured an incantation for success. The dice rolled out, winking in the light,
spun over, and the owner of the gun stood with both hands braced against the
edge of the table, and stared hopelessly down.

A moment before his pockets had sagged with a precious weight, and there had
been a significant drag of the belt over his right hip. Now both burdens were
gone.

He looked up with a short laugh.

"I'm dry. Who'll stake me to a drink?"

Pierre scooped up a dozen pieces of the gold.

"Here."

The other drew back.

"You're very welcome to it. Here's more, if you'll have it."

"The coin I've lost to you? Take back a gamblin' debt?"

"Easy there," said one of the men. "Don't you see the kid's green? Here's a
five-spot."

The loser accepted the coin as carelessly as if he were conferring a favor by
taking it, cast another scowl in the direction of Pierre, and went out toward
the bar. Pierre, very hot in the face, pocketed his winnings and belted on the
gun. It hung low on his thigh, just in easy gripping distance of his hand, and
he fingered the butt with a smile.

"The kid's feelin' most a man," remarked a sarcastic voice. "Say, kid, why
don't you try your luck with Mac Hurley? He's almost through with poor, old
Cochrane."

Following the direction of the pointing finger, Pierre saw one of those mute
tragedies of the gambling hall. Cochrane, an old cattleman whose carefully
trimmed, pointed white beard and slender, tapering fingers set him apart from
the others in the room, was rather far gone with liquor. He was still stiffly
erect in his chair, and would be till the very moment consciousness left him,
but his eyes were misty, and when he spoke the fine-cut lips moved slowly, as
though numbed by cold.

Beside him stood a tall, black bottle with a little whisky glass to flank it.
He made his bets with apparent carelessness, but with a real and deepening
gloom. Once or twice he glanced up sharply as though reckoning his losses,
though it seemed to Pierre le Rouge almost like an appeal.

And what appeal could affect Mac Hurley? There was no color in the man,
either body or soul. No emotion could show in those pale, small eyes or change
the color of the flabby cheeks. If his hands had been cut off he might have
seemed some sodden victim of a drug habit, but the hands saved him.

They seemed to belong to another bodybeautiful, swift, and strong, and
grafted by some foul mischance onto this rotten hulk. Very white they were, and
long, with a nervous uneasiness in every motion, continually hovering around the
cards with little touches which were almost caresses.

"It ain't a game," said the man who had first pointed out the group to
Pierre, "it's just a slaughter. Cochrane's too far gone to see straight. Look at
that deal now! A kid could see that he's crooking the cards!"

It was Blackjack, and Hurley, as usual, was dealing. He dealt with one hand,
flipping the cards out with a snap of the wrist, the fingers working rapidly
over the pack. Now and then he glanced over to the crowd, as if to enjoy their
admiration of his skill. He was showing it now, not so much by the deftness of
his cheating as by the openness with which he exposed his tricks.

As the stranger remarked to Pierre, a child could have discovered that the
cards were being dealt at will from the top and the bottom of the pack, but the
gambler was enjoying himself by keeping his game just open enough to be apparent
to every other man in the roomjust covert enough to deceive the drink-misted
brain of Cochrane. And the pale, swinish eyes twinkled as they stared across at
the dull sorrow of the old man. There was an ominous sound from Pierre:

BOOK: Riders of the Silences
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