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"Look at him, men!" shouted Sim Squires, following up the wreck of arrogance who through years had brow-beaten him, and becoming in turn himself the bully. "Look at him huddlin' thar like a whipped cur-dawg!
Hain't he done es good es made confession by ther guilty meanness in his face?"
He paused, and then with a brutal laugh he struck the cowering Rowlett across his mouth--a blow that he had dreamed of in his sleep but never dared to think of when awake--and Rowlett condemned himself to death when he flinched and failed to strike back.
"Jest now, men," rushed on the exhorter, "ye seed Thornton thar facin'
death--an' he showed ye how a man kin demean himself when he thinks his time hes come. Take yore choice between them two--an' decide which one needs hangin'!"
Then feeding on the meat of new authority, Sim Squires, who had always been an underling before, seized up from the hearth, where the ashes were dead, a charred stick--and it happened to be a bit of black walnut that had grown and died on the tree which was about to become a gallows.
With its blackened end Sim drew a line across the planks of the floor between himself and Rick Joyce.
"Thar, now," he pa.s.sionately importuned his hearers. "Thar hain't room in this country fer a lot of warrin' enemies thet would all be friends save fer mischief makers. Parish Thornton hes done admitted thar's good men amongst ye, an' we've agreed ter punish them briggatty fellers thet kilt Pete Doane, so thar hain't rightfully no grudge left outstandin'. I takes up my stand on this side of thet line, along with Parish Thornton, an' I summonses every man thet's decent amongst ye all ter come over hyar an' stand with us. We aims ter hev our hangin' without no _dee_fault, but with a diff'rent man swingin' on ther rope!"
For the s.p.a.ce of forty seconds that seemed as many minutes a thunder-brooding tension hung in the stillness of the room--then without haste or excitement Rick Joyce took off his hat and dropped it to the floor. After it he flung his mask, and when he had crossed the line, he turned.
"Come on, men," he gave brusque and half-peremptory invitation, "this hyar's whar we b'longs at."
At first they responded singly and hesitantly, but soon it was a small stampede--save for those who kept guard at the doors--and ten minutes later Parish Thornton stood free of limb and Bas Rowlett trembled, putty pale, in the centre of the room with bound wrists and a noose draped across his shoulders.
"I only asks one thing of ye," faltered Bas, from whose soul had oozed the last drop of manly resistance, "I come hyar ter crave this woman's pardon--I still wants ter do thet--without n.o.body else ter heer what I says."
"Ef she's willin' ter listen, we'll let ye talk," acceded Squires, who found himself unchallenged spokesman now. "But we won't take no chances with ye. When ther rope's over ther limb an' everything's ready, then ye kin hev yore say."
Outside the night was as gracious as had been the last, when Old Hump Doane had sat waiting vainly for the return of his son; but across the moonlit sky drifted squadrons of fleecy cloud sails, and through the plumed head of the mighty walnut sounded the restive whisper of a breeze.
The house stood squarely blocked with cobalt shadows about it, and the hills were brooding in blue-black immensities--but over the valley was a flooding wash of platinum and silver.
Fragrances and quiet cadences stole along the warm current, but the song of the whippoorwill was genuine now, and plaintive with a saddened sweetness.
The walnut tree itself, a child of the forest that had, through generations, been the friend of man, stood like a monument in the silence and majesty of its own long memories.
Under its base, where the roots sank deep into the foundations of the enduring hills, slept the dead who had loved it long ago. Perhaps in its pungent and aromatic sap ran something of the converted life and essence that had been their blood. Its bole, five feet of stalwart diameter, rose straight and tapering to the first right-angle limbs, each in itself almost a tree. Its mult.i.tude of lance-head leaves swept outward and upward in countless succession to the feathery crests that stirred seventy feet overhead--seeming to brush the large, low-hanging stars that the moon had dimmed.
All was tranquil and idyllic there--until the house door opened and a line of men filed out, bringing to his shameful end a human creature who shambled with the wretchedness of broken nerves.
Over the lowest branch, with business-like precision, Sim Squires pitched a stone on the end of a long cord, and to the cord he fastened the rope's end. All that was needed now was the weight which the rope was to lift, and in the blue-ink shadow that mercifully cloaked it and made it vague they placed the bound figure of their man.
As though to mask a picture of such violence the tree's heavy canopy made that spot one of Stygian murk, and even the moon hid its face just then, so that the world went black, and the stars seemed more brilliant against their inky velvet. But the light had held until the grim preparations were finished, and then when Bas Rowlett had taken his appointed place, tethered and wearing the hempen loop, when the other end of the long line had been pa.s.sed through the broken slat of the closed window shutters, where it would be held by many hands in a.s.surance against escape, Sim Squires kept his promise.
His followers trooped callously back into the house and he himself remained there, on watch, only until with the stiffness of a sleep walker Dorothy Thornton appeared for a moment in the open door and came slowly to the foot of the tree.
She could scarcely see the two men shrouded there in the profundity of shadow, and she had almost walked into the one who was to die before she realized his nearness and drew back shuddering.
Then Sim, who was holding the loose end of the rope so that it would not slacken too freely, put it in her hand and, as their fingers touched, found it icy.
"Ye'll hev ter take hold of this," he directed, "we've got t'other end indoors. When ye're ready for us--or should he seek ter git away--jest give hit a tight jerk or two. We won't interfere with ye ner come out till we gits thet signal--but don't suffer him ter parley overlong."
Then the man left her, and the woman found herself standing there in the darkness with a terrible sense of Death hovering at her shoulder.
For a moment neither spoke, and Dorothy Thornton lifted her eyes to the tree from which had always emanated an influence of peace. She needed that message of peace now. She looked at the dark human figure, robbed of its menace, robbed of all its own paltry arrogance, and the furies that had torn her ebbed and subsided into a sickness of contemptuous pity.
Then the cloud drifted away from the moon and the world stood again out of darkness into silvery light; the breeze that had brought that brightening brought, too, a low wailing voice from high overhead, where the walnut tree seemed to sob with some poignant suffering; seemed to strive for the articulate voice that nature had denied it.
That monument to honoured dead could never shed its hallowed spirit of peace again if once it had been outraged with the indignities of a gibbet! If once it bore, instead of its own sweetly wholesome produce, that debased fruit of the gallows tree, its dignity would be forever broken! There in the flooding moonlight of the white-and-blue night it was protesting with a moan of uneasy rustling. The thing could not be tolerated--and suddenly, but clearly, Dorothy knew it. This man deserved death. No false pity could blind her to that truth, and death must ride at the saddle cantle of such as he; must some day overtake him. It might overtake him to-night--but it must not be here.
"Bas," she broke out in a low and trembling voice of abrupt decision, "I kain't suffer hit ter happen--I kain't do hit."
The varied strains and terrors of that day and night had made her voice a thing of gasps and catching breath, but while the man stood silent she gathered her scattered powers and went on, ignoring him and talking to the tree.
"He needs killin', G.o.d knows," she declared, "but he mustn't die on yore branches, old Roof Tree--hit was love thet planted ye--an' love thet planted ye back ergin when hate hed tore ye up by ther roots--I kain't suffer ye ter be defiled!"
She broke off, and somehow the voice that stirred up there seemed to alter from its note of suffering to the long-drawn sigh of relief; the calm of a tranquilized spirit.
The young woman stood for a moment straight and slim, but with such an eased heart as might come from answered prayer in the cloistered dimness of a cathedral.
It was, to her, a cathedral that towered there above her, with its single column; a place hallowed by mercy, a zone of sanctuary; a spot where vengeance had always been thwarted; where malevolence had failed--and her voice came in a rapt whisper.
"Ye stands ternight fer ther same things ye've always stud fer," she said, "ye stands fer home an' decency--fer ther restin' place of dead foreparents--an' ther bornin' of new gin'rations--fer green leaves an'
happiness--an' ther only death ye gives countenance to is thet of folks thet goes straight ter G.o.d, an' not them thet's destined fer torment."
Inside the room the conclave maintained a grim silence. The shuttered window screened from their sight the interview to which they were submitting with a rude sense of affording the man they had condemned some subst.i.tute for extreme unction: an interval to shrive his soul with penitence and prayer.
But through the opening of the broken slat, high up in the shutter which gave sliding room, pa.s.sed the rope, and at its other end stood the man upon whose neck it was fixed: the man whose hands and feet were tethered and whose movements were being watched by the woman.
They shifted uneasily and impatiently on their feet in there. Sim Squires and Rick Joyce standing shoulder to shoulder held the free end of the rope in their hands. The others breathed heavily and their faces were implacable, restive of this time being vouchsafed to an idea, yet steadfast in their resolve to keep the word given their victim.
"She's lettin' him talk too long," growled a voice, and in monosyllables Rick Joyce growled back, "Shet up--he'll be dead a long time."
But outside Dorothy had turned again to the man.
"You an' yore foreparents hev plotted an' worked evil since ther fust days ther white man come hyar, Bas," she declared. "Thar hain't no death too shameful fer ye--an' ther hain't no hate deeper then thet I feels fer ye. Ye've betrayed an' wronged me an' everybody I ever loved, an' I swore I'd kill ye myself ef need be. I'm half sorrowful I didn't do hit--but from them fust days this hyar tree hes spread peace an' safety over this house an' them thet dwelt in hit. Hit's been holy like some church thet G.o.d hed blessed, an' I aims ter keep hit holy. Ef they hangs ye somewhars else, I reckon they'll do simple jestice--but hit hain't goin' ter be on this tree. My child hain't ergoin' ter look up in them branches an' see no shadow of evil thar. I hain't goin' ter lay buried in hits shade some day with yore black sperit hoverin' nigh. Sin ner shame hain't nuver teched hit yit. They hain't nuver ergoin' ter. Ther bright sun an' ther clean wind air goin' ter come ter hit an' find hit like hit's always been. G.o.d's breath is goin' ter stir in hit ther same es. .h.i.t's always done."
Just then a heavier cloud shut off the moonlight, and still holding the rope steadily enough to prevent its sudden jerking in premature signal, she came close to Bas Rowlett and ordered in clipped syllables of contempt, "Turn round! I aims ter sot ye free."
She handed the loose rope to the man, and knowing full well the vital need of keeping it undisturbed, he held it gingerly.
The other end of that line still rested in the hands of his executioners, who waited with no suspicion of any confederacy between their victim and the woman.
Dorothy loosened the noose and slipped it from his neck, and her fingers busied themselves nervously with his wrist-knots.
She worked fast and anxiously, for she had promised to set frugal limits on the duration of that interview and the interval of clouded darkness was precious, but while she freed the cords, she talked: