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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Flaming Jewel - Episode 6. The Jewel Aflame
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The Flaming Jewel - Episode 6. The Jewel Aflame Post by :JoePace Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2668

Click below to download : The Flaming Jewel - Episode 6. The Jewel Aflame (Format : PDF)

The Flaming Jewel - Episode 6. The Jewel Aflame

EPISODE SIX. THE JEWEL AFLAME


I

Mike Clinch and his men "drove" Star Peak, and drew a blanket covert.

There was a new shanty atop, camp debris, plenty of signs of recent occupation everywhere,--hot embers in which offal still smouldered, bottles odorous of claret dregs, and an aluminum culinary outfit, unwashed, as though Quintana and his men had departed in haste.

Far in the still valley below, Mike Clinch squatted beside the runway he had chosen, a cocked rifle across his knees.

The glare in his small, pale eyes waned and flared as distant sounds broke the forest silence, grew vague, died out,--the fairy clatter of a falling leaf, the sudden scurry of a squirrel, a feathery rustle of swift wings in play or combat, the soft crash of a rotten bough sagging earthward to enrich the soil that grew it.

And, as Clinch squatted there, murderously intent, ever the fixed obsession burned in his fever brain, stirring his thin lips to incessant muttering,--a sort of soundless invocation, part chronicle, part prayer:

"O God A'mighty, in your big, swell mansion up there, all has went contrary with me sence you let that there damn millionaire, Harrod, come into this here forest.... He went and built unto hisself an habitation, and he put up a wall of law all around me where I was earnin' a lawful livin' in Thy nice, clean wilderness.... And now comes this here Quintana and robs my girlie.... I promised her mother I'd make a lady of her little Eve.... I loved my wife, O Lord.... Once she showed me a piece in the Bible,--I ain't never found it sence,--but it said: 'And the woman she fled into the wilderness where there was a place prepared for her of God.' ... That's what _you wrote into your own Bible, O God! You can't go back on it. I seen it.

"And now I wanta to ask, What place did you prepare for my Eve? What spot have you reference to? You didn't mean my 'Dump,' did you? Why, Lord, that ain't no place for no lady.... And now Quintana has went and robbed me of what I'd saved up for Eve.... Does that go with Thee, O Lord? No, it don't. And it don't go with me, neither. I'm a-goin' to git Quintana. Then I'm a-goin' to git them two minks that robbed my girlie,--I am!... Jake Kloon, he done it in cahoots with Earl Leverett; and Quintana set 'em on. And they gotta die, O Lord of Israel, them there Egyptians is about to hop the twig.... I ain't aimin' to be mean to nobody. I buy hootch of them that runs it. I eat mountain mutton in season and out. I trade with law-breakers, I do. But, Lord, I gotta get my girlie outa here; and Harrod he walled me in with the chariots and spears of Egypt, till I nigh went wild.... And now comes Quintana, and here I be a-lyin' out to get him so's my girlie can become a lady, same's them fine folks with all their butlers and automobiles and what-not----"

A far crash in the forest stilled his twitching lips and stiffened every iron muscle.

As he lifted his rifle, Sid Hone came into the glade.

"Yahoo! Yahoo!" he called. "Where be you, Mike?"

Clinch slowly rose, grasping his rifle, his small, grey eyes ablaze.

"Where's Quintana?" he demanded.

"H'ain't you seen nobody?"

"No."

In the intense silence other sounds broke sharply in the sunset forest; Harvey Chase's halloo rang out from the rocks above; Blommers and the Hastings boys came slouching through the ferns.

Byron Hastings greeted Clinch with upflung gun: "Me and Jim heard a shot away out on Drowned Valley," he announced. "Was you out that way, Mike?"

"No."

One by one the men who had driven Star Peak lounged up in the red sunset light, gathering around Clinch and wiping the sweat from sun-reddened faces.

"Someone's in Drowned Valley," repeated Byron. "Them minks slid off'n Star in a hurry, I reckon, judgin' how they left their shanty. Phew! It stunk! They had French hootch, too."

"Mebby Leverett and Kloon told 'em we was fixin' to visit them," suggested Blommers.

"They didn't know," said Clinch.

"Where's Hal Smith?" inquired Hone.

Clinch made no reply. Blommers silently gnawed a new quid from the remains of a sticky plug.

"Well," inquired Jim Hastings finally, "do we quit, Mike, or do we still-hunt in Drowned Valley?"

"Not me, at night," remarked Blommers drily.

"Not amongst them sink-holes," added Hone.

Suddenly Clinch turned and stared at him. Then the deadly light from his little eyes shone on the others one by one.

"Boys," he said, "I gotta get Quintana. I can't never sleep another wink till I get that man. Come on. Act up like gents all. Let's go."

Nobody stirred.

"Come on," repeated Clinch softly. But his lips shrank back, twitching.

As they looked at him they saw his teeth.

"All right, all right," growled Hone, shouldering his rifle with a jerk.

The Hastings boys, young and rash, shuffled into the trail. Blommers hesitated, glanced askance at Clinch, and instantly made up his mind to take a chance with the sink-holes rather than with Clinch.

"God A'mighty, Mike, what be you aimin' to do?" faltered Harvey.

"I'm aimin' to stop the inlet and outlet to Drowned Valley, Harve," replied Clinch in his pleasant voice. "God is a-goin' to deliver Quintana into my hands."

"All right. What next?"

"Then," continued Clinch, "I cal'late to set down and wait."

"How long?"

"Ask God, boys. I don't know. All I know is that whatever is livin' in Drowned Valley at this hour has gotta live and die there. For it can't never live to come outen that there morass walkin' onto two legs like a real man."

He moved slowly along the file of sullen men, his rifle a-trail in one huge fist.

"Boys," he said, "I got first. There ain't no sink-hole deep enough to drowned me while Eve needs me.... And my little girlie needs me bad.... After she gits what's her'n, then I don't care no more...." He looked up into the sky, where the last ashes of sunset faded from the zenith.... "Then I don't care," he murmured. "Like's not I'll creep away like some shot-up critter, n'kinda find some lone, safe spot, n'kinda fix me f'r a long nap.... I guess that'll be the way ... when Eve's a lady down to Noo York 'r'som'ers----" he added vaguely.

Then, still looking up at the fading heavens, he moved forward, head lifted, silent, unhurried, with the soundless, stealthy, and certain tread of those who walk unseeing and asleep.


II

Clinch had not taken a dozen strides before Hal Smith loomed up ahead in the rosy dusk, driving in Leverett before him.

An exclamation of fierce exultation burst from Clinch's thin lips as he flung out one arm, indicating Smith and his clinking prisoner:

"Who was that gol-dinged catamount that suspicioned Hal? I wa'nt worried none, neither. Hal's a gent. Mebbe he sticks up folks, too, but he's a gent. And gents is honest or they ain't gents."

Smith came up at his easy, tireless gait, hustling Leverett along with prods from gun-butt or muzzle, as came handiest.

The prisoner turned a ghastly visage on Clinch, who ignored him.

"Got my packet, Hal?" he demanded.

Smith poked Leverett with his rifle: "Tune up," he said; "tell Clinch your story."

As a caged rat looks death in the face, his ratty wits working like lightning and every atom of cunning and ferocity alert for attack or escape, so the little, mean eyes of Earl Leverett became fixed on Clinch like two immobile and glassy beads of jet.

"G'wan," said Clinch softly, "spit it out."

"Jake done it," muttered Leverett, thickly.

"Done what?"

"Stole that there packet o' yourn--whatever there was into it."

"Who put him up to it?"

"A fella called Quintana."

"What was there in it for Jake?" inquired Clinch pleasantly.

"Ten thousand."

"How about you?"

"I told 'em I wouldn't touch it. Then they pulled their guns on me, and I was scared to squeal."

"So that was the way?" asked Clinch in his even, reassuring voice.

Leverett's eyes travelled stealthily around the circle of men, then reverted to Clinch.

"I dassn't touch it," he said, "but I dassn't squeal.... I was huntin' onto Drowned Valley when Jake meets up with me."

"'I got the packet,' he sez, 'and I'm a-going to double criss-cross Quintana, I am, and beat it. Don't you wish you was whacks with me?'

"'No,' sez I, 'honesty is my policy, no matter what they tell about me. S'help me God, I ain't never robbed no trap and I ain't no skin thief, whatever lies folks tell. All I ever done was run a little hootch, same's everybody.'"

He licked his lips furtively, his cold, bright eyes fastened on Clinch.

"G'wan, Earl," nodded the latter, "heave her up."

"That's all. I sez, 'Good-bye, Jake. An' if you heed my warnin', ill-gotten gains ain't a-going to prosper nobody.' That's what I said to Jake Kloon, the last solemn words I spoke to that there man now in his bloody grave----"

"Hey?" demanded Clinch.

"That's where Jake is," repeated Leverett. "Why, so help me, I wa'nt gone ten yards when, bang! goes a gun, and I see this here Quintana come outen the bush, I do, and walk up to Jake and frisk him, and Jake still a-kickin' the moss to slivers. Yessir, that's what I seen."

"G'wan."

"Yessir.... 'N'then Quintana he shoved Jake into a sink-hole. Thaswot I seen with my two eyes. Yessir. 'N'then Quintana he run off, 'n'I jest set down in the trail, I did; 'n'then Hal come up and acted like I had stole your packet, he did; 'n'then I told him what Quintana done. 'N'Hal, he takes after Quintana, but I don't guess he meets up with him, for he come back and ketched holt o' me, 'n'he druv me in like I was a caaf, he did. 'N'here I be."

The dusk in the forest had deepened so that the men's faces had become mere blotches of grey.

Smith said to Clinch: "That's his story, Mike. But I preferred he should tell it to you himself, so I brought him along.... Did you drive Star Peak?"

"There wa'nt nothin' onto it," said Clinch very softly. Then, of a sudden, his shadowy visage became contorted and he jerked up his rifle and threw a cartridge into the magazine.

"You dirty louse!" he roared at Leverett, "you was into this, too, a-robbin' my little Eve----"

"Run!" yelled somebody, giving Leverett a violent shove into the woods.

In the darkness and confusion, Clinch shouldered his way out of the circle and fired at the crackling noise that marked Leverett's course,--fired again, lower, and again as a distant crash revealed the frenzied flight of the trap-robber. After he had fired a fourth shot, somebody struck up his rifle.

"Aw," said Jim Hastings, "that ain't no good. You act up like a kid, Mike. 'Tain't so far to Ghost Lake, n'them Troopers might hear you."

After a silence, Clinch spoke, his voice heavy with reaction:

"Into that there packet is my little girl's dower. It's all I got to give her. It's all she's got to make her a lady. I'll kill any man that robs her or that helps rob her. 'N'that's that."

"Are you going on after Quintana?" asked Smith.

"I am. 'N'these fellas are a-going with me. N' I want you should go back to my Dump and look after my girlie while I'm gone."

"How long are you going to be away?"

"I dunno."

There was a silence. Then,

"All right," said Smith, briefly. He added: "Look out for sink-holes, Mike."

Clinch tossed his heavy rifle to his shoulder: "Let's go," he said in his pleasant, misleading way, "--and I'll shoot the guts outa any fella that don't show up at roll call."


III

For its size there is no fiercer animal than a rat.

Rat-like rage possessed Leverett. In his headlong flight through the dusk, fear, instead of quenching, added to his rage; and he ran on and on, crashing through the undergrowth, made wilder by the pain of vicious blows from branches which flew back and struck him in the dark.

Thorns bled him; unseen logs tripped him; he heard Clinch's bullets whining around him; and he ran on, beginning to sob and curse in a frenzy of fury, fear, and shame.

Shots from Clinch's rifle ceased; the fugitive dropped into a heavy, shuffling walk, slavering, gasping, gesticulating with his weaponless fists in the darkness.

"Gol ram ye, I'll fix ye!" he kept stammering in his snarling, jangling voice, broken by sobs. "I'll learn ye, yeh poor danged thing, gol ram ye----"

An unseen limb struck him cruelly across the face, and a moose-bush tripped him flat. Almost crazed, he got up, yelling in his pain, one hand wet and sticky from blood welling up from his cheek-bone.

He stood listening, infuriated, vindictive, but heard nothing save the panting, animal sounds in his own throat.

He strove to see in the ghostly obscurity around him, but could make out little except the trees close by.

But wood-rats are never completely lost in their native darkness; and Leverett presently discovered the far stars shining faintly through rifts in the phantom foliage above.

These heavenly signals were sufficient to give him his directions. Then the question suddenly came, _which direction?

To his own shack on Stinking Lake he dared not go. He tried to believe that it was fear of Clinch that made him shy of the home shanty; but, in his cowering soul, he knew it was fear of another kind--the deep, superstitious horror of Jake Kloon's empty bunk--the repugnant sight of Kloon's spare clothing hanging from its peg--the dead man's shoes----

No, he could not go to Stinking Lake and sleep.... And wake with the faint stench of sulphur in his throat.... And see the worm-like leeches unfolding in the shallows, and the big, reddish water-lizards, livid as skinned eels, wriggling convulsively toward their sunless lairs....

At the mere thought of his dead bunk-mate he sought relief in vindictive rage--stirred up the smouldering embers again, cursed Clinch and Hal Smith, violently searching in his inflamed brain some instant vengeance upon these men who had driven him out from the only place on earth where he knew how to exist--the wilderness.

All at once he thought of Clinch's step-daughter. The thought instantly scared him. Yet--what a revenge!--to strike Clinch through the only creature he cared for in all the world!... What a revenge!... Clinch was headed for Drowned Valley. Eve Strayer was alone at the Dump.... Another thought flashed like lightning across his turbid mind;--_the packet_!

Bribed by Quintana, Jake Kloon, lurking at Clinch's door, had heard him direct Eve to take a packet to Owl Marsh, and had notified Quintana.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the girl had taken a packet of sugar-milk chocolate instead of the priceless parcel expected.

Again, carried in, exhausted, by a State Trooper, Jake Kloon had been fooled; and it was the packet of sugar-milk chocolate that Jake had purloined from the veranda where Clinch kicked it. For two cakes of chocolate Kloon had died. For two cakes of chocolate he, Earl Leverett, had become a man-slayer, a homeless fugitive in peril of his life.

He stood licking his blood-dried lips there in the darkness, striving to hatch courage out of the dull fury eating at a coward's heart.

Somewhere in Clinch's Dump was the packet that would make him rich.... Here was his opportunity. He had only to dare; and pain and poverty and fear--above all else _fear_--would end forever!...

* * * * *

When, at last, he came out to the edge of Clinch's clearing, the dark October heavens were but a vast wilderness of stars.

Star Pond, set to its limpid depths with the heavenly gems, glittered and darkled with its million diamond incrustations. The humped-up lump of Clinch's Dump crouched like some huge and feeding night-beast on the bank, ringed by the solemn forest.

There was a kerosene lamp burning in Eve Strayer's rooms. Another light--a candle--flickered in the kitchen.

Leverett, crouching, ran rat-like down to the barn, slid in between the ice house and corn-crib, crawled out among the wilderness of weeds and lay flat.

The light burned steadily from Eve's window.


IV

From his form among frost-blackened rag-weeds, the trap-robber could see only the plastered ceiling of the bed chamber.

But the kerosene lamp cast two shadows on that--tall shadows of human shapes that stirred at times.

The trap-robber, scared, stiffened to immobility, but his little eyes remained fastened on the camera obscura above. All the cunning, patience, and murderous immobility of the rat were his.

Not a weed stirred under the stars where he lay with tiny, unwinking eyes intent upon the shadows on the ceiling.

* * * * *

The shadows on the ceiling were cast by Eve Strayer and her State Trooper.

Eve sat on her bed's edge, swathed in a lilac silk kimona--delicate relic of school days. Her bandaged feet, crossed, dangled above the rag-rug on the floor; her slim, tanned fingers were interlaced over the book on her lap.

Near the door stood State Trooper Stormont, spurred, booted, trig and trim, an undecided and flushed young man, fumbling irresolutely with the purple cord on his campaign-hat.

The book on Eve's knees--another relic of the past--was _Sigurd the Volsung_. Stormont had been reading to her--they having found, after the half shy tentatives of new friends, a point d'appui in literature. And the girl, admitting a passion for the poets, invited him to inspect the bookcase of unpainted pine which Clinch had built into her bedroom wall.

Here it was he discovered mutual friends among the nobler Victorians--surprised to discover _Sigurd there--and, carrying it to her bedside, looked leisurely through the half forgotten pages.

"Would you read a little?" she ventured.

He blushed but did his best. His was an agreeable, boyish voice, betraying taste and understanding. Time passed quickly--not so much in the reading but in the conversations intervening.

And now, made uneasy by chance consultation with his wrist-watch, and being rather a conscientious young man, he had risen and had informed Eve that she ought to go to sleep.

And she had denounced the idea, almost fretfully.

"Even if you go I shan't sleep till daddy comes," she said. "Of course," she added, smiling at him out of gentian-blue eyes, "if _you are sleepy I shouldn't dream of asking you to stay."

"I'm not intending to sleep."

"What are you going to do?"

"Take a chair on the landing outside your door."

"What!"

"Certainly. What did you expect me to do, Eve?"

"Go to bed, of course. The beds in the guest rooms are all made up."

"Your father didn't expect me to do that," he said, smiling.

"I'm not afraid, as long as you're in the house," she said.

She looked up at him again, wistfully. Perhaps he was restless, bored, sitting there beside her half the day, and, already, half the night. Men of that kind--active, nervous young men accustomed to the open, can't stand caging.

"I want you to go out and get some fresh air," she said. "It's a wonderful night. Go and walk a while. And--if you feel like--coming back to me----"

"Will you sleep?"

"No, I'll wait for you."

Her words were natural and direct, but in their simplicity there seemed a delicate sweetness that stirred him.

"I'll come back to you," he said.

Then, in his response, the girl in her turn became aware of something beside the simple words--a vague charm about them that faintly haunted her after he had gone away down the stairs.

_That was the man she had once tried to kill! At the sudden and terrible recollection she shivered from curly head to bandaged feet. Then she trembled a little with the memory of his lips against her bruised hands--bruised by handcuffs which he had fastened upon her.

She sat very, very still now, huddled on the bed's edge, scarcely breathing.

For the girl was beginning to dare formulate the deepest of any thoughts that ever had stirred her virgin mind and body.

If it was love, then it had come suddenly, and strangely. It had come on that day--at the very moment when he flung her against the tree and handcuffed her--that terrible instant--if it were love.

Or--what was it that so delicately overwhelmed her with pleasure in his presence, in his voice, in the light, firm sound of his spurred tread on the veranda below?

Friendship? A lonely passion for young and decent companionship? The clean youth of him in contrast to the mangy, surly louts who haunted Clinch's Dump,--was that the appeal?

Listening there where she sat clasping the book, she heard his steady tread patrolling the veranda; caught the faint fragrance of his brier pipe in the still night air.

"I think--I think it's--love," she said under her breath.... "But he couldn't ever think of me----" always listening to his spurred tread below.

After a while she placed both bandaged feet on the rug. It hurt her, but she stood up, walked to the open window. She wanted to look at him--just a moment----

By chance he looked up at that instant, and saw her pale face, like a flower in the starlight.

"Why, Eve," he said, "you ought not to be on your feet."

"Once," she said, "you weren't so particular about my bruises."

Her breathless little voice coming down through the starlight thrilled him.

"Do you remember what I did?" he asked.

"Yes. You bruised my hands and made my mouth bleed."

"I did penance--for your hands."

"Yes, you kissed _them_!"

What possessed her--what irresponsible exhilaration was inciting her to a daring utterly foreign to her nature? She heard herself laugh, knew that she was young, pretty, capable of provocation. And in a sudden, breathless sort of way an overwhelming desire seized her to please, to charm, to be noticed by such a man--whatever, on afterthought, he might think of the step-child of Mike Clinch.

Stormont had come directly under her window and stood looking up.

"I dared not offer further penance," he said.

The emotion in his voice stirred her--but she was still laughing down at him.

She said: "You _did offer further penance--you offered your handkerchief. So--as that was _all you offered as reparation for--my lips----"

"Eve! I could have taken you into my arms----"

"You _did_! And threw me down among the spruces. You really did everything that a contrite heart could suggest----"

"Good heavens!" said that rather matter-of-fact young man, "I don't believe you have forgiven me after all."

"I have--everything except the handkerchief----"

"Then I'm coming up to complete my penance----"

"I'll lock my door!"

"Would you?"

"I ought to.... But if you are in great spiritual distress, and if you really and truly repent, and if you humbly desire to expiate your sin by doing--penance----" And hesitated: "Do you so desire?"

"Yes, I do."

"Humbly? Contritely?"

"Yes."

"Very well. Say 'Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.'"

"Mea maxima culpa," he said so earnestly, looking up into her face that she bent lower over the sill to see him.

"Let me come up, Eve," he said.

She strove to laugh, gazing down into his shadowy face--but suddenly the desire had left her,--and all her gaiety left her, too, suddenly, leaving only a still excitement in her breast.

"You--you knew I was just laughing," she said unsteadily. "You understood, didn't you?"

"I don't know."

After a silence: "I didn't mean you to take me seriously," she said. She tried to laugh. It was no use. And, as she leaned there on the sill, her heart frightened her with its loud beating.

"Will you let me come up, Eve?"

No answer.

"Would you lock your door?"

"What do you think I'd do?" she asked tremulously.

"You know; I don't."

"Are you so sure I know what I'd do? I don't think either of us know our own minds.... I seem to have lost some of my wits.... Somehow...."

"If you are not going to sleep, let me come up."

"I want you to take a walk down by the pond. And while you're walking there all by yourself, I want you to think very clearly, very calmly, and make up your mind whether I should remain awake to-night, or whether, when you return, I ought to be asleep and--and my door bolted."

After a long pause: "All right," he said in a low voice.


V

She saw him walk away--saw his shadowy, well-built form fade into the starlit mist.

An almost uncontrollable impulse set her throat and lips quivering with desire to call to him through the night, "I do love you! I do love you! Come back quickly, quickly!----"

Fog hung over Star Pond, edging the veranda, rising in frail shreds to her window. The lapping of the water sounded very near. An owl was very mournful in the hemlocks.

The girl turned from the window, looked at the door for a moment, then her face flushed and she walked toward a chair and seated herself, leaving the door unbolted.

For a little while she sat upright, alert, as though a little frightened. After a few moments she folded her hands and sat unstirring, with lowered head, awaiting Destiny.

* * * * *

It came, noiselessly. And so swiftly that the rush of air from her violently opened door was what first startled her.

For in the same second Earl Leverett was upon her in his stockinged feet, one bony hand gripping her mouth, the other flung around her, pinning both arms to her sides.

"The packet!" he panted, "--quick, yeh dirty little cat, 'r'I'll break yeh head off'n yeh damn neck!"

She bit at the hand that he held crushed against her mouth. He lifted her bodily, flung her onto the bed, and, twisting sheet and quilt around her, swathed her to the throat.

Still controlling her violently distorted lips with his left hand and holding her so, one knee upon her, he reached back, unsheathed his hunting knife, and pricked her throat till the blood spurted.

"Now, gol ram yeh!" he whispered fiercely, "where's Mike's packet? Yell, and I'll hog-stick yeh fur fair! Where is it, you dum thing!"

He took his left hand from her mouth. The distorted, scarlet lips writhed back, displaying her white teeth clenched.

"Where's Mike's bundle!" he repeated, hoarse with rage and fear.

"You rat!" she gasped.

At that he closed her mouth again, and again he pricked her with his knife, cruelly. The blood welled up onto the sheets.

"Now, by God!" he said in a ghastly voice, "answer or I'll hog-stick yeh next time! Where is it? Where! where!"

She only showed her teeth in answer. Her eyes flamed.

"Where! Quick! Gol ding yeh, I'll shove this knife in behind your ear if you don't tell! Go on. Where is it? It's in this Dump som'ers. I know it is--don't lie! You want that I should stick you good? That what you want--you dirty little dump-slut? Well, then, gol ram yeh--I'll fix yeh like Quintana was aimin' at----"

He slit the sheet downward from her imprisoned knees, seized one wounded foot and tried to slash the bandages.

"I'll cut a coupla toes off'n yeh," he snarled, "--I'll hamstring yeh fur keeps!"--struggling to mutilate her while she flung her helpless and entangled body from side to side and bit at the hand that was almost suffocating her.

Unable to hold her any longer, he seized a pillow, to bury the venomous little head that writhed, biting, under his clutch.

As he lifted it he saw a packet lying under it.

"By God!" he panted.

As he seized it she screamed for the first time: "Jack! Jack Stormont!"--and fairly hurled her helpless little body at Leverett, striking him full in the face with her head.

Half stunned, still clutching the packet, he tried to stab her in the stomach; but the armour of bed-clothes turned the knife, although his violence dashed all breath out of her.

Sick with the agony of it, speechless, she still made the effort; and, as he stumbled to his feet and turned to escape, she struggled upright, choking, blood running from the knife pricks in her neck.

With the remnant of her strength, and still writhing and gasping for breath, she tore herself from the sheets and blankets, reeled across the room to where Stormont's rifle stood, threw in a cartridge, dragged herself to the window.

Dimly she saw a running figure in the night mist, flung the rifle across the window sill and fired. Then she fired again--or thought she did. There were two shots.

"Eve!" came Stormont's sharp cry, "what the devil are you trying to do to me?"

His cry terrified her; the rifle clattered to the floor.

The next instant he came running up the stairs, bare headed, heavy pistol swinging, and halted, horrified at sight of her.

"Eve! My God!" he whispered, taking her blood-wet body into his arms.

"Go after Leverett," she gasped. "He's robbed daddy. He's running away--out there--somewhere----"

"Where did he hurt you, Eve--my little Eve----"

"Oh, go! go!" she wailed,--"I'm not hurt. He only pricked me with his knife. I'm not hurt, I tell you. Go after him! Take your pistol and follow him and kill him!"

"Oh," she cried hysterically, twisting and sobbing in his arms, "don't lose time here with me! Don't stand here while he's running away with dad's money!" And, "Oh--oh--_oh_!!" she sobbed, collapsing in his arms and clinging to him convulsively as he carried her to her tumbled bed and laid her there.

He said: "I couldn't risk following anybody now, after what has happened to you. I can't leave you alone here! Don't cry, Eve. I'll get your man for you, I promise! Don't cry, dear. It was all my fault for leaving this room even for a minute----"

"No, no, no! It's my fault. I sent you away. Oh, I wish I hadn't. I wish I had let you come back when you wanted to.... I was waiting for you.... I left the door unbolted for you. When it opened I thought it was you. And it was Leverett!--it was Leverett!----"

Stormont's face grew very white: "What did he do to you, Eve? Tell me, darling. What did he do to you?"

"Dad's money was under my pillow," she wailed. "Leverett tried to make me tell where it was. I wouldn't, and he hurt me----"

"How?"

"He pricked me with his knife. When I screamed for you he tried to choke me with the pillow. Didn't you hear me scream?"

"Yes. I came on the jump."

"It was too late," she sobbed; "--too late! He saw the money packet under my pillow and he snatched it and ran. Somehow I found your rifle and fired. I fired twice."

Her only bullet had torn his campaign hat from his head. But he did not tell her.

"Let me see your neck," he said, bending closer.

She bared her throat, making a soft, vague complaint like a hurt bird,--lay there whimpering under her breath while he bathed the blood away with lint, sterilised the two cuts from his emergency packet, and bound them.

He was still bending low over her when her blue eyes unclosed on his.

"That is the second time I've tried to kill you," she whispered. "I thought it was Leverett.... I'd have died if I had killed you."

There was a silence.

"Lie very still," he said huskily. "I'll be back in a moment to rebandage your feet and make you comfortable for the night."

"I can't sleep," she repeated desolately. "Dad trusted his money to me and I've let Leverett rob me. How can I sleep?"

"I'll bring you something to make you sleep."

"I can't!"

"I promise you you will sleep. Lie still."

He rose, went away downstairs and out to the barn, where his campaign hat lay in the weed, drilled through by a bullet.

There was something else lying there in the weeds,--a flat, muddy, shoeless shape sprawling grotesquely in the foggy starlight.

One hand clutched a hunting knife; the other a packet.

Stormont drew the packet from the stiff fingers, then turned the body over, and, flashing his electric torch, examined the ratty visage--what remained of it--for his pistol bullet had crashed through from ear to cheek-bone, almost obliterating the trap-robber's features.

* * * * *

Stormont came slowly into Eve's room and laid the packet on the sheet beside her.

"Now," he said, "there is no reason for you to lie awake any longer. I'll fix you up for the night."

Deftly he unbandaged, bathed, dressed, and rebandaged her slim white feet--little wounded feet so lovely, so exquisite that his hand trembled as he touched them.

"They're doing fine," he said cheerily. "You've half a degree of fever and I'm going to give you something to drink before you go to sleep----"

He poured out a glass of water, dissolved two tablets, supported her shoulders while she drank in a dazed way, looking always at him over the glass.

"Now," he said, "go to sleep. I'll be on the job outside your door until your daddy arrives."

"How did you get back dad's money?" she asked in an odd, emotionless way as though too weary for further surprises.

"I'll tell you in the morning."

"Did you kill him? I didn't hear your pistol."

"I'll tell you all about it in the morning. Good night, Eve."

As he bent over her, she looked up into his eyes and put both arms around his neck.

It was her first kiss given to any man, except Mike Clinch.

After Stormont had gone out and closed the door, she lay very still for a long while.

Then, instinctively, she touched her lips with her fingers; and, at the contact, a blush clothed her from brow to ankle.

The Flaming Jewel in its morocco casket under her pillow burned with no purer fire than the enchanted flame glowing in the virgin heart of Eve Strayer of Clinch's Dump.

Thus they lay together, two lovely flaming jewels burning softly, steadily through the misty splendour of the night.

Under a million stars, Death sprawled in squalor among the trampled weeds. Under the same high stars dark mountains waited; and there was a silvery sound of waters stirring somewhere in the mist.

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