Chapter VII. The Last of the Permit Sundays
 

The spring "round-ups" were all over and Bruce had nothing to do but to loaf about the Stopping Place, drinking old Latour's bad whisky and making himself a nuisance. In vain The Pilot tried to win him with loans of books and magazines and other kindly courtesies. He would be decent for a day and then would break forth in violent argumentation against religion and all who held to it. He sorely missed The Duke, who was away south on one of his periodic journeys, of which no one knew anything or cared to ask. The Duke's presence always steadied Bruce and took the rasp out of his manners. It was rather a relief to all that he was absent from the next fortnightly service, though Moore declared he was ashamed to confess this relief.

"I can't touch him," he said to me, after the service; "he is far too clever, but," and his voice was full of pain, "I'd give something to help him."

"If he doesn't quit his nonsense," I replied, "he'll soon be past helping. He doesn't go out on his range, his few cattle wander everywhere, his shack is in a beastly state, and he himself is going to pieces, miserable fool that he is." For it did seem a shame that a fellow should so throw himself away for nothing.

"You are hard," said Moore, with his eyes upon me.

"Hard? Isn't it true?" I answered, hotly. "Then, there's his mother at home."

"Yes, but can he help it? Is it all his fault?" he replied, with his steady eyes still looking into me.

"His fault? Whose fault, then?"

"What of the Noble Seven? Have they anything to do with this?" His voice was quiet, but there was an arresting intensity in it.

"Well," I said, rather weakly, "a man ought to look after himself."

"Yes!--and his brother a little." Then, he added: "What have any of you done to help him? The Duke could have pulled him up a year ago if he had been willing to deny himself a little, and so with all of you. You all do just what pleases you regardless of any other, and so you help one another down."

I could not find anything just then to say, though afterwards many things came to me; for, though his voice was quiet and low, his eyes were glowing and his face was alight with the fire that burned within, and I felt like one convicted of a crime. This was certainly a new doctrine for the West; an uncomfortable doctrine to practice, interfering seriously with personal liberty, but in The Pilot's way of viewing things difficult to escape. There would be no end to one's responsibility. I refused to think it out.

Within a fortnight we were thinking it out with some intentness. The Noble Seven were to have a great "blow-out" at the Hill brothers' ranch. The Duke had got home from his southern trip a little more weary-looking and a little more cynical in his smile. The "blow-out" was to be held on Permit Sunday, the alternate to the Preaching Sunday, which was a concession to The Pilot, secured chiefly through the influence of Hi and his baseball nine. It was something to have created the situation involved in the distinction between Preaching and Permit Sundays. Hi put it rather graphically. "The devil takes his innin's one Sunday and The Pilot the next," adding emphatically, "He hain't done much scorin' yit, but my money's on The Pilot, you bet!" Bill was more cautious and preferred to wait developments. And developments were rapid.

The Hill brothers' meet was unusually successful from a social point of view. Several Permits had been requisitioned, and whisky and beer abounded. Races all day and poker all night and drinks of various brews both day and night, with varying impromptu diversions--such as shooting the horns off wandering steers--were the social amenities indulged in by the noble company. On Monday evening I rode out to the ranch, urged by Moore, who was anxious that someone should look after Bruce.

"I don't belong to them," he said, "you do. They won't resent your coming."

Nor did they. They were sitting at tea, and welcomed me with a shout.

"Hello, old domine!" yelled Bruce, "where's your preacher friend?"

"Where you ought to be, if you could get there--at home," I replied, nettled at his insolent tone.

"Strike one!" called out Hi, enthusiastically, not approving Bruce's attitude toward his friend, The Pilot.

"Don't be so acute," said Bruce, after the laugh had passed, "but have a drink."

He was flushed and very shaky and very noisy. The Duke, at the head of the table, looked a little harder than usual, but, though pale, was quite steady. The others were all more or less nerve- broken, and about the room were the signs of a wild night. A bench was upset, while broken bottles and crockery lay strewn about over a floor reeking with filth. The disgust on my face called forth an apology from the younger Hill, who was serving up ham and eggs as best he could to the men lounging about the table.

"It's my housemaid's afternoon out," he explained gravely.

"Gone for a walk in the park," added an other.

"Hope Mister Connor will pardon the absence," sneered Bruce, in his most offensive manner.

"Don't mind him," said Hi, under his breath, "the blue devils are runnin' him down."

This became more evident as the evening went on. From hilarity Bruce passed to sullen ferocity, with spasms of nervous terror. Hi's attempts to soothe him finally drove him mad, and he drew his revolver, declaring he could look after himself, in proof of which he began to shoot out the lights.

The men scrambled into safe corners, all but The Duke, who stood quietly by watching Bruce shoot. Then saying:

"Let me have a try, Bruce," he reached across and caught his hand.

"No! you don't," said Bruce, struggling. "No man gets my gun."

He tore madly at the gripping hand with both of his, but in vain, calling out with frightful oaths:

"Let go! let go! I'll kill you! I'll kill you!"

With a furious effort he hurled himself back from the table, dragging The Duke partly across. There was a flash and a report and Bruce collapsed, The Duke still gripping him. When they lifted him up he was found to have an ugly wound in his arm, the bullet having passed through the fleshy part. I bound it up as best I could and tried to persuade him to go to bed. But he would go home. Nothing could stop him. Finally The Duke agreed to go with him, and off they set, Bruce loudly protesting that he could get home alone and did not want anyone.

It was a dismal break-up to the meet, and we all went home feeling rather sick, so that it gave me no pleasure to find Moore waiting in my shack for my report of Bruce. It was quite vain for me to make light of the accident to him. His eyes were wide open with anxious fear when I had done.

"You needn't tell me not to be anxious," he said, "you are anxious yourself. I see it, I feel it."

"Well, there's no use trying to keep things from you," I replied, "but I am only a little anxious. Don't you go beyond me and work yourself up into a fever over it."

"No," he answered quietly, "but I wish his mother were nearer."

"Oh, bosh, it isn't coming to that; but I wish he were in better shape. He is broken up badly without this hole in him."

He would not leave till I had promised to take him up the next day, though I was doubtful enough of his reception. But next day The Duke came down, his black bronco, Jingo, wet with hard riding.

"Better come up, Connor," he said, gravely, "and bring your bromides along. He has had a bad night and morning and fell asleep only before I came away. I expect he'll wake in delirium. It's the whisky more than the bullet. Snakes, you know."

In ten minutes we three were on the trail, for Moore, though not invited, quietly announced his intention to go with us.

"Oh, all right," said The Duke, indifferently, "he probably won't recognize you any way."

We rode hard for half an hour till we came within sight of Bruce's shack, which was set back into a little poplar bluff.

"Hold up!" said The Duke. "Was that a shot?" We stood listening. A rifle-shot rang out, and we rode hard. Again The Duke halted us, and there came from the shack the sound of singing. It was an old Scotch tune.

"The twenty-third Psalm," said Moore, in a low voice.

We rode into the bluff, tied up our horses and crept to the back of the shack. Looking through a crack between the logs, I saw a gruesome thing. Bruce was sitting up in bed with a Winchester rifle across his knees and a belt of cartridges hanging over the post. His bandages were torn off, the blood from his wound was smeared over his bare arms and his pale, ghastly face; his eyes were wild with mad terror, and he was shouting at the top of his voice the words:

     "The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want,
        He makes me down to lie
      In pastures green, He leadeth me
        The quiet waters by."

Now and then he would stop to say in an awesome whisper, "Come out here, you little devils!" and bang would go his rifle at the stovepipe, which was riddled with holes. Then once more in a loud voice he would hurry to begin the Psalm,

     "The Lord's my Shepherd."

Nothing that my memory brings to me makes me chill like that picture--the low log shack, now in cheerless disorder; the ghastly object upon the bed in the corner, with blood-smeared face and arms and mad terror in the eyes; the awful cursings and more awful psalm-singing, punctuated by the quick report of the deadly rifle.

For some moments we stood gazing at one another; then The Duke said, in a low, fierce tone, more to himself than to us:

"This is the last. There'll be no more of this cursed folly among the boys."

And I thought it a wise thing in The Pilot that he answered not a word.