Chapter VIII. The Pilot's Grip
 

The situation was one of extreme danger--a madman with a Winchester rifle. Something must be done and quickly. But what? It would be death to anyone appearing at the door.

"I'll speak; you keep your eyes on him," said The Duke.

"Hello, Bruce! What's the row?" shouted The Duke.

Instantly the singing stopped. A look of cunning delight came over his face as, without a word, he got his rifle ready pointed at the door.

"Come in!" he yelled, after waiting for some moments. "Come in! You're the biggest of all the devils. Come on, I'll send you down where you belong. Come, what's keeping you?"

Over the rifle-barrel his eyes gleamed with frenzied delight. We consulted as to a plan.

"I don't relish a bullet much," I said.

"There are pleasanter things," responded The Duke, "and he is a fairly good shot."

Meantime the singing had started again, and, looking through the chink, I saw that Bruce had got his eye on the stovepipe again. While I was looking The Pilot slipped away from us toward the door.

"Come back!" said the Duke, "don't be a fool! Come back, he'll shoot you dead!"

Moore paid no heed to him, but stood waiting at the door. In a few moments Bruce blazed away again at the stovepipe. Immediately the Pilot burst in, calling out eagerly:

"Did you get him?"

"No!" said Bruce, disappointedly, "he dodged like the devil, as of course he ought, you know."

"I'll get him," said Moore. "Smoke him out," proceeding to open the stove door.

"Stop!" screamed Bruce, "don't open that door! It's full, I tell you." Moore paused. "Besides," went on Bruce, "smoke won't touch 'em."

"Oh, that's all right," said Moore, coolly and with admirable quickness, "wood smoke, you know--they can't stand that."

This was apparently a new idea in demonology for Bruce, for he sank back, while Moore lighted the fire and put on the tea-kettle. He looked round for the tea-caddy.

"Up there," said Bruce, forgetting for the moment his devils, and pointing to a quaint, old-fashioned tea-caddy upon the shelf.

Moore took it down, turned it in his hands and looked at Bruce.

"Old country, eh?"

"My mother's," said Bruce, soberly.

"I could have sworn it was my aunt's in Balleymena," said Moore. "My aunt lived in a little stone cottage with roses all over the front of it." And on he went into an enthusiastic description of his early home. His voice was full of music, soft and soothing, and poor Bruce sank back and listened, the glitter fading from his eyes.

The Duke and I looked at each other.

"Not too bad, eh?" said The Duke, after a few moments' silence.

"Let's put up the horses," I suggested. "They won't want us for half an hour."

When we came in, the room had been set in order, the tea-kettle was singing, the bedclothes straightened out, and Moore had just finished washing the blood stains from Bruce's arms and neck.

"Just in time," he said. "I didn't like to tackle these," pointing to the bandages.

All night long Moore soothed and tended the sick man, now singing softly to him, and again beguiling him with tales that meant nothing, but that had a strange power to quiet the nervous restlessness, due partly to the pain of the wounded arm and partly to the nerve-wrecking from his months of dissipation. The Duke seemed uncomfortable enough. He spoke to Bruce once or twice, but the only answer was a groan or curse with an increase of restlessness.

"He'll have a close squeak," said The Duke. The carelessness of the tone was a little overdone, but The Pilot was stirred up by it.

"He has not been fortunate in his friends," he said, looking straight into his eyes.

"A man ought to know himself when the pace is too swift," said The Duke, a little more quickly than was his wont.

"You might have done anything with him. Why didn't you help him?" Moore's tones were stern and very steady, and he never moved his eyes from the other man's face, but the only reply he got was a shrug of the shoulders.

When the gray of the morning was coming in at the window The Duke rose up, gave himself, a little shake, and said:

"I am not of any service here. I shall come back in the evening."

He went and stood for a few moments looking down upon the hot, fevered face; then, turning to me, he asked:

"What do you think?"

"Can't say! The bromide is holding him down just now. His blood is bad for that wound."

"Can I get anything?" I knew him well enough to recognize the anxiety under his indifferent manner.

"The Fort doctor ought to be got."

He nodded and went out.

"Have breakfast?" called out Moore from the door.

"I shall get some at the Fort, thanks. They won't take any hurt from me there," he said, smiling his cynical smile.

Moore opened his eyes in surprise.

"What's that for?" he asked me.

"Well, he is rather cut up, and you rather rubbed it into him, you know," I said, for I thought Moore a little hard.

"Did I say anything untrue?"

"Well, not untrue, perhaps; but truth is like medicine--not always good to take." At which Moore was silent till his patient needed him again.

It was a weary day. The intense pain from the wound, and the high fever from the poison in his blood kept the poor fellow in delirium till evening, when The Duke rode up with the Fort doctor. Jingo appeared as nearly played out as a horse of his spirit ever allowed himself to become.

"Seventy miles," said The Duke, swinging himself off the saddle. "The doctor was ten miles out. How is he?"

I shook my head, and he led away his horse to give him a rub and a feed.

Meantime the doctor, who was of the army and had seen service, was examining his patient. He grew more and more puzzled as he noted the various symptoms. Finally he broke out:

"What have you been doing to him? Why is he in this condition? This fleabite doesn't account for all," pointing to the wound.

We stood like children reproved. Then The Duke said, hesitatingly:

"I fear, doctor, the life has been a little too hard for him. He had a severe nervous attack--seeing things, you know."

"Yes, I know," stormed the old doctor. "I know you well enough, with your head of cast-iron and no nerves to speak of. I know the crowd and how you lead them. Infernal fools! You'll get your turn some day. I've warned you before."

The Duke was standing up before the doctor during this storm, smiling slightly. All at once the smile faded out and he pointed to the bed. Bruce was sitting up quiet and steady. He stretched out his hand to The Duke.

"Don't mind the old fool," he said, holding The Duke's hand and looking up at him as fondly as if he were a girl. "It's my own funeral--funeral?" he paused--"Perhaps it may be--who knows?--feel queer enough--but remember, Duke--it's my own fault--don't listen to those bally fools," looking towards Moore and the doctor. "My own fault"--his voice died down--"my own fault."

The Duke bent over him and laid him back on the pillow, saying, "Thanks, old chap, you're good stuff. I'll not forget. Just keep quiet and you'll be all right." He passed his cool, firm hand over the hot brow of the man looking up at him with love in his eyes, and in a few moments Bruce fell asleep. Then The Duke lifted himself up, and facing the doctor, said in his coolest tone:

"Your words are more true than opportune, doctor. Your patient will need all your attention. As for my morals, Mr. Moore kindly entrusts himself with the care of them." This with a bow toward The Pilot.

"I wish him joy of his charge," snorted the doctor, turning again to the bed, where Bruce had already passed into delirium.

The memory of that vigil was like a horrible nightmare for months. Moore lay on the floor and slept. The Duke rode off somewhither. The old doctor and I kept watch. All night poor Bruce raved in the wildest delirium, singing, now psalms, now songs, swearing at the cattle or his poker partners, and now and then, in quieter moments, he was back in his old home, a boy, with a boy's friends and sports. Nothing could check the fever. It baffled the doctor, who often, during the night, declared that there was "no sense in a wound like that working up such a fever," adding curses upon the folly of The Duke and his Company.

"You don't think he will not get better, doctor?" I asked, in answer to one of his outbreaks.

"He ought to get over this," he answered, impatiently, "but I believe," he added, deliberately, "he'll have to go."

Everything stood still for a moment. It seemed impossible. Two days ago full of life, now on the way out. There crowded in upon me thoughts of his home; his mother, whose letters he used to show me full of anxious love; his wild life here, with all its generous impulses, its mistakes, its folly.

"How long will he last?" I asked, and my lips were dry and numb.

"Perhaps twenty-four hours, perhaps longer. He can't throw off the poison."

The old doctor proved a true prophet. After another day of agonized delirium he sank into a stupor which lasted through the night.

Then the change came. As the light began to grow at the eastern rim of the prairie and up the far mountains in the west, Bruce opened his eyes and looked about upon us. The doctor had gone; The Duke had not come back; Moore and I were alone. He gazed at us steadily for some moments; read our faces; a look of wonder came into his eyes.

"Is it coming?" he asked in a faint, awed voice. "Do you really think I must go?"

The eager appeal in his voice and the wistful longing in the wide- open, startled eyes were too much for Moore. He backed behind me and I could hear him weeping like a baby. Bruce heard him, too.

"Is that The Pilot?" he asked. Instantly Moore pulled himself up, wiped his eyes and came round to the other side of the bed and looked down, smiling.

"Do you say I am dying?" The voice was strained in its earnestness. I felt a thrill of admiration go through me as the Pilot answered in a sweet, clear voice: "They say so, Bruce. But you are not afraid?"

Bruce kept his eyes on his face and answered with grave hesitation:

"No--not--afraid--but I'd like to live a little longer. I've made such a mess of it, I'd like to try again." Then he paused, and his lips quivered a little. "There's my mother, you know," he added, apologetically, "and Jim." Jim was his younger brother and sworn chum.

"Yes, I know, Bruce, but it won't be very long for them, too, and it's a good place."

"Yes, I believe it all--always did--talked rot--you'll forgive me that?"

"Don't; don't," said Moore quickly, with sharp pain in his voice, and Bruce smiled a little and closed his eyes, saying: "I'm tired." But he immediately opened them again and looked up.

"What is it?" asked Moore, smiling down into his eyes.

"The Duke," the poor lips whispered.

"He is coming," said Moore, confidently, though how he knew I could not tell. But even as he spoke, looking out of the window, I saw Jingo come swinging round the bluff. Bruce heard the beat of his hoofs, smiled, opened his eyes and waited. The leap of joy in his eyes as The Duke came in, clean, cool and fresh as the morning, went to my heart.

Neither man said a word, but Bruce took hold of The Duke's hand in both of his. He was fast growing weaker. I gave him brandy, and he recovered a little strength.

"I am dying, Duke," he said, quietly. "Promise you won't blame yourself."

"I can't, old man," said The Duke, with a shudder. "Would to heaven I could."

"You were too strong for me, and you didn't think, did you?" and the weak voice had a caress in it.

"No, no! God knows," said The Duke, hurriedly.

There was a long silence, and again Bruce opened his eyes and whispered:

"The Pilot."

Moore came to him.

"Read 'The Prodigal,'" he said faintly, and in Moore's clear, sweet voice the music of that matchless story fell upon our ears.

Again Bruce's eyes summoned me. I bent over him.

"My letter," he said, faintly, "in my coat--"

I brought to him the last letter from his mother. He held the envelope before his eyes, then handed it to me, whispering:

"Read."

I opened the letter and looked at the words, "My darling Davie." My tongue stuck and not a sound could I make. Moore put out his hand and took it from me. The Duke rose to go out, calling me with his eyes, but Bruce motioned him to stay, and he sat down and bowed his head, while Moore read the letter.

His tones were clear and steady till he came to the last words, when his voice broke and ended in a sob:

"And oh, Davie, laddie, if ever your heart turns home again, remember the door is aye open, and it's joy you'll bring with you to us all."

Bruce lay quite still, and, from his closed eyes, big tears ran down his cheeks. It was his last farewell to her whose love had been to him the anchor to all things pure here and to heaven beyond.

He took the letter from Moore's hand, put it with difficulty to his lips, and then, touching the open Bible, he said, between his breaths:

"It's--very like--there's really--no fear, is there?"

"No, no!" said Moore, with cheerful, confident voice, though his, tears were flowing. "No fear of your welcome."

His eyes met mine. I bent over him. "Tell her--" and his voice faded away.

"What shall I tell her?" I asked, trying to recall him. But the message was never given. He moved one hand slowly toward The Duke till it touched his head. The Duke lifted his face and looked down at him, and then he did a beautiful thing for which I forgave him much. He stooped over and kissed the lips grown so white, and then the brow. The light came back into the eyes of the dying man, he smiled once more, and smilingly faced toward the Great Beyond. And the morning air, fresh from the sun-tipped mountains and sweet with the scent of the June roses, came blowing soft and cool through the open window upon the dead, smiling face. And it seemed fitting so. It came from the land of the Morning.

Again The Duke did a beautiful thing; for, reaching across his dead friend, he offered his hand to The Pilot. "Mr. Moore," he said, with fine courtesy, "you are a brave man and a good man; I ask your forgiveness for much rudeness."

But Moore only shook his head while he took the outstretched hand, and said, brokenly:

"Don't! I can't stand it."

"The Company of the Noble Seven will meet no more," said The Duke, with a faint smile.

They did meet, however; but when they did, The Pilot was in the chair, and it was not for poker.

The Pilot had "got his grip," as Bill said.