Chapter XXI. In the Dark
 

An ominous stillness hung over Hollis farm as Sandy ran up the avenue. The night was dark, but the fallen snow gave a half-mysterious light to the quiet scene.

He stepped on the porch with a sinking heart. In the dimly lighted hall Mr. Moseley and Mr. Meech kept silent watch, their faces grave with apprehension. Without stopping to speak to them, Sandy hurried to the door of the judge's room. Before he could turn the knob, Dr. Fenton opened it softly and, putting his finger on his lips, came out, cautiously closing the door behind him.

"You can't go in," he whispered; "the slightest excitement might finish him. He's got one chance in a hundred, boy; we've got to nurse it."

"Does he know?"

"Never has known a thing since the bullet hit him. He was coming into the sitting-room when Wilson fired through the window."

"The black-hearted murderer!" cried Sandy. "I could swear I saw him hiding in the bushes between here and the Junction."

The doctor threw a side glance at Mr. Meech, then said significantly:

"Have they started?"

"Not yet. If there's nothing I can do for the judge, I'm going with them."

"That's right. I'd go, too, if I were not needed here. Wait a minute, Sandy." His face looked old and worn. "Have you happened to see my Nettie since noon?"

"That I have, doctor. She was driving with me, and the harness broke. She's home now."

"Thank God!" cried the doctor. "I thought it was Nelson."

Sandy passed through the dining-room and was starting up the steps when he heard his name spoken.

"Mist' Sandy! 'Fore de Lawd, where you been at? Oh, we been habin' de terriblest times! My pore old mas'r done been shot down wifout bein' notified or nuthin'. Pray de Lawd he won't die! I knowed somepin' was gwine happen. I had a division jes 'fore daybreak; dey ain't no luck worser den to dream 'bout a tooth fallin' out. Oh, Lordy! Lordy! I hope he ain't gwine die!"

"Hush, Aunt Melvy! Where's Mrs. Hollis?"

"She's out in de kitchen, heatin' water an' waitin' on de doctor. She won't let me do nuthin'. Seems lak workin' sorter lets off her feelin's. Pore Miss Sue!" She threw her apron over her head and swayed and sobbed.

As Sandy tried to pass, she stopped him again, and after looking furtively around she fumbled in her pocket for something which she thrust into his hand.

"Hit's de pistol!" she whispered. "I's skeered to give it to nobody else, 'ca'se I's skeered dey'd try me for a witness. He done drap it 'longside de kitchen door. You won't let on I found it, honey? You won't tell nobody?"

He reassured her, and hastened to his room. Lighting his lamp, he hurriedly changed his coat for a heavier, and was starting in hot haste for the door when his eyes fell upon the pistol, which he had laid on the table.

It was a fine, pearl-handled revolver, thirty-eight caliber. He looked at it closer, then stared blankly at the floor. He had seen it before that afternoon.

"Why, Carter must have given Ricks the pistol," he thought. "But Carter was out at the Junction. What time did it happen?"

He sat on the side of the bed and, pressing his hands to his temples, tried to force the events to take their proper sequence.

"I don't know when I left town," he thought, with a shudder; "it must have been nearly four when I met Carter and Annette. He took the train back. Yes, he would have had time to help Ricks. But I saw Ricks out the turnpike. It was half-past five, I remember now. The doctor said the judge was shot at a quarter of six."

A startled look of comprehension flashed over his face. He sprang to his feet and tramped up and down the small room.

"I know I saw Ricks," he thought, his brain seething with excitement. "Annette saw him, too; she described him. He couldn't have even driven back in that time."

He stopped again and stood staring intently before him. Then he took the lamp and slipped down the back stairs and out the side door.

The snow was trampled about the window and for some space beyond it. The tracks had been followed to the river, the eager searchers keeping well away from the tell-tale footsteps in order not to obliterate them. Sandy knelt in the snow and held his lamp close to the single trail. The print was narrow and long and ended in a tapering toe. Ricks's broad foot would have covered half the space again. He jumped to his feet and started for the house, then turned back irresolute.

When he entered his little room again the slender footprints had been effaced. He put the lamp on the bureau, and looked vacantly about him. On the cushion was pinned a note. He recognized Ruth's writing, and opened it mechanically.

There were only three lines:

I must see you again before I leave. Be sure to come to-night.

The words scarcely carried a meaning to him. It was her brother that had shot the judge--the brother whom she had defended and protected all her life. It would kill her when she knew. And he, Sandy Kilday, was the only one who suspected the truth. A momentary temptation seized him to hold his peace; if Ricks were caught, it would be time enough to tell what he knew; if he escaped, one more stain on his name might not matter.

But Carter, the coward, where was he? It was his place to speak. Would he let Ricks bear his guilt and suffer the blame? Such burning rage against him rose in Sandy that he paced the room in fury.

Then he re-read Ruth's note and again he hesitated. What a heaven of promise it opened to him! Ruth was probably waiting for him now. Everything might be different when he saw her again.

All his life he had followed the current; the easy way was his way, and he came back to it again and again. His thoughts shifted and formed and shifted again like the bits of color in a kaleidoscope.

Presently his restless eyes fell on an old chromo hanging over the mantel. It represented the death-bed of Washington. The dying figure on the bed recalled that other figure down-stairs. In an instant all the floating forms in his brain assumed one shape and held it.

The judge must be his first consideration. He had been shot down without cause, and might pay his life for it. There was but one thing to do: to find the real culprit, give him up, and take the consequences.

Slipping the note in one pocket and the revolver in another, he hurried down-stairs.

On the lowest step he found Mrs. Hollis sitting in the dark. Her hands were locked around her knees, and hard, dry sobs shook her body.

In an instant he was down beside her, his arms about her. "He isn't dead?" he whispered fearfully.

Mrs. Hollis shook her head. "He hasn't moved an inch or spoken since we put him on the bed. Are you going with the men?"

"I'm going to town now," said Sandy, evasively.

She rose and caught him by the arm. Her eyes were fierce with vindictiveness.

"Don't let them stop till they've caught him, Sandy. I hope they will hang him to-night!"

A movement in the sick-room called her within, and Sandy hurried out to the buggy, which was still standing at the gate.

He lighted the lantern and, throwing the robe across his knees, started for town. The intense emotional strain under which he had labored since noon, together with fatigue, was beginning to play tricks with his nerves. Twice he pulled in his horse, thinking he heard voices in the wood. The third time he stopped and got out. At infrequent intervals a groan broke the stillness.

He climbed the snake-fence and beat about among the bushes. The groan came again, and he followed the sound.

At the foot of a tall beech-tree a body was lying face downward. He held his lantern above his head and bent over it. It was a man, and, as he tried to turn him over, he saw a slight red stain on the snow beneath his mouth. The figure, thus roused, stirred and tried to sit up. As he did so, the light from Sandy's lantern fell full on the dazed and swollen face of Carter Nelson. The two faced each other for a space, then Sandy asked him sharply what he did there.

"I don't know," said Carter, weakly, sinking back against the tree. "I'm sick. Get me some whisky."

"Wake up!" said Sandy, shaking him roughly. "This is Kilday--Sandy Kilday."

Carter's eyes were still closed, but his lip curled contemptuously. "Mr. Kilday," he said, and smiled scornfully. "The least said about Mr. Kilday the better."

Sandy laid a heavy hand on his shoulder.

"Nelson, listen! Do you remember going out to the Junction with Annette Fenton?"

"That's nobody's business but mine. I'll shoot the--"

"Do you remember coming home on the train?"

Carter's stupid, heavy eyes were on Sandy now, and he was evidently trying to understand what he was saying. "Home on the train? Yes; I came home on train."

"And afterward?" demanded Sandy, kneeling before him and looking intently in his eyes.

"Gus Heyser's saloon, and then--"

"And then?" repeated Sandy.

Carter shook his head and looked about him bewildered.

"Where am I now I What did you bring me here for?"

"Look me straight, Nelson," said Sandy. "Don't you move your eyes. You left Gus Heyser's and came out the pike to the Hollis farm, didn't you?"

"Hollis farm?" Carter repeated vaguely. "No; I didn't go there."

"You went up to the window and waited. Don't you remember the snow on the ground and the light inside the window?"

Carter seemed struggling to remember, but his usually sensitive face was vacant and perplexed.

Sandy moved nearer. "You waited there by the window," he went on with subdued excitement, for the hope was high in his heart that Carter was innocent. "You waited ever so long, until a pistol was fired--"

"Yes," broke in Carter, his lips apart; "a pistol-shot close to my head! It woke me up. I ran before they could shoot me again. Where was it--Gus Heyser's? What am I doing here?"

For answer Sandy pulled Carter's revolver from his pocket. "Did you have that this afternoon?"

"Yes," said Carter, a troubled look coming into his eyes. "Where did you get it, Kilday?"

"It was found outside Judge Hollis's window after he had been shot."

"Judge Hollis shot! Who did it?"

Sandy again looked at the pistol.

"My God, man!" cried Carter; "you don't mean that I--" He cowered back against the tree and shook from head to foot. "Kilday!" he cried presently, seizing Sandy by the wrist with his long, delicate hands, "does any one else know?"

Sandy shook his head.

"Then I must get away; you must help me. I didn't know what I was doing. I don't know now what I have done. Is he--"

"He's not dead yet."

Carter struggled to his feet, but a terrible attack of coughing seized him, and he sank back exhausted. The handkerchief which he held to his mouth was red with blood.

Sandy stretched him out on the snow, where he lay for a while with closed eyes. He was very white, and his lips twitched convulsively.

A vehicle passed out the road, and Sandy started up. He must take some decisive step at once. The men were probably waiting in the square for him now. He must stop them at any cost.

Carter opened his eyes, and the terror returned to them.

"Don't give me up, Kilday!" he cried, trying to rise. "I'll pay you anything you ask. It was the drink. I didn't know what I was doing. For the Lord's sake, don't give me up! I haven't long to live at best. I can't disgrace the family. I--I am the last of the line--last Nelson--" His voice was high and uncontrolled, and his eyes were glassy and fixed.

Sandy stood before him in an agony of indecision. He had fought it out with himself there in his bedroom, and all personal considerations were swept from his mind. All he wanted now was to do right. But what was right? He groped blindly about in the darkness of his soul, and no guiding light showed him the way.

With a groan, he knotted his fingers together and prayed the first real prayer his heart had ever uttered. It was wordless and formless, just an inarticulate cry for help in the hour of need.

The answer came when he looked again at Carter. Something in the frenzied face brought a sudden recollection to his mind.

"We can't judge him by usual standards; he's bearing the sins of his fathers. We have to look on men like that as we do on the insane." They were the judge's own words.

Sandy jumped to his feet, and, helping and half supporting Carter, persuaded him to go out to the buggy, promising that he would not give him up.

At the Willowvale gate he led the horse into the avenue, then turned and ran at full speed into town. As he came into the square he found only a few groups shivering about the court-house steps, discussing the events of the day.

"Where's the crowd?" he cried breathless. "Aren't they going to start from here?"

An old negro pulled off his cap and grinned.

"Dey been gone purty near an hour, Mist' Sandy. I 'spec' dey's got dat low-down rascal hanged by now."