Chapter XXIX
 

Day broke on the old Court House with its black port-holes, on the graystone jail, and on a tall topless wooden box to one side, from which projected a cross-beam of green oak. From the centre of this beam dangled a rope that swung gently to and fro when the wind moved. And with the day a flock of little birds lighted on the bars of the condemned man's cell window, chirping through them, and when the jailer brought breakfast he found Bad Rufe cowering in the corner of his cell and wet with the sweat of fear.

"Them damn birds ag'in," he growled sullenly.

"Don't lose yo' nerve, Rufe," said the jailer, and the old laugh of defiance came, but from lips that were dry.

"Not much," he answered grimly, but the jailer noticed that while he ate, his eyes kept turning again and again to the bars; and the turnkey went away shaking his head. Rufe had told the jailer, his one friend through whom he had kept in constant communication with the Tollivers, how on the night after the shooting of Mockaby, when he lay down to sleep high on the mountain side and under some rhododendron bushes, a flock of little birds flew in on him like a gust of rain and perched over and around him, twittering at him until he had to get up and pace the woods, and how, throughout the next day, when he sat in the sun planning his escape, those birds would sweep chattering over his head and sweep chattering back again, and in that mood of despair he had said once, and only once: "Somehow I knowed this time my name was Dennis"--a phrase of evil prophecy he had picked up outside the hills. And now those same birds of evil omen had come again, he believed, right on the heels of the last sworn oath old Judd had sent him that he would never hang.

With the day, through mountain and valley, came in converging lines mountain humanity--men and women, boys and girls, children and babes in arms; all in their Sunday best--the men in jeans, slouched hats, and high boots, the women in gay ribbons and brilliant home-spun; in wagons, on foot and on horses and mules, carrying man and man, man and boy, lover and sweetheart, or husband and wife and child--all moving through the crisp autumn air, past woods of russet and crimson and along brown dirt roads, to the straggling little mountain town. A stranger would have thought that a county fair, a camp-meeting, or a circus was their goal, but they were on their way to look upon the Court House with its black port-holes, the graystone jail, the tall wooden box, the projecting beam, and that dangling rope which, when the wind moved, swayed gently to and fro. And Hale had forged his plan. He knew that there would be no attempt at rescue until Rufe was led to the scaffold, and he knew that neither Falins nor Tollivers would come in a band, so the incoming tide found on the outskirts of the town and along every road boyish policemen who halted and disarmed every man who carried a weapon in sight, for thus John Hale would have against the pistols of the factions his own Winchesters and repeating shot-guns. And the wondering people saw at the back windows of the Court House and at the threatening port-holes more youngsters manning Winchesters, more at the windows of the jailer's frame house, which joined and fronted the jail, and more still--a line of them--running all around the jail; and the old men wagged their heads in amazement and wondered if, after all, a Tolliver was not really going to be hanged.

So they waited--the neighbouring hills were black with people waiting; the housetops were black with men and boys waiting; the trees in the streets were bending under the weight of human bodies; and the jail-yard fence was three feet deep with people hanging to it and hanging about one another's necks--all waiting. All morning they waited silently and patiently, and now the fatal noon was hardly an hour away and not a Falin nor a Tolliver had been seen. Every Falin had been disarmed of his Winchester as he came in, and as yet no Tolliver had entered the town, for wily old Judd had learned of Hale's tactics and had stayed outside the town for his own keen purpose. As the minutes passed, Hale was beginning to wonder whether, after all, old Judd had come to believe that the odds against him were too great, and had told the truth when he set afoot the rumour that the law should have its way; and it was just when his load of anxiety was beginning to lighten that there was a little commotion at the edge of the Court House and a great red-headed figure pushed through the crowd, followed by another of like build, and as the people rapidly gave way and fell back, a line of Falins slipped along the wall and stood under the port-holes-quiet, watchful, and determined. Almost at the same time the crowd fell back the other way up the street, there was the hurried tramping of feet and on came the Tollivers, headed by giant Judd, all armed with Winchesters--for old Judd had sent his guns in ahead--and as the crowd swept like water into any channel of alley or doorway that was open to it, Hale saw the yard emptied of everybody but the line of Falins against the wall and the Tollivers in a body but ten yards in front of them. The people on the roofs and in the trees had not moved at all, for they were out of range. For a moment old Judd's eyes swept the windows and port-holes of the Court House, the windows of the jailer's house, the line of guards about the jail, and then they dropped to the line of Falins and glared with contemptuous hate into the leaping blue eyes of old Buck Falin, and for that moment there was silence. In that silence and as silently as the silence itself issued swiftly from the line of guards twelve youngsters with Winchesters, repeating shot-guns, and in a minute six were facing the Falins and six facing the Tollivers, each with his shot-gun at his hip. At the head of them stood Hale, his face a pale image, as hard as though cut from stone, his head bare, and his hand and his hip weaponless. In all that crowd there was not a man or a woman who had not seen or heard of him, for the power of the guard that was at his back had radiated through that wild region like ripples of water from a dropped stone and, unarmed even, he had a personal power that belonged to no other man in all those hills, though armed to the teeth. His voice rose clear, steady, commanding:

"The law has come here and it has come to stay." He faced the beetling eyebrows and angrily working beard of old Judd now:

"The Falins are here to get revenge on you Tollivers, if you attack us. I know that. But"--he wheeled on the Falins-- "understand! We don't want your help! If the Tollivers try to take that man in there, and one of you Falins draws a pistol, those guns there"--waving his hand toward the jail windows--"will be turned loose on you, we'll fight you both!" The last words shot like bullets through his gritted teeth, then the flash of his eyes was gone, his face was calm, and as though the whole matter had been settled beyond possible interruption, he finished quietly:

"The condemned man wishes to make a confession and to say good-by. In five minutes he will be at that window to say what he pleases. Ten minutes later he will be hanged." And he turned and walked calmly into the jailer's door. Not a Tolliver nor a Falin made a movement or a sound. Young Dave's eyes had glared savagely when he first saw Hale, for he had marked Hale for his own and he knew that the fact was known to Hale. Had the battle begun then and there, Hale's death was sure, and Dave knew that Hale must know that as well as he: and yet with magnificent audacity, there he was--unarmed, personally helpless, and invested with an insulting certainty that not a shot would be fired. Not a Falin or a Tolliver even reached for a weapon, and the fact was the subtle tribute that ignorance pays intelligence when the latter is forced to deadly weapons as a last resort; for ignorance faced now belching shot-guns and was commanded by rifles on every side. Old Judd was trapped and the Falins were stunned. Old Buck Falin turned his eyes down the line of his men with one warning glance. Old Judd whispered something to a Tolliver behind him and a moment later the man slipped from the band and disappeared. Young Dave followed Hale's figure with a look of baffled malignant hatred and Bub's eyes were filled with angry tears. Between the factions, the grim young men stood with their guns like statues.

At once a big man with a red face appeared at one of the jailer's windows and then came the sheriff, who began to take out the sash. Already the frightened crowd had gathered closer again and now a hush came over it, followed by a rustling and a murmur. Something was going to happen. Faces and gun-muzzles thickened at the port- holes and at the windows; the line of guards turned their faces sidewise and upward; the crowd on the fence scuffled for better positions; the people in the trees craned their necks from the branches or climbed higher, and there was a great scraping on all the roofs. Even the black crowd out on the hills seemed to catch the excitement and to sway, while spots of intense blue and vivid crimson came out here and there from the blackness when the women rose from their seats on the ground. Then--sharply--there was silence. The sheriff disappeared, and shut in by the sashless window as by a picture frame and blinking in the strong light, stood a man with black hair, cropped close, face pale and worn, and hands that looked white and thin--stood bad Rufe Tolliver.

He was going to confess--that was the rumour. His lawyers wanted him to confess; the preacher who had been singing hymns with him all morning wanted him to confess; the man himself said he wanted to confess; and now he was going to confess. What deadly mysteries he might clear up if he would! No wonder the crowd was eager, for there was no soul there but knew his record--and what a record! His best friends put his victims no lower than thirteen, and there looking up at him were three women whom he had widowed or orphaned, while at one corner of the jail-yard stood a girl in black--the sweetheart of Mockaby, for whose death Rufe was standing where he stood now. But his lips did not open. Instead he took hold of the side of the window and looked behind him. The sheriff brought him a chair and he sat down. Apparently he was weak and he was going to wait a while. Would he tell how he had killed one Falin in the presence of the latter's wife at a wild bee tree; how he had killed a sheriff by dropping to the ground when the sheriff fired, in this way dodging the bullet and then shooting the officer from where he lay supposedly dead; how he had thrown another Falin out of the Court House window and broken his neck--the Falin was drunk, Rufe always said, and fell out; why, when he was constable, he had killed another--because, Rufe said, he resisted arrest; how and where he had killed Red-necked Johnson, who was found out in the woods? Would he tell all that and more? If he meant to tell there was no sign. His lips kept closed and his bright black eyes were studying the situation; the little squad of youngsters, back to back, with their repeating shot-guns, the line of Falins along the wall toward whom protruded six shining barrels, the huddled crowd of Tollivers toward whom protruded six more--old Judd towering in front with young Dave on one side, tense as a leopard about to spring, and on the other Bub, with tears streaming down his face. In a flash he understood, and in that flash his face looked as though he had been suddenly struck a heavy blow by some one from behind, and then his elbows dropped on the sill of the window, his chin dropped into his hands and a murmur arose. Maybe he was too weak to stand and talk-- perhaps he was going to talk from his chair. Yes, he was leaning forward and his lips were opening, but no sound came. Slowly his eyes wandered around at the waiting people--in the trees, on the roofs and the fence--and then they dropped to old Judd's and blazed their appeal for a sign. With one heave of his mighty chest old Judd took off his slouch hat, pressed one big hand to the back of his head and, despite that blazing appeal, kept it there. At that movement Rufe threw his head up as though his breath had suddenly failed him, his face turned sickening white, and slowly again his chin dropped into his trembling hands, and still unbelieving he stared his appeal, but old Judd dropped his big hand and turned his head away. The condemned man's mouth twitched once, settled into defiant calm, and then he did one kindly thing. He turned in his seat and motioned Bob Berkley, who was just behind him, away from the window, and the boy, to humour him, stepped aside. Then he rose to his feet and stretched his arms wide. Simultaneously came the far-away crack of a rifle, and as a jet of smoke spurted above a clump of bushes on a little hill, three hundred yards away, Bad Rufe wheeled half-way round and fell back out of sight into the sheriff's arms. Every Falin made a nervous reach for his pistol, the line of gun-muzzles covering them wavered slightly, but the Tollivers stood still and unsurprised, and when Hale dashed from the door again, there was a grim smile of triumph on old Judd's face. He had kept his promise that Rufe should never hang.

"Steady there," said Hale quietly. His pistol was on his hip now and a Winchester was in his left hand.

"Stand where you are--everybody!"

There was the sound of hurrying feet within the jail. There was the clang of an iron door, the bang of a wooden one, and in five minutes from within the tall wooden box came the sharp click of a hatchet and then--dully:

"T-H-O-O-MP!" The dangling rope had tightened with a snap and the wind swayed it no more.

At his cell door the Red Fox stood with his watch in his hand and his eyes glued to the second-hand. When it had gone three times around its circuit, he snapped the lid with a sigh of relief and turned to his hammock and his Bible.

"He's gone now," said the Red Fox.

Outside Hale still waited, and as his eyes turned from the Tollivers to the Falins, seven of the faces among them came back to him with startling distinctness, and his mind went back to the opening trouble in the county-seat over the Kentucky line, years before--when eight men held one another at the points of their pistols. One face was missing, and that face belonged to Rufe Tolliver. Hale pulled out his watch.

"Keep those men there," he said, pointing to the Falins, and he turned to the bewildered Tollivers.

"Come on, Judd," he said kindly--"all of you."

Dazed and mystified, they followed him in a body around the corner of the jail, where in a coffin, that old Jadd had sent as a blind to his real purpose, lay the remains of Bad Rufe Tolliver with a harmless bullet hole through one shoulder. Near by was a wagon and hitched to it were two mules that Hale himself had provided. Hale pointed to it:

"I've done all I could, Judd. Take him away. I'll keep the Falins under guard until you reach the Kentucky line, so that they can't waylay you."

If old Judd heard, he gave no sign. He was looking down at the face of his foster-brother--his shoulder drooped, his great frame shrunken, and his iron face beaten and helpless. Again Hale spoke:

"I'm sorry for all this. I'm even sorry that your man was not a better shot."

The old man straightened then and with a gesture he motioned young Dave to the foot of the coffin and stooped himself at the head. Past the wagon they went, the crowd giving way before them, and with the dead Tolliver on their shoulders, old Judd and young Dave passed with their followers out of sight.