Chapter XVI. The Ordeal
 

"What are you doing here?"

Curly was a sorry looking specimen of humanity as he stood before his stern questioner, the ruler of Glen West. His clothes were torn, and his face dirty and unshaven. His eyes glowed with a sullen light of hatred, mingled with a nameless fear as he glanced furtively around the room.

"What are you doing here?" Weston repeated. "Why don't you answer? Are you deaf?"

"I was prospectin'," was the surly reply.

"Where?"

"In the hills, north of Crooked Trail."

"And why did you come through the pass?"

"Me pardner an' I got lost; that's why."

"Who was your partner?"

"Slim Fales, from Big Draw."

"Where is he now?"

"Search me. He escaped, while I got pinched."

"Did you expect to find gold near the Golden Crest?"

"We thought it worth the try."

"You know better now, don't you?"

Curly made no reply, but kept his eyes fixed upon the floor.

"It seems to me that you were prospecting for something more valuable than gold, weren't you?" Weston queried.

"What do you mean?" and Curly lifted his head.

"You were prospecting for a woman, and that woman happens to be my daughter. Deny it, if you dare."

"I do deny it," Curly stoutly protested. "Your daughter is nothing to me."

Jim Weston's right hand toyed with a paper-weight on his desk, and his eyes gleamed with anger.

"You lie, Curly, and you know it," he charged. "You have had your foul eyes upon my daughter ever since you first saw her. You have declared over and over again that one day she would be yours."

Curly's face grew livid, and he tried to speak. But Weston lifted his hand.

"Wait until I am through," he thundered. "Have you not used my daughter's name very often while gambling? And did you not bet a short time ago at Big Draw that you would cross the Golden Crest and lure my daughter to a fate worse than death? You know it is true, and yet you have the impudence to stand here and deny it."

Curly's eyes were again fixed upon the floor, and he made no reply to this accusation. His terror of this man was becoming great. How did he know so much? he asked himself.

"Now, what should be done to a thing like you?" Weston continued. "Your record is well known, not only here but all along the coast. No innocent woman or girl is safe when you are around, and you are a menace to any community. You leave the marks of your filthy trail wherever you go. And you are not alone in your villainous deeds, for there are others just like you, who defy the laws of God and man. So far you have escaped, but now you shall pay for your vile and cowardly acts. It would be a sin to allow a creature like you to remain at large. It is far better to settle with you immediately and thus make you incapable of doing more harm in the future. You took it upon yourself to enter Glen West to ruin my daughter, and you must abide by the result."

Curly fully understood the meaning of these words, and his face blanched with terror. He lifted his eyes and tried to speak. But intelligible words failed to come, for he was almost paralyzed with fear.

"Death is too good a punishment for you," Weston resumed. "But as that is about the only thing which will strike terror into the hearts of human devils, of which you are the chief, it must be done. It may teach others to keep clear of Glen West after this."

With a howl Curly dropped upon his knees. His teeth chattered, and his body trembled violently. He stretched out his hands in a beseeching manner.

"For God's sake, don't kill me!" he yelled. "Let me go, an' I swear I'll never come near this place again."

"H'm, you are too late with your prayers, Curly. It's nothing less than the Ordeal for you now, so stop your yelps. If you don't of your own accord, we shall be forced to do something to make you."

He then turned to Sconda and gave a brief order in the Indian tongue. The next instant Curly was hurried out of the house, and down the trail leading to the village.

Weston sat for a while in his room after the others had gone. The grim expression had now left his face, and his eyes twinkled, while a smile lurked about the corners of his mouth. Anyone watching would have pronounced him the most hardened villain in existence. How could a man smile who had just sentenced a fellow creature to death? This man's heart must be hard and cold as an iceberg. But Weston's thoughts were evidently not unpleasant, and when he at length picked up his hat and left the house he was in an excellent frame of mind. Could Glen have seen him then she would have wondered more than ever.

The light of day had not yet faded from the land, although the high ridge of the Golden Crest placed the village in deep shadows. The sky was heavy with big clouds, presaging a storm. The wind was steadily increasing, and Weston knew that the rain would shortly be upon them.

He continued on his way down through the village, past the store and the last house in the place until he came to the edge of a thicket of firs and jack-pines. Here he paused and listened intently, but no sound could he hear. Advancing fifty yards more, he left the main thoroughfare and entered upon a narrow trail leading down toward the lake. The trees were thicker here, and the ground suddenly sloped to a valley a short distance ahead. Weston needed no light to guide him, and he walked with the assurance of one well acquainted with his surroundings.

In a few minutes a light gleamed through the trees, and a smile of satisfaction overspread Weston's face. He knew that the natives were obeying orders and doing their part. Beyond was a small clearing, and coming to the edge of this, he again paused and watched unseen all that was taking place.

It was a most gruesome spot, this Valley of the Ordeal, and Curly was by no means the first who had been conducted hither. But no one had ever come in a more cringing manner than did this latest victim. Some had shown the craven spirit, and had begged for mercy, while others had fought and cursed their captors. But Curly was different. Whatever spark of manhood he possessed deserted him the moment he left the big house on the hill. He sank upon the ground, and his guards had to drag him along by main force.

He wept and moaned all the way through the village until the valley was reached. Then what he beheld struck him dumb with terror, and for a while he sat crouched upon the ground, staring wild-eyed upon the Indians as they began their preparations for the Ordeal.

There were about two dozen natives present, and they knew their work thoroughly, due, no doubt, to considerable experience in the past. Near the edge of the thicket, on the opposite side of the clearing from where Weston was standing, was the blackened stump of a big fir tree. To this Curly was dragged, and several of the men were forced to hold him up while he was being securely bound with his back to the trunk. About his feet dry wood was then placed, and half way up his body. When this had been accomplished, the Indians formed themselves in a circle about the unhappy man, and began to chant a slow weird dirge in the native tongue.

Between them and the tree of punishment a small fire was burning, and the light from this clearly exposed the face of the bound man. His eyes were dilated with terror, his weak lower jaw had dropped, and his mouth was wide open. So overcome was he, that he had no strength left to stand, so his entire weight rested upon his bonds. Never was there a more pitiable object of abject terror and cowardice. But the Indians did not seem in the least affected by their captive's misery. With stern, impassive faces they went on with their chanting, which steadily increased in weirdness as they continued.

At length they ceased, and at once Sconda seized a burning brand from the fire and approached the prisoner. Then wild shrieks rent the air as Curly frantically struggled to free himself. He might as well have addressed his words to the trees which surrounded him, as to those grim natives of the north.

Sconda had already stooped, as if to touch the brand to the inflammable material about the victim's feet, when Weston stepped within the ring, and ordered him to wait. Sconda immediately straightened himself up and stepped back.

"Save me! Save me!" Curly yelled. "Don't let these devils burn me! For God's sake, save me! Oh, oh!"

For a few seconds Weston stood with folded arms looking upon the helpless man. Then his lips curled in a sarcastic smile.

"You've got only yourself to blame for this," he began. "Did you not bet that you would defy all the power of Glen West, and lure my daughter to her ruin? You can't deny it."

"No, no, I don't deny it. I was a fool, a madman. But save me, oh, save me! Don't let them burn me!"

"Do you think you are worth saving, Curly Inkles? You are a plague-spot in any community. You have brought untold misery upon many innocent ones, and why should you be allowed to do so to others?"

"I will never do any harm again," Curly whined. "I swear by all that is holy that I will change my life."

"Bah, I wouldn't give the snap of a finger for all the oaths you make, Curly. You don't know the meaning of an oath. Your soul is so seared and blackened that one might as well try to change that stump to which you are bound into a living one as to transform you into a good citizen. No, it is better for you to be off the earth than on it."

"But it's murder!" Curly yelled. "Would you murder a helpless man? You will hang for it, and all these devils here."

"How do you dare to speak about murdering a helpless man?" Weston asked. "What happened to Bill Ducett, at Black Ravine?"

At these words Curly's eyes fairly started from their sockets, and the perspiration poured down his face in great beads.

"W-what d'ye know about that?" he gasped. "W-who are you, anyway?"

"Oh, never mind who I am, or how much I know. It is sufficient for the present to say that I have all the knowledge necessary to stretch your neck. You have now run the length of your wild career, and it shows you that it is impossible to escape justice here or anywhere else. But, there, I've wasted too much time talking to you, so get ready."

"Oh, oh, don't burn me!" Curly shrieked, as Weston turned and spoke to Sconda.

"Burn you? No!" was the contemptuous reply. "I wouldn't foul this place by burning a thing like you; it wouldn't be fair to others who have been brought here. They all were men with some sparks of manliness and spirit left in their bodies. But you, bah!"

He motioned to Sconda, who at once cut the bonds, and Curly fell forward at Weston's feet.

"Get up," the latter ordered, "and never let me catch you again on this side of the Golden Crest. The Indians will deal with you now. After that, they will dump you beyond the pass, and the sooner you hit the trail for Big Draw the better it will be for you. Thank your stars, Curly Inkles, that you have escaped this time."

There was much suppressed excitement in Glen West that night, for many had heard the shrieks of terror from the Valley of the Ordeal. But no one dared to question the four and twenty men who later that evening crowded into the store where they received a liberal supply of tobacco ordered by their Big White Chief. They were men who could be trusted, and they well knew how to keep a secret.