The Coward

Johnson stopped at the edge of the clearing and looked carefully at the hut. A few yards back, where the spring crossed the trail, there were tracks of a woman’s shoe-pack. It was country where one didn’t live long without the habit of noticing things.

The tracks were light, mostly toes, and far apart for so small a foot. Johnson knew no woman travelled north so fast, into the wilderness, and without a pack, at that, for diversion, so he had sidestepped from the trail, silently slipped off his tump-line, and circled to the edge of the clearing, about a dozen yards from where the trail struck it. There in the shadow of the pines he searched the clearing with his eyes. No sign of life.

The door of the hut was shut, but a couple of boards had been knocked off one of the window openings. The tall grass was trampled toward the spring. Over to the right was a wreck of a birch, where some one had been cutting firewood. Nothing especially alarming, but Johnson was not popular and a few early experiences had made him cautious. He stood there, silent, for perhaps fifteen minutes, before he started for the door. There was still no sound, and he stepped inside, gun in hand.

A rusty little yacht stove, a few shelves, and a rude table were all the cookroom contained. Beyond was the bunkroom with a large double-decked bunk against one wall, and opposite it the window. Johnson went on in.

In the lower bunk lay the body of a man with a hunting knife sticking in his breast. He lay staring at the ceiling with a rather silly smile, as though he had been grinning, and death had come too quickly for it to fade.

“MacNamara—— My God!”

Johnson was unnerved. It was not often that men die by the knife in the North country. Then a great load seemed to leave his shoulders, for this dead man had sworn, not three weeks before, to shoot him at sight—and Johnson was known to be a coward. No more need he sleep with an eye open, or slip into towns at night. MacNamara, thank God, was dead.

The dead man’s pack was in the other bunk, and scattered around the room were hairpins, a small rhinestone ring, and a few other feminine trinkets. “Woman!” said Johnson—and then he saw the note. It was scrawled on the cover torn from an old magazine. It read:

“Ed, you’ll find this sure. Mac was going to lay for you and pot you at the White Rocks. I couldn’t find you, so I promised to come here to Carmels with him. When he climbed in the bunk I give it to him—the damned fool!”

It was unsigned.

The sun was very near the western hilltop. Johnson went to the woods and returned with his pack; he dropped it near the stove in the cookroom. Then he burned the note. Next he took a small bag of parched corn out of his pack and concealed in it the woman’s little things, and put the bag in his shirt. There remained only one thing to do. Without looking at the dead man’s face he drew the knife out of his breast and forced his own into the wound. The woman’s knife he took to the door and hurled far out into the woods.

There wasn’t much daylight left. He closed the door quietly and started for the trail, north.

“I’ll have to hurry,” said Johnson.


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