Axidava

The Reward

No one knew just how popular Cobbe was till Dick Walling shot him. It was Cobbe’s fault, but Walling didn’t wait to explain. Like others, he didn’t know the degree of the deceased’s popularity but he had a fair idea, and left Monterey as fast as his horse could take him. The animal was the speediest in the county.

He stopped at Parl’s on his way up the valley. Parl greeted him cordially. For half an hour they talked. The ’phone rang.

“That’s for me. I told Cobbe I’d stop here,” and with that Walling took down the receiver.

“Hello! This Mr. Parl’s. Oh, yes, you want me. What? Well, I’m damned! Not a sign. I’ll watch. Sure. What? How much? Whew!” He ended in a long whistle, and hung up.

“I’ll be sliding along now.” He shook hands, mounted, and rode toward Monterey till Parl shut the door. Then he circled, and went on up the valley. A thousand dollars reward, dead or alive! He knew now how popular Cobbe was.

They hadn’t even waited till the sheriff had failed to get him.

There are few ranches above Parl’s, and these have no telephones, so he rode by, unconcerned. Toward midnight he came to a place owned by a girl and her brother. He had loved the girl, but decided that she didn’t care for him. The brother liked him, though, and he could get some food for his stay in the mountains till things quieted down and he could leave the country.

The brother came to the door, pale and troubled. “He can’t have heard——” The thought was dispelled by the sudden relief on the boy’s face.

“Thank God, it’s you, Dick! Mary’s dying, and——” Walling followed him into the room where the girl lay, high in fever. “I couldn’t leave her alone, to get the doctor, but now you can go——” Something in Walling’s manner stopped him. “I’ll go, and you can stay with her. Are you on Firefly? I’ll take him. It’ll be quicker.” Before Walling could think what to say, the boy was gone. He went to call him back. The girl moaned. What could he do? He couldn’t refuse this duty fallen on him from the sky, even if the girl were a stranger; and this was the woman he loved, … but she was dying.

“Dick!… Oh, Dick!… Dick!…” The voice from the bed startled him. He went softly over to see what she wanted. In her eyes there was no recognition: she had spoken in delirium.

She loved him! But the rush of joy was swept away by the sight of her suffering. He bathed her face and hands. By and by the fever seemed less. She passed into a light sleep.

He made some coffee. While he drank it he had time to think of himself. When the doctor came from Monterey…. The doctor would know, and….

“I must clear out when I hear them coming.” Then another thought forced its way in: “Go now, while you’ve still a good lead. Go now!”

He went to the stable, saddled a horse, and led him out. Then the face of the girl came over him. He left the horse tied to the gate, and went back. She was sleeping still, but brokenly. He couldn’t go.

It was a two hours’ ride to Parl’s, where the boy could ’phone…. If the doctor left Monterey immediately, he’d get to the house about five. It was now nearly two.

The girl slept. Walling knew it was the critical time. If she woke better, she would probably recover. The thought was sweet to him. If she went again into delirium…. He sat still, thinking. The hours passed very slowly.

Suddenly Walling heard a step outside. He had heard no horse coming. He looked out cautiously and saw four men with rifles. Walling cocked his revolver, took down the boy’s rifle from the wall and loaded it. He could account for some—and those who were left might depart. It would be a battle, anyway. There was no use being taken alive. Better be shot than hanged.

The leader made a signal. Walling raised his gun. And then—Mary stirred. Her battle, like his, was still undecided. If she slept on, and woke refreshed, she would get well. If not….

Walling laid down his rifle and stepped outside. The men covered him. As he was taken down the road to the waiting horses, the doctor and the girl’s brother drove up.

“She’s asleep,” said Walling.

The boy showed no surprise—he had heard the story from the doctor—but his voice was pitiful:

“Why didn’t you?… I didn’t know…. Oh, my God! … and you stayed … when you could have got away!” He turned to the men with a hopeless look. “It’s my fault!” he cried. “He stayed with my sister. I thought she was dying. He didn’t tell me he couldn’t stay! He’d be safe in the mountains by now…. Oh, my God!”

The leader glanced at his companions. They were stern men, but they were moving uneasily. The situation was unbearable.

“How long have you been here?”

“Since about midnight,” answered Walling, though he couldn’t see what difference it made. The leader took out his watch.

“Twelve minutes past five now. Say, we’ve been twelve minutes getting you, that leaves five hours. We’ll stay here and rest our horses. At twelve minutes past ten we’ll start again. That suit you, boys?”

“What do you mean?” asked Walling.

“I mean you still have your five hours’ start; you haven’t lost anything by staying with the sick girl.”

Walling went back to the house. Mary was still sleeping. He touched her hand. It seemed cooler.

“Tell her I’ll write—if I can.”

“Good-bye,” said the boy.

As he went out Walling saw the men unsaddling their horses. He took off his hat to them as he rode away into the mountains.

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