THE BLACK BOX
TONGUES OF FLAME
From the shadows of the trees on the further side of the river, Craig with strained eyes watched Quest’s struggle. He saw him reach Lenora, watched him struggle to the bank with her, waited until he had lifted her on to his horse. Then he turned slowly around and faced the one country in the world where freedom was still possible for him. He looked into a wall of darkness, penetrated only at one spot by a little blaze of light. Slowly, with his arm through the bridle of his horse, he limped towards it. As he drew nearer and discovered its source, he hesitated. The light came through the uncurtained windows of a saloon, three long, yellow shafts illuminating the stunted shrubs and sandy places. Craig kept in the shadow between them and drew a little nearer. From inside he could hear the thumping of a worn piano, the twanging of a guitar, the rattle of glasses, the uproarious shouting of men, the shrill laughter of women. The tired man and the lame horse stole reluctantly a little nearer. Craig listened once more wearily. It was home he longed for so much—and rest. The very thought of the place sickened him. Even when he reached the door, he hesitated and instead of entering stood back amongst the shadows. If only he could find any other sort of shelter!
Inside, the scene was ordinary enough. There was a long bar, against which were lounging half-a-dozen typical Mexican cowpunchers. There was a small space cleared for dancing, at the further end of which two performers were making weird but vehement music. Three girls were dancing with cowboys, not ungracefully considering the state of the floor and the frequent discords in the music. One of them—the prettiest—stopped abruptly and pushed her partner away from her.
“You have drunk too much, José!” she exclaimed. “You cannot dance. You tread on my feet and you lean against me. I do not like it. I will dance with you another night when you are sober. Go away, please.”
Her cavalier swayed for a moment on his feet. Then he looked down upon her with an evil glitter in his eyes. He was tall and thin, with a black moustache and yellow, unpleasant-looking teeth.
“So you will not dance any longer with José?” he muttered. “Very well, you shall drink with him, then. We will sit together at one of those little tables. Listen, you shall drink wine.”
“I do not want to drink wine with you. All that I wish is to be left alone,” the girl insisted curtly. “Go and play cards, if you want to. There is Pietro over there, and Diego. Perhaps you may win some money. They say that drunkards have all the luck.”
José leered at her.
“Presently I will play cards,” he said. “Presently I will win all their money and I will buy jewelry for you, Marta—stones that look like diamonds and will sparkle in your neck and in your hair.”
She turned disdainfully away.
“I do not want your jewelry, José,” she declared.
He caught her suddenly by the wrist.
“Perhaps this is what you want,” he cried, as he stooped down to kiss her.
She swung her right hand round and struck him on the face. He staggered back for a moment. There was a red flush which showed through the tan of his cheek. Then he drew a little nearer to her, and before she could escape he had passed his long arm around her body. He drew her to the chair placed by the side of the wall. His left hand played with the knife at his belt.
“Marta, little sweetheart,” he said mockingly, “you must pay for that blow. Don’t be afraid,” he went on, as he drew the knife across his leather breeches. “A little scratch across your cheek, so! It is but the brand of your master, a love-token from José. Steady, now, little Maverick!”
The girl struggled violently, but José was strong, such brawls were common, and those of the company who noticed at all, merely laughed at the girl’s futile struggles. José’s arm was already raised with the knife in his hand, when a sudden blow brought a yell of pain to his lips. The knife fell clattering to the floor. He sprang up, his eyes red with fury. A man had entered the door from behind and was standing within a few feet of him, a man with long, pale face, dark eyes, travel-stained, and with the air of a fugitive. A flood of incoherent abuse streamed from José’s lips. He stooped for the knife. Marta threw herself upon him. The two cowboys who had been dancing suddenly intervened. The girls screamed.
“It was José’s fault!” Marta cried. “José was mad. He would have killed me!”
Craig faced them all with sudden courage.
“As I came in,” he explained, “that man had his knife raised to stab the girl. You don’t allow that sort of thing, do you, here?”
The two cowboys linked their arms through José’s and led him off towards the door.
“The stranger’s right, José,” one of them insisted. “You can’t carve a girl up in company.”
The girl clutched at Craig’s arm.
“Sit down here, please,” she begged. “Wait.”
She disappeared for a moment and came back with a glass full of wine, which she set down on the table.
“Drink this,” she invited. “And thank you for saving me.”
Craig emptied the glass eagerly. He was beginning to be more than a little conscious of his fatigue.
“I just happened to be the first to see him,” he said. “They aren’t quite wild enough to allow that here, are they?”
“Quien sabe? The girls do not like me! The men do not care,” she declared. “José took me by surprise, though, or I would have killed him. But who are you, and where did you come from?”
“I have just crossed the border,” he replied.
She nodded understandingly.
“Were they after you?”
“Yes! with a warrant for my arrest!”
She patted his hand.
“You are safe now,” she whispered. “We care that much for a United States warrant,” and she snapped her slim fingers. “You shall stay with us for a time. We will take care of you.”
He sighed wearily.
“If I do,” he said, “there will be trouble. Wherever I go there is trouble. I have been round the world looking for peace. I shall never find it in this world.”
Her eyes filled with tears. There was something hopelessly pathetic in his appearance.
“You shall find it here,” she promised.
Back in the camp, a spirit of deviltry had entered once more into Long Jim and his mates. A tactless remark on the part of one of the deputies had set alight once more the smouldering fire of resentment which the cowboys had all the time felt against them. At a word from Long Jim they were taken by surprise and again tied to the wagon.
“These guys ain’t got a sufficiency yet, boys. Limber up them guns again. Same order as before. Put a few more petals on them flowers, and I’ll trim their eyelashes for them.”
The deputies spluttered with rage and fear. Shots rained about them and the canvas of the wagon was riddled. French began to get restless.
“Look here,” he said to Laura, “I can’t stand this any longer. It don’t seem right to have two officers of the law treated like that, any way. I guess I’ll have to butt in again.”
“Don’t,” Laura advised bluntly. “You’ll get yours if you do.”
A yell from one of the deputies clinched the matter. French drew his revolver and advanced into the centre of the little group.
“Say, you fellows,” he exclaimed, “you’ve got to stop this! Those men came here on a legitimate errand and it’s your duty to respect them.”
Long Jim strolled up to the Inspector.
“Maybe you’re right, Mr. French,” he remarked, “but—”
With a swoop of his long arm he snatched French’s gun away, examined it for a moment, looked at French and shook his head.
“You’re too fat, Inspector,” he declared sorrowfully, “still too fat. That’s what’s the matter with you. Another ten minutes’ exercise will do you all the good in the world.”
A bullet struck the dust a few inches from French’s feet. Furious with rage, he found himself once more forced to resort to undignified antics. This time, however, Laura intervened. She walked straight up into the little circle and stood close to French’s side, regardless of the levelled guns.
“Look here, Long Jim, or whatever your name is,” she protested, “you just call your crowd off and stop this. Undo those two deputies. A joke’s a joke, but this has gone far enough. If you don’t untie them, I will. Take your choice and get a move on.”
Long Jim scratched his chin for a moment.
“Waal,” he said, “I guess that what the lady says goes. We ain’t often favoured with ladies’ society, boys, and I guess when we are we’d better do as we are told. Turn ’em loose, boys.”
They abandoned the sport a little reluctantly. Suddenly they all paused to listen. The sound of a horse’s slow footfall was heard close at hand. Presently Quest appeared out of the shadows, carrying Lenora in his arms. Laura rushed forward.
“Lenora!” she cried. “Is she hurt?”
Quest laid her tenderly upon the ground.
“We had a spill at the bridge,” he explained quickly. “I don’t know whether Craig loosened the supports. He got over all right, but it went down under Lenora, who was following, and I had to get her out of the river. Where’s the Professor?”
The Professor came ambling down from the tent where he had been lying. He stooped at once over Lenora’s still unconscious form.
“Dear me!” he exclaimed. “Dear me! Come, come!”
He passed his hand over her side and made a brief examination.
“Four ribs broken,” he pronounced. “It will be a week, at any rate, before we are able to move her. Nothing more serious, so far as I can see, Mr. Quest, but she’ll need rest and all the comfort we can give her.”
“Say, that’s too bad!” Long Jim declared. “If you’ve got to stay around for a time, though, you can have the tents. We boys can double up anywhere, or bunk on the ground. That’s right, ain’t it?” he added, turning around to the cowboys.
There was a little grunt of acquiescence. They carried Lenora to the largest of the tents and made her as comfortable as possible. She opened her eyes on the way.
“I am so sorry,” she faltered. “It’s just my side. It—hurts. How did I get out of the stream?”
“I fished you out,” Quest whispered. “Don’t talk now. We are going to make you comfortable.”
She pressed his hand and closed her eyes again. The Professor returned.
“We’ll make the young lady comfortable all right,” he assured them cheerfully, “but there’s one thing you can make up your minds to. We are here for a week at the least.”
They all looked at one another. The Inspector was the only one who preserved an air of cheerfulness, and he was glancing towards Laura.
“Guess we’ll have to make the best of it,” he murmured.
The girl drew a low stool over to Craig’s side. He was sitting in a rough chair tilted back against the adobe wall of the saloon.
“As tired as ever?” she asked, laying her hand upon his for a moment.
He turned his head and looked at her.
“Always tired,” he answered listlessly.
She made a little grimace.
“But you are so strange,” she protested. “Over the hills there are the steam cars. They would take you to some of our beautiful cities where all is light and gaiety. You are safe here, whatever your troubles may have been. You say that you have money, and if you are lonely,” she added, dropping her voice, “you need not go alone.”
He patted her hand affectionately but there was something a little forced about the action.
“Child,” he said, “it is so hard to make you understand. I might lose myself for a few minutes, it is true, over yonder. Perhaps, even,” he added, “you might help me to forget. And then there would be the awakening. That is always the same. Sometimes at night I sleep, and when I sleep I rest, and when my eyes are opened in the morning the weight comes back and sits upon my heart, and the strength seems to pass from my limbs and the will from my brain.”
Her eyes were soft and her voice shook a little as she leaned towards him. Something in his helplessness had kindled the protective spirit in her.
“Has life been so terrible for you?” she whispered. “Have you left behind—but no! you never could have been really wicked. You are not very old, are you? Why do you not stand up and be a man? If you have done wrong, then very likely people have done wrong things to you. Why should you brood over these memories? Why—… What are you looking at? Who are these people?”
The Professor, with Quest and Long Jim, suddenly appeared round the corner of the building. They walked towards Craig. He shrank back in his place.
“If these are your enemies,” the girl cried fiercely, “remember that they cannot touch you here. I’ll have the boys out in a minute, if they dare to try it.”
Craig struggled to his feet. He made no answer. His eyes were fixed upon the Professor’s. The girl passed her arm through his and dragged him into the saloon. They passed José in the doorway. He scoffed at them.
“Say, the boss will fire you, Marta, if you waste all your time with that Yankee,” he muttered.
Marta drew the red rose from the bosom of her dress and placed it in Craig’s buttonhole. Then she led him without a word to a seat.
“If these men try any tricks in here,” she said, “there’ll be trouble.”
Almost at that moment they all three entered. Long Jim nodded to Craig in friendly fashion.
“It’s all right, cookie,” he told them. “Don’t you look so scared. This is just a bit of parley-vous business, that’s all.”
The Professor held out a piece of paper. He handed it over to Craig.
“Craig,” he announced, “this is a dispatch which I found in Allguez with my letters. It is addressed to you, but under the circumstances you will scarcely wonder that I opened it. You had better read it.”
Craig accepted the cable-form and read it through slowly to himself:—
Craig sat for a moment as though stunned. The girl leaned over towards him.
“Are they trying to take you on a warrant?” she whispered. “Remember you don’t need to go unless you want to.”
Craig shook his head.
“This is something quite different,” he explained. “Leave me for a moment, Marta. I must talk to these people.”
She slipped regretfully away from his side and out into the darkness. He sat with his eyes fixed upon the cablegram. Then he turned towards Quest.
“Fate seems to be too strong for me,” he admitted. “Leave me alone and I promise you that I’ll go at once to New York, settle Mary’s future, and then make a full disclosure.”
Jim touched him on the shoulder.
“Remember,” he told him, “you ain’t no call to leave here unless you want to. Those deputies don’t go this side of the border. You’re safe as long as you like to stay.”
Craig nodded gratefully.
“All the same,” he said, “I fear that I must go.”
The Professor coughed.
“I am sure, Craig,” he declared, “that you have decided wisely.”
Craig looked gloomily away.
“There is nothing else for me to do,” he said. “The child must be met and looked after. Besides, I am sick of it all. You may as well know the truth.”
“Why not now?” Quest suggested softly.
“In New York,” Craig replied, “and not before.”
Quest and the Professor exchanged meaning glances.
“Very well,” the former decided, turning away, “in a week from to-day, Craig, I shall expect you to report at the Professor’s house.”
They left the room together. Long Jim lingered by Craig’s side.
“Those guys have been scaring you some, I guess,” he remarked. “Forget ’em, cookie. They can’t touch you here. Of course, if you go to New York it’s your own show.”
“I know that,” Craig replied gloomily.
One of the girls passed her arm through Long Jim’s.
“Just one dance,” she whispered.
He hesitated, looking out of the window. Then he shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m tired of those guys,” he remarked to Craig with a grin. “Guess I’ll stay here for a bit.”
Craig was left alone for a few minutes. Suddenly Marta glided in and sat by his side. Her eyes were flashing with anger.
“You know what they said, those two, as they passed out?” she whispered hoarsely. “I heard them. They are going to board the eight-thirty train to-morrow morning. The dark man turned and said to the other—‘If he is not on that, we’ll wait till we find him. Once we get him in New York, he’s our man.’”
A little exclamation of anger broke from Craig’s lips. The girl caught at his arm.
“Don’t go,” she begged. “Don’t go. There are plenty of places near here where you can hide, where we could go together and live quite simply. I’d work for you. Take me away from this, somewhere over the hills. Don’t go to New York. They are cruel, those men. They are hunting you—I can see it in their faces.”
Craig shook his head sadly.
“Little girl,” he said, “I should like to go with you along that valley and over the hills and forget that I had ever lived in any other world. But I can’t do it. There’s a child there now, on the ocean, nearer to New York every day, my sister’s own child and no one to meet her. And—there are the other things. I have sinned and I must pay…. My God!”
The room suddenly rang with Marta’s shriek. Through the open window by which they were sitting, an arm wrapped in a serape had suddenly hovered over them. Craig, in starting back, had just escaped the downward blow of the knife, which had buried itself in Marta’s arm. She fell back, screaming.
“It’s José!” she cried. “The brute! The beast!”
Craig swung to his feet, furious. Long Jim, cursing fiercely, drew his gun. At that moment the door of the saloon was thrown open. José came reeling in, his serape over his shoulder, a drunken grin on his face. He staggered towards them.
“José, you beast!” the girl called out, and fell back, fainting.
There was the sound of a revolver shot and José reeled backwards and fell with a cry across the sanded floor. Jim thrust his smoking gun into his belt and caught Craig by the arm.
“Say, we’d better get out of this, cookie!” he muttered.
They were hustled out. Apparently José was unpopular, for every one seemed only anxious to have them clear away.
“I’ll get you into the camp quietly,” Long Jim muttered. “You’ll be safer there for the night. Then you can make that eighty-thirty in the morning.”
Lenora, with her bed dragged to the opening of the tent, eagerly greeted the little party on their return. Quest at once came and sat by her side.
“Where’s Laura,” he asked, “and the Inspector?”
She smiled and pointed to the rising ground behind them. In the faint moonlight two forms were just visible.
“The Inspector isn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer,” Lenora remarked cheerfully, “and honestly, if you ask me, I believe that Laura is weakening a little. She pretended she didn’t want to go out for a walk, and mumbled something about leaving me, but she soon changed her mind when the Inspector pressed her. They have been up there for an hour or more.”
“French has got it bad,” he declared, “almost as badly as I have, Lenora.”
She laughed at him. Her face was a little drawn with pain but her eyes were very soft.
“I wonder if you have it very badly,” she murmured.
He held her hand for a moment.
“I think you know,” he said.
As they talked they heard the coyotes barking in the distance. Presently Laura and the Inspector returned.
“Nice sort of nurse I am,” the former grumbled. “It’s all the fault of this man. He would keep me out there talking rubbish.”
“We were watching you, dear,” Lenora said quietly. “Somehow it didn’t seem to us that you were particularly anxious to get away.”
The Inspector chuckled.
“That’s one for Miss Laura,” he declared, with an air of satisfaction. “Little bit hard on me generally.”
“Oh! I’m all right if I’m left alone,” Laura retorted, bustling around. “Come along, you folks, if we are going to have any supper to-night.”
They sat round the opening before Lenora’s tent till the moon was high in the heavens. Quest, who had been on the outside of the circle for some little time, suddenly rose to his feet and crossed over to the cook wagon. Long Jim, who was sitting on the steps, glanced up a little surlily.
“Who’s inside there?” Quest asked.
Long Jim removed his pipe from his teeth.
“That don’t sound none too civil a question for a guest,” he remarked, “but if you want to know, our new Chinese cookie is there.”
“Sorry if I seemed abrupt,” he apologised. “You’ve been very good to us and I’m sure we are uncommonly obliged to you, Jim. The only reason I asked the question was that I saw a face in the door there and it gave me a start. For a moment I thought it was Craig back again.”
“He’s gone to New York, or going to-morrow morning,” Jim replied. “I don’t think he’s so powerful fond of your company that he’d come round here looking for it.”
Quest strolled off again and glanced at his watch as he rejoined the little group.
“Well,” he said, “I think we’ll turn in. Seven o’clock to-morrow morning, Inspector. Jim’s sending one of the boys with us and we shall catch the Eastern Limited at the junction.”
The Inspector yawned.
“This open-air life makes me sleepy,” he confessed.
“To bed, all of us,” Quest concluded, turning away.
Quest awoke the next morning, stretched out his hand and glanced at the watch by the side of his bed. It was barely six o’clock. He turned over and dozed again, looked again at half-past six, and finally, at a few minutes to seven, rose and made a hasty toilet. Then, in the act of placing his watch in his waistcoat pocket, he gave a sudden start. By its side, half covered by the handkerchief which he had thrown upon the little table, stood a small black box! For a moment he was motionless. Then he stretched out his hand, removed the lid and drew out the usual neatly folded piece of paper:—
Quest for a moment was puzzled. Then he hurried into the next tent, where the Professor was sleeping peacefully.
“Say, Professor, what’s the time by your watch?” Quest asked, shaking him gently.
The Professor sat up and drew his chronometer from under his pillow.
“Seven o’clock,” he replied, “five minutes past, maybe.”
“That seems all right,” he declared. “I’ll explain later, Professor.”
He hurried out into French’s tent and found the Inspector just drawing on his shoes.
“French, what’s the time?” he demanded.
“Three minutes past seven, or thereabouts,” French replied, yawning. “I’m coming right along. We’ve lots of time. Three-quarters of an hour ought to do it, the boys say.”
Quest held out a strip of paper.
“This gave me a turn,” he said quietly. “I found it in a black box by the side of my bed.”
French gazed at it in a puzzled manner. They walked outside to the camp, where the cowboys were finishing their breakfast.
“Say, boss,” one of them called out, “you’re not making that eight-thirty train to New York?”
“Why not?” Quest asked quickly. “It’s only three quarters of an hour’s ride, is it?”
“Maybe not,” the other replied, “but as it’s eight now, your chances ain’t looking lively. Kind of overslept, haven’t you?”
Both men glanced once more at their watches. Then Quest thrust his back with a little oath.
“Our watches have been set back!” he exclaimed. “The Hands again!”
For a moment they looked at one another, dumbfounded. Then Quest moved towards the corral.
“Say, is there any quicker way to the depot?” he enquired of the cowboys.
They heard his question indifferently.
“Fifty dollars,” Quest continued, “to any one who can take me by a quicker route.”
One of them rose slowly to his feet.
“Waal,” he observed, “fifty dollars would come in kind of handy. Yes, I reckon I can cut off a mile or two for you.”
“Fifty dollars for you, then,” Quest replied, as they hurried towards the horses, “and an extra ten if we make the train.”
They galloped off into the distance. The cowboys finished their breakfast and went off to their work. Laura stole out from her tent and started off in rather a shame-faced manner for a ride. Presently Lenora opened her eyes. She, too, stretched out her hand for her watch. Suddenly she sat up in bed with a little exclamation. On the table by her side was a small black box. She took off the lid with trembling fingers, drew out a scrap of paper and read:—
Lenora glanced at Laura’s empty bed. Then she staggered to the opening of the tent.
“Laura!” she cried.
There was no one there. The cowboys had all gone to their work, Laura had passed out of sight across the ridge in the distance. Lenora staggered to the cook wagon, where the Chinese cook was sitting cleaning plates.
“Listen!” she cried. “They are in danger, the three men who have gone off to the depot! If you’ll ride after them, I will give you a hundred dollars. Give them this,” she added, holding out the scrap of paper.
The Chinaman shook his head. He glanced at the slip of paper indifferently and went on with his work.
“No can ride, missee,” he said.
Lenora looked around helplessly. The camp was empty. She staggered across towards her own horse.
“Come and help me,” she ordered.
The Chinaman came unwillingly. They found her saddle but he only gazed at it in a stolid sort of fashion.
“No can fix,” he said. “Missee no can ride. Better go back bed.”
Lenora pushed him on one side. With a great effort she managed to reach her place in the saddle. Then she turned and, with her face to the depot, galloped away. The pain was excruciating. She could only keep herself in the saddle with an effort. Yet all the time that one sentence was ringing in her mind—“Tongues of flame!” She kept looking around anxiously. Suddenly the road dropped from a little decline. She was conscious of a wave of heat. In the distance she could see the smoke rolling across the open. She touched her horse with the quirt. The spot which she must pass to keep on the track to the depot was scarcely a hundred yards ahead, but already the fire seemed to be running like quicksilver across the ground licking up the dry greasewood with indeed a flaming tongue. She glanced once behind, warned by the heat. The fire was closing in upon her. A puff of smoke suddenly enveloped her. She coughed. Her head began to swim and a fit of giddiness assailed her. She rocked in her saddle and the pony came to a sudden standstill, faced by the mass of rolling smoke and flame.
“Sanford!” Lenora cried. “Save me!”
The pony reared. She slipped from the saddle and fell across the track.