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XXVII


Dick had picked up life again where he had left it off so long
before. Gone was David's house built on the sands of forgetfulness.
Gone was David himself, and Lucy. Gone not even born into his
consciousness was Elizabeth. The war, his work, his new place in
the world, were all obliterated, drowned in the flood of memories
revived by the shock of Bassett's revelations.

Not that the breaking point had revealed itself as such at once.
There was confusion first, then stupor and unconsciousness, and out
of that, sharply and clearly, came memory. It was not ten years
ago, but an hour ago, a minute ago, that he had stood staring at
Howard Lucas on the floor of the billiard room, and had seen
Beverly run in through the door.

"Bev!" he was saying. "Bev! Don't look like that!"

He moved and found he was in bed. It had been a dream. He drew a
long breath, looked about the room, saw the woman and greeted her.
But already he knew he had not been dreaming. Things were
sharpening in his mind. He shuddered and looked at the floor, but
nobody lay there. Only the horror in his mind, and the instinct
to get away from it. He was not thinking at all, but rising in him
was not only the need for flight, but the sense of pursuit. They
were after him. They would get him. They must never get him alive.

Instinct and will took the place of thought, and whatever closed
chamber in his brain had opened, it clearly influenced his physical
condition. He bore all the stigmata of prolonged and heavy
drinking; his nerves were gone; he twitched and shook. When he
got down the fire-escape his legs would scarcely hold him.

The discovery of Ed Rickett's horse in the courtyard, saddled and
ready, fitted in with the brain pattern of the past.

Like one who enters a room for the first time, to find it already
familiar, for a moment he felt that this thing that he was doing
he had done before. Only for a moment. Then partial memory ceased,
and he climbed into the saddle, rode out and turned toward the
mountains and the cabin. By that strange quality of the brain which
is called habit, although the habit be of only one emphatic
precedent, he followed the route he had taken ten years before.
How closely will never be known. Did he stop at this turn to look
back, as he had once before? Did he let his horse breathe there?
Not the latter, probably, for as, following the blind course that
he had followed ten years before, he left the town and went up the
canyon trail, he was riding as though all the devils of hell were
behind him.

One thing is certain. The reproduction of the conditions of the
earlier flight, the familiar associations of the trail, must have
helped rather than hindered his fixation in the past. Again he
was Judson Clark, who had killed a man, and was flying from himself
and from pursuit.

Before long his horse was in acute distress, but he did not notice
it. At the top of the long climb the animal stopped, but he kicked
him on recklessly. He was as unaware of his own fatigue, or that
he was swaying in the saddle, until galloping across a meadow the
horse stumbled and threw him.

He lay still for some time; not hurt but apparently lacking the
initiative to get up again. He had at that period the alternating
lucidity and mental torpor of the half drunken man. But struggling
up through layers of blackness at last there came again the
instinct for flight, and he got on the horse and set off.

The torpor again overcame him and he slept in the saddle. When the
horse stopped he roused and kicked it on. Once he came up through
the blackness to the accompaniment of a great roaring, and found
that the animal was saddle deep in a ford, and floundering badly
among the rocks. He turned its head upstream, and got it out safely.

Toward dawn some of the confusion was gone, but he firmly fixed in
the past. The horse wandered on, head down, occasionally stopping
to seize a leaf as it passed, and once to drink deeply at a spring.
Dick was still not thinking - there was something that forbade him
to think-but he was weak and emotional. He muttered:

"Poor Bev! Poor old Bev!"

A great wave of tenderness and memory swept over him. Poor Bev!
He had made life hell for her, all right. He had an almost
uncontrollable impulse to turn the horse around, go back and see
her once more. He was gone anyhow. They would get him. And he
wanted her to know that he would have died rather than do what
he had done.

The flight impulse died; he felt sick and very cold, and now and
then he shook violently. He began to watch the trail behind him
for the pursuit, but without fear. He seemed to have been wandering
for a thousand black nights through deep gorges and over peaks as
high as the stars, and now he wanted to rest, to stop somewhere and
sleep, to be warm again. Let them come and take him, anywhere out
of this nightmare.

With the dawn still gray he heard a horse behind and below him on
the trail up the cliff face. He stopped and sat waiting, twisted
about in his saddle, his expression ugly and defiant, and yet
touchingly helpless, the look of a boy in trouble and at bay.
The horseman came into sight on the trail below, riding hard, a
middle-aged man in a dark sack suit and a straw hat, an oddly
incongruous figure and manifestly weary. He rode bent forward,
and now and again he raised his eyes from the frail and searched
the wall above with bloodshot, anxious eyes.

On the turn below Dick, Bassett saw him for the first time, and
spoke to him in a quiet voice.

"Hello, old man," he said. "I began to think I was going to miss
you after all."

His scrutiny of Dick's face had rather reassured him. The delirium
had passed, apparently. Dishevelled although he was, covered with
dust and with sweat from the horse, Livingstone's eyes were steady
enough. As he rode up to him, however, he was not so certain. He
found himself surveyed with a sort of cool malignity that startled
him.

"Miss me 1" Livingstone sneered bitterly. "With every damned hill
covered by this time with your outfit! I'll tell you this. If I'd
had a gun you'd never have got me alive."

Bassett was puzzled and slightly ruffled.

"My outfit! I'll tell you this, son, I've risked my neck half the
night to get you out of this mess."

"God Almighty couldn't get me out of this mess," Dick said somberly.

It was then that Bassett saw something not quite normal in his face,
and he rode closer.

"See here, Livingstone," he said, in a soothing tone, "nobody's
going to get you. I'm here to keep them from getting you. We've
got a good start, but we'll have to keep moving."

Dick sat obstinately still, his horse turned across the trail, and
his eyes still suspicious and unfriendly.

"I don't know you," he said doggedly. "And I've done all the
running away I'm going to do. You go back and tell Wilkins I'm
here and to come and get me. The sooner the better." The sneer
faded, and he turned on Bassett with a depth of tragedy in his eyes
that frightened the reporter. "My God," he said, "I killed a man
last night! I can't go through life with that on me. I'm done, I
tell you."

"Last night!" Some faint comprehension began to dawn in Bassett's
mind, a suspicion of the truth. But there was no time to verify
it. He turned and carefully inspected the trail to where it came
into sight at the opposite rim of the valley. When he was satisfied
that the pursuit was still well behind them he spoke again.

"Pull yourself together, Livingstone," he said, rather sharply.
"Think a bit. You didn't kill anybody last night. Now listen,"
he added impressively. "You are Livingstone, Doctor Richard
Livingstone. You stick to that, and think about it."

But Dick was not listening, save to some bitter inner voice, for
suddenly he turned his horse around on the trail. "Get out of
the way," he said, "I'm going back to give myself up."

He would have done it, probably, would have crowded past Bassett
on the narrow trail and headed back toward capture, but for his
horse. It balked and whirled on the ledge, but it would not pass
Bassett. Dick swore and kicked it, his face ugly and determined,
but it refused sullenly. He slid out of the saddle then and tried
to drag it on, but he was suddenly weak and sick. He staggered.
Bassett was off his horse in a moment and caught him. He eased
him onto a boulder, and he sat there, his shoulders sagging and
his whole body twitching.

"Been drinking my head off," he said at last. "If I had a drink
now I'd straighten out." He tried to sit up. "That's what's the
matter with me. I'm funking, of course, but that's not all. I'd
give my soul for some whisky."'

"I can get you a drink, if you'll come on about a mile," Bassett
coaxed. "At the cabin you and I talked about yesterday."

"Now you're talking." Dick made an effort and got to his feet,
shaking off Bassett's assisting arm. "For God's sake keep your
hands off me," he said irritably. "I've got a hangover, that's all."

He got into his saddle without assistance and started off up the
trail. Bassett once more searched the valley, but it was empty
save for a deer drinking at the stream far below. He turned and
followed.

He was fairly hopeless by that time, what with Dick's unexpected
resistance and the change in the man himself. He was dealing with
something he did not understand, and the hypothesis of delirium
did not hold. There was a sort of desperate sanity in Dick's eyes.
That statement, now, about drinking his head off - he hadn't looked
yesterday like a drinking man. But now he did. He was twitching,
his hands shook. On the rock his face had been covered with a cold
sweat. What was that the doctor yesterday had said about delirium
tremens? Suppose he collapsed? That meant capture.

He did not need to guide Dick to the cabin. He turned off the
trail himself, and Bassett, following, saw him dismount and survey
the ruin with a puzzled face. But he said nothing. Bassett waiting
outside to tie the horses came in to find him sitting on one of the
dilapidated chairs, staring around, but all he said was:

"Get me that drink, won't you? I'm going to pieces." Bassett found
his tin cup where he had left it on a shelf and poured out a small
amount of whisky from his flask.

"This is all we have," he explained. "We'll have to go slow
with it."

It had an almost immediate effect. The twitching grew less, and a
faint color came into Dick's face. He stood up and stretched
himself. "That's better," he said. "I was all in. I must have
been riding that infernal horse for years."

He wandered about while the reporter made a fire and set the coffee
pot to boil. Bassett, glancing up once, saw him surveying the
ruined lean-to from the doorway, with an expression he could not
understand. But he did not say anything, nor did he speak again
until Bassett called him to get some food. Even then he was
laconic, and he seemed to be listening and waiting.

Once something startled the horses outside, and he sat up and
listened.

"They're here!" he said.

"I don't think so," Bassett replied, and went to the doorway. "No,"
he called back over his shoulder, "you go on and finish. I'll watch."

"Come back and eat," Dick said surlily.

He ate very little, but drank of the coffee. Bassett too ate almost
nothing. He was pulling himself together for the struggle that was
to come, marshaling his arguments for flight, and trying to fathom
the extent of the change in the man across the small table.

Dick put down his tin cup and got up. He was strong again, and the
nightmare confusion of the night had passed away. Instead of it
there was a desperate lucidity and a courage born of desperation.
He remembered it all distinctly; he had killed Howard Lucas the
night before. Before long Wilkins or some of his outfit would ride
up to the door, and take him back to Norada. He was not afraid of
that. They would always think he had run away because he was afraid
of capture, but it was not that. He had run away from Bev's face.
Only he had not got away from it. It had been with him all night,
and it was with him now.

But he would have to go back. He couldn't be caught like a rat in
a trap. The Clarks didn't run away. They were fighters. Only the
Clarks didn't kill. They fought, but they didn't murder.

He picked up his hat and went to the door.

"Well, you've been mighty kind, old man," he said. "But I've got
to go back. I ran last night like a scared kid, but I'm through
with that sort of foolishness."

"I'd give a good bit," Bassett said, watching him, "to know what
made you run last night. You were safe where you were."

"I don't know what you are talking about," Dick said drearily. "I
didn't run from them. I ran to get away from something." He turned
away irritably. "You wouldn't understand. Say I was drunk. I
was, for that matter. I'm not over it yet."

Bassett watched him.

"I see," he said quietly. "It was last night, was it, that this
thing happened?"

"You know it, don't you?"

"And, after it happened, do you remember what followed?"

"I've been riding all night. I didn't care what happened. I knew
I'd run into a whale of a blizzard, but I - "

He stopped and stared outside, to where the horses grazed in the
upland meadow, knee deep in mountain flowers. Bassett, watching
him, saw the incredulity in his eyes, and spoke very gently.

"My dear fellow," he said, "you are right. Try to understand what
I am saying, and take it easy. You rode into a blizzard, right
enough. But that was not last night. It was ten years ago."





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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