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XXXIII


Dick had written his note, and placed it where Bassett would be
certain to see it. Then he found his horse and led him for the
first half mile or so of level ground before the trail began to
descend. He mounted there, for he knew the animal could find its
way in the darkness where he could not.

He felt no weariness and no hunger, although he had neither slept
nor eaten for thirty-odd hours, and as contrasted with the night
before his head was clear. He was able to start a train of thought
and to follow it through consecutively for the first time in hours.
Thought, however, was easier than realization, and to add to his
perplexity, he struggled to place Bassett and failed entirely. He
remained a mysterious and incomprehensible figure, beginning and
ending with the trail.

Then he had an odd thought, that brought him up standing. He had
only Bassett's word for the story. Perhaps Bassett was lying to
him, or mad. He rode on after a moment, considering that, but
there was something, not in Bassett's circumstantial narrative but
in himself, that refused to accept that loophole of escape. He
could not have told what it was.

And, with his increasing clarity, he began to make out the case for
Bassett and against himself; the unfamiliar clothing he wore, the
pad with the name of Livingstone on it and the sign Rx the other
contents of his pockets.

He tried to orient himself in Bassett's story. A doctor. The
devil's irony of it! Some poor hack, losing sleep and bringing
babies. Peddling pills. Leading what Bassett had called a life
of usefulness! That was a career for you, a pill peddler. God!

But underlying all his surface thinking was still the need of
flight, and he was continually confusing it with the earlier one.
One moment he was looking about for the snow of that earlier escape,
and the next he would remember, and the sense of panic would leave
him. After all he meant to surrender eventually. It did not matter
if they caught him.

But, like the sense of flight, there was something else in his mind,
something that he fought down and would not face. When it came up
he thrust it back fiercely. That something was the figure of Beverly
Carlysle, stooping over her husband's body. He would have died to
save her pain, and yet last night - no, it wasn't last night. It was
years and years ago, and all this time she had hated him.

It was unbearable that she had gone on hating him, all this time.

He was very thirsty, and water did not satisfy him. He wanted a
real drink. He wanted alcohol. Suddenly he wanted all the liquor
in the world. The craving came on at dawn, and after that he kicked
his weary horse on recklessly, so that it rocked and stumbled down
the trail. He had only one thought after the frenzy seized him,
and that was to get to civilization and whisky. It was as though
he saw in drunkenness his only escape from the unbearable. In all
probability he would have killed both his horse and himself in the
grip of that sudden madness, but deliverance came in the shape of a
casual rider, a stranger who for a moment took up the shuttle, wove
his bit of the pattern and passed on, to use his blow-pipe, his
spirit lamp and his chemicals in some prospector's paradise among
the mountains.

When Dick heard somewhere ahead the creaking of saddle leather and
the rattle of harness he drew aside on the trail and waited. He
had lost all caution in the grip of his craving, and all fear. A
line of loaded burros rounded a point ahead and came toward him,
picking their way delicately with small deliberate feet and walking
on the outer edge of the trail, after the way of pack animals the
world over. Behind them was a horseman, rifle in the scabbard on
his saddle and spurs jingling. Dick watched him with thirsty,
feverish eyes as he drew near. He could hardly wait to put his
question.

"Happen to have a drink about you, partner?" he called.

The man stopped his horse and grinned.

"Pretty early in the morning for a drink, isn't it?" he inquired.
Then he saw Dick's eyes, and reached reluctantly into his saddle
bag. "I've got a quart here," he said. "I've traveled forty miles
and spent nine dollars to get it, but I guess you need some."

"You wouldn't care to sell it, I suppose?"

"The bottle? Not on your life."

He untied a tin cup from his saddle and carefully poured a fair
amount into it, steadying the horse the while.

"Here," he said, and passed it over. "But you'd better cut it out
after this. It's bad medicine. You've got two good drinks there.
Be careful."

Dick took the cup and looked at the liquor. The odor assailed him,
and for a queer moment he felt a sudden distaste for it. He had a
revulsion that almost shook him. But he drank it down and passed
the cup back.

"You've traveled a long way for it," he said, "and I needed it, I
guess. If you'll let me pay for it - "

"Forget it," said the man amiably, and started his horse. "But
better cut it out, first chance you get. It's bad medicine."

He rode on after his vanishing pack, and Dick took up the trail
again. But before long he began to feel sick and dizzy. The
aftertaste of the liquor in his mouth nauseated him. The craving
had been mental habit, not physical need, and his body fought the
poison rebelliously. After a time the sickness passed, and he
slept in the saddle. He roused once, enough to know that the horse
had left the trail and was grazing in a green meadow. Still
overcome with his first real sleep he tumbled out of the saddle and
stretched himself out on the ground. He slept all day, lying out
in the burning sun, his face upturned to the sky.

When he wakened it was twilight, and the horse had disappeared.
His face burned from the sun, and his head ached violently. He
was weak, too, from hunger, and the morning's dizziness persisted.
Connected thought was impossible, beyond the fact that if he did
not get out soon, he would be too weak to travel. Exhausted and
on the verge of sunstroke, he set out on foot to find the trail.

He traveled all night, and the dawn found him still moving, a mere
automaton of a man, haggard and shambling, no longer willing his
progress, but somehow incredibly advancing. He found water and
drank it, fell, got up, and still, right foot, left foot, he went
on. Some time during that advance he had found a trail, and he
kept to it automatically. He felt no surprise and no relief when
he saw a cabin in a clearing and a woman in the doorway, watching
him with curious eyes. He pulled himself together and made a final
effort, but without much interest in the result.

"I wonder if you could give me some food?" he said. "I have lost
my horse and I've been wandering all night."

"I guess I can," she replied, not unamiably. "You look as though
you need it, and a wash, too. There's a basin and a pail of water
on that bench."

But when she came out later to call him to breakfast she found
him sitting on the bench and the pail overturned on the ground.

"I'm sorry," he said, dully, "I tried to lift it, but I'm about
all in."

"You'd better come in. I've made some coffee."

He could not rise. He could not even raise his hands.

She called her husband from where he was chopping wood off in the
trees, and together they got him into the house. It was days
before he so much as spoke again.

So it happened that the search went on. Wilkins from the east of
the range, and Bassett from the west, hunted at first with furious
energy, then spasmodically, then not at all, while Dick lay in a
mountain cabin, on the bed made of young trees, and for the second
time in his life watched a woman moving in a lean-to kitchen, and
was fed by a woman's hand.

He forced himself to think of this small panorama of life that
moved before him, rather than of himself. The woman was young, and
pretty in a slovenly way. The man was much older, and silent. He
was of better class than the woman, and underlying his assumption
of crudity there were occasional outcroppings of some cultural
background. Not then, nor at any subsequent time, did he learn the
story, if story there was. He began to see them, however, not so
much pioneers as refugees. The cabin was, he thought, a haven to
the man and a prison to the woman.

But they were uniformly kind to him, and for weeks he stayed there,
slowly readjusting. In his early convalescence he would sit paring
potatoes or watching a cooking pot for her. As he gained in
strength he cut a little firewood. Always he sought something to
keep him from thinking.

Two incidents always stood out afterwards in his memory of the
cabin. One was the first time he saw himself in a mirror. He
knew by that time that Bassett's story had been true, and that he
was ten years older than he remembered himself to be. He thought
he was in a measure prepared. But he saw in the glass a man whose
face was lined and whose hair was streaked with gray. The fact
that his beard had grown added to the terrible maturity of the
reflection he saw, and he sent the mirror clattering to the ground.

The other incident was later, and when he was fairly strong again.
The man was caught under a tree he was felling, and badly hurt.
During the hour or so that followed, getting the tree cut away,
and moving the injured man to the cabin on a wood sledge, Dick
had the feeling of helplessness of any layman in an accident. He
was solicitous but clumsy. But when they had got the patient into
his bed, quite automatically he found himself making an
investigation and pronouncing a verdict.

Later he was to realize that this was the first peak of submerged
memory, rising above the flood. At the time all he felt was a great
certainty. He must act quickly or the man would not live. And
that night, with such instruments as he could extemporize, he
operated. There was no time to send to a town.

All night, after the operation, Dick watched by the bedside, the
woman moving back and forth restlessly. He got his only knowledge
of the story, such as it was, then when she said once:

"I deserved this, but he didn't. I took him away from his wife."

He had to stay on after that, for the woman could not be left
alone. And he was glad of the respite, willing to drift until he
got his bearings. Certain things had come back, more as pictures
than realities. Thus he saw David clearly, Lucy dimly, Elizabeth
not at all. But David came first; David in the buggy with the
sagging springs, David's loud voice and portly figure, David, steady
and upright and gentle as a woman. But there was something wrong
about David. He puzzled over that, but he was learning not to try
to force things, to let them come to the surface themselves.

It was two or three days later that he remembered that David was
ill, and was filled with a sickening remorse and anxiety. For the
first time he made plans to get away, for whatever happened after
that he knew he must see David again. But all his thought led him
to an impasse at that time, and that impasse was the feeling that
he was a criminal and a fugitive, and that he had no right to tie
up innocent lives with his. Even a letter to David might
incriminate him.

Coupled with his determination to surrender, the idea of atonement
was strong in him. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.
That had been his father's belief, and well he remembered it. But
during the drifting period he thrust it back, into that painful
niche where he held Beverly, and the thing he would not face.

That phase of his readjustment, then, when he reached it, was
painful and confused. There was the necessity for atonement,
which involved surrender, and there was the call of David, and the
insistent desire to see Beverly again, which was the thing he
would not face. Of the three, the last, mixed up as it was with
the murder and its expiation, was the strongest. For by the very
freshness of his released memories, it was the days before his
flight from the ranch that seemed most recent, and his life with
David that was long ago, and blurred in its details as by the
passing of infinite time.

When Elizabeth finally came back to him it was as something very
gentle and remote, out of the long-forgotten past. Even his image
of her was blurred and shadowy. He could not hear the tones of her
voice, or remember anything she had said. He could never bring her
at will, as he could David, for instance. She only came clearly
at night, while he slept. Then the guard was down, and there crept
into his dreams a small figure, infinitely loving and tender; but
as he roused from sleep she changed gradually into Beverly. It
was Beverly's arms he felt around his neck. Nevertheless he held
to Elizabeth more completely than he knew, for the one thing that
emerged from his misty recollection of her was that she cared for
him. In a world of hate and bitterness she cared.

But she was never real to him, as the other woman was real. And
he knew that she was lost to him, as David was lost. He could
never go back to either of them.

As time went on he reached the point of making practical plans.
He had lost his pocketbook somewhere, probably during his
wanderings afoot, and he had no money. He knew that the obvious
course was to go to the nearest settlement and surrender himself
and he played with the thought, but even as he did so he knew that
he would not do it. Surrender he would, eventually, but before he
did that he would satisfy a craving that was in some ways like his
desire for liquor that morning on the trail. A reckless, mad, and
irresistible impulse to see Beverly Lucas again.

In August he started for the railroad, going on foot and without
money, his immediate destination the harvest fields of some distant
ranch, his object to earn his train fare to New York.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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