Read CHAPTER XVI of Colorado Jim , free online book, by George Goodchild, on ReadCentral.com.

THE GREAT LIE

D’Arcy regarded him fixedly. It astonished him that a man should travel hundreds of miles in the Arctic winter to vent his wrath on another.

“Why should you come?” he murmured.

“You you ask me that! You ”

He stopped as a spasm of pain crossed D’Arcy’s face. In the presence of impending Death he found a strange difficulty in giving full vent to his hate.

“I see,” gasped D’Arcy. “It’s because I helped her to escape. Perhaps I was wrong, but believe me, it was better that way. I knew her years ago.... It gave you pain, but it may have saved her from hating you eventually....”

This seeming hypocrisy staggered Jim. That any man facing the shadow of Death could act in such manner was amazing. He quivered with violent repulsion.

“I wasn’t referring to that,” he snapped. “She didn’t escape I brought her back.”

“You you brought her back! Then why did you come here?”

“I came to kill you with my hands. Did you think I would rest until that score was settled?”

D’Arcy attempted to drag himself into a sitting position, but the pain it caused him rendered the attempt vain. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, then slowly opened them. He became conscious of the fact that they were at cross-purposes.

“I don’t understand.... In any case you are too late.... But why do you want to kill me? What I did, I did for the sake of friendship. I don’t doubt you would do the same for a woman in trouble if if you loved her.”

Jim passed his hand across his brow. It was bewildering, baffling!

“God, ain’t you got a soul?” he gasped. “Can you lie there within a few minutes of death and take a pride in what you did? Damn the fate that got you plugged before I could get my hands on you. I suffered hell out there, these two months, hunting you all over the mountains, and now ...”

D’Arcy surveyed the distraught speaker in bewilderment. He had said that Angela had been brought back from the Silas P. Young. Then it wasn’t that escape that had sent him up here in bitter, revengeful mood. He began to touch the outer edge of the truth.

“I’m cold,” he muttered. “And it grows dark.... Where are you?... I must know more, ... tell me what troubles you.... Do you think there was anything more in that business but friendship? Speak!”

“I know!”

“Ah I see.... So that’s it.... See here, friend.... I’m going out ... right out, where perhaps there’s a tribunal.... I’ve done bad things, but not that.... I’m glad you came ... in time. And you thought that of me O God!”

Jim recoiled with blanched cheeks before these words, ringing as they did with truth. He tried to get a clear grip of the position, but his brain reeled under the force of this astounding denouement. D’Arcy was speaking again so faint he could scarcely hear.

“And to think that of her! Man man and you look as though you love her.... She’s all that’s good and pure, though her pride is great, too great,... and she’s willful and unrelenting.... Go back and put this right. Don’t let this terrible unjust suspicion remain....”

“But she told me that,” gasped Jim.

Despite the pain occasioned by the movement, D’Arcy dragged himself higher on the pillow and gazed at Jim in horror.

“She she told you that!”

Jim wished he had bitten his tongue off before those words had been uttered. Was ever physical blow more cruel than this to inflict insult and guilt of so despicable a nature upon a perfectly innocent man! He snatched at the nerveless hand on the bed and held it.

“I’m sorry,” he groaned. “I didn’t know I didn’t think she would frame up a dirty lie like that.”

D’Arcy suddenly smiled wistfully.

“And where is she now?”

“I sent her away.”

“You sent her well, perhaps it was best,” he said. “You’ve got to forget that story. Circumstances excuse many things.”

“They don’t excuse that.”

“I think they do.... All the blame is not with her. That she should give utterance to such a lie proves to what extremes she was forced. She tried by every other means to escape and failed. You held her, not by love, but by brute strength.”

“You don’t understand,” retorted Jim. “I bought her. She knows that. I didn’t know I was buying her, but she knew all the time ”

“You can’t buy a woman’s soul.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“Everything. It was her soul that writhed under that jailership ”

“Yep and her soul that told that damned lie.”

D’Arcy shook his head.

“You tried to win by the superiority of your physical strength. Is that moral? Is it justifiable? She had no other way to fight but by subtlety and falsehood. Both ways are equally detestable. Therefore it is not for you to condemn.... Tell Lonagon ... I’m going going....”

Jim ran outside and brought in Lonagon and Shanks. Before they could reach the bed the soul of D’Arcy had flown from his pain-ridden body. Lonagon put the blanket over the dead man’s face, and Shanks made strange noises in his throat.

“He was a white man, though he was a gentleman,” muttered Lonagon.

Jim staggered to the door, dazed by the outcome of this meeting. But his mind had cooled down and the crazy desire for vengeance, now vanished, left him a more normal creature. But he felt sick and weary. The future seemed so hopeless and blank. Had he the desire to search for Angela and bring her back, his storm-wrecked body would have refused. Lonagon approached him.

“So you didn’t kill him?”

Jim glared.

“Wal, it’s jest as well, for I’d hev sure killed you.”

“And I’d have been darned glad,” growled Jim.

A great nausea overtook him, and he clutched the door-post for support. Shanks looked at him, and shook his head.

“Better not hit the trail to-day. You got fever.”

Jim shrugged his shoulders.

“I’m all right. I’ll be mushing back to my shack. ‘Tain’t far two days’ run. So long!”

He went to the sled, untethered the dogs, and sent them scuttling up the ravine. But the sickness remained. His head seemed nigh to bursting and all his limbs set up a chronic aching. He vaguely realized that he was in the grip of mountain fever, which had fastened on to his abused body and was breaking him up.

He had estimated his journey back to occupy two days, but he meant to do it in one. Illness on the trail meant death, and little as Life meant to him now, the natural desire to fight for it mastered the inclination to lay down and succumb to the fever and the elements.

Hour after hour the sled whirled along. Once he stopped and mechanically gave the dogs a meal. He became transformed into an automaton, acting by some subliminal power that set his direction correctly and assisted to maintain his body in an upright position.

Only one part of his brain functioned, and that part was memory. All the outstanding incidents of his adventurous career passed before him in perspective. He saw himself fighting and winning from the time when first he had set out with a gripsack to seek a fortune in the wide plains of the West. At the end of this remarkable chain of successes was the dismal picture of his present failure. A woman, rather than suffer subjugation at his hands, had perjured her soul in a dreadful lie.

D’Arcy was right. Souls were not to be bought or “broken-in.” He had won in the old days because the primitive law prevailed in all things. No longer did that work. Civilization assessed man on a different basis. The Law of the Wild had been superseded by other qualities qualities which, presumably, he did not possess. It was a bitter enough awakening for him to feel himself a failure. Wandering, half deliriously, in a vicious mental circle he came again and again to that point. He had failed in the great test he had failed to win the heart of the woman he truly loved. So much for all those physical attributes! They conquered women in the stone age. They might conquer women now, of a kind, but they were futile weapons to employ against a modern woman, benefiting by centuries of progress and culture, with fine mentality and inflexible will.

What then were the qualities that counted? Was it love? No, not love, for his bosom was bursting with it. Not sacrifice, for he would have died for her and she must know it. Was it Culture? Was it Education? Chivalry?

His tortured brain could find no answer. The woman herself had faced that same inward tribunal. To her, too, the obstacle was not quite clear. But it was pride of birth. It saturated her; it subjugated all passions, all emotions. It rendered her incapable of exercising her real feelings. She had placed the man low down in the scale, and had kept him there by the mere consciousness of this accident of birth.

The man behind the sled ceased to ponder the enigma. His mind became a complete blank as the shack hove into sight along the valley. He lurched from side to side as the dogs, scenting their kennel, increased their speed.

The sled hit a tree, and flung him to the ground, but the dogs went on. He raised himself to his knees, his teeth chattering in ghastly fashion. His half-blind eyes could just make out the hut in the distance, a black smudge against the pure white snow. With a great effort he began to crawl towards his refuge.... His legs felt like lead and soon refused to respond to the weakened will that moved them.

He uttered a deep groan and collapsed in the snow, his head buried in his great arms.