VER the seven sandy miles which separate the town of Melonville from the English settlement on Lake Topekah there plies, three days in every week, a heavy-laden vehicle known as the Melonville Express.
Its pace belies its title, for the road is rough, and it is drawn by a raw-honed, mud-coloured horse, whose driver performs, for an infinitesimal fee, the office of common carrier.
He is a silent, stern-faced man, with snow-white hair, though his years have barely numbered the half of life’s allotted span; and those who watch him on his lonely round grow silent at his coming, with a sense of sudden awe.
For, many years ago, when the mud-coloured horse was a playful four-year-old, and his owner a fresh-complexioned English boy, they played the leading parts in the final act of a grim and awful tragedy.
IT would seem that the humdrum routine of an expressman’s daily round demands no special mental attainments. Certainly one would argue that an Eton education, followed by two years’ tuition at the hands of a fashionable Army crammer, was an unnecessarily extravagant preparation for it. But, when the Sandhurst lists came out, time after time, leaving the name of Frederick Burton unrecorded, his parents, in their wisdom, exported him to Florida.
Migrating, by chance, to the English colony on Lake Topekah, Freddy Burton embarked, with light heart and inadequate knowledge, upon the perilous occupation of orange culture. Two years afterwards he emerged from the ruins of his shattered castles, to realize that their foundations had been laid on shifting sands. Surprised and disgusted, he set himself to consider his position, and to take stock of the possibilities remaining to him.
His available assets, he found, amounted to the sum of three hundred dollars in United States currency; and an idea.
It was not a bewilderingly brilliant nor even a specially original one, but it served. For Freddy Burton invested one half his capital in the purchase of a horse and wagon, decorated the near-side panel of the latter with a yellow-painted legend setting forth his name and purpose, and took the road.
And so, three days in every week, there plies over seven sandy miles which separate the town of Melonville from the English colony on Lake Topekah a heavy-laden vehicle known as the Melonville Express.
It was a monotonous existence enough. Each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning, rain or shine, he made the round of the English colony’s scattered habitations, and booked his miscellaneous orders. Each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evening he delivered, with praiseworthy punctuality, a varied assortment of provisions, groceries, hardware, cutlery, furniture, fertilizers, and Melonville millinery at his clients’ residences. Then he stabled the mud-coloured horse and retired to the solitude of a four-roomed log-cabin, deserted, on the completion of his section, by the late overseer of the Lake Topekah Railroad Company.
For a healthy Eton boy it was a demoralizing, wearisome existence; but he had fallen under the lethargic spell of the land of his adoption, and he worried along, contentedly enough, until the pregnant moment came when Providence, inscrutable, decreed that he should meet his fate.
And a tempting little fate in truth she seemed, as he saw her first, in the misty glory of an April morning, a shapely, reckless, bare-legged cracker girl of seventeen, with an imp of mischief in her laughing eyes and a tumbled mass of corn-coloured hair about her shoulders. Perched upon the comfortable summit of a cypress fence-post, she hailed him as he drew alongside; and Freddy Burton, nothing loath, pulled up.
"Good morning," he said, pleasantly. "What can I do for you?"
Her blue eyes twinkled, and she dropped lightly from her elevation to the sandy road. Then, from some mysterious recess within her bodice, she brought forth a crumpled sheet of paper, scribbled with pencilled memoranda in an unformed, childish hand. Perusing it with professional gravity, Freddy Burton found the lengthy list to contain such diverse commodities as an axe-handle, four tins of condensed milk, a demijohn of rye whisky, and a flannel shirt.
"Dad says, will you please bring them all back with you this evening? And you’ll have to pay for them too, ’cause they won’t give him credit any more at the store, especially the whisky. He’ll give you the money tomorrow morning—at least, he told me to say he would, and——" She broke off breathless, and looked up into his face with an irresistibly merry smile.
The susceptible driver of the Melonville Express folded the crumpled paper and placed it carefully in his breast-pocket. Then, as he looked into her laughing eyes, an inspiration seized him.
"It’s a lovely morning for a drive," he said. " Why not come and help me choose them?"
"No shoes and stockings! No hat! Folks would talk, wouldn’t they?"
"Let them talk."
"You mean it, sure? Just as I am?"
Prophetically forestalling the marriage service, Freddy Burton announced his intention of taking her just as she was, and the little gipsy’s eyes glistened with excitement.
"I’ll come," she cried, and in a moment she was beside the wagon, a small, bare foot upon the step, a hand upstretched to his. Then she paused.
"Say, how much do I have to pay?"
"Nothing at all," he responded, serenely. "Give me the pleasure of your company and we’ll call it quits."
She made no more ado, but gripped his hand and mounted nimbly to the vacant seat beside him. The mud-coloured horse thrust his lean neck into his roomy collar, and the delayed express creaked forward on its sandy way.
SHE talked, the little cracker girl, with scarce a pause or intermission, jumping from topic to topic with a happy inconsequence that almost took his breath away. In her bright, disjointed way she had outlined for him the history of her uneventful little life before they had covered one half that memorable journey.
"And you’d never guess that I was English-born, now, would you?" she questioned, pointing to an arched, bare foot that scarcely touched the wagon boards. "See; I’ve lived so long down here among the flat woods I guess I’ve most run wild. Besides, it’s cooler, and shoes cost a heap of money too." She pursed her red lips into an irresistible smile, and her blue eyes twinkled with enjoyment.
"We never have no money, dad and me. Never have had since mother died, and that’s away back as far as I remember anything. You see, dad spends all he earns, and he owes a heap besides. Those things I wrote down on the paper now, he’ll never pay you for them. Say," she concluded, suddenly, "don’t you buy them."
"And what would become of your housekeeping if I didn’t? I suppose you are housekeeper, aren’t you?"
"I suppose I am, when there’s anything to keep," she laughed. "But that ain’t always."
"And your father," suggested Burton; "tell me something about him." He found the situation a trifle bewildering, and he was trying to focus his new acquaintance. "What does he do?"
"Drinks a lot more than he ought to," she responded, promptly. "And he’s an old ruffian when he’s drunk, dad is."
She nodded her head sagely, but the contemplation of her parent’s failing did not seem to disconcert her in the least, for use is second nature, and the horizon of the flat woods is very limited at the best.
"And your name? You can read mine on the side of the wagon; but we’ve known each other nearly an hour and you haven’t told me who you are."
"I’m Kitty Westley. You’ve heard of old man Westley, maybe? Yes, I guessed you had; but he’s not so bad as folks would make him out, not when you come to know him rightly."
She had been watching his face more closely than he knew, but the involuntary exclamation of surprise that escaped him did not disturb her much.
"Honest, now, you thought we was just crackers yourself, didn’t you?" she asked.
"I did until I saw you," said Freddy Burton.
She looked full into his eyes, with the unaffected simplicity of a questioning child.
"Well?" she queried, naively. "And what do you think now?"
"Don’t you trouble about that," he responded, emphatically. "I’ll tell you some other time, See, we’ve almost reached our destination."
AND so it was. The solitude of the scented pine woods had given place to an open, stump-strewn clearing, and beyond it lay revealed, incongruously picturesque, a typical South Florida town in process of evolution.
Here and there, grotesquely self-conscious, some massive structure towered a head and red-brick shoulders above his humbler brethren. And the resentful pigmies, clustering close about him, reared heavenwards their wooden sky signs; blazoning their hidden virtues as little men are fain to do, lest they should go unnoticed in competition with their superiors.
A foot or more above the level of the sandy street a rickety side-walk warped, on rotten supports, in the glaring sunlight.
In the shelter of their verandas Melonville’s business men, in shirt-sleeves clipped by elastic garters at the elbow, smoked or chewed the stunted ends of oily black cigars. Below them, sunning on the doorstoops, negro children munched pink slices of water-melon, or imbibed alternate solace from unwieldy lengths of sugar-cane.
And, wherever the shade permitted, a patient horse stood tethered to a convenient hitching-post, a spider-wheeled buggy at his heels, a swarm of gnats about his nose, and a hungry horse-fly at his flank.
Dark brown against the vivid blue of a cloudless sky a pair of buzzards sailed on heavy wing, wheeling and circling slowly to and fro.
And over all the promiscuous jumble of wooden stores, of saw-mills, livery stables and hotels, of green shutters and red roofs, rickety side-walks and sandy highways, the gleaming eye of a semi-tropical sun stared down, with fierce, unwinking glare.
The mud-coloured horse ploughed his heavy way down the main street, towards the well-known stable where he was wont to take his midday rest, and Freddy Burton pointed with his whip to a gaudy wooden building as they passed.
One of its windows displayed an elaborate menu, compounded of such diverse delicacies as clam chowder and pineapple ice cream; the other a facetious pictorial presentment of a skeleton and a fat man, purporting to portray the self-same customer before and after partaking of the far-famed fifty-cent lunch at Shannon’s café. In the centre of the side-walk, outside the front door of his establishment, stood the redoubtable proprietor, Sol Shannon, in person.
He was a tall, thin man with a face of parchment hue, sinister in expression, curiously Chinese in type. His yellow skin, high cheek-bones, and almond-shaped slits of eyes were all so redolent of the Mongolian race that he only lacked the distinction of a pendent pigtail to complete the caricature.
But, instead, he wore his black hair close cropped above his shaven face, for he was a naturalized citizen of the United States, who bitterly resented the nickname of Shanghai, bestowed upon him in virtue of his suggestive figure-head.
In response to Freddy Burton’s greeting he grunted an inaudible retort, but he scowled angrily at the passenger, who heeded him scarcely at all. He followed the wagon with his narrow eyes till it turned the corner, and spat viciously in the sand. Then he rolled himself a cigarette. with dirty, taper fingers; and so retreated, like a-snarling beast, within his lair.
"I’ll tell you what we’ll do," said the misguided expressman. "As soon as we’ve made our purchases we’ll go round to Shanghai’s and lunch there."
For a moment the girl looked at him with a puzzled expression; then she laughed.
"So we will. Sure you won’t be ashamed of me, though? Maybe Shanghai won’t serve lunch to a girl with bare legs."
"I’d like to see him refuse," said Freddy Burton. As a matter of fact, the detail had entirely escaped his recollection.
AND so it fell out that, twenty minutes later, the curiously-assorted couple presented themselves at Shanghai’s restaurant, found an unoccupied table in a secluded corner, and took possession. The place was comparatively empty, and its patrons, after bestowing a glance of amusement on the pair, returned to the formal business of feeding.
Freddy Burton, with royal hospitality, dispatched a negro waiter to the nearest saloon and obtained, in exchange for three dollars, a fictitiously labelled bottle of sweet champagne. The occasion, he felt, was an exceptional one and called for observance in orthodox fashion. For it is a tenet of all right-minded Englishmen, lunching publicly in doubtful company, to call for champagne and chance the consequence. And Kitty Westley, to whom the flavour of the beverage was as novel as the experience was exciting, chattered away to her host with a happy abandonment which he found quite irresistible.
But the proprietor hovered about the vicinity of their table, obviously displeased; and once, as he turned away to answer the summons of a departing guest, Freddy Burton caught so ugly an expression on his face that he was fairly startled.
"I wonder what’s the matter with Shanghai?" he said. "Seems to have lost his temper."
"He’s jealous, I guess"
She laughed serenely.
"Jealous! Of you?"
"Of me and of you," she said.
"But why?" Freddy Burton had grown suddenly serious. " Do you know him well?"
"Better than I want to. Him and dad are old friends."
She sipped her champagne and considered for a moment. Then she leaned across the table and dropped her voice :—
"Shanghai wants me to marry him."
"To marry him!" he repeated, in horrified bewilderment. "Why, you’re only a child; and he’s a Chinaman, or next door to one."
"I’m seventeen," she laughed. "And Shanghai’s an American citizen; at least he claims to be. Dad says I’ll have to do it some day."
But the light died out of her eyes and the laughter from her voice quite suddenly.
From the farther end of the restaurant Shanghai had fixed his gaze upon her, with a scowl too malevolent for misconstruction.
"I won’t!" she said, fiercely. "I won’t! I won’t!" And she stamped a bare foot petulantly upon the matted floor.
"You won’t if I can help it," said Freddy Burton. "Has he asked you ?"
"Heaps and heaps of times."
"What did you say?"
"Said I’d cut my throat before I’d marry him."
"That’s right. Have some more champagne."
He filled her glass, and Shanghai, watching, cursed a negro waiter so furiously that the man dropped a pile of plates with a clatter on the floor and fled for his life.
"Nice kind of a husband he’d make, wouldn’t he? Guess what he told me."
"That he’d cut my throat himself before he’d see me married to another man. Maybe thinks I’m scared of him. But I ain’t, not much."
She snapped her fingers in the direction of the proprietor, and her merry laugh rang true.
"Say, if you’ve finished we’d best light out. I reckon dad will think I’ve run away with you."
"You might do worse." responded the expressman, emptying his glass.
He paid his bill and returned Shanghai’s scowl with interest as they left the café.
But the homeward drive was much more silent than the morning’s, and Freddy Burton did not feel that the moment was yet propitious for his introduction to old man Westley. So he dropped his pretty fare at the corner of a tumbledown snake-fence, and watched her, laden with many packages, pattering on small, bare feet into the unknown.
Then he drove moodily homewards, and sat up later than his wont in the solitude of the four-roomed log cabin, which suddenly struck him as being sadly out of repair.
BUT the pleasant experience was obviously one to be repeated, and Kitty Westley must be protected at all costs from the influence of Shanghai. These things Freddy Burton decided, and promptly acted upon. And so it came about that the mud-coloured horse learned to stop of his own accord at the sight of a bare-legged cracker girl perched upon a fence-post; and within a month the English community had ceased to whisper and to shrug their shoulders when the Melonville expressman and his pretty passenger drove by. After all, so long as he was punctual in his deliveries, it was no concern of theirs.
The springtime ripened into summer; old man Westley’s liquor bill swelled apace; Shanghai’s yellow face grew murderous in expression; and Freddy Burton, in his lone log-cabin, took to dreaming.
That is a dangerous occupation for an English bachelor in the Florida flat woods. If the subject of his dreams chance to be a bare-legged cracker girl, with blue eyes and corn-coloured hair, there are two probable conclusions. With a man of Freddy Burton’s temperament only one is possible.
Brooding, night by night, on the loneliness of his present existence, he convinced himself, quite speedily, that he had dropped out of the groove of his social sphere in England beyond all possibility of retrieval. His friends and relations had ceased to take any particular interest in his welfare; certainly they did not wish him back. Therefore it followed that he was wasting the best years of his life, and that it was his obvious duty to make the most of his remaining chance of happiness.
When a man resorts for self-conviction to that insidious argument about the best years of his life, there is small doubt as to the upshot. Freddy Burton convinced himself that marriage with Kitty Westley constituted his remaining chance of happiness, and there was nothing more to be said.
Not that he deluded himself in the least. He was perfectly aware that all his social acquaintance would stigmatize the match as a hopeless mésalliance, for which the penalty was sentence of ostracism. But he had arrived at the stage where he simply did not care.
MATTERS moved apace, the plunge once taken; and, indeed, there was no reason for delay. The units of the English colony received the news of their expressman’s engagement with varying degrees of surprise, and conveyed their congratulations with measure of warmth in proportion.
Freddy Burton took them very quietly; he was not a demonstrative man.
But he busied himself with repairs and improvements to the log-cabin, and was very nearly satisfied with the result. At least it was comfortably habitable, and it was weather-proof.
A month afterwards the marriage was solemnized, in presence of a Notary Public, at the registry office in Melonville. And the mud-coloured horse relaxed his muscles, in the unwanted leisure of a livery stable, while bride and bridegroom spent a golden week in a tiny, picturesque hotel which snuggles, unpretentiously secluded, on a shady slope above the Indian River.
Then they settled down to the new-born happiness of married life in the glorified log-cabin. But the murderous scowl on Shanghai’s face grew blacker day by day.
To Freddy Burton and his laughing little bride the world held thereafter no such elements of discord as drunken father or scowling Chinaman. For them, the concentrated happiness of all creation centred in four walls of varnished pine. Surely, in the wide world’s history, was never marriage more propitious.
A woman’s subtle intuitions, grafted upon the happy nature of a child, proceeded to develop the little cracker girl, against the moss-grown canons of tradition and of caste, into the ideal mate for Freddy Burton. She was so quick to note, so eager to learn, so jealous to justify her hero’s choice, that she seemed to have drawn on, with her first pair of shoes and stockings, a garment of new dignity.
Perhaps the mud-coloured horse resented the change a little, as the strain of hurried homeward journeys began to tax his sinews. Certainly the expressman’s patrons had cause to bless their carrier’s punctuality.
For the smoke of his cabin chimney called him from afar; the welcome of the little watcher on the veranda thrilled him ever, with a new sense of wonder at the gift vouchsafed him of the gods; and he came to stable and to feed his weary accomplice in a very fever of impatience.
As he entered, he never ceased to wonder at the orderly neatness of his spotless home; at the white cloth, garnished with fresh-gathered wild flowers from the woods; at that mystery of sweet companionship which sometimes comes, foretaste of Paradise, into the lives of lonely men.
Later, relapsing to conditions less ethereal, he helped to clear away the supper and to wash the dishes; smoking his evening pipe while he sipped his whisky and chatted of the doings of the day. Each item of them seemed to hold new interest. It was always afresh pleasure to retail the minor happenings of Melonville; to listen to his little wife’s recital of experiences; the tale of eggs her hens had laid; the intrusion of a stranger pig, unnoticed, through the fence gap; the new shoots showing on the wisteria; the hundred little intimate confidences that filled their happy world.
Thus, all unreckoned, three swift months slipped by. Then, in the fourth, the cruel shadow fell.
IT was an autumn evening, and a load, unusually heavy, had delayed the express. The woods seemed weird and lonely, as the short twilight deepened into night, under the pale gleam of a crescent moon.
On either side of the road a mighty tract of grass land lay scorched and blackened, fired by the sparks from a passing locomotive miles away. The pungent scent of smouldering timber hung heavy on the air. Here and there a tiny tongue of flame flickered high overhead, where the hungry forest fire had licked up the resin of some scarred pine-trunk.
Freddy Burton, strolling homewards beside his weary beast, kicked against something in the sandy track and, stooping, picked up a cast horseshoe. It was nearly new—indifferently affixed, he decided; and he slipped it into his pocket with a smile. Kitty cherished a hundred happy little superstitions, and horseshoes stand for luck the whole world over.
It took but a few minutes to stable the raw-boned horse that night, when his owner realized, for the first time, no welcoming watcher on the porch. But when he reached the cabin and found the sitting-room in darkness, a sudden fear that some accident had befallen caused his hands to tremble so that he had difficulty in lighting the lamp. He steadied his voice, carefully as he turned to the inner room, calling her by name, and he sickened at the unanswering silence. Chilled with a formless foreboding, he pushed open the door and stood, one hideous moment, on the threshold.
There, in the flickering lamp-light, lay his girl-wife, stiff and cold, upon her bed, beyond all reach of human voice or help of human hands. The film of death had glazed her eyes, upturned in agony of piteous terror, and above the rounded softness of her neck there gaped a ghastly wound.
As in a lightning flash each detail photographed itself, for all time, on his brain. And then there fell that numbing horror which kindly Nature sometimes sends to lull a shock beyond the power of man to bear.
Not till the faint dawn showed through the uncurtained window did he know that he had sat all night at her bedside, with his dead wife’s hand clasped close between his own, and a mocking horseshoe gleaming on the crimsoned pillow.
But on the haggard, vacant face that stared him back from the mirror were stamped indelibly the lines that marked the minutes of his awful vigil.
Even in that lawless land the tragedy was theme for more than nine days’ wonder. The inquest threw no light at all upon the perpetrator of the brutal outrage.
Old man Westley, shocked into sobriety, sobbed incoherent answers to his questioners. Burton himself, with vacant eyes and impassive persistence, reiterated his formula time and time again. His wife had never, to his knowledge, made an enemy in her life. He had no clue to offer, no theory to suggest. So he swore.
The jury brought in a verdict of murder, in the first degree, against some person or persons unknown, and Kitty Burton was laid to rest in the English cemetery at Melonville.
Then, to the surprise of those who knew him best, the man took up, where he had dropped it, the routine of his daily round.
And so, three days in every week, there plies over the seven sandy miles which separate the town of Melonville from the English colony on Lake Topekah a heavy-laden vehicle known as the Melonville Express.
BUT the driver was a changed man, a brooding, solitary hermit, with vacant eyes and lips that muttered as he went. And he did strange things.
Once he idled away a working morning in a shoeing forge, beguiling the lazy blacksmith into argument. But when the man brought the matter to a crisis, vowing that the subject of their discussion had been fitted by himself to a white-legged sorrel in Martin’s stable, who cast it the next day, Burton laughed him to scorn. The mud-coloured horse, he swore, had dropped it only yesterday.
Then he fraternized with a good-for-nothing helper at Martin’s, inquiring minutely as to the stamina and possible endurance of his charges. At hazard he selected a white-legged sorrel, and insisted on verifying the tale of its engagements for a month. He pored over the order-book, seeking chapter and verse for every statement. But when he found that the sorrel had been hired out to Sol Shannon, and the helper recollected that the horse had lost a shoe upon its journey, his interest flagged. He presented his garrulous informant with a bottle of whisky, and told him he was talking nonsense.
Once he stopped a nigger on the side-walk and offered him five dollars for the coat upon his back. The price was readily accepted, and the man, a discharged waiter, explained that the garment had been presented to him by his late employer.
Impassively methodical, Burton drove home to the lone log-cabin and pieced together the clues which he had gathered. Behind the vacant eyes his busy brain was all alert.
The sum of circumstantial evidence embraced four counts.
First, there was Shanghai’s threat to the dead girl that he would cut her throat himself before she should marry another man.
Second, there was a horseshoe, found within three hundred yards of his fence-rail, sworn to by the smith who forged it as belonging to a white-legged sorrel horse.
Third, there was Martin’s order-book to prove that on the day of the murder the Sorrel had been driven by Shanghai, and Martin’s helper to swear that the horse came home with three shoes only.
Fourth, there was a coat which the restaurant-keeper had presented to a discharged waiter, from which one button and a tiny strip of cloth had been torn away. That button had been found tight-clenched in the murdered woman’s hand, and had lain in the widower’s pocket when he perjured himself in open court.
Such was the case for the prosecution, and no one was present to defend. It remained merely to pass sentence.
The expressman laid aside the items of his evidence, and sat down to pore, for the fiftieth time over a back number of an English illustrated paper. There was a picture there that fascinated him.
It depicted a common form of Chinese torture, and, as he gazed, his vacant eyes began to gleam.
The victim was represented, bare-headed, buried to the chin in sand; parched, starved, and helpless in the burning sun. The agony of approaching death was tn his face.
The expression was one which Shanghai might be made to simulate.
Far into the night sat Burton, gloating on the pictured horror—slowly maturing the scheme of his revenge. In the morning he rose and went upon his dreamy round, vacant and listless as before.
People began to whisper that the shock had turned his brain. But the mind of the lonely man, brooding ever on one topic, was strangely active underneath the mask.
Days grew to weeks, and weeks slipped into months, while the memory of the tragedy faded from men’s minds. And the expressman’s only confidant was a good-for-nothing helper in Martin’s livery stable.
Incessantly he plied the man with questions, learning of every buggy ordered out, speculating upon the hirer’s probable destination. His ally, primed with whisky, came to appreciate the harmless mania, and to respond with zeal. And, finally, the patient quest bore fruit.
AT twilight one Sunday evening the mud-coloured horse was rudely awakened from his doze. Grunting his disapproval, he found himself harnessed and at bay between the wagon-shafts before he had time to enter protest against the unwonted indignity.
The load was but a light one. It comprised a spade and shovel, an axe, some empty corn-sacks, and several lengths of strong new cord.
Burton took the reins, and a purposeful light was in his eyes as he struck out into the pine woods. Nearly three miles he drove before he halted, in one of the densest thickets bordering on the Florida Extension Railroad track. There he tied up his horse to the trunk of a live oak, and took both spade and shovel from the wagon.
Then the deep silence of the pine woods received him, and closed him in.
It was a long hour before he returned, streaming with perspiration and breathing hard. He climbed into the wagon and drove off once more, shaping his course across country, and travelled eastwards a mile.
Once more he tied his horse, and proceeded, axe in hand, a hundred yards on foot. This time he emerged upon the sandy road that runs, due north and south, from Melonville to Tampa. Five minutes’ deliberation sufficed him. He selected a sturdy pine sapling and deftly felled it, dropping it at right angles across the fairway. Then he retired to a place of concealment, and set himself deliberately to await the thing which should befall.
The moon climbed up above the pine trees, framed in a bank of clouds, and the night was very still. Scarcely a breath of air stirred among the branches overhead as his long watch drew out. But he waited quite patiently and made no movement, though every nerve was tense and every sense alert.
It was after nine o’clock before a buggy, occupied by a single traveller, crept slowly into view. Burton crouched closer in his hiding-place, recognizing his victim from afar.
Within some twenty yards of the unexpected obstacle Sol Shannon pulled up his weary horse and reconnoitred the obstruction. So common an incident as a pine tree fallen across the path brought him no hint of warning, and his first impulse was to pull out into the scrub and so to circumvent it.
But the spot was chosen craftily. A thick, impenetrable growth on either hand necessitated the bodily removal of the sapling. With a muttered imprecation, he descended from his buggy to effect it.
He had stooped over the lighter end and fairly grasped it with both hands when a grip of iron closed around his throat.
Then, with a gasp of terror, Sol Shannon faced about to grapple his assailant. One ghastly moment he saw the glare of murder in a madman’s eyes; the next a superhuman strength had stifled him to unconscious silence.
IT was the jolting of the wagon that brought back his scattered faculties, and the plight in which he found himself filled him with the sickening fear of present death. Hand and foot he was firmly bound and pinioned, and a strong, coarse sack further confined his fettered limbs, its mouth tied tightly about his neck. His captor had neglected no precaution, even to the gag which precluded audible speech or attempted outcry. Powerless, speechless, and helpless as a baby, he lay and trembled while the wagon travelled slowly back upon its tracks.
The driver spoke no word. When he halted he tied the horse’s head to the trunk of a live oak as before, and lifted his heavy burden in his arms. Nothing but the mute terror in the doomed man’s eyes protested. Burton staggered forward with his load, through the thicket fringing the railroad track, out into the open.
There, in the centre of the permanent way, between the cross-ties, yawned a fresh-dug pit, nearly five feet in depth. Into that gloomy hole Burton carefully lowered his victim. Only the head and neck protruded, a foot above the level of the roadbed.
The expressman returned to the wagon for his tools, and set about the completion of his task. Stripping off his coat and rolling his shirt-sleeves to the elbow, he shovelled in the loose sand, spadeful by spadeful; packing it close, patting it down, treading it smooth and even. He worked swiftly and in silence, breathing hard. Finally he collected the surplus into an empty sack, carried it away, and dumped it out of sight in the thicket.
Not until he had completed the work to his satisfaction, leaving the road-bed smooth as he had found it, save for the protrusion of that gruesome head, did Burton pause. The perspiration poured from his face and neck, and his arms and shoulders ached stiffly with the unusual exertion. But he looked upon his finished task as an artist looks upon the picture that has grown beneath his fingers to the complete ideal. It was more perfect than he had even dared to hope.
The sallow face, the wild, hopeless terror in the staring eyes, the quivering features--everything was there as in the model he had copied. Best of all, it lived. Only the gag in the twitching mouth annoyed the artist a little. He listened with keen pleasure to the gurgling noises in the doomed man’s throat, but he dared not take the chances of a full-mouthed scream for help.
Leisurely deliberate, he removed to his wagon the utensils of his labour, and bestowed his shovel and his empty sacks within it. He donned his coat, and drew the wagon off yet another hundred yards into the darker shelter of the trees. Then he returned to his victim’s grave and for the first time he spoke.
A wild light glowed behind his eyes now, and his voice quivered with repressed excitement.
"You murdering coward!" he said. "I’ve brought you here to die. Haven’t you often wondered how I could wait so long? I might have given evidence that they’d have hanged you on. l might have shot you in your cafe, or knifed you in the street. l might have strangled you before to-day with my own hands. But I waited, and I’ll tell you why.
"I’ve seen the terror of an awful death in a murdered woman’s eyes. I’ll see it in a living man’s tonight. An eye for an eye; the old Jew law, Shanghai! We’ve never framed a better since the world began.
"Mark you how well I’ve laid my plan and picked my place. A quarter of a mile up there, above us, lies the one steep pitch on all this level line; below it the track curves sharply round, and no one can tell what lies beyond the bend. At midnight, fifty miles an hour, the Tampa mail runs through.
"You’ll see her flaring head-light as she swings the bend; you’ll hear the whistle of the engine as she shrieks your last good night. And the grinning teeth of the cow-catcher spread wide and low, the height of a man’s head above the cross-ties. Fifty miles an hour she’ll come, Shanghai; and nothing on God’s green earth can save you then!"
He paused on a sudden; threw back his head and laughed—peal after peal of wild, weird laughter—till it seemed that he would never stop. In the solitude of the pine woods the sound struck a strange, unreal note. Peal after peal, till the tears started to his burning eyes, and, with a choking sob, he ceased as suddenly as he began.
From behind the banking clouds the silver circle of the moon swam slowly out into the blue. He pointed upwards with a shaking finger.
"The curtain’s up, Shanghai!" he shouted. "The limelight’s on the stage! Vengeance is mine at last ! At last!"
His voice broke and failed, the wild light faded from his eyes, and he staggered like a drunken man, pressing a hand against his throbbing head.
"An eye for an eye—the old Jew law," he muttered, as he turned away.
And the pinioned victim in the pit knew that his hour had come.
Silence fell upon the pine woods, and the moon shone fair and full upon the scene of impending tragedy.
Framed between two lines of gleaming metals, midway to an inch between the cross-ties, a ghastly yellow face stood out a foot above the levelled sand, with straining eyeballs fixed upon the curve that closed their view and twitching jaws that fought in vain against their gagging bondage. Fifty yards above, in the angle of the track, where a stunted oak tree commanded an unbroken view on either side, Burton sat crouched in the crook of a lower branch.
And twenty miles away, with the signals in her favour and an open track ahead, the racing Tampa mail came speeding south.
Fifteen minutes passed before the expressman, listening intently, caught a faint sound—so faint as to be scarcely distinguishable. Then on the rising breeze it came again, still faint, but unmistakable. It was the far-off rumble of the coming train.
Burton’s eyes gleamed wild again. It was the first note of the overture. The orchestra was striking up; the drama was about to begin.
Shanghai had heard it too; and the convulsive efforts, which for a time he had abandoned, recommenced. In his frantic struggles the sweat poured down his hollow cheeks, half blinding the bloodshot eyes, and the watcher saw the beaten sand heave and shudder around the straining muscles of his yellow neck. Burton laughed, exultant.
The crooked branch of the stunted oak crackled and snapped, but the man who clung there never noted. Whatever happened now, he must watch his victim’s face.
The thing he turned to gaze upon was scarcely human. Contorted beyond recognition, it had become a mere sweating mask of abject terror. Rigid with the appalling horror of his coming doom, the man had ceased to move; the sightless eyeballs glared vacantly into space.
The snapped branch dropped from under Burton’s feet, and left him swinging by his hands.
Nearer and nearer came the crisis; twenty yards—fifteen—ten—!
The strain increased beyond the watcher’s power to bear, and his nerveless hands relaxed their grip. With a deafening shriek the Tampa mail raced past, and he dropped gently to the ground.
THREE days in every week, over the seven sandy miles which separate the town of Melonville from the English colony on Lake Topekah, there plies a heavy-laden vehicle, drawn by a raw-boned, mud-coloured horse.
And the driver is a silent, stern-faced man with snow-white hair, and wistful eyes that peer along the lonely road, seeking a passenger who never comes.
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