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The Law of Hemlock Mountain

Hugh Lundsford

  Produced by David Garcia, Katherine Ward, and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at (Thisfile was produced from images generously made availableby The Kentuckiana Digital Library)



  Frontispiece by DOUGLAS DUER

  New York W. J. Watt & Company PUBLISHERS



  "I am sorry," declared Spurrier, humbly. "I didn't knowthey were pets. They behaved very much like wild birds."]


  The officer whose collar ornaments were the winged staff and serpentsof the medical branch, held what was left of the deck in his righthand and moistened the tip of his thumb against the tip of histongue.

  "Reenforcements, major?" he inquired with a glance to the man at hisleft, and the poker face of the gentleman so addressed remainedimpervious to expression as the answer was given back:

  "No, I'll stand by what I've got here."

  If the utterance hung on a quarter second of indecision it was acircumstance that went unnoted, save possibly by a young man with thesingle bars of a lieutenant on his shoulder straps--and Spurrier gaveno flicker of recognition of what had escaped the others.

  Between the whitewashed walls of the room where the little group ofofficers sat at cards the Philippine night breeze stirred faintly witha fevered breath that scarcely disturbed the jalousies.

  The pile of poker chips had grown to a bulkiness and value out ofjust proportion to the means of army officers below field rank--andexcept for the battalion, commander and the surgeon none there heldhigher grade than a captaincy. This jungle-hot weather made menirresponsible.

  One or two of the faces were excitedly flushed; several others weremorosely dark. The lights guttered with a jaundiced yellow and sweatbeaded the temples of the players. Sweat, too, made slippery theenameled surfaces of the pasteboards. Sweat seemed to ooze and simmerin their brains like the oil from overheated asphalt.

  These men had been forced into a companionship of monotony in aclimate of unhealth until their studied politeness, even their forcedjocularity was rather the effort of toleration than the easy play ofcomradeship. Their arduously wooed excitement of draw-poker, which hadrun improvidently out of bounds, was not a pleasure so much as anexpedient against the boredom that had rubbed their tempers threadbareand put an edgy sharpness on their nerves.

  Captain Comyn, upon whose call for cards the dealer now waited, wasthinking of Private Grant out there under guard in the improvisedhospital. The islands had "gotten to" Private Grant and "locoed" him,and he had breathed sulphurous maledictions against Captain Comyn'slife--but it was not those threats that now disturbed the companycommander.

  Of late Captain Comyn had been lying awake at night and wondering ifhe, too, were not going the same way as the unfortunate file. Horriblyquiet fears had been stealing poisonously into his mind--a mind notgiven to timidities--and the word "melancholia" had assumed for him amorbid and irresistible compulsion. No one save the captain's selfknew of these secret hauntings, born of climate and smoldering fever,and he would not have revealed them on the torture rack. For them heentertained the same shame as that of a boy grown too large for suchweakness, who shudders with an unconfessed fear of the dark. But hecould no more shake them loose and be free of them than could theAncient Mariner rid himself of the bird of ill-omen tied about hisneck. Now he pulled himself together and tossed away a single card.

  "I'll take one in the place of that," he commented with studiedcarelessness, and Lieutenant John Spurrier, with that infectious smilewhich came readily to his lips, pointed a contrast with the captain'sabstraction by the snappy quickness of his announcement:

  "If I'm going to trail along, I'll need three. Yes, three, please,major."

  "When Spurrier sits in the game," commented a player who, with adolorous glance at the booty before him, threw down his hands, "we atleast get action. Myself, I'm out of it."

  The battalion commander studied the ceiling with a troubled furrowbetween his brows which was not brought there by the hazards of luck.He was reflecting that whenever a game was organized it was Spurrierwho quickened its tempo from innocuous amusement to recklessextravagance. Spurrier, fitted for his life with so many soldierlyqualities, was still, above all else, a plunger. That spirit seemed apassion that filled and overflowed him. Temperate in other habits, heplayed like a nabob. The major remembered hearing that even at WestPoint Jack Spurrier had narrowly, escaped dismissal for gambling inquarters, though his class standing had been distinguished and hisgridiron record had become a tradition.

  This sort of game with "the roof off and deuces wild," was not goodfor the _morale_ of his junior officers, mused the major. It was likespiking whisky with absinthe. Yes, to-morrow he would have Spurrier athis quarters and talk to him like a Dutch uncle.

  There were three left battling for the often sweetened pot now, withthree more who had dropped out, looking on, and a tensity envelopedthe long-drawn climax of the evening's session.

  Captain Comyn's cheek bones had reddened and his irascible frown linesdeepened. For the moment his fears of melancholia had been swallowedup in a fitful fury against Spurrier and his smiling face.

  At last came the decisive moment of the final call and the show-down,and through the dead silence of the moment sounded the distantsing-song of a sentry:

  "Corporal of the guard, number one, relief!"

  Over the window sill a tiny green lizard slithered quietly andhesitated, pressing itself flat against the whitewash.

  Then the major's cards came down face upward--and showed a queen-highstraight.

  "Not quite good enough, major," announced Comyn brusquely as hisbreath broke from him with a sort of gasp and he spread out a heartflush.

  But Spurrier, who had drawn three cards, echoed the captain's words:"Not quite good enough." He laid down two aces and two deuces, whichunder the cutthroat rule of "deuces wild" he was privileged to callfour aces.

  Comyn came to his feet and pushed back his chair, but he stoodunsteadily. The fever in his bones was playing queer pranks with hisbrain. He, whose courtesy had always been marked in its punctilio,blazed volcano-fashion into the eruption that had been gatheringthrough these abnormal days and nights.

  Yet even now the long habit of decorum held waveringly for a littlebefore its breaking, and he began with a queer strain in his voice:

  "You'll have to take my IOU. I've lost more than I can pay on thepeg."

  "That's all right, Comyn," began the victor, "Pay when----" but beforehe could finish the other interrupted with a frenzy of anger:

  "No, by God, it's not all right! It's all wrong, and this is the lastgame I sit in where they deal a hand to you."

  Spurrier's smiling lips tightened instantly out of their infectiousamiability into a forbidding straightness. He pushed aside the chipshe had been stacking and rose stiffly.

  "That's a statement, Captain Comyn," he said with a warning note inhis level voice, "which requires some explaining."

  The abrupt bursting of the tempest had left the others in a tableau ofamazement, but now the authoritative voice of Major Withers broke inupon the dialogue.

  "Gentlemen, this is an army post, and I am in command here. I willtolerate no quarrels."

  Without shifting the gaze of eyes that held those of the captain,Spurrier answered insistently:

  "I have every respect, major, for the requirements of discipline--butCaptain Comyn must finish telling why he will no longer play cardswith me."

  "And I'll tell you _pronto_," came the truculent response. "I won'tplay with you
because you are too damned lucky."

  "Oh!" Spurrier's tensity of expression relaxed into something likeamusement for the anticlimax. "That accusation can be stomached, Isuppose."

  "Too damned lucky," went on the other with a gathering momentum ofrancor, "and too continuously lucky for a game that's not professional.When a man is so proficient--or lucky if you prefer--that the card tablepays him more than the government thinks he's worth, it's time----"

  Spurrier stepped forward.

  "It's time for you to stop," he cautioned sharply. "I give you thefairest warning!"

  But Comyn, riding the flood tide of his passion--a passion ofdistempered nerves--was beyond the reach of warnings and his wordscame in a bitter outpouring:

  "I dare say it was only luck that let you bankrupt young Tillsdale,but it was as fatal to him as if it bore an uglier name."

  The sound in Spurrier's throat was incoherent and his bodily impulseswift beyond interference. His flat palm smote Captain Comyn's cheek,to come away leaving a red welt behind it, and as the others sweptforward to intervene the two men grappled.

  They were torn apart, still struggling, as Major Withers, unaccustomedto the brooking of such mutinies, interposed between them the bulk ofhis body and the moral force of his indignantly blazing eyes.

  "I will have no more of this," he thundered. "I am not a prize-fightreferee, that I must break my officers out of clinches! Go to yourquarters, Comyn! You, too, Spurrier. You are under arrest. I shallprefer charges against you both. I mean to make an example of thismatter."

  But with a strange abruptness the fury died out of Comyn's face. Itleft his passion-distorted features so instantly that the effect oftransformation was uncanny. In a breathing space he seemed older andhis eyes held the dark dejection of utter misery. His anger had flaredand died before that grimmer emotion which secretly haunted him--thefear that he was going the way of climate-crazed Private Grant.

  When they released him he turned dispiritedly and left the room indocile silence. He was not thinking of the charges to be preferred.They belonged to to-morrow. To-night was nearer, and to-night he mustface those hours of sleeplessness that he dreaded more than all thepenalties enunciated by the Articles of War.

  Spurrier, too, bowed stiffly and left the room.

  Though it was late when Captain Comyn entered his own quarters, he didnot at once throw himself on the army cot that stood against thewhitewashed wall.

  For him the cot held no invitation--only the threat of insomnia andtossing. His taut nerves had lost the gracious art of relaxation, andbefore his thoughts paraded hideously grotesque memories of the fewfaces he had ever seen marred by the dethronement of reason.

  Already he had forgotten the violent and discreditable scene withSpurrier, and presently he dropped himself inertly into the camp chairbeside the table at the room's center and opened its drawer.

  Slowly his hand came out clutching a service revolver, and his eyessmoldered unnaturally as they dwelt on it. But after a little heresolutely shook his head and thrust the thing aside.

  He sat in a cold sweat, surrounded by the silence of the Easternnight, a comprehensive silence which weighed upon him and oppressedhim.

  In the thatching of the single-storied adobe building he heard therustling of a house snake, and from without, where moonlight seemed togush and spill against the cobalt shadows, shrilled the small voicefrom a lizard's inflated, crimson throat.

  It was all crazing him, and his nails bit into his palms as he satthere, silent and heavy-breathed. Then he heard footsteps nearer andlouder than those of the pacing sentries, followed by a low rapping ofknuckles on his own door. Perhaps it was Doctor James. He had thekindly habit of besetting men who looked fagged with the offer of someinnocuous bromide. As if bromides could soothe a brain in whichsomething had gone _malo_!

  "Come in," he growled, and into the room stepped not Major James, butLieutenant Spurrier.

  Slowly and with an infinite weight of weariness, Comyn rose to hisfeet. He might be afraid of lunacy, but not of lieutenants, and hislips smiled sneeringly.

  "If you've come to ask a retraction," he declared ungraciously, "I'venone to offer. I meant all I said."

  The visitor stood inside the door calmly eyeing the man who was hisown company commander.

  "I didn't come to insist on apologies," he replied after a moment'ssilence with an off-hand easiness of tone. "That can wait till you'vegotten over your tantrum. It was another thing that brought me."

  "I want to be left alone."

  "Aside from the uncomplimentary features of your tirade," went onSpurrier placidly and he strolled around the table and seated himselfon the window sill, "there was a germ of truth in what you said. We'vebeen playing too steep a game." He paused and the other man whoremained standing by his table, as though he did not wish to encouragehis visitor by seating himself, responded only with a short, ironiclaugh.

  "See here, Comyn," Spurrier's voice labored now with evidentembarrassment. "What I'm getting at is this: I don't want your IOU forthat game. I simply want you to forget it."

  But the captain took an angry step forward.

  "Do you think I'm a charity patient?" he demanded, as his temper againmounted to storm pressure. "Why, damn your impertinence, I don't wantto talk to you. I don't want you in my quarters!"

  Spurrier slipped from his seat and an angry flush spread to his cheekbones.

  "You're the hell of a--gentleman!" he exclaimed.

  The two stood for a few moments without words, facing each other,while the lieutenant could hear the captain's breath rising andfalling in a panting thickness.

  Surgeon James returning from a visit to a colic sufferer was trudgingsleepily along the empty _calle_ when he noted the light still burningin the captain's window, and with an exclamation of remembrance forthe officer's dark-ringed and sleepless eyes, he wheeled toward thedoor. Just as he neared it, a staccato and heated interchange ofvoices was borne out to him, and he hurried his step, but at the sameinstant a pistol shot bellowed blatantly in the quiet air and into hisnostrils stole the acrid savor of burned powder.

  The door, thrown open, gave him the startling picture of Comyn saggedacross his own table and lying grotesque in the yellow light; and ofSpurrier standing, wide-eyed by the window, with the green and cobaltbackground of the tropic night beyond his shoulders. While he gazedthe lieutenant wheeled and thrust his head through the raised sash,under the jalousy.

  "Halt!" cried James excitedly, leaping forward to possess himself ofthe pistol which Comyn had taken from his drawer and thrust aside."Halt, Spurrier, or I'll have to fire!"

  The other turned back and faced his captor with an expression which itwas hard to read. Then he shook his shoulders as though to disentanglehimself from an evil dream and in a cool voice demanded:

  "Do you mean to intimate, James, that you suspect me of killingComyn?"

  "Do you mean to deny it?" countered the other incredulously.

  "Great God! I oughtn't to have to. That shot was fired through thewindow. The bullet whined past my ear while my back was turned. Thatwas why I looked out just now. Moreover, I am, as you see, unarmed."

  "God grant that you can prove these things, Spurrier, but they willneed proof." The doctor turned to bend over the prostrate figure, andas he did so voices rose from the _calle_ where already had soundedthe alarm and response of running feet. "Or, perhaps," added thedoctor with stubborn suggestiveness, "you acted in self-defense."

  Presently the door opened and the corporal of the guard entered andsaluted. His eyes traveled rapidly about the room and he addressedSpurrier, since James was not a line officer.

  "I picked this revolver up, sir, just outside the window," he said,holding out a service pistol. "It was lying in the moonlight and onechamber is empty."

  Spurrier took the weapon, but when the man had gone James suggested inan even voice: "Don't you think you had better hand that gun to me?"

  "To you? Why?"

  "Because this looks li
ke a case for G. C. M. It will have a betteraspect if I can testify that, after the gun was brought in, it wasn'thandled by you except while I saw you?"

  "It seems to me"--a belligerent flash darted in the lieutenant'seyes--"that you are singularly set on hanging this affair around myneck."

  "You were with him and no one else was. If I were you, I'd go directto the major and make a statement of facts. He'll be getting reportsfrom other sources by now."

  "Perhaps you are right. Is _he_ dead?"

  The surgeon nodded, and Spurrier turned and closed the door softlybehind him.