The Novel of the Dark Valley (part 2/3)

A man came out of a rough-looking house and took the horses, and we found some fried steak and coarse whiskey awaiting us inside. I had come to a strange place. There were three rooms,–the room in which we had supper, Smith’s room and my own. The deaf old man who did the work slept in a sort of shed, and when I woke up the next morning and walked out I found that the house stood in a sort of hollow amongst the mountains; the clumps of pines and some enormous bluish-gray rocks that stood here and there between the trees had given the place the name of Blue-Rock Park. On every side the snow-covered mountains surrounded us, the breath of the air was as wine, and when I climbed the slope and looked down, I could see that, so far as any human fellowship was concerned I might as well have been wrecked on some small island in mid-Pacific. The only trace of man I could see was the rough log-house where I had slept, and in my ignorance I did not know that there were similar houses within comparatively easy distance, as distance is reckoned in the Rockies. But at the moment, the utter, dreadful loneliness rushed upon me, and the thought of the great plain and the great sea that parted me from the world I knew, caught me by the throat, and I wondered if I should die there in that mountain hollow. It was a terrible instant, and I have not yet forgotten it. Of course I managed to conquer my horror; I said I should be all the stronger for the experience, and I made up my mind to make the best of everything. It was a rough life enough, and rough enough board and lodging. I was left entirely to myself. Smith I scarcely ever saw, nor did I know when he was in the house. I have often thought he was far away, and have been surprised to see him walking out of his room, locking the door behind him and putting the key in his pocket; and on several occasions when I fancied he was busy in his room, I have seen him come in with his boots covered with dust and dirt. So far as work went I enjoyed a complete sinecure; I had nothing to do but to walk about the valley, to eat, and to sleep. With one thing and another I grew accustomed, to the life, and managed to make myself pretty comfortable, and by degrees I began to venture farther away from the house, and to explore the country. One day I had contrived to get into a neighboring valley, and suddenly I came upon a group of men sawing timber. I went up to them, hoping that perhaps some of them might be Englishmen; at all events they were human beings, and I should hear articulate speech, for the old man I have mentioned, besides being half blind and stone deaf, was wholly dumb so far as I was concerned. I was prepared to be welcomed in a rough and ready fashion, without much, of the forms of politeness, but the grim glances and the short gruff answers I received astonished me. I saw the men glancing oddly at each other, and one of them who had stopped work began fingering a gun, and I was obliged to return on my path uttering curses on the fate which had brought me into a land where men were more brutish than the very brutes. The solitude of the life began to oppress me as with a nightmare, and a few days later I determined to walk to a kind of station some miles distant, where a rough inn was kept for the accommodation of hunters and tourists. English gentlemen occasionally stopped there for the night, and I thought I might perhaps fall in with some one of better manners than the inhabitants of the country. I found as I had expected a group of men lounging about the door of the log-house that served as a hotel, and as I came nearer I could see that heads were put together and looks interchanged, and when I walked up the six or seven trappers stared at me in stony ferocity, and with something of the disgust that one eyes a loathsome and venomous snake. I felt that I could bear it no longer, and I called out:–

“Is there such a thing as an Englishman here, or any one with a little civilization?”

One of the men put his hand to his belt, but his neighbor checked him and answered me.

“You’ll find we’ve got some of the resources of civilization before very long, mister, and I expect you’ll not fancy them extremely. But anyway, there’s an Englishman tarrying here, and I’ve no doubt he’ll be glad to see you. There you are, that’s Mr. D’Aubernoun.”

A young man, dressed like an English country squire, came and stood at the door, and looked at me. One of the men pointed to me and said:–

“That’s the individual we were talking about last night. Thought you might like to have a look at him, squire, and here he is.”

The young fellow’s good-natured English face clouded over, and he glanced sternly at me, and turned away with a gesture of contempt and aversion.

“Sir,” I cried, “I do not know what I have done to be treated in this manner. You are my fellow-countryman, and I expected some courtesy.”

He gave me a black look and made as if he would go in, but he changed his mind, and faced me.

“You are rather imprudent, I think, to behave in this manner. You must be counting on a forbearance which cannot last very long; which may last a very short time, indeed. And let me tell you this, sir, you may call yourself an Englishman and drag the name of England through the dirt, but you need not count on any English influence to help you. If I were you, I would not stay here much longer.”

He went into the inn, and the men quietly watched my face, as I stood there, wondering whether I was going mad. The woman of the house came out and stared at me as if I were a wild beast or a savage, and I turned to her, and spoke quietly.

“I am very hungry and thirsty, I have walked a long way. I have plenty of money. Will you give me something to eat and drink?”

“No, I won’t,” she said. “You had better quit this.”

I crawled home like a wounded beast, and lay down on my bed. It was all a hopeless puzzle to me. I knew nothing but rage and shame and terror, and I suffered little more when I passed by a house in an adjacent valley, and some children who were playing outside ran from me shrieking. I was forced to walk to find some occupation. I should have died if I had sat down quietly in Blue Rock Park and looked all day at the mountains; but wherever I saw a human being I saw the same glance of hatred and aversion, and once as I was crossing a thick brake I heard a shot, and the venomous hiss of a bullet close to my ear.

One day I heard a conversation which astounded me; I was sitting behind a rock resting, and two men came along the track and halted. One of them had got his feet entangled in some wild vines, and swore fiercely, but the other laughed, and said they were useful things sometimes.

“What the hell do you mean?”

“Oh, nothing much. But they ‘re uncommon tough, these here vines, and sometimes rope is skerse and dear.”

The man who had sworn chuckled at this, and I heard them sit down and light their pipes.

“Have you seen him lately?” asked the humorist.

“I sighted him the other day, but the darned bullet went high. He’s got his master’s luck, I expect, sir, but it can’t last much longer. You heard about him going to Jinks’s and trying his brass, but the young Britisher downed him pretty considerable, I can tell you.”

“What the devil is the meaning of it?”

“I don’t know, but I believe it’ll have to be finished, and done in the old style, too. You know how they fix the niggers?”

“Yes, sir, I’ve seen a little of that. A couple of gallons of kerosene’ll cost a dollar at Brown’s store, but I should say it’s cheap anyway.”

They moved off after this, and I lay still behind the rock, the sweat pouring down my face. I was so sick that I could barely stand, and I walked home as slowly as an old man, leaning on my stick. I knew that the two men had been talking about me, and I knew that some terrible death was in store for me. That night I could not sleep. I tossed on the rough bed and tortured myself to find out the meaning of it all. At last in the very dead of night I rose from the bed, and put on my clothes, and went out. I did not care where I went, but I felt that I must walk till I had tired myself out. It was a clear moonlight night, and in a couple of hours I found I was approaching a place of dismal reputation in the mountains, a deep cleft in the rocks, known as Black Gulf Cañon. Many years before, an unfortunate party of Englishmen and Englishwomen had camped here and had been surrounded by Indians. They were captured, outraged, and put to death with almost inconceivable tortures, and the roughest of the trappers or woodsmen gave the cañon a wide berth even in the day-time. As I crushed through the dense brushwood which grew above the cañon, I heard voices, and wondering who could be in such a place at such a time, I went on, walking more carefully and making as little noise as possible. There was a great tree growing on the very edge of the rocks, and I lay down and looked out from behind the trunk. Black Gulf Cañon was below me, the moonlight shining bright into its very depths from midheaven, and casting shadows as black as death from the pointed rock, and all the sheer rock on the other side, overhanging the cañon, was in darkness. At intervals a light veil obscured the moonlight, as a filmy cloud fleeted across the moon; and a bitter wind blew shrill across the gulf. I looked down as I have said, and saw twenty men standing in a semicircle round a rock; I counted them one by one, and knew most of them. They were the very vilest of the vile, more vile than any den in London could show, and there was murder and worse than murder on the heads of not a few. Facing them and me stood Mr. Smith with the rock before him, and on the rock was a great pair of scales, such, as are used in the stores. I heard his voice ringing down the cañon as I lay beside the tree, and my heart turned cold as I heard it.

“Life for gold,” he cried, “a life for gold. The blood and the life of an enemy for every pound of gold.”

A man stepped out and raised one hand, and with the other flung a bright lump of something into the pan of the scales, which clanged down, and Smith muttered something in his ear. Then he cried again:–

“Blood for gold; for a pound of gold, the life of an enemy. For every pound of gold upon the scales, a life.”

One by one the men came forward, each lifting up his right hand; and the gold was weighed in the scales, and each time Smith leaned forward and spoke to each man in his ear. Then he cried again:–

“Desire and lust, for gold on the scales. For every pound of gold, enjoyment of desire.”

I saw the same thing happen as before; the uplifted hand, and the metal weighed, and the mouth whispering, and black passion on every face.

Then, one by one, I saw the men again step up to Smith. A muttered conversation seemed to take place; I could see that Smith was explaining and directing, and I noticed that he gesticulated a little as one who points out the way, and once or twice he moved his hands quickly as if he would show that the path was clear and could not be missed. I kept my eyes so intently on his figure that I noted little else, and at last it was with a start that I realized that the cañon was empty. A moment before I thought I had seen the group of villainous faces, and the two standing, a little apart by the rock; I had looked down a moment, and when I glanced again into the cañon there was no one there. In dumb terror I made my way home, and I fell asleep in an instant from exhaustion. No doubt I should have slept on for many hours, but when I woke up, the sun was only rising, and the light shone in on my bed. I had started up from sleep with the sensation of having received a violent shock, and as I looked in confusion about me I saw to my amazement that there were three men in the room. One of them had his hand on my shoulder and spoke to me.

“Come, mister, wake up. Your time’s up now, I reckon, and the boys are waiting for you outside, and they ‘re in a big hurry. Come on; you can put on your clothes, it’s kind of chilly this morning.”

I saw the other two men smiling sourly at each other, but I understood nothing. I simply pulled on my clothes, and said I was ready.

“All right, come on then. You go first, Nichols, and Jim and I will give the gentleman an arm.”

They took me out into the sunlight, and then I understood the meaning of a dull murmur that had vaguely perplexed me while I was dressing. There were about two hundred men waiting outside, and some women too, and when they saw me there was a low muttering growl. I did not know what I had done, but that noise made my heart beat and the sweat come out on my face. I saw confusedly, as through a veil, the tumult and tossing of the crowd, discordant voices were speaking, and amongst all those faces there was not one glance of mercy, but a fury of lust that I did not understand. I found myself presently walking in a sort of procession up the slope of the valley, and on every side of me there were men with revolvers in their hands. Now and then a voice struck me, and I heard words and sentences of which I could form no connected story. But I understood that there was one sentence of execration; I heard scraps of stories that seemed strange and improbable. Some one was talking of men, lured by cunning devices from their homes and murdered with hideous tortures, found writhing like wounded snakes in dark and lonely places, only crying for some one to stab them to the heart, and so end their torments; and I heard another voice speaking of innocent girls who had vanished for a day or two, and then had come back and died, blushing red with shame even in the agonies of death. I wondered what it all meant, and what was to happen, but I was so weary that I walked on in a dream, scarcely longing for anything but sleep. At last we stopped. We had reached the summit of the hill, overlooking Blue Rock Valley, and I saw that I was standing beneath a clump of trees where I had often sat. I was in the midst of a ring of armed men, and I saw that two or three men were very busy with piles of wood, while others were fingering a rope. Then there was a stir in the crowd, and a man was pushed forward. His hands and feet were tightly bound with cord, and though his face was unutterably villainous I pitied him for the agony that worked his features and twisted his lips. I knew him; he was amongst those that had gathered round Smith in Black Gulf Cañon. In an instant he was unbound, and stripped naked; and borne beneath one of the trees, and his neck encircled by a noose that went around the trunk. A hoarse voice gave some kind of order; there was a rush of feet, and the rope tightened; and there before me I saw the blackened face and the writhing limbs and the shameful agony of death. One after another, half a dozen men, all of whom I had seen in the cañon the night before, were strangled before me, and their bodies were flung forth on the ground. Then there was a pause, and the man who had roused me a short while before, came up to me and said:–

“Now, mister, it’s your turn. We give you five minutes to cast up your accounts, and when that’s clocked, by the living God we will burn you alive at that tree.”

It was then I awoke and understood. I cried out:–

“Why, what have I done? Why should you hurt me? I am a harmless man, I never did you any wrong.” I covered my face with my hands; it seemed so pitiful, and it was such a terrible death.

“What have I done?” I cried again. “You must take me for some other man. You cannot know me.”

“You black-hearted devil,” said the man at my side, “we know you well enough. There’s not a man within thirty miles of this that won’t curse Jack Smith when you are burning in hell.”

“My name is not Smith,” I said, with some hope left in me. “My name is Wilkins. I was Mr. Smith’s secretary, but I knew nothing of him.”

“Hark at the black liar,” said the man. “Secretary be damned! You were clever enough, I dare say, to slink out at night, and keep your face in the dark, but we’ve tracked you out at last. But your time’s up. Come along.”

I was dragged to the tree and bound to it with chains, and I saw the piles of wood heaped all about me, and shut my eyes. Then I felt myself drenched all over with some liquid, and looked again, and a woman grinned at me. She had just emptied a great can of petroleum over me and over the wood. A voice shouted, “Fire away,” and I fainted and knew nothing more.

When I opened my eyes I was lying on a bed in a bare comfortless room. A doctor was holding some strong salts to my nostrils, and a gentleman standing by the bed, whom I afterwards found to be the sheriff, addressed me:–

“Say, mister,” he began, “you’ve had an uncommon narrow squeak for it. The boys were just about lighting up when I came along with the posse, and I had as much as I could do to bring you off, I can tell you. And, mind you, I don’t blame, them; they had made up their minds, you see, that you were the head of the Black Gulf gang, and at first nothing I could say would persuade them you weren’t Jack Smith. Luckily, a man from here named Evans, that came along with us, allowed he had seen you with Jack Smith, and that you were yourself. So we brought you along and jailed you, but you can go if you like, when you’re through with this faint turn.”

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