MEETING BY MOONLIGHT
Now granting that a soldier should be free to spend his leave where he will, unchallenged, it remained true that the last of the A.E.F. had long since said farewell to the shores of France, while the Tarn country seemed a far cry from the banks of the Rhine, in those days still under occupation by forces of the United States Regular Army. Then, too, it was a fact within the knowledge of Monsieur Duchemin that the uniform of the Americans had more than frequently been used by those ancient acquaintances of his, the Apaches of Paris, as a cloak for their own misdoings. So it didn’t need the air of stealth that marked this business to persuade him there was mischief in the brew.
But indeed he got in motion to investigate without stopping to debate an excuse for so doing, and several seconds before he heard the woman’s cries.
Of these the first sounded, shrill with alarm, as Duchemin turned the corner where the prowlers had gone from sight. But a high wall of rock alone met his vision, and he broke into a run that carried him round still another corner and then plumped him headlong into the theatre of villainy.
This was open ground, a breadth of turf bordering on one of the great cirques—a rudely oval pit at a guess little less than seven hundred feet in its narrowest diameter and something like four hundred in depth, a vast black well against whose darkness the blue-white moonglare etched a strange grouping of figures, seven in all.
On his one hand Duchemin saw a woman in mourning clasping to her bosom a terrified young girl, the author of the screams; on the other, three men close-locked in grimmest combat, one defending himself against two with indifferent success; while in between stood a third woman with her back to and perilously near the chasm, shrinking from the threat of a pistol in the hands of the fourth man.
This last was the one nearest Duchemin, who was upon him so suddenly that it would be difficult to say which was the more surprised when Duchemin’s stick struck down the pistol hand of the other with such force as must have broken his wrist. The weapon fell, he uttered an oath as he swung round, clutching the maimed member; and then, seeing his assailant for the first time, he swooped down to recover the weapon so swiftly that it was in his left hand and spitting vicious tongues of orange flame before Duchemin was able to get in a second blow.
But there was the abrupt end of that passage. Smitten cruelly between the eyes, the fellow grunted thickly and went over backwards like a bundle of rags, head and shoulders jutting out over the brink of the precipice so far that, though his body checked perceptibly as it struck the ground, his own weight carried him on, he shot out into space and vanished as though some unseen hand had lifted up from these dark depths and plucked him down to annihilation.