They were down on the floor now, rolling over and over together; and he watched them until the child grew tired and turned his face to the fire and lay still—looking into it. Buck could see his eyes close presently, and then the puppy crept closer, put his head on his playmate’s chest, and the two lay thus asleep.
And still Buck looked—his clasp loosening on his pistol and his lips loosening under his stiff mustache—and kept looking until the door opened again and the woman crossed the floor. A flood of light flashed suddenly on the snow, barely touching the snow-hung tips of the apple-tree, and he saw her in the doorway—saw her look anxiously into the darkness—look and listen a long while.
Buck dropped noiselessly to the snow when she closed the door. He wondered what they would think when they saw his tracks in the snow next morning; and then he realized that they would be covered before morning.
As he started up the ravine where his horse was he heard the clink of metal down the road and the splash of a horse’s hoofs in the soft mud, and he sank down behind a holly-bush.
Again the light from the cabin flashed out on the snow.
“That you, Jim?”
And then the child’s voice: “Has oo dot thum tandy?”
The cheery answer rang out almost at Buck’s ear, and Jim passed death waiting for him behind the bush which his left foot brushed, shaking the snow from the red berries down on the crouching figure beneath.
Once only, far down the dark jungled way, with the underlying streak of yellow that was leading him whither, God only knew—once only Buck looked back. There was the red light gleaming faintly through the moonlit flakes of snow. Once more he thought of the Star, and once more the chaplain’s voice came back to him.
“Mine!” saith the Lord.
Just how, Buck could not see with himself in the snow and him back there for life with her and the child, but some strange impulse made him bare his head.
“Yourn,” said Buck grimly.
But nobody on Lonesome—not even Buck—knew that it was Christmas Eve.
THE ARMY OF THE CALLAHAN
The dreaded message had come. The lank messenger, who had brought it from over Black Mountain, dropped into a chair by the stove and sank his teeth into a great hunk of yellow cheese. “Flitter Bill” Richmond waddled from behind his counter, and out on the little platform in front of his cross-roads store. Out there was a group of earth-stained countrymen, lounging against the rickety fence or swinging on it, their heels clear of the ground, all whittling, chewing, and talking the matter over. All looked up at Bill, and he looked down at them, running his eye keenly from one to another until he came to one powerful young fellow loosely bent over a wagon-tongue. Even on him, Bill’s eyes stayed but a moment, and then were lifted higher in anxious thought.