Dave had closed his heart to love. It was to have no room in his life. To his morbid sensibilities the shadow of the prison walls still stretched between him and Joyce. It did not matter that he was innocent, that all his small world would soon know of his vindication. The fact stood. For years he had been shut away from men, a leprous thing labeled “Unclean!” He had dwelt in a place of furtive whisperings, of sinister sounds. His nostrils had inhaled the odor of musty clothes and steamed food. His fingers had touched moisture sweating through the walls, and in his small dark cell he had hunted graybacks. The hopeless squalor of it at times had driven him almost mad. As he saw it now, his guilt was of minor importance. If he had not fired the shot that killed George Doble, that was merely a chance detail. What counted against him was that his soul was marked with the taint of the criminal through association and habit of thought. He could reason with this feeling and temporarily destroy it. He could drag it into the light and laugh it away. But subconsciously it persisted as a horror from which he could not escape. A man cannot touch pitch, even against his own will, and not be defiled.
“You’re Keith’s hero, you know,” the girl told Dave, her face bubbling to unexpected mirth. “He tries to walk and talk like you. He asks the queerest questions. To-day I caught him diving at a pillow on the bed. He was making-believe to be you when you were shot.”
Her nearness in the soft, shadowy night shook his self-control. The music of her voice with its drawling intonations played on his heartstrings.
“Think I’ll go now,” he said abruptly.
“You must come again,” she told him. “Keith wants you to teach him how to rope. You won’t mind, will you?”
The long lashes lifted innocently from the soft deep eyes, which rested in his for a moment and set clamoring a disturbance in his blood.
“I’ll be right busy,” he said awkwardly, bluntly.
She drew back within herself. “I’d forgotten how busy you are, Mr. Sanders. Of course we mustn’t impose on you,” she said, cold and stiff as only offended youth can be.
Striding into the night, Dave cursed the fate that had made him what he was. He had hurt her boorishly by his curt refusal of her friendship. Yet the heart inside him was a wild river of love.
AT THE JACKPOT
The day lasted twenty-four hours in Malapi. As Sanders walked along Junipero Street, on his way to the downtown corral from Crawford’s house, saloons and gambling-houses advertised their attractions candidly and noisily. They seemed bursting with raw and vehement life. The strains of fiddles and the sound of shuffling feet were pierced occasionally by the whoop of a drunken reveler. Once there rang out the high notes of a woman’s hysterical laughter. Cowponies and packed burros drooped listlessly at the hitching-rack. Even loaded wagons were waiting to take the road as soon as the drivers could tear themselves away from the attractions of keno and a last drink.