Darkness came rapidly, while Hampton sat planning again the details of his night’s work. The man’s spirits became depressed by the gloom and the silence. Evil fancies haunted his brain. His mind dwelt upon the past, upon that wrong which had wrecked his life, upon the young girl he had left praying for his safe return, upon that miserable creature skulking yonder in the black night. Hampton could not remember when he had ever performed such an act before, nor could he have explained why he did so then, yet he prayed—prayed for the far-off Naida, and for personal guidance in the stern work lying before him. And when he rose to his feet and groped his way to the horses, there remained no spirit of vengeance in his heart, no hatred, merely a cool resolve to succeed in his strange quest. So, the two animals trailing cautiously behind, he felt his slow way on foot down the steep bluff, into the denser blackness of the valley.
THE HAUNTING OF A CRIME
Murphy rested on his back in the midst of a thicket of willows, wide awake, yet not quite ready to ford the Fourche and plunge into the dense shadows shrouding the northern shore. Crouched behind a log, he had so far yielded unto temptation as to light his pipe.
Murphy had been amid just such unpleasant environments many times before, and the experience had grown somewhat prosaic. He realized fully the imminent peril haunting the next two hundred miles, but such danger was not wholly unwelcome to his peculiar temperament; rather it was an incentive to him, and, without a doubt, he would manage to pull through somehow, as he had done a hundred times before. Even Indian-scouting degenerates into a commonplace at last. So Murphy puffed contentedly at his old pipe. Whatever may have been his thoughts, they did not burst through his taciturnity, and he reclined there motionless, no sound breaking the silence, save the rippling waters of the Fourche, and the occasional stamping of his horses as they cropped the succulent valley grass.
But suddenly there was the faint crackle of a branch to his left, and one hand instantly closed over his pipe bowl, the other grasping the heavy revolver at his hip. Crouching like a startled tiger, with not a muscle moving, he peered anxiously into the darkness, his arm half extended, scarcely venturing to breathe. There came a plain, undisguised rustling in the grass,—some prowling coyote, probably; then his tense muscles immediately relaxed, and he cursed himself for being so startled, yet he continued to grasp the “45” in his right hand, his eyes alert.
That single word, hurled thus unexpectedly out of the black night, startled him more than would a volley of rifles. He sprang half erect, then as swiftly crouched behind a willow, utterly unable to articulate. In God’s name, what human could be out there to call? He would have sworn that there was not another white man within a radius of a hundred miles. For the instant his very blood ran cold; he appeared to shrivel up.