I turned from it with indifference, and brushing away the leaves from the tablet of the dead pagan restored to light the mocking words which, fresh from their long neglect, seemed to have a certain pathos. My guide, too, appeared to take on an added seriousness as he read it, and I fancied that I could detect beneath his whimsical manner something of manliness, almost of dignity. But while I looked at him his former aspect, so subtly inhuman, so tantalizingly familiar, crept back into his big eyes, repellant and attractive. I resolved to make an end of the mystery if possible.
“My friend,” I said, pointing to the smaller grave, “did Jo. Dunfer murder that Chinaman?”
He was leaning against a tree and looking across the open space into the top of another, or into the blue sky beyond. He neither withdrew his eyes, nor altered his posture as he slowly replied:
“No, sir; he justifiably homicided him.”
“Then he really did kill him.”
“Kill ‘im? I should say he did, rather. Doesn’t everybody know that? Didn’t he stan’ up before the coroner’s jury and confess it? And didn’t they find a verdict of ‘Came to ‘is death by a wholesome Christian sentiment workin’ in the Caucasian breast’? An’ didn’t the church at the Hill turn W’isky down for it? And didn’t the sovereign people elect him Justice of the Peace to get even on the gospelers? I don’t know where you were brought up.”
“But did Jo. do that because the Chinaman did not, or would n’ot, learn to cut down trees like a white man?”
“Sure! – it stan’s so on the record, which makes it true an’ legal. My knowin’ better doesn’t make any difference with legal truth; it wasn’t my funeral and I wasn’t invited to deliver an oration. But the fact is, W’isky was jealous o’ me” – and the little wretch actually swelled out like a turkeycock and made a pretense of adjusting an imaginary neck-tie, noting the effect in the palm of his hand, held up before him to represent a mirror.
“Jealous of you!” I repeated with ill-mannered astonishment.
“That’s what I said. Why not? – don’t I look all right?”
He assumed a mocking attitude of studied grace, and twitched the wrinkles out of his threadbare waistcoat. Then, suddenly dropping his voice to a low pitch of singular sweetness, he continued:
“W’isky thought a lot o’ that Chink; nobody but me knew how ‘e doted on ‘im. Couldn’t bear ‘im out of ‘is sight, the derned protoplasm! And w’en ‘e came down to this clear-in’ one day an’ found him an’ me neglectin’ our work – him asleep an’ me grapplin a tarantula out of ‘is sleeve – W’isky laid hold of my axe and let us have it, good an’ hard! I dodged just then, for the spider bit me, but Ah Wee got it bad in the side an’ tumbled about like anything. W’isky was just weigh-in’ me out one w’en ‘e saw the spider fastened on my finger; then ‘e knew he’d made a jack ass of ‘imself. He threw away the axe and got down on ‘is knees alongside of Ah Wee, who gave a last little kick and opened ‘is eyes – he had eyes like mine – an’ puttin’ up ‘is hands drew down W’isky’s ugly head and held it there w’ile ‘e stayed. That wasn’t long, for a tremblin’ ran through ‘im and ‘e gave a bit of a moan an’ beat the game.”
During the progress of the story the narrator had become transfigured. The comic, or rather, the sardonic element was all out of him, and as he painted that strange scene it was with difficulty that I kept my composure. And this consummate actor had somehow so managed me that the sympathy due to his dramatis persone was given to himself. I stepped forward to grasp his hand, when suddenly a broad grin danced across his face and with a light, mocking laugh he continued:
“W’en W’isky got ‘is nut out o’ that ‘e was a sight to see! All his fine clothes – he dressed mighty blindin’ those days – were spoiled everlastin’! ‘Is hair was towsled and his face – what I could see of it – was whiter than the ace of lilies. ‘E stared once at me, and looked away as if I didn’t count; an’ then there were shootin’ pains chasin’ one another from my bitten finger into my head, and it was Gopher to the dark. That’s why I wasn’t at the inquest.”
“But why did you hold your tongue afterward?” I asked.
“It’s that kind of tongue,” he replied, and not another word would he say about it.
“After that W’isky took to drinkin’ harder an’ harder, and was rabider an’ rabider anti-coolie, but I don’t think ‘e was ever particularly glad that ‘e dispelled Ah Wee. He didn’t put on so much dog about it w’en we were alone as w’en he had the ear of a derned Spectacular Extravaganza like you. ‘E put up that headstone and gouged the inscription accordin’ to his varyin’ moods. It took ‘im three weeks, workin’ between drinks. I gouged his in one day.”
“When did Jo. die?” I asked rather absently. The answer took my breath:
“Pretty soon after I looked at him through that knot-hole, w’en you had put something in his w’isky, you derned Borgia!”
Recovering somewhat from my surprise at this astounding charge, I was half-minded to throttle the audacious accuser, but was restrained by a sudden conviction that came to me in the light of a revelation. I fixed a grave look upon him and asked, as calmly as I could: “And when did you go luny?”
“Nine years ago!” he shrieked, throwing out his clenched hands – “nine years ago, w’en that big brute killed the woman who loved him better than she did me! – me who had followed ‘er from San Francisco, where ‘e won ‘er at draw poker! – me who had watched over ‘er for years w’en the scoundrel she belonged to was ashamed to acknowledge ‘er and treat ‘er white! – me who for her sake kept ‘is cussed secret till it ate ‘im up! – me who w’en you poisoned the beast fulfilled ‘is last request to lay ‘im alongside ‘er and give ‘im a stone to the head of ‘im! And I’ve never since seen ‘er grave till now, for I didn’t want to meet ‘im here.”
“Meet him? Why, Gopher, my poor fellow, he is dead!”
“That’s why I’m afraid of ‘im.”
I followed the little wretch back to his wagon and wrung his hand at parting. It was now nightfall, and as I stood there at the roadside in the deepening gloom, watching the blank outlines of the receding wagon, a sound was borne to me on the evening wind – a sound as of a series of vigorous thumps – and a voice came out of the night:
“Gee-up, there, you derned old Geranium.”