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Title: Beth Norvell - A Romance of the West
Author: Parrish, Randall, 1858-1923
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Beth Norvell - A Romance of the West" ***

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BETH NORVELL

A Romance of the West

by

RANDALL PARRISH

Author of "When Wilderness Was King," "My Lady of the North," "Bob
Hampton of Placer," Etc.

With Frontispiece in Color by N. C. Wyeth



[Frontispiece: The woman never changed her posture, never seemed to
realize the approach of dawn; but Winston roused up, lifting his head
to gaze wearily forward.]



A. L. Burt Company
Publishers -------- New York
Copyright
A. C. McClurg & Co.
1907
Entered at Stationers' Hall, London
All Rights Reserved
  Published September 21, 1907
  Second Edition October 5, 1907
  Third Edition, October 10, 1907
  Fourth Edition, December 2, 1907
  Fifth Edition, December 12, 1907



CONTENTS


      I  A CHANCE MEETING
     II  OUT WITH A ROAD COMPANY
    III  A BREAKING OF ICE
     IV  A NEW DEAL OF THE CARDS
      V  IN OPEN REBELLION
     VI  THE "LITTLE YANKEE" MINE
    VII  A DISMISSAL
   VIII  "HE MEANS FIGHT"
     IX  THE FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCES
      X  A NEW ALLIANCE
     XI  HALF-CONFIDENCES
    XII  THE COVER OF DARKNESS
   XIII  TWO WOMEN
    XIV  UNDERGROUND
     XV  THE PROOF OF CRIME
    XVI  A RETURN TO THE DAY
   XVII  A COUNCIL OF WAR
  XVIII  THE CONFESSION
    XIX  THE POINT OF VIEW
     XX  THE GAME OF FOILS
    XXI  UNDER ARREST
   XXII  THE INTERVENTION OF SWANSON
  XXIII  A NEW VOLUNTEER
   XXIV  AN AVOWAL OF LOVE
    XXV  THE PROOF OF LOVE
   XXVI  BENEATH THE DARKNESS
  XXVII  THE SHADOW OF CRIME
 XXVIII  ACROSS THE DESERT TO THE END
   XXIX  THE SUMMIT OF SUCCESS
    XXX  THE MISSION OF A LETTER



BETH NORVELL

A TALE OF THE WEST


CHAPTER I

A CHANCE MEETING

There were nine altogether in the party registering.  This number
included the manager, who, both on and off the stage, quite
successfully impersonated the villain--a rather heavy-jawed,
middle-aged fellow, of foreign appearance, with coarse, gruff voice;
three representatives of the gentler sex; a child of eight, exact
species unknown, wrapped up like a mummy; and four males.  Beyond doubt
the most notable member of the troupe was the comedian "star," Mr. T.
Macready Lane, whose well-known cognomen must even now awaken happy
histrionic memories throughout the western circuit.  The long night's
ride from their previous stand, involving as it did two changes of
trains, had proven exceedingly wearisome; and the young woman in the
rather natty blue toque, the collar of her long gray coat turned up in
partial concealment of her face, was so utterly fatigued that she
refused to wait for a belated breakfast, and insisted upon being at
once directed to her room.  There was a substantial bolt decorating the
inside of the door, but, rendered careless by sheer exhaustion of both
mind and body, she forgot everything except her desire for immediate
rest, dropped her wraps upon the only chair visible, and flung herself,
fully dressed, upon the bed.  Her cheek had barely pressed the hard
pillow before she was sleeping like a tired child.

It must have been an hour later when Winston drove in from Flat Rock,
shook the powdery snow from off his long fur overcoat, his cheeks still
tingling from the sharp wind, and, with fingers yet stiffened by cold,
wrote his name carelessly across the lower line of the dilapidated
hotel register.

"Can you let me have the same room, Tom?" he questioned familiarly of
the man ornamenting the high stool behind the desk.

The latter, busy with some figures, nodded carelessly, and the last
arrival promptly picked up his valise from the floor and began climbing
the stairs, whistling softly.  He was a long-limbed, broad-chested
young fellow, with clean-shaven face, and a pair of dark-gray eyes that
looked straight ahead of him; and he ran up the somewhat steep steps as
though finding such exercise a pleasure.  Rounding the upper railing,
he stopped abruptly before Number Twenty-seven, flung open the door,
took a single step within, and came to a sudden pause, his careless
whistling suspended in breathless surprise.  With that single glance
the complete picture became indelibly photographed upon his
memory,--the narrow, sparsely furnished room with roughly plastered
walls; the small, cheap mirror; the faded-green window curtain, torn
half in two; the sheet-iron wash-stand; the wooden chair, across which
rested the gray coat with the blue toque on top; and the single cot bed
bearing its unconscious occupant.

Somehow as he gazed, his earliest conscious emotion was that of
sympathy--it all appeared so unspeakably pathetic, so homesick, so
dismally forlorn and barren.  Then that half-upturned face riveted his
attention and seemed to awaken a vague, dreamy memory he found himself
unable to localize; it reminded him of some other face he had known,
tantalizing from its dim indistinctness.  Then this earlier impression
slightly faded away, and he merely beheld her alone, a perfect stranger
appropriating little by little her few claims to womanly beauty.  There
was no certain guessing at her age as she lay thus, one hand pressed
beneath her cheek, her eyes closed, the long, dark lashes clearly
outlined against the white flesh, her bosom rising and falling with the
steady breathing of absolute exhaustion.  She appeared so extremely
tired, discouraged, unhappy, that the young man involuntarily closed
his teeth tightly, as though some wrong had been personally done to
himself.  He marked the dense blackness of her heavy mass of hair; the
perfect clearness of her skin; the shapeliness of the slender,
outstretched figure; the narrow boot, with its high-arched instep,
peeping shyly beneath the blue skirt; the something rarely interesting,
yet which scarcely made for beauty, revealed unconsciously in the
upturned face with its rounded chin and parted lips.

There was no distinct regularity of features, but there was
unquestionably character, such character as we recognize vaguely in a
sculptured face, lacking that life-like expression which the opened
eyes alone are capable of rendering.  All this swept across his mind in
that instant during which he remained irresolute from surprise.  Yet
Winston was by nature a gentleman; almost before he had grasped the
full significance of it all he stepped silently backward, and gently
closed the door.  For an uncertain moment he remained there staring
blankly at the wood, that haunting memory once again mocking every vain
attempt to associate this girl-face with some other he had known
before.  Finally, leaving valise and overcoat lying in the hall, he
retraced his way slowly down the stairs.

"Tom," and the young man leaned against the rough counter, his voice
grown graver, "there chances to be a woman at present occupying that
room you just assigned me."

"No!  Is that so?" and the clerk swung easily down from his high stool,
drawing the register toward him.  "Must be one of the troupe, then.
Let's see--Number Twenty-seven, was n't it?  Twenty-seven--oh, yes,
here it is.  That's a fact," and his finger slowly traced the line as
he spelled out the name, "'Miss Beth Norvell.'  Oh, I remember her
now--black hair, and a long gray coat; best looker among 'em.  Manager
said she 'd have to be given a room all to herself; but I clean forgot
I assigned her to Twenty-seven.  Make much of a row?"

The other shook his head, bending down so as to read the name with his
own eyes.  There was nothing in the least familiar about the sound of
it, and he became faintly conscious of an undefined feeling of
disappointment.  Still, if she was upon the stage, the name quite
probably was an assumed one; the very utterance of it left that
impression.  He walked over toward the cigar stand and picked out a
weed, thinking gravely while he held a flaming match to the tip.
Somehow he was not altogether greatly pleased with this information; he
should have preferred to discover her to be some one else.  He glanced
at the clerk through the slight haze of blue smoke, his increasing
curiosity finding reluctant utterance.

"What troupe is it?" he questioned with seeming carelessness.

"'Heart of the World,'" answered Tom with some considerable increase of
enthusiasm.  "A dandy play, and a blamed good company, they tell me.
Got some fine press notices anyhow, an' a carload o' scenery.  Played
in Denver a whole month; and it costs a dollar and a half to buy a
decent seat even in this measly town, so you can bet it ain't no slouch
of a show.  House two-thirds sold out in advance, but I know where I
can get you some good seats for just a little extra.  Lane is the star.
You 've heard of Lane, have n't you?  Funniest fellow you ever saw;
makes you laugh just to look at him.  And this--this Miss Norvell, why
she's the leadin' lady, and the travellin' men tell me she's simply
immense.  There's one of their show bills hanging over there back of
the stove."

Winston sauntered across to the indicated red and yellow abomination,
and dumbly stood staring at it through the blue rings of his cigar.  It
represented a most thrilling stage picture, while underneath, and in
type scarcely a shade less pronounced than that devoted to the eminent
comedian T. Macready Lane, appeared the announcement of the great
emotional actress, Miss Beth Norvell, together with several quite
flattering Western press notices.  The young man read these slowly,
wondering why they should particularly interest him, and on a sudden
his rather grave face brightened into a smile, a whimsical thought
flashing into his mind.

"By Jove, why not?" he muttered, as if arguing the matter out with
himself.  "The report has gone East, and there is nothing more to be
accomplished in Flat Rock for at least a month.  This snow will have to
melt away before they can hope to put any miners to work, and in the
meanwhile I might just as well be laying up experiences on the road as
wasting my substance in riotous living at Denver.  It ought to prove a
great lark, and I 've always had ambition to have a try at something of
the kind.  Well, here 's my chance; and besides, I can't help believing
that that girl might prove interesting; her face is, anyhow."

He walked back to where Tom still hung idly over the cigar case.

"Who is running this show outfit?"

"That big fellow writing at the table.  His name 's Albrecht,"
suspiciously.  "But see here, I tell you there ain't any use of your
hittin' him for 'comps'; he 's tighter than a drum."

"'Comps'?  Oh, ye of little faith!" exclaimed Winston genially.  "It is
n't 'comps' I 'm after, Tommy, it's a job."

Albrecht looked up from his writing, scowling somewhat under his
heavily thatched brows, and revealing a coarse face, with little
glinting eyes filled with low cunning.   At that first glance Winston
instinctively disliked the fellow; yet he put his case in a few brief
sentences of explanation, and, as the other listened, the managerial
frown slightly relaxed.

"Actor?" he questioned laconically, when the younger man paused, his
glance wandering appreciatively over the sturdy, erect figure.

"Well, hardly that; at least, merely in an amateur way," and the
applicant laughed lightly.  "You see, I imagined you might possibly
make use of me in some minor capacity until I learn more about the
business.  I don't care very much regarding pay, but I desire to get a
taste of the life."

"Oxactly, mein frient."  And the worthy Albrecht became almost briskly
cordial in manner.  Perhaps here was an "angel" waiting to be plucked
in the holy name of art; at least, he appeared well dressed, looked
intellectually promising, and expressed himself as totally indifferent
regarding salary.  Such visitors were indeed few and far between, and
the astute manager sufficiently understood his business to permit his
heavy features to relax into a hearty, welcoming smile.  "Oxactly,
young man.  Sit down, und I vill see yoost vat vos pest for us both.
You vould be an actor; you haf the ambition.  Ah!  I see it in your
eyes, and it gif me great bleasure.  But, young man, it vos unfortunate
dot I haf not mooch just now to gif you, yet the vay vill open if you
only stays mit me.  Sure; yaw, I, Samuel Albrecht, vill make of you a
great actor.  I can see dot in your face, und for dot reason I vill now
gif you the chance.  You begin at the pottom, but not for long; all I
vants now vos a utility man--some one to take small barts, understudy,
und be ready to help out mit der scenery und der trunks.  I could not
bay moch monies for dot," and he spread his beringed hands
deprecatingly, "but it vos only der first step on der ladder of fame.
Every day I teach you de great art of de actor.  You come with me dot
way, mein frient?"

"Certainly; that will be perfectly satisfactory."

"Ah," delightedly, "you vos a goot poy, villin' to learn, I see.  Next
season, who knows, you might be leading man if you vork hardt.  I bay
you now after one veek's trial, when I know petter vot you are vort,
hey?"

Winston carelessly nodded his acceptance of these rather indefinite
terms, his hands thrust into his pockets, his gray eyes smiling their
appreciation of the situation.  Albrecht was deliberately looking him
over, as he might a horse he had just purchased.

"You are kinder slim to look at," he confessed at last, thoughtfully.
"Are you bretty strong?"

The younger man silently held forth his right arm to the inspection of
the other, who fingered the iron rigidity of muscle under the cloth
with evident respect.

"God of Yacob!" the manager muttered in unconcealed surprise, "it is
vonderful, and you such a slender young man to look at.  I vos most
afraidt you could not do mein vork, but it is all right.  You vill eat
mit us at the long table," he waved his hand indefinitely toward the
dining-room, "at 12:30, and then I valk mit you over py der Obera
House, und show you vat der is to be done mit dot scenery und dem
trunks.  Mein Gott! it vos vonderful dot muscles vot you haf got--you
vould make a great Davy Crockett ven I learns you de business, mein
frient."

The manager's appreciation of his new acquisition was so clearly
evident that Winston felt compelled to notice it.

"I am rejoiced you appear so well satisfied," he said, rising to his
feet.

"Satisfied!  Mein Gott," and the overjoyed Albrecht cordially clasped
the hand of his new recruit.  "It vos a great season of luck for me,
mein frient.  Dot Meess Norvell, she makes me mooch monies vile I shows
her how to be an actress,--oh, it vos yoost beautiful to see her
act,--und now you comes mit me also, und cares nottings for vot I bay
you, und I can see you haf der actor genius.  Mein Gott! it vos too
goot to be true."

Winston broke away gladly, and drifted back toward the cigar stand,
where the mystified Tommy yet stood staring at him.

"Well, did you get it?" the latter questioned, grinning.

"Thomas," returned the other loftily.  "You can hand me out another
cigar, and I will thank you not to be quite so familiar in the future.
I am now general utility man with the 'Heart of the World' company, and
consequently entitled to greater respect."



CHAPTER II

OUT WITH A ROAD COMPANY

Miss Norvell failed to appear at the noon meal, though Winston met the
other members of the company.  He found them genial enough, even
somewhat boisterous, with the single exception of Mr. Lane, who
maintained a dignified and rather gloomy silence, such as became one of
his recognized professional standing, after having favored the newcomer
with a long, impertinent stare, apparently expressing disapproval.  The
manager was outwardly in most excellent humor, narrating several
stories, at which all, excepting the reserved comedian, laughed quite
heartily.  At the conclusion of the repast, Albrecht condescended to
purchase his new recruit a cigar, and then walked beside him toward the
Opera House, where the necessary instructions in new duties promptly
began.  If Winston had previously imagined his earlier steps toward
histrionic honors were destined to be easy ones, he was very soon
undeceived under the guidance of the enthusiastic manager.  It proved a
strenuous afternoon, yet the young fellow had the right stuff in him to
make good, that stubborn pride which never surrenders before
difficulties; he shut his teeth, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, and went
earnestly to work.

It was a small, cheaply built theatre, having restricted stage space,
while a perfect riff-raff of trunks and detached pieces of canvas
scenery littered the wings.  At first sight it appeared a confused
medley of odds and ends, utterly impossible to bring into any
conformity to order, but Albrecht recognized each separate piece of
luggage, every detached section of canvas, recalling exactly where it
properly belonged during the coming performance.  For more than an hour
he pranced about the dirty stage, shouting minute directions, and
giving due emphasis to them by growling German oaths; while Winston,
aided by two local assistants, bore trunks into the various
dressing-rooms, hung drop curtains in designated positions, placed set
pieces conveniently at hand, and arranged the various required
properties where they could not possibly be overlooked during the rush
of the evening's performance.  Thus, little by little, order was
evolved from chaos, and the astute manager chuckled happily to himself
in quick appreciation of the unusual rapidity with which the newly
engaged utility man grasped the situation and mastered the confusing
details.  Assuredly he had discovered a veritable jewel in this fresh
recruit.  At last, the affairs of principal importance having been
attended to, Albrecht left some final instructions, and departed for
the hotel, feeling serenely confident that this young man would carry
out his orders to the letter.

And Winston did.  He was of that determined nature which performs
thoroughly any work once deliberately undertaken; and, although the
merest idle whim had originally brought him to this position of utility
man in the "Heart of the World" company, he was already beginning to
experience a slight degree of interest in the success of the coming
show, and to feel a faint _esprit de corps_, which commanded his best
efforts.  Indeed, his temporary devotion to the preparation of the
stage proved sufficiently strong to obscure partially for the time
being all recollection of that first incentive which had suggested his
taking such a step--the young lady discovered asleep in Number
Twenty-seven.  The remembrance of her scarcely recurred to him all
through the afternoon, yet it finally returned in overwhelming rush
when, in the course of his arduous labors, he raised up a small leather
trunk and discovered her name painted plainly upon the end of it.  The
chalk mark designating where it belonged read "Dressing-room No. 2,"
and, instead of rolling it roughly in that direction, as he had rolled
numerous others, the new utility man lifted it carefully upon his
shoulder and deposited it gently against the farther wall.  He glanced
with curiosity about the restricted apartment to which Miss Beth
Norvell had been assigned.  It appeared the merest hole of a place,
narrow and ill-ventilated, the side walls and ceiling composed of rough
lumber, and it was evidently designed to be lit at night by a single
gas jet, inclosed within a wire netting.  This apartment contained
merely a single rude chair, of the kitchen variety, and an exceedingly
small mirror cracked across one corner and badly fly-specked.  Numerous
rusty spikes, intended to hold articles of discarded clothing,
decorated both side walls and the back of the door.  It was dismally
bare, and above all, it was abominably dirty, the dust lying thick
everywhere, the floor apparently unswept for weeks.  With an
exclamation of disgust Winston hunted up broom and dust-rag, and gave
the gloomy place such a cleansing as it probably had not enjoyed since
the house was originally erected.  At the end of these arduous labors
he looked the scene over critically, the honest perspiration streaming
down his face, glancing, with some newly awakened curiosity, into the
surrounding dressing-rooms.  They were equally filthy and unfit for
occupancy, yet he did not feel called upon to invade them with his
cleansing broom.  By four o'clock everything was in proper position,
the stage set in perfect order for the opening act, and Winston
returned with his report to the hotel, and to the glowing Albrecht.

Miss Norvell joined the company at the supper table, sitting between
the manager and Mr. T. Macready Lane, although Winston was quick to
observe that she gave slight attention to either, except when addressed
directly.  She met the others present with all necessary cordiality and
good-fellowship, yet there appeared a certain undefined reserve about
her manner which led to an immediate hush in the rather free
conversation of what Albrecht was pleased to term the "training table,"
and when the murmur of voices was resumed after her entrance, a
somewhat better choice of subjects became immediately noticeable.
Without so much as either word or look, the silent influence of the
actress was plainly for refinement, while her mere presence at the
table gave a new tone to Bohemianism.  Winston, swiftly realizing this,
began observing the lady with a curiosity which rapidly developed into
deeper interest.  He became more and more attracted by her unique
personality, which persistently appealed to his aroused imagination,
even while there continued to haunt him a dim tantalizing remembrance
he was unable wholly to master.  He assuredly had never either seen or
heard of this young woman before, yet she constantly reminded him of
the past.  Her eyes, the peculiar contour of her face, the rather odd
trick she had of shaking back the straying tresses of her dark, glossy
hair, and, above all, that quick smile with which she greeted any flash
of humor, and which produced a fascinating dimple in her cheek, all
served to puzzle and stimulate him; while admiration of her so apparent
womanliness began as instantly to replace the vague curiosity he had
felt toward her as an actress.  She was different from what he had
imagined, with absolutely nothing to suggest the glare and glitter of
the footlights.  Until this time he had scarcely been conscious that
she possessed any special claim to beauty; yet now, her face, illumined
by those dark eyes filled with quick intelligence, became most
decidedly attractive, peculiarly lovable and womanly.  Besides, she
evidently possessed a rare taste in dress, which met with his masculine
approval.  Much of this, it is true, he reasoned out later and slowly,
for during that first meal only two circumstances impressed him
clearly--the depth of feeling glowing within those wonderfully
revealing eyes, and her complete ignoring of his presence.  If she
recognized any addition to their number, there was not the slightest
sign given.  Once their eyes met by merest accident; but hers
apparently saw nothing, and Winston returned to his disagreeable labors
at the Opera House, nursing a feeling akin to disappointment.

Concealed within the gloomy shadows of the wings, he stood entranced
that night watching her depict the character of a wife whose previous
happy life had been irretrievably ruined by deceit; and the force, the
quiet originality of her depiction, together with its marvellous
clearness of detail and its intense realism, held him captive.  The
plot of the play was ugly, melodramatic, and entirely untrue to nature;
against it Winston's cultivated taste instantly revolted; yet this
woman interpreted her own part with the rare instinct of a true artist,
picturing to the very life the particular character intrusted to her,
and holding the house to a breathless realization of what real artistic
portrayal meant.  In voice, manner, action, in each minute detail of
face and figure, she was truly the very woman she represented.  It was
an art so fine as to make the auditors forget the artist, forget even
themselves.  Her perfect workmanship, clear-cut, rounded, complete,
stood forth like a delicate cameo beside the rude buffoonery of T.
Macready Lane, the coarse villany of Albrecht, and the stiff mannerisms
of the remainder of the cast.  They were automatons as compared with a
figure instinct with life animated by intelligence.  She seemed to
redeem the common clay of the coarse, unnatural story, and give to it
some vital excuse for existence, the howls of laughter greeting the
cheap wit of the comedian changed to a sudden hush of expectancy at her
mere entrance upon the stage, while her slightest word, or action,
riveted the attention.  It was a triumph beyond applause, beyond any
mere outward demonstration of approval.  Winston felt the spell deeply,
his entire body thrilling to her marvellous delineation of this common
thing, her uplifting of it out of the vile ruck of its surroundings and
giving unto it the abundant life of her own interpretation.  Never once
did he question the real although untrained genius back of those
glowing eyes, that expressive face, those sincere, quiet tones which so
touched and swayed the heart.  In other days he had seen the stage at
its best, and now he recognized in this woman that subtle power which
must conquer all things, and eventually "arrive."

Early the following morning, tossing uneasily upon a hard cot-bed in
the next town listed in their itinerary, he discovered himself totally
unable to divorce this memory from his thoughts.  She even mingled with
his dreams,--a rounded, girlish figure, her young face glowing with the
emotions dominating her, her dark eyes grave with thoughtfulness,--and
he awoke, at last, facing another day of servile toil, actually
rejoicing to remember that he was part of the "Heart of the World."
That which he had first assumed from a mere spirit of play, the veriest
freak of boyish adventure, had suddenly developed into a real impulse
to which his heart gave complete surrender.

To all outward appearances Miss Beth Norvell remained serenely
unconscious regarding either his admiration or his presence.  It was
impossible to imagine that in so small a company he could continually
pass and repass without attracting notice, yet neither word nor look
passed between them; no introduction had been accorded, and she merely
ignored him, under the natural impression, without doubt, that he was
simply an ignorant roustabout of the stage, a wielder of trunks, a
manipulator of scenery, in whom she could feel no possible interest.  A
week passed thus, the troupe displaying their talents to fair business,
and constantly penetrating into more remote regions, stopping at all
manner of hotels, travelling in every species of conveyance, and
exhibiting their ability, or lack of it, upon every makeshift of a
stage.  Sometimes this was a bare hall; again it was an armory, with an
occasional opera house--like an oasis in the vast desert--to yield them
fresh professional courage.  Small cities, straggling towns, boisterous
mining camps welcomed and speeded them on, until sameness became
routine, and names grew meaningless.  It was the sort of life to test
character thoroughly, and the "Heart of the World" troupe of strollers
began very promptly to exhibit its kind.  Albrecht, who was making
money, retained his coarse good-nature unruffled by the hardships of
travel; but the majority of the stage people grew morose and
fretful,--the eminent comedian, glum and unapproachable as a bear; the
leading gentleman swearing savagely over every unusual worry, and
acting the boor generally; the _ingénue_, snappy and cat-like.  Miss
Norvell alone among them all appeared as at first, reserved, quiet,
uncomplaining, forming no intimate friendships, yet performing her
nightly work with constantly augmenting power.  Winston, ever observing
her with increasing interest, imagined that the strain of such a life
was telling upon her health, exhibiting its baleful effect in the
whitening of her cheeks, in those darker shadows forming beneath her
eyes, as well as in a shade less of animation in her manner.  Yet he
saw comparatively little of her, his own work proving sufficiently
onerous; the quick jumps from town to town leaving small opportunity
for either rest or reflection.  He had been advanced to a small
speaking part, but the remainder of his waking hours, while he was
attired in working-clothes, was diligently devoted to the strenuous
labor of his muscles.  The novelty of the life had long since vanished,
the so eagerly expected experience had already become amply sufficient;
again and again, flinging his wearied body upon a cot in some strange
room, he had called himself an unmitigated ass, and sworn loudly that
he would certainly quit in the morning.  Yet the girl held him.  He did
not completely realize how or why, yet some peculiar, indefinite
fascination appeared to bind his destinies to her; he ever desired to
see her once again, to be near her, to feel the charm of her work, to
listen to the sound of her voice, to experience the thrill of her
presence.  So strong and compelling became this influence over him that
day after day he held on, actually afraid to sever that slight bond of
professional companionship.

This was most assuredly through no fault of hers.  It was at
Shelbyville that she first spoke to him, first gave him the earliest
intimation that she even so much as recognized his presence in the
company.  The house that particular night was crowded to the doors, and
she, completing a piece of work which left her cheeks flushed, her
slender form trembling from intense emotion, while the prolonged
applause thundered after her from the front, stepped quickly into the
gloomy shadows of the wings, and thus came face to face with Winston.
His eyes were glowing with unconcealed appreciation of her art.
Perhaps the quick reaction had partially unstrung her nerves, for she
spoke with feverish haste at sight of his uprolled sleeves and coarse
woollen shirt.

"How does it occur that you are always standing directly in my passage
whenever I step from the stage?" she questioned impetuously.  "Is there
no other place where you can wait to do your work except in my exit?"

For a brief moment the surprised man stood hesitating, hat in hand.

"I certainly regret having thus unintentionally offended you, Miss
Norvell," he explained at last, slowly.  "Yet, surely, the occasion
should bring you pleasure rather than annoyance."

"Indeed!  Why, pray?"

"Because I so greatly enjoy your work.  I stood here merely that I
might observe the details more carefully."

She glanced directly at him with suddenly aroused interest.

"You enjoy my work?" she exclaimed, slightly smiling.  "How extremely
droll!  Yet without doubt you do, precisely as those others, out
yonder, without the slightest conception of what it all means.
Probably you are equally interested in the delicate art of Mr. T.
Macready Lane?"

Winston permitted his cool gray eyes to brighten, his firmly set lips
slightly to relax.

"Lane is the merest buffoon," he replied quietly.  "You are an artist.
There is no comparison possible, Miss Norvell.  The play itself is
utterly unworthy of your talent, yet you succeed in dignifying it in a
way I can never cease to admire."

She stood staring straight at him, her lips parted, apparently so
thoroughly startled by these unexpected words as to be left speechless.

"Why," she managed to articulate at last, her cheeks flushing, "I
supposed you like the others we have had with us--just--just a common
stage hand.  You speak with refinement, with meaning."

"Have you not lived sufficiently long in the West to discover that men
of education are occasionally to be found in rough clothing?"

"Oh, yes," doubtfully, her eyes still on his face, "miners, stockmen,
engineers, but scarcely in your present employment."

"Miss Norvell," and Winston straightened up, "possibly I may be
employed here for a reason similar to that which has induced you to
travel with a troupe of barn-stormers."

She shrugged her shoulders, her lips smiling, the seductive dimple
showing in her cheeks.

"And what was that?"

"The ambition of an amateur to attain a foothold upon the professional
stage."

"Who told you so?"

"Mr. Samuel Albrecht was guilty of the suggestion.

"It was extremely nice of him to discuss my motives thus freely with a
stranger.  But he told you only a very small portion of the truth.  In
my case it was rather the imperative necessity of an amateur to earn
her own living--a deliberate choice between the professional stage and
starvation."

"Without ambition?"

She hesitated slightly, yet there was a depth of respect slumbering
within those gray eyes gazing so directly into her darker ones,
together with a strength she felt.

"Without very much at first, I fear," she confessed, as though
admitting it rather to herself alone, "yet I acknowledge it has since
grown upon me, until I have determined to succeed."

His eyes brightened, the admiration in them unconcealed, his lips
speaking impulsively.

"And what is more, Miss Norvell, you 'll make it."

"Do you truly believe so?"  She had already forgotten that the man
before her was a mere stage hand, and her cheeks burned eagerly to the
undoubted sincerity of his utterance.  "No one else has ever said that
to me--only the audiences have appeared to care and appreciate.
Albrecht and all those others have scarcely offered me a word of
encouragement."

"Albrecht and the others are asses," ejaculated Winston, with sudden
indignation.  "They imagine they are actors because they prance and
bellow on a stage, and they sneer at any one who is not in their class.
But I can tell you this, Miss Norvell, the manager considers you a
treasure; he said as much to me."

She stood before him, the glare of the stage glinting in her hair, her
hands clasped, her dark eyes eagerly reading his face as though these
unexpected words of appreciation had yielded her renewed courage, like
a glass of wine.

"Really, is that true?  Oh, I am so glad.  I thought, perhaps, they
were only making fun of me out in front, although I have always tried
so hard to do my very best.  You have given me a new hope that I may
indeed master the art.  Was that my cue?"

She stepped quickly backward, listening to the voices droning on the
stage, but there remained still a moment of liberty, and she glanced
uncertainly about at Winston.

"Am I to thank you for giving me such immaculate dressing-rooms of
late?" she questioned, just a little archly.

"I certainly wielded the broom."

"It was thoughtful of you," and her clear voice hesitated an instant.
"Was--was it you, also, who placed those flowers upon my trunk last
evening?"

He bowed, feeling slightly embarrassed by the swift returning restraint
in her manner.

"They were most beautiful.  Where did you get them?"

"From Denver; they were forwarded by express, and I am only too glad if
they brought you pleasure."

"Miracle of miracles!  A stage-hand ordering roses from Denver!  It
must have cost you a week's salary."

He smiled:

"And, alas, the salary has not even been paid."

Her eyes were uplifted to his face, yet fell as suddenly, shadowed
behind the long lashes.

"I thank you very much," she said, her voice trembling, "only please
don't do it again; I would rather not have you."

Before he could frame a satisfactory answer to so unexpected a
prohibition she had stepped forth upon the stage.

This brief interview did not prove as prolific of results as Winston
confidently expected.  Miss Norvell evidently considered such casual
conversation no foundation for future friendship, and although she
greeted him when they again met, much as she acknowledged
acquaintanceship with the others of the troupe, there remained a quiet
reserve about her manner, which effectually barred all thought of
possible familiarity.  Indeed, that she ever again considered him as in
any way differing from the others about her did not once occur to
Winston until one evening at Bluffton, when by chance he stood resting
behind a piece of set scenery and thus overheard the manager as he
halted the young lady on the way to her dressing room.

"Meess Norvell," and Albrecht stood rubbing his hands and smiling
genially, "at Gilchrist we are pilled to blay for dwo nights, und der
second blay vill be der 'Man from der Vest'--you know dot bart, Ida
Somers?"

"Yes," she acknowledged, "I am perfectly acquainted with the lines, but
who is to play Ralph Wilde?"

"Mister Mooney, of course.  You tink dot I import some actors venever I
change der pill?"

She lifted her dark, expressive eyes to his mottled face, slowly
gathering up her skirts in one hand.

"As you please," she said quietly, "but I shall not play Ida Somers to
Mr. Mooney's Ralph Wilde.  I told you as much plainly before we left
Denver, and it was for that special reason the 'Heart of the World' was
substituted.  The more I have seen of Mr. Mooney since we took the
road, the less I am inclined to yield in this matter."

Albrecht laughed coarsely, his face reddening.

"Oh, bah!" he exclaimed, gruffly derisive.  "Ven you begome star then
you can have dem tantrums, but not now, not mit me.  You blay vat I
say, or I send back after some von else.  You bedder not get too gay,
or you lose your job damn quick.  You don't vant Mooney to make lofe to
you?  You don't vant him to giss you?--hey, vos dot it?"

"Yes, that was exactly it."

"Ach!--you too nice to be brofessional; you like to choose your lofer,
hey?  You forget you earn a livin' so.  Vot you got against Mooney?"

Miss Norvell, her cheeks burning indignantly, her eyes already ablaze,
did not mince words.

"Nothing personally just so long as he keeps away from me," she
retorted clearly.  "He is coarse, vulgar, boorish, and I have far too
much respect for myself to permit such a man to touch me, either upon
the stage or off; to have him kiss me would be an unbearable insult."

Albrecht, totally unable to comprehend the feelings of the girl,
shifted uneasily beneath the sharp sting of her words, yet continued to
smile idiotically.

"Dot is very nice, quite melodramatic, but it is not brofessional,
Meess," he stammered, striving to get hold of some satisfactory
argument.  "Vy, Mooney vos not so pad.  Meess Lyle she act dot bart mit
him all der last season, and make no kick.  Dunder! vat you vant--an
angel?  You don't hafe to take dot bart mit me, or Meester Lane either,
don 't it, hey?"

Miss Norvell turned contemptuously away from him, her face white with
determination.

"If you really want to know, there is only one man in all your troupe I
would consent to play it with," she declared calmly.

"Und dot is?"

"I do not even know his name," and she turned her head just
sufficiently to look directly into Albrecht's surprised face; "but I
refer to your new utility man; he, at least, possesses some of the
ordinary attributes of a gentleman."

The door of her dressing-room opened and closed, leaving the startled
manager standing alone without, gasping for breath, his thick lips
gurgling impotent curses, while Winston discreetly drew farther back
amid the intricacy of scenery.



CHAPTER III

A BREAKING OF ICE

The troupe in its wandering arrived at Bolton Junction early on a
Saturday afternoon, and Winston, lingering a moment in the hotel
office, overheard Miss Norvell ask the manager if they would probably
spend Sunday there; and later question the hotel clerk regarding any
Episcopalian services in the town.  Their rather late arrival, however,
kept him so exceedingly busy with stage preparation for the evening's
performance that this conversation scarcely recurred to mind until his
night's labor had been completed.  Then, in the silence of his room, he
resolved upon an immediate change in conditions, or else the deliberate
giving up of further experiment altogether.  He was long since tired
enough of it, yet a strange, almost unaccountable attraction for this
young woman continued binding him to disagreeable servitude.

He came down stairs the following morning, his plans completely
determined upon.  He was carefully dressed in the neat business suit
which had been packed away ever since his first reckless plunge into
theatrical life, and thus attired he felt more like his old self than
at any moment since his surrender to the dictation of Albrecht.  In
some degree self-confidence, audacity, hope, came promptly trooping
back with the mere donning of clean linen and semi-fashionable attire,
so that Winston "utility" became Winston gentleman, in the twinkling of
an eye.  The other members of the troupe slept late, leaving him to
breakfast alone after vainly loitering about the office in the hope
that Miss Norvell might by some chance appear and keep him company.  It
was almost mortifying to behold that young woman enter the deserted
dining-room soon after he had returned to the lonely office, but she
gave no sign of recognition in passing, and his returned audacity
scarcely proved sufficient to permit his encroachment upon her privacy.
He could only linger a moment at the desk in an effort to catch a
better view of her through the partially open door.

Nervously gripping a freshly lighted cigar, Winston finally strolled
forth upon the wide porch to await, with all possible patience, the
opportunity he felt assured was fast approaching.  It was a bright
spring morning, sufficiently warm to be comfortable without in the
sunshine, although the mountains overshadowing the town were yet white
with snow.  The one long, straggling business street appeared
sufficiently lonely, being almost deserted, the shops closed.  The
notable contrast between its present rather dreary desolation and the
wild revelry of the previous night seemed really painful, while the
solemn prevailing stillness served to weaken Winston's bold resolutions
and brought him a strange timidity.  He slowly strolled a block or
more, peering in at the shop windows, yet never venturing beyond easy
view of the hotel steps.  Then he sauntered as deliberately back again.
Lane and Mooney were now stationed upon the porch, tipping far back in
their chairs, their feet deposited on the convenient railing, smoking
and conversing noisily with a group of travelling men.  Winston, to his
disgust, caught little scraps of the coarse stories exchanged,
constantly greeted by roars of laughter, but drew as far away from
their immediate vicinity as possible, leaning idly against the rail.
Far down the street, from some unseen steeple, a church bell rang
solemnly.  Listening, he wondered if she would come alone, and a dread
lest she might not set his heart throbbing.

Albrecht, looking not unlike a fat hog newly shaven, sauntered out of
the open office door, and stared idly about.  He spoke a gracious word
or two to his rather silent utility man, viewing his well-cut clothing
with some apparent misgiving, finally drifting over to join the more
congenial group beyond.  Winston did not alter his chosen position, but
remained with watchful eyes never long straying from off the ladies'
entrance, a few steps to his left.  All at once that slightly used door
opened, and the hot blood leaped through his veins as Miss Norvell
stepped forth unaccompanied.  She appeared well groomed, looking dainty
enough in her blue skirt and jacket, her dark hair crowned by the
tasteful blue toque, a prayer-book clasped in one neatly gloved hand.
As she turned unconsciously toward the steps, Winston lifted his hat
and bowed.  With a quick upward glance of surprise the girl recognized
him, a sudden flush crimsoning her cheeks, her eyes as instantly
dropping before his own.  In that sudden revelation the young man
appeared to her an utterly different character from what she had
formerly considered him; the miracle of good clothing, of environment,
had suddenly placed them upon a level of companionship.   That Winston
likewise experienced something of this same exaltation was plainly
evident, although his low voice trembled in momentary excitement.

"I trust you will pardon my presumption," he said, taking the single
step necessary to face her, "but I confess having been deliberately
waiting here to request the privilege of walking to church beside you."

"Beside me?  Indeed!" and both lips and eyes smiled unreservedly back
at him.  "And how did you chance to guess it was my intention to
attend?  Is it a peculiarity of leading ladies?"

"As to that I cannot safely say, my acquaintance among them being
limited."  He was acquiring fresh confidence from her cordial manner.
"But I chanced to overhear your questioning the clerk last night, and
the bold project at once took possession of me.  Am I granted such
permission?"

Her dark eyes wandered from their early scrutiny of his eager face
toward that small group of interested smokers beyond.  What she may
have beheld there was instantly reflected in a pursing of the lips, a
swift decision.

"I shall be delighted to have your company," she responded, frankly
meeting his eyes, "but longer delay will probably make us late, and I
abominate that."

As they passed down the steps to the street Winston caught a glimpse of
the others.  They were all intently gazing after them, while Mooney had
even risen to his feet and taken a step forward, his cigar still in his
mouth.  Then the group behind laughed loudly, and the younger man set
his teeth, his cheeks flushed from sudden anger.  He would have enjoyed
dashing back up the steps, and giving those grinning fools a
much-needed lesson, but he glanced aside at his companion, her eyes
downcast, seemingly utterly unconscious of it all, and gripped himself,
walking along beside her, erect and silent.  They traversed the entire
deserted block without speaking, each busied indeed with the
intricacies of the board walk.  Then Winston sought to break the
somewhat embarrassing silence, his first words sounding strangely
awkward and constrained.

"It was exceedingly kind of you to grant such privilege when we have
scarcely even spoken to each other before."

She glanced aside at his grave face, a certain coquettish smile making
her appear suddenly girlish.

"Possibly if you realized the exact cause of my complete surrender you
might not feel so highly flattered," she confessed, shyly.

"Indeed!  You mean why it was you consented so easily?  Then possibly
you had better inform me at once, for I acknowledge feeling quite
conceited already at my good fortune."

She lifted her eyes questioningly, and for the first time he looked
directly down into their unveiled depths.

"Then I must certainly make confession.  What if I should say, I merely
accepted the lesser of two evils--in short, preferred your company to
something I considered infinitely worse?"

"You refer to Mooney?"

She nodded, her dark eyes once again shadowed, her cheeks slightly
reddening beneath his steady gaze.

"Why, I can scarcely feel greatly flattered at being made the subject
of such a choice," Winston acknowledged with frankness.  "The very
conception brings me uneasiness in fear lest my presence may be
unwelcome now that Mooney has been safely left behind.  Yet it yields
me boldness also, and I venture to ask Miss Norvell what she would
probably have answered had Mooney been left out of the problem
entirely?"

His low voice held a ring of subdued earnestness, and the face of the
woman as quickly lost its smile.  An instant she hesitated, her eyes
downcast, fully conscious he was anxiously searching her countenance
for the exact truth.

"And under those conditions," she responded finally, "Miss Norvell
would very probably have answered yes, only it would have been more
deliberately uttered, so that you should have realized the measure of
her condescension."

Winston laughed.

"You can have small conception of the intense relief brought me by that
last acknowledgment," he explained cheerfully.  "Now I can proceed with
clear conscience, and shall undoubtedly discover in the church service
an expression of my own devout gratitude."

It was an exceedingly alert exchange of words which followed, each
cautiously exploring a way in toward a somewhat clearer understanding
of the other, yet both becoming quickly convinced that they were not
destined for ordinary acquaintanceship.  To Miss Norvell observing her
companion with shy intentness, this erect, manly young fellow with
weather-browned, clean-shaven face and straightforward gray eyes seemed
to evince a power of manhood she instinctively felt and surrendered to.
His were those elements which a woman of her nature must instantly
recognize--physical strength and daring, combined with mental acuteness
and indomitable will.  The fact of his present unworthy employment
added the fascination of mystery to his personality, for it was
manifestly impossible to conceive that such a position was all this man
had ever achieved in life.  And Winston wondered likewise at her, his
earlier admiration for the bright attractiveness of face and manner
broadening as her mind gave quick response to his leadership.  Here was
certainly no commonplace girl of the stage, but an educated, refined,
ambitious woman, matured beyond her years by experience, her
conversation exhibiting a wide range of reading, interwoven, with a
deep knowledge of life.  They spoke of ideals, of art, of literature,
of secret aspirations, not often mentioned during such early
acquaintanceship, breaking through that mental barrenness which had
characterized their living for weeks, this common ground of thought and
interest awakening between them an immediate friendliness and frankness
of utterance delightfully inspiring.  Almost without comprehending how
it occurred they were chatting together as if the eventful years had
already cemented their acquaintanceship.  With cheeks flushed and eyes
glowing from aroused interest Miss Norvell increased in beauty, and
Winston observed her with an admiration finding frank expression in his
eyes.

It was a small chapel they sought, situated at the extreme end of the
straggling street, and the worshippers were few.  At the conclusion of
the ritual and the sermon the two walked forth together in silence,
their former brief intimacy a mere memory, neither realizing exactly
how best to resume a conversation which had been interrupted by so
solemn a service.  It was Miss Norvell who first broke the constraint.

"You are evidently well acquainted with the intricacies of the
prayer-book," she remarked quietly, "and hence I venture to inquire if
you are a churchman."

"Not exactly, although my parents are both communicants, and I was
brought up to attend service."

"Do you know, I am glad even of that?  It is a little additional bond
between us merely to feel interested in the same church, isn't it?  I
was guilty during the service of thinking how exceedingly odd it was
for us to talk so frankly together this morning when we knew absolutely
nothing regarding each other.  Would you mind if I questioned you just
a little about yourself?"

He glanced aside at her in surprise, all remembrance that they were
comparatively strangers having deserted his mind.  It seemed as if he
had already known her for years.

"Most certainly question; I had no thought of any concealment."

She smiled at the confusedness of his words, yet her own speech was not
entirely devoid of embarrassment.

"It does appear almost ridiculous, but really I do not even know your
name."

"It is Ned Winston."

"Not so bad a name, is it?  Do you mind telling me where your home is?"

"I can scarcely lay claim to such a spot, but my people live in Denver."

She drew a quick, surprised breath, her eyes instantly falling, as
though she would thus conceal some half-revealed secret.  For a moment
her parted lips trembled to a question she hesitated asking.

"I--I believe I have heard of a Colonel Daniel Winston in Denver, a
banker," she said finally.  "I--I have seen his house."

"He is my father."

Her shadowing lashes suddenly uplifted, the color once again flooding
the clear cheeks.

"You are, indeed, becoming a man of mystery," she exclaimed, affecting
lightness of utterance.  "The son of Colonel Winston acting as utility
for a troupe of strollers!  I can hardly believe it true."

Winston laughed.

"It does seem a trifle out of proportion," he confessed, "and I can
hardly hope to make the situation entirely clear.  Yet I am not quite
so unworthy my birthright as would appear upon the surface.  I will
trust you with a portion of the story, at least, Miss Norvell.  I am by
profession a mining engineer, and was sent out, perhaps a month ago, by
a syndicate of Denver capitalists to examine thoroughly into some
promising claims at Shell Rock.  I made the examination, completed and
mailed my report, and finally, on the same day your company arrived
there, I discovered myself in Rockton with nothing to do and several
weeks of idleness on my hands.  I had intended returning to Denver, but
a sudden temptation seized me to try the experiment of a week or two in
wandering theatrical life.  I had always experienced a boyish hankering
that way, and have a natural inclination to seek new experiences.
Albrecht was favorably impressed with my application, and hence I
easily attained to my present exalted position upon the stage."

"And is that all?"

"Not entirely; there yet remains a chapter to be added to my
confessions.  I acknowledge I should have long since tired of the life
and its hardships, had you not chanced to be a member of the same
troupe."

"I, Mr. Winston?  Why, we have scarcely spoken to each other until
to-day."

"True, yet I strenuously deny that it was my fault.  In fact, I had
firmly determined that we should, and, having been a spoiled child, I
am accustomed to having my own way.  This, perhaps, will partially
account for my persistency and for my still being with 'The Heart of
the World.'  But all else aside, I early became intensely interested in
your work, Miss Norvell, instantly recognizing that it required no
common degree of ability to yield dignity to so poor a thing as the
play in which you appear.  I began to study you and your
interpretation; I never tired of noting those little fresh touches with
which you constantly succeeded in embellishing your lines and your
'business,' and how clearly your conception of character stood forth
against the crude background of those mummers surrounding you.  It was
a lesson in interpretative art to me, and one I never wearied of.
Then, I must likewise confess, something else occurred."

He paused, looking aside at her, and, as though she felt the spell of
that glance, she turned her own face, brightened by such earnest words
of praise, their eyes meeting frankly.

"What?"

"The most natural thing in the world--my admiration for the art only
served to increase my early interest in the artist.  I began to feel
drawn not only to the actress but to the woman," he said gravely.

Her eyes never faltered, but faced him bravely, although her cheeks
were like poppies, and her lips faltered in their first bold effort at
swift reply.

"I am so glad you honestly think that about my work; so glad you told
me.  It is a wonderful encouragement, for I know now that you speak as
a man of education, of cultivation.  You must have seen the highest
class of stage interpretation, and, I am sure, have no desire merely to
flatter me.  You do not speak as if you meant an idle compliment.  Oh,
you can scarcely conceive how much success will spell to me, Mr.
Winston," her voice growing deeper from increasing earnestness, her
eyes more thoughtful, "but I am going to tell you a portion of my
life-story in order that you may partially comprehend.  This is my
first professional engagement; but I was no stage-struck girl when I
first applied for the position.  Rather, the thought was most repugnant
to me.  My earlier life had been passed under conditions which held me
quite aloof from anything of the kind.  While I always enjoyed
interpreting character as a relaxation, and even achieved, while at
school in the East, a rather enviable reputation as an amateur, I
nevertheless had a distinct prejudice against the professional stage,
even while intensely admiring its higher exponents.  My turning to it
for a livelihood was a grim necessity, my first week on the road a
continual horror.  I abhorred the play, the making of a nightly
spectacle of myself, the rudeness and freedom of the audiences, the
coarse, common-place people with whom I was constantly compelled to
consort.  You know them, and can therefore realize to some extent what
daily association with them must necessarily mean to one of my early
training and familiarity with quieter social customs.  But my position
in the troupe afforded me certain privileges of isolation, while my
necessities compelled me to persevere.  As a result, the dormant
art-spirit within apparently came to life; ambition began to usurp the
place of indifference; I became more and more disgusted with
mediocrity, and began an earnest struggle toward higher achievements.
I had little to guide me other than my own natural instincts, yet I
persevered.  I insisted on living my own life while off the stage, and,
to kill unhappy thought, I devoted all my spare moments to hard study.
Almost to my surprise, the very effort brought with it happiness.  I
began to forget the past and its crudities, to blot out the present
with its dull, unpleasant realities, and to live for the future.  My
ideals, at first but vague dreams, took form and substance.  I
determined to succeed, to master my art, to develop whatever of talent
I might possess to its highest possibility, to become an actress worthy
of the name.  This developing ideal has already made me a new woman--it
has given me something to live for, to strive toward."

She came to a sudden pause, perceiving in the frank gray eyes scanning
her animated face a look which caused her own to droop.  Then her lips
set in firmer resolution, and she continued as though in utter
indifference to his presence.

"You may not comprehend all this, but I do.  It was the turning-point
in my life.  And I began right where I was.  I endeavored to make the
utmost possible out of that miserable melodramatic part which had been
assigned to me.  I elected to play it quietly, with an intensity to be
felt and not heard, the very opposite from the interpretation given by
Miss Lyle last season, and I felt assured my efforts were appreciated
by the audiences.  It encouraged me to discover them so responsive; but
Albrecht, Lane, and Mooney merely laughed and winked at each other, and
thus hurt me cruelly, although I had little respect for their
criticisms.  Still, they were professional actors of experience, and I
was not yet certain that my judgment might not be wrong.  Miss Head,
the _ingénue_, a girl of sweet disposition but little education,
praised my efforts warmly, but otherwise your evident appreciation is
my only real reward.  I spoke to you that evening in the wings not so
much to scold you for being in the way, as from a hungry, despairing
hope that you might speak some word of encouragement.  I was not
disappointed, and I have felt stronger ever since."

"I should never have suspected any such purpose.  We have never so much
as exchanged speech since, until to-day, and then I forced it."

She shook her head, a vagrant tress of her black hair loosening.

"You must be a very young and inexperienced man to expect to comprehend
all that any woman feels merely by what she says or does."

"No," smilingly, "I have advanced beyond that stage of development,
although the mystery of some womanly natures may always remain beyond
me.  But can I ask you a somewhat personal question, also?"

"Most assuredly, yet I expressly reserve the privilege of refusing a
direct reply."

"Is Beth Norvell your real, or merely your stage name?"

"Why do you ask?  That is a secret which, I believe, an actress is
privileged to keep inviolate."

"For one particular reason--because I cannot escape a vague impression
that somewhere we have met before."

She did not respond immediately, her gloved fingers perceptibly
tightening about the prayer-book, her eyes carefully avoiding his own.

"You are mistaken in that, for we have never met," she said slowly, and
with emphasis.  "Moreover, Beth Norvell is my stage name, but in part
it is my true name also."  Suddenly she paused and glanced aside at
him.  "I have spoken with unusual frankness to you this morning, Mr.
Winston.  Most people, I imagine, find me diffident and
uncommunicative--perhaps I appear according to my varying moods.  But I
have been lonely, and in some way you have inspired my confidence and
unlocked my life.  I believe you to be a man worthy of trust, and
because I thus believe I am now going to request you not to ask me any
more.  My past life has not been so bright that I enjoy dwelling upon
it.  I have chosen rather to forget it entirely, and live merely for
the future."

They were standing before the door of the ladies' entrance to the hotel
by this time, and the young man lifted his hat gravely.

"Your wish shall certainly be respected," he said with courtesy, "yet
that does not necessarily mean that our friendship is to end here."

Her face became transfigured by a sudden smile, and she impulsively
extended her hand.

"Assuredly not, if you can withstand my vagaries.  I have never made
friends easily, and am the greater surprised at my unceremonious
frankness with you.  Yet that only makes it harder to yield up a
friendship when once formed.  Do you intend, then, to remain with the
company?  I have no choice, but you have the whole world."

"Yet, my intense devotion to the art of the Thespian holds me captive."

Their eyes met smilingly, and the next instant the door closed quietly
between them.

Winston turned aside and entered the gloomy hotel office, feeling
mentally unsettled, undetermined in regard to his future conduct.  Miss
Norvell had proven frankly intimate, delightfully cordial, yet
overshadowing it all there remained unquestionably a certain constraint
about both words and actions which continued to perplex and tantalize.
She had something in her past life to conceal; she did not even pretend
to deceive him in this regard, but rather held him off with deliberate
coolness.  The very manner in which this had been accomplished merely
served to stimulate his eagerness to penetrate the mystery of her
reserve, and caused him to consider her henceforth as altogether
differing from other girls.  She had become a problem, an enigma, which
he would try to solve; and her peculiar nature, baffling, changeable,
full of puzzling moods, served to fascinate his imagination, to invite
his dreaming.  A strange thrill swept him when he caught a fleeting
glimpse of white skirt and well-turned ankle as she ran swiftly up the
steep staircase, yet, almost at the same instant, he returned to earth
with a sudden shock, facing Mooney, when the latter turned slowly away
from the window and sneeringly confronted him.  The mottled face was
unpleasantly twisted, a half-smoked cigar tilted between his lips.  An
instant the half-angry eyes of the two men met.

"Must have made a conquest, from all appearances," ventured the leading
man with a knowing wink.  "Not so damned hard to catch on with, is she,
when the right man tries it?"

There was a swift, passionate blow, a crash among the overturned
chairs, and Mooney, dazed and trembling, gazed up from the floor at the
rigid, erect figure towering threateningly above him, with squared
shoulders and clenched fists.

"Utter another word like that, you cur," said Winston, sternly, "and I
'll break your head.  Don't you dare doubt that I 'll keep my word."

For a breathless moment he stood there, glowering down at the shrinking
wretch on the floor.  Then, his face, still set and white with passion,
he turned contemptuously away.  Mooney, cursing cowardly behind his
teeth, watched him ascend the stairs, but the younger man never so much
as glanced below.



CHAPTER IV

A NEW DEAL OF THE CARDS

For the two performances following there occurred an enforced shift of
actors, owing to Mr. Mooney's being somewhat indisposed; and Winston,
aided by considerable prompting from the others, succeeded in getting
through his lines, conscious of much good-natured guying out in front,
and not altogether insensible to Miss Norvell's efforts not to appear
amused.  This experience left him in no pleasanter frame of mind, while
a wish to throw over the whole thing returned with renewed temptation.
Why not?  What was he continuing to make such a fool of himself for,
anyhow?  He was assuredly old enough to be done with chasing after
will-o'-the-wisps; and besides, there was his constant liability to
meet some old acquaintance who would blow the whole confounded story
through the Denver clubs.  The thought of the probable sarcasm of his
fellows made him wince.  Moreover, he was himself ashamed of his
actions.  This actress was nothing to him; he thoroughly convinced
himself of that important fact at least twenty times a day.  She was a
delightful companion, bright, witty, full of captivating character,
attractively winsome, to be sure, yet it was manifestly impossible for
him ever to consider her in any more serious way.  This became
sufficiently clear to his reasoning, yet, at the same time, he could
never quite break free.  She seldom appeared to him twice the
same--proving as changeable as the winds, her very nature seeming to
vary with a suddenness which never permitted his complete escape from
her fascinations, but left him to surmise how she would greet him next.
Frank or distant, filled with unrestrained gayety or dignified by
womanly reserve, smiling or grave, the changeable vagaries of Miss
Norvell were utterly beyond his guessing, while back of all these
outward manifestations of tantalizing personality, there continually
lurked a depth of hidden womanhood, which as constantly baffled his
efforts at fathoming.  It piqued him to realize his own helplessness,
to comprehend how completely this girl turned aside his most daring
efforts at uncovering the true trend of her heart and life.  She
refused to be read, wearing her various masks with a cool defiance
which apparently bespoke utter indifference to his good opinion, while
constantly affording him brief, tantalizing glimpses into half-revealed
depths that caused his heart to throb with anticipation never entirely
realized.

It did not once occur to his mind that such artifices might be directed
as much toward herself as him; he lacked the conceit which could have
convinced him that they merely marked a secret struggle for mastery, a
desperate effort to crush an inclination to surrender before the
temptation of the moment.  It was a battle for deliverance being fought
silently behind a mask of smiles, an exchange of sparkling commonplace;
yet ever beneath this surface play she was breathing a fervent prayer
that he would go away of his own volition and leave her free.  Far more
clearly than he, the woman recognized the utter impossibility of any
serious purpose between them, and she fought his advances with every
weapon in her armory, her very soul trembling behind the happy smiling
of her lips.  It was bravely attempted, and yet those dull weapons of
defence served merely to increase his interest, to awaken his passion,
and thus bind him more strongly to her.  Safe once again from general
observation, he returned to the obscurity of the wings and to the
routine handling of trunks and scenery, feeling totally unable to
permit her to pass entirely out of his life.  Within her own room she
dampened her pillow with tears of regret and remorse, yet finally she
sank to sleep strangely happy because he lingered.  It was the way of a
woman; it was no less the way of a man.

It was thus that the "Heart of the World" players came to fulfil their
engagement at San Juan upon a Saturday night.  This was the liveliest
camp in all that mountain region, a frantic, feverish, mushroom city of
tents and shacks, sprawling frame business blocks, and a few ugly brick
abominations, perched above the golden rocks of the Vila Valley,
bounded on one side by the towering cliffs, on the other by the
pitiless desert.  In those days San Juan recognized no material
distinction between midnight and noon-day.  All was glitter, glow,
life, excitement along the streets; the gloomy overhanging mountains
were pouring untold wealth into her lap, while vice and crime,
ostentation and lawlessness, held high carnival along the crowded,
straggling byways.  The exultant residents existed to-day in utter
carelessness of the morrow, their one dominant thought gold, their sole
acknowledged purpose those carnal pleasures to be purchased with it.
Everything was primitive, the animal yet in full control, the drinking,
laughing, fighting animal, filled with passion and blood-lust,
worshipping bodily strength, and governed by the ideals of a frontier
society wherein the real law hung dangling at the hip.  Saloons,
gambling halls, dance halls, and brothels flaunted themselves
shamelessly upon every hand; the streets exhibited one continual riot,
while all higher life was seemingly rendered inactive by inordinate
grasping after wealth, and reckless squandering of it on appetite and
vice; over all, as if blazoned across the blue sky, appeared the
ever-recurring motto of careless humanity, "Eat, drink, and be merry,
for to-morrow ye die."  Hardly a week before a short railroad spur had
been constructed up the narrow, rock-guarded valley from Bolton
Junction, eighteen miles to the northward, and over those uneven rails
the "Heart of the World" troupe of adventurous strollers arrived at San
Juan, to find lodgment in that ramshackle pile of boards known locally
as the "Occidental Hotel."

The San Juan Opera House, better known as the Gayety, was in truth
merely an adjunct to the Poodle-Dog Saloon, the side-doors from the
main floor opening directly into the inviting bar-room, while those in
the gallery afforded an equally easy egress into the spacious gambling
apartments directly above.  It was a monstrous ugly building,
constructed entirely of wood most hastily prepared; the stage was
utilized both night and day for continuous variety entertainments of
the kind naturally demanded by the motley gathering.  These, however,
were occasionally suspended to make room for some adventurous
travelling company to appear in the legitimate drama, but at the close
of every evening performance the main floor was promptly cleared, the
rows of chairs pushed hastily back from the centre, and the space thus
vacated utilized for a general dance, which invariably continued until
dawn.

When the drop-curtain slowly rose that Saturday evening fully three
thousand people crowded the hall, eager for any fresh excitement; and
ready enough either to taunt or applaud a performer, as the whim moved
them.  Bearded miners conspicuous in red shirts; cattlemen wearing wide
sombreros and hairy "chaps"; swarthy Mexicans lazily puffing the
inseparable cigarette; gamblers attired in immaculate linen, together
with numerous women gaudy of cheek and attire, composed a frontier
audience full of possibilities.  The result might easily prove good or
evil, according to the prevailing temper, but fortunately the "Heart of
the World" quickly caught the men's fancy, the laughter ringing loud in
appreciation of Mr. Lane's ardent buffoonery, while the motley crowd
sat in surprised silence evincing respect, as Miss Norvell drove home
to their minds the lesson of a woman's sorrow and struggle against
temptation.  It was well worth while looking out across the oil-lamp
footlights upon those hard-faced, bearded men, those gaudily attired
women, thus held and controlled by perfectly depleted emotion, the vast
audience so silent that the click of the wheel, the rattle of ivory
chips in the rooms beyond, became plainly audible.  There was
inspiration in it likewise, and never before did Beth Norvell more
clearly exhibit her native power, her spark of real genius.

Winston found little to do in his department that night, either on or
off the stage, as the company expected to spend Sunday in the place.
Consequently, he was only slightly behind the other members of the
troupe in attaining the hotel at the conclusion of the evening's
performance.  Indeed, he was earlier than many, for most of the male
members had promptly adjourned to the convenient bar-room, with
whatsoever small sums of money they could wring from out the reluctant
palm of Albrecht.  Winston chanced to pause for a moment at the cigar
stand to exchange a pleasant good-night word with the seemingly genial
clerk.

"You one of the actors?" questioned the latter, exhibiting some slight
interest.

The young man nodded indifferently, not feeling unduly proud of the
distinction.

"Sorry I couldn't have been there," the other went on cordially.  "The
boys tell me you gave 'em a mighty fine show, but I 'm here to bet that
some of your people wish they 'd steered clear of San Juan."

"How's that?"

"Why, that fat fellow--what's his name?--oh, yes, Albrecht--the sheriff
was in here hunting him with some papers he had to serve, and it would
have made you laugh just to see that duck climb out when I met him
yonder on the street a few minutes ago, and gave him the highball.
Guest of the house, you know, and we did n't want him pinched in here;
besides, we understood he carried the scads for the rest of your bunch,
and we naturally wanted our share.  The sheriff's out tryin' to find
him now; but Lord! the fellow 's safe enough out of the county by this
time, if he skipped the way I advised him he 'd better.  There was an
extra ore train goin' down to Bolton to-night, and he just had time to
catch it on the run."

The dramatic situation slowly dawned on Winston while the clerk was
speaking.

"Do you mean to tell me Albrecht has actually skipped out?" he
questioned, anxiously.  "Did he leave any money?"

"Sure; he paid your folks' board till Monday.  You bet I looked after
that."

"Board till Monday!" and Winston totally forgot himself.  "That is n't
salary, man; there is something infernally dirty about this whole deal.
Why, he took in over three thousand dollars to-night, and he's got all
of that, and at least a week's receipts besides--the infernal cur!  Was
he alone?"

"Tall fellow with clipped black moustache, and bald head."

"Lane; I expected as much; they're birds of a feather.  When can they
get out of the Junction?"

"Well, the first train scheduled goes east at four o'clock, but it 's
generally late."

Winston walked twice across the floor, alternately swearing and
thinking.

"Is there any way I could get there before that time?" he questioned,
finally, his square jaw setting firm.

"Well, I reckon you might, by goin' hossback across the old trail, but
you 'd need to have a guide in the dark, and you 'd find it a hell of a
hard ride."

The young engineer stood a moment staring out of the window into the
night.  The street was well illumined by the numerous saloon lights,
and he could perceive scattering flakes of snow in the air, blown about
by the gusty wind.  He no longer felt the slightest doubt regarding
Albrecht's desertion, and a wave of indignation swept over him.  He did
not greatly care himself regarding the small amount of money due for
his services, but it was a dirty, contemptible trick, and he resented
being so easily made the victim of such a scheme.  Suddenly he wondered
how this unexpected occurrence might affect the others.  With one of
them alone in mind he strode back to the counter, his teeth clinched
savagely.

"What is the number of Miss Norvell's room?"

"Fifty-four--first door to the right of the stairs."

He took the steep flight of steps at a run, caught a glimpse of dimly
reflected light shining through the closed transom, and rapped sharply.
There was a hurried movement within, and her voice spoke.

"What is wanted?"

"I am Mr. Winston, and I must speak with you at once."

His tone was sufficiently low and earnest to make her realize instantly
some grave emergency.  Without hesitation the door was held open, and
she stood before him in the faint light of the single lamp, wearing a
fleecy white wrapper, her dark hair partially disarranged, her eyes
seeking his own in bewilderment.

"What is it?"

"Are you aware that both Albrecht and Lane have skipped out?"

"Why, no," her cheeks suddenly paling, her fingers clasping the edge of
the door.  "Do you mean they have deserted us here to--to take care of
ourselves?"

He nodded.  "Yes, that's about it.  What I came to ask was, does that
fellow owe you any money?"

For an instant she hesitated, as if in lingering distrust of his exact
purpose, her lips parted, her face still plainly picturing the shock of
discovery.

"What difference can that possibly make now?  Why do you require to
know?"

"Because I half believe you have been left penniless.  Albrecht has not
even spoken about any pay to me since I joined the company; and when I
learned he had deliberately left us stalled here, my first thought was
of your unpleasant situation if my suspicions proved true."

"If they were, what is there you can do?"

"The hotel clerk says it is possible to reach the Junction on horseback
before any trains leave there on the main line.  I propose to make him
disgorge, but I must know first exactly how things stand.  Have you any
money?"

She stood gazing at him, her anger, shame, all forgotten in the
fascination of Winston's determined face.  For the first time she
thoroughly comprehended the cool, compelling power of this man, and it
mastered her completely.  She felt no longer the slightest doubt of
what he purposed doing, and her woman heart swelled responsively to his
masculine strength.

"I--I have n't got a dollar," she confessed simply, her lashes drooping
over her lowered eyes.

"What does that fellow owe you?"

"Two hundred and sixty dollars; he has merely dribbled out what little
I have been actually compelled to ask for."

A moment he remained standing there, breathing hard.  Once she ventured
to glance up inquiringly, only to catch his stern eyes, and as
instantly lower her own.

"All right, Miss Norvell," he said finally, the words seeming fairly to
explode from between his lips.  "I understand the situation now, and
you are to remain here until I come back.  I 'll get your money, don't
fear, if I have to trail him clear to Denver, but I 'll take what
little the miserable thief owes me out of his hide."

The next moment he was down below in the office rapidly preparing for
action, and Miss Norvell, leaning far out across the banister, listened
to his quick, nervous words of instruction with an odd thrill of pride
that left her cheeks crimson.



CHAPTER V

IN OPEN REBELLION

"It wus about the durndest fight as ever I see," explained Bill Hicks
confidentially to a group of his cronies in the bar-room of the
Poodle-Dog, while he tossed down a glass of red liquor, and shook the
powdered snowflakes from his bearskin coat.  "He wus a sorter slim,
long-legged chap, thet young actor feller I showed the trail down ter
Bolton ter, an' he scurcely spoke a word all durin' thet whol' blame
ride.  Search me, gents, if I c'd git either head er tail outer jist
whut he wus up to, only thet he proposed ter knock ther block off some
feller if he had the good luck ter ketch 'im.  Somehow, I reckoned he
'd be mighty likely ter perform the job, the way his jaw set an' his
eyes flared.  Leastwise, I didn't possess no rip-roarin' ambition fer
ter be thet other feller.  Still, I didn't suppose he was no whirlwind."

Bill mechanically held out his drained glass, and, warming up somewhat,
flung his discarded overcoat across a vacant bench, his eyes beginning
to glow with reawakened enthusiasm.

"But, by gory, he wus!  He wus simply chain lightnin', thet kid, an'
the way he handed out his dukes wus a sight fer sore eyes.  I got onto
the facts sorter slow like, neither of us bein' much on the converse,
but afore we hed reached Bolton I managed to savvy the most of it.  It
seems thet feller Albrecht--the big, cock-eyed cuss who played Damon,
ye recollect, gents--wus the boss of the show.  He wus the Grand Moke,
an' held the spuds.  Well, he an' thet one they call Lane jumped the
ore train last night, carryin' with 'em 'bout all the specie they'd
been corrallin' fer a week past, and started hot-foot fer Denver,
intendin' ter leave all them other actor people in the soup.  This yere
lad hed got onter the racket somehow, an' say, he wus plumb mad; he wus
too damn mad ter talk, an' when they git thet fur gone it's 'bout time
fer the innocent spectator ter move back outen range.  So he lassoed me
down at Gary's barn fer ter show him the ol' trail, an' we had one hell
of a night's ride of it.  But, gents, I would n't o' missed bein' thar
fer a heap.  It was a great scrape let me tell you.  We never see hide
ner hair of thet Albrecht or his partner till jist afore the main-line
train pulled in goin' north.  The choo-choo wus mighty nigh two hours
late, so it wus fair daylight by then, an' we got a good sight o' them
two fellers a-leggin' it toward the station from out the crick bottom,
whar they 'd been layin' low.  They wus both husky-lookin' bucks, an' I
was sufficient interested by then ter offer ter sorter hold one of 'em
while the kid polished off the other.  But Lord! that wan't his style,
no how, and he just politely told me ter go plumb ter hell, an' then
waltzed out alone without nary a gun in his fist.  He wus purty white
round the lips, but I reckon it wus only mad, fur thar wus n't nothin'
weak about his voice, an' the way he lambasted thet thief wus a caution
ter snakes.  Say, I 've heerd some considerable ornate language in my
time, but thet kid had a cinch on the dictionary all right, an' he read
them two ducks the riot act good an' plenty.  Thet long-legged Lane, he
did n't have no sand, an' hung back and did n't say much, but the other
feller tried every sneakin' trick a thief knows, only he bucked up agin
a stone wall every time.  Thet young feller just simply slathered him;
he called him every name I ever heerd, an' some considerable others,
an' finally, when the train was a-pullin' in, the cuss unlimbered his
wad, an' began peelin' off the tens an' twenties till I thought the
whole show wus over fer sure.  But Lord!  I didn't know thet kid--no
more did thet Albrecht."

Hicks wet his lips with his tongue, pausing, after the manner of a good
_raconteur_, to gaze calmly about upon the faces of his auditors.

"I could n't see jist how much the feller disgorged, but he wus
almighty reluctant an' nifty about it; an' then I heerd him say,
sneerin'-like, 'Now, damn yer, how much more do _you_ want?'  An',
gents, what do yer think thet actor kid did?  Cop ther whole blame
pile?   Not on yer whiskers, he didn't.   He jist shoved them scads
what hed been given him careless-like down inter his coat pocket, an'
faced Mister Manager.  'Not a dirty penny, Albrecht,' he said, sorter
soft-like; 'I 'm a-goin' to take whut yer owe me out of yer right now.'
An', by gory, gents, he sure did.  I can't say as how I see much o' the
fracas, 'ceptin' the dust, but when thet long-legged Lane jerked out a
pearl-handled pop-gun I jist naturally rapped him over the knuckles
with my '45.' an' then tossed him over inter the bunch.  Say, thet beat
any three-ringed circus ever I see.  The kid he pounded Albrecht's head
on the platform, occasionally interestin' Lane by kickin' him in the
stomick, while I jist waltzed 'round promiscous-like without seein' no
special occasion to take holt anywhar.  I reckon they 'd a been thar
yit, if the train hands had n't pried 'em apart, an' loaded the remains
onter a keer.  An' then thet actor kid he stood thar lookin' fust at
me, an' then after them keers.  'Hicks,' he panted, 'did I git fifty
dollars' worth?'  'I rather reckon ye did,' I said, thoughtfully, 'en
maybe it mought be a hundred.'  An' then he laughed, an' brushed the
dust off his clothes.  'All right, then,' says he; 'let's eat.'  An' I
never see no nicer feller after he got thet load offen his mind."

Winston, totally unconscious that he had thus achieved an enviable
reputation in certain rather exclusive social circles of San Juan,
proceeded straight to the hotel, pausing merely a moment in the
wash-room to make himself a trifle more presentable, tramped up the
stairs, and rapped briskly at Miss Norvell's door.  He was still
flushed with victory, while the natural confidence felt in her
appreciation of his efforts yielded him a sense of exhilaration not
easily concealed.  The door was promptly opened, and, with her first
glance, she read the success of his mission pictured within his face.
As instantly her eyes smiled, and her hand was extended in the
cordiality of welcome.

"I can perceive without a word being spoken that you discovered your
man," she exclaimed, "and I am so glad!"

"Yes," he returned, stepping past, and emptying his pockets on the
white coverlet of the bed.  "There is the money."

She glanced at the pile doubtfully.

"What money?"

"Why, yours, of course.  The money you told me Albrecht owed you."

She turned, somewhat embarrassed, her eyes upon his surprised face.

"Do you mean that was all you got?" she questioned finally.  "Did he
send nothing for the others?  Did n't you know he was equally in debt
to every member of the company?"

With these words the entire situation dawned upon him for the first
time.  He had been thinking only about Miss Norvell, and had permitted
the rascally manager to escape with the greater portion of his stolen
goods.  The realization of how easily he had been tricked angered him,
his face darkening.  She read the truth as quickly, and, before he
found speech in explanation, had swept the little pile of loose bills
into her lap.

"Wait here a moment, please," she exclaimed quickly; "I shall be right
back."

He remained as bidden, wondering dimly as to her purpose, yet her brief
absence yielded but little opportunity for thought.  He met her at the
door with an indignantly suspicious question:

"What have you been doing?  Surely, you have n't given all that money
away?"

The girl smiled, a gleam of defiance visible in the uplifted eyes.

"Every cent of it.  Why, what else could I do?  They actually have
nothing, and must get back to Denver or starve."

For an instant he completely lost his self-control.

"Why did n't you tell me first?" he asked sharply.  "Did you suppose I
collected my own money, and could therefore meet your expenses?"

He never forgot the expression which swept instantly into her face--the
quick indignation that leaped from the depths of those dark eyes.

"I was not aware I had ever requested any help from Mr. Winston," she
returned clearly, her slight form held erect.  "Your following after
Albrecht was entirely voluntary, but I naturally presumed the money you
brought back belonged to me.  You said it did, and hence I supposed it
could be disposed of at my own discretion."

"You have exhibited none."

"That would seem to depend entirely upon the point of view.  Until I
request your aid, however, your criticism is not desired."

Both voice and manner were so cold that they were equivalent to
dismissal, but Winston hesitated, already beginning to regret the
bitter harshness of his speech.  Beneath his steady gaze her cheeks
flamed hotly.

"We have been friends," he began more humbly.  "Would you mind telling
me something regarding your plans?  Just now I feel unable to offer you
either aid or advice."

Her face perceptibly brightened, as if this new mood quickly appealed
to her.

"That sounds ever so much better," she admitted, glancing up into his
face.  "I have never enjoyed being scolded, as though I were a child
who had done wrong.  Besides, I am quite convinced in this case I have
done precisely right.  I think you would admit it also if you only had
patience to hear my story.  I know exactly what I intend doing, or I
should never have given all that money away.  I have an engagement."

"An engagement?  Where?  Is there another troupe playing here?"

She shrugged her shoulders, her hands clasped.

"No, not in the sense you mean; not the legitimate.  I am going to
appear at the Gayety."

Winston stood grasping the back of the chair, staring straight at her,
his body motionless.   For an instant he was conscious of a sudden
revulsion of feeling, a vague distrust of her true character, a doubt
of the real nature of this perverse personality.  Such a resolution on
her part shocked him with its recklessness.  Either she did not in the
least appreciate what such action meant, or else she woefully lacked in
moral judgment.  Slowly, those shadowed dark eyes were uplifted to his
face, as if his very silence had awakened alarm.  Yet she merely smiled
at the gravity of his look, shaking her dark hair in coquettish disdain.

"Again you apparently disapprove," she said with pretence of
carelessness.  "How easily I succeed in shocking you to-day!  Really, a
stranger might imagine I was under particular obligations to ask your
permission for the mere privilege of living.  We have known each other
by sight for all of two weeks, and yet your face already speaks of
dictation.  Evidently you do not like the Gayety."

"No; do you?"

"I?" she replied doubtfully, with a slight movement of the body more
expressive than words.  "There are times when necessity, rather than
taste, must control the choice.  But truly, since you ask the question,
I do not like the Gayety.  It is far too noisy, too dirty, too gaudy,
and too decidedly primitive.  But then, beggars may not always be
choosers, you know.  I am no bright, scintillating 'star'; I am not
even a mining engineer possessing a bank account in Denver; I am merely
an unknown professional actress, temporarily stranded, and the good
angel of the Gayety offers me twenty dollars a week.  That is my
answer."

The young man flushed to the roots of his fair hair, his teeth meeting
firmly.

"There is no 'good angel' of the Gayety--the very atmosphere of that
place would soil an angel's wing," he exclaimed hotly.  "Besides, you
are not driven by necessity to any such choice.  There is another way
out.  As you gently suggested, I am a mining engineer possessing a bank
account at Denver.  I will most gladly draw a sight draft to-morrow,
and pay your expenses back to that city, if you will only accept my
offer.  Is this fair?"

"Perfectly so; yet supposing I refuse?"

"And deliberately choose the Gayety instead?"

"Yes, and deliberately choose the Gayety instead--what then?"

She asked the momentous question calmly enough, her mouth rigid, her
eyes challenging him to speak the whole truth.  He moistened his dry
lips, realizing that he was being forced into an apparently brutal
bluntness he had sincerely hoped to avoid.

"Then," he replied, with quiet impressiveness, "I fear such deliberate
action would forfeit my respect."

She went instantly white before the blow of these unexpected words, her
fingers clasping the door, her eyes as full of physical pain as if he
had struck her with clinched hand.

"Forfeit your respect!" she echoed, the slender figure quivering, the
voice tremulous.  "Rather should I forever forfeit my own, were I to
accept your proffer of money."  Her form straightened, a slight tinge
of color rising to the cheeks.  "You totally mistake my character.  I
have never been accustomed to listening to such words, Mr. Winston, nor
do I now believe I merit them.  I choose to earn my own living, and I
retain my own self-respect, even although while doing this I am
unfortunate enough to forfeit yours."

"But, Miss Norvell, do you realize what the Gayety is?"

"Not being deprived of all my natural powers of observation, I most
certainly believe I do--we were there together last evening."

She puzzled, confused him, outwardly appearing to trifle with those
matters which seemed to his mind most gravely serious.  Yet, his was a
dogged resolution that would not easily confess defeat.

"Miss Norvell," he began firmly, and in the depth of his earnestness he
touched her hand where it yet clung to the door, "I may, indeed, be
presuming upon an exceedingly brief friendship, but my sole excuse must
be the very serious interest I feel in you, especially in your
undoubted ability and future as an actress.  It is always a great
misfortune for any man to repose trust and confidence in the character
of a woman, and then suddenly awaken to discover himself deceived.
Under these circumstances I should be unworthy of friendship did I fail
in plain speaking.  To me, your reckless acceptance of this chance
engagement at the Gayety seems inexpressibly degrading; it is a
lowering of every ideal with which my imagination has heretofore
invested your character.  I am not puritanical, but I confess having
held you to a higher plane than others of my acquaintance, and I find
it hard to realize my evident mistake.  Yet, surely, you cannot fully
comprehend what it is you are choosing, I was with you last night,
true, but I considered it no honor to appear upon _that_ stage, even
with the 'Heart of the World,' and it hurt me even then to behold you
in the midst of such surroundings.  But deliberately to take part in
the regular variety bill is a vastly more serious matter.  It is almost
a total surrender to evil, and involves a daily and nightly association
with vice which cannot but prove most repugnant to true womanhood.
Surely, you do not know the true nature of this place?"

"Then tell it to me."

"I will, and without any mincing of words.  The Gayety is a mere
adjunct to the Poodle-Dog saloon and the gambling hell up-stairs.  They
are so closely connected that on the stage last evening I could easily
hear the click of ivory chips and the clatter of drinking glasses.  One
man owns and controls the entire outfit, and employs for his variety
stage any kind of talent which will please the vicious class to which
he caters.  All questioning as to morality is thoroughly eliminated.
Did you comprehend this?"

The young girl bowed slightly, her face as grave as his own, and again
colorless, the whiteness of her cheeks a marked contrast to her dark
hair.

"I understood those conditions fully."

"And yet consented to appear there?"

She shook back her slightly disarranged hair, and looked him directly
in the eyes, every line of her face stamped with resolve.

"Mr. Winston, in the first place, I deny your slightest right to
question me in this manner, or to pass moral judgment upon my motives.
I chance to possess a conscience of my own, and your presumption is
almost insulting.  While you were absent in pursuit of Albrecht, the
manager of the Gayety, having chanced to learn the straits we were in,
called upon me here with his proposal.  It appeared an honorable one,
and the offer was made in a gentlemanly manner.  However, I did not
accept at the time, for the plain reason that I had no desire whatever
to appear upon that stage, and in the midst of that unpleasant
environment.  I decided to await your return, and learn whether such a
personal sacrifice of pride would be necessary.  Now, I believe I
recognize my duty, and am not afraid to perform it, even in the face of
your displeasure.  I am going to deliver the parting scene from the
'Heart of the World,' and I do not imagine my auditors will be any the
worse for hearing it.  I certainly regret that the Gayety is an adjunct
to a saloon; I should greatly prefer not to appear there, but,
unfortunately, it is the only place offering me work.  I may be
compelled to sink a certain false pride in order to accept, but I shall
certainly not sacrifice one iota of my womanhood.  You had no cause
even to intimate such a thing."

"Possibly not; yet had you been my sister I should have said the same."

"Undoubtedly, for you view this matter entirely from the standpoint of
the polite world, from the outlook of social respectability, where self
rules every action with the question, 'What will others say?'  So
should I two years ago, but conditions have somewhat changed my views.
Professional necessity can never afford to be quite so punctilious,
cannot always choose the nature of its environments: the nurse must
care for the injured, however disagreeable the task; the newspaper
woman must cover her assignment, although it takes her amid filth; and
the actress must thoroughly assume her character, in spite of earlier
prejudices.  The woman who deliberately chooses this life must, sooner
or later, adjust herself to its unpleasant requirements; and if her
womanhood remain true, the shallow criticism of others cannot greatly
harm her.  I had three alternatives in this case--I could selfishly
accept my handful of money, go to Denver, and leave these other
helpless people here to suffer; I could accept assistance from you, a
comparative stranger; or I could aid them and earn my own way by
assuming an unpleasant task.  I chose the last, and my sense of right
upholds me."

Winston watched her earnestly as she spoke, his gray eyes brightening
with unconscious appreciation, his face gradually losing its harshness
of disapproval.  A spirit of independence always made quick appeal to
his favor, and this girl's outspoken defiance of his good opinion set
his heart throbbing.  Back of her outward quietness of demeanor there
was an untamed spirit flashing into life.

"We may never exactly agree as to this question of proprieties," he
acknowledged slowly.  "Yet I can partially comprehend your position as
viewed professionally.  Am I, then, to understand that your future is
definitely decided upon?  You really purpose dedicating your life to
dramatic art?"

She hesitated, her quickly lowered eyes betraying a moment of
embarrassment.

"Yes," she answered finally.  "I am beginning to find myself, to
believe in myself."

"You expect to find complete satisfaction in this way?"

"Complete?  Oh, no; one never does that, you know, unless, possibly,
the ideals are very low; but more than I can hope to find elsewhere.
Even now I am certainly happier in the work than I have been for
years."  She looked up at him quickly, her eyes pleading.  "It is not
the glitter, the sham, the applause," she hastened to explain, "but the
real work itself, that attracts and rewards me--the hidden labor of
fitly interpreting character--the hard, secret study after details.
This has become a positive passion, an inspiration.  I may never become
the perfected artist of which I sometimes dream, yet it must be that I
have within me a glimmering of that art.  I feel it, and cannot remain
false to it."

"Possibly love may enter to change your plans," he ventured to suggest,
influenced by the constantly changing expression of her face.

She flushed to the roots of her hair, yet her lips laughed lightly.

"I imagine such an unexpected occurrence would merely serve to
strengthen them," she replied quickly.  "I cannot conceive of any love
so supremely selfish as to retard the development of a worthy ideal.
But really, there is small need yet of discussing such a possibility."

She stood aside as he made a movement toward the open door, yet, when
he had stepped forth into the hall, she halted him with a sudden
question:

"Do you intend returning at once to Denver?"

"No, I shall remain here."

She said nothing, but he clearly read a farther unasked question in her
face.

"I remain here, Miss Norvell, while you do.  I shall be among your
audiences at the Gayety.  I do not altogether agree that your choice
has been a correct one, but I do sincerely believe in you,--in your
motives,--and, whether you desire it or not, I propose to constitute
myself your special guardian.  There is likely to be trouble at the
Gayety, if any drunken fool becomes too gay."

With flushed cheeks she watched him go slowly down the stairway, and
there were tears glistening within those dark eyes as she drew back
into the room and locked the door.  A moment she remained looking at
her reflected face in the little mirror, her fingers clinched as if in
pain.

"Oh, why does n't he go away without my having to tell him?" she cried,
unconsciously aloud.  "I--I thought he surely would, this time."



CHAPTER VI

THE "LITTLE YANKEE" MINE

A wide out-jutting wall of rock, uneven and precipitous, completely
shut off all view toward the broader valley of the Vila, as well as of
the town of San Juan, scarcely three miles distant.  Beyond its stern
guardianship Echo Canyon stretched grim and desolate, running far back
into the very heart of the gold-ribbed mountains.  The canyon, a mere
shapeless gash in the side of the great hills, was deep, long,
undulating, ever twisting about like some immense serpent, its sides
darkened by clinging cedars and bunches of chaparral, and rising in
irregular terraces of partially exposed rock toward a narrow strip of
blue sky.  It was a fragment of primitive nature, as wild, gloomy,
desolate, and silent as though never yet explored by man.

A small clear stream danced and sang over scattered stones at the
bottom of this grim chasm, constantly twisting and curving from wall to
wall, generally half concealed from view by the dense growth of
overhanging bushes shadowing its banks.  High up along the brown rock
wall the gleam of the afternoon sun rested warm and golden, but deeper
down within those dismal, forbidding depths there lingered merely a
purple twilight, while patches of white snow yet clung desperately to
the steep surrounding hills, or showered in powdery clouds from off the
laden cedars whenever the disturbing wind came soughing up the gorge.
Early birds were beginning to flit from tree to tree, singing their
welcome to belated Springtime; a fleecy cloud lazily floating far
overhead gave deeper background to the slender strip of over-arching
blue.  It all combined to form a nature picture of primeval peace,
rendered peculiarly solemn by those vast ranges of overshadowing
mountains, and more deeply impressive by the grim silence and
loneliness, the seemingly total absence of human life.

Yet in this the scene was most deceptive.  Neither peace nor loneliness
lurked amid those sombre rock shadows; over all was the dominance of
men--primitive, fighting men, rendered almost wholly animal by the
continued hardships of existence, the ceaseless struggle after gold.
The vagrant trail, worn deep between rocks by the constant passage of
men and mules, lay close beside the singing water, while here and there
almost imperceptible branches struck off to left or right, running as
directly as possible up the terraced benches until the final dim traces
were completely lost amid the low-growing cedars.  Each one of these
led as straight as nature would permit to some specific spot where men
toiled incessantly for the golden dross, guarding their claims with
loaded rifles, while delving deeper and deeper beneath the mysterious
rocks, ever seeking to make their own the secret hoards of the world's
great storehouse.  Countless centuries were being rudely unlocked
through the ceaseless toil of pick and shovel, the green hillsides torn
asunder and disfigured by ever-increasing piles of debris, while
eager-eyed men struggled frantically to obtain the hidden riches of the
rocks.  Here and there a rudely constructed log hut, perched with
apparent recklessness upon the brink of the precipice, told the silent
story of a claim, while in other places the smouldering remains of a
camp-fire alone bespoke primitive living.  Yet every where along that
upper terrace, where in places the seductive gold streak lay half
uncovered to the sun, were those same yawning holes leading far down
beneath the surface; about them grouped the puny figures of men
performing the labors of Hercules under the galling spur of hope.

On this higher ledge, slightly beyond a shallow intersecting gorge
shadowed by low-growing cedars, two men reclined upon a rock-dump,
gazing carelessly off six hundred feet sheer down into the gloomy
depths of the canyon below.  Just beyond them yawned the black opening
of their shaft-hole, the rude windlass outlined against the gray
background of rock, while somewhat to the left, seemingly overhanging
the edge of the cliff, perched a single-roomed cabin of logs
representing home.   This was the "Little Yankee" claim, owners William
Hicks and "Stutter" Brown.  The two partners were sitting silent and
idle, a single rifle lying between them on the dump.  Hicks was tall,
lank, seamed of face, with twinkling gray eyes, a goat's beard dangling
at his chin to the constant motion of his nervous jaws; and Brown,
twenty years his junior, was a young, sandy-haired giant, limited of
speech, of movement, of thought, with freckled cheeks and a downy
little moustache of decidedly red hue.  They had been laboriously
deciphering a letter of considerable length and peculiar illegibility,
and the slow but irascible Stutter had been swearing in disjointed
syllables, his blue eyes glaring angrily across the gully, where
numerous moving figures, conspicuous in blue and red shirts, were
plainly visible about the shaft-hole of the "Independence," the next
claim below them on the ledge.  Yet for the moment neither man spoke
otherwise.  Finally, shifting uneasily, yet with mind evidently made up
for definite action, Hicks broke the prolonged silence.

"I was thinkin' it over, Stutter, all the way hoofin' it out yere," he
said, chewing continually on his tobacco, "but sorter reckoned ez how
yer ought ter see the writin' furst, considerin' ez how you're a full
partner in this yere claim.  It sorter strikes me thet the lawyer hes
give us the straight tip all right, an' thar 's no other way fer
gittin' the cinch on them ornary fellers over thar," and the speaker
waved his hand toward the distant figures.  "Yer see, it's this yere
way, Stutter.  You an' I could swar, of course, thet the damned cusses
hed changed the stakes on us more 'n onct, an' thar 's no doubt in our
two minds but what they 're a-followin' out our ore-lead right now,
afore we kin git down ter it.  Hell!  of course they are--they got the
fust start, an' the men, an' the money back of 'em.  We ain't got a
darn thing but our own muscle, an' the rights of it, which latter don't
amount ter two bumps on a log.  Fer about three weeks we 've been
watchin' them measly skunks take out our mineral, an' for one I 'm
a-goin' ter quit.  I never did knuckle down ter thet sort, an' I 'm too
old now ter begin.  The lawyer says ez how we ain't got no legal proof,
an' I reckon it's so.  But I 'm damned if I don't git some.  Thar ain't
a minin' engineer in San Juan that 'll come up yere fer us.  Them
fellers hes got 'em all on the hip; but I reckon, if we hunt long
'nough, we kin find some feller in Colorado with nerve 'nough to tackle
this yere job, an' I 'm a-goin' out gunnin' for jist that man."

He got to his feet, his obstinate old eyes wandering across the gully,
and the younger man watched him with slow curiosity.

"How f-f-far you g-g-going, Bill?" he burst forth stutteringly.

"Denver, if I need to," was the elder's resolute, response.  "I 'll
tell ye what I 'm a-goin' ter do, Stutter.  I 'm a-goin' ter draw out
every blamed cent we 've got in the bank down at San Juan.  'T ain't
much of a pile, but I reckon it's got ter do the business.  Then I 'll
strike out an' hunt till I find a minin' engineer thet 's got a soul of
his own, an' grit 'nough behind it ter root out the facts.  I 've been
a-prospecttn' through these here mountings fer thirty years, an' now
thet I 've hit somethin' worth havin', I 'm hanged if I 'm a-goin' ter
lie down meek ez Moses an' see it stole out plumb from under me by a
parcel o' tin-horn gamblers.  Not me, by God!  If I can't git a cinch
on sich a feller ez I want, then I 'll come back an' blow a hole
through that Farnham down at San Juan.  I reckon I 'll go in an' tell
him so afore I start."

The old man's square jaws set ominously, his gnarled hand dropping
heavily on the butt of the Colt dangling at his hip.

"You stay right yere, Stutter, on the dump, and don't yer let one o'
them measly sneaks put nary foot on our claim, if yer have ter blow 'em
plumb ter hell.  You an' Mike kin tend ter thet all right, an' you bet
I 'm goin' ter have some news fer yer when I git home, my boy."

He swung around, and strode back along the ledge to the door of the
cabin, reappearing scarcely a moment later with a small bundle in his
hand.

"Thar 's 'nough grub in thar ter last you an' Mike fer a week yit, an'
I 'll be back afore then, er else planted.  _Adios_."

Brown sat up, his gun resting between his knees, and in silence watched
his partner scrambling down the steep trail.  It was not easy for him
to converse, and he therefore never uttered a word unless the situation
demanded the sacrifice.  He could swear, however, with considerable
fluency, but just now even that relief seemed inadequate.  Finally, the
older man disappeared behind the scrub, and, except for those more
distant figures about the dump of the "Independence," the blond giant
remained apparently alone.  But Stutter had long ago become habituated
to loneliness; the one condition likely to worry him was lack of
occupation.  He scrambled to his feet and climbed the dump, until able
to lean far over and look down into the black mouth of the uncovered
shaft.

"Got yer b-b-bucket full, M-M-Mike?" he questioned, sending his deep,
sputtering voice far down into the depths below.

"Oi have thot," came the disgusted response from out the darkness.  "Ye
measly spalpeen, ain't Oi bin shakin' of the rope fer twinty minutes?
Oi tought maybe ye'd run off an' left me to rot down in the hole.  Whut
's up now, ye freckled-face ilephant, yer?"

Brown indulged in a cautious glance about, then stuck his almost boyish
face farther down within the safety of the hole before venturing an
explanation.

"B-B-Bill's g-gone to find s-s-some engi-n-neer w-with nerve 'nough ter
r-r-run our lines," he managed to spit out disjointedly.  "S-s-says
he'll go plumb ter Denver 'fore he 'll g-g-give up, an' if he d-don't
f-find any sich he 'll c-c-come back an' p-p-perforate F-F-Farnham."

"Bedad!" a tinge of unrestrained delight apparent in the sudden roar,
"an' was he hot?"

"H-he sure was.  He m-m-m-meant business all r-right, an' hed f-f-forty
rounds b-b-buckled on him.  H-here goes, Mike," and Brown grasped the
warped handle of the windlass and began to grind slowly, coiling the
heavy rope, layer upon layer, around the straining drum.  He brought
the huge ore-bucket to the surface, dumped its load of rock over the
edge of the shaft-hole, and had permitted it to run down swiftly to the
waiting Mike, when a slight noise behind sent the man whirling suddenly
about, his hand instinctively reaching forth toward the discarded but
ready rifle.  A moment he stared, incredulous, at the strange vision
fronting him, his face quickly reddening from embarrassment, his eyes
irresolute and puzzled.  Scarcely ten feet away, a woman, rather
brightly attired and apparently very much at her ease, sat upon a
rather diminutive pony, her red lips curved in lines of laughter,
evidently no little amused at thus startling him.  Brown realized that
she was young and pretty, with jet black, curling hair, and eyes of the
same color, her skin peculiarly white and clear, while she rode man
fashion, her lower limbs daintily encased within leggings of buckskin.
She had carelessly dropped her reins upon the high pommel of the
saddle, and as their glances fairly met, she laughed outright.

"You mooch frighten, señor, and you so ver' big.  It make me joy."  Her
broken English was oddly attractive.  "Poof! los Americanos not all
find me so ver' ter'ble."

Stutter Brown ground his white teeth together savagely, his short red
moustache bristling.  He was quite young, never greatly accustomed to
companionship with the gentler sex, and of a disposition strongly
opposed to being laughed at.  Besides, he felt seriously his grave
deficiencies of speech.

"I-I-I was s-sorter expectin' a-a-another kind of c-c-caller," he
stuttered desperately, in explanation, every freckle standing out in
prominence, "an' th-th-thought m-m-maybe somebody 'd g-g-got the d-drop
on me."

The girl only laughed again, her black eyes sparkling.  Yet beneath his
steady, questioning gaze her face slightly sobered, a faint flush
becoming apparent in either cheek.

"You talk so ver' funny, señor; you so big like de tree, an' say vords
dat vay; it make me forget an' laf.  You moost not care just for me.
Pah! but it vas fight all de time vid you, was n't it, señor?  Biff,
bang, kill; ver' bad," and she clapped her gauntleted hands together
sharply.  "But not me; I vas only girl; no gun, no knife--see.  I just
like know more 'bout mine--Americano's mine; you show me how it vork.
_Sabe_?"

Stutter appeared puzzled, doubtful.

"Mexicana?" he questioned, kicking a piece of rock with his heavy boot.

"Si, señor, but I speak de English ver' good.  I Mercedes Morales, an'
I like ver' much de brav' Americanos.  I like de red hair, too,
señor--in Mexico it all de same color like dis," and she shook out her
own curling ebon locks in sudden shower.  "I tink de red hair vas more
beautiful."

Mr. Brown was not greatly accustomed to having his rather fiery
top-knot thus openly referred to in tones of evident admiration.  It
was a subject he naturally felt somewhat sensitive about, and in spite
of the open honesty of the young girl's face, he could not help
doubting for a moment the sincerity of her speech.

"L-l-like f-fun yer do," he growled uneasily.  "A-a-anyhow, whut are
yer d-d-doin' yere?"

For answer she very promptly swung one neatly booted foot over and
dropped lightly to the ground, thus revealing her slender figure.  Her
most notable beauty was the liquid blackness of her eyes.

"Si, I tell you all dat ver' quick, señor," she explained frankly,
nipping the rock-pile with her riding whip, and bending over to peer,
with undisguised curiosity, into the yawning shaft-hole.  "I ride out
from San Juan for vat you call constitutional--mercy, such a vord,
señor!--an' I stray up dis trail.  See?  It vas most steep, my, so
steep, like I slide off; but de mustang he climb de hill, all right,
an' den I see you, señor, an' know dere vas a mine here.  Not de big
mine--bah!  I care not for dat kind--but just one leetle mine, vere I
no be 'fraid to go down.  Den I look at you, so big, vid de beautiful
red hair, an' de kin' face, an' I sink he vood let me see how dey do
such tings--he vas nice fellow, if he vas all mud on de clothes.  Si,
for I know nice fellow, do I not, _amigo_?  _Si, bueno_.  So you vill
show to me how de brav' Americanos dig out de yellow gold, señor?"

She flashed her tempting glance up into the man's face, and Brown
stamped his feet nervously, endeavoring to appear stern.

"C-c-could n't h-hardly do it, m-m-miss.  It 's t-too blame dirty
d-d-down below fer y-your sort.  B-b-besides, my p-pardner ain't yere,
an' he m-m-might not l-like it."

"You haf de pardner?  Who vas de pardner?"

"H-h-his name's H-H-Hicks."

She clasped her hands in an ecstasy of unrestrained delight.

"Beell Heeks?  Oh, señor, I know Beell Heeks.  He vas ver' nice fellow,
too--but no so pretty like you; he old man an' swear--Holy Mother, how
he swear!  He tol' me once come out any time an' see hees mine.  I not
know vere it vas before.  Maybe de angels show me.  You vas vat Beell
call Stutter Brown, I tink maybe?  Ah, now it be all right, señor.
_Bueno_!"

She laid her gauntleted hand softly on the rough sleeve of his woollen
shirt, her black, appealing eyes flashing suddenly up into his troubled
face.

"I moost laugh, señor; such a brav' Americano 'fraid of de girl.  Why
not you shoot me?"

"A-a-afraid nothin'," and Stutter's freckled face became instantly as
rosy as his admired hair, "b-but I t-tell ye, miss, it's a-a-all d-dirt
down th-there, an' not f-f-fit fer no lady ter t-t-traipse round in."

The temptress, never once doubting her power, smiled most bewitchingly,
her hands eloquent.

"You vas good boy, just like I tink; I wear dis ol' coat--see; an' den
I turn up de skirt, so.  I no 'fraid de dirt.  Now, vat you say, señor?
_Bueno_?"

Thus speaking, she seized upon the discarded and somewhat disreputable
garment, flung it carelessly about her shapely shoulders, shrugging
them coquettishly, her great eyes shyly uplifting to his relenting
face, and began swiftly to fasten up her already short dress in
disregard of the exposure of trim ankles.  The agitated Mr. Brown
coughed, his uneasy glances straying down the open shaft.  He would
gladly, and with extreme promptness, have shoved the cold muzzle of his
Colt beneath the nose of any man at such moment of trial; but this
young girl, with a glance and a laugh, had totally disarmed him.
Disturbed conscience, a feeling akin to disloyalty, pricked him, but
the temptation left him powerless to resist--those black eyes held him
already captive; and yet in this moment of wavering indecision, that
teasing hand once again rested lightly upon his shirt-sleeve.

"Please do dat, señor," the voice low and pleading.  "It vas not ver'
mooch just to let a girl see your leetle mine.   What harm, señor?  But
maybe it's so because you no like me?"

Startled by so unjust a suspicion, the eyes of the young giant
instantly revealed a degree of interest which caused her own to light
up suddenly, her red lips parting in a quick, appreciative smile which
disclosed the white teeth.

"Ah, I see it vas not dat.  Eet make glad de heart--make eet to sing
like de birds.  Now I know eet vill be as I vish.  How do I get down,
señor?"

Thus easily driven from his last weak entrenchments, his heart
fluttering to the seduction of her suggestive glance, the embarrassed
Stutter made unconditional surrender, a gruff oath growling in his
throat.  He leaned out over the dark shaft, his supporting hand on the
drum.

"Come u-u-up, M-M-Mike," he called, rattling his letters like
castanets.  "I w-w-want to g-go d-d-down."

There followed a sound of falling rocks below, a fierce shaking of the
suspended rope, and then a muffled voice sang out an order, "H'ist
away, and be dommed ter yer."  Brown devoted himself assiduously to the
creaking windlass, although never able entirely to remove his attention
from that bright-robed, slender figure standing so closely at his side.
For one brief second he vaguely wondered if she could be a witch, and
he looked furtively aside, only to perceive her bright eyes smiling
happily at him.  Then suddenly a totally bald head shot up through the
opening, a seamed face the color of parchment, with squinting gray
eyes, peered suspiciously about, while a gnarled hand reached forth,
grasped a post in support, and dragged out into the sunlight a short,
sturdy body.  Mike straightened up, with a peculiar jerk, on the dump,
spat viciously over the edge of the canyon, and drew a short, black
pipe from out a convenient pocket in his shirt.  He made no audible
comment, but stood, his back planted to the two watchers; and Stutter
cleared his throat noisily.

"Th-th-this l-l-lady wants ter s-s-see how we m-m-mine," he explained
in painful embarrassment, "a-an' I th-th-thought I 'd t-take her
d-d-down if you 'd w-work the w-w-windlass a b-bit."

Old Mike turned slowly around and fronted the two, his screwed-up eyes
on the girl, while with great deliberation he drew a match along the
leg of his canvas trousers.

"Onything to oblige ye," he said gruffly.  "Always ready to hilp the
ladies--be me sowl, Oi've married three of thim already.  An' wus this
Hicks's orthers, Stutter?"

"N-n-no, not exactly," Brown admitted, with evident reluctance.  "B-but
ye s-s-see, she's a g-great friend o' B-B-Bill's, an' so I reckon it
'll be all r-right.  Don't s-see how n-no harm kin be d-d-done."

The pessimistic Michael slowly blew a cloud of pungent smoke into the
air, sucking hard at his pipe-stem, and laid his rough hands on the
windlass handle.

"None o' my dommed funeral, beggin' yer pardon, miss," he condescended
to mutter in slight apology.  "Long as the pay goes on, Oi 'd jist as
soon work on top as down below.  H'ist the female into the bucket, ye
overgrown dood!"

Stutter Brown, still nervous from recurring doubts, awkwardly assisted
his vivacious charge to attain safe footing, anxiously bade her hold
firmly to the swaying rope, and stood, carefully steadying the line as
it slowly disappeared, hypnotized still by those marvellous black eyes,
which continued to peer up at him until they vanished within the
darkness.  Leaning far over to listen, the young miner heard the bucket
touch bottom, and then, with a quick word of warning to the man
grasping the handle, he swung himself out on the taut rope, and went
swiftly down, hand over hand.  Mike, still grumbling huskily to
himself, waited until the windlass ceased vibrating, securely anchored
the handle with a strip of raw-hide, and composedly sat down, his teeth
set firmly on the pipe-stem, his eyes already half closed.  It was an
obstinate, mulish old face, seamed and creased, the bright sunlight
rendering more manifest the leather-like skin, the marvellous network
of wrinkles about eyes and mouth.  Not being paid for thought, the old
fellow now contented himself with dozing, quite confident of not being
quickly disturbed.

In this he was right.  The two were below for fully an hour, while
above them Mike leaned with back comfortably propped against the
windlass in perfect contentment, and the hobbled pony peacefully
cropped the short grass along the ledge.  Then the brooding silence was
abruptly broken by a voice rising from out the depths of the shaft,
while a vigorous shaking of the dangling rope caused the windlass to
vibrate sharply.  Old Mike, with great deliberation stowing away his
pipe, unslipped the raw-hide, and, calmly indifferent to all else
except his necessary labor, slowly hauled the girl to the surface.  She
was radiant, her eyes glowing from the excitement of unusual adventure,
and scrambled forth from the dangling bucket without awaiting
assistance.  Before Brown attained to the surface, the lady had safely
captured the straying pony and swung herself lightly into the saddle.
Squaring his broad shoulders with surprise as he came out, his face
flushed, his lips set firm, the young giant laid restraining fingers on
her gloved hand.

"Y-y-you really m-mean it?" he asked, eagerly, as though fearing the
return to daylight might already have altered her decision.  "C-can I
c-call on you wh-wh-where you s-s-said?"

She smiled sweetly down at him, her eyes picturing undisguised
admiration of his generous proportions, and frank, boyish face.

"Si, si, señor.  _Sapristi_, why not?  'T is I, rather, who 'fraid you
forget to come."

"Y-you n-need n't be," he stammered, coloring.  "S-señorita, I sh-shall
never f-f-forget this day."

"_Quien sabe_?--poof! no more vill I; but now, _adios_, señor."

She touched her pony's side sharply with the whip, and, standing
motionless, Stutter watched them disappear over the abrupt ledge.  Once
she glanced shyly back, with a little seductive wave of the gauntleted
hand, and then suddenly dropped completely out of view down the steep
descent of the trail.  Old Mike struck another match, and held the tiny
flame to his pipe-bowl.

"An' it's hell ye played the day," he remarked reflectively, his eyes
glowing gloomily.

The younger man wheeled suddenly about and faced him.

"Wh-what do ye m-m-mean?"

"Jist the same whut I said, Stutter.  Ye 're a broight one, ye are.
That's the Mexican dancer down at the Gayety at San Juan, no less; and
it's dollars to doughnuts, me bye, that that dom Farnham sint her out
here to take a peek at us.  It wud be loike the slippery cuss, an' I
hear the two of thim are moighty chummy."

And Stutter Brown, his huge fists clinched in anger, looked off into
the dark valley below, and, forgetting his affliction of speech, swore
like a man.



CHAPTER VII

A DISMISSAL

The far from gentle orchestra at the Gayety was playing with a vivacity
which set the pulses leaping, while the densely packed audience,
scarcely breathing from intensity of awakened interest, were focussing
their eager eyes upon a slender, scarlet-robed figure, an enveloping
cloud of gossamer floating mistily about her, her black hair and eyes
vividly contrasting against the clear whiteness of her skin, as she
yielded herself completely to the strange convolutions of her weird
dance.  The wide stage was a yellow flood of light, and she the very
witch of motion.  This was her third encore, but, as wildly grotesque
as ever, her full skirts shimmering in the glare of the foot-lights,
her tripping feet barely touching the sanded floor, her young, supple
figure, light as a fairy, weaving in the perfect rhythm of music, the
tireless child of Mexico leaped and spun, wheeled and twirled,--at
times apparently floated upon the very air, her bare white arms
extended, her wonderful eyes blazing from the exhilaration of this
moment of supreme triumph.

Beth Norvell, neatly gowned for the street, her own more sedate
performance already concluded, had paused for a single curious instant
in the shadow of the wings, and remained looking out upon that scarlet
figure, flitting here and there like some tropical bird, through the
gaudy glare of the stage.  Winston, waiting patiently for twenty
minutes amid the denser gloom just inside the stage door, watched the
young girl's unconsciously interested face, wondering alike at both
himself and her.  This entire adventure remained an unsolved problem to
his mystified mind--how it was she yet continued to retain his
interest; why it was he could never wholly succeed in divorcing her
from his life.  He endeavored now to imagine her a mere ordinary woman
of the stage, whom he might idly flirt with to-night, and quite as
easily forget to-morrow.  Yet from some cause the mind failed to
respond to such suggestion.  There was something within the calm,
womanly face as revealed beneath the reflection of garish light,
something in the very poise of the slender figure bending slightly
forward in aroused enthusiasm, which compelled his respect, aroused his
admiration.  She was not a common woman, and he could not succeed in
blinding himself to that fact.  Even the garish, cheap environments,
the glitter and tinsel, the noise and brutality, had utterly failed to
tarnish Beth Norvell.  She stood forth different, distinct, a perfectly
developed flower, rarely beautiful, although blooming in muck that was
overgrown with noxious weeds.  Winston remained clearly conscious that
some peculiar essence of her native character had mysteriously perfumed
the whole place--it glorified her slight bit of stage work, and had
already indelibly impressed itself upon those rough, boisterous Western
spirits out in front.  Before her parting lips uttered a line she had
thoroughly mastered them, the innate purity of her perfected womanhood,
the evident innocence of her purpose, shielding her against all
indecency and insult.  The ribald scoffing, the insolent shuffling of
feet, the half-drunken uneasiness, ceased as if by magic; and as her
simple act proceeded, the stillness out in front became positively
solemn, the startled faces picturing an awakening to higher things.  It
was a triumph far exceeding the noisy outburst that greeted the
Mexican--a moral victory over unrestrained lawlessness won simply by
true womanliness, unaided and alone.  That earlier scene had brought to
Winston a deeper realization of this girl's genius, a fresher
appreciation of the true worth of her esteem.  No struggle of heart or
head could ever again lower her in his secret thought to the common
level.

The swinging strains of the dancer's accompaniment concluded with a
blare of noisy triumph, the mad enthusiasts out in front wildly
shouting her name above the frantic din of applause, while, flushed and
panting, the agile Mexican dancer swept into the darkened wings like a
scarlet bird.

"Ah, de Americana!" she exclaimed, her eyes yet blazing from
excitement, poising herself directly in front of her silent watcher.
"Señorita, it ees not de same as yours--dey like you, si; but dey lofe
Mercedes."

Miss Norvell smiled gently, her gaze on the other's flushed, childish
face, and extended her hand.

"There seems ample room for both of us," she replied, pleasantly, "yet
your dancing is truly wonderful.  It is an art, and you must let me
thank you."

It is difficult to understand why, but the untamed, passionate girl,
stung in some mysterious manner by these quietly spoken words of
appreciation, instantly drew her slight form erect.

"You nevar forget you not one of us, do you?" she questioned in sudden
bitterness of spirit.  "Pah! maybe you tink I care what you like.  I
dance because I lofe to; because it sets my blood on fire.  I no care
for all your airs of fine lady."

"I exceedingly regret you should feel so.  I certainly spoke in
kindness and appreciation.  Would you permit me to pass?"

The angry young Mexican swept back her scarlet skirts as though in
disdain, her white shoulders uplifted.  She did not know why she felt
thus vindictive; to save her soul she could not have told the reason,
yet deep down within her passionate heart there existed a hatred for
this white, silent American, whose slightest word sounded to her like
rebuke.  She stood there still, watching suspiciously, smouldering
dislike burning in her black eyes, when Winston suddenly stepped from
the concealing shadows with a word of unexpected greeting.  She noticed
the sudden flush sweep into Miss Norvell's cheek, the quick uplifting
of her eyes, the almost instant drooping again of veiling lashes, and,
quickly comprehending it all, stepped promptly forward just far enough
to obtain a clear view of the young man's face.  The next moment the
two had vanished into the night without.  Mercedes laughed unpleasantly
to herself, her white teeth gleaming.

"Ah, Merciful Mother! so my ver' fine lady has found herself a lofer
here already.  _Sapristi_, an' he is well worth lookin' at!  I vill ask
of de stage manager his name."

Outside, beneath the faint glimmer of the stars, Winston offered his
arm, and Miss Norvell accepted it silently.  It was no more than a
short stroll to the hotel, and the street at that particular hour was
sufficiently deserted, so the young man rather keenly felt the evident
constraint of his companion.  It impressed him as unnatural, and he
felt inclined to attribute her state of mind to the unpleasant scene he
had just beheld.

"Señorita Mercedes does not appear very kindly disposed toward you," he
ventured.  "Have you quarrelled already?"

"You refer to the Mexican dancer?" she questioned, glancing aside at
him curiously.  "Really, I did not remember having heard the girl's
name mentioned before.  Do you know her?"

"Only as she is announced on the bills, and having seen her dance from
the front of the house.  She is certainly a true artist in her line,
the most expert I recall ever having seen.  What has ever made her your
enemy?"

"I am sure I do not know.  Her words were a complete surprise; I was
too greatly astonished even to resent them.  I have never spoken to the
girl until to-night, and then merely uttered a sentence of sincere
congratulation.  She is extremely pretty, and it seems quite too bad
she should be compelled to lead such a life.  She does not appear older
than seventeen."

He glanced about at her in surprise.

"Such a life," he echoed, recklessly.  "So then you actually pity
others while remaining totally unconcerned regarding yourself?"

"Oh, no; you greatly mistake, or else wilfully misconstrue.  I am not
unconcerned, yet there is a very wide difference, I am sure.  This girl
is at the Gayety from deliberate choice; she as much as told me so.
She is in love with that sort of life.  Probably she has never known
anything better, while I am merely fighting out a bit of hard luck,
and, within two weeks, at the longest, shall again be free.  Surely,
you cannot hint that we stand upon the same level."

"God forbid!" fervently.  "Yet just as sincerely I wish you did not
deem it necessary to remain for even that brief length of time.  It is
a shock to me to realize your intimate association with such depraved
characters.  You are surely aware that my purse remains at your
disposal, if you will only cut the whole thing."

She lifted her eyes reproachfully to his face.

"Yes, I know; and possibly you are justified according to your code for
feeling in that way.  But I do not believe I am becoming in the least
contaminated by evil associations, nor do I feel any lowering of moral
ideals.  I am doing what I imagine to be right under the circumstances,
and have already given you my final decision, as well as my reason for
it.  You say 'such depraved characters.'  Can you refer to this
Mercedes?  Strange as it may seem, I confess feeling an interest in
this beautiful Mexican girl.  What is it you know regarding her?"

The young man impulsively started to speak, but as instantly paused.
An instinctive dread of uttering those plain words he would much prefer
she should never hear served to soften his language.

"There is not a great deal of reserve about the Gayety," he explained
lightly, "and indiscriminate gossip is a part of its advertising
equipment.  As to Señorita Mercedes, my only informant is common rumor
out in front.  That connects her name quite familiarly with one of the
proprietors of the gambling rooms."

"You have no reason to know this?"

"None whatever.  As I say, it has come to me in the form of common
rumor.  The man referred to is the special faro expert, a fellow named
Farnham."

Miss Norvell started violently, her fingers clutching his arm as if to
keep her body from falling, her face grown suddenly white.

"Farnham, did you say?  What--what Farnham?"

"I believe I have heard him familiarly spoken of as 'Biff.'"

"Here?  Here in San Juan?  'Biff' Farnham here?"  The startled words
appeared to stick in the swelling white throat, and she stood staring
at him, her slender figure swaying as though he had struck her a
physical blow.  "Oh, I never knew that!"

Winston, shocked and surprised by this unexpected outburst, did not
speak, his face slowly hardening to the dim suspicion thus suddenly
aroused by her agitation and her impetuous exclamation.  She must have
taken instant warning from the expression of his eyes, for, with an
effort, she faced him in regained calmness, a slight tremor in her low
voice alone betraying the lack of complete self-control.

"Your information certainly startled me greatly," she exclaimed slowly.
"It was so unexpected, and so much has happened of late to affect my
nerves."

They walked on in silence, and as he ventured to glance aside at her,
uncertain regarding his future course, her eyes were lowered and hidden
behind the drooping lashes.

"And is that all?" he asked.

"All?  Why, what more is there?"

He compressed his lips, striving not to exhibit openly his impatience.

"Nothing, of course," he acquiesced quietly, "if the lady prefers
keeping silent.  Only, as matters now stand, the result may prove an
unpleasant misunderstanding."

They were now at the bottom of the few steps leading up toward the
hotel entrance, and Miss Norvell, removing her hand from the support of
his arm, stood before him outwardly calm.

"Beyond doubt, you refer to my apparent surprise at first hearing Mr.
Farnham's name mentioned?"

He bowed quietly, again fascinated and disarmed by the revelation in
those dark eyes.

"The explanation is quite simple," and the voice exhibited a touch of
coolness easily perceptible.  "I chanced to be somewhat acquainted with
this man in the East before--well, before he became a gambler.  Of
course, I do not know him now, have not the slightest desire to do so,
but the sudden information that he was actually here, and--and all the
rest--came to me with a shock.  Is that sufficient?"

The young man was unsatisfied, and, without doubt, his face quite
clearly exhibited his true feeling.  Yet there was that about her
constrained manner which held him to respectful silence, so that for a
moment the hesitation between them grew almost painful.  Miss Norvell,
realizing this new danger, struggled weakly against sudden temptation
to throw herself unreservedly upon the mercy of this new friend,
confide wholly in him, accept his proffered aid, and flee from possible
coming trouble.  But pride proved even stronger than fear, and her lips
closed in firm resolution.

"Mr. Winston," she said, and now her eyes were uplifted unfaltering to
his own.  "I find myself obliged to speak with a frankness I have hoped
to avoid.  It was never my desire that you should call for me at the
theatre to-night."

"Indeed?"  His surprised tone clearly exhibited the sudden hurt of the
wound.

"Yes; yet, pray do not misunderstand me.  I find it exceedingly
difficult to say this, and I confess I have even prayed that you would
be led to go away voluntarily, and without its being necessary for me
to appear discourteous.  I appreciate your kindness, your gentlemanly
conduct.  I--I greatly value your friendship, prize it more highly,
possibly, than you will ever be able to realize; yet, believe me, there
are reasons why I cannot permit you to--to be with me any longer in
this way.  It is for your sake, as well as my own, that I am driven to
speak thus frankly, and I am certain you will not add to my pain, my
embarrassment, by asking more definite explanation."

His heart beating like a trip-hammer, Winston stood motionless, staring
into the girl's appealing face, suddenly aroused to her full meaning,
and as thoroughly awakened to a conception of what she really had
become to him.  The thought of losing her, losing her perhaps to
another, seemed to chill his very soul.

"Assuredly, I will respect your secret," he answered, mastering his
voice with an effort.  "I understand when I am bowled out.  What is it
you desire me to do?"

He could not perceive in that dim light the sudden mist of tears
clouding her eyes, but she lifted her gloved hand and swept them aside.

"It is not easy to say such things, yet I must.  I wish you to go away;
go back to Denver," she exclaimed; then, all at once, her strained
voice broke into a little sob.  "I cannot stand your presence here!"

That last impetuous sentence burst through his armor of constraint, and
for the instant he forgot everything but that thoughtless confession.
She read it in his face, and as quickly flung forth her hand in
warning, but he only grasped it tightly within his own.

"You cannot stand it!" he cried in passionate eagerness.  "Then you
must care for me?  You must love me, Beth?"

"No, no!"  Her eyes were full of agony, and she sought to free her
imprisoned hand.  "Oh, hush!  I beg of you, hush!  You--you hurt me so.
I will not permit you to speak such words.  Please release my hand."

He loosened his grasp, feeling bewildered, ashamed, dimly conscious
that he had been guilty of an ungentlemanly action, yet deep within his
own heart assured that he felt no regret.

"Do you mean that?" he questioned vaguely.

"Yes," and all the previous tremor had left her clear voice.  "I did
not suppose you would ever say such a thing to me.  I gave you no right
to speak those words."

"My own heart gave me the right."

Possibly the woman in her conquered; perhaps there was a nameless
hunger within her soul which made her long to hear the forbidden words
just once from his lips.

"The right, you say?  What right?"

"To tell you that I love you."

She drew a quick, quivering breath, the rich color surging into her
cheeks, her gloved hands clasped across her heaving bosom as though to
still the fierce throbbing of her heart.  An instant she stood as if
palsied, trembling, from head to foot, although he could perceive
nothing.  Her lips smiled.

"Oh, indeed," she said archly, "and how very prettily you said it!  The
only son of Colonel Winston, the wealthy banker of Denver, honors Miss
Norvell, actress, and she, of course, feels highly grateful!"

"Beth, stop!"  His voice was indignantly earnest.  "It is not that; you
must know it is not that!"

"I only know it is supremely ridiculous," she returned, more coldly;
"yet if I did not believe you spoke with some degree of honesty I
should deem your words a deliberate insult, and treat them accordingly.
As it is, I prefer regarding your speech merely as an evidence of
temporary insanity.  Ned Winston making love to Beth Norvell!  Why, you
do not even know my true name, the story of my life, or that I am in
any way worthy of your mere friendship.  Love!  You love me, an actress
in a fly-by-night company, a variety artist at the Gayety!  What would
they say at home?"

"I know you."

"Ah, but you do not in the least," her voice grown steady and serious.
"That is the whole trouble.  You do not in the least know me.  I am not
even what you imagine me to be.  I am a fraud, a cheat, a masquerader.
Know me!  Why, if you did, instead of speaking words of love you would
despise; instead of seeking, you would run away.  Oh, let us end this
farce forever; it is as painful to myself as to you.  Promise me, Ned
Winston, that you will return to Denver."

She tantalized, tempted him even while she thus openly renounced.  He
struggled madly with an almost overmastering desire to burst forth in
strenuous denial, to lay his whole life unreservedly at her feet.  Yet
something within the girl's resolute face steadied him, made him feel
her decision as unchangeable.

"Beth--you--you will not listen?"

"No--not to another word."

"You do not believe me?"

He marked the quick restraining pressure of her lips, the tumultuous
rise and fall of her breast.

"Yes, I believe you," she admitted, almost wearily.  "You mean it--now;
but--but it is impossible.  I wish you to go."

An instant Winston stood looking straight into those dark, glowing
eyes, and all his inherited strength of manhood came trooping back to
aid him.  He comprehended in that moment of intense resolution that
this woman had become the whole world to him.  That one fact never
would change.  It came over him as a distinct revelation untinged by
either despair or hope.  It was merely an unalterable truth, which he
must henceforth face as fate willed.  He was of fighting blood, and the
seeming obstacles in the way of success did not dismay; they merely
served to inspire him to greater efforts.

"Unfortunately, I am not at present free to go," he replied, more
quietly, "for the reason that I have already accepted some professional
work here.  However, I agree not to trouble you again with my presence
until--"

He paused in uncertainty as to his next word.

"What?"

"You give me welcome."

She extended her hand.

"You certainly speak with sufficient confidence."

"'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,'" he quoted lightly; "and I
herewith announce myself a firm believer in miracles."

"Then your faith is about to be put to a most severe test."

"I welcome that.  Yet, if parting is insisted upon, we can, at least,
remain friends.  You certainly do not hold my words against me?"

The flush, although fainter, again crept into the clear cheeks, and her
eyes fell before this questioning.

"No true woman ever remains wholly indifferent," she acknowledged with
swift frankness, "or neglects to think kindly in her secret heart of
any one who has told her that story; and I am a woman."

For a brief moment her hand rested warm and throbbing within his own,
and there passed an electric flash of the eyes between them.  Then she
withdrew her fingers and opened the door.

"Good-bye," she whispered, the word lingering like perfume, and
vanished, even as he took a step toward her.



CHAPTER VIII

"HE MEANS FIGHT"

Winston remained staring blankly at the closed door behind which she
had so swiftly vanished, his mind a chaos of doubt.  He assuredly never
purposed saying what he had said under the spur of deprivation, yet he
regretted no single word that he had uttered.  That he earnestly
worshipped this briefly known woman was a fact borne in upon him
suddenly; yet now, the fact once completely realized, he surrendered
unconditionally to the inevitable.  For a moment his thought of her
obscured all lesser things; he saw nothing else in the wide world
really worth striving after--every aroused impulse thrilled to the fair
face, the soft voice of Beth Norvell.  He was no "quitter," no
faint-heart either in love or in war, and he was now far too deeply in
earnest to accept as final a stingless rejection spoken by lips that
were so openly contradicted by the smiling eyes above.  Whatever of
stern necessity might have inspired the utterance of such words of cold
renunciation, it was assuredly neither indifference nor dislike.  He
forgave the lips, recalling only the eyes.

With his hand still pressed against the porch railing, the young man
suddenly recalled Biff Farnham, his cool gray eyes as instantly
hardening, his lips pressed together.  What possible part in the dusk
of the shadowed past did that disreputable gambler play?  What
connection could he hold, either in honor or dishonor, with the
previous life history of Beth Norvell?  He did not in the least doubt
her, for it was Winston's nature to be entirely loyal, to be
unsuspicious of those he once trusted.  Yet he could not continue
completely blind.  That there once existed some connection it was
impossible to ignore entirely.  Her laughing, yet clearly embarrassed,
attempt at explanation had not in the slightest deceived him, for
beyond it remained her quick surprise at that earliest unexpected
mention of the man's name, the suddenly blanched cheeks, the
unconcealed fright revealed by the dark eyes.  The full truth was to be
read there, and not in her later more deliberate attempt at leading his
suspicions astray.  There was nothing pleasant about this thought, and
Winston's sensitive face flushed, his glance wandering uneasily down
the midnight street.  For the space of a block, or more, where numerous
tents and low wooden buildings stood deserted of tenants, all remained
dark and silent; but just beyond glowed brilliantly the many-hued
lights of the wide-awake Poodle-Dog, and he could even hear the band
playing noisily within the still more distant dance hall.  This
combined sight and sound served to arouse him to action and a cool
resolve.  If he really intended to play out this game successfully he
must learn something of its conditions.  Besides, he had now two most
excellent reasons for desiring to form an early acquaintance with this
man Farnham--the fellow had come across his line of life twice within
the past twelve hours.  For the purpose there could be no time better
than the present.  He struck a match against the rough railing and
lighted for himself a fresh cigar, his clear-cut, manly features
showing calmly determined in that instant glare of sputtering flame.
Almost unconsciously, following the instinct of his long Western
training, he slipped a revolver from its customary resting-place at the
hip, and dropped the weapon conveniently into the side pocket of his
loose sack coat.  He had heard some tales of this man he purposed
seeking, and it might prove well to be prepared for emergencies.

The bar-room of the blazing Poodle-Dog was thronged with men--men
standing before the long, sloppy bar, men seated around rough tables,
and men lounging here and there in groups about the heavily sanded
floor.  Uninterestedly glancing at these, Winston paused for an idle
moment, his eyes fastened upon a whirling spectacle of dancers in the
hall beyond.  It formed a scene of mad revelry; yet in his present
state of mind, he cared little for its frontier picturesqueness, and
soon turned away, mounting the broad stairway down which, like an
invitation, echoed the sharp click of ivory chips, and the excited
voices of those absorbed in play.  In both size and gorgeousness of
decoration the rooms above were a surprise--a glitter of lights, a
babel of noises, a continuous jumble of figures, while over all
trembled a certain tension of excitement, terrible in its enchaining
power.  The very atmosphere seemed electric, filled with a deadly
charm.  The dull roar of undistinguishable voices sounded incessantly,
occasionally punctuated by those sharp, penetrating tones with which
the scattered dealers called varied turns of play, or by some deep oath
falling unnoted from desperate lips as the unhappy end came.  Winston,
who had seen many similar scenes, glanced with his usual cool
indifference at the various groups of players, careless except in his
search, and pressing straight through the vibrating, excited throng,
regardless of the many faces fronting him.  He understood that Farnham
dealt faro, and consequently moved directly down the long main room
totally indifferent to all else.  He discovered his particular goal at
last, almost at the farther end of the great apartment, the crowd
gathered about the faro table dense and silent.  He succeeded in
pressing in slowly through the outer fringe of players until he
attained a position within ten feet of the dealer.  There he halted,
leaning against the wall, the narrow space between them unoccupied.

He saw before him a slenderly built, fashionably dressed figure,
surmounted by clear-cut, smooth-shaven features--a man of thirty,
possibly, decidedly aristocratic, perfectly self-controlled, his eyes
cool, calculating, his hands swift, unhesitating in play.  From some
mysterious cause this masterful repose of the absorbed dealer began
immediately to exercise a serious fascination over the man watching
him.  He did not appear altogether human, he seemed rather like some
perfectly adjusted machine, able to think and plan, yet as unemotional
as so much tempered steel.  There was no perceptible change passing in
that utterly impassive face, no brightening of those cold, observant
eyes, no faintest movement of the tightly compressed lips.  It was as
though he wore a mask completely eclipsing every natural human feeling.
Twice Winston, observing closely from his post of vantage slightly to
the rear the swift action of those slender white fingers, could have
sworn the dealer faced the wrong card, yet the dangerous trick was
accomplished so quickly, so coolly, with never a lowering of the eyes,
the twitching of a muscle, that a moment later the half-jealous watcher
doubted the evidence of his own keen eyesight.  As the final fateful
card came silently gliding forth and was deliberately turned, face
upward, amid bitter curses telling the disappointment of that
breathless crowd, a young woman suddenly swept around the lower edge of
the long table, brushing Winston with her flapping skirt as she passed,
bent down, and whispered a half-dozen rapid sentences into the
gambler's ear.  The hands, already deftly shuffling the cards for
another deal, scarcely paused in their operations, nor did those cool,
observant eyes once desert the sea of excited faces before him.  He
asked a single brief question, nodded carelessly to the hastily spoken
reply, and then, as the woman drew noiselessly away, Winston gazed
directly into the startled black eyes of Señorita Mercedes.  Instantly
she smiled merrily, exhibiting her white teeth.

"Ah, señor," and she bent toward him in seductive whisper, "so my lady,
de Americana, let you escape early to-night!"

Surprised at her recognition, he failed to answer immediately, and the
girl touched him gently with her hand.

"De girls of my race never so cold, señor.  Try me some time, an' see."

With a happy laugh and coquettish uplifting of the dark eyes, the
dancer was as quickly gone, vanishing into the throng like a flash of
red flame.  For a breathless moment Winston's admiring gaze followed,
conscious merely of her dark beauty, her slender, graceful figure.  He
was young, impressionable, and there was rare witchery about the girl
which momentarily fascinated him.  His attention shifted back to
Farnham with a swift remembrance of the stern purpose which had brought
him there.  The gambler was playing out his case silently, emotionless
as ever.  If he had observed anything unusual, if he considered
anything beyond his card-play, no eye could have detected it in that
impassive countenance, those cold, expressionless eyes.  Apparently he
was a mere automaton, the sole symbol of life showing in the white
fingers so deftly dealing the fateful pasteboards from the box.  The
impatient, excited crowd facing him moved restlessly, cursing or
laughing with each swift turn of play; but he who wrought the spell
neither spoke nor smiled, his face remaining fixed, immutable, as
emotionless as carven granite.  Suddenly he glanced meaningly aside,
and, nodding silently to a black-moustached fellow lounging beside the
croupier, rose quickly from his chair.  The other as instantly slipped
into it, his hands guarding the few remaining cards, while Farnham
stood for a moment behind the chair, idly looking on.  There was no
noticeable interruption to the game, and when the final card came
gliding forth from the silver box, the imperturbable gamester turned
deliberately away from the table, heedless of the desperate struggle
about him, the curses and uproar, and faced the younger man still
leaning against the wall.

"Mr. Winston?" he questioned quietly.

Surprised by this unexpected notice, the other bowed in silent
acknowledgment of his name.

A faint sarcastic smile curved the thin, compressed lips, while Farnham
ran one hand carelessly through his slightly curling hair.

"I should like a few words with you in private," he explained politely.
"There is a vacant room we can use--this way."

Astonished into yielding without protest, and at the same time feeling
sufficiently eager to learn the cause for such a request, Winston
unhesitatingly followed the other through the press, marking as he did
so the slender erectness of that figure in advance, the square set of
the broad shoulders, the easy air of authority with which he cleared
the way.  Without ceremony Farnham flung aside a heavy brocaded
curtain, glancing inquiringly into the smaller room thus revealed.  It
contained a square table and half a dozen chairs.  Three men sat
within, their feet elevated, quietly smoking.  The gambler coolly ran
his eyes over their uplifted faces.

"I desire to use this room, gents," he announced quietly.  "You 'll
find plenty of vacant space outside."

Whether the lounging trio knew the speaker of old, or were sufficiently
satisfied from his stern face of the probable results should they long
hesitate to comply, the three pairs of feet came down together, their
owners passing out in single file.  Farnham waved his hand politely
toward the vacated interior, a slight measure of deference apparent in
his modulated voice.

"Help yourself to a chair, Mr. Winston, and permit me to offer you a
fresh cigar; a fairly good one I imagine, as I chance to be somewhat
particular regarding the weed."

A moment they sat thus furtively studying each other's face across the
table through the increasing clouds of blue smoke, the younger man
puzzled and filled with vague suspicion, the elder still rather
uncertain of his present ground, as well as of the exact sort of
character opposing him.  He was somewhat expert in judging human
nature; and the full, square chin, the frank, open look in those steady
gray eyes across the table left him doubtful of the final outcome.

"No doubt, my addressing you by name was something of a surprise," he
began, leaning slightly forward, his cigar between his fingers; "but as
it chanced, you were pointed out to me on the street a few hours since.
May I inquire in this connection if, by any freak of fortune, you can
be Ned Winston, of Denver?"

"I am."

Farnham permitted his lips to smile genially, although his eyes
remained utterly devoid of humor.  He was skating upon rather thin ice
now, realizing it to be far safer to make the venture in all boldness.
What he might need to say later would altogether depend upon how much
this man really knew.

"I was not previously assured of that fact," he explained, pleasantly.
"It was my pleasure at one time to be quite intimately associated with
an old friend of yours, a college chum, I believe--Robert Craig, of
Chicago."

The swift light of pleasant remembrance glowed instantly within the
other's watchful eyes.  For the moment he dropped his guard in the
surprise of this avowal.

"Bob Craig!  Indeed; why, I do not recall his ever having mentioned
your name to me."

Farnham's suspended breath burst through his compressed lips in sudden
relief.

"Very probably not," he admitted, quietly, yet having the grace to
lower his eyes slightly.  "My own intimacy with Craig occurred since
his college days.  However, he has spoken to me regarding you quite
frequently, and I naturally esteem it a pleasure to meet with you
personally."

Winston did not immediately reply, puzzling his confused mind in a
wholly useless attempt at recalling his ever having heard this man's
name before.  But Farnham, placed completely at his ease regarding
possible recognition, proceeded coolly.

"Yet, that does not sufficiently account for my inviting you here."
And he leaned farther across the table, slightly lowering his voice.
"My important reason for speaking is entirely a business one.  You are,
I understand, a mining engineer?"

Winston permitted his eyes to acquiesce, fully determined now to allow
this man to exhibit his own hand completely before making any return
play.  Farnham, watching the face of the other closely, paused to
relight his cigar.

"The simple fact is," he resumed, carelessly, "we are having some
little difficulty at present regarding certain mining claims we are
operating up in Echo Canyon.  Nothing at all serious, you understand,
but there 's plenty of bad blood, and we naturally prefer keeping the
entire controversy out of the courts, if possible.  A lawsuit, whatever
its final result, would be quite certain to tie up the property for an
indefinite period.  Besides, lawsuits in this country cost money.  The
man who has been making the greater part of the existing trouble, a
drunken, quarrelsome old mountain shell-back, named Hicks, came in here
to see me this afternoon.  He was in blamed bad humor, and threatened
to blow my brains out unless I came to his terms.  No doubt he meant
it, and consequently I got rid of him the easiest way I could, and that
was by lying.  I 've always preferred to lie rather than get shot.
Hard to account for tastes, you know.  However among other things the
fellow chanced to mention while here was that you had been employed to
look after their interests.  I presume that statement was merely a
bluff?"

"Well, not precisely," admitted Winston, when the other paused.  "I
agreed to go out there, and look over the ground."

Farnham smiled deprecatingly, his cigar gripped tightly between his
white teeth.

"Just about as I supposed.  No particular harm done as yet, and no
contract made; time enough left to draw out of a bad bargain.  Well,
Winston, I am here to tell you that outfit is not the kind you want to
associate yourself with if you desire to stand well in this camp.  That
's the straight goods.  They 're simply a lot of blackmailers and
irresponsible thieves.  Why, damn it, man, the actual fact is, they
can't get a single reputable mining engineer in all this whole district
to take hold of their dirty work.  That 's why they 've had to hunt up
a new man, and got track of you."

"So Hicks admitted," interposed the younger man gravely, "although he
put it in rather different form.  He said it was because you had the
money, and your crowd bought them all up."

"Oh, he did, did he?" and the gambler laughed outright.  "Well, that
sort of a job would n't be very costly--to outbid that measly outfit.
It would be a sight cheaper than litigation, I reckon.  What did he
offer you, by the way?"

The young engineer hesitated slightly, his cheeks flushing at the cool
impudence of the other's direct question.

"I do not recall that any positive offer was made," he replied finally.
"At least, the question of payment was not broached."

"The old cuss proved more honest than I had supposed," and Farnham
dropped his clinched hand on the table.  "Now, see here, Winston, I
propose giving you this thing right out from the shoulder.  There is no
use beating around the bush.  Those fellows have n't got so much as a
leg to stand on; their claim is no good, and never will be.  They 're
simply making a bluff to wring some good money out of us, and I don't
want to see you get tangled up in that sort of a skin game.  You 're
Bob Craig's friend, and therefore mine.  Now, listen.  There are two
fellows concerned in that 'Little Yankee' claim, this whiskey-soaked
Hicks and his partner, a big, red-headed, stuttering fool named
Brown--'Stutter' Brown, I believe they call him--and what have they got
between them?  A damned hole in the ground, that's all.  Oh, I know; I
've had them looked after from A to Z.  I always handle my cards over
before I play.  They had exactly two hundred dollars between them
deposited in a local bank here last week.  That 's their total cash
capital.  Yesterday one of my people managed to get down in their dinky
mine.  It was a girl who did the job, but she 's a bright one, and that
fellow Brown proved dead easy when she once got her black eyes playing
on him.  He threw up both hands and caved.  Well, say, they 're down
less than fifty feet, and their vein actually is n't paying them
grub-stakes.  That's the exact state of the case.  Now, Winston, you do
n't propose to tie yourself professionally with that sort of a beggarly
outfit, do you?"

The younger man had been sitting motionless, his arm resting easily on
the back of the chair, his eyes slowly hardening as the other proceeded.

"I never before clearly understood that poverty was necessarily a
crime," he remarked thoughtfully, as Farnham came to a pause.
"Besides, I am not tied up with that special outfit.  I have merely
agreed to examine into the matter."

"Of course, I understand that; but what's the use?  You 'll only come
to exactly the same conclusion all the others have.  Besides, I have
been especially authorized to offer you a thousand dollars simply to
drop the thing.  It's worth that much to us just now to be let alone."

Winston's eyes half closed, his fingers gripping nervously into the
palm of his hand.

"It occurs to me you place my selling-out price at rather low figures,"
he said contemptuously.

Farnham straightened up in his chair, instantly realizing he had been
guilty of playing the wrong card, and for the moment totally unable to
perceive how safely to withdraw it.  Even then he utterly failed to
comprehend the deeper meaning in the other's words.

"I was thinking rather of what it was directly worth to us," he
explained, "and had no conception you would look at it that way.
However, we are perfectly willing to be liberal--how much do you want?"

For a moment Winston stared straight at him, his lips firmly set, his
gray eyes grown hard as steel.  Then he deliberately pushed back his
chair, and rose to his feet, one clinched hand resting on the table.

"You may not fully understand my position," he began quietly, "for in
all probability such a conception is utterly beyond you, but I do n't
want a dollar, nor a cent.  Good-night."

He turned deliberately toward the entrance, but the thoroughly
astounded gambler leaped to his feet with one hand extended in sudden
protest.  He was angry, yet believed he perceived a great light shining
through the darkness.

"Hold on, Winston," he exclaimed anxiously; "just a moment.  I 'd
totally forgotten that you were the son of a millionaire, and therefore
possessed no desire for money like the rest of us more ordinary
mortals.  Now, let's be sensible.  By God, you must want something!
What is it?"

"You have received my final answer.  I am not in the market."

Farnham crushed a bitter oath between his gleaming teeth, and flung his
sodden cigar-butt to the floor.

"Do you actually mean you are crazy enough to go with Hicks, after all
I 've told you?"

"I propose to discover for myself whether his claim is just.  If it is,
I 'm with him."

The gambler caught his breath sharply, for an instant utterly
speechless, his face pallid with rage.  Then the fierce, angry words
burst forth in unrestrained torrent through the calm of his accustomed
self-control.

"Oh, you 'll play hell, you infernal cur.  Do it, and I 'll guarantee
you 'll get a bullet in the brain, even if you are old Winston's son.
We 've got a way of taking care of your kind out here when you get too
gay.  You 're with him, are you?  Well, I 'm damned if you ever get any
chance even to sit in the game.  We 'll get you, and get you early, see
if we don't.  There are other things besides money in this world, and
you 've got your price, just as well as every other man.  Perhaps it's
silk, perhaps it's calico; but you bet it's something, for you 're no
angel.  By God, I believe I could name it, even now."

Winston wheeled, his right hand thrust deeply into his coat pocket, his
face sternly set.

"What, for instance?"

"Well,--just to take a chance,--Beth Norvell,"

Farnham never forgot the flame of those gray eyes, or the sharp sting
of the indignant voice.

"What do you know regarding her?  Speak out, damn you!"

The gambler laughed uneasily; he had seen that look in men's faces
before, and knew its full, deadly meaning.  He had already gone to the
very limit of safety.

"Oh, nothing, I assure you.  I never even saw the lady," he explained
coldly.  "But I have been told that she was _the_ attraction for you in
this camp; and I rather guess I hit the bull's-eye that time, even if
it was a chance shot."

Winston moistened his dry lips, his eyes never wavering from off the
sneering face of the other.

"Farnham," the voice sounding low and distinct, "I have got something
to say to you, and you are going to listen to the end.  You see that?"
He thrust sharply forward the skirt of his short coat.  "Well, that's a
thirty-eight, cocked and loaded, and I 've got you covered.  I know
your style, and if you make a single move toward your hip I 'll uncork
the whole six shots into your anatomy.  Understand?  Now, see here--I
'm not on the bargain counter for money or anything else.  I had not
the slightest personal interest in this affair an hour ago, but I have
now, and, what is more, I am going directly after the facts.  Neither
you, nor all of your crowd put together, can stop me with either money,
bullets, or women.  I don't bully worth a cent, and I don't scare.  You
took the wrong track, and you 've got me ready now to fight this out to
a finish.  And the first pointer I desire to give you is this--if your
lips ever again besmirch the name of Beth Norvell to my knowledge, I
'll hunt you down as I would a mad dog.  I believe you are a dirty liar
and thief, and now I 'm going after the facts to prove it.  Good-night."

He backed slowly toward the curtained doorway, his gaze never wavering
from off the surprised countenance of the other, his hidden hand
grasping the masked revolver.  Then he stepped through the opening and
disappeared.  Farnham remained motionless, his face like iron, his
teeth gripping savagely.  Then he dropped his hand heavily on the
table, still staring, as if fascinated, at the quivering curtains.

"By God, the fellow actually means fight," he muttered slowly.  "He
means fight."



CHAPTER IX

THE FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCES

She had expected the probability of such a happening, yet her face
perceptibly paled while perusing the brief note handed her by the stage
manager upon coming forth from her dressing-room.  Her first impulse
was to refuse compliance, to trust fortune in an endeavor to keep
beyond reach, to turn and run from this new, threatening danger like a
frightened deer.  But she recalled the financial necessity which held
her yet a prisoner at the Gayety.  This writer was partner in the
gambling rooms, possibly in the theatre also; her chance for escaping
him would be very slender.  Besides, it might be far better to face the
man boldly and have it over.  Undoubtedly a meeting must occur some
time; as well now as later so that the haunting shadow would not remain
ever before her.  The color stole slowly back into her cheeks as she
stood twisting the paper between her fingers, her eyes darkening with
returning courage.

"Where is the gentleman, Ben?" she asked, steadying herself slightly
against a fly.

"First box, Miss; right through that narrow door, yonder," and the man
smiled, supposing he understood.  "Very convenient arrangement for the
stage ladies."

She paused, her hand resting upon the latch, in a final effort to quiet
her rapid breathing and gain firmer control over her nerves.  This was
to be a struggle for which she must steel herself.  She stepped quietly
within, and stood, silent and motionless, amid the shadows of the drawn
curtains, gazing directly at the sole occupant of the box, her dark
eyes filled with contemptuous defiance.  Farnham lounged in the second
chair, leaning back in affected carelessness with one arm resting
negligently upon the railing, but there came into his pale face a
sudden glow of appreciation as he swept his cool eyes over the trim
figure, the flushed countenance there confronting him.  A realization
of her fresh womanly fairness came over him with such suddenness as to
cause the man to draw his breath quickly, his eyes darkening with
passion.

"By thunder, Lizzie, but you are actually developing into quite a
beauty!" he exclaimed with almost brutal frankness.  "Life on the stage
appears to agree with you; or was it joy at getting rid of me?"

She did not move from where she had taken her first stand against the
background of curtains, nor did the expression upon her face change.

"I presume you did not send for me merely for the purpose of
compliment," she remarked, quietly.

"Well, no; not exactly," and the man laughed with assumed recklessness
in an evident effort to appear perfectly at ease.  "I was simply
carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment.  I was always, as you
will remember, something of a connoisseur regarding the charms of the
sex, and you have certainly improved wonderfully.  Why, I actually
believe I might fall in love with you again if I were to receive the
slightest encouragement."

"I do not think I am offering you any."

"Hardly; even my egotism will not permit me to believe so.  An iceberg
would seem warm in comparison.  Yet, at least, there is no present
occasion for our quarrelling.  Sit down."

"Thank you, I prefer to remain standing.  I presume whatever you may
desire to say will not require much time?"

Farnham leaned forward, decidedly jarred from out his assumed mood of
cold sarcasm.  He had expected something different, and his face
hardened with definite purpose.

"That depends," he said soberly, "on your frame of mind.  You do not
appear extremely delighted to meet me again.  Considering that it is
now fully three years since our last conversation, you might strive to
be, at least outwardly, cordial."

She gathered up her skirts within her left hand, and turned calmly
toward the door.

"Is that all?"

The man leaped impulsively to his feet, his cheeks burning with sudden
animation, his previous mask of reckless indifference entirely torn
away.

"Hell, no!" he exclaimed warmly, as instantly pausing when she wheeled
swiftly about and faced him firmly.  "No, it is not all.  Of course, I
had a special purpose in sending for you.  Yet I cannot help feeling a
natural curiosity.  Tell me, what are you doing here?"

"That is quite easily seen; I am endeavoring to earn a living."

"A nice, quiet, respectable sort of a place you have chosen, certainly.
It is about the last spot I should ever have expected to discover you
in, knowing as I do your former puritanical morals.  Your tastes must
have greatly changed under the spur," and he laughed lightly, in
mockery.

Miss Norvell's lips curled in unconcealed contempt, her eyes darkening
with indignation.

"My present associations were not entered into from choice but from
necessity.  With you, I understand, it is deliberate choice."

The man stood undecided, fingering the edge of the curtain, vaguely
realizing that he was merely injuring his own cause by continuing to
anger her, yet far too deeply hit to remain entirely silent.

"You seem inclined to strike out as hard as ever," he retorted, yet in
tones of manifest regret.  "But just now there is not the slightest
occasion for any bitterness.  I am perfectly prepared to do the square
thing, and if we can only pull together pleasantly for a little while,
it will prove far better for both of us."

"In plainer words, you chance just now to have some special use for me?"

"Well, I hope you will look at the situation from my viewpoint.  But
the actual truth is, that when I first came up here to-night, I had not
the faintest suspicion that it was you I was seeking."

"No?" doubtfully.

"That is an actual fact, Lizzie.  I did n't suppose you were within a
thousand miles of this place," and Farnham quietly settled himself
again in his chair.  "I came up here merely intending to get a glimpse
of an actress named Beth Norvell.  I was never more thoroughly
surprised in my life than when you first came out on the stage.  For a
moment it knocked me silly.  Say, you're an artist all right, my girl.
That was a great stunt.  Why, those boys down below hardly breathed
until you disappeared.  You ought to get a chance in Chicago; you 'd be
wearing diamonds.  Damned if I was n't honestly proud of you myself."

The girl caught her breath sharply, her hand pressed tightly against
her side.

"What--what was it you desired of Beth Norvell?" she questioned.

Farnham's white teeth gleamed in a sudden smile of appreciation.

"Hope you are not becoming jealous," he said insinuatingly.
"Positively no occasion, I assure you, for it was not to make love to
the girl, I wanted to see her.  Lord, no!  This was purely a business
deal.  The truth is, I chanced to hear she had a lover already, and he
was the fellow I was really after."

"A lover?" she stepped toward him, her eyes blazing, her cheeks aflame.
"I?  How dare you?  What can you mean by so false an insinuation?"

"Oh, don't flare up so, Lizzie," and the complacent gambler looked at
her with eyes not entirely devoid of admiration.  "It really makes you
prettier than ever, but that sort of thing cuts no ice with me.
However, what I have just said stands: the story flying around here is
that you have captured old Winston's boy, and a damned good catch it
is, too."

She went instantly white as a sheet, her body trembling like an aspen,
her quivering lips faltering forth words she could not wholly restrain.

"The story, you say--the story!  Do--do you believe that of me?"

"Oh, that does n't make any difference," the brute in him frankly
enjoying her evident pain.  "Lord, what do you care about my belief?
That was all passed and over with long ago.  All I know is, the fellow
is gone on you, all right.  Why, he pulled a gun on me last night
merely because I chanced to mention your name in his presence."

The telltale color swept back into her cheeks in swift wave.  For an
instant her eyes wavered, then came back to the man's sneering face.

"Did--did you dare tell him?"

He laughed lightly, softly patting his hand on the railing, his own
eyes partially veiled by lowered lids.

"Torn off the mask of unimpeachable virtue, have I?" he chuckled, well
pleased.  "Rather prefer not to have our late affair blowed to this
particular young man, hey?  Well, I suspected as much; and really,
Lizzie, you ought to know I am not that sort of a cur.  I 've held my
tongue all right so far, and consequently I expect you to do me a good
deed in return.  That's a fair enough proposition, is n't it?"

She did not immediately answer, gazing upon him as she might at some
foul snake which had fascinated her, her breath coming in half-stifled
sobs, her hand clutching the heavy curtain for support.

"Oh, good God!" she faltered at last, speaking as though half dazed.
"You must possess the spirit of a demon.  Why do you continue to
torture me so?  You have no right--no right; you forfeited all you ever
possessed years ago.  Under Heaven, I am nothing to you; and in your
heart you know I have done nothing wrong, nothing to awaken even the
foul suspicions of jealousy.  Mr. Winston has been my friend, yet even
that friendship--innocent and unsullied--is already past; we have
parted for all time."

"Indeed!  You are such a consummate actress, Lizzie, I scarcely know
what really to believe.  Probably, then, you no longer object to my
telling the gentleman the story?"

Her lips closed firmly.

"I shall tell him myself."

"Oh!  Then, after all your fine words of renunciation, you will see him
again!  Your reform is soon ended.  Well, my girl, there is really no
necessity for any such sacrifice on your part.  No one here suspects
anything regarding our little affair excepting you and me.  You do what
I desire with this Winston, and I 'm mum.  What do you say?"

She sank back into a chair, utterly unable to stand longer, hiding her
face in her hands.

"What--what is it you wish?" she questioned wearily.

He leaned forward and placed his hand, almost in caress, upon her
skirt, but she drew the cloth hastily away, a sudden sob shaking her
voice.

"Oh, please, don't touch me!  I cannot stand it--only tell me what it
is you wish."

"I want you to exercise your influence over that fellow, and prevent
his taking professional employment at the 'Little Yankee' mine."

"Why?" she lifted her head again, facing him with questioning eyes.

"Simply because his doing so will interfere seriously with some of my
business plans--that's all."

"Then why don't you act the part of a man, and go to him yourself?
Why, in this, do you prefer hiding behind the skirts of a woman?"

Farnham laughed grimly, in no way embarrassed by the query.

"Good Lord, Lizzie!  I 've been to him, all right, but the fellow is
like a stubborn mule.  He has n't got but one selling-out price, so far
as I can learn, and that chances to be Beth Norvell.  You see the
point?  Well, that's exactly why I came here to-night.  I wanted to be
able to tender him the goods."

For a moment her eyes remained pitifully pleading; then they suddenly
appeared to harden into resolute defiance.  As though moving in a
dream, she arose slowly to her feet, taking a single step away from him
toward the closed door.

"As I have already explained," she paused to say coldly, "Mr. Winston
is no more to me than any other gentleman whom I may have chanced to
meet in friendship.  I have not the faintest reason to suppose I could
influence his decision in any matter appertaining to his professional
work.  Moreover, I have not the slightest inclination to try."

"Do you dare refuse, in spite of all I can say to your injury?" he
asked, even then doubtful of her meaning.

"I definitely decline to be your catspaw,--yes.  Nothing you can relate
truthfully will ever harm me in the estimation of a gentleman, and I
shall certainly know how to combat falsehood."

"Quite pretty.  Injured innocence, I perceive, is to be the line of
defence.  What! are you already going?"

"I am."

"Where?"

She turned again, standing erect, her face flushing, her hand upon the
latch of the door.

"If it is imperative that you know, I will tell you.  I intend seeking
Mr. Winston, and informing him exactly who and what I am."

"Now? at this hour of the night?"

"Better now, and at this hour of the night, than venture waiting until
after you have had an inning.  I am not at all ashamed to confess the
truth, if I can only be the first to tell my story."

She pressed the latch of the door, her breathing so rapid as to be
positively painful.  With an ill-repressed oath, Farnham sprang to his
feet, his rising anger putting an end to all prudence.

"Wait!" he exclaimed gruffly.  "Wait where you are until I am done.
You have heard only a part of this thing so far.  My God, girl! don't
you know me well enough by this time to comprehend that I always have
my way, whatever the cost may be to others?  Lord! what do I care for
this fellow? or, for the matter of that, what do I care for you?  I
don't permit people to stand in my path; and I supposed you had
thoroughly learned that lesson, if no other.  Faith, you had cause
enough, surely.  So you refuse all endeavor to keep Winston out of this
affair, do you?  Perhaps you had better pause a minute, and remember
who it is you are dealing with.  I reckon you never saw any signs of
the quitter about me.  Now, it 's true I 'd rather have you do this
business up quietly; but if you refuse, don't forget there are other
means fully as effective, and a damn sight quicker."  He reached out
suddenly, grasping her hand.  "Did you ever hear the adage, 'Dead men
tell no tales'?" he questioned savagely.

She drew her hand sharply back from its instant of imprisonment, with a
smothered cry, her eyes filled with undisguised horror.

"You threaten--you threaten murder?"

"Oh, we never use that word out in this country--it is considered far
too coarse, my dear," and Farnham's thin lips curled sardonically.  "We
merely 'silence' our enemies in Colorado.  It is an extremely simple
matter; nothing at all disagreeable or boorish about it, I can assure
you.  A stick of dynamite dropped quietly down a shaft-hole, or pushed
beneath a bunk house--that's all.  The coroner calls it an accident;
the preachers, a dispensation of Providence; while the fellows who
really know never come back to tell.  If merely one is desired, a
well-directed shot from out a cedar thicket affords a most gentlemanly
way of shuffling off this mortal coil."

"You would not!  You dare not!"

"I?  Why, such a thought is preposterous, of course, for the risk would
be entirely unnecessary.  Quite evidently you are not well acquainted
with one of the flourishing industries of this section, my dear.  There
are always plenty of men out of a job in this camp; conscience does n't
come high, and the present market price for that sort of work is only
about twenty-five dollars a head.  Not unreasonable, all things
considered, is it?"

If she had not thoroughly known this man, had not previously sounded
his depths, she might have doubted his meaning, deceived by the lazy
drawl in his soft voice, the glimmer of grim humor in his eyes.  But
she did know him; she comprehended fully the slumbering tiger within,
the lurking spirit of vindictiveness of his real nature, and that
knowledge overcame her, left her weak and trembling like a frightened
child.  For an instant she could not articulate, staring at him with
white face and horrified eyes.

"You--you mean that?" and for the first time she clasped his loose coat
between her clutching fingers.

"It is hardly a subject to be deliberately selected for jest," he
replied coolly, "but if you prefer you might wait and see."

She stepped back from him, leaning heavily against the frame of the
door, her face again hidden behind uplifted hands.  The man did not
move, his face emotionless, his lips tightly set.  He was watching her
with the intentness of a hawk, absolutely certain now of his victim.
Suddenly she looked up, her eyes picturing the courage of desperation.
One glance into his face and the woman stood transformed, at bay, the
fierce spirit of battle flaming into her face.

"Have it so, then," she exclaimed sharply.  "I pledge myself to do
everything possible to prevent his remaining here."  She drew herself
up, her eyes darkening from sudden, uncontrollable anger.  "Oh, how I
despise you, you coward, you cur!  I know you, what you are capable of,
and I do this to preserve the life of a friend; but my detestation of
you is beyond expression in words.  My one and greatest shame is that I
ever trusted you; that I once believed you to be a man.  Good God! how
could I ever have been so blind!"

She opened the door with her hand extended behind her, and backed
slowly away, facing him where he stood motionless, smiling still as
though her sudden outburst of passion merely served to feed his conceit.

"Then I may trust you in this?"

Her eyes shone fairly black with the depth of scorn glowing in them.

"Have--have you ever known me to lie?" she asked, her voice faltering
from reaction.

The door closed.



CHAPTER X

A NEW ALLIANCE

Her eyes blinded by a strange mist of tears, Beth Norvell clung to the
latch of the closed door, fearful lest the man within might decide to
follow, endeavoring to gaze about, while gaining control over her
sorely shattered nerves.  Strong as she had appeared when nerved by
indignation and despair, that stormy interview with Farnham--his
scarcely veiled threats, his heartless scoffing--had left her a wreck,
for the moment scarcely mistress of her own mind.  One thing alone
stood forth as a rallying point for all her benumbed energies--she must
save Winston from a real danger, the nature of which she did not in the
least doubt.  The gambler's boast was no idle one; she, who had before
tasted of his depravity, felt fully convinced of his intention now.
Yet what could she hope to do?  How best might she accomplish that
imperative duty of rescue?

There occurred to her only one feasible plan--a complete surrender of
her womanly pride, an immediate acceptance of the young man's proffered
aid to Denver, with an insistence that he also accompany her.  Woman
enough to realize her power, she could not but have faith in the
results.  The color crept back in her cheeks at this daring conception,
for, after those hastily uttered words of the previous night, what
construction would he be likely to put on this sudden yielding?  An
instant she hesitated, afraid, shrinking back before the sacrifice as
from fire.  Then her fine eyes darkened, the clinging tears vanishing
while her fingers clinched in passionate resolve.  Do it?  Why, of
course she must do it!  What was her pitiful pride in the balance
against his life?  He might never dream what so great a sacrifice cost
her; might even despise her for such an exhibition of weakness; but she
would know, and be the stronger in her own soul from the brave
performance of duty.  Besides, she intended to tell him the whole
miserable story of her wrecked life--not now, not even to-night, but
some time, on their way back into the world,--as they were nearing
Denver, perhaps, and at the moment of final parting.  It almost seemed
easy as she faced the stern necessity, so easy that her parted lips
smiled sarcastically when she heard Farnham rise and leave the darkened
box through the opposite entrance.  Perhaps, when he comprehended it
all, this other, who had spoken love words to her, would understand
where the real blame lay, and so prove manly enough to absolve her from
any conception of evil.  This hope was sweet, strengthening, yet it
faded immediately away.  Ah, no; such result was not natural, as she
understood the world--it was always the woman who bore the burden of
condemnation.  Far safer to expect nothing, but do the right simply
because it was right.  She no longer questioned what that would be.  It
stood there before her like a blazing cross of flame; she must hold
those two men apart, even though they both trampled her heart beneath
their feet.  This was her destiny, the payment she must return the
world for having once made a mistake.  One out of the multitude, she
felt strong enough in the crisis to choose deliberately the straight
and narrow path leading through Gethsemane.

And this very choosing gave back her womanhood, cleared her dazed brain
for action, and sent the red blood throbbing through her veins.  Her
immediate surroundings began to take definite form.  To the left the
great, deserted stage extended, wrapped in total darkness, silent,
forsaken, the heavy drop-curtain lowered to the floor.  Through its
obscuring folds resounded noisily a crash of musical instruments, the
incessant shuffling of feet, a mingled hum of voices, evidencing that
the dance was already on in full volume.  Far back, behind much
protruding scenery, a single light flickered like a twinkling star, its
dim, uncertain radiance the sole guide through the intricacies of
cluttered passageways leading toward the distant stage entrance.  Half
frightened at this gloomy loneliness, the girl moved gingerly forward,
her skirts gathered closely about her slender figure, with anxious eyes
scanning the gloomy shadows in vague suspicion.  Suddenly a hand
gripped her extended wrist, and she gazed for a startled instant into
fiercely burning eyes, her own heart throbbing with nervous excitement.

"Vat vas he to you?  Answer me!  Answer me quick!"

The blood came back into her blanched cheeks with a sudden rush of
anger.  Instantly indignation swept back the mists of fear.  With
unnatural strength she wrenched free her captured hand, and sternly
fronted the other, a barely recognized shadow in the gloom.

"Permit me to pass," she exclaimed, clearly.  "How dare you hide here
to halt me?"

The other exhibited her teeth, gleaming white and savage behind parted
lips, yet she never stirred.

"Dare?  Pah! you vaste time to talk so," she cried brokenly, her voice
trembling from passion.  "You no such fine lady now, señorita.  You see
dis knife; I know how use eet quick.  Bah! you go to him like all de
rest, but I vill know de truth first, if I have to cut eet out you.  So
vat ees de Señor Farnham to you?  Say quick!"

The American remained silent, motionless, her breath quickening under
the threat, her eyes striving to see clearly the face of the one
confronting her.

"Do you expect to frighten me?" she asked, coldly, her earlier anger
strangely changing to indifference.  "It is you who wastes time,
señorita, for I care little for your knife.  Only it would be an
extremely foolish thing for you to do, as I have not come between you
and your lover."

The impulsive Mexican dancer laughed, but with no tone of joy
perceptible.

"My lofer!  Mother of God! sometime I think I hate, not lofe.  He vas
like all you Americanos, cold as de ice.  He play vis Mercedes, and
hurt--gracious, how he hurt!  But I must be told.  Vat vas he to you?
Answer me dat."

Beth Norvell's eyes softened in sudden pity.  The unconscious appeal
within that broken voice, which had lost all semblance of threat,
seemed to reveal instantly the whole sad story, and her heart gave
immediate response.  She reached out, touching gently the hand in which
she saw the gleam of the knife-blade.  There was no fear in her now,
nothing but an infinite womanly sympathy.

"He is nothing to me," she said, earnestly, "absolutely nothing.  I
despise him--that is all.  He is unworthy the thought of any woman."

The slender figure of the Mexican swayed as though stricken by a blow,
the fierce, tigerish passion dying out of her face, her free hand
seeking her throat as though choking.

"Nothing?" she gasped, incredulously.  "_Sapristi_, I think you lie,
señorita.  Nothing?  Vy you go to him in secret?  Vy you stay and talk
so long?  I not understand."

"He sent for me; he wished me to aid him in a business matter."

The other stared incredulous, her form growing rigid with gathering
suspicion that this fair American was only endeavoring to make her a
fool through the use of soft speech.  The white teeth gleamed again
maliciously.

"You speak false to Mercedes," she cried hotly, her voice trembling.
"Vy he send for you, señorita?  You know him?"

There was a bare instant of seeming hesitation, then the quiet, better
controlled voice answered soberly:

"Yes, in the East, three years ago."

Like a flash of powder, the girl of the hot-blooded South burst into
fresh flame of passion, her foot stamping the floor, her black eyes
glowing with unrestrained anger.

"_Dios de Dios_!  Eet ees as I thought.  He lofe you, not Mercedes.  Vy
I not kill you?--hey?"

Miss Norvell met her fiercely threatening look, her single step of
advance, without tremor or lowering of the eyes.  She even released her
grasp upon the uplifted knife, as if in utter contempt.  For a moment
they confronted each other, and then, as suddenly as she had broken
into flame, the excitable young Mexican burst into tears.  As though
this unexpected exhibition of feeling had inspired the action, the
other as quickly decided upon her course.

"Listen to me, girl," she exclaimed gravely, again grasping the lowered
knife hand.  "I am going to trust you implicitly.  You feel deeply; you
will understand when I tell you all.  You call me a fine lady because I
hold myself aloof from the senseless revelry of this mining camp; and
you believe you hate me because you suppose I feel above you.  But you
are a woman, and, whatever your past life may have been, your heart
will respond to the story of a woman's trouble.  I 'm going to tell you
mine, not so much for my sake as for your own.  I am not afraid of your
knife; why, its sharp point would be almost welcome, were it not that I
have serious work to do in the world before I die.  And you are going
to aid me in accomplishing it.  You say you do not really know now
whether you truly love or hate this man, this Farnham.  But I know for
myself beyond all doubt.  All that once might have blossomed into love
in my heart has been withered into hatred, for I know him to be a moral
leper, a traitor to honor, a remorseless wretch, unworthy the tender
remembrance, of any woman.  You suppose I went to him this night
through any deliberate choice of my own?  Almighty God, no!  I went
because I was compelled; because there was no possible escape.  Now, I
am going to tell you why."

Mercedes, the tears yet clinging to her long, black lashes, stood
motionless, gazing at the other with fascination, her slender,
scarlet-draped figure quivering to the force of these impetuous words.
She longed, yet dreaded, to hear, her own lips refusing utterance.  But
Beth Norvell gave little opportunity; her determination made, she swept
forward unhesitatingly.  As though fearful of being overheard, even in
the midst of that loneliness, she leaned forward, whispering one quick,
breathless sentence of confession.  The startled dancer swayed backward
at the words, clutching at her breast, the faint glimmer of light
revealing her staring eyes and pallid cheeks.

"Mother of God!" she sobbed convulsively.  "No, no! not dat!  He could
not lie to me like dat!"

"Lie?" in bitter scornfulness.  "Lie!  Why, it is his very life to
lie--to women.  God pity us!  This world seems filled with just such
men, and we are their natural victims.  Love?  Their only conception of
it is passion, and, that once satiated, not even ordinary kindness is
left with which to mock the memory.  In Heaven's name, girl, in your
life have you not long since learned this?  Now, I will tell you what
this monster wanted of me to-night."  She paused, scarcely knowing how
best to proceed, or just how much of the plot this other might already
comprehend.

"Have you ever heard of the 'Little Yankee' mine?" she questioned.

"Si, señorita," the voice faltering slightly, the black eyes drooping.
"Eet is up in de deep canyon yonder; I know eet."

"He told me about it," Miss Norvell continued more calmly.  "He is
having trouble with those people out there.  There is something wrong,
and he is afraid of exposure.  You remember the young man who walked
home with me last night: Well, he is a mining engineer.  He has agreed
to examine into the claims of the 'Little Yankee' people, and
this--this Farnham wants him stopped.  You understand?  He sent for me
to use my influence and make him go away.  I refused, and then
this--this creature threatened to kill Mr. Winston if he remained in
camp, and--and I know he will."

The Mexican's great black eyes widened, but not with horror.  Suddenly
in the silent pause she laughed.

"Si, si; now I know all--you lofe dis man.  _Bueno_!  I see eet as eet
vas."

The telltale red blood swept to the roots of Miss Norvell's hair, but
her indignant reply came swift and vehement.

"No, stop!  Never dare to speak such words.  I am not like that!  Can
you think of nothing except the cheap masquerade of love?  Have you
never known any true, pure friendship existing between man and woman?
This mining engineer has been good to me; he has proved himself a
gentleman.  It is not love which makes me so anxious now to serve him,
to warn him of imminent danger--it is gratitude, friendship, common
humanity.  Is it impossible for you to comprehend such motives?"

The other touched her for the first time with extended hand, her face
losing much of its previous savagery.

"I know so ver' leettle 'bout such kinds of peoples, señorita," she
explained regretfully, her voice low, "de kind vat are good and gentle
and vidout vantin' somting for eet.  Eet ees not de kinds I meet vis
ver' much.  Dey be all alike vis me--lofe, lofe, lofe, till I get seek
of de vord--only de one, an' I not know him ver' vell yet.   Maybe he
teach me vat you mean some day.  He talk better, not like a fool, an'
he not try to make me bad.  Is dat eet, señorita?"

"Yes; who is it you mean?"

"He?  Oh! it vas most odd, yet I do not laugh, señorita,  I know not
vy, but he make me to feel--vat you calls eet?--si, de respect; I tink
him to be de good man, de gentle.  He was at de 'Little Yankee' too.  I
vonder vas all good out at de 'Little Yankee'?  _Sapristi_! he vas such
a funny man to talk--he sputter like de champagne ven it uncorked.  I
laugh at him, but I like him just de same, for he act to me like I vas
de lady, de ver' fine lady.  I never forget dat.  You know him,
señorita?  So big like a great bear, vis de beautiful red hair like de
color of dis dress.  No?  He so nice I just hate to have to fool him,
but maybe I get chance to make eet all up some day--you tink so?
Merciful saints!  Ve are queer, ve vomens!  Eet vas alvays de voman vat
does like de vay you do, hey?  Ve vas mooch fools all de time."

"Yes, we are 'much fools'; that seems ordained.  Yet there are true,
noble men in this world, Mercedes, and blessed is she who can boast of
such a friendship.  This Mr. Winston is one, and, perhaps, your
stuttering giant may prove another."  She caught at a straw of hope in
thus interesting the girl.  "So he is at the 'Little Yankee'? and you
wish to serve him?  Then listen; he is in danger also if this scheme of
revenge carries--in danger of his life.  Dynamite does not pick out one
victim, and permit all others to escape."

"Dynamite?"

"That was Farnham's threat, and God knows he is perfectly capable of
it.  Now, will you aid me?"

The young Mexican girl stood staring with parted lips.

"Help you how?  Vat you mean?"

"Warn the men of the 'Little Yankee.'"

The other laughed behind her white teeth, yet with no mirth in the
sound.

"Ah, maybe I see, señorita; you try make a fool out me.  No, I not play
your game.  You try turn me against Señor Farnham.  I tink you not
catch Mercedes so."

"You do not believe me?"

"_Sapristi_!  I know not for sure.  Maybe I help, maybe I not.  First I
talk vis Señor Farnham, an' den I know vether you lie, or tell true.
Vatever ees right I do."

"Then permit me to pass."

Miss Norvell took a resolute step forward, clasping her skirts closely
to keep them from contact with the dusty scenery crowding the narrow
passage.  The jealous flame within the black eyes of the Mexican dimmed.

"You can no pass dat vay," she explained swiftly, touching the other's
sleeve.

"Not through the stage door?"

The other shook her head doggedly.

"Eet is alvay locked, señorita."

Beth Norvell turned about in dismay, her eyes pleading, her breath
quickening.

"You mean we are shut in here for the night?  Is n't there any way
leading out?"

"Oh, si, si," and Mercedes smiled, waving her hands.  "Zar is vay
yonder vare de orchestra goes.  Eet leads to de hall; I show you."

"Did he know?"

"Vat?  Señor Farnham?  No doubt, señorita.  Come, eet ees but de step."

The bewildered American hung back, her eyes filled with dread resting
upon the black shadow of the curtain, from behind which clearly arose
the strains of a laboring orchestra, mingling with the discordant noise
of a ribald crowd.  Farnham understood she was locked in; knew she
might hope to escape only through that scene of pollution; beyond
doubt, he waited in its midst to gloat over her degradation, possibly
even to accost her.  She shrank from such an ordeal as though she
fronted pestilence.

"Oh, not that way; not through the dance hall!" she exclaimed.

Mercedes clapped her hands with delight.  To her it appeared amusing.

"Holy Mother!  Vy not?  Eet make me laugh to see you so ver' nice.  Vat
you 'fraid 'bout?  Vas eet de men?  Pah!  I snap my fingers at all of
dem dis vay.  Dey not say boo!  But come, now, Mercedes show you vay
out vere you no meet vis de men, no meet vis anybody.  Poof, eet ees
easy."

She danced lightly away, her hand beckoning, her black eyes aglow with
aroused interest.  Reluctantly the puzzled American slowly followed,
dipping down into the black labyrinth leading beneath the stage.  Amid
silence and darkness Mercedes grasped her arm firmly, leading
unhesitatingly forward.  Standing within the glare of light streaming
through the partially open door.  Miss Norvell drew a sudden breath of
relief.  The chairs and benches, piled high along the side of the great
room, left a secluded passageway running close against the wall.  Along
this the two young women moved silently, catching merely occasional
glimpses of the wild revelry upon the other side of that rude barrier,
unseen themselves until within twenty feet of the street door.  There
Miss Norvell hesitated her anxious eyes searching the mixed crowd of
dancers now for the first time fully revealed.  Even as she gazed upon
the riot, shocked into silence at the inexpressible profligacy
displayed, and ashamed of her presence in the midst of it, a merry peal
of laughter burst through the parted lips of the Mexican dancer.

"_Dios de Dios_, but I had all forgot dis vas your night for de dance,
señor.  But you no so easy forget Mercedes, hey?"

He stood directly before them, plainly embarrassed, gripping his
disreputable hat in both hands like a great bashful boy, his face
reddening under her smiling eyes, his voice appearing to catch within
his throat.  Mercedes laughed again, patting his broad shoulder with
her white hand as though she petted a great, good-natured dog.  Then
her sparkling black eyes caught sight of something unexpected beyond,
and, in an instant, grew hard with purpose.

"Holy Mother! but eet 's true he ees here, señorita--see yonder by de
second vindow," she whispered fiercely.  "Maybe it vas so he tink to
get you once more, but he not looked dis vay yet.  _Bueno_!  I make him
dance vis me.  Dis man Stutter Brown, an' he go vis you to de hotel;
ees eet not so, _amigo_?"

"I-I have no t-t-time," he stuttered, totally confused.  "Y-you see, I
'm in a h-hell of a h-h-hurry."

"Pah; eet vill not take five minute, an' I be here ven you come back.
Si, señor, I vait for you for de dance, sure."  She turned eagerly to
Miss Norvell.  "You go vis him, señorita; he ver' good man, I,
Mercedes, know."

The American looked at them both, her eyes slightly smiling in
understanding.

"Yes," she assented quietly, "I believe he is."



CHAPTER XI

HALF-CONFIDENCES

Whatever Stutter Brown may secretly have thought concerning this new
arrangement of his affairs, he indulged in no outward manifestations.
Not greatly gifted in speech, he was nevertheless sufficiently prompt
in action.  The swift, nervous orders of the impulsive Mexican dancer
had sufficiently impressed him with one controlling idea, that
something decidedly serious was in the air; and, as she flitted across
the room, looking not unlike a red bird, he watched her make directly
toward a man who was leaning negligently back in a chair against the
farther wall.  For a moment he continued to gaze through the obscuring
haze of tobacco smoke, uncertain as to the other's identity, his eyes
growing angry, his square jaw set firm.

"W-who is the f-f-feller?" he questioned gruffly.  "Wh-what 's she
m-mean l-leavin' me to go over th-thar ter h-him?"

Beth Norvell glanced up frankly into his puzzled face.

"She has gone to keep him away from me," she explained quietly.  "His
name is Farnham."

Brown's right hand swung back to his belt, his teeth gripped like those
of a fighting dog.

"Hell!" he ejaculated, forgetting to stutter.  "Is that him?  Biff
Farnham?  An' he 's after you is he, the damned Mormon?"

She nodded, her cheeks growing rosy from embarrassment.  Brown cast a
quick, comprehensive glance from the face of the woman to where the man
was now leaning lazily against the wall.

"All r-right, little g-girl," he said slowly, and with grave
deliberation.  "I-I reckon I n-never went b-back on any p-pard yet.
B-blamed if y-y-you hate thet c-cuss any worse th-than I do.  Y-you
bet, I 'll take you out o' h-h-here safe 'nough."

He drew her more closely against his side, completely shielding her
slender figure from observation by the intervention of his giant body,
and thus they passed out together into the gloomy but still riotous
street.  A block or more down, under the glaring light of a noisy
saloon, the girl looked up questioningly into his boyish face.

"Are you Stutter Brown, of the 'Little Yankee'?" she asked doubtfully.

"I-I reckon you've c-c-called the t-turn, Miss."

She hesitated a moment, but there was something about this big, awkward
fellow, with his sober eyes and good-natured face, which gave her
confidence.

"Do--do you know a Mr. Ned Winston?"

He shook his head, the locks of red hair showing conspicuously under
the wide hat-brim.

"I r-reckon not.  Leastwise, don't s-s-sorter seem to r-recall no such
n-name, Miss.  Was the g-gent a f-friend o' your 'n?"

"Y-yes.  He is a mining engineer, and, I have been told, is under
engagement at the 'Little Yankee.'"

Brown's eyes hardened, looking down into the upturned face, and his
hands clinched in sudden awakening suspicion.

"You d-did, hey?" he questioned sullenly.  "Wh-who told you that r-rot?"

"Farnham."

The man uttered an unrestrained oath, fully believing now that he was
being led into a cunningly devised trap.  His mental operations were
slow, but he was swift and tenacious enough in prejudice.  He stopped
still, and the two stood silently facing each other, the same vague
spectre of suspicion alive in the minds of both.

"Farnham," the man muttered, for one instant thrown off his guard from
surprise.  "How th-the hell d-d-did he g-git hold o' that?"

"I don't know; but is n't it true?"

He turned her face around toward the light, not roughly, yet with an
unconscious strength which she felt irresistible, and looked at her
searchingly, his own eyes perceptibly softening.

"Y-you sure l-l-look all right, little g-girl," he admitted, slowly,
"but I 've h-heard th-th-that feller was hell with w-women.  I-I reckon
you b-better go b-back to Farnham an' find out."

He paused, wiping his perspiring face with the back of his hand, his
cheeks reddening painfully under her unfaltering gaze.  Finally he
blurted out:

"Say, w-who are you, anyhow?"

"Beth Norvell, an actress."

"You kn-kn-know Farnham?"

She bent her head in regretful acknowledgment.

"An' you kn-kn-know the señorita?"

"Yes, a very little."

Stutter Brown wet his lips, shifting awkwardly.

"Well, y-you 'll excuse me, M-Miss," he stuttered in an excess of
embarrassment, yet plunging straight ahead with manly determination to
have it out.  "I-I ain't much used t-t-to this sorter th-thing, an'
maybe I-I ain't got no r-r-right ter be a-botherin' you with m-my
affairs, nohow.  But you s-see it's th-this way.  I 've sorter t-took a
big l-l-likin' to that dancin' girl.  Sh-she 's a darn sight n-n-nearer
my s-style than anything I 've been up a-against fer s-some time.  I-I
don't just kn-know how it h-h-happened, it was so blame s-sudden, b-but
she 's got her l-l-lasso 'bout me all r-right.  But Lord! sh-she 's all
fun an' laugh; sh-sh-she don't seem to take n-nothin' serious like, an'
you c-can't make much ou-ou-out o' that kind; you n-never know just how
to t-take 'em; leastwise, I don't.  N-now, I 'm a plain s-s-sorter man,
an' I m-make bold ter ask ye a m-mighty plain sorter qu-question--is
that there M-M-Mercedes on the squar?"

He stood there motionless before her, a vast, uncertain bulk in the dim
light, but he was breathing hard, and the deep earnestness of his voice
had impressed her strongly.

"Why do you ask me that?" she questioned, for the moment uncertain how
to answer him.  "I scarcely know her; I know almost nothing regarding
her life."

"Y-you, you are a w-woman, Miss," he insisted, doggedly, "an', I t-take
it, a woman who will u-understand such th-th-things.  T-tell me, is she
on the squar?"

"Yes," she responded, warmly.  "She has not had much chance, I think,
and may have made a mistake, perhaps many of them, but I believe she 's
on the square."

"Did--did sh-she come out t-to our m-m-mine spying for Farnham?"

"Really, I don't know."

His grave face darkened anxiously; she could perceive the change even
in that shadow, and distinguish the sharp grind of his teeth.

"Damn him," he muttered, his voice bitter with hate.  "It w-would be
l-l-like one of his l-low-lived tricks.  Wh-what is that g-girl to him,
anyhow?"

It was no pleasant task to hurt this man deliberately, yet, perhaps, it
would be best.  Anyway, it was not in Beth Norvell's nature either to
lie or to be afraid.

"He has been her friend; there are some who say her lover."

He stared fixedly at her, as though she had struck him a stinging,
unexpected blow.

"Him?  A-an' you s-s-say she 's on the squar?"

"Yes; I say she is on the square, because I think so.  It's a hard life
she 's had to live, and no one has any right to judge her by strict
rules of propriety.  I may not approve, neither do I condemn.  Good
women have been deceived before now--have innocently done wrong in the
eyes of the world--and this Mercedes is a woman.  I know him also, know
him to be a cold-blooded, heartless brute.  She is merely a girl,
pulsating with the fiery blood of the South, an artist to her fingers'
tips, wayward and reckless.  It would not be very difficult for one of
that nature to be led astray by such a consummate deceiver as he is.  I
pity her, but I do not reproach.  Yet God have mercy on him when she
awakes from her dream, for that time is surely coming, perhaps is here
already; and the girl is on the square.  I believe it, she is on the
square."

For a silent, breathless moment Brown did not stir, did not once take
his eyes from off her face.  She saw his hand slip down and close hard
over the butt of his dangling revolver.  Then he drew a deep breath,
his head thrown back, his great shoulders squared.

"D-damn, but that helps me," he said soberly.  "It--it sure does.
G-good-night, little g-girl."

"Are you going to leave me now?"

"Why, sure.  Th-this yere is the h-h-hotel, ain 't it?  W-well, I 've
got t-to be back to th-the 'Little Yankee' afore d-d-daylight, or thar
'll be h-hell to pay, an' I sure m-mean to see her first,
an'--an'--maybe h-him."

She stood there in thoughtful perplexity, oblivious to all else in her
strange surroundings, watching the dark shadow of his burly figure
disappear through the dim light.  There was a strength of purpose, a
grim, unchangeable earnestness about the man which impressed her
greatly, which won her admiration.  He was like some great faithful
dog, ready to die at his master's bidding.  Down in her heart she
wondered what would be the tragic end of this night's confidence.

"There goes a good friend," she said slowly, under her breath, "and a
bad enemy."  Then she turned away, aroused to her own insistent mission
of warning, and entered the silent hotel.

The night clerk, a mere boy with pallid cheeks and heavy eyes
bespeaking dissipation, reclined on a couch behind the rough counter,
reading a Denver paper.  He was alone in the room, excepting a drunken
man noisily slumbering in an arm-chair behind the stove.  Miss Norvell,
clasping her skirts tightly, picked her way forward across the littered
floor, the necessity for immediate action rendering her supremely
callous to all ordinary questions of propriety.

"Can you inform me if Mr. Winston is in his room?" she questioned,
leaning across the counter until she could see the clerk's surprised
face.

The young fellow smiled knowingly, rising instantly to his feet.

"Not here at all," he returned pleasantly.  "He left just before noon
on horseback.  Heard him say something 'bout an engineering job he had
up Echo Canyon.  Reckon that 's where he 's gone.  Anything important,
Miss Norvell?"



CHAPTER XII

THE COVER OF DARKNESS

Beth Norvell did not remember ever having fainted in her life, yet for
a moment after these words reached her, all around grew dark, and she
was compelled to grasp the counter to keep from falling.  The strain of
the long night, coupled with such unexpected news proving she had
arrived too late with her warning, served to daze her brain, to leave
her utterly unable either to think or plan.  The clerk, alarmed by the
sudden pallor of her face, was at her side instantly, holding eagerly
forth that panacea for all fleshly ills in the West, a bottle of
whiskey.

"Good Lord, Miss, don't faint away!" he cried excitedly.  "Here, just
take a swig of this; there 's plenty of water in it, and it's the stuff
to pull you through.  There, that's better.  Great Scott, but I sure
thought you was goin' to flop over that time."  He assisted her to a
convenient chair, then stepped back, gazing curiously into her face,
the black bottle still in his hand.  "What's the trouble, anyhow?" he
questioned, his mind filled with sudden suspicion.  "That--that fellow
did n't throw you, did he?"

Miss Norvell, her fingers clasping the chair arm for support, rose
hurriedly to her feet, a red flush sweeping into her pallid cheeks.
For an instant her intense indignation held her speechless.

"'Throw' me?  What is it you mean?" she exclaimed, her voice faltering.
"Do you rank me with those shameless creatures out yonder?  It is for
Mr. Winston's sake I sought word with him; it has nothing whatever to
do with myself.  I chanced to learn news of the utmost importance, news
which he must possess before morning; yet it is not a message I can
trust to any one else.  My God! what can I do?"  She paused irresolute,
her hands pressing her temples.  The boy, his interest aroused, took a
step forward.

"Can I be of service?"

"Oh, I hardly know; I scarcely seem able to think.  Could--could you
leave here for just ten minutes--long enough to go to the dance hall at
the Gayety?"

"Sure thing; there 's nothin' doin'."

"Then please go; find a big, red-headed miner there named
Brown--'Stutter' Brown they call him--and bring him back here to me.
If--if he is n't there any longer, then get Mercedes, the Mexican
dancer.  You know her, don't you?"

The clerk nodded, reaching for his hat.

"Get one of those two; oh, you must get one of them.  Tell them I say
it is most important."

There was a terrible earnestness about the girl's words and manner,
which instantly impressed the lad with the necessity for immediate
haste.  He was off at a run, slamming the door heavily behind him, and
plunging headlong into the black street.  As he disappeared, Miss
Norvell sank back into the vacated chair, and sat there breathing
heavily, her eyes fastened upon the drunken man opposite, her natural
coolness and resource slowly emerging from out the haze of
disappointment.  Brown could surely be trusted in this emergency, for
his interest was only second to her own.  But why had she not told him
the entire story before?  Why, when she had opportunity, did she fail
to reveal to him Farnham's threats, and warn him against impending
danger?  She realized fully now the possible injury wrought by her
secrecy.  She felt far too nervous, too intensely anxious, to remain
long quiet; her eyes caught the ticking timepiece hanging above the
clerk's desk, and noted the hour with a start of surprise.  It was
already after two.  Once, twice, thrice she paced across the floor of
the office and stood for a moment striving to peer through the dirty
window-glass into the blackness without, faintly splotched with gleams
of yellow light.  Finally, she flung back the door and ventured forth
upon the shadowed porch, standing behind the low railing, where those
passing below were little likely to notice her presence.  Her head
throbbed and ached, and she loosened her heavy hair, pressing her palms
to the temples.  The boy returned at last hurriedly, bare-headed, but
unaccompanied, and she met him at the top of the steps, realizing, even
before he spoke, that those she sought had not been found.

"Not there?  Neither there?"

"No, Miss."  The clerk was breathing hard from his run, but his tone
was sympathetic.  "Darned if I did n't hustle that outfit from pit to
boxes, but nobody there seemed to sabe this yere Brown.  Mercedes, she
was there all right, 'bout ten minutes ago, but just naturally faded
away before I hit the shebang.  Doorkeeper piped it she had a guy with
her when she broke loose, an' he reckoned she must have lit out fer
home."

"For home?" a faint ray of light breaking from the word.  "Where does
the girl live?  Do you know?"

"Sure; I 'm wise; she has a couple of dandy rooms over at the old fort,
just across the creek; you know where that is, don't you?"

She nodded silently, her eyes brightening with resolution.

"It 's a blame tough bit of hiking to take alone on a dark night like
this," he commented gravely.  "You was n't plannin' to try any such
trip as that, was you, Miss?"

"Oh, no; certainly not.  I'm going upstairs to wait for daylight.  But
I thank you so much," and she cordially extended her hand.  "You see,
I--I could hardly go to the Gayety myself at such an hour."

The boy colored, still clasping the extended hand.  Something in her
low tone had served to recall to his mind those hasty words uttered in
the office.

"Sure not, Miss Norvell; it's a bit tough, all right, for anybody like
you down there at this time o' night."

She opened the door, the bright light from within shining about her
slender figure, yet leaving her face still in shadow.

"Did--did you chance to notice if Mr. Farnham remained in the dance
hall?"

"Biff Farnham?" in sudden, choking surprise.  "Great guns, do you know
him, too?  No, he was n't there, but I can tell you where he is, all
the same.  He 's at the Palace Livery, saddling up, along with half a
dozen other fellows.  I saw 'em as I come trottin' along back, and
wondered what the dickens was on tap at this time o' night."

The girl made no attempt to answer.  She stood clutching the edge of
the door for support, her lips tightly compressed, feeling as if her
heart would rise up and choke her.  She realized instantly that the
crisis had arrived, that Winston's life probably hung upon her next
decision.  Twice she endeavored bravely to speak, and when she finally
succeeded, the strange calmness other voice made her doubt her own
sanity.

"Thank you," she said gravely, "you have been most kind,--good-night,"
and vanished up the stairs.

Within the privacy of her own securely locked room Beth Norvell flung
herself upon the narrow bed, not to sleep, not even to rest, but in an
earnest effort to clarify her brain, to gain fresh conception of this
grim reality which fronted her.  She realized now precisely what Ned
Winston stood for in her life--must ever stand for until the bitter
end.  There was no upbraiding, no reviling.  Not in the slightest
degree did she even attempt to deceive herself; with set, tearless
eyes, and without a sigh of regret, she simply faced the naked truth.
She had made the mistake herself; now she must bear the burden of
discovery.  It was not the dull inertia of fatalism, but rather the
sober decision of a woman who had been tried in the fire, who
understood her own heart, and comprehended the strength of her own
will.  Personal suffering and sacrifice were no new chapters written in
her life; these had been met before, and now, in yet another guise,
they could be courageously met again.  She sat up quickly upon the edge
of the bed, her hands pressing back the heavy hair from off her hot
forehead.  What right had she to lie there shuddering at destiny when
lives--his life--might be trembling in the balance?  She could at least
serve, and, whatever else of weakness may have lurked in Beth Norvell,
there was no germ of cowardice.  Clearer and more clear she perceived
duty, until it overshadowed love and brought her upon her feet in
active preparation, in burning desire for action.

Standing before the little mirror, she wondered dimly at those dark
circles beneath her eyes, the unusually sharp lines visible at the
corners of her mouth.  She felt hot, feverish, and in hope of thus
relieving the painful throbbing of her temples she buried her face in
the bowl of cool water.  Rapidly, almost carelessly, she gathered up
her dishevelled locks, fastening them in some simple, yet secure
fashion back out of the way.  From the open trunk standing against the
wall, she caught up a plain, soft hat, one she had used in character
upon the stage, and drew it down firmly over the mass of soft hair,
never noting how coquettishly the wide brim swept up in front, or what
witchery of archness it gave to her dark eyes.  She took a quick step
toward the door, and then, her hand already on the latch, she paused in
uncertainty; finally, she drew a small, pearl-handled revolver from the
bottom tray, and placed it carefully in a pocket of her jacket.

"I--I hardly believe I could ever use it," she thought, "but maybe I
might."

Outside, in the narrow, deserted hall, she stood at the head of the
steep flight of stairs and listened.  The snoring of the drunken man in
the office below was the only disturbing sound.  Out through the open
office door a dull bar of yellow light streamed across the lower steps.
Like a ghost she stole silently down, treading so softly not a stair
creaked beneath her cautious footfalls.  The next moment she had opened
the door, and was alone in the dark street.

Dark it was, but neither deserted nor silent.  The unleashed evil of
San Juan was now in full control, more madly riotous than ever beneath
the cloak of so late an hour.  Nothing short of complete return of
daylight would bring semblance of peace to that carnival of saloons,
gambling dens, and dance halls.  Through the shadows stalked unrebuked,
uncontrolled, the votaries of dissipation and recklessness, of "easy
money" and brutal lust.  Yellow rays of light streamed from out dirty,
uncurtained windows, leaving the narrow street weirdly illuminated,
with here and there patches of dense shadows.  Shifting figures, often
unsteady of step, appeared and disappeared like disembodied spirits,
distorted from all human semblance by that uncertain radiance; on every
side the discordant sounds of violins and pianos commingled in one
hideous din, punctuated by drunken shouts and every species of noise of
which civilized savagery is capable.

Yet this was not what she feared, this saturnalia of unbridled passion,
for the way was comparatively well lighted, and in traversing it she
was reasonably certain to be within call of some one sober enough to
protect her from insult or injury.  Even in drink these men remained
courteous to women of the right sort.  No, she had travelled that path
alone at night before, again and again, returning from her work.  She
shrank, womanlike, from the sights and sounds, but was conscious of no
personal fear.  What she dreaded beyond expression was that long, black
stretch of narrow, desolate alley-way leading down toward the creek
bridge and the old fort beyond.  She had been over that path once in
broad daylight, and it made her shudder to think she must now feel her
way there alone through the dark.  The growing fear of it got upon her
nerves as she stood hesitating; then, almost angry with herself, she
advanced swiftly down toward the distant glowing lights of the Gayety.
It was just beyond there that the alley turned off toward the
foothills, a mere thread of a path wandering amid a maze of unlighted
tents and disreputable shacks; she remembered this, and the single
rotten strip of plank which answered for a sidewalk.

There was an unusually boisterous, quarrelsome crowd congregated in
front of the Poodle-Dog, and she turned aside into the middle of the
street in order to get past undisturbed.  Some one called noisily for
her to wait and have a drink, but she never glanced about, or gave
slightest heed.  At the curb a drunken woman reeled against her,
peering sneeringly into her face with ribald laugh, but Beth Norvell
pushed silently past, and vanished into the protecting shadows beyond.

The wide doors of the brilliantly illuminated Gayety were flung open,
the bright light from within streaming far across the road.  Many of
its patrons, heated with liquor and the dance, had swarmed forth upon
the broad platform outside in search of fresher air.  To avoid pushing
her way through this noisy crowd the girl swiftly crossed the street
into the darkness opposite.  As she paused there for an instant,
scarcely conscious that the glow of the lamps reflected full upon her
face, there sounded a sudden clatter of horses' hoofs to her right, and
a half-dozen riders swept around the sharp corner, dashing forward into
the glare.  She had barely time in which to leap backward out of their
direct path, when one of the horsemen jerked his mount upon its
haunches, and, uttering an oath of astonishment, leaned forward across
his pommel, staring down into her startled face.  Then he laughed.

"Go on, boys," he cried, sitting erect, with a wave of his hand to the
others.  "I 'll catch up within half a mile.  I 've got a word to say
first to this precious dove fluttering here."  He struck the flank of
his horse, causing the sensitive beast to quiver, his own lips curling
maliciously.  The girl, panting between parted lips, never lowered her
eyes from his face, and the steady look angered him.

"Still hunting for Winston?" he questioned, sneeringly.  "Well, I can
inform you where he may very easily be found."

"Indeed!"

"Yes, out at the 'Little Yankee.'  It seems you were a trifle late in
getting him word, or else your fascinations failed to move him.  You
must be losing your grip."

She neither moved nor spoke, her eyes--dark, unwinking beneath the wide
hat-brim--telling him nothing.  Yet her hand closed upon the pearl
handle hidden away in the jacket pocket, and her lips formed a straight
line.

"I 'm damned sorry you did n't land the fellow, Lizzie," he went on
brutally.  "He 's about the best catch you 're liable to get, and
besides, it leaves me a rather unpleasant job.  Still, I thought I 'd
better tell you, so you would n't feel it necessary to hang around the
streets here any longer.  Fact is, I 'm anxious to shield your
reputation, you know."  He looked about carelessly, his glance settling
on the open doors of the Gayety.  "Don't strike me this is exactly the
sort of place for one of your moral respectability to be discovered in.
Lord! but what would the old man or that infernal prig of a brother of
yours say, if they could only see you now?  A monologue artist at the
Gayety was bad enough, but this, this is the limit."

There was a flash of something white and glittering within six inches
of his face, a sharp click, and an eye looked directly into his own
across a short steel barrel.

"Go!"  The word was like the spat of a bullet.

"But, Lizzie--"

"Go, you cur! or, as God is my witness, if you stay I'll kill you!"

With a sharp dig of the spur his horse sprang half-way across the road,
a black, prancing shadow against the glare of light.  She saw the rider
fling up one arm, and bring down the stinging quirt on the animal's
flank; the next instant, with a bound, they were swallowed up in the
darkness.  A moment she leaned against the shack, nerveless, half
fainting from reaction, her face deathly white.  Then she inhaled a
long, deep breath, gathered her skirts closely within one hand, and
plunged boldly into the black alley.



CHAPTER XIII

TWO WOMEN

Mercedes stood in the shade of the towering hillside, the single beam
of light shining from an uncurtained window alone faintly revealing her
slenderness of figure in its red drapery.  No other gleam anywhere
cleft the prevailing darkness of the night, and the only perceptible
sound was that of horses' hoofs dying away in the distance.  The girl
was not crying, although one of her hands was held across her eyes, and
her bosom rose and fell tumultuously to labored breathing.  She stood
silent, motionless, the strange radiance causing her to appear unreal,
some divinely moulded statue, an artist's dream carven in colored
stone.  Suddenly she sprang backward from out that revealing tongue of
light and crouched low at the angle of the house, not unlike some
affrighted wild animal, her head bent forward intently listening.
There was a plainly perceptible movement in the gloom, the sound of an
approaching footstep and of rapid breathing, and finally a shadow
became visible.  The watcher leaped to her feet half angrily.

"Ah! so eet vas you, señorita!" she exclaimed, her voice betraying her
emotion,--"you, who come so dis night.  _Sapristi_! vy you follow me
dis vay?  By all de saints, I make you tell me dat!  You vant him, too?
You vant rob me of all thing?"

The visitor, startled by this sudden challenge, stood before her
trembling from head to foot with the nervous excitement of her journey,
yet her eyes remained darkly resolute.

"You recognize me," she responded quickly, reaching out and touching
the other with one hand, as if to make certain of her actual presence.
"Then for God's sake do not waste time now in quarrelling.  I did not
make this trip without a purpose.  'He,' you say?  Who is he?  Who was
it that rode away from here just now?  Not Farnham?"

Mercedes laughed a trifle uneasily, her eyes suddenly lowered before
the other's anxious scrutiny.

"Ah, no, señorita," she answered softly.  "Eet surprises me mooch you
not know; eet vas Señor Brown."

Miss Norvell grasped her firmly by the shoulder.

"Brown?" she exclaimed eagerly.  "Stutter Brown?  Oh, call him back;
cannot you call him back?"

The young Mexican shook her head, her white teeth gleaming, as she drew
her shoulder free from the fingers clasping it.

"You vas too late, señorita," she replied, sweetly confident.  "He vas
already gone to de 'Little Yankee.'  But he speak mooch to me first."

"Much about what?"

"Vel, he say he lofe me--he say eet straight, like eet vas vat he
meant."

"Oh!"

"Si, señorita; he not even talk funny, maybe he so excited he forgot
how, hey?  An' vat you tink dat he say den to Mercedes--vat?"

The other shook her head, undecided, hesitating as to her own purpose.

"He ask me vould I marry him.  Si, si, vat you tink of dat--me,
Mercedes Morales, de dancer at de Gayety--he ask me vould I marry him.
Oh, Mother of God!"

The young American stared at her upturned animated face, suddenly
aroused to womanly interest.

"And what did you say?"

Mercedes stamped her foot savagely on the hard ground, her eyes glowing
like coals of fire.

"You ask vat I say?  Saints of God! vat could I say?  He vas a good
man, dat Señor Brown, but I--I vas not a good voman.  I no tell him
dat--no! no!  I vas shamed; I get red, vite; I hardly speak at all; my
heart thump so I tink maybe eet choke me up here, but I say no.  I say
no once, tvice, tree time.  I tell him he big fool to tink like dat of
me.  I tell him go vay an' find voman of his own race--good voman.  I
tell him eet could nevah be me, no, nevah."

"Then you do not love him?"

The puzzled dancer hesitated, her long lashes lowered, and outlined
against her cheeks.

"Lofe?  Dat vas not nice vord as eet come to me.  I know not ver' vell
just vat.  Maybe if I not lofe him I marry him--si; I no care den.  I
make him to suffer, but not care; ees eet not so?  Anyhow, I--vat you
call dat?--respect dis Señor Brown mooch, ver' mooch.  Maybe dat last
longer as lofe--_quien sabe_?"

Scarcely comprehending this peculiar explanation, Beth Norvell's first
conception was that the girl had chosen wrong, that she had allied
herself upon the side of evil.

"You mean you--you will go back to Biff Farnham?" she asked, her tone
full of horror.

Mercedes straightened up quickly, her young, expressive face filled
with a new passion, which struggled almost vainly for utterance through
her lips.

"Go back to dat man!" she panted.  "Me?  _Sapristi_! and you tink I do
dat after Señor Brown ask me be hees vife!  Blessed Mary! vat you tink
I am?  You tink I not feel, not care?  I go back to dat Farnham?  Eet
vould not be, no! no!  I tol' him dat mooch, an' he got mad.  I no
care, I like dat.  I no lofe him, nevah; I vas sold to him for money,
like sheep, but I learn to hate him to kill."  The deep glow of the
black eyes softened, and her head slowly dropped until it touched the
other's extended arm.  "But dis Señor Brown he vas not dat kind--he ask
me to marry him; he say he not care vat I been, only he lofe me, an' he
be good to me alvays.  I vas hungry for dat, señorita, but I say no,
no, no!  Eet vas not for me, nevah.  I send him avay so sorry, an' den
I cry ven I hear his horse go out yonder.  Eet vas like he tread on me,
eet hurt dat vay.  Maybe I no lofe him, but I know he vas good man an'
he lofe me.  Eet vas de honor ven he ask me dat, an' now I be good
voman because a good man lofes me.  Holy Mother! eet vill be easy now
dat he vanted to marry me."

Impulsively Beth Norvell, her own eyes moist, held the other, sobbing
like a child within the clasp of sympathetic arms.  There was instantly
formed between them a new bond, a new feeling of awakened womanhood.
Yet, even as her fingers continued to stroke the dishevelled hair
softly, there flashed across her mind a recurring memory of her
purpose, the necessity for immediate action.  Not for an instant longer
did she doubt the complete honesty of the other's frank avowal, or
question the propriety of requesting her aid in thwarting Farnham.  She
held the slight, quivering figure back, so that she might gaze into the
uplifted, questioning face.

"Mercedes, yes, yes, I understand it all," she cried eagerly.  "But we
cannot talk about it any longer now.  It is a wonderful thing, this
love of a good man; but we are wasting time that may mean life or death
to others, perhaps even to him.  Listen to what I say--Farnham has
already gone to the 'Little Yankee,' and taken a gang of roughs with
him.  They left San Juan on horseback more than half an hour ago.  He
threatened me first, and boasted that Mr. Winston was out there, and
that I was too late to warn him of danger.  Oh, girl, you understand
what that means; you know him well, you must realize what he is capable
of doing.  I came here as fast as I could in the dark," she shuddered,
glancing backward across her shoulder.  "Every step was a way of
horrors, but I did n't know any one who could help me.  But you--you
know the way to the 'Little Yankee,' and we--we must get there before
daylight, if we have to crawl."

All that was savagely animal in the other's untamed nature flamed into
her face.

"He say vat?  Señor Farnham he say vat he do?"

"He said dynamite told no tales, but sometimes killed more than the one
intended."

Mercedes' hand went to her head as though a pain had smitten her, and
she stepped back, half crouching in the glow like a tiger cat.

"He say dat?  De man say dat?  Holy Angels! he vas de bad devil, but he
find me de bad devil too.  Ah, now I play him de game, an' ve see who
vin!  De 'Leetle Yankee,' eet tree mile, señorita, an' de road rough,
mooch rough, but I know eet--si, I know eet, an' ve get dare before de
day come; sure ve do eet, _bueno_."  She grasped the arm of the other,
now fully aroused, her slight form quivering from intense excitement.
"Come, I show you.  See! he vas my pony--ah! eet makes me to laugh to
know de Señor Farnham give him me; now I make him to upset de Señor
Farnham.  _Sapristi_! eet vas vat you call de vay of de vorld, de
verligig; vas eet not so?  You ride de pony, señorita; I valk an' lead
him--si, si, you more tired as Mercedes; I danseuse, no tire ever in de
legs.  Den I find de vay more easy on foot in de dark, see?  You ride
good, hey?  He jump little, maybe, but he de ver' nice pony, an' I no
let him run.  No, no, de odder vay, señorita, like de man ride.  Poof!
it no harm in de dark.  _Bueno_, now ve go to surprise de Señor
Farnham."

She led promptly forth as she spoke, moving with perfect confidence
down the irregular trail skirting the bank of the creek, her left hand
grasping the pony's bit firmly, the other shading her eyes as though to
aid in the selection of a path through the gloom.  It was a rough,
uneven, winding road they followed, apparently but little used,
littered with loose stones and projecting roots; yet, after a moment of
fierce but useless rebellion, the lively mustang sobered down into a
cautious picking of his passage amid the debris, obedient as a dog to
the soft voice of his mistress.  The problems of advance were far too
complicated to permit of much conversation, and little effort at speech
was made by either, the principal thought in each mind being the
necessity for haste.

Swaying on the saddleless back of the pony, her anxious gaze on the
dimly revealed, slender figure trudging sturdily in front, Beth Norvell
began to dread the necessity of again having to meet Winston under such
conditions.  What would he naturally think?  He could scarcely fail to
construe such action on his behalf as one inspired by deep personal
interest, and she instinctively shrank from such revealment, fearing
his glance, his word of welcome, his expressions of surprised
gratitude.  The awkwardness, the probable embarrassment involved,
became more and more apparent as she looked forward to that meeting.
If possible, she would gladly drop out, and so permit the other to bear
on the message of warning alone.  But, even with Mercedes' undoubted
interest in Brown, and her increasing dislike of Farnham, Beth could
not as yet entirely trust her unaccompanied.  Besides, there was no
excuse to offer for such sudden withdrawal, no reason she durst even
whisper into the ear of another.  No, there was nothing left her but to
go on; let him think what he might of her action, she would not fail to
do her best to serve him, and beneath the safe cover of darkness she
blushed scarlet, her long lashes moist with tears that could not be
restrained.  They were at the bottom of the black canyon now, the high,
uplifting rock walls on either side blotting out the stars and
rendering the surrounding gloom intense.  The young Mexican girl seemed
to have the eyes of a cat, or else was guided by some instinct of the
wild, feeling her passage slowly yet surely forward, every nerve alert,
and occasionally pausing to listen to some strange night sound.  It was
a weird, uncanny journey, in which the nerves tingled to uncouth shapes
and the wild echoing of mountain voices.  Once, at such a moment of
continued suspense, Beth Norvell bent forward and whispered a sentence
into her ear.  The girl started, impulsively pressing her lips against
the white hand grasping the pony's mane.

"No, no, señorita," she said softly.  "Not dat; not because he lofe me;
because he ask me dat.  Si, I make him not so sorry."

She remembered that vast overhanging rock about which the dim trail
circled as it swept upward toward where the "Little Yankee" perched
against the sky-line.  Undaunted by the narrowness of the ledge, the
willing, sure-footed mustang began climbing the steep grade.  Step by
step they crept up, cautiously advancing from out the bottom of the
cleft, the path followed winding in and out among bewildering cedars,
and skirting unknown depths of ravines.  Mercedes was breathing
heavily, her unoccupied hand grasping the trailing skirt which
interfered with her climbing.  Miss Norvell, from her higher perch on
the pony's back, glanced behind apprehensively.  Far away to the east a
faint, uncertain tinge of gray was shading into the sky.  Suddenly a
detached stone rattled in their front; there echoed the sharp click of
a rifle hammer, mingled with the sound of a gruff, unfamiliar voice:

"You come another step, an' I 'll blow hell out o' yer.  _Sabe_?"

It all occurred so quickly that neither spoke; they caught their breath
and waited in suspense.  A shadow, dim, ill-defined, seemed to take
partial form in their front.

"Well, can't yer speak?" questioned the same voice, growlingly.  "What
yer doin' on this yere trail?"

Mercedes released the pony's bit, and leaned eagerly forward.

"Vas dat you, Beell Heeks?" she questioned, doubtfully.

The man swore, the butt of his quickly lowered rifle striking sharply
against the rock at his feet.

"I 'm damned if it ain't that Mexican agin," he exclaimed, angrily.
"Now, you get out o' yere; you hear me?  I 'm blamed if I kin shoot at
no female, but you got in one measly spyin' job on this outfit, an' I
'll not put up with another if I have ter pitch ye out inter the
canyon.  So you git plum out o' yere, an' tell yer friend Farnham he
better take more care o' his females, or some of 'em are liable ter get
hurt."

There was the harsh crunch of a footstep in the darkness, another
figure suddenly slid down the smooth surface of rock, dropping almost
at the pony's head.  The animal shied with a quick leap, but a heavy
hand held him captive.

"Y-you sh-sh-shut up, B-Bill," and the huge form of Stutter Brown
loomed up directly between them, and that menacing rifle.  "I-I reckon
as how I'll t-t-take a h-hand in this yere g-g-game.  Sh-she ain't no
s-spy fer Farnham, er I 'm a l-l-liar."  He touched her softly with his
great hand, bending down to look into her face, half hidden beneath the
ruffled black hair.  "C-come, little g-g-girl, what's up?"

She made no response, her lips faltering as though suddenly stricken
dumb.  Beth Norvell dropped down from the pony's back, and stood with
one hand resting on Mercedes' shoulder.

"She only came to show me the way," she explained bravely.  "I-I have a
most important message for Mr. Winston.  Where is he?"

"Important, d-did you s-s-say?"

"Yes, its delivery means life or death--for Heaven's sake, take me to
him!"

For a single breathless moment Brown hesitated, his eyes on the girl's
upturned face, evidently questioning her real purpose.

"I c-can't right n-now, Miss," he finally acknowledged, gravely;
"that's s-straight; fer ye s-s-see, he 's down the 'I-I-Independence'
shaft."



CHAPTER XIV

UNDERGROUND

It was a daring ruse that had taken Ned Winston down the shaft of the
"Independence" mine with the midnight shift.  Not even the professional
enthusiasm of a young engineer could serve to justify so vast a risk,
but somehow this battle of right and wrong had become a personal
struggle between himself and Farnham; he felt, without understanding
clearly why, that the real stake involved was well worth the venture,
and would prove in the end of infinitely more value to him than any
settlement of the mere mining claims at issue.  For several hours he
had been below in the tunnel of the "Little Yankee," measuring
distances, and sampling the grade of ore.  All the afternoon and much
of the early night had been utilized in a careful exploration of the
surface ledges; creeping in, under protection of the low-growing
cedars, as closely as a vigilant rifle-guard would permit, to the great
ore dump of the busy "Independence"; diligently studying their system
of labor, and slowly crystallizing into shape his later plan of action.
He was already morally convinced that the Farnham people were actively
engaged in stealing the "Little Yankee" ore; that they were running
their tunnel along the lead of the latter; that they were doing this
systematically, and fully conscious of the danger of discovery.  His
lines of survey, the nature of the ore bodies, the muffled sound of
picks, plainly discernible in the silent breast of the "Little Yankee"
while he lay listening with ear to the rock, as well as the close
secrecy, all combined to convince him fully of the fact.  Yet such
vague suspicions were perfectly useless.  He must have absolute,
convincing proof, and such proof could be obtained nowhere excepting at
the bottom of the "Independence" shaft.

He talked over the situation frankly with the two partners in the
little single-roomed cabin perched on the cliff edge, while the
obedient though grumbling Mike, rifle in hand, sat solemnly on the dump
pile without.  Little by little the three conspirators worked out a
fairly feasible plan.  There were numerous chances for failure in it,
yet the very recklessness of the conception was an advantage.  Winston,
his face darkened as a slight disguise, and dressed in the rough
garments of a typical miner, was to hide beside the footpath leading
between the "Independence" bunk-house and the shaft.  Should one of the
men chance to loiter behind the others when the working shift changed
at midnight, Brown was to attend to him silently, relying entirely upon
his giant strength to prevent alarm, while Winston was promptly to take
the vacated place among the descending workmen.  By some grim fate this
crudely devised scheme worked like a well-oiled piece of machinery.  A
sleepy-headed lout, endeavoring to draw on his coat as he ran blindly
after the others, stumbled in the rocky path and fell heavily.  Almost
at the instant Stutter Brown had the fellow by the throat, dragging him
back into the security of the cedars, and Winston, lamp and dinner-pail
in hand, was edging his way into the crowded cage, his face turned to
the black wall.

That was five hours before.  At the very edge of the black, concealing
chaparral, within easy rifle range of the "Independence" shaft-house,
Hicks and Brown lay flat on their faces, waiting and watching for some
occasion to take a hand.  Back behind the little cabin old Mike sat
calmly smoking his black dudheen, apparently utterly oblivious to all
the world save the bound and cursing Swede he was vigilantly guarding,
and whose spirits he occasionally refreshed with some choice bit of
Hibernian philosophy.  Beneath the flaring gleam of numerous gasoline
torches, half a dozen men constantly passed and repassed between
shaft-house and dump heap, casting weird shadows along the rough
planking, and occasionally calling to each other, their gruff voices
clear in the still night.  Every now and then those two silent watchers
could hear the dismal clank of the windlass chain, and a rattle of ore
on the dump, when the huge buckets were hoisted to the surface and
emptied of their spoil.  Once--it must have been after three
o'clock--other men seemed suddenly to mingle among those perspiring
surface workers and the unmistakable neigh of a horse came faintly from
out the blackness of a distant thicket.  The two lying in the chaparral
rose to their knees, bending anxiously forward.  Brown drew back the
hammer of his rifle, while Hicks swore savagely under his breath.  But
those new figures vanished in some mysterious way before either could
decide who they might be--into the shaft-house, or else beyond, where
denser shadows intervened.  The two watchers sank back again into their
cover, silently waiting, ever wondering what was happening beyond their
ken, down below in the heart of the hill.

Some of this even Winston never knew, although he was a portion of it.
He had gone down with the descending cage, standing silent among the
grimy workmen crowding it, and quickly discerning from their speech
that they were largely Swedes and Poles, of a class inclined to ask few
questions, provided their wages were promptly paid.  There was a
deserted gallery opening from the shaft-hole some forty feet below the
surface; he saw the glimmer of light reflected along its wall as they
passed, but the cage dropped to a considerably lower level before it
stopped, and the men stepped forth into the black entry.  Winston went
with them, keeping carefully away from the fellow he supposed to be
foreman of the gang, and hanging back, under pretence of having
difficulty in lighting his lamp, until the others had preceded him some
distance along the echoing gallery.  The yellow flaring of their lights
through the intense darkness proved both guidance and warning, so he
moved cautiously forward, counting his steps, his hand feeling the
trend of the side wall, his lamp unlit.  The floor was rough and
uneven, but dry, the tunnel apparently having been blasted through
solid rock, for no props supporting the roof were discernible.  For
quite an extended distance this entry ran straight away from the foot
of the shaft--directly south he made it--into the heart of the
mountain; then those twinkling lights far in advance suddenly winked
out, and Winston groped blindly forward until he discovered a sharp
turn in the tunnel.

He lingered for a moment behind the protection of that angle of rock
wall, struck a safety match, and held the tiny flame down close against
the face of his pocket compass.  Exactly; this new advance extended
southeast by east.  He snuffed out the glowing splinter between his
fingers, crossed over to the opposite side, and watchfully rounded the
corner to where he could again perceive the twinkling lights ahead.
His foot met some obstacle along the floor, and he bent down, feeling
for it with his fingers in the dark; it proved to be a rude scrap-iron
rail, evidence that they carried out their ore by means of mules and a
tram-car.  A few yards farther this new tunnel began to ascend
slightly, and he again mysteriously lost his view of the miners' lamps,
and was compelled to grope his way more slowly, yet ever carefully
counting his steps.  The roof sank with the advance until it became so
low he was compelled to stoop.  The sound of picks smiting the rock was
borne to him, made faint by distance, but constantly growing clearer.
There he came to another curve in the tunnel.

He crouched upon one knee, peering cautiously around the edge in an
effort to discover what was taking place in front.  The scattered
lights on the hats of the miners rendered the whole weird scene fairly
visible.  There were two narrow entries branching off from the main
gallery not more than thirty feet from where he lay.  One ran, as
nearly as he could judge, considerably to the east of south, but the
second had its trend directly to the eastward.  Along the first of
these tunnels there was no attempt at concealment, a revealing twinkle
of light showing where numerous miners were already at work.  But the
second was dark, and would have remained unnoticed entirely had not
several men been grouped before the entrance, their flaring lamps
reflected over the rock wall.  Winston's eyes sparkled, his pulse
leaped, as he marked the nature of their task--they were laboriously
removing a heavy mask, built of wood and canvas, which had been snugly
fitted over the hole, making it resemble a portion of the solid rock
wall.

There were four workmen employed at this task, while the foreman, a
broad-jawed, profane-spoken Irishman, his moustache a bristling red
stubble, stood a little back, noisily directing operations, the yellow
light flickering over him.  The remainder of the fellows composing the
party had largely disappeared farther down, although the sound of their
busy picks was clearly audible.

"Where the hell is Swanson?" blurted out the foreman suddenly.  "He
belongs in this gang.  Here you, Ole, what 's become o' Nelse Swanson?"

The fellow thus directly addressed drew his hand across his mouth,
straightening up slightly to answer.

"Eet iss not sumtings dot I know, Meester Burke.  He seems not here."

"Not here; no, I should say not, ye cross-oied Swade.  But Oi 'm dommed
if he did n't come down in the cage wid' us, for Oi counted the lot o'
yez.  Don't any o' you lads know whut 's become o' the drunken lout?"

There was a universal shaking of heads, causing the lights to dance
dizzily, forming weird shadows in the gloom, and the irritated foreman
swore aloud, his eyes wandering back down the tunnel.

"No doubt he's dhrunk yet, an' laid down to slape back beyant in the
passage," he growled savagely.  "Be all the powers, but Oi 'll tache
that humpin' fool a lesson this day he 'll not be apt to fergit fer a
while.  I will that, or me name 's not Jack Burke.  Here you, Peterson,
hand me over that pick-helve."  He struck the tough hickory handle
sharply against the wall to test its strength, his ugly red moustache
bristling.  "Lave the falsework sthandin' where it is till I git back,"
he ordered, with an authoritative wave of the hand; "an' you fellers go
in beyant, an' help out on Number Wan till Oi call ye.  Dom me sowl,
but Oi'll make that Swanson think the whole dom mounting has slid down
on top o' him--the lazy, dhrunken Swade."

The heavy pick-handle swinging in his hand his grim, red face glowing
angrily beneath the sputtering flame of the lamp stuck in his hat, the
irate Burke strode swiftly back into the gloomy passage, muttering
gruffly.



CHAPTER XV

THE PROOF OF CRIME

Winston sprang to his feet and ran back along the deserted tunnel,
bending low to avoid collision with the sloping roof, striving to move
rapidly, yet in silence.  The intense darkness blinded him, but one
hand touching the wall acted as safeguard.  For a moment the
bewildering surprise of this new situation left his brain in a whirl of
uncertainty.  He could remember no spot in which he might hope to
secrete himself safely; the rock wall of that narrow passageway
afforded no possible concealment against the reflection of the
foreman's glaring lamp.  But he must get beyond sight and sound of
those others before the inevitable meeting and the probable struggle
occurred.  This became the one insistent thought which sent him
scurrying back into the gloom, recklessly accepting every chance of
encountering obstacles in his haste.  At the second curve he paused,
panting heavily from the excitement of his hard run, and leaned against
the face of the rock, peering anxiously back toward that fast
approaching flicker of light.  The angry foreman came crunching
savagely along, his heavy boots resounding upon the hard floor, the
hickory club in his hand occasionally striking against the wall as
though he imagined himself already belaboring the recreant Swanson.
About him, causing his figure to appear gigantic, his shadow grotesque,
the yellow gleam of the light shone in spectral coloring.  Winston set
his teeth determinedly, and noiselessly cocked his revolver.  The man
was already almost upon him, a black, shapeless bulk, like some unreal
shadow.  Then the younger stepped suddenly forth into the open, the two
meeting face to face.  The startled foreman stared incredulous, bending
forward as though a ghost confronted him, his teeth showing between
parted lips.

"Drop that club!" commanded Winston coldly, the gleam of an uplifted
steel barrel in the other's eyes.  "Lively, my man; this is a
hair-trigger."

"What the hell--"

"Drop that club!  We 'll discuss this case later.  There--no, up with
your hands; both of them.  Turn around slowly; ah, I see you don 't
tote a gun down here.  So much the better, for now we can get along to
business with fewer preliminaries."

He kicked the released pick-helve to one side out of sight in the
darkness, his watchful eyes never straying from the Irishman's face.
Burke stood sputtering curses, his hands held high, his fighting face
red from impotent passion.  The trembling light gave to the scene a
fantastic effect, grimly humorous.

"Who--who the divil be ye?"  The surprised man thrust his head yet
farther forward in an effort to make the flame more clearly reveal the
other's features.  Winston drew the peak of his miner's cap lower.

"That will make very little difference to you, Jack Burke," he said
quietly, "if I have any occasion to turn loose this arsenal.  However,
stand quiet, and it will afford me pleasure to give you all necessary
information.  Let us suppose, for instance, that I am a person to whom
Biff Farnham desires to sell some stock in this mine; becoming
interested, I seek to discover its real value for myself, and come down
with the night shift.  Quite a natural proceeding on my part, is n't
it?  Now, under such circumstances, I presume you, as foreman, would be
perfectly willing to show me exactly what is being accomplished down
here?"

He paused, his lips smiling pleasantly, and Burke stared at him, with
mouth wide open, his eyes mere black slits in the gloom.  It was a full
minute before he regained control of his voice.

"Ye think Oi 'm a dommed fool?" he ejaculated, hoarsely.

"No; that is exactly what I do not think, Burke," and Winston smiled
again beneath his stern gray eyes.  "That is precisely why I know you
will show me all I desire to see.  A damn fool might possibly be
tempted to take chances with this gun, and get hurt, but you are smart
enough to understand that I 've got the drop all right, and that I mean
business--I mean business."  These words were uttered slowly,
deliberately, and the foreman involuntarily dropped his lids as though
feeling them physically, the fingers of his uplifted hands clinching.

"What--what is it ye want to see?"

"That tunnel you 've got concealed by falsework."

Burke spat against the rock wall, the perspiration standing forth on
his forehead.  But Irish pugnacity made him stubborn.

"Who tould ye that loie?  Shure, an' it's not here ye 'll be apt to
foind the loikes o' that, me man."

Winston eyed him scornfully.

"You lie, Burke; I saw it with my own eyes just beyond that second turn
yonder.  You cannot play with me, and the sooner you master that fact
the better.  Now, you can take your choice--lead on as I order, and
keep your men away, or eat lead.  It's one or the other within the next
sixty seconds.  Turn around!"

No man in his senses would ever doubt the determined purpose lying
behind those few low-spoken, earnest words.  Whoever this man might be,
whatever his purpose, he was assuredly not there in sport, and Burke
wheeled about as though some concealed spring controlled his action.

"Good," commented Winston, briefly.  "You can lower your hands.  Now,
walk straight forward, speaking only when I tell you, and never forget
there is a gun-barrel within two feet of your back.  The slightest
movement of treachery, and, God helping me, Burke, I 'll turn loose
every cartridge into your body.  I don 't want to do it, but I will."

They moved slowly forward along the deserted tunnel, not unlike two
convicts in lock-step.  Burke sullenly growling, a burly, shapeless
figure under the light in his hat; Winston alert, silent, watchful for
treachery, the glimmer of the lamp full on his stern face.  Their
shadows glided, ever changing in conformation, along the walls, their
footfalls resounding hollow from the echoing passage.  There were no
words wasted in either command or explanation.  Without doubt, the
foreman understood fairly well the purpose of this unknown invader; but
he realized, also, that the man had never lightly assumed such risk of
discovery, and he had lived long enough among desperate men to
comprehend all that a loaded gun meant when the eye behind was hard and
cool.  The persuasive eloquence of "the drop" was amply sufficient to
enforce obedience.  Farnham be hanged!  He felt slight inclination at
that moment to die for the sake of Farnham.  Winston, accustomed to
gauging men, easily comprehended this mental attitude of his prisoner,
his eyes smiling in appreciation of the other's promptness, although
his glance never once wavered, his guarding hand never fell.  Burke was
safe enough now, yet he was not to be trifled with, not to be trusted
for an instant, in the playing out of so desperate a game.  At the
angle the two halted, while the engineer cautiously reconnoitred the
dimly revealed regions in front.  He could perceive but little evidence
of life, excepting the faint radiance of constantly moving lights down
Number One tunnel.  Burke stood sullenly silent, venturing upon no
movement except under command.

"Anybody down that other entry?"

The foreman shook his head, without glancing around, his jaws moving
steadily on the tobacco that swelled his cheek.

"Then lead on down it."

Winston stretched forth his unused left hand as they proceeded, his
fingers gliding along the wall, his observant eyes wandering slightly
from off the broad back of his prisoner toward the sides and roof of
the tunnel.  To his experience it was at once plainly evident this
preliminary cutting had been made through solid rock, not in the
following of any seam, but crossways.  Here alone was disclosed
evidence in plenty of deliberate purpose, of skilfully planned
depredation.  He halted Burke, with one hand gripping his shoulder.

"Are you people following an ore-lead back yonder?" he asked sharply.

The Irishman squirmed, glancing back at his questioner.  He saw nothing
in that face to yield any encouragement to deceit.

"Sure," he returned gruffly, "we're follyin' it all down that Number
Wan."

"What 's the nature of the ore body?"

"A bit low grade, wid a thrifle of copper, an' the vein is n't overly
tick."

"How far have you had to cut across here before striking color?"

"'Bout thirty fate o' rock work."

"Hike on, you thief," commanded the engineer, his jaw setting
threateningly.

It proved a decidedly crooked passage, the top uneven in height,
clearly indicating numerous faults in the vein, although none of these
were sufficiently serious to necessitate the solution of any difficult
mining problem.  In spite of the turns the general direction could be
ascertained easily.  The walls were apparently of some soft stone,
somewhat disintegrated by the introduction of air, and the engineer
quickly comprehended that pick and lever alone had been required to
dislodge the interlying vein of ore.  At the extreme end of this tunnel
the pile of broken rock lying scattered about clearly proclaimed recent
labor, although no discarded mining tools were visible.  Winston
examined the exposed ore-vein, now clearly revealed by Burke's
flickering lamp, and dropped a few detached specimens into his pocket.
Then he sat down on an outcropping stone, the revolver still gleaming
within his fingers, and ordered the sullen foreman to a similar seat
opposite.  The yellow rays of the light sparkled brilliantly from off
the outcropping mass, and flung its radiance across the faces of the
two men.  For a moment the silence was so intense they could hear water
drip somewhere afar off.

"Burke," asked the engineer suddenly, "how long have you fellows been
in here?"

The uneasy Irishman shifted his quid, apparently considering whether to
speak the truth or take the chances of a lie.  Something within
Winston's face must have decided him against the suggested falsehood.

"Well, sorr, Oi 've only been boss over this gang for a matter o' three
months," he said slowly, "an' they was well into this vein be then."

"How deep are we down?"

"Between sixty an' siventy fate, countin' it at the shaft."

"And this tunnel--how long do you make it?"

"Wan hundred an' forty-six fate, from the rock yonder."

Winston's gray eyes, grave with thought, were upon the man's face, but
the other kept his own concealed, lowered to the rock floor.

"Who laid out this work, do you know?  Who did the engineering?"

"Oi think ut was the ould man hisself.  Annyhow, that 's how thim
Swades tell ut."

Winston drew a deep breath.

"Well, he knew his business, all right; it's a neat job," he admitted,
a sudden note of admiration in his voice.  His glance wandered toward
the dull sparkle of the exposed ore.  "I suppose you know who all this
rightly belongs to, don 't you, Burke?"

The foreman spat reflectively into the dark, a grim smile bristling his
red moustache.

"Well, sorr, Oi 'm not mooch given up to thinkin'," he replied calmly.
"If it's them ide's yer afther, maybe it wud be Farnham ye'd betther
interview, sure, an he 's the lad whut 'tinds to that end o' it for
this outfit.  Oi 'm jist bossin' me gang durin' workin' hours, an'
slapin' the rist o' the toime in the bunk-house.  Oi 'm dommed if Oi
care who owns the rock."

The two men sat in silence.  Burke indifferently chewing on his quid.
Winston shifted the revolver into his left hand, and began slowly
tracing lines, and marking distances, on the back of an old envelope.
The motionless foreman steadily watched him through cautiously lowered
lashes, holding the lamp in his hat perfectly steady.  Slowly, with no
other muscle moving, both his hands stole upward along his body; inch
by inch attaining to a higher position without awakening suspicion.
His half-concealed eyes, as watchful as those of a cat, gleamed
feverishly beneath his hat-brim, never deserting Winston's partially
lowered face.  Then suddenly his two palms came together, the
sputtering flame of the lamp between them.



CHAPTER XVI

A RETURN TO THE DAY

Burke knew better than to attempt running; three steps in the midst of
such blinding darkness would have dashed him against unyielding rock.
Instantly, his teeth gripped like those of a bulldog, he clutched at
Winston's throat, trusting to his great strength for victory.
Instinctively, as one without knowing why closes the eyes to avoid
injury, the engineer dodged sideways, Burke's gripping fingers missed
their chosen mark, and the two men went crashing down together in
desperate struggle.

His revolver knocked from his grasp in the first impetus of assault,
his cheek bleeding from forcible contact with a rock edge, Winston
fought in silent ferocity, one hand holding back the Irishman's
searching fingers, the other firmly twisting itself into the soft
collar of his antagonist's shirt.  Twice Burke struck out heavily,
driving his clinched fist into the other's body, unable to reach the
protected face; then Winston succeeded in getting one groping foot
braced firmly against a surface of rock, and whirled the surprised
miner over upon his back with a degree of violence that caused his
breath to burst forth in a great sob.  A desperate struggle ensued, mad
and merciless--arms gripping, bodies straining, feet rasping along the
loose stones, muttered curses, the dull impact of blows.  Neither could
see the other, neither could feel assured his antagonist possessed no
weapon; yet both fought furiously,--Burke enraged and merciless,
Winston intoxicated with the lust of fight.  Twice they reversed
positions, the quickness of the one fairly offsetting the burly
strength of the other, their sinews straining, the hot breath hissing
between set teeth.  Pain was unfelt, mercy unknown.

In the midst of the blind _mêlée_, following some savage instinct,
Winston clinched his fingers desperately in the Irishman's hair, and
began jamming him back against the irregularities of the rock floor.
Suddenly Burke went limp, and the engineer, panting painfully, lay
outstretched upon him, his whole body quivering, barely conscious that
he had gained the victory.  The miner did not move, apparently he had
ceased breathing, and Winston, shrinking away from contact with the
motionless body, grasped a rock support and hauled himself to his feet.

The intense blackness all about dazed him; he retained no sense of
direction, scarcely any memory of where he was.  His body, bruised and
strained, pained him severely; his head throbbed as from fever.  Little
by little the exhausted breath came back, and with it a slow
realization of his situation.  Had he killed Burke?  He stared down
toward the spot where he knew the body lay, but could perceive nothing.
The mystery of the dark suddenly unnerved him; he could feel his hands
tremble violently as he groped cautiously along the smooth surface of
the rock.  He experienced a shrinking, nervous dread of coming into
contact with that man lying there beneath the black mantle, that
hideous, silent form, perhaps done to death by his hands.  It was a
revolt of the soul.  A moment he actually thought he was losing his
mind, feverish fancies playing grim tricks before his strained,
agonized vision, imagination peopling the black void with a riot of
grotesque figures.

He gripped himself slowly and sternly, his jaws set, his tingling
nerves mastered by the resolute dominance of an aroused will.
Compelling himself to the act, he bent down, feeling along the ground
for the foreman's hat having the extinguished lamp fixed on it.  He was
a long time discovering his object, yet the continued effort brought
back a large measure of self-control, and gave birth to a certain
clearness of perception.  He held the recovered lamp in his hands,
leaning against the side of the tunnel, listening.  The very intensity
of silence seemed to press against him from every direction as though
it had weight.  He was still breathing heavily, but his strained ears
could not distinguish the slightest sound where he knew Burke lay
shrouded In the darkness.  Nothing reached him to break the dread,
horrible silence, excepting that far-off, lonely trickle of dripping
water.  He hesitated, match in hand, shrinking childishly from the
coming revealment of his victim.  Yet why should he?  Fierce as the
struggle had proved, on his part the fight had been entirely one of
defence.  He had been attacked, and had fought back only in
self-preservation.  Winston harbored no animosity; the fierceness of
actual combat past, he dreaded now beyond expression the thought that
through his savagery a human life might have been sacrificed.  The tiny
flame of the ignited match played across his white face, caught the
wick of the lamp, and flared up in faint radiance through the gloom.
Burke, huddled into the rock shadow, never stirred, and the anxious
engineer bent over his motionless form in a horrid agony of fear.  The
man rested partially upon one side, his hands still gripped as in
struggle, an ugly wound, made by a jagged edge of rock, showing plainly
in the side of his head.  Blood had flowed freely, crimsoning the stone
beneath, but was already congealing amid the thick mass of hair,
serving somewhat to conceal the nature of the injury.

Winston, his head lowered upon the other's breast, felt confident he
detected breath, even a slight, spasmodic twitching of muscles, and
hastily arose to his feet, his mind already aflame with expedients.
The foreman yet lived; perhaps would not prove even seriously injured,
if assistance only reached him promptly.  Yet what could he do?  What
ought he to attempt doing?  In his present physical condition Winston
realized the utter impossibility of transporting that burly body;
water, indeed, might serve to revive him, yet that faint trickle of
falling drops probably came from some distant fault in the rock which
would require much patient search to locate.  The engineer had assumed
grave chances in this venture underground; in this moment of victory he
felt little inclination to surrender his information, or to sacrifice
himself in any quixotic devotion to his assailant.  Yet he must give
the fellow a fair chance.  There seemed only one course practicable,
the despatching to the helpless man's assistance of some among that
gang of workmen down in Number One.  But could this be accomplished
without danger of his own discovery?  Without any immediate revealment
of his part in the tragedy?  First of all, he must make sure regarding
his own safety; he must reach the surface before the truth became known.

Almost mechanically he picked up his revolver where it lay glittering
upon the floor, and stood staring at that recumbent form, slowly
maturing a plan of action.  Little by little it assumed shape within
his mind.  Swanson was the name of the missing miner, the one Burke had
gone back to seek,--a Swede beyond doubt, and, from what slight glimpse
he had of the fellow before Brown grappled with him in the path above,
a sturdily built fellow, awkwardly galled.  In all probability such a
person would have a deep voice, gruff from the dampness of long working
hours below.  Well, he might not succeed in duplicating that exactly,
but he could imitate Swedish dialect, and, amid the excitement and
darkness, trust to luck.  Let us see; Burke had surely called one of
those miners yonder Ole, another Peterson; it would probably help in
throwing the fellows off their guard to hear their own names spoken,
and they most naturally would expect Swanson to be with the foreman.
It appeared feasible enough, and assuredly was the only plan possible;
it must be risked, the earlier the better.  The thought never once
occurred to him of thus doing injury to a perfectly innocent man.

He looked once more anxiously at the limp figure of the prostrate
Burke, and then, holding the lamp out before him, moved cautiously down
the passage toward the main tunnel.  Partially concealing himself amid
the denser shadows behind the displaced falsework, he was enabled to
look safely down the opening of Number One, and could perceive numerous
dark figures moving about under flickering rays of light, while his
ears distinguished a sound of voices between the strokes of the picks.
He crept still closer, shadowing his lamp between his hands, and
crouching uneasily in the shadows.  The group of men nearest him were
undoubtedly Swedes, as they were conversing in that language, working
with much deliberation in the absence of the boss.  Winston rose up,
his shadow becoming plainly visible on the rock wall, one hand held
before his mouth to better muffle the sound of his voice.  The hollow
echoing along those underground caverns tended to make all noise
unrecognizable.

"Yust two of you fellars bettar come by me, an' gif a leeft," he
ventured, doubtfully.

Those nearer faces down the tunnel were turned toward the voice in
sudden, bewildered surprise, the lights flickering as the heads
uplifted.

"Vas it you, Nels Swanson?"

"Yas, I tank so; I yust want Peterson an' Ole.  Meester Burke vas got
hurt in the new level, an' I couldn't leeft him alone."

He saw the two start promptly, dropping their picks, their heavy boots
crunching along the floor, the flapping hat-brims hiding their eyes and
shadowing their faces.  For a moment he lingered beside the falsework,
permitting the light from his lamp to flicker before them as a beacon;
then he hid the tiny flame within his cap, and ran swiftly down the
main tunnel.  Confident now of Burke's early rescue, he must grasp this
opportunity for an immediate escape from the mine.  A hundred feet from
the foot of the shaft he suddenly came upon the advancing tram-car, a
diminutive mule pulling lazily in the rope traces, the humping figure
of a boy hanging on behind.  The two gazed at each other through the
smoke of a sputtering wick.

"Hurry up," spoke Winston, sharply.  "Burke's hurt, and they'll need
your car to carry him out in.  What's the signal for the cage?"

The boy stood silent, his mouth wide open, staring at him stupidly.

"Do you hear, you lunk-head?  I 'm after a doctor; how do you signal
the cage?"

"Twa yanks on the cord, meester," was the grudging reply.  "Wha was ye,
onyhow?"  But Winston, unheeding the question, was already off, his
only thought the necessity of immediately attaining the surface in
safety, ahead of the spreading of an alarm.

The cage shot speedily upward through the intense darkness, past the
deserted forty-foot gallery, and emerged into the gray light of dawn
flooding the shafthouse.  Blinking from those long hours passed in the
darkness below, Winston distinguished dimly a number of strange figures
grouped before him.  An instant he paused in uncertainty, his hand
shading his eyes; then, as he stepped almost blindly forward he came
suddenly face to face with Biff Farnham.  A second their glances met,
both alike startled, bewildered, doubtful--then the jaw of the gambler
set firm, his hand dropped like lightning toward his hip, and Winston,
every ounce of strength thrown into the swift blow, struck him squarely
between the eyes.  The man went over as though shot, yet before he even
hit the floor, the other had leaped across the reeling body, and
dashed, stumbling and falling, down the steep slope of the dump-pile,
crashing head first into the thick underbrush below.



CHAPTER XVII

A COUNCIL OF WAR

In the magic of a moment a dozen angry men were pouring from the
shaft-house, their guns barking viciously between their curses.
Beyond, at the edge of their dark cover, Hicks and Brown rose eagerly
to their knees, while their ready rifles spat swift return fire, not
all of it wasted.  But Winston had vanished in the green underbrush as
completely as though he had dropped into the sea.  When he finally
emerged it was behind the protecting chaparral, his clothing rags, his
breathing the sobs of utter exhaustion.  Brown, the spell of battle
upon him, never glanced aside, his eyes along the brown rifle-barrel;
but Hicks sprang enthusiastically to his feet, uttering a growl of
hearty welcome.

"Damn it," he exclaimed, his old eyes twinkling with admiration, "but
you 're a man!"

The engineer smiled, his hand pressed hard against his side.  "Maybe I
am," he gasped, "but I 'm mighty near all in just now.  Say, that was a
lively spin, and it's got to be an eat and a rest for me next."

Hicks shaded his forehead, leaning on his rifle.

"Sometimes I reckon maybe I don't see quite as good as I used to," he
explained regretfully.  "Put five shots inter that measly bunch over
thar just now, an' never saw even one o' 'em hop 'round like they got
stung.  They look sorter misty-like ter me from here; say, Stutter,
what is a-happenin' over thar now, anyway?"

Brown wiped his face deliberately, sputtering fiercely as he strove to
get firm grip on his slow thought.

"A-a-ain't much o' n-nuthing, so f-f-fur's I kin s-see," he replied
gravely.  "C-couple o' fellars w-with g-guns h-h-hidin' back o' ther
d-dump.  C-c-carried two b-bucks 'hind ther sh-shaft-house; h-h-hurt
some, I 'speck.  R-reckon I must a' g-got both on 'em.  Y-y-you shore
ought t-ter wear t-t-telescopes, Bill."

Hicks stared at his partner, his gray goat-beard sticking straight out,
his teeth showing.

"So yer got 'em, hey?" he retorted, savagely.  "Oh, ye 're
chain-lightnin', yer are, Stutter.  Ye 're the 'riginal Doctor Carver,
yer long-legged, sputtering lunk-head.  Yer crow like a rooster thet 's
just found its voice.  Now, look yere; I reckon it's brain-work what's
got ter git us out o' this yere hole, an' I 'll shore have ter furnish
most o' that, fer yer ain 't got none ter spare, as ever I noticed.
Shoot! hell, yes, yer kin shoot all right, an' make love ter Greasers;
but when thet's over with, yer all in.  That's when it's up ter old
Bill Hicks ter do the thinkin' act, and make good.  Lord! yer leave me
plumb tired."  The old man peered out across the vacant space toward
the apparently deserted dump, the anger slowly fading away from his
eyes.  "I sorter imagine, gents, it will take them fellers a while ter
git over ther sudden shock we 've given 'em," he continued.  "Maybe we
better take this yere rest spell ter git somethin' ter eat in, and talk
over how we 're fixed fer when the curtain goes up again.  Them fellers
never won't be happy till after they git another dose into their
systems, an' thar 's liable ter be some considerable lead eat afore
night.  When they does git braced up, an' they reckon up all this yere
means, they 'll shore be an ugly bunch."

Behind the safe protection of the low-growing cedars the three men
walked slowly toward the cabin of the "Little Yankee," seemingly
utterly oblivious to any danger lurking behind.  As they thus advanced
Winston related briefly his discoveries in the lower levels of the
"Independence," referring to his personal adventures merely as the
needs of the simple narrative required.  Brown, his rifle at trail, his
boyish face sober with thought, indulged in no outward comment, but
Hicks burst forth with words of fervent commendation.

"By cracky, are yer shore that was Farnham yer hit?" he exclaimed, his
old eyes gleaming in appreciation.  "Blame me, Stutter, what do yer
think o' that?  Punched him afore he cud even pull his gun; never heerd
o' no sich miracle afore in this yere camp.  Why, Lord, that fellar 's
quicker 'n chain-lightnin'; I 've seen him onlimber more 'n once."

"I-I reckon h-h-he won't be v-very likely ter l-let up on yer now,
M-m-mister W-Winston," put in the young giant cautiously.  "H-he ain't
ther kind t-ter fergit no sich d-d-deal."

"Him let up!--hell!" and Hicks stopped suddenly, and stared behind.
"He 'll never let up on nothin', that fellar.  He 'll be down after us
all right, as soon as he gits his second wind, an' Winston here is
a-goin' ter git plugged for this night's shindy, if Farnham ever fair
gits the drop on him.  He ain't got no more mercy 'n a tiger.  Yer kin
gamble on that, boys.  He 'll git ther whole parcel o' us if he kin,
'cause he knows now his little game is up if he does n't; but he 'll
aim ter git Winston, anyhow.  Did ye make any tracin's while yer was
down thar?"

"Yes, I've got the plans in detail; my distances may not be exactly
correct, but they are approximately, and I would be willing to go on
the stand with them."

"Good boy!  That means we 've shore got 'em on the hip.  They're
a-keepin' quiet over there yet, ain't they, Stutter?  Well, let 's have
our chuck out yere in the open, whar' we kin keep our eyes peeled, an'
while we 're eatin' we 'll talk over what we better do next."

The kitchen of the "Little Yankee" was situated out of doors, a small
rift in the face of the bluff forming a natural fireplace, while a
narrow crevice between rocks acted as chimney, and carried away the
smoke.  The preparation of an ordinary meal under such primitive
conditions was speedily accomplished, the menu not being elaborate nor
the service luxurious.  Winston barely found time in which to wash the
grime from his hands and face, and hastily shift out of his ragged
working clothes to the suit originally worn, when Hicks announced the
spread ready, and advised a lively falling to.  The dining-room was a
large, flat stone on the very edge of the bluff, sufficiently elevated
to command a practically unobstructed view of the distant shaft-house
of the "Independence."  Hicks brought from the cabin an extra rifle,
with belt filled with ammunition, which he gravely held out to the
engineer.

"These yere fixings will come in handy pretty soon, I reckon," he
remarked significantly, and stood quietly on the edge of the rock,
holding a powerful field-glass to his eyes.

"They 've brought ther night-shift up ter the top," he commented
finally, "an they 're 'rousin' them others outer ther bunk-house.  Hell
'll be piping hot presently.  'Bout half them fellers are a-totin'
guns, too.  Ah, I thought so--thar goes a lad horseback,
hell-bent-fer-'lection down the trail, huntin' after more roughs, I
reckon.  Well, ther more ther merrier, as ther ol' cat said when she
counted her kittens.  Darned ef they ain't got a reg'lar skirmish line
thrown out 'long ther gulch yonder.  Yer bet they mean business for
shore, Stutter, ol' boy."

Brown, deliberately engaged in pouring the coffee, contented himself
with a slight grunt, and a quick glance in the direction indicated.
Hicks slowly closed his glasses, and seated himself comfortably on the
edge of the rock.  Winston, already eating, but decidedly anxious,
glanced at the two emotionless faces with curiosity.

"The situation does n't seem to worry either of you very much," he said
at last.  "If you really expect an attack from those fellows over
there, is n't it about time we were arranging for some defence?"

Hicks looked over at him across the rim of his tin cup.

"Defence?  Hell! here 's our defence--four o' us, countin' Mike."

"Where is Mike?"

"Oh, out yonder in ther back yard amusin' that Swede Stutter yere
brought in ter him fer a playthin'.  Them foreigners seem ter all be
gittin' mighty chummy o' late.  Stutter yere is a-takin' up with
Greasers, an' Mike with Swedes.  I reckon I 'll have ter be lookin'
round fer an Injun, er else play a lone hand purty soon."

Brown, his freckled face hotly flushed, his eyes grown hard, struck the
rock with clinched hand.

"D-d-damn you, B-Bill," he stuttered desperately, his great chest
heaving.  "I-I 've had jist 'nough o' th-th-thet sorter talk.  Yer
s-s-spit out 'nuther word 'bout her, an' th-th-thar 'll be somethin'
e-else a-doin'."

Old Hicks laughed, his gray goat-beard waggling, yet it was clearly
evident he appreciated the temper of his partner, and realized the
limit of patience.

"Oh, I 'll pass," he confessed genially.  "Lord!  I hed a touch o' that
same disease oncet myself.  But thar ain't no sense in yer fightin' me,
Stutter; I bet yer git practice 'nough arter awhile, 'less them thar
black eyes o' hern be mighty deceivin'.  But that thar may keep.  Jist
now we 've got a few other p'ints ter consider.  You was askin' about
our defence, Mr. Winston, when this yere love-sick kid butted in?"

"Yes."

"Well, it 's ther lay o' ther ground, an' four good rifles.  Thet 's
ther whole o' it; them fellers over yonder can't get in, an' I 'm
damned if we kin git out.  Whichever party gits tired first is the one
what's goin' ter git licked."

"I scarcely understand, Hicks; do you mean you propose standing a
siege?"

"Don't clearly perceive nothin' else ter do," and the man's half-closed
eyes glanced about questioningly.  "We ain't strong enough to assault;
Farnham 's got more 'n five men ter our one over thar right now.  He 's
sent a rider inter San Juan arter another bunch o' beauties.  We've
corralled the evidence, an' we've got ther law back o' us, ter send him
ter the penitentiary.  Shore, thar's no doubt o' it.  He knows it; an'
he knows, moreover, thar ain't no way out fer him except ter plant us
afore we kin ever git inter ther courts.  Thet's his game jist now.  Do
yer think Mr. Biff Farnham under them circumstances is liable ter do
the baby act?  Not ter no great extent, let me tell yer.  He ain't
built thet way.  Besides, he hates me like pizen; I reckon by this time
he don't harbor no great love for you; an' yer bet he means ter git us
afore we kin squeal, if he has ter h'ist the whole damned mounting.
Anyhow, that's how it looks ter me an' Stutter yere.  What was it you
was goin' ter advise, Mr. Winston?"

The engineer set down his tin coffee cup.

"The immediate despatching of a messenger to San Juan, the swearing out
of a warrant for Farnham on a criminal charge, and getting the sheriff
up here with a posse."

Hicks smiled grimly, his glance wandering over toward Stutter, who sat
staring open-eyed at the engineer.

"Ye're a young man, sir, an' I rather reckon yer don't precisely
onderstan' ther exact status o' things out yere in Echo Canyon," he
admitted, gravely.  "I'm law-abidin', an' all that; law's all right in
its place, an' whar it kin be enforced, but Echo Canyon ain't Denver,
an' out yere ther rifle, an' occasionally a chunk o' dynamite, hes got
ter be considered afore ther courts git any chance ter look over ther
evidence.  It's ginerally lead first, an' lawyers later.  Thet 's what
makes the game interestin', an' gives sich chaps as Farnham a run fer
their money.  Well, just now we 've got the law an' ther evidence with
us all right, but, damn ther luck, them other fellers hes got the
rifles.  It 's his play first, an' it sorter looks ter me as if the man
knew how ter handle his cards.  He ain't no bluffer, either.  Just take
a squint through them glasses down the trail, an' tell me what yer see."

Winston did so, rising to his feet, standing at the edge of the rock
fairly overhanging the valley.

"Wal, do yer make out anythin' in partic'lar?"

"There is a small party of men clustered near the big boulder."

"Exactly; wal, them thar fellars ain't thar altergether fer ther
health.  Thar 's three more o' ther same kind a'squattin' in the bushes
whar the path branches toward ther 'Independence,' an' another bunch
lower down 'side ther crick.  It's easy 'nough ter talk about law, an'
ther sendin' o' a messenger down ter San Juan after the sheriff, but I
'd hate some ter be that messenger.  He 'd have some considerable
excitement afore he got thar.  Farnham 's a dirty villain, all right,
but he ain't no fool.  He's got us bottled up yere, and ther cork druv
in."

"You mean we are helpless?"

"Wal, not precisely; not while our grub and ammunition holds out.  I
merely intimate thet this yere difficulty hes naturally got ter be
thrashed out with guns--good, honest fightin'--afore any courts will
git a chance even ter sit inter ther game.  We ain't got no time jist
now ter fool with lawyers.  Clubs is trumps this deal in Echo Canyon,
an' we 're goin' ter play a lone hand.  Ther one thing what's botherin'
me is, how soon ther damned fracas is goin' ter begin.  I reckon as how
them fellers is only waitin' fer reinforcements."

Winston sat motionless, looking at the two men, his mind rapidly
grasping the salient points of the situation.  He was thoroughly
puzzled at their apparent indifference to its seriousness.  He was
unused to this arbitrament of the rifle, and the odds against them
seemed heavy.  Old Hicks easily comprehended the expression upon his
face, and solemnly stroked his goat-beard.

"Ain't used ter that sort o' thing, hey?" he asked at last, his
obstinate old eyes contracting into mere slits.  "Reckon we're in a
sort o' pickle, don't ye?  Wal, I don't know 'bout that.  Yer see, me
an' Stutter have bin sort o' lookin' fer somethin' like this ter occur
fer a long time, an' we 've consequently got it figgered out ter a
purty fine p'int.  When Farnham an' his crowd come moseying up yere,
they ain't goin' ter have it all their own way, let me tell yer,
pardner.  Do yer see that straight face o' rock over yonder?" he rose
to his feet, pointing across his shoulder.  "Wal, that 's got a front
o' thirty feet, an' slopes back 'bout as fur, with a shelf hangin' over
it like a roof.  Best nat'ral fort ever I see, an' only one way o'
gittin' inter it, an' that the devil o' a crooked climb.  Wal, we 've
stocked that place fer a siege with chuck an' ammunition, an' I reckon
four men kin 'bout hold it agin the whole county till hell freezes
over.  It's in easy rifle shot o' both ther cabin an' ther shaft, an'
that Biff Farnham is mighty liable ter git another shock when he comes
traipsin' up yere fer ter wipe out ther 'Little Yankee.'  Ol' Bill
Hicks ain't bin prospectin' fer thirty years, an' holdin' down claims
with a gun, without learnin' somethin' about ther business.  I 'm ready
to buck this yere Farnham at any game he wants ter play; damned if he
can't take his chice, law er rifles, an' I 'll give him a bellyful
either way."

No one spoke for a long while, the three men apparently occupied with
their own thoughts.  To Winston it was a tragedy, picturesque, heroic,
the wild mountain setting furnishing a strange dignity.  Brown finally
cleared his throat, preparing to speak, his great hand slowly rubbing
his chin.

"I-I sorter w-w-wish them w-wimmen wan't y-yere," he stuttered,
doubtfully.

The engineer glanced up in sudden astonishment.

"Women!" he exclaimed.  "Do you mean to say you have women with you?"

Hicks chuckled behind his beard.

"Shore we have thet--all ther comforts o' home.  Nice place fer a
picnic, ain't it?  But I reckon as how them gals will have ter take
pot-luck with the rest o' us.  Leastways, I don't see no chance now ter
get shuck o' 'em.  I 'll tell ye how it happened, Mr. Winston; it 'd
take Stutter, yere, too blame long ter relate ther story, only I hope
he won't fly off an' git mad if I chance ter make mention o' his gal
'long with the other.  He 's gittin' most damn touchy, is Stutter, an'
I 'm all a-tremble fer fear he 'll blow a hole cl'ar through me.  It's
hell, love is, whin it gits a good hol' on a damn fool.  Wal, these
yere two bloomin' females came cavortin' up the trail this mornin',
just afore daylight.  Nobody sent 'em no invite, but they sorter
conceived they had a mission in ther wilderness.  I wa'nt nowise
favorable ter organizin' a reception committee, an' voted fer shovin'
'em back downhill, bein' a bit skeery o' that sex, but it seems that,
all unbeknownst ter me, Stutter, yere, hed bin gittin' broke ter
harness.  An' what did he do but come prancin' inter the argument with
a gun, cussin' an' swearin', and insistin' they be received yere as
honored guests.  Oh, he 's got it bad.  He 'll likely 'nough go down
ter San Juan soon as ever ther road is cl'ar, an' buy one o' them
motters 'God Bless Our Home' ter hang on ther cabin wall, an' a
door-mat with 'Welcome' on it.  That's Stutter--gone cl'ar bug-house
jist 'cause a little black-haired, slim sort o' female made eyes at
him.  Blame a fool, anyhow.  Wal, one o' them two was Stutter's catch,
a high-kickin' Mexican dancin' gal down ter San Juan.  I ain't goin'
ter tell yer what I think o' her fer fear o' gittin' perforated.  She
hed 'long with her another performer, a darn good-looker, too, as near
as I could make out in the dark.  Wal, them two gals was purtendin' ter
be huntin' arter you; wanted ter warn yer agin Farnham, er some sich
rot.  You was down ther mine, jist then, so that's the whole o' it up
ter date."

"Where are they now?"

"In the cabin yonder, sleepin' I reckon."

Winston turned hastily toward Brown, his lips quivering, his eyes grown
stern.

"Who was it with Mercedes?" he questioned sharply.  "Did you learn her
name?"

"Sh-she told me d-d-down at San Juan," replied Stutter, striving hard
to recollect.  "It w-w-was N-N-Nor-vell."

With the utterance of the word the young engineer was striding rapidly
toward the cabin.



CHAPTER XVIII

THE CONFESSION

Through the single unglazed window Beth Norvell saw him coming, and
clutched at the casing, trembling violently, half inclined to turn and
fly.  This was the moment she had so greatly dreaded, yet the moment
she could not avoid unless she failed to do her duty to this man.  In
another instant the battle had been fought and won, the die cast.  She
turned hastily toward her unconscious companion, grasping her arm.

"Mr. Winston is coming, Mercedes; I--I must see him this time alone."

The Mexican's great black eyes flashed up wonderingly into the flushed
face bending over her, marking the heightened color, the visible
embarrassment.  She sprang erect, her quick glance through the window
revealing the figure of the engineer striding swiftly toward them.

"Oh, si, señorita; dat iss all right.  I go see Mike; he more fun as
dose vat make lofe."

There was a flutter of skirts and sudden vanishment, even as Miss
Norvell's ears caught the sound of a low rap on the outer door.  She
stood breathing heavily, her hands clasped upon her breast, until the
knock had been repeated twice.  Her voice utterly failing her, she
pressed the latch, stepping backward to permit his entrance.  The first
swift, inquiring glance into his face frightened her into an impulsive
explanation.

"I was afraid I arrived here too late to be of any service.  It seems,
however, you did not even need me."

He grasped the hand which, half unconsciously, she had extended toward
him; he was startled by its unresponsive coldness, striving vainly to
perceive the truth hidden away beneath her lowered lids.

"I fear I do not altogether understand," he returned gravely.  "They
merely said that you were here with a message of warning for me.  I
knew that much only a moment ago.  I cannot even guess the purport of
your message, yet I thank you for a very real sacrifice for my sake."

"Oh, no; truly it was nothing," the excitement bewildering her.  "It
was no more than I would have done for any friend; no one could have
done less."

"You, at least, confess friendship?"

"Have I ever denied it?" almost indignantly, and looking directly at
him for the first time.  "Whatever else I may seem, I can certainly
claim loyalty to those who trust me.  I wear no mask off the stage."

Even as she spoke the hasty words she seemed to realize their full
import, to read his doubt of their truth revealed within his eyes.

"Then," he said slowly, weighing each word as though life depended on
the proper choice, "there is nothing being concealed from me?  Nothing
between you and this Farnham beyond what I already know?"

She stood clinging to the door, with colorless cheeks, and parted lips,
her form quivering.  This was when she had intended to speak in all
bravery, to pour forth the whole miserable story, trusting to this man
for mercy.  But, O God, she could not; the words choked in her throat,
the very breath seemed to strangle her.

"That--that is something different," she managed to gasp desperately.
"It--it belongs to the past; it cannot be helped now."

"Yet you came here to warn me against him?"

"Yes."

"How did you chance to learn that my life was threatened?"

She uplifted her eyes to his for just one instant, her face like marble.

"He told me."

"What?  Farnham himself?  You have been with him?"

She bowed, a half-stifled sob shaking her body, which at any other time
would have caused him to pause in sympathy.  Now it was merely a new
spur to his awakened suspicion.  He had no thought of sparing her.

"Where?  Did he call upon you at the hotel?"

She threw back her shoulders in indignation at his tone of censure.

"I met him, after the performance, in a private box at the Gayety, last
evening," she replied more calmly.  "He sent for me, and I was alone
with him for half an hour."

Winston stood motionless, almost breathless, looking directly into the
girl's face.  He durst not speak the words of rebuke trembling upon his
lips.  He felt that the slightest mistake now would never be forgiven.
There was a mystery here unsolved; in some way he failed to understand
her, to appreciate her motives.  In the brief pause Beth Norvell came
back to partial self-control, to a realization of what this man must
think of her.  With a gesture almost pleading she softly touched his
sleeve.

"Mr. Winston, I truly wish you to believe me, to believe in me," she
began, her low voice vibrating with emotion.  "God alone knows how
deeply I appreciate your friendship, how greatly I desire to retain it
unsullied.  Perhaps I have not done right; it is not always easy,
perhaps not always possible.  I may have been mistaken in my conception
of duty, yet have tried to do what seemed best.  There is that in the
pages of my past life which I intended to tell you fully and frankly
before our final parting.  I thought when I came here I had sufficient
courage to relate it to you to-day, but I cannot--I cannot."

"At least answer me one question without equivocation--do you love that
man?"  He must ask that, know that; all else could wait.

An instant she stood before him motionless, a slight color creeping
back into her cheeks under his intense scrutiny.  Then she uplifted her
eyes frankly to his own, and he looked down into their revealed depth.

"I do not," the low voice hard with decision.  "I despise him."

"Have you ever loved him?"

"As God is my witness--no."

There was no possible disbelieving her; the absolute truthfulness of
that utterance was evidenced by trembling lips, by the upturned face.
Winston drew a deep breath of relief, his contracted brows
straightening.  For one hesitating moment he remained speechless,
struggling for self-control.  Merciful Heavens! would he ever
understand this woman?  Would he ever fathom her full nature? ever rend
the false from the true?  The deepening, baffling mystery served merely
to stimulate ambition, to strengthen his unwavering purpose.  He
possessed the instinct that assured him she cared; it was for his sake
that she had braved the night and Farnham's displeasure.  What, then,
was it that was holding them apart?  What was the nature of this
barrier beyond all surmounting?  The man in him rebelled at having so
spectral an adversary; he longed to fight it out in the open, to
grapple with flesh and blood.  In spite of promise, his heart found
words of protest.

"Beth, please tell me what all this means," he pleaded simply, his
hands outstretched toward her.  "Tell me, because I love you; tell me,
because I desire to help you.  It is true we have not known each other
long; yet, surely, the time and opportunity have been sufficient for
each to learn much regarding the character of the other.  You trust me,
you believe in my word; down in the secret depths of your heart you are
beginning to love me.  I believe that, little girl; I believe that,
even while your lips deny its truth.  It is the instinct of love which
teaches me, for I love you.  I may not know your name, the story of
your life, who or what you are, but I love you, Beth Norvell, with the
life-love of a man.  What is it, then, between us?  What is it?  God
help me!  I could battle against realities, but not against ghosts.  Do
you suppose I cannot forgive, cannot excuse, cannot blot out a past
mistake?  Do you imagine my love so poor a thing as that?  Do not wrong
me so.  I am a man of the world, and comprehend fully those temptations
which come to all of us.  I can let the dead past bury its dead,
satisfied with the present and the future.  Only tell me the truth, the
naked truth, and let me combat in the open against whatever it is that
stands between us.  Beth, Beth, this is life or death to me!"

She stood staring at him, her face gone haggard, her eyes full of
misery.  Suddenly she sank upon her knees beside a chair, and, with a
moan, buried her countenance within her hands.

"Beth," he asked, daring to touch her trembling hair, "have I hurt you?
Have I done wrong to speak thus?"

A single sob shook the slender, bowed figure, the face still hidden.

"Yes," she whispered faintly, "you have hurt me; you have done wrong."

"But why?" he insisted.  "Is not my love worthy?"

She lifted her head then, resting one hand against the dishevelled
hair, her eyes misty from tears.

"Worthy?  O God, yes! but so useless; so utterly without power."

Winston strode to the window and back again, his hands clenched, the
veins showing across his forehead.  Suddenly he dropped upon his knees
beside her, clasping her one disengaged hand within both his own.

"Beth, I refuse to believe," he exclaimed firmly.  "Love is never
useless, never without power, either in this world or the next.  Tell
me, then, once for all, here before God, do you love me?"

She swept the clinging tears from her lashes, the soft clasp of her
fingers upon his hand unconsciously tightening.

"You may read an answer within my face," she replied, slowly.  "It must
be that my eyes tell the truth, although I cannot speak it with my
lips."

"Cannot?  In God's name, why?"

She choked, yet the voice did not wholly fail her.

"Because I have no right.  I--I am the wife of another."

The head drooped lower, the hair shadowing the face, and Winston, his
lips set and white, stared at her, scarcely comprehending.  A moment
later he sprang to his feet, one hand pressed across his eyes, slowly
grasping the full measure of her confession.

"The wife of another!" he burst forth, his voice shaking.  "Great God!
You?  What other?  Farnham?"

The bowed head sank yet lower, as though in mute answer, and his ears
caught the echo of a single muffled sob.  Suddenly she glanced up at
him, and then rose unsteadily to her feet clinging to the back of the
chair for support.

"Mr. Winston," her voice strengthening with each word spoken, "it hurts
me to realize that you feel so deeply.  I--I wish I might bear the
burden of this mistake all alone.  But I cannot stand your contempt, or
have you believe me wholly heartless, altogether unworthy.  We--we must
part, now and forever; there is no other honorable way.  I tried so
hard to compel you to leave me before; I accepted that engagement at
the Gayety, trusting such an act would disgust you with me.  I am not
to blame for this; truly, I am not--no woman could have fought against
Fate more faithfully; only--only I couldn't find sufficient courage to
confess to you the whole truth.  Perhaps I might have done so at first;
but it was too late before I learned the necessity, and then my heart
failed me.  There was another reason I need not mention now, why I
hesitated, why such a course became doubly hard.  But I am going to
tell you it all now, for--for I wish you to go away at least respecting
my womanhood."

He made no reply, no comment, and the girl dropped her questioning eyes
to the floor.

"You asked me if I had ever loved him," she continued, speaking more
slowly, "and I told you no.  That was the truth as I realize it now,
although there was a time when the man fascinated, bewildered me, as I
imagine the snake fascinates a bird.  I have learned since something of
what love truly is, and can comprehend that my earlier feeling toward
him was counterfeit, a mere bit of dross.  Be patient, please, while I
tell you how it all happened.  It--it is a hard task, yet, perhaps, you
may think better of me from a knowledge of the whole truth.  I am a
Chicago girl.  There are reasons why I shall not mention my family
name, and it is unnecessary; but my parents are wealthy and of good
position.  All my earlier education was acquired through private
tutors; so that beyond my little, narrow circle of a world--fashionable
and restricted--all of real life remained unknown, unexplored, until
the necessity for a wider development caused my being sent to a
well-known boarding-school for girls in the East.  I think now the
choice made was unfortunate.  The school being situated close to a
large city, and the discipline extremely lax, temptation which I was
not in any way fitted to resist surrounded me from the day of entrance.
In a fashionable drawing-room, in the home of my mother's friends, I
first became acquainted with Mr. Farnham."

She paused with the mention of his name, as though its utterance pained
her, yet almost immediately resumed her story, not even glancing up at
her listener.

"I was at an age to be easily flattered by the admiration of a man of
mature years.  He was considerably older than I, always well dressed,
versed in social forms, liberal with money, exhibiting a certain
dashing recklessness which proved most attractive to all the girls I
knew.  Indeed, I think it was largely because of their envy that I was
first led to accept his attentions.  However, I was very young, utterly
inexperienced, while he was thoroughly versed in every trick by which
to interest one of my nature.  He claimed to be a successful dramatist
and author, thus adding materially to my conception of his character
and capability.  Little by little the man succeeded in weaving about me
the web of his fascination, until I was ready for any sacrifice he
might propose.  Naturally ardent, easily impressed by outward
appearances, assured as to my own and his social position, ignorant of
the wiles of the world, I was an easy victim.  Somewhere he had formed
the acquaintance of my brother, which fact merely increased my
confidence in him.  I need not dwell in detail upon what followed--the
advice of romantic girls, the false counsel of a favorite teacher, the
specious lies and explanations accounting for the necessity for
secrecy, the fervent pleadings, the protestations, the continual
urging, that finally conquered my earlier resolves.  I yielded before
the strain, the awakened imagination of a girl of sixteen seeing
nothing in the rose-tinted future except happiness.  We were married in
Christ Church, Boston, two of my classmates witnessing the ceremony.
Three months later I awoke fully from dreaming, and faced the darkness."

She leaned against the wall, her face, half hidden, pressed against her
arm.  Speaking no word of interruption, Winston clasped her hand and
waited, his gray eyes moist.

"He was a professional gambler, a brute, a cruel, cold-blooded coward,"
the words dropping from her lips as though they burned in utterance.
"Only at the very first did he make any effort to disguise his nature,
or conceal the object of his marriage.  He endeavored to wring money
from my people, and--and struck me when I refused him aid.  He failed
because I blocked him; tried blackmail and failed again, although I
saved him from exposure.  If he had ever cared for me, by this time his
love had changed to dislike or indifference.  He left me for weeks at a
time, often alone and in poverty.  My father sought in vain to get me
away from him, but--but I was too proud to confess the truth.  I should
have been welcome at home, without him; but I refused to go.  I had
made my own choice, had committed the mistake, had done the wrong; I
could not bring myself to flee from the result.  I burrowed in the
slums where he took me, hiding from all who sought me out.  Yet I lived
in an earthly hell, my dream of love dispelled, the despair of life
constantly deepening.  I no longer cared for the man--I despised him,
shrank from his presence; yet something more potent than pride kept me
loyal.  I believed then, I believe now, in the sacredness of marriage;
it was the teaching of my church, of my home; it had become part of my
very soul.  To me that formal church wedding typified the solemnity of
religion; I durst not prove untrue to vows thus taken; divorce was a
thought impossible."

"And now?" he interrupted gently.

She lifted her head, with one swift glance upward.

"You will think me wrong, quixotic, unnatural," she acknowledged
soberly.  "Yet I am not absolved, not free--this man remains my
husband, wedded to me by the authority of the church.  I--I must bear
the burden of my vows; not even love would long compensate for
unfaithfulness in the sight of God."

In the intense silence they could hear each other's strained breathing
and the soft notes of a bird singing gleefully without.  Winston, his
lips compressed, his eyes stern with repressed feeling, neither moved
nor spoke.  Beth Norvell's head sank slowly back upon her arm.

"He took me with him from city to city," she went on wearily, as though
unconsciously speaking to herself, "staying, I think, in each as long
as the police would permit.  He was seldom with me, seldom gave me
money.  We did not quarrel, for I refused to be drawn into any exchange
of words.  He never struck me excepting twice, but there are other ways
of hurting a woman, and he knew them all.  I was hungry at times and
ill clad.  I was driven to provide for myself, and worked in factories
and stores.  Whenever he knew I had money he took it.  Money was always
the cause of controversy between us.  It was his god, not to hoard up,
but to spend upon himself.  My steady refusal to permit his bleeding my
father enraged him; it was at such times he lost all control, and--and
struck me.  God!  I could have killed him!  There were times when I
could, when I wonder I did not.  Yet in calm deliberation I durst not
break my vows.  Three years ago he left me in Denver without a word,
without a suggestion that the desertion was final.  We had just reached
there, and I had nothing.  Friends of my family lived there, but I
could not seek them for help.  I actually suffered, until finally I
found employment in a large department store.  I expected he would
return, and kept my rooms where he left me.  I wrote home twice,
cheerful letters, saying nothing to lower him in the estimation of my
people, yet concealing my address for fear they might seek me out.
Then there unexpectedly came to me an opportunity to go out with
Albrecht, and I accepted it most thankfully.  It gave me a chance to
think of other things, to work hard, to forget myself in a growing
ambition.  I had already thrown off the old, and was laying ever firmer
hands upon the new, when you came into my life, and then he came back
also.  It is such a small world, such a little world, all shadowed and
full of heartaches!"

In the silence she glanced aside at him, her eyes clear, her hair held
back by one hand.

"Please do not look at me like that," she pleaded.  "Surely, you cannot
blame me; you must forgive."

"There is nothing to blame, or forgive, Beth; apparently there is
nothing for me to say, nothing for me to do."

She swayed slowly toward him, resting one hand upon his shoulder.

"But am I right?  Won't you tell me if I am right?"

He stood hesitating for a moment, looking down upon that upturned,
questioning face, his gray eyes filled with a loyalty that caused her
heart to throb wildly.

"I do not know, Beth," he said at last, "I do not know; I cannot be
your conscience.  I must go out where I can be alone and think; but
never will I come between you and your God."



CHAPTER XIX

THE POINT OF VIEW

She sank back upon the chair, her face completely hidden within her
arms.  Winston, his hand already grasping the latch of the door, paused
and glanced around at her, a sudden revulsion of feeling leaving him
unnerved and purposeless.  He had been possessed by but one thought, a
savage determination to seek out Farnham and kill him.  The brute was
no more than a mad dog who had bitten one he loved; he was unworthy of
mercy.  But now, in a revealing burst of light, he realized the utter
futility of such an act.  Coward, brutal as the man unquestionably was,
he yet remained her husband, bound to her by ties she held
indissoluble.  Any vengeful blow which should make her a widow would as
certainly separate the slayer from her forever.  Unavoidably though it
might occur, the act was one never to be forgiven by Beth Norvell,
never to be blotted from her remembrance.  Winston appreciated this as
though a sudden flash-light had been turned upon his soul.  He had
looked down into her secret heart, he had had opened before him the
religious depth of her nature--this bright-faced, brown-eyed woman
would do what was right although she walked a pathway of self-denying
agony.  Never once did he doubt this truth, and the knowledge gripped
him with fingers of steel.  Even as he stood there, looking back upon
her quivering figure, it was no longer hate of Farnham which
controlled; it was love for her.  He took a step toward her, hesitant,
uncertain, his heart a-throb with sympathy; yet what could he say?
What could he do?  Utterly helpless to comfort, unable to even suggest
a way out, he drew back silently, closed the door behind him, and shut
her in.  He felt one clear, unalterable conviction--under God, it
should not be for long.

He stood there in the brilliant sunlight, bareheaded still; looking
dreamily off across the wide reach of the canyon.  How peaceful, how
sublimely beautiful, it all appeared; how delicately the tints of those
distant trees blended and harmonized with the brown rocks beyond!  The
broad, spreading picture slowly impressed itself upon his brain,
effacing and taking the place of personal animosity.  In so fair a
world Hope is ever a returning angel with healing in his wings; and
Winston's face brightened, the black frown deserting his forehead, all
sternness gone from his eyes.  There surely must be a way somewhere,
and he would discover it; only the weakling and the coward can sit down
in despair.  Out of the prevailing silence he suddenly distinguished
voices at hand, and the sound awoke him to partial interest.  Just
before the door where he stood a thick growth of bushes obstructed the
view.  The voices he heard indistinctly came from beyond, and he
stepped cautiously forward, peering in curiosity between the parted
branches.

It was a narrow section of the ledge, hemmed in by walls of rock and
thinly carpeted with grass, a small fire burning near its centre.
There was an appetizing smell of cookery in the air, and three figures
were plainly discernible.  The old miner, Mike, sat next the embers, a
sizzling frying-pan not far away, his black pipe in one oratorically
uplifted hand, a tin plate in his lap, his grouchy, seamed old face
screwed up into argumentative ugliness, his angry eyes glaring at the
Swede opposite, who was loungingly propped against a convenient stone.
The latter looked a huge, ungainly, raw-boned fellow, possessing a red
and white complexion, with a perfect shock of blond hair wholly
unaccustomed to the ministrations of a comb.  He had a long, peculiarly
solemn face, rendered yet more lugubrious by unwinking blue eyes and a
drooping moustache of straw color.  Altogether, he composed a picture
of unutterable woe, his wide mouth drawn mournfully down at the
corners, his forehead wrinkled in perplexity.  Somewhat to the right of
these two more central figures, the young Mexican girl contributed a
touch of brightness, lolling against the bank in graceful relaxation,
her black eyes aglow with scarcely repressed merriment.  However the
existing controversy may have originated, it had already attained a
stage for the display of considerable temper.

"Now, ye see here, Swanska," growled the thoroughly aroused Irishman
vehemently.  "It's 'bout enough Oi 've heard from ye on that now.  Thar
's r'ason in all things, Oi 'm tould, but Oi don't clarely moind iver
havin' met any in a Swade, bedad.  Oi say ye 're nothin' betther than a
dommed foreigner, wid no business in this counthry at all, at all,
takin' the bread out o' the mouths of honest min.  Look at the Oirish,
now; they was here from the very beginnin'; they 've fought, bled, an'
died for the counthry, an' the loikes o' ye comes in an' takes their
jobs.  Be hivins, it 's enough to rile the blood.  What's the name of
ye, anny how?"

"Ay ban Nels Swanson."

"Huh!  Well, it's little the loikes o' ye iver railly knows about
names, Oi 'm thinkin'.  They tell me ye don't have no proper, dacent
names of yer own over in Sweden,--wherever the divil that is, I
dunno,--but jist picks up annything handy for to dhraw pay on."

"It ban't true."

"It's a loiar ye are!  Bad cess to ye, ain't Oi had to be bunk-mate wid
some o' ye dhirty foreigners afore now?  Ye 're _sons_, the whole kit
and caboodle o' ye--Nelsons, an' Olesons, an' Swansons, an' Andersons.
Blissed Mary! an' ye call them things names?  If ye have anny other
cognomen, it's somethin' ye stole from some Christian all unbeknownst
to him.  Holy Mother! but ye ought to be 'shamed to be a Swade, ye
miserable, slab-sided haythen."

"My name ban Swanson; it ban all right, hey?"

"Swanson!  Swanson!  Oh, ye poor benighted, ignorant foreigner!" and
Mike straightened up, slapping his chest proudly.  "Jist ye look at me,
now!  Oi'm an O'Brien, do ye moind that?  An O'Brien!  Mother o' God!
we was O'Briens whin the Ark first landed; we was O'Briens whin yer
ancestors--if iver ye had anny--was wigglin' pollywogs pokin' in the
mud.  We was kings in ould Oireland, begorry, whin ye was a mollusk, or
maybe a poi-faced baboon swingin' by the tail.  The gall of the loikes
of ye to call yerselves min, and dhraw pay wid that sort of thing
ferninst ye for a name!  Oi 'll bet ye niver had no grandfather; ye 're
nothin' but a it, a son of a say-cook, be the powers!  An' ye come over
here to work for a thafe--a dhirty, low-down thafe.  Do ye moind that,
yer lanthern-jawed spalpeen?  What was it yer did over beyant?"

"Ay ban shovel-man fer Meester Burke--hard vork."

"Ye don't look that intilligent from here.  Work!" with a snort, and
waving his pipe in the air.  "Work, is it?  Sure, an' it's all the
loikes of ye are iver good for.  It 's not brains ye have at all, or ye
'd take it a bit aisier.  Oi had a haythen Swade foreman oncet over at
the 'Last Chance.'  God forgive me for workin' undher the loikes of
him.  Sure he near worked me to death, he did that, the ignorant
furriner.  Work! why, Oi 'm dommed if a green Swade did n't fall the
full length of the shaft one day, an' whin we wint over to pick him up,
what was it ye think the poor haythen said?  He opened his oies an'
asked, 'Is the boss mad?' afeared he 'd lose his job!  An' so ye was
workin' for a thafe, was ye?  An' what for?"

"Two tollar saxty cint."

Mike leaped to his feet as though a spring had suddenly uncoiled
beneath him, waving his arms in wild excitement, and dancing about on
his short legs.

"Two dollars an' sixty cints!  Did ye hear that, now?  For the love of
Hivin! an' the union wages three sixty!  Ye 're a dommed scab, an' it's
meself that 'll wallup ye just for luck.  It's crazy Oi am to do the
job.  What wud the loikes of ye work for Misther Hicks for?"

Swanson's impassive face remained imperturbable; he stroked the
moustaches dangling over the corners of his dejected mouth.

"Two tollar saxty cint."

Mike glared at him, and then at the girl, his own lips puckering.

"Bedad, Oi belave the poor cr'ater do n't know anny betther.  Shure, 't
is not for an O'Brien to be wastin' his toime thryin' to tache the
loikes of him the great sacrets of thrade.  It wud be castin' pearls
afore swine, as Father Kinny says.  Did iver ye hear tell of the
Boible, now?"

"Ay ban Lutheran."

"An' what's that?  It's a Dimocrat Oi am, an' dom the O'Brien that's
annything else.  But Oi niver knew thar was anny of thim other things
hereabout.  It's no prohibitioner ye are, annyhow, fer that stuff in
yer bottle wud cook a snake.  Sufferin' ages! but it had an edge to it
that wud sharpen a saw.  What do ye think of ther blatherin' baste
annyhow, seeñorita?"

The little Mexican gave sudden vent to her pent-up laughter, clapping
her hands in such an ecstasy of delight as to cause the unemotional
Swanson to open his mild blue eyes in solemn wonder.

"He all right, I rink," she exclaimed eagerly.  "He no so mooch fool as
you tink him--no, no.  See, señor, he busy eat all de time dat you
talk; he has de meal, you has de fin' air.  Vich ees de bettair, de air
or de meat, señor?  _Bueno_, I tink de laugh vas vid him."

Mr. O'Brien, his attention thus suddenly recalled to practical affairs,
gazed into the emptied frying-pan, a decided expression of bewildered
despair upon his wizened face.  For the moment even speech failed him
as he confronted that scene of total devastation.  Then he dashed
forward to face the victim of his righteous wrath.

"Ye dom Swade, ye!"  He shook a dirty fist beneath the other's nose.
"Shmell o' that!  It's now Oi know ye 're a thafe, a low-down haythen
thafe.  What are ye sittin' thar for, grinnin' at yer betthers?"

"Two tollar saxty cint."

The startled Irishman stared at him with mouth wide open.

"An' begorry, did ye hear that, seeñorita?  For the love of Hivin, it's
only a poll-parrot sittin' there ferninst us, barrin' the appetite of
him.  Saints aloive! but Oi 'd love to paste the crature av it was n't
a mortal sin to bate a dumb baste.  An' he 's a Lutheran!  God be
marciful an' keep me from iver ketchin' that same dis'ase, av it wud
lave me loike this wan.  What's that?  What was it the haythen said
then, seeñorita?"

"Not von vord, señor; he only vink von eye like maybe he flirt vid me."

"The Swade did that!  Holy Mother! an' wid an O'Brien here to take the
part of any dacent gurl.  Wait till I strip the coat off me.  It's an
O'Brien that'll tache him how to trate a lady.  Say, Swanson, ye son of
a gun, ye son of a say-cook, ye son--Sure, Oi 'd loike to tell ye what
ye are av it was n't for the prisince of the seeñorita.  It's Michael
O'Brien who 's about to paste ye in the oye fer forgittin' yer manners,
an' growin' too gay in good company.  Whoop! begorry, it's the grane
above the red!"

There was a dull noise of a heavily struck blow.  A pair of short legs,
waving frantically, traversed a complete semicircle, coming down with a
crash at the edge of the bushes.  Through a rapidly swelling and badly
damaged optic the pessimistic O'Brien gazed up in dazed bewilderment at
the man already astride of his prostrate body.  It was a regenerated
Norseman, the fierce battle-lust of the Vikings glowing in his blue
eyes.  With fingers like steel claws he gripped the Irishman's shirt
collar, driving his head back against the earth with every mad
utterance.

"Ay ban Nels Swanson!" he exploded defiantly.  "Ay ban Nels Swanson!
Ay ban Nels Swanson!  Ay ban shovel-man by Meester Burke!  Ay ban
Lutheran!  Ay ban work two tollar saxty cint!  You hear dose tings?
Tamn the Irish--Ay show you!"

With the swift, noiseless motion of a bird Mercedes flitted across the
narrow space, forcing her slender figure in between the two
contestants, her white teeth gleaming merrily, the bright sunshine
shimmering across her black hair.  Like two stars her great eyes
flashed up imploringly into the Swede's angry face.

"No, no, señors!  You no fight like de dogs vid me here.  I not like
dat, I not let you.  See! you strike him, you strike me.  _Dios de
Dios_!  I not have eet so--nevah."

A strong, compelling hand fell suddenly on Winston's shoulder, and he
glanced about into the grave, boyish countenance of Stutter Brown.

"Th-thar 's quite c-c-consid'able of a c-crowd comin' up the t-t-trail
t-ter the 'Independence,' an' B-Bill wants yer," he announced, his calm
eyes on the controversy being waged beyond in the open.  "Th-thar 'll
be somethin' d-doin' presently, but I r-reckon I better s-s-straighten
out t-this yere i-i-international fracas first."



CHAPTER XX

THE GAME OF FOILS

The grave-faced, yet good-natured giant pressed his way through the
tangled mass of obstructing bushes, and unceremoniously proceeded to
proclaim peace.  His methods were characteristic of one slow of speech,
yet swift of action.  With one great hand gripping the Swede, he
suddenly swung that startled individual at full length backward into
the still smouldering embers of the fire, holding the gasping Mike down
to earth with foot planted heavily upon his chest.  It was over in an
instant, Swanson sputtering unintelligible oaths while beating sparks
from his overalls, the Irishman profanely conscious of the damage
wrought to his eye, and the overwhelming odds against him.  Señorita
Mercedes clapped her little hands in delight at the spectacle, her
steps light as those of the dance, the girlish joy in her eyes frank
and unreserved.

"Ah, de Señor Brown--_bueno_!  Dey vas just children to you even ven
dey fight, hey?  It vas good to see such tings doin', just like de
play."

She circled swiftly up toward him, a happy bird of gay, fluttering
plumage, pressing her fingers almost caressingly along the swelling
muscle of his arm, and gazing with earnest admiration up into his face.
Beneath the witching spell of her eyes the man's cheeks reddened.  He
took the way of savagery out of unexpected embarrassment.

"Th-that 's enough, now, Swanson," he commanded, the stutter largely
vanishing before the requirement of deeds.  "Th-this is no c-continuous
vaudeville, an' ther curtain's rung d-down on yer act.  Mike, yer ol'
varmint, if yer do any more swearin' while ther lady's yere I 'll knock
ther words back down yer throat.  Yer know me, so shut up.  Th-thar'll
be fightin' in p-plenty fer both o' yer presently, the way things look.
Now, vamoose, the two o' yer, an' be quiet about it.  Mike, y-yer
better do something fer yer eyes if yer wanter see well 'nough ter take
a pot-shot at Farnham's gang."

The two discomfited combatants slouched off unwillingly enough, but the
slender white fingers of the Mexican remained clasping the speaker's
arm, her upturned face filled with undisguised enthusiasm.  Brown,
after pretending to watch the fighters disappear, glanced uneasily down
into her wondrous dark eyes, shuffling his feet awkwardly, his
appearance that of a bashful boy.  Mercedes laughed out of the depths
of a heart apparently untroubled.

"My, but eet vas so ver' big, señor.  See!  I cannot make de fingers to
go round--no, no.  I nevah see such arm--nevah.  But you no care?  You
vas dat great big all over, hey?  _Sapristi_! who de woman help like
such a big Americano?"

"B-but that ain't it, M-M-M-Mercedes," blurted out the perturbed giant,
in desperation.  "I-I want yer t-t-ter love me."

"_No comprende, señor_."

"O-oh, yes yer do.  L-Lord! didn't I t-tell it all ter yer s-s-straight
'nough last n-night?  Maybe I ain't m-much on ther t-talk, but I
r-reckon I sh-sh-shot that all right.  C-can't yer make over th-that
like inter l-love somehow?"

She released her clasp upon his arm, her eyes drooping behind their
long lashes, the merry laughter fading from her lips.

"Dat vas not von bit nice of you, señor.  Vy you ever keep bodder me
so, ven I good to you?  No, I tol' you not ask me dat so quick soon
again.  Did I not do dis?  I tol' you den I know not; I meet you only
de twice--how I lofe ven I meet you only de twice?"

"You 've m-m-met me as often a-as I h-h-have you," he interrupted, "an'
I kn-know I l-love you all right."

"Oh, dat vas diff'rent, ver' different," and she tripped back from him,
with a coquettish toss of the black head.  "Vy not? of course.  I vas
Mercedes--_si_; vas dat not enough?  All de _caballeros_ say dat to me;
dey say me ver' pretty girl.  You tink dat too, señor?"

The perplexed Brown, fully conscious that his great strength was
useless here, looked an answer, although his lips merely sputtered in
vain attempt at speech.

"So; I read dat in de eyes.  Den of course you lofe me.  It vas de
nature.  But vis me it vas not so easy; no, not near so easy.  I tink
maybe you ver' nice man," she tipped it off upon her finger ends half
playfully, constantly flashing her eyes up into his puzzled face.  "I
tink you ver' good man; I tink you ver' strong man; I tink maybe you be
ver' nice to Mercedes.  'T is for all dose tings dat I like you, señor,
like you ver' mooch; but lofe, dat means more as like, an' I know not
for sure.  Maybe so, maybe not so; how I tell yet for true?  I tink de
best ting be I not say eet, but just tink 'bout eet; just keep eet in
mine own heart till some odder time ven I sure know.  Vas eet not so?"

Brown set his teeth half savagely, the little witch tantalizing him
with the swiftness of her speech, the coy archness of her manner.  To
his slower mentality she was like a humming-bird darting about from
flower to flower, yet ever evading him.

"M-maybe yer think I ain't in e-e-earnest?" he persisted, doggedly.
"M-maybe yer imagine I d-did n't m-m-mean what I s-said when I asked
yer ter m-marry me?"

She glanced up quickly into his serious eyes, half shrinking away as if
she suddenly comprehended the dumb, patient strength of the man, his
rugged, changeless resolution.  There was a bit of falter in the quick
response, yet this was lost to him.

"No, señor, I no make fun.  I no dat kind.  I do de right, dat all; I
do de right for both of us.  I no vant to do de wrong.  You
_comprende_, señor?  Maybe you soon grow ver' tire Mercedes, she marry
you?"

The infatuated miner shook his head emphatically, and flung out one
hand toward her.

"No!  Oh, you tink so now; you tink so ver' mooch now, but eet better
ve vait an' see.  I know de men an' de vay dey forget after vile.
Maybe I not such good voman like you tink me; maybe I cross, scold, get
qvick mad; maybe I no like live widout de stage, de lights, de dance,
an' de fun, hey?  Vat you do den?  You be ver' sorry you marry.  I no
like dat, no, no.  I want de man to lofe me always--nevah to vish he
not marry me.  You not know me yet; I not know you.  Maybe ve vait, ve
know."

He caught her gesticulating hands, prisoning them strongly within both
his own, but she shook forward her loosened hair until it fell
partially across her face, hiding it thus from his eager eyes bent in
passion upon her.

"B-but tell me y-you love me!  T-tell me th-th-that, an' I 'll let the
o-other go!"

"You vould make me to say de untrue, señor?"

"Of course not.  I w-want ter kn-kn-know.  Only if you d-do n't, I 'm
a-goin' t-ter git out o' yere."

She remained silent, motionless, her telltale face shadowed, only the
quick rise and fall of the bosom evidencing emotion.  The man looked at
her helplessly, his mouth setting firm, his eyes becoming filled with
sudden doubt.

"W-well, Mercedes," he stuttered, unable to restrain himself, "wh-what
is it?"

She lifted her lowered head ever so slightly, so that he saw her
profile, the flush on the cheek turned toward him.

"Maybe eet better you stay, señor.  Anyhow, I no vant you go just now."

For once he proved the more swift of the two, clasping her instantly
within his arms, drawing her slender form close against him with a
strength he failed to realize in that sudden excess of passion.
Holding her thus in helpless subjection he flung aside the obstructing
veil of hair, and covered the flushed cheeks with kisses.  The next
moment, breathless, but not with indignation, the girl had pushed his
burning face aside, although she still lay quivering within the
remorseless clasp of his arms.

"I no said all dat, señor; I no said all dat.  You so ver' strong, you
hurt Mercedes.  Please, señor--eet vas not dat I meant eet should be
dis vay--no, no.  I no said I lofe you; I just say stay till maybe I
know vich--please, señor."

"N-not till yer k-kiss me yourself," and Brown, intensely conscious of
triumph, held back the mass of black hair, his eager eyes devouring the
fair face pressing his shoulder.  "O-one kiss w-with ther l-l-lips, an'
I 'll let yer g-go."

"No, no, señor."

"Th-then I h-hold yer here till some one comes."

"Eet vas not lofe; eet vas just to get avay."

"I-I-I take ch-chances on that, l-little girl."

Their lips met and clung; all unconsciously the free arm of the girl
stole upward, clasping the man's broad shoulder.  For that one instant
she forgot all excepting the new joy of that embrace, the crowning
faith that this man loved her as no other ever had--truly, nobly, and
forever.  Her face was aglow as she drew reluctantly back from him, her
eyes upon his, her cheeks flushed, her lips trembling.  Yet with the
parting came as swiftly back the resolution which made her strong.

"Eh, señor; eet shame me, but you promise--please, señor!"

Like a flash, in some mysterious manner, she had slipped free, evaded
his effort to grasp her dress, and, with quick, whirling motion, was
already half-way across the open space, daring to mock him even while
flinging back her long hair, the sunlight full upon her.  Never could
she appear more delicately attractive, more coquettishly charming.

"Ah, see--you tink me de prisoner.  Eet vas not all de strength, señor,
not all.  You no can catch me again till I lofe you; not de once till I
lofe you, señor."

He started toward her blindly, taunted by these unexpected words of
renunciation.  But she danced away, ever managing to keep well beyond
reach, until she disappeared within the narrow path leading to the
cabin.  He could see her through the vista of branches, pausing to look
back and watch if he followed.

"B-but you do," he called out, "I-I know you d-do.  Won't yer just
s-s-say it for me onct?"

"Say dat I marry you?"

"Y-yes, for it means ther same.  Anyhow, s-say yer love me."

She laughed, shaking her head so hard the black hair became a whirling
cloud about her.

"No, no! eet not de same, señor.  Maybe I lofe you, maybe not yet.  Dat
ees vat you must fin' out.  But marry?  Dat no show I lofe you.  Oh, de
men! to tink eet vas de only vay to prove lofe to marry.  No, no! maybe
I show you some day eef I lofe you; si, some day I show you ven I know
true.  But dat not mean I marry you.  Dat mean more as dat--you see.
_Adios_, señor."

And he stood alone, staring at the blank door, strangely happy,
although not content.



CHAPTER XXI

UNDER ARREST

When Brown emerged from behind the protection of the cabin, his
freckled face yet burning red in memory of his strenuous love-making,
he discovered both Hicks and Winston standing upon the rock which
shortly before had formed their breakfast table, gazing watchfully off
into the purple depths of the canyon, occasionally lifting their eyes
to search carefully the nearer surroundings about the hostile
"Independence."  Something serious was in the air, and all three men
felt its mysterious presence.  Hicks held the field-glasses in his
hands, outwardly calm, yet his old face already beginning to exhibit
the excitement of rapidly culminating events.  That they were not to be
long left undisturbed was promised by an increasing number of figures
distinctly visible around the distant shaft-house and dump, as well as
the continuous shouting, indistinguishable as to words but pronounced
in volume, borne through the clear air to their ears.

"I 'm a liar if ther was n't twenty in that last bunch," Hicks
muttered, just a trifle uneasily.  "Good Lord boys! it 's an army they
're organizin' over yonder.  Blame me if I onderstan' that sorter
scheme at all.  It don't look nat'ral.  I never thought Farnham was no
coward when ther time come fer fightin', but this kind o' fixin' shore
looks as if we had him skeered stiff.  Wal, it 'll take more 'n a bunch
o' San Juan toughs to skeer me.  I reckon ther present plan must be ter
try rushin' ther 'Little Yankee.'"

He wheeled about, driving the extended tubes of his glass together, his
gray beard forking out in front of his lean, brown face like so many
bristles.

"Oh, is thet you come back, Stutter?  Thought I heerd somebody walkin'
behind me.  I reckon, judgin' from ther outlook over thar, thet the
dance is 'bout ter begin; leastwise, the fiddlers is takin' their
places," and he waved his gnarled hand toward the distant crowd.  "Got
somethin' like a reg'ment thar now, hoss and fut, an' it's safe ter bet
thar 's more a-comin'.  This yere fracas must be gittin' some
celebrated, an' bids fair ter draw bigger 'n a three-ringed circus.
All ther scum o' San Juan must 'a got a private tip thet we was easy
marks.  They 're out yere like crows hopin' ter pick our bones clean
afore the law kin git any show at all.  Wal, it 'll be a tough meal all
right, an' some of 'em are mighty liable ter have trouble with their
digestion, fer thar 's goin' ter be considerable lead eat first.  Now
see yere, Stutter, the safest thing we kin do is git ready.  You chase
that whole bunch yonder back behind them rocks, where they 'll be out
o' the way--the Swede an' the women.  Do it lively, an' you an' Mike
stay up thar with 'em, with your guns handy.  Keep under cover as much
as ye kin, for some o' them lads out thar will have glasses with 'em,
and be watchin' of us almighty close.  Hurry 'long now; me an' Winston
will stop yere until we find out just what their little game is likely
ter be."

He turned away from his partner, facing once again toward the
"Independence."  Then he readjusted the tubes, and passed them over to
his silent companion.

"Just see what you make out o' it, Mr. Winston; ye 're some younger,
an' yer eyes ought ter be a heap better 'n mine."

The young engineer, his heart already beginning to throb with the
excitement of an unaccustomed position of danger, ran the lenses
carefully back and forth from the half-concealed bunk-house to the
nearer ore-dump, searching for every sign of life.  Whatever emotion
swayed him, there was not the slightest tremor to the steady hands
supporting the levelled tubes.

"They have certainly got together a considerable number of men," he
reported, the glass still at his eyes.  "Roughs the most of them look
to be, from their clothes.  The largest number are grouped in between
the shaft-house and the dump, but there must be a dozen or fifteen down
below at the edge of those cedars.  Farnham is at the shaft-house--no,
he and another fellow have just started down the dump, walking this
way.  Now they have gone into the cedars, and are coming straight
through.  What's up, do you suppose--negotiations?"

"I 'm damned if I know," returned the old miner, staring blankly.
"This whole thing kinder jiggers me.  Maybe he thinks he kin skeer us
out by a good brand o' talk.  He 's a bit o' a bluffer, that Farnham."

The two watchers waited in breathless expectancy, leaning on their
loaded Winchesters, their eyes eagerly fastened on the concealing
cedars.  Behind where they remained in the open, yet within easy
rifle-shot, the heads of Brown and Old Mike rose cautiously above the
rock rampart of their natural fort.  Suddenly two men, walking abreast,
emerged from out the shadow of the wood, and came straight toward them
across the open ridge of rocks.  They advanced carelessly, making no
effort to pick their path, and in apparently utter indifference to any
possible peril.  The one was Farnham, his slender form erect, his
shoulders squared, his hat pushed jauntily back so as to reveal fully
the smoothly shaven face.  The other bent slightly forward as he
walked, his wide brim drawn low over his eyes, leaving little visible
except the point of a closely trimmed beard.  He was heavily built, and
a "45" dangled conspicuously at his hip.  If Farnham bore arms they
were concealed beneath the skirt of his coat.  Watching them approach,
Winston's eyes became threatening, his hands involuntarily clinching,
but Hicks remained motionless, his lean jaws continuously munching on
the tobacco in his cheek.

"Who the hell is that with him?" he questioned, wonderingly.  "Do you
know the feller?"

Winston shook his head, his own steady gaze riveted upon Farnham.
Deliberately the two climbed the low ore-dump side by side, and came
forth on top into the full glare of the sun.  Hicks's Winchester sank
to a level, his wicked old eye peering along the polished barrel.

"I 'll have to ask ye ter stop right thar, gents," he said, genially,
drawing back the hammer with a sharp click.  "Ye 're trespassin' on my
property."

The two men came to an instant halt, Farnham smiling unpleasantly, his
hands buried in his pockets.  His companion hastily shoved back his
hat, as though in surprise at the summons, revealing a broad, ruddy
face, shadowed by iron-gray whiskers.  Hicks half lowered his gun,
giving vent to a smothered oath.

"By God, it's the sheriff!" he muttered, in complete bewilderment.
"What the hell are we up against?"

There was an interval of intense silence, both parties gazing at each
other, the one side startled, unnerved, the other cool, contemptuous.
It was the sheriff who first spoke, standing firmly on his short legs,
and quietly stroking his beard.

"You probably recognize me, Bill Hicks," he said, calmly, "and it might
be just as healthy for you to lower that gun.  I ain't here hunting any
trouble, but if it begins I 've got a posse over yonder big enough to
make it mighty interesting.  You sabe?"

Old Hicks hesitated, his finger yet hovering about the trigger, his
eyes filled with doubt.  There was some mystery in this affair he could
not in the least fathom, but he was obstinate and hard-headed.

"Yes, I know you all right, Mr. Sheriff," he returned, yet speaking
half angrily.  "But I don't know what ye 're dippin' inter this yere
affair fer.  I haven't any quarrel with you, ner any cause fer one.
But I have with that grinnin' cuss alongside o' yer.  I 'll talk with
you all right, but Farnham will either mosey back ter his own den o'
thieves, 'er I 'll blow a hole plumb through him--that's flat.  I don't
talk ter his kind."

The sheriff held up one hand, taking a single step forward, his face
grown sternly resolute.

"Mr. Farnham chances to be present as my deputy," he announced gravely.
"I don't know anything about a quarrel between you two men, and I care
less.  I 'm here to enforce the law and arrest law-breakers.  If you
decide to interfere between me and my duty I 'll know how to act.  I
've smelt of the business end of a gun before to-day, and I guess
nobody ever saw Sam Hayes play baby when there was a fight on tap.  If
there 's trouble between you and Farnham, have it out, and git done
with it in proper fashion, but just now he 's a sworn officer of the
law, and when you threaten him you threaten all Gulpin County.  Do you
manage to digest that fact, Hicks?"

The sturdy old prospector, his face white with rage under the tan,
uncocked his rifle and dropped the butt heavily upon the earth, his
eyes wandering from the face of the sheriff to that of Winston.

"What the hell is it yer want, then?" he asked sullenly.  Hayes smiled,
shifting easily so as to rest his weight on one leg.

"Got anybody in your bunch named Winston?" he questioned, "Ned Winston,
mining engineer?"

The younger man started in surprise.

"That is my name," he replied, before Hicks could speak.  The sheriff
looked toward him curiously, noting the square jaw, the steady gray
eyes; then he glanced aside at Farnham.  The latter nodded carelessly.

"So far, so good.  By the same luck, have you a Swede here called Nels
Swanson?"

Hicks shook his head in uncertainty.

"There 's a Swede here, all right, who belongs ter the 'Independence'
gang.  I don 't know his name."

"It's Swanson," put in Farnham, cheerfully.  "Those are the two birds
you 're after, sheriff."

The latter official, as though fascinated by what he read there, never
ventured to remove his watchfulness from the face of the engineer, yet
he smiled grimly.

"Then I 'll have to trouble you to trot out the Swede, Hicks," he said,
a distinct command in his voice.  "After he 's here we 'll get down to
business."

It was fully five minutes before the fellow arrived, his movements slow
and reluctant.  From his language, expressing his feelings freely to
Mike and Brown, who were engaged in urging him forward, it was evident
he experienced no ambition to appear in the limelight.  The four men
waiting his coming remained motionless, intently watchful of one
another.  As the slowly moving Swede finally approached, Hayes ventured
to remove his eyes from Winston just long enough to scan swiftly the
mournful countenance, that single glance revealing to him the character
of the man.  The latter gazed uneasily from one face to another, his
mild blue eyes picturing distress, his fingers pulling aimlessly at his
moustache.

"Ay ban yere by you fellers," he confessed sorrowfully, unable to
determine which person it was that wanted him.

"So I see," admitted the sheriff laconically.  "Are you Nels Swanson?"

The fellow swallowed something in his throat that seemed to choke him.
This question sounded familiar; it brought back in a rush a
recollection of his late controversy with Mr. O'Brien.  His face
flushed, his eyes hardening.

"Ay ban Nels Swanson!" he exploded, beating the air with clenched fist.
"Ay ban Lutheran!  Ay ban shovel-man by Meester Burke.  Ay get two
tollar saxty cint!  Ay not give won tamn for you!  Ay lick de fellar
vot ask me dot again!"

The sheriff stared at him, much as he might have examined a new and
peculiar specimen of bug.

"I don't recall having asked you anything about your family history,"
he said quietly, dropping one hand in apparent carelessness on the butt
of his "45."  "Your name was all I wanted."  He tapped the breast of
his coat suggestively, his gaze returning to Winston.

"Well, gents, we might as well bring this affair to a focus, although
no doubt you two understand the meaning of it pretty well already.  I
've got warrants here for the arrest of Winston and Swanson.  I hope
neither of you intend to kick up any row."

The white teeth of the young mining engineer set like a trap, his gray
eyes gleaming dangerously beneath frowning brows.  Instinctively he
took a quick step forward.

"Warrants?" he exclaimed, breathlessly.  "In God's name, for what?"

Hayes tightened his grip on the gun butt, drawing it half from the
sheath, his eyes narrowing.

"For the murder of Jack Burke," he said tersely.  "Don't you move,
young man!"

There was a long moment of intense, strained silence, in which the five
men could hear nothing but their own quick breathing.  Before Winston
everything grew indistinct, unreal, the faces fronting him a phantasy
of imagination.  He felt the fierce throb of his own pulses, a sudden
dull pain shooting through his temples.  _Murder_!  The terrible word
struck like a blow, appearing to paralyze all his faculties.  In front
of him, as if painted, he saw that fierce struggle in the dark, the
limp figure lying huddled among the rocks.  _Murder_!  Aye, and how
could he prove it otherwise?  How could he hope to clear himself from
the foul charge?  Even as he yet swayed unsteadily upon his feet, a
hand pressed across his eyes as if shielding them from that horrible
vision, a voice, deep and strident, rang out:

"Mike an' me have got the two cusses covered Mr. Winston.  If they
move, or you give us the highball, we 'll plug 'em dead centre!"



CHAPTER XXII

THE INTERVENTION OF SWANSON

Hayes never changed his position, nor removed his eyes from Winston,
his right hand still resting upon the butt of his "45," his lips set in
rigid line.  The engineer, the mist partially clearing from his brain,
retained no thought except for Farnham, who remained motionless,
staring over his head into the black, threatening muzzle of Stutter
Brown's levelled gun.  These were Western men; they recognized
instantly the potency of "the drop," the absolute certainty of death if
they stirred a muscle.  They could only wait, breathless, uncertain,
the next move in this desperate game.  To Winston it seemed an hour he
hesitated, his mind a chaos, temptation buffeting him remorselessly.
He saw the sheriff's face set hard, and resolute behind its iron-gray
beard; he marked the reckless sneer curling Farnham's lips, the livid
mark under his eye where he had struck him.  The intense hatred he felt
for this man swept across him fiercely, for an instant driving out of
his heart all thought of mercy.  As suddenly he remembered the helpless
woman yonder, within easy view, possibly even then upon her knees in
supplication.  It was this conception that aroused him.  He withdrew
his dull gaze from off that hateful, mocking face, his clenched hands
opening, his mind responding to a new-born will.  "Vengeance is mine; I
will repay, saith the Lord"--like an echo, perhaps from the very prayer
her lips were speaking, the solemn words came into his consciousness.
With face white, and lips trembling, he stepped suddenly back, and
flung up one hand.

"Don't fire, boys!" he commanded, his voice ringing clear and
purposeful.  "Drop your guns; it's all right.  This is my game, and I
intend to play it out alone."

Farnham laughed, the quick reaction possibly affecting even his iron
nerves.  Winston whirled and fronted him, the gray eyes blazing.

"Damn you, you sneaking, sneering brute!" he burst forth.  "You thief,
you woman-beater, you unspeakable cur!  I surrender to the sheriff of
Gulpin County, not to you.  I 've got the evidence to send you to the
penitentiary, and I 'll do it, even though I stand myself in the shadow
of death while I bear witness to your infamy.  You think this arrest
will shut my mouth!  You imagine this will render me harmless!  But, by
God, it will not!  I 'll fight you until the last breath leaves my
body.  I 'll tear you out from the protection of law; I 'll show you
the kind of a man you have stacked up against.  I don't know whether
this murder charge is all a trick or not; I don't more than half
believe Jack Burke is dead.  But be that as it may, I 'll pull you
down, Biff Farnham, not in any revenge for wrong done me, but to save a
woman whom you know.  I 'll do it, damn you, though it cost me my life!"

The sheriff's iron hand fell in restraint upon his shoulder, the burly
body interposed between them.

"You're all right," Hayes said quietly, his eyes pleasantly interested.
"You 've been squar' with me, young fellow, an' I 'm goin' ter be
squar' with you.  You kin bet on that.  They 'll give you a chance down
below to fight out your quarrel with Farnham."

Winston, his quick rage as instantly fading, drew one hand across his
face, the real danger of his present situation flowing back suddenly to
mind.

"Where do you mean to take us?" he questioned.

"San Juan."

"Right away?"

"Wal, 'bout as soon as we kin git you back ter whar the hosses are,
yonder."

"You promise us protection from that 'Independence' outfit?"

The sheriff nodded decisively.

"Never lost no prisoner yet to a mob," he replied confidently.  "I
reckon thar'll be one hell of a fight before I do now.  However, you
don't need to worry, young man.  On second thought, I 'll have the
hosses brought over here, an' we 'll go down this trail."

Winston glanced about into the faces of Hicks and the Swede.  There was
no help forthcoming from either, but he had already reached a definite
decision for himself.

"Very well," he said calmly, "I 'll go with you quietly, sheriff, only
I don't need any hand-cuffing."

"Never use 'em," and Hayes affectionately patted his gun.  "I reckon
this yere instrument will do the business all right if any
misunderstandin' should arise atween us goin' down.  However, I 'll
trouble yer to discard them weapons for the sake o' peace."

Without a word the engineer unbuckled his belt, tossed it over to
Hicks, and then slowly turned his body about to prove himself entirely
disarmed.  Then he smiled, and extended his hand.  The sheriff grasped
it cordially.

"There need be no hard feeling between us, Hayes," he said pleasantly.
"You 're only doing your sworn duty; I understand that.  But there 's
something rotten in this affair somewhere.  All I ask is a square deal."

"An' yer kin bet you'll git it, Mr. Winston, er Sam Hayes will find out
why.  This yere 'Independence' outfit is no favorites o' mine, an' if
the whole difficulty turns out ter be nothin' but a minin' squabble,
the jury ain't likely ter be very hard on yer.  That's my way o'
figgerin' on it, from what little I know."  He glanced keenly about,
seeking to gain a clearer idea of their immediate surroundings.  "Maybe
you an' Swanson better mosey back yonder to the cabin, where I can keep
an eye on you easy, while I send after the hosses.  Farnham, climb back
on top of the dump there, an' give them boys the signal to come on."

The gambler removed his hat, running one hand carelessly through his
hair, his thin lips sufficiently parted to reveal his white teeth.

"I hardly think we are exactly done yet, Mr. Sheriff," he said
sarcastically.  "I 'm not very much worried regarding your suddenly
expressed sympathy for this fellow, or your desire to get him off
unscratched; but I feel compelled to insist upon receiving all the law
allows me in this game we 're playing.  There 's another warrant in
your pocket for Winston."

"By thunder, yes; I 'd clear forgot it," fumbling at his papers.

"Well, I had n't; matter of some personal importance to me," the voice
taking on a lazy, insolent drawl.  "Of course, the fellow is under
arrest all right, but that murder business is only part of it--I want
my wife."

Winston started forward, crouching as though he would spring directly
at the other's throat.

"Your wife?" he exclaimed madly, his voice choking.  "Your wife?  You
've sworn out a warrant for me on account of your wife?"

"Something of that nature, I believe," gazing at him insolently.
"Abduction I think the lawyers call it, and I notice you 've got the
lady hidden away back yonder now."  He pointed across the other's
shoulder.  "Caught with the goods.  Oh, you 're a fine preacher of
morals, but I 've got you dead to rights this time."

Winston stood as though carven from stone, his face deathly white, his
lips compressed, his gray eyes burning, never wavering from that
mocking face.  With all his strength of will he battled back the first
mad impulse to throttle the man, to crush him into shapeless pulp.  For
one awful moment his mind became a chaos, his blood throbbing fire.  To
kill would be joy, a relief inexpressible.  Farnham realized the
impulse, and drew back, not shrinking away, but bracing for the
contest.  But the engineer gripped himself in time.

"Hayes," he ejaculated hoarsely, "let the lady decide this.  If she
says no, then, by God, I 'll fight you all single-handed before he ever
puts touch upon her!"

Old Bill Hicks was beside him in a single stride, his face blazing.

"I 'm damned if yer will!" he growled madly.  "I 'm in on this deal,
law er no law.  The whole blame thing is a bluff, an' I 'll not stan'
fer it no longer.  Yer step back thar, Sam Hayes, er else Gulpin County
will be lookin' 'round fer another sheriff.  I 've got plumb ter the
limit o' patience in this game."

Winston grasped the old man's uplifted arm, whirling him sharply around.

"No," he exclaimed almost wearily, "it 's not to be a fight yet;
let--let her decide between us."

She was already coming, walking alone directly across the open space
toward them.  The eyes of the bewildered men were upon her, marking the
white face, rendered more noticeable by its frame of dark, uncovered
hair, the firm, womanly chin, the tightly compressed lips, the
resolute, unwavering eyes.  She walked firmly, confidently forward, her
head proudly uplifted, a stately dignity about her bearing which could
not be ignored.  If she perceived either Winston or Farnham in that
group she gave no sign, never halting until she stood directly before
Sam Hayes.  Involuntarily, unconscious of the act, the sheriff pulled
off his hat, and stood twirling it in his hands.

"Is it indeed true," she asked, her voice thrilling with suppressed
feeling, "that you possess a warrant sworn out by Biff Farnham,
charging Mr. Winston with the abduction of his wife?"

"Yes, ma'am," and the man changed the weight of his body to the other
foot.  "I 'm sorry ter say it 's true."

She lifted one hand suddenly to her forehead as though in pain.

"And you intend to serve it?"

"I have no choice, ma'am; I 'm an officer of the law."

There followed a pause, seemingly endless, the eyes of the men turned
away.  She lifted her head, sweeping her gaze swiftly across the faces,
and a flush crept into the white cheeks.

"Gentlemen," her voice low and clear, but with a slight falter
occasionally yielding peculiar power to the words, "it is true I am
that man's wife."  She looked directly at him, apparently oblivious of
his attempt at smiling indifference.  "By the laws of God and men I am
his wife.  I neither deny this, nor have ever sought to escape from its
obligations.  To me, the vows of marriage were sacred when first
assumed; they remain no less sacred now.  This man is fully aware of
how I feel in this regard; he knows I have proved true in spirit and
letter to my vows; he knows exactly why I am not living with him; why I
am earning my own living in the world; why I am here in this position
to-day.  He knows it all, I say, because the desertion was his, not
mine; and his present deliberate, cowardly attempt to besmirch my
character by doing an injury to another is an unbearable insult, an
outrage more serious than if he had struck me a physical blow.  The one
I might forgive, as I have before forgiven, but the other is beyond the
limits of pardon, if I would retain my own self-respect.  I am a woman,
an honorable woman, and my reputation is more to me than life."

She paused, breathing heavily, her head flung back, Her hands clenched
as though in desperate effort at self-control.

"You--you!" the words seemed fairly forced from between her lips,
"there has never been a time when I would not have gone to you at a
word, at your slightest expressed desire.  However I may have despised
you in my secret heart, I remained loyal outwardly, and would have gone
to you in response to the call of duty.  There is no such duty now.
You have openly insulted and degraded me; you have accused me before
the world; you have dragged my name in the muck; you have attempted to
dethrone my womanhood.  The past is over; it is over forever.  The law
may continue to hold me as your wife, but I am not your wife.  The
records of the church may so name me, but they are false.  A God of
love could never have linked me to such a brute--the very thought is
infamy.  Do not touch me!  Do not speak to me!  I believe I could kill
you easier than I could ever again yield to you so much as a word."

She reeled as though about to fall, her hand pressed against her heart.
Before an arm could be out-stretched in support, she had rallied, and
turned away.  With head lowered, her face shadowed by her hair she
walked slowly toward the cabin.  No man in the group stirred until she
had disappeared.  Then the sheriff fumblingly replaced his hat, his
eyes wandering in uncertainty from Farnham to Winston.

"By God!" he exclaimed, as though in relief, catching his breath
quickly and wiping his forehead.  "By God! but that was fierce."
Recalling his own duty he reached out his hand and laid it heavily upon
the shoulder of the man standing next him.  It chanced to be the Swede.

"Go on into the cabin," he commanded, a returning sternness in the
order.

The surprised man stared at him in dull bewilderment.

"Vat for Ay go--hey?"

"Because you 're under arrest."

"Vat dot you say?  I vas arrest?  Maybe you not know me, hey?  Ay tells
you vat Ay vas mighty quick.  Ay ban Nels Swanson; Ay ban Lutheran; Ay
ban shovel--"

"Oh, shut up; ye 're under arrest, I tell you--move on now."

"Vat vas dis under arrest?" the blue eyes losing their mildness, the
drooping moustache beginning to bristle.  "Ay no understand 'bout dis
arrest.  Vat Ay do, hey?"

"Helped to kill Jack Burke."

The startled Norseman stared at him, gulping, his eyes fairly
protruding from his face, his breath hissing between his gritted teeth.
The wild berserker blood was surging hot through his veins.

"Ut vas von lie!  You kill me so!  By tamn, no!"

That instant, insane with fright, he grasped the astonished officer in
the vise of his great hands, swung him into the air, and dashed him
down headlong upon the rocks.  Uttering a yell like that of some wild
animal, the fellow was off, striking against Winston with his body as
he passed, leaping recklessly across the rocks, heading straight toward
the nearest thicket.  It was all the work of a moment.  Farnham whirled
and sent one shot after him; then, as suddenly remembering his own
peril, wheeled back to face the others, the smoking revolver in his
hand.  Amid the quick turmoil old Mike sprang to the summit of the rock
rampart, his face flaming with enthusiasm.

"Go it, Swanska!" he yelled, encouragingly.  "Go it, ye crazy
white-head!  Be the powers, but it's the foinest runnin' Oi 've sane
fer a whoile.  Saints aloive! but wud ye moind thim legs!  'Twas a
kangaroo, begorry, an' not a monkey he come from, or Oi 'm a loiar.  Go
it, Swanny, ould bye!  Howly St. Patrick! but he 'll be out o' the
State afore dhark, if he only kapes it up.   It 's money Oi 'm bettin'
on the Swade!"

Winston stepped swiftly across to the motionless sheriff, and knelt
down beside him, his face gravely anxious.  The unfortunate man lay
huddled up, breathing heavily, his head bleeding freely from two
plainly visible wounds.  The engineer turned him over, one hand feeling
for his heart.  Slowly the young man rose to his feet, standing beside
the body, his gray eyes fastened upon Farnham.  Here was a condition of
affairs he must decide upon for himself, decide instantly, decide in
spite of law, in spite of everything.

"He appears to be rather badly hurt; not seriously, I think, but the
man is unconscious, and in no condition to be removed," he said,
managing to hold his voice to a strange quiet.  "I consider myself his
prisoner, and shall remain with him until he becomes fit to travel.
Farnham, I do not acknowledge your deputyship, and if you attempt to
arrest me it will be at your peril.  There are four of us here against
you, but we 'll give you a chance--go back to your own!  Not a word, if
you care to live!  Go, damn you--go!"

They stood and watched him, until his slender figure disappeared behind
the fringe of cedars.  Then Hicks and Winston, neither man speaking a
word, tenderly lifted the wounded sheriff from off the rocks, and bore
him back into the shelter of the cabin.



CHAPTER XXIII

A NEW VOLUNTEER

The desperate seriousness of their situation was only too evident.
Both men recognized this, yet had no opportunity then to reflect over
its possibilities, or plan for relief.  Without exchanging a word,
except as related to their present labor, the two at once began
ministering to the relief of Hayes, confident that Brown, stationed
without, would guard vigorously against any surprise attack.  The two
wounds upon the sheriff's head were extremely ugly in appearance, being
both deep and jagged, and having bled profusely.  However, when
carefully washed and probed, neither proved particularly severe or
dangerous.  In less than an hour, conscious yet exceedingly weak and
becoming somewhat feverish, the injured man, dazed in mind but fairly
comfortable in body, had been safely stowed away in a bunk, with every
prospect of an early recovery.

Not until all this had been accomplished did his anxious nurses venture
to look thoughtfully into each others' faces and take direct cognizance
of their own perilous position.  Hicks stepped outside into the
sunlight, wiping the perspiration from off his face, and a moment later
Winston joined him, the two standing in grave silence, gazing off
toward the apparently deserted "Independence."  The strain of the past
night and day had plainly marked them both, yet it was not exposure and
toil alone that gave such anxiety to their faces.  Finally Hicks turned
from his long scrutiny and glanced back toward the younger man,
stroking his goat's beard solemnly.

"Looks ter me like we'd managed ter drop into a mighty bad hole, an'
was up agin the real thing," he began gloomily, yet hastening to add in
explanation, "not as I have any notion o' cavin', you onderstand, only
I ain't overly pleased with the situation, an' thet 's a fact.  I never
yit objected in particular ter no fair fight, not o' any kind, free fer
all, or stan' up, but I ain't used ter buckin' agin the law nohow, an'
someway thet seems ter be 'bout what we 're up agin this trip.  Beats
hell the way things turned out, don't it?"

Winston nodded without opening his lips.  He was thinking more
earnestly about Miss Norvell's unpleasant position than of their own,
yet compelled himself to attention.

"Now, this yere Farnham is a gambler an' a thief; he 's all round
crooked, an' we 've got a cinch on him fer the penitentiary.  But we
ain't got the right holt," the old miner continued, squinting his eyes
as if thus endeavoring to get the thought firmly lodged in his brain.
"He 's ben made a deputy sheriff.  He kin turn that crowd o' toughs
over thar into a posse, an' come over here with the whole law o' the
State backin' them in any deviltry they decide on, even ter killin' off
the lot o' us for resistin' officers.  Es Sam Hayes said, if we shoot,
we 'll be a-shootin' up Gulpin County.  An' yet, by thunder, we 've
plumb got ter do it, er git off the earth.  I jest don't see no other
way.  Biff, he won't care a damn how he gits us, so he gits us afore we
have any chance ter turn the tables on him, an' shift the law over ter
our side.  Hayes can't help any, fer he 's out o' his head.
Consequent, it's up ter us.  Thet warrant business, an' deputy sheriff
racket, was a blame smart trick, all right.  It would 'a' corralled us
good an' proper if thet fool Swede had n't run amuck.  Not that he left
us in no bed o' roses, but, at least, we got a fightin' chance now, an'
afore we did n't have even that.  I was inclined ter let yer surrender
to the sheriff, fer Sam Hayes is a squar' man, but not ter Farnham an'
his gang--not much, Mary Ann!  Thet would mean lynchin', an' I know it.
So, I reckon we jest got to plug it out, an' trust ter luck.  Thet 's
my view-point, but ye 're a more higher edycated man ner me, Mr.
Winston, an' maybe you kin see some other way out."

The old man sat down on an outcropping stone, pulled out his pipe and
lit it, puffing thick rings of smoke into the air with manifest
enjoyment.  Winston did not answer until the other again turned his
eyes upon him questioningly.

"I was busy thinking," explained the engineer, "but must confess the
situation looks about as bad to me as it does to you.  The silver
lining of this cloud is not apparent.  Of course, we 've got the right
of it, but in some way Fate has managed to leave us set square against
the law.  We 're outlaws without having done a thing to warrant it.
There is n't but one possible way out, and that is for us to get on the
right side again.  Now, how can it be done?  Some one of us will have
to go down to San Juan, before those fellows get over here in force,
swear out warrants against Farnham and his partners, and have this
whole affair probed to the bottom.  We 've got them, if we can only get
the ear of the District Attorney, and shift this fight into the courts.
The trouble is, Farnham was smart enough to get there ahead of us, and
he 'll win out if we don't move quick and block him.  I can't go
myself, for I 'm a prisoner, and must remain with the sheriff, or will
be considered a fugitive.  The only question is, Can any one hope to
get through?"

Hicks permitted his gaze to stray out across the dim valley below, then
up toward the ragged summit of the overhanging crest of rocks.  Through
the smoke of his pipe he deliberately surveyed Stutter Brown, perched
motionless at the edge of his watchtower, a Winchester silhouetted
black against the stone.

"Not down thet way, anyhow," he announced, finally, pointing with his
pipe-stem.  "I reckon a mosquiter could n't git through along thet
trail ternight.  Ever hear tell o' Daggett Station?"

Winston rubbed his chin, endeavoring to recall the name.

"I 'm not sure.  Is it the water-tank and section-house, next stop
below Bolton Junction, on the main line?"

"You 've called the tarn.  Wal, it's over thar," pointing apparently
into the heart of the mountain, "straight south, twenty miles as ther
crow flies from the foot o' this rise, across as barren a sand waste as
ever broke a man's heart--nary drop o' water from start ter finish, an'
hot--oh, hell!"  He paused, thinking.  "But I hardly reckon them people
would ever think 'bout guardin' thet way out, an' a good rider could
make it easy afore daylight, an' catch the train East."

"How do you get down?"

"Through a long, twistin' ravine; it's a mean place fer travellin', an'
you have ter lead the hoss till yer strike the sand."

"Ever cross there yourself?"

"Wal, no," stroking his beard; "but Stutter come back thet way onct,
from a hunt or something.  He never said nothin' when he struck in, but
yer could 'a' scraped alkali off him with a hoe, an' he drunk a whole
bucket o' water without takin' breath.  So I reckon it wa'n't no
pleasure jaunt."

"Then it's got to be Stutter," decided Winston, rising to his feet,
"for we must get word to San Juan.  I 'm going inside to see how Hayes
is feeling."

"I reckon thet's the ticket," agreed Hicks, gloomily, "but I 'm blamed
if I like losin' him.  He 's a fightin' man, thet Stutter, after he
onct gits his blood stirred up, an' I 'm sorter expectin' a lively time
yere when it gits dark.  It 'll be Farnham's last chance ter put us out
o' the way, an' he 's likely ter take it.  I 'll bet Stutter won't go,
leastwise without the gal; he 's natural bull-headed, besides bein' in
love.  Thet makes an ornery combination."

Within the cabin, the door closed behind him, the single small window
shedding a dim light across the apartment, Winston turned, his hand
still upon the latch, and confronted Beth Norvell and Mercedes.  Their
presence there was so unexpected that the young man paused in sudden
embarrassment, ready words failing him.  The two were seated close
together on rude stools beneath the window, where they had evidently
been in intimate conversation.  The former, her gaze lowered upon the
floor, did not glance up; but Mercedes flashed her black eyes into his
face, recognizing his confusion, and hastening to relieve it.
Warm-hearted, impulsive, already beginning to experience the value of
true love, the young Mexican was eager to bring these two into a better
understanding.  Her quick smile of welcome swept away for an instant
all memory of the other's apparent indifference.

"Ah, eet vas good you come, señor.  See, ve shut up here like
prisoners; ve see nottings, ve hear nottings, ve know nottings.  Now ve
make you tell us eet all, de whole story.  Miladi here, she tink eet
all ver' bad; she cry, de tear yet in her eye, an' I know not vat to
tell to make her feel bettah.  She 'fraid for ever'ting, but most I
tink, she 'fraid for you, señor."

Miss Norvell hastily laid her hand upon the girl's sleeve in
remonstrance, her face showing grave in the dim light.

"No, no, Mercedes; you must not say too much, or Mr. Winston will think
us both very foolish."

"Eet vas not foolish for us to vant to know, vas eet, señor?"

"Assuredly not."  He walked across the narrow room, glanced into the
face of the sleeping sheriff, came back beside them, and leaned against
the wall.  The movement served to yield him confidence and
self-control, to decide him as to his future course.  "What is it you
are so desirous of knowing?"

"Vy, de whole ting, señor, de whole ting."

He gazed directly into the partially upturned face of the other, as
though urging her also to speak.

"We do not in the least comprehend the situation here, Mr. Winston,"
she responded, her voice low and steady.  "No one has taken the trouble
to explain.  We realize, of course, it must be serious, but possibly
the strain would prove less if we understood clearly what must be met."

The engineer bowed, drawing toward him an empty cracker-box, and sat
down facing them both.

"I will relate the circumstances to you in all their unpleasantness,"
he began quietly.  "Perhaps your woman wit may discover some loophole
which has escaped us."  Clearly, yet rapidly, he reviewed the salient
points of the controversy between Farnham and the "Little Yankee," his
own brief connection with it, the discoveries made in the lower levels
of the "Independence," his desperate struggle with Burke, the swearing
out and serving of warrants, the sudden change in situation which had
placed them legally in the wrong, the accident to the sheriff, the curt
dismissal of his deputy, and the probable consequences.  His voice grew
deep as he proceeded, marking the intense interest with which they
followed his recital.  Then he unfolded briefly the plan adopted for
relief.  It was the impulsive Mexican who broke the silence that
followed his conclusion.

"Si, I see dat!" she exclaimed, leaning eagerly forward, her head
between her hands.  "Eet vas ver' good vay.  But you tink dar be fight
soon?  You tink so?  Beell, he tink so?  Den you no like dat de Señor
Brown be avay?  No, no, you no like be lef' alone ven de fight come?
He big, strong, brav'; he bettah as ten men, hey?  Eet vas so, I tell
you.  I go vis de message, si; Señor Brown he stay here.  Vould not dat
be de bettah?"

Winston shifted uneasily upon his cracker-box, his gaze wandering from
the animated face confronting him to that of the other farther back
amid the shadows, still grave and full of doubt.

"You?" he exclaimed in surprise.  "Surely you do not suppose we would
ever permit you to attempt such a thing."

"No?  An' vy not, señor?" springing impulsively to her feet, her eyes
opening wide.  "Maybe you tink I not know how ride?  Maybe you tink I
vas 'fraid of de dark? or dat I lose my vay?  You tink me leetle girl,"
and she snapped her fingers indignantly.  "Do dat?  Of course I do dat!
_Sapristi_!  Eet vas easy.  Just ride twenty mile.  Bah!  I do dat lots
o' times.  My pony he take me in tree, four hour sure.  He nice pony,
an' he lofe Mercedes."

"But you do not know the way, girl, and the ride must be made at night."

"De vay--poof!  You speak ver' foolish.  De vay?--you tink I cannot
find de vay!  Vy, I Mexicana, señor; I know de vay of de desert; I read
de sign here, dar, everyvere, like miladi does de book.  I know how;
si, si.  Señor Brown he show me how get down de side of de mountain,
den I know de res'.  Twenty mile south to de rail; I read de stars, I
feel de wind, I give de pony de quirt, and it vas done--_bueno_!"

Winston sat silently watching her, impressed by the earnestness of her
broken English, the eloquent energy of her gesticulations.

"Vas dat not de bettah vay, señor?  I no good here; I just girl in de
vay, an' ven de fight come maybe I be 'fraid.  But Señor Brown he not
git 'fraid; he fight hard, more as ten men.  So I help too; I just ride
de pony, but I help.  I go San Juan; I see de Distric' Attorney."  She
clapped her hands, laughing at the thought.  "Si, I know de Distric'
Attorney ver' veil.  He tink Mercedes ver' nice girl; he tink I dance
bettah as any he ever saw; he say so to me.  He do vat Mercedes vant,
vat she say vas de right ting--sure he do.  Vas dat not de bettah,
señor?"

"Possibly," yet secretly questioning her motives, "but--but really, you
know, I always supposed you to be a friend of Farnham's!"

The girl instantly flushed crimson to the roots of her black hair,
bringing her hands together sharply, her eyes straying from Winston to
the suddenly uplifted face of Miss Norvell.

"No, no," she said, at last, her voice softer.  "He vas not to me
anyting!  She know how it vas; maybe she tell you sometime.  Not now,
but sometime.  I jus' vant do right.  I vant serve Señor Brown, not dat
Farnham no more.  No, no! once, maybe, I tink dat man ver' nice; I tink
him good friend; he say much promise Mercedes.  Now I tink dat no
more--I know he lie all de time; I see tings as dey vas right, an' I
try be good girl.  You sabe all dat, señor?"

"I understand some of it at least," and he smiled back into her
pleading eyes, "enough to trust you.  If Hicks and Brown consent, your
going will be all right with me."

"_Bueno_!" and she dropped him a deep Spanish courtesy, executing a
quick dancing step toward the door.  "Den eet vill be so.  I no 'fraid.
I go see dem both.  _Adios_."

The door opened, and she flashed forth into the fading sunlight; it
closed behind her, and left the two alone among the shadows.



CHAPTER XXIV

AN AVOWAL OF LOVE

Winston sat gazing at the delicate contour of her face, partially
turned away from him, the long, silken lashes shading eyes lowered upon
the floor.  A single gleam of the westering sun rested in golden beauty
across her dark hair, stirred by the slight breeze blowing through the
open window.  In the silence he could hear his heart beat, and
distinguish the faint sound of her breathing.  She was the first to
speak, yet without moving her head.

"Is it true that you are now under arrest?" she questioned, her voice
scarcely audible.

"Technically yes, although, as you may perceive, the sheriff is
powerless to prevent an escape if I desired to attempt one."

"Is it because of that--that charge he made?"

He arose to his feet in brave attempt at self-control.

"Oh, no, certainly not!  I think that was merely a threat, a cowardly
threat, utterly without provocation, without purpose, unless he sought
in that way to work you a serious injury.  The real charge against me
is murder.  It appears that the man I fought with in the mine later
died from his injuries."

She turned both face and body toward him, her eyes filled with agony.

"The man died?  Will it be possible for you to prove yourself innocent?"

"It may be possible, but it does not appear easy.  I hope to show that
all I did was in self-defence.  I did not strike the man a deadly blow;
in the struggle he fell and was injured on the sharp rocks.  In every
sense his death was unintentional, yet there is nothing to sustain me
but my own testimony.  But I shall not flee from the issue.  If I have
taken human life I will abide the judgment.  God knows I never dreamed
of killing the man; never once supposed him seriously injured.  You, at
least, believe this?"

"I believe all you tell me."

The man's grasp on the casing of the window tightened, his eyes upon
the mass of black hair.

"Strangely enough," he continued, "this whole affair has gone wrong
from the start; nothing has turned out in the natural way.  Criminals
have been made into officers of the law, and honest men changed into
outlaws.  Now it seems impossible to conjecture how the adventure will
terminate."

She sat looking up at him, scarcely seeing his face, her hands clasped
in her lap.

"'All the world 's a stage, and all the men and women merely players,'"
she said, quoting the familiar words as if in a dream.  "We are such
puppets in the great play!  How strange it all is!  How dangerously
close real life is, always skirting the precipice of tragedy!  Plans
fail, lines tangle, and lives are changed forever by events seemingly
insignificant.  To-morrow is always mystery.  I wonder, is it not a dim
consciousness of this that renders the stage so attractive to the
multitude?  Even its burlesques, its lurid melodramas, are never
utterly beyond the possible.  Everywhere are found stranger stories
than any romancer can invent; and yet we sometimes term our lives
commonplace."  She leaned back against the wall, a sob coming into her
voice.  "What--what is going to be the end of this--for me?"

"Whatever you will," he exclaimed passionately, forgetful of all but
her power over him.  "It is you who must choose."

"Yes, it is I who must choose," her face still uplifted.  "Because I am
not a leaf to float on the air, my destiny decided by a breath of wind,
I must choose; yet how can I know I decide rightly?  When heart and
conscience stand opposed, any decision means sacrifice and pain.  I
meant those hasty words wrung out of me in shame, and spoken yonder; I
meant them then, and yet they haunt me like so many sheeted ghosts.
'Tis not their untruth, but the thought will not down that the real
cause of their utterance was not the wrong done me.  It had other
birth."

"In what?"

She did not in the least hesitate to answer, her eyes clear and honest
upon his own.

"In my love for you," she answered, quietly, her cheeks reddening to
the frank avowal.

He grasped her hands, drawing her, unresisting, toward him.

"You confess this to me?"

"Yes, to you; but to you only because I trust you, because I know you
as an honorable man," she said, speaking with an earnest simplicity
irresistible.  "I am not ashamed of the truth, not afraid to
acknowledge it frankly.  If there be wrong in this; that wrong has
already been accomplished; the mere uttering of it cannot harm either
of us.  We know the fact without words.  I love you; with all my heart
I love you.  I can say this to you here in the silence, yet I could not
speak it openly before the world.  Why?  Because such love is wrong?
Under God I do not know; only, the world would misunderstand, would
question my motives, would misjudge my faith.  By the code I am not the
mistress of my heart; it has been legally surrendered.  But you will
not misjudge, or question.  If I could not trust, I could not love you;
I do both.  Now and here, I put my hands in yours, I place my life, my
conscience, in your keeping.  For good or evil, for heaven or hell, I
yield to you my faith.  Tell me what I am utterly unable to decide for
myself alone: What is my duty, the duty of a woman situated as I am?"

He held her hands still, crushing them within his own, yet the color,
the hope which had brightened his face, faded.  A moment the two sat
silent, their eyes meeting, searching the depths.

"Beth," he asked at last, "is this right?"

"Is what right?"

"That you should cast such a burden upon me.  I told you I could not be
your conscience.  All my desire, all my hope tends in one direction.
That which to you appears wrong, to me seems the only right course.  My
heart responded eagerly to every word of renunciation spoken out there
in your indignation.  They were just and true.  They gave me courage to
believe the battle was over; that in soul and heart you were at last
free."

She lowered her eyes in confusion to the floor, her bosom rising and
falling to quick breathing.

"And now you discover me hesitating, undecided," she whispered, her
lips trembling.  "I know I am; there are moments when I hold myself
unworthy of love.  Yet believe me, I am honest, sincere, unselfish in
all my thought regarding you.  Perhaps the trouble is that I know
myself, my nature, far too well; I dare not trust it to bring you
happiness, unless I can come to you with unsullied conscience."

"Is it thought of divorce which yet remains so repugnant?"

She glanced up into his questioning face, her own cheeks flushing.

"I shrink from it in actual pain," she confessed, in instant frankness.
"My whole nature revolts.  Believe me, I am not blind, not insensible;
I recognize the truth--all you would tell me--of the inalienable rights
of womanhood.  Neglect, distrust, brutality, open insult have all been
my portion.  The thousands all over the world accept these as worthy
reasons for breaking their marriage vows.  But can I?  Can I who have
ever condemned those others for doing so?  Can I, who have ever held
that sacrament to be sacred and enduring?  And I realize that the
temptation has not come because of the wrongs done to me.  He has been
all this before, many, many times, yet I have remained true and loyal,
not questioning my duty.  It is the birth of a new love--God alone
knows if I should say a guilty love--which has thus changed me, which
has brought to my mind dreams of release.  I pray you, try to
understand me!  How could happiness ever prove my portion, or yours
through me, while such questionings continued to haunt my soul like
ghosts?"

He released her clinging hands, turning away from her, his eyes staring
unseeing out of the window.  A moment she continued looking at him, her
dry eyes anxiously pleading.  Then she buried her face within her hands
and waited, her whole body trembling.  Twice Winston sought to speak,
before sufficient courage came to him to allow of his turning back, and
looking down upon her bowed figure.

"Beth," he said at last, his struggle revealed in his voice, "I should
not be worthy that love you have given me so unreservedly, did I stoop
now to its abuse.  I could never forgive myself were I to urge you to
do that which your conscience so clearly condemns.  To me there is a
marriage far more sacred and enduring than any witnessed by man, or
solemnized by formal service--the secret union of hearts.  We are one
in this, and nothing can ever come between us.  Then let all else wait;
let it wait until God shall open a way along which we may walk in
honor.  Mutual sacrifice can never make us any less dear to each other.
This condition may serve to separate us for a while, yet I believe the
path will open, and that you will learn to perceive your duty from a
broader view-point--one that will permit you to find happiness in true
love, unhaunted by any memory of the false."

She arose slowly to her feet, the tears clinging to her lashes, both
hands outstretched.

"Oh, I thank you!  I thank you!" she exclaimed with deep fervor.
"Those words prove you all I ever believed you to be.  They give me
hope, courage, patience to remain true to myself, true to my lifelong
ideals of womanhood.  I am certain you trust me, comprehend my motives,
and will think no less of me because of my unwillingness to forfeit a
conception of right.  He is absolutely nothing to me--nothing.  He
never could be.  There are times when I feel that his death even could
not fitly atone for the evil he has wrought me.  Never again will his
influence touch my life to change its purpose.  It is not he that keeps
us apart; it is a solemn, sacred pledge made by a trusting girl in
God's presence--a pledge I cannot forget, cannot break without
forfeiting my self-respect, my honor."

He drew her gently to him, his eyes no longer filled with passion, yet
containing a depth of love that left her helpless to resist his will.

"Beth, dear," he whispered, his lips almost pressing her cheek, "I will
not think of him, but only of you.  If you love me I am content.  The
mere knowledge itself is happiness.  Tell me once again that this is
true."

"It is true, forever true; I love you."

"May I have for this one time the pledge of your lips?"

A single instant she seemed to hesitate, her cheeks flushing hotly, her
dark eyes lowered before his.  But she lifted her face, and their lips
met and clung, as though parting must be forever.  Amid the closely
gathering shadows he led her back to the vacated stool, and stood
beside her, gently stroking the soft dark hair of the bowed head.

"You have plans?" he questioned quietly.  "You have decided how you are
to live while we await each other?"

"Yes," half timidly, as though fearful he might oppose her decision.
"I believe I had better return to my work upon the stage."  She glanced
up at him anxiously.  "You do not care, do you?  It seems to me I am
best fitted for that; I have ambition to succeed, and--and it affords
me something worthy to think about."

"I recall you said once it would be a poor love which should interfere
with the ideals of another."

"Yes, I remember.  How long ago that seems, and what a change has since
come over my conceptions of the power of love!  I believe it still, yet
in so different a way.  Now I would surrender gladly all ambition, all
dream of worldly success, merely to fee alone with the man I love, and
bring him happiness.  That--that is all I want; it is everything."

"And some day it shall be yours," he declared stoutly.  "Some day when
you comprehend that divorce is not always the evil that some delight to
proclaim it; some day when you realize that it must be a far greater
sin to wreck irretrievably your own life for a brute than to break
those man-made bonds which bind you to him.  It cannot be long until
you learn this, for all nature condemns so unholy an alliance.  Until
then let it be the stage; only I ask you to strive for the very best it
offers.  Have confidence in yourself, little girl, in your ability,
your power, your spark of genius touched by suffering.  Every hour you
pass now in hideous, misshapen melodrama is worse than wasted.  You
have that within you well worthy of better setting, nobler environment,
and you wrong yourself to remain content with less.  You are mine now
wherever you go, whatever triumphs you win; mine in spite of the law,
because I possess your heart.  I should doubt myself far sooner than
ever question your loyalty.  I can lend you to the stage for a
while--until I come for you in that glad hour when your lips shall bid
me--but in the meantime I want you to be true to yourself, to the
spirit of art within you.  I want you to accomplish the highest
purposes of your dreams; to interpret that in life which is worthy of
interpretation."

"You believe I can?"

"I know you can.  Never from that first night, when I stood in the
wings and watched, have I ever questioned the possibilities of your
future.  You have art, emotion, depth of true feeling, application, a
clear understanding of character--all that ever made any actress great.
I love you, Beth; yet mine is a love too unselfish not to tell you this
truth and stand aside rather than block your future."

She lifted her eyes to him, now cleared of their tears, and shining
with eagerness.

"I will do all you say," she said earnestly, "do it because I love you.
It shall not be for the people, the applause, the glitter and display,
but alone for you.  Whenever a triumph comes to me, I shall meet it
whispering your name in my heart, knowing that you rejoice because I am
proving worthy of your faith.  It will be as if we worked together; the
memory must help to make us both strong."

He bent lower, drew her closer to him, and held her thus in silence.

"Yes," he spoke at last, as though in thought, "I shall try to remember
and be patient, so long as you feel it must be so."

They were sitting there still, the barest glimmer of twilight
brightening the window above, their hands clasped, when Mercedes came
back, overflowing with light-heartedness.

"Si, si, sure I did eet," she announced happily, dancing forward into
the centre of the darkened room, and seemingly blind to the two before
her.  "Eet ees I that am to ride.  _Bueno_! eet vill be mooch fun!
Señor Brown he not like let me go; he tink I do all eet for him.  Oh,
de conceit of de men, ven I care not for anyting but de fun, de good
time!  But I talk him long vile, an' Beell he talk, an' maybe he say
_si_ for to git us rid of.  Tink you not eet vas so, señor?"



CHAPTER XXV

THE PROOF OF LOVE

The dreaded night settled down dark but clear, a myriad of stars
gloriously bright in the vast vault overhead, the clinging shadows
black and gloomy along the tree-fringed ridge.  Nature, hushed into
repose, appeared alone in possession, the solemn silence of peaceful
night enveloping the vast canyon and its overhanging mountains.  Amid
the gathering gloom all animate life seemed to have sought rest, to
have found covert.  The last glimpse which the watchful guardians of
the "Little Yankee" gained of the surroundings of the "Independence"
revealed nothing to awaken immediate alarm.  A few men idly came and
went about the shaft-house and ore-dump, but otherwise the entire claim
appeared deserted.  No hostile demonstration of any kind had been
attempted since Farnham's retreat, and now no sign of contemplated
attack was to be perceived.  The large number of men visible earlier in
the day had mysteriously disappeared; not even the searching
field-glasses served to reveal their whereabouts.  In the gathering
darkness no lights bore witness to the slightest activity; everywhere
it remained black and silent.

To those wearied men on guard this secrecy seemed ominous of
approaching evil.  They comprehended too clearly the vengeful nature of
their enemy to be lulled thus into any false security.  Such skulking
could be accepted only as a symptom of treachery, of some deep-laid
plan for surprise.  But what?  Would Farnham, in his desperation, his
anxiety to cover up all evidences of crime, resort to strategy, or to
force?  Would he utilize the law, behind which he was now firmly
entrenched, or would he rely entirely upon the numbers he controlled to
achieve a surer, quicker victory?  That he possessed men in plenty to
work his will the defenders of the "Little Yankee" knew from
observation.  These were of the kind to whom fighting was a trade.
They must be there yet, hiding somewhere in the chaparral, for none had
retreated down the trail.  Backed by the mandates of law, convinced
that they had nothing to fear legally, that they were merely executing
the decrees of court, they would hardly be likely to hesitate at the
committal of any atrocity under such a leader.  But where would they
strike, and how?  What could be the purpose of their delay? the object
of their secrecy?  That there must be both purpose and object could not
be doubted; yet nothing remained but to watt for their revelation.

An obscuring mist hung over the canyon, stretching from wall to wall.
Beneath the revealing starlight it was like looking down upon a
restless, silent expanse of gray sea.  A stray breath of air came
sucking up the gorge, causing the many spectral trees outlined against
the lighter sky to wave their branches, the leaves rustling as though
swept by rain.  There was a faint moaning among the distant rocks as if
hidden caverns were filled with elves at play.  It was weird, lonely,
desolate,--straining eyes beholding everywhere the same scene of
deserted wilderness.

Old Hicks lay flat under protection of the ore-dump, his ear pressed
close to the earth, his contracted eyes searching anxiously those dark
hollows in front, a Winchester, cocked and ready, within the grasp of
his hand.  Above, Irish Mike, sniffing the air as though he could smell
danger like a pointer dog, hung far out across the parapet of rock,
every eager nerve tingling in the hope of coming battle.  Winston
remained in the cabin door, behind him the open room black and silent,
his loaded Winchester between his feet, gamely struggling to overcome a
vague foreboding of impending trouble, yet alert and ready to bear his
part.  It was then that Stutter Brown led the saddled pony forward from
out the concealment of bushes.  The long awaited moment had come for
action.  To his whispered word, Mercedes fluttered promptly forth
through the shadowed doorway, and pressed her face lovingly against the
pony's quickly uplifted nose.

"See," she whispered, patting Brown's brawny arm even while she
continued toying playfully with the silken mane, "he know me, he lofe
me.  He bettah as any man, for he nevah tell lie,--nevah,--only be nice
all de time.  He ride me till he drop dead, swift, quick, like de bird
fly.  So I make eet all right, señor.  You see ven de daylight come I
be San Juan.  Den I make mooch fun for de Señor Farnham--sure I do."

"I-I reckon you 'll m-make it all right, l-l-little girl," answered the
man regretfully, his voice hushed to a low growl, "b-but jest the same
I a-ain't so darn g-g-glad ter l-let yer go.  H-hanged ef I would,
either, if I d-did n't th-think the toughest part o' it wus g-goin' ter
be right yere."

She glanced almost shyly up into his shadowed face, her black eyes like
stars.

"Si--dat vas eet.  I vas de coward; I just runs avay so 'fraid of de
fight.  I no like de fight von leetle bit.  But I know you, señor; you
vant to stay here, an' have de fun.  You Americano an' like dat ver'
mooch.  I feel of de big arm, so, an' I know eet ees bettah dat you be
here.  I mooch like please you, señor."

He clasped her hand where it rested small and white against his sleeve,
hiding it completely within his own great fist; when he spoke she could
mark the tremble in the deep voice.

"Y-you 're a m-mighty fine girl," he managed to say, simply, "but we
g-got ter go now.  I-I reckon yer b-b-better walk fer a ways, as the
p-pony will step lighter."

"I not care, señor," softly.  "Eet be nice to valk; I nevah 'fraid vid
you."

Brown led the way forward cautiously across the open space, one strong
hand firm on the pony's bit, the other barely touching her dress as
though it were something sacred.  She endeavored to discern his face in
the faint starlight, but the low-drawn hat brim shaded it into black
lines, revealing nothing.  The light, easy words she sought to speak,
hoping thus to keep him from more serious talk, would not come to her
lips.  There was so much of silence and mystery on every side, so much
of doubt in this venture, that, in spite of her gay manner, every nerve
tingled with excitement.  Glancing up at him she bit her lips in
embarrassment.  It was Stutter who finally found voice, his mind
drifting back to what she had lately said in carelessness.

"Y-yer said that the p-p-pony never l-lied like a man," he began
doubtfully.  "Yer d-did n't mean that f-fer me, did yer?"

There was something so deeply pathetic about the tone in which he asked
this as to hurt her, and the slender fingers still clasping his sleeve
suddenly closed more tightly.

"Señor, you mus' not say dat; you mus' not tink dat.  No, no!  I speak
that only in fun, señor--nevah I believe dat, nevah.  You good man,
more good as Mercedes; she not vort' von leetle bit de lofe you say to
her, but she feel mooch shame to have you tink dat she mean you ven she
speak such ting in fun."

He halted suddenly, all remembrance of their surroundings, their
possible peril, as instantly erased from his mind.  He merely saw that
girl face upturned to his in the starlight, so fair and pleading, he
merely heard that soft voice urging her unworthiness, her sorrow.  A
great, broad-shouldered giant he towered above her, yet his voice
trembled like that of a frightened child.

"An' d-don't yer say that n-no more," he stuttered in awkwardness.
"Somehow it hurts.  L-Lord! yer don't h-have ter be s-s-so blame good
ter be u-up ter my level.  Th-they don't b-breed no a-angels back in
ol' M-Missouri, whar I come from.  It's m-mostly mules thar, an' I
r-reckon we all g-git a bit mulish an' ornery.  B-but I 'spect I 'm
d-decent 'nough ter know the r-right sort o' girl when I s-stack up
agin her.  So I don't w-want ter hear no m-more 'bout yer not b-bein'
good.  Ye 're sure g-good 'nough fer me, an' th-that 's all thar is to
it.  Now, yer w-won't say that no more, w-will yer?"

"No, señor," she answered simply, "I no say dat no more."

He remained standing before her, shifting uneasily from one foot to the
other, a great hulk in the gloom.

"Mercedes," he managed to say finally, "Ye're a-g-goin' ter ride away,
an' m-maybe thar'll be o-one hell o' a fracas up yere afore the rest o'
us g-g-git out o' this scrape.   I d-don't reckon as it'll b-be me as
will git h-hurt, but somehow I 'd f-feel a heap better if you 'd j-jest
say them words what I a-asked yer to afore yer g-go, little g-girl; I
would that."

She put her hands to her face, and then hid it against the pony's neck,
her slight form trembling violently beneath the touch of his fingers.
The strange actions of the girl, her continued silence, half frightened
him.

"Maybe yer a-ain't ready yit?" he questioned, his manner full of
apology.

"Oh, señor, I cannot say dat--sure I cannot," she sobbed, her face yet
hidden.  "Maybe I say so some time ven I know eet bettah how eet ought
to be; si, maybe so.  But not now; I not tink it be jus' right to say
now.  I not angry--no, no!  I ver' glad you tink so of Mercedes--it
make me mooch joy.  I not cry for dat, señor; I cry for odder tings.
Maybe you know some time, an' be ver' sorry vid me.  But I not cry any
more.  See, I stan' up straight, an' look you in de face dis vay."  She
drew her hand swiftly across her eyes.  "Dar, de tear all gone; now I
be brav', now I not be 'fraid.  You not ask me dat now--not now;
to-morrow, nex' veek, maybe I know better how to say de trut' vat vas
in my heart--maybe I know den; now eet all jumble up.  I tink I know,
but de vord not come like I vant eet."

He turned silently away from her, leading the pony forward, his head
bent low, his shoulders stooped.  There was a dejection apparent about
the action which her eyes could not mistake.  She touched him
pleadingly.

"You no ver' angry Mercedes, señor?"

Brown half turned about, and rested one great hand upon her soft hair
in mute caress.

"N-no, little girl, it a-ain't that," he admitted slowly.  "Only I 'm
b-blamed if I jest e-exactly grasp yer s-style.  I reckon I 'll kn-know
what yer mean s-sometime."

Could he have seen clearly he might have marked the swift, hot tears
dimming her eyes, but he never dreamed of their presence, for her lips
were laughing.

"Maybe so, señor, maybe.  I glad you not angry, for I no like dat.  Eet
vas nice I fool you so; dat vas vat make de men lofe, ven dey not know
everyting.  Ven day know dem maybe eet all be over vid.  So maybe I
show you sometime, maybe not--_quien sabe_?"

If her lightly spoken words hurt, he realized the utter futility of
striving then to penetrate their deeper meaning.  They advanced slowly,
moving in more closely against the great ridge of rocks where the
denser shadows clung, the man's natural caution becoming apparent as
his mind returned to a consideration of the dangerous mission upon
which they were embarked.  To-morrow would leave him free from all
this, but now he must conduct her in safety to that mist-shrouded plain
below.

They had moved forward for perhaps a dozen yards, the obedient pony
stepping as silently as themselves, Mercedes a foot or two to the rear,
when Brown suddenly halted, staring fixedly at something slightly at
one side of their path.  There, like a huge baleful eye glaring angrily
at him, appeared a dull red glow.  An instant he doubted, wondered, his
mind confused.  Tiny sparks sputtered out into the darkness, and the
miner understood.  He had blindly stumbled upon a lighted fuse, a train
of destruction leading to some deed of hell.  With an oath he leaped
recklessly forward, stamping the creeping flame out beneath his feet,
crushing it lifeless between his heavy boots and the rock.

There was an angry shout, the swift rush of feet, the red flare of a
rifle cleaving the night with burst of flame.  In the sudden, unearthly
glare Brown caught dim sight of faces, of numerous dark figures leaping
toward him, but he merely crouched low.  The girl! he must protect the
girl!  That was all he knew, all he considered, excepting a passionate
hatred engendered by one of those faces he had just seen.  They were
upon him in mass, striking, tearing like so many wild beasts in the
first fierceness of attack.  His revolver jammed in its holster, but he
struck out with clenched fists, battering at the black figures, his
teeth ground together, his every instinct bidding him fight hard till
he died.  Once they pounded him to his knees, but he struggled up,
shaking loose their gripping hands, and hurling them back like so many
children.  He was crazed by then with raging battle-fury, his hot blood
lusting, every great muscle strained to the uttermost.  He realized
nothing, saw nothing, but those dim figures facing him; insensible to
the blood trickling down the front of his shirt, unconscious of wound,
he flung himself forward a perfect madman, jerking a rifle from the
helpless fingers of an opponent, and smiting to right and left, the
deadly-iron bar whirling through the air.  He struck once, twice; he
saw bodies whirl sidewise and fall to the ground.  Then suddenly he
seemed alone, panting fiercely, the smashed rifle-stock uplifted for a
blow.

"It's the big fellow," roared a voice at his left.  "Why don't you
fools shoot?"

He sprang backward, crouching lower, his one endeavor to draw their
fire, so as to protect her lying hidden among the rock shadows.  He
felt nothing except contempt for those fellows, but he could not let
them hurt her.  He stood up full in the starlight, shading his eyes in
an attempt to see.  Somebody cried, "There he is, damn him!"  A slender
figure swept flying across the open space like some dim night vision.
A red flame leaped forth from the blackness.  The two stood silhouetted
against the glare, reeled backward as it faded, and went down together
in the dark.



CHAPTER XXVI

BENEATH THE DARKNESS

Running blindly through the darkness toward the sound of struggle came
Hicks and Winston.  They caught no more than faint glimpses of
scattering, fleeing figures, but promptly opened fire, scarcely
comprehending as yet what it all meant.  Hicks, dashing recklessly
forward, tripped over a recumbent figure in the darkness, and the two
paused irresolutely, perceiving no more of the enemy.  Then it was that
Stutter Brown struggled slowly up upon his knees, still closely
clasping the slender figure of the stricken girl within his arms.  She
neither moved nor moaned, but beneath the revealing starlight her eyes
were widely opened, gazing up into his face, appearing marvellously
brilliant against the unusual pallor of her cheeks.  Her breath came
short and sharp as if in pain, yet the lips smiled up at him.

"Oh, God!" he sobbed, "it was you!"

"Si, señor," the words faltering forth, almost as if in mockery of his
own hesitating speech.  "Once I said maybe I show you.  I not know how
den--now I know."

"Sh-show me, little girl--in God's n-name, show me wh-what?"

"Eef eet vas true dat I lofe you, señor.  Now you tink eet vas so; now
you all'ays know vat vas in de heart of Mercedes.  Dis bettah vay as
talk, señor--nevah you doubt no more."

He could only continue to look at her, the intense agony within his
eyes beyond all expression of speech, his words caught helpless in the
swelling throat.  She lifted one hand in weak caress, gently touching
his cheek with her white fingers.

"Oh, please don't, señor.  Eet hurt me mooch to see you feel dat bad.
Sure eet does.  Eet vas not de balls vat hurt--no, no!  I know dey not
reach to you eef dey hit me de first.  Eet joys me to do dat--sure eet
does."

"Little g-girl, little g-girl," he faltered, helplessly, his great
hands trembling as he touched her.  "It w-was you I t-tried ter save.
I-I ran th-th-this way so th-they wouldn't sh-shoot toward yer."

She smiled happily up at him, softly stroking his hair, even while the
lines of her face twitched from pain.

"Sure I know, señor.  You von brav', good man--maybe now you all'ays
tink I brav', good also.  Dat be 'nough for Mercedes.  Oh, dis be de
bettar vay--de great God knows; sure He knows.  Now, señor, I be yours
all'ays, forever.  I so happy to be lofed by good man.  I just look in
your face, señor, and tink, He lofe me, he ask me marry him.  Maybe I
not nevah do dat, for fear he tire, for fear he hear tings not nice
about Mercedes.  Dat make me sorrow, make me shame before him.  Si, I
know how it vould be.  I know de Americanos; dey ver' proud of dare
vives, dey fight for de honor.  So eet make me mooch 'fraid, I no vort'
eet--no, no!  I know not den de bettar vay.  But de good Mother of God
she show me, she tell me vat do--I run quick; I die for de man I lofe,
an' den he all'ays know dat I lofe him; he know den bettar as eef I
marry him.  Si, si, eet vas all joy for Mercedes, now, my señor.  Eet
not hurt, eet make me glad to know."

Brown bent ever lower as he listened, his great body shaking in the
effort to repress his sobs, his lips pressing against her white cheek.

"I kiss you now, señor," she whispered, faintly.  "Just de once, like I
vas your vife."

Their lips met, the very soul of each seemingly in the soft, clinging
contact.  Suddenly the poor girl sank backward, her head falling
heavily upon his supporting arm, a peculiar shudder twitching her
slender form.

"Mercedes!" he cried in alarm.

"Si, señor," the black eyes still wide open, but her words scarcely
audible.  "Eet is so hard to see you; maybe de stars hide behin' de
cloud, but, but I lofe--"

"Yes, y-yes, I kn-know."

She lifted her arms, then dropped them heavily upon his bowed shoulders.

"Dar is such a brightness come, señor.  Eet light everyting like eet
vas de day.  Maybe I be good too, now dat a good man lofe me; maybe de
God forgif all de bad because I lofe.  You tink so?  Oh, eet--eet joys
me so--señor! señor!"

Motionless, almost breathless, but for the sobs shaking his great
figure, he held her tightly, bending low, her white cheek against his
own, her head pillowed upon his arm.  About them was the silence, the
solemn night shadows, amid which waited Hicks and Winston earnestly
watching.  Finally, the latter spoke gently, striving to arouse the
man; but Stutter Brown never lifted his head, never removed his eyes
from the death-white face upheld by his arm.  As though stricken to
stone he remained motionless, seemingly lifeless, his face as pallid as
the dead he guarded.  Hicks bent over and placed one hand upon his
shoulder.

"Stutter, ol' pard," he said, pleadingly.  "I know it's mighty hard,
but don't take on so; don't act that way.  It can't do her no manner o'
good now.  It's all--all over with, an' you ain't helpin' her none
a-settin' thar that way."

The smitten man drew a deep breath, glancing up into the kindly, seamed
face bending over him, and about at the surrounding darkness.   He
acted like one suddenly aroused from sleep, unable to comprehend his
situation.  Slowly, with all the tenderness of love, he crumpled his
old hat into the semblance of a pillow, placed it upon the rock, and
lowered the girl's head until it rested softly upon it.  Gently he
passed his great hand in caress across the ruffled black hair, pressing
it back from her forehead.  He arose to his knees, to his feet, swaying
slightly, one hand pressed against his head as he stared blankly into
the faces of the two men.

"W-which way d-did he go?" he asked, almost stupidly.  "Th-the feller
w-who told 'em ter f-f-fire?"

Old Hicks, his eyes filled with misery, shook his head.

"Back ter the 'Independence,' I reckon," he admitted.  "Most o' 'em I
saw started that way."

Brown roughly jerked his gun from out its holster, holding the shining
weapon up into the starlight.

"No, he didn't; not that one," he growled fiercely, his glance falling
again upon the upturned features of the dead girl.  "I saw him out thar
runnin' toward our shaft-hole; h-he's up t-ter more d-deviltry.  Y-you
take k-keer o' her."  His voice broke, then rang out strong.  "By
G-God, I 'll git the murderer!"

He pushed past between the two, shouldering them aside as though
failing to see them, and, with the leap of a tiger, disappeared in the
night.  Each man had caught a glimpse of his face, drawn, white, every
line picturing savagery, and shrank back from the memory.  It was as if
they had looked upon something too horrible for thought.  A moment they
stared after him, clutching their rifles as though in an agony of fear.
Hicks first found words of expression.

"He 's gone mad!  God pity him, he 's gone mad!"

Winston drew himself together sharply, one hand grasping the other's
arm.

"Then leave it to him," he said, quickly.  "Whoever did this deed
deserves his punishment.  Let us do what he bade us--look to the body
of this poor girl."

They turned back, dreading their task, moving still as though half
dazed.  As they advanced, a dark body just beyond suddenly rose to its
knees, and began crawling away.  With a bound Hicks succeeded in laying
hands upon the fellow, and flung him over, face upward to the stars.
With gun at his head he held the man prostrate, staring down upon the
revealed features in manifest astonishment.

"Damn me!" he cried, a new note of surprise in his voice, "Winston,
look yere!"

"What is it?" and the younger man pressed forward, his rifle ready.

"Ain't that Burke?  Ain't that the same feller they had you pinched fer
murderin'?"

The helpless man lying upon the ground frowned savagely up at them, a
dirty bandage bound about his head giving him a ghastly, unnatural
appearance.  For a long moment the startled engineer gazed down at him
in incredulity, unable to distinguish the features clearly, his own
heart beating rapidly in suspense.

"I half believe it is.  Are you Jack Burke?"

The man attempted a grin, but there was little of merriment in the
result.

"Oi think loikely ye 're as liable as any wan to know.  Ye 're the lad
that put this head on me, but that other divil it was that broke me
arm.  Let me up from here.  Begorry!  Oi 've had 'nough fightin' fer
wan toime."

"Did you know I had been put under arrest on the charge of killing you?"

Burke grinned, this time in earnest.

"Divil a bit did Oi know anything about it.  Farnham he tould me to
keep damn quiet in the bunkhouse, out o' sight, but whin they wanted
for to set this fuse off, it seems Oi was the only lad that could do
the job, an' so they brought me out here along wid 'em.  It 's a busted
head an' a broken arm Oi 've got for me share o' the fun.  Be the
powers, now, let me git up!"

The two men, watching him closely, exchanged glances.

"All right, Burke," and Winston held up his rifle suggestively.  "You
can get up, only stay close to us, wid no tricks.  I want you, and I
want you bad.  If you make any break, there 'll be a dead Irishman this
time sure.  Is that you, Mike?"

"Sure, sor."

"Good; you've come just in time.  Drop your muzzle on this native son,
and if the fellow makes a suspicious move, plug him, you understand?"

"Ye bet Oi do, sor.  Sthep out there, Burke, yer slab-sided boss o'
Swades, or Oi 'll show ye what a dacent Oirishman--an O'Brien,
bedad,--thinks o' the loikes of ye; Oi will that."

With sympathetic gentleness, and in all the tenderness possible, their
eyes moist, and everything else forgotten excepting their sad task,
Hicks and Winston kneeled on the hard rock and lifted the slender
figure of Mercedes in their arms.  Slowly, without the exchange of a
word, the little concourse turned in the darkness, and advanced in the
direction of the cabin, bearing the silent burden.  They walked with
bowed heads and careful steps, their hearts heavy.  With a faint whinny
the girl's deserted pony trotted forward from out the shadow where he
had been left, sniffed at her trailing skirt with outstretched nose,
and fell in behind, walking with head bent almost to the ground as
though he also understood and mourned.  Winston glanced, marvelling,
back at the animal, hastily brushing a tear from out his own eye; yet
his lips remained set and rigid.  He felt no doubt about who it was
Brown was seeking through the black night.  When they met, it would be
a battle to the death.

Before the still open door of the cabin they silently lowered their
burden in the shadow of the building.  An instant they stood there
listening intently for any sound to reach them from out the surrounding
night.  Then Winston, assuming the duty, stepped reluctantly forward
endeavoring to peer within.  His heart throbbed from the pain of that
sudden message of death he brought.

"Beth," he called, perceiving no movement within, and compelling his
voice to calmness.  "Miss Norvell."

There was a slight movement near the farther wall, but it was the voice
of the wounded sheriff which answered.

"Who are yer?  What was all that firin' about just now?  Damn if I ain
't too weak ter git up, but I got a gun yere, an' reckon I kin pull the
trigger."

"It's Winston and Hicks.  We 've had a skirmish out beyond the dump.
Those fellows tried to blow up our shaft, and we caught them at it.  Is
Miss Norvell here?"

"No, I reckon not; she was sittin' yere talkin' to me when that
shootin' begun, an' then she ran out the door thar.  Anybody git hurt?"

"The little Mexican girl was killed.  We have brought her body here."

"Good God!"

"And we 've also got a prisoner, sheriff.  It 's that same Jack Burke
you arrested me for killing.  He seems very much alive."

There was a rustling back in the darkness, as if the man within was
endeavoring to draw his body into a sitting posture.  Then he swore
savagely, pounding his fist into the side of the bunk, as though
seeking thus to relieve his feelings.

"Burke!" he fairly exploded at last, his anger appearing to stifle
utterance.  "Jack Burke!  Hell!  Is that true?  Oh, Lord! but I wish I
could git out o' yere.  That damn Farnham swore out that warrant down
in San Juan, ther blame, ornery cur.  It was a low-down, measly trick,
an' he actually had the nerve ter use me ter play out his game fer him.
Lord! if ever I git my hand on him I 'll shut down hard."

No one answered him, the thought of all recurring reverently to the
motionless, silent dead without.  Bareheaded, the two men, groping
through the darkness, bore Mercedes within in all tenderness, and
placed the slender form upon the bed, covering it with the single
sheet.  Hicks remained motionless, bending over her, the kindly
darkness veiling the mist of tears dimming his old eyes and the
trembling of his lips as he sought, for the first time in years, to
pray.  But Winston turned instantly and walked over toward Hayes, his
heart already filled with fresh anxiety.

"Where did she go, do you know?"

"Who? the young actress woman?  I could n't see exactly, only she went
outside.  I thought I heard voices talkin' out thar later on, over
beyond toward the window, but maybe I imagined it.  Darn this ol' head
o' mine!  It keeps whirlin' round every time I move, like it was all
wheels."

The engineer, his face white with determination, strode to the door.
Beyond doubt it was Biff Farnham whose voice Brown had recognized,
commanding his men to fire; it was Farnham who had disappeared in the
direction of the "Little Yankee" shaft-house.  What fresh deviltry was
the desperate gambler engaged upon?  What other tragedy was impending
out there in the black night?



CHAPTER XXVII

THE SHADOW OF CRIME

Winston could never afterward recall having heard any report, yet as he
stepped across the threshold a sharp flare of red fire cleft the
blackness to his left.  As though this was a signal he leaped
recklessly forward, running blindly along the narrow path toward the
ore-dump.  Some trick of memory led him to remember a peculiar swerve
in the trail just beneath the upper rim of the canyon.  It must have
been about there that he saw the flash, and he plunged over the edge,
both hands outstretched in protection of his eyes from injury should he
collide with any obstacle in the darkness.  The deep shadows blinded
him, but there was no hesitancy, some instinct causing him to feel the
urgent need of haste.  Once he stumbled and fell headlong, but was as
instantly up again, bruised yet not seriously hurt.  His revolver was
jerked loose from his belt, but the man never paused to search for it.
Even as he regained his feet, his mind bewildered by the shock, his
ears distinguished clearly the cry of a woman, the sound of heavy feet
crushing through underbrush.  It was to his right, and he hurled
himself directly into the thick chaparral in the direction from whence
the sound came.

He knew not what new terror awaited him, what peril lurked in the path.
At that moment he cared nothing.  Bareheaded, pushing desperately aside
the obstructing branches, his heart throbbing, his clothing torn, his
face white with determination, he struggled madly forward, stumbling,
creeping, fighting a passage, until he finally emerged, breathless but
resolute, into a little cove extending back into the rock wall.  From
exertion and excitement he trembled from head to foot, the perspiration
dripping from his face.

He stopped.  The sight which met him for the moment paralyzed both
speech and motion.  Halfway across the open space, only dimly revealed
in the star-light, her long hair dislodged and flying wildly about her
shoulders, the gleam of the weapon in her hand, apparently stopped in
the very act of flight, her eyes filled with terror staring back toward
him, stood Beth Norvell.  In that first instant he saw nothing else,
thought only of her; of the intense peril that had so changed the girl.
With hands outstretched he took a quick step toward her, marvelling why
she crouched and shrank back before him as if in speechless fright.
Then he saw.  There between them, at his very feet, the face upturned
and ghastly, the hands yet clinched as if in struggle, lay the lifeless
body of Biff Farnham.  As though fascinated by the sight, Winston
stared at it, involuntarily drawing away as the full measure of this
awful horror dawned upon him: she had killed him.  Driven to the deed
by desperation, goaded to it by insult and injury, tried beyond all
power of human endurance, she had taken the man's life.  This fact was
all he could grasp, all he could comprehend.  It shut down about him
like a great blackness.  In the keen agony of that moment of
comprehension Winston recalled how she had once confessed temptation to
commit the deed; how she had even openly threatened it in a tempest of
sudden passion, if this man should ever seek her again.  He had done
so, and she had redeemed her pledge.  He had dared, and she had struck.
Under God, no one could justly blame her; yet the man's heart sank,
leaving him faint and weak, reeling like a drunken man, as he realized
what this must mean--to her, to him, to all the world.  Right or wrong,
justified or unjustified, the verdict of law spelled murder; the
verdict of society, ostracism.  It seemed to him that he must stifle;
his brain was whirling dizzily.  He saw it all as in a flash of
lightning--the arrest, the pointing fingers, the bitterness of
exposure, the cruel torture of the court, the broken-hearted woman
cowering before her judges.  Oh, God! it was too much!  Yet what could
he do?  How might he protect, shield her from the consequences of this
awful act?  The law!  What cared he for the law, knowing the story of
her life, knowing still that he loved her?  For a moment the man
utterly forgot himself in the intensity of his agony for her.   This
must inevitably separate them more widely than ever before; yet he
would not think of that--only of what he could do now to aid her.  He
tore open his shirt, that he might have air, his dull gaze uplifting
piteously from the face of the dead to the place where she stood, her
hands pressed against her head, her great eyes staring at him as though
she confronted a ghost.  Her very posture shocked him, it was so filled
with speechless horror, so wild with undisguised terror.  Suddenly she
gave utterance to a sharp cry, that was half a sob, breaking in her
throat.

"Oh, my God! my God!--you!"

The very sound of her voice, unnatural, unhuman as it was, served to
bring him to himself.

"Yes, Beth, yes," he exclaimed hoarsely through dry lips, stepping
across the body toward her.  "You need not fear me."

She drew hastily back from before him, holding forth her hands as
though pressing him away, upon her face that same look of unutterable
horror.

"You!  You!  Oh, my God!" she kept repeating.  "See! see there!--he is
dead, dead, dead!  I--I found him there; I--I found him there.  Oh, my
God!--that face so white in the starlight!  I--I heard the words,
and--and the shot."  She pressed both hands across her eyes as though
seeking to blot it out.  "I swear I heard it!  I--I do not know why I
came here, but I--I found him there dead, dead!  I--I was all alone in
the dark.  I--I had to touch him to make sure, and--and then it was
you."

"Yes, yes," he said, realizing she was blindly endeavoring to clear
herself, yet thinking only how he might soothe her, inexpressibly
shocked by both words and manner.  "I know, I understand--you found him
there in the dark, and it has terrified you."

He approached closer, holding forth his own hands, believing she would
come to him.  But instead she shrank away as a child might, expecting
punishment, her arms uplifted, shielding her face.

"No, no; do not touch me; do not touch me," she moaned.  "I am not
afraid of you, only I could not bear it."

"Beth!"  He compelled his voice to sternness, confident now that this
hysteria could be controlled only through the exercise of his own will.
"You must listen to me, and be guided by my judgment.  You must, you
shall, do as I say.  This is a most terrible happening, but it is now
too late to remedy.  We cannot restore life once taken.  We must face
the fact and do the very best we can for the future.  This man is dead.
How he died can make no difference to us now.  You must go away from
here; you must go away from here at once."

"And--and leave him alone?"

The whispered words stung him, his distressed mind placing wrong
construction on the utterance.

"Has he been so much to you that now you must sacrifice yourself
needlessly for him?" he questioned quickly.

"No, not that--not that," a shudder ran through her body, "but he--he
was my husband.  You forget."

"I do not forget.  God knows it has been burden enough for me.  But you
have no further duty here, none to him.  You have to yourself and to
me."

"To--to you?"

"Yes, to me.  I will put it that way, if it will only stir you to
action.  I can not, will not, leave you here alone to suffer for this.
If you stay, I stay.  In Heaven's name, Beth, I plead with you to go; I
beg you to be guided in this by me."

"You--you will go with me?" her voice trembling, yet for the first time
exhibiting a trace of interest.  "If I go, you will go?"

"Yes, yes; can you suppose I would ever permit you to go alone?  Do you
give me your promise?"

She still held her head pressed between the palms of her hands, her
dishevelled hair hanging far below the waist, her dark eyes, wild and
filled with terror, roving about as though seeking to pierce the
surrounding darkness.

"Oh, my God!  I don't know!" she cried in a breathless sob.  "I don't
know!  Why won't you go?  Why won't you go, and leave me here with him,
until some one else comes?  I cannot understand; my brain is on fire.
But that would be better--yes, yes!  Do that.  I--I am not afraid of
him."

He caught her outflung hand firmly within his own grasp.  She
shuddered, as if the contact were painful, yet made no effort to
escape, her eyes widening as she looked at him.

"No, I will not go one step without you."  He held her helpless, his
face grown stern, seeing in this his only hope of influencing her
action.  "Can it be you believe me such a cur?  Beth, we both
comprehend the wrong this man has done, the evil of his life the
provocation given for such an act as this.  He deserved it all.  This
is no time for blame.  If we desired to aid him, our remaining here now
would accomplish nothing.  Others will discover the body and give it
proper care.  But, oh, God! do you realize what it will inevitably mean
for us to be discovered here?--the disgrace, the stigma, the
probability of arrest and conviction, the ruthless exposure of
everything?  I plead with you to think of all this, and no longer
hesitate.  We have no time for that.  Leave here with me before it
becomes too late.  I believe I know a way out, and there is opportunity
if we move quickly.  But the slightest delay may close every avenue for
escape.  Beth, Beth, blot out all else, and tell me you will go!"

The intense agony apparent in his voice seemed to break her down
utterly.  The tears sprang blinding to her dry eyes, her head bent
forward.

"And," she asked, as if the thought had not yet reached her
understanding, "you will not go without--without me?"

"No; whatever the result, no."

She lifted her face, white, haggard, and looked at him through the mist
obscuring her eyes, no longer wide opened in wildness.

"Then I must go; I must go," she exclaimed, a shudder shaking her from
head to foot; "God help me, I must go!"

A moment she gazed blankly back toward the motionless body on the
ground, the ghastly countenance upturned to the stars, her own face as
white as the dead, one hand pressing back her dark hair.  She reeled
from sudden faintness, yet, before he could touch her in support, she
had sunk upon her knees, with head bowed low, the long tresses trailing
upon the ground.

"Beth!  Beth!" he cried in an agony of fear.

She looked up at him, her expression that of earnest pleading.

"Yes, yes, I will go," she said, the words trembling; "but--but let me
pray first."

He stood motionless above her, his heart throbbing, his own eyes
lowered upon the ground.  He was conscious of the movement of her lips,
yet could never afterward recall even a broken sentence of that prayer.
Possibly it was too sacred even for his ears, only to be measured by
the infinite love of God.  She ceased to speak at last, the low voice
sinking into an inarticulate whisper, yet she remained kneeling there
motionless, no sound audible excepting her repressed sobbing.  Driven
by the requirements of haste, Winston touched her gently upon the
shoulder.

"Come, my girl," he said, the sight of her suffering almost more than
he could bear.  "You have done all you can here now."

She arose to her feet slowly, never looking toward him, never appearing
to heed his presence.  He noticed the swelling of her throat as though
the effort to breathe choked her, the quick spasmodic heaving of her
bosom, and set his teeth, struggling against the strain upon his own
nerves.

"You will go with me now?"

She glanced about at him, her eyes dull, unseeing.

"Oh, yes--now," she answered, as if the words were spoken
automatically.  He led her away, ignoring the constant efforts she
made, as they climbed the bank, to gaze back across his shoulder.
Finally the intervening branches completely hid that white, dead face
below, and, as if with it had vanished all remaining strength of will,
or power of body, the girl drooped her head against him, swaying
blindly as she walked.  Without a word he drew her close within his
arm, her hair blowing across his face, her hand gripping his shoulder.
It was thus they came forth amid the clearer starlight upon the ridge
summit.  Again and again as they moved slowly he strove to speak, to
utter some word of comfort, of sympathy.  But he could not--the very
expression of her partially revealed face, as he caught glimpses of it,
held him speechless.  Deep within his heart he knew her trouble was
beyond the ministration of words.  Some one was standing out in front
of the cabin.  His eyes perceived the figure as they approached, and he
could not bring himself to speak of this thing of horror in her
presence.

"Beth," he said gently, but had to touch her to attract attention, "I
want you to sit here and wait while I arrange for our journey.  You are
not afraid?"

"No," her voice utterly devoid of emotion, "I am not afraid."

"You will remain here?"

She looked at him, her face expressionless, as though she failed to
understand.  Yet when he pointed to the stone she sat down.

"Yes," she answered, speaking those common words hesitatingly as if
they were from some unfamiliar foreign tongue, "I am to do what you
say."

She bent wearily down, her head buried within her hands.  For a moment
Winston stood hesitating, scarcely daring to leave her.  But she did
not move, and finally he turned away, walking directly toward that
indistinct figure standing beside the cabin door.  As he drew closer he
recognized the old miner, his rifle half-raised in suspicion of his
visitor.  It must be done, and the engineer went at his task directly.

"Has Brown come back?"

"Shore; he 's in thar now," and Hicks peered cautiously into the face
of his questioner, even while pointing back into the dark cabin.  "He
come in a while ago; never said no word ter me, but just pushed past in
thar ter the bed, an' kneeled down with his face in the bed-clothes.
He ain't moved ner spoke since.  I went in onct, an' tried ter talk ter
him, but he never so much as stirred, er looked at me.  I tell yer, Mr.
Winston, it just don't seem nat'ral; 't ain't a bit like Stutter fer
ter act in that way.  I just could n't stand it no longer, an' had ter
git out yere into the open air.  Damn, but it makes me sick."

"This has been a terrible night," the younger man said gravely, laying
his hand upon the other's shoulder.  "I hope never to pass through such
another.  But we are not done with it yet.  Hicks, Farnham has been
killed--shot.  His body lies over yonder in that little cove, just
beyond the trail.  You will have to attend to it, for I am going to get
his wife away from here at once."

"You are what?"

"I am going to take Miss Norvell away--now, to-night.  I am going to
take her across to Daggett Station, to catch the east-bound train."

Hicks stared at him open-eyed, the full meaning of all this coming to
his mind by degrees.

"Good God!  Do yer think she did it?" he questioned incredulously.

Winston shook him, his teeth grinding together savagely.

"Damn you! it makes no difference what I think!" he exclaimed fiercely,
his nerves throbbing.  "All you need to know is that she is going;
going to-night; going to Daggett Station, to Denver, to wherever she
will be beyond danger of ever being found.  You understand that?  She
's going with me, and you are going to help us, and you are going to do
your part without asking any more fool questions."

"What is it you want?"

"Your horse, and the pony Mercedes was riding."

Hicks uttered a rasping oath, that seemed to catch, growling, in his
lean throat.

"But, see yere, Winston," he protested warmly.  "Just look at the shape
your goin' now will leave us in yere at the 'Little Yankee.'  We need
yer testimony, an' need it bad."

Winston struck his hand against the log, as slight vent to his feelings.

"Hicks, I never supposed you were a fool.  You know better than that,
if you will only stop and think.  This claim matter is settled already.
The whole trouble originated with Farnham, and he is dead.  Tomorrow
you 'll bury him.  The sheriff is here, and he's already beginning to
understand this affair.  He stands to help you.  Now, all you 've got
to do is to swear out warrants for Farnham's partners, and show up in
evidence that tunnel running along your lead.  It's simple as A B C,
now that you know it's there.  They can't beat you, and you don't
require a word of testimony from me.  But that poor girl needs
me,--she's almost crazed by this thing,--and I 'm going with her, if I
have to fight my way out from here with a rifle.  That's the whole of
it--either you give me those horses, or I 'll take them."

Old Hicks looked into the grim face fronting him so threateningly, the
complete situation slowly revealing itself to his mind.

"Great Guns!" he said at last, almost apologetically.  "Yer need n't do
nothin' like that.  Lord, no!  I like yer first rate, an' I like the
girl.  Yer bet I do, an' I 'm damn glad that Farnham 's knocked out.
Shore, I 'll help the both o' yer.  I reckon Stutter 'd be no good as a
guide ter-night, but I kin show yer the way down the ravine.  The rest
is just ridin'.  Yer kin leave them hosses with the section-boss at
Daggett till I come fer 'em."



CHAPTER XXVIII

ACROSS THE DESERT TO THE END

Never in the after years could Winston clearly recall the incidents of
that night's ride across the sand waste.  The haze which shrouded his
brain would never wholly lift.  Except for a few detached details the
surroundings of that journey remained vague, clouded, indistinct.  He
remembered the great, burning desert; the stars gleaming down above
them like many eyes; the ponderous, ragged edge of cloud in the west;
the irregular, castellated range of hills at their back; the dull
expanse of plain ever stretching away in front, with no boundary other
than that southern sky.  The weird, ghostly shadows of cactus and
Spanish bayonet were everywhere; strange, eerie noises were borne to
them out of the void--the distant cries of prowling wolves, the
mournful sough of the night wind, the lonely hoot of some far-off owl.
Nothing greeted the roving eyes but desolation,--a desolation utter and
complete, a mere waste of tumbled sand, by daylight whitened here and
there by irregular patches of alkali, but under the brooding night
shadows lying brown, dull, forlorn beyond all expression, a trackless,
deserted ocean of mystery, oppressive in its drear sombreness.

He rode straight south, seeking no trail, but guiding their course by
the stars, his right hand firmly grasping the pony's bit, and
continually urging his own mount to faster pace.  The one thought
dominating his mind was the urgent necessity for haste--a savage
determination to intercept that early train eastward.  Beyond this
single idea his brain seemed in hopeless turmoil, seemed failing him.
Any delay meant danger, discovery, the placing of her very life in
peril.  He could grasp that; he could plan, guide, act in every way the
part of a man under its inspiration, but all else appeared chaos.  The
future?--there was no future; there never again could be.  The chasm of
a thousand years had suddenly yawned between him and this woman.  It
made his head reel merely to gaze down into those awful depths.  It
could not be bridged; no sacrifice, no compensation might ever undo
that fatal death-shot.  He did not blame her, he did not question her
justification, but he understood--together they faced the inevitable.
There was no escape, no clearing of the record.  There was nothing left
him to do except this, this riding through the night--absolutely
nothing.  Once he had guided her into safety all was done,--done
forever; there remained to him no other hope, ambition, purpose, in all
this world.  The desert about them typified that forthcoming
existence--barren, devoid of life, dull, and dead.  He set his teeth
savagely to keep back the moan of despair that rose to his lips, half
lifting himself in the stirrups to glance back toward her.

If she perceived anything there was not the slightest reflection of it
within her eyes.  Lustreless, undeviating, they were staring directly
ahead into the gloom, her face white and almost devoid of expression.
The sight of it turned him cold and sick, his unoccupied hand gripping
the saddle-pommel as though he would crush the leather.  Yet he did not
speak, for there was nothing to say.  Between these two was a fact,
grim, awful, unchangeable.  Fronting it, words were meaningless,
pitiable.

He had never before known that she could ride, but he knew it now.  His
eye noted the security of her seat in the saddle, the easy swaying of
her slender form to the motion of the pony, in apparent unconsciousness
of the hard travelling or the rapidity of their progress.  She had
drawn back the long tresses of her hair and fastened them in place by
some process of mystery, so that now her face was revealed unshadowed,
clearly defined in the starlight.  Dazed, expressionless, as it
appeared, looking strangely deathlike in that faint radiance, he loved
it, his moistened eyes fondly tracing every exposed lineament.  God!
but this fair woman was all the world to him!  In spite of everything,
his heart went forth to her unchanged.  It was Fate, not lack of love
or loyalty, that now set them apart, that had made of their future a
path of bitterness.  In his groping mind he rebelled against it, vainly
searching for some way out, urging blindly that love could even blot
out this thing in time, could erase the crime, leaving them as though
it had never been.  Yet he knew better.  Once she spoke out of the
haunting silence, her voice sounding strange, her eyes still fixed in
that same vacant stare ahead into the gloom.

"Isn't this Mercedes' pony?  I--I thought she rode away on him herself?"

With the words the recollection recurred to him that she did not yet
know about that other tragedy.  It was a hard task, but he met it
bravely.  Quietly as he might, he told the sad story in so far as he
understood it--the love, the sacrifice, the suffering.  As she listened
her head drooped ever lower, and he saw the glitter of tears falling
unchecked.  He was glad she could cry; it was better than that dull,
dead stare.  As he made an end, picturing the sorrowing Stutter
kneeling in his silent watch at the bedside, she looked gravely across
to him, the moisture clinging to the long lashes.

"It was better so--far better.  I know how she felt, for she has told
me.  God was merciful to her;" the soft voice broke into a sob; "for
me, there is no mercy."

"Beth, don't say that!  Little woman, don't say that!  The future is
long; it may yet lead to happiness.  A true love can outlast even the
memory of this night."

She shook her head wearily, sinking back into the saddle.

"Yes," she said soberly, "love may, and I believe will, outlast all.
It is immortal.  But even love cannot change the deed; nothing ever
can, nothing--no power of God or man."

He did not attempt to answer, knowing in the depths of his own heart
that her words were true.  For an instant she continued gazing at him,
as though trustful he might speak, might chance to utter some word of
hope that had not come to her.  Then the uplifted head drooped wearily,
the searching eyes turning away to stare once again straight ahead.
His very silence was acknowledgment of the truth, the utter
hopelessness of the future.  Although living, there lay between them
the gulf of death.

Gray, misty, and silent came the dawn, stealing across the wide
desolation like some ghostly presence--the dawn of a day which held for
these two nothing except despair.  They greeted its slow coming with
dulled, wearied eyes, unwelcoming.  Drearier amid that weird twilight
than in the concealing darkness stretched the desolate waste of
encircling sand, its hideous loneliness rendered more apparent, its
scars of alkali disfiguring the distance, its gaunt cacti looking
deformed and merciless.  The horses moved forward beneath the constant
urging of the spur, worn from fatigue, their heads drooping, their
flanks wet, their dragging hoofs ploughing the sand.  The woman never
changed her posture, never seemed to realize the approach of dawn; but
Winston roused up, lifting his head to gaze wearily forward.  Beneath
the gray, out-spreading curtain of light he saw before them the dingy
red of a small section-house, with a huge, rusty water-tank outlined
against the sky.  Lower down a little section of vividly green grass
seemed fenced about by a narrow stream of running water.  At first
glimpse he deemed it a mirage, and rubbed his half-blinded eyes to make
sure.  Then he knew they had ridden straight through the night, and
that this was Daggett Station.

He helped her down from the saddle without a word, without the exchange
of a glance, steadying her gently as she stood trembling, and finally
half carried her in his arms across the little platform to the rest of
a rude bench.  The horses he turned loose to seek their own pasturage
and water, and then came back, uncertain, filled with vague misgiving,
to where she sat, staring wide-eyed out into the desolation of sand.
He brought with him a tin cup filled with water, and placed it in her
hand.  She drank it down thirstily.

"Thank you," she said, her voice sounding more natural.

"Is there nothing else, Beth?  Could you eat anything?"

"No, nothing.  I am just tired--oh, so tired in both body and brain.
Let me sit here in quiet until the train comes.  Will that be long?"

He pointed far off toward the westward, along those parallel rails now
beginning to gleam in the rays of the sun.  On the outer rim of the
desert a black spiral of smoke was curling into the horizon.

"It is coming now; we had but little time to spare."

"Is that a fast train?  Are you certain it will stop here?"

"To both questions, yes," he replied, relieved to see her exhibit some
returning interest.  "They all stop here for water; it is a long run
from this place to Bolton Junction."

She said nothing in reply, her gaze far down the track where those
spirals of smoke were constantly becoming more plainly visible.  In the
increasing light of the morning he could observe how the long night had
marked her face with new lines of weariness, had brought to it new
shadows of care.  It was not alone the dulled, lustreless eyes, but
also those hollows under them, and the drawn lips, all combining to
tell the story of physical fatigue, and a heart-sickness well-nigh
unendurable.  Unable to bear the sight, Winston turned away, walking to
the end of the short platform, staring off objectless into the grim
desert, fighting manfully in an effort to conquer himself.  This was a
struggle, a remorseless struggle, for both of them; he must do nothing,
say nothing, which should weaken her, or add an ounce to her burden.
He came back again, his lips firmly closed in repression.

"Our train is nearly here," he said in lack of something better with
which to break the constrained silence.

She glanced about doubtfully, first toward the yet distant train, then
up into his face.

"When is the local east due here?  Do you know?"

"Probably an hour later than the express.  At least, I judge so from
the time of its arrival at Bolton," he responded, surprised at the
question.  "Why do you ask?"

She did not smile, or stir, except to lean slightly forward, her eyes
falling from his face to the platform.

"Would--would it be too much if I were to ask you to permit me to take
this first train alone?" she asked, her voice faltering, her hands
trembling where they were clasped in her lap.

His first bewildered surprise precluded speech; he could only look at
her in stupefied amazement.  Then something within her lowered face
touched him with pity.

"Beth," he exclaimed, hardly aware of the words used, "do you mean
that?  Is it your wish that we part here?

"Oh, no, not that!" and she rose hastily, holding to the back of the
bench with one hand, and extending the other.  "Do not put it in that
way.  Such an act would be cruel, unwarranted.  But I am so tired, so
completely broken down.  It has seemed all night long as though my
brain were on fire; every step of the horse has been torture.  Oh, I
want so to be alone--alone!  I want to think this out; I want to face
it all by myself.  Merciful God! it seems to me I shall be driven
insane unless I can be alone, unless I can find a way into some peace
of soul.  Do not blame me; do not look at me like that, but be
merciful--if you still love me, let me be alone."

He grasped the extended hand, bending low over it, unwilling in that
instant that she should look upon his face.  Again and again he pressed
his dry lips upon the soft flesh.

"I do love you, Beth," he said at last, chokingly, "love you always, in
spite of everything.  I will do now as you say.  Your train is already
here.  You know my address in Denver.  Don't make this forever,
Beth--don't do that."

She did not answer him; her lips quivered, her eyes meeting his for a
single instant.  In their depths he believed he read the answer of her
heart, and endeavored to be content.  As the great overland train
paused for a moment to quench its thirst, the porter of the Pullman,
who, to his surprise, had been called to place his carpeted step on the
platform of this desert station, gazed in undisguised amazement at
those two figures before him--a man bareheaded, his clothing tattered
and disreputable, half supporting a woman who was hatless, white-faced,
and trembling like a frightened child.

"Yas, sah; whole section vacant, sah, Numbah Five.  Denvah; yas, sah,
suttinly.  Oh, I'll look after de lady all right.  You ain't a-goin'
'long wid us, den, dis trip?  Oh, yas; thank ye, sah.  Sure, I'll see
dat she gits dere, don't you worry none 'bout dat."

Winston walked restlessly down the platform, gazing up at the
car-windows, every ounce of his mustered resolve necessary to hold him
outwardly calm.  The curtains were many of them closed, but at last he
distinguished her, leaning against the glass, that same dull, listless
look in her eyes as she stared out blindly across the waste of sand.
As the train started he touched the window, and she turned and saw him.
There was a single moment when life came flashing back into her eyes,
when he believed her lips even smiled at him.  Then he was alone,
gazing down the track after the fast disappearing train.



CHAPTER XXIX

THE SUMMIT OF SUCCESS

There followed three years of silence, three years of waiting for that
message which never came.  As though she had dropped into an ocean of
oblivion, Beth Norvell disappeared.  Winston had no longer the
slightest hope that a word from her would ever come, and there were
times when he wondered if it was not better so--if, after all, she had
not chosen rightly.  Love untarnished lived in his heart; yet, as she
had told him out in the desert, love could never change the deed.  That
remained--black, grim, unblotted, the unalterable death stain.  Why,
then, should they meet?  Why seek even to know of each other?  Close
together, or far apart, there yawned a bottomless gulf between.
Silence was better; silence, and the mercy of partial forgetfulness.

Winston had toiled hard during those years, partly from a natural
liking, partly to forget his heartaches.  Feverishly he had taken up
the tasks confronting him, sinking self in the thought of other things.
Such work had conquered success, for he did his part in subjecting
nature to man, thus winning a reputation already ranking him high among
the mining experts of the West.  His had become a name to conjure with
in the mountains and mining camps.  During the long months he had hoped
fiercely.  Yet he had made no endeavor to seek her out, or to uncover
her secret.  Deep within his heart lay a respect for her choice, and he
would have held it almost a crime to invade the privacy that her
continued silence had created.  So he resolutely locked the secret
within his own soul, becoming more quiet in manner, more reserved in
speech, with every long month of waiting, constantly striving to forget
the past amid a multitude of business and professional cares.

It was at the close of a winter's day in Chicago.  Snow clouds were
scurrying in from over the dun-colored waters of the lake, bringing
with them an early twilight.  Already myriads of lights were twinkling
in the high office buildings, and showing brilliant above the smooth
asphalt of Michigan Avenue.  The endless stream of vehicles homeward
bound began to thicken, the broad highway became a scene of continuous
motion and display.  After hastily consulting the ponderous pages of a
city directory in an adjacent drug store, a young man, attired in dark
business suit, his broad shoulders those of an athlete, his face
strongly marked and full of character, and bronzed even at this season
by out-of-door living, hurried across the street and entered the busy
doorway of the Railway Exchange Building.  On the seventh floor he
unceremoniously flung open a door bearing the number sought, and
stepped within to confront the office boy, who as instantly frowned his
disapproval.

"Office hours over," the latter announced shortly.  "Just shuttin' up."

"I am not here on business, my lad," was the good-natured reply, "but
in the hope of catching Mr. Craig before he got away."

The boy, still somewhat doubtful, jerked his hand back across his
shoulder toward an inner apartment.

"Well, his nibs is in there, but he 's just a-goin'."

The visitor swung aside the gate and entered.  The man within, engaged
in closing down his roll-top desk for the day, wheeled about in his
chair, quite evidently annoyed by so late a caller.  An instant he
looked at the face, partially shadowed in the dim light, then sprang to
his feet, both hands cordially extended.

"Ned Winston, by all the gods!" he exclaimed, his voice full of
heartiness.  "Say, but I 'm glad to see you, old man.  Supposed it was
some bore wanting to talk business, and this happens to be my busy
night.  By Jove, thought I never was going to break away from this
confounded desk--always like that when a fellow has a date.  How are
you, anyhow?  Looking fine as a fiddle.  In shape to kick the pigskin
at this minute, I 'll bet a hundred.  Denver yet, I suppose?  Must be a
great climate out there, if you 're a specimen.  Must like it, anyhow;
why, you 've simply buried yourself in the mountains.  Some of the old
fellows were in here talking about it the other day.  Have n't been
East before for a couple of years, have you, Ned?"

"Considerably over three, Bob, and only on urgent business now.  Have
been hard at it all day, but thought I would take a chance at finding
you in, even at this hour.  Knew your natural inclination to grind, you
know.  I take a train for the West at midnight."

"Well, I rather guess not," and Craig picked up his hat from the top of
the desk.  "Do you imagine I 'll let go of you that easily, now that
you are here?  Well, hardly.  You 've got to give up that excursion for
one night at least, even if I 'm compelled to get you jugged in order
to hold you safe.  I can do it, too; I have a pull with the police
department.  My automobile fines are making them rich."

"But you just mentioned having an engagement, or rather a date, which I
suppose means the same thing."

Craig smiled indulgently, his dark eyes filled with humor.

"That's exactly the ticket.  Glad to see you keep up with the slang of
the day; proof you live in the real world, possess a normal mind, and
feel an interest in current events.  Altogether most commendable.  That
engagement of mine happens to be the very thing I want you for.  Most
glorious event in our family history, at least within my remembrance.
My birth probably transcended even this in importance, but the details
are not clear.  You will add _éclat_ to the occasion.  By Jove, it will
be immense; paterfamilias and mater-ditto will welcome you with open
arms.  They often speak of you; 'pon my word they do, and I don't know
of another fellow anywhere they 'd rather have join in our little
family celebration.  Oh, this is a great night for Old Ireland.  Stay?
Why, confound it, of course you 'll stay!"

"But see here, Bob, at least give me the straight of all this.  What 's
happening?  What is it you are stacking me up against?"

"Box party at the Grand.  Here, have a cigar.  Just a family affair,
you know.  First night; certain to be a swell crowd there; everything
sold out in advance.  Supper afterwards, private dining-room at the
Annex--just ourselves; no guests, except only the Star and her manager."

"The Star?  I never heard that you people went in for theatricals?"

"Lord! they never did; but they 've experienced a change of heart.  You
see, Lizzie took to it like a duck to water--she was the baby, the kid,
you know--and, by thunder, the little girl made good.  She 's got 'em
coming and going, and the pater is so proud of her he wears a smile on
him that won't come off.  It 's simply great just to see him beau her
around downtown, shedding real money at every step.  Nothing is too
good for Lizzie just now."

"And she is the Star?"

"Sure, and the lassie is going to have an ovation, unless all signs
fail.  Society has got a hunch, and that means a gorgeous turnout.  The
horse-show will be a back number.  Lord, man, you can't afford to miss
it!  Why, you 'd never see anything like it in Denver in a thousand
years."

Winston laughed, unable to resist entirely the contagious enthusiasm of
his friend.

"You certainly make a strong bid, Bob; but really if I did remain
overnight I 'd much prefer putting in the hours talking over old times.
With all due respect to your sister, old boy, I confess I have n't very
much heart for the stage.  I 've grown away from it; have n't even
looked into a playhouse for years."

"Thought as much; clear over the head in business.  Big mistake at your
age.  A night such as Lizzie can give you will be a revelation.  Say,
Ned, that girl is an actress.  I don't say it because she 's my sister,
but she actually is; they 're all raving over her, even the critics.
That's one reason why I want you to stay.  I 'm blame proud of my
little sister."

"But I have n't my evening dress within a thousand miles of here."

"What of that?  I have no time now to run out to the house and get into
mine.  I 'm no lightning change artist.  Lizzie won't care; she 's got
good sense, and the others can go hang.  Come on, Ned; we 'll run over
to the Chicago Club and have a bite, then a smoke and chat about Alma
Mater; after that, the Grand."

      *      *      *      *      *      *

The great opera house was densely crowded from pit to dome, the boxes
and parquet brilliant with color and fashion, the numberless tiers of
seats rising above, black with packed, expectant humanity.  Before
eight o'clock late comers had been confronted in the lobby with the
"Standing Room Only" announcement; and now even this had been turned to
the wall, while the man at the ticket window shook his head to
disappointed inquirers.  And that was an audience to be remembered, to
be held notable, to be editorially commented upon by the press the next
morning.

There was reason for it.  A child of Chicago, daughter in a family of
standing and exclusiveness, after winning notable successes in San
Francisco, in London, in New York, had, at last, consented to return
home, and appear for the first time in her native city.  Endowed with
rare gifts of interpretation, earnest, sincere, forceful, loving her
work fervently, possessing an attractive presence and natural capacity
for study, she had long since won the appreciation of the critics and
the warm admiration of those who care for the highest in dramatic art.
The reward was assured.  Already her home-coming had been heralded
broadcast as an event of consequence to the great city.  Her name was
upon the lips of the multitude, and upon the hearts of those who really
care for such things, the devotees of art, of high endeavor, of a stage
worthy the traditions of its past.  And in her case, in addition to all
these helpful elements, Society grew suddenly interested and
enthralled.  The actress became a fashion, a fad, about which revolved
the courtier and the butterfly.  Once, it was remembered, she had been
one of them, one of their own set, and out of the depths of their
little pool they rose clamorously to the surface, imagining, as ever,
that they were the rightful leaders of it all.  Thus it came about,
that first night--the stage brilliant, the house a dense mass of mad
enthusiasts, jewelled heads nodding from boxes to parquet in
recognition of friends, opera glasses insolently staring, voices
humming in ceaseless conversation, and, over all, the frantic efforts
of the orchestra to attract attention to itself amid the glitter and
display.

Utterly indifferent to all of it, Ned Winston leaned his elbow on the
brass rail of the first box, and gazed idly about over that sea of
unknown faces.  He would have much preferred not being there.  To him,
the theatre served merely as a stimulant to unpleasant memory.  It was
in this atmosphere that the ghost walked, and those hidden things of
life came back to mock him.  He might forget, sometimes, bending above
his desk, or struggling against the perplexing problems of his
profession in the field, but not here; not in the glare of the
footlights, amid the hum of the crowd.  He crushed the unread programme
within his hand, striving to converse carelessly with the lady sitting
next to him, whom he was expected to entertain.  But his thoughts were
afar off, his eyes seeing a gray, misty, silent expanse of desert,
growing constantly clearer in its hideous desolation before the
advancing dawn.

The vast steel curtain arose with apparent reluctance to the top of the
proscenium arch, the chatter of voices ceased, somewhat permitting the
struggling orchestra to make itself felt and heard.  Winston shut his
teeth, and waited uneasily, the hand upon the rail clenched.  Even more
than he had ever expected, awakened memory tortured.  He would have
gone out into the solitude of the street, except for the certainty of
disturbing others.  The accompanying music became faster as the inner
curtain slowly rose, revealing the great stage set for the first act.
He looked at it carelessly, indifferently, his thoughts elsewhere, yet
dimly conscious of the sudden hush all about him, the leaning forward
of figures intent upon catching the opening words.  The scene portrayed
was that of a picturesque Swiss mountain village.  It was brilliant in
coloring, and superbly staged.   For a moment the scenery; with great
snow-capped peaks for background, caught his attention.  If was
realistic, beautifully faithful to nature, and he felt his heart throb
with sudden longing to be home, to be once more in the shadow of the
Rockies.  But the actors did not interest him, and his thoughts again
drifted far afield.

The act was nearly half finished before the Star made her appearance.
Suddenly the door of the chalet opened, and a young woman emerged,
attired in peasant costume, carelessly swinging a hat in her hand, her
bright face smiling, her slender figure perfectly poised.  She advanced
to the very centre of the wide stage.  The myriad of lights rippled
over her, revealing the deep brown of her abundant hair, the dark,
earnest eyes, the sweet winsomeness of expression.  This was the moment
for which that vast audience had been waiting.  Like an instantaneous
explosion of artillery came the thunder of applause.  Her first
attempted speech lost in that outburst of acclaim, the actress stood
before them bowing and smiling, the red blood surging into her unrouged
cheeks, her dark eyes flashing like two diamonds.  Again and again the
house rose to her, the noise of greeting was deafening, and a perfect
avalanche of flowers covered the stage.  From boxes, from parquet, from
crowded balcony, from top-most gallery the enthusiastic outburst came,
spontaneous, ever growing in volume of sound, apparently never ending.
She looked out upon them almost appealingly, her hands outstretched in
greeting, her eyes filling with tears.  Slowly, as if drawn toward them
by some impulse of gratitude, she came down to the footlights, and
stood there bowing to left and right, the deep swelling of her bosom
evidencing her agitation.

As though some sudden remembrance had occurred to her in the midst of
that turmoil, of what all this must mean to others, to those of her own
blood, she turned to glance lovingly toward that box in which they sat.
Instantly she went white, her hands pressing her breast, her round
throat swelling as though the effort of breathing choked her.  Possibly
out in front they thought it acting, perhaps a sudden nervous collapse,
for as she half reeled backward to the support of a bench, the clamor
died away into dull murmur.  Almost with the ceasing of tumult she was
upon her feet again, her lips still white, her face drawn as if in
pain.  Before the startled audience could awaken and realize the truth,
she had commenced the speaking of her lines, forcing them into silence,
into a hushed and breathless expectancy.

Winston sat leaning forward, his hand gripping the rail, staring at
her.  But for that one slender figure the entire stage before him was a
blank.  Suddenly he caught Craig by the arm.

"Who is that?" he questioned, sharply.  "The one in the costume of a
peasant girl?"

"Who is it?   Are you crazy?  Why, that 's Lizzie; read your programme,
man.  She must have had a faint spell just now.  By Jove, I thought for
a moment she was going to flop.  You 're looking pretty white about the
lips yourself, ain't sick, are you?"

He shook his head, sinking back into his seat.  Hastily he opened the
pages of the crushed programme, his hand shaking so he was scarcely
able to decipher the printed lines.  Ah! there it was in black-faced
type: "Renee la Roux--_Miss Beth Norvell_."



CHAPTER XXX

THE MISSION OF A LETTER

All through the remainder of the play he sat as one stunned, scarcely
removing his eyes from the glittering stage, yet seeing nothing there
excepting her.  He could not later have recalled a single scene.
Between the acts he conversed rationally enough with those about him,
congratulating her people upon the brilliant success of the evening,
and warmly commending the work of the Star.  Yet this was all
mechanical, automatic, his mind scarcely realizing its own action.

She never glanced in that direction again; during all the four acts not
once did she permit her eyes to rest upon their box.  The others may
not have noticed the omission, but he did, his interpretation of the
action becoming a pain.  It served to strengthen the resolve which was
taking possession of him.  He noticed, also, that she played
feverishly, vehemently, not with that quiet restraint, that promise of
reserve power, always so noticeable in the old days.  It caused him to
realize that she was working upon her nerves, holding herself up to the
strain by the sheer strength of will.  The papers the next day
commented upon this, hinting at nervousness, at exhilaration consequent
upon so notable a greeting.  But Winston knew the cause better--he knew
the spectre which had so suddenly risen before her, turning her white
and frightened at the very moment of supreme triumph.  There, in front
of them all, under the full glare of the lights, herself the very focus
of thousands of eyes, she had been compelled to fight down her heart,
and win a victory greater than that of the actress.  In that instant
she had conquered herself, had trodden, smiling and confident, over the
awakened memories of the past.

After the curtain had fallen--fallen and lifted, again and again, to
permit of her standing in the glare, smiling happily, and kissing her
hands toward the enthusiastic multitude--he passed out with the others,
still partially dazed, his mind remaining undecided, irresolute.  With
the cool night air fanning his cheeks as their car rolled southward,
clearer consciousness came back, bringing with it firmer resolve.  She
had not wanted him; in all those years there had not come from her a
single word.  Now, on this night of her triumph, in the midst of family
rejoicing, he had no part.  It had all been a mistake, a most unhappy
mistake, yet he would do now everything in his power to remedy it.  His
further presence should not be allowed to detract from her happiness,
should not continue to embarrass her.  The past between them was dead;
undoubtedly she wished it dead.  Very well, then, he would help her to
bury it, now and forever.  Not through any neglect on his part should
that past ever again rise up to haunt her in the hour of success.  She
had discovered her ideal, she had attained to the height of her
ambition.  She should be left to enjoy the victory undisturbed.  Within
the hotel rotunda, under the multicolored lights, he halted Craig,
hurrying forward to a conference with the steward.

"I am awfully sorry, old man," he explained apologetically, "but the
fact is, I do not feel well enough to remain down here to the spread.
Nothing serious, you know--indigestion or something like that.  I 'll
run up to my room and lie down for a while; if I feel better I may
wander in later."

Craig looked concerned.

"Thought you were mighty white about the gills all the evening,
Ned--the lobster salad, likely.  I hate letting you go, awfully; upon
my word, I do.  I wanted Lizzie to meet you; she 's always heard me
singing your praises, and your not being there will prove quite a
disappointment to her.  But Lord! if you 're sick, why, of course,
there's no help for it.  Come down later, if you can, and I 'll run up
there as soon as I can break away from the bunch.  Sure you don't need
the house physician?"

"Perfectly sure; all I require is rest and a bit of sleep.  Been
working too hard, and am dead tired."

He sank down within the great arm-chair in the silence of his own room,
not even taking trouble to turn on the lights; mechanically lit a
cigar, and sat staring out of the window.  Before him the black,
threatening cloud-shadows hung over the dark water of the lake; far
below resounded the ceaseless clatter of hoofs along the fashionable
avenue.  He neither saw nor heard.  Over and over again he reviewed the
past, bringing back to memory each word and glance which had ever,
passed between them.   He was again with the "Heart of the World"
strollers, he was struggling with Burke in the depths of the mine, he
was passing through that day and night of misfortune on the ridge
overlooking Echo Canyon, he was riding for life--her life--across the
trackless desert.  It all came before him in unnatural vividness,
seemingly as though each separate scene had been painted across that
black sky without.  Then he perceived the great playhouse he had just
left, the glorious glitter of lights, the reverberation of applause,
the cheering mob of men and women, and her--her bowing and smiling at
them, her dark eyes dancing with happiness and ignoring him utterly,
her whole body trembling to the intoxication of success.  Oh, it was
all over; even if there had been no gulf of death between them, it was
all over.  She had deliberately chosen to forget, under the inspiration
of her art she had forgotten.  It had usurped her thought, her
ambition, her every energy.  She had won her way through the throng,
yet the very struggle of such winning had sufficed to crowd him out
from memory had left the past as barren as was the desert amid the
dreariness of which they had parted.  He set his teeth hard, striking
his clenched fist against the cushioned arm of the chair.  Then he sat
silent, his cigar extinguished.  Once he glanced at his watch, but
already the hour was too late for any hope of catching the west-bound
train, and he dropped it back in his pocket, and sat motionless.
Suddenly some one rapped upon the outside door.  It would be Craig,
probably, and he called out a regretful "Come in."  A bell-boy stood
there, his buttoned-up figure silhouetted against the lights in the
hall.

"Lady in Parlor D asked me to hand you this, sir," the boy said.

He accepted the slight bit of paper, scarcely comprehending what it
could all mean, turned on an electric bulb over the dresser, and looked
at it.  A single line of delicate writing confronted him, so faint that
he was compelled to bend closer to decipher: "_If you are waiting my
word, I send it._"

He caught at the dresser-top as though some one had struck him, staring
down at the card in his hand, and then around the silent room, his
breath grown rapid.  At first the words were almost meaningless; then
the blood came surging up into his face, and he walked toward the door.
There he paused, his hand already upon the knob.  What use?  What use?
Why should he seek her, even although she bade him come?  She might no
longer care, but he did; to her such a meeting might be only a mere
incident, an experience to be lightly talked over, but to him such an
interview could only prove continual torture.  But no!  The thought
wronged her; such an action would not be possible to Beth Norvell.  If
she despatched this message it had been done honestly, done graciously.
He would show himself a craven if he failed to face whatever awaited
him below.  With tightly compressed lips, he closed the door, and
walked to the elevator.

She stood waiting him alone, slightly within the parlor door, her
cheeks flushed, her red lips parted in an attempt to smile.  With a
single glance he saw her as of old, supremely happy, her dark eyes
clear, her slender form swaying slightly toward him as if in welcome.
For an instant their gaze met, his full of uncertainty, hers of
confidence; then she stretched out to him her two ungloved hands.

"You gave me a terrible scare to-night," she said, endeavoring to speak
lightly, "and then, to make matters worse, you ran away.  It was not
like you to do that."

"I could not bring myself to mar the further happiness of your night,"
he explained, feeling the words choke in his throat as he uttered them.
"My being present at the Opera House was all a mistake; I did not dream
it was you until too late.  But the supper was another thing."

She looked intently at him, her expression clearly denoting surprise.

"I really cannot believe you to be as indifferent as you strive to
appear," she said at last, her breath quickening.  "One does not forget
entirely in three short years, and I--I caught that one glimpse of you
in the box.  It was that--that look upon your face which gave me
courage to send my card to your room."  She paused, dropping her eyes
to the carpet, her fingers nervously playing with the trimming of her
waist.  "It may, perhaps, sound strange, yet in spite of my exhibit of
feeling at first discovering your presence, I had faith all day that
you would come."

"Is it possible you mean that you wished me there?"

"Quite possible; only it would have been ever so much better had I
known before.  It actually seemed when I saw your face to-night as if
God had brought you--it was like a miracle.  Do you know why?  Because,
for the first time in three years, I can welcome you with all my heart."

"Beth, Beth," utterly forgetting everything but the mystery of her
words, his gray eyes darkening from eagerness, "what is it you mean?
For God's sake tell me!  These years have been centuries; through them
all I have been waiting your word."

She drew in her breath sharply, reaching out one hand to grasp the back
of a chair.

"It--it could not be spoken," she said, her voice faltering.  "Not
until to-day was it possible for me to break the silence."

"And now--to-day?"

She smiled suddenly up at him, her eyes filled with promise.

"God has been good," she whispered, drawing from within the lace of her
waist a crumpled envelope,--"oh, so good, even when I doubted Him.
See, I have kept this hidden there every moment since it first came,
even on the stage in my changes of costume.  I dared not part with it
for a single instant--it was far too precious."  She sank back upon the
chair, holding out toward him the paper.  "Read that yourself, if my
tears have not made the lines illegible."

He took it from her, his hands trembling, and drew forth the enclosure,
a single sheet of rough yellow paper.  Once he paused, glancing toward
where she sat, her face buried in her arms across the chair-back.  Then
he smoothed out the wrinkles, and read slowly, studying over each
pencil-written, ill-spelled word, every crease and stain leaving an
impression upon his brain:


"SAN JUAN, COL., DEC. 12, 1904.

"Deer Miss: I see your name agin in a Denver paper what Bill brought
out frum town ternight, an read thar that you wus goin ter play a piece
in Chicago.  I aint seen yer name in ther papers afore fer a long time.
So I thot I 'd write yer a line, cause Bill thinks yer never got it
straight bout ther way Biff Farnham died.  He ses thet you an Mister
Winston hes got ther whol affair all mixed up, an that maybe it's a
keepin ther two of yer sorter sore on each other.  Now, I dont wanter
butt in none in yer affairs, an then agin it aint overly plisent fer me
to make a clean breast ov it this way on paper.  Not that I 'm afeard,
er nothin, only it dont just look nice.  No more do I want enything
whut I did ter be makin you fokes a heep o trouble.  That aint my
style.  I reckon I must a bin plum crazy whin I did it, fer I wus
mighty nigh that fer six months after--et least Bill ses so.  But it
wus me all right whut killed Farnham.  It wan't no murder es I see it,
tho I was huntin him all right, fer he saw me furst, an hed his gun
out, when I let drive.  Enyhow, he got whut wus comin ter him, an I
aint got no regrets.  We're a doin all right out yere now, me an
Bill--ther claim is payin big, but I never aint got over thinkin bout
Mercedes.  I shore loved her, an I do yit.  You was awful good to her,
an I reckon she 'd sorter want me to tell you jist how it wus.  Hopin
this will clar up som ov them troubles between you an Mister Winston, I
am Yours with respects,

"WILLIAM BROWN."


Winston stood there in silence, yet holding the paper in his hand.
Almost timidly she glanced up at him across the back of the chair.

"And you have never suspected who I was until to-night?"

"No, never; I had always thought of Bob's sister as a mere child."

She arose to her feet, taking a single step toward him.

"I can only ask you to forgive me," she pleaded anxiously, her eyes
uplifted.  "That is all I can ask.  I ought to be ashamed, I am
ashamed, that I could ever have believed it possible for you to commit
such a deed.  It seems incredible now that I have so believed.  Yet how
could I escape such conviction?  I heard the voices, the shot, and then
a man rushed past me through the darkness.  Some rash impulse, a desire
to aid, sent me hastily forward.  Scarcely had I bent over the dead
body, when some one came toward me from the very direction in which
that man had fled.  I supposed he was coming back to make sure of his
work, and--and--it was you.  Oh, I did not want to believe, but I had
to believe.  You acted so strangely toward me, I accepted that as a
sign of guilt; it was a horror unspeakable."

"You thought--you actually thought I did that?" he asked, hardly
trusting his own ears.

"What else could I think?  What else could I think?"

This new conception stunned him, left him staring at her, utterly
unable to control his speech.  Should he tell her?  Should he confess
his own equally mad mistake? the reason why all these years had passed
without his seeking her?  It would be useless; it would only add to her
pain, her sense of wounded pride.  Silence now would be mercy.

"Beth," he said, controlling his voice with an effort, "let us think of
all this as passed away forever.  Let us not talk about it, let us not
think about it any more.  You have reached the height which you set out
to gain; or, possibly you have not yet fully attained to your ideal,
yet you have travelled far toward it.  Has it satisfied?  Has it filled
the void in your life?"

She returned his questioning look frankly.

"Do you remember what I once said in a cabin out in Colorado?"

"I think so; yet, to avoid mistake, repeat it now."

"I told you I would give up gladly all ambition, all dreams of worldly
success, just to be alone with the man I loved, and bring him
happiness.  To-night, as then, that is all I wish--everything."

A moment neither moved nor spoke.

"Beth," he whispered, as though half afraid even yet to put the
question, "am I all you wish--everything?"

"Yes, everything--only you must wait, Ned.  I belong still to the
public, and must play out my engagement.  After that it shall be home,
and you."

They stood there facing each other, the soft light from the shaded
globes overhead sparkling in her dark hair, her cheeks flushed, her
eyes smiling at him through a mist of tears.  Unresisted, he drew her
to him.





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