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Title: Openings in the Old Trail
Author: Harte, Bret
Language: English
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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.

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OPENINGS IN THE OLD TRAIL

by Bret Harte



CONTENTS


     OPENINGS IN THE OLD TRAIL

        I.  A MERCURY OF THE FOOT-HILLS
       II.  COLONEL STARBOTTLE FOR THE PLAINTIFF
      III.  THE LANDLORD OF THE BIG FLUME HOTEL
       IV.  A BUCKEYE HOLLOW INHERITANCE
        V.  THE REINCARNATION OF SMITH
       VI.  LANTY FOSTER’S MISTAKE
      VII.  AN ALI BABA OF THE SIERRAS
     VIII.  MISS PEGGY’S PROTEGES
       IX.  THE GODDESS OF EXCELSIOR



OPENINGS IN THE OLD TRAIL

by Bret Harte



A MERCURY OF THE FOOT-HILLS


It was high hot noon on the Casket Ridge. Its very scant shade was
restricted to a few dwarf Scotch firs, and was so perpendicularly cast
that Leonidas Boone, seeking shelter from the heat, was obliged to draw
himself up under one of them, as if it were an umbrella. Occasionally,
with a boy’s perversity, he permitted one bared foot to protrude beyond
the sharply marked shadow until the burning sun forced him to draw it in
again with a thrill of satisfaction. There was no earthly reason why
he had not sought the larger shadows of the pine-trees which reared
themselves against the Ridge on the slope below him, except that he was
a boy, and perhaps even more superstitious and opinionated than most
boys. Having got under this tree with infinite care, he had made up his
mind that he would not move from it until its line of shade reached and
touched a certain stone on the trail near him! WHY he did this he did
not know, but he clung to his sublime purpose with the courage and
tenacity of a youthful Casabianca. He was cramped, tickled by dust and
fir sprays; he was supremely uncomfortable--but he stayed! A woodpecker
was monotonously tapping in an adjacent pine, with measured intervals of
silence, which he always firmly believed was a certain telegraphy of
the bird’s own making; a green-and-gold lizard flashed by his foot
to stiffen itself suddenly with a rigidity equal to his own. Still HE
stirred not. The shadow gradually crept nearer the mystic stone--and
touched it. He sprang up, shook himself, and prepared to go about
his business. This was simply an errand to the post-office at the
cross-roads, scarcely a mile from his father’s house. He was already
halfway there. He had taken only the better part of one hour for this
desultory journey!

However, he now proceeded on his way, diverging only to follow a fresh
rabbit-track a few hundred yards, to note that the animal had doubled
twice against the wind, and then, naturally, he was obliged to look
closely for other tracks to determine its pursuers. He paused also,
but only for a moment, to rap thrice on the trunk of the pine where the
woodpecker was at work, which he knew would make it cease work for
a time--as it did. Having thus renewed his relations with nature, he
discovered that one of the letters he was taking to the post-office had
slipped in some mysterious way from the bosom of his shirt, where he
carried them, past his waist-band into his trouser-leg, and was about to
make a casual delivery of itself on the trail. This caused him to take
out his letters and count them, when he found one missing. He had been
given four letters to post--he had only three. There was a big one in
his father’s handwriting, two indistinctive ones of his mother’s, and a
smaller one of his sister’s--THAT was gone! Not at all disconcerted,
he calmly retraced his steps, following his own tracks minutely, with
a grim face and a distinct delight in the process, while
looking--perfunctorily--for the letter. In the midst of this slow
progress a bright idea struck him. He walked back to the fir-tree where
he had rested, and found the lost missive. It had slipped out of his
shirt when he shook himself. He was not particularly pleased. He knew
that nobody would give him credit for his trouble in going back for
it, or his astuteness in guessing where it was. He heaved the sigh of
misunderstood genius, and again started for the post-office. This time
he carried the letters openly and ostentatiously in his hand.

Presently he heard a voice say, “Hey!” It was a gentle, musical
voice,--a stranger’s voice, for it evidently did not know how to call
him, and did not say, “Oh, Leonidas!” or “You--look here!” He was
abreast of a little clearing, guarded by a low stockade of bark palings,
and beyond it was a small white dwelling-house. Leonidas knew the place
perfectly well. It belonged to the superintendent of a mining tunnel,
who had lately rented it to some strangers from San Francisco. Thus much
he had heard from his family. He had a mountain boy’s contempt for city
folks, and was not himself interested in them. Yet as he heard the
call, he was conscious of a slightly guilty feeling. He might have been
trespassing in following the rabbit’s track; he might have been seen by
some one when he lost the letter and had to go back for it--all grown-up
people had a way of offering themselves as witnesses against him! He
scowled a little as he glanced around him. Then his eye fell on the
caller on the other side of the stockade.

To his surprise it was a woman: a pretty, gentle, fragile creature, all
soft muslin and laces, with her fingers interlocked, and leaning both
elbows on the top of the stockade as she stood under the checkered
shadow of a buckeye.

“Come here--please--won’t you?” she said pleasantly.

It would have been impossible to resist her voice if Leonidas had wanted
to, which he didn’t. He walked confidently up to the fence. She really
was very pretty, with eyes like his setter’s, and as caressing. And
there were little puckers and satiny creases around her delicate
nostrils and mouth when she spoke, which Leonidas knew were
“expression.”

“I--I”--she began, with charming hesitation; then suddenly, “What’s your
name?”

“Leonidas.”

“Leonidas! That’s a pretty name!” He thought it DID sound pretty. “Well,
Leonidas, I want you to be a good boy and do a great favor for me,--a
very great favor.”

Leonidas’s face fell. This kind of prelude and formula was familiar to
him. It was usually followed by, “Promise me that you will never swear
again,” or, “that you will go straight home and wash your face,” or some
other irrelevant personality. But nobody with that sort of eyes had ever
said it. So he said, a little shyly but sincerely, “Yes, ma’am.”

“You are going to the post-office?”

This seemed a very foolish, womanish question, seeing that he was
holding letters in his hand; but he said, “Yes.”

“I want you to put a letter of mine among yours and post them all
together,” she said, putting one little hand to her bosom and drawing
out a letter. He noticed that she purposely held the addressed side so
that he could not see it, but he also noticed that her hand was
small, thin, and white, even to a faint tint of blue in it, unlike
his sister’s, the baby’s, or any other hand he had ever seen. “Can you
read?” she said suddenly, withdrawing the letter.

The boy flushed slightly at the question. “Of course I can,” he said
proudly.

“Of course, certainly,” she repeated quickly; “but,” she added, with
a mischievous smile, “you mustn’t NOW! Promise me! Promise me that you
won’t read this address, but just post the letter, like one of your own,
in the letter-box with the others.”

Leonidas promised readily; it seemed to him a great fuss about nothing;
perhaps it was some kind of game or a bet. He opened his sunburnt hand,
holding his own letters, and she slipped hers, face downward, between
them. Her soft fingers touched his in the operation, and seemed to leave
a pleasant warmth behind them.

“Promise me another thing,” she added; “promise me you won’t say a word
of this to any one.”

“Of course!” said Leonidas.

“That’s a good boy, and I know you will keep your word.” She hesitated
a moment, smilingly and tentatively, and then held out a bright
half-dollar. Leonidas backed from the fence. “I’d rather not,” he said
shyly.

“But as a present from ME?”

Leonidas colored--he was really proud; and he was also bright enough to
understand that the possession of such unbounded wealth would provoke
dangerous inquiry at home. But he didn’t like to say it, and only
replied, “I can’t.”

She looked at him curiously. “Then--thank you,” she said, offering her
white hand, which felt like a bird in his. “Now run on, and don’t let
me keep you any longer.” She drew back from the fence as she spoke, and
waved him a pretty farewell. Leonidas, half sorry, half relieved, darted
away.

He ran to the post-office, which he never had done before. Loyally he
never looked at her letter, nor, indeed, at his own again, swinging
the hand that held them far from his side. He entered the post-office
directly, going at once to the letter-box and depositing the precious
missive with the others. The post-office was also the “country store,”
 and Leonidas was in the habit of still further protracting his errands
there by lingering in that stimulating atmosphere of sugar, cheese, and
coffee. But to-day his stay was brief, so transitory that the postmaster
himself inferred audibly that “old man Boone must have been tanning Lee
with a hickory switch.” But the simple reason was that Leonidas wished
to go back to the stockade fence and the fair stranger, if haply she
was still there. His heart sank as, breathless with unwonted haste, he
reached the clearing and the empty buckeye shade. He walked slowly and
with sad diffidence by the deserted stockade fence. But presently his
quick eye discerned a glint of white among the laurels near the house.
It was SHE, walking with apparent indifference away from him towards the
corner of the clearing and the road. But this he knew would bring her
to the end of the stockade fence, where he must pass--and it did. She
turned to him with a bright smile of affected surprise. “Why, you’re as
swift-footed as Mercury!”

Leonidas understood her perfectly. Mercury was the other name for
quicksilver--and that was lively, you bet! He had often spilt some on
the floor to see it move. She must be awfully cute to have noticed it
too--cuter than his sisters. He was quite breathless with pleasure.

“I put your letter in the box all right,” he burst out at last.

“Without any one seeing it?” she asked.

“Sure pop! nary one! The postmaster stuck out his hand to grab it, but I
just let on that I didn’t see him, and shoved it in myself.”

“You’re as sharp as you’re good,” she said smilingly. “Now, there’s just
ONE thing more I want you to do. Forget all about this--won’t you?”

Her voice was very caressing. Perhaps that was why he said boldly: “Yes,
ma’am, all except YOU.”

“Dear me, what a compliment! How old are you?”

“Goin’ on fifteen,” said Leonidas confidently.

“And going very fast,” said the lady mischievously. “Well, then, you
needn’t forget ME. On the contrary,” she added, after looking at him
curiously, “I would rather you’d remember me. Good-by--or, rather,
good-afternoon--if I’m to be remembered, Leon.”

“Good-afternoon, ma’am.”

She moved away, and presently disappeared among the laurels. But her
last words were ringing in his ears. “Leon”--everybody else called him
“Lee” for brevity; “Leon”--it was pretty as she said it.

He turned away. But it so chanced that their parting was not to pass
unnoticed, for, looking up the hill, Leonidas perceived his elder sister
and little brother coming down the road, and knew that they must have
seen him from the hilltop. It was like their “snoopin’”!

They ran to him eagerly.

“You were talking to the stranger,” said his sister breathlessly.

“She spoke to me first,” said Leonidas, on the defensive.

“What did she say?”

“Wanted to know the eleckshun news,” said Leonidas with cool mendacity,
“and I told her.”

This improbable fiction nevertheless satisfied them. “What was she like?
Oh, do tell us, Lee!” continued his sister.

Nothing would have delighted him more than to expatiate upon her
loveliness, the soft white beauty of her hands, the “cunning” little
puckers around her lips, her bright tender eyes, the angelic texture
of her robes, and the musical tinkle of her voice. But Leonidas had no
confidant, and what healthy boy ever trusted his sister in such matter!
“YOU saw what she was like,” he said, with evasive bluntness.

“But, Lee”--

But Lee was adamant. “Go and ask her,” he said.

“Like as not you were sassy to her, and she shut you up,” said his
sister artfully. But even this cruel suggestion, which he could have so
easily flouted, did not draw him, and his ingenious relations flounced
disgustedly away.

But Leonidas was not spared any further allusion to the fair stranger;
for the fact of her having spoken to him was duly reported at home, and
at dinner his reticence was again sorely attacked. “Just like her, in
spite of all her airs and graces, to hang out along the fence like any
ordinary hired girl, jabberin’ with anybody that went along the road,”
 said his mother incisively. He knew that she didn’t like her new
neighbors, so this did not surprise nor greatly pain him. Neither did
the prosaic facts that were now first made plain to him. His divinity
was a Mrs. Burroughs, whose husband was conducting a series of mining
operations, and prospecting with a gang of men on the Casket Ridge.
As his duty required his continual presence there, Mrs. Burroughs was
forced to forego the civilized pleasures of San Francisco for a frontier
life, for which she was ill fitted, and in which she had no interest.
All this was a vague irrelevance to Leonidas, who knew her only as a
goddess in white who had been familiar to him, and kind, and to whom he
was tied by the delicious joy of having a secret in common, and having
done her a special favor. Healthy youth clings to its own impressions,
let reason, experience, and even facts argue ever to the contrary.

So he kept her secret and his intact, and was rewarded a few days
afterwards by a distant view of her walking in the garden, with a man
whom he recognized as her husband. It is needless to say that, without
any extraneous thought, the man suffered in Leonidas’s estimation by his
propinquity to the goddess, and that he deemed him vastly inferior.

It was a still greater reward to his fidelity that she seized an
opportunity when her husband’s head was turned to wave her hand to him.
Leonidas did not approach the fence, partly through shyness and partly
through a more subtle instinct that this man was not in the secret. He
was right, for only the next day, as he passed to the post-office, she
called him to the fence.

“Did you see me wave my hand to you yesterday?” she asked pleasantly.

“Yes, ma’am; but”--he hesitated--“I didn’t come up, for I didn’t think
you wanted me when any one else was there.”

She laughed merrily, and lifting his straw hat from his head, ran the
fingers of the other hand through his damp curls. “You’re the brightest,
dearest boy I ever knew, Leon,” she said, dropping her pretty face to
the level of his own, “and I ought to have remembered it. But I
don’t mind telling you I was dreadfully frightened lest you might
misunderstand me and come and ask for another letter--before HIM.” As
she emphasized the personal pronoun, her whole face seemed to change:
the light of her blue eyes became mere glittering points, her nostrils
grew white and contracted, and her pretty little mouth seemed to narrow
into a straight cruel line, like a cat’s. “Not a word ever to HIM,
of all men! Do you hear?” she said almost brusquely. Then, seeing the
concern in the boy’s face, she laughed, and added explanatorily: “He’s a
bad, bad man, Leon, remember that.”

The fact that she was speaking of her husband did not shock the boy’s
moral sense in the least. The sacredness of those relations, and even of
blood kinship, is, I fear, not always so clear to the youthful mind as
we fondly imagine. That Mr. Burroughs was a bad man to have excited
this change in this lovely woman was Leonidas’s only conclusion. He
remembered how his sister’s soft, pretty little kitten, purring on her
lap, used to get its back up and spit at the postmaster’s yellow hound.

“I never wished to come unless you called me first,” he said frankly.

“What?” she said, in her half playful, half reproachful, but wholly
caressing way. “You mean to say you would never come to see me unless I
sent for you? Oh, Leon! and you’d abandon me in that way?”

But Leonidas was set in his own boyish superstition. “I’d just delight
in being sent for by you any time, Mrs. Burroughs, and you kin always
find me,” he said shyly, but doggedly; “but”--He stopped.

“What an opinionated young gentleman! Well, I see I must do all the
courting. So consider that I sent for you this morning. I’ve got another
letter for you to mail.” She put her hand to her breast, and out of the
pretty frillings of her frock produced, as before, with the same faint
perfume of violets, a letter like the first. But it was unsealed. “Now,
listen, Leon; we are going to be great friends--you and I.” Leonidas
felt his cheeks glowing. “You are going to do me another great favor,
and we are going to have a little fun and a great secret all by our own
selves. Now, first, have you any correspondent--you know--any one who
writes to you--any boy or girl--from San Francisco?”

Leonidas’s cheeks grew redder--alas! from a less happy consciousness. He
never received any letters; nobody ever wrote to him. He was obliged to
make this shameful admission.

Mrs. Burroughs looked thoughtful. “But you have some friend in San
Francisco--some one who MIGHT write to you?” she suggested pleasantly.

“I knew a boy once who went to San Francisco,” said Leonidas doubtfully.
“At least, he allowed he was goin’ there.”

“That will do,” said Mrs. Burroughs. “I suppose your parents know him or
of him?”

“Why,” said Leonidas, “he used to live here.”

“Better still. For, you see, it wouldn’t be strange if he DID write.
What was the gentleman’s name?”

“Jim Belcher,” returned Leonidas hesitatingly, by no means sure that the
absent Belcher knew how to write. Mrs. Burroughs took a tiny pencil from
her belt, opened the letter she was holding in her hand, and apparently
wrote the name in it. Then she folded it and sealed it, smiling
charmingly at Leonidas’s puzzled face.

“Now, Leon, listen; for here is the favor I am asking. Mr. Jim
Belcher”--she pronounced the name with great gravity--“will write to you
in a few days. But inside of YOUR letter will be a little note to me,
which you will bring me. You can show your letter to your family, if
they want to know who it is from; but no one must see MINE. Can you
manage that?”

“Yes,” said Leonidas. Then, as the whole idea flashed upon his quick
intelligence, he smiled until he showed his dimples. Mrs. Burroughs
leaned forward over the fence, lifted his torn straw hat, and dropped
a fluttering little kiss on his forehead. It seemed to the boy, flushed
and rosy as a maid, as if she had left a shining star there for every
one to see.

“Don’t smile like that, Leon, you’re positively irresistible! It will be
a nice little game, won’t it? Nobody in it but you and me--and Belcher!
We’ll outwit them yet. And, you see, you’ll be obliged to come to me,
after all, without my asking.”

They both laughed; indeed, quite a dimpled, bright-eyed, rosy, innocent
pair, though I think Leonidas was the more maidenly.

“And,” added Leonidas, with breathless eagerness, “I can sometimes write
to--to--Jim, and inclose your letter.”

“Angel of wisdom! certainly. Well, now, let’s see--have you got any
letters for the post to-day?” He colored again, for in anticipation of
meeting her he had hurried up the family post that morning. He held out
his letters: she thrust her own among them. “Now,” she said, laying her
cool, soft hand against his hot cheek, “run along, dear; you must not be
seen loitering here.”

Leonidas ran off, buoyed up on ambient air. It seemed just like a
fairy-book. Here he was, the confidant of the most beautiful creature he
had seen, and there was a mysterious letter coming to him--Leonidas--and
no one to know why. And now he had a “call” to see her often; she would
not forget him--he needn’t loiter by the fencepost to see if she wanted
him--and his boyish pride and shyness were appeased. There was no
question of moral ethics raised in Leonidas’s mind; he knew that it
would not be the real Jim Belcher who would write to him, but that made
the prospect the more attractive. Nor did another circumstance trouble
his conscience. When he reached the post-office, he was surprised to see
the man whom he knew to be Mr. Burroughs talking with the postmaster.
Leonidas brushed by him and deposited his letters in the box in
discreet triumph. The postmaster was evidently officially resenting some
imputation on his carelessness, and, concluding his defense, “No, sir,”
 he said, “you kin bet your boots that ef any letter hez gone astray for
you or your wife--Ye said your wife, didn’t ye?”

“Yes,” said Burroughs hastily, with a glance around the shop.

“Well, for you or anybody at your house--it ain’t here that’s the fault.
You hear me! I know every letter that comes in and goes outer this
office, I reckon, and handle ‘em all,”--Leonidas pricked up his
ears,--“and if anybody oughter know, it’s me. Ye kin paste that in your
hat, Mr. Burroughs.” Burroughs, apparently disconcerted by the intrusion
of a third party--Leonidas--upon what was evidently a private inquiry,
murmured something surlily, and passed out.

Leonidas was puzzled. That big man seemed to be “snoopin’” around for
something! He knew that he dared not touch the letter-bag,--Leonidas had
heard somewhere that it was a deadly crime to touch any letters after
the Government had got hold of them once, and he had no fears for the
safety of hers. But ought he not go back at once and tell her about
her husband’s visit, and the alarming fact that the postmaster was
personally acquainted with all the letters? He instantly saw, too, the
wisdom of her inclosing her letter hereafter in another address. Yet he
finally resolved not to tell her to-day,--it would look like “hanging
round” again; and--another secret reason--he was afraid that any
allusion to her husband’s interference would bring back that change
in her beautiful face which he did not like. The better to resist
temptation, he went back another way.

It must not be supposed that, while Leonidas indulged in this secret
passion for the beautiful stranger, it was to the exclusion of his
boyish habits. It merely took the place of his intellectual visions and
his romantic reading. He no longer carried books in his pocket on his
lazy rambles. What were mediaeval legends of high-born ladies and their
pages to this real romance of himself and Mrs. Burroughs? What were the
exploits of boy captains and juvenile trappers and the Indian maidens
and Spanish senoritas to what was now possible to himself and his
divinity here--upon Casket Ridge! The very ground around her was now
consecrated to romance and adventure. Consequently, he visited a
few traps on his way back which he had set for “jackass-rabbits” and
wildcats,--the latter a vindictive reprisal for aggression upon an
orphan brood of mountain quail which he had taken under his protection.
For, while he nourished a keen love of sport, it was controlled by a
boy’s larger understanding of nature: a pantheistic sympathy with
man and beast and plant, which made him keenly alive to the strange
cruelties of creation, revealed to him some queer animal feuds, and made
him a chivalrous partisan of the weaker. He had even gone out of his way
to defend, by ingenious contrivances of his own, the hoard of a golden
squirrel and the treasures of some wild bees from a predatory bear,
although it did not prevent him later from capturing the squirrel by an
equally ingenious contrivance, and from eventually eating some of the
honey.

He was late home that evening. But this was “vacation,”--the district
school was closed, and but for the household “chores,” which occupied
his early mornings, each long summer day was a holiday. So two or three
passed; and then one morning, on his going to the post-office, the
postmaster threw down upon the counter a real and rather bulky letter,
duly stamped, and addressed to Mr. Leonidas Boone! Leonidas was too
discreet to open it before witnesses, but in the solitude of the
trail home broke the seal. It contained another letter with no
address--clearly the one SHE expected--and, more marvelous still, a
sheaf of trout-hooks, with delicate gut-snells such as Leonidas had
only dared to dream of. The letter to himself was written in a clear,
distinct hand, and ran as follows:--


DEAR LEE,--How are you getting on on old Casket Ridge? It seems a coon’s
age since you and me was together, and times I get to think I must just
run up and see you! We’re having bully times in ‘Frisco, you bet! though
there ain’t anything wild worth shucks to go to see--‘cept the sea
lions at the Cliff House. They’re just stunning--big as a grizzly, and
bigger--climbing over a big rock or swimming in the sea like an otter or
muskrat. I’m sending you some snells and hooks, such as you can’t get at
Casket. Use the fine ones for pot-holes and the bigger ones for running
water or falls. Let me know when you’ve got ‘em. Write to Lock Box No.
1290. That’s where dad’s letters come. So no more at present.

From yours truly,

JIM BELCHER.


Not only did Leonidas know that this was not from the real Jim, but he
felt the vague contact of a new, charming, and original personality
that fascinated him. Of course, it was only natural that one of HER
friends--as he must be--should be equally delightful. There was no
jealousy in Leonidas’s devotion; he knew only a joy in this fellowship
of admiration for her which he was satisfied that the other boy must
feel. And only the right kind of boy could know the importance of
his ravishing gift, and this Jim was evidently “no slouch”! Yet, in
Leonidas’s new joy he did not forget HER! He ran back to the stockade
fence and lounged upon the road in view of the house, but she did not
appear.

Leonidas lingered on the top of the hill, ostentatiously examining a
young hickory for a green switch, but to no effect. Then it suddenly
occurred to him that she might be staying in purposely, and, perhaps
a little piqued by her indifference, he ran off. There was a mountain
stream hard by, now dwindled in the summer drouth to a mere trickling
thread among the boulders, and there was a certain “pot-hole” that he
had long known. It was the lurking-place of a phenomenal trout,--an
almost historic fish in the district, which had long resisted the
attempt of such rude sportsmen as miners, or even experts like himself.
Few had seen it, except as a vague, shadowy bulk in the four feet of
depth and gloom in which it hid; only once had Leonidas’s quick eye
feasted on its fair proportions. On that memorable occasion Leonidas,
having exhausted every kind of lure of painted fly and living bait,
was rising from his knees behind the bank, when a pink five-cent stamp
dislodged from his pocket fluttered in the air, and descended slowly
upon the still pool. Horrified at his loss, Leonidas leaned over to
recover it, when there was a flash like lightning in the black depths, a
dozen changes of light and shadow on the surface, a little whirling wave
splashing against the side of the rock, and the postage stamp was gone.
More than that--for one instant the trout remained visible, stationary
and expectant! Whether it was the instinct of sport, or whether the fish
had detected a new, subtle, and original flavor in the gum and paper,
Leonidas never knew. Alas! he had not another stamp; he was obliged to
leave the fish, but carried a brilliant idea away with him. Ever since
then he had cherished it--and another extra stamp in his pocket. And
now, with this strong but gossamer-like snell, this new hook, and this
freshly cut hickory rod, he would make the trial!

But fate was against him! He had scarcely descended the narrow trail to
the pine-fringed margin of the stream before his quick ear detected an
unusual rustling through the adjacent underbrush, and then a voice that
startled him! It was HERS! In an instant all thought of sport had fled.
With a beating heart, half opened lips, and uplifted lashes, Leonidas
awaited the coming of his divinity like a timorous virgin at her first
tryst.

But Mrs. Burroughs was clearly not in an equally responsive mood. With
her fair face reddened by the sun, the damp tendrils of her unwound hair
clinging to her forehead, and her smart little slippers red with dust,
there was also a querulous light in her eyes, and a still more querulous
pinch in her nostrils, as she stood panting before him.

“You tiresome boy!” she gasped, holding one little hand to her side as
she gripped her brambled skirt around her ankles with the other. “Why
didn’t you wait? Why did you make me run all this distance after you?”

Leonidas timidly and poignantly protested. He had waited before the
house and on the hill; he thought she didn’t want him.

“Couldn’t you see that THAT MAN kept me in?” she went on peevishly.
“Haven’t you sense enough to know that he suspects something, and
follows me everywhere, dogging my footsteps every time the post comes
in, and even going to the post-office himself, to make sure that he sees
all my letters? Well,” she added impatiently, “have you anything for me?
Why don’t you speak?”

Crushed and remorseful, Leonidas produced her letter. She almost
snatched it from his hand, opened it, read a few lines, and her face
changed. A smile strayed from her eyes to her lips, and back again.
Leonidas’s heart was lifted; she was so forgiving and so beautiful!

“Is he a boy, Mrs. Burroughs?” asked Leonidas shyly.

“Well--not exactly,” she said, her charming face all radiant again.
“He’s older than you. What has he written to you?”

Leonidas put his letter in her hand for reply.

“I wish I could see him, you know,” he said shyly. “That letter’s
bully--it’s just rats! I like him pow’ful.”

Mrs. Burroughs had skimmed through the letter, but not interestedly.

“You mustn’t like him more than you like me,” she said laughingly,
caressing him with her voice and eyes, and even her straying hand.

“I couldn’t do that! I never could like anybody as I like you,” said.
Leonidas gravely. There was such appalling truthfulness in the boy’s
voice and frankly opened eyes that the woman could not evade it, and
was slightly disconcerted. But she presently started up with a vexatious
cry. “There’s that wretch following me again, I do believe,” she said,
staring at the hilltop. “Yes! Look, Leon, he’s turning to come down this
trail. What’s to be done? He mustn’t see me here!”

Leonidas looked. It was indeed Mr. Burroughs; but he was evidently
only taking a short cut towards the Ridge, where his men were working.
Leonidas had seen him take it before. But it was the principal trail on
the steep hillside, and they must eventually meet. A man might evade
it by scrambling through the brush to a lower and rougher trail; but a
woman, never! But an idea had seized Leonidas. “I can stop him,” he said
confidently to her. “You just lie low here behind that rock till I come
back. He hasn’t seen you yet.”

She had barely time to draw back before Leonidas darted down the trail
towards her husband. Yet, in her intense curiosity, she leaned out
the next moment to watch him. He paused at last, not far from the
approaching figure, and seemed to kneel down on the trail. What was he
doing? Her husband was still slowly advancing. Suddenly he stopped. At
the same moment she heard their two voices in excited parley, and then,
to her amazement, she saw her husband scramble hurriedly down the trail
to the lower level, and with an occasional backward glance, hasten away
until he had passed beyond her view.

She could scarcely realize her narrow escape when Leonidas stood by her
side. “How did you do it?” she said eagerly.

“With a rattler!” said the boy gravely.

“With a what?”

“A rattlesnake--pizen snake, you know.”

“A rattlesnake?” she said, staring at Leonidas with a quick snatching
away of her skirts.

The boy, who seemed to have forgotten her in his other abstraction of
adventure, now turned quickly, with devoted eyes and a reassuring smile.

“Yes; but I wouldn’t let him hurt you,” he said gently.

“But what did you DO?”

He looked at her curiously. “You won’t be frightened if I show you?” he
said doubtfully. “There’s nothin’ to be afeerd of s’long as you’re with
me,” he added proudly.

“Yes--that is”--she stammered, and then, her curiosity getting the
better of her fear, she added in a whisper: “Show me quick!”

He led the way up the narrow trail until he stopped where he had knelt
before. It was a narrow, sunny ledge of rock, scarcely wide enough for
a single person to pass. He silently pointed to a cleft in the rock, and
kneeling down again, began to whistle in a soft, fluttering way. There
was a moment of suspense, and then she was conscious of an awful gliding
something,--a movement so measured yet so exquisitely graceful that she
stood enthralled. A narrow, flattened, expressionless head was followed
by a footlong strip of yellow-barred scales; then there was a pause, and
the head turned, in a beautifully symmetrical half-circle, towards the
whistler. The whistling ceased; the snake, with half its body out of the
cleft, remained poised in air as if stiffened to stone.

“There,” said Leonidas quietly, “that’s what Mr. Burroughs saw, and
that’s WHY he scooted off the trail. I just called out William Henry,--I
call him William Henry, and he knows his name,--and then I sang out to
Mr. Burroughs what was up; and it was lucky I did, for the next moment
he’d have been on top of him and have been struck, for rattlers don’t
give way to any one.”

“Oh, why didn’t you let”--She stopped herself quickly, but could not
stop the fierce glint in her eye nor the sharp curve in her nostril.
Luckily, Leonidas did not see this, being preoccupied with his other
graceful charmer, William Henry.

“But how did you know it was here?” said Mrs. Burroughs, recovering
herself.

“Fetched him here,” said Leonidas briefly.

“What in your hands?” she said, drawing back.

“No! made him follow! I HAVE handled him, but it was after I’d first
made him strike his pizen out upon a stick. Ye know, after he strikes
four times he ain’t got any pizen left. Then ye kin do anythin’ with
him, and he knows it. He knows me, you bet! I’ve bin three months
trainin’ him. Look! Don’t be frightened,” he said, as Mrs. Burroughs
drew hurriedly back; “see him mind me. Now scoot home, William Henry.”

He accompanied the command with a slow, dominant movement of the hickory
rod he was carrying. The snake dropped its head, and slid noiselessly
out of the cleft across the trail and down the hill.

“Thinks my rod is witch-hazel, which rattlers can’t abide,” continued
Leonidas, dropping into a boy’s breathless abbreviated speech. “Lives
down your way--just back of your farm. Show ye some day. Suns himself on
a flat stone every day--always cold--never can get warm. Eh?”

She had not spoken, but was gazing into space with a breathless rigidity
of attitude and a fixed look in her eye, not unlike the motionless orbs
of the reptile that had glided away.

“Does anybody else know you keep him?” she asked.

“Nary one. I never showed him to anybody but you,” replied the boy.

“Don’t! You must show me where he hides to-morrow,” she said, in her old
laughing way. “And now, Leon, I must go back to the house.”

“May I write to him--to Jim Belcher, Mrs. Burroughs?” said the boy
timidly.

“Certainly. And come to me to-morrow with your letter--I will have mine
ready. Good-by.” She stopped and glanced at the trail. “And you say that
if that man had kept on, the snake would have bitten him?”

“Sure pop!--if he’d trod on him--as he was sure to. The snake wouldn’t
have known he didn’t mean it. It’s only natural,” continued Leonidas,
with glowing partisanship for the gentle and absent William Henry. “YOU
wouldn’t like to be trodden upon, Mrs. Burroughs!”

“No! I’d strike out!” she said quickly. She made a rapid motion forward
with her low forehead and level head, leaving it rigid the next moment,
so that it reminded him of the snake, and he laughed. At which she
laughed too, and tripped away.

Leonidas went back and caught his trout. But even this triumph did not
remove a vague sense of disappointment which had come over him. He had
often pictured to himself a Heaven-sent meeting with her in the woods,
a walk with her, alone, where he could pick her the rarest flowers and
herbs and show her his woodland friends; and it had only ended in this,
and an exhibition of William Henry! He ought to have saved HER from
something, and not her husband. Yet he had no ill-feeling for Burroughs,
only a desire to circumvent him, on behalf of the unprotected, as he
would have baffled a hawk or a wildcat. He went home in dismal spirits,
but later that evening constructed a boyish letter of thanks to the
apocryphal Belcher and told him all about--the trout!

He brought her his letter the next day, and received hers to inclose.
She was pleasant, her own charming self again, but she seemed more
interested in other things than himself, as, for instance, the docile
William Henry, whose hiding-place he showed, and whose few tricks she
made him exhibit to her, and which the gratified Leonidas accepted as a
delicate form of flattery to himself. But his yearning, innocent spirit
detected a something lacking, which he was too proud to admit even to
himself. It was his own fault; he ought to have waited for her, and not
gone for the trout!

So a fortnight passed with an interchange of the vicarious letters, and
brief, hopeful, and disappointing meetings to Leonidas. To add to his
unhappiness, he was obliged to listen to sneering disparagement of his
goddess from his family, and criticisms which, happily, his innocence
did not comprehend. It was his own mother who accused her of shamefully
“making up” to the good-looking expressman at church last Sunday, and
declared that Burroughs ought to “look after that wife of his,”--two
statements which the simple Leonidas could not reconcile. He had seen
the incident, and only thought her more lovely than ever. Why should not
the expressman think so too? And yet the boy was not happy; something
intruded upon his sports, upon his books, making them dull and vapid,
and yet that something was she! He grew pale and preoccupied. If he had
only some one in whom to confide--some one who could explain his hopes
and fears. That one was nearer than he thought!

It was quite three weeks since the rattlesnake incident, and he was
wandering moodily over Casket Ridge. He was near the Casket, that abrupt
upheaval of quartz and gneiss, shaped like a coffer, from which the
mountain took its name. It was a favorite haunt of Leonidas, one of
whose boyish superstitions was that it contained a treasure of gold, and
one of whose brightest dreams had been that he should yet discover it.
This he did not do to-day, but looking up from the rocks that he was
listlessly examining, he made the almost as thrilling discovery that
near him on the trail was a distinguished-looking stranger.

He was bestriding a shapely mustang, which well became his handsome
face and slight, elegant figure, and he was looking at Leonidas with
an amused curiosity and a certain easy assurance that were difficult to
withstand. It was with the same fascinating self-confidence of smile,
voice, and manner that he rode up to the boy, and leaning lightly over
his saddle, said with exaggerated politeness: “I believe I have the
pleasure of addressing Mr. Leonidas Boone?”

The rising color in Leonidas’s face was apparently a sufficient
answer to the stranger, for he continued smilingly, “Then permit me to
introduce myself as Mr. James Belcher. As you perceive, I have grown
considerably since you last saw me. In fact, I’ve done nothing else.
It’s surprising what a fellow can do when he sets his mind on one thing.
And then, you know, they’re always telling you that San Francisco is a
‘growing place.’ That accounts for it!”

Leonidas, dazed, dazzled, but delighted, showed all his white teeth in a
shy laugh. At which the enchanting stranger leaped from his horse like
a very boy, drew his arm through the rein, and going up to Leonidas,
lifted the boy’s straw hat from his head and ran his fingers through his
curls. There was nothing original in that--everybody did that to him as
a preliminary to conversation. But when this ingenuous fine gentleman
put his own Panama hat on Leonidas’s head, and clapped Leonidas’s torn
straw on his own, and, passing his arm through the boy’s, began to walk
on with him, Leonidas’s simple heart went out to him at once.

“And now, Leon,” said the delightful stranger, “let’s you and me have
a talk. There’s a nice cool spot under these laurels; I’ll stake out
Pepita, and we’ll just lie off there and gab, and not care if school
keeps or not.”

“But you know you ain’t really Jim Belcher,” said the boy shyly.

“I’m as good a man as he is any day, whoever I am,” said the stranger,
with humorous defiance, “and can lick him out of his boots, whoever HE
is. That ought to satisfy you. But if you want my certificate, here’s
your own letter, old man,” he said, producing Leonidas’s last scrawl
from his pocket.

“And HERS?” said the boy cautiously.

The stranger’s face changed a little. “And HERS,” he repeated gravely,
showing a little pink note which Leonidas recognized as one of Mrs.
Burroughs’s inclosures. The boy was silent until they reached the
laurels, where the stranger tethered his horse and then threw himself
in an easy attitude beneath the tree, with the back of his head upon his
clasped hands. Leonidas could see his curved brown mustaches and silky
lashes that were almost as long, and thought him the handsomest man he
had ever beheld.

“Well, Leon,” said the stranger, stretching himself out comfortably and
pulling the boy down beside him, “how are things going on the Casket?
All serene, eh?”

The inquiry so dismally recalled Leonidas’s late feelings that his face
clouded, and he involuntarily sighed. The stranger instantly shifted his
head and gazed curiously at him. Then he took the boy’s sunburnt hand in
his own, and held it a moment. “Well, go on,” he said.

“Well, Mr.--Mr.--I can’t go on--I won’t!” said Leonidas, with a sudden
fit of obstinacy. “I don’t know what to call you.”

“Call me ‘Jack’--‘Jack Hamlin’ when you’re not in a hurry. Ever heard of
me before?” he added, suddenly turning his head towards Leonidas.

The boy shook his head. “No.”

Mr. Jack Hamlin lifted his lashes in affected expostulation to the
skies. “And this is Fame!” he murmured audibly.

But this Leonidas did not comprehend. Nor could he understand why the
stranger, who clearly must have come to see HER, should not ask about
her, should not rush to seek her, but should lie back there all the
while so contentedly on the grass. HE wouldn’t. He half resented it, and
then it occurred to him that this fine gentleman was like himself--shy.
Who could help being so before such an angel? HE would help him on.

And so, shyly at first, but bit by bit emboldened by a word or two from
Jack, he began to talk of her--of her beauty--of her kindness--of his
own unworthiness--of what she had said and done--until, finding in this
gracious stranger the vent his pent-up feelings so long had sought, he
sang then and there the little idyl of his boyish life. He told of his
decline in her affections after his unpardonable sin in keeping her
waiting while he went for the trout, and added the miserable mistake of
the rattlesnake episode. “For it was a mistake, Mr. Hamlin. I oughtn’t
to have let a lady like that know anything about snakes--just because I
happen to know them.”

“It WAS an awful slump, Lee,” said Hamlin gravely. “Get a woman and
a snake together--and where are you? Think of Adam and Eve and the
serpent, you know.”

“But it wasn’t that way,” said the boy earnestly. “And I want to tell
you something else that’s just makin’ me sick, Mr. Hamlin. You know I
told you William Henry lives down at the bottom of Burroughs’s garden,
and how I showed Mrs. Burroughs his tricks! Well, only two days ago I
was down there looking for him, and couldn’t find him anywhere. There’s
a sort of narrow trail from the garden to the hill, a short cut up to
the Ridge, instead o’ going by their gate. It’s just the trail any one
would take in a hurry, or if they didn’t want to be seen from the road.
Well! I was looking this way and that for William Henry, and whistlin’
for him, when I slipped on to the trail. There, in the middle of it, was
an old bucket turned upside down--just the thing a man would kick away
or a woman lift up. Well, Mr. Hamlin, I kicked it away, and”--the boy
stopped, with rounded eyes and bated breath, and added--“I just had time
to give one jump and save myself! For under that pail, cramped down so
he couldn’t get out, and just bilin’ over with rage, and chockful of
pizen, was William Henry! If it had been anybody else less spry, they’d
have got bitten,--and that’s just what the sneak who put it there knew.”

Mr. Hamlin uttered an exclamation under his breath, and rose to his
feet.

“What did you say?” asked the boy quickly.

“Nothing,” said Mr. Hamlin.

But it had sounded to Leonidas like an oath.

Mr. Hamlin walked a few steps, as if stretching his limbs, and then
said: “And you think Burroughs would have been bitten?”

“Why, no!” said Leonidas in astonished indignation; “of course not--not
BURROUGHS. It would have been poor MRS. Burroughs. For, of course, HE
set that trap for her--don’t you see? Who else would do it?”

“Of course, of course! Certainly,” said Mr. Hamlin coolly. “Of course,
as you say, HE set the trap--yes--you just hang on to that idea.”

But something in Mr. Hamlin’s manner, and a peculiar look in his eye,
did not satisfy Leonidas. “Are you going to see her now?” he said
eagerly. “I can show you the house, and then run in and tell her you’re
outside in the laurels.”

“Not just yet,” said Mr. Hamlin, laying his hand on the boy’s head
after having restored his own hat. “You see, I thought of giving her a
surprise. A big surprise!” he added slowly. After a pause, he went on:
“Did you tell her what you had seen?”

“Of course I did,” said Leonidas reproachfully. “Did you think I was
going to let her get bit? It might have killed her.”

“And it might not have been an unmixed pleasure for William Henry. I
mean,” said Mr. Hamlin gravely, correcting himself, “YOU would never
have forgiven him. But what did she say?”

The boy’s face clouded. “She thanked me and said it was very
thoughtful--and kind--though it might have been only an accident”--he
stammered--“and then she said perhaps I was hanging round and coming
there a little too much lately, and that as Burroughs was very watchful,
I’d better quit for two or three days.” The tears were rising to his
eyes, but by putting his two clenched fists into his pockets, he managed
to hold them down. Perhaps Mr. Hamlin’s soft hand on his head assisted
him. Mr. Hamlin took from his pocket a notebook, and tearing out a leaf,
sat down again and began to write on his knee. After a pause, Leonidas
said,--

“Was you ever in love, Mr. Hamlin?”

“Never,” said Mr. Hamlin, quietly continuing to write. “But, now you
speak of it, it’s a long-felt want in my nature that I intend to supply
some day. But not until I’ve made my pile. And don’t YOU either.” He
continued writing, for it was this gentleman’s peculiarity to talk
without apparently the slightest concern whether anybody else spoke,
whether he was listened to, or whether his remarks were at all relevant
to the case. Yet he was always listened to for that reason. When he had
finished writing, he folded up the paper, put it in an envelope, and
addressed it.

“Shall I take it to her?” said Leonidas eagerly.

“It’s not for HER; it’s for him--Mr. Burroughs,” said Mr. Hamlin
quietly.

The boy drew back. “To get him out of the way,” added Hamlin
explanatorily. “When he gets it, lightning wouldn’t keep him here. Now,
how to send it,” he said thoughtfully.

“You might leave it at the post-office,” said Leonidas timidly. “He
always goes there to watch his wife’s letters.”

For the first time in their interview Mr. Hamlin distinctly laughed.

“Your head is level, Leo, and I’ll do it. Now the best thing you can do
is to follow Mrs. Burroughs’s advice. Quit going to the house for a day
or two.” He walked towards his horse. The boy’s face sank, but he kept
up bravely. “And will I see you again?” he said wistfully.

Mr. Hamlin lowered his face so near the boy’s that Leonidas could see
himself in the brown depths of Mr. Hamlin’s eyes. “I hope you will,”
 he said gravely. He mounted, shook the boy’s hand, and rode away in the
lengthening shadows. Then Leonidas walked sadly home.

There was no need for him to keep his promise; for the next morning the
family were stirred by the announcement that Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs had
left Casket Ridge that night by the down stage for Sacramento, and that
the house was closed. There were various rumors concerning the reason of
this sudden departure, but only one was persistent, and borne out by
the postmaster. It was that Mr. Burroughs had received that afternoon an
anonymous note that his wife was about to elope with the notorious San
Francisco gambler, Jack Hamlin.

But Leonidas Boone, albeit half understanding, kept his miserable secret
with a still hopeful and trustful heart. It grieved him a little that
William Henry was found a few days later dead, with his head crushed.
Yet it was not until years later, when he had made a successful
“prospect” on Casket Ridge, that he met Mr. Hamlin in San Francisco,
and knew how he had played the part of Mercury upon that “heaven-kissing
hill.”



COLONEL STARBOTTLE FOR THE PLAINTIFF


It had been a day of triumph for Colonel Starbottle. First, for his
personality, as it would have been difficult to separate the Colonel’s
achievements from his individuality; second, for his oratorical
abilities as a sympathetic pleader; and third, for his functions as the
leading legal counsel for the Eureka Ditch Company versus the State of
California. On his strictly legal performances in this issue I prefer
not to speak; there were those who denied them, although the jury had
accepted them in the face of the ruling of the half amused, half cynical
Judge himself. For an hour they had laughed with the Colonel, wept with
him, been stirred to personal indignation or patriotic exaltation by
his passionate and lofty periods,--what else could they do than give him
their verdict? If it was alleged by some that the American eagle, Thomas
Jefferson, and the Resolutions of ‘98 had nothing whatever to do with
the contest of a ditch company over a doubtfully worded legislative
document; that wholesale abuse of the State Attorney and his political
motives had not the slightest connection with the legal question
raised--it was, nevertheless, generally accepted that the losing party
would have been only too glad to have the Colonel on their side. And
Colonel Starbottle knew this, as, perspiring, florid, and panting, he
rebuttoned the lower buttons of his blue frock-coat, which had become
loosed in an oratorical spasm, and readjusted his old-fashioned,
spotless shirt frill above it as he strutted from the court-room amidst
the handshakings and acclamations of his friends.

And here an unprecedented thing occurred. The Colonel absolutely
declined spirituous refreshment at the neighboring Palmetto Saloon,
and declared his intention of proceeding directly to his office in the
adjoining square. Nevertheless, the Colonel quitted the building alone,
and apparently unarmed, except for his faithful gold-headed stick,
which hung as usual from his forearm. The crowd gazed after him with
undisguised admiration of this new evidence of his pluck. It was
remembered also that a mysterious note had been handed to him at
the conclusion of his speech,--evidently a challenge from the State
Attorney. It was quite plain that the Colonel--a practiced duelist--was
hastening home to answer it.

But herein they were wrong. The note was in a female hand, and simply
requested the Colonel to accord an interview with the writer at the
Colonel’s office as soon as he left the court. But it was an engagement
that the Colonel--as devoted to the fair sex as he was to the
“code”--was no less prompt in accepting. He flicked away the dust from
his spotless white trousers and varnished boots with his handkerchief,
and settled his black cravat under his Byron collar as he neared his
office. He was surprised, however, on opening the door of his private
office, to find his visitor already there; he was still more startled to
find her somewhat past middle age and plainly attired. But the Colonel
was brought up in a school of Southern politeness, already antique in
the republic, and his bow of courtesy belonged to the epoch of his
shirt frill and strapped trousers. No one could have detected his
disappointment in his manner, albeit his sentences were short
and incomplete. But the Colonel’s colloquial speech was apt to be
fragmentary incoherencies of his larger oratorical utterances.

“A thousand pardons--for--er--having kept a lady waiting--er!
But--er--congratulations of friends--and--er--courtesy due to
them--er--interfered with--though perhaps only heightened--by
procrastination--the pleasure of--ha!” And the Colonel completed his
sentence with a gallant wave of his fat but white and well-kept hand.

“Yes! I came to see you along o’ that speech of yours. I was in court.
When I heard you gettin’ it off on that jury, I says to myself, ‘That’s
the kind o’ lawyer I want. A man that’s flowery and convincin’! Just the
man to take up our case.”

“Ah! It’s a matter of business, I see,” said the Colonel, inwardly
relieved, but externally careless. “And--er--may I ask the nature of the
case?”

“Well! it’s a breach-o’-promise suit,” said the visitor calmly.

If the Colonel had been surprised before, he was now really startled,
and with an added horror that required all his politeness to conceal.
Breach-of-promise cases were his peculiar aversion. He had always held
them to be a kind of litigation which could have been obviated by the
prompt killing of the masculine offender--in which case he would have
gladly defended the killer. But a suit for damages,--DAMAGES!--with the
reading of love-letters before a hilarious jury and court, was against
all his instincts. His chivalry was outraged; his sense of humor was
small, and in the course of his career he had lost one or two important
cases through an unexpected development of this quality in a jury.

The woman had evidently noticed his hesitation, but mistook its cause.
“It ain’t me--but my darter.”

The Colonel recovered his politeness. “Ah! I am relieved, my dear madam!
I could hardly conceive a man ignorant enough to--er--er--throw away
such evident good fortune--or base enough to deceive the trustfulness of
womanhood--matured and experienced only in the chivalry of our sex, ha!”

The woman smiled grimly. “Yes!--it’s my darter, Zaidee Hooker--so ye
might spare some of them pretty speeches for HER--before the jury.”

The Colonel winced slightly before this doubtful prospect, but smiled.
“Ha! Yes!--certainly--the jury. But--er--my dear lady, need we go as
far as that? Can not this affair be settled--er--out of court? Could
not this--er--individual--be admonished--told that he must
give satisfaction--personal satisfaction--for his dastardly
conduct--to--er--near relative--or even valued personal friend?
The--er--arrangements necessary for that purpose I myself would
undertake.”

He was quite sincere; indeed, his small black eyes shone with that fire
which a pretty woman or an “affair of honor” could alone kindle. The
visitor stared vacantly at him, and said slowly, “And what good is that
goin’ to do US?”

“Compel him to--er--perform his promise,” said the Colonel, leaning back
in his chair.

“Ketch him doin’ it!” she exclaimed scornfully. “No--that ain’t wot
we’re after. We must make him PAY! Damages--and nothin’ short o’ THAT.”

The Colonel bit his lip. “I suppose,” he said gloomily, “you have
documentary evidence--written promises and protestations--er--er
love-letters, in fact?”

“No--nary a letter! Ye see, that’s jest it--and that’s where YOU come
in. You’ve got to convince that jury yourself. You’ve got to show what
it is--tell the whole story your own way. Lord! to a man like you that’s
nothin’.”

Startling as this admission might have been to any other lawyer,
Starbottle was absolutely relieved by it. The absence of any
mirth-provoking correspondence, and the appeal solely to his own powers
of persuasion, actually struck his fancy. He lightly put aside the
compliment with a wave of his white hand.

“Of course,” he said confidently, “there is strongly presumptive and
corroborative evidence? Perhaps you can give me--er--a brief outline of
the affair?”

“Zaidee kin do that straight enough, I reckon,” said the woman; “what I
want to know first is, kin you take the case?”

The Colonel did not hesitate; his curiosity was piqued. “I certainly
can. I have no doubt your daughter will put me in possession of
sufficient facts and details--to constitute what we call--er--a brief.”

“She kin be brief enough--or long enough--for the matter of that,” said
the woman, rising. The Colonel accepted this implied witticism with a
smile.

“And when may I have the pleasure of seeing her?” he asked politely.

“Well, I reckon as soon as I can trot out and call her. She’s just
outside, meanderin’ in the road--kinder shy, ye know, at first.”

She walked to the door. The astounded Colonel nevertheless gallantly
accompanied her as she stepped out into the street and called shrilly,
“You Zaidee!”

A young girl here apparently detached herself from a tree and the
ostentatious perusal of an old election poster, and sauntered down
towards the office door. Like her mother, she was plainly dressed;
unlike her, she had a pale, rather refined face, with a demure mouth and
downcast eyes. This was all the Colonel saw as he bowed profoundly and
led the way into his office, for she accepted his salutations without
lifting her head. He helped her gallantly to a chair, on which she
seated herself sideways, somewhat ceremoniously, with her eyes following
the point of her parasol as she traced a pattern on the carpet. A second
chair offered to the mother that lady, however, declined. “I reckon to
leave you and Zaidee together to talk it out,” she said; turning to her
daughter, she added, “Jest you tell him all, Zaidee,” and before the
Colonel could rise again, disappeared from the room. In spite of his
professional experience, Starbottle was for a moment embarrassed. The
young girl, however, broke the silence without looking up.

“Adoniram K. Hotchkiss,” she began, in a monotonous voice, as if it were
a recitation addressed to the public, “first began to take notice of me
a year ago. Arter that--off and on”--

“One moment,” interrupted the astounded Colonel; “do you mean Hotchkiss
the President of the Ditch Company?” He had recognized the name of
a prominent citizen--a rigid, ascetic, taciturn, middle-aged man--a
deacon--and more than that, the head of the company he had just
defended. It seemed inconceivable.

“That’s him,” she continued, with eyes still fixed on the parasol and
without changing her monotonous tone--“off and on ever since. Most
of the time at the Free-Will Baptist Church--at morning service,
prayer-meetings, and such. And at home--outside--er--in the road.”

“Is it this gentleman--Mr. Adoniram K. Hotchkiss--who--er--promised
marriage?” stammered the Colonel.

“Yes.”

The Colonel shifted uneasily in his chair. “Most extraordinary! for--you
see--my dear young lady--this becomes--a--er--most delicate affair.”

“That’s what maw said,” returned the young woman simply, yet with the
faintest smile playing around her demure lips and downcast cheek.

“I mean,” said the Colonel, with a pained yet courteous smile, “that
this--er--gentleman--is in fact--er--one of my clients.”

“That’s what maw said too, and of course your knowing him will make it
all the easier for you.”

A slight flush crossed the Colonel’s cheek as he returned quickly and a
little stiffly, “On the contrary--er--it may make it impossible for me
to--er--act in this matter.”

The girl lifted her eyes. The Colonel held his breath as the long lashes
were raised to his level. Even to an ordinary observer that sudden
revelation of her eyes seemed to transform her face with subtle
witchery. They were large, brown, and soft, yet filled with an
extraordinary penetration and prescience. They were the eyes of an
experienced woman of thirty fixed in the face of a child. What else the
Colonel saw there Heaven only knows! He felt his inmost secrets
plucked from him--his whole soul laid bare--his vanity, belligerency,
gallantry--even his mediaeval chivalry, penetrated, and yet illuminated,
in that single glance. And when the eyelids fell again, he felt that a
greater part of himself had been swallowed up in them.

“I beg your pardon,” he said hurriedly. “I mean--this matter may
be arranged--er--amicably. My interest with--and as you wisely
say--my--er--knowledge of my client--er--Mr. Hotchkiss--may effect--a
compromise.”

“And DAMAGES,” said the young girl, readdressing her parasol, as if she
had never looked up.

The Colonel winced. “And--er--undoubtedly COMPENSATION--if you do not
press a fulfillment of the promise. Unless,” he said, with an attempted
return to his former easy gallantry, which, however, the recollection of
her eyes made difficult, “it is a question of--er--the affections.”

“Which?” asked his fair client softly.

“If you still love him?” explained the Colonel, actually blushing.

Zaidee again looked up; again taking the Colonel’s breath away with eyes
that expressed not only the fullest perception of what he had SAID, but
of what he thought and had not said, and with an added subtle suggestion
of what he might have thought. “That’s tellin’,” she said, dropping her
long lashes again.

The Colonel laughed vacantly. Then feeling himself growing imbecile, he
forced an equally weak gravity. “Pardon me--I understand there are no
letters; may I know the way in which he formulated his declaration and
promises?”

“Hymn-books.”

“I beg your pardon,” said the mystified lawyer.

“Hymn-books--marked words in them with pencil--and passed ‘em on to
me,” repeated Zaidee. “Like ‘love,’ ‘dear,’ ‘precious,’ ‘sweet,’ and
‘blessed,’” she added, accenting each word with a push of her parasol on
the carpet. “Sometimes a whole line outer Tate and Brady--and Solomon’s
Song, you know, and sich.”

“I believe,” said the Colonel loftily, “that the--er--phrases of sacred
psalmody lend themselves to the language of the affections. But in
regard to the distinct promise of marriage--was there--er--no OTHER
expression?”

“Marriage Service in the prayer-book--lines and words outer that--all
marked,” Zaidee replied.

The Colonel nodded naturally and approvingly. “Very good. Were others
cognizant of this? Were there any witnesses?”

“Of course not,” said the girl. “Only me and him. It was generally at
church-time--or prayer-meeting. Once, in passing the plate, he slipped
one o’ them peppermint lozenges with the letters stamped on it ‘I love
you’ for me to take.”

The Colonel coughed slightly. “And you have the lozenge?”

“I ate it.”

“Ah,” said the Colonel. After a pause he added delicately, “But were
these attentions--er--confined to--er--sacred precincts? Did he meet you
elsewhere?”

“Useter pass our house on the road,” returned the girl, dropping into
her monotonous recital, “and useter signal.”

“Ah, signal?” repeated the Colonel approvingly.

“Yes! He’d say ‘Keerow,’ and I’d say ‘Keeree.’ Suthing like a bird, you
know.”

Indeed, as she lifted her voice in imitation of the call, the Colonel
thought it certainly very sweet and birdlike. At least as SHE gave
it. With his remembrance of the grim deacon he had doubts as to the
melodiousness of HIS utterance. He gravely made her repeat it.

“And after that signal?” he added suggestively.

“He’d pass on.”

The Colonel again coughed slightly, and tapped his desk with his
penholder.

“Were there any endearments--er--caresses--er--such as taking your
hand--er--clasping your waist?” he suggested, with a gallant yet
respectful sweep of his white hand and bowing of his head; “er--slight
pressure of your fingers in the changes of a dance--I mean,” he
corrected himself, with an apologetic cough--“in the passing of the
plate?”

“No; he was not what you’d call ‘fond,’” returned the girl.

“Ah! Adoniram K. Hotchkiss was not ‘fond’ in the ordinary acceptance of
the word,” noted the Colonel, with professional gravity.

She lifted her disturbing eyes, and again absorbed his in her own. She
also said “Yes,” although her eyes in their mysterious prescience of all
he was thinking disclaimed the necessity of any answer at all. He smiled
vacantly. There was a long pause. On which she slowly disengaged her
parasol from the carpet pattern, and stood up.

“I reckon that’s about all,” she said.

“Er--yes--but one moment,” began the Colonel vaguely. He would have
liked to keep her longer, but with her strange premonition of him he
felt powerless to detain her, or explain his reason for doing so. He
instinctively knew she had told him all; his professional judgment told
him that a more hopeless case had never come to his knowledge. Yet he
was not daunted, only embarrassed. “No matter,” he said. “Of course I
shall have to consult with you again.”

Her eyes again answered that she expected he would, and she added
simply, “When?”

“In the course of a day or two;” he replied quickly. “I will send you
word.”

She turned to go. In his eagerness to open the door for her, he upset
his chair, and with some confusion, that was actually youthful, he
almost impeded her movements in the hall, and knocked his broad-brimmed
Panama hat from his bowing hand in a final gallant sweep. Yet as her
small, trim, youthful figure, with its simple Leghorn straw hat confined
by a blue bow under her round chin, passed away before him, she looked
more like a child than ever.

The Colonel spent that afternoon in making diplomatic inquiries. He
found his youthful client was the daughter of a widow who had a small
ranch on the cross-roads, near the new Free-Will Baptist Church--the
evident theatre of this pastoral. They led a secluded life, the
girl being little known in the town, and her beauty and fascination
apparently not yet being a recognized fact. The Colonel felt a
pleasurable relief at this, and a general satisfaction he could not
account for. His few inquiries concerning Mr. Hotchkiss only confirmed
his own impressions of the alleged lover,--a serious-minded, practically
abstracted man, abstentive of youthful society, and the last man
apparently capable of levity of the affections or serious flirtation.
The Colonel was mystified, but determined of purpose, whatever that
purpose might have been.

The next day he was at his office at the same hour. He was alone--as
usual--the Colonel’s office being really his private lodgings, disposed
in connecting rooms, a single apartment reserved for consultation.
He had no clerk, his papers and briefs being taken by his faithful
body-servant and ex-slave “Jim” to another firm who did his office work
since the death of Major Stryker, the Colonel’s only law partner, who
fell in a duel some years previous. With a fine constancy the Colonel
still retained his partner’s name on his doorplate, and, it was alleged
by the superstitious, kept a certain invincibility also through the
‘manes’ of that lamented and somewhat feared man.

The Colonel consulted his watch, whose heavy gold case still showed
the marks of a providential interference with a bullet destined for its
owner, and replaced it with some difficulty and shortness of breath in
his fob. At the same moment he heard a step in the passage, and the door
opened to Adoniram K. Hotchkiss. The Colonel was impressed; he had a
duelist’s respect for punctuality.

The man entered with a nod and the expectant inquiring look of a busy
man. As his feet crossed that sacred threshold the Colonel became all
courtesy; he placed a chair for his visitor, and took his hat from his
half reluctant hand. He then opened a cupboard and brought out a bottle
of whiskey and two glasses.

“A--er--slight refreshment, Mr. Hotchkiss,” he suggested politely.

“I never drink,” replied Hotchkiss, with the severe attitude of a total
abstainer.

“Ah--er--not the finest Bourbon whiskey, selected by a Kentucky friend?
No? Pardon me! A cigar, then--the mildest Havana.”

“I do not use tobacco nor alcohol in any form,” repeated Hotchkiss
ascetically. “I have no foolish weaknesses.”

The Colonel’s moist, beady eyes swept silently over his client’s sallow
face. He leaned back comfortably in his chair, and half closing his
eyes as in dreamy reminiscence, said slowly: “Your reply, Mr. Hotchkiss,
reminds me of--er--sing’lar circumstance that--er--occurred, in point of
fact--at the St. Charles Hotel, New Orleans. Pinkey Hornblower--personal
friend--invited Senator Doolittle to join him in social glass. Received,
sing’larly enough, reply similar to yours. ‘Don’t drink nor smoke?’ said
Pinkey. ‘Gad, sir, you must be mighty sweet on the ladies.’ Ha!”
 The Colonel paused long enough to allow the faint flush to pass from
Hotchkiss’s cheek, and went on, half closing his eyes: “‘I allow no man,
sir, to discuss my personal habits,’ declared Doolittle, over his shirt
collar. ‘Then I reckon shootin’ must be one of those habits,’ said
Pinkey coolly. Both men drove out on the Shell Road back of cemetery
next morning. Pinkey put bullet at twelve paces through Doolittle’s
temple. Poor Doo never spoke again. Left three wives and seven children,
they say--two of ‘em black.”

“I got a note from you this morning,” said Hotchkiss, with badly
concealed impatience. “I suppose in reference to our case. You have
taken judgment, I believe.”

The Colonel, without replying, slowly filled a glass of whiskey and
water. For a moment he held it dreamily before him, as if still engaged
in gentle reminiscences called up by the act. Then tossing it off,
he wiped his lips with a large white handkerchief, and leaning back
comfortably in his chair, said, with a wave of his hand, “The interview
I requested, Mr. Hotchkiss, concerns a subject--which I may say
is--er--er--at present NOT of a public or business nature--although
LATER it might become--er--er--both. It is an affair of
some--er--delicacy.”

The Colonel paused, and Mr. Hotchkiss regarded him with increased
impatience. The Colonel, however, continued, with unchanged
deliberation: “It concerns--er--er--a young lady--a beautiful,
high-souled creature, sir, who, apart from her personal
loveliness--er--er--I may say is of one of the first families of
Missouri, and--er--not remotely connected by marriage with one
of--er--er--my boyhood’s dearest friends.” The latter, I grieve to say,
was a pure invention of the Colonel’s--an oratorical addition to the
scanty information he had obtained the previous day. “The young lady,”
 he continued blandly, “enjoys the further distinction of being
the object of such attention from you as would make this
interview--really--a confidential matter--er--er among friends
and--er--er--relations in present and future. I need not say that the
lady I refer to is Miss Zaidee Juno Hooker, only daughter of Almira
Ann Hooker, relict of Jefferson Brown Hooker, formerly of Boone County,
Kentucky, and latterly of--er--Pike County, Missouri.”

The sallow, ascetic hue of Mr. Hotchkiss’s face had passed through a
livid and then a greenish shade, and finally settled into a sullen red.
“What’s all this about?” he demanded roughly.

The least touch of belligerent fire came into Starbottle’s eye, but his
bland courtesy did not change. “I believe,” he said politely, “I have
made myself clear as between--er--gentlemen, though perhaps not as clear
as I should to--er--er--jury.”

Mr. Hotchkiss was apparently struck with some significance in the
lawyer’s reply. “I don’t know,” he said, in a lower and more cautious
voice, “what you mean by what you call ‘my attentions’ to--any one--or
how it concerns you. I have not exchanged half a dozen words with--the
person you name--have never written her a line--nor even called at her
house.”

He rose with an assumption of ease, pulled down his waistcoat, buttoned
his coat, and took up his hat. The Colonel did not move.

“I believe I have already indicated my meaning in what I have called
‘your attentions,’” said the Colonel blandly, “and given you my
‘concern’ for speaking as--er--er--mutual friend. As to YOUR statement
of your relations with Miss Hooker, I may state that it is fully
corroborated by the statement of the young lady herself in this very
office yesterday.”

“Then what does this impertinent nonsense mean? Why am I summoned here?”
 demanded Hotchkiss furiously.

“Because,” said the Colonel deliberately, “that statement is
infamously--yes, damnably to your discredit, sir!”

Mr. Hotchkiss was here seized by one of those impotent and inconsistent
rages which occasionally betray the habitually cautious and timid man.
He caught up the Colonel’s stick, which was lying on the table. At the
same moment the Colonel, without any apparent effort, grasped it by
the handle. To Mr. Hotchkiss’s astonishment, the stick separated in two
pieces, leaving the handle and about two feet of narrow glittering steel
in the Colonel’s hand. The man recoiled, dropping the useless fragment.
The Colonel picked it up, fitted the shining blade in it, clicked the
spring, and then rising with a face of courtesy yet of unmistakably
genuine pain, and with even a slight tremor in his voice, said
gravely,--

“Mr. Hotchkiss, I owe you a thousand apologies, sir, that--er--a weapon
should be drawn by me--even through your own inadvertence--under the
sacred protection of my roof, and upon an unarmed man. I beg your
pardon, sir, and I even withdraw the expressions which provoked
that inadvertence. Nor does this apology prevent you from holding me
responsible--personally responsible--ELSEWHERE for an indiscretion
committed in behalf of a lady--my--er--client.”

“Your client? Do you mean you have taken her case? You, the counsel for
the Ditch Company?” asked Mr. Hotchkiss, in trembling indignation.

“Having won YOUR case, sir,” replied the Colonel coolly,
“the--er--usages of advocacy do not prevent me from espousing the cause
of the weak and unprotected.”

“We shall see, sir,” said Hotchkiss, grasping the handle of the door and
backing into the passage. “There are other lawyers who”--

“Permit me to see you out,” interrupted the Colonel, rising politely.

--“will be ready to resist the attacks of blackmail,” continued
Hotchkiss, retreating along the passage.

“And then you will be able to repeat your remarks to me IN THE STREET,”
 continued the Colonel, bowing, as he persisted in following his visitor
to the door.

But here Mr. Hotchkiss quickly slammed it behind him, and hurried away.
The Colonel returned to his office, and sitting down, took a sheet of
letter-paper bearing the inscription “Starbottle and Stryker, Attorneys
and Counselors,” and wrote the following lines:--


HOOKER versus HOTCHKISS.

DEAR MADAM,--Having had a visit from the defendant in above, we should
be pleased to have an interview with you at two P. M. to-morrow.

Your obedient servants,

STARBOTTLE AND STRYKER.


This he sealed and dispatched by his trusted servant Jim, and then
devoted a few moments to reflection. It was the custom of the Colonel to
act first, and justify the action by reason afterwards.

He knew that Hotchkiss would at once lay the matter before rival
counsel. He knew that they would advise him that Miss Hooker had “no
case”--that she would be nonsuited on her own evidence, and he ought not
to compromise, but be ready to stand trial. He believed, however, that
Hotchkiss feared such exposure, and although his own instincts had been
at first against this remedy, he was now instinctively in favor of it.
He remembered his own power with a jury; his vanity and his chivalry
alike approved of this heroic method; he was bound by no prosaic
facts--he had his own theory of the case, which no mere evidence could
gainsay. In fact, Mrs. Hooker’s admission that he was to “tell the story
in his own way” actually appeared to him an inspiration and a prophecy.

Perhaps there was something else, due possibly to the lady’s wonderful
eyes, of which he had thought much. Yet it was not her simplicity that
affected him solely; on the contrary, it was her apparent intelligent
reading of the character of her recreant lover--and of his own! Of all
the Colonel’s previous “light” or “serious” loves, none had ever before
flattered him in that way. And it was this, combined with the respect
which he had held for their professional relations, that precluded
his having a more familiar knowledge of his client, through serious
questioning or playful gallantry. I am not sure it was not part of the
charm to have a rustic femme incomprise as a client.

Nothing could exceed the respect with which he greeted her as she
entered his office the next day. He even affected not to notice that she
had put on her best clothes, and he made no doubt appeared as when
she had first attracted the mature yet faithless attentions of Deacon
Hotchkiss at church. A white virginal muslin was belted around her slim
figure by a blue ribbon, and her Leghorn hat was drawn around her oval
cheek by a bow of the same color. She had a Southern girl’s narrow feet,
encased in white stockings and kid slippers, which were crossed primly
before her as she sat in a chair, supporting her arm by her faithful
parasol planted firmly on the floor. A faint odor of southernwood
exhaled from her, and, oddly enough, stirred the Colonel with a far-off
recollection of a pine-shaded Sunday-school on a Georgia hillside, and
of his first love, aged ten, in a short starched frock. Possibly it was
the same recollection that revived something of the awkwardness he had
felt then.

He, however, smiled vaguely, and sitting down, coughed slightly, and
placed his finger-tips together. “I have had an--er--interview with
Mr. Hotchkiss, but--I--er--regret to say there seems to be no prospect
of--er--compromise.”

He paused, and to his surprise her listless “company” face lit up with
an adorable smile. “Of course!--ketch him!” she said. “Was he mad when
you told him?” She put her knees comfortably together and leaned forward
for a reply.

For all that, wild horses could not have torn from the Colonel a word
about Hotchkiss’s anger. “He expressed his intention of employing
counsel--and defending a suit,” returned the Colonel, affably basking in
her smile.

She dragged her chair nearer his desk. “Then you’ll fight him tooth and
nail?” she asked eagerly; “you’ll show him up? You’ll tell the whole
story your own way? You’ll give him fits?--and you’ll make him pay?
Sure?” she went on breathlessly.

“I--er--will,” said the Colonel, almost as breathlessly.

She caught his fat white hand, which was lying on the table, between
her own and lifted it to her lips. He felt her soft young fingers even
through the lisle-thread gloves that encased them, and the warm moisture
of her lips upon his skin. He felt himself flushing--but was unable
to break the silence or change his position. The next moment she had
scuttled back with her chair to her old position.

“I--er--certainly shall do my best,” stammered the Colonel, in an
attempt to recover his dignity and composure.

“That’s enough! You’ll do it,” said she enthusiastically. “Lordy! Just
you talk for ME as ye did for HIS old Ditch Company, and you’ll fetch
it--every time! Why, when you made that jury sit up the other day--when
you got that off about the Merrikan flag waving equally over the rights
of honest citizens banded together in peaceful commercial pursuits, as
well as over the fortress of official proflig--”

“Oligarchy,” murmured the Colonel courteously.

--“oligarchy,” repeated the girl quickly, “my breath was just took away.
I said to maw, ‘Ain’t he too sweet for anything!’ I did, honest Injin!
And when you rolled it all off at the end--never missing a word (you
didn’t need to mark ‘em in a lesson-book, but had ‘em all ready on your
tongue)--and walked out--Well! I didn’t know you nor the Ditch Company
from Adam, but I could have just run over and kissed you there before
the whole court!”

She laughed, with her face glowing, although her strange eyes were cast
down. Alack! the Colonel’s face was equally flushed, and his own beady
eyes were on his desk. To any other woman he would have voiced the banal
gallantry that he should now, himself, look forward to that reward, but
the words never reached his lips. He laughed, coughed slightly, and when
he looked up again she had fallen into the same attitude as on her first
visit, with her parasol point on the floor.

“I must ask you to--er--direct your memory to--er--another point: the
breaking off of the--er--er--er--engagement. Did he--er--give any reason
for it? Or show any cause?”

“No; he never said anything,” returned the girl.

“Not in his usual way?--er--no reproaches out of the hymn-book?--or the
sacred writings?”

“No; he just QUIT.”

“Er--ceased his attentions,” said the Colonel gravely. “And naturally
you--er--were not conscious of any cause for his doing so.”

The girl raised her wonderful eyes so suddenly and so penetratingly
without replying in any other way that the Colonel could only hurriedly
say: “I see! None, of course!”

At which she rose, the Colonel rising also. “We--shall begin proceedings
at once. I must, however, caution you to answer no questions, nor say
anything about this case to any one until you are in court.”

She answered his request with another intelligent look and a nod. He
accompanied her to the door. As he took her proffered hand, he raised
the lisle-thread fingers to his lips with old-fashioned gallantry. As if
that act had condoned for his first omissions and awkwardness, he became
his old-fashioned self again, buttoned his coat, pulled out his shirt
frill, and strutted back to his desk.

A day or two later it was known throughout the town that Zaidee Hooker
had sued Adoniram Hotchkiss for breach of promise, and that the damages
were laid at five thousand dollars. As in those bucolic days the Western
press was under the secure censorship of a revolver, a cautious tone of
criticism prevailed, and any gossip was confined to personal expression,
and even then at the risk of the gossiper. Nevertheless, the situation
provoked the intensest curiosity. The Colonel was approached--until
his statement that he should consider any attempt to overcome his
professional secrecy a personal reflection withheld further advances.
The community were left to the more ostentatious information of the
defendant’s counsel, Messrs. Kitcham and Bilser, that the case was
“ridiculous” and “rotten,” that the plaintiff would be nonsuited, and
the fire-eating Starbottle would be taught a lesson that he could not
“bully” the law, and there were some dark hints of a conspiracy. It was
even hinted that the “case” was the revengeful and preposterous outcome
of the refusal of Hotchkiss to pay Starbottle an extravagant fee for his
late services to the Ditch Company. It is unnecessary to say that these
words were not reported to the Colonel. It was, however, an unfortunate
circumstance for the calmer, ethical consideration of the subject that
the Church sided with Hotchkiss, as this provoked an equal adherence
to the plaintiff and Starbottle on the part of the larger body of
non-churchgoers, who were delighted at a possible exposure of the
weakness of religious rectitude. “I’ve allus had my suspicions o’ them
early candle-light meetings down at that gospel shop,” said one critic,
“and I reckon Deacon Hotchkiss didn’t rope in the gals to attend jest
for psalm-singing.” “Then for him to get up and leave the board afore
the game’s finished and try to sneak out of it,” said an other,--“I
suppose that’s what they call RELIGIOUS.”

It was therefore not remarkable that the court-house three weeks later
was crowded with an excited multitude of the curious and sympathizing.
The fair plaintiff, with her mother, was early in attendance, and under
the Colonel’s advice appeared in the same modest garb in which she had
first visited his office. This and her downcast, modest demeanor were
perhaps at first disappointing to the crowd, who had evidently expected
a paragon of loveliness in this Circe of that grim, ascetic defendant,
who sat beside his counsel. But presently all eyes were fixed on the
Colonel, who certainly made up in his appearance any deficiency of his
fair client. His portly figure was clothed in a blue dress coat with
brass buttons, a buff waistcoat which permitted his frilled shirt-front
to become erectile above it, a black satin stock which confined a boyish
turned-down collar around his full neck, and immaculate drill trousers,
strapped over varnished boots. A murmur ran round the court. “Old
‘Personally Responsible’ has got his war-paint on;” “The Old War-Horse
is smelling powder,” were whispered comments. Yet for all that, the
most irreverent among them recognized vaguely, in this bizarre figure,
something of an honored past in their country’s history, and possibly
felt the spell of old deeds and old names that had once thrilled their
boyish pulses. The new District Judge returned Colonel Starbottle’s
profoundly punctilious bow. The Colonel was followed by his negro
servant, carrying a parcel of hymn-books and Bibles, who, with a
courtesy evidently imitated from his master, placed one before the
opposite counsel. This, after a first curious glance, the lawyer
somewhat superciliously tossed aside. But when Jim, proceeding to the
jury-box, placed with equal politeness the remaining copies before the
jury, the opposite counsel sprang to his feet.

“I want to direct the attention of the Court to this unprecedented
tampering with the jury, by this gratuitous exhibition of matter
impertinent and irrelevant to the issue.”

The Judge cast an inquiring look at Colonel Starbottle.

“May it please the Court,” returned Colonel Starbottle with dignity,
ignoring the counsel, “the defendant’s counsel will observe that he
is already furnished with the matter--which I regret to say he has
treated--in the presence of the Court--and of his client, a deacon of
the church--with--er--great superciliousness. When I state to your
Honor that the books in question are hymn-books and copies of the Holy
Scriptures, and that they are for the instruction of the jury, to whom
I shall have to refer them in the course of my opening, I believe I am
within my rights.”

“The act is certainly unprecedented,” said the Judge dryly, “but unless
the counsel for the plaintiff expects the jury to SING from these
hymn-books, their introduction is not improper, and I cannot admit the
objection. As defendant’s counsel are furnished with copies also, they
cannot plead ‘surprise,’ as in the introduction of new matter, and as
plaintiff’s counsel relies evidently upon the jury’s attention to his
opening, he would not be the first person to distract it.” After a pause
he added, addressing the Colonel, who remained standing, “The Court is
with you, sir; proceed.”

But the Colonel remained motionless and statuesque, with folded arms.

“I have overruled the objection,” repeated the Judge; “you may go on.”

“I am waiting, your Honor, for the--er--withdrawal by the defendant’s
counsel of the word ‘tampering,’ as refers to myself, and of
‘impertinent,’ as refers to the sacred volumes.”

“The request is a proper one, and I have no doubt will be acceded to,”
 returned the Judge quietly. The defendant’s counsel rose and mumbled
a few words of apology, and the incident closed. There was, however, a
general feeling that the Colonel had in some way “scored,” and if his
object had been to excite the greatest curiosity about the books, he had
made his point.

But impassive of his victory, he inflated his chest, with his right hand
in the breast of his buttoned coat, and began. His usual high color had
paled slightly, but the small pupils of his prominent eyes glittered
like steel. The young girl leaned forward in her chair with an attention
so breathless, a sympathy so quick, and an admiration so artless
and unconscious that in an instant she divided with the speaker the
attention of the whole assemblage. It was very hot; the court was
crowded to suffocation; even the open windows revealed a crowd of faces
outside the building, eagerly following the Colonel’s words.

He would remind the jury that only a few weeks ago he stood there as
the advocate of a powerful Company, then represented by the present
defendant. He spoke then as the champion of strict justice against
legal oppression; no less should he to-day champion the cause of the
unprotected and the comparatively defenseless--save for that paramount
power which surrounds beauty and innocence--even though the plaintiff
of yesterday was the defendant of to-day. As he approached the court a
moment ago he had raised his eyes and beheld the starry flag flying from
its dome, and he knew that glorious banner was a symbol of the perfect
equality, under the Constitution, of the rich and the poor, the strong
and the weak--an equality which made the simple citizen taken from the
plough in the field, the pick in the gulch, or from behind the counter
in the mining town, who served on that jury, the equal arbiters of
justice with that highest legal luminary whom they were proud to welcome
on the bench to-day. The Colonel paused, with a stately bow to the
impassive Judge. It was this, he continued, which lifted his heart as
he approached the building. And yet--he had entered it with an
uncertain--he might almost say--a timid step. And why? He knew,
gentlemen, he was about to confront a profound--aye! a sacred
responsibility! Those hymn-books and holy writings handed to the jury
were NOT, as his Honor had surmised, for the purpose of enabling the
jury to indulge in--er--preliminary choral exercise! He might, indeed,
say, “Alas, not!” They were the damning, incontrovertible proofs of the
perfidy of the defendant. And they would prove as terrible a warning to
him as the fatal characters upon Belshazzar’s wall. There was a strong
sensation. Hotchkiss turned a sallow green. His lawyers assumed a
careless smile.

It was his duty to tell them that this was not one of those ordinary
“breach-of-promise” cases which were too often the occasion of ruthless
mirth and indecent levity in the court-room. The jury would find
nothing of that here. There were no love-letters with the epithets of
endearment, nor those mystic crosses and ciphers which, he had been
credibly informed, chastely hid the exchange of those mutual caresses
known as “kisses.” There was no cruel tearing of the veil from those
sacred privacies of the human affection; there was no forensic shouting
out of those fond confidences meant only for ONE. But there was, he was
shocked to say, a new sacrilegious intrusion. The weak pipings of Cupid
were mingled with the chorus of the saints,--the sanctity of the temple
known as the “meeting--house” was desecrated by proceedings more in
keeping with the shrine of Venus; and the inspired writings themselves
were used as the medium of amatory and wanton flirtation by the
defendant in his sacred capacity as deacon.

The Colonel artistically paused after this thunderous denunciation. The
jury turned eagerly to the leaves of the hymn-books, but the larger gaze
of the audience remained fixed upon the speaker and the girl, who sat in
rapt admiration of his periods. After the hush, the Colonel continued
in a lower and sadder voice: “There are, perhaps, few of us here,
gentlemen,--with the exception of the defendant,--who can arrogate to
themselves the title of regular church-goers, or to whom these humbler
functions of the prayer-meeting, the Sunday-school, and the Bible-class
are habitually familiar. Yet”--more solemnly--“down in our hearts is the
deep conviction of our shortcomings and failings, and a laudable desire
that others, at least, should profit by the teachings we neglect.
Perhaps,” he continued, closing his eyes dreamily, “there is not a
man here who does not recall the happy days of his boyhood, the rustic
village spire, the lessons shared with some artless village maiden, with
whom he later sauntered, hand in hand, through the woods, as the simple
rhyme rose upon their lips,--

     ‘Always make it a point to have it a rule,
     Never to be late at the Sabbath-school.’

“He would recall the strawberry feasts, the welcome annual picnic,
redolent with hunks of gingerbread and sarsaparilla. How would they feel
to know that these sacred recollections were now forever profaned in
their memory by the knowledge that the defendant was capable of using
such occasions to make love to the larger girls and teachers, whilst
his artless companions were innocently--the Court will pardon me for
introducing what I am credibly informed is the local expression--‘doing
gooseberry’?” The tremulous flicker of a smile passed over the faces of
the listening crowd, and the Colonel slightly winced. But he recovered
himself instantly, and continued,--

“My client, the only daughter of a widowed mother--who has for years
stemmed the varying tides of adversity, in the western precincts of this
town--stands before you to-day invested only in her own innocence. She
wears no--er--rich gifts of her faithless admirer--is panoplied in no
jewels, rings, nor mementos of affection such as lovers delight to hang
upon the shrine of their affections; hers is not the glory with which
Solomon decorated the Queen of Sheba, though the defendant, as I shall
show later, clothed her in the less expensive flowers of the king’s
poetry. No, gentlemen! The defendant exhibited in this affair a certain
frugality of--er--pecuniary investment, which I am willing to admit may
be commendable in his class. His only gift was characteristic alike
of his methods and his economy. There is, I understand, a certain
not unimportant feature of religious exercise known as ‘taking a
collection.’ The defendant, on this occasion, by the mute presentation
of a tin plate covered with baize, solicited the pecuniary contributions
of the faithful. On approaching the plaintiff, however, he himself
slipped a love-token upon the plate and pushed it towards her. That
love-token was a lozenge--a small disk, I have reason to believe,
concocted of peppermint and sugar, bearing upon its reverse surface the
simple words, ‘I love you!’ I have since ascertained that these disks
may be bought for five cents a dozen--or at considerably less than one
half cent for the single lozenge. Yes, gentlemen, the words ‘I love
you!’--the oldest legend of all; the refrain ‘when the morning
stars sang together’--were presented to the plaintiff by a medium so
insignificant that there is, happily, no coin in the republic low enough
to represent its value.

“I shall prove to you, gentlemen of the jury,” said the Colonel
solemnly, drawing a Bible from his coat-tail pocket, “that the defendant
for the last twelve months conducted an amatory correspondence with
the plaintiff by means of underlined words of Sacred Writ and church
psalmody, such as ‘beloved,’ ‘precious,’ and ‘dearest,’ occasionally
appropriating whole passages which seemed apposite to his tender
passion. I shall call your attention to one of them. The defendant,
while professing to be a total abstainer,--a man who, in my own
knowledge, has refused spirituous refreshment as an inordinate weakness
of the flesh,--with shameless hypocrisy underscores with his pencil the
following passage, and presents it to the plaintiff. The gentlemen of
the jury will find it in the Song of Solomon, page 548, chapter ii.
verse 5.” After a pause, in which the rapid rustling of leaves was heard
in the jury-box, Colonel Starbottle declaimed in a pleading, stentorian
voice, “‘Stay me with--er--FLAGONS, comfort me with--er--apples--for
I am--er--sick of love.’ Yes, gentlemen!--yes, you may well turn
from those accusing pages and look at the double-faced defendant. He
desires--to--er--be--‘stayed with flagons’! I am not aware at present
what kind of liquor is habitually dispensed at these meetings, and for
which the defendant so urgently clamored; but it will be my duty, before
this trial is over, to discover it, if I have to summon every barkeeper
in this district. For the moment I will simply call your attention to
the QUANTITY. It is not a single drink that the defendant asks for--not
a glass of light and generous wine, to be shared with his inamorata,
but a number of flagons or vessels, each possibly holding a pint
measure--FOR HIMSELF!”

The smile of the audience had become a laugh. The Judge looked up
warningly, when his eye caught the fact that the Colonel had again
winced at this mirth. He regarded him seriously. Mr. Hotchkiss’s counsel
had joined in the laugh affectedly, but Hotchkiss himself sat ashy pale.
There was also a commotion in the jury-box, a hurried turning over of
leaves, and an excited discussion.

“The gentlemen of the jury,” said the Judge, with official gravity,
“will please keep order and attend only to the speeches of counsel. Any
discussion HERE is irregular and premature, and must be reserved for the
jury-room after they have retired.”

The foreman of the jury struggled to his feet. He was a powerful man,
with a good-humored face, and, in spite of his unfelicitous nickname of
“The Bone-Breaker,” had a kindly, simple, but somewhat emotional nature.
Nevertheless, it appeared as if he were laboring under some powerful
indignation.

“Can we ask a question, Judge?” he said respectfully, although his voice
had the unmistakable Western American ring in it, as of one who was
unconscious that he could be addressing any but his peers.

“Yes,” said the Judge good-humoredly.

“We’re finding in this yere piece, out o’ which the Kernel hes just bin
a-quotin’, some language that me and my pardners allow hadn’t orter be
read out afore a young lady in court, and we want to know of you--ez a
fa’r-minded and impartial man--ef this is the reg’lar kind o’ book given
to gals and babies down at the meetin’-house.”

“The jury will please follow the counsel’s speech without comment,” said
the Judge briefly, fully aware that the defendant’s counsel would spring
to his feet, as he did promptly.

“The Court will allow us to explain to the gentlemen that the language
they seem to object to has been accepted by the best theologians for
the last thousand years as being purely mystic. As I will explain later,
those are merely symbols of the Church”--

“Of wot?” interrupted the foreman, in deep scorn.

“Of the Church!”

“We ain’t askin’ any questions o’ YOU, and we ain’t takin’ any answers,”
 said the foreman, sitting down abruptly.

“I must insist,” said the Judge sternly, “that the plaintiff’s counsel
be allowed to continue his opening without interruption. You” (to
defendant’s counsel) “will have your opportunity to reply later.”

The counsel sank down in his seat with the bitter conviction that the
jury was manifestly against him, and the case as good as lost. But his
face was scarcely as disturbed as his client’s, who, in great agitation,
had begun to argue with him wildly, and was apparently pressing some
point against the lawyer’s vehement opposal. The Colonel’s murky eyes
brightened as he still stood erect, with his hand thrust in his breast.

“It will be put to you, gentlemen, when the counsel on the other side
refrains from mere interruption and confines himself to reply, that my
unfortunate client has no action--no remedy at law--because there were
no spoken words of endearment. But, gentlemen, it will depend upon YOU
to say what are and what are not articulate expressions of love. We all
know that among the lower animals, with whom you may possibly be called
upon to classify the defendant, there are certain signals more or less
harmonious, as the case may be. The ass brays, the horse neighs, the
sheep bleats--the feathered denizens of the grove call to their mates
in more musical roundelays. These are recognized facts, gentlemen, which
you yourselves, as dwellers among nature in this beautiful land, are all
cognizant of. They are facts that no one would deny--and we should have
a poor opinion of the ass who, at--er--such a supreme moment,
would attempt to suggest that his call was unthinking and without
significance. But, gentlemen, I shall prove to you that such was the
foolish, self-convicting custom of the defendant. With the greatest
reluctance, and the--er--greatest pain, I succeeded in wresting from
the maidenly modesty of my fair client the innocent confession that
the defendant had induced her to correspond with him in these methods.
Picture to yourself, gentlemen, the lonely moonlight road beside the
widow’s humble cottage. It is a beautiful night, sanctified to the
affections, and the innocent girl is leaning from her casement.
Presently there appears upon the road a slinking, stealthy figure, the
defendant on his way to church. True to the instruction she has received
from him, her lips part in the musical utterance” (the Colonel lowered
his voice in a faint falsetto, presumably in fond imitation of his
fair client), “‘Keeree!’ Instantly the night becomes resonant with the
impassioned reply” (the Colonel here lifted his voice in stentorian
tones), “‘Kee-row.’ Again, as he passes, rises the soft ‘Keeree;’ again,
as his form is lost in the distance, comes back the deep ‘Keerow.’”

A burst of laughter, long, loud, and irrepressible, struck the whole
court-room, and before the Judge could lift his half-composed face
and take his handkerchief from his mouth, a faint “Keeree” from some
unrecognized obscurity of the court-room was followed by a loud “Keerow”
 from some opposite locality. “The Sheriff will clear the court,” said
the Judge sternly; but, alas! as the embarrassed and choking officials
rushed hither and thither, a soft “Keeree” from the spectators at
the window, OUTSIDE the court-house, was answered by a loud chorus of
“Keerows” from the opposite windows, filled with onlookers. Again
the laughter arose everywhere,--even the fair plaintiff herself sat
convulsed behind her handkerchief.

The figure of Colonel Starbottle alone remained erect--white and rigid.
And then the Judge, looking up, saw--what no one else in the court had
seen--that the Colonel was sincere and in earnest; that what he had
conceived to be the pleader’s most perfect acting and most elaborate
irony were the deep, serious, mirthless CONVICTIONS of a man without the
least sense of humor. There was the respect of this conviction in
the Judge’s voice as he said to him gently, “You may proceed, Colonel
Starbottle.”

“I thank your Honor,” said the Colonel slowly, “for recognizing and
doing all in your power to prevent an interruption that, during my
thirty years’ experience at the bar, I have never been subjected
to without the privilege of holding the instigators thereof
responsible--PERSONALLY responsible. It is possibly my fault that I have
failed, oratorically, to convey to the gentlemen of the jury the full
force and significance of the defendant’s signals. I am aware that my
voice is singularly deficient in producing either the dulcet tones of my
fair client or the impassioned vehemence of the defendant’s response.
I will,” continued the Colonel, with a fatigued but blind fatuity that
ignored the hurriedly knit brows and warning eyes of the Judge, “try
again. The note uttered by my client” (lowering his voice to the
faintest of falsettos) “was ‘Keeree;’ the response was ‘Keerow-ow.’” And
the Colonel’s voice fairly shook the dome above him.

Another uproar of laughter followed this apparently audacious
repetition, but was interrupted by an unlooked-for incident. The
defendant rose abruptly, and tearing himself away from the withholding
hand and pleading protestations of his counsel, absolutely fled from
the court-room, his appearance outside being recognized by a prolonged
“Keerow” from the bystanders, which again and again followed him in the
distance.

In the momentary silence which followed, the Colonel’s voice was heard
saying, “We rest here, your Honor,” and he sat down. No less white, but
more agitated, was the face of the defendant’s counsel, who instantly
rose.

“For some unexplained reason, your Honor, my client desires to suspend
further proceedings, with a view to effect a peaceable compromise with
the plaintiff. As he is a man of wealth and position, he is able and
willing to pay liberally for that privilege. While I, as his counsel, am
still convinced of his legal irresponsibility, as he has chosen publicly
to abandon his rights here, I can only ask your Honor’s permission to
suspend further proceedings until I can confer with Colonel Starbottle.”

“As far as I can follow the pleadings,” said the Judge gravely, “the
case seems to be hardly one for litigation, and I approve of the
defendant’s course, while I strongly urge the plaintiff to accept it.”

Colonel Starbottle bent over his fair client. Presently he rose,
unchanged in look or demeanor. “I yield, your Honor, to the wishes of my
client, and--er--lady. We accept.”

Before the court adjourned that day it was known throughout the town
that Adoniram K. Hotchkiss had compromised the suit for four thousand
dollars and costs.

Colonel Starbottle had so far recovered his equanimity as to strut
jauntily towards his office, where he was to meet his fair client. He
was surprised, however, to find her already there, and in company with a
somewhat sheepish-looking young man--a stranger. If the Colonel had
any disappointment in meeting a third party to the interview, his
old-fashioned courtesy did not permit him to show it. He bowed
graciously, and politely motioned them each to a seat.

“I reckoned I’d bring Hiram round with me,” said the young lady, lifting
her searching eyes, after a pause, to the Colonel’s, “though he WAS
awful shy, and allowed that you didn’t know him from Adam, or even
suspect his existence. But I said, ‘That’s just where you slip up,
Hiram; a pow’ful man like the Colonel knows everything--and I’ve seen it
in his eye.’ Lordy!” she continued, with a laugh, leaning forward over
her parasol, as her eyes again sought the Colonel’s, “don’t you remember
when you asked me if I loved that old Hotchkiss, and I told you, ‘That’s
tellin’,’ and you looked at me--Lordy! I knew THEN you suspected there
was a Hiram SOMEWHERE, as good as if I’d told you. Now you jest get up,
Hiram, and give the Colonel a good hand-shake. For if it wasn’t for HIM
and HIS searchin’ ways, and HIS awful power of language, I wouldn’t hev
got that four thousand dollars out o’ that flirty fool Hotchkiss--enough
to buy a farm, so as you and me could get married! That’s what you owe
to HIM. Don’t stand there like a stuck fool starin’ at him. He won’t eat
you--though he’s killed many a better man. Come, have I got to do ALL
the kissin’?”

It is of record that the Colonel bowed so courteously and so profoundly
that he managed not merely to evade the proffered hand of the shy Hiram,
but to only lightly touch the franker and more impulsive finger-tips of
the gentle Zaidee. “I--er--offer my sincerest congratulations--though
I think you--er--overestimate--my--er--powers of penetration.
Unfortunately, a pressing engagement, which may oblige me also to leave
town tonight, forbids my saying more. I have--er--left the--er--business
settlement of this--er--case in the hands of the lawyers who do my
office work, and who will show you every attention. And now let me wish
you a very good afternoon.”

Nevertheless, the Colonel returned to his private room, and it was
nearly twilight when the faithful Jim entered, to find him sitting
meditatively before his desk. “‘Fo’ God! Kernel, I hope dey ain’t nuffin
de matter, but you’s lookin’ mighty solemn! I ain’t seen you look dat
way, Kernel, since de day pooh Massa Stryker was fetched home shot froo
de head.”

“Hand me down the whiskey, Jim,” said the Colonel, rising slowly.

The negro flew to the closet joyfully, and brought out the bottle.
The Colonel poured out a glass of the spirit and drank it with his old
deliberation.

“You’re quite right, Jim,” he said, putting down his glass, “but
I’m--er--getting old--and--somehow I am missing poor Stryker damnably!”



THE LANDLORD OF THE BIG FLUME HOTEL


The Big Flume stage-coach had just drawn up at the Big Flume Hotel
simultaneously with the ringing of a large dinner bell in the two hands
of a negro waiter, who, by certain gyrations of the bell was trying to
impart to his performance that picturesque elegance and harmony
which the instrument and its purpose lacked. For the refreshment thus
proclaimed was only the ordinary station dinner, protracted at Big
Flume for three quarters of an hour, to allow for the arrival of the
connecting mail from Sacramento, although the repast was of a nature
that seldom prevailed upon the traveler to linger the full period over
its details. The ordinary cravings of hunger were generally satisfied in
half an hour, and the remaining minutes were employed by the passengers
in drowning the memory of their meal in “drinks at the bar,” in smoking,
and even in a hurried game of “old sledge,” or dominoes. Yet to-day
the deserted table was still occupied by a belated traveler, and a
lady--separated by a wilderness of empty dishes--who had arrived after
the stage-coach. Observing which, the landlord, perhaps touched by
this unwonted appreciation of his fare, moved forward to give them his
personal attention.

He was a man, however, who seemed to be singularly deficient in those
supreme qualities which in the West have exalted the ability to “keep a
hotel” into a proverbial synonym for superexcellence. He had little or
no innovating genius, no trade devices, no assumption, no faculty for
advertisement, no progressiveness, and no “racket.” He had the tolerant
good-humor of the Southwestern pioneer, to whom cyclones, famine,
drought, floods, pestilence, and savages were things to be accepted,
and whom disaster, if it did not stimulate, certainly did not appall. He
received the insults, complaints, and criticisms of hurried and hungry
passengers, the comments and threats of the Stage Company as he had
submitted to the aggressions of a stupid, unjust, but overruling
Nature--with unshaken calm. Perhaps herein lay his strength. People
were obliged to submit to him and his hotel as part of the unfinished
civilization, and they even saw something humorous in his impassiveness.
Those who preferred to remonstrate with him emerged from the discussion
with the general feeling of having been played with by a large-hearted
and paternally disposed bear. Tall and long-limbed, with much strength
in his lazy muscles, there was also a prevailing impression that this
feeling might be intensified if the discussion were ever carried to
physical contention. Of his personal history it was known only that he
had emigrated from Wisconsin in 1852, that he had calmly unyoked his ox
teams at Big Flume, then a trackless wilderness, and on the opening of a
wagon road to the new mines had built a wayside station which eventually
developed into the present hotel. He had been divorced in a Western
State by his wife “Rosalie,” locally known as “The Prairie Flower of
Elkham Creek,” for incompatibility of temper! Her temper was not stated.

Such was Abner Langworthy, the proprietor, as he moved leisurely down
towards the lady guest, who was nearest, and who was sitting with her
back to the passage between the tables. Stopping, occasionally, to
professionally adjust the tablecloths and glasses, he at last reached
her side.

“Ef there’s anythin’ more ye want that ye ain’t seein’, ma’am,” he
began--and stopped suddenly. For the lady had looked up at the sound of
his voice. It was his divorced wife, whom he had not seen since their
separation. The recognition was instantaneous, mutual, and characterized
by perfect equanimity on both sides.

“Well! I wanter know!” said the lady, although the exclamation point was
purely conventional. “Abner Langworthy! though perhaps I’ve no call to
say ‘Abner.’”

“Same to you, Rosalie--though I say it too,” returned the landlord. “But
hol’ on just a minit.” He moved forward to the other guest, put the same
perfunctory question regarding his needs, received a negative answer,
and then returned to the lady and dropped into a chair opposite to her.

“You’re looking peart and--fleshy,” he said resignedly, as if he were
tolerating his own conventional politeness with his other difficulties;
“unless,” he added cautiously, “you’re takin’ on some new disease.”

“No! I’m fairly comf’ble,” responded the lady calmly, “and you’re
gettin’ on in the vale, ez is natural--though you still kind o’ run to
bone, as you used.”

There was not a trace of malevolence in either of their comments, only
a resigned recognition of certain unpleasant truths which seemed to have
been habitual to both of them. Mr. Langworthy paused to flick away some
flies from the butter with his professional napkin, and resumed,--

“It must be a matter o’ five years sens I last saw ye, isn’t it?--in
court arter you got the decree--you remember?”

“Yes--the 28th o’ July, ‘51. I paid Lawyer Hoskins’s bill that very
day--that’s how I remember,” returned the lady. “You’ve got a big
business here,” she continued, glancing round the room; “I reckon you’re
makin’ it pay. Don’t seem to be in your line, though; but then, thar
wasn’t many things that was.”

“No--that’s so,” responded Mr. Langworthy, nodding his head, as
assenting to an undeniable proposition, “and you--I suppose you’re
gettin’ on too. I reckon you’re--er--married--eh?”--with a slight
suggestion of putting the question delicately.

The lady nodded, ignoring the hesitation. “Yes, let me see, it’s just
three years and three days. Constantine Byers--I don’t reckon you know
him--from Milwaukee. Timber merchant. Standin’ timber’s his specialty.”

“And I reckon he’s--satisfactory?”

“Yes! Mr. Byers is a good provider--and handy. And you? I should say
you’d want a wife in this business?”

Mr. Langworthy’s serious half-perfunctory manner here took on an
appearance of interest. “Yes--I’ve bin thinkin’ that way. Thar’s a young
woman helpin’ in the kitchen ez might do, though I’m not certain, and
I ain’t lettin’ on anything as yet. You might take a look at her,
Rosalie,--I orter say Mrs. Byers ez is,--and kinder size her up, and
gimme the result. It’s still wantin’ seven minutes o’ schedule time
afore the stage goes, and--if you ain’t wantin’ more food”--delicately,
as became a landlord--“and ain’t got anythin’ else to do, it might pass
the time.”

Strange as it may seem, Mrs. Byers here displayed an equal animation in
her fresh face as she rose promptly to her feet and began to rearrange
her dust cloak around her buxom figure. “I don’t mind, Abner,” she
said, “and I don’t think that Mr. Byers would mind either;” then seeing
Langworthy hesitating at the latter unexpected suggestion, she added
confidently, “and I wouldn’t mind even if he did, for I’m sure if I
don’t know the kind o’ woman you’d be likely to need, I don’t know who
would. Only last week I was sayin’ like that to Mr. Byers”--

“To Mr. Byers?” said Abner, with some surprise.

“Yes--to him. I said, ‘We’ve been married three years, Constantine, and
ef I don’t know by this time what kind o’ woman you need now--and might
need in future--why, thar ain’t much use in matrimony.’”

“You was always wise, Rosalie,” said Abner, with reminiscent
appreciation.

“I was always there, Abner,” returned Mrs. Byers, with a complacent show
of dimples, which she, however, chastened into that resignation which
seemed characteristic of the pair. “Let’s see your ‘intended’--as might
be.”

Thus supported, Mr. Langworthy led Mrs. Byers into the hall through a
crowd of loungers, into a smaller hall, and there opened the door of the
kitchen. It was a large room, whose windows were half darkened by the
encompassing pines which still pressed around the house on the scantily
cleared site. A number of men and women, among them a Chinaman and a
negro, were engaged in washing dishes and other culinary duties; and
beside the window stood a young blonde girl, who was wiping a tin pan
which she was also using to hide a burst of laughter evidently caused by
the abrupt entrance of her employer. A quantity of fluffy hair and part
of a white, bared arm were nevertheless visible outside the disk,
and Mrs. Byers gathered from the direction of Mr. Langworthy’s eyes,
assisted by a slight nudge from his elbow, that this was the selected
fair one. His feeble explanatory introduction, addressed to the
occupants generally, “Just showing the house to Mrs.--er--Dusenberry,”
 convinced her that the circumstances of his having been divorced he had
not yet confided to the young woman. As he turned almost immediately
away, Mrs. Byers in following him managed to get a better look at the
girl, as she was exchanging some facetious remark to a neighbor. Mr.
Langworthy did not speak until they had reached the deserted dining-room
again.

“Well?” he said briefly, glancing at the clock, “what did ye think o’
Mary Ellen?”

To any ordinary observer the girl in question would have seemed the
least fitted in age, sobriety of deportment, and administrative capacity
to fill the situation thus proposed for her, but Mrs. Byers was not an
ordinary observer, and her auditor was not an ordinary listener.

“She’s older than she gives herself out to be,” said Mrs. Byers
tentatively, “and them kitten ways don’t amount to much.”

Mr. Langworthy nodded. Had Mrs. Byers discovered a homicidal tendency in
Mary Ellen he would have been equally unmoved.

“She don’t handsome much,” continued Mrs. Byers musingly, “but”--

“I never was keen on good looks in a woman, Rosalie. You know that!”
 Mrs. Byers received the equivocal remark unemotionally, and returned to
the subject.

“Well!” she said contemplatively, “I should think you could make her
suit.”

Mr. Langworthy nodded with resigned toleration of all that might have
influenced her judgment and his own. “I was wantin’ a fa’r-minded
opinion, Rosalie, and you happened along jest in time. Kin I put up
anythin’ in the way of food for ye?” he added, as a stir outside and the
words “All aboard!” proclaimed the departing of the stage-coach,--“an
orange or a hunk o’ gingerbread, freshly baked?”

“Thank ye kindly, Abner, but I sha’n’t be usin’ anythin’ afore supper,”
 responded Mrs. Byers, as they passed out into the veranda beside the
waiting coach.

Mr. Langworthy helped her to her seat. “Ef you’re passin’ this way
ag’in”--he hesitated delicately.

“I’ll drop in, or I reckon Mr. Byers might, he havin’ business along the
road,” returned Mrs. Byers with a cheerful nod, as the coach rolled away
and the landlord of the Big Flume Hotel reentered his house.

For the next three weeks, however, it did not appear that Mr. Langworthy
was in any hurry to act upon the advice of his former wife. His
relations to Mary Ellen Budd were characterized by his usual tolerance
to his employees’ failings,--which in Mary Ellen’s case included many
“breakages,”--but were not marked by the invasion of any warmer feeling,
or a desire for confidences. The only perceptible divergence from his
regular habits was a disposition to be on the veranda at the arrival of
the stage-coach, and when his duties permitted this, a cautious survey
of his female guests at the beginning of dinner. This probably led to
his more or less ignoring any peculiarities in his masculine patrons or
their claims to his personal attention. Particularly so, in the case of
a red-bearded man, in a long linen duster, both heavily freighted with
the red dust of the stage road, which seemed to have invaded his very
eyes as he watched the landlord closely. Towards the close of the
dinner, when Abner, accompanied by a negro waiter after his usual
custom, passed down each side of the long table, collecting payment for
the meal, the stranger looked up. “You air the landlord of this hotel, I
reckon?”

“I am,” said Abner tolerantly.

“I’d like a word or two with ye.”

But Abner had been obliged to have a formula for such occasions. “Ye’ll
pay for yer dinner first,” he said submissively, but firmly, “and make
yer remarks agin the food arter.”

The stranger flushed quickly, and his eye took an additional shade of
red, but meeting Abner’s serious gray ones, he contented himself with
ostentatiously taking out a handful of gold and silver and paying his
bill. Abner passed on, but after dinner was over he found the stranger
in the hall.

“Ye pulled me up rather short in thar,” said the man gloomily, “but it’s
just as well, as the talk I was wantin’ with ye was kinder betwixt and
between ourselves, and not hotel business. My name’s Byers, and my wife
let on she met ye down here.”

For the first time it struck Abner as incongruous that another man
should call Rosalie “his wife,” although the fact of her remarriage
had been made sufficiently plain to him. He accepted it as he would an
earthquake, or any other dislocation, with his usual tolerant smile, and
held out his hand.

Mr. Byers took it, seemingly mollified, and yet inwardly
disturbed,--more even than was customary in Abner’s guests after dinner.

“Have a drink with me,” he suggested, although it had struck him that
Mr. Byers had been drinking before dinner.

“I’m agreeable,” responded Byers promptly; “but,” with a glance at the
crowded bar-room, “couldn’t we go somewhere, jest you and me, and have a
quiet confab?”

“I reckon. But ye must wait till we get her off.”

Mr. Byers started slightly, but it appeared that the impedimental sex in
this case was the coach, which, after a slight feminine hesitation, was
at last started. Whereupon Mr. Langworthy, followed by a negro with a
tray bearing a decanter and glasses, grasped Mr. Byers’s arm, and walked
along a small side veranda the depth of the house, stepped off, and
apparently plunged with his guest into the primeval wilderness.

It has already been indicated that the site of the Big Flume Hotel had
been scantily cleared; but Mr. Byers, backwoodsman though he was, was
quite unprepared for so abrupt a change. The hotel, with its noisy crowd
and garish newness, although scarcely a dozen yards away, seemed lost
completely to sight and sound. A slight fringe of old tin cans, broken
china, shavings, and even of the long-dried chips of the felled trees,
once crossed, the two men were alone! From the tray, deposited at the
foot of an enormous pine, they took the decanter, filled their glasses,
and then disposed of themselves comfortably against a spreading root.
The curling tail of a squirrel disappeared behind them; the far-off tap
of a woodpecker accented the loneliness. And then, almost magically as
it seemed, the thin veneering of civilization on the two men seemed to
be cast off like the bark of the trees around them, and they lounged
before each other in aboriginal freedom. Mr. Byers removed his
restraining duster and undercoat. Mr. Langworthy resigned his dirty
white jacket, his collar, and unloosed a suspender, with which he
played.

“Would it be a fair question between two fa’r-minded men, ez hez lived
alone,” said Mr. Byers, with a gravity so supernatural that it could be
referred only to liquor, “to ask ye in what sort o’ way did Mrs. Byers
show her temper?”

“Show her temper?” echoed Abner vacantly.

“Yes--in course, I mean when you and Mrs. Byers was--was--one? You know
the di-vorce was for in-com-pat-ibility of temper.”

“But she got the divorce from me, so I reckon I had the temper,” said
Langworthy, with great simplicity.

“Wha-at?” said Mr. Byers, putting down his glass and gazing with drunken
gravity at the sad-eyed yet good-humoredly tolerant man before him.
“You?--you had the temper?”

“I reckon that’s what the court allowed,” said Abner simply.

Mr. Byers stared. Then after a moment’s pause he nodded with a
significant yet relieved face. “Yes, I see, in course. Times when you’d
h’isted too much o’ this corn juice,” lifting up his glass, “inside
ye--ye sorter bu’st out ravin’?”

But Abner shook his head. “I wuz a total abstainer in them days,” he
said quietly.

Mr. Byers got unsteadily on his legs and looked around him. “Wot might
hev bin the general gait o’ your temper, pardner?” he said in a hoarse
whisper.

“Don’t know. I reckon that’s jest whar the incompatibility kem in.”

“And when she hove plates at your head, wot did you do?”

“She didn’t hove no plates,” said Abner gravely; “did she say she did?”

“No, no!” returned Byers hastily, in crimson confusion. “I kinder got
it mixed with suthin’ else.” He waved his hand in a lordly way, as if
dismissing the subject. “Howsumever, you and her is ‘off’ anyway,” he
added with badly concealed anxiety.

“I reckon: there’s the decree,” returned Abner, with his usual resigned
acceptance of the fact.

“Mrs. Byers wuz allowin’ ye wuz thinkin’ of a second. How’s that comin’
on?”

“Jest whar it was,” returned Abner. “I ain’t doin’ anything yet. Ye see
I’ve got to tell the gal, naterally, that I’m di-vorced. And as that
isn’t known hereabouts, I don’t keer to do so till I’m pretty certain.
And then, in course, I’ve got to.”

“Why hev ye ‘got to’?” asked Byers abruptly.

“Because it wouldn’t be on the square with the girl,” said Abner. “How
would you like it if Mrs. Byers had never told you she’d been married to
me? And s’pose you’d happen to hev bin a di-vorced man and hadn’t told
her, eh? Well,” he continued, sinking back resignedly against the tree,
“I ain’t sayin’ anythin’ but she’d hev got another di-vorce, and FROM
you on the spot--you bet!”

“Well! all I kin say is,” said Mr. Byers, lifting his voice excitedly,
“that”--but he stopped short, and was about to fill his glass again from
the decanter when the hand of Abner stopped him.

“Ye’ve got ez much ez ye kin carry now, Byers,” he said slowly, “and
that’s about ez much ez I allow a man to take in at the Big Flume Hotel.
Treatin’ is treatin’, hospitality is hospitality; ef you and me was
squattin’ out on the prairie I’d let you fill your skin with that pizen
and wrap ye up in yer blankets afterwards. But here at Big Flume, the
Stage Kempenny and the wimen and children passengers hez their rights.”
 He paused a moment, and added, “And so I reckon hez Mrs. Byers, and I
ain’t goin’ to send you home to her outer my house blind drunk. It’s
mighty rough on you and me, I know, but there’s a lot o’ roughness in
this world ez hez to be got over, and life, ez far ez I kin see, ain’t
all a clearin’.”

Perhaps it was his good-humored yet firm determination, perhaps it was
his resigned philosophy, but something in the speaker’s manner affected
Mr. Byers’s alcoholic susceptibility, and hastened his descent from the
passionate heights of intoxication to the maudlin stage whither he
was drifting. The fire of his red eyes became filmed and dim, an equal
moisture gathered in his throat as he pressed Abner’s hand with drunken
fervor. “Thash so! your thinking o’ me an’ Mish Byersh is like troo
fr’en’,” he said thickly. “I wosh only goin’ to shay that wotever Mish
Byersh wosh--even if she wosh wife o’ yours--she wosh--noble woman! Such
a woman,” continued Mr. Byers, dreamily regarding space, “can’t have too
many husbands.”

“You jest sit back here a minit, and have a quiet smoke till I come
back,” said Abner, handing him his tobacco plug. “I’ve got to give the
butcher his order--but I won’t be a minit.” He secured the decanter as
he spoke, and evading an apparent disposition of his companion to fall
upon his neck, made his way with long strides to the hotel, as Mr.
Byers, sinking back against the trees, began certain futile efforts to
light his unfilled pipe.

Whether Abner’s attendance on the butcher was merely an excuse to
withdraw with the decanter, I cannot say. He, however, dispatched his
business quickly, and returned to the tree. But to his surprise Mr.
Byers was no longer there. He explored the adjacent woodland with
non-success, and no reply to his shouting. Annoyed but not alarmed, as
it seemed probable that the missing man had fallen in a drunken sleep in
some hidden shadows, he returned to the house, when it occurred to him
that Byers might have sought the bar-room for some liquor. But he was
still more surprised when the barkeeper volunteered the information
that he had seen Mr. Byers hurriedly pass down the side veranda into the
highroad. An hour later this was corroborated by an arriving teamster,
who had passed a man answering to the description of Byers, “mor’ ‘n
half full,” staggeringly but hurriedly walking along the road “two
miles back.” There seemed to be no doubt that the missing man had
taken himself off in a fit of indignation or of extreme thirst.
Either hypothesis was disagreeable to Abner, in his queer sense
of responsibility to Mrs. Byers, but he accepted it with his usual
good-humored resignation.

Yet it was difficult to conceive what connection this episode had in
his mind with his suspended attention to Mary Ellen, or why it should
determine his purpose. But he had a logic of his own, and it seemed to
have demonstrated to him that he must propose to the girl at once.
This was no easy matter, however; he had never shown her any previous
attention, and her particular functions in the hotel,--the charge of the
few bedrooms for transient guests--seldom brought him in contact with
her. His interview would have to appear to be a business one--which,
however, he wished to avoid from a delicate consciousness of its truth.
While making up his mind, for a few days he contented himself with
gravely regarding her in his usual resigned, tolerant way, whenever he
passed her. Unfortunately the first effect of this was an audible giggle
from Mary Ellen, later some confusion and anxiety in her manner, and
finally a demeanor of resentment and defiance.

This was so different from what he had expected that he was obliged
to precipitate matters. The next day was Sunday,--a day on which his
employees, in turns, were allowed the recreation of being driven to Big
Flume City, eight miles distant, to church, or for the day’s holiday.
In the morning Mary Ellen was astonished by Abner informing her that he
designed giving her a separate holiday with himself. It must be admitted
that the girl, who was already “prinked up” for the enthrallment of the
youth of Big Flume City, did not appear as delighted with the change of
plan as a more exacting lover would have liked. Howbeit, as soon as the
wagon had left with its occupants, Abner, in the unwonted disguise of
a full suit of black clothes, turned to the girl, and offering her his
arm, gravely proceeded along the side veranda across the mound of debris
already described, to the adjacent wilderness and the very trees under
which he and Byers had sat.

“It’s about ez good a place for a little talk, Miss Budd,” he said,
pointing to a tree root, “ez ef we went a spell further, and it’s handy
to the house. And ef you’ll jest say what you’d like outer the cupboard
or the bar--no matter which--I’ll fetch it to you.”

But Mary Ellen Budd seated herself sideways on the root, with her furled
white parasol in her lap, her skirts fastidiously tucked about her feet,
and glancing at the fatuous Abner from under her stack of fluffy hair
and light eyelashes, simply shook her head and said that “she reckoned
she wasn’t hankering much for anything” that morning.

“I’ve been calkilatin’ to myself, Miss Budd,” said Abner resignedly,
“that when two folks--like ez you and me--meet together to kinder
discuss things that might go so far ez to keep them together, if they
hez had anything of that sort in their lives afore, they ought to speak
of it confidentially like together.”

“Ef any one o’ them sneakin’, soulless critters in the kitchen hez bin
slingin’ lies to ye about me--or carryin’ tales,” broke in Mary Ellen
Budd, setting every one of her thirty-two strong, white teeth together
with a snap, “well--ye might hev told me so to oncet without spilin’ my
Sunday! But ez fer yer keepin’ me a minit longer, ye’ve only got to pay
me my salary to-day and”--but here she stopped, for the astonishment in
Abner’s face was too plain to be misunderstood.

“Nobody’s been slinging any lies about ye, Miss Budd,” he said slowly,
recovering himself resignedly from this last back-handed stroke of fate;
“I warn’t talkin’ o’ you, but myself. I was only allowin’ to say that I
was a di-vorced man.”

As a sudden flush came over Mary Ellen’s brownish-white face while
she stared at him, Abner hastened to delicately explain. “It wasn’t
no onfaithfulness, Miss Budd--no philanderin’ o’ mine, but only
‘incompatibility o’ temper.’”

“Temper--your temper!” gasped Mary Ellen.

“Yes,” said Abner.

And here a sudden change came over Mary Ellen’s face, and she burst into
a shriek of laughter. She laughed with her hands slapping the sides of
her skirt, she laughed with her hands clasping her narrow, hollow waist,
laughed with her head down on her knees and her fluffy hair tumbling
over it. Abner was relieved, and yet it seemed strange to him that this
revelation of his temper should provoke such manifest incredulity in
both Byers and Mary Ellen. But perhaps these things would be made plain
to him hereafter; at present they must be accepted “in the day’s work”
 and tolerated.

“Your temper,” gurgled Mary Ellen. “Saints alive! What kind o’ temper?”

“Well, I reckon,” returned Abner submissively, and selecting a word
to give his meaning more comprehension,--“I reckon it was
kinder--aggeravokin’.”

Mary Ellen sniffed the air for a moment in speechless incredulity, and
then, locking her hands around her knees and bending forward, said,
“Look here! Ef that old woman o’ yours ever knew what temper was in a
man; ef she’s ever bin tied to a brute that treated her like a nigger
till she daren’t say her soul was her own; who struck her with his
eyes and tongue when he hadn’t anythin’ else handy; who made her life
miserable when he was sober, and a terror when he was drunk; who at
last drove her away, and then divorced her for desertion--then--then she
might talk. But ‘incompatibility o’ temper’ with you! Oh, go away--it
makes me sick!”

How far Abner was impressed with the truth of this, how far it prompted
his next question, nobody but Abner knew. For he said deliberately, “I
was only goin’ to ask ye, if, knowin’ I was a di-vorced man, ye would
mind marryin’ me!”

Mary Ellen’s face changed; the evasive instincts of her sex rose up.
“Didn’t I hear ye sayin’ suthin’ about refreshments,” she said archly.
“Mebbe you wouldn’t mind gettin’ me a bottle o’ lemming sody outer the
bar!”

Abner got up at once, perhaps not dismayed by this diversion, and
departed for the refreshment. As he passed along the side veranda the
recollection of Mr. Byers and his mysterious flight occurred to him. For
a wild moment he thought of imitating him. But it was too late now--he
had spoken. Besides, he had no wife to fly to, and the thirsty or
indignant Byers had--his wife! Fate was indeed hard. He returned with
the bottle of lemon soda on a tray and a resigned spirit equal to her
decrees. Mary Ellen, remarking that he had brought nothing for himself,
archly insisted upon his sharing with her the bottle of soda, and even
coquettishly touched his lips with her glass. Abner smiled patiently.

But here, as if playfully exhilarated by the naughty foaming soda, she
regarded him with her head--and a good deal of her blonde hair--very
much on one side, as she said, “Do you know that all along o’ you bein’
so free with me in tellin’ your affairs I kinder feel like just telling
you mine?”

“Don’t,” said Abner promptly.

“Don’t?” echoed Miss Budd.

“Don’t,” repeated Abner. “It’s nothing to me. What I said about myself
is different, for it might make some difference to you. But nothing you
could say of yourself would make any change in me. I stick to what I
said just now.”

“But,” said Miss Budd,--in half real, half simulated threatening,--“what
if it had suthin’ to do with my answer to what you said just now?”

“It couldn’t. So, if it’s all the same to you, Miss Budd, I’d rather ye
wouldn’t.”

“That,” said the lady still more archly, lifting a playful finger, “is
your temper.”

“Mebbe it is,” said Abner suddenly, with a wondering sense of relief.

It was, however, settled that Miss Budd should go to Sacramento to visit
her friends, that Abner would join her later, when their engagement
would be announced, and that she should not return to the hotel until
they were married. The compact was sealed by the interchange of a
friendly kiss from Miss Budd with a patient, tolerating one from Abner,
and then it suddenly occurred to them both that they might as well
return to their duties in the hotel, which they did. Miss Budd’s entire
outing that Sunday lasted only half an hour.

A week elapsed. Miss Budd was in Sacramento, and the landlord of the Big
Flume Hotel was standing at his usual post in the doorway during dinner,
when a waiter handed him a note. It contained a single line scrawled in
pencil:--


“Come out and see me behind the house as before. I dussent come in on
account of her. C. BYERS.”


“On account of ‘her’!” Abner cast a hurried glance around the tables.
Certainly Mrs. Byers was not there! He walked in the hall and the
veranda--she was not there. He hastened to the rendezvous evidently
meant by the writer, the wilderness behind the house. Sure enough,
Byers, drunk and maudlin, supporting himself by the tree root, staggered
forward, clasped him in his arms, and murmured hoarsely,--

“She’s gone!”

“Gone?” echoed Abner, with a whitening face. “Mrs. Byers? Where?”

“Run away! Never come back no more! Gone!”

A vague idea that had been in Abner’s mind since Byers’s last visit now
took awful shape. Before the unfortunate Byers could collect his senses
he felt himself seized in a giant’s grasp and forced against the tree.

“You coward!” said all that was left of the tolerant Abner--his even
voice--“you hound! Did you dare to abuse her? to lay your vile hands on
her--to strike her? Answer me.”

The shock--the grasp--perhaps Abner’s words, momentarily silenced Byers.
“Did I strike her?” he said dazedly; “did I abuse her? Oh, yes!” with
deep irony. “Certainly! In course! Look yer, pardner!”--he suddenly
dragged up his sleeve from his red, hairy arm, exposing a blue cicatrix
in its centre--“that’s a jab from her scissors about three months ago;
look yer!”--he bent his head and showed a scar along the scalp--“that’s
her playfulness with a fire shovel! Look yer!”--he quickly opened his
collar, where his neck and cheek were striped and crossed with adhesive
plaster--“that’s all that was left o’ a glass jar o’ preserves--the
preserves got away, but some of the glass got stuck! That’s when she
heard I was a di-vorced man and hadn’t told her.”

“Were you a di-vorced man?” gasped Abner.

“You know that; in course I was,” said Byers scornfully; “d’ye meanter
say she didn’t tell ye?”

“She?” echoed Abner vaguely. “Your wife--you said just now she didn’t
know it before.”

“My wife ez oncet was, I mean! Mary Ellen--your wife ez is to be,” said
Byers, with deep irony. “Oh, come now. Pretend ye don’t know! Hi there!
Hands off! Don’t strike a man when he’s down, like I am.”

But Abner’s clutch of Byers’s shoulder relaxed, and he sank down to a
sitting posture on the root. In the meantime Byers, overcome by a sense
of this new misery added to his manifold grievances, gave way to maudlin
silent tears.

“Mary Ellen--your first wife?” repeated Abner vacantly.

“Yesh!” said Byers thickly, “my first wife--shelected and picked out
fer your shecond wife--by your first--like d----d conundrum. How wash I
t’know?” he said, with a sudden shriek of public expostulation--“thash
what I wanter know. Here I come to talk with fr’en’, like man to man,
unshuspecting, innoshent as chile, about my shecond wife! Fr’en’ drops
out, carryin’ off the whiskey. Then I hear all o’ suddent voice o’
Mary Ellen talkin’ in kitchen; then I come round softly and see Mary
Ellen--my wife as useter be--standin’ at fr’en’s kitchen winder. Then I
lights out quicker ‘n lightnin’ and scoots! And when I gets back home,
I ups and tells my wife. And whosh fault ish’t! Who shaid a man oughter
tell hish wife? You! Who keepsh other mensh’ first wivesh at kishen
winder to frighten ‘em to tell? You!”

But a change had already come over the face of Abner Langworthy. The
anger, anxiety, astonishment, and vacuity that was there had vanished,
and he looked up with his usual resigned acceptance of the inevitable
as he said, “I reckon that’s so! And seein’ it’s so,” with good-natured
tolerance, he added, “I reckon I’ll break rules for oncet and stand ye
another drink.”

He stood another drink and yet another, and eventually put the doubly
widowed Byers to bed in his own room. These were but details of a larger
tribulation,--and yet he knew instinctively that his cup was not yet
full. The further drop of bitterness came a few days later in a line
from Mary Ellen: “I needn’t tell you that all betwixt you and me is off,
and you kin tell your old woman that her selection for a second wife
for you wuz about as bad as your own first selection. Ye kin tell Mr.
Byers--yer great friend whom ye never let on ye knew--that when I want
another husband I shan’t take the trouble to ask him to fish one out for
me. It would be kind--but confusin’.”

He never heard from her again. Mr. Byers was duly notified that Mrs.
Byers had commenced action for divorce in another state in which
concealment of a previous divorce invalidated the marriage, but he did
not respond. The two men became great friends--and assured celibates.
Yet they always spoke reverently of their “wife,” with the touching
prefix of “our.”

“She was a good woman, pardner,” said Byers.

“And she understood us,” said Abner resignedly.

Perhaps she had.



A BUCKEYE HOLLOW INHERITANCE


The four men on the “Zip Coon” Ledge had not got fairly settled to their
morning’s work. There was the usual lingering hesitation which is apt to
attend the taking-up of any regular or monotonous performance, shown in
this instance in the prolonged scrutiny of a pick’s point, the solemn
selection of a shovel, or the “hefting” or weighing of a tapping-iron or
drill. One member, becoming interested in a funny paragraph he found in
the scrap of newspaper wrapped around his noonday cheese, shamelessly
sat down to finish it, regardless of the prospecting pan thrown at him
by another. They had taken up their daily routine of mining life like
schoolboys at their tasks.

“Hello!” said Ned Wyngate, joyously recognizing a possible further
interruption. “Blamed if the Express rider ain’t comin’ here!”

He was shading his eyes with his hand as he gazed over the broad
sun-baked expanse of broken “flat” between them and the highroad. They
all looked up, and saw the figure of a mounted man, with a courier’s
bag thrown over his shoulder, galloping towards them. It was really
an event, as their letters were usually left at the grocery at the
crossroads.

“I knew something was goin’ to happen,” said Wyngate. “I didn’t feel a
bit like work this morning.”

Here one of their number ran off to meet the advancing horseman. They
watched him until they saw the latter rein up, and hand a brown envelope
to their messenger, who ran breathlessly back with it to the Ledge as
the horseman galloped away again.

“A telegraph for Jackson Wells,” he said, handing it to the young man
who had been reading the scrap of paper.

There was a dead silence. Telegrams were expensive rarities in those
days, especially with the youthful Bohemian miners of the Zip Coon
Ledge. They were burning with curiosity, yet a singular thing happened.
Accustomed as they had been to a life of brotherly familiarity and
unceremoniousness, this portentous message from the outside world of
civilization recalled their old formal politeness. They looked steadily
away from the receiver of the telegram, and he on his part stammered an
apologetic “Excuse me, boys,” as he broke the envelope.

There was another pause, which seemed to be interminable to the waiting
partners. Then the voice of Wells, in quite natural tones, said, “By
gum! that’s funny! Read that, Dexter,--read it out loud.”

Dexter Rice, the foreman, took the proffered telegram from Wells’s hand,
and read as follows:--


Your uncle, Quincy Wells, died yesterday, leaving you sole heir. Will
attend you to-morrow for instructions.

BAKER AND TWIGGS,

Attorneys, Sacramento.


The three miners’ faces lightened and turned joyously to Wells; but HIS
face looked puzzled.

“May we congratulate you, Mr. Wells?” said Wyngate, with affected
politeness; “or possibly your uncle may have been English, and a title
goes with the ‘prop,’ and you may be Lord Wells, or Very Wells--at
least.”

But here Jackson Wells’s youthful face lost its perplexity, and he began
to laugh long and silently to himself. This was protracted to such an
extent that Dexter asserted himself,--as foreman and senior partner.

“Look here, Jack! don’t sit there cackling like a chuckle-headed magpie,
if you ARE the heir.”

“I--can’t--help it,” gasped Jackson. “I am the heir--but you see, boys,
there AIN’T ANY PROPERTY.”

“What do you mean? Is all that a sell?” demanded Rice.

“Not much! Telegraph’s too expensive for that sort o’ feelin’. You see,
boys, I’ve got an Uncle Quincy, though I don’t know him much, and he MAY
be dead. But his whole fixin’s consisted of a claim the size of ours,
and played out long ago: a ramshackle lot o’ sheds called a cottage, and
a kind of market garden of about three acres, where he reared and sold
vegetables. He was always poor, and as for calling it ‘property,’ and ME
the ‘heir’--good Lord!”

“A miser, as sure as you’re born!” said Wyngate, with optimistic
decision. “That’s always the way. You’ll find every crack of that
blessed old shed stuck full of greenbacks and certificates of deposit,
and lots of gold dust and coin buried all over that cow patch! And of
course no one suspected it! And of course he lived alone, and never let
any one get into his house--and nearly starved himself! Lord love you!
There’s hundreds of such cases. The world is full of ‘em!”

“That’s so,” chimed in Pulaski Briggs, the fourth partner, “and I tell
you what, Jacksey, we’ll come over with you the day you take possession,
and just ‘prospect’ the whole blamed shanty, pigsties, and potato patch,
for fun--and won’t charge you anything.”

For a moment Jackson’s face had really brightened under the infection of
enthusiasm, but it presently settled into perplexity again.

“No! You bet the boys around Buckeye Hollow would have spotted anything
like that long ago.”

“Buckeye Hollow!” repeated Rice and his partners.

“Yes! Buckeye Hollow, that’s the place; not twenty miles from here, and
a God-forsaken hole, as you know.”

A cloud had settled on Zip Coon Ledge. They knew of Buckeye Hollow, and
it was evident that no good had ever yet come out of that Nazareth.

“There’s no use of talking now,” said Rice conclusively. “You’ll draw it
all from that lawyer shark who’s coming here tomorrow, and you can bet
your life he wouldn’t have taken this trouble if there wasn’t suthin’ in
it. Anyhow, we’ll knock off work now and call it half a day, in honor
of our distinguished young friend’s accession to his baronial estates
of Buckeye Hollow. We’ll just toddle down to Tomlinson’s at the
cross-roads, and have a nip and a quiet game of old sledge at Jacksey’s
expense. I reckon the estate’s good for THAT,” he added, with severe
gravity. “And, speaking as a fa’r-minded man and the president of
this yer Company, if Jackson would occasionally take out and air that
telegraphic dispatch of his while we’re at Tomlinson’s, it might do
something for that Company’s credit--with Tomlinson! We’re wantin’ some
new blastin’ plant bad!”

Oddly enough the telegram--accidentally shown at Tomlinson’s--produced a
gratifying effect, and the Zip Coon Ledge materially advanced in
public estimation. With this possible infusion of new capital into its
resources, the Company was beset by offers of machinery and goods;
and it was deemed expedient by the sapient Rice, that to prevent the
dissemination of any more accurate information regarding Jackson’s
property the next day, the lawyer should be met at the stage office by
one of the members, and conveyed secretly past Tomlinson’s to the Ledge.

“I’d let you go,” he said to Jackson, “only it won’t do for that d----d
skunk of a lawyer to think you’re too anxious--sabe? We want to rub into
him that we are in the habit out yer of havin’ things left to us, and
a fortin’ more or less, falling into us now and then, ain’t nothin’
alongside of the Zip Coon claim. It won’t hurt ye to keep up a big bluff
on that hand of yours. Nobody would dare to ‘call’ you.”

Indeed this idea was carried out with such elaboration the next day that
Mr. Twiggs, the attorney, was considerably impressed both by the conduct
of his guide, who (although burning with curiosity) expressed absolute
indifference regarding Jackson Wells’s inheritance, and the calmness of
Jackson himself, who had to be ostentatiously called from his work on
the Ledge to meet him, and who even gave him an audience in the hearing
of his partners. Forced into an apologetic attitude, he expressed his
regret at being obliged to bother Mr. Wells with an affair of such
secondary importance, but he was obliged to carry out the formalities of
the law.

“What do you suppose the estate is worth?” asked Wells carelessly.

“I should not think that the house, the claim, and the land would bring
more than fifteen hundred dollars,” replied Twiggs submissively.

To the impecunious owners of Zip Coon Ledge it seemed a large sum, but
they did not show it.

“You see,” continued Mr. Twiggs, “it’s really a case of ‘willing away’
property from its obvious or direct inheritors, instead of a beneficial
grant. I take it that you and your uncle were not particularly
intimate,--at least, so I gathered when I made the will,--and his simple
object was to disinherit his only daughter, with whom he had had some
quarrel, and who had left him to live with his late wife’s brother, Mr.
Morley Brown, who is quite wealthy and residing in the same township.
Perhaps you remember the young lady?”

Jackson Wells had a dim recollection of this cousin, a hateful,
red-haired schoolgirl, and an equally unpleasant memory of this other
uncle, who was purse-proud and had never taken any notice of him. He
answered affirmatively.

“There may be some attempt to contest the will,” continued Mr. Twiggs,
“as the disinheriting of an only child and a daughter offends the
sentiment of the people and of judges and jury, and the law makes such
a will invalid, unless a reason is given. Fortunately your uncle has
placed his reasons on record. I have a copy of the will here, and can
show you the clause.” He took it from his pocket, and read as follows:
“‘I exclude my daughter, Jocelinda Wells, from any benefit or provision
of this my will and testament, for the reason that she has voluntarily
abandoned her father’s roof for the house of her mother’s brother,
Morley Brown; has preferred the fleshpots of Egypt to the virtuous
frugalities of her own home, and has discarded the humble friends of
her youth, and the associates of her father, for the meretricious
and slavish sympathy of wealth and position. In lieu thereof, and as
compensation therefor, I do hereby give and bequeath to her my full and
free permission to gratify her frequently expressed wish for another
guardian in place of myself, and to become the adopted daughter of the
said Morley Brown, with the privilege of assuming the name of Brown
as aforesaid.’ You see,” he continued, “as the young lady’s present
position is a better one than it would be if she were in her father’s
house, and was evidently a compromise, the sentimental consideration of
her being left homeless and penniless falls to the ground. However, as
the inheritance is small, and might be of little account to you, if you
choose to waive it, I dare say we may make some arrangement.”

This was an utterly unexpected idea to the Zip Coon Company, and
Jackson Wells was for a moment silent. But Dexter Rice was equal to the
emergency, and turned to the astonished lawyer with severe dignity.

“You’ll excuse me for interferin’, but, as the senior partner of this
yer Ledge, and Jackson Wells yer bein’ a most important member, what
affects his usefulness on this claim affects us. And we propose to carry
out this yer will, with all its dips and spurs and angles!”

As the surprised Twiggs turned from one to the other, Rice continued,
“Ez far as we kin understand this little game, it’s the just punishment
of a high-flying girl as breaks her pore old father’s heart, and the
re-ward of a young feller ez has bin to our knowledge ez devoted a
nephew as they make ‘em. Time and time again, sittin’ around our camp
fire at night, we’ve heard Jacksey say,--kinder to himself, and kinder
to us, ‘Now I wonder what’s gone o’ old uncle Quincy;’ and he never
sat down to a square meal, or ever rose from a square game, but what
he allus said, ‘If old uncle Quince was only here now, boys, I’d die
happy.’ I leave it to you, gentlemen, if that wasn’t Jackson Wells’s
gait all the time?”

There was a prolonged murmur of assent, and an affecting corroboration
from Ned Wyngate of “That was him; that was Jacksey all the time!”

“Indeed, indeed,” said the lawyer nervously. “I had quite the idea that
there was very little fondness”--

“Not on your side--not on your side,” said Rice quickly. “Uncle Quincy
may not have anted up in this matter o’ feelin’, nor seen his nephew’s
rise. You know how it is yourself in these things--being a lawyer and a
fa’r-minded man--it’s all on one side, ginerally! There’s always one who
loves and sacrifices, and all that, and there’s always one who rakes in
the pot! That’s the way o’ the world; and that’s why,” continued Rice,
abandoning his slightly philosophical attitude, and laying his hand
tenderly, and yet with a singularly significant grip, on Wells’s arm,
“we say to him, ‘Hang on to that will, and uncle Quincy’s memory.’
And we hev to say it. For he’s that tender-hearted and keerless of
money--having his own share in this Ledge--that ef that girl came
whimperin’ to him he’d let her take the ‘prop’ and let the hull thing
slide! And then he’d remember that he had rewarded that gal that broke
the old man’s heart, and that would upset him again in his work. And
there, you see, is just where WE come in! And we say, ‘Hang on to that
will like grim death!’”

The lawyer looked curiously at Rice and his companions, and then turned
to Wells: “Nevertheless, I must look to you for instructions,” he said
dryly.

But by this time Jackson Wells, although really dubious about
supplanting the orphan, had gathered the sense of his partners, and said
with a frank show of decision, “I think I must stand by the will.”

“Then I’ll have it proved,” said Twiggs, rising. “In the meantime, if
there is any talk of contesting”--

“If there is, you might say,” suggested Wyngate, who felt he had not had
a fair show in the little comedy,--“ye might say to that old skeesicks
of a wife’s brother, if he wants to nipple in, that there are four men
on the Ledge--and four revolvers! We are gin’rally fa’r-minded, peaceful
men, but when an old man’s heart is broken, and his gray hairs brought
down in sorrow to the grave, so to speak, we’re bound to attend the
funeral--sabe?”

When Mr. Twiggs had departed again, accompanied by a partner to guide
him past the dangerous shoals of Tomlinson’s grocery, Rice clapped his
hand on Wells’s shoulder. “If it hadn’t been for me, sonny, that shark
would have landed you into some compromise with that red-haired gal! I
saw you weakenin’, and then I chipped in. I may have piled up the agony
a little on your love for old Quince, but if you aren’t an ungrateful
cub, that’s how you ought to hev been feein’, anyhow!”

Nevertheless, the youthful Wells, although touched by his elder
partner’s loyalty, and convinced of his own disinterestedness, felt a
painful sense of lost chivalrous opportunity.

*****

On mature consideration it was finally settled that Jackson Wells should
make his preliminary examination of his inheritance alone, as it might
seem inconsistent with the previous indifferent attitude of his
partners if they accompanied him. But he was implored to yield to no
blandishments of the enemy, and to even make his visit a secret.

He went. The familiar flower-spiked trees which had given their name
to Buckeye Hollow had never yielded entirely to improvements and the
incursions of mining enterprise, and many of them had even survived the
disused ditches, the scarred flats, the discarded levels, ruined flumes,
and roofless cabins of the earlier occupation, so that when Jackson
Wells entered the wide, straggling street of Buckeye, that summer
morning was filled with the radiance of its blossoms and fragrant with
their incense. His first visit there, ten years ago, had been a purely
perfunctory and hasty one, yet he remembered the ostentatious hotel,
built in the “flush time” of its prosperity, and already in a green
premature decay; he recalled the Express Office and Town Hall, also
passing away in a kind of similar green deliquescence; the little zinc
church, now overgrown with fern and brambles, and the two or three fine
substantial houses in the outskirts, which seemed to have sucked the
vitality of the little settlement. One of these--he had been told--was
the property of his rich and wicked maternal uncle, the hated
appropriator of his red-headed cousin’s affections. He recalled his
brief visit to the departed testator’s claim and market garden, and his
by no means favorable impression of the lonely, crabbed old man, as well
as his relief that his objectionable cousin, whom he had not seen since
he was a boy, was then absent at the rival uncle’s. He made his way
across the road to a sunny slope where the market garden of three acres
seemed to roll like a river of green rapids to a little “run” or brook,
which, even in the dry season, showed a trickling rill. But here he was
struck by a singular circumstance. The garden rested in a rich, alluvial
soil, and under the quickening Californian sky had developed far beyond
the ability of its late cultivator to restrain or keep it in order.
Everything had grown luxuriantly, and in monstrous size and profusion.
The garden had even trespassed its bounds, and impinged upon the open
road, the deserted claims, and the ruins of the past. Stimulated by the
little cultivation Quincy Wells had found time to give it, it had
leaped its three acres and rioted through the Hollow. There were scarlet
runners crossing the abandoned sluices, peas climbing the court-house
wall, strawberries matting the trail, while the seeds and pollen of
its few homely Eastern flowers had been blown far and wide through the
woods. By a grim satire, Nature seemed to have been the only thing that
still prospered in that settlement of man.

The cabin itself, built of unpainted boards, consisted of a
sitting-room, dining-room, kitchen, and two bedrooms, all plainly
furnished, although one of the bedrooms was better ordered, and
displayed certain signs of feminine decoration, which made Jackson
believe it had been his cousin’s room. Luckily, the slight, temporary
structure bore no deep traces of its previous occupancy to disturb him
with its memories, and for the same reason it gained in cleanliness and
freshness. The dry, desiccating summer wind that blew through it had
carried away both the odors and the sense of domesticity; even the adobe
hearth had no fireside tales to tell,--its very ashes had been scattered
by the winds; and the gravestone of its dead owner on the hill was no
more flavorless of his personality than was this plain house in which he
had lived and died. The excessive vegetation produced by the stirred-up
soil had covered and hidden the empty tin cans, broken boxes, and
fragments of clothing which usually heaped and littered the tent-pegs
of the pioneer. Nature’s own profusion had thrust them into obscurity.
Jackson Wells smiled as he recalled his sanguine partner’s idea of a
treasure-trove concealed and stuffed in the crevices of this tenement,
already so palpably picked clean by those wholesome scavengers of
California, the dry air and burning sun. Yet he was not displeased at
this obliteration of a previous tenancy; there was the better chance for
him to originate something. He whistled hopefully as he lounged, with
his hands in his pockets, towards the only fence and gate that gave upon
the road. Something stuck up on the gate-post attracted his attention.
It was a sheet of paper bearing the inscription in a large hand: “Notice
to trespassers. Look out for the Orphan Robber!” A plain signboard in
faded black letters on the gate, which had borne the legend: “Quincy
Wells, Dealer in Fruit and Vegetables,” had been rudely altered in chalk
to read: “Jackson Wells, Double Dealer in Wills and Codicils,” and the
intimation “Bouquets sold here” had been changed to “Bequests stole
here.” For an instant the simple-minded Jackson failed to discover
any significance of this outrage, which seemed to him to be merely
the wanton mischief of a schoolboy. But a sudden recollection of
the lawyer’s caution sent the blood to his cheeks and kindled
his indignation. He tore down the paper and rubbed out the chalk
interpolation--and then laughed at his own anger. Nevertheless, he would
not have liked his belligerent partners to see it.

A little curious to know the extent of this feeling, he entered one of
the shops, and by one or two questions which judiciously betrayed his
ownership of the property, he elicited only a tradesman’s interest in a
possible future customer, and the ordinary curiosity about a stranger.
The barkeeper of the hotel was civil, but brief and gloomy. He had heard
the property was “willed away on account of some family quarrel which
‘warn’t none of his’.” Mr. Wells would find Buckeye Hollow a mighty dull
place after the mines. It was played out, sucked dry by two or three big
mine owners who were trying to “freeze out” the other settlers, so as
they might get the place to themselves and “boom it.” Brown, who had the
big house over the hill, was the head devil of the gang! Wells felt his
indignation kindle anew. And this girl that he had ousted was Brown’s
friend. Was it possible that she was a party to Brown’s designs to get
this three acres with the other lands? If so, his long-suffering uncle
was only just in his revenge.

He put all this diffidently before his partners on his return, and was a
little startled at their adopting it with sanguine ferocity. They hoped
that he would put an end to his thoughts of backing out of it. Such a
course now would be dishonorable to his uncle’s memory. It was clearly
his duty to resist these blasted satraps of capitalists; he was
providentially selected for the purpose--a village Hampden to withstand
the tyrant. “And I reckon that shark of a lawyer knew all about it when
he was gettin’ off that ‘purp stuff’ about people’s sympathies with the
girl,” said Rice belligerently. “Contest the will, would he? Why, if we
caught that Brown with a finger in the pie we’d just whip up the boys on
this Ledge and lynch him. You hang on to that three acres and the garden
patch of your forefathers, sonny, and we’ll see you through!”

Nevertheless, it was with some misgivings that Wells consented that
his three partners should actually accompany him and see him put in
peaceable possession of his inheritance. His instinct told him that
there would be no contest of the will, and still less any opposition
on the part of the objectionable relative, Brown. When the wagon
which contained his personal effects and the few articles of furniture
necessary for his occupancy of the cabin arrived, the exaggerated
swagger which his companions had put on in their passage through the
settlement gave way to a pastoral indolence, equally half real, half
affected. Lying on their backs under a buckeye, they permitted Rice to
voice the general sentiment. “There’s a suthin’ soothin’ and dreamy in
this kind o’ life, Jacksey, and we’ll make a point of comin’ here for a
couple of days every two weeks to lend you a hand; it will be a mighty
good change from our nigger work on the claim.”

In spite of this assurance, and the fact that they had voluntarily come
to help him put the place in order, they did very little beyond lending
a cheering expression of unqualified praise and unstinted advice. At the
end of four hours’ weeding and trimming the boundaries of the garden,
they unanimously gave their opinion that it would be more systematic for
him to employ Chinese labor at once.

“You see,” said Ned Wyngate, “the Chinese naturally take to this kind o’
business. Why, you can’t take up a china plate or saucer but you see
‘em pictured there working at jobs like this, and they kin live on green
things and rice that cost nothin’, and chickens. You’ll keep chickens,
of course.”

Jackson thought that his hands would be full enough with the garden, but
he meekly assented.

“I’ll get a pair--you only want two to begin with,” continued Wyngate
cheerfully, “and in a month or two you’ve got all you want, and eggs
enough for market. On second thoughts, I don’t know whether you hadn’t
better begin with eggs first. That is, you borry some eggs from one
man and a hen from another. Then you set ‘em, and when the chickens are
hatched out you just return the hen to the second man, and the eggs,
when your chickens begin to lay, to the first man, and you’ve got your
chickens for nothing--and there you are.”

This ingenious proposition, which was delivered on the last slope of
the domain, where the partners were lying exhausted from their work, was
broken in upon by the appearance of a small boy, barefooted, sunburnt,
and tow-headed, who, after a moment’s hurried scrutiny of the group,
threw a letter with unerring precision into the lap of Jackson Wells,
and then fled precipitately. Jackson instinctively suspected he was
connected with the outrage on his fence and gate-post, but as he had
avoided telling his partners of the incident, fearing to increase their
belligerent attitude, he felt now an awkward consciousness mingled with
his indignation as he broke the seal and read as follows:--


SIR,--This is to inform you that although you have got hold of the
property by underhanded and sneaking ways, you ain’t no right to touch
or lay your vile hands on the Cherokee Rose alongside the house, nor on
the Giant of Battles, nor on the Maiden’s Pride by the gate--the same
being the property of Miss Jocelinda Wells, and planted by her, under
the penalty of the Law. And if you, or any of your gang of ruffians,
touches it or them, or any thereof, or don’t deliver it up when called
for in good order, you will be persecuted by them.

AVENGER.


It is to be feared that Jackson would have suppressed this also, but the
keen eyes of his partners, excited by the abruptness of the messenger,
were upon him. He smiled feebly, and laid the letter before them. But
he was unprepared for their exaggerated indignation, and with difficulty
restrained them from dashing off in the direction of the vanished
herald. “And what could you do?” he said. “The boy’s only a messenger.”

“I’ll get at that d----d skunk Brown, who’s back of him,” said Dexter
Rice.

“And what then?” persisted Jackson, with a certain show of independence.
“If this stuff belongs to the girl, I’m not certain I shan’t give them
up without any fuss. Lord! I want nothing but what the old man left
me--and certainly nothing of HERS.”

Here Ned Wyngate was heard to murmur that Jackson was one of those
men who would lie down and let coyotes crawl over him if they first
presented a girl’s visiting card, but he was stopped by Rice demanding
paper and pencil. The former being torn from a memorandum book, and a
stub of the latter produced from another pocket, he wrote as follows:--


SIR,--In reply to the hogwash you have kindly exuded in your letter of
to-day, I have to inform you that you can have what you ask for Miss
Wells, and perhaps a trifle on your own account, by calling this
afternoon on--Yours truly--


“Now, sign it,” continued Rice, handing him the pencil.

“But this will look as if we were angry and wanted to keep the plants,”
 protested Wells.

“Never you mind, sonny, but sign! Leave the rest to your partners,
and when you lay your head on your pillow to-night return thanks to an
overruling Providence for providing you with the right gang of ruffians
to look after you!”

Wells signed reluctantly, and Wyngate offered to find a Chinaman in the
gulch who would take the missive. “And being a Chinaman, Brown can do
any cussin’ or buck talk THROUGH him!” he added.

The afternoon wore on; the tall Douglas pines near the water pools
wheeled their long shadows round and halfway up the slope, and the sun
began to peer into the faces of the reclining men. Subtle odors of mint
and southern-wood, stragglers from the garden, bruised by their limbs,
replaced the fumes of their smoked-out pipes, and the hammers of the
woodpeckers were busy in the grove as they lay lazily nibbling the
fragrant leaves like peaceful ruminants. Then came the sound of
approaching wheels along the invisible highway beyond the buckeyes,
and then a halt and silence. Rice rose slowly, bright pin points in the
pupils of his gray eyes.

“Bringin’ a wagon with him to tote the hull shanty away,” suggested
Wyngate.

“Or fetched his own ambulance,” said Briggs.

Nevertheless, after a pause, the wheels presently rolled away again.

“We’d better go and meet him at the gate,” said Rice, hitching his
revolver holster nearer his hip. “That wagon stopped long enough to put
down three or four men.”

They walked leisurely but silently to the gate. It is probable that none
of them believed in a serious collision, but now the prospect had enough
possibility in it to quicken their pulses. They reached the gate. But it
was still closed; the road beyond it empty.

“Mebbe they’ve sneaked round to the cabin,” said Briggs, “and are
holdin’ it inside.”

They were turning quickly in that direction, when Wyngate said,
“Hush!--some one’s there in the brush under the buckeyes.”

They listened; there was a faint rustling in the shadows.

“Come out o’ that, Brown--into the open. Don’t be shy,” called out Rice
in cheerful irony. “We’re waitin’ for ye.”

But Briggs, who was nearest the wood, here suddenly uttered an
exclamation,--“B’gosh!” and fell back, open-mouthed, upon his
companions. They too, in another moment, broke into a feeble laugh, and
lapsed against each other in sheepish silence. For a very pretty girl,
handsomely dressed, swept out of the wood and advanced towards them.

Even at any time she would have been an enchanting vision to these men,
but in the glow of exercise and sparkle of anger she was bewildering.
Her wonderful hair, the color of freshly hewn redwood, had escaped from
her hat in her passage through the underbrush, and even as she swept
down upon them in her majesty she was jabbing a hairpin into it with a
dexterous feminine hand.

The three partners turned quite the color of her hair; Jackson Wells
alone remained white and rigid. She came on, her very short upper lip
showing her white teeth with her panting breath.

Rice was first to speak. “I beg--your pardon, Miss--I thought it was
Brown--you know,” he stammered.

But she only turned a blighting brown eye on the culprit, curled her
short lip till it almost vanished in her scornful nostrils, drew her
skirt aside with a jerk, and continued her way straight to Jackson
Wells, where she halted.

“We did not know you were--here alone,” he said apologetically.

“Thought I was afraid to come alone, didn’t you? Well, you see, I’m not.
There!” She made another dive at her hat and hair, and brought the hat
down wickedly over her eyebrows. “Gimme my plants.”

Jackson had been astonished. He would have scarcely recognized in this
willful beauty the red-haired girl whom he had boyishly hated, and with
whom he had often quarreled. But there was a recollection--and with that
recollection came an instinct of habit. He looked her squarely in the
face, and, to the horror of his partners, said, “Say please!”

They had expected to see him fall, smitten with the hairpin! But she
only stopped, and then in bitter irony said, “Please, Mr. Jackson
Wells.”

“I haven’t dug them up yet--and it would serve you just right if I
made you get them for yourself. But perhaps my friends here might help
you--if you were civil.”

The three partners seized spades and hoes and rushed forward eagerly.
“Only show us what you want,” they said in one voice. The young girl
stared at them, and at Jackson. Then with swift determination she turned
her back scornfully upon him, and with a dazzling smile which reduced
the three men to absolute idiocy, said to the others, “I’ll show YOU,”
 and marched away to the cabin.

“Ye mustn’t mind Jacksey,” said Rice, sycophantically edging to her
side, “he’s so cut up with losin’ your father that he loved like a son,
he isn’t himself, and don’t seem to know whether to ante up or pass out.
And as for yourself, Miss--why--What was it he was sayin’ only just as
the young lady came?” he added, turning abruptly to Wyngate.

“Everything that cousin Josey planted with her own hands must be took up
carefully and sent back--even though it’s killin’ me to part with it,”
 quoted Wyngate unblushingly, as he slouched along on the other side.

Miss Wells’s eyes glared at them, though her mouth still smiled
ravishingly. “I’m sure I’m troubling you.”

In a few moments the plants were dug up and carefully laid together;
indeed, the servile Briggs had added a few that she had not indicated.

“Would you mind bringing them as far as the buggy that’s coming down
the hill?” she said, pointing to a buggy driven by a small boy which
was slowly approaching the gate. The men tenderly lifted the uprooted
plants, and proceeded solemnly, Miss Wells bringing up the rear, towards
the gate, where Jackson Wells was still surlily lounging.

They passed out first. Miss Wells lingered for an instant, and then
advancing her beautiful but audacious face within an inch of Jackson’s,
hissed out, “Make-believe! and hypocrite!”

“Cross-patch and sauce-box!” returned Jackson readily, still under the
malign influence of his boyish past, as she flounced away.

Presently he heard the buggy rattle away with his persecutor. But his
partners still lingered on the road in earnest conversation, and when
they did return it was with a singular awkwardness and embarrassment,
which he naturally put down to a guilty consciousness of their foolish
weakness in succumbing to the girl’s demands.

But he was a little surprised when Dexter Rice approached him gloomily.
“Of course,” he began, “it ain’t no call of ours to interfere in family
affairs, and you’ve a right to keep ‘em to yourself, but if you’d been
fair and square and above board in what you got off on us about this
per--”

“What do you mean?” demanded the astonished Wells.

“Well--callin’ her a ‘red-haired gal.’”

“Well--she is a red-haired girl!” said Wells impatiently.

“A man,” continued Rice pityingly, “that is so prejudiced as to apply
such language to a beautiful orphan--torn with grief at the loss of a
beloved but d----d misconstruing parent--merely because she begs a few
vegetables out of his potato patch, ain’t to be reasoned with. But when
you come to look at this thing by and large, and as a fa’r-minded man,
sonny, you’ll agree with us that the sooner you make terms with her the
better. Considerin’ your interest, Jacksey,--let alone the claims of
humanity,--we’ve concluded to withdraw from here until this thing is
settled. She’s sort o’ mixed us up with your feelings agin her, and
naturally supposed we object to the color of her hair! and bein’ a
penniless orphan, rejected by her relations”--

“What stuff are you talking?” burst in Jackson. “Why, YOU saw she
treated you better than she did me.”

“Steady! There you go with that temper of yours that frightened the
girl! Of course she could see that WE were fa’r-minded men, accustomed
to the ways of society, and not upset by the visit of a lady, or the
givin’ up of a few green sticks! But let that slide! We’re goin’ back
home to-night, sonny, and when you’ve thought this thing over and are
straightened up and get your right bearin’s, we’ll stand by you as
before. We’ll put a man on to do your work on the Ledge, so ye needn’t
worry about that.”

They were quite firm in this decision,--however absurd or obscure their
conclusions,--and Jackson, after his first flash of indignation, felt
a certain relief in their departure. But strangely enough, while he had
hesitated about keeping the property when they were violently in favor
of it, he now felt he was right in retaining it against their advice to
compromise. The sentimental idea had vanished with his recognition of
his hateful cousin in the role of the injured orphan. And for the same
odd reason her prettiness only increased his resentment. He was not
deceived,--it was the same capricious, willful, red-haired girl.

The next day he set himself to work with that dogged steadiness that
belonged to his simple nature, and which had endeared him to his
partners. He set half a dozen Chinamen to work, and followed, although
apparently directing, their methods. The great difficulty was to
restrain and control the excessive vegetation, and he matched the small
economies of the Chinese against the opulence of the Californian soil.
The “garden patch” prospered; the neighbors spoke well of it and of
him. But Jackson knew that this fierce harvest of early spring was to be
followed by the sterility of the dry season, and that irrigation could
alone make his work profitable in the end. He brought a pump to force
the water from the little stream at the foot of the slope to the top,
and allowed it to flow back through parallel trenches. Again Buckeye
applauded! Only the gloomy barkeeper shook his head. “The moment you get
that thing to pay, Mr. Wells, you’ll find the hand of Brown, somewhere,
getting ready to squeeze it dry!”

But Jackson Wells did not trouble himself about Brown, whom he scarcely
knew. Once indeed, while trenching the slope, he was conscious that he
was watched by two men from the opposite bank; but they were apparently
satisfied by their scrutiny, and turned away. Still less did he concern
himself with the movements of his cousin, who once or twice passed him
superciliously in her buggy on the road. Again, she met him as one of
a cavalcade of riders, mounted on a handsome but ill-tempered mustang,
which she was managing with an ill-temper and grace equal to the
brute’s, to the alternate delight and terror of her cavalier. He could
see that she had been petted and spoiled by her new guardian and his
friends far beyond his conception. But why she should grudge him the
little garden and the pastoral life for which she was so unsuited,
puzzled him greatly.

One afternoon he was working near the road, when he was startled by
an outcry from his Chinese laborers, their rapid dispersal from the
strawberry beds where they were working, the splintering crash of his
fence rails, and a commotion among the buckeyes. Furious at what seemed
to him one of the usual wanton attacks upon coolie labor, he seized
his pick and ran to their assistance. But he was surprised to find
Jocelinda’s mustang caught by the saddle and struggling between two
trees, and its unfortunate mistress lying upon the strawberry bed.
Shocked but cool-headed, Jackson released the horse first, who was
lashing out and destroying everything within his reach, and then turned
to his cousin. But she had already lifted herself to her elbow, and
with a trickle of blood and mud on one fair cheek was surveying him
scornfully under her tumbled hair and hanging hat.

“You don’t suppose I was trespassing on your wretched patch again, do
you?” she said in a voice she was trying to keep from breaking. “It was
that brute--who bolted.”

“I don’t suppose you were bullying ME this time,” he said, “but you were
YOUR HORSE--or it wouldn’t have happened. Are you hurt?”

She tried to move; he offered her his hand, but she shied from it and
struggled to her feet. She took a step forward--but limped.

“If you don’t want my arm, let me call a Chinaman,” he suggested.

She glared at him. “If you do I’ll scream!” she said in a low voice, and
he knew she would. But at the same moment her face whitened, at which he
slipped his arm under hers in a dexterous, business-like way, so as to
support her weight. Then her hat got askew, and down came a long braid
over his shoulder. He remembered it of old, only it was darker than then
and two or three feet longer.

“If you could manage to limp as far as the gate and sit down on the
bank, I’d get your horse for you,” he said. “I hitched it to a sapling.”

“I saw you did--before you even offered to help me,” she said
scornfully.

“The horse would have got away--YOU couldn’t.”

“If you only knew how I hated you,” she said, with a white face, but a
trembling lip.

“I don’t see how that would make things any better,” he said. “Better
wipe your face; it’s scratched and muddy, and you’ve been rubbing your
nose in my strawberry bed.”

She snatched his proffered handkerchief suddenly, applied it to her
face, and said: “I suppose it looks dreadful.”

“Like a pig’s,” he returned cheerfully.

She walked a little more firmly after this, until they reached the gate.
He seated her on the bank, and went back for the mustang. That beautiful
brute, astounded and sore from its contact with the top rail and
brambles, was cowed and subdued as he led it back.

She had finished wiping her face, and was hurriedly disentangling
two stinging tears from her long lashes, before she threw back his
handkerchief. Her sprained ankle obliged him to lift her into the saddle
and adjust her little shoe in the stirrup. He remembered when it
was still smaller. “You used to ride astride,” he said, a flood of
recollection coming over him, “and it’s much safer with your temper and
that brute.”

“And you,” she said in a lower voice, “used to be”--But the rest of her
sentence was lost in the switch of the whip and the jump of her horse,
but he thought the word was “kinder.”

Perhaps this was why, after he watched her canter away, he went back to
the garden, and from the bruised and trampled strawberry bed gathered
a small basket of the finest fruit, covered them with leaves, added a
paper with the highly ingenious witticism, “Picked up with you,” and
sent them to her by one of the Chinamen. Her forcible entry moved
Li Sing, his foreman, also chief laundryman to the settlement, to
reminiscences:

“Me heap knew Missy Wells and ole man, who go dead. Ole man allee
time make chin music to Missy. Allee time jaw jaw--allee time make
lows--allee time cuttee up Missy! Plenty time lockee up Missy topside
house; no can walkee--no can talkee--no hab got--how can get?--must
washee washee allee same Chinaman. Ole man go dead--Missy all lightee
now. Plenty fun. Plenty stay in Blown’s big house, top-side hill; Blown
first-chop man.”

Had he inquired he might have found this pagan testimony, for once,
corroborated by the Christian neighbors.

But another incident drove all this from his mind. The little
stream--the life blood of his garden--ran dry! Inquiry showed that it
had been diverted two miles away into Brown’s ditch! Wells’s indignant
protest elicited a formal reply from Brown, stating that he owned the
adjacent mining claims, and reminding him that mining rights to water
took precedence of the agricultural claim, but offering, by way of
compensation, to purchase the land thus made useless and sterile.
Jackson suddenly recalled the prophecy of the gloomy barkeeper. The end,
had come! But what could the scheming capitalist want with the land,
equally useless--as his uncle had proved--for mining purposes? Could it
be sheer malignity, incited by his vengeful cousin? But here he paused,
rejecting the idea as quickly as it came. No! his partners were right!
He was a trespasser on his cousin’s heritage--there was no luck in
it--he was wrong, and this was his punishment! Instead of yielding
gracefully as he might, he must back down now, and she would never know
his first real feelings. Even now he would make over the property to
her as a free gift. But his partners had advanced him money from their
scanty means to plant and work it. He believed that an appeal to their
feelings would persuade them to forego even that, but he shrank even
more from confessing his defeat to THEM than to her.

He had little heart in his labors that day, and dismissed the Chinamen
early. He again examined his uncle’s old mining claim on the top of
the slope, but was satisfied that it had been a hopeless enterprise
and wisely abandoned. It was sunset when he stood under the buckeyes,
gloomily looking at the glow fade out of the west, as it had out of his
boyish hopes. He had grown to like the place. It was the hour, too, when
the few flowers he had cultivated gave back their pleasant odors, as if
grateful for his care. And then he heard his name called.

It was his cousin, standing a few yards from him in evident hesitation.
She was quite pale, and for a moment he thought she was still suffering
from her fall, until he saw in her nervous, half-embarrassed manner that
it had no physical cause. Her old audacity and anger seemed gone, yet
there was a queer determination in her pretty brows.

“Good-evening,” he said.

She did not return his greeting, but pulling uneasily at her glove, said
hesitatingly: “Uncle has asked you to sell him this land?”

“Yes.”

“Well--don’t!” she burst out abruptly.

He stared at her.

“Oh, I’m not trying to keep you here,” she went on, flashing back into
her old temper; “so you needn’t stare like that. I say, ‘Don’t,’ because
it ain’t right, it ain’t fair.”

“Why, he’s left me no alternative,” he said.

“That’s just it--that’s why it’s mean and low. I don’t care if he is our
uncle.”

Jackson was bewildered and shocked.

“I know it’s horrid to say it,” she said, with a white face; “but it’s
horrider to keep it in! Oh, Jack! when we were little, and used to fight
and quarrel, I never was mean--was I? I never was underhanded--was I?
I never lied--did I? And I can’t lie now. Jack,” she looked hurriedly
around her, “HE wants to get hold of the land--HE thinks there’s gold in
the slope and bank by the stream. He says dad was a fool to have located
his claim so high up. Jack! did you ever prospect the bank?”

A dawning of intelligence came upon Jackson. “No,” he said; “but,” he
added bitterly, “what’s the use? He owns the water now,--I couldn’t work
it.”

“But, Jack, IF you found the color, this would be a MINING claim! You
could claim the water right; and, as it’s your land, your claim would be
first!”

Jackson was startled. “Yes, IF I found the color.”

“You WOULD find it.”

“WOULD?”

“Yes! I DID--on the sly! Yesterday morning on your slope by the stream,
when no one was up! I washed a panful and got that.” She took a piece of
tissue paper from her pocket, opened it, and shook into her little palm
three tiny pin points of gold.

“And that was your own idea, Jossy?”

“Yes!”

“Your very own?”

“Honest Injin!”

“Wish you may die?”

“True, O King!”

He opened his arms, and they mutually embraced. Then they separated,
taking hold of each other’s hands solemnly, and falling back until they
were at arm’s length. Then they slowly extended their arms sideways at
full length, until this action naturally brought their faces and lips
together. They did this with the utmost gravity three times, and then
embraced again, rocking on pivoted feet like a metronome. Alas! it was
no momentary inspiration. The most casual and indifferent observer
could see that it was the result of long previous practice and shameless
experience. And as such--it was a revelation and an explanation.


*****

“I always suspected that Jackson was playin’ us about that red-haired
cousin,” said Rice two weeks later; “but I can’t swallow that purp stuff
about her puttin’ him up to that dodge about a new gold discovery on
a fresh claim, just to knock out Brown. No, sir. He found that gold in
openin’ these irrigatin’ trenches,--the usual nigger luck, findin’ what
you’re not lookin’ arter.”

“Well, we can’t complain, for he’s offered to work it on shares with
us,” said Briggs.

“Yes--until he’s ready to take in another partner.”

“Not--Brown?” said his horrified companions.

“No!--but Brown’s adopted daughter--that red-haired cousin!”



THE REINCARNATION OF SMITH


The extravagant supper party by which Mr. James Farendell celebrated the
last day of his bachelorhood was protracted so far into the night,
that the last guest who parted from him at the door of the principal
Sacramento restaurant was for a moment impressed with the belief that
a certain ruddy glow in the sky was already the dawn. But Mr. Farendell
had kept his head clear enough to recognize it as the light of some
burning building in a remote business district, a not infrequent
occurrence in the dry season. When he had dismissed his guest he turned
away in that direction for further information. His own counting-house
was not in that immediate neighborhood, but Sacramento had been once
before visited by a rapid and far-sweeping conflagration, and it
behooved him to be on the alert even on this night of festivity.

Perhaps also a certain anxiety arose out of the occasion. He was to be
married to-morrow to the widow of his late partner, and the
marriage, besides being an attractive one, would settle many business
difficulties. He had been a fortunate man, but, like many more fortunate
men, was not blind to the possibilities of a change of luck. The death
of his partner in a successful business had at first seemed to betoken
that change, but his successful, though hasty, courtship of the
inexperienced widow had restored his chances without greatly shocking
the decorum of a pioneer community. Nevertheless, he was not a contented
man, and hardly a determined--although an energetic one.

A walk of a few moments brought him to the levee of the river,--a
favored district, where his counting-house, with many others, was
conveniently situated. In these early days only a few of these buildings
could be said to be permanent,--fire and flood perpetually threatened
them. They were merely temporary structures of wood, or in the case
of Mr. Farendell’s office, a shell of corrugated iron, sheathing
a one-storied wooden frame, more or less elaborate in its interior
decorations. By the time he had reached it, the distant fire had
increased. On his way he had met and recognized many of his business
acquaintances hurrying thither,--some to save their own property, or
to assist the imperfectly equipped volunteer fire department in their
unselfish labors. It was probably Mr. Farendell’s peculiar preoccupation
on that particular night which had prevented his joining in their
brotherly zeal.

He unlocked the iron door, and lit the hanging lamp that was used in
all-night sittings on steamer days. It revealed a smartly furnished
office, with a high desk for his clerks, and a smaller one for himself
in one corner. In the centre of the wall stood a large safe. This he
also unlocked and took out a few important books, as well as a small
drawer containing gold coin and dust to the amount of about five hundred
dollars, the large balance having been deposited in bank on the previous
day. The act was only precautionary, as he did not exhibit any haste in
removing them to a place of safety, and remained meditatively absorbed
in looking over a packet of papers taken from the same drawer. The
closely shuttered building, almost hermetically sealed against light,
and perhaps sound, prevented his observing the steadily increasing light
of the conflagration, or hearing the nearer tumult of the firemen, and
the invasion of his quiet district by other equally solicitous tenants.
The papers seemed also to possess some importance, for, the stillness
being suddenly broken by the turning of the handle of the heavy door he
had just closed, and its opening with difficulty, his first act was
to hurriedly conceal them, without apparently paying a thought to the
exposed gold before him. And his expression and attitude in facing
round towards the door was quite as much of nervous secretiveness as of
indignation at the interruption.

Yet the intruder appeared, though singular, by no means formidable. He
was a man slightly past the middle age, with a thin face, hollowed at
the cheeks and temples as if by illness or asceticism, and a grayish
beard that encircled his throat like a soiled worsted “comforter” below
his clean-shaven chin and mouth. His manner was slow and methodical, and
even when he shot the bolt of the door behind him, the act did not seem
aggressive. Nevertheless Mr. Farendell half rose with his hand on
his pistol-pocket, but the stranger merely lifted his own hand with
a gesture of indifferent warning, and, drawing a chair towards him,
dropped into it deliberately.

Mr. Farendell’s angry stare changed suddenly to one of surprised
recognition. “Josh Scranton,” he said hesitatingly.

“I reckon,” responded the stranger slowly. “That’s the name I allus
bore, and YOU called yourself Farendell. Well, we ain’t seen each other
sens the spring o’ ‘50, when ye left me lying nigh petered out with
chills and fever on the Stanislaus River, and sold the claim that me and
Duffy worked under our very feet, and skedaddled for ‘Frisco!”

“I only exercised my right as principal owner, and to secure my
advances,” began the late Mr. Farendell sharply.

But again the thin hand was raised, this time with a slow, scornful
waiving of any explanations. “It ain’t that in partickler that I’ve kem
to see ye for to-night,” said the stranger slowly, “nor it ain’t about
your takin’ the name o’ ‘Farendell,’ that friend o’ yours who died on
the passage here with ye, and whose papers ye borrowed! Nor it ain’t
on account o’ that wife of yours ye left behind in Missouri, and whose
letters you never answered. It’s them things all together--and suthin’
else!”

“What the d---l do you want, then?” said Farendell, with a desperate
directness that was, however, a tacit confession of the truth of these
accusations.

“Yer allowin’ that ye’ll get married tomorrow?” said Scranton slowly.

“Yes, and be d----d to you,” said Farendell fiercely.

“Yer NOT,” returned Scranton. “Not if I knows it. Yer goin’ to climb
down. Yer goin’ to get up and get! Yer goin’ to step down and out! Yer
goin’ to shut up your desk and your books and this hull consarn inside
of an hour, and vamose the ranch. Arter an hour from now thar won’t be
any Mr. Farendell, and no weddin’ to-morrow.”

“If that’s your game--perhaps you’d like to murder me at once?” said
Farendell with a shifting eye, as his hand again moved towards his
revolver.

But again the thin hand of the stranger was also lifted. “We ain’t in
the business o’ murderin’ or bein’ murdered, or we might hev kem here
together, me and Duffy. Now if anything happens to me Duffy will be
left, and HE’S got the proofs.”

Farendell seemed to recognize the fact with the same directness. “That’s
it, is it?” he said bluntly. “Well, how much do you want? Only, I warn
you that I haven’t much to give.”

“Wotever you’ve got, if it was millions, it ain’t enough to buy us up,
and ye ought to know that by this time,” responded Scranton, with
a momentary flash in his eyes. But the next moment his previous
passionless deliberation returned, and leaning his arm on the desk of
the man before him he picked up a paperweight carelessly and turned it
over as he said slowly, “The fact is, Mr. Farendell, you’ve been making
us, me and Duffy, tired. We’ve bin watchin’ you and your doin’s, lyin’
low and sayin’ nothin’, till we concluded that it was about time you
handed in your checks and left the board. We ain’t wanted nothin’ of
ye, we ain’t begrudged ye nothin’, but we’ve allowed that this yer thing
must stop.”

“And what if I refuse?” said Farendell.

“Thar’ll be some cussin’ and a big row from YOU, I kalkilate--and maybe
some fightin’ all round,” said Scranton dispassionately. “But it will be
all the same in the end. The hull thing will come out, and you’ll hev
to slide just the same. T’otherwise, ef ye slide out NOW, it’s without a
row.”

“And do you suppose a business man like me can disappear without a fuss
over it?” said Farendell angrily. “Are you mad?”

“I reckon the hole YOU’LL make kin be filled up,” said Scranton dryly.
“But ef ye go NOW, you won’t be bothered by the fuss, while if you stay
you’ll have to face the music, and go too!”

Farendell was silent. Possibly the truth of this had long since been
borne upon him. No one but himself knew the incessant strain of these
years of evasion and concealment, and how he often had been near to
some such desperate culmination. The sacrifice offered to him was not,
therefore, so great as it might have seemed. The knowledge of this
might have given him a momentary superiority over his antagonist had
Scranton’s motive been a purely selfish or malignant one, but as it was
not, and as he may have had some instinctive idea of Farendell’s feeling
also, it made his ultimatum appear the more passionless and fateful.
And it was this quality which perhaps caused Farendell to burst out with
desperate abruptness,--

“What in h-ll ever put you up to this!”

Scranton folded his arms upon Farendell’s desk, and slowly wiping his
clean jaw with one hand, repeated deliberately, “Wall--I reckon I told
ye that before! You’ve been making us--me and Duffy--tired!” He paused
for a moment, and then, rising abruptly, with a careless gesture towards
the uncovered tray of gold, said, “Come! ye kin take enuff o’ that to
get away with; the less ye take, though, the less likely you’ll be to be
followed!”

He went to the door, unlocked and opened it. A strange light, as of
a lurid storm interspersed by sheet-like lightning, filled the outer
darkness, and the silence was now broken by dull crashes and nearer
cries and shouting. A few figures were also dimly flitting around the
neighboring empty offices, some of which, like Farendell’s, had been
entered by their now alarmed owners.

“You’ve got a good chance now,” continued Scranton; “ye couldn’t hev a
better. It’s a big fire--a scorcher--and jest the time for a man to wipe
himself out and not be missed. Make tracks where the crowd is thickest
and whar ye’re likely to be seen, ez ef ye were helpin’! Ther’ ‘ll be
other men missed tomorrow beside you,” he added with grim significance;
“but nobody’ll know that you was one who really got away.”

Where the imperturbable logic of the strange man might have failed,
the noise, the tumult, the suggestion of swift-coming disaster, and
the necessity for some immediate action of any kind, was convincing.
Farendell hastily stuffed his pockets with gold and the papers he had
found, and moved to the door. Already he fancied he felt the hot
breath of the leaping conflagration beyond. “And you?” he said, turning
suspiciously to Scranton.

“When you’re shut of this and clean off, I’ll fix things and leave
too--but not before. I reckon,” he added grimly, with a glance at the
sky, now streaming with sparks like a meteoric shower, “thar won’t be
much left here in the morning.”

A few dull embers pattered on the iron roof of the low building and
bounded off in ashes. Farendell cast a final glance around him, and then
darted from the building. The iron door clanged behind him--he was gone.

Evidently not too soon, for the other buildings were already deserted by
their would-be salvors, who had filled the streets with piles of books
and valuables waiting to be carried away. Then occurred a terrible
phenomenon, which had once before in such disasters paralyzed the
efforts of the firemen. A large wooden warehouse in the centre of
the block of offices, many hundred feet from the scene of active
conflagration--which had hitherto remained intact--suddenly became
enveloped in clouds of smoke, and without warning burst as suddenly
from roof and upper story into vivid flame. There were eye-witnesses who
declared that a stream of living fire seemed to leap upon it from the
burning district, and connected the space between them with an arch of
luminous heat. In another instant the whole district was involved in
a whirlwind of smoke and flame, out of whose seething vortex the
corrugated iron buildings occasionally showed their shriveling or
glowing outlines. And then the fire swept on and away.

When the sun again arose over the panic-stricken and devastated city,
all personal incident and disaster was forgotten in the larger
calamity. It was two or three days before the full particulars could be
gathered--even while the dominant and resistless energy of the people
was erecting new buildings upon the still-smoking ruins. It was only on
the third day afterwards that James Farendell, on the deck of a coasting
steamer, creeping out through the fogs of the Golden Gate, read the
latest news in a San Francisco paper brought by the pilot. As he
hurriedly comprehended the magnitude of the loss, which was far beyond
his previous conception, he experienced a certain satisfaction in
finding his position no worse materially than that of many of his fellow
workers. THEY were ruined like himself; THEY must begin their life
afresh--but then! Ah! there was still that terrible difference. He drew
his breath quickly, and read on. Suddenly he stopped, transfixed by
a later paragraph. For an instant he failed to grasp its full
significance. Then he read it again, the words imprinting themselves on
his senses with a slow deliberation that seemed to him as passionless as
Scranton’s utterances on that fateful night.

“The loss of life, it is now feared, is much greater than at first
imagined. To the list that has been already published we must add the
name of James Farendell, the energetic contractor so well known to
our citizens, who was missing the morning after the fire. His calcined
remains were found this afternoon in the warped and twisted iron shell
of his counting-house, the wooden frame having been reduced to charcoal
in the intense heat. The unfortunate man seems to have gone there to
remove his books and papers,--as was evidenced by the iron safe being
found open,--but to have been caught and imprisoned in the building
through the heat causing the metal sheathing to hermetically seal the
doors and windows. He was seen by some neighbors to enter the building
while the fire was still distant, and his remains were identified by his
keys, which were found beneath him. A poignant interest is added to his
untimely fate by the circumstance that he was to have been married on
the following day to the widow of his late partner, and that he had,
at the call of duty, that very evening left a dinner party given to
celebrate the last day of his bachelorhood--or, as it has indeed proved,
of his earthly existence. Two families are thus placed in mourning, and
it is a singular sequel that by this untoward calamity the well-known
firm of Farendell & Cutler may be said to have ceased to exist.”

Mr. Farendell started to his feet. But a lurch of the schooner as she
rose on the long swell of the Pacific sent him staggering dizzily back
to his seat, and checked his first wild impulse to return. He saw it all
now,--the fire had avenged him by wiping out his persecutor, Scranton,
but in the eyes of his contemporaries it had only erased HIM! He might
return to refute the story in his own person, but the dead man’s partner
still lived with his secret, and his own rehabilitation could only
revive his former peril.


*****

Four years elapsed before the late Mr. Farendell again set foot in the
levee of Sacramento. The steamboat that brought him from San Francisco
was a marvel to him in size, elegance, and comfort; so different from
the little, crowded, tri-weekly packet he remembered; and it might, in a
manner, have prepared him for the greater change in the city. But he was
astounded to find nothing to remind him of the past,--no landmark, nor
even ruin, of the place he had known. Blocks of brick buildings, with
thoroughfares having strange titles, occupied the district where his
counting-house had stood, and even obliterated its site; equally strange
names were upon the shops and warehouses. In his four years’ wanderings
he had scarcely found a place as unfamiliar. He had trusted to the
great change in his own appearance--the full beard that he wore and the
tanning of a tropical sun--to prevent recognition; but the precaution
was unnecessary, there were none to recognize him in the new faces which
were the only ones he saw in the transformed city. A cautious allusion
to the past which he had made on the boat to a fellow passenger had
brought only the surprised rejoinder, “Oh, that must have been before
the big fire,” as if it was an historic epoch. There was something of
pain even in this assured security of his loneliness. His obliteration
was complete.

For the late Mr. Farendell had suffered some change of mind with his
other mutations. He had been singularly lucky. The schooner in which he
had escaped brought him to Acapulco, where, as a returning Californian,
and a presumably successful one, his services and experience were
eagerly sought by an English party engaged in developing certain disused
Mexican mines. As the post, however, was perilously near the route
of regular emigration, as soon as he had gained a sufficient sum he
embarked with some goods to Callao, where he presently established
himself in business, resuming his REAL name--the unambitious but
indistinctive one of “Smith.” It is highly probable that this prudential
act was also his first step towards rectitude. For whether the change
was a question of moral ethics, or merely a superstitious essay in luck,
he was thereafter strictly honest in business. He became prosperous.
He had been sustained in his flight by the intention that, if he
were successful elsewhere, he would endeavor to communicate with his
abandoned fiancee, and ask her to join him, and share not his name but
fortune in exile. But as he grew rich, the difficulties of carrying out
this intention became more apparent; he was by no means certain of her
loyalty surviving the deceit he had practiced and the revelation he
would have to make; he was doubtful of the success of any story which
at other times he would have glibly invented to take the place of truth.
Already several months had elapsed since his supposed death; could he
expect her to be less accessible to premature advances now than when
she had been a widow? Perhaps this made him think of the wife he had
deserted so long ago. He had been quite content to live without regret
or affection, forgetting and forgotten, but in his present prosperity
he felt there was some need of putting his domestic affairs into a more
secure and legitimate shape, to avert any catastrophe like the last.
HERE at least would be no difficulty; husbands had deserted their wives
before this in Californian emigration, and had been heard of only after
they had made their fortune. Any plausible story would be accepted by
HER in the joy of his reappearance; or if, indeed, as he reflected
with equal complacency, she was dead or divorced from him through his
desertion--a sufficient cause in her own State--and re-married, he
would at least be more secure. He began, without committing himself,
by inquiry and anonymous correspondence. His wife, he learnt, had left
Missouri for Sacramento only a month or two after his own disappearance
from that place, and her address was unknown!

A complication so unlooked for disquieted him, and yet whetted his
curiosity. The only person she might meet in California who could
possibly identify him with the late Mr. Farendell was Duffy; he had
often wondered if that mysterious partner of Scranton’s had been
deceived with the others, or had ever suspected that the body discovered
in the counting-house was Scranton’s. If not, he must have accepted the
strange coincidence that Scranton had disappeared also the same night.
In the first six months of his exile he had searched the Californian
papers thoroughly, but had found no record of any doubt having been
thrown on the accepted belief. It was these circumstances, and perhaps
a vague fascination not unlike that which impels the malefactor to haunt
the scene of his crime, that, at the end of four years, had brought him,
a man of middle age and assured occupation and fortune, back to the city
he had fled from.

A few days at one of the new hotels convinced him thoroughly that he was
in no danger of recognition, and gave him the assurance to take rooms
more in keeping with his circumstances and his own frankly
avowed position as the head of a South American house. A cautious
acquaintance--through the agency of his banker--with a few business men
gave him some occupation, and the fact of his South American letters
being addressed to Don Diego Smith gave a foreign flavor to his
individuality, which his tanned face and dark beard had materially
helped. A stronger test convinced him how complete was the obliteration
of his former identity. One day at the bank he was startled at being
introduced by the manager to a man whom he at once recognized as a
former business acquaintance. But the shock was his alone; the formal
approach and unfamiliar manner of the man showed that he had failed to
recognize even a resemblance. But would he equally escape detection by
his wife if he met her as accidentally,--an encounter not to be thought
of until he knew something more of her? He became more cautious in going
to public places, but luckily for him the proportion of women to men was
still small in California, and they were more observed than observing.

A month elapsed; in that time he had thoroughly exhausted the local
Directories in his cautious researches among the “Smiths,” for in his
fear of precipitating a premature disclosure he had given up his former
anonymous advertising. And there was a certain occupation in this
personal quest that filled his business time. He was in no hurry. He had
a singular faith that he would eventually discover her whereabouts, be
able to make all necessary inquiries into her conduct and habits, and
perhaps even enjoy a brief season of unsuspected personal observation
before revealing himself. And this faith was as singularly rewarded.

Having occasion to get his watch repaired one day he entered a large
jeweler’s shop, and while waiting its examination his attention was
attracted by an ordinary old-fashioned daguerreotype case in the form of
a heart-shaped locket lying on the counter with other articles left for
repairs. Something in its appearance touched a chord in his memory; he
lifted the half-opened case and saw a much faded daguerreotype
portrait of himself taken in Missouri before he left in the Californian
emigration. He recognized it at once as one he had given to his wife;
the faded likeness was so little like his present self that he boldly
examined it and asked the jeweler one or two questions. The man was
communicative. Yes, it was an old-fashioned affair which had been left
for repairs a few days ago by a lady whose name and address, written by
herself, were on the card tied to it.

Mr. James Smith had by this time fully controlled the emotion he felt as
he recognized his wife’s name and handwriting, and knew that at last
the clue was found! He laid down the case carelessly, gave the final
directions for the repairs of his watch, and left the shop. The address,
of which he had taken a mental note, was, to his surprise, very near
his own lodgings; but he went straight home. Here a few inquiries of
his janitor elicited the information that the building indicated in the
address was a large one of furnished apartments and offices like his
own, and that the “Mrs. Smith” must be simply the housekeeper of the
landlord, whose name appeared in the Directory, but not her own. Yet
he waited until evening before he ventured to reconnoitre the premises;
with the possession of his clue came a slight cooling of his ardor and
extreme caution in his further proceedings. The house--a reconstructed
wooden building--offered no external indication of the rooms she
occupied in the uniformly curtained windows that front the street.
Yet he felt an odd and pleasurable excitement in passing once or twice
before those walls that hid the goal of his quest. As yet he had not
seen her, and there was naturally the added zest of expectation. He
noticed that there was a new building opposite, with vacant offices to
let. A project suddenly occurred to him, which by morning he had fully
matured. He hired a front room in the first floor of the new building,
had it hurriedly furnished as a private office, and on the second
morning of his discovery was installed behind his desk at the window
commanding a full view of the opposite house. There was nothing strange
in the South American capitalist selecting a private office in so
popular a locality.

Two or three days elapsed without any result from his espionage. He came
to know by sight the various tenants, the two Chinese servants, and the
solitary Irish housemaid, but as yet had no glimpse of the housekeeper.
She evidently led a secluded life among her duties; it occurred to him
that perhaps she went out, possibly to market, earlier than he came,
or later, after he had left the office. In this belief he arrived one
morning after an early walk in a smart spring shower, the lingering
straggler of the winter rains. There were few people astir, yet he had
been preceded for two or three blocks by a tall woman whose umbrella
partly concealed her head and shoulders from view. He had noticed,
however, even in his abstraction, that she walked well, and managed the
lifting of her skirt over her trim ankles and well-booted feet with some
grace and cleverness. Yet it was only on her unexpectedly turning the
corner of his own street that he became interested. She continued on
until within a few doors of his office, when she stopped to give an
order to a tradesman, who was just taking down his shutters. He heard
her voice distinctly; in the quick emotion it gave him he brushed
hurriedly past her without lifting his eyes. Gaining his own doorway
he rushed upstairs to his office, hastily unlocked it, and ran to the
window. The lady was already crossing the street. He saw her pause
before the door of the opposite house, open it with a latchkey, and
caught a full view of her profile in the single moment that she turned
to furl her umbrella and enter. It was his wife’s voice he had heard; it
was his wife’s face that he had seen in profile.

Yet she was changed from the lanky young schoolgirl he had wedded ten
years ago, or, at least, compared to what his recollection of her had
been. Had he ever seen her as she really was? Surely somewhere in that
timid, freckled, half-grown bride he had known in the first year of
their marriage the germ of this self-possessed, matured woman was
hidden. There was the tone of her voice; he had never recalled it before
as a lover might, yet now it touched him; her profile he certainly
remembered, but not with the feeling it now produced in him. Would he
have ever abandoned her had she been like that? Or had HE changed, and
was this no longer his old self?--perhaps even a self SHE would never
recognize again? James Smith had the superstitions of a gambler, and
that vague idea of fate that comes to weak men; a sudden fright seized
him, and he half withdrew from the window lest she should observe him,
recognize him, and by some act precipitate that fate.

By lingering beyond the usual hour for his departure he saw her again,
and had even a full view of her face as she crossed the street. The
years had certainly improved her; he wondered with a certain nervousness
if she would think they had done the same for him. The complacency with
which he had at first contemplated her probable joy at recovering him
had become seriously shaken since he had seen her; a woman as well
preserved and good-looking as that, holding a certain responsible
and, no doubt, lucrative position, must have many admirers and be
independent. He longed to tell her now of his fortune, and yet shrank
from the test its exposure implied. He waited for her return until
darkness had gathered, and then went back to his lodgings a little
chagrined and ill at ease. It was rather late for her to be out alone!
After all, what did he know of her habits or associations? He recalled
the freedom of Californian life, and the old scandals relating to the
lapses of many women who had previously led blameless lives in the
Atlantic States. Clearly it behooved him to be cautious. Yet he
walked late that night before the house again, eager to see if she had
returned, and with WHOM? He was restricted in his eagerness by the
fear of detection, but he gathered very little knowledge of her habits;
singularly enough nobody seemed to care. A little piqued at this, he
began to wonder if he were not thinking too much of this woman to whom
he still hesitated to reveal himself. Nevertheless, he found himself
that night again wandering around the house, and even watching with some
anxiety the shadow which he believed to be hers on the window-blind
of the room where he had by discreet inquiry located her. Whether his
memory was stimulated by his quest he never knew, but presently he was
able to recall step by step and incident by incident his early courtship
of her and the brief days of their married life. He even remembered the
day she accepted him, and even dwelt upon it with a sentimental thrill
that he probably never felt at the time, and it was a distinct feature
of his extraordinary state of mind and its concentration upon this
particular subject that he presently began to look upon HIMSELF as the
abandoned and deserted conjugal partner, and to nurse a feeling of deep
injury at her hands! The fact that he was thinking of her, and she,
probably, contented with her lot, was undisturbed by any memory of him,
seemed to him a logical deduction of his superior affection.

It was, therefore, quite as much in the attitude of a reproachful and
avenging husband as of a merely curious one that, one afternoon, seeing
her issue from her house at an early hour, he slipped down the stairs
and began to follow her at a secure distance. She turned into the
principal thoroughfare, and presently made one of the crowd who were
entering a popular place of amusement where there was an afternoon
performance. So complete was his selfish hallucination, that he smiled
bitterly at this proof of heartless indifference, and even so far
overcame his previous caution as to actually brush by her somewhat
rudely as he entered the building at the same moment. He was conscious
that she lifted her eyes a little impatiently to the face of the awkward
stranger; he was equally, but more bitterly, conscious that she had not
recognized him! He dropped into a seat behind her; she did not look at
him again with even a sense of disturbance; the momentary contact had
evidently left no impression upon her. She glanced casually at
her neighbors on either side, and presently became absorbed in the
performance. When it was over she rose, and on her way out recognized
and exchanged a few words with one or two acquaintances. Again he
heard her familiar voice, almost at his elbow, raised with no more
consciousness of her contiguity to him than if he were a mere ghost.
The thought struck him for the first time with a hideous and appalling
significance. What was he but a ghost to her--to every one! A man dead,
buried, and forgotten! His vanity and self-complacency vanished before
this crushing realization of the hopelessness of his existence. Dazed
and bewildered, he mingled blindly and blunderingly with the departing
crowd, tossed here and there as if he were an invisible presence,
stumbling over the impeding skirts of women with a vague apology they
heeded not, and which seemed in his frightened ears as hollow as a voice
from the grave.

When he at last reached the street he did not look back, but wandered
abstractedly through by-streets in the falling rain, scarcely realizing
where he was, until he found himself drenched through, with his closed
umbrella in his tremulous hand, standing at the half-submerged levee
beside the overflowed river. Here again he realized how completely he
had been absorbed and concentrated in his search for his wife during the
last three weeks; he had never been on the levee since his arrival. He
had taken no note of the excitement of the citizens over the alarming
reports of terrible floods in the mountains, and the daily and hourly
fear that they experienced of disastrous inundation from the surcharged
river. He had never thought of it, yet he had read of it, and even
talked, and yet now for the first time in his selfish, blind absorption
was certain of it. He stood still for some time, watching doggedly the
enormous yellow stream laboring with its burden and drift from many
a mountain town and camp, moving steadily and fatefully towards the
distant bay, and still more distant and inevitable ocean. For a few
moments it vaguely fascinated and diverted him; then it as vaguely lent
itself to his one dominant, haunting thought. Yes, it was pointing him
the only way out,--the path to the distant ocean and utter forgetfulness
again!

The chill of his saturated clothing brought him to himself once more,
he turned and hurried home. He went tiredly to his bedroom, and while
changing his garments there came a knock at the door. It was the
porter to say that a lady had called, and was waiting for him in the
sitting-room. She had not given her name.

The closed door prevented the servant from seeing the extraordinary
effect produced by this simple announcement upon the tenant. For
one instant James Smith remained spellbound in his chair. It was
characteristic of his weak nature and singular prepossession that
he passed in an instant from the extreme of doubt to the extreme of
certainty and conviction. It was his wife! She had recognized him in
that moment of encounter at the entertainment; had found his address,
and had followed him here! He dressed himself with feverish haste, not,
however, without a certain care of his appearance and some selection of
apparel, and quickly forecast the forthcoming interview in his mind.
For the pendulum had swung back; Mr. James Smith was once more the
self-satisfied, self-complacent, and discreetly cautious husband that he
had been at the beginning of his quest, perhaps with a certain sense
of grievance superadded. He should require the fullest explanations and
guarantees before committing himself,--indeed, her present call might be
an advance that it would be necessary for him to check. He even pictured
her pleading at his feet; a very little stronger effort of his Alnaschar
imagination would have made him reject her like the fatuous Persian
glass peddler.

He opened the door of the sitting-room deliberately, and walked in with
a certain formal precision. But the figure of a woman arose from the
sofa, and with a slight outcry, half playful, half hysterical, threw
herself upon his breast with the single exclamation, “Jim!” He started
back from the double shock. For the woman was NOT his wife! A woman
extravagantly dressed, still young, but bearing, even through her
artificially heightened color, a face worn with excitement, excess, and
premature age. Yet a face that as he disengaged himself from her arms
grew upon him with a terrible recognition, a face that he had once
thought pretty, inexperienced, and innocent,--the face of the widow of
his former partner, Cutler, the woman he was to have married on the day
he fled. The bitter revulsion of feeling and astonishment was evidently
visible in his face, for she, too, drew back for a moment as they
separated. But she had evidently been prepared, if not pathetically
inured to such experiences. She dropped into a chair again with a dry
laugh, and a hard metallic voice, as she said,--

“Well, it’s YOU, anyway--and you can’t get out of it.”

As he still stared at her, in her inconsistent finery, draggled and
wet by the storm, at her limp ribbons and ostentatious jewelry, she
continued, in the same hard voice,--

“I thought I spotted you once or twice before; but you took no notice of
me, and I reckoned I was mistaken. But this afternoon at the Temple of
Music”--

“Where?” said James Smith harshly.

“At the Temple--the San Francisco Troupe performance--where you brushed
by me, and I heard your voice saying, ‘Beg pardon!’ I says, ‘That’s Jim
Farendell.’”

“Farendell!” burst out James Smith, half in simulated astonishment, half
in real alarm.

“Well! Smith, then, if you like better,” said the woman impatiently;
“though it’s about the sickest and most played-out dodge of a name you
could have pitched upon. James Smith, Don Diego Smith!” she repeated,
with a hysteric laugh. “Why, it beats the nigger minstrels all hollow!
Well, when I saw you there, I said, ‘That’s Jim Farendell, or his twin
brother;’ I didn’t say ‘his ghost,’ mind you; for, from the beginning,
even before I knew it all, I never took any stock in that fool yarn
about your burnt bones being found in your office.”

“Knew all, knew what?” demanded the man, with a bravado which he
nevertheless felt was hopeless.

She rose, crossed the room, and, standing before him, placed one hand
upon her hip as she looked at him with half-pitying effrontery.

“Look here, Jim,” she began slowly, “do you know what you’re doing?
Well, you’re making me tired!” In spite of himself, a half-superstitious
thrill went through him as her words and attitude recalled the dead
Scranton. “Do you suppose that I don’t know that you ran away the night
of the fire? Do you suppose that I don’t know that you were next to
ruined that night, and that you took that opportunity of skedaddling
out of the country with all the money you had left, and leaving folks
to imagine you were burnt up with the books you had falsified and the
accounts you had doctored! It was a mean thing for you to do to me, Jim,
for I loved you then, and would have been fool enough to run off with
you if you’d told me all, and not left me to find out that you had lost
MY money--every cent Cutler had left me in the business--with the rest.”

With the fatuousness of a weak man cornered, he clung to unimportant
details. “But the body was believed to be mine by every one,” he
stammered angrily. “My papers and books were burnt,--there was no
evidence.”

“And why was there not?” she said witheringly, staring doggedly in his
face. “Because I stopped it! Because when I knew those bones and rags
shut up in that office weren’t yours, and was beginning to make a row
about it, a strange man came to me and said they were the remains of a
friend of his who knew your bankruptcy and had come that night to warn
you,--a man whom you had half ruined once, a man who had probably lost
his life in helping you away. He said if I went on making a fuss he’d
come out with the whole truth--how you were a thief and a forger,
and”--she stopped.

“And what else?” he asked desperately, dreading to hear his wife’s name
next fall from her lips.

“And that--as it could be proved that his friend knew your secrets,”
 she went on in a frightened, embarrassed voice, “you might be accused of
making away with him.”

For a moment James Smith was appalled; he had never thought of this. As
in all his past villainy he was too cowardly to contemplate murder,
he was frightened at the mere accusation of it. “But,” he stammered,
forgetful of all save this new terror, “he KNEW I wouldn’t be such a
fool, for the man himself told me Duffy had the papers, and killing him
wouldn’t have helped me.”

Mrs. Cutler stared at him a moment searchingly, and then turned wearily
away. “Well,” she said, sinking into her chair again, “he said if I’d
shut my mouth he’d shut his--and--I did. And this,” she added,
throwing her hands from her lap, a gesture half of reproach and half of
contempt,--“this is what I get for it.”

More frightened than touched by the woman’s desperation, James Smith
stammered a vague apologetic disclaimer, even while he was loathing with
a revulsion new to him her draggled finery, her still more faded beauty,
and the half-distinct consciousness of guilt that linked her to him. But
she waved it away, a weary gesture that again reminded him of the dead
Scranton.

“Of course I ain’t what I was, but who’s to blame for it? When you left
me alone without a cent, face to face with a lie, I had to do something.
I wasn’t brought up to work; I like good clothes, and you know it
better than anybody. I ain’t one of your stage heroines that go out as
dependants and governesses and die of consumption, but I thought,” she
went on with a shrill, hysterical laugh, more painful than the weariness
which inevitably followed it, “I thought I might train myself to do it,
ON THE STAGE! and I joined Barker’s Company. They said I had a face
and figure for the stage; that face and figure wore out before I had
anything more to show, and I wasn’t big enough to make better terms with
the manager. They kept me nearly a year doing chambermaids and fairy
queens the other side of the footlights, where I saw you today. Then I
kicked! I suppose I might have married some fool for his money, but I
was soft enough to think you might be sending for me when you were safe.
You seem to be mighty comfortable here,” she continued, with a bitter
glance around his handsomely furnished room, “as ‘Don Diego Smith.’ I
reckon skedaddling pays better than staying behind.”

“I have only been here a few weeks,” he said hurriedly. “I never knew
what had become of you, or that you were still here”--

“Or you wouldn’t have come,” she interrupted, with a bitter laugh.
“Speak out, Jim.”

“If there--is anything--I can do--for you,” he stammered, “I’m sure”--

“Anything you can do?” she repeated, slowly and scornfully. “Anything
you can do NOW? Yes!” she screamed, suddenly rising, crossing the
room, and grasping his arms convulsively. “Yes! Take me away from
here--anywhere--at once! Look, Jim,” she went on feverishly, “let
bygones be bygones--I won’t peach! I won’t tell on you--though I had it
in my heart when you gave me the go-by just now! I’ll do anything you
say--go to your farthest hiding-place--work for you--only take me out of
this cursed place.”

Her passionate pleading stung even through his selfishness and loathing.
He thought of his wife’s indifference! Yes, he might be driven to
this, and at least he must secure the only witness against his previous
misconduct. “We will see,” he said soothingly, gently loosening her
hands. “We must talk it over.” He stopped as his old suspiciousness
returned. “But you must have some friends,” he said searchingly, “some
one who has helped you.”

“None! Only one--he helped me at first,” she hesitated--“Duffy.”

“Duffy!” said James Smith, recoiling.

“Yes, when he had to tell me all,” she said in half-frightened tones,
“he was sorry for me. Listen, Jim! He was a square man, for all he was
devoted to his partner--and you can’t blame him for that. I think he
helped me because I was alone; for nothing else, Jim. I swear it! He
helped me from time to time. Maybe he might have wanted to marry me if
he had not been waiting for another woman that he loved, a married woman
that had been deserted years ago by her husband, just as you might have
deserted me if we’d been married that day. He helped her and paid for
her journey here to seek her husband, and set her up in business.”

“What are you talking about--what woman?” stammered James Smith, with a
strange presentiment creeping over him.

“A Mrs. Smith. Yes,” she said quickly, as he started, “not a sham name
like yours, but really and truly SMITH--that was her husband’s name!
I’m not lying, Jim,” she went on, evidently mistaking the cause of the
sudden contraction of the man’s face. “I didn’t invent her nor her name;
there IS such a woman, and Duffy loves her--and HER only, and he never,
NEVER was anything more than a friend to me. I swear it!”

The room seemed to swim around him. She was staring at him, but he could
see in her vacant eyes that she had no conception of his secret, nor
knew the extent of her revelation. Duffy had not dared to tell all! He
burst into a coarse laugh. “What matters Duffy or the silly woman he’d
try to steal away from other men.”

“But he didn’t try to steal her, and she’s only silly because she wants
to be true to her husband while he lives. She told Duffy she’d never
marry him until she saw her husband’s dead face. More fool she,” she
added bitterly.

“Until she saw her husband’s dead face,” was all that James Smith heard
of this speech. His wife’s faithfulness through years of desertion, her
long waiting and truthfulness, even the bitter commentary of the equally
injured woman before him, were to him as nothing to what that single
sentence conjured up. He laughed again, but this time strangely and
vacantly. “Enough of this Duffy and his intrusion in my affairs until
I’m able to settle my account with him. Come,” he added brusquely, “if
we are going to cut out of this at once I’ve got much to do. Come here
again to-morrow, early. This Duffy--does he live here?”

“No. In Marysville.”

“Good! Come early to-morrow.”

As she seemed to hesitate, he opened a drawer of his table and took out
a handful of gold, and handed it to her. She glanced at it for a moment
with a strange expression, put it mechanically in her pocket, and then
looking up at him said, with a forced laugh, “I suppose that means I am
to clear out?”

“Until to-morrow,” he said shortly.

“If the Sacramento don’t sweep us away before then,” she interrupted,
with a reckless laugh; “the river’s broken through the levee--a clear
sweep in two places. Where I live the water’s up to the doorstep. They
say it’s going to be the biggest flood yet. You’re all right here;
you’re on higher ground.”

She seemed to utter these sentences abstractedly, disconnectedly, as if
to gain time. He made an impatient gesture.

“All right, I’m going,” she said, compressing her lips slowly to keep
them from trembling. “You haven’t forgotten anything?” As he turned half
angrily towards her she added, hurriedly and bitterly, “Anything--for
to-morrow?”

“No!”

She opened the door and passed out. He listened until the trail of
her wet skirt had descended the stairs, and the street door had closed
behind her. Then he went back to his table and began collecting his
papers and putting them away in his trunks, which he packed feverishly,
yet with a set and determined face. He wrote one or two letters, which
he sealed and left upon his table. He then went to his bedroom and
deliberately shaved off his disguising beard. Had he not been so
preoccupied in one thought, he might have been conscious of loud voices
in the street and a hurrying of feet on the wet sidewalk. But he was
possessed by only one idea. He must see his wife that evening! How, he
knew not yet, but the way would appear when he had reached his office
in the building opposite hers. Three hours had elapsed before he had
finished his preparations. On going downstairs he stopped to give some
directions to the porter, but his room was empty; passing into the
street he was surprised to find it quite deserted, and the shops closed;
even a drinking saloon at the corner was quite empty. He turned the
corner of the street, and began the slight descent towards his office.
To his amazement the lower end of the street, which was crossed by
the thoroughfare which was his destination, was blocked by a crowd of
people. As he hurried forward to join them he suddenly saw, moving
down that thoroughfare, what appeared to his startled eyes to be the
smokestacks of some small, flat-bottomed steamer. He rubbed his eyes; it
was no illusion, for the next moment he had reached the crowd, who were
standing half a block away from the thoroughfare, and on the edge of a
lagoon of yellow water, whose main current was the thoroughfare he was
seeking, and between whose houses, submerged to their first stories, a
steamboat was really paddling. Other boats and rafts were adrift on
its sluggish waters, and a boatman had just landed a passenger in the
backwater of the lower half of the street on which he stood with the
crowd.

Possessed of his one idea, he fought his way desperately to the water
edge and the boat, and demanded a passage to his office. The boatman
hesitated, but James Smith promptly offered him double the value of his
craft. The act was not deemed singular in that extravagant epoch, and
the sympathizing crowd cheered his solitary departure, as he declined
even the services of the boatman. The next moment he was off in
mid-stream of the thoroughfare, paddling his boat with a desperate but
inexperienced hand until he reached his office, which he entered by the
window. The building, which was new and of brick, showed very little
damage from the flood, but in far different case was the one opposite,
on which his eyes were eagerly bent, and whose cheap and insecure
foundations he could see the flood was already undermining. There were
boats around the house, and men hurriedly removing trunks and valuables,
but the one figure he expected to see was not there. He tied his own
boat to the window; there was evidently no chance of an interview now,
but if she were leaving there would be still the chance of following
her and knowing her destination. As he gazed she suddenly appeared at
a window, and was helped by a boatman into a flat-bottomed barge
containing trunks and furniture. She was evidently the last to leave.
The other boats put off at once, and none too soon; for there was a
warning cry, a quick swerving of the barge, and the end of the dwelling
slowly dropped into the flood, seeming to sink on its knees like a
stricken ox. A great undulation of yellow water swept across the street,
inundating his office through the open window and half swamping his boat
beside it. At the same time he could see that the current had changed
and increased in volume and velocity, and, from the cries and warning
of the boatmen, he knew that the river had burst its banks at its upper
bend. He had barely time to leap into his boat and cast it off before
there was a foot of water on his floor.

But the new current was carrying the boats away from the higher level,
which they had been eagerly seeking, and towards the channel of the
swollen river. The barge was first to feel its influence, and was
hurried towards the river against the strongest efforts of its boatmen.
One by one the other and smaller boats contrived to get into the slack
water of crossing streets, and one was swamped before his eyes. But
James Smith kept only the barge in view. His difficulty in following it
was increased by his inexperience in managing a boat, and the quantity
of drift which now charged the current. Trees torn by their roots from
some upland bank; sheds, logs, timber, and the bloated carcasses of
cattle choked the stream. All the ruin worked by the flood seemed to be
compressed in this disastrous current. Once or twice he narrowly escaped
collision with a heavy beam or the bed of some farmer’s wagon. Once he
was swamped by a tree, and righted his frail boat while clinging to its
branches.

And then those who watched him from the barge and shore said afterwards
that a great apathy seemed to fall upon him. He no longer attempted to
guide the boat or struggle with the drift, but sat in the stern with
intent forward gaze and motionless paddles. Once they strove to warn
him, called to him to make an effort to reach the barge, and did what
they could, in spite of their own peril, to alter their course and help
him. But he neither answered nor heeded them. And then suddenly a great
log that they had just escaped seemed to rise up under the keel of his
boat, and it was gone. After a moment his face and head appeared above
the current, and so close to the stern of the barge that there was a
slight cry from the woman in it, but the next moment, and before the
boatman could reach him, he was drawn under it and disappeared. They lay
on their oars eagerly watching, but the body of James Smith was sucked
under the barge, and, in the mid-channel of the great river, was carried
out towards the distant sea.


*****

There was a strange meeting that night on the deck of a relief boat,
which had been sent out in search of the missing barge, between Mrs.
Smith and a grave and anxious passenger who had chartered it. When
he had comforted her, and pointed out, as, indeed, he had many times
before, the loneliness and insecurity of her unprotected life, she
yielded to his arguments. But it was not until many months after their
marriage that she confessed to him on that eventful night she thought
she had seen in a moment of great peril the vision of the dead face of
her husband uplifted to her through the water.



LANTY FOSTER’S MISTAKE


Lanty Foster was crouching on a low stool before the dying kitchen
fire, the better to get its fading radiance on the book she was reading.
Beyond, through the open window and door, the fire was also slowly
fading from the sky and the mountain ridge whence the sun had dropped
half an hour before. The view was uphill, and the sky-line of the
hill was marked by two or three gibbet-like poles from which, on a
now invisible line between them, depended certain objects--mere black
silhouettes against the sky--which bore weird likeness to human figures.
Absorbed as she was in her book, she nevertheless occasionally cast an
impatient glance in that direction, as the sunlight faded more quickly
than her fire. For the fluttering objects were the “week’s wash” which
had to be brought in before night fell and the mountain wind arose. It
was strong at that altitude, and before this had ravished the clothes
from the line, and scattered them along the highroad leading over the
ridge, once even lashing the shy schoolmaster with a pair of Lanty’s own
stockings, and blinding the parson with a really tempestuous petticoat.

A whiff of wind down the big-throated chimney stirred the log embers on
the hearth, and the girl jumped to her feet, closing the book with an
impatient snap. She knew her mother’s voice would follow. It was hard to
leave her heroine at the crucial moment of receiving an explanation from
a presumed faithless lover, just to climb a hill and take in a lot
of soulless washing, but such are the infelicities of stolen romance
reading. She threw the clothes-basket over her head like a hood, the
handle resting across her bosom and shoulders, and with both her hands
free started out of the cabin. But the darkness had come up from the
valley in one stride after its mountain fashion, had outstripped her,
and she was instantly plunged in it. Still the outline of the ridge
above her was visible, with the white, steadfast stars that were not
there a moment ago, and by that sign she knew she was late. She had to
battle against the rushing wind now, which sung through the inverted
basket over her head and held her back, but with bent shoulders she at
last reached the top of the ridge and the level. Yet here, owing to
the shifting of the lighter background above her, she now found herself
again encompassed with the darkness. The outlines of the poles had
disappeared, the white fluttering garments were distinct apparitions
waving in the wind, like dancing ghosts. But there certainly was a queer
misshapen bulk moving beyond, which she did not recognize, and as she at
last reached one of the poles, a shock was communicated to it, through
the clothes-line and the bulk beyond. Then she heard a voice say
impatiently,--

“What in h-ll am I running into now?”

It was a man’s voice, and, from its elevation, the voice of a man on
horseback. She answered without fear and with slow deliberation,--

“Inter our clothes-line, I reckon.”

“Oh!” said the man in a half-apologetic tone. Then in brisker accents,
“The very thing I want! I say, can you give me a bit of it? The ring of
my saddle girth has fetched loose. I can fasten it with that.”

“I reckon,” replied Lanty, with the same unconcern, moving nearer the
bulk, which now separated into two parts as the man dismounted. “How
much do you want?”

“A foot or two will do.”

They were now in front of each other, although their faces were not
distinguishable to either. Lanty, who had been following the lines with
her hand, here came upon the end knotted around the last pole. This she
began to untie.

“What a place to hang clothes,” he said curiously.

“Mighty dryin’, tho’,” returned Lanty laconically.

“And your house? Is it near by?” he continued.

“Just down the ridge--ye kin see from the edge. Got a knife?” She had
untied the knot.

“No--yes--wait.” He had hesitated a moment and then produced something
from his breast pocket, which he however kept in his hand. As he did not
offer it to her she simply held out a section of the rope between
her hands, which he divided with a single cut. She saw only that the
instrument was long and keen. Then she lifted the flap of the saddle
for him as he attempted to fasten the loose ring with the rope, but
the darkness made it impossible. With an ejaculation, he fumbled in his
pockets. “My last match!” he said, striking it, as he crouched over
it to protect it from the wind. Lanty leaned over also, with her apron
raised between it and the blast. The flame for an instant lit up the
ring, the man’s dark face, mustache, and white teeth set together as
he tugged at the girth, and Lanty’s brown, velvet eyes and soft, round
cheek framed in the basket. Then it went out, but the ring was secured.

“Thank you,” said the man, with a short laugh, “but I thought you were a
humpbacked witch in the dark there.”

“And I couldn’t make out whether you was a cow or a b’ar,” returned the
young girl simply.

Here, however, he quickly mounted his horse, but in the action something
slipped from his clothes, struck a stone, and bounded away into the
darkness.

“My knife,” he said hurriedly. “Please hand it to me.” But although the
girl dropped on her knees and searched the ground diligently, it could
not be found. The man with a restrained ejaculation again dismounted,
and joined in the search.

“Haven’t you got another match?” suggested Lanty.

“No--it was my last!” he said impatiently.

“Just you hol’ on here,” she said suddenly, “and I’ll run down to the
kitchen and fetch you a light. I won’t be long.”

“No! no!” said the man quickly; “don’t! I couldn’t wait. I’ve been here
too long now. Look here. You come in daylight and find it, and--just
keep it for me, will you?” He laughed. “I’ll come for it. And now, if
you’ll only help to set me on that road again, for it’s so infernal
black I can’t see the mare’s ears ahead of me, I won’t bother you any
more. Thank you.”

Lanty had quietly moved to his horse’s head and taken the bridle in her
hand, and at once seemed to be lost in the gloom. But in a few moments
he felt the muffled thud of his horse’s hoof on the thick dust of the
highway, and its still hot, impalpable powder rising to his nostrils.

“Thank you,” he said again, “I’m all right now,” and in the pause that
followed it seemed to Lanty that he had extended a parting hand to her
in the darkness. She put up her own to meet it, but missed his, which
had blundered onto her shoulder. Before she could grasp it, she felt him
stooping over her, the light brush of his soft mustache on her cheek,
and then the starting forward of his horse. But the retaliating box on
the ear she had promptly aimed at him spent itself in the black space
which seemed suddenly to have swallowed up the man, and even his light
laugh.

For an instant she stood still, and then, swinging the basket
indignantly from her shoulder, took up her suspended task. It was no
light one in the increasing wind, and the unfastened clothes-line had
precipitated a part of its burden to the ground through the loosening
of the rope. But on picking up the trailing garments her hand struck an
unfamiliar object. The stranger’s lost knife! She thrust it hastily into
the bottom of the basket and completed her work. As she began to descend
with her burden she saw that the light of the kitchen fire, seen
through the windows, was augmented by a candle. Her mother was evidently
awaiting her.

“Pretty time to be fetchin’ in the wash,” said Mrs. Foster querulously.
“But what can you expect when folks stand gossipin’ and philanderin’ on
the ridge instead o’ tendin’ to their work?”

Now Lanty knew that she had NOT been “gossipin’” nor “philanderin’,” yet
as the parting salute might have been open to that imputation, and as
she surmised that her mother might have overheard their voices, she
briefly said, to prevent further questioning, that she had shown a
stranger the road. But for her mother’s unjust accusation she would have
been more communicative. As Mrs. Foster went back grumblingly into the
sitting-room Lanty resolved to keep the knife at present a secret from
her mother, and to that purpose removed it from the basket. But in the
light of the candle she saw it for the first time plainly--and started.

For it was really a dagger! jeweled-handled and richly wrought--such as
Lanty had never looked upon before. The hilt was studded with gems, and
the blade, which had a cutting edge, was damascened in blue and
gold. Her soft eyes reflected the brilliant setting, her lips parted
breathlessly; then, as her mother’s voice arose in the other room, she
thrust it back into its velvet sheath and clapped it into her pocket.
Its rare beauty had confirmed her resolution of absolute secrecy. To
have shown it now would have made “no end of talk.” And she was not sure
but that her parents would have demanded its custody! And it was given
to HER by HIM to keep. This settled the question of moral ethics. She
took the first opportunity to run up to her bedroom and hide it under
the mattress.

Yet the thought of it filled the rest of her evening. When her household
duties were done she took up her novel again, partly from force of habit
and partly as an attitude in which she could think of IT undisturbed.
For what was fiction to her now? True, it possessed a certain
reminiscent value. A “dagger” had appeared in several romances she
had devoured, but she never had a clear idea of one before. “The Count
sprang back, and, drawing from his belt a richly jeweled dagger, hissed
between his teeth,” or, more to the purpose: “‘Take this,’ said Orlando,
handing her the ruby-hilted poignard which had gleamed upon his thigh,
‘and should the caitiff attempt thy unguarded innocence--’”

“Did ye hear what your father was sayin’?” Lanty started. It was her
mother’s voice in the doorway, and she had been vaguely conscious of
another voice pitched in the same querulous key, which, indeed, was the
dominant expression of the small ranchers of that fertile neighborhood.
Possibly a too complaisant and unaggressive Nature had spoiled them.

“Yes!--no!” said Lanty abstractedly, “what did he say?”

“If you wasn’t taken up with that fool book,” said Mrs. Foster, glancing
at her daughter’s slightly conscious color, “ye’d know! He allowed
ye’d better not leave yer filly in the far pasture nights. That gang
o’ Mexican horse-thieves is out again, and raided McKinnon’s stock last
night.”

This touched Lanty closely. The filly was her own property, and she
was breaking it for her own riding. But her distrust of her parents’
interference was greater than any fear of horse-stealers. “She’s mighty
uneasy in the barn; and,” she added, with a proud consciousness of that
beautiful yet carnal weapon upstairs, “I reckon I ken protect her and
myself agin any Mexican horse-thieves.”

“My! but we’re gettin’ high and mighty,” responded Mrs. Foster, with
deep irony. “Did you git all that outer your fool book?”

“Mebbe,” said Lanty curtly.

Nevertheless, her thoughts that night were not entirely based on written
romance. She wondered if the stranger knew that she had really tried to
box his ears in the darkness, also if he had been able to see her face.
HIS she remembered, at least the flash of his white teeth against his
dark face and darker mustache, which was quite as soft as her own hair.
But if he thought “for a minnit” that she was “goin’ to allow an entire
stranger to kiss her--he was mighty mistaken.” She should let him know
it “pretty quick”! She should hand him back the dagger “quite careless
like,” and never let on that she’d thought anything of it. Perhaps that
was the reason why, before she went to bed, she took a good look at it,
and after taking off her straight, beltless, calico gown she even tried
the effect of it, thrust in the stiff waistband of her petticoat, with
the jeweled hilt displayed, and thought it looked charming--as indeed it
did. And then, having said her prayers like a good girl, and supplicated
that she should be less “tetchy” with her parents, she went to sleep and
dreamed that she had gone out to take in the wash again, but that the
clothes had all changed to the queerest lot of folks, who were all
fighting and struggling with each other until she, Lanty, drawing her
dagger, rushed up single-handed among them, crying, “Disperse, ye craven
curs,--disperse, I say.” And they dispersed.

Yet even Lanty was obliged to admit the next morning that all this was
somewhat incongruous with the baking of “corn dodgers,” the frying of
fish, the making of beds, and her other household duties, and dismissed
the stranger from her mind until he should “happen along.” In her freer
and more acceptable outdoor duties she even tolerated the advances of
neighboring swains who made a point of passing by “Foster’s Ranch,” and
who were quite aware that Atalanta Foster, alias “Lanty,” was one of the
prettiest girls in the country. But Lanty’s toleration consisted in that
singular performance known to herself as “giving them as good as they
sent,” being a lazy traversing, qualified with scorn, of all that they
advanced. How long they would have put up with this from a plain girl I
do not know, but Lanty’s short upper lip seemed framed for indolent
and fascinating scorn, and her dreamy eyes usually looked beyond the
questioner, or blunted his bolder glances in their velvety surfaces. The
libretto of these scenes was not exhaustive, e.g.:--

The Swain (with bold, bad gayety). “Saw that shy schoolmaster hangin’
round your ridge yesterday! Orter know by this time that shyness with a
gal don’t pay.”

Lanty (decisively). “Mebbe he allows it don’t get left as often as
impudence.”

The Swain (ignoring the reply and his previous attitude and becoming
more direct). “I was calkilatin’ to say that with these yer hoss-thieves
about, yer filly ain’t safe in the pasture. I took a turn round there
two or three times last evening to see if she was all right.”

Lanty (with a flattering show of interest). “No! DID ye, now? I was jest
wonderin”’--

The Swain (eagerly). “I did--quite late, too! Why, that’s nothin’, Miss
Atalanty, to what I’d do for you.”

Lanty (musing, with far off-eyes). “Then that’s why she was so awful
skeerd and frightened! Just jumpin’ outer her skin with horror. I
reckoned it was a b’ar or panther or a spook! You ought to have waited
till she got accustomed to your looks.”

Nevertheless, despite this elegant raillery, Lanty was enough concerned
in the safety of her horse to visit it the next day with a view of
bringing it nearer home. She had just stepped into the alder fringe of
a dry “run” when she came suddenly upon the figure of a horseman in the
“run,” who had been hidden by the alders from the plain beyond and who
seemed to be engaged in examining the hoof marks in the dust of the
old ford. Something about his figure struck her recollection, and as
he looked up quickly she saw it was the owner of the dagger. But
he appeared to be lighter of hair and complexion, and was dressed
differently, and more like a vaquero. Yet there was the same flash of
his teeth as he recognized her, and she knew it was the same man.

Alas for her preparation! Without the knife she could not make that
haughty return of it which she had contemplated. And more than that, she
was conscious she was blushing! Nevertheless she managed to level her
pretty brown eyebrows at him, and said sharply that if he followed her
to her home she would return his property at once.

“But I’m in no hurry for it,” he said with a laugh,--the same light
laugh and pleasant voice she remembered,--“and I’d rather not come to
the house just now. The knife is in good hands, I know, and I’ll call
for it when I want it! And until then--if it’s all the same to you--keep
it to yourself,--keep it dark, as dark as the night I lost it!”

“I don’t go about blabbing my affairs,” said Lanty indignantly, “and if
it hadn’t BEEN dark that night you’d have had your ears boxed--you know
why!”

The stranger laughed again, waved his hand to Lanty, and galloped away.

Lanty was a little disappointed. The daylight had taken away some of
her illusions. He was certainly very good-looking, but not quite as
picturesque, mysterious, and thrilling as in the dark! And it was very
queer--he certainly did look darker that night! Who was he? And why
was he lingering near her? He was different from her neighbors--her
admirers. He might be one of those locaters, from the big towns, who
prospect the lands, with a view of settling government warrants on
them,--they were always so secret until they had found what they wanted.
She did not dare to seek information of her friends, for the same reason
that she had concealed his existence from her mother,--it would provoke
awkward questions; and it was evident that he was trusting to her
secrecy, too. The thought thrilled her with a new pride, and was some
compensation for the loss of her more intangible romance. It would
be mighty fine, when he did call openly for his beautiful knife and
declared himself, to have them all know that SHE knew about it all
along.

When she reached home, to guard against another such surprise she
determined to keep the weapon with her, and, distrusting her pocket,
confided it to the cheap little country-made corset which only for
the last year had confined her budding figure, and which now, perhaps,
heaved with an additional pride. She was quite abstracted during the
rest of the day, and paid but little attention to the gossip of the farm
lads, who were full of a daring raid, two nights before, by the Mexican
gang on the large stock farm of a neighbor. The Vigilant Committee had
been baffled; it was even alleged that some of the smaller ranchmen
and herders were in league with the gang. It was also believed to be a
widespread conspiracy; to have a political complexion in its combination
of an alien race with Southwestern filibusters. The legal authorities
had been reinforced by special detectives from San Francisco. Lanty
seldom troubled herself with these matters; she knew the exaggeration,
she suspected the ignorance of her rural neighbors. She roughly referred
it, in her own vocabulary, to “jaw,” a peculiarly masculine quality. But
later in the evening, when the domestic circle in the sitting-room had
been augmented by a neighbor, and Lanty had taken refuge behind her
novel as an excuse for silence, Zob Hopper, the enamored swain of the
previous evening, burst in with more astounding news. A posse of the
sheriff had just passed along the ridge; they had “corraled” part of the
gang, and rescued some of the stock. The leader of the gang had escaped,
but his capture was inevitable, as the roads were stopped. “All the
same, I’m glad to see ye took my advice, Miss Atalanty, and brought in
your filly,” he concluded, with an insinuating glance at the young girl.

But “Miss Atalanty,” curling a quarter of an inch of scarlet lip above
the edge of her novel, here “allowed” that if his advice or the filly
had to be “took,” she didn’t know which was worse.

“I wonder ye kin talk to sech peartness, Mr. Hopper,” said Mrs. Foster
severely; “she ain’t got eyes nor senses for anythin’ but that book.”

“Talkin’ o’ what’s to be ‘took,’” put in the diplomatic neighbor, “you
bet it ain’t that Mexican leader! No, sir! he’s been ‘stopped’ before
this--and then got clean away all the same! One o’ them detectives got
him once and disarmed him--but he managed to give them the slip, after
all. Why, he’s that full o’ shifts and disguises thar ain’t no spottin’
him. He walked right under the constable’s nose oncet, and took a drink
with the sheriff that was arter him--and the blamed fool never knew it.
He kin change even the color of his hair quick as winkin’.”

“Is he a real Mexican,--a regular Greaser?” asked the paternal Foster.
“Cos I never heard that they wuz smart.”

“No! They say he comes o’ old Spanish stock, a bad egg they threw outer
the nest, I reckon,” put in Hopper eagerly, seeing a strange animated
interest dilating Lanty’s eyes, and hoping to share in it; “but he’s
reg’lar high-toned, you bet! Why, I knew a man who seed him in his own
camp--prinked out in a velvet jacket and silk sash, with gold chains
and buttons down his wide pants and a dagger stuck in his sash, with a
handle just blazin’ with jew’ls. Yes! Miss Atalanty, they say that one
stone at the top--a green stone, what they call an ‘em’ral’--was worth
the price o’ a ‘Frisco house-lot. True ez you live! Eh--what’s up now?”

Lanty’s book had fallen on the floor as she was rising to her feet
with a white face, still more strange and distorted in an affected yawn
behind her little hand. “Yer makin’ me that sick and nervous with yer
fool yarns,” she said hysterically, “that I’m goin’ to get a little
fresh air. It’s just stifling here with lies and terbacker!” With
another high laugh, she brushed past him into the kitchen, opened the
door, and then paused, and, turning, ran rapidly up to her bedroom. Here
she locked herself in, tore open the bosom of her dress, plucked out
the dagger, threw it on the bed, where the green stone gleamed for an
instant in the candlelight, and then dropped on her knees beside the bed
with her whirling head buried in her cold red hands.

It had all come to her in a flash, like a blaze of lightning,--the
black, haunting figure on the ridge, the broken saddle girth, the
abandonment of the dagger in the exigencies of flight and concealment;
the second meeting, the skulking in the dry, alder-hidden “run,” the
changed dress, the lighter-colored hair, but always the same voice and
laugh--the leader, the fugitive, the Mexican horse-thief! And she, the
Godforsaken fool, the chuckle-headed nigger baby, with not half the
sense of her own filly or that sop-headed Hopper--had never seen it!
She--SHE who would be the laughing-stock of them all--she had thought
him a “locater,” a “towny” from ‘Frisco! And she had consented to keep
his knife until he would call for it,--yes, call for it, with fire and
flame perhaps, the trampling of hoofs, pistol shots--and--yet--

Yet!--he had TRUSTED her. Yes! trusted her when he knew a word from her
lips would have brought the whole district down on him! when the mere
exposure of that dagger would have identified and damned him! Trusted
her a second time, when she was within cry of her house! When he might
have taken her filly without her knowing it? And now she remembered
vaguely that the neighbors had said how strange it was that her father’s
stock had not suffered as theirs had. HE had protected them--he who was
now a fugitive--and their men pursuing him! She rose suddenly with a
single stamp of her narrow foot, and as suddenly became cool and sane.
And then, quite her old self again, she lazily picked up the dagger and
restored it to its place in her bosom. That done, with her color back
and her eyes a little brighter, she deliberately went downstairs again,
stuck her little brown head into the sitting-room, said cheerfully,
“Still yawpin’, you folks,” and quietly passed out into the darkness.

She ran swiftly up to the ridge, impelled by the blind memory of having
met him there at night and the one vague thought to give him warning.
But it was dark and empty, with no sound but the rushing wind. And then
an idea seized her. If he were haunting the vicinity still, he might see
the fluttering of the clothes upon the line and believe she was there.
She stooped quickly, and in the merciful and exonerating darkness
stripped off her only white petticoat and pinned it on the line. It
flapped, fluttered, and streamed in the mountain wind. She lingered and
listened. But there came a sound she had not counted on,--the clattering
hoofs of not ONE, but many, horses on the lower road! She ran back to
the house to find its inmates already hastening towards the road for
news. She took that chance to slip in quietly, go to her room, whose
window commanded a view of the ridge, and crouching low behind it she
listened. She could hear the sound of voices, and the dull trampling of
heavy boots on the dusty path towards the barnyard on the other side of
the house--a pause, and then the return of the trampling boots, and the
final clattering of hoofs on the road again. Then there was a tap on her
door and her mother’s querulous voice.

“Oh! yer there, are ye? Well--it’s the best place fer a girl--with all
these man’s doin’s goin’ on! They’ve got that Mexican horse-thief and
have tied him up in your filly’s stall in the barn--till the ‘Frisco
deputy gets back from rounding up the others. So ye jest stay where ye
are till they’ve come and gone, and we’re shut o’ all that cattle. Are
ye mindin’?”

“All right, maw; ‘taint no call o’ mine, anyhow,” returned Lanty,
through the half-open door.

At another time her mother might have been startled at her passive
obedience. Still more would she have been startled had she seen her
daughter’s face now, behind the closed door--with her little mouth set
over her clenched teeth. And yet it was her own child, and Lanty was her
mother’s real daughter; the same pioneer blood filled their veins, the
blood that had never nourished cravens or degenerates, but had given
itself to sprinkle and fertilize desert solitudes where man might
follow. Small wonder, then, that this frontier-born Lanty, whose first
infant cry had been answered by the yelp of wolf and scream of panther;
whose father’s rifle had been leveled across her cradle to cover the
stealthy Indian who prowled outside, small wonder that she should feel
herself equal to these “man’s doin’s,” and prompt to take a part. For
even in the first shock of the news of the capture she recalled the
fact that the barn was old and rotten, that only that day the filly
had kicked a board loose from behind her stall, which she, Lanty,
had lightly returned to avoid “making a fuss.” If his captors had not
noticed it, or trusted only to their guards, she might make the opening
wide enough to free him!

Two hours later the guard nearest the now sleeping house, a farm hand
of the Fosters’, saw his employer’s daughter slip out and cautiously
approach him. A devoted slave of Lanty’s, and familiar with her
impulses, he guessed her curiosity, and was not averse to satisfy it
and the sense of his own importance. To her whispers of affected,
half-terrified interest, he responded in whispers that the captive was
really in the filly’s stall, securely bound by his wrists behind his
back, and his feet “hobbled” to a post. That Lanty couldn’t see him, for
it was dark inside, and he was sitting with his back to the wall, as he
couldn’t sleep comf’ble lyin’ down. Lanty’s eyes glowed, but her face
was turned aside.

“And ye ain’t reckonin’ his friends will come and rescue him?” said
Lanty, gazing with affected fearfulness in the darkness.

“Not much! There’s two other guards down in the corral, and I’d fire my
gun and bring ‘em up.”

But Lanty was gazing open-mouthed towards the ridge. “What’s that wavin’
on the ridge?” she said in awe-stricken tones.

She was pointing to the petticoat,--a vague, distant, moving object
against the horizon.

“Why, that’s some o’ the wash on the line, ain’t it?”

“Wash--TWO DAYS IN THE WEEK!” said Lanty sharply. “Wot’s gone of you?”

“Thet’s so,” muttered the man, “and it wan’t there at sundown, I’ll
swear! P’r’aps I’d better call the guard,” and he raised his rifle.

“Don’t,” said Lanty, catching his arm. “Suppose it’s nothin’, they’ll
laugh at ye. Creep up softly and see; ye ain’t afraid, are ye? If ye
are, give me yer gun, and I’LL go.”

This settled the question, as Lanty expected. The man cocked his piece,
and bending low began cautiously to mount the acclivity. Lanty waited
until his figure began to fade, and then ran like fire to the barn.

She had arranged every detail of her plan beforehand. Crouching beside
the wall of the stall she hissed through a crack in thrilling whispers,
“Don’t move. Don’t speak for your life’s sake. Wait till I hand you back
your knife, then do the best you can.” Then slipping aside the loosened
board she saw dimly the black outline of curling hair, back, shoulders,
and tied wrists of the captive. Drawing the knife from her pocket, with
two strokes of its keen cutting edge she severed the cords, threw the
knife into the opening, and darted away. Yet in that moment she knew
that the man was instinctively turning towards her. But it was one thing
to free a horse-thief, and another to stop and “philander” with him.

She ran halfway up the ridge, and met the farm hand returning. It was
only a bit of washing after all, and he was glad he hadn’t fired his
gun. On the other hand, Lanty confessed she had got “so skeert” being
alone, that she came to seek him. She had the shivers; wasn’t her
hand cold? It was, but thrilling even in its coldness to the bashfully
admiring man. And she was that weak and dizzy, he must let her lean on
his arm going down; and they must go SLOW. She was sure he was cold,
too, and if he would wait at the back door she would give him a drink of
whiskey. Thus Lanty, with her brain afire, her eyes and ears straining
into the darkness, and the vague outline of the barn beyond. Another
moment was protracted over the drink of whiskey, and then Lanty, with a
faint archness, made him promise not to tell her mother of her escapade,
and she promised on her part not to say anything about his “stalking
a petticoat on the clothesline,” and then shyly closed the door and
regained her room. HE must have got away by this time, or have been
discovered; she believed they would not open the barn door until the
return of the posse.

She was right. It was near daybreak when they returned, and, again
crouching low beside her window, she heard, with a fierce joy, the
sudden outcry, the oaths, the wrangling voices, the summoning of her
father to the front door, and then the tumultuous sweeping away again of
the whole posse, and a blessed silence falling over the rancho. And then
Lanty went quietly to bed, and slept like a three-year child!

Perhaps that was the reason why she was able at breakfast to listen with
lazy and even rosy indifference to the startling events of the night; to
the sneers of the farm hands at the posse who had overlooked the knife
when they searched their prisoner, as well as the stupidity of the
corral guard who had never heard him make a hole “the size of a house”
 in the barn side! Once she glanced demurely at Silas Briggs--the farm
hand and the poor fellow felt consoled in his shame at the remembrance
of their confidences.

But Lanty’s tranquillity was not destined to last long. There was again
the irruption of exciting news from the highroad; the Mexican leader had
been recaptured, and was now safely lodged in Brownsville jail! Those
who were previously loud in their praises of the successful horse-thief
who had baffled the vigilance of his pursuers were now equally keen
in their admiration of the new San Francisco deputy who, in turn, had
outwitted the whole gang. It was HE who was fertile in expedients; HE
who had studied the whole country, and even risked his life among the
gang, and HE who had again closed the meshes of the net around the
escaped outlaw. He was already returning by way of the rancho, and might
stop there a moment,--so that they could all see the hero. Such was the
power of success on the country-side! Outwardly indifferent, inwardly
bitter, Lanty turned away. She should not grace his triumph, if she kept
in her room all day! And when there was a clatter of hoofs on the road
again, Lanty slipped upstairs.

But in a few moments she was summoned. Captain Lance Wetherby, Assistant
Chief of Police of San Francisco, Deputy Sheriff and ex-U. S. scout,
had requested to see Miss Foster a few moments alone. Lanty knew what
it meant,--her secret had been discovered; but she was not the girl to
shirk the responsibility! She lifted her little brown head proudly, and
with the same resolute step with which she had left the house the night
before, descended the stairs and entered the sitting-room. At first she
saw nothing. Then a remembered voice struck her ear; she started, looked
up, and gasping, fell back against the door. It was the stranger who
had given her the dagger, the stranger she had met in the run!--the
horse-thief himself! No! no! she saw it all now--she had cut loose the
wrong man!

He looked at her with a smile of sadness--as he drew from his
breast-pocket that dreadful dagger, the very sight of which Lanty now
loathed! “This is the SECOND time, Miss Foster,” he said gently, “that
I have taken this knife from Murietta, the Mexican bandit: once when I
disarmed him three weeks ago, and he escaped, and last night, when he
had again escaped and I recaptured him. After I lost it that night I
understood from you that you had found it and were keeping it for me.”
 He paused a moment and went on: “I don’t ask you what happened last
night. I don’t condemn you for it; I can believe what a girl of your
courage and sympathy might rightly do if her pity were excited; I only
ask--why did you give HIM back that knife I trusted you with?”

“Why? Why did I?” burst out Lanty in a daring gush of truth, scorn, and
temper. “BECAUSE I THOUGHT YOU WERE THAT HORSE-THIEF. There!”

He drew back astonished, and then suddenly came that laugh that Lanty
remembered and now hailed with joy. “I believe you, by Jove!” he gasped.
“That first night I wore the disguise in which I have tracked him and
mingled with his gang. Yes! I see it all now--and more. I see that to
YOU I owe his recapture!”

“To me!” echoed the bewildered girl; “how?”

“Why, instead of making for his cave he lingered here in the confines of
the ranch! He thought you were in love with him, because you freed him
and gave him his knife, and stayed to see you!”

But Lanty had her apron to her eyes, whose first tears were filling
their velvet depths. And her voice was broken as she said,--

“Then he--cared--a--good deal more for me--than some people!”

But there is every reason to believe that Lanty was wrong! At least
later events that are part of the history of Foster’s Rancho and the
Foster family pointed distinctly to the contrary.



AN ALI BABA OF THE SIERRAS


Johnny Starleigh found himself again late for school. It was always
happening. It seemed to be inevitable with the process of going to
school at all. And it was no fault “o’ his.” Something was always
occurring,--some eccentricity of Nature or circumstance was invariably
starting up in his daily path to the schoolroom. He may not have been
“thinkin’ of squirrels,” and yet the rarest and most evasive of that
species were always crossing his trail; he may not have been “huntin’
honey,” and yet a wild bees’ nest in the hollow of an oak absolutely
obtruded itself before him; he wasn’t “bird-catchin’,” and yet there was
a yellow-hammer always within stone’s throw. He had heard how grown men
hunters always saw the most wonderful animals when they “hadn’t got
a gun with ‘em,” and it seemed to be his lot to meet them in his
restricted possibilities on the way to school. If Nature was thus
capricious with his elders, why should folk think it strange if she was
as mischievous with a small boy?

On this particular morning Johnny had been beguiled by the unmistakable
footprints--so like his own!--of a bear’s cub. What chances he had of
ever coming up with them, or what he would have done if he had, he did
not know. He only knew that at the end of an hour and a half he found
himself two miles from the schoolhouse, and, from the position of the
sun, at least an hour too late for school. He knew that nobody would
believe him. The punishment for complete truancy was little worse than
for being late. He resolved to accept it, and by way of irrevocability
at once burnt his ships behind him--in devouring part of his dinner.

Thus fortified in his outlawry, he began to look about him. He was on a
thickly wooded terrace with a blank wall of “outcrop” on one side nearly
as high as the pines which pressed close against it. He had never seen
it before; it was two or three miles from the highroad and seemed to be
a virgin wilderness. But on close examination he could see, with the
eye of a boy bred in a mining district, that the wall of outcrop had not
escaped the attention of the mining prospector. There were marks of his
pick in some attractive quartz seams of the wall, and farther on, a more
ambitious attempt, evidently by a party of miners, to begin a tunnel,
shown in an abandoned excavation and the heap of debris before it. It
had evidently been abandoned for some time, as ferns already forced
their green fronds through the stones and gravel, and the yerba buena
vine was beginning to mat the surface of the heap. But the boy’s fancy
was quickly taken by the traces of a singular accident, and one which
had perhaps arrested the progress of the excavators. The roots of a
large pine-tree growing close to the wall had been evidently loosened by
the excavators, and the tree had fallen, with one of its largest roots
still in the opening the miners had made, and apparently blocking the
entrance. The large tree lay, as it fell--midway across another but much
smaller outcrop of rock which stood sharply about fifteen feet above
the level of the terrace--with its gaunt, dead limbs in the air at a low
angle. To Johnny’s boyish fancy it seemed so easily balanced on the rock
that but for its imprisoned root it would have made a capital see-saw.
This he felt must be looked to hereafter. But here his attention was
arrested by something more alarming. His quick ear, attuned like an
animal’s to all woodland sounds, detected the crackling of underwood
in the distance. His equally sharp eye saw the figures of two men
approaching. But as he recognized the features of one of them he drew
back with a beating heart, a hushed breath, and hurriedly hid himself in
the shadow. For he had seen that figure once before--flying before
the sheriff and an armed posse--and had never forgotten it! It was the
figure of Spanish Pete, a notorious desperado and sluice robber!

Finding he had been unobserved, the boy took courage, and his
small faculties became actively alive. The two men came on together
cautiously, and at a little distance the second man, whom Johnny did not
know, parted from his companion and began to loiter up and down, looking
around as if acting as a sentinel for the desperado, who advanced
directly to the fallen tree. Suddenly the sentinel uttered an
exclamation, and Spanish Pete paused. The sentinel was examining the
ground near the heap of debris.

“What’s up?” growled the desperado.

“Foot tracks! Weren’t here before. And fresh ones, too.”

Johnny’s heart sank. It was where he had just passed.

Spanish Pete hurriedly joined his companion.

“Foot tracks be ----!” he said scornfully. “What fool would be crawlin’
round here barefooted? It’s a young b’ar!”

Johnny knew the footprints were his own. Yet he recognized the truth
of the resemblance; it was uncomplimentary, but he felt relieved. The
desperado came forward, and to the boy’s surprise began to climb the
small ridge of outcrop until he reached the fallen tree. Johnny saw that
he was carrying a heavy stone. “What’s the blamed fool goin’ to do?” he
said to himself; the man’s evident ignorance regarding footprints
had lessened the boy’s awe of him. But the stranger’s next essay took
Johnny’s breath away. Standing on the fallen tree trunk at its axis on
the outcrop, he began to rock it gently. To Johnny’s surprise it
began to move. The upper end descended slowly, lifting the root in the
excavation at the lower end, and with it a mass of rock, and revealing a
cavern behind large enough to admit a man. Johnny gasped. The desperado
coolly deposited the heavy stone on the tree beyond its axis on the
rock, so that it would keep the tree in position, leaped from the tree
to the rock, and quickly descended, at which he was joined by the
other man, who was carrying two heavy chamois-leather bags. They both
proceeded to the opening thus miraculously disclosed, and disappeared in
it.

Johnny sat breathless, wondering, expectant, but not daring to move. The
men might come out at any moment; he had seen enough to know that their
enterprise as well as their cave was a secret, and that the desperado
would subject any witness to it, however innocent or unwilling, to
horrible penalties. The time crept slowly by,--he heard every rap of a
woodpecker in a distant tree; a blue jay dipped and lighted on a branch
within his reach, but he dared not extend his hand; his legs were
infested by ants; he even fancied he heard the dry, hollow rattle of a
rattlesnake not a yard from him. And then the entrance of the cave
was darkened, and the two men reappeared. Johnny stared. He would have
rubbed his eyes if he had dared. They were not the same men! Did the
cave contain others who had been all the while shut up in its dark
recesses? Was there a band? Would they all swarm out upon him? Should he
run for his life?

But the illusion was only momentary. A longer look at them convinced
him that they were the same men in new clothes and disguised, and as one
remounted the outcrop Johnny’s keen eyes recognized him as Spanish Pete.
He merely kicked away the stone; the root again descended gently over
the opening, and the tree recovered its former angle. The two hurried
away, but Johnny noticed that they were empty-handed. The bags had been
left behind.

The boy waited patiently, listening with his ear to the ground, like an
Indian, for the last rustle of fern and crackle of underbrush, and
then emerged, stiff and cramped from his concealment. But he no longer
thought of flight; curiosity and ambition burned in his small veins. He
quickly climbed up the outcrop, picked up the fallen stone, and in spite
of its weight lifted it to the prostrate tree. Here he paused, and from
his coign of vantage looked and listened. The solitude was profound.
Then mounting the tree and standing over its axis he tried to rock it as
the others had. Alas! Johnny’s heart was stout, his courage unlimited,
his perception all-embracing, his ambition boundless; but his actual
avoirdupois was only that of a boy of ten. The tree did not move. But
Johnny had played see-saw before, and quietly moved towards its highest
part. It slowly descended under the changed centre of gravity, and the
root arose, disclosing the opening as before. Yet here the little hero
paused. He waited with his eyes fixed on the opening, ready to fly on
the sallying out of any one who had remained concealed. He then placed
the stone where he had stood, leaped down, and ran to the opening.

The change from the dazzling sunlight to the darkness confused him at
first, and he could see nothing. On entering he stumbled over something
which proved to be a bottle in which a candle was fitted, and a box of
matches evidently used by the two men. Lighting the candle he could now
discern that the cavern was only a few yards long, the beginning of a
tunnel which the accident to the tree had stopped. In one corner lay the
clothes that the men had left, and which for a moment seemed all that
the cavern contained, but on removing them Johnny saw that they were
thrown over a rifle, a revolver, and the two chamois-leather bags
that the men had brought there. They were so heavy that the boy
could scarcely lift them. His face flushed; his hands trembled with
excitement. To a boy whose truant wanderings had given him a fair
knowledge of mining, he knew that weight could have but one meaning!
Gold! He hurriedly untied the nearest bag. But it was not the gold of
the locality, of the tunnel, of the “bed rock”! It was “flake gold,”
 the gold of the river! It had been taken from the miners’ sluices in
the distant streams. The bags before him were the spoils of the sluice
robber,--spoils that could not be sold or even shown in the district
without danger, spoils kept until they could be taken to Marysville or
Sacramento for disposal. All this might have occurred to the mind of any
boy of the locality who had heard the common gossip of his elders, but
to Johnny’s fancy an idea was kindled peculiarly his own! Here was a
cavern like that of the “Forty Thieves” in the story book, and he was
the “Ali Baba” who knew its secret! He was not obliged to say “Open
Sesame,” but he could say it if he liked, if he was showing it off to
anybody!

Yet alas he also knew it was a secret he must keep to himself. He had
nobody to trust it to. His father was a charcoal-burner of small means;
a widower with two children, Johnny and his elder brother Sam. The
latter, a flagrant incorrigible of twenty-two, with a tendency to
dissipation and low company, had lately abandoned his father’s roof,
only to reappear at intervals of hilarious or maudlin intoxication.
He had always been held up to Johnny as a warning, or with the gloomy
prognosis that he, Johnny, was already following in his tortuous
footsteps. Even if he were here he was not to be thought of as a
confidant. Still less could he trust his father, who would be sure to
bungle the secret with sheriffs and constables, and end by bringing down
the vengeance of the gang upon the family. As for himself, he could not
dispose of the gold if he were to take it. The exhibition of a single
flake of it to the adult public would arouse suspicion, and as it was
Johnny’s hard fate to be always doubted, he might be connected with the
gang. As a truant he knew he had no moral standing, but he also had
the superstition--quite characteristic of childhood--that being in
possession of a secret he was a participant in its criminality--and
bound, as it were, by terrible oaths! And then a new idea seized him.
He carefully put back everything as he had found it, extinguished the
candle, left the cave, remounted the tree, and closed the opening again
as he had seen the others do it, with the addition of murmuring “Shut
Sesame” to himself, and then ran away as fast as his short legs could
carry him.

Well clear of the dangerous vicinity, he proceeded more leisurely for
about a mile, until he came to a low whitewashed fence, inclosing a
small cultivated patch and a neat farmhouse beyond. Here he paused,
and, cowering behind the fence, with extraordinary facial contortions
produced a cry not unlike the scream of a blue jay. Repeating it at
intervals, he was presently relieved by observing the approach of a
nankeen sunbonnet within the inclosure above the line of fence. Stopping
before him, the sun-bonnet revealed a rosy little face, more than
usually plump on one side, and a neck enormously wrapped in a scarf. It
was “Meely” (Amelia) Stryker, a schoolmate, detained at home by “mumps,”
 as Johnny was previously aware. For, with the famous indiscretion of
some other great heroes, he was about to intrust his secret and his
destiny to one of the weaker sex. And what were the minor possibilities
of contagion to this?

“Playin’ hookey ag’in?” said the young lady, with a cordial and even
expansive smile, exclusively confined to one side of her face.

“Um! So’d you be ef you’d bin whar I hev,” he said with harrowing
mystery.

“No!--say!” said Meely eagerly.

At which Johnny, clutching at the top of the fence, with hurried breath
told his story. But not all. With the instinct of a true artist he
withheld the manner in which the opening of the cave was revealed, said
nothing about the tree, and, I grieve to say, added the words “Open
Sesame” as the important factor to the operation. Neither did he mention
the name of Spanish Pete. For all of which he was afterwards duly
grateful.

“Meet me at the burnt pine down the crossroads at four o’clock,” he said
in conclusion, “and I’ll show ye.”

“Why not now?” said Meely impatiently.

“Couldn’t. Much as my life is worth! Must keep watching out! You come at
four.”

And with an assuring nod he released the fence and trotted off. He
returned cautiously in the direction of the cave; he was by no means
sure that the robbers might not return that day, and his mysterious
rendezvous with Meely veiled a certain prudence. And it was well! For as
he stealthily crept around the face of the outcrop, hidden in the ferns,
he saw from the altered angle of the tree that the cavern was opened.
He remained motionless, with bated breath. Then he heard the sound of
subdued voices from the cavern, and a figure emerged from the opening.
Johnny grasped the ferns rigidly to check the dreadful cry that rose to
his lips at its sight. For that figure was his own brother!

There was no mistaking that weak, wicked face, even then flushed with
liquor! Johnny had seen it too often thus. But never before as a thief’s
face! He gave a little gasp, and fell back upon that strange reserve of
apathy and reticence in which children are apt to hide their emotions
from us at such a moment. He watched impassively the two other men who
followed his brother out to give him a small bag and some instructions,
and then returned within their cave, while his brother walked quickly
away. He watched him disappear; he did not move, for even if he had
followed him he could not bear to face him in his shame. And then out of
his sullen despair came a boyish idea of revenge. It was those two men
who had made his brother a thief!

He was very near the tree. He crept stealthily on his hands and knees
through the bracken, and as stealthily climbed the wedge of outcrop,
and then leaped like a wild cat on the tree. With incredible activity he
lifted the balancing stone, and as the tree began to move, in a flash
of perception transferred it to the other side of its axis, and felt
the roots and debris, under that additional weight, descend quickly with
something like a crash over the opening. Then he took to his heels. He
ran so swiftly that all unknowingly he overtook a figure, who, turning,
glanced at him, and then disappeared in the wood. It was his second and
last view of his brother, as he never saw him again!

But now, strange to say, the crucial and most despairing moment of his
day’s experience had come. He had to face Meely Stryker under the burnt
pine, and the promise he could not keep, and to tell her that he had
lied to her. It was the only way to save his brother now! His small
wits, and alas! his smaller methods, were equal to the despairing task.
As soon as he saw her waiting under the tree he fell to capering and
dancing with an extravagance in which hysteria had no small part. “Sold!
sold! sold again, and got the money!” he laughed shrilly.

The girl looked at him with astonishment, which changed gradually to
scorn, and then to anger. Johnny’s heart sank, but he redoubled his
antics.

“Who’s sold?” she said disdainfully.

“You be. You swallered all that stuff about Ali Baba! You wanted to be
Morgy Anna! Ho! ho! And I’ve made you play hookey--from home!”

“You hateful, horrid, little liar!”

Johnny accepted his punishment meekly--in his heart gratefully. “I
reckoned you’d laugh and not get mad,” he said submissively. The girl
turned, with tears of rage and vexation in her eyes, and walked away.
Johnny followed at a humble distance. Perhaps there was something
instinctively touching in the boy’s remorse, for they made it up before
they reached her fence.

Nevertheless Johnny went home miserable. Luckily for him, his father was
absent at a Vigilance Committee called to take cognizance of the late
sluice robberies, and although this temporarily concealed his offense
of truancy, the news of the vigilance meeting determined him to keep
his lips sealed. He lay all night wondering how long it would take the
robbers to dig themselves out of the cave, and whether they suspected
their imprisonment was the work of an enemy or only an accident. For
several days he avoided the locality, and even feared the vengeful
appearance of Spanish Pete some night at his father’s house. It was
not until the end of a fortnight that he had the courage to revisit the
spot. The tree was in its normal position, but immovable, and a great
quantity of fresh debris at the mouth of the cave convinced him that the
robbers, after escaping, had abandoned it as unsafe. His brother did not
return, and either the activity of the Vigilance Committee or the lack
of a new place of rendezvous seemed to have dispersed the robbers from
the locality, for they were not heard of again.

The next ten years brought an improvement to Mr. Starleigh’s fortunes.
Johnny Starleigh, then a student at San Jose, one morning found a
newspaper clipping in a letter from Miss Amelia Stryker. It read as
follows: “The excavators in the new tunnel in Heavystone Ridge lately
discovered the skeletons of two unknown men, who had evidently been
crushed and entombed some years previously, by the falling of a large
tree over the mouth of their temporary refuge. From some river gold
found with them, they were supposed to be part of the gang of sluice
robbers who infested the locality some years ago, and were hiding from
the Vigilants.”

For a few days thereafter Johnny Starleigh was thoughtful and reserved,
but he did not refer to the paragraph in answering the letter. He
decided to keep it for later confidences, when Miss Stryker should
become Mrs. Starleigh.



MISS PEGGY’S PROTEGES


The string of Peggy’s sunbonnet had become untied--so had her right
shoe. These were not unusual accidents to a country girl of ten, but as
both of her hands were full she felt obliged to put down what she was
carrying. This was further complicated by the nature of her burden--a
half-fledged shrike and a baby gopher--picked up in her walk. It was
impossible to wrap them both in her apron without serious peril to one
or the other; she could not put either down without the chance of its
escaping. “It’s like that dreadful riddle of the ferryman who had to
take the wolf and the sheep in his boat,” said Peggy to herself, “though
I don’t believe anybody was ever so silly as to want to take a wolf
across the river.” But, looking up, she beheld the approach of Sam
Bedell, a six-foot tunnelman of the “Blue Cement Lead,” and, hailing
him, begged him to hold one of her captives. The giant, loathing the
little mouse-like ball of fur, chose the shrike. “Hold him by the feet,
for he bites AWFUL,” said Peggy, as the bird regarded Sam with the
diabolically intense frown of his species. Then, dropping the gopher
unconcernedly in her pocket, she proceeded to rearrange her toilet. The
tunnelman waited patiently until Peggy had secured the nankeen sunbonnet
around her fresh but freckled cheeks, and, with a reckless display
of yellow flannel petticoat and stockings like peppermint sticks, had
double-knotted her shoestrings viciously when he ventured to speak.

“Same old game, Peggy? Thought you’d got rather discouraged with your
‘happy family,’ arter that new owl o’ yours had gathered ‘em in.”

Peggy’s cheek flushed slightly at this ungracious allusion to a former
collection of hers, which had totally disappeared one evening after the
introduction of a new member in the shape of a singularly venerable and
peaceful-looking horned owl.

“I could have tamed HIM, too,” said Peggy indignantly, “if Ned Myers,
who gave him to me, hadn’t been training him to ketch things, and never
let on anything about it to me. He was a reg’lar game owl!”

“And wot are ye goin’ to do with the Colonel here?” said Sam, indicating
under that gallant title the infant shrike, who, with his claws deeply
imbedded in Sam’s finger, was squatting like a malignant hunchback, and
resisting his transfer to Peggy. “Won’t HE make it rather lively for the
others? He looks pow’ful discontented for one so young.”

“That’s his nater,” said Peggy promptly. “Jess wait till I tame him.
Ef he’d been left along o’ his folks, he’d grow up like ‘em. He’s a
‘butcher bird’--wot they call a ‘nine-killer ‘--kills nine birds a day!
Yes! True ez you live! Sticks ‘em up on thorns outside his nest, jest
like a butcher’s shop, till he gets hungry. I’ve seen ‘em!”

“And how do you kalkilate to tame him?” asked Sam.

“By being good to him and lovin’ him,” said Peggy, stroking the head of
the bird with infinite gentleness.

“That means YOU’VE got to do all the butchering for him?” said the
cynical Sam.

Peggy shook her head, disdaining a verbal reply.

“Ye can’t bring him up on sugar and crackers, like a Polly,” persisted
Sam.

“Ye ken do anythin’ with critters, if you ain’t afeerd of ‘em and love
‘em,” said Peggy shyly.

The tall tunnelman, looking down into the depths of Peggy’s sunbonnet,
saw something in the round blue eyes and grave little mouth that made
him think so too. But here Peggy’s serious little face took a shade of
darker concern as her arm went down deeper into her pocket, and her eyes
got rounder.

“It’s--it’s--BURRERED OUT!” she said breathlessly.

The giant leaped briskly to one side. “Hol’ on,” said Peggy
abstractedly. With infinite gravity she followed, with her fingers, a
seam of her skirt down to the hem, popped them quickly under it, and
produced, with a sigh of relief, the missing gopher.

“You’ll do,” said Sam, in fearful admiration. “Mebbe you’ll make suthin’
out o’ the Colonel too. But I never took stock in that there owl. He
was too durned self-righteous for a decent bird. Now, run along afore
anythin’ else fetches loose ag’in. So long!”

He patted the top of her sunbonnet, gave a little pull to the short
brown braid that hung behind her temptingly,--which no miner was ever
known to resist,--and watched her flutter off with her spoils. He had
done so many times before, for the great, foolish heart of the Blue
Cement Ridge had gone out to Peggy Baker, the little daughter of the
blacksmith, quite early. There were others of the family, notably
two elder sisters, invincible at picnics and dances, but Peggy was as
necessary to these men as the blue jay that swung before them in the
dim woods, the squirrel that whisked across their morning path, or the
woodpecker who beat his tattoo at their midday meal from the hollow
pine above them. She was part of the nature that kept them young. Her
truancies and vagrancies concerned them not: she was a law to herself,
like the birds and squirrels. There were bearded lips to hail her
wherever she went, and a blue or red-shirted arm always stretched out in
any perilous pass or dangerous crossing.

Her peculiar tastes were an outcome of her nature, assisted by her
surroundings. Left a good deal to herself in her infancy, she made
playfellows of animated nature around her, without much reference to
selection or fitness, but always with a fearlessness that was the result
of her own observation, and unhampered by tradition or other children’s
timidity. She had no superstition regarding the venom of toads, the
poison of spiders, or the ear-penetrating capacity of earwigs. She had
experiences and revelations of her own,--which she kept sacredly to
herself, as children do,--and one was in regard to a rattlesnake, partly
induced, however, by the indiscreet warning of her elders. She was
cautioned NOT to take her bread and milk into the woods, and was told
the affecting story of the little girl who was once regularly visited by
a snake that partook of HER bread and milk, and who was ultimately found
rapping the head of the snake for gorging more than his share, and not
“taking a ‘poon as me do.” It is needless to say that this incautious
caution fired Peggy’s adventurous spirit. SHE took a bowlful of milk to
the haunt of a “rattler” near her home, but, without making the pretense
of sharing it, generously left the whole to the reptile. After repeating
this hospitality for three or four days, she was amazed one morning on
returning to the house to find the snake--an elderly one with a dozen
rattles--devotedly following her. Alarmed, not for her own safety nor
that of her family, but for the existence of her grateful friend in
danger of the blacksmith’s hammer, she took a circuitous route leading
it away. Then recalling a bit of woodland lore once communicated to her
by a charcoal-burner, she broke a spray of the white ash, and laid it
before her in the track of the rattlesnake. He stopped instantly, and
remained motionless without crossing the slight barrier. She repeated
this experiment on later occasions, until the reptile understood her.
She kept the experience to herself, but one day it was witnessed by a
tunnelman. On that day Peggy’s reputation was made!

From this time henceforth the major part of Blue Cement Ridge became
serious collectors for what was known as “Peggy’s menagerie,” and two
of the tunnelmen constructed a stockaded inclosure--not half a mile
from the blacksmith’s cabin, but unknown to him--for the reception of
specimens. For a long time its existence was kept a secret between Peggy
and her loyal friends. Her parents, aware of her eccentric tastes only
through the introduction of such smaller creatures as lizards, toads,
and tarantulas into their house,--which usually escaped from their tin
cans and boxes and sought refuge in the family slippers,--had frowned
upon her zoological studies. Her mother found that her woodland rambles
entailed an extraordinary wear and tear of her clothing. A pinafore
reduced to ribbons by a young fox, and a straw hat half swallowed by a
mountain kid, did not seem to be a natural incident to an ordinary
walk to the schoolhouse. Her sisters thought her tastes “low,” and
her familiar association with the miners inconsistent with their own
dignity. But Peggy went regularly to school, was a fair scholar in
elementary studies (what she knew of natural history, in fact, quite
startled her teachers), and being also a teachable child, was allowed
some latitude. As for Peggy herself, she kept her own faith unshaken;
her little creed, whose shibboleth was not “to be afraid” of God’s
creatures, but to “love ‘em,” sustained her through reprimand, torn
clothing, and, it is to be feared, occasional bites and scratches from
the loved ones themselves.

The unsuspected contiguity of the “menagerie” to the house had its
drawbacks, and once nearly exposed her. A mountain wolf cub, brought
especially for her from the higher northern Sierras with great trouble
and expense by Jack Ryder, of the Lone Star Lead, unfortunately escaped
from the menagerie just as the child seemed to be in a fair way of
taming it. Yet it had been already familiarized enough with civilization
to induce it to stop in its flight and curiously examine the
blacksmith’s shop. A shout from the blacksmith and a hurled hammer sent
it flying again, with Mr. Baker and his assistant in full pursuit. But
it quickly distanced them with its long, tireless gallop, and they were
obliged to return to the forge, lost in wonder and conjecture. For the
blacksmith had recognized it as a stranger to the locality, and as a
man of oracular pretension had a startling theory to account for its
presence. This he confided to the editor of the local paper, and the
next issue contained an editorial paragraph: “Our presage of a severe
winter in the higher Sierras, and consequent spring floods in the
valleys, has been startlingly confirmed! Mountain wolves have been
seen in Blue Cement Ridge, and our esteemed fellow citizen, Mr. Ephraim
Baker, yesterday encountered a half-starved cub entering his premises in
search of food. Mr. Baker is of the opinion that the mother of the
cub, driven down by stress of weather, was in the immediate vicinity.”
 Nothing but the distress of the only responsible mother of the cub,
Peggy, and loyalty to her, kept Jack Ryder from exposing the absurdity
publicly, but for weeks the camp fires of Blue Cement Ridge shook with
the suppressed and unhallowed joy of the miners, who were in the guilty
secret.

But, fortunately for Peggy, the most favored of her cherished
possessions was not obliged to be kept secret. That one exception was
an Indian dog! This was also a gift, and had been procured with great
“difficulty” by a “packer” from an Indian encampment on the Oregon
frontier. The “difficulty” was, in plain English, that it had been
stolen from the Indians at some peril to the stealer’s scalp. It was
a mongrel to all appearances, of no recognized breed or outward
significance, yet of a quality distinctly its own. It was absolutely and
totally uncivilized. Whether this was a hereditary trait, or the result
of degeneracy, no one knew. It refused to enter a house; it would not
stay in a kennel. It would not eat in public, but gorged ravenously
and stealthily in the shadows. It had the slink of a tramp, and in its
patched and mottled hide seemed to simulate the rags of a beggar. It had
the tirelessness without the affected limp of a coyote. Yet it had none
of the ferocity of barbarians. With teeth that could gnaw through the
stoutest rope and toughest lariat, it never bared them in anger. It
was cringing without being amiable or submissive; it was gentle without
being affectionate.

Yet almost insensibly it began to yield to Peggy’s faith and kindness.
Gradually it seemed to single her out as the one being in this vast
white-faced and fully clothed community that it could trust. It
presently allowed her to half drag, half lead it to and fro from school,
although on the approach of a stranger it would bite through the rope
or frantically endeavor to efface itself in Peggy’s petticoats. It was
trying, even to the child’s sweet gravity, to face the ridicule excited
by its appearance on the road; and its habit of carrying its tail
between its legs--at such an inflexible curve that, on the authority
of Sam Bedell, a misstep caused it to “turn a back somersault”--was
painfully disconcerting. But Peggy endured this, as she did the greater
dangers of the High Street in the settlement, where she had often, at
her own risk, absolutely to drag the dazed and bewildered creature from
under the wheels of carts and the heels of horses. But this shyness
wore off--or rather was eventually lost in the dog’s complete and utter
absorption in Peggy. His limited intelligence and imperfect perceptions
were excited for her alone. His singularly keen scent detected her
wherever or how remote she might be. Her passage along a “blind trail,”
 her deviations from the school path, her more distant excursions,
were all mysteriously known to him. It seemed as if his senses were
concentrated in this one faculty. No matter how unexpected or unfamiliar
the itinerary, “Lo, the poor Indian”--as the men had nicknamed him (in
possible allusion to his “untutored mind”)--always arrived promptly and
silently.

It was to this singular faculty that Peggy owed one of her strangest
experiences. One Saturday afternoon she was returning from an errand to
the village when she was startled by the appearance of Lo in her path.
For the reason already given, she no longer took him with her to these
active haunts of civilization, but had taught him on such occasions to
remain as a guard outside the stockade which contained her treasures.
After reading him a severe lecture on this flagrant abandonment of his
trust, enforced with great seriousness and an admonitory forefinger,
she was concerned to see that the animal appeared less agitated by her
reproof than by some other disturbance. He ran ahead of her, instead
of at her heels, as was his usual custom, and barked--a thing he rarely
did. Presently she thought she discovered the cause of this in the
appearance from the wood of a dozen men armed with guns. They seemed to
be strangers, but among them she recognized the deputy sheriff of the
settlement. The leader noticed her, and, after a word or two with the
others, the deputy approached her.

“You and Lo had better be scooting home by the highroad, outer this--or
ye might get hurt,” he said, half playfully, half seriously.

Peggy looked fearlessly at the men and their guns.

“Look ez ef you was huntin’?” she said curiously.

“We are!” said the leader.

“Wot you huntin’?”

The deputy glanced at the others. “B’ar!” he replied.

“Ba’r!” repeated the child with the quick resentment which a palpable
falsehood always provoked in her. “There ain’t no b’ar in ten miles! See
yourself huntin’ b’ar! Ho!”

The man laughed. “Never you mind, missy,” said the deputy, “you trot
along!” He laid his hand very gently on her head, faced her sunbonnet
towards the near highway, gave the usual parting pull to her brown
pigtail, added, “Make a bee-line home,” and turned away.

Lo uttered the first growl known in his history. Whereat Peggy said,
with lofty forbearance, “Serve you jest right ef I set my dog on you.”

But force is no argument, and Peggy felt this truth even of herself and
Lo. So she trotted away. Nevertheless, Lo showed signs of hesitation.
After a few moments Peggy herself hesitated and looked back. The men
had spread out under the trees, and were already lost in the woods. But
there was more than one trail through it, and Peggy knew it.

And here an alarming occurrence startled her. A curiously striped brown
and white squirrel whisked past her and ran up a tree. Peggy’s round
eyes became rounder. There was but one squirrel of that kind in all the
length and breadth of Blue Cement Ridge, and that was in the menagerie!
Even as she looked it vanished. Peggy faced about and ran back to the
road in the direction of the stockade, Lo bounding before her. But
another surprise awaited her. There was the clutter of short wings
under the branches, and the sunlight flashed upon the iris throat of a
wood-duck as it swung out of sight past her. But in this single
glance Peggy recognized one of the latest and most precious of her
acquisitions. There was no mistake now! With a despairing little cry to
Lo, “The menagerie’s broke loose!” she ran like the wind towards it. She
cared no longer for the mandate of the men; the trail she had taken was
out of their sight; they were proceeding so slowly and cautiously that
she and Lo quickly distanced them in the same direction. She would have
yet time to reach the stockade and secure what was left of her treasures
before they came up and drove her away. Yet she had to make a long
circuit to avoid the blacksmith’s shop and cabin, before she saw the
stockade, lifting its four-foot walls around an inclosure a dozen feet
square, in the midst of a manzanita thicket. But she could see also
broken coops, pens, cages, and boxes lying before it, and stopped once,
even in her grief and indignation, to pick up a ruby-throated lizard,
one of its late inmates that had stopped in the trail, stiffened to
stone at her approach. The next moment she was before the roofless
walls, and then stopped, stiffened like the lizard. For out of that
peaceful ruin which had once held the wild and untamed vagabonds of
earth and sky, arose a type of savagery and barbarism the child had
never before looked upon,--the head and shoulders of a hunted, desperate
man!

His head was bare, and his hair matted with sweat over his forehead; his
face was unshorn, and the black roots of his beard showed against the
deadly pallor of his skin, except where it was scratched by thorns,
or where the red spots over his cheek bones made his cheeks look as
if painted. His eyes were as insanely bright, he panted as quickly, he
showed his white teeth as perpetually, his movements were as convulsive,
as those captured animals she had known. Yet he did not attempt to fly,
and it was only when, with a sudden effort and groan of pain, he half
lifted himself above the stockade, that she saw that his leg, bandaged
with his cravat and handkerchief, stained a dull red, dragged helplessly
beneath him. He stared at her vacantly for a moment, and then looked
hurriedly into the wood behind her.

The child was more interested than frightened, and more curious than
either. She had grasped the situation at a glance. It was the hunted and
the hunters. Suddenly he started and reached for his rifle, which he had
apparently set down outside when he climbed into the stockade. He had
just caught sight of a figure emerging from the wood at a distance. But
the weapon was out of his reach.

“Hand me that gun!” he said roughly.

But Peggy did not stir. The figure came more plainly and quite
unconsciously into full view, an easy shot at that distance.

The man uttered a horrible curse, and turned a threatening face on
the child. But Peggy had seen something like that in animals SHE had
captured. She only said gravely,--

“Ef you shoot that gun you’ll bring ‘em all down on you!”

“All?” he demanded.

“Yes! a dozen folks with guns like yours,” said Peggy. “You jest crouch
down and lie low. Don’t move! Watch me.”

The man dropped below the stockade. Peggy ran swiftly towards the
unsuspecting figure, evidently the leader of the party, but deviated
slightly to snatch a tiny spray from a white-ash tree. She never knew
that in that brief interval the wounded man, after a supreme effort, had
possessed himself of his weapon, and for a moment had covered HER with
its deadly muzzle. She ran on fearlessly until she saw that she had
attracted the attention of the leader, when she stopped and began to
wave the white-ash wand before her. The leader halted, conferred with
some one behind him, who proved to be the deputy sheriff. Stepping out
he advanced towards Peggy, and called sharply,

“I told you to get out of this! Come, be quick!”

“You’d better get out yourself,” said Peggy, waving her ash spray, “and
quicker, too.”

The deputy stopped, staring at the spray. “Wot’s up?”

“Rattlers.”

“Where?”

“Everywhere round ye--a reg’lar nest of ‘em! That’s your way round!” She
pointed to the right, and again began beating the underbrush with her
wand. The men had, meantime, huddled together in consultation. It was
evident that the story of Peggy and her influence on rattlesnakes was
well known, and, in all probability, exaggerated. After a pause, the
whole party filed off to the right, making a long circuit of the unseen
stockade, and were presently lost in the distance. Peggy ran back to the
fugitive. The fire of savagery and desperation in his eyes had gone out,
but had been succeeded by a glazing film of faintness.

“Can you--get me--some water?” he whispered.

The stockade was near a spring,--a necessity for the menagerie. Peggy
brought him water in a dipper. She sighed a little; her “butcher
bird”--now lost forever--had been the last to drink from it!

The water seemed to revive him. “The rattlesnakes scared the cowards,”
 he said, with an attempt to smile. “Were there many rattlers?”

“There wasn’t ANY,” said Peggy, a little spitefully, “‘cept YOU--a
two-legged rattler!”

The rascal grinned at the compliment.

“ONE-legged, you mean,” he said, indicating his helpless limb.

Peggy’s heart relented slightly. “Wot you goin’ to do now?” she said.
“You can’t stay on THERE, you know. It b’longs to ME!” She was generous,
but practical.

“Were those things I fired out yours?”

“Yes.”

“Mighty rough of me.”

Peggy was slightly softened. “Kin you walk?”

“No.”

“Kin you crawl?”

“Not as far as a rattler.”

“Ez far ez that clearin’?”

“Yes.”

“There’s a hoss tethered out in that clearin’. I kin shift him to this
end.”

“You’re white all through,” said the man gravely.

Peggy ran off to the clearing. The horse belonged to Sam Bedell, but
he had given Peggy permission to ride it whenever she wished. This was
equivalent, in Peggy’s mind, to a permission to PLACE him where she
wished. She consequently led him to a point nearest the stockade, and,
thoughtfully, close beside a stump. But this took some time, and when
she arrived she found the fugitive already there, very thin and weak,
but still smiling.

“Ye kin turn him loose when you get through with him; he’ll find his way
back,” said Peggy. “Now I must go.”

Without again looking at the man, she ran back to the stockade. Then she
paused until she heard the sound of hoofs crossing the highway in the
opposite direction from which the pursuers had crossed, and knew that
the fugitive had got away. Then she took the astonished and still
motionless lizard from her pocket, and proceeded to restore the broken
coops and cages to the empty stockade.

But she never reconstructed her menagerie nor renewed her collection.
People said she had tired of her whim, and that really she was getting
too old for such things. Perhaps she was. But she never got old enough
to reveal her story of the last wild animal she had tamed by kindness.
Nor was she quite sure of it herself, until a few years afterwards on
Commencement Day at a boarding-school at San Jose, when they pointed out
to her one of the most respectable trustees. But they said he was once
a gambler, who had shot a man with whom he had quarreled, and was nearly
caught and lynched by a Vigilance Committee.



THE GODDESS OF EXCELSIOR


When the two isolated mining companies encamped on Sycamore Creek
discovered on the same day the great “Excelsior Lead,” they met around
a neutral camp fire with that grave and almost troubled demeanor which
distinguished the successful prospector in those days. Perhaps the term
“prospectors” could hardly be used for men who had labored patiently
and light-heartedly in the one spot for over three years to gain a daily
yield from the soil which gave them barely the necessaries of life.
Perhaps this was why, now that their reward was beyond their most
sanguine hopes, they mingled with this characteristic gravity an
ambition and resolve peculiarly their own. Unlike most successful
miners, they had no idea of simply realizing their wealth and departing
to invest or spend it elsewhere, as was the common custom. On the
contrary, that night they formed a high resolve to stand or fall by
their claims, to develop the resources of the locality, to build up a
town, and to devote themselves to its growth and welfare. And to this
purpose they bound themselves that night by a solemn and legal compact.

Many circumstances lent themselves to so original a determination. The
locality was healthful, picturesque, and fertile. Sycamore Creek, a
considerable tributary of the Sacramento, furnished them a generous
water supply at all seasons; its banks were well wooded and
interspersed with undulating meadow land. Its distance from stage-coach
communication--nine miles--could easily be abridged by a wagon road over
a practically level country. Indeed, all the conditions for a thriving
settlement were already there. It was natural, therefore, that the most
sanguine anticipations were indulged by the more youthful of the twenty
members of this sacred compact. The sites of a hotel, a bank, the
express company’s office, stage office, and court-house, with other
necessary buildings, were all mapped out and supplemented by a theatre,
a public park, and a terrace along the river bank! It was only when
Clinton Grey, an intelligent but youthful member, on offering a plan of
the town with five avenues eighty feet wide, radiating from a central
plaza and the court-house, explained that “it could be commanded by
artillery in case of an armed attack upon the building,” that it was
felt that a line must be drawn in anticipatory suggestion. Nevertheless,
although their determination was unabated, at the end of six months
little had been done beyond the building of a wagon road and the
importation of new machinery for the working of the lead. The
peculiarity of their design debarred any tentative or temporary efforts;
they wished the whole settlement to spring up in equal perfection,
so that the first stage-coach over the new road could arrive upon the
completed town. “We don’t want to show up in a ‘b’iled shirt’ and a plug
hat, and our trousers stuck in our boots,” said a figurative speaker.
Nevertheless, practical necessity compelled them to build the hotel
first for their own occupation, pending the erection of their private
dwellings on allotted sites. The hotel, a really elaborate structure
for the locality and period, was a marvel to the workmen and casual
teamsters. It was luxuriously fitted and furnished. Yet it was in
connection with this outlay that the event occurred which had a singular
effect upon the fancy of the members.

Washington Trigg, a Western member, who had brought up the architect and
builder from San Francisco, had returned in a state of excitement. He
had seen at an art exhibition in that city a small replica of a famous
statue of California, and, without consulting his fellow members, had
ordered a larger copy for the new settlement. He, however, made up for
his precipitancy by an extravagant description of his purchase, which
impressed even the most cautious. “It’s the figger of a mighty pretty
girl, in them spirit clothes they allus wear, holding a divinin’ rod for
findin’ gold afore her in one hand; all the while she’s hidin’ behind
her, in the other hand, a branch o’ thorns out of sight. The idea
bein’--don’t you see?--that blamed old ‘forty-niners like us, or
ordinary greenhorns, ain’t allowed to see the difficulties they’ve got
to go through before reaching a strike. Mighty cute, ain’t it? It’s
to be made life-size,--that is, about the size of a girl of that kind,
don’t you see?” he explained somewhat vaguely, “and will look powerful
fetchin’ standin’ onto a pedestal in the hall of the hotel.” In reply to
some further cautious inquiry as to the exact details of the raiment
and of any possible shock to the modesty of lady guests at the hotel, he
replied confidently, “Oh, THAT’S all right! It’s the regulation uniform
of goddesses and angels,--sorter as if they’d caught up a sheet or a
cloud to fling round ‘em before coming into this world afore folks;
and being an allegory, so to speak, it ain’t as if it was me or you
prospectin’ in high water. And, being of bronze, it”--

“Looks like a squaw, eh?” interrupted a critic, “or a cursed Chinaman?”

“And if it’s of metal, it will weigh a ton! How are we going to get it
up here?” said another.

But here Mr. Trigg was on sure ground. “I’ve ordered it cast holler,
and, if necessary, in two sections,” he returned triumphantly. “A child
could tote it round and set it up.”

Its arrival was therefore looked forward to with great expectancy when
the hotel was finished and occupied by the combined Excelsior companies.
It was to come from New York via San Francisco, where, however,
there was some delay in its transshipment, and still further delay at
Sacramento. It finally reached the settlement over the new wagon
road, and was among the first freight carried there by the new
express company, and delivered into the new express office. The
box--a packing-case, nearly three feet square by five feet long--bore
superficial marks of travel and misdirection, inasmuch as the original
address was quite obliterated and the outside lid covered with corrected
labels. It was carried to a private sitting-room in the hotel, where
its beauty was to be first disclosed to the president of the united
companies, three of the committee, and the excited and triumphant
purchaser. A less favored crowd of members and workmen gathered
curiously outside the room. Then the lid was carefully removed,
revealing a quantity of shavings and packing paper which still hid the
outlines of the goddess. When this was promptly lifted a stare of blank
astonishment fixed the faces of the party! It was succeeded by a quick,
hysteric laugh, and then a dead silence.

Before them lay a dressmaker’s dummy, the wire and padded model on
which dresses are fitted and shown. With its armless and headless bust,
abruptly ending in a hooped wire skirt, it completely filled the sides
of the box.

“Shut the door,” said the president promptly.

The order was obeyed. The single hysteric shriek of laughter had been
followed by a deadly, ironical silence. The president, with supernatural
gravity, lifted it out and set it up on its small, round, disk-like
pedestal.

“It’s some cussed fool blunder of that confounded express company,”
 burst out the unlucky purchaser. But there was no echo to his outburst.
He looked around with a timid, tentative smile. But no other smile
followed his.

“It looks,” said the president, with portentous gravity, “like the
beginnings of a fine woman, that MIGHT show up, if you gave her time,
into a first-class goddess. Of course she ain’t all here; other boxes
with sections of her, I reckon, are under way from her factory, and will
meander along in the course of the year. Considerin’ this as a sample--I
think, gentlemen,” he added, with gloomy precision, “we are prepared to
accept it, and signify we’ll take more.”

“It ain’t, perhaps, exactly the idee that we’ve been led to expect from
previous description,” said Dick Flint, with deeper seriousness; “for
instance, this yer branch of thorns we heard of ez bein’ held behind her
is wantin’, as is the arms that held it; but even if they had arrived,
anybody could see the thorns through them wires, and so give the hull
show away.”

“Jam it into its box again, and we’ll send it back to the confounded
express company with a cussin’ letter,” again thundered the wretched
purchaser.

“No, sonny,” said the president with gentle but gloomy determination,
“we’ll fasten on to this little show jest as it is, and see what
follows. It ain’t every day that a first-class sell like this is worked
off on us ACCIDENTALLY.”

It was quite true! The settlement had long since exhausted every
possible form of practical joking, and languished for a new sensation.
And here it was! It was not a thing to be treated angrily, nor lightly,
nor dismissed with that single hysteric laugh. It was capable of the
greatest possibilities! Indeed, as Washington Trigg looked around on the
imperturbably ironical faces of his companions, he knew that they felt
more true joy over the blunder than they would in the possession of the
real statue. But an exclamation from the fifth member, who was examining
the box, arrested their attention.

“There’s suthin’ else here!”

He had found under the heavier wrapping a layer of tissue-paper, and
under that a further envelope of linen, lightly stitched together. A
knife blade quickly separated the stitches, and the linen was carefully
unfolded. It displayed a beautifully trimmed evening dress of pale blue
satin, with a dressing-gown of some exquisite white fabric armed with
lace. The men gazed at it in silence, and then the one single expression
broke from their lips,--

“Her duds!”

“Stop, boys,” said “Clint” Grey, as a movement was made to lift the
dress towards the model, “leave that to a man who knows. What’s the
use of my having left five grown-up sisters in the States if I haven’t
brought a little experience away with me? This sort of thing ain’t to be
‘pulled on’ like trousers. No, sir!--THIS is the way she’s worked.”

With considerable dexterity, unexpected gentleness, and some taste,
he shook out the folds of the skirt delicately and lifted it over the
dummy, settling it skillfully upon the wire hoops, and drawing the
bodice over the padded shoulders. This he then proceeded to fasten with
hooks and eyes,--a work of some patience. Forty eager fingers stretched
out to assist him, but were waved aside, with a look of pained decorum
as he gravely completed his task. Then falling back, he bade the others
do the same, and they formed a contemplative semicircle before the
figure.

Up to that moment a delighted but unsmiling consciousness of their own
absurdities, a keen sense of the humorous possibilities of the
original blunder, and a mischievous recognition of the mortification of
Trigg--whose only safety now lay in accepting the mistake in the same
spirit--had determined these grown-up schoolboys to artfully protract
a joke that seemed to be providentially delivered into their hands. But
NOW an odd change crept on them. The light from the open window that
gave upon the enormous pines and the rolling prospect up to the
dim heights of the Sierras fell upon this strange, incongruous, yet
perfectly artistic figure. For the dress was the skillful creation of a
great Parisian artist, and in its exquisite harmony of color, shape,
and material it not only hid the absurd model, but clothed it with an
alarming grace and refinement! A queer feeling of awe, of shame, and of
unwilling admiration took possession of them. Some of them--from
remote Western towns--had never seen the like before; those who HAD had
forgotten it in those five years of self-exile, of healthy independence,
and of contiguity to Nature in her unaffected simplicity. All had been
familiar with the garish, extravagant, and dazzling femininity of
the Californian towns and cities, but never had they known anything
approaching the ideal grace of this type of exalted, even if artificial,
womanhood. And although in the fierce freedom of their little republic
they had laughed to scorn such artificiality, a few yards of satin and
lace cunningly fashioned, and thrown over a frame of wood and wire,
touched them now with a strange sense of its superiority. The better
to show its attractions, Clinton Grey had placed the figure near a
full-length, gold-framed mirror, beside a marble-topped table. Yet how
cheap and tawdry these splendors showed beside this work of art! How
cruel was the contrast of their own rough working clothes to this
miracle of adornment which that same mirror reflected! And even when
Clinton Grey, the enthusiast, looked towards his beloved woods for
relief, he could not help thinking of them as a more fitting frame for
this strange goddess than this new house into which she had strayed.
Their gravity became real; their gibes in some strange way had vanished.

“Must have cost a pile of money,” said one, merely to break an
embarrassing silence.

“My sister had a friend who brought over a dress from Paris, not as
high-toned as that, that cost five hundred dollars,” said Clinton Grey.

“How much did you say that spirit-clad old rag of yours cost--thorns and
all?” said the president, turning sharply on Trigg.

Trigg swallowed this depreciation of his own purchase meekly. “Seven
hundred and fifty dollars, without the express charges.”

“That’s only two-fifty more,” said the president thoughtfully, “if we
call it quits.”

“But,” said Trigg in alarm, “we must send it back.”

“Not much, sonny,” said the president promptly. “We’ll hang on to this
until we hear where that thorny old chump of yours has fetched up and is
actin’ her conundrums, and mebbe we can swap even.”

“But how will we explain it to the boys?” queried Trigg. “They’re
waitin’ outside to see it.”

“There WON’T be any explanation,” said the president, in the same tone
of voice in which he had ordered the door shut. “We’ll just say that
the statue hasn’t come, which is the frozen truth; and this box only
contained some silk curtain decorations we’d ordered, which is only
half a lie. And,” still more firmly, “THIS SECRET DOESN’T GO OUT OF THIS
ROOM, GENTLEMEN--or I ain’t your president! I’m not going to let you
give yourselves away to that crowd outside--you hear me? Have you ever
allowed your unfettered intellect to consider what they’d say about
this,--what a godsend it would be to every man we’d ever had a ‘pull’ on
in this camp? Why, it would last ‘em a whole year; we’d never hear the
end of it! No, gentlemen! I prefer to live here without shootin’ my
fellow man, but I can’t promise it if they once start this joke agin
us!”

There was a swift approval of this sentiment, and the five members shook
hands solemnly.

“Now,” said the president, “we’ll just fold up that dress again, and put
it with the figure in this closet”--he opened a large dressing-chest
in the suite of rooms in which they stood--“and we’ll each keep a key.
We’ll retain this room for committee purposes, so that no one need see
the closet. See? Now take off the dress! Be careful there! You’re not
handlin’ pay dirt, though it’s about as expensive! Steady!”

Yet it was wonderful to see the solicitude and care with which the dress
was re-covered and folded in its linen wrapper.

“Hold on,” exclaimed Trigg,--as the dummy was lifted into the
chest,--“we haven’t tried on the other dress!”

“Yes! yes!” repeated the others eagerly; “there’s another!”

“We’ll keep that for next committee meeting, gentlemen,” said the
president decisively. “Lock her up, Trigg.”


The three following months wrought a wonderful change in
Excelsior,--wonderful even in that land of rapid growth and progress.
Their organized and matured plans, executed by a full force of workmen
from the county town, completed the twenty cottages for the members, the
bank, and the town hall. Visitors and intending settlers flocked over
the new wagon road to see this new Utopia, whose founders, holding the
land and its improvements as a corporate company, exercised the right
of dictating the terms on which settlers were admitted. The feminine
invasion was not yet potent enough to affect their consideration, either
through any refinement or attractiveness, being composed chiefly of the
industrious wives and daughters of small traders or temporary artisans.
Yet it was found necessary to confide the hotel to the management of Mr.
Dexter Marsh, his wife, and one intelligent but somewhat plain daughter,
who looked after the accounts. There were occasional lady visitors at
the hotel, attracted from the neighboring towns and settlements by
its picturesqueness and a vague suggestiveness of its being a
watering-place--and there was the occasional flash in the decorous
street of a Sacramento or San Francisco gown. It is needless to say that
to the five men who held the guilty secret of Committee Room No. 4 it
only strengthened their belief in the super-elegance of their hidden
treasure. At their last meeting they had fitted the second dress--which
turned out to be a vapory summer house-frock or morning wrapper--over
the dummy, and opinions were divided as to its equality with the first.
However, the same subtle harmony of detail and grace of proportion
characterized it.

“And you see,” said Clint Grey, “it’s jest the sort o’ rig in which a
man would be most likely to know her--and not in her war-paint, which
would be only now and then.”

Already “SHE” had become an individuality!

“Hush!” said the president. He had turned towards the door, at which
some one was knocking lightly.

“Come in.”

The door opened upon Miss Marsh, secretary and hotel assistant. She had
a business aspect, and an open letter in her hand, but hesitated at
the evident confusion she had occasioned. Two of the gentlemen had
absolutely blushed, and the others regarded her with inane smiles or
affected seriousness. They all coughed slightly.

“I beg your pardon,” she said, not ungracefully, a slight color coming
into her sallow cheek, which, in conjunction with the gold eye-glasses,
gave her, at least in the eyes of the impressible Clint, a certain
piquancy. “But my father said you were here in committee and I might
consult you. I can come again, if you are busy.”

She had addressed the president, partly from his office, his
comparatively extreme age--he must have been at least thirty!--and
possibly for his extremer good looks. He said hurriedly, “It’s just an
informal meeting;” and then, more politely, “What can we do for you?”

“We have an application for a suite of rooms next week,” she said,
referring to the letter, “and as we shall be rather full, father thought
you gentlemen might be willing to take another larger room for your
meetings, and give up these, which are part of a suite--and perhaps not
exactly suitable”--

“Quite impossible!” “Quite so!” “Really out of the question,” said the
members, in a rapid chorus.

The young girl was evidently taken aback at this unanimity of
opposition. She stared at them curiously, and then glanced around the
room. “We’re quite comfortable here,” said the president explanatorily,
“and--in fact--it’s just what we want.”

“We could give you a closet like that which you could lock up, and a
mirror,” she suggested, with the faintest trace of a smile.

“Tell your father, Miss Marsh,” said the president, with dignified
politeness, “that while we cannot submit to any change, we fully
appreciate his business foresight, and are quite prepared to see that
the hotel is properly compensated for our retaining these rooms.” As the
young girl withdrew with a puzzled curtsy he closed the door, placed his
back against it, and said,--

“What the deuce did she mean by speaking of that closet?”

“Reckon she allowed we kept some fancy drinks in there,” said Trigg;
“and calkilated that we wanted the marble stand and mirror to put our
glasses on and make it look like a swell private bar, that’s all!”

“Humph,” said the president.

Their next meeting, however, was a hurried one, and as the president
arrived late, when the door closed smartly behind him he was met by the
worried faces of his colleagues.

“Here’s a go!” said Trigg excitedly, producing a folded paper. “The
game’s up, the hull show is busted; that cussed old statue--the reg’lar
old hag herself--is on her way here! There’s a bill o’ lading and the
express company’s letter, and she’ll be trundled down here by express at
any moment.”

“Well?” said the president quietly.

“Well!” replied the members aghast. “Do you know what that means?”

“That we must rig her up in the hall on a pedestal, as we reckoned to
do,” returned the president coolly.

“But you don’t sabe,” said Clinton Grey; “that’s all very well as to the
hag, but now we must give HER up,” with an adoring glance towards the
closet.

“Does the letter say so?”

“No,” said Trigg hesitatingly, “no! But I reckon we can’t keep BOTH.”

“Why not?” said the president imperturbably, “if we paid for ‘em?”

As the men only stared in reply he condescended to explain.

“Look here! I calculated all these risks after our last meeting. While
you boys were just fussin’ round, doin’ nothing, I wrote to the express
company that a box of women’s damaged duds had arrived here, while we
were looking for our statue; that you chaps were so riled at bein’
sold by them that you dumped the whole blamed thing in the creek. But I
added, if they’d let me know what the damage was, I’d send ‘em a draft
to cover it. After a spell of waitin’ they said they’d call it square
for two hundred dollars, considering our disappointment. And I sent the
draft. That’s spurred them up to get over our statue, I reckon. And, now
that it’s coming, it will set us right with the boys.”

“And SHE,” said Clinton Grey again, pointing to the locked chest,
“belongs to us?”

“Until we can find some lady guest that will take her with the rooms,”
 returned the president, a little cynically.

But the arrival of the real statue and its erection in the hotel
vestibule created a new sensation. The members of the Excelsior Company
were loud in its praises except the executive committee, whose coolness
was looked upon by the others as an affectation of superiority. It
awakened the criticism and jealousy of the nearest town.

“We hear,” said the “Red Dog Advertiser,” “that the long-promised statue
has been put up in that high-toned Hash Dispensary they call a hotel
at Excelsior. It represents an emaciated squaw in a scanty blanket
gathering roots, and carrying a bit of thorn-bush kindlings behind her.
The high-toned, close corporation of Excelsior may consider this a fair
allegory of California; WE should say it looks mighty like a prophetic
forecast of a hard winter on Sycamore Creek and scarcity of provisions.
However, it isn’t our funeral, though it’s rather depressing to the
casual visitor on his way to dinner. For a long time this work of
art was missing and supposed to be lost, but by being sternly and
persistently rejected at every express office on the route, it was at
last taken in at Excelsior.”

There was some criticism nearer home.

“What do you think of it, Miss Marsh?” said the president politely to
that active young secretary, as he stood before it in the hall. The
young woman adjusted her eye-glasses over her aquiline nose.

“As an idea or a woman, sir?”

“As a woman, madam,” said the president, letting his brown eyes slip
for a moment from Miss Marsh’s corn-colored crest over her straight but
scant figure down to her smart slippers.

“Well, sir, she could wear YOUR boots, and there isn’t a corset in
Sacramento would go round her.”

“Thank you!” he returned gravely, and moved away. For a moment a wild
idea of securing possession of the figure some dark night, and, in
company with his fellow-conspirators, of trying those beautiful clothes
upon her, passed through his mind, but he dismissed it. And then
occurred a strange incident, which startled even his cool, American
sanity.

It was a beautiful moonlight night, and he was returning to a bedroom
at the hotel which he temporarily occupied during the painting of
his house. It was quite late, he having spent the evening with a San
Francisco friend after a business conference which assured him of the
remarkable prosperity of Excelsior. It was therefore with some human
exaltation that he looked around the sleeping settlement which had
sprung up under the magic wand of their good fortune. The full moon had
idealized their youthful designs with something of their own youthful
coloring, graciously softening the garish freshness of paint and
plaster, hiding with discreet obscurity the disrupted banks and broken
woods at the beginning and end of their broad avenues, paving the rough
river terrace with tessellated shadows, and even touching the rapid
stream which was the source of their wealth with a Pactolean glitter.

The windows of the hotel before him, darkened within, flashed in the
moonbeams like the casements of Aladdin’s palace. Mingled with his
ambition, to-night, were some softer fancies, rarely indulged by him in
his forecast of the future of Excelsior--a dream of some fair partner
in his life, after this task was accomplished, yet always of some one
moving in a larger world than his youth had known. Rousing the half
sleeping porter, he found, however, only the spectral gold-seeker in
the vestibule,--the rays of his solitary candle falling upon her
divining-rod with a quaint persistency that seemed to point to the
stairs he was ascending. When he reached the first landing the rising
wind through an open window put out his light, but, although the
staircase was in darkness, he could see the long corridor above
illuminated by the moonlight throughout its whole length. He had nearly
reached it when the slow but unmistakable rustle of a dress in the
distance caught his ear. He paused, not only in the interest of
delicacy, but with a sudden nervous thrill he could not account for. The
rustle came nearer--he could hear the distinct frou-frou of satin; and
then, to his bewildered eyes, what seemed to be the figure of the
dummy, arrayed in the pale blue evening dress he knew so well, passed
gracefully and majestically down the corridor. He could see the shapely
folds of the skirt, the symmetry of the bodice, even the harmony of the
trimmings. He raised his eyes, half affrightedly, prepared to see
the headless shoulders, but they--and what seemed to be a head--were
concealed in a floating “cloud” or nubia of some fleecy tissue, as
if for protection from the evening air. He remained for an instant
motionless, dazed by this apparent motion of an inanimate figure; but
as the absurdity of the idea struck him he hurriedly but stealthily
ascended the remaining stairs, resolved to follow it. But he was only in
time to see it turn into the angle of another corridor, which, when he
had reached it, was empty. The figure had vanished!

His first thought was to go to the committee room and examine the locked
closet. But the key was in his desk at home, he had no light, and the
room was on the other side of the house. Besides, he reflected that
even the detection of the figure would involve the exposure of the very
secret they had kept intact so long. He sought his bedroom, and went
quietly to bed. But not to sleep; a curiosity more potent than any sense
of the trespass done him kept him tossing half the night. Who was this
woman whom the clothes fitted so well? He reviewed in his mind the
guests in the house, but he knew none who could have carried off this
masquerade so bravely.

In the morning early he made his way to the committee room, but as he
approached was startled to observe two pairs of boots, a man’s and a
woman’s, conjugally placed before its door. Now thoroughly indignant,
he hurried to the office, and was confronted by the face of the fair
secretary. She colored quickly on seeing him--but the reason was
obvious.

“You are coming to scold me, sir! But it is not my fault. We were full
yesterday afternoon when your friend from San Francisco came here with
his wife. We told him those were YOUR rooms, but he said he would make
it right with you--and my father thought you would not be displeased
for once. Everything of yours was put into another room, and the closet
remains locked as you left it.”

Amazed and bewildered, the president could only mutter a vague apology
and turn away. Had his friend’s wife opened the door with another key in
some fit of curiosity and disported herself in those clothes? If so, she
DARE not speak of her discovery.

An introduction to the lady at breakfast dispelled this faint hope. She
was a plump woman, whose generous proportions could hardly have been
confined in that pale blue bodice; she was frank and communicative, with
no suggestion of mischievous concealment.

Nevertheless, he made a firm resolution. As soon as his friends left
he called a meeting of the committee. He briefly informed them of the
accidental occupation of the room, but for certain reasons of his own
said nothing of his ghostly experience. But he put it to them plainly
that no more risks must be run, and that he should remove the dresses
and dummy to his own house. To his considerable surprise this suggestion
was received with grave approval and a certain strange relief.

“We kinder thought of suggesting it to you before,” said Mr. Trigg
slowly, “and that mebbe we’ve played this little game long enough--for
suthin’s happened that’s makin’ it anything but funny. We’d have told
you before, but we dassent! Speak out, Clint, and tell the president
what we saw the other night, and don’t mince matters.”

The president glanced quickly and warningly around him. “I thought,” he
said sternly, “that we’d dropped all fooling. It’s no time for practical
joking now!”

“Honest Injun--it’s gospel truth! Speak up, Clint!”

The president looked on the serious faces around him, and was himself
slightly awed.

“It’s a matter of two or three nights ago,” said Grey slowly, “that
Trigg and I were passing through Sycamore Woods, just below the hotel.
It was after twelve--bright moonlight, so that we could see everything
as plain as day, and we were dead sober. Just as we passed under the
sycamores Trigg grabs my arm, and says, ‘Hi!’ I looked up, and there,
not ten yards away, standing dead in the moonlight, was that dummy! She
was all in white--that dress with the fairy frills, you know--and had,
what’s more, A HEAD! At least, something white all wrapped around it,
and over her shoulders. At first we thought you or some of the boys
had dressed her up and lifted her out there for a joke, and left her
to frighten us! So we started forward, and then--it’s the gospel
truth!--she MOVED AWAY, gliding like the moonbeams, and vanished among
the trees!”

“Did you see her face?” asked the president.

“No; you bet! I didn’t try to--it would have haunted me forever.”

“What do you mean?”

“This--I mean it was that GIRL THE BOX BELONGED TO! She’s dead
somewhere--as you’ll find out sooner or later--AND HAS COME BACK FOR HER
CLOTHES! I’ve often heard of such things before.”

Despite his coolness, at this corroboration of his own experience,
and impressed by Grey’s unmistakable awe, a thrill went through the
president. For an instant he was silent.

“That will do, boys,” he said finally. “It’s a queer story; but
remember, it’s all the more reason now for our keeping our secret. As
for those things, I’ll remove them quietly and at once.”

But he did not.

On the contrary, prolonging his stay at the hotel with plausible
reasons, he managed to frequently visit the committee room or its
vicinity, at different and unsuspected hours of the day and night.
More than that, he found opportunities to visit the office, and under
pretexts of business connected with the economy of the hotel management,
informed himself through Miss Marsh on many points. A few of these
details naturally happened to refer to herself, her prospects, her
tastes, and education. He learned incidentally, what he had partly
known, that her father had been in better circumstances, and that she
had been gently nurtured--though of this she made little account in her
pride in her own independence and devotion to her duties. But in his
own persistent way he also made private notes of the breadth of her
shoulders, the size of her waist, her height, length of her skirt, her
movements in walking, and other apparently extraneous circumstances. It
was natural that he acquired some supplemental facts,--that her
eyes, under her eye-glasses, were a tender gray, and touched with the
melancholy beauty of near-sightedness; that her face had a sensitive
mobility beyond the mere charm of color, and like most people lacking
this primitive and striking element of beauty, what was really fine
about her escaped the first sight. As, for instance, it was only
by bending over to examine her accounts that he found that her
indistinctive hair was as delicate as floss silk and as electrical. It
was only by finding her romping with the children of a guest one evening
that he was startled by the appalling fact of her youth! But about this
time he left the hotel and returned to his house.

On the first yearly anniversary of the great strike at Excelsior there
were some changes in the settlement, notably the promotion of Mr. Marsh
to a more important position in the company, and the installation of
Miss Cassie Marsh as manageress of the hotel. As Miss Marsh read the
official letter, signed by the president, conveying in complimentary but
formal terms this testimony of their approval and confidence, her lip
trembled slightly, and a tear trickling from her light lashes dimmed
her eye-glasses, so that she was fain to go up to her room to recover
herself alone. When she did so she was startled to find a wire dummy
standing near the door, and neatly folded upon the bed two elegant
dresses. A note in the president’s own hand lay beside them. A swift
blush stung her cheek as she read,--


DEAR MISS MARSH,--Will you make me happy by keeping the secret that no
other woman but yourself knows, and by accepting the clothes that no
other woman but yourself can wear?


The next moment, with the dresses over her arm and the ridiculous dummy
swinging by its wires from her other hand, she was flying down the
staircase to Committee Room No. 4. The door opened upon its sole
occupant, the president.

“Oh, sir, how cruel of you!” she gasped. “It was only a joke of mine.
. . . I always intended to tell you. . . . It was very foolish, but it
seemed so funny. . . . You see, I thought it was . . . the dress you
had bought for your future intended--some young lady you were going to
marry!”

“It is!” said the president quietly, and he closed the door behind her.

And it was.





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